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No Time Between Us

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Six weeks after the Battle of New York, after Loki had marched his minions through the wormhole to rain literal hell down on the streets and the newly named Avengers had suited up and fought back, the city had recovered in the way that only New York could.

The streets were as loud as they had ever been, packed full of cabs, the sidewalks choked with people. Everyone was trying to put their lives back together, the government scrambling to help with the clean up, schools reopening and the markets recovering. Temporary memorials were erected for the ones that had been lost, plans for more permanent ones in the works. Documentaries both professional and amateur flooded YouTube and the local cable channels as the city tried to cope with all they had learned in so short a span of time.

Aliens.

Wormholes.

Super-powered humans.

Science that was nearly magic.

Gods.

The city’s churches had record attendance numbers, and so did the bars. There was a new end-of-times scare every week, preachers on soapboxes warning that Loki had only been the pre-runner of the Anti-Christ, conspiracy theorists shouting about experimenting on humans to create super spies and how the Hulk was actually a mild mannered janitor who worked for Stark Industries. There were rallies for the Avengers, protests against the Avengers, all the day time talk shows could discuss was how the hell and what the hell and oh god would it happen again.

As CEO of Stark Industries, Pepper had her hands more than full with the fallout from the battle. There were press conferences and board meetings and interview after interview after interview. Phone calls to answer, emails to write, checks to hand out to various relief organizations.

Now that SHIELD was decidedly less incognito than it had been only a few months ago, Nick Fury was a constant presence in Pepper’s life, showing up at inopportune times, being silently but shockingly judgmental with his one good eye, asking vaguely worded questions that Pepper couldn’t possibly know the answer to.

The Stark Tower had been renamed the Avengers Tower just few weeks previous. It was a joke originally, an offhand question from a bubbly-but-annoying TV host about how long it would take before the Tower had Stark written all over it again. Tony had bared his teeth in what was hardly a smile and retorted, “Well, maybe the A stands for Avengers.”  

It had been a joke, but the idea had gained traction and popularity and Tony had only rolled his eyes when Pepper suggested converting some of the extra rooms into living quarters specifically for the other team members.  

“Whatever you think is best, Ms. Potts.” He told her. “I can always go to the Malibu house if I decide I hate my roommates, right?”

Bruce moved in almost immediately, and an empty room was set aside for Thor. Clint and Natasha worked for SHIELD full time so they were rarely at the Tower anyway, and Steve was usually gone right along with them.

In fact, for all the people that lived there now, the Tower was almost eerily quiet most days, quieter than it had been when it was just Pepper and Tony living there, and it was unsettling for a reason that Pepper couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Welcome home, Ms. Potts.”

“JARVIS.” Partly out of habit, partly because she was just a delightful sort of woman, Pepper smiled up at the ceiling as she stepped from the elevator. “Thank you, it’s always a relief to kick my shoes off at the end of the day. Is Tony home?”

He hasn’t left the lab all day.”

“Right.” Pepper closed her eyes for a brief second. “Of course he hasn’t left the lab. Has he eaten at all? Or Is he at least playing music?”

No, though I have suggested he do both of those things several times.”

“Thank you, JARVIS.” Unclipping her hair, Pepper ran her hand through it a few times before shrugging out of her suit jacket and heading back to the elevator. “Take me to the lab, please?”

******************

******************

Ms. Potts is on her way.”

“Thank you, J.” Tony cleared his computer screens with a few key strokes and turned around in his chair with a ready smile when Pepper came through the lab doors. “Honey, you’re home early.”

“Tony, that sounded remarkably fifties housewife, have you been watching Leave it to Beaver reruns?” Relieved to at least see a smile, even if it was a fake one, Pepper bent to kiss his cheek. “JARVIS says you haven’t eaten today?”

“That is categorically untrue, I had beans for lunch.” Tony forced the smile a little bit brighter. “Coffee beans ground up and ran through water with a smidge of creamer counts as eating beans, right?”

“You are a disaster.” she sighed, but snuggled into his lap anyway, noticing but not commenting when Tony tensed before relaxing a little around her. “I ordered dinner on my way home for us. From that new place you liked so much before you know--” a wave of her hand. “Before all of this.”

“What would I do without you to feed me.” Tony put both his arms around her waist, then tucked his forehead into her shoulder, breathing in her strawberry scented shampoo and hoping she wouldn't notice the tremble in his hands.

“Tony.” Damn she noticed. “Tony, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Tony held her tighter. Please please let it go. “I’m fine.”

“We need to talk about it.” she pressed gently. “It’s been almost two months now and you won’t talk about anything that happened in New York. Or Germany for that matter. You won’t talk about the team or SHIELD or--”

“I don’t need to talk about it.”

“You haven’t left the Tower in almost two weeks.” Pepper tipped his chin up, peering into the dark eyes. “You snuck out almost every night for a few weeks, and then the last morning that Captain and the others were here, you stopped leaving, stopped going outside almost altogether. You had that one interview and nearly bit that poor woman’s head off when she asked about the Stark letters, and now I have to tell everyone that you aren’t available for comment. We need to talk about this.”

“Are people saying I’ve gone crazy?” Tony swallowed, knowing Pepper could see the panic in his eyes. “They thought I was crazy after Afghanistan, they probably really think so now, huh?”

“No one thinks your crazy, Tony.” Pepper denied, gathering him close again and winding her fingers through his hair. “But they are worried about you. I’m worried about you.”

“Pepper, you don’t have to be--”

“Why do you look so lost, Tony?” Quietly, whispering the words into his hair. “It’s like when you came home from Afghanistan. Sometimes I’d look up and you would look so lost, like you didn’t know how you’d gotten home, like you didn't know that you were home. You’d talk about things as if they had just happened and I’d have to remind you that it had been months ago. It was like you were lost and it scared me, but at least I understood that time. I don’t understand this time.”

Tony was silent, and Pepper hummed something nonsensical and comforting before whispering, “It’s like you fell from that wormhole, but you didn’t come back all the way. Something of you is missing and some days I’m afraid you left it up there in space.”

“I didn’t leave anything in space.” I left it in the past. “I don’t want you to worry about me, Pepper.”

“Anthony Edward Stark, I’ve worried about you since my very first day on the job and I’ll worry about you even when you’re old and decrepit racing around in your Iron Man colored wheelchair.” She nudged him lightly, hoping to get at least a chuckle, but Tony didn’t answer.

“I’m here if you want to talk, Tony.” she finally said. “I need to clean up, and then we’re going to eat some dinner and just watch a movie together, alright? But I’m here if you want to talk.”

“Thank you.”

Tony didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to talk about any of it. He didn’t want to talk about the battle, he didn’t want to talk about the wormhole or how he fell. He didn’t want to talk about Steve and the fucking ice cream, he didn’t want to talk about anything.

But a movie and holding hands sounded doable, so Tony pulled himself from the lab and into a shower with Pepper. Dinner was probably edible, but it tasted like sand so Tony pushed it away after a few bites. The movie was something romantic and sweet and they both teared up at the end when the couple was reunited and in love and dancing to their favorite song, but Tony knew they were crying for different reasons.

“I love you Tony.” Pepper whispered when they crawled in bed, leaning close to kiss him sweetly, and Tony kissed her back and then lay down for another night of staring at the ceiling.

This was fine.

He was fine.

It was two-thousand-twelve, the arc reactor sat snug in his chest. Steve was Captain America, off to do his patriotic duty with SHIELD and James Buchanan Barnes was the only Howling Commando to not come home from the war. Missing in action, presumed killed in action, or at least that’s what the display at the Smithsonian said.

It was two-thousand-twelve and he was home and this was how it was supposed to be.

Tony lay on the bed and listened to Pepper breathe, and didn’t let himself think about the strip of pictures hidden in the very back of his very bottom drawer, the pictures of he and Bucky that had no business existing, but definitely did.

It was fine.

He was fine.

******************

******************

“You’re not fine.”

A week later, and Tony had slept in his lab the past three nights, hadn’t eaten in two, and was sitting staring blankly at the same screen he’d been staring at for hours.

“Tony.” Pepper was crying, a hand over her mouth as she tried to keep herself together. “You’re not fine. Please please just talk to me. Tell me how to understand what you’re going through. Is it-- is it nightmares like after Afghanistan? We can go to a therapist, we can see a counselor, just tell me how to help you. Or tell me--” she gestured around the lab, to the suits that hung in alcoves in the wall, the gear scattered around. “--tell me how to do this. Give me a way to go through this with you.”

“Pepper.” Guilt, rising like bile in his throat and choking him. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” She shook her head adamantly. “You don’t have to be sorry, Tony. I don’t understand this, I don’t know where to start but I want to help you. Let me help. Stop pushing me away.”

“You want to help?” Tony didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but he couldn’t help himself, the frustration of the past weeks turning the words cruel. “Come here and watch this video with me, tell me what you see. If you can explain this, that would help. That would help lots. Much more than movies and counselors and--”

Pepper flinched away from the anger in his tone and Tony bit back a curse, stopping whatever else he was going to say and holding his hand out to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout at you. I didn’t mean to say all that. I’m sorry.” 

“It’s alright.” She brushed off his apology, but her hand was shaking a little when she lay it in his, letting him pull her closer. “You’ve been stressed and not feeling like yourself. It’s understandable that you’re a little on edge.”

“Understandable doesn’t make it right.” Tony muttered. “I’m sorry. Please just look at this for me.” A few clicks on his computer and a video came on, nothing but blue sky in the lenses. “Help me make sense of this.” 

“What is this?” Pepper wiped her eyes and squeezed at his hand. “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.”

“When I’m in one of my suits, JARVIS is constantly recording everything.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling another migraine coming on. “And if the camera is compromised for some reason, the suit still keeps track of my vitals.”

“Okay?” Pepper felt around for a chair and sat next to him, close but not too close, and Tony hated that he was grateful for the space. “So what am I looking at?”

“This is the camera feed as I was taking the bomb through the wormhole.” Quiet, the words unsteady. “The nuke is on my back, in a second here I’m going to get through the hole and into space.”

“Oh my god.” Pepper’s green eyes widened in alarm. “Tony, have you been watching this over and over down here? This can’t be good for your--”

“Just watch.”

Pepper gasped out loud and Tony cringed away when aliens filled the screen, growling and shrieking and making all those horrible noises they had made. Space was supposed to be quiet and it was supposed to be empty, but the camera feed wasn’t empty at all. There were so many of them, aliens and machines coming from every which way and all headed towards Tony and all headed towards Earth.

It was horrifying in a surreal sort of way, realizing just how close they had all come to being wiped away, and Pepper’s face washed pale as the bomb left Tony’s hands and headed towards a massive spaceship. The screen flickered and stuttered and then there was a blinding white flash as the nuke detonated.

And then nothing.

Nothing.

“I’m falling.” Tony’s voice cracked when the screen went black. “I’m falling right here. Falling through the wormhole right towards the pavement.”

Tony.”

“I don’t have any footage of me falling, JARVIS was offline.” A different screen full of numbers on the computer now. “This is how fast I was falling, how much the armor weighs, the added weight of the nuke, all that sort of thing.”

“Why do you need to know this?” Pepper turned to look at Tony, but he was staring at the computer, unwilling-- or maybe unable-- to meet her gaze. “Tony, why is this information important?”

“This is how much my armor weighs with me in it before I get ahold of the bomb.” Tony pointed to a time stamp, and then the weight that followed. “See that?”

“Alright?” Pepper couldn’t shake the feeling that Tony was about to tell her something terrible, but she didn’t let herself pull away, only held onto his hand tighter so he would know she was there. “What else?”

“Here is where I get the bomb.” Another set of numbers, these ones quite a bit larger. “My speed increases here as I start heading towards the sky, the extra weight is the nuke, my power reserves are running low because I’m converting all my power to flight.”

“What’s this?” Pepper ran her fingers along a different line. “A phone call?”

“I tried to call you.”

Tony’s voice was flat, but he could have been screaming the words and they wouldn’t have hurt any less. “You tried to call me?” she whispered. “I was on the plane, I didn’t hear my phone, I--”

“It doesn’t matter.” Tony interrupted. “I survived, we talked on the phone a few hours later, it doesn’t matter.”

It mattered, Christ it mattered, but Pepper let it go, hearing the strain in Tony’s voice. “Okay then. Tell me what else I’m looking at.”

“I let the nuke go right here.” A tap at the screen. “And here is where I start falling, see the weight amount?” Pepper nodded and Tony kept going to the next line. “That’s me, I’m falling. And then fifteen seconds later my armor weighs 174 lbs less, and then forty seconds later, the weight goes up again. For less than a minute, my armor was 174 pounds lighter than it usually is.”

“I--” Pepper frowned. “I don’t understand. That’s how much you weigh, right? Why does the equivalent of your weight disappear from your suit? How did you--- how is this--” She blew out a deep breath to calm herself. “Tony I feel like you’re doing that thing where you ask me a question but you already know the answer and I don’t, so could you just tell me what happened? Because it seems impossible that your entire body weight disappeared from your suit.”

“That’s what I keep thinking.” Tony finally met her eyes, just a split second before looking away again. “It seems impossible.”

“Well, it--it--it has to be a weightlessness issue.” Pepper was scrambling, trying to find an answer. “You were falling so fast that your body shifted in the armor. You were away from the sensors and the data is skewed.”

“There’s no room in the suit for me to do that.” Tony denied. “I built it to fit around me perfectly, the Mark VII is set to my body specifically, otherwise when it caught me in mid air I probably would have broken a rib or given myself a concussion when the suit wrapped around me.”

“But--”

“And even if it were a weightlessness issue--” he continued. “There’s no way I would have been weightless for that amount of time. A few seconds, sure. But not almost a minute.”

“Well if JARVIS was offline, there’s no way of knowing if it’s actually a correct reading.” Pepper tilted her chin stubbornly. “You’re reading too much into it, Tony.”  

“It’s a black box fail safe, Pep.” The words weren’t so much patient as they were resigned, Tony obviously having worked through these suggestions already. “Just in case anything happens to me, someone authorized to access my system can see what went wrong. JARVIS wasn’t online enough to power my suit, but the back up info is still there, still accessible.”

Pepper blinked several times before making a cease motion with her hand. “No. No, Tony, no. Because that means that you went somewhere. That when you went through that portal, for a minute you weren’t actually here anymore.”

“That’s exactly what it means.”

“Well where the fuck did you go!?” Composure finally breaking, Pepper jumped to her feet to start pacing. “Tony, where did you go? How long were you gone for? How the hell is any of this possible, I don’t understand!”

Tony just looked up at her, spreading his hands helplessly.

“When did you realize that you had--” she pointed towards the computer. “-- when did you know for certain that whatever this is,had actually happened.”

“A few weeks ago.”

“The morning that Captain Rogers and the others headed out on their mission.” She finished. “There was something weird that happened with Steve, something about ice cream? Bruce mentioned it to me but I didn’t think anything about it. Is that when this all started?”

“I had a feeling before that.” Tony hedged, not wanting to tell her about the late night Smithsonian trips, about the pictures, about the dreams. “But yeah, that morning I figured it out.”

“No wonder you’ve been a mess.” she whispered. “As if everything that happened isn’t awful enough, you’ve been dealing with this? With disappearing? With something happening to you while you were falling?”

“I haven’t been dealing very well, have I?” Tony was going for self deprecating, but it only came out miserable. “Sorry.”

“Well you’ve never had the best coping skills.” Pepper came back to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and tugging gently until he was resting against her stomach. “In fact, you have the worst coping skills of anyone I’ve ever seen.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Tony, no one would cope well with this.” she assured him, her heart breaking as she finally realized what he’d been going through. “I’m freaking out and it didn’t even happen to me. This is why you haven’t been sleeping, why your anxiety is so bad?”

“I uh--” Tony coughed so she wouldn’t catch the wobble in his voice. “I have a hard time going outside. The whole sky thing. Freaks me out a little bit, I keep thinking I’ll look up and the wormhole will still be there.”

He didn’t want to tell her about the way he’d panicked the first time JARVIS spoke to him after New York, the way he’d jumped and almost screamed because after two years in the past he’d forgotten what it felt like to have an AI.

He didn’t want to tell Pepper that he couldn’t listen to music anymore because he was so used to relative silence, it gave him a headache.

He really didn’t want to tell her that even lying next to her in bed felt like cheating on Bucky, which didn’t make sense at all, but then again, nothing fucking made sense so why did it matter?

So he just said-- “I always wanted to see space, but I think I’ve seen enough of it to last me the rest of my life. I don’t ever want to see space again.”

“I’m so sorry.” Pepper held him a little tighter. “Should we find someone to talk to about-- about this?”

“I don’t want to talk to anyone. How would I talk about this? Where would I even begin?”

“Alright.” She stroked slowly through his hair. “What about your Aunt Peggy? She’s someone you can talk to, someone who loves you and would believe even something this unbelievable.”  

“The last time I visited Peggy, she didn’t know who I was.” And this time around I’m a little afraid of what she will say. “If I went now and she didn’t know me--”

“I still think it would do you some good to spend some time with her.” Pepper insisted gently. “Her home is a safe place for you, it’s quiet and calm, and even if she doesn't know who you are today, she will still be happy to see a visitor.”

“Pepper--”

“Mr. Stark, as your boss I must insist.” She was teasing now, trying to lighten the moment. “Consider this a stipulation of receiving your weekly paycheck.”

“You’re going to play CEO with me, Ms. Potts?” Tony’s smile was a little more real this time.

“If it would make you smile more, I’d even wear that ridiculous suspenders and pinstripe shorts outfit you bought me for Valentines day and we could really play CEO.” she waggled her eyebrows playfully, and Tony pushed back the feeling of cheating so he could pull her down for a very light kiss.

“I might take you up on that.”

***********************

***********************

Tuesday morning found Tony at the door to Peggy’s apartment inside the retirement home, his hand raised to knock, his heart hammering in his chest.

This was a moment of truth, after all. He could stare at data and have dreams that were actually memories and hold those pictures and look too much into Steve offering him ice cream all he wanted but until someone real could tell him something real he wouldn’t ever know for sure.

He was too afraid to actually ask Steve, and he was terrified of asking Peggy but he had to know. He had to. 

Before he lost his nerve, before he could talk himself into just leaving and getting some coffee and hiding back in his lab, Tony knocked loudly on the door, waiting for the quiet “Come in.” before stepping into the room.

Peggy lay on the bed, entirely too frail for how strong a woman she had always been, prim and proper in her modest nightgown, hair done and a polite expression on her face.

“Aunt Peggy.” Tony managed a smile, hoping beyond hope that she would recognize him today. “How are you doing?”

“Why Mr. Carbonell.” Peggy’s eyes sparked in genuine delight. “Imagine seeing you here.”

Chapter Text

“Mr. Carbonell?” Peggy raised her eyebrows when Tony didn’t answer right away. “It’s very rude to linger in the doorway of a lady’s bedroom, either get in or get out but either way make up your mind. I won’t for stand for dilly-dallying.” 

“Sorry. Sorry.” Tony cleared his throat and stepped all the way into the room, closing the door partially behind him. “It’s um– it’s me, Aunt Peggy. It’s Tony. Tony. Remember?” 

“I’m well aware of who you are.” Peggy sniffed haughtily in his direction. “I’m old, young man, not senile. Do you think I don’t recognize you? Give me a little bit of credit, it’s not as if I’ve lost all my marbles.” 

It hurt Tony’s heart a little bit, that Peggy didn’t remember the last time they talked, when she hadn’t recognized him at all,  but he still smiled at the tiny, indomitable woman. “Of course you haven’t lost your marbles, Auntie. I just thought you might need your glasses on is all. You called me Mr. Carbonell.” 

“Yes, well.” Peggy touched her hair, re-adjusting the already perfect hairstyle. “We were never quite on first name basis, were we? All those rules and regulations back then, propriety and stuff and nonsense when it came to women. A man was either leering at my backside or too formal to even take a breath when I entered a room.”

“Auntie–” 

“Now a days children call their parents by their first name.” Peggy sounded affronted by the very thought. “A travesty. But you and I, we shared so much and never quite mastered being informal enough to call each other by our Christian names, did we?”

“Peggy–”

“I only ever called you Tony a handful of times, and you always smiled so big when you called me Agent Carter, I hardly remember a time when you actually called me Peggy during the war. Not even Steve, bless his heart, he was always so proper with me.”

“Peggy–”

“I suppose it isn’t even quite right for you to see me like this, is it?” She rushed on, fussing with her nightgown, arranging the frills and ruffles carefully. “In my bed clothes. So much for clothes being armor and all that, here I am practically undressed and rambling on like this and–”

Peggy.” Tony knelt by the bed and took Peggy’s hand as she went to adjust her hair again, the nervous habit so familiar and endearing that he thought he might cry. “I’ve missed you.”

Peggy nodded, her eyes suspiciously bright. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I lose track of time these days, seems like it just falls right away from me. How long has it been since you came to see me?”

“Too long.” Tony held her hand just a little bit tighter. “I’m sorry I’ve stayed away for so long. I’ve been… I’ve been busy. Things you wouldn’t even believe have happened and I–” 

“You seem very certain I wouldn’t believe what has happened.” Nearly a whisper, that ever-sharp gaze studying each expression on Tony’s face. “Been busy and traveled so far, haven’t you? Been here and there and back again and now you seem lost. Are you lost, Mr. Carbonell?”

“More lost than I’d like to admit.” Tony whispered back, and when Peggy patted the bed, he put his head down on the soft mattress, rested his forehead in the sweetly scented comforter and closed his eyes, letting unseen tears drip down his cheek. “I feel like I traveled a long way, but then again I didn’t go anywhere at all. Feel like it’s been years but it’s only been a few weeks. I’m tired–” his voice caught. “– I’m so tired, Auntie.”

A small hand landed in his hair, and a few more tears fell as Peggy pet through his hair, separating out the curls and scratching lightly at his scalp like she’d done so many times as Tony had grown up. Nights when Howard had yelled too much, nights when Tony had fallen asleep studying, the long nights after his parents accident– Aunt Peggy had always been there to stroke his hair and soothe him with her words and now–

“Tell me.” The words were harsher than he meant them to be, but Tony couldn’t help it. “I need to know. Tell me everything.”

Peggy’ didn’t say anything for a long time, long enough that Tony thought perhaps she had fallen back asleep, but then she sighed and nodded. “Alright, darling. Alright.”

*****************

“I didn’t know you for a long time.” Peggy said first. “Of course, I’ve known you from the moment you were born, held you before your own father did, but I didn’t know it was you. I didn’t think anything about your parents naming you Anthony, your sweet mother was Italian of course, Antonio was a family name so Anthony made perfect sense. Growing up, you had so many mannerisms that seemed familiar to me, but–” a one sided shrug. “I assumed they were Howard’s mannerisms. I changed your nappies, Tony. Why would I ever think you were the same man I danced with at the fair thirty something years earlier.” 

“We looked for you, you know.” She added after a moment. “After the war. I asked around for you in Brooklyn, contacted Sergeant Barnes’ family to ask if they knew of your whereabouts, but they hadn’t seen you since before the funeral. I hoped you had simply gone West to mend your broken heart, maybe North to the gold and oil fields, maybe South to see the Deserts. Never once did I let myself think that you were gone, that I had lost you like we’d lost Sergeant Barnes and our Captain.” 

“When did you know me?” 

“I didn’t know you for a long time.” Peggy said again. “Not for a long time. But every year you reminded me more and more of Tony Carbonell. You would laugh and tease me, you would try and get me to dance, and you were so familiar sometimes I could have sworn I knew you from before and for one awful moment, I wondered if you weren’t Howard’s child at all, if Tony Carbonell and your mother had somehow met and–”

Tony shuddered at that particular thought and Peggy laughed quietly. “I won’t bother you with that theory, will I?”

“Please don’t. Don’t ever tell me that you thought Tony Carbonell was somehow my father, that’s–” another shudder. “Nope. Tell me more.” 

“I knew you for the first time on the night your parents passed.” Peggy’s fingers stilled in his hair, and Tony gripped the quilt tight in his palm. “That was when I knew you and knew that somehow you were the same Tony I had known in the war.”

“Why?” Tony closed his eyes when he felt the tremble in his Aunt’s hand. “Why did you know me then?”

“I’ll never forget the look on your face when we lost Sergeant Barnes.” Peggy murmured. “When I found you and Steve in that bar. You were so hurt, but at the same time you looked resigned, almost as if you knew it was all inevitable, and oh Tony, I could hardly bear it. I couldn’t even look at you, it broke my heart to think you had expected to have your heart broken so badly.” 

“The night my parents–” Tony couldn’t even say it. “Why that night?” 

“You looked at me the same way, then.” Peggy closed her eyes when she heard Tony’s breath catch. “Hurt and resigned, as if you had known better than to expect a happily ever after and then you didn’t even cry, do you remember? I could barely pick myself up off the floor, but you listened to it all without blinking. You helped me stand and pushed the hair from my eyes and told me tears won’t solve the problem and I told you that it was alright to cry, because–

“– a few tears won’t ruin the day.” Tony finished. “I remember.”

“That’s what you told me the day we lost Steve.” The sigh seemed to come from the depths of Peggy’s soul. “You held me and let me cry and told me that a few tears won’t ruin the day.”

“I told you that when Steve fell because you said it to me the night my parents died.” Tony confirmed. “I told you my Aunt used to say it to–”

“–But technically I hadn’t said it to you yet.” Peggy chuckled to herself. “Ah, the entire idea makes my head hurt and I couldn’t begin to explain it, but that was the night I knew for sure. I don’t know how or why, but I knew you right then.”

“You never said anything.” Tony budged closer, trying to slow his breathing as he felt a panic attack hovering at the edge of his consciousness. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“I almost did, when you turned twenty six.” She said slowly. “Because you had been around that age during the war, but when nothing happened to you so I didn’t. I waited and watched, thinking I’d know the moment that you went back in time, or remembered a past life, whichever it was. But it never happened, you never went back.” 

“But–” 

“What was I supposed to say, darling?” A sad smile, now. “That I knew you in a past life? That you were my first love’s best friend reincarnated? That you didn’t know what I was talking about because you hadn’t gone back in time yet, but one day you would understand? You wouldn’t have believed me even if I’d known how to put it into words.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“Of course I’m right.” Another of those sad smiles. “But you’ve gone back now, haven’t you? You’ve gone back and lived with those boys, fell in love with your Bucky, danced with me at the fair. That’s why you came to see me now, and that’s why Steve came a few weeks ago, isn’t it?”

“Steve came to see you?” Tony sat up abruptly. “Did he ask about me? What did you tell him?” 

“He came after the battle in New York.” Peggy confirmed. “After you fell from that rip in the sky– lovely of you to call me after, by the way. It’s not as if I was watching the telly and hearing that my nephew had flown a goddamn bomb into a hole in space to kill creatures I had never imagined existing!” 

“Sorry.” Tony kissed her knuckles. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you. That wasn’t fair.”

“It certainly wasn’t.” She said sharply. “And if I had the strength to smack you for it, I probably would. You’re lucky I’m on bed rest, child.” 

“I know, Auntie.” He kissed her knuckles again. “Please tell me what you and Steve talked about.” 

“Steve came to see me a few weeks ago.” She answered. “Just before he left on a mission for SHIELD. He wanted to talk about the old days, wanted to talk about you. Kept asking me what happened to Bucky’s fella after it was all said and done, if I knew where he was.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him that the last I’d heard, you’d gone back to the apartment in Brooklyn.” Peggy said calmly. “I didn’t see any reason to tell him what he obviously already knows– the Captain is well aware that the same mouthy brunette he lives with in that skyline ruining Tower is the same mouthy brunette he lived with during that unfortunate USO tour. Just like you know that you did in fact slip through time, you just aren’t ready to believe it.” 

“He knows?” Tony chewed at the inside of his cheek uneasily. “But he hasn’t said anything! He offered me Rocky Road ice cream several weeks ago but he never said anything else and I never said anything else–”

“Oh of course neither of you have said anything.” A perfect picture of annoyance, Peggy threw her hands up in the air. “Both of you are terrible at communicating, always have been. He keeps all his emotions right there under that star on his chest and you have always hid yours behind your fancy sunglasses. You need to talk to him. He needs to talk to you. There is a conversation that needs to be had immediately.”

“Auntie.” Tony rested his chin in his hands and shook his head. “I wouldn’t even know how to start that conversation. I can’t even really believe I’m having this conversation. The very concept of time travel is–”

“– more unbelievable than super soldiers and arc reactors?” Peggy challenged. “More unimaginable than aliens and demi gods and wormholes in space?”

“You make it sound so easy.” He said mournfully. “Just strike up a conversation with Steve about– about all this? I don’t think I can do that.”

“He’s sad, Tony.” Peggy reached for his hand and squeezed lightly. “He’s sad and lonely, and worse than that, he’s afraid. Afraid that you aren’t actually who he thinks you are. He kept calling you his Tony. Said that he didn’t know if you were his Tony, and didn’t know how to ask. He’s afraid to ask and have the answer be no, and he’s afraid to ask and have the answer be yes, too.”

His Tony, huh?” Tony scratched at the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I don’t know what to think about that.” 

“Well stop thinking about it and just go talk to him, love.” She squeezed at his hand again. “Talk to him and figure it out. I won’t be around all that much longer, and I won’t rest easy if you two goons haven’t made your peace. How can I rest when I know two of my most favorite people are alone because they refuse to be together.”

“Aunt Peggy, you will out live us all just from sheer stubbornness.” Tony swallowed past the lump in his throat to assure her. “Don’t worry about that.”

“Nonsense, darling the good Lord is too impatient to get one of his angels back by his side to let me linger about in this mess much longer.”

The thought of losing Peggy made him want to scream, but Tony still laughed at her insistence that she’d go simply because she was an angel and God wanted her home in heaven. “I love you, Auntie. So much.

“I love you, Tony.” Peggy’s eyes softened, filled with tears again. “And I am so glad to know you both in this life and in the one before. Please talk to Steve. I don’t think he knows exactly what happened or how it happened, and if he thinks he knows even a little bit of what happened, I can assure you he has no idea how to talk to you about it. We don’t love the big oaf because he’s good with words, Tony. Talk to him.”

“Do you have any tips or tricks on how to start that conversation?”

“Buy him that ice cream you both like.” She prompted. “Call him Spangles. Make a joke that only Tony Carbonell would know. Something. Anything! Promise me, Tony. Promise me you’ll talk to him.”

“I will.” Tony leaned far over the bed to kiss her forehead. “I promise.”

“You wouldn’t be lying to an old lady, would know Mr. Carbonell?” Peggy lifted her chin and Tony was quick to answer, “I wouldn’t dream of it, Agent Carter.”  

“You lived that life, Tony.” she said then, suddenly serious. “You lived it and now you’re living this one. Don’t get so caught up in the past that you forget to live in the here and now, but don’t focus so much on today that you forget the good old days. One day those memories will be all that you have left, you know. Don’t waste the moments. Time leaves us so quickly and I–”

Her voice caught, a tear slipping down her cheek. “You and Steve have nothing but time now, time to catch up, time to make up and time to start over. Don’t waste it.”

“I won’t.” Tony’s voice wobbled and he coughed to clear it. “I won’t, Auntie.”

“Alright then, I’m tired now.” Apparently done with the conversation, Peggy adjusted her hair and pulled the blankets a little higher up on her chest. “Go on and get out of here, let an old woman rest.”

“Have a nap then.” Tony kissed her cheek and fluffed her pillows. “I’ll come back and see you soon.”

“Go on…” Peggy was drifting off before Tony even made it to the door, and he paused to look back at her, at the woman who had shaped so much of his life.

“Love you, Peggy.” he whispered, and shut the door behind him as he went.

*****************

*****************

This is Steve Rogers. Leave a message.” *beeeeep*

“Steve, this is Tony. Um, Stark. If that matters. I don’t know how many Tony’s you know.” Tony ran a hand through his hand nervously, tapping at the gear shift of the car as he tried to figure out what to say. “I know you’re busy with SHIELD right now, saving the world and being a super spy and all that. But I thought maybe when you get back to the Tower or at least back in New York we could do something together. Maybe– maybe ice cream. Rocky Road, right?”

A beat of silence. “Anyway. Um, call me back. Or text. Whatever. I guess I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.”

Tony hung up and banged his head against the steering wheel a few times.

That was easily the worst phone message he’d left in his life and he wasn’t even sure Steve would check his voicemail and oh god why had he suggested ice cream? What was he going to do if Steve said yes? If Steve said no?

“This was easier when it was Aunt Peggy’s plan.” he said ruefullly, glancing back up at the retirement home window. “Guess all we can do now is wait.”

******************

******************

“You going to join us any time soon, Captain Rogers? Or are you still listening to messages from your groupies?” Fury’s voice cut through the general chatter in the conference room and Steve scowled at him, putting a finger to his ear to better hear the voicemail.

–at least back in New York we could something together. Maybe–maybe ice cream. Rocky Road, right?

Steve’s heart skipped a beat when Tony mentioned ice cream, and he held the phone tighter as he tried to hear over Fury’s blathering.

I guess I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.”

“Captain Rogers!” Fury said louder and Steve muttered a curse, clicking out of his voicemail and over to his text messages.

To TonyWe aren’t supposed to be stateside for two weeks but ice cream sounds like a plan. Can’t wait.

To Tony : Seriously, I can’t wait

To Tony : I’ll keep you posted, okay?

To Tony : And you’re the only Tony I know, if that matters. 

To Tony : Even if you weren’t the only Tony I know, you’re the only one that’s important so I guess that’s something

To Tony : That was stupid, I shouldn’t have said that. 

Steve slid his phone into his pocket and tried to swallow back the nervous clawing at his throat. Tony wanted to get ice cream? Wanted it to be Rocky Road ice cream? What did that mean? Did that mean what he thought it might? Was Tony remembering? Was he going to–

Ding

Steve’s text message notification went off and Fury’s one good eye narrowed in a glare. “Captain Rogers!” 

Steve ignored the Director entirely and flipped his phone open again. 

From TonyKeep me posted, Spangles.

Spangles?

Oh my god.

Chapter Text

Steve was supposed to be back in the States in two weeks for his ice cream date with Tony, but even the best laid plans end up being less important than super secret missions and saving the world so two weeks away turned into three and then into four and then into a little while longer than that. 

In fact, the first time Steve had more than a moment to do anything more than scarf down his food and run back out the door, he picked up his phone to check the date and six weeks had gone by. 

Six weeks. 

Well shit. 

There were no messages from Tony on his phone though, no missed calls either. No where are you or Spangles come home or anything like that. Steve would have expected an irritated voice mail, definitely deserved a disappointed text message, but Tony hadn’t bothered to contact him at all.

An ache settled somewhere in Steve’s chest, heavy and cold and feeling an awful lot like loneliness, weighing him down and slowing his steps and suddenly the hall to his hotel room seemed miles long.

Six weeks and Tony hadn’t reached out to him at all, even though he was beyond late for their date. Six weeks, and he’d been too busy to pick up his phone and call, but if Tony hadn’t called either would it even have been worth the effort? Six weeks had never seemed like all that much time, but staring down at the lack of the messages from Tony, six weeks felt like years, like entirely too much time had passed for him to try and salvage any remnant of their friendship. 

Six weeks. Damn it. 

“Whoa, big guy, who hit the brakes?” Clint narrowly avoided running into Steve’s back when the Captain’s steps slowed even more, dodging around him to get to their shared room. “Why are you slowing down? Don’t tell you actually want to stay in this dump. We were supposed to be Stateside weeks ago, how come you’re dragging your feet when we actually get the chance to go home?”

“Sorry.” Steve muttered, following Clint into the room and tossing his phone on the too small bed. “Just a lot on my mind.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Clint yanked open the drawers of the tiny dresser on his side of the room and started throwing clothes into his duffel. “All excited to get back to your native land, ain’t ya?”

“My native land?” Steve repeated blankly, opening his own drawers to start packing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“America.” Clint clarified. “You telling me that you didn’t spring up fully formed from the soil of the Great American Heartland, red white and blue pumping through your veins, hair like golden fields of ripened grain flowing down your shoulders?”

“You know damn well I’m from Brooklyn, nothing Heartland about me.” Steve snorted, heading for the closet sized bathroom to get his toiletries. “And my hair has never flowed down to my shoulders, I prefer it clean cut, thank you.” 

“All work and no play, aren’t you, Cap?” Clint shrugged and slung the haphazardly packed duffle over his shoulder. “But I could’a sworn I read that you sprouted in a field like a giant overgrown stalk of corn. Well anyway, Fury says wheels up in an hour, yeah? Bring your particular brand of All American punctuality so we can get the hell outta this country and back to our normal time zone.” 

“Uh…” Steve furrowed his brow at the snarky archer, never actually sure how to take Clint’s particular brand of humour. “Sure thing.”

“My love.” Natasha— tiny, red haired, terrifying— rapped on their door and motioned to Clint. “Come help me with my bags. Captain Rogers, Director Fury wants to see you before we head out. Try to make it a short meeting please, I’m very much looking forward to getting on the plane and getting home.”

Steve nodded shortly, keeping his gaze politely averted when Clint gave Natasha a long kiss, and went back to packing, glancing at his phone out of the corner of his eye.

It almost felt like too little too late, trying to contact Tony at this point. A whole month after he was supposed to be home, and he hadn’t managed to send even a short text saying sorry for being late.

Steve probably didn’t have to feel guilty, he knew that. Saving the world was a valid reason for missing an ice cream date, just like being exhausted after literally dismantling terrorist cells single handedly was a valid reason to not text at night but still…

“Damn it.” Steve tossed one last shirt in his bag and picked up his phone, scrolling through his contacts until he came to Tony’s name. “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”

To TonyHey Tony, real sorry about being late–

To TonyThis assignment ended up being longer than we thought–

To TonySorry I haven’t texted you but I’ve been real busy and–

“Damn it!” he groaned out loud to the empty room. “A text message should not be this difficult.

To TonyThe SHIELD transport will be landing stateside about eleven tonight. I’m sorry I missed our ice cream date, hope I haven’t missed my chance entirely.

Steve hit send and sat waiting for a reply for as long as he could, staring down at his phone for a good fifteen minutes but Tony never answered him back, apparently didn’t even open his phone to check since the message sat on unread.

Come on Tony, come on and pick up your phone. Come on, come on, come on.

“Captain Rogers?” Fury interrupted him from the doorway and Steve jumped guiltily. “I’d have a word before we got on the plane, if you can stop staring at your phone long enough for a conversation.”

“Yes sir.” Steve put the phone away and stood to shake Fury’s hand. “What can I do for you, Director?”

“Have you thought any more about what we talked about earlier this week?” Fury asked without any preamble. “Time is of the essence here, Captain, the world doesn’t stop for anyone, not even a man who wears the flag on his chest.”

“Right.“ Steve hesitated, the slight weight of his phone suddenly bricks in his pocket, the looming what if of his conversation with Tony the only thing he could think about. “Well, I–I haven’t really had time to think over it clearly. There’s a few things stateside I need to figure out before I can make a final decision on the matter.”

“Hm.” Fury seemed unimpressed, his one good eye darting over Steve’s face as if trying to catalogue his expression. “Seems to me that you’ve already made a decision and you’re just stalling. Is that what’s happening?” 

“We’ll never know for sure, will we?” Steve’s smile was forced, tight. “I’ll call you with in twenty four hours of landing and let you know one way or the other.”

“Mm-hm.” Another searching glance, and Fury nodded shortly. “See that you do. This is an important decision. Captain. World changing. Keep that in mind.”

“Sir.” Steve waited until Fury had turned on his heel and left with that ridiculous coat swirling about his legs, then pulled his phone back out to check and see if Tony had read his message yet.

Nothing.

Damn it.

********************

********************

“I’m not gonna be a soldier forever, you know?”

Tony was sleeping but just barely, his cheek pressed to the cold surface of his desk, his phone playing an inane holding tune as he waited for the real estate agent to come back on line.

“I’m not gonna be a soldier forever, you know?”

He was dreaming, or maybe it was hallucinating since he was still sort of awake, but either way he could hear Bucky’s voice clear as day, soft and sweet in his ear.

“When the wars over… gonna buy a little house somewhere where trees and grass grow, maybe someplace upstate.”

If Tony tried hard enough he could almost see those pale blue eyes, lit only by the candlelight like they’d been that last night they had together, could almost see the soldiers shy, hopeful smile as he whispered in the near-dark.

“Get a dog, a cat, couple apple trees. Porch where I can see the sun rise in the morning and watch it set at night.”

Tony’s breath slowed as he slid further into the first real sleep he’d had in weeks, lulled towards serenity by the memories.

“Just enough for me and enough room for you. If you wanted. Does that sound like something you’d want?”

“Does that sound like something you want, Mr. Stark?”

Tony stirred a little when the voice changed. “Mr. Stark?”

“Oh shit.” Tony jerked awake, fumbled for his phone. “Sorry, sorry I’m here. I’m here.” He shook his head to try and clear his head, to shake away the last bit of his impromptu nap. “I’m here. Um. What did you find?”

“Well, it took quite a bit of searching—“ the real estate agents cheery tone had a stressed edge to it. “—but I managed to find you a darling little two bedroom cabin just a few miles from the Canadian border, it’s about as upstate as you can get.”

“That’s fine.” A half bottle of water caught his eye and Tony scooted his chair over to snag it. “I didn’t have a particular city or anything in mind, just upstate.”

“Right, yes you were fairly vague on that, but so specific on your other items the perfect cabin was difficult to track down but I think I’ve found it!”

“Tell me all about it.” Tony closed his eyes but all he saw was Bucky, so he forced them open again, tipping back in his chair to stare at the ceiling. “All the details.”  

“Well it’s on a twenty five acre parcel since you didn’t want any neighbors, but the two acres surrounding the cabin have been landscaped and seeded so you have a lovely lawn.”

“Is there water?”

“Yes, you asked for either a pond or a river, and this has a good sized river that runs just along the border of the yard and winds through the woods for some distance. It’s narrow on your land and only about waist high, you’d  be able to wade through it no problem. There are some fish but—“

“That’s all fine.” Tony interrupted. “Does it have a porch?”

“Yes sir-” a pause as the agent flipped through some papers. “You requested a porch where you could see the sun rise and set, and this cabin has a wrap around deck that faces out ward in three directions. You can come out of your kitchen and watch the sun rise on that side, and then from a sliding glass door in the master bedroom you can watch it set behind the hills.”

“Apple trees?” Tony asked wearily. “I need to have apple trees on the property as well. At least a couple.”

“There is a small grove of apple trees off the south east corner of the cabin. This was an original homestead, so some of the trees belonged to the first owners, others were planted just a few years ago when he family decided to sell.”

“Okay.” Tony dragged his fingers through his hair, fighting the urge to just put his head back down and fall asleep again. “That all sounds great, I’ll take it. Right now.” 

“Oh.” The agent paused. “Would you like to see pictures before you buy? Or come up and see it, at least? I’d be happy to take a day and show you around the property and the little town about an hour away  or–”

“Email me some pictures.” Tony cut in. “That’s fine, but go ahead and tell the sellers I want it. Pay them whatever they’re asking.”

“Mr. Stark, if I could bold, the property has been on the market for years now. It’s over priced for its location, there is flooding issues with the river and house needs some work done, at the very least a new roof and septic system. Probably a furnace and wood stove. We could take at least twenty thousand off the asking price if you—“

“Pay them what they’re asking.” Tony repeated. “I told you what I wanted, you found what I wanted, there’s no reason to haggle over a price.”

“You’re sure?”

“Look.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose as a migraine started building back behind his eyes . “I asked you to find me a little log home in upstate with a deck I could watch the sun rise and set, no neighbors, room for a dog and apple trees. You found it, I want it. I’ll take care of any and all repairs, it’s not as if money is exactly an issue for me. Draw up the paperwork and get it done.”

“…very well.” She still didn’t sound convinced. “I’ll put in an offer today and get back to you as soon as possible.”

“Thank you.” Tony hung up and dropped his face into his hands, taking in a few deep breaths to bring himself back around. “JARVIS, has Ms. Potts called?”

“No sir, I’m afraid she hasn’t.”

“Yeah.” Tony nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t think she would. Music please? Nothing too loud.” 

“Perhaps some music as you make your way to bed?” The AI suggested. “Something classical and soothing?”

“Nothing soothing, J.” Tony dragged up the schematics for his newest suit design on his computer screen, gathering the image and throwing it towards the middle of the lab as a 3-d hologram. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Sir, you haven’t slept in thirty one hours.”

“I know.” Tony’s voice wobbled. “I know.”

************************

************************

Steve tried hard to get away from SHIELD headquarters, but debriefing took hours and it was past one am before he finally made it out the doors and into a cab to get him to the Tower.  

Welcome home, Captain Rogers.” JARVIS greeted him calmly when the elevator opened into the common area. “Are Agent Barton and Agent Romanov to be expected tonight as well?” 

“Uh, nope.” Steve smiled up at the ceiling, always a little thrown by the all-seeing AI. “Just me tonight.” 

Thank you, please step from the elevator.” Steve stepped away from the doors obediently and after a few seconds of quiet there was a soft hum and various clicks as the Tower locked down for the night. 

“When did Tony start locking down the Tower?” Steve asked, not really expecting an answer as he dropped his bags in his room. 

Six weeks ago, the Safety Net protocol was put into place.” JARVIS answered smoothly. “And now the Tower is locked every night.” 

“Safety net.” Steve repeated, a frisson of uncomfortable running up his spine. “Um, JARVIS, is there any chance Tony’s still awake?”

“He’s in the lab, Captain Rogers.”

Steve frowned, halfway through shrugging from his jacket. “He’s down in the lab at two in the morning? That doesn’t seem right.”

“He’s been down in the lab for more than a day and a half now.

“Christ.” Steve muttered. “Okay, thank you. Could you tell him I’m on my way down? Or if he’s sleeping, maybe just unlock the door for me so I can get in and see him?” He hesitated a second. “lf that’s not— I mean, that’s probably overstepping but we used to just walk into each other’s rooms and—“ he stopped again.

“You know what, never mind. I’ll just knock and see if he’s awake. Thanks JARVIS.”

The Tower was an odd sort of un-settingly quiet as Steve headed downstairs to the lab. No lights were on in the halls or the common area or the kitchen, in fact no lights were on at all until JARVIS activated the ones buried in the stairs so Steve wouldn’t trip or fall. No hum of various appliances, not even the whir of a heating system since the Tower was locked down. There was no music playing from the dozens of in-ceiling speakers, and even once he got to the lab, the music playing inside was quiet enough that a normal person might not have heard it through the glass doors.

Tony was standing in the middle of the lab working, and if he heard the doors swish open at all, he gave no indication, just kept waving his hands and messing with the hologram of what looked like an update on the Iron Man armor.

“Tony?” Steve raised his voice just in case Tony was wearing headphones. “Tony? JARVIS said you were down here working so I thought I’d come say hi before going to bed.” There was no answer so he raised his voice again. “Tony?”

“Steve?” Tony startled, squinting at him through red rimmed eyes. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

“I uh–” Steve gestured vaguely. “I’m home. Or back, rather. I’m back and wanted to come see you. Um–” he cocked his head and studied Tony carefully, the blue glow from the reactor bright enough in the dim lab to highlight the stress in Tony’s face. “Tony, are you alright?”

“Hm?” Tony stumbled, nearly fell when he turned towards Steve completely. “I’m fine, just working. A little tired. Probably a little tired. How are you? How was the uh—the mission?”

“JARVIS says you’ve been down here for a day and a half?” Steve ignored the question about the mission and kept his voice quiet so he wouldn’t startle Tony further as he moved closer. “What’s going on?”

“I’m fine, just working.” Tony repeated. “Just a little tir—“ he reached back to steady himself on the nearby table, but missed completely and pitched toward the floor. “Oh shit—!”

Steve was moving before he even realized it, snatching Tony away from the tiles and holding him steady. “Tony, what the hell is going on? How long have you been awake?” He put his palm to Tony’s forehead to check for a fever. “Tony? You still with me?”

Tony’s eyes were glazed over and unfocused, blinking owlishly up at Steve. “My god, Spangles. It’s like two am, what are you doing awake? Don’t you super soldiers know the benefits of REM sleep? Even Red, White, and Energizer Bunny needs a solid eight hours.

“God, I don’t think I’ll ever get your jokes.” Steve chuckled, but his brow wrinkled in concern. “But don’t worry about me, I’m worried about you. Tony what are you doing awake? Why are you down here alone, is Pepper here?”

“No.” Tony looked away, his head lolling alarmingly. “Um. No. Peppers not here. She’s… she’s gone.”

“She’s gone?” Steve shifted so Tony was leaning further against him, but when Tony winced and tried to push away, Steve shifted again to take the pressure off the arc reactor, cursing quietly for not thinking about that ahead of time. “What does that mean? Did she leave?” 

“Yeah.” Tears then, pooling bright in the corners of Tony’s eyes. “Yeah, she left She’s gone. Just me here now.”

Steve’s throat closed up over the pain in Tony’s voice. “I’m real sorry to hear that, Tony.”

“Yeah, well….” A half hearted shrug, more of a twitch of Tony’s shoulder than anything. “It happens, right? Break ups happen.” 

“I’m going to get you up to bed, okay?” Steve forced some cheer into the words, not wanting to make the moment worse by delving into a conversation about Pepper that would only end badly. “There’s a whole lot we need to talk about, and a whole lot I need to apologize for but first I’m gonna get you to bed and to sleep and we can talk when you feel better, yeah?”

“Captain America’s gonna take me to bed?” Tony’s laugh was high and a little hysterical, but the words were brittle and Steve hated it. “Never thought that would happen. We couldn’t even stand to be in the same room when we were saving the world together, but now you want to take me to bed? My my, how things change.”

“Shhh.” Steve hushed him gently, fighting back the flash of hurt over the reminder of how much they’d fought on the SHIELD transport, the things that had been said before Steve had known– well, before he had known what he knew now. “Shhh, it’s alright Tony. We can talk in the morning.”

“You’re not gonna be here in the morning.” Tony was too far out of it to protest when Steve picked him up, too far past tired to even say anything snarky when the big blonde cradled him close. “You’re never here, Steve, not when I need you. Anytime something goes wrong you run away to play hero and just leave me here. You forget about me…” he was slipping towards unconscious, his body finally giving up. “You always forget about me…”

“I’ll be here in the morning.” Steve knew Tony hadn’t heard it, but he said it anyway, and started back up the stairs, Tony’s slight weight barely registering in his arms. “JARVIS, would you unlock the doors to the penthouse for me?”

Captain Rogers, I should let you know that there is no bedding in the penthouse suite, none at all.” JARVIS’s volume was low so it wouldn’t disturb Tony. “Any sleep over the last few weeks has happened on the couch in the lab.”

“Oh.” Steve paused, faltered and nearly missed a step. “He hasn’t been sleeping in his bedroom?”

Not for weeks, Captain.”

“Damn it, Tony, what are you doing to yourself?” Steve held him a little closer. “Okay. Turn up the heat in my room, then. We’ve shared a bed before, we can share one tonight.”

Very good sir.”

It was easy to carry Tony up to his bedroom and easier still to place him in the middle of the king sized bed, Steve’s heart doing something unsteady when Tony grabbed at a pillow and hugged it with a sleepy sigh.

And really, Steve probably should have unpacked his bags and sorted through the laundry, maybe stepped back to the kitchen and got something to eat since he hadn’t eaten much more than snacks since getting on the plane that morning. He probably should have put in a call to Fury to finish their conversation from before, or at least put some thought into what the hell he was going to say when the conversation came back up but–

“Spangles?” From Tony, nearly slurring his words and it hurt because Steve knew Tony didn’t know what he was saying. “You’re home? Are you comin’ to bed?”

“Yeah, Tony.” Steve kicked off his shoes and crawled right into the bed. “Yeah, I’m home. I’m coming to bed. Sorry.”

“M’cold.”

“I got you.” He tucked the blankets higher around Tony’s shoulders, brushing his fingers lightly across Tony’s forehead. “That better?”

Mmm….blrfhmmph.” Tony mumbled something unintelligible into Steve’s pillow and snuggled deeper into the warmth. “M’glad you’re home.”

“I’m glad I’m home too.” Steve whispered, noticing the tired lines around Tony’s eyes for the first time, the stress that pulled at the corners of his mouth even when he slept. “But what in the hell is going with you, honey?”

The hours slipped by and Steve didn’t mean to fall asleep, he really didn’t. But the bed was comfortable and the room was dark and after so many weeks of tension and uncertainty and outright confusion over everything that had happened, it felt good to close his eyes and just be still.

Tony was warm and familiar, scenting like his usual aftershave, settled into Steve’s space like he was made to sleep there and it might have been seventy years since they shared a bed but it felt just like yesterday, like all the time between them didn’t exist at all. And Steve didn’t know if it was nostalgia or affection or something else entirely that kept him so close, but when Tony turned into him and tangled their legs together, Steve hooked an arm over the trim waist and held Tony even tighter, pushing his nose into the dark hair and breathing out shakily.

“I’m here, Tony.” Barely audible, whispered into the quiet. “Took me a long time, but I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

******************

******************

The morning came and went and early afternoon was well on its way to gone by the time Tony stirred, and Steve woke up the second Tony’s breathing changed, the moment he went from sleep pliant in his arms to awake and obviously confused.

“Hey.” Quietly, hesitantly, Steve pressing lightly at the small of Tony’s back before he let him go. “You slept for a long time. Feel better?”

“Steve?” Tony leaned away and rubbed at his eyes. “Am I in your bed? How am I— how are we—ugh.” Another rub at his eyes. “I don’t even remember you getting back, how long have you been home?”

“I found you in the lab about two am this morning.” Steve scooted over to give Tony some more room. “You were falling asleep on your feet and damn near collapsed when you tried to talk to me so I picked you up and put you in bed.“

“You mean in your bed.” Tony corrected, his gaze sharpening as he woke further. “I was falling asleep so you put me in your bed. Why didn’t you take me to my room? What are you even doing here? I figured you weren’t coming back, or that you moved into the SHIELD dorms or something.”

“I was always going to come back, Tony.” Steve objected, stung that Tony had doubted him, guilty because he knew he deserved it. “And my bed seemed like a good idea. JARVIS told me–” he softened his tone when Tony stiffened. “JARVIS said there wasn’t any bedding in the penthouse. That you hadn’t slept up there in weeks.”

“Oh right.” Tony pushed himself to sitting, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. “He’s right. I uh– just can’t seem to stay up there. After Pepper left I got rid of the blankets and all that, they were hers and I’d never really liked them so–” a deep breath, the words coming faster. “Why would I have blankets I don’t even like? That seems like a terrible idea, especially if there’s isn’t a hot redhead to share them, right? You know, it was a mutual thing between us. She wanted to leave, or maybe I told her to leave first, I don’t really remember but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is–”

“Tony.” Steve cut in before Tony started babbling, before he started doing that thing he did in front of the cameras, using his quick words and careless tone to deflect, to hide. “Tony, what’s going on with you?”

“I can’t get over what happened Steve.” Tony blurted out all in a rush and Steve shut his mouth with an audible click. “Everything that went on when I fell? It’s eating me up inside. All those aliens and JARVIS shut down and then I was just gone. Think maybe I died, you know? I was gone and all the data says it was less than a minute but it was so long and I—I—“ shaking fingers, tugging at his hair. “I tried to tell Pepper what happened but how was I supposed to tell her everything? How could I make her understand when I don’t even understand?”

“We were already falling apart.” Tony was nodding, as if reassuring himself of the fact. “We were already falling apart. My fault, you know. Not like I was a top tier boyfriend anyway, but after Afghanistan and after the palladium poisoning–” 

Steve sucked in a harsh breath and Tony’s laugh was awful as he tapped at his arc reactor before folding his arms protectively over the glowing light. “You didn’t know about that did you? Almost died. That sure put a damper on the romance and then I couldn’t shake the nightmares and the PTSD  and wouldn’t let her help me and we were falling apart. My fault. But then I fell and–”

“I’m sorry.” Steve reached for his hand, forced Tony’s arms apart and slid their palms together. “I didn’t know. If I’d known than I would have–”

“You wouldn’t have done anything.” Tony stared down at their hands, flexing his fingers experimentally. “You wouldn’t have done anything. You still would have left.”

Steve’s mouth fell open. “No, I wouldn’t–”

“Peggy told me you came to see her.” Tony’s voice was even but Steve’s heart still sank. “She said you came to see her a few weeks after New York, asking about the old days, but Bucky’s fella and if she knew what happened to him.”

“I…did.” Steve hedged. “I thought she could clear a few things up for me.” 

“But you already knew, didn’t you?” Tony continued. “You already knew what had happened. I heard you, Steve. I heard you talking to me when I woke up on the pavement, telling me you couldn’t handle seeing me fall too. You knew it was me, didn’t you?”

“I–” Steve let go of Tony’s hand when he pulled at it. “I knew.”

“Did you know before that?”

Quietly, “I knew before that.”

“And you didn’t say anything?”

“It took me a little bit to figure out how it had all happened.” Steve explained lamely. “And then I needed some time to process and I got busy with–”

“I had a panic attack when a semi drove too close to me the other day!” Tony suddenly shouted and Steve flinched away from it. “You got busy?! Steve, I can’t listen to my favorite music anymore because it gives me a headache! I was gone for two years and everything about being back here gives me anxiety! I can’t fucking sleep, I can’t hardly breathe without panicking, and every time I see you it gets worse! You’ve known this entire time and you never once said anything!”

He scrambled out of the bed, pinning Steve with a glare that was as heartbroken as it was angry. “I’ve been trying to convince myself it was a dream for months, trying to pretend it hadn’t happened, trying to find an explanation that doesn’t involve time travel! I mean who knows?! Maybe I died! Did I die and it was some weird out of body experience or past life? WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?”

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to move on from something that you can’t even be sure happened anymore?” Tony wasn’t yelling anymore, but he was still furious. “Or if it was real, the explanation involves something that is so outrageous it’s literally unbelievable?”

“I’m sorry.” Steve spread his hands helplessly. “Tony, I’m so sorry.” 

“I have been losing my mind trying to figure this out.” Tony didn’t even indicate that he’d heard him. “My weights up and down, can’t keep anything down, can’t sleep at night and if I do manage to sleep a little bit, I have memories that I shouldn’t have! I know people I should only know from stories, my auntie– my auntie told me that the night my parents died she told me the same thing I’d told her the day we lost you!” 

Tony threw his hands up in the air. “That doesn’t even make any fucking sense and yet it’s true!” 

“And then what–” he jabbed a finger in Steve’s direction. “What, you’ve known since you came out of the ice? You knew the entire time? And your grand effort to- to reconcile or to make this whole thing better was offering me ice cream and then waltzing the fuck away? Fuck!”

Tony swore, and then swore again, pressing over the arc reactor as if it would help him catch his breath. “Fuck, I’m panicking. Steve, I’m panicking–”

He started hyperventilating, and Steve was off the bed like a shot, helping Tony to sit down and guiding his head down between his knees. “You’re alright.” he said over and over, rubbing at Tony’s back. “You’re alright. Breathe it out, come on. You’re okay. You’re okay.” 

Once Tony’s breathing steadied, once his pulse returned to something resembling normal, Steve murmured, “I’m here, Tony. I wasn’t here before but I’m here now. We’ll figure this out. You don’t have to– to move on from what happened. We can figure it out and work it out together and–”

“You’re not here.” Tony said bitterly. “You’re not here. You’re off saving the world, doing what you always do when things get difficult. You pick up that shield and go out and be the All American man and refuse to think about anyone else.”

“That’s not–” Steve shook his head. “I don’t– no, Tony, I’m not going to do that.”

“You did the same thing when we lost Bucky.” Not even spite in the words now, just a bone deep weariness and somehow that was even worse than the anger. “It doesn’t even make sense for me to know that, but I do. We both lost Bucky but you ran off to be the best soldier you could be and left me behind to deal with it by myself and you’re doing the same thing now. You did it in the USO when you were depressed, you did it after Bucky fell and you’re doing it now. It’s like a Captain America special.”

“Tony—“

“SHIELD doesn’t need you!” Tony jabbed a finger at Steve’s chest. “But I do. And every time you’ve needed me, where was I? Waiting for you to show up and crawl into bed with me, ready to hold your hand or tell you it was alright, ready to talk you through whatever little crisis you had. But every time I needed you, where were you?”

Tony–”

“I have no idea how hard it was for you to wake up in this century.” Tony struggled to his feet, smacking Steve’s hand away when he tried to help. “I don’t know what it was like to wake up and have lost everything, but you should have been relieved when you realized I was here. We were best friends, Steve. You should have been happy to see me, not picking fights with me and pushing me away. And after I fell? You could have stayed here, could have stayed with me but you didn’t.”

“I’m sorry.” Steve couldn’t seem to do much more than repeat himself. “I’m sorry, Tony. I don’t know what else to say.”

“Yeah well, that works out.” Tony didn’t meet his eyes. “Because I don’t know what else to say either.”

*****************

*****************

Tony heard the doors to his lab swish open later that night, but he didn’t bother turning around, didn’t even bother pretending like he was working on anything.

He just sat at his desk, staring blankly at the wall in front of him, and waited for Steve to say whatever he’d come to say, whatever the Captain had decided would pass as an apology before he went off to play hero again.

But Steve didn’t say anything for a long time, just stood there watching and Tony just sat there staring, and not even JARVIS broke the silence for almost thirty minutes.

Then finally, “I didn’t know that Tony Stark and Tony Carbonell were the same person.”

Tony didn’t answer, and it was another few minutes before Steve spoke again.

“The first thing I did after waking up was pull every file I could find and look everyone up. Peggy. Bucky. The rest of the Commandos. Howard. You. There wasn’t a file on you of course, the best I could find was a few old scraps from the USO tour that signed you on as my manager. Took some time to figure out the internet, but I spent days tracking down as much information as I could about you, Tony.”

Tony didn’t so much as twitch, and Steve breathed a heavy sigh. “Every time I searched for Tony Carbonell, it came up Tony Stark. And the resemblance was uncanny, you know? The birth year was wrong, of course. And listing you as Howard’s son– I thought maybe he’d named his kid after you, which is a weird sentence to say, but it is what it is, I guess.”

“Peggy thought maybe Tony Carbonell and Maria Stark had had an affair and Howard was raising their son.” Tony said bluntly, and something like a smile lifted the corners of his mouth when Steve gagged over an “oh my god.”

“Yeah.” he nodded shortly. “That was my reaction too.”

“Anyway.” Steve took a step forward, encouraged by any sort of response from Tony. “Anyway, I figured out that it was somehow you, whether it was a past life or maybe you’d been frozen like me or something and then we met on the SHIELD transport. And I just–” he shrugged uncomfortably. “God, I hated you, Tony. You were nothing like I remembered. Caustic and obnoxious and mouthy and I wanted you to be my Tony so badly that I lashed out and made things worse.”

“It’s alright, Cap.” Resigned. “I hated you too.”

Steve closed his eyes because god damn it sucked to hear Tony say that out loud. “Just listen, Tony. After that first day together, after meeting Loki and whatever the hell Thor is and fighting in the woods like that– we got back to the transport and I went to my locker and you– you still weren’t in my picture, Tony.”

That certainly got Tony’s attention, and he swiveled around in the chair. “What do you mean I still wasn’t in your picture? What picture?”

“The one from the fair.” Steve pulled the strip from his pocket and smiled down at the faded pictures. “From the photo booth, the ones I carried with me in my pocket all the time. They survived the ice with me but when I woke up and looked at it, you weren’t there. And after we met on the carrier, you still weren’t there.” 

“I wasn’t there.” Tony repeated. “What do you mean I wasn’t there?”

“I mean, you weren’t there.” Steve took a chance and crossed the room, kneeling by Tony’s side and showing him the picture. “See? There’s me and there’s Peggy and Bucky–” Tony’s finger trembled as he traced Bucky’s face. “– and then there’s you. But before New York, you weren’t in my picture. Not even like you were erased from it, just like you’d never been there at all.”

“I–” Tony rubbed his thumb over his own likeness in the picture, over the goofy grin. “It’s because I hadn’t gone back yet. Our picture didn’t exist yet.” 

“You hadn’t gone back yet.” Steve confirmed. “So we hadn’t gone to the fair together yet or…something. And I didn’t know what the hell that meant, or how it even made sense, but after New York? After New York you were back in the picture, just like you were supposed to be. Somehow everything we went through, those two years we spent together, it all happened between you pushing that bomb into space and you waking up on the pavement.”

“When Hulk grabbed you–” Steve’s breath hitched, caught in his throat. “When you landed on the ground like that and Thor ripped your mask off, I panicked. I thought you were dead and I thought I’d never get to know you again as my Tony and I just– damn it, I’m so happy you opened your eyes, Tony.”

“I woke up, came out of the ice thinking I had nothing and that I had no one, that I’d gone under and everyone else had moved on with out me.” He reached for Tony’s hand hesitantly, mouthing a quietthank you when Tony squeezed at his fingers. “But I still have you. I still have my best friend.”

“You remember me?” Tony was whispering now. “I mean, you remember me? Everything that happened?”

“I remember it all like it was yesterday.” Steve confided, pressing harder at Tony’s hand. “I remember it all Tony. There’s no time between what happened then and what’s happening now. A few weeks, sure, because I’ve been gone with SHIELD, but nothing that matters.”

“It’s been seventy years, Steve.” Tony inched a little closer and Steve moved to meet him, resting his other hand on Tony’s knee. “Seventy years since you went in the ice.”

“Seventy years, but I was just sleeping, you know? And you– you slipped right back in, right? It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes between letting go of the bomb and waking up on the pavement. That’s no time at all. I fell asleep and woke up and a few weeks later you and I were on that heli-jet. No time at all. I was gone longer than that on missions with the Commandos, you know?”

“I know.” Tony nodded. “I remember.”

“You remember?”

“Like it was yesterday.” he repeated and managed a watery smile. “No time between us, huh?”

“None that matters.” Steve said firmly. “I didn’t treat you right the first time around in this lifetime, Tony and there’s a whole lotta reasons for the way I behaved, but I’m still apologizing, alright? I don’t understand any of this but I’m sure glad it happened. I can’t imagine my life back then without you, Tony, and I don’t–” Steve worried at his bottom lip for a few seconds. “I don’t want to imagine my life now with out you either.”

“Whether you want me around or not, I’m Iron Man and you’re Captain America so we gotta save the world together at least every once in a while.” Tony said wryly. “You’re sorta stuck with me.” 

Gladly stuck with you.” Steve corrected. “I’m not going anywhere Tony.” 

“Not gonna run away with SHIELD?” Tony raised his eyebrows challengingly. “I hear you’re Fury’s favorite go to guy.” 

“I’m not going anywhere.” Steve stated. “Fury can go fuck himself.”  

“Language, Captain.” Tony said mildly, then oophed in surprise when he was suddenly yanked out of his chair and up against Steve’s body, the big blonde standing up and bringing Tony with him into a bone crushing hug.

“Steve.” he wheezed, pushing at the immovable shoulders. “Steve, I can’t breathe.”

“Sorry.” Steve gentled immediately, but didn’t let him go. “Forgot to check my strength. M’ just glad that you’re willing to joke with me again. Tony, I’m so sorry about all of this. I’m so sorry We’ll figure it out, okay? We’ll work on–”

“I’m exhausted.” Tony interrupted before Steve could get too far ahead of himself. “Last night was the most I’ve slept in weeks and it still wasn’t enough. Can we talk tomorrow when I’m actually thinking straight?” 

“You wanna sleep in my room again?” Steve slid a hand up to the back of Tony’s head, sifting through the dark strands and pressing his lips to Tony’s temple. “Hm? Or do you need some food first. When was the last time you ate real food? Coffee doesn’t count.”

“Like four days ago?” Tony leaned into the touch. “I need a shower, too. And I don’t have any blankets, remember? It’s not like I’m going to sleep in my bed.”

“Right, no blankets.“ Steve chuckled quietly. “Real shame that. I’ll order in while you take a shower and then we can sleep some more.” He held Tony tighter for a brief second. “It’s going to be okay, Tony. We’re going to figure this out like we’ve figured everything else out. I know it’s not better yet but it will be.”

“It’s kind of better now.” Tony muttered tiredly, burying his face in Steve’s chest and letting himself go limp. “You being here and me knowing it was real… it’s kind of better.”

“It was real.” Steve said roughly, planting another light kiss at Tony’s hairline. “It was real, and you’re back and I’m back and things are only gonna get better from now on, alright?”

“…alright.”

*******************

*******************

Steve waited until Tony had been in the shower for a few minutes before having JARVIS call Fury, the video screen in the kitchen folding down from the ceiling so he could see the Director.

“Captain Rogers!” Fury was loud and abrasive even through a speaker, eyebrows raising when he saw how disheveled and tired Steve looked. “I expected to hear from you this morning. Do you have an answer for me?”

“I do.” Steve straightened his shoulders. “I’ll have to respectfully decline your offer, Director. The option to head my own team is generous and I appreciate the opportunity but—“

“You’re Captain America.” Fury interrupted. “It’s not an opportunity, it’s your duty! You can’t hold that title and expect to be able to sit around and twiddle your thumbs or pose for pictures all day! As a soldier and as an American, it is your job to–

“We will have to agree to disagree about that sir.” Steve cut in. “But either way I’m declining the position. There are things I need to take care of here and I want to make sure I’m as close to home as possible for the time being.”

“Mmhmm. And what things would those be, Captain Rogers? How long is the time being?”

“With all due respect, Director,” Steve tried not to smile so big, but there was something very satisfying about telling Fury no. “That’s none of your business.”

A beat of silence, and then Fury shrugged. “Alright then. Your choice, Captain. A disappointing choice, but yours none-the-less. Seeing as you’re still in the employ of the United States Government I will be calling on you from time to time but I can limit it to the most pressing matters.” A narrow look from the all-seeing-eye. “For the time being.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Steve hung up the call and glanced up at the ceiling. “JARVIS would you order some food please? Whatever Tony usually eats and enough for me as well.”

Yes, Captain Rogers. Should I order groceries as well? Will you be staying at the Tower for a while?

“Yes.” Steve couldn’t stop his smile, hope and anticipation and excitement twisting in his stomach and making his heart race. “Yes, I’ll be staying for a while.”

Very good sir.”

Steve took the steps to his bedroom three at a time, racing to get back there before Tony got out of the shower.

This was going to be very good indeed.

Chapter Text

Steve left Tony in his bed early on Thursday morning, slipping out from beneath the covers and pushing a pillow over so Tony could hold onto it and hopefully stay asleep. It had been another late night in the lab and Steve was starting to wonder if Tony even knew the meantime of bedtime or if he had always just worked until he collapsed mid-project.

Either way, he needed the sleep, so Steve tiptoed from the room and out the door as quietly as he could. 

Six nights in a row now, Tony had worked until midnight in his lab and Steve had sat on the couch in the corner to watch over him. And for six nights in a row now, Tony had gone up the stairs with Steve and fallen asleep in his bed and neither one had said anything about it. 

Maybe nothing needed to be said. 

Maybe it was enough to be able to just sit together, to work together, and to remember what it felt like to laugh, remember what it felt like to sleep without nightmares. 

Sometimes Tony talked while he worked in the lab, telling Steve what he was doing to the suit and why he was doing it. Sometimes Steve talked from his spot on the couch, sharing bits of gossip and pieces of non-classified intel from the missions. Sometimes they didn’t talk at all, both content to sit in the company of a friend, to be secure in the familiarity and their shared past.

The previous three nights had been especially late, and last night the sun had been rising before Steve had decided enough was enoughand tossed a laughing Tony over his shoulder, announcing that it was time for bed. Tony protested loudly that he wasn’t in fact tired, and who the hell did Steve think he was manhandling him like this, but by the time Steve made it to the bedroom Tony was limp and practically snoring, passed right out over Steve’s back. He woke up only long enough to demand the good pillow and promptly fell back asleep without another word.

The brilliant man was hilarious and hopeless and Steve… Steve didn’t know if his heart was flip flopping all over because he was tired or because when he finally laid down, Tony scooted over and then over again until they were snuggled up close, tucked tight and warm against each other. 

It could have been exhaustion or it could have been something else, but Steve’s heart was definitely in trouble. 

“Captain Rogers.” Steve tore himself from further thoughts about Tony and back to the phone call that had woke him originally. “Are you still there?”

Natasha sounded less than pleased, and Steve swallowed a scalding hot gulp of coffee before managing– “I’m here, sorry. Was getting some coffee.”

“Understood.” she said shortly, and for about the thousandth time since meeting the formidable redhead, Steve wondered how the hell she and the goofy archer Clint had ended up married. “Can I tell the new SHIELD recruits to expect a training session with an All American hero today?”

“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.” Steve took another drink and glanced up at the clock. Seven am. “What time do you want me there?”

“I’m definitely not joking.” Natasha’s voice was as flat as it always was. “Word has come down from the PR department that we should emphasize every chance we get how lucky we are to have an American legend working alongside our soldiers and operatives. Apparently they think it will help boost public opinion which in turn boosts funding.”

“Making money for the army all over again, aren’t I?” Steve scratched at his chin wearily. “Maybe I should break out the old USO uniform, wear the tights again. That always brought in the cash.”

“I am completely on board with that idea.” The barest hint of a smile in the super spy’s words. “Can you expect you this afternoon?”

“Yeah that should be–” Steve paused when the kitchen door opened and Tony shuffled through. “–hold on just a sec.” he said into the phone, then covered the speaker and whispered to Tony– “What are you doing awake?”

“I had like four hours of sleep.” Tony shrugged and poured himself a cup of coffee. “That’s more than I usually get so I’m fine.” he tugged his fingers through sleep messy hair. “Got stuff to do today, errands to run, figured I’d get a head start.”

“Alright then.” Steve wanted to frown at the thought of Tony running errands without him, but kept his face carefully neutral. As far as he knew, Tony hadn’t left the Tower in almost ten days, and as silly as it seemed, Steve sort of wanted to be there when he finally ventured out. 

“You still there?” he asked into the phone, feeling foolish for not even being able to concentrate on a damn phone call. “Sorry about that.” 

“I’m here, Captain.” Natasha had the unnerving ability to sound perfectly polite and also extremely annoyed at the same time and Steve grimaced a little. “Will you be joining us or not?”

“J, can you message Happy and let him know I need a driver today?” Tony asked his AI, and Steve paused again to listen. “I need to get some new bedding and some groceries and I’m pretty sure there’s no toilet paper left in the house.”

Yes sir.” JARVIS replied calmly. “Will you be shopping alone today, or shall I have him bring the limo?”

“Um–” The look Tony sent Steve’s way was barely a look at all, more of a twitch in his direction, a tiny raise of his eyebrows. “Well–”

“How does tomorrow sound?” Steve said into the phone without taking his eyes off Tony. “I already made plans today, but I can train with the recruits tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow then.” Natasha hung up without another word and Steve put his phone away. 

“Was that Fury?” Tony inclined his head in Steve’s general area. “Asking you when you were gonna come back to work?”

“Natasha.” Steve corrected. “Wanted to know if I’d train with the recruits today. Something about how using an All American hero will bring in the funding.”

“Tights.” Tony said immediately. “Tights will bring in the funding. Where’s the tights? Should we take your old uniform out of the Smithsonian or just buy you some? I hear glitter stars are very in this year, plus nothing says ‘give me money’ like one size fits all spangly tights.”

“Thank you for that.” Steve stood up for a refill and slid an arm around Tony’s waist as he did, side hugging him for a few seconds. “You mind some company when you run your errands today?”

“Not at all.” Tony hid most of his smile behind a sip of coffee. “But I have to warn you, I’m impossible to shop with. Pepper has left me in a store more than a few times.”

“I’m not going to leave you in the store, Tony.”

“You say that now, but you’ve obviously never seen me shop for pants, have you?” He jabbed his finger in Steve’s chest. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Big and Blonde.”

“I’m not going to leave you, Tony.” Steve said again, covering Tony’s hand with his own and pressing it over his heart. “I promise.”

He didn’t mean for it to sound so serious, or maybe he did, but regardless of what he meant, the words were out there and now he and Tony were sort of holding hands and Tony was looking up at him with those whiskey warm eyes, wide and uncertain and Steve didn’t know how to move on from the moment.

“Um,” he floundered. “What I meant to say was–”

Sir, Mr. Hogan will be out front with the limo in twenty seven minutes.” JARVIS interrupted and Steve mentally praised the AI’s excellent timing. “Perhaps a shower and some hairspray, your hair has more than it’s usual amount of volume today.”

“Snarky shit.” Tony muttered and pulled away from Steve, tipping his head back to drain the rest of his cup. “Three months I’ve been back and every day I wonder what the hell I was thinking giving him so much sass.”

If I could disagree sir, you programmed me to have an evolving personality.” JARVIS countered. “If I have become snarky and sassy it is only because I’ve become like the person I am around the most.”

Tony made a vexed sort of noise and Steve burst out laughing. “Dang, Tony. You’re gonna let your AI talk to you like that?”

“I’ll be honest, I don’t think he’s so much my AI anymore as I’m his mechanic.” Tony made another pass through his hair, adding even more volume to the dark strands. “I’m off for a shower, see you out front in thirty?”

“Sure thing, Tony.”

******************

******************

They held hands in the back of the limo, and it was easy and casual and familiar. Steve didn’t think anything about reaching for Tony’s hand and Tony didn’t think anything about sliding over closer and even though Happy’s eyes widened in the rear view mirror, he didn’t have anything to say.

Well he didn’t have anything to say about that, anyway.

“Been so long since you called me for a ride, I started to think I’d hurt your feelings, boss.” Happy said after they had pulled into traffic. “Did y’know, Cap? When Ms. Potts took over the company I became her driver and Tony bout threw a fit.”

“Okay but to be fair.” Tony scowled when Steve laughed at him. “To be fair? Happy has been my driver for ten years. Pepper had been CEO for ten days. He’s a turncoat and a mercenary.”

“A turn coat and a mercenary?” Happy tossed back. “I didn’t move to Malibu, did I? You don’t think I’d rather be sunning my big ass on a beach beneath the palm trees instead of crawling through this smoggy mess? I miss Malibu. You should move back too. Who needs the Avengers Tower when you could have beaches and sunshine?”

“You make a persuasive argument, Hap.” Tony hand shook just a little in Steve’s grasp at the thought of leaving. “I’ve missed you.”

“Sure you did.” Happy snorted. “That’s why you’ve been off playing with the super friends, right?”

“It was one battle, Happy.” Tony sighed overly loud. “One battle, one time. I saved the world.”

“You flew a bomb into a hole like a dumbass.” the driver corrected. “And one time of that was enough for me.”

“Yeah, I think one time was enough for all of us.” Steve pressed harder at Tony’s palm when the tremble got worse at the mention of the wormhole. “So Tony says he’s an impossible shopper, and that Ms. Potts as left him several times before because she got impatient. Any truth to that story?” 

“All true.” Happy nodded. “What Tony didn’t tell you was that it took him several hours to realize Ms. Potts had left him at all. In fact this one time–”

“Thank you Happy!” Tony interrupted loudly. “I’m sure Captain Rogers doesn’t need a play-by-play of my terrible shopping habits, let’s just get to a store, huh?”

“Spoilsport.”

******************

******************

Steve had meant it when he told Tony he told Tony he wouldn’t leave him to shop alone, but all the same he was relieved when Tony got in and out of the few stores on his list fairly quickly and they were done before lunch.

He hadn’t really had the time to adjust to the sheer size of modern stores yet since saving the world didn’t leave a whole lot of time for shopping, and the first time Tony led him through a mall that was bigger than his entire neigborhood growing up— well Steve got a little jittery. 

The jitters were made worse by the amount of attention Tony drew just by walking down the aisles. 

Steve still had a little anonymity even with his face splashed across the newspapers and internet as America’s re-found hero. In big crowds, he was just another blonde hair blue eyed quarterback looking guy, which meant that other than a few appreciative glances and the occasional catcall, no one thought anything about him.

Tony however, had always attracted attention no matter what. Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, genius and now he was Iron Man which meant they didn’t go more than a few minutes without someone coming along and wanting an autograph or a picture or to ask about the Avengers or the arc reactor or the suits or the wormhole or whether or not the aliens would be coming back.

It was the fourth question in a row about aliens that finally had Tony’s composure slipping just a little bit in the last store, his smile brittle and eyes sharp when yet another person asked, “Are you going to be enough to save us when the aliens come back?”

“Are you going to be enough to save us when they come back?” he snapped irritably and the man recoiled in surprise. “Or are you going to sit back with the rest of the world and wait for someone else to deal with the problem so you can criticize them after the fact?”

“Well, I–I–” the man blustered and huffed and looked like he was going to work himself up into a shouting match and that was when Steve stepped in, directing him away with a charming smile and light hearted comment about how even superheros just want to be normal people sometimes.

“Let’s just go.” Tony said under his breath when Steve came back to check on him. “This is ridiculous, I can’t even hardly be in public anymore without starting to freak out, let’s just go and get the hell back to the Tower and–”

“Easy.” Steve rubbed slow circles into the small of Tony’s back. “Easy. He didn’t know that was about the hundredth question you’ve gotten about aliens, and he definitely didn’t mean the question the way you took it.”

“I know he didn’t.” Tony pulled a pair of sunglasses from the pocket of his jacket and crammed them on his face. “I know he didn’t mean it the way I took it, and that makes it all worse. Don’t let anyone else talk to me, alright? Bad enough I can’t hardly go outside, so damn anxious all the time, half expect to look up and there will be another fucking hole in space but now it’s just–” he cleared his throat loudly. “Let’s just go. Are you ready? Let’s just–”

“It’s armor, right?” Steve watched his own reflection in Tony’s shiny lenses. “Your sunglasses. I watched the videos of you when I woke up and you hardly ever took them off. Meetings, press conferences, even when you were having fun you never took them off. It’s armor, just like you dressing all fancy back in the war. You wear them so people can’t tell how much you’re bothered by something.”

“That’s exactly why I wear them.” Tony typed out a message to Happy on his phone so the limo would be waiting out front. “Can we go now?”

“Don’t wear them around me.” Steve said then, and Tony glanced up in confusion. “I want to know when something I do bothers you, Tony. You don’t have to armor up around me, you know that.” Steve paused, “Or at least, you used to know that.”

“You want to know when you bother me?” Tony whipped the sunglasses off and pinned Steve with a look. “Three nights ago you were snoring but you were also octopus wrapped around me and I couldn’t move your big ass so I had to lay there with you sounding like a chainsaw. That bothered me. Don’t do it again.”

He cracked at least a small smile, so Steve grinned down at him. “I’ll work on it.”

“Super soldier.” Tony muttered, pushing the glasses back up his nose and heading out the entrance of the store. “Don’t need to sleep hardly at all, but when you do sleep you snore loud enough to raise the dead. It’s not even fair.” 

The light hearted moment was dampened less than two minutes later when a group of teenagers shrieked, “There’s Iron Man!” and started screaming in their direction. 

“I need to go.” Tony said from behind clenched teeth and Steve nodded. 

“Let’s go.” 

Happy was standing outside the limo when they came down the steps of the mall, and he held the door open for Tony, frowning when Tony all but ran for the back seat. “Uh, get everything you need, boss?” 

Tony didn’t answer and Happy raised his eyebrows towards Steve.

“Lots of people asking lots of questions.” Steve said in explanation. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“You could have just ordered new stuff online, you know.” Happy slid into the drivers seat and adjusted the mirror so he could see Tony. “Don’t gotta put yourself through all this crap just for a little shopping.”

“JARVIS told me I looked like death warmed over because it had been too long since I’d been out in the sun.” The words were muffled behind Tony’s hands as he rubbed them over his face. “I thought being out in public would be good for me. Turns out I still can’t handle it. Everyone wants to know about aliens, or about the Avengers or about why Pepper has been seen in Malibu without me… I can’t handle it, Hap.”

“Well what good did Blondie over here do then?” Happy scowled back at Steve. “Where’s that shield of yours, use it for something other than a drink coaster! Crowd control!”

“Uh–” Steve didn’t quite know what to say to that, but Tony laughed quietly so he just let it slide. “I will… keep that in mind. Thanks for the suggestion.” 

“I don’t want to go home yet Happy, but I sure as hell don’t want to try shopping again.” Tony finally leaned back against the seat and blew out a deep breath. “Why don’t you just drive for a little bit and see where we end up?”

“Why don’t we head towards Brooklyn?” It was a spur of the moment suggestion, and Steve didn’t really know how Tony would take it. “Could be fun. Walk through the old neighborhood, see what’s left of it all.”

“Tony’s never been in Brooklyn in his life.” Happy wrinkled his nose, but Tony cut in with– “That sounds doable, lets do that.”

“Yeah?” Steve reached for his hand and Tony squeezed at him gratefully. “A walk through memory lane?”

From Happy– “Memory lane? What the hell is he talking about?”

“I haven’t been back yet.” Tony lowered his voice so Happy couldn’t hear. “I didn’t want to go alone so you know–” he swallowed a little. “– I just didn’t go.” 

“We’ll go together.” Steve said confidently. “I’m a lot bigger now so you don’t gotta worry about me being jumped in alleys or anything. Plus, I won’t let you fall asleep in any dumpsters. Should be a good time.

“You’re a dork.” Tony sighed again and closed eyes. “Take us towards Brooklyn, Happy.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

Steve tugged at Tony to urge him across the seat and pushed at the button with his other hand that would raise the divider between the front and back of the limo. “You okay?” he asked seriously once Tony was pressed to his side. “It took you a while to finally snap back there, but I could tell you hated it the entire time. Why do you put yourself through this?”

“Why do I put myself through it?” Tony repeated. “Because I have to cope, Steve. Somehow I have to cope.” 

“Well, I know, but–”

“Even without my little jaunt through the past, I still flew a goddamn bomb through a hole in space.” Tony shook his head when Steve tried to talk. “I didn’t believe in aliens before New York, did you know that.? I mean I believed in life out there somewhere but not– not like that. Not creatures that are mechanical but also organic and didn’t consider us much more than bugs to be squashed. I believed in higher powers but not the ones I’d read about it comic books, and certainly not ones that carried glowing scepters of death. And of course I knew about wormholes, everyone knows about wormholes but we think about them in terms of us going through them on our journey to greater knowledge.”

“We don’t think of them as doors for other things to come calling.” Steve finished and Tony nodded miserably. “You still have nightmares about it? About the hole and the bomb and space?”

“Not so much nightmares.” Slowly. “Just dreams. I’ll feel heavy and sluggish like I’m still carrying the bomb. Silence that is somehow so loud it hurts my ears. Takes me a long time to wake up, I have to figure out if I’m back in Malibu, if I’m in the Tower, if I’m at your and Bucky’s place, if I’m on the base in London– takes me forever just to figure out where I am and when I am.”

“I’m sorry.” Steve turned his head so his lips brushed Tony’s temple. “M’sorry, Tony. That sounds awful.”

“Not your fault.” A half hearted shrug. “It’ll probably get better with time but for right now it sucks.”

“Does sleeping next to me make it worse?” Steve hated the thought, but he had to ask. “Since I was there for all of it, I mean. Because if it does, if me being there makes everything worse then maybe we should—”

“You don’t make it worse.” Tony said immediately and Steve relaxed a little bit. “I slept next to your big ass through most of your USO tour and it didn’t affect me at all, you know? Don’t see why it’d be different now. Think I might actually sleep better with you there.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I dream about being alone.” All the talk about dreams seemed to be making Tony sleepy, and he hid a yawn in Steve’s shoulder. “Just me in space alone, or waking up in the Brooklyn apartment alone or staying on base alone while you and the Commandos were gone, waking up alone in the Tower without Pepper. I’m always alone.”

“Tony–”

“But then I wake up and you’re there so I’m not alone.” he finished. “And I remember that it’s just a dream and it’s fine.”

“Well as long as it’s fine.” Steve was glad Tony wasn’t looking so he didn’t have to worry about hiding his worried expression. “Take a short nap, I’ll let Happy know where to go.”

“Thanks.” Tony stretched out a little further and put his head in Steve’s lap, falling asleep quickly on the plush seat, the tinted windows making it easy to close his eyes.

“Everything alright back there, Captain?” Happy spoke quietly over the intercom after several minutes. “You got an address for me, or am I just doing circles here?”

“Everything’s fine back here.” Steve brushed a strand of hair fromTony’s forehead. “Tony’s just taking a short nap.”

“Good.” Happy grunted. “Needs his sleep, don’t you disturb him.”

Steve refrained from sassing back at the driver and instead rattled off an address in Brooklyn to head towards. “It might not be an exact address anymore.” he cautioned. “I’m sure they’ve gone through and renovated most of the places, but once we get close I’ll know.”

“Sure thing, Cap.”

***********************

***********************

“Cap, did you drag me down to some sketchy part of town to see if we could get into trouble?” Tony stretched as he got out of the limo and grimaced when his back popped. “Where the heck are we?”

“You don’t recognize it?” Steve bent down to the driver’s side window and told Happy, “You can take the car back, we’ll find our own way home tonight. Gonna spend some time walking around.”

Happy drove off without another word, leaving Tony and Steve on the sidewalk in a less than savory part of Brooklyn and Tony waited until the limo turned the corner before sending Steve a suspicious glance.

“You aren’t just spoiling for a fight are you, Steve? Don’t you beat up enough people as it is? You don’t gotta tramp through Brooklyn looking for punks who need a whuppin.’”

“Okay, first of all.” Steve slung an arm over Tony’s shoulder. “First of all, I’ve never gone tramping anywhere looking to give anyone a whuppin’.”

“Categorically untrue.” Tony countered, staring up at the buildings in interest as they passed. “I distinctly remember you going out with the USO girls and purposefully riling up the boys at the bar so you could fight a little.”

“That was different, though.” Steve steered him down a through-way alley and to the opposite street. “I was dancing every day, wearing tights and glitter. I needed a good fight, sometimes a man’s just gotta feel like a man.”

“By fighting.” Tony raised a judgmental eyebrow. “Interesting.”

“Well, it’s better than just throwing money around and you know–” Steve coughed loudly. “– putting up giant towers with your name on them as a way of compensating for–” he chuckled when Tony shoved at him. “What are you doing, Tony? You know can’t knock me over.”

“God, I miss you being tiny.” Tony grumbled and shoved at Steve again, just for good measure. “Tell me where we are then. I don’t recognize the neighborhood.”

“Alright.” Steve stopped and pointed up at an apartment building. “It’s not the same building anymore, I’m sure they tore that down right after the war. But this right here, four floors up and–” he counted quietly. “–three windows over. That’s where I used to live. Me and my parents.”

“That–” Tony’s mouth fell open a little. “Right up there? You lived there?

“Yep. And if we go this way–” they walked over about half a block and Steve stopped in front of another building. “This is where Bucky lived, Tony. Different building of course. But right here all the same. We went to church down the way, and attented the school at the end of the street and the first day we met, he had to step in and break up a fight between me and another kid. Guess he thought I was going to get my ass kicked.” 

“Were you going to get my ass kicked?” 

“I couldn’t see out of my right eye for almost to weeks.” Steve chuckled. “He walked me home that day to make sure I made it safe, and when we found out we lived just a few steps apart, that was all it took. We were best friends from that minute on.”

“Scrappy Steve Rogers ran around this neighborhood with Bucky Barnes?” Tony’s smile was a little wistful. “Bet you two were a terror and a half.”

“At least.” Steve confirmed. “Went to church right there every single Sunday. Our ma’s used to make us sit on separate ends of the pew so we’d concentrate but it never worked. We could cause trouble whether we were right next to each other or at opposite sides of the room.

“Oh my god.” Tony started to laugh thinking about two trouble making boys trying to sit still during the sermon, but it died in his throat when he saw the small graveyard next to the church. “Is that were– I mean, is that–”

“Yeah it sure is.” The gate on the cemetery squealed as Steve pushed it open, and Tony hung back a step as Steve ran his hand over it a few times, a sad smile hovering along his lips before he moved on to a carefully tended plot near the corner. 

“These are my parents.” he brushed his fingers over the worn stone marker. “We laid them to rest right next to each other, first Dad and then ma a little while later. Without the serum I’d probably be laying right next to them.” 

“Steve.” Tony frowned. “Don’t say that.” 

“But it’s true. The year you met me was a healthy year.” Steve crouched down to straight a few of the flowers on the grave site. “And I still could barely make it up the stairs. The winter before I got so sick, the priest came to say a blessing over me, told Bucky to let me go. Stubborn ass kicked the priest out and told him to leave us alone.” 

This time Steve’s smile was a little painful. “My ma always said she hoped I’d never end up in the spot next to them. Told me she hoped I’d be long gone from Brooklyn on some sort of adventure, or end up buried a hero. She didn’t want me here in some tiny plot in an old neighborhood.” 

Tony swallowed hard when Steve started to choke up. “Well, she was right, right? You’re long gone from Brooklyn on some sort of adventure.”

“I guess.” Steve managed, standing back up and moving to a different area of the cemetery. “Bucky took me home after ma’s funeral, told me I should come home with him, that I didn’t have to be alone. Told me I could even sleep on the floor on the couch cushions as long as I shined his shoes.”

“Sounds like him.” Tony started trembling a little when they moved to the next plot and saw Winnie and George Barnes on the stone. “Steve, um can we just wait–just wait a second. I don’t think I can do this.” 

“Gotta do it, Tony. We’re here, aren’t we?” Steve stopped at a smaller marker next to Winnie’s. “Did you– were you able to go to his funeral?”

“No.” Tony stared down at the marker that was far too small to remember the man that had stolen his heart, felt something cold and awful settle in his chest. “No, I came back to the present time before I could go. Ah Winnie and–and Sarah came to the apartment once afterwards. They wanted something to bury at the church, said it wasn’t right that there wasn’t anything beneath–”

The words failed, Tony’s vision blurring with tears. “She took his original dog tags from the apartment, and a picture. That’s all there is under there. Said it wasn’t right for it to be empty. Wanted me to come stay with them and I– I couldn’t. Couldn’t do it. This is the first time I’ve seen it, holy shit I can’t—” 

He stepped away, covered his face with his hand so he didn’t have to see Bucky’s name on the stone. “I can’t believe–” 

Steve didn’t say anything, but he wrapped his arms around Tony and held him as close as he could, letting Tony cry into his shoulder and soothing him with quiet sounds. 

There wasn’t any words anyway, nothing either of them could say to ease the grief or lessen the harshness of the moment, so they just held each other until Tony was breathing easy again and Steve could talk without his voice wobbling. 

“I’m surprised Winnie didn’t make you come home with her.” Was the first thing he said. “Bucky left me by myself after my ma’s funeral. I told him I didn’t want to go home with him, so he left me and no more than five minutes later, here comes Winnie Barnes storming down the street and hollering at me.” 

Steve shifted so he was holding Tony with one arm, and pointed towards the old buildings with the other. “Right there she stood, yelled up at my window that I could either come home with her right then, or she’d come and stay with me for a spell, but no matter what her fool son said, I wasn’t staying alone.” 

“I only met her the one time and that doesn’t surprise me at all.” Tony declared, laughing shakily as he wiped away a stray tear. “That woman was a force of nature.”

“Think she kept my ma going after dad passed.” Steve said quietly. “Kept me goin’ after my parents. If I would’a come home from the war, she would’ve kept right on doing it too.”

They were still for another moment, staring down at Bucky’s marker and after a while Steve added– “This was the first place I came after I woke up. Walked the streets, knocked on the doors to see if anyone was still around, brought fresh flowers for all the stones and–” he sighed. “– sat here and thought about everything I lost.”

“I’m sorry.” Tony murmured. “Didn’t really think about how hard it would have been to wake up like that.”

“Probably felt about the same as you waking up, right?” Steve tugged at Tony’s hand and led him away from the cemetery. “Like you’d lost everything and didn’t know where to go from there?”

“But I hadn’t–” Tony cleared his throat. “I hadn’t lost everything. I still had Pepper and my money and–”

“Well, I hadn’t lost everything either.” Steve smiled down at him. “I had you, right? I just didn’t know it yet.”

“I–” Tony returned the smile hesitantly. “Yeah, you had me. Or at least you do now.”

“Come on then, let’s get out of here.” Steve urged him on a little faster. “Let’s go see the old apartment, maybe get a sandwich at the shop down the way. If this is memory lane we gotta hit all the stops, right?”

“Yeah.” Tony nodded and held Steve’s hand just a little bit tighter, his heart clenching when the big blonde dashed away a quick tear. “Thanks for this, Steve.”

“For what?” Steve glanced both ways, then hurried them across the street. “It was your idea to go out today, I’m just along for the ride.”

“Well, thanks for coming along anyway.” Tony took a deep breath in of the cool air. “This is much better than hiding away in my lab all day. I guess I was getting pretty sick of being alone all the time. And getting to see Bucky’s–” another deep breath. “–Didn’t realize I needed a little bit of closure like that. Thank you for being here with me.” 

Steve waved down a cab and opened the door, motioning Tony through. “I told you I wasn’t going anywhere and I meant it. You’re not going to be alone anymore, Tony.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I know that.” 

*****************

*****************

The old pawn shop just past the tracks was just as tiny as Tony remembered, the bells on the door just as loud, the shelves just as crowded. In fact, not much of anything had changed in the store at all and Steve looked around it with an impressed whistle.

“Can’t believe this thing is still standing. It was an old shop when Bucky and I used to pawn stuff for dinner money.” He made a face in the mirror above the register. “Pretty sure that mirror was here too.”

“Want to hear something crazy?” Tony plucked a few strings on an old guitar. “When I was a sophomore in college, me and Rhodey decided we wanted to be rock stars. Every boy wanted to be in a band, you know? It’s like a rite of passage.”

never wanted to be in a band.” Steve argued. “I wouldn’t say it’s a rite of passage.”

“Okay, old man.” Tony huffed good naturedly. “Every boy born after the fifties wanted to be in a band, they still do. Garage bands, basement bands, terrible hair and shitty gear. All of it. It’s a classic phase.”

“I don’t think–”

“ANYWAY!” Tony said loudly. “Anyway, me and Rhodey wanted to be rock stars, and everyone knows that the best rockers get their start with second hand guitars from sketchy pawn shops. So we snuck out one night when we were home on break, caught a ride down to this exact pawn shop, and Mr. Lee sold me my very first six string.”

He smiled, hefting the guitar in his hands. “Me and Rhodey were terrible. Just terrible. I could sing decent but had no idea what I was doing with a guitar in my hands. Rhodey sang like he was strangling a cat, but he could sure shred on one of these things.”

“Shred?” Steve tried to hide his smirk when Tony made a scandalized sort of noise. “What’s shred?”

“You are old as hell, I honestly don’t know what to do with you.” he announced. “Never mind, I’m not going to tell you my story.”

“No no.” Steve jostled him teasingly. “Tell me all about how you and Colonel Rhodes shredded on your second hand six string.”

“Nope, you lost the privilege of hearing charming stories from my childhood.” Tony pushed past him to the counter and dinged the bell. “I wonder if Mr. Lee still works here. How old do you think he is now?”

“At least as old as me.” Steve sproinged a bobble head of Richard Nixon, watching it bobble and wobble away for a moment. “Maybe older? I can’t imagine he’s still around.”

“Hm.” Tony brightened into a smile when a young man came forward from the back. “Hey there. Any chance Stan Lee still owns this store?”

“I’m Stan Lee.” the man pushed a pair of large glasses up his nose. “Unless you mean my gramps, cos he’s Stan Lee too.”

“I think we mean your gramps.” Steve confirmed. “Does he still run this place?”

“Uh no, he doesn’t–” Stan grimaced when there was a racket from the back room. “I mean, he isn’t normally–” more noise, and what sounded like cursing. “What I’m trying to say is–”

“Are you telling another person I still don’t own this place?” A side door swung open with a bang and a man that was at least ninety five marched through, grumbling under his breath and swiping his hands through a shock of white hair. “Young whippersnapper trying to take this from me before I’m in the cold–”

“Grandpa–”

“–unforgiving ground, I’ll outlive–”

Grandpa!”

“–the lot of you!” Tirade apparently over, he squinted at Steve and Tony. “Stan Lee, the original. Owned this shop since the thirties, ain’t going nowhere anytime soon. What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Lee.” Tony’s grin nearly split his face and Steve’s was just as big. “We were hoping you were around.”

“Always going to be around.” He stated, then peered a little closer and an otherwise grumpy face dissolved into a smile. “Well well, Steve Rogers. Out for a jaunt through the old neighborhood? Got anything to sell me? I’d take that shield right off your hands, give you a fair price for it.”

“I feel like a lot of people would be very upset if I pawned my shield.” Steve shook Lee’s hand firmly. “But thank you anyway. Good to see you sir.”

“Good to see you too, kiddo. Always wondered what happened to that mouthy kid from Brooklyn, guess he got tall, huh?” Steel blue eyes twinkled behind his glasses. “Now, Mr. Steve Rogers turned Captain America, what can I do for you and your friend?” A quick look over at Tony. “You’re a Carbonell boy, aren’t you?”

“I– I–” Tony’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“I know you’re a Stark, but your momma must’ve been a Carbonell cos you’re the spitting image of a fancy fella Rogers brought in here one time.” Stan continued. “Funny kid he was, wore his clothes all flashy and his hair slicked back. Nice enough, though. He left something here with me–”

Leaving Steve and Tony standing stunned at the counter, Stan disappeared into the store room for a few moments, shouting over his shoulder occasionally. “– figured he’d come back after the war– can’t figure out how a guy like that had a watch so nice– where the hell is– oh here.”

He came back holding a small box and opened the lid with a flourish, brandishing a perfectly polished, perfectly timed, Bulgari watch.

“Your uncle or cousin or whoever he was pawned this watch to me back in the forties.” Stan lifted it from the box and handed it to Tony. “Took about every cent I had in the bank and it still wasn’t close to the value of this thing, but he took it with a smile anyway and then left the watch with me. Never sold it, always figured he’d come back.”

“My watch.” Tony breathed, cradling it carefully. “Steve, can you believe it? After all this time?”

“There’s about a dozen things that I can’t believe right now.” Came Steve’s shocked reply. “Most of, that you pawned a Bulgari watch and then bought us dinner with the money. Tony! What were you thinking?” 

“I was thinking that I was in a new city with no money and needed some new clothes!” Tony defended, sliding the leather onto his wrist and fastening it with a smile. “Look at that. Perfect fit.”

“I’ve taken good care of it.” Stan said proudly. “Finest thing to ever come through this shop. Sure sourpuss over there wants me to sell it, help pay for his college but I couldn’t quite seem to part with it.”

“I’ll buy it back from you.” Tony said instantly. “This is one of my favorite pieces and if you aren’t going to sell it to anyone else, I’ll buy it back so it uh–” he coughed awkwardly. “Stays in the family. I’m sure that’s what Tony… Carbonell… would have wanted.”

“I’m going to have to sell it at higher price you know, takin’ into account the historic value and exceptional condition.” Stan joked, but Tony wasn’t joking at all when he handed over a credit card and told him to “Ring it up at present day value, take a moment to look it up if you need.”

Ten minutes later, Stan Lee the third was crying over the receipt because now he could go to college, Stan Lee Sr. was posing for a picture for Tony and Steve that his star struck granddaughter was all too happy to take, and then they were on their way out the door.

“Real glad to still see you around, sir.” Steve shook Stan’s hand one last time. “Things just wouldn’t be the same in these parts without you.”

“Don’t you worry, son.” Stan’s smile was just this side of mischievous. “I’m not going anywhere any time soon.”

********************

********************

Back at the Tower at almost nine o clock that night, Tony was yawning every other word and even Steve was feeling a little bit fatigued.

They had walked for miles through Brooklyn, over to see the old apartment and the side street where they had found Tony. Stopped into the still standing movie theater and bought some fairly terrible popcorn to share as they went on their way. Pausing at the alley where Steve was getting in a fight before Bucky had shown up to intervene and announce he was shipping out with the 107th, Tony teared up again and Steve had let him cry, holding him close.

When they got hungry, Tony googled the location of their favorite sandwich shop to figure out what had replaced it, but the old deli was still there at the corner so they sat and ate–and ate and ate and holy crap could Steve put away some food these days– and reminisced and watched the sun start to set.

They took a cab back to the Tower and sat in relative silence on the way home, Tony with his hands clasped in his lap, Steve with his arms folded as he stared out the window, each lost in their own thoughts and memories.

And now, Tony’s jaw popped over a yawn and Steve chuckled, reaching out to grab him before he stumbled out of the elevator. “You gonna make it, Tony?”

“I don’t know.” Tony yawned again, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. “Today was a long day, and I don’t think I’ve gotten that much fresh air since the last time I took the car out with the top down and that was–” he made a show of counting on his fingers. “Six months before New York, but then I was gone for two years and now it’s been three more months so…”

“Yikes. Time travel makes my head hurt.” Steve made a show of rubbing at his head as if it hurt. “I dunno how you do it.”

“The burden of genius is a heavy one.” Tony snarked back, and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “You heading to bed?”

“I could be ready for bed.” Steve agreed. “You gonna sleep in my room again or try out that fancy new bedding you got?”

“Seems like a shame to not use brand new blankets and pillows.” Tony took a slow drink and then added, “Thank you for today, Steve. I um– I didn’t let myself go to Brooklyn, you know? After everything? I don’t know if I was afraid that I’d walk through those places and realize it was all fake, or if it would somehow prove that it was all real– I don’t know what I was afraid of, but I was definitely afraid.”

“I’m glad you were willing to go.” Steve answered, watching Tony pick at the wrapper on his bottle. “I’ve done that a time or two, walked through by myself and tried to get lost in the memories. Always made me miserable, made me miss everything from those days. But after walking it with you, I don’t really feel lonely anymore.”

“Oh.” Tony smiled a little, then a little bigger. “Well, it’s not just you wandering through the memories anymore, right? You sharing my memories makes me feel a little less crazy and if me sharing your memories makes you feel less lonely then everyone wins.”

“Everyone wins.” Steve repeated, blue eyes softening fondly. “Sweet dreams, Tony.”

“Sweet dreams, Spangles.” Tony tossed him a salute and headed for the private elevator that would take him to the penthouse, ready for a long shower and a good nights sleep and–

Oh.

This would be the first night in a week he’d be sleeping without Steve and that… that seemed wrong. Especially after spending the day together. Reliving all those memories and feelings and both of them tearing up at differing times– tonight more than the other nights would be the one they should be sharing a bed, right?

Stepping out from the elevator and into the living room of his suite, Tony hesitated and almost went right back downstairs to see Steve again.

Something about today, about them holding hands and laughing and missing Bucky and the way Steve had looked when he promised Tony didn’t have to be alone again….

Damn it.

Tony forced the thoughts from his head, took himself away from the elevator and towards the huge bathroom, smiling when he saw the piles of new bedding Happy had set on the floor of his bedroom, the packages of soap on the bathroom counter.

A hot shower and maybe a drink would make him stop thinking about Steve like that.

He was just tired. Tired and maybe a little lonely, after seeing Bucky’s grave marker and the place he’d grown up. Maybe still sad after walking the familiar routes and remembering the few times he’d done it with both Steve and Bucky. They’d laughed over old jokes and Steve had told funny stories and for a while it had almost been normal and Tony had forgotten how shitty everything else had been for the last few weeks.

That’s all it was.

He was just tired and emotional.

Tony turned on the hot water and shut the bathroom door so it would get steamy, kicking out of his pants and dropping his shirt in the laundry hamper. Wearing nothing but a towel, he scrolled through his phone to check a few messages, a few emails, deleting the one from Fury because honestly, no one had time for that.

The minimal amount of work done, Tony tossed his phone away and headed for the shower, ready to lose himself in a cloud of steam and a shower head with six different vibrating functions and–

Tap Tap Tap.

A quick, quiet knock at his door and Tony tightened the towel around his waist and crossed the living room in confusion. Who in the hell–

“Steve?” He scrunched his nose at the blonde. “What’s up? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Steve looked nervous, anxious, chewing at the inside of his cheek and obviously trying not to stare at Tony’s bare chest. “Are you okay?”

You knocked on my door.” Tony pointed out. “What did you need?”

Silence.

“Steve?” Tony prompted. “Is everything okay?”

“Tony, I just–” Steve wet his lips. “I need–”

He didn’t finish his sentence, didn’t tell Tony what he needed. Instead, Steve stepped through the door and gathered Tony close before bending down and sealing their mouths together. A big hand fit to the back of Tony’s neck to hold him still, the other grasping at his waist before gentling and settling low on his hips, Steve’s thumb rubbing a slow circle just at the hem of the towel, just over the jut of Tony’s hip bone as they kissed. 

Tony was reeling, gasping by the time Steve let him go, by the time the firm pressure against his lips eased and he could actually breathe. “What–what–”

“Tony.” Steve murmured, moving to cup Tony’s jaw carefully. “Tony, I–”

“Spangles.” Tony put a hand to his mouth and backed up a step. “Spangles, what in the hell are you doing?”

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t know how many times JARVIS said his name before he finally opened his eyes, but it was long enough that even the ever patient AI sounded exasperated as he said, “Sir, the phone.”

“I don’t care about the phone.” Tony groaned and rolled over onto his other side, hiding his face beneath the covers. “Tell them to fuck off.”

I am unable to use profanity.” the AI replied calmly and Tony groaned louder. “And even if I were, I value my circuitry far too much to use it with Ms. Potts.”

“Ms. Potts?” Tony sat bolt upright in bed then cursed as he immediately regretted it, cringing away from the sun light coming in through the windows. “Shut the curtains, damn it. Is Pepper really calling?”

Yes sir.” the curtains swished closed, the lamps in the room turning to a dim setting so Tony could still see. “Shall I put her through?”

“Uh–” Tony ran a hand through his hair quickly, trying to look like he hadn’t only been awake for three seconds and pulled the blanket up to his waist so the band of his boxers wasn’t showing. “Yes. Please put her through.”

There was a beat of silence as a screen folded down from the ceiling and the call connected, Pepper’s beautiful face filling the space. “Tony?”

“Pepper.” Less ready to see Pepper than he’d realized he would be, Tony’s smile was just this side of tremulous, his voice soft. “Hey you.”

“Hey you.” There wasn’t a single ounce of censure in Pepper’s tone at finding Tony still in bed at this hour and with his hair sticking up all different ways. There was nothing but affection and fondness and Tony felt it all like a physical embrace on his skin, helping to calm his nerves. 

“I know we said we would wait until things settled down to talk to each other again.” Pepper continued. “But it’s been a solid month and I miss you, Tony.”

“I miss you too.” There, that was honest. Honest and heart rending and fuck Tony hadn’t realized how badly losing Pepper still hurt. Damn it. “What um– did you need something? A signature for the business or did I miss an event or–?”

“No, Tony.” A frown then, marring the perfect smile and Tony instantly felt bad about it. “I just wanted to talk to you. I’m not just your boss you know, we were friends for years before all this and we lived together for almost a year.”

“Right.” Tony glanced away for a second. “Right. I just meant–”

“It’s been a month, Tony!” Pepper’s voice rose then. “A month! I haven’t heard from you at all! The last time we talked you weren’t sleeping and could barely it through a day and then we broke up and I’ve been so worried about you!”

“Hey, hey, I’m fine.” Tony leaned forward as Pepper started to get a little high pitched and squeaky. “Pep, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine, Tony! You’re never fine.” Now Pepper sounded frazzled, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “When was the last time you ate? Slept? Are you there all alone? Christ, I should just fly back and stay there so I can at least keep an eye on you or something! What was I thinking going all the way to Malibu when you needed someone there? I can’t believe–”

“Pepper.” Tony didn’t mean to laugh at her, but he had been dreading this first conversation post-break up so much and to see Pepper stressing about simple things wasn’t exactly funny ,but it was sort of a relief to realize that some things hadn’t changed at all between them. “Pepper, honey?”

What!”

“I love you.” He said simply, truthfully.. “And I miss you. And I didn’t think I was ready to see you yet, but now I can’t believe how happy I am to see you.”

“Oh.” On screen, Pepper deflated, falling back into her chair and blowing out a deep breath. “Well, I love you too.”

“And if you want to come back to New York, then please do.” he continued. “I’d love to have lunch and catch up and maybe talk through a few things. But don’t come back because you think I need to be taken care of. I think we’ve all had enough of you feeling like you have to watch me every moment lest I do something ridiculous and dangerous.”

Another, “Oh.” and Pepper seemed to relax further. “Sorry, I got a little crazy for a moment there. But in my defense? Literally any time I’ve turned my back in the past you were instantly doing dangerous things.”

“That’s a valid point.” Tony agreed. “Also, I know you’re CEO but the least you could do is address me as Executive Mechanic if you’re going to throw around the I’m your boss card.”

“Mr. Stark.” Pepper took a sip of her coffee to hide her smile. “You’re the literal worst.”

“I’m well aware, Ms. Potts.” Tony turned the lights up on his end so he could see better, bringing the conversation back around to ask– “How have you been?”

“Well, it hasn’t been very easy.” Pepper admitted, more at ease now that the initial awkwardness had blown over and the call felt a little more natural. “I may or may not have thrown out a few pieces of art when I got to the Malibu house.”

“Not my Iron Man art?” Tony gasped theatrically and Pepper’s eyes twinkled as she replied, “Definitely the Iron Man art.”

“You wound me, Pepper.”

“Yes well–” she cleared her throat daintily. “Things weren’t very easy at the beginning. Not being alone in our house– I know we weren’t together when you lived there, but it still felt like ours– and of course the press caught wind that I was out there alone and that wasn’t easy but–” a long sigh. “I’m better now. And I thought I should call. We decided we would call when we felt like we’d moved on and I know you’ve never initiated a phone call in your life, so I figured I should be the one to make it.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.” There was a moment of quiet, and Tony added, “And I’m sorry I didn’t call you first. I should have but I’ve been um–” he drummed his fingers on his thigh. “I’ve been coming to terms with some things lately. Getting some closure and working through what happened when I went through the wormhole. I’m not trying to make an excuse. Does it sound like an excuse? What I’m trying to say is–”

“Tony.” Pepper cut in, holding up her hand to shush him. “Don’t start talking super fast as if that will distract me from what you really mean, I know that trick.” Tony rolled his eyes and Pepper smiled again. “And I’m glad you’re working through some things.”

An entirely too smug expression across her face and she added, “Captain Rogers wouldn’t be helping out with all that, would he?”  

“What is the purpose of your face right now?” Tony asked suspiciously, his stomach twisting uncertainly over the thought Steve and Pepper knowing what had happened last night. “Why do you look like you know a secret that I don’t want you to know?”

“It’s nothing really.” Pepper batted her eyes innocently. “Happy mentioned that you two have been spending time together–”

“–My secretary and my driver are gossiping about me–?!”

“–your boss and her driver have been keeping tabs on you, yes.” She finished smoothly. “He said that you two spent the day together yesterday and things seemed more than a little friendly.”

“Christ.” Tony grimaced. “Pepper, please do not think that you and I broke up and Steve and I started dating. That’s not– I didn’t end things with you so I could do something with Steve. That’s not what happened.”

“That’s not what I think happened.” Pepper said firmly. “But I do think that he means more to you than I previously thought, and I think something happened when you all assembled that you haven’t told me yet.”

“…why do you think that?”

“Because you used to say his name in your sleep.” She said gently and Tony jerked away, muttering fuck me. “No no, not like anything awkward. But like you…” she thought for a few seconds. “Like you missed him. Like you had lost him and you missed him. I remember how nervous you were about meeting Captain Rogers the first time, and how angry you were for a while over him being an All-American prick–”

“Ms. Potts!”

“Oh please, I’ve called Justin Hammer worse things.” Pepper waved off Tony’s mock outrage. “But after New York, your attitude towards him changed. You just looked sad and confused and honestly a little lost.” One slim shoulder lifted in a shrug. “I knew something had happened but I didn’t want to press you about it.” 

“Something definitely happened.” Tony closed his eyes briefly, wanting to curse again when his mind flashed back to that fucking kiss. “But it wasn’t anything like– I didn’t cheat on you with him. I didn’t leave you for him.”

“I know you didn’t, Tony.” Pepper’s hands tightened around her mug. “But you didn’t really leave me at all, did you? We sort of left each other. I think we both know it wasn’t going to work, not romantically at least.”

“I–” the words were ash in Tony’s mouth. “I don’t really want to agree with you about that.”

“But?” Pepper prompted.

“But I think you’re right.” Tony thought back to the first few days he’d been in the past, how conflicted he’d felt about wanting Bucky and the guilty bit of relief he’d felt knowing that Pepper was better off without him as a boyfriend. “And I think…maybe we knew that before New York.”

“Right.” Tears then, sparking bright in Pepper’s eyes and Tony looked down at his blankets so his own tears wouldn’t be as obvious. “I love you Tony, and I miss you and I miss us but this–” a shaky breath. “This is better, isn’t it?”

I don’t want it to be better without you. “Yeah, yeah it is. Better in the long run.”

Pepper took another drink of her coffee and Tony folded his arms and unfolded his arms and picked at his quilt and tried not to think about how final this all seemed, and then Pepper said–

“So tell me about Steve.”

“Wait, what?”

“Tell me about Steve.” she said again. “Tell me about him now that you don’t hate him. Is he still a prick? All American Obnoxious? Do you call him Stars and Gripes to his face or save it for vaguely worded tweets?”

“I call him Stars and Gripes all the time.” Tony admitted and Pepper burst out laughing. “And uh– you should have seen the stupid look on his face when I took him to the mall. He kept grumbling about how he’d lived in houses smaller than one part of the department store.”

“What an old man!” Pepper exclaimed. “What does he think of technology?”

“He likes it more than I thought he would, but the first time JARVIS spoke to him I know he sort of freaked out. And I don’t think Happy really approves of him–”

“Happy’s exact words were ‘oh sure he gets to dress up like a lunatic and throw a frisbee around, but when I do it I’m a public menace and not cosplaying right’.” Pepper informed him and Tony nearly shouted with laughter. 

“Also, he complained for a solid fifteen minutes that Steve told him to just drive towards Brooklyn, and that Brooklyn is a hundred times bigger than it was a hundred years ago, and does Steve even realize how rude it is to not give a driver an address.”

“Forget Steve, Happy is the old man.” Tony declared. “Just an cranky old man.”

“He really is.” Pepper agreed over another giggle. “So tell me what it was, Tony. Tell me what happened between you and the Captain to change things. You could barely be in the same room as him before, and now you’re taking him shopping. What happened?”

“Aw Pep.” Tony’s smile was just a little sad. “One day I’ll sit you down and tell you a very weird story about a wormhole and Brooklyn and a ninety four pound Steve, but until I figure out a few more things, I’m just not ready to talk about it.”

“That’s fair, Tony.” she allowed. “And when you’re ready, I’ll be here.”

“Thank you.” Tony blew her a kiss. “Can we talk again soon, Ms. Potts?”

“Mr. Stark I have piles of paperwork for you to sign.” Pepper said authoritatively. “We will be talking again soon whether you want to or not. But also–” she wrinkled her nose teasingly. “–I have lots of gossip about Justin Hammer and a certain blonde socialite who may or may not be pregnant now so I’ll be calling back to spill the dirt.”

“I can’t wait.” Tony said honestly. “I love you, Pep.”

“Love you too, Tony.”

The call disconnected and Tony flopped back onto his bed, relief and sadness and fuck he missed Pepper so much warring in his chest. It was so good to talk to her again, but Tony hadn’t realized how much it would hurt. She had looked incredible, better than she had looked in months and he sort of hated that she looked better when he wasn’t stressing her out, but he loved it all at the same time.

Pepper deserved the world even if Tony wasn’t the one to give it to her and somehow, that was alright.

“I don’t deserve her, do I J?” he asked the ceiling, tapping absentmindedly at his arc reactor.

I’m obligated to say that you do, in fact, deserve her.” JARVIS replied and Tony smirked at the sass from his AI. “But no sir, you do not.”

“Yeah, I definitely don’t.” A few seconds, and Tony added, “J would you bring up the footage from last night?”

Of you and Captain Rogers?”

“…yes.”

Tony took a deep breath as the screen changed, the video playing immediately.

There was Steve knocking on his door and Tony answering it looking more than a little confused. Their stilted conversation, Tony tightening the towel around his waist and then Steve stepping forward to kiss him.

Shit. Tony swallowed when he saw the careful way Steve held him, swallowed again when he saw himself leaning into it for just a few seconds. Then Steve saying his name –Tony– like he was desperate and hungry and something hot twisted in Tony’s center when he heard it again.

Shitshitshit. There he was, yanking away and covering his mouth like he’d been burned, staring at Steve in shock.

Spangles, what the hell are you doing?”

Tony, I–” On screen, Steve started to reach for him again, but Tony backed up another step and Steve’s hand fell away. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you–”

Stop.” Tony flinched when he heard how hard his tone was, the way Steve recoiled a little. “Stop. I’m tired and you’re tired and it’s been an emotional day. Don’t do something you don’t mean and please don’t do something you’re going to regret in the morning.”

I won’t regret this in the morning, Tony.” Steve sounded as earnest as he always did. “Why would I ever regret this?”

I just got you back, Steve.” Video Tony was shaking his head now. “I can’t lose you because you’re horny and I’m lonely. Let’s just sleep on this and we can talk tomorrow.

The video cut out and Tony scrubbed his hands over his face a few times, breathing a little shaky. “JARVIS, what time did Steve leave this morning?”

Captain Rogers left for SHIELD headquarters at nine am.” JARVIS supplied promptly.

“Did he–” God Tony hated himself for even asking. “Did he wait around for me?”

Captain Rogers came to your door three different times, but never knocked. There is a note waiting by the coffeemaker for you.”

“He came to the door three times but didn’t knock?”

Yes sir.”

“…oh.” Tony didn’t know how that made him feel and he hated that. “Thank you. I guess I’ll just… go read my note.”

**************

**************

Steve threw himself into training the SHIELD recruits with the same intensity he’d used after Bucky had fallen, pushing himself and the team farther and farther in every exercise. 

At the beginning of the day, the recruits celebrated because the chance to train with Captain America was something right out of their dreams, a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with the worlds only super soldier.

They hollered in delight when Steve winged his shield out into the sky and completed two different parts of the obstacle course before jumping into the air and catching it again, hitting the ground and rolling up into a full out sprint towards the rest of the course.

They whooped and shouted every time Steve took someone down in the sparring ring, watching in awe as he went for twelve solid rounds with twelve different cadets and didn’t even pause for a drink.

They applauded when Steve blew through the mile run in under three minutes, then came back and ran it over and over with each of them for the time trials.

By lunch time, the recruits were exhausted and the cheers were less enthusiastic as Steve set up the next course and it was even harder than the first one, but they were game to try alongside the Captain so one by one they struggled through it again.

By dinner time all but the hardiest of the recruits were dragging, tripping through the obstacle course, their jumps less than stellar and miles slower and slower at every finish. When one young man tripped and face planted while holding his weapon, Natasha finally stepped in.

“Captain Rogers, perhaps we bring the day to an end before the cadets hang themselves on the rope you keep making them climb, hm?” She raised her eyebrows pointedly when Steve looked confused. “None of them are super soldiers, Captain. Lighten up.”

“Don’t listen to her, Cap.” Clint injected himself into the conversation, kissing Natasha’s cheek as he went. “Train them harder. No reason why they should be putzing along at six minute miles when you can run a mile three times faster. With enough patriotism these kids can definitely jump an eighteen foot gap. Totally doable. Just gotta up their gummy vitamins, right?”

“Yeah alright, I’m training them too hard.” Steve acknowledged with a grimace. “Let’s call it a day.”

“I’m sure they will be very disappointed.” Natasha sounded like she was laughing maybe a little bit. “I’ll be right back.”

Clint waited until Natasha had headed back towards the field before turning to ask Steve, “So what’s on your mind, Cap?”

“What do you mean?” Steve didn’t turn from the window, his arms crossed and jaw set. “I’m fine. Just training.”

“Uh huh.” The archer clicked his tongue a few times. “I’ve met Buddhist monks with less concentration than you. Plus, if you stare any harder through that window you’re gonna develop laser eye powers and melt the glass.”

Steve finally smiled and Clint joined him at the railing. “Anything you want to talk about? I mean, it’s probably good for us to bond seein’ as how you’re supposed to keep this fine ass of mine safe all the time.”

“Actually–” Steve hesitated, knowing damn well he had been distracted all day, forcing himself through the brutal training to keep his mind of Tony and that stupid kiss and the regret and anxiety that was clawing at his stomach and burning up the back of his throat. “Well, actually–”

“Actually?” Clint made a keep going motion. “What’s up, Cap?”

“Everything’s fine.” He lied, swallowing back a fresh wave of nervous about getting back to the Tower and seeing Tony again. “It’s just hard to switch from mission mode to training mode.”

“Right.” Clint scratched at his chin. “So lying wasn’t one of the superpowers the serum gave you, huh?”

“Nope.” Steve smiled again, shaking his head. “Nope, can’t lie worth shit.”

“Well let’s at least get back to the Tower.” The archer suggested over a yawn. “Watching all those kids running all those miles made me tired and obstacle courses shouldn’t give me the munchies, but I definitely need some snacks. You ready to go?”

“Yep.” Another lie. “Yep, I’m ready.”

*******************

*******************

There was a note folded by the coffee maker when Steve, Clint and Natasha made it back to Tower a few hours later and Steve picked it up before anyone else could.

Leaving a note had been cowardly, Steve knew that. He had tried damn it, he had tried to find the courage to talk to Tony this morning. He’d even gone up to the penthouse three separate times and paced outside the door trying to figure out what to say, how to get from the post-kiss awkwardness to something better or at least to an understanding, but Steve had never been great with words and finally he had given up.

Text messages seemed like too little too late, especially since he knew that Tony wouldn’t text back. And if Tony did text back, what would Steve say then? This was a conversation that needed to be had face to face, and yet Steve had settled for a note, scribbling down the only words he thought would mean anything.

I’m not going anywhere. There’s a whole lot of time and a million other things between us, but I’m not going anywhere.

And now on the reverse side scrawled in Tony’s signature print–

Well I would hope not. I pay your room and board.

Steve smiled when he read it, sliding the note into his back pocket. It wasn’t quite what he expected but at the same time it was exactly what he had hoped for. Snark and sass and terrible jokes usually meant Tony was alright, and if Tony was alright then Steve was alright and maybe they had a chance to work through this mess.

“Cap, you want in on this pizza?” Clint put his hand over the speaker on the phone and snapped his fingers in Steve’s direction. “I’m ordering one with everything but veggies, and one with nothing but veggies. You have an opinion?”

“I’ll figure something else out.” Steve decided and Clint flashed him a thumbs up before getting back to his pizza order. “I’ll see you guys in the morning.”

A quick shower was definitely in order after a day of training, and Steve soaped up and rinsed off as fast as he could, toweling his hair dry and throwing on a pair of jeans and one of the long sleeves he knew Tony loved.

“JARVIS is Tony in his lab?” He asked on his way down the stairs and when the AI answered in the affirmative, Steve took the stairs even faster, skidding to a stop at the door for just long enough to punch in his code. “Tony? It’s Steve!”

There was no answer and Steve slowed his steps as he crossed the lab, noting the holographic displays of Tony’s arc reactor, rows of rows of numbers that made up equations far beyond what Steve could comprehend.

“Uh, Tony?” he peered into a side room that he hadn’t noticed before, startling when he saw Tony standing in front of a huge mirror messing with his arc reactor. “Tony? Sorry, I didn’t know you were–”

Steve’s voice trailed off as he took a closer look, his eyes widening when he saw the scars tracking across Tony’s chest, the way the veins around the arc reactor were dark under too pale skin. “What the hell?”

“You’ve never seen it, have you?” Tony didn’t meet Steve’s eyes in the mirror. “I always wear a shirt around you, even when we sleep.”

“I haven’t–” Steve swallowed thickly around a lump in his throat. “Damn, Tony. I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t–” he stopped, not knowing what to say. “I don’t– does it hurt?”

“These scars aren’t for cosmetic reasons.” Tony said shortly, and then to JARVIS. “Go ahead and run the diagnostic?”

The arc reactor started humming, then glowing brighter and brighter until Steve had to shield his eyes and Tony started breathing hard, bracing his hands on the counter when it started to hurt.

“Everything is working perfectly, sir.” JARVIS intoned after a few moments. “The new core has been accepted and should resolve the weight issue.”

“Thanks, J.” Tony’s voice was strained and he nearly collapsed when the light finally dimmed, his hands shaking as he reached for a glass of water. “That always tastes so weird. Don’t know why messing with my reactor makes me taste something but yuck.”

“What–what–” Steve shook his head. “Tony, what did you just do?”

“It was sitting too heavy in my chest.” Tony tapped the cover plate of the reactor. “Hurts to breathe when I’m laying down so I made it lighter.”

“You just took your heart out and changed it and put it back in?” Steve sounded a little panicked and Tony shot him an odd look.

“It’s not my heart, Steve. If anything it’s a glorified pacemaker. And of course I have to take it out, how did you think I worked on it?”

“Is this what they put in you in Afghanistan?” Still more than a little bit of panic in the blonde’s voice. “What–how–why?”

“No.” Tony watched Steve curiously through the mirror. “No, there was a car battery hooked up to my chest in Afghanistan. I made one of these in a cave and then made a better one when I got home. This is version four. Why do you look so freaked out? You knew I had this. You knew what happened in Afghanistan. Why are you looking at me like–”

“You didn’t have this before.” Steve said quietly, miserably and Tony’s expression cleared in realization. “You didn’t have this when we found you in the alley, or all the time we hung out in the USO, or– or–”

“I was a lot younger in the past.” Tony clarified, wiping his hands on a towel and reaching for his shirt. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I went back like seventy years and also lost fifteen-ish years. Didn’t have any wrinkles, lost most of my scars, certainly didn’t have this thing.” His nails plinked against the reactor. “I don’t know what freaked me out more, being in the forties or being less than thirty.”

Steve was silent, his jaw clenching and blue eyes distressed.

“…Steve?” He pressed after a minute. “You alright?”

“I didn’t know.” Steve pushed himself off the door jam and crossed the bathroom to stand behind Tony, hesitating for a few seconds before reaching up and flattening his palm over the arc reactor, spreading his fingers to cover as many scars as he could. “I mean I knew, but I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t know about the scars or how it was too heavy to breathe or anything like that.”

“Did you think I wore it because it was shiny?” Tony tried to snark, but it came out a little breathless, his heart rate picking up when the solid line of Steve’s chest settled at his back, the hand over his heart warm and protective.

“I can’t believe you deal with this every day.” Steve’s voice cracked. “I can’t believe– Tony, you grabbed a nuke and flew it into a goddamn wormhole. I couldn’t have done that and I’m a super soldier. I’m a super soldier and you’re held together by–” his thumb rubbed over a few of the raised scars. “God damn it.”

“L-language, Cap.” Stunned by the show of emotion, Tony didn’t quite know how to react when Steve held him tighter, when the blonde head fell to rest on his shoulder. “It’s fine. I’m fine. I made it through Afghanistan and I made it through New York and–”

“Christ.” Steve pushed away, running his hands through his hair and shaking his head. “Christ, Tony. I can’t believe I didn’t know all of this.”

It felt stupid all the sudden, stupid that Steve had come down here thinking to talk about a kiss and hoping for another one. He’d been stressing out all day over this one little thing and every day Tony was dealing with so much more than Steve had ever realized and god he felt stupid.

“Well, weird arc reactor moment aside, did you need something, Cap?” Tony buttoned his shirt back up, watching warily as Steve started to look more and more upset the longer they stood there. “Or did you just come down to say good night? What’s going on?” 

“Um yeah.” Steve backed out of the bathroom with both hands raised as if apologizing for even bring there. “Yeah Tony, good night. That was all I needed. Good night.”

“Good night.” Tony echoed, more than a little disappointed when Steve just turned and headed for the door. He was almost there too, the door swishing open in anticipation of him leaving, when Tony spoke again.

“Steve.” Misreading the situation and Steve’s mood entirely, Tony nearly whispered the words– “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”– and Steve froze halfway out the door.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Tony repeated lamely, making a vague gesture to reference their kiss. “I get it. You’re lonely and I’m lonely and we’ve been spending a lot of time together. Don’t worry, I’m not reading too deep into it. What happened doesn’t have to mean anything, sometimes it’s just nice to be close to someone.”

It gave Tony an odd sense of deja vu to be saying those words to Steve again, to be reminding the Captain all over again that it was okay to need physical affection, that it didn’t mean something was wrong with him. It had been seventy years between that first conversation and this one but it was still the same idea. It was okay to need to be close to someone ,to reach out and need to be held.

It didn’t have to mean anything.

“But sometimes it means everything.” Steve said then, and Tony’s heart skidded to a stop.

“What?”

“Sometimes it means everything.” He said again and Tony’s heart picked back up, his breathing shallow and fists clenching at his sides. “I’m not just lonely, Tony. I’m not just lonely and I’m not just–”a brief smile. “– horny. I kissed you because I wanted to kiss you, because I have wanted to kiss you for ages now. Sometimes it means everything.”

Then Steve sighed, lowered his shoulders and gentled his tone. “But it doesn’t have to. I’m not going anywhere, Tony. Nothing’s about this–” he inclined his head in Tony’s direction. “–is going to change that, okay? You’re not going to lose me again.”

****************

****************

It was later that night–damn near pushing midnight in fact– when Steve’s bedroom door cracked open and quiet feet padded across the floor.

Steve didn’t say anything, but when his blankets lifted and a slight form moved onto his mattress he rolled over and opened his arms to gather Tony close, pushing his nose into the thick hair and breathing in deep.

They lay in the dark for a while, letting their breathing sync and their bodies settle into each other’s space and Steve was just slipping back towards sleep when Tony whispered–

“Not real often I climb into your bed, huh?”

“Mmm, I think it’s always me taking over your bed.” Steve mumbled. “But this is fine too.”

Nothing but the sound of their breathing for a long time, and then Tony– “Steve?”

“Mmm-hmm?” No answer from the brunette and Steve shifted to hold him a little closer. “Tony?”

“Do you miss Bucky?”

“Every single day.”

“Did you miss me?”

“Every single day.”

“Oh.” Tony wove his and Steve’s fingers together where Steve’s hand rested over his navel. “Steve um–”

“Shhh.” Steve kissed the soft spot behind Tony’s ear, then leaned over a little further to kiss his cheek. “We can talk in the morning, alright? We both need to sleep and it’s been a weird day. I told you I’m not going anywhere and I meant it. It’s late and we’re– ”

Steve was still talking when warm lips connected with his own, Tony grasping at Steve’s shoulders and pulling him down into a greedy kiss.

Tony.” Steve groaned and kissed him back, shuddering when their tongues met and tangled, when Tony opened pliant beneath him, knees falling open so Steve could fit closer against him. 

“Sweetheart, wait– we should–” They kissed again and again, Steve desperately trying to remember why he had thought they should wait to talk until morning, caught up in the feel of Tony in his arms, head spinning over every contented sigh and sweet little moan.

“Tony.” Steve fell away with a soft gasp, dragging in a harsh breath. “Honey–”

“Alright?” Tony asked nervously, unsure when Steve didn’t say anything else. “Spangles, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Steve fit his hand to the back of Tony’s neck and pushed their foreheads together, still trying to get himself under control. “Christ. Nothing’s wrong, Tony.”

“But–”

“This is just the first time since waking up I’m actually happy to be around.” Steve confessed hoarsely. “This is the first time I’ve actually felt like everything is going to be okay. I know we have so much to work through but–” he shut up to press another kiss to Tony’s mouth, to nuzzle against his cheek and murmur something sweet but unintelligible into his ear. “Tony–”

“Yeah.” Tony nodded, closing his eyes and willing himself to calm. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” 

Objectively, kissing Steve felt a little weird and Tony knew they were both shifting their feelings of loss over Bucky and uncertainty over everything that had happened into this moment right here, using the closeness to soothe raw edges and kisses to settle stressed nerves. Maybe those weren’t the best reasons to kiss your recently re-met best friend but damn.

Damn it was good when Steve lay back and pulled Tony into his arms, smoothing through his hair and whispering “Let’s just get some sleep.” And it was good when the steady heartbeat lulled Tony into a sleepy doze. And it was so good when the blankets settled heavy over his shoulders and Steve made a low sort of contented noise and cuddled Tony even closer.

And it was good in the morning when Tony’s eyes opened to sunshine and Steve dotting sweet kisses along his earlobe, when he stretched and Steve’s hand went immediately to lay over his arc reactor, solid and protective and safe.

“How long, Spangles?” he asked sleepily and Steve didn’t even hesitate to answer, “You were always there for me Tony. Used to think I loved you like I loved Bucky, but then I realized I loved Bucky different than I thought I did. Guess I figured my feelings for you were different to. Don’t know when for sure, but it’s been a long time. Since before we lost…since before Bucky.”  

“I miss him.” Tony admitted, blinking away the threat of tears. “Having to see his marker in that little graveyard about killed me.”

“I know, Tony.” Steve nodded against his hair. “It wasn’t easy for me either. He’s been gone a long time and I’ve been gone a long time but somehow it feels like it hasn’t been all that long at all.”

“Time travel sort of messes everything up, doesn’t it?” Tony tried to sound teasing, but it only came out sad and Steve squeezed at his hand lightly.

“I dunno, this seems like it’s alright, huh?”

“Yeah.” Tony finally smiled and squeezed Steve’s hand back. “Yeah, this is alright.”

****************************

Miles away in Washington DC, two men sat across from each other in a nearly dark room. Cigar smoke hung about them in a haze, the results of an entire night of planning and plotting, the occupants either unaware or uncaring that the sun had already risen, too deep in their schemes to notice how much time had passed.

“Fury is asking questions.” The first man spoke for the first time in several hours. “He is suspicious that he doesn’t have the clearance for the information that Agent Romanoff retrieved for us.”

“I don’t care about that.” The other said flatly.

“Well you should.” his companion retorted. “Fury isn’t exactly the type to let things go and the more you stall, the more questions he will ask and the further he will dig into all of this. You should have listened to me and brought him in years ago. Now it might be too late.” 

“Fury isn’t someone who matters in the long run.” He maintained, dismissing the idea with a wave of his hand. “It would be easier to eliminate him altogether and deal with the fallout from that.” 

“Eliminate Fury.” the other man sounded simply flabbergasted. “Director Nick Fury? He has seventeen registered assassination attempts against him and we had to inform him of six because he simply didn’t realize his life was in danger. The efforts to take him out were so poorly orchestrated that he actually neutralized the threats himself and assumed it was nothing more a fluke. Nothing short of a ghost could get to that man.”

“Well then, it’s a good thing I have a ghost, isn’t it?” A file was dropped onto the table, open to a personnel page, a black and white photo stapled to the top.

“Sir.” The hands that picked up the file trembled a little bit. “This is– this program? I thought it was simply a rumour.” 

“Not a rumour.”

“But the soldier–”

“The Asset.”

“– nearly a hundred years old?”

“Cryogenic freeze is a wonderful thing.”

Silence at the table, and then finally– “And what of Captain America? He won’t take this lightly, not this.” A tap on the file. “You could be starting a war, are you prepared to fight it?” 

Alexander Pierce lit another cigar, puffing at it for a long moment before answering, “I’m not worried about a war. I’m sure the good Captain will be so distracted by the sudden appearance of his dead friend that he won’t see the bullet coming.” 

“You’d kill the Captain?” 

“Not me.” Pierce shook his head. “Nope. I have a ghost for that sort of thing.”

Chapter Text

“Oh my lord, how do you two eat this?” Peggy sputtered a little and put down her bowl of Rocky Road ice cream. “There’s nuts and marsh mellows and chocolate– It’s a disaster!”

“Auntie.” Tony took a huge bite of the ice cream and pointed his spoon at her. “Why are you acting so surprised? How have you never had Rocky Road ice cream before, this was invented when you were a kid.”

“Just because it was invented during my time doesn’t mean that I ate it.” she sniffed, turning a perfect nose into the air. “I had an excellent figure in those days and I didn’t earn it by eating bowls of ice cream at night like some people I know.”

“A little something sugary wouldn’t have done you a bit of harm, Peggy.” Steve teased, eyes sparking with laughter as he scraped the bottom of his own bowl to get every bit of the sweet dessert. “You would have been stunning no matter what you ate. Besides, I have an excellent figure too, but I keep trim whether I’m eating ice cream or not. All it takes is a little bit of–”

“If you say ‘super soldier serum’ I do think I’ll throw you out of my room.” Peggy warned and Tony added, “Yeah Spangles, we all hate you for your perfect figure, don’t you know?”

“Absolutely loathe you.” Peggy agreed, chuckling when Tony jabbed Steve in the middle of that ridiculously flat stomach. “Put a bag over your head or something darling, I don’t think I want to look at you while I eat my dessert.”

Steve leaned over to press a very very soft kiss to Tony’s lips, murmuring, “You don’t really hate me for my perfect figure, do you Tony?”

“Absolutely loathe you.” Tony repeated Peggy’s words and pushed Steve’s face away. “You can eat an entire half gallon of ice cream without so much as a tummy ache? Yeah, you’re my least favorite person right now.”

“First the ice and now the ice cream? You’re simply terrible, I don’t know why we keep you around.” Peggy winked playfully and Steve’s cheeks went red as he laughed and Tony put a hand to his chest and took a deep breath because his heart hurt just a little bit at having a moment this close to perfect.

Since that night, since he and Steve had kissed like that and woken up together, things had been different. And really, they hadn’t been different as much as they’d been better.

There were good morning kisses and quiet reminders to eat. Mid day text messages when Steve had a break from training and Tony dragged himself away from a project long enough to smile and text back. Dinners eaten while talking through movies that Tony insisted were necessary for Steve’s cultural education, and ice cream over Steve’s loud protests that Monty Python was in no way necessary for anything ever.

There were nights in bed where Tony woke up in a cold sweat, gasping for air because he dreamed about dying in space, trying to breath as he rolled from the bed and onto the floor, digging his fingers into the carpet to convince himself that he wasn’t falling.

Midnights where Tony woke up as Steve cried out in pain or anger or fear or some mix of all three, whether it was nightmares about the war or Bucky or the ice or something else altogether.

Moments of quiet reassurance after that, soft words and hands holding tight and burrowing under the blankets together until they fell back asleep, brought close by all the things that had nearly torn them apart.

Then there were touches that weren’t as comforting as they were needy, Tony pressing tighter into a hug until they fell back onto a couch and tried to pretend they were simply tired, and that’s why Steve’s hands were so low on Tony’s waist, why neither of them moved away even though their legs tangled and friction heated every inch between their bodies.

There were kisses that Steve couldn’t let go of, crossing from tender to possessive with nothing more than a breath, hearts racing and hands roaming, sighs that were practically moans, whispers of Steve and Christ, Tony until someone finally pulled back and they were left gasping and wanting and not really sure why they’d stopped but giving each other space all the same.

Things were different and things were better and sitting in Peggy’s room sharing ice cream and laughing and teasing—

Tony didn’t hurt for the first time in a long time. He didn’t ache with that loneliness that had taken root in his heart the night his parents had passed. The guilt that weighed him down since Obie felt lessened a little more every single day, the uncertainty about his trip through time waylaid by Steve and Peggy’s presence.

Most days Tony would go so far to think he was actually happy and that was—

“Tony?” Steve’s voice broke into his thoughts and Tony jumped, startling further when a warm hand landed on his thigh. “Peggy asked you something but you didn’t answer. Is everything alright?”

“Oh, I’m–” Tony stared down at Steve’s hand, then covered it with his own and squeezed lightly. “I’m fine. Just got lost thinking for a minute.”

“Yeah?” Steve double checked and Tony made himself smile, nodding firmly.

Always more observant than anyone realized, Peggy’s gaze flicked between the two of them, taking in the tension pulling at the corners of Tony’s eyes, the way Steve was leaning in as if ready to pick Tony up and swoop him away to safety. Tony was leaning away a little bit though, holding onto Steve even as he tried to keep some distance.

Interesting.

Peggy cleared her throat loudly before asking, “Captain Rogers, would you do me a favor?”

Predictably, Steve was on his feet and ready to go in a split second, far too polite and far too sweet to ever tell Peggy no about anything.

“All my blankets are in the wash downstairs, would you bring me a few?” Peggy gave a little shiver and Steve immediately bent down to tuck her further into the comforter. “It’s chilly in my room this time of evening and I’m getting tired, but it’s just not proper for me to fetch them in my nightclothes–”

“Of course.” Steve dropped a kiss on Peggy’s cheek. “No need for you to go get blankets, Peggy, I’ll get them for you. Be right back, alright?”

“Thank you, darling.” Peggy smiled up at him until Steve had left the room, then whipped around and pinned Tony with a look. “Now then, you are to tell me everything that has happened between you two, and tell it quickly because Steve will be back in just a few moments.”

“Auntie!” Tony’s jaw dropped in mock horror at Peggy’s duplicity. “I thought you were tired!”

“Oh stop that.” Peggy waved her hand dismissively. “I’m an old woman Tony, I’m always tired. But I wanted him out of the room so you and I could get in a bit of gossiping!”

“My goodness, Agent Carter–” Tony started but Peggy cut him off with a–

“Don’t you Agent Carter me, young man.” She wagged her finger warningly. “Reminding me of a time when I was much more proper won’t get you out of this. I want sordid details and I want them now. Tell me everything about how you two went from being miserable without each other to holding hands and sharing what might have been the most chaste kiss I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Oh my god.”

“I mean honestly,” Peggy sighed overly loud. “The man used to kiss me as if he were starving for it–”

“Please stop.”

“–and yet he pecks you on the lips as if you’re a buffet he’s had his fill of but is too polite to say no to–

“I’m begging you, Auntie.”

“–which doesn’t seem right to me since you and he are so well matched.” she finished triumphantly. “So which is it? Do you not like kissing our Captain, or does he not like kissing you? And while we’re on the subject, why did you pull away from him just now? From what I remember, Steve has very nice hands, I can’t imagine you don’t like them.”

“This is the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had in my life.” Tony complained. “I don’t want to talk about how Steve and I kiss with my Auntie. This is awful!”

“Now why on earth would it be weird to to talk about this with me? Is it because it’s Steve you’re kissing?” Peggy narrowed her eyes mischievously in an expression that Tony knew well from his childhood, one that usually had ended with Howard blustering and Maria wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Surely it isn’t all that odd to kiss someone who can honestly say ‘that’s not how your aunt did it’.”

“I’m leaving.” Tony announced, jumping to his feet. “I don’t know what you’ve done with my prim and proper aunt, but if you find her please give me a call.”

“Oh for heavens sake, sit down!” Peggy snagged his shirt sleeve, and Tony sat obediently again, taking her hand and leaving a kiss on her knuckles. “Looking for your prim and proper aunt. My goodness, it’s as if you and I have never talked about this sort of thing before. Don’t you remember the night of your first kiss? Or when you would call me from MIT and chatter on about your dates because Rhodey refused to talk about who you wanted to sleep with?”

“I remember them.” Tony nodded, holding her hand tighter. “You even talked me through how to kiss a girl for the first time because I didn’t want to call and ask Dad and Rhodey’s advice was to practice with my pillow.”

“Mm-hmm, and it wasn’t until after I imparted my years of wisdom to you that you told me that person you wanted to kiss was in fact a boy.” Peggy raised her eyebrows. “Remember?”

“I was eternally grateful to you for not being upset I was dating a boy.” Tony admitted. “I was afraid you’d say all the same sort of things that Dad always did but instead you asked me if my date had strong arms and a jaw that could take a punch.”

“I’d only ask the important things, darling.” Peggy’s smile flickered a little over the reminder of how… traditional… Howard had been. “Now tell me about you and Steve.”

“Nothing’s really changed.” Tony started slowly. “After he came home, we spent a whole week together just talking and figuring things out and then we uh–well we spent the day in Brooklyn, visiting all the old spots. Talked about the war and talked about–” he swallowed hard and Peggy clicked her tongue sympathetically. “–about Bucky. Saw his marker in the church cemetery.”

“Ah, sweetheart.” Peggy shook her head. “That must have been awful.”

“I knew he was gone.” Tony swallowed again. “Of course I did. And you know I’d always known I was going to lose him, but seeing his marker brought it all back I guess. But the rest of the day was good and when we got back home that night Steve um– well he kissed me.”

Peggy didn’t say anything, only made an encouraging sort of motion and Tony forged ahead– “And now things are different but they aren’t– they aren’t really different, you know? We’re sharing a bed but we aren’t having–” he wasn’t about to say sex in front of his auntie, so Tony just inclined his head meaningfully. “– but we kiss sometimes and hold hands and it’s not really all that different from when we were on the USO tour, I guess.”

“You guess?” Peggy prompted curiously. “What do you mean?”

“Kissing him feels a little weird sometimes.” Tony scratched at his chin thoughtfully. “It wasn’t all that long ago we sort of hated each other, and since everything in the war happened in just a minute or two here, sometimes I get my timeline all messed up and don’t remember how I’m supposed to feel. But most of the time I love it.” he glanced up at Peggy sheepishly. “Is it weird to tell you that?”

“Not as weird as it probably should be, but time travel messes with everything, doesn’t it?” Peggy took a calm sip of her water. “The Captain and I were in love seventy years ago, so hearing that my nephew enjoys kissing the man I loved doesn’t shock me quite as much as it would otherwise.”

“Yay for time travel.” Tony teased lightly. “Otherwise this would be day time television levels of drama.”

“Indeed.” Peggy set her water aside and motioned for Tony to come closer. “But you said most of the time you love it. What about the other times, the times that being with Steve doesn’t feel right? Is that why you haven’t had se–”

AUNTIE!”

“–why you have only kissed?” Peggy amended. “Or why you pull away from him sometimes?”

“Yeah.” Tony’s expression shuttered, his gaze falling to the floor. “Sometimes I wonder if Steve wants me because I’m the only thing left from his old life.”

“And?”

“And sometimes I wonder if I only want him because he’s all I have left of Bucky.” the words came in a rush, Tony’s cheeks flushing a dull red. “I miss Bucky, Auntie. I miss him. And Steve isn’t Bucky but he’s… he’s close. He’s big and he’s a soldier and he’s from the forties and Brooklyn and–”

“And you feel guilty because you think you don’t love him, you just love that he’s a piece of someone you miss.” Peggy finished. “You think you’re substituting Steve for Bucky and that you are somehow being disloyal to them both.”

“…Yes.” Tony nodded slowly. “That’s exactly right.”

“Tony.” Peggy’s smile was sad now. “When I married your Uncle, everyone asked me if I was giving up on Steve. I was reminded over and over that there was every chance that Steve was still alive, that women had waited longer for their men to come home from war. I was told I was disloyal, and he was told that I could never love him fully, not after loving someone like Steve. And then after we found Steve–” she rolled her eyes. “Well, at least three different people asked me if I felt guilty for moving on.”

What?”

“You can be sure that I told them exactly where to put that particular opinion.” Peggy made a rather crude gesture and Tony smiled again. “The point is, you’ve loved Steve in one way or another since you two toured with that ridiculous group. Taking a step into something more because of shared grief and loss and the need to be close to someone familiar doesn’t make what you feel for him any less real.”

“But what about–”

“Do you think Sergeant Barnes would want you to be pining over him seventy something years later, Tony?” She asked pointedly. “He’s been gone an entire lifetime now.”

“It’s been seven months, Peggy.” Tony said bitterly. “Seven months since I said good bye to him. Yes, technically it’s been a lifetime but it’s only been seven months for me.”

“And if you think for one second he would want you still crying over him, holding yourself back from being loved, staying miserable and lonely you are wrong.” She said flatly. “You’re wrong, Tony. And I taught you better than to continue doing things you know are wrong, didn’t I?”

“Yes ma’am, you did.” Tony dragged his fingers through his hair. “You did.”

“Well then I think this part of our conversation is over.” Authoritative once again, Peggy sat up straighter, adjusting her hair carefully. “Why don’t you go and find our Captain, it shouldn’t have taken him this long to get my blankets.”

“Your blankets are over there in your dresser.” Tony pointed behind him. “The girl was putting them away when I came in.”

“Oh I know.” Peggy’s eyes twinkled. “But Steve didn’t know that and I’m too much of a lady to just tell him to leave so you and I could talk.”

“My god.” Tony hugged her briefly before he stood up. “I do love you, Auntie.”

“I’m well aware, sweetheart.” Peggy patted at his cheek. “When you find Steve, tell him to come and say goodbye, won’t you?”

“I will.” Tony promised and kissed her one more time. “I’ll see you next time, Peggy.”

“Looking forward to it, sweetheart.” She waved cheerfully, and Tony closed the door behind him so the noise from the hall wouldn’t disturb her.

“Oh Steve–” he found Steve at the elevator, a pile of quilts held in one arm, his phone in the other hand as he typed out a message. “–everything alright?”

“Hey Tony.” Steve frowned down at his phone. “I got a weird message from Fury and I’ve got to go, alright? Gonna say bye to Peggy and then take off.”

“What’s the message?” Tony peeked over Steve’s arm to see. “Your apartment. Do you have an apartment I don’t know about?”

“When I first came out of the ice, SHIELD leased me one.” Steve explained, and when Tony’s face fell a little, he added queitly, “I only used it a few times before you let me move into the Tower, Tony. Haven’t been back in a few weeks though. Haven’t had a reason to.” 

“Oh.” The thought of Steve not having a reason to go back to his apartment made Tony smile again, so he asked, “You’re coming home afterwards though, right?”

“I’ll definitely come home tonight.” Steve said earnestly, touching a gentle kiss to Tony’s lips. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Just going to take Peggy these blankets and tell her goodbye and then go see Fury and–”

He shut up when Tony yanked at his shirt, dragging him down and lifting up on tip toes to crush their mouths together. The angle was a little awkward, what with Steve’s hands being full and all, but Tony tried like hell anyway, curling his fingers in Steve’s collar and not letting up until Steve was panting into the kiss, dropping the blankets and phone in favor of winding both arms around Tony’s waist and holding him tight.

This is real. This is real. This is real. The words ran round and round in Tony’s head as Steve cupped his jaw and tipped his head back to deepen the kiss. This is real. Just because I miss Bucky doesn’t mean this isn’t real too.

“Tony.” Ragged and hoarse, Steve pulling away with a sort of hnnngh noise, mouth open as he tried to drag in a solid breath. “Tony, what– what–?”

“We’ll do something fun tonight, hm?” Tony asked, resting their foreheads together and smoothing his hands down Steve’s chest as he tried to calm himself down. This is real. “Want to watch a movie or something?”

“I would love to watch a movie.” Steve’s eyes were hazy and hot, packed full of longing and need, sweeping his fingers along Tony’s jaw line and down to rest over a racing pulse. “That sounds– yep. A movie. Films on the–” another attempt at breathing. “–on the big screen. So fun.”

“Did I break you, Spangles?” Tony was teasing but wasn’t really teasing, not when he was just as wrecked as Steve was, and quite seriously thinking about dragging Steve away and making all of this real right there in the elevator of the assisted living facility. “Hm? You alright?”

“I’ll be home tonight.” Steve still sounded dazed. “Wait up for me.”

“Sure thing, Captain.” Tony let him go with another kiss, open mouthed and hungry, letting his teeth scrape along Steve’s bottom lip. “I’ll wait up.”

***************

***************

There was nothing particularly notable about the building across the street.

It was a small apartment building, as far as those things went, with the usual amount of occupants. This late at night most people were home, the windows lit up and music or television playing as they went about their evening activities. A few people had children playing in the living rooms, a few others had come home with a significant other or at least a planned bed partner, but most of the buildings occupants had come home by themselves, opened the door to an empty apartment and ate dinner alone without once looking out the window.

Not that they would have seen anything if they had looked out the window, or at least nothing they would have noticed or understood and certainly nothing obvious.

They didn’t call the Asset a ghost because he was obvious.

Usually his missions involved long range assassinations, finding ways into impenetrable places and leaving bodies behind when he escaped, not so much hiding in the shadows as he was living among them as he went after any and all set in his path. The dark hid a multitude of sins, allowed peoples fear to make him more frightening than he already was, and anytime the Asset was pulled from the ice, he stepped into a a life that was nothing more than a night filled with bodies and blood and bullets.

Today had been strange though. Today his handlers had sent him marching down the street in broad daylight to explode a vehicle, to snatch at man that had somehow managed to escape.

Something had triggered in the Asset’s mind as wrong about the way things had happened, but he never questioned his orders and he always finished a mission, so here he was perched on a roof across from a non descript apartment building, weapon trained on an apartment on the third floor.

His target was in there now, a thermal vision scope allowing him to see the form crumpled into a chair at the least accessible point in the apartment. There was no line of sight through any window, the exterior wall coming to a corner which meant reinforced steel and possibly brick if the building was old enough. It was a smart place to sit, the smartest place in fact– making it the hardest place to be targeted or killed and a beat of respect flickered through the Assets mind before he lifted his rifle and steadied his finger on the trigger.

A motorcycle came roaring down the street, and the Asset’s focus was divided, watching the body heat of the new arrival climbing the stairs, tracking him as he approached the third floor, registering the smaller, more delicate form of a neighbor as they talked in the hall.

It wasn’t until the man entered the same apartment as the Asset’s target that he went back to his rifle, waiting and watching.

Even with the apartment bugged and transmitting directly to his earpiece, the Asset couldn’t hear what they were saying, not with that obnoxious music pounding through the speakers. It was jarring and jazzy and something about it made the Asset itch, a sort of sting right between his temples that he couldn’t ignore, the beat almost sounding familiar but that– that wasn’t right, was it? When would he have ever heard music, much less music like this?

Annoyed with waiting, with the irritating buzz in his subconscious brought about by the music and anxious to finish his mission after failing earlier, the Asset took in a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.

Three shots in quick succession, and screams rang out from the building, people on the floors below scrambling to get away from wherever they thought the gunfire had come from, the man in the apartment grabbing the dead one and trying to get him away from the wall. A third form broke through the door with gun raised and the Asset cocked his head in interest, wondering why he hadn’t been told the neighbor was a threat.

A window smashed as someone holding a circular shield came after him, and the Asset jumped to his feet, shouldering his gun and taking off across the rooftops. He could hear the man in the building below, crashing through doors and barreling through walls trying to catch up. The Asset was pounding over the roofs, but the man with the shield was hot on his heels, breaking through one last window and rolling onto the roof just a few yards behind him.

The noise was something like a schwing, almost like a sharp cut of wind and the Asset turned around when he heard it, throwing up his left hand in a split second and catching the shield with a body shaking clang.

For a beat they stared at each other, the man in apparent shock that his shield had been caught so easily, the Asset staring at the star painted on the disc and then up at the man blankly.

That buzz again at the base of his skull– something was wrong– and the Asset flung the shield back as hard as he could, not sparing another glance to see if the man had caught it or not before flinging himself off the roof and down to the ground below, tucking into a roll and jumping to his feet to disappear into the shadows.

Something was wrong.

******************

******************

Tony was working on his gauntlet when Steve stormed down into the lab and winged his shield towards a wall, and it was only JARVIS shouting for Steve do GET DOWN CAPTAIN that saved Steve from having a hole blown in his chest courtesy of the repulsor.

Tony!” Steve shouted and Tony powered down in an instant, ripping the gauntlet off and running over to where Steve was crouched.

“Shit, shit I’m sorry.” Tony’s eyes were wide as he patted Steve down carefully, checking for any burns or bruises. “Sorry. Steve you can’t just walk in and throw something like that, you scared me!”

“You’re safe in your lab!” Steve pushed away angrily. “Even if I startled you, why is your reaction to someone in your lab to try and kill them!”

“Do I have to remind you why I have this?” Tony tapped at his arc reactor in frustration. “Remember Obadiah? I trusted him and he tried to rip my heart out in my own fucking living room! You can’t just walk in here and throw a weapon at me and not expect me to react! Damn it, Steve!”

“I didn’t throw a weapon at you!” Steve yelled.

“Your fucking shield is stuck in my goddamn wall!” Tony yelled right back and they glared at each other for a long minute, Steve nearly vibrating with anger, Tony with a hand at his chest trying to calm his heart rate.

“Steve.” he managed after a moment. “What the fuck are you doing? You can’t just walk in and do that. You’re lucky you don’t activate JARVIS’s lockdown procedures, you’d be in pieces on my floor. What the hell is wrong with you tonight?!” 

Steve folded his arms, his jaw clenching and it was only then that Tony noticed the blood on his knuckles, the way the big blonde was wheezing as he tried to breathe.

“…Steve?” he asked slowly, taking first one, then another slow step towards him. “Spangles, what happened?”

“SHIELD is compromised.” Steve bit out. “And Fury is–”

“Oh no.”

“Fury is dead.” he finished. “He was attacked today in broad daylight, black ops team disguised as cops right in the middle of D.C.”

“Oh shit.” Tony fell back into his chair, and kicked one over for Steve. “So the text to come to your apartment–?”

“I don’t know how he made it to my apartment.” Steve sat heavily, dropping his face into his hands. “Lived long enough to tell me that SHIELD was compromised, that my apartment had been bugged, that I couldn’t trust anyone. Then someone shot him through the goddamn wall.”  

“Through the wall.”

“Yep.” Steve dug a flash drive out from his pocket and tossed it to Tony. “He gave me this and then I went after the shooter. I uh–” he winced. “– destroyed most of a floor of a building, any chance you could step in and–”

“I’ll take care of it.” Tony waved him off. “Tell me about the shooter.”

“Big.” Steve said immediately. “Fast. Too fast, Tony. I could barely keep up with him. And he caught my shield.”

Tony’s head jerked up and Steve nodded. “I threw it at him hard too, should have cut him in half or at the very least knocked him off the building but he caught with a metal arm. He had a metal arm, Tony. Caught my shield and then sent it back to me hard enough to–” he leaned back and lifted his shirt, showing Tony the crescent shaped bruise across his midsection, grimacing when Tony muttered a curse. “–Been a long time since I broke a rib, but it hurts just as much now as it did back in the day.”

“Shit.” Tony rubbed his hand over his mouth. “So SHIELD is compromised, Fury is dead and there’s a baddie out there who is apparently just as fast and strong as you but has a much cooler arm? Steve, this isn’t good.”

“It gets worse.” Steve waited until Tony looked up to say, “There’s only a handful of people who knew that I lived there. Most of the people in the building don’t look at me twice and probably couldn’t pick me out of a crowd. You know, why would Captain America be living in a piece of shit apartment in DC, right? But my neighbor, who is apparently a SHIELD agent, knew who I was. Nick Fury of course, Brock Rumlow as head of STRIKE and–”

“–and the head of the SHIELD would know.” Tony finished. “Because he’s the only one who could ensure America’s favorite hero was living in a safe place, even if it was shitty apartment. Your neighbor, she’s good though? You trust her?”

“She told me Fury put her there specifically to keep an eye out for me in case anyone came knocking.”

“And Fury is dead.” Tony’s brow furrowed. “How’s Natasha and Clint?”

“I haven’t heard from Clint, but Natasha was real shook up when she left the hospital.” Steve confirmed. “I imagine she’s home with him, but I’ll check in as soon as I can.”

“Have you heard from Rumlow?”

“No, not yet.”

“Do you think he’s dirty?” Tony asked bluntly. “Do you think he’s who Fury meant when he told you not to trust anyone?”

“…I don’t want to think that.” Steve hedged and Tony waited until he admitted, “But yeah. There’s been a few things lately– missions that seem to be covers for other things and information that should be shared with me but isn’t… Tony, I don’t know what to think.”

“We’ll figure it out.” Tony said firmly, tapping the flash drive against his palm. “I’ll turn JARVIS onto this and get it decoded or whatever and we’ll see what’s on it that Fury wanted you to see so badly. One step at a time, alright?”

“One step at a time.” Steve repeated numbly. “All I wanted to do today was eat ice cream with you and Peggy and come home and watch a movie. Now Fury is dead and the good guys are turning out to be the bad guys and I–”

“We can still watch a movie.” Tony cut in when Steve’s voice started to shake. “I’ll order in some dinner, you pick a movie and I’ll have JARVIS get started on this flash drive so we can–”

Sir.” JARVIS cut in. “The drive seems to be encrypted with a Level Six homing program. If SHIELD is in fact compromised, it would be in our best interest to access the drive from neutral location.”

“What does that mean?” Steve glanced up to the ceiling then over at Tony. “What does that mean, Tony?”

“He means that if the bad guys really don’t want us seeing what’s on here, they’ll send something that goes boom to make sure we don’t see it.” Tony clarified. “And if this Tower gets blown to hell not only will I be fairly upset, but a whole lot of people down below us would die.”

“So we can’t open it here.”

“Can’t open it here, no.”

“Alright.” Steve took the flash drive back. “I’m going to go back to SHIELD and try to get in to talk to Director Pierce, he wanted to talk to me right after Fury passed but I left to come here instead. I’ll find Natasha and figure out a neutral location to open this thing up and then I’ll–”

“Steve.” Tony interrupted quietly. “Are you alright?”

“A little pissed off.” Steve winced as he put his jacket back on, his ribs pulling with every breath. “I went in the ice to try and put an end to the bad guys, wake up and find myself working for the bad guys. Sort of makes me wonder why I even bothered to try in the first place.”

“But are you alright?” Tony emphasized. “I’m not the only one who deflects when I’m upset, but I do it with drinking binges and sunglasses. You jump out of things when you’re upset. Are you alright?” 

“No.” Steve said honestly. “But I don’t have time to think about it right now. I’ll call you when I can okay?” 

“I’ll be here.” 

Tony waited until Steve had cleared the lab before turning back to his desk and opening his computer. “JARVIS, get as far into SHIELD as you can without raising any serious alarms. I want to know everything about Alexander Pierce, everything about Nick Fury and anything you can find on an assassin with a metal arm.”

Yes sir.”

“Add Rumlow to the list, I don’t trust that guy. Don’t worry about Natasha or Clint, we were thorough enough with them before New York.”

Of course.” JARVIS waited for Tony to speak up again, prompting, “Anything else, sir?”

“Run through any files we can get on Project Paperclip.”

Project Paperclip, sir?”

“Yep. Dad used to talk about it.” Tony spun around in his chair, staring up at the ceiling in thought. “We took in a whole bunch of German scientists after the war, tried to get access to their tech and research. Some of it helped Dad with the beginnings of his weapons work, so there might be some connections to our name in there. Give me everything you find that relates to the super soldier serum, anything at all.”

Super soldier serum.” JARVIS repeated as if he hadn’t quite heard Tony correctly, and it was such a human thing to do that Tony smiled over it. “You think there is another besides Captain Rogers?”

“An assassin who is just as fast as Steve, could not only catch his shield but also throw it hard enough to leave bruises on our resident All American?” Tony rolled his chair over to the lone file cabinet in his lab, the only place he kept paper records of anything, the one that held physical copies of some of Howard’s most important work. “Add in a metal arm and all the knowledge needed to track down Director Fury and escape from Steve? That sure sounds like a super soldier to me.”

And you think this assassin is being used by SHIELD?”

“I think he’s being used by the baddies in SHIELD.” Tony corrected. “There are exactly two people in history who had access to the super soldier serum. One was Johann Schmidt who used it and according to witness accounts, ended up with a shocking facial readjustment as a result. The other was Dr. Erskine, who used it on Steve and gave us Stars and Tights. My dad worked his entire life to try and recreate the serum but never got it just right, so it’s equally possible that the HYDRA side of things tried to recreate it as well, and succeeded with this assassin.”

And you think it is HYDRA’s influence in SHIELD that is corrupting it? After all these years?

“I don’t know, J.” Tony admitted. “But if it is, Steve’s gonna be pissed when he finds out we’re fighting Nazi’s again.”

Chapter Text

Steve strode through SHIELD headquarters with determination in his step, a scowl on his face, and murder in his eyes. Civilians and SHIELD personnel alike scattered out of his path, ducking their heads and refusing to make eye contact, not willing to be the one the Captain unleashed all that rage towards.

Steve went right for the elevator, shield held at the ready and jaw clenched as he looked over the security guards watching every step he took, the plain clothed operatives with their fingers twitching towards hidden holsters.

Director Fury had warned him SHIELD was compromised and Steve was ready for a fight if they wanted to give him one. He’d bring the building down brick by brick until he found out who was behind Fury’s murder, and if he had to go against former teammates to get his information, then so be it.

But first Steve needed to see Alexander Pierce. The man knew secrets that made Director Fury’s knowledge seem obscure and outdated, and he would know what was on the flash drive and who was to blame. Pierce would give him the answers he needed or Steve might just throw him out a window himself.

He was two steps from elevator and reaching to push the button when his wrist was grabbed, and Steve barely had time to realize what was happening before  he was yanked abruptly into an adjoining room, the door locking shut immediately behind him.

Steve reacted purely on instinct, grabbing hold of whoever had snatched him and throwing them into the wall hard enough to leave a dent, flipping his shield up and cocking his fist back, ready– and maybe a little eager– to break a few bones but–

–“Easy Cap!” Clint yelped when Steve started towards him. “It’s me! Friendly neighborhood spy kid! Stand down!”

“What my husband is trying to say is that we’re on your side.” Natasha appeared from the shadows and flipped a light switch so Steve could see that both she and Clint were unarmed, or at least not holding their weapons at the moment. “So you need to stop looking as if you’re going to pummel with me that great big shield of freedom–” Clint snorted a laugh and the red head rolled her eyes. “–and listen to what we have to say.”

“Sorry about that.” Steve relaxed a fraction, blowing out a deep breath. “It doesn’t exactly feel like friendly territory out there.”

“Well you’re not wrong.” Clint shrugged. “And our little snatch and toss before you got to the elevator probably didn’t help things but trust me when I say getting in the elevator would have been a mistake.”

“I was on my way to see Pierce.” Steve pulled the flash drive out of his pocket. “I need answers about this and he’s the man to ask.”

“Oooh shiny.” Natasha raised her eyebrows. “Do not give the flash drive to Pierce. He’s already spreading word that you were the last man to see Fury alive, that he wants you brought in for questioning.”

“That’s fine.” Steve said flatly. “I’ll just clear few things up and–”

“No you won’t.” Clint motioned for the flash drive and Steve tossed it at him. “You won’t clear anything up, Cap. If Fury trusted Pierce, he would have gone to him instead of your apartment, huh? And I know you don’t like to think about this sort of thing because it isn’t the all American bullshit they used to feed you in the good ol’ days, but SHIELD doesn’t so much as bring ‘people in for questioning’ as they’ torture people for answers’. Do not go see Pierce.”

“What do you expect me to do then?” Steve growled in annoyance. “Fury wasn’t my favorite person in the world but he didn’t deserve to die like that. And if SHIELD’s compromised I’m not going to twiddle my thumbs while the worlds most powerful network of spies runs around dismantling whatever the hell they want.”

“Steve–”

“And there’s an assassin–” Steve closed his eyes briefly, uncomfortable with the reminder of the mysterious soldier that had had matched him in both speed and strength. “I think it’s another super soldier but I don’t see how that could–”

Captain.” Natasha spoke up louder and Steve turned to her in frustration. “I know who your mystery assassin is.” She sent a look towards Clint, who nodded for her to go ahead.

“They call him the Winter Soldiers.” she began quietly. “Most of the intelligence community either doesn’t believe he exists, or pretends they don’t know about him. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations, and that isn’t counting the collateral damage as he went after his target. They have no way of knowing how many people he’s killed.”

“Tell him the best part.” Clint said then, handing the flash drive to his wife. “Tell him when the killing started.”

Steve raised an eyebrow expectantly and Natasha sighed. “Fifty years ago, Steve. The first confirmed assassination was fifty years ago.”

“So he’s a ghost story.” Steve said. “Multiple soldiers known under one name.”

“No.” She maintained. “One man. Wears a mask, has a shiny metal arm, right? I’ve seen him up close, Steve. Five years ago, I was tasked with the removal of a nuclear engineer from Iraq. Someone shot out our tires outside of Odessa and our car went right over a cliff. I tried to cover my engineer and the soldier–” Natasha rucked up her t-shirt, showing off an expanse of smooth skin and taut muscle marred by a scar nearly two inches long. “–the soldier shot the engineer through my side. The same sort of bullet they pulled out of all the other ones he killed- Soviet slug, no rifling.”

Jesus.” Steve’s jaw clenched and Natasha nodded, her laugh a little bitter as she added, “Ruined my mission and I had to convert to one piece bathing suits. A damn shame.”

“Yeah, no she looks awful in bikinis now.” Clint said dryly, snaking an arm around his wife’s waist and pulling her back against his chest. “The point is, Cap, the guy who popped Fury isn’t new to the scene. Someone powerful has got to be pulling his strings, no way an assassin like that is in it for the pay, and no way he’s just out wandering around killing whoever pisses him off.”

“Someone powerful.” Steve repeated. “Who wanted Fury dead. You think it was someone here?”

“Don’t take the flash drive to Pierce, Steve.” Natasha held the incriminating little device up to the light. “Did you tell Tony about any of this, anything at all?”

“He wanted to open the drive.” Steve admitted. “But JARVIS said it had some high level of encryption and a Level Six homing program or something along those lines. Said that we need a neutral location otherwise the bad guys will find us.”

“Damn baddies, taking all the fun out of hide and seek with Level Six homing beacons.” Clint groused and Steve finally managed something of a smile. “Alright, well Nat is more technically inclined than I am, I tend to just smack computers until they work. You two find some place to open that drive that the bad guys might be hesitant about blowing up and maybe we can get a crack at what’s on it, what was worth taking out Fury for.”

“A mall.” Natasha said instantly. “Too public for them to just snatch us if they get that brave, definitely not something they’d draw weapons in.”

“Check, check, baby doll.” Clint finger gunned at her and Steve smiled again. They were unusual couple, but there was no denying how much they loved each other. 

“I’m going to phone a friend–” Clint was still talking and Steve tuned back in. “Got a guy who should be able to help us out and don’t worry, we can trust him. He’s a snarky bastard, but one of the best guys I know, I’d trust him to have my back anytime.”

“Alright then.” Steve unlocked the door and peeked outside. “Think we can go out the front door without getting stopped?”

“I’d rather create a new door altogether.” Natasha pulled a grenade from… somewhere… and yanked the pin, tossing it behind her. “Duck and cover, Captain. My love, I’ll see you soon.”

Clint blew her a kiss, and then the wall exploded and Steve grabbed Natasha’s hand, shield up first as he ran through the debris.

Clint strolled through the door back into the lobby as if the room behind him wasn’t still smoking, blithely ignoring the shouting and running and general mayhem Natasha’s door-creating had caused and tapped away at a text message as he went.

From Clint Barton:  Hey man, you up for some shenanigans.

From Sam Wilson: Oh, ALWAYS.

******************

******************

“You shouldn’t be using your phone.” Natasha said as they sped away from the mall and headed towards New Jersey, hopefully leaving Rumlow and the other agents far behind. “I know you aren’t exactly techy, but trust me when I say anyone can track a phone these days and the last thing we want is someone following us.”

Steve slanted her a look, but didn’t hang up, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel impatiently until Tony picked up.

Spangles?”

“Tony.” Steve couldn’t help his smile, especially when he could tell Tony was smiling on the other end. “Everything okay over there?”

Everything’s fine, but I’m not the one who just blew a hole in SHIELD headquarters and ran away with a strikingly gorgeous redhead in tow. How is Ms. Romanoff by the way?

“Not happy that I’m using a phone.” Steve said dryly and Tony replied, “Oh no, not smart. They can definitely track you with this. In fact, I’m tracking you right now. Why are you heading to Jersey?

“The signal on the drive is coming from Wheaton.” Steve nodded when Natasha made a motion for him to hurry up. “I need to know why.”

Wheaton, New Jersey.” Tony repeated. “Camp Lehigh? Why is it coming from there?

“I’m going to find out.”

Be careful, Spangles.”

“I always am, Tony.”

That’s a damn lie, shame on you.” Tony laughed out loud. “Keep me posted.”

Steve hung up without another word– mostly because Natasha was glaring at him– and tossed the phone out the window. “There, are you happy?”

“I’m not unhappy.” She allowed, and then after a moment, “I’m going to ask you something and you don’t have to answer, but I feel like by not answering, you’re sort of answering anyway?”

“….alright?”

“When you kissed me in the mall–” she began, and Steve groaned out loud. “– I have a hard time believing that’s your first kiss since the forties, because there’s no way you and Stark look at each other like that and aren’t lip locking at least a few times.”

“Is there actually a question or are you just trying to make me uncomfortable?”

“Both.” she said lightly and Steve groaned again. “I don’t want to say it was a bad kiss, but it certainly wasn’t the best one I’ve ever had. I was just wondering if you also kissed Tony like you were kissing your grandmother, or if you just did that with me because I made you uncomfortable.”

“I don’t kiss Tony like I’d kiss my grammy.” Steve scowled and Natasha grinned. “By the way, I thought you were the sensible one and Clint was the one with the terrible sense of humour. I’d never have brought you along if I knew you were going to make me talk about this sort of thing.”

“Clint has a delightful sense of humour.” She corrected. “And I have loads of sense, but there’s something very fun about seeing an old man blush when talking about kissing.”

“I’m not blushing.”

“You’re blushing.”

“Fine.” Steve allowed himself the tiniest smile as he thought about kissing Tony. “I’m blushing. I’m ninety five Natasha, not dead.”

The spy just grinned and put her feet up on the dash of the stolen borrowed truck. “Sure thing, Cap.”

********************

********************

Camp Lehigh was empty in a disconcerting sort of way.

It wasn’t that Steve had expected it to be in use, not after all these years. And if it was in use, he wouldn’t expect it to be the bustling, busy place it had been in the forties. Not with the larger bases so close by, not with the limited storage and small barracks, not with the outdated designs and low tech pieces he caught glimpses of through dusty windows.

It was empty, and at the same time full of ghosts and memories and a thousand emotions Steve thought he had dealt with, and yet they all came flooding back as he stood in front of the old flagpole, looking out on the field where he’d trained before being given the serum.

“Has it changed much?” Natasha asked, pausing next to him. “Or does it look just like it did the day you jumped on a grenade. That’s a true story isn’t it, you jumping on what you thought was a live grenade in the middle of basic training?”

“It’s a true story.” Steve could almost see himself– skinny and weak, struggling to breathe as he ran behind the rest of the recruits, working for each step and falling further behind no matter how hard he tried. “And it’s all pretty much the–” shaking himself from the memories, Steve peered at a building across the yard. “–Pretty much the same but a few things have changed. Like that building. That building is definitely in the wrong place.”

“Why do you say that?” She jogged along beside him, pulling her phone out and checking the screen. “This is a dead zone did you know? Not a single signal, zero heat waves– not even radio. Camp Lehigh is purposefully off the map, so why would the signal be coming from–”

She stopped when Steve smashed the lock on the door with his shield. “Cap?”

“Army regulations would never allow an ammunition building so close to barracks.” He said, holding the door open for her to pass through. “This must be a front for something.”

“A front for SHIELD, apparently.” Natasha flipped on a few lights and the building powered up with a hum. “Or at least where it started?”

“At least where it started.” Steve agreed, his throat closing up when he saw the picture of Howard on the wall, the one of Peggy looking so young and beautiful. “How far we fall, right?”

Natasha didn’t answer, but she looked relatively impressed when Steve found the hidden elevator that took them to some sort of sub-basement, and even more impressed–if not a little confused– when they saw the machinery filling the room from wall to wall.

The wonder was short lived though, when the machines powered up of their own volition and a scratchy voice that was familiar in terrible ways started talking, spilling secrets and invalidating Steve’s sacrifice on the Valkyrie, weaving threats and horrifying promises through tales of world domination and war mongering, of HYDRA being invited right across the borders and insinuating themselves into the very beginnings of SHIELD.

Pictures flooded the screen, world leaders under HYDRA’S control, headlines denouncing cries for peace, the names Howard and Maria Stark flashing by and making Steve’s heart hurt with what it all meant.

And then Zola had apparently said all he was going to say, and the doors were closing, Natasha shouting about a bogey coming from SHIELD.

Steve barely had time to get them to safety, ripping up the floor and pushing Natasha down first so he could cover her with his body and his shield as the building came down around their heads, burying them in debris and all the shattered pieces of Steve’s past.

**********************

**********************

Alexander Pierce’s home was far enough away from the city and any main roads to cancel any ambient noise, tucked into the trees at the end of a long enough driveway that there was no such thing as unexpected, unannounced guests, and other than a house keeper, there might have been all of three people who knew where he lived.

Three and now four, seeing as how the Asset had slipped the security system and broken into the house without any effort at all, avoiding the housekeeper that hummed as she finished up the vacuuming, and sitting nearly invisible in the dark at the table in the huge kitchen, angled just enough to see through both the sliding glass door behind him and the kitchen door that would open in front of him.

He’d never been here before, not that he remembered anyway, and in a distant echo in the very back of his mind, the Asset knew something was off, that he being called here meant that something was going wrong.

The buzzing in his head hadn’t gone away since catching that shield, the one with the star and that wasn’t normal. If his handlers knew that something had registered in his mind, that something was distracting him, they would wipe him and reprogram and that would hurt.

Reprogramming always hurt.

But his handlers were anxious lately, too anxious to notice if anything was off with him, excited over whatever was happening, talking around him as if they’d forgotten he could hear.

But the Asset heard everything.

Project Insight. The Captain. Director neutralized. And always always HYDRA. Hail HYDRA. The things they must do to ensure the survival of HYDRA.

HYDRA was familiar. The Asset knew that word, he knew what it meant, he understood his job, that HYDRA succeeded because he succeeded and that’s why failing a mission was intolerable, unallowed. He was the Fist of HYDRA, a tool, a weapon and when all went well, the Assets only reward was to return to the cryo chamber.

It wasn’t painful being put to sleep, not anymore. He vaguely remembered being terrified the first few times in the cryo chamber– the ice climbing his body, trying to take a few painful last breaths, feeling his heart rate slow and then stop– he’d been terrified, but now it only brought him peace.

Being activated was terrible, the trigger words drilling into his subconscious and blanking anything that resembled free thought before he was turned out into a world that always different, so different from the world he’d been in before. He never knew if it was only days between missions, maybe it was months, sometimes he was sure it was decades but he never asked and they never told him. He was programmed to only think as much as it took to adapt to a new situation, trained to observe and react to anything unexpected in a split second and nothing else mattered.

Nothing else mattered except the mission, and if he did was he was supposed to, they would let him sleep again.

Cryo freeze was a relief. 

It the only time The Asset didn’t see the faces of all the people he’d killed going round and round and round in his head.

A noise at the front of the house alerted the Asset to Pierce coming home, and he knew that it wasn’t good that he’d been distracted, not good at all.

But it didn’t matter now, and he watched without moving, without giving his position away as the other man came into the kitchen, calling something inconsequential to the housekeeper who had finally finished her work for the night and opening the fridge to rummage for something to drink.

The Asset waited for Pierce to realize he was there in the dark, and it took longer than he expected. A man so influential in HYDRA should be more aware of intruders in his own home.

“Oh fu–” Pierce nearly dropped the milk when he finally spotted the Asset, but he recovered with a quippy, “Would you like a glass?”

The Asset didn’t want milk of course, and he didn’t bother answering so Pierce sat down across from him, sighing. “Down to business then. The timetable has moved up. Our window is limited and I have two targets for you, Level six. They already cost me Zola. I want confirmed death in ten hours.”

The name Zola flickered something in the Asset’s mind but he didn’t so much as blink and when the housekeeper stumbled back in and Pierce shot her in the forehead, he didn’t blink either.

The buzzing in the back of his head got worse as he stared down at the names on the paper in front of him.

Natasha Romanov.  Captain Rogers.

….did he know that name?

Chapter Text

Natasha opted to go to one of her and Clint’s safe houses within the city after Lehigh had been blown to bits, but Steve could only think about getting back home to Tony, about being somewhere warm and comforting and familiar after everything he thought was familiar had been ruined. 

The rage he felt was borderline unholy, suffocating and all consuming as he thought about HYDRA so deeply entrenched in SHIELD, about his sacrifice aboard the Valkyrie being for naught. 

He’d lost Bucky for that war. He’d given up Peggy for the war. He’d gone through with the serum and led good men into battle– men who didn’t always come home– and he’d been in the ice, gone, for seventy years and some how none of that mattered. 

Because SHIELD was HYDRA and there were Nazi’s again, evil winding its way through an institution that was supposed to be fighting for what was right and Steve had an awful, sinking feeling that maybe he’d been fighting for HYDRA the moment he signed on with SHIELD. 

It made him sick, made him shake and he’d stumbled into the lab last night dirty and exhausted, wordlessly holding out a hand for Tony and heading upstairs to bed. And as he woke this morning in the penthouse suite with his arms full of sleepy brunette, Steve was forever grateful for coming home instead of hiding away in a hotel.

“I can feel you watching me, Spangles.” Tony mumbled, burrowing closer against Steve’s chest. “There’s a very specific type of person that watches other people sleep, so stop being an All American creeper and either keep snoozing or go get me some coffee.”

“Hey, honey.” Steve smiled down at the mess of sleep fluffed hair that was all he could see of his favorite genius. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t mean to wake me?” Tony rolled over and stretched, faded band t-shirt rucking up about his ribs and sleep pants barely clinging to his waist and Steve couldn’t help smoothing his palm over the jut of a sharp hip bone, his breath catching when Tony gave him a soft, contented smile.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.” he repeated, shifting so he was leaning further over Tony’s body, his hold at the narrow hips a little more secure. “But if you’re awake….?” 

The kiss they shared was lazy and slow, noses brushing and foreheads bumping until Tony pulled away to yawn again and tease, “So if you didn’t mean to wake me up, why could I feel the heat of your laser intense focus pulling me from my dreams and dragging me reluctantly into the regular world?”

“You’re pretty chatty for seven am.” Steve raised an eyebrow and Tony countered, “I’ve actually been awake for like three hours, I had plenty of time to figure out my opening lines.”

“Opening lines.” Steve chuckled and lay another very soft kiss on Tony’s lips. “Well then. Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Tony’s smile slipped away after the kiss, his eyes growing serious. “You want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

“No.” Steve shook his head, his fingers flexing at Tony’s side. “No, I don’t. But we probably should.” 

“We probably should.” Tony agreed, and when Steve didn’t say anything, he added. “Alright, I’ll start. I figured out bits and pieces of what happened by having JARVIS try and track you guys after you blew a hole through SHIELD– I feel like that was Natasha’s idea, by the way– and I lost you about ten miles outside of Wheaton. Any idea why a trip to your old stomping grounds ended with you guys getting blown to kingdom come? I have theories but I’m sure they aren’t anywhere near the actual–”

“SHIELD is HYDRA.” Steve blurted and Tony muttered, “Goddammit, I was really hoping it wasn’t Nazi’s again.” 

“You lost our signal outside of Wheaton because the camp is shielded from any sort of radio interference or– or something.” Steve closed his eyes and Tony waited patiently. “It’s a complete dead zone and then Nat and I found an old SHIELD office and down below it was a whole room of computers.” 

“So it was a dead zone to outsiders but was wired enough to support an entire computer room?” Tony frowned. “Setting up shop at a military camp but being able to make it basically disappear as far as satellites and signals go– that’s some pretty impressive voodoo, Spangles. They are hiding something big there. What did you find?” 

“I found Zola.” Steve said bluntly and Tony jerked away, horror flashing on his face. “Yeah. They’d saved his brain in all these old computers and I don’t understand how that’s possible but he was there, Tony. He wasn’t a program and he wasn’t a recording. He talked to us, answered our questions.”

“He wasn’t a recording.” Tony repeated. “You’re telling me that HYDRA was advanced enough to download a human brain onto computer files and no one had any idea?” He answered his own question a few seconds later– “The people who would know are high enough up in all sorts of organizations to keep it quiet. Right. Okay, keep going.” 

“Zola told me a bunch of things about how HYDRA had been orchestrating assassinations and funding wars ever since we tried to shut them down in the forties. Said that me going in the ice–” Steve’s jaw clenched. “–that it was a wasted effort, that all it did was set them back a few years at the most. He said in a way I even helped them, because by exposing HYDRA technology, I helped convince America to bring over the best minds from Germany to try and get their information. Me going in the ice helped HYDRA, Tony.” 

“Don’t do that.” Tony shook his head, sitting up against the headboard and reaching for Steve’s hand. “Operation Paperclip was in the works for years before you went in the ice. According to my dad’s files, it was a super controversial project, alot of people worried that America would involve itself in the war just to get a say-so in which scientists we could bring home and use as data mines.” 

“I hate to be the one to say it,” Tony winced at the thought. “But they weren’t exactly wrong. If Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened, there were plans in place to snatch various scientists and smuggle them back across the borders anyway. That’s not your fault, Steve. You are excellent at blaming yourself for lots of things but you can’t blame yourself for that one.” 

“All Paperclip did was bring in Nazi’s and give HYDRA a chance to grow right under our noses.” Steve said bitterly, sitting up as well and pressing their palms together. “How is it that I’m still fighting Nazi’s in the twenty first century?” 

“The bigger question is how you’re still around to fight in the twenty first century.” Tony elbowed him gently and Steve smiled a tiny bit. “But listen, Paperclip was right where my mind went when you told me about Fury and the mystery assassin, so while you were off blowing walls up, I had JARVIS run some research and pull some files for me.” 

“You had him run some research?” 

“Did I say research?” Tony reached for his tablet. “I meant to say I hacked into SHIELDs files and went swimming around in their little well of secrets.” 

“What’d you find?” Steve would always be awed by the sheer scope of Tony’s genius, the programs he designed, and he brushed a kiss to Tony’s knuckles in thanks. “Anything I can use?” 

“Unfortunately the HYDRA issue goes up higher than you think.” Tony began, turning the tablet so . “See all these names? Every single one of these people holds a government job, whether it’s pissing people off at the DMV or sending launch codes to our jets.”

“And all of them are linked to HYDRA?” Steve took the tablet and started scrolling, his heart sinking as he came across names he knew. “All of them?”

“Well, all of them are linked to Paperclip in some way.” Tony countered. “Which of course links all of them to SHIELD, which means the chances of everyone on this list being involved in HYDRA whether openly or just because of proximity is pretty damn high.”

“There’s over a thousand names here, Tony.”

“And that isn’t counting who else JARVIS might have found when we were sleeping.” He confirmed. “I might have found a trace on your mystery assassin though. I came across a ghost drive in SHIELDs files, one of those things that unless you knew something was missing, you wouldn’t think to go looking around in the suspiciously empty corner of the hard drive?”

“And you knew to go looking there?” Steve set the tablet aside and dug his fingers into his hair. “Why’s that, Tony?”

“Any hacker worth his shit knows where to look for files that aren’t supposed to exist.” Tony’s smile was moderately proud. “And I’m a hacker worth his shit, but I gotta say I wasn’t real excited about what I found.” 

“You found a list of assassinations.” Steve guessed. “Just about two dozen of them all linked to the same assassin?” 

“Almost thirty over the last fifty years.” Tony nodded. “Not counting–”

“–the collateral deaths racked up as he went after his target.” Steve finished. “Natasha knew who he was. The Winter Soldier. Told me she had a run in with him–”

“–outside of Odessa.” Another nod and Steve was awed all over again by Tony’s genius. “Yeah, it came up in the files. All code names and things like that of course, but it wasn’t that difficult to put together. He’s a bad guy, Cap. Every bit as juiced as you are but with an added bonus of brain washing to keep him a cold stone killer.”

Tony paused– “Do you hear what I’m saying, babe? Not only will this guy will be your match in every way, but he might even be better. He’s only been active for fifty years which means his serum or whatever they juiced him with is twenty years newer than your version. And he’s programmed not programmed to be a soldier, he’s programmed to be a killer. He’ll shoot you in the back without blinking because he doesn’t have your moral code to tell him it’s wrong.”

“I’ll be fine.” Steve said stubbornly. “Nazis are Nazis whether they are super juiced or not. I’ll take him apart just like I did the other ones.”

“Okay, you say that?” Tony laughed but it was forced, his eyes creased with worry. “But the last time you tangled with Nazis you put a goddamn plane in the ice. I’m a fan of Capsicles but I gotta say I prefer you room temperature.” 

“Come here.” Steve grabbed Tony close, wrestled him down into the covers and held him tight. “Tony, this is a fight just like all the other ones, just a little closer to home. Nothing’s going to happen, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well you’re sure as hell not going near any planes.” Tony threatened. “No bridges either, while we’re at it? I’m not a fan of you on any of those things. Planes, trains, bridges. Just stick to perfectly flat ground and slow moving vehicles, thanks.”

Tony was trying to make light of the moment, of his own worries but Steve heard the catch in his breath and caught the sheen of tears before Tony closed his eyes.

So Steve didn’t say anything about the helicarriers linked to Project Insight, or anything about the SHIELD officer Jasper Sitwell that Clint and Sam were planning on snatching today. He didn’t tell Tony about the HYDRA problem going clear up to Pierce and he didn’t say anything about Howard and Maria Stark being a potential casualty of HYDRA’s mission.

Instead he leaned over Tony and kissed him, soft and slow and reassuring, weaving his fingers into the thick hair and tugging at it until Tony shivered and went pliant beneath him.. He played at the seam of Tony’s mouth until the brunette opened, muffled Tony’s sigh and his own answering moan with his tongue, deepening the kiss until they were melting together into the sheets. He pushed Tony back into the pillows and settled heavy between his thighs and Tony sighed, easy and content and Steve thought he could have stayed there forever, in the slow moments of the morning before everything that was wrong with the rest of the world crept in.

But all too soon, Steve’s phone was ringing, chiming with notifications and messages and he finally dragged himself away from the bed, leaving one last toe curling kiss on Tony’s mouth. “I have to go.” He said reluctantly. “Tony, I have to go.”

“I know you do.” Tony threw an arm over his eyes and tried to steady his breathing, lean hips still shifting languidly against the sheets, sleep pants doing a poor job of disguising how much their few minutes together had wound him up. “When you get home though, I think you owe me a movie night and some ice cream huh? Because we were supposed to do this sort of thing the other night but you decided to try and get blown up instead. Don’t uh– Don’t do that today. You should come home and we should do–”

He let the sentence trail but Steve knew what Tony was trying to say, so he kissed him one last time and whispered, “Wait up for me, honey. I’ll come home to you.”

“In one piece.” Tony clarified, peeking out from beneath his arm and Steve chuckled at him. “Don’t laugh, Spangles. Just the fact that I have to tell my super soldier boyfriend to come home in one piece is sort of ridiculous.”

“I know, I know. I’ll be careful…ish.” Tony winged a pillow at him and Steve batted it away easily. “Don’t worry. I’ve got Clint and Nat and Clint’s got a friend he called in to help. We’ll be fine.”

“You’ll call me if you need me, though.” Tony sat up, raising his voice so Steve could hear him in the bathroom. “Right? You’ll call me if you need help?”

“We won’t need help.” Steve said around his toothbrush. “And I don’t want you anywhere near this, Tony. If things go badly, we will need you on the outside helping to get us free. You’ve got all this proof of HYDRA’S influence, that’s the sort of thing I need you to do. I don’t need you running into war with me.”

He spat into the sink and rinsed his mouth out before adding, “I can’t focus if I’m worrying about you, Tony. I need to focus today.” 

“Steve, I’m Iron Man.” Tony said in exasperation. “It’s not like I’m going to try and take on HYDRA in my jeans and sunglasses. I can suit up alongside you and we can finish this thing once and for all.” 

“This is my fight, honey.” Steve said as he searched for his clothes. “This is something I thought I ended seventy years ago and something I have to end now. Whether you’re Iron Man or not I don’t want you–”

“I didn’t do anything the first time I lost you.” Tony interrupted, and Steve went very still. “Do you know what that was like? I had to sit there every single day after we lost Bucky and know that it was getting closer to you disappearing too. I argued with myself for days– for days about whether or not to try and stop you. I knew every word of that particular story, right down to what Aunt Peggy would say to you as the plane was going down and I put myself through it anyway. I had to. I had to make sure you went into the ice so you’d be around the save the world in the future.”

“Tony.” Steve started to move towards him, but Tony held up a hand, shaking his head.

“I’m not doing that this time, Steve. I’m not going to sit back and watch you do something stupid if I have a way to stop that from happening. I’m not saying goodbye to you again.” Tony took in a deep breath, letting it out shakily. “I’m going to stay here and run some more programs, try to figure out what the hell is happening but the second you need help I want you to call me. Call me, Steve.”

“Okay.” Steve nodded. “Okay Tony, I’ll call you if things start getting out of control.”

“You better.” Tony was whispering now and Steve’s heart broke over the misery in his voice. “HYDRA already took Bucky from me. I’m not going to let them take you too, Spangles.”

**********************

**********************

Jasper Sitwell was terrified to his core, sitting stock still in the back middle seat of the car Natasha had stolen borrowed. He hadn’t said a word when Steve met up with Clint and Natasha, had flinched the littlest bit when Steve was introduced to Sam Wilson, but really the man looked too frightened to even breathe and after several minutes of driving, Steve finally asked–

“He hasn’t said a word since you grabbed him?”

“Oh no, he’s said lots of words.” Clint said casually, slinging a friendly arm around Sitwell’s shoulder and hugging the terrified man playfully. “Real chatty little bastard once we figured out just how to make him relax.”

“How to make him relax?” Steve repeated. “He doesn’t look real relaxed. What exactly did you guys do to him?”

“Um–” Clint hesitated and Natasha clicked her tongue and Sam was suddenly concentrating very hard on driving and Steve groaned. “Oh no.”

“Okay in my defense, I wasn’t the one to actually kick him off the roof.” Clint started, and when Steve jerked around to glare at him, he held both hands up innocently. “I just threatened! Nat kicked him off the roof.”

“Natasha!”

“Oh don’t look so surprised.” Natasha seemed positively bored with the whole ordeal. “If he would have talked it wouldn’t have happened. Besides, Sam caught him.”

“Immediately?” Steve asked and Sam slowly shook his head. “Are you guys kidding me?”

“I only let him fall thirty feet.” Sam defended. “Just long enough to make him wet his pants!” When he saw Steve still glaring he added, “Clint promised me shenanigans, Captain America sir. Blame it all on him.”

“Oh I don’t agree with that assessment at all!” Clint started to protest. “I might have suggested shenanigans but in no way did I–” There was thump on the roof and Clint paused– “Alright, either that was the worlds fattest pigeon or we have got some pretty serious trouble.”

Before anyone could argue either pro-pigeon or not, the drivers side back window shattered and Sitwell screamed when a hand reached inside and dragged him out over Clint’s lap, flinging him right into oncoming traffic.

“What in the–!” Bullets then, coming through the roof and Natasha scrambled out of the way, over the middle console and onto Steve’s lap. She yanked him forward just in time to avoid the bullet that plowed into his head rest, and Clint grabbed Sam’s shirt and dragged him down before he got hit as well, shouting, “Emergency brake, Cap!”

Steve ripped the brake up and the car lurched to a teeth rattling stop, whoever had been attacking them through the roof thrown off the car at the sudden halt. He soared through the air for several before managing to flip himself over, digging his fingers into the road and ripping the asphalt up in chunks beneath his fingers.

“Well mark me down as scared and horny.” Sam managed and Clint smacked him across the head. “Is that– does that guy have a metal arm?”

“Christ.” Natasha muttered, all four of them watching in disbelief as the soldier stood to his feet slowly, not so much as flinching as cars skidded and screeched and flipped over trying to avoid him. “That’s the Winter Soldier.”

“Coming to kill us in broad daylight.” Steve said. “God damn it.”

“Language Captain.” Clint said mildly, and Natasha very slowly pulled her hand gun, aiming it through the windshield at the Soldier. “Do you kiss Tony with that mouth or does he make you eat soap first?”

No one saw the Hummer coming before it plowed into the back bumper of their little car, and suddenly they were hurtling towards the soldier faster than anyone planned, Natasha’s gun thrown to the floor and Sam stomping at the brakes to no avail.

The Soldier threw himself in the air just before they collided, landing again right on top of their roof and Sam shouted “Shit!” as a hand punched through the top and wrenched the steering wheel off the column and out of the car. “Not good!” Clint yelled, firing wildly through the roof at the assassin. “Cap this is definitely not good! What the hell are we doing!”

Steve made a split second decision and ordered, “Hang on to me.” as he readied his shield. “Clint, grab Sam.”

“Grab Sam? What do you mean grab Sam? Where the hell are we go-INNNNNNNNG!” Clint shrieked when Steve jumped right out of the car, taking them all with him by sheer force of will just as the car flipped end over and end and shattered apart.

Sam hit the ground rolling and Clint didn’t do much better, skidding across a few lanes before he hit the concrete barrier. Steve managed to take the brunt of the fall while holding onto Natasha, using the car door to protect them as much as he could and pushing her out of the way as soon as he could stand again.  

But there wasn’t much Steve could do against a grenade launcher, and when the Winter Soldier opened fire for the first time Steve thought they really might be in trouble.

********************

********************

The Asset had never had a mission like this before.

His handlers never sent him out in broad daylight because he was supposed to stay in the shadows. He was stealth and he was quiet, and yet the men with him kept handing the biggest weapons from a nearly unlimited arsenal. The Asset didn’t know how to argue his orders, but somehow he knew this was wrong. 

There was supposed to be three people in the car– the traitor that he’d thrown into an oncoming semi and the two targets. But there had been five in the car, and it was unexpected and it was wrong.

No matter. He had already eliminated the traitor, and he could kill four targets just as easily as he could kill two but it was still wrong. His handlers should have known there would be five people in the car.

The man with the shield took a direct hit from the grenade launcher and flew off the bridge and into a bus. Out of commission for now. The other two men had gone for cover. A problem for later.

The Asset timed the steps of the woman, she would be coming out from beneath the bridge in fifteen seconds. He’d put a bullet in her back and move on. Target one would be disabled, seeking out target two would take only a minute of his time. Then on to the two extras, who must not be important targets since his handlers hadn’t mentioned them. 

The woman would be out from the bridge in three two one–Wait, where was she? No no no this was wrong

Gunfire, and the Asset jerked away as a bullet lodged itself in his goggles, less than a centimeter from his eye, less than a centimeter from dropping him where he stood. 

The Asset took cover behind the concrete barrier on the bridge for just a second, discarding his ruined glasses. The woman would take more time than he’d expected. 

No matter. A target was a target and a kill was a kill. 

Ona moya.” he told the other operatives with him, the first words he’d spoken in days. “She is mine.”

The Asset knew the woman. Well he didn’t know her but he’d tried to kill her before, and in his mind it was the same thing. He remembered how she moved as she sought cover, the way she fought. She’d been smart and stubborn the first time he’d put a bullet in her outside of Odessa and she was smart and stubborn now. 

She tried to trick him using a decoy, jumped on his back and tried to strangle him, threw a small disc that disabled his arm for a moment and the Asset knew only a bullet would stop her this time too.

He put a shot through her shoulder this time and she went down with a shout, hurt and just a step from eliminated all together.

The Assets gun was raised, his finger on the trigger ready to complete this first part of his mission but something from the side caught his attention, something red white and blue and hurtling towards him and the Asset felt a rush of failure, knowing the man with the shield hadn’t been out of commission like he’d thought. 

He was afraid of failure, of the pain his handlers would put him through if he didn’t complete a mission, and that made the Asset ignore the buzz in his head and the way it felt wrong to fight this particular target, and go after the man with the shield with brutal intent.

They matched blow for blow, step for step, pound for pound, the target every bit as strong and fast as the Asset was. Knives were batted away, punches given and blocked, twisting and turning, cars denting and crushing beneath their bodies.

At some point, the man put his finger to his ear and shouted “Tony!” and that was wrong– that was wrong? Why did that name make his head hurt?– and with just a split second of hesitation, the man spun the Asset around with a punch, sent him into a van with a kick, nearly got the upper hand.

The Asset had to scramble to recover, gripping the mans throat and yanking him close before throwing him over a car and jumping after him. A punch that should have ended the fight but instead dented the asphalt, a knife that should have stopped the man with the shield in his tracks, but instead the Asset was knocked onto his back and around and around they went, over and over, neither showing any sign of weakness of slowing down. 

Then there was a noise, a boom from the sky and the Asset registered a look of relief in the other mans face–

–wrong wrong wrong–

He hesitated again, confused and unsure and it cost him a hit, the shield cutting into his arm, severing wires and blanking his mind out with pain and the Asset stumbled, faltered.

Something gold and red landed in front of him, light glowing bright from raised palms and ordered, “Stand down.” 

But the Asset didn’t stand down for anyone except his handlers and in a move more instinct than planned, he snatched a gun from his back holster, centering it on the red and gold and then–

Light and heat, searing into his chest and knocking him off his feet and the Asset smacked onto the asphalt and rolled, his mask ripping from his face and breaking into pieces along the road.

Failure. He had failed and the Asset turned to look at the man that had fought him and the gold and red thing that had taken him out. He would know their faces next time. Next time he wouldn’t fail. Next he would–

“Bucky?” the man with the shield asked and a voice from the red and gold– “…what?”

“Bucky?” the man said again and this time face plate on the red and gold lifted and now someone else was looking at him. “…Brooklyn?”

The Asset watched them both for a few seconds, cataloging the confusion and the pain on their faces and then, because the buzz in the back of his head had grown to nearly screaming, because everything about this was wrong and because he had already failed and didn’t have anything else to lose–

“Who the hell is Bucky?”

*******************

*******************

Tony was drinking, filling his glass with shaking fingers and tossing it back in mostly one gulp before refilling it and starting all over again, and Steve just stood at the doorway and watched him.

Clint and Sam had caught Tony up on what happened on the bridge since Natasha was nursing her shoulder wound and Steve was barely responding to any conversation. They filled him in on everything Sitwell had said about Project Insight, about the helicarriers and the DNA tagging, about the plan to launch the planes and to just start firing, told him that millions of people would be dead within a matter of seconds.

And then they told him how the Winter Soldier had snatched Sitwell from the car, how he’d dug holes in the road with his hand as he slid across the road—

–that was when Tony started drinking.

He hadn’t stopped yet either, topping off his glass yet again as he flipped through stacks and stacks of pages JARVIS had printed off from SHIELD files. There were mission dossiers and personnel files and encrypted reports and blacked out transcripts. There were pictures of operatives and targets and allies and enemies, lists of properties held by SHIELD that were actually held by HYDRA, inventory lists and cargo manifests and not a single mention of Bucky Barnes.

Not a picture, not a page, not a line anywhere of Bucky Barnes being turned into the Winter Soldier. Not a paragraph about how he’d survived the fall from the train. Not a date marking when they’d found him. Not a formula explaining which serum they had given him to have him survive this long. Not a location or a handler name or a trigger word anywhere.

HYDRA had its tentacles through every which way of SHIELD, present in every single place Tony looked, but on paper Bucky Barnes didn’t exist.

“Look again.” He told JARVIS. “There has to be something. Something that can confirm that–” Christ, Tony couldn’t even say his name. “–that he is the Winter Soldier. Find it.”

I have access to every digitized file in the SHIELD database, sir.” JARVIS said calmly. “There is no mention of Sergeant Barnes anywhere, not a matching birth date or description or initials.

“Look again.”

Sir–”

“Look again.” Tony rubbed at his eyes tiredly. “There has to be something, J. He couldn’t have just not existed for seventy years and then popped up on a bridge in fucking DC. There has to be a note somewhere. A clue. My dad spent his life working to replicate the super serum, he had to know there was another soldier out there.”

Tony went to refill his drink only to find the bottle empty, and he muttered a curse, hucking it towards the trash can and grimacing when it bounced off the rim and clattered along the floor.

“Tony.” Steve finally spoke up from the door and Tony shook his head. “Tony, honey you’ve had enough to drink.”

“I will never–” Tony clenched his jaw, fingers digging into his thighs. “I will never have enough to drink to deal with today. There is not enough alcohol in the world to let me cope with–with–” he rubbed a hand over his face. “Steve, what the fuck. What in the actual fuck is happening?” 

“I know.” Steve muttered. “I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know, Tony. I don’t understand any more than you do and I still can’t really believe it but– it was him, Tony. It was Bucky standing right there looking at us.”

“There isn’t a single mention of him anywhere.” Tony thumped at a pile of papers. “I wrote a program for JARVIS to get him through the firewalls and we downloaded every digitized file in SHIELD’s mainframe. Every little dirty secret, real names of operatives past and present–” he fanned through a few pages. “If SHIELD wasn’t ass over noggin dealing with Fury’s death and everything that has happened in the last few days, they’d be knocking on my door trying to take me to jail for all this. I know secrets you wouldn’t believe but there is not a single–” he held up a file the size of a dictionary for emphasis. “–not single mention of– of him.”

“What about the Winter Soldier?” Steve’s heart hurt when he realized that Tony couldn’t even say Bucky’s name. “Any mentions of him?”

“Surprisingly little.” Tony held up another stack. “Suspiciously little, in fact. How ever far HYDRA reached into SHIELD, the Winter Soldier was a closely guarded secret which tells me that there are very few people who know about him.”

“A ghost.” Steve said softly, and Tony countered, “Not after they sent him strolling down the highway with a grenade launcher.”

He was quiet a moment, then– “Steve, something like Project Insight would mean that there wouldn’t be a need for spies anymore. For black ops kill squads or counter-intel measures or–”

“–or assassins.” Steve finished. “You think they sent him out like that because when the program launches, the Winter Soldier won’t be needed anymore.”

“I’m thinking if my repulsor had killed–” Tony cleared his throat. “If he’d really gotten hurt today, HYDRA wouldn’t have been all that broken up about it.”

“Damn it.” Steve folded his arms, staring down at his feet. “I don’t even know where to begin to deal with this.”

“You mean the Star Spangled Man with a Plan is all out of ideas?” Tony’s smile was tremulous at best. “Break out your tights, maybe that would get the ol’ creative juices flowing, huh?”

“You just want to see me in tights now that you’re allowed to do more than look.” Steve retorted and Tony’s smile grew just a little more. “I’m on to you Tony.”

“You being on to me sounds like a good plan.” Tony put the papers down and pushed away from his desk, holding his hand out to Steve. “I know your mind isn’t anywhere near settling down for the night and I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again, but why don’t we go to bed anyway. We can’t do anything more right now and I just– I just want to close my eyes and not have to think for a minute. Come to bed with me, huh?” 

Steve didn’t mean to jerk away and he didn’t mean to shake his head so quickly and he certainly didn’t mean for Tony to see it, but all that happened anyway, and Tony’s hand dropped to his lap, hurt and disbelief flashing across his face before fading to a carefully blank expression.

“No you’re right.” he said briskly, picking up the file he’d just dropped. “I should keep reading, maybe have JARVIS work on decrypting a few more pages and maybe I’ll get lucky and–”

“Tony–”

“–and find something I missed the first time. I’ll go start some coffee, would you like me to make you a cup?”

Tony.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking.” Tony continued like he hadn’t heard Steve. “Of course you don’t want to go to bed. Not the Man with a Plan, you’ve got better things to do than just sleep. You don’t really need the sleep anyway, do you? You could probably train all night and then be fresh as a goddamn daisy tomorrow morning and–”

“I feel guilty for wanting you.” Steve’s voice cracked over the words and Tony froze. “Tony, I don’t want to just lay down with you, I don’t want to just close my eyes and try to relax. I want to throw you on the bed and tear your clothes off and I want to kiss you until I can’t think straight anymore and I want to finish what we started this morning and I–I–”

He sounded close to tears, defeated. “God, Tony. I want you so bad. I’ve wanted you for so long, probably before I even realized it, you know? And I thought we were ready, thought it was finally time to take that step. We worked through all that shit from before and you trust me again and I feel so guilty about wanting you now that it’s tearing me up inside.”

“I feel like I’m trying to steal my best friends fella.” Steve’s expression was miserable, his eyes dulled by pain. “Feel like I’ve been disrespectful to Bucky’s memory. I never thought–not once did I ever think he survived that fall. I hoped and I prayed but I never once believed it. I never would have touched you if I thought there was chance he’d come back, I never would have touched you and I wouldn’t have let myself fall in–”

Steve was shaking, trying to keep himself together as he watched tears track down Tony’s face.

“And now he’s back and you’re a wreck trying to figure it out and I came down here needing to hold you, feel like I’m losing my mind and all I can think about is taking you to bed and I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m taking advantage of you. We just found out the man you love is still– Bucky is still–” he shook his head, hands up in surrender as he backed out of the doorway. “I’m going to go. I shouldn’t be here. We should stop this. I should stop this, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t go.” Tony whispered, and when Steve tried to argue, he said it again. “Don’t go, Steve. You promised you weren’t going to leave me alone anymore. You said that when I needed you, you’d be here, that you’d stop running off to save the world and leaving me alone. You promised.”

“Tony, honey—”

“You promised.” Tony repeated and this time he stood, crossing the room until he stood right in front of Steve. “You said you’d be here. This morning I told you to come home and you told me you would.”

“I am here.” Steve said hoarsely, reaching out and then letting his hand fall before he could touch Tony’s cheek. “I am here, Tony but I shouldn’t be asking you for– for this. I shouldn’t want you like this, it’s not right.”

“But you said you’d be here.” Tony curled his fingers in Steve’s shirt and pulled him down until their mouths almost touched. “You said you’d stay with me.”

“I’m here.” Steve gathered Tony as close as he could, hiding his face in Tony’s shoulder and trying not to sound as ragged and wrecked as he felt. “Tony, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. If you want me here, then I’m here, I promise.”

“Then stay.” Tony started pulling him back into the lab, back towards the corner where a couch and few blankets lay. “Steve, stay with me.”

“You’re sure?” Steve slipped his hands beneath Tony’s shirt, spreading his fingers across the lean back to touch as much skin as he could, torn between wanting to be gentle this first time and needing Tony so badly he could barely breathe through it. “God, Tony are you sure?”

“There’s a lot of stuff I’m not sure about right now.” Tony’s eyes were almost too bright, his fingers trembling as they worked the buttons of Steve’s shirt. “But I’m sure about this, about you, Spangles, I’m sure about you.”

They fell  back onto the couch together, Steve bracing himself on one arm so he wouldn’t crush Tony and their kisses were desperate right from the start, desperate and needy and Tony yanked at Steve’s clothes, a moan that was nearly a sob from the big blonde when Tony’s hand closed hot around him. 

“I don’t know how to–” Steve started and Tony shook his head, dragged him in for another kiss and murmured, “Anything’s gonna feel good, Spangles. Just don’t stop.” 

And Steve couldn’t find it in himself to care that Tony was probably wishing he was Bucky, he couldn’t find it in himself to care that they were both working through a fresh wave of grief and anger and disbelief over everything they’d learned in the last few days. 

When Tony came apart in his hand, crushing their mouths together and pleading, “Yes yes yes Steve, god–” Steve couldn’t bring himself to care that this was probably the first and last time he’d ever have Tony like this. 

And as Tony was falling asleep after Steve had carried him to bed, both of them physically spent and emotionally exhausted, Steve brushed the thick hair off Tony’s forehead and kissed him gently. 

“I love you.” He whispered, the first and only time he’d let himself say the words. “I’ve loved you for a long time, one way or another and nothing that happens tomorrow will change that.” 

********************

********************

It was a new room this time, something his handlers had thrown together at the last minute to keep him in D.C. and the Asset didn’t like it.

“Sergeant Barnes.” The doctor, Zola, smiled at him. “Welcome to HYDRA.” 

“What’s wrong with him?” A man– Pierce– asked and one of the handlers responded that the Asset wasn’t acting right, that he was erratic and unstable.

“Bucky!” A blonde man, reaching for him. “Bucky, No!”

“Mission report.” Pierce said impatiently, and the Asset opened his mouth but nothing came out, the details of his mission fuzzy and unclear. “Mission report!”

“The procedure has already begun…. You are to be the new fist of HYDRA… put him on ice.”

“The man on the bridge.” The Asset’s own voice wasn’t familiar to his ears, flat and monotonous and he thought it should be different. “Who was he?”

Pierce shook his head. “You met him on another assignment earlier this week. Don’t worry about it. You need to focus on–”

“I knew him.” The Asset said–he said. He said that. Not that Asset. He wasn’t just the Asset. “I… I knew him?”

Pierce started in on a speech about how the Asset was a gift to man kind, how he had helped shape the world into a better place. He talked about how the Asset had to do his part, so everyone else could do theirs, so HYDRA could give the world freedom.

The Asset wasn’t listening– he wasn’t listening.

“I’m about gone on you, soldier.” 

That one hurt, the thought– was it a memory?– that hurt and the Asset jerked away from the pain

“But I knew him.” he said again. He didn’t know anyone, but he knew the man with the shield. “I knew him.”

“Damn it.” Pierce cursed. “Prep him.”

“He’s been out of cryo too long.” One of the handlers said and the Asset wondered if being out of cryo too long was why he’d been feeling… why he’d been feeling anything. “It might not stick, he could very well slip his programming.”

“Then wipe him.” Pierce said firmly, and a trickle of fear went through the Asset. “Start over again.”

I knew him. The Asset tensed as the machines powered up, bit down on the mouth guard and screamed his rage and his pain as they started to take everything from him again. 

No no no. I knew him.

And he knew me.

Who the hell is Bucky?

Please.

….Please.

Chapter Text

Despite Tony’s warning to stay away from bridges, Steve found himself standing on one the next morning anyway, leaning over the railing and staring out at nothing. His mind was racing, going over the plan for today, the odds of success, every step and every second that had to go perfectly right if they even stood a chance at taking down HYDRA. 

The entire scenario was so far fetched that long shot wasn’t even an accurate description, but they had to try something and Steve’s plan had been better put together than Sam and Clint’s “Why don’t we just snatch Pierce and drop him out the window” suggestion.

Still, a long shot.

Tony had started writing code for JARVIS at day break, his fingers flying over the keyboard faster than Steve could even comprehend, chugging coffee and stuffing cereal in his mouth every few minutes without ever taking his eyes off the screen.

“You’re up for this?” Steve had asked for about the eighth time since they’d woken up. “I can contact Agent Hill or even Nat knows an awful lot about this sort of thing. You don’t have to do this.”

“I can contact Agent Hill.” Tony answered distractedly. “And Natasha might be techy enough to impress you, old man, but this requires more than starter level hacker skills. I can take care of it Steve. And I’ll have a suit on standby if things on your end go to shit.”

“You won’t need a suit.”

“Don’t think I won’t get involved, Steve.” Tony warned. “Because I already told you, I’m not losing you again, I’m not going to sit back and let you do something stupid again. The last time you took on a plane to fight Nazis, it took you seventy years to come home. Don’t do that today, alright? I’m all done saying goodbye to soldiers I love. I’m not doing it anymore.”

Soldiers I love.

Tony hadn’t looked up again after that, had kept typing as if he hadn’t just stunned Steve speechless, and the words ran round and round in Steve’s head as he stood at the bridge and waited for Sam and Clint to meet him.

Soldiers I love.

Tony loves me.

Echoing footsteps pulled Steve from his thoughts and he straightened up when he saw Clint and Sam waiting. “Hey. Everything ready to go?”

“Everything’s ready to go.” Sam confirmed. “Nat’s all set up and Tony will contact Agent Hill when it’s go time. Once those two are synced up, it’ll be our turn to cause some trouble.”

Then he sent Clint a careful look and added, “Say Cap, you know your buddy’s gonna be there today, right? No way HYDRA won’t send him in to play security for those planes.”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded tersely. “I know.”

“I know he was your best friend.” Clint said next. “But he might not be that guy anymore. It’s been a long time and I can’t even imagine what HYDRA’s put him through and you said it yourself– he looked right at you and didn’t know you. Today might not go the way you think it will.”

“Clint means that you might not be able to save him.” Sam finished. “This might be the kind of guy you just stop, Steve. And there’s only one way to stop somebody like that.”

“I know.” Steve said again, quieter this time. “But even when I had nothing I had Bucky. The day we buried my ma and I was all alone in the world, he told he I didn’t have to go it by myself, that he was going to be with me till the end of the line.”

He glanced up at the sky, where the heli-carriers would be patrolling in just a few hours time if they failed. “I’m not going to leave him alone today, gonna do everything possible to save him. And it that means this is the end of the line, then that’s just what it means.”

“Well we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure it’s not the end today, Cap.” Clint motioned to Steve’s clothes. “You gonna run into battle like that?”

“Nope.” Steve decided. “If you’re gonna fight a war, you’re gonna need a uniform right? Suit up guys. It’s time to go.”

“Yes sir.” Sam tossed him a salute and once Steve was out of hearing distance, he turned to Clint. “So which one of us will have to tell Tony that Steve isn’t coming home because he tried to save his friend and couldn’t?”

“One, two, three– not it.” Clint wasn’t joking though, his jaw set and eyes somber. “I can’t really see an outcome to this day that doesn’t completely suck.”

**************

**************

JARVIS went live the second Natasha stepped through the doors of the Triskelion disguised as Councilwoman Hawley, the voice changing chip on her throat doubling as a wireless transmitter.

“Wake up, J. It’s time to go to work.” Tony spun around in his chair when his computers lit up, pounding back the last of this coffee and cracking his knuckles. “Hey, SHIELD. Guess who’s digging around in your Nazi filled basement?”

Agent Maria Hill was an unflappable as Pepper when it came to being surprised by Tony, and she didn’t even skip a beat when he was suddenly in her ear with a dry, “Good morning Agent Hill. You and I are going to team up and save the day, alright?”

“How are you doing this?” She asked quietly, careful not to let her facial expression betray anything to the SHIELD employees around her. “Stark? Where are you?”

“Sitting in my pajamas looking at inappropriate things on the internet.” Tony said blandly. “And I can do about 99% of this on my own but I still need physical fingers on buttons, so are you ready to wreak some havoc?”

“Ready when you are.” Maria muttered. “Just this once you can tell me exactly what to do and I’ll actually listen, but don’t let it go to your head.”

“You’re a gift, Maria.” Tony smiled to himself and pushed a few keys, syncing up ear piece feeds. “Cap, we got Maria and I’m ready to go when you are.”

Is Nat in place?”

“Yep, but she’s radio silent.” Tony confirmed. “Won’t hear anything on that end until it’s safe so don’t count on that.”

Check. Agent Hill, can I get a door opened?”

“Give me thirty seconds, sir.” She confirmed. “I’ll need to handle a few guards first and then you’ll be clear.”

I’ll need access to a PA system.”

“Not a problem.”

Tony, I know you said no planes or trains or high places but--”

“God dammit Steve.” Tony’s fingers paused at the keyboard. “If you think I’m going to let you rest in peace after you die doing something stupid, you are absolutely wrong. In fact, you’ll be resting in pieces when I get done with you. I don’t give a damn, I’ll desecrate the hell out of your grave. I don’t care if you’re a war hero.”

“Is this how you two flirt? Because it’s weird.” Clint spoke up over the comms and it was quickly followed by a snort of laughter from Sam. “Come on, are we dismantling Nazi organizations or making plans for next Friday night? Let’s go-o-o-o already!”

Steve shook his head and grinned. “I’ll come home in one piece, Tony. Agent Hill, you’ve got a door for me?”

“Door opening in three- two–” what sounded like a solid punch landing and then the door in front of Steve opened. “Welcome to the Triskelion, Captain Rogers.”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am.” Steve nodded and Sam snorted again. “PA system?”

Tony waited until he could hear Steve speaking over the PA system, waited until Natasha spoke into the tiny microphone sewn into the button on her blazer– “Council members down.” and then activated JARVIS’s new protocol with a few taps at his keyboard.

“I’m live, Cap. It’s up to you and the bird brothers now. Three guys, three planes, three chips.”

“I feel like there’s a dirty movie with that tag line.” From Sam, and Clint added, “Sam you watch weird porn.” then Steve, “Focus, please!”

“Sam we should talk about your porn preferences.” Tony cracked a grin of his own when Maria made very odd noise. “Let me know when each chip is in place, Agent Hill and I can do the rest of it. Chips in and vacate the premises ASAP because things are going to go boom.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Agent Hill cut in. “What’s going to go boom?”

“Everything I can manage.” Tony said grimly. “We’re doing it right this time around.”

**********************

**********************

Clint got his chip in the first plane with no trouble at all thanks to Steve and Sam drawing enemy fire and disabling any and all weapons systems they came across. “Alpha locked!” he shouted over the comms, racing for the edge of the heli-carrier and somersaulting right over it. “Need a ride boys, I’d appreciate if someone with wings caught me! That’s you, Sam!”

“When do you need a ride?” Sam lay a jaw cracking punch across a HYDRA operative and kicked another in the gut.

“Right now please!” Clint yelled and Sam swore, bolting across the deck and throwing himself off, wings snapping open as he zoomed towards where Clint was free falling, arms flailing and legs kicking uselessly at the air.

“A little more notice would be nice!” He dropped Clint rather unceremoniously on the flight deck. “For fucks sake, be more useful and find us a helicopter. At the very least punch a bad guy.”

“Which ones are the bad guys?” Clint snapped his bow open, dropping his jacket to show the quiver of arrows at his back. “They’re all wearing the same uniform.”

“Are they shooting at you?” Sam deadpanned and Clint sent him a glare. “If they’re shooting at you, then they’re probably bad guys.”

“Right. Got it.” Clint flashed him a thumbs up and Sam took off again, heading up towards the second plane.

Agent Hill breathed a sigh of relief when Sam came on the comms no more than a moment later– “Beta locked. Cap, Clint and I have got you covered, go on and get the third.”

“Good going, Sam. Steve, it’s up to you now.” Tony was typing furiously, transmitting line after line of new data to the heli-carriers servers and Agent Hill was doing the same, following his prompts as fast as she could. “Any sign of–”

“Incoming!” Clint yelled, and Sam shouted in alarm when Clint went flying through the air and crashing into the side of a chopper, the Winter Soldier stomping after him. “I’m up! I’m up and I’m okay but holy shit look out!”

“Got you, Clint.” Sam opened fire with both his guns, swooping low and planting both his feet into the Soldier’s chest in a solid kick. “Get out of here! Cap, come get your friend before I have to hurt him–ACK!” Sam was snatched out of the air by the Soldier and thrown to the ground but he scrambled up again and took to the sky again, only to have a hook catch on his wing and rip it right off.

“Sam! Deploy deploy deploy!” Clint sounded like he was panicking and at his desk, Tony froze, eyes wide and heart pounding. “Deploy your goddamn chute, I don’t have a helicopter yet! Tony get in one of your fancy suits and get the hell over–”

“I’m grounded but I’m good.” Sam came back online and Tony slumped back into his chair with his hand over his mouth. “Clint stop freaking out, I’m not Steve, I always have a parachute. Tony stay where you are and get these things disabled.”

“Where’s the Soldier?” Clint wrenched open the door of a chopper and buckled into the pilots seat. “And has anyone heard from my wife?”

I’m fine, husband.” Natasha finally spoke up and they could all hear the grin in Clint’s voice when he answered, “Love of my life, it’s about damn time.”

“A call went in for Rumlow when they figured out I was in the council room.” Natasha said authoritatively. “I could use some help. Sam?”

“On my way.” Sam said immediately. “Where’s the Soldier?”

Right here.” From Steve, and they all went still, behind his desk Tony closed his eyes, digging his fingers into his thighs. “He’s standing between me and the system on the third heli-carrier.

“….Spangles?”

“People are gonna die, Buck.” Steve said quietly and they just barely heard it over the mics. “I can’t let that happen.”

Silence over the comms, and up on the bridge Steve shook his head pleadingly when Bucky just stared at him. “Please. Please don’t make me do this.”

Silence again and he nodded. “Alright. Tony, I’m going offline.”

“No you’re not!” Tony shouted, jumping to his feet and banging on the desk as if that would make a different. “No you’re not, Steve don’t you dare, don’t you dare—!”

He swore when the comm went dead, picked up a chair and threw it across the room. “JARVIS, activate the new suit.”

Sir, the Mark 42 isn’t quite ready for–

“Activate the fucking suit!”

********************

********************

“The war was awful.” Steve said into the dark and Tony stirred sleepily in his arms. “They talk about the Commandos as if we didn’t see the shit the others did. I’d think we saw worse. I saw men in pieces, Tony. Entire villages wiped out by test runs of HYDRA’s weapons. Mass graves with–” he swallowed and Tony’s hand rubbed soothing circles at his side. “–with all the bodies of Zemo’s failed attempts at the super serum. I had to stand with widows as they cried, had orphans ask me if I’d rescued their dads and the answer was always no.”

“You saved a lot of people, Steve.” Tony whispered.

“I didn’t save enough.” He shook his head. “But no matter what, Bucky was always there. He calmed me down when I wanted to kill someone, he sat with me when I wanted to cry over how hopeless it all was. And when everything else went to shit, he’d always have something to say, something to make me smile.”

There was quiet for a long time before Steve spoke again. “I wasn’t enough to save him last time, Tony but I’ll be enough this time. I’m Captain America. I’m not going to leave him behind. Not again.”

“You’ll save him because you’re Steve.” Tony snuggled closer, tangling their bare legs together. “Not because you’re Captain America. You’ll save him because you’re Steve and you’ve always been enough.”

A gunshot wound to the side hurt more than Steve could have possibly imagined, and a knife to the shoulder made him scream but he didn’t stop– couldn’t stop– fighting. Bucky was fast, almost too fast, and completely ruthless with every punch, matching Steve blow for blow, spinning and kicking and never losing that dead eyed focus that made Steve’s heart sink and his stomach twist.

That’s not Bucky.

But it was Bucky and Steve kept telling himself that every time he pulled a punch, every time he raised his shield defensively instead of going on the attack. He dislocated Bucky’s shoulder instead of breaking his arm and when he got his arms around Bucky’s throat, he squeezed only enough to choke him out, not enough to snap his neck.

This is Bucky, this is Bucky, this is Bucky.

Even when Bucky somehow got back to his feet and shot Steve in the thigh, he didn’t stop. When a bullet plowed through his stomach, Steve didn’t stop, only reached up as high as he could to snap the chip into place.

“Charlie locked.” Steve wheezed as he collapsed against the console, finally turning his comms back on. “Agent Hill. Charlie locked, we’re good to go.”  

“Get off the plane.” She said immediately. “Right now, Captain. Stark’s plan to make things go boom is bigger than I realized it would be. Get off the plane and get as far away as possible.”

“Do it now.” He stared down at where Bucky stood, that dead eyed stare making his skin crawl. “Take these planes down right now. Don’t wait for me.”

Don’t you dare, Steve!” Tony over the ear pierce and he sounded like he was flying, wind nearly muting the words. “What did I tell you about putting planes down? Get off that thing right now, I’ll be there in twenty seconds to catch you.”

The heli-carrier started to rip apart beneath him and Steve scrambled to hold on as it pitched towards the ground, beams splitting and crashing, glass popping and shattering and a huge piece of frame snapped free and collapsed onto Bucky, pinning him in place. 

“I’ve got to get him, Tony.” Steve made a split second decision and let go of the platform so he could slip down another level, too wounded to break his own fall and biting his lip bloody so he wouldn’t scream over the pain. “I’ve got to save him this time.”

“Goddammit Steve, just wait–” There was a boom in the background and Steve knew it was a sonic boom, Tony pushing his suit as fast as he could to get there in time. “Just wait!”

“Go help the others.” Steve managed, more crawling than walking over to Bucky to try and lift the weight off. “Don’t worry about me. This plane’s going down and there are hundreds of innocent people in the Triskelion and on the streets that need to be rescued.”

And not to sound like I want a ride on Iron Man’s back–” Sam cut in. “–but I’ll be jumping out the forty first window any second now and I’d appreciate a lift!”

“Steve–” Tony swore, and then swore again. “Sam, hang tight I just need a minute–”

“Go get Sam.” Steve started to pull the huge beams off Bucky, gritting his teeth and groaning as he lifted the nearly impossible weight. “Catch Sam, help everyone else get out of the building.”

“I’m not leaving you alone, Spangles–!”

“There’s people there who need your help more than I do!” Steve hated yelling at Tony, god he hated it. “Get over there now! Consider that an order!”

Too distracted by Tony, by the sight of the destruction outside, by the pain in his stomach, by the overwhelming hopelessness of it all and the sickening feeling of going down in a plane again, Steve didn’t see Bucky stirring until it was too late and a fist was coming towards him.

“You know me!” he shouted, stumbling back and now Bucky’s eyes were wide with pain and fear. “You know me, damn it!”

“No, I don’t!” Bucky shook his head, another wild punch glancing off Steve’s jaw. “I don’t know you!”

“You’ve known me your whole life.” Steve was spitting blood, barely able to block the blows anymore. “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. We call you Bucky. I call you Bucky.”

“Shut up!” Bucky screamed and when Steve fell, he followed him down, raining punch after punch on him. “I don’t know what you’re saying! I don’t know what you’re saying!”

“I’m not going to fight you.” Sparks were flashing behind Steve’s eyes, even as everything else started to slide towards darkness and his fingers were trembling as he unhooked his helmet and pushed it away, let his shield fall.

“You’ll save him because you’re Steve, not because you’re Captain America.”

“You’re my friend, Buck. I’m not going to fight you.”

“You’re my mission.” Bucky froze in horror when he saw Steve’s face. “You’re– you’re my mission.”

“Then finish it.” Steve’s head fell back onto the deck, his words slurring. “Finish it, Bucky. Cause I’m with you till the end of the line. Don’t matter how much time is between us. You’re my best friend and I’m never going to stop trying to save you.”

The bottom fell out of the heli-carrier then and Steve dropped towards river, the wind whistling in his ear and numbing his body and he thought maybe he heard Tony screaming in his comms, thought he heard Fury of all people shouting for someone to grab him but it all disappeared when he hit the water.

Then everything was cold and dark, quiet and still, the river lighting Steve’s wounds up with pain before numbing them almost immediately, his eyes closing against the burn of the water, his chest constricting with the need to breathe.

It was like the ice all over again, and it was comforting in some terrible way to know he’d die like this, appropriate somehow. And as the last few bubbles escaped from from Steve’s mouth, he thought maybe this time– this time– his sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain.

Bucky had recognized him for a minute, for a second and that was enough. Tony would know what to do from here and Bucky could come home. HYDRA would be dismantled, all those people would be saved.

It was enough.

He’d finally done enough.

********************

********************

There wasn’t a reason to pull the man with the shield out of the water, but somehow it wasn’t right to leave him there either, so he dragged the body onto shore and rolled him onto the side, pounding at his back until water spilled from between the cold lips and a few shaky breaths were taken.

He stood to his feet and walked away without a backwards glance once he knew the man was breathing, disappearing into the shadows like he’d been taught to do for so many years, instinctively seeking out a place to hide.

He was wet and he was bleeding, and he knew that the downed heli-carriers meant that his handlers were on the run or already captured, so returning to base for medical care or clean clothes wasn’t an option. He had been programmed to adapt though, always always to adapt so those were minor concerns.

There was panic in the streets, parents running with their kids in their arms, screams and tears, cars abandoned with keys in the ignition as people ran for their lives as the planes exploded above them and even the most obvious people were nearly invisible during times of hysteria, so he took the chance to make an escape for himself.

A purse was snatched from a sports car because he knew it would have cash and a little sedan with rust on the frame and torn seat covers made a perfect getaway car since it would be the least likely to be reported stolen.

A stop at an abandoned vendors cart for a jacket and a pair of gloves to disguise the glint of his arm, a hat pulled low over his eyes and suddenly he was just another person trying to get away, another face in a sea of traffic making it’s way away from the chaos, another nameless citizen no one cared to look twice at.

And he had no intention of stopping again, no intention of pausing on his search for a safe house, but brilliant colors on a huge sign caught his eye and he let the engine of the stolen car idle as he stared at the advertisement for the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, the promise of authentic pieces from the second world war, of comprehensive biographies for the soldiers.

He didn’t know why those words set his mind buzzing again, but he knew that shield and he knew that the blonde hair, blue eyed man on the picture was the same man he’d just pulled from the water. It was more compulsion than conscious choice to turn the car towards the Smithsonian and towards that exhibit, and the buzzing in his head got worse as he parked at the far end of the lot, worse as he walked up the stairs with his head down, worse as he passed a hologram of the man with the shield, the voice familiar as it welcomed visitors to the museum. 

It was easy to blend into the crowds, into the shadowed corners of the rooms, and he kept his hat low over his eyes as he wandered through the halls to avoid making eye contact with anyone at all. 

It didn’t mean anything to him, the names and the pictures and the droning voice overhead giving details about the unit known as the Howling Commandos. It didn’t mean anything other than the sudden onset of a blinding headache, but he pushed it away and tried to focus on what he was seeing.

There was a display set apart from the others, a picture of a young soldier with unruly hair and a cocky smile with his arm around the man with the shield. It changed then, to a newspaper heading about the soldier being listed as missing in action, then killed in action, the only Howling Commando to not come home from the war.

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.” he said under his breath. “Fell from a train–”

A train.

“–he is the only Commando who didn’t come home. Known affectionately as Bucky, Sergeant Barnes was Captain America’s life long best friend and right hand man as they marched into battle against HYDRA.”

Against HYDRA.

A train.

“Bucky!” A blonde man, reaching for him. “Bucky, No!”

“Sergeant James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes.” he said again, staring at a picture he didn’t recognize, a name that meant nothing at all. “Who the hell is Bucky?” 

“….is that me?” 

Chapter Text

Marvin Gaye wasn’t Tony’s go to music choice but at least in here the easy beat was soothing, the mellow sound calming Tony’s worn nerves and settling his heart rate.

He hated hospitals. Everything was awful and white, stinking of medicine and disinfectant, the room filled with wires and machines and the steady hiss of oxygen, the beeping of monitors. There was never enough good news happening in hospitals, more often doctors came to waiting rooms to murmur terrible things, and nurses leaned against the walls with their hands over their faces and cried for what they couldn’t help and people left hospitals with one less family member then they’d had the day before.

Tony hated hospitals.

Steve looked far too small on the bed, far too small for a man who could lift motorcycles and outrun cars and rip submarines out of the water and god Tony hated that too. Captain America was supposed to be larger than life, even before the serum Steve had carried himself larger than life and now he looked small and pale and weak and it was– it was—

Tony shook his head, settled a little further in his chair and tried not to stare at the bruises on Steve’s jaw, at the splints on his fingers, at the bandages around his chest and waist.

He hated this.

He’d been the one to find Steve on the banks of the river and had dropped out of the sky in an instant, scrambling out of the armor to get to Steve’s side and make sure he was still alive. JARVIS must have told him a dozen times that Steve had been breathing, that things were broken but the internal damage was minimal but Tony had kept asking anyway. The AI had actually locked the suit down entirely to keep Tony from just picking Steve up and flying off to the hospital with him, knowing that the sudden lurch could easily break more bones, could puncture something vital.

Instead Clint had come with the chopper and he and Sam had carefully loaded Steve on to it. Natasha had held his head still and Tony had blasted off in his suit to get the hospital first and secure a room. And now he’d been in this damn chair for three days, listening to Marvin Gaye on repeat, waiting for Steve to wake up, staring at the wall and not letting himself think about what had happened on the helicarrier.

“Tony, I’m going off comms.”

Tony’s jaw set angrily when he remembered Steve’s words. He’d been furious– furious and terrified and a million other things he hadn’t had time to process in the few minutes it took him to get from the Tower to the Triskelion. JARVIS had picked Steve out of the entire mess, zooming in on the fight taking place and Tony– Tony thought he might have shut down for a moment, thought he might have completely blanked out watching Bucky the Winter Soldier raise a gun and put a bullet through Steve’s leg, through his stomach.

He might have blanked out, he might have screamed, Tony didn’t know. He didn’t really remember anything between that moment and then finding Steve on the side of the river. And even now, even three days later, Tony kept pushing the memories away and refused to let himself think about what had happened to the Soldier, to Bucky.

He couldn’t handle that right now, couldn’t handle the what if’s and the maybe’s and all the possible outcomes of the end of HYDRA. He didn’t know where Bucky was or if he’d survived or if there even was anything left of Bucky behind that monster HYDRA had turned him into.

Tony couldn’t think about if Bucky had known Steve when he put the knife in his shoulder, he couldn’t think about if Bucky would ever know either of them again. And he wanted to be sick, wanted to run to the bathroom and vomit every time he let himself think about how he hadn’t stopped Bucky from going on that last mission all those years ago, how he’d known Bucky would fall and hadn’t said anything.

The guilt had been bad enough when Tony thought they had lost Bucky to the cold and the ice and the mountainside. But knowing HYDRA had taken him in and used him as an assassin for seventy years made Tony’s stomach turn, his heart clench and god he couldn’t even breathe.

“Bucky, what did we do to you?” he whispered, digging the heels of his hand into his eyes and trying to quell a rising panic attack. “I should have saved you, I should have saved you. Fuck fuck fuck—”

“Hey man, I know Marvin Gaye isn’t for everyone, but after eighteen times through the playlist, it’s gotta be growing on you, right?” Sam grinned at Tony from the door. “At least a little bit, maybe?”

“Growing like a fungus, maybe.” Tony rubbed at his eyes and hoped Sam would think he was just tired and not on the verge of a complete meltdown. “How’s it going, Sam?”

“Well, I can confirm that my life is much more exciting now than it was a couple weeks ago.” He crossed the room and handed Tony a cup of most likely terrible coffee before taking the chair on the other side of Steve’s bed. “Any signs of life from big and blonde?”

“Heart monitor is steady but he hasn’t woken up or anything.” Tony took a sip of the dark liquid and grimaced. “Oh for fucks sake– why is this so awful? Why is everything in hospitals awful?”

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s not that fancy stuff you drink up in that Tower of yours.” Sam made a horrified face when he tasted the sludge in his own cup. “Oh god, even tap water would be better than this crap. Sorry, Tony. When we get outta here I’ll buy you a real cup.”

“When we get out of here you can just come live at the Tower and have the good stuff all the time.” Tony countered and when Sam raised his eyebrows, he added, “Wouldn’t be the worst thing if you had a place there, right? You took down a bunch of Nazis with Captain America and a handful of SHIELD agents, I feel like that qualifies you as an Avenger.”

“I am practically an Avenger.” Sam agreed. 

“Besides, it’s not like things are crowded there.” Tony pointed out. “I’ve got something like thirty eight rooms that have literally nothing in them. Bruce is barely home, I’m not really sure why I have a room for Thor, the guy lives off world or over with Jane most of the time. It would be easy enough to get you a room close to Clint and Natasha’s if you wanted.”

“I am in no way sleeping anywhere near those two.” Sam shook his head. “Nuh-uh. No way. I’ve been friends with Clint for a while and I don’t want his shenanigans happening down the hall from me.”

“I can put you up a floor and down at the end of the hallway.” Tony decided and Sam nodded in satisfaction. “How did you and Clint meet?”

“Oh god, how did Clint and I meet.” Sam laughed a little, tossing the rest of the disgusting coffee in the trash. “He and Natasha were working a job through SHIELD back before they were married, ended up staying over at our base before shipping out. Course, nobody really knew SHIELD existed back then, so it was more like a suspiciously hot woman and a guy who looked too goofy to be dangerous were bunking with us for a night. Anyway, me and the boys were playing a friendly game of truth or dare–”

“Friendly?” Tony cut in. “Truth or dare isn’t even friendly between teenage girls, you’re telling me it’s friendly between a bunch of bored soldiers?”

“It started out friendly.” Sam amended. “The dares were real easy and the truths were pretty funny. Well Clint comes swaggering up like an asshole with the prettiest girl any of us had ever seen and they want to play too. So we go a round, Tasha ends up admitting truth that she was head over heels in love with Clint and wish he’d stop fucking around and just propose already.”

“That sounds exactly like Tasha.”

“Yeah, not one to beat around the bush is she?” Sam grinned. “Terrifying. Anyway, she announces that truth and Clint gets all goofy and stupid looking–”

“Like he does.”

“–like he does. Then it’s his turn, and it’s a dare.” Sam dragged his hand over his face and sighed in exasperation. “So uh, so we had this camp dare. There was a pair of shoes up on top of the mess hall, fell outta a chopper one day and we probably could’ve got them down with a long ladder and a pole to knock them off, but the camp dare was to see who could get the shoes down without any help from ropes or ladders or none of that. We had a big pot going for whoever finally managed it and we all tried about once a month, everyone threw in a twenty for the pot. It kept morale up, right? So we thought, well let’s ask the new guy to do it, should be good for some chuckles.”

“Wait–” Tony leaned forward, eyes sparking with the first sign of laughter in days. “You dared Clint to get something down from a high place without ropes? Did you have any idea that he’d been in the circus?”

“No.” Sam said blandly. “No we had no idea that Clint was basically a wall crawling, tight rope walking, trapeze flying little fucker. So we all put our money in the pot, told him the rules and set back to laugh our asses off when he fell.”

“Except he didn’t fall.”

“Sticky footed bastard didn’t fall.” Sam confirmed. “Never seen someone do a goddamn skedaddle that fast in my life. He was up on that roof and snatched the shoes and was back down on the ground before most of us even realized what had happened.”

“Oh my god.” Tony grimaced through another swallow of coffee. “So how much did he win?”

“Twenty seven hundred dollars.” Sam groaned and Tony nearly choked. “Yeah. Yeah. He pocketed all that cash, picked Natasha up and asked her if the church at the end of town would work to say a few vows and fucking walked away. We saw them again after the mission and they were wearing rings, so it all must have worked out. When I joined the flight program I ended up working with them a few other times since SHIELD sort of had its hands in my wing tech and we just never lost contact. When I got out, Clint asked me about working for SHIELD and I’ve gotta say? Glad I turned it down.”

“Now why on earth would you turn down a chance to work with all these Nazis?” Tony made his eyes purposefully wide and Sam tossed a candy wrapper at him. “So met Clint on a mission and just can’t get rid of him, huh? Where were you stationed?”

“Outside Budapest.” Sam confirmed. “And those two don’t talk about what happened there, but I gather that taking my squad for all our money and saying vows are the only good things to come out of that trip.”

“Hm.” Tony gave up on his coffee as well. “Well, I’ll admit I’m a fan, Sam. I don’t know if we would have managed this whole thing without you. Sure appreciate it.”

“Hey, when Captain America needs your help–” Sam shrugged off Tony’s thanks. “By the way? Don’t think I didn’t see what you did there.”

“What I did.” Tony dug around for a piece of gum to get rid of the taste in his mouth. “And what exactly did I do?”

“Acted like you weren’t a few seconds from an anxiety attack when I walked in. Started talking all quick so I wouldn’t pay attention.” Tony’s jaw clenched and he flushed a dull red, but Sam raised his hands peacefully. “Nope, don’t worry about it. I’m not here to judge you, Tony. Not even here to make you talk about anything. Just came to bring you some coffee and to let you know that I run a few classes down at the VA.”

Tony looked at him blankly and Sam lowered his voice. “Tony, I’m trained to know what PTSD looks like, but more than that, I know what it looks like from personal experience. I’m not saying I have any idea what you’re going through right now, but I’m saying I’m both qualified–” he held up a business card. “– and willing to listen. As a friend or as a counselor.”

“…thank you.” Tony said after a long moment. “I uh– well, I’ve been told I have terrible coping skills, so maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to talk through it a little bit.”

“I think terrible coping goes hand in hand with the hero gig.” Sam cracked a smile to lighten the moment. “I mean damn, every time Steve gets frustrated he just throws planes in the water right?”

“Ugh, yes.” Tony managed a laugh. “He’s the worst.”

“You know, I met him a few times before this.” Sam seemed to relax now that Tony wasn’t so tense. “I doubt he remembers, he’s got a lot going on. But back before he moved to New York full time, must have been just a few weeks after they got him from the ice, he used to run the monuments every morning.”

“Sounds like Steve.”

“Right? Even his work out is patriotic.” Sam snorted. “And I run most mornings too, helps me keep in shape and all that. I consider myself a pretty speedy guy, but damn did it feel like walking when I was being passed multiple times by some blonde guy in a too small shirt. You might like him in that Under Armour, but the rest of us don’t need to see it.”

Tony turned a little red and muttered, “Oh good grief.”

“Anyway.” Sam took pity on Tony’s blush and went back to talking about the run. “Anyway, the man passes me three, maybe four times during my run. Polite as hell though, always warns me he’s on my left as he passes.”

“You sound bitter about that.” Tony smirked. “Hear ‘on your left’ a lot, do you?”

“All the damn time!” Sam burst out and Tony started to laugh. “On your left! On your left! On your left! Damn man, I know you’re coming, you don’t gotta warn me!”

“Don’t gotta warn you about what?” Steve spoke up then, the words raspy and hoarse. “What are you yelling about, Sam? Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“Uh…” Sam reached over to turn the music down. “On your left?”

“You run the monuments.” Steve managed a nod, licking at his lips. “I remember. Meant to say something to you when we met but things got a little out hand pretty quick there. Figured maybe you didn’t recognize me since you didn’t say anything either.”

“Right, because you don’t stand out in a crowd.” Sam rolled his eyes and patted Steve’s shoulder. “Good to see you, Cap. I’ll give you two some privacy, be back in a bit to catch up.”

“Give us some privacy?” Steve’s brow scrunched in confusion but he couldn’t turn his head far enough to see who sat in the other chair. “Who else is here?”

“Hey Spangles.” Tony said quietly, moving so Steve could see him better. “Bout time you opened those baby blues. It’s been a few days and I was starting to get worried.”

Tony.” Steve’s hand twitched over, his fingers curling hopefully. “I didn’t think you’d be here. Figured you’d be too mad at me to come to the hospital.”

“Oh yeah?” Tony wove their fingers together and Steve’s eyes fell shut in relief. “Now why would you think that? Because you ignored everything I said and stayed on the plane as it went into the river? Because you told me not to come help? When you went off the fucking comms so I didn’t know what was happening?”

“Tony–”

“Oh, or was it when I had to find you on the side of the goddamn river and didn’t know if you were alive or not?” Tony pressed at Steve’s palm, and Steve squeezed back as hard as he could. “That wasn’t real great for me, Steve. I told you to stay the hell away from planes and bridges, didn’t I? And what was the first thing you did?”

“Found me a bridge way up high on a big plane.” Steve licked his lips again and Tony let go of his hand to get a water, holding the straw up so Steve could sip at it. “M’sorry about that, honey. And I’m sorry about worrying you, but to be fair, none of this was real great for me either.”

“I can’t imagine it was.” Tony brushed his fingers over Steve’s forehead, then down over the bruises on his cheek and Steve turned his head carefully into the touch. “You look like hell, Cap. Like the punchline to a terrible joke. What’s red and white and bruised all over?”

“Captain America after falling out of a plane?” Steve suggested shakily, just this little bit of conversation taxing his already depleted energy. “Sounds like a joke you would have cackled over back before New York.”

“Captain America after falling out of a plane.” Tony wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. “And I want to say I’m too dignified to cackle, but in a different life I definitely would have cackled over that joke.”

“It’s a terrible joke.” Steve groaned as he tried to shift on the bed. “You should tell it to Clint, he’d probably get it printed up on t-shirts.”

“It’s a terrible joke.” Tony agreed. “And you’re not wrong about Clint. Did you know he and Sam met outside of Budapest? Something about a bet that Clint won and him and Tasha getting married with the money.”

“Yeah, I heard a story like that and it sounded vaguely unbelievable, which means it’s probably true.” Steve shifted again, muffling a curse as something pulled and fresh blood spotted on the bandage at his side. “Did everyone else make it okay? How long have I been out?”

“About three days.” Tony smacked Steve’s hand away when he tried to pull at his IV, re-adjusting it so it lay easier and grabbing another pillow. “Clint’s pretty banged up but no worse for the wear. I think Sam’s more pissed off about his wings being ruined than he is hurt, but that jump through the window didn’t help things.”

“You caught him, right?”

“Just barely.” Tony smacked Steve’s hand away from a different wire, and Steve scowled at him. “He was out the window and already falling before I managed to snatch him and the suit isn’t exactly comfy so he’s bruised up from that little adventure. He and Clint have been arguing about whether or not Sam actually needed to be caught or if he just wanted an excuse to ride on Iron Man, and I’m siding with Clint more and more on the issue.”

Steve smiled at that and Tony continued, “Natasha’s heartbeat is a little erratic from that shock she gave herself to avoid Pierce, but I’m making JARVIS keep an eye on her so there’s no lasting damage. The Senate already wants her to appear at a hearing since she’s the only one they know for sure was there with the other council members to hear Pierce’s admission of guilt. Fury’s supposed to be dead, Clint is neither confirming nor denying his entire existence at this point, and Sam is a civilian so they can’t bring him in anyway.”

“They don’t want you there?”

“The last time I was at a Senate meeting, I ended up saying something about pleasuring myself on live TV and they don’t invite me back anymore.” Tony winked and Steve rolled his eyes. “Besides, they can’t prove I did anything. It’s easier to hack SHIELD than it is to get access to my computers.”

“So everyone’s okay?” Steve gave up fussing at the wires and tried to pull Tony closer, laying a gentle kiss on Tony’s palm. “What about you, are you okay? Other than being mad–”

“–furious–”

“–furious.” Steve corrected and tugged at Tony again. “Other than being furious with me, are you okay?”

“I’m not great.” Tony said vaguely, perching on the side of the hospital bed, resting his free hand very carefully on the bandages at Steve’s stomach. “But doing better than you, anyway. No holes, no broken bones, not even a scrape. Hair’s a little mussed from sleeping in that chair for three days but that’s about the worst of it.”

“You’ve been here for three days?” Steve asked and Tony nodded, started to reply– “I wasn’t going to just let you be alone–” but Steve cut him off with a kiss, struggling to sit up far enough to bring their lips together for a few seconds. “Oh sweetheart, you didn’t have to stay here for three days.”

“I sort of did.” Tony eased Steve back onto the pillows, smiling a little over the endearment. “I didn’t want you to wake up alone. Not after everything, not when we have so much to-” he cleared his throat. “–to talk about.”

“We do have a lot to talk about.” The blue eyes dimmed in regret. “Tony, we have so much to figure out about Bucky. I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know what happened to him or where he went or if he survived or–”

“Okay, but I can’t do this right now.” Tony hushed him, not able to hide the anguish in his eyes or the catch in his breath. “I can’t– we shouldn’t–” he swallowed hard. “I can’t do it right now. Mentally I can’t handle it, it’s taking every bit of my sanity to just worry about you, so we’re going to have to figure all of this out later, alright?”

“Tony, are you blaming yourself for what happened to Bucky?” Steve whispered and Tony shook his head, looking away. “No no no, you can’t blame yourself for this. Don’t do that. Please don’t do that.”

“I’m not blaming myself.” Tony lied, and when Steve tried to talk again, he straightened up from the bed and took a few steps back. “Babe, I really can’t do this, alright? Please. I can’t do it right now. Don’t make me– don’t make me–” he took another step back. “I can’t.”

“Okay.” Steve went to fold his arms, but couldn’t quite manage it so his hands fell back onto the bed. “Okay, I’m sorry.”

They were quiet for a moment, awkward, neither sure what to say or what to do, Steve too physically hurt to hold Tony the way he wanted to, Tony still running too emotional to even complete a sentence.

“You called me babe.” Steve finally said, and his smile was hesitant and just a little goofy. “Why do you call me babe?”

“I could go back to calling you Stars and Gripes.” Relieved at the chance to tease Steve just a little bit, Tony dragged his chair closer to the bed and took Steve’s hand again, rubbing his thumb gently over the bruised knuckles. “Hm? You want me to call you Stars and Gripes again?”

“Don’t care what you call me.” Steve said quietly, honestly. “As long as you stick around. You aren’t going to leave me, are you Tony?”

“Because you put another plane in the water?” Tony purposefully avoided what Steve was really asking. “The thought crossed my mind. And you’re like, two smart ass comments from being locked out of the Tower too, so watch it.”

“I’ll choose my smart ass comments wisely.” Steve promised.

“Then I guess I’ll stick around.” Tony whispered and Steve’s smile was pure joy and complete relief. “I’ll be here, Spangles.”

Tony stayed by the bed until Steve was asleep again, then kissed his forehead and slipped out the door. He needed to get home and change clothes, needed to update JARVIS and get it all down in the records. He needed to breathe and he needed to cry and he needed to scream over what had happened high in the helicarrier. He needed to call Pepper back because she’d left several panicked messages on his phone and he needed to–

“Stark.”

Jesus.” Tony startled when Nick Fury stepped from the shadows and into his path. “I thought you’d gone dark, what the hell are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” Fury peered out at him from that one disconcertingly sharp eye. “You just found out a very special someone is still alive and you’re hanging out in the hospital with Captain Rogers? Doesn’t seem like you to tend to the wounded and sick instead of chasing after what you actually want.”

“What doesn’t seem like me?” Tony retorted, irritated by the insinuation in Fury’s tone, too exhausted from the last few weeks to really care. “And why does it matter to you? You’re supposed to be dead.”

“So is Sergeant Barnes.” Fury said pointedly and Tony tried not to flinch at the mention of Bucky. “And I’d argue that Captain Rogers should be rather dead too, but somehow neither of them are. Mighty curious.”

“Almost as curious as you being director of a Nazi organization, hm?” Tony rubbed at his temples, feeling the near constant headache turning into a full blown migraine. “What do you want, Fury?”

“I know you got a little nosy and hacked into the SHIELD files when news of my so-called death got around.” Fury finally got around to making his point. “And you know that Agent Romanov got access to the rest. This is one of the very few times when you might actually know more than me and I confess to finding myself at a disadvantage. I’d like access to what you gathered before you sent my entire system crashing into the river.”

“And what would I get in return?” Tony folded his arms and stared the man down. “And don’t bother suggesting a surge of patriotism or the joy of helping out my country or the satisfaction of doing the right thing because I have to say, I don’t give a damn about any of that right now.”

“No, I can’t imagine you do.” Fury watched Tony for another moment. “But here’s something you will care about. SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore, Stark. Which means that any attempts to bring in Sergeant Barnes will be made by the government, which means he will be treated like a war criminal who’s been wreaking havoc and not a prisoner of war forced to act against his will. But if you and I help each other, I can pull resources to try and track him down and bring him home before the powers that be get wind that the Winter Soldier is running around without a handler.”

“We don’t even know that Bucky–” Tony cursed under his  breath, unable to finish the sentence, feeling the panic rising in his throat all over again. I can’t deal with this right now. “I had JARVIS run scans of the river checking for any forms that resembled his build and there were several. Could have been operatives, could have been the- the Soldier. We have no idea what happened. Your ‘promise’ don’t sound very promising at all.”

“We have no idea what happened?” Fury repeated. “Who exactly do you think pulled Captain Rogers from the river, Stark? Do you think after taking multiple shots to the abdomen, the All American Man swam against the current, through all that debris and got himself all the way up on shore, coughed the water from his lungs and lay there waiting for you to find him?”

“….do you have proof?” Tony’s head was suddenly swimming, his stomach twisting. “Because if– if the Soldier saved Steve, that means he’s breaking through programming.” Bucky Bucky Bucky. “He– he recognized Steve. He did.”

“I might only have one eye here–” Fury pointed at his face. “–but I have a thousand everywhere else. I have video proof of the Winter Soldier pulling Captain America from the water and not leaving until he was breathing again. And he might not recognize Captain Rogers as Steve,  but he knew enough to know not to kill him. That’s a step in the right direction at least.”

Tony was silent, stunned by the enormity of Fury’s statement, his knees giving out and collapsing him against the wall.

“What I want to know, is what this all means to you.” Fury continued. “I understand you have something of a connection to Sergeant Barnes, one that goes further than just looking out for the Captain’s long lost pal. What exactly is that connection, Stark? Why does the idea of the Soldier knowing Steve matter so much to you? Last time I checked, you and Captain Rogers could barely stand the sight of each other, has something changed since New York?”

“I tell you what.” Tony forced himself to his feet, smoothed his hair back and gathered every bit of his strength to ignore Fury’s jab about he and Steve, to keep his expression placid as he said “You get me that video of the Soldier saving Steve and I’ll get you the files I stole from SHIELD.”  

“And if I want to find you in the meantime?” Fury asked as Tony stumbled away. “Will you be holding vigil at Captain Roger’s bedside or back at the Tower?”

“You’re a ghost, Fury.” Tony said over his shoulder. “Walk through the goddamn walls and figure it out.”

******************

******************

Tony used to think Peggy’s apartment in the home was depressing and small, nothing more than a waiting room until she passed, but since his fall from the wormhole the little place was as comforting as home, warm and familiar and full of the one person who had known him every day of his life, and every day of his trip back in time as well.

“Tony.” Peggy’s eyes were bright and clear when he knocked on the door, but she was already tearing up as he crossed to kiss her hello. “Why is it that every time I see you and Captain Rogers on the telly, it’s because you’re doing something stupid? I’m old, Tony. My heart can’t handle this nonsense.”

“Sorry Auntie.” Tony didn’t even try to pull away from the fierce hug, burying his face in her little shoulder and breathing unsteadily. “I swear I told him to stay away from planes and trains and high bridges. He just doesn’t listen worth shit.”

“He might not listen worth shit, but you certainly look like shit.” She said disapprovingly, pushing the hair from his eyes. “When was the last time you slept?”

“I dunno.” Tony flopped into the chair closest to her bed. “I’ve been sitting in the hospital for three days waiting for Steve to wake up and now I’m just- I’m just–” his hands were shaking as he combed through his hair. “I don’t even know where to go from here.”

“Start with some water.” Peggy said gently and when Tony shook his head, she added, “Not for you, Tony. I meant some water for me. Go get me some water.”

Tony finally smiled at his Auntie’s snark and got up to get her a water bottle obediently. “How are you feeling lately?”

“A little more gray after hearing about SHIELD.” Peggy took a sip of the water, then admitted, “Foolish too. I spent most of my life fighting HYDRA, developing SHIELD in it’s very early years and now I find out it’s been Nazis all along? I feel foolish and stupid and blind.”

“Don’t feel like that, Peggy.” Tony took the water when she was done with it. “SHIELD has done a lot of good, despite the whole HYDRA thing, and it’s not like any of us had any idea. Not even Fury, though I’m sure he’ll pretend to have known all along. Prick.”

“He is a prick.” Peggy decided. “Aren’t you going to ask me how I knew all of this, darling? It’s not as if the news has any idea of what’s going on. God, can you imagine the chaos if they just announced that the semi secret organization of SHIELD was actually a more secret organization of Nazis? The people would revolt!”

“I’ve learned not to question how you always know everything, Auntie.” Peggy’s smile was proud and maybe a little mischievous, and Tony let himself smile back before gathering the nerve to ask, “Have you ever heard about the Winter Soldier?”

“Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” Peggy tapped at her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Not for decades really, I didn’t know anyone even knew about him these days.”

Tony looked mildly surprised, and Peggy shrugged nonchalantly, “Oh, everyone at SHIELD knew about the Winter Soldier back in the day, some even swore they come into contact with him or had to clean up after one of his kills but there was never any real proof. He was more a ghost story than anything, and anytime we went digging for more information we hit a dead end so eventually we quit asking.”

Those still brilliant eyes narrowed in Tony’s direction. “Don’t tell me you’ve come across him in this whole ordeal? Was he a secret buried in HYDRA’s files?”

“Will you tell me what you know about him?” Tony sidestepped Peggy’s question, playing with the lace at the edge of her quilt. “Did you ever have any idea who he was?”

“For a long time, we thought the Soldier was Steve.” Peggy said softly, grief pulling at her lovely features. “You see, we never had any proof that he’d lived, that he’d survived the ice. But we didn’t have any proof that he hadn’t lived, either. When reports of an assassin that was too fast and too strong to be human, I think we all sort of hoped it was Steve come back.”

“How could you hope it was Steve?” Tony asked in disbelief. “How could you ever think that Captain America would go around killing people like that?”

“Oh Tony.” Peggy sighed. “War does things to a man, to a woman. Boys who never would have thought about raising their hand in anger to anyone came home from the war as men who hurt their wives, their children. Women who were good, sweet souls turned bitter and angry because of what they saw. A soldier like Steve, one who always struggled with who he was supposed to be.. maybe he saw it as a chance to start over.”

“And you thought he would start over as an assassin?”

“I think Steve always wanted to contribute to the greater good, and if that meant killing the people who threatened it, he wouldn’t hesitate.” She said firmly. “You knew him in the war, Tony. Don’t you think he would have put a bullet in Schmidt’s the first time around if he knew what sort of terror that bastard would unleash?”

“…yes.” Tony admitted. “Yes, he would have.”

“And of course,” now Peggy’s voice was overly soft. “If the Soldier was Steve, it meant I hadn’t lost him altogether after all, do you know? He wouldn’t be my Steve anymore, but at least he was alive, hm? And maybe it would have given me a reprieve from the guilt over not being able to find him. We looked for him for so long, Tony. So long and we never found anything. You can’t blame us for pinning some sort of hope on any scrap we could.”

“Auntie, I–”

“Your father was obsessed with the Winter Soldier.” Peggy continued and Tony’s eyes widened. “I think he wanted it to be Steve so he wouldn’t feel so guilty too. Howard carried the weight of feeling like he failed the Captain until the day he passed. He didn’t care if Steve had turned into an assassin, a war criminal. He just wanted the chance to bring him home.”

“My dad never looked for the Winter Soldier.” Tony denied. “I’ve been through all his notes, Peggy. All his books, all his journals, all his files. He never mentioned it ever, not one line about the Winter Soldier.”

“Howard was more private than you realize.” Peggy began. “And I know he wasn’t always good to you, Tony. Not to you and not to your sweet mother but–”

“Bucky is the Winter Soldier.” Tony blurted then, not wanting to talk about his dad and too upset to wait any longer, and Peggy went very very pale.

“Wh–what?”

“Bucky is the Winter Soldier.” He said again as Peggy grasped at his hand, holding it tight when tears filled her eyes. “Steve and I found out a couple days ago. Steve and the Soldier were fighting and I showed up in time to pop him with a repulsor and his mask came off and–”

“Your Sergeant Barnes.” she whispered. “Oh no. Tony, no no no.”

“Yeah.” Tony didn’t trust himself to say much more that. “Yeah.”

“We never thought–” Peggy’s fingers were trembling against his palm. “Tony, we never thought for even a second that your Bucky had survived the fall, and you know he had to be given the serum to still be around after this long. What is it, cryo freeze? How are they– how is he–?”

She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, shifting the focus of the conversation. “You aren’t alright, are you darling? No, of course you aren’t. You lost everything so quickly and then woke up here and have just barely managed to move on with your grief into something happy and now everything is fucked again, isn’t it?”

Tony didn’t reply, not even a comment about Peggy’s cursing and she clicked her tongue sympathetically. “And our Steve? How is he doing with all of this?”

Still nothing from Tony and Peggy nodded. “You haven’t been able to talk about it with him yet, have you? I’d shout at you for being stupid about talking again, but I can’t blame you this time. I wouldn’t know how to talk about this sort of thing either.”

“I–” Tony dragged his hands down his thighs, worrying creases into his pants. “Auntie, I– I don’t even know where to begin. I thought I was at peace with what happened to Bucky, I thought I’d made my peace with letting him go because I knew it had to happen that way so Steve would be here to save the world this time around but now– now–”

“Now you know what happened.” She finished for him. “And you feel guilty.”

“I’m so guilty I can’t even breathe through it.” Tony choked out. “And I know– I know no one knew. No one could have possibly known that HYDRA took him, but what am I supposed to do now Auntie? That’s the man I love out there! I cried over him, grieved for him and I don’t know how to move on from here. How do I go forward with this? How do I even–” he made a helpless gesture. “I thought I had faced everything terrible I could face in this life but every time I turn around, it’s something else. It’s always something else. Anytime I start thinking I might actually be happy, something else goes wrong. Where do I go from here, Auntie? How do I begin to fix this?”

“Tell me something, sweetheart.” Peggy fluffed the pillows next to her and patted the bed, urging Tony up and on top of the covers so he would rest his head. “When you said ‘that’s the man I love out there’, were you talking about Bucky? Or were you talking about Steve?”

Tony didn’t answer, but a few tears slipped down his cheek and fell into the pillows.

“Hm.” Peggy wound her fingers into his hair, scratching at his scalp lightly just like she’d done since the time Tony had been very little, just like she’d done every time Tony had come to her to escape Howard, had spent weekends at her house instead of going home, just like she’d done all the nights after his parents accidents when he’d drank himself to sleep. “I think when you figure out the answer to that question, you’ll start to figure out the rest.”

*****************

*****************

“Fury says the Soldier saved Steve from the river.” It was nearly dinnertime before Tony opened his eyes spoke again, and Peggy put down her book, folding her hands in her lap and waiting patiently for him to continue. “And that means that somewhere under whatever HYDRA did to him, Bucky is still there. And if he’s still there, then I can’t abandon him.”

Tony waited a beat, then– “Even if he isn’t still there, I can’t abandon him. The Soldier deserves better than what HYDRA did, and he shouldn’t be out in a world he doesn’t know, one he doesn’t understand beyond his missions and his targets. And because of who he used to be, I won’t be able to rest knowing he’s out there alone.”

“Mm-hmm.” Peggy said non-committedly. “And?”

“Going after Bucky means leaving Steve.” He said softly. “Because if it is Bucky, if it’s my Brooklyn and I can bring him back, he’d be heartbroken over Steve and I. But how can I face Steve if I’m not willing to go out and help bring his best friend home? Steve and I were so close to happy just a few weeks ago, but Bucky and I planned a life together and it’s been seventy years now and–”

“There is no time between you and your Brooklyn soldier.” Peggy interrupted. “No time at all, Tony. The six weeks perhaps, between him falling and you coming back. But that’s not enough time to matter. The seven or eight months since you woke up and tried to work through your grief, but that’s not enough time to matter either, is it? Are you telling me that if your Bucky was home today, that this little bit of time would change your feelings?”

“Well, no but–”

“Time stands still when you’re in love, darling.” Peggy murmured. “It just ceases to matter altogether. Even as old as I am, my heart nearly stopped when I saw Steve again. Do you know he asked me to dance that very first day, told me he felt bad about not making our date and I might have been twenty eight again for all it made me fluttery inside.”

“Yes, but–”

“Time stands still when you’re in love.” She said again. “It’s been less than a year since it all happened, which is no time at all between you and the soldiers you love. It’s just not important, Tony. Not when time itself fell away and bent and changed to bring you into Bucky and Steve’s lives. It’s just not important when fate is so obviously conspiring to keep you together.”

“But Auntie–”

“And if you think you have to choose between them, if you think you have to give up what you and Steve have worked so hard for so you can save Bucky, or leave Bucky out in the cold just to hold on to this bit of happiness, you are wrong.”

“Peggy–”

Wrong!” She announced loudly, and despite himself, Tony smiled. “Those two boys loved you wholeheartedly back during the war, even if Steve wasn’t romantically interested in you yet. They loved you then and Steve loves you now and if there is even a tiny piece of your Bucky left inside the Soldier, he will love you now too.”

“So what do I do?” Tony turned over on the bed and groaned into the blankets. “Peggy, what do I do?”

“Well you could stop dirtying up my linens, first.” She flicked him in the ear and Tony pinched at her crossly. “And then you should go and talk to Steve, Lord knows you two are the worst lot at communicating. Talk to him, reassure him of your feelings and make a plan to bring Bucky home together.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“Even the hardest things are tackled one step at a time.” she said wisely. “But you can’t take the step if you’re still napping in my bed.”

“Are you kicking me out, Auntie?”

“It’s my dinner time and I don’t want to share.” She informed him and Tony propped up on his elbows to smack a kiss on her cheek before rolling out of the bed. “You’ll tell me how things are, won’t you? Don’t keep me in the dark.”

“I’ll let you know.” he promised, slipping back into his shoes and turning his phone back on to check the messages. “Can I come back and see you again later this week?”

“Please do.” Peggy looked a little sad then. “You and Steve and your Sergeant might have decades left to be together, but I’ve got far less now. At the very least you could come by and tell me about your adventures. My days are terribly boring now that I’m not out kicking baddies around anymore.” 

“I’ll bring Steve with me as soon as he’s able to leave the hospital and we’ll tell you all about everything.” Tony kissed her cheek again, his throat constricting at the thought of not being able to come to his Auntie for advice, for a hug and a smile, for her wisdom and sass. “Don’t go running off on me now, Agent Carter.”

“Oh please.” she pushed him away, fixing at her hair where he’d rumpled it. “I’m in my night clothes, Mr. Carbonell. I’m far too proper for that sort of thing.”

“Of course you are.” Tony stopped at the door to smile at her one last time. “Thank you. Love you.”

“Love you too, darling.” she blew him a kiss and waved him away when she heard his phone chime. “Go find Steve.”

From Unknown Number: Tony this is Sam, I don’t to wake you up but Steve is about 200 pounds of cranky as shit. Come get your man.

From Clint: Tony, wake the hell up and come deal with this guy

From NatashaTony, I’m going to sedate Steve if he doesn’t stop fussing, and I don’t mean with medicine, I mean with a surgical 2x4, are you coming back anytime soon?

Tony shook his head and smiled

From Tony: I’m on my way.

******************

******************

“Tony.” It was almost unfair how much better Steve looked after a solid twelve hours of sleep, his bruises fading and the smaller lacerations already closed up. “You came back.”

“I just went to see Peggy.” Tony ignored the nurse in the room and went right to Steve’s side, bringing their mouths together in a slow kiss. “I told you I wasn’t going anywhere, Spangles. I meant it. I needed some sleep and to talk with Peggy but I was always going to come back.”

Oh.” Steve cupped Tony’s cheek, brought him close for another kiss. “Can I– Tony, can I hold you? Will you lay here with me for a minute? You don’t have to stay but will you just–” Steve moved over as best he could. “Please?”

“Why are you–.” Tony started to ask why Steve looked so uncertain and then he understood all in a rush–

Steve thought he’d lost me because of Bucky.

He thought I’d give up on us because of Bucky.

Christ, I almost did, didn’t I?

“Yes.” he said instead and he thought maybe Steve teared up for a second. “Yes. Definitely.”

It took only a minute to kick off his shoes and belt, to strip off his jacket and climb onto the small bed, pressing in tight to Steve’s side and shivering when those big arms wrapped around him. “Is this alright?” he touched carefully over the still bandaged ribs. “Am I hurting you?”

“No.” Steve sighed in contentment, held Tony even tighter. “No, just– just don’t go yet, alright? Stay right here for a little bit. I was sort of hoping you’d be here when I woke up, but that’s alright. You deserved some sleep.”

“Is that why you were cranky?” he teased lightly. “I got all sorts of text messages saying you were being a sourpuss, was that because you missed me?”

“Will you make fun of me if I say yes?” Steve asked and Tony snarked back, “At least a little bit.”

“That’s fine.” Steve breathed out a sigh of relief, the tension draining from his body. “Did Natasha threaten me with bodily harm?”

“I mean, she threatened you with a 2x4.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

They lay in silence for a while, just breathing each other in and trying to touch as much as possible, but finally Steve asked, “Are you ready to talk about Bucky yet?”

“In the morning I will be.” Tony decided, and the idea didn’t seem as terrible as it had earlier, didn’t send him spiraling into a panic like the past few days. “Is that alright? Can we wait until then?”

“We can wait until then.” Steve dropped a kiss onto Tony’s hair. “Thank you, Tony.”

“For what?”

“Just…thank you.”

Natasha found them hours later, and she knocked on the door before showing Steve a file. “I have what you asked for, Captain. Made it a hard copy and then wiped anything digital. This should be the only one in existence.”

“Later.” Steve shushed her, glancing down at a still sleeping Tony in his arms. “I’ll read it later.”

“I don’t think you should read it around Tony.” she said quietly, putting it at the bedside table. “You’re not going to like what you find in these pages, and it only gets worse the further back you go.”

“I’ll deal with it later.” Steve waited until she’d left again before closing his eyes and settling back into the blankets.

The file on Bucky could wait until the morning, then he and Tony could read it together.

It would be fine.

It would be fine.

********************

********************

Alexander Pierce had seen a lot in his life and very little surprised him anymore, but even he was still struggling to understand how he’d gone from arguably one of the most powerful– if not unknown– people in the world to rotting away in a windowless room, no doubt buried somewhere beneath a building no one knew existed.

He’d been snatched right out of the Triskelion as the entire world was going to shit, the herlicarriers crashing and the building coming down and someone had simply thrown a black bag over his head and carried him away. There’d been a van, as best he could tell, and the gagging smell of stagnant river water and then a rushed trip down a long hall and he’d been deposited carelessly into this very room.

A handful of protein bars was stacked on the bed, a case of water set on the floor and then the locks were turned, the bolt set, the only light available coming from a tiny barred window at the very top of the door jam and it had been at least three days as best as he could tell, and not a soul had come to see him. 

So Alexander Pierce sat alone  in near darkness, twiddling his thumbs and biding his time, not letting himself over think anything and certainly not letting himself panic. He was a man with powerful friends after all, connections all over the world both legal and less than legal and someone would find him.

Someone would find him.

When the door opened some countless amount of hours later, Pierce sat up expectantly, sure that his salvation had come, or at the very least that he would have a chance to state his case and remind his apparent captors of exactly who he was–

–but there was nothing more than a shadow outlined in the door, a glint of metal along the left side and Pierce felt the first real stirrings of fear.

The someone to find him had been none other than the Winter Soldier.

“Are you here to extract me?” he asked after several nerve racking moments of silence. “Has the council sent you for me?”

“The man on the bridge.” The Asset spoke slowly, calmly. “I knew him. Tell me his name.”

“He doesn’t matter.” Pierce said automatically. “You recognize him from a previous job, you’ve never been used so much in so little time and you are confusing memories with missions.”

“His name.” the Asset said again, just as slow, just as calm. “Tell me.”

“Captain America.” Pierce saw no harm in telling the Soldier at least that much, he could learn that from a poster, after all. “Now get me out of here.”

“His real name.” the Asset moved forward and despite his bravado, Pierce flinched away. “Tell me.”

“S-Steve Rogers.”

“Steve Rogers.” he echoed and Pierce nodded, though he didn’t know if the Asset could see him. Whether or not the serum let the Soldier see in the dark had always been up for debate. “And what is my name?”

“You are an Asset.” Pierce was more confident this time around. Reminding the Soldier of where he stood in this world would bring the situation back under control very quickly. “An Asset of HYDRA.”

“What is my name?”

“You are the Soldier. The Winter Soldier.”

“What is my name?!” The first sign of any sort of emotion from the Asset and it came as nothing more than a dangerous pitch to his voice, a sound like metal crushing as he clenched his left fist. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know your name.” Pierce admitted. “No one has known your name for years, and no one cares. You are an Asset, you are the Soldier, you are HYDRA’s property. Even if I did know your name, I wouldn’t tell you.” Bravely, foolishly. “It doesn’t matter anymore, the man you may have been at one time doesn’t exist, neither does anyone who might have known you.”

“If you knew it, you wouldn’t tell me.” the Soldier repeated. “Because it doesn’t matter.”

“Your name is nothing.” Pierce lifted his chin stubbornly. “You are part of HYDRA and part of a greater design, so your name doesn’t matter. It does you no good, so even if I did know it, I’d take it to my grave before I let you attempt to ruin our program, to destroy our goal.” 

“Your grave.” The Soldier stepped closer, then closer again and Pierce didn’t even have time to scream once cold fingers closed around his throat. “You will be there sooner than you think.”

Chapter Text

It was all over the news the next morning, that the former head of the recently disgraced SHIELD, the former Secretary of Defense Alexander Goodwin Pierce had been found deceased, strangled, his trachea crushed, every vertebra in his neck broken, finger marks dug into his skin in a mottled black and blue.

They’d found him by the water, sprawled across a dock with his feet hanging off the edge, jacket missing and clothing tattered from being out in the elements. Pierce’s wallet was still in his pocket, complete with ID and credit cards so there was no mistaking who he was and Steve knew– he knew– that if Pierce had been taken out as part of a mission, as a direct order from some higher, faceless, power that his body never would have been found. He would have been erased from existence and never mentioned again.

The fact that he was killed so brutally and left out in the open was a clear sign, a blatant arrow pointing towards an unsanctioned kill by a very angry individual.

“It was him, wasn’t it?” Tony paused at the open door to stare at the television, the muscle at his jaw jumping as he clenched his teeth. “It was the Soldier? It was– it was Bucky?”

Steve nodded, just once.

“Do you think he–” Tony was having a hard time getting the words out. “Do you think he was told to do that? Was it a mission or did he just…want to?”

“I–” Steve dragged in a shaky breath. “I don’t know, Tony. But I think that if I’d been through what Bucky has in the last fifty years, if I had been turned into the Soldier and used like they used him, I think I’d be angry enough to do this sort of thing.”

“Right.” Tony didn’t have anything else to say to that, so he said it again, “Right.” and headed into the tiny bathroom to take a shower, ready to get the feeling of hospital off his skin, ready to wash away the stink of depression that he was sure hovered over his shoulders.

The shower started up and Tony closed the door, leaving Steve to rub at his eyes wearily as the TV droned on in the background. God he was tired.

Even with Tony finally, thankfully, in his arms again, Steve had lain awake for hours last night unable to sleep, unable to even close his eyes without hearing Bucky shouting that he didn’t know him, without seeing the horror in Bucky’s eyes when he started to realize the truth. 

Tony hadn’t said anything about the obvious bags under Steve’s eyes in the morning, but Natasha’s lips pursed in concern every time she peeked her head into the room to check on them, and even Clint was uncharacteristically quiet when he came around. Neither spy knew exactly what was going on, but they were both fairly sure that it was worse than they imagined and Steve was grateful for their discretion and lack of general nosiness. 

Sam was less discreet though, and when he came by to smuggle in good coffee for Tony and a pint of ice cream for Steve, his eyes narrowed in on Steve’s expression, at the way Tony looked like he might run away any second and he opened his mouth to ask–

–But Tony cut him off with a quick shake of his head, blowing Sam a kiss as thanks for the coffee, but otherwise stopping any attempt at conversation.

Steve appreciated that too, because it wasn’t just Tony that wasn’t ready to talk about Bucky. For all his bravado and insistence on them starting the conversation, Steve wasn’t ready either. 

How would he ever be ready for a talk about his best friend and Tony’s lost love turned assassin and war criminal? 

How would he ever be ready for that? 

And maybe the worst thing of all about all of this, the worst part of this aftermath was the way Tony’s fingers trembled every time they held hands and the way he seemed on the verge of tears constantly. He was more shaken now than he’d been even after New York, than he’d been when they walked through Brooklyn together, more shaken than when they stood and looked down at the sad little marker placed in remembrance of Bucky and cried together. 

Tony was falling apart right when he’d finally started to make it again, and Steve was falling apart right with him, drowning in disbelief in anger, his very core washing away in heartbreak. 

He didn’t know how to do this, how to begin to talk with Tony, how to begin looking for Bucky, he just didn’t know. 

God there was so much he didn’t know.

The folder from Natasha was still lying on the bedside table and that seemed as good a place to start as any, so Steve reached for it with a sigh, steeling himself for more bad news. He’d asked her to privately find everything she could in SHIELD’s most secret files, and then to erase it entirely so no one else would ever find the name Bucky Barnes in relation to HYDRA, and the file she’d come up with was depressingly small.

Steve’s stomach ached from the gun shot wound and though most of his other injuries had healed over his nearly five day stay in the room, he still hissed when he tried to sit up on the pillows, gritting his teeth against the pain. He shouldn’t complain, not when Clint was going to be bruised for weeks and Natasha’s heart beat might not never get back to normal, but damn it, he was tired of hurting.

On top of everything else, he was so tired of hurting. 

“Okay okay okay.” Steve breathed out slowly as he tried to ease himself into a more comfortable position. “Here we go, here we–”

The words trailed off as he opened to the first page of the file, his pain momentarily forgotten in wake of all the secrets laid out in front of him in bold black and white print.

The first page was nothing more than a list of dates, places and names, a red stamp of confirmed on the far right side of each line. It started in 1962 with a minimum of one entry per year up until 1991, then a time jump clear to 2005, where the list started up again with multiple missions a year. A line was blacked out entirely in 1963, another in 1973, and in 1991 several lines were omitted and Steve tapped at them thoughtfully, too tired to remember exactly why those years were important, to nervous about learning more about Bucky’s time with HYDRA to spend much time pondering it.

The next page made Steve forget all about the blacked out dates, as it detailed the beginning of Bucky’s time with HYDRA, the day they found him, how he reacted to the drugs they pumped into his system, how they had taken his arm–

–Steve needed a drink of water after that, wiping at his mouth and closing his eyes to steady himself again before he kept reading–

Subject found via tracking device under skin, number ID confirmed as Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, only living subject from Dr. Zola’s experiments at Azzano.

Subject under heavy sedation to treat for hypothermia, blood tests still show traces of original serum, recommended to inject with updated serum once physically capable of withstanding procedure.

Subject shows immediate signs of hostility upon waking, sedation wore off faster than anticipated, immediate transportation to cell to avoid further injuries to doctors.

Subject hostile towards guards and refusing to eat.

Subject broke guards arm in attempt to escape, initial sedation had no effect

Subject broke guards neck in attempt to escape, upped sedation, still no effect.

Subject attempted escape, stopped with near-lethal force. Initial serum is stronger than anticipated, adjusting markers in new formula as needed.

Subject prepped for surgery: removing left arm to replace with metal prosthesis, weaponized.

Pain medication has no effect on subject.

Upped dosages, pain medication has no effect of subject.

Decision made to continue with surgery without medication.

Grafting successful, subject’s body has not rejected the prosthesis as of twenty four hours post surgery.

New serum a success, prosthesis a success, subject ripped cell door off hinges with little effort and killed four guards in attempt to escape.

Subject comatose after extensive sedation, recommend place in cryogenic freeze to ensure survival until programming goes into effect.

Subject lasted seven days in cryogenic freeze, immediately hostile towards handlers when woken up, recommend immediate immersion in program to avoid more complications.

Subject resistant to program, still hostile, discipline applied.

Subject resistant to program, still hostile, discipline applied.

Subject resistant to program, still hostile, heavy discipline applied.

Subject returned to cryogenic freeze.

On and on and on it went for pages and pages and pages, nearly fifteen years of Bucky’s life after he fell from the train detailed out in short sentences speaking of his disobedience and resulting punishment, of his rage and violence towards the men who held him, of his resistance to the brain washing.

And finally, after nearly fifteen documented years of longer and longer bouts of cryo freeze and more discipline, more violence–

Subject activated successfully with trigger words.

First kill-order carried out and return to base successful.

Conversion to program successful.

Asset Designation: Winter Soldier

“Bucky.” Steve’s nails bit into his palm, leaving white crescents marks behind. “Bucky what did they do to you?”

Steve thought he might be sick over what he was reading and he didn’t dare let himself think about what he wasn’t reading, what was between the lines that didn’t make it into the reports. How violent had Bucky been? How had he resisted? What did they do to discipline a super soldier?

God, Steve wanted to rage, wanted to destroy something, wanted to drop to his knees and cry for his friend–his best friend-- and what HYDRA had done, but then he turned to the last page in the file and everything was suddenly much, much worse.

Mission Report:

December 16th 1991

Target: Stark

“No.” The color leeched from Steve’s face, something awful settling hard in his chest and stealing his breath. “No no no, Bucky please–”

Winter Soldier tasked to intercept, take out three targets as quickly as possible. Car crash preferable, force allowed if necessary. Targets must be eliminated, no survivors, no witnesses.

Mission Status: Two Confirmed Kills.

Post Mission Notes: Asset took three days to return to base. Agitated and aggressive with handlers. Resistant to memory wipe and reset. Handlers express concern that Asset recognized his target and went off mission. No explanation for three day absence. Waiting on confirmation of final–

“Steve?” Tony spoke from the doorway of the bathroom and Steve jumped, the file falling through his fingers and onto the bed. “What are you reading?”

“Hey–hey, honey. I didn’t hear you.” Steve scrambled to pick up the file, to at least shuffle the pages so the damning mission report wasn’t on top. “How was your shower?”

“Not as good as my shower back home. Babe, what is this?” Tony picked up the papers before Steve could gather them all, his brow furrowing as he scanned the top one. “Is this the Winter Soldier’s file? How did you even find this?”

“…Natasha got it for me.” Steve chewed at the inside of his cheek anxiously, watching Tony’s lips move as he read through the list of missions. “I asked her to look for it when she dumped SHIELD’s database and she got me a hard copy then wiped the trace of anything digital.”

“Smart of her. No one needs to see his name connected with anything HYDRA, that would only mess things up more.” Tony was obviously working to keep himself steady while reading, every line in his body tense. “So um, this is– this is a list of his kills? Fifty years and he – this is his missions?”

“Honey, honey wait.” Steve blurted before he lost his nerve, and tried to snatch the file from Tony’s hands. “Please just wait. I need to tell you something before you– we need to talk about something big before you–” he couldn’t stretch as far as he needed to grab the pages and Tony just frowned at him in confusion. “No, Tony really. Please just let me see it for a minute–”

“Is this what they put him through?” Tony asked hoarsely when he got to line after line of Bucky’s behavior after the fall, after being captured. “Hypothermia? Surgery without pain medication? They disciplined him if he tried to escape? What the hell counts as discipline for a super soldier? Froze him when he didn’t respond to the trigger words? Jesus fuck–” his voice caught, eyes filling with tears when he saw Asset Designation: Winter Soldier. “What did they do to my– to him? What did they do to him?” 

“Tony.” Steve finally managed to grab Tony’s wrist, pulled him back towards the bed. “Sweetheart, I need you to listen to me now. Stop reading for a minute and just give me a minute to tell you something.”

“They had him for twenty years before he finally gave in.” Tony managed over the despair clogging his throat. “Steve, they had him for twenty years! And fifty years after that! How the hell is he even functioning–”

Steve’s heart sank clear to his toes when Tony got to the last page, when he went very very still and very very pale.

“What the hell is this?” Tony dropped the file as if it had burned him, the picture falling out onto the bed sheet, glaring and obvious and terrible between them. “Steve? What the hell is this, have you seen this?”

“Damn it.” Steve closed his eyes briefly. “I was trying to tell you, Tony, trying to wait so you didn’t have to see it right away but–”

“This is my dad?” Tony pointed at the grainy image of Howard lying battered and bloody next to the totaled car. “And my–” he was shaking, unable to even touch the photo now. “–my mom? That’s my mom, my– my momma. Why is there a picture of my parents in here, Steve?”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” Steve whispered, and when Tony’s knees gave out, Steve caught him awkwardly, trying to direct him towards the bed. “Tony, please just breathe. Breathe and just give me a minute to–”

“Give you a minute to what?” Tony could barely get the words out. “To explain? To tell me it’s not true? There is a picture of my parents in this folder, Steve! Did you know about this?”

“I–” Steve hesitated, stopped and tried again. “Tony, sweetheart, I–”

“Don’t you bullshit me, Rogers.” Tony’s eyes were horrible, his face distorted in pain. “Did you know about this?”

“…when Nat and I were at Lehigh, Zola said that HYDRA had always gotten rid of anyone in their way.” Steve finally admitted. “And– and he put a picture of your parents on the screen.”

“Oh my god.” Tony blanched, jerked away from him, stumbled from the bed and towards the door. “Are you kidding me? You knew about this? You knew and you didn’t say anything? You’ve known since Lehigh? Steve we were– we slept in the same bed that night! I told you to make sure you came back home so we could–” Tony retched, clapped both his hands over his mouth so he wouldn’t vomit. “God, Steve you held me all night and you knew? You knew about my parents then?!”

“I didn’t know what it meant when I saw the picture on the screen!” Steve raised his voice when Tony did. “Tony, I didn’t understand it then. Zola was saying a lot of things and I thought maybe, maybe they’d arranged the accident but and I never knew it was the Winter Soldier. I swear Tony, I didn’t know it was the Winter Soldier, and you know I didn’t know Bucky was the–”

“Don’t.” Tony shook his head, backing out of the room with his hands raised. “Don’t you– don’t you dare. Don’t say his name right now, not after I had to see– not when I had to see–”

Tony retched again, gagged and heaved and then he was gone, slamming the door behind him and bolting down the hallway as fast as he could.

“Tony!” Steve shouted and tried to jump out of bed to follow, but fell when his knees gave out. “Tony!”

“Captain?” Clint came running in a few seconds later and rushed to his side to help him up., “What the hell is going on? Is Tony alright? He just blew past us and was all sorts of sick in the trash can in the hall and–” he paused when he got a good look at Steve. “Holy shit, are you okay?”

“No.” Steve could barely breathe through the pain as Clint helped him back against the bed, the bandages at his stomach rippling bright red as his stitches came undone. “Damn it. Damn it, neither of us are okay.”

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t know where he was going when he hopped in his car and tore out of the hospital parking lot, but he knew he had to get away-- away from the hospital and the scent of sick, away from DC and everything that had happened, away from Steve and all the awfulness that had come to light. 

And the Audi probably wasn’t the best car to take on a spontaneous road trip but it topped out at almost two hundred miles an hour, which meant Tony could be two hundred miles away in an hour and that was all that really mattered. 

I’ve got to get out of here. 

He started out East, automatically heading back towards the city at nearly break neck speed, but at some point Tony turned the convertible North and took the highway that would lead him through upstate. The road stretched wide and open in front of him for over two hours before Tony noticed the first signs advertising touristy options near the Canadian border and in a brief moment of lucidity, he called his real estate agent to get directions to the land and home he’d purchased months before.

The turnoff for his road was another hour and a half up the highway, and Tony wrenched the wheel left the second he saw it, sending the Audi skidding onto a gravel road, the brakes squealing in protest and a cloud of dust and dirt billowing behind him. A convertible was a terrible choice for a too-fast drive down a barely maintained road but Tony sent it bumping and rattling over the gravel anyway, pushing as fast as he could through the dirt, dodging the bigger rocks and branching roots and stubbornly ignoring the scratches and dings ruining the paint job and denting the fenders of the beautiful car.

After almost twenty minutes of white knuckled driving, Tony clattered around one last corner and everything suddenly opened up into a large clearing, and there in the middle--  the house he’d bought in memory of Bucky .

It was more beautiful than it should have been--more beautiful than it had a right to be--with trees framing the lot and and the river stunningly blue against the wild grass. The cabin was rustic and cozy, the view of the mountains behind it a perfect backdrop to what was supposed to be a retreat, a safe place, what was supposed to feel like home.

It shouldn’t be this beautiful. 

The Audi might not have been the best car to bring up on this impromptu escape of his, but a sledgehammer was a perfect tool for demolition, and Tony popped the trunk on the little car and retrieved the sledge, hefting it over his shoulder and heading for the front porch.

He hadn’t planned this, Christ he hadn’t planned any of this, but he’d stopped for gas and there had been a little Mom and Pop hardware store in the same lot and the sledgehammer had been there in the window and Tony--

Well, he hadn’t planned any of this, but it felt good all the same to bring that hammer crashing through the door of the cabin, to feel it break beneath the force of the blow, to hear the crack as wood splintered and gave way.

And it felt even better to kick the rest of the door off the hinges, to step into the front room and bring the hammer around to take out the drywall at the short dividing wall, to destroy the trim along the door jam. The banister at the stairs crumpled next, Tony hooking the hammer between the pickets yanked hard enough to send most of it crashing to the floor, the steps themselves splintering where the rail was connected. 

There were so many lights in the house and it was probably cheery and well lit when they were all on, but Tony hated the lights, he hated all of them, so he smashed those too, held the sledge by the head and swung the handle along the antlered chandelier until glass shattered around his feet and along the floor. 

There was a bathroom on the main floor, and Tony distantly remembered the real estate agent mentioning the custom tile in the shower so that was the first thing he broke in there, sending the sledge right through the wall to clang off the pipes. He destroyed the wall to wall mirror next, not able to meet his reflections gaze as the big shards fell around him and on his way out, Tony fractured the ceramic sink with a glancing blow.

The stairs were fairly severely compromised so Tony quelled the urge to break them down one by one, but the moment he set foot in the loft, he attacked the beautiful wooden bed frame almost viciously, not stopping until the frame was in pieces and the mattress fell to the floor.

There wasn’t a door on the bedroom cupboard, just a curtain hiding a clothes rod and Tony knocked that down purely out of spite, cracking the clothes rod and then dropping the sledge and just breaking it over his knee because it felt good to rip something apart with his hands. 

It was only when nothing else was left to break that Tony realized how bad his arms and back hurt from handling the sledgehammer, realized that he had blacked out in rage and nearly destroyed everything, and when he rubbed at the dirt in his eyes and his fingers came away streaked with tears, he finally realized he was crying. 

“Fuck.” Tony muttered, stumbling back against the wall of the loft and sinking down to the floor. “What the hell am I doing? What the hell am I doing?”

He sat there for a long time staring at the destruction, at the damage he’d done in his anger, in his pain. He didn’t bother wiping the tears away as they fell down his face and dripped onto his folded arms, and he didn’t bother moving when his phone lit up with another call from Steve, another text message, another voicemail that was sure to be a useless apology.

“I hate it here.” he said out loud, and maybe he said it, maybe he shouted it, but out here there was nothing but empty walls and trees to hear him, so it didn’t matter anyway.

It didn’t matter, so Tony pulled his knees up to his chest and put his face down and just let himself cry. No one could hear him, so it didn’t matter. 

He cried for how difficult the year had been, for how much he still missed Pepper every damn day. For what he and Steve had almost had and now would most likely lose because he didn’t know how they’d make it past Steve knowing and not telling. Tony cried for how close to happy he had finally been for the first time in his life, and how he didn’t think he’d ever be happy again. He cried for his parents, for the pain of their last moments and all the time he would never have with them. 

And for a brief moment, Tony let himself cry for Bucky, what had been done to him, what he’d done to others, for the years of pain and anger and horror his soldier had gone through.

And when all the tears were gone, when Tony was empty and exhausted and had nothing left at all, he reached into his wallet and pulled out the strip of photos he carried with him every day, the photos of he and Bucky from the fair, of two boys in love with no idea what the world would do to them--

--and Tony left them on the floor as he got to his feet and stumbled away.

*******************

*******************

The nearest town was nearly an hours drive east of the property and if Tony had been in anything resembling a steady frame of mind, he might have enjoyed it. The road was surprisingly well taken care of, smooth as it wound through towering trees and passed several waterfalls, with the lake that his river probably fed into stretching off to the right and sparkling in the setting sun.

It was beautiful, almost stunning really, so far removed from the noise and bustle of Manhattan and the complete opposite of the chaos that had taken over in DC, that Tony should have taken the time to take it in, maybe to just breathe it in. 

But in a moment of terrifying self reflection, Tony knew that if he stopped long enough to think about anything at all, he might to something regrettable and unrecoverable so he kept his eyes trained forward and kept both hands on the wheel and didn’t stop until he saw the welcome sign for a little town hidden away in the valley. 

His phone was lighting up again as he came back into an area of service and Tony paused long enough to send Pepper a quick text back, that he was physically okay but needed some time, that he wasn’t self destructing, but that he fully planned on coping in his old ways and that he’d talk to her when he thought he could manage.

Coping in his old way usually meant enough alcohol to knock himself out and one or two beautiful, easy companions to warm his bed-- or floor, or chair, or shower or wherever-- but tonight Tony couldn’t stomach the thought of touching anyone, much less being touched. Not when Steve was still lying in the hospital and somewhere out there, Bucky was-- Bucky was--

“Good Christ, do I need a drink.” Tony muttered, the wheels of the convertible screeching as he whipped into the parking lot of the first bar he saw. “Or two. Or a goddamn dozen. A fucking bottle. Christ.”

The place was dark inside, tables pushed to corners to make room for a little stage and dance floor in the center, a few booths in the very back but Tony ignored the seats as well as the few calls of “Hello, stranger!” from friendly locals as he passed and made a beeline straight towards the bar. 

“Evenin’.” the bartender looked Tony over curiously and Tony realized belatedly he was still covered in debris from his demolition attempt at the cabin, dust and wood pieces in his hair and tears in his pants. “Rough day, huh? You look like you could use a shot or two of the good stuff.”

“Tell you what.” Tony peeled a couple hundreds off and pushed them across the counter. “You keep refilling my glass with the ‘good stuff’ for as long as this much money will keep me drinking and when I’m done, there will  be a big tip in it for you.”

The man gave him back one of the bills with a less than impressed glance. “I’ll keep ya drinking until I think you’ve had enough, then I’ll direct ya over to the motel for the night, how about that?”

“Right, that’s fair.” Tony dragged his fingers through his hair wearily before rapping on the bar top. “Bring it on then.”

The first shot burned down Tony’s throat, made his eyes water and his chest seize but he put his forehead down and forced himself to breathe through it, already knocking at the table for another one.

“This first.” The bartender pushed a beer towards him. “Give it a moment to settle, eh? No need to ruin th’ night before it gets started.”

“I would love to ruin this night so thoroughly I don’t remember anything about it tomorrow.” Tony said bluntly. “In fact, I’d love to ruin this night so thoroughly that I don’t remember anything about the past week. Give me another one.”

“Drink your beer first.” he maintained and Tony rolled his eyes, but took a sip anyway. “Part of th’ job is to talk the customers you know. You look like you got somethin’ on your mind, I’m a friendly ear if you want--.” 

“I don’t want to talk about anything.” Tony interrupted, and when the bartender nodded in understanding, Tony softened his tone to add, “But thank you anyway. Just um-- keep the drinks coming.”

The second shot burned just as much as the first one and Tony coughed through it, washing it down with another swig of beer and shivering as it poured warm through his system.

Yes. This is exactly what he needed. A few more of these and he would be good to go-- or good to forget. Whichever. 

Sometime after drink three, a raggedy excuse for a band set up on the stage and once the mellow music started to wind through the bar, a few more people wandered in, hollering hellos towards the bartender and filling in the seats closest to the stage.

Drink four was slow to happen since it was busier now, but by that time Tony was starting to feel tipsy tipsy and didn’t care all that much. His foot tapped idly to the slow beat, his fingers drumming at the bar with the faster songs and when the bartender finally managed a fresh drink, Tony managed a half a smile in his direction and a heartfelt if not muted, “Thank you.”

“Starting to feel better yet?” he asked casually and Tony shook his head. “Starting to feel drunk?” and Tony held up his fingers about an inch apart. “Well that’s something, then.”

“That’s something, then.” Tony repeated, and stuffed a twenty in the tip jar just because the guy was nice. “Take your time on the next one.”

“Sure thing.” the bartender gave him a thumbs up and had just left to take drinks to another table when someone brushed up against Tony’s left side too firmly to be a mistake, too close to be accidental. 

“When it comes time for that next drink, can I buy it for you?” The voice was soft and pitched low, a hint of Northern accenting the words.  The body attached to the voice was lean and obviously fit, the hands that landed a little too close to Tony’s well manicured and smooth and Tony took his shot, wiped his mouth and rotated on the stool to look the newcomer over.  

Dark jeans hung low off of slim hips, showing off a strip of skin between the belt and the hem of a t shirt and Tony wanted to smirk when he caught the barest flash of a belly button ring. Oh to be young again. Arms were lightly muscled but the shoulders were a little too narrow for Tony’s taste and the tan was definitely fake but he was gorgeous anyway and Tony tipped his head back to take in--

Nope nope nope.

“Like what you see?” the stranger asked, pushing dark hair out of crystal blue eyes, his cocky smile just this side of of a leer. “Maybe I should let you buy me a drink if you’re going to stare so hard.”

Nope nope nope.

“I’m old enough to be your dad.” Tony jerked away from the twenty-something kid, cheeks burning red in embarrassment because he just couldn’t handle dark hair and pale blue eyes and a fucking smirk like that. “Not-- not interested. Go fish, kiddo.”

“I don’t care about your age.” The kid shrugged. “You’re gorgeous and you look lonely and it isn’t real often I get a chance to spend time with a gent like you in a town like this--” he raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “--so what’s the harm in some conversation?”

“You’re not my type.” Tony lied, and lied badly judging by the way the kid frowned. “I like um--” Blonde heroes who carry shields. Brunette soldiers with Brooklyn accents. Redheads with sweet smiles and perfect souls. “--bald people.”

“Well now, I dunno if you’re pretty enough for me to shave my head.” the stranger joked and Tony tried for a smile and hoped it didn’t look like a grimace. “If you change your mind, I’m drinking in the back with a few friends. Come hang out.”

“Thanks all the same.” Tony shook his head. “Think I’ll just finish my drink alone.” 

“What a shame.” the kid winked and sauntered off and Tony actually laughed under his breath because honestly he couldn't remember the last time someone had tried to pick him up in a bar, and he certainly hadn’t expected to be picked up in a bar in the middle of no where after everything about his world had crashed and burned in a spectacular fashion.

He’d thought his days of being hit on by college age kids had ended at his thirtieth birthday, but apparently he’d been wrong.

“Fuck me.” He chuckled again and pushed his empty glass across the bar. “God, what the hell am I even doing here?”

“Looks t’me like you’re drinking to forget.” A man several years past ancient clambered up on the stool next to Tony and squinted at him curiously. “Ain’t another reason to be tossing them back like that, or turning down good company like Mikel there. Gotta say m’still gettin’ used to them boys who like boys, but he’s a good enough kid I suppose.”

“Do I have a please come talk to me sign on my back?” Tony asked, not even trying to disguise the irritation in his voice. “Or is that just the charm of small towns, right up there with barely disguised homophobia?”

“Prob’ly the charm.” the old man poured a handful of coins down on the bar and pounded at the counter so the bartender would look his way. “And ain’t a phobia, no need to be an ass about it. I’m just an old man, set in my ways. M’also a nosy bastard and since you’re sitting in my normal spot now you gotta listen or you gotta leave so you don’t hear me jabberin’.”

“Fantastic.” Tony was starting to regret telling the bartender to take his time with the next drink and seriously considering leaving to buy a bottle to get drunk in whichever motel room he could find. “That’s just… fantastic.”

“It's real pretty up here, huh?” the old man either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Tony obviously didn’t want to talk to him. “You must be new, bought some land close by? No one comes through th’place just cos, so you must’ve moved here.”

“Mmm.” Tony said noncommittally. “Something along those lines.” 

“You picked a good time to move up here, missed th’ fire last year.” the stranger continued and Tony frowned a little. “Near burnt us out, to be sure. Then when the springs rain came along, bout washed us away with the flooding, river swole up real big and jumped her banks. Some folks took a hit, homes damaged that sorta thing.”

“It does that every year?” Despite his reluctance towards the conversation, Tony had to ask at least one question because his real estate agent had certainly not mentioned the fires nor the flooding. “Burns and then floods?”

“Bout near every year.” the old timer nodded as if he’d laid out the world’s best advice. “Yep. Bout near.”

“Why the hell do you stay here then?” Tony really frowned that time. “Why does anyone stay there? The forest fires are bad enough, but then the river jumps it's banks and floods everything else? Wouldn’t you try to avoid either of those things happening?”

“We do try to avoid it.” Another slow nod. “We try, but there ain’t a whole lot you can do when life decides to fuck ya over, is there? Sometimes you just ain’t prepared and then you just flow with it.”

Literally flow with it, apparently--” Tony took a fresh drink and tipped most of it back all at once. “--if you’re flooding so bad. By the way, a river predictably flooding every year is a lot different than fate fucking you over and then not even being polite enough to buy you dinner on the way out.”

Tony couldn’t hide the anger in his voice, and a tiny part of him felt bad about. The old man didn’t know that Tony was talking about DC and Steve and his parents-- he thought they were just talking about  the weather for Christ sake. 

“Shit.” Tony sighed. “What I mean is--”  

The old man only snorted though, snorted and waved his hand at Tony as if pushing hima way. “What you mean is that you’re spoilin’ for a fight, aren’t you kiddo? Being bitter is bad for the soul, dont’cha know? Turn your hair white early.”

“Kiddo?” Tony put away the rest of his drink and wiped his mouth. “I’m forty two.” 

“And I’m bout ninety one give or take a few years, but ya don’t hear me braggin’ about it.”

Tony didn’t really know what to say to that, and feeling mildly chastised, he motioned for another drink and started it in silence.

After nearly ten minutes, the old man spoke up again. “The thing about living here is that the bits of beauty we get are worth the trouble. Ain’t nothing greener than grass growing after a fire. Nothing prettier than those first flowers after the floods and some times it's takes longer than others to recover and recoop an’ all that, but eventually it’s beautiful again.”

Tony didn’t answer, and apparently the silence didn’t deter the old man at all, because he continued-- 

“Course how you rebuild after all that is important too, gotta make sure your walls are a little stronger and that there’s room for the river to flood without getting you. Gotta make sure there’s a spot where the fire’s gotta stop, can’t let it reach you again. It’s a long winter sometimes, but when th’ spring comes it’s all better, it’s beautiful again. Then it’s worth the trouble, yeah?”

“Rebuild.” Tony repeated. “You have to rebuild every year? Every single year. That seems like a waste of time.” 

“Not every year.” he denied. “But most years, I guess. And some of us had to rebuild over and over before we learned our lesson and did it right. Jus’ cause you fail at rebuilding a few times don’t mean you give up. Not if you want it bad enough. Those of us who stay through the flood and the fires-- we want it bad ‘nuff.”

“Huh.” Tony tipped back the last of his beer. “I don’t know if I want it bad enough.” 

“You don’t think?” the old man peered over at Tony. “You’re just gonna up and run away cause things might get a li’l rough?” 

“Things are already rough.” Tony said, scratching at his chin tiredly, the events from the last few days swirling round and round in his head. “Fuck my life, things are already so rough, I don’t know how they could get worse. Don’t know how I’m supposed to rebuild after something like this.”

“Hm.” There was beat of silence, then the old man said, “Sometimes the fire comes through and takes everything, ain’t nothing left behind at all. But as soon as the flames are out, sometimes even before the rain hits, grass is already growing. Y’know what that is? Hope. Grass growing from ashes with no help at’all, helping to fix what we love so much whether its th’ house we built or the people we love.” 

Hope.

Tony’s fingers tightened around his empty bottle, suddenly aware that the conversation had shifted, that the old man was maye more intuitive than he had previously realized. “And hope is why you rebuild?”

“That’s why we rebuild. Cos we’ve got a little bit of hope and a whole lotta love. That’s just gotta be enough to keep us going until life decides to cut us a break.” 

“A whole lot of love.” Tony repeated. “I don’t know if I have that left either.” 

“Hm.” Another little bit of silence, and then-- “You’re the shiny one, right? The Iron Man?” 

“Uh--” Tony muffled a groan. He’d really hoped to be anonymous in this podunk place, but honestly he was surprised that it had even taken this long to be recognized. “Yeah that’s me. The shiny one.” 

“I thought so.” The man reached over and stole Tony’s last shot. “I was just a kid when I signed up for the war, packed up and shipped off and thought I was a man cos I had a little hair on my nethers--” Tony almost choked. “--but war will teach you real quick that you ain’t a man at all. I remember hearing bout Captain America, how he was gonna show up and save the day and bring all us boys home.” 

“I remember the day we lost’em too.” he rolled the empty glass on the bar top slowly. “Remember hearin’ that his best friend had gone and now Captain was gone and we all thought we were doomed after that. Still can’t believe we won, or at least sorta won. When they talk about winning a war, they never really tell you what you lose, do they?” 

“You were a soldier.” Tony peered a little closer at the man who must have been around the same age as he’d been back in the war. “From around here?” 

“Nah, grew up in New York City, me and my buddy Joe. Shipped off together, came home and worked together for a while. Bout the mid nineties I decided I was too old to deal with the way the world was turning so I packed up and left.” 

“Just fucked off to some no where town, huh?” Tony narrowed his eyes at the now empty shot glass. “That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do right now.” 

“This might be a nowhere town,” the man smacked Tony’s hand away from the glass. “But we still get the news, so you’ll have to find somewhere else if you want to be all invisible. Don’t think you should do that though, not with the world goin’ to shit in DC. Don’t give up on Cap either, huh? Every time we turn around that damn Spangled man is dropping planes out of the sky, but he means well and he tries so--” a careless shrug, and the old man heaved himself up from the stool, the conversation apparently over.”  

“Um--” Tony frowned. “Wait--” 

“Don’t give up on him.” the old man said again, then patted Tony on the shoulder. “Thanks for the drinks, kiddo.” 

What?” Tony watched him go in disbelief, and the bartender outright laughed at him. “Am I buying that old man’s drinks?” 

“That’s old Mr. Kirby.” The bartender confirmed, clearing away the extra glasses. “But most of us call him Jack. He came up here back in the nineties, decided never to leave. Good guy, lots of advice whether you want to listen to it or not. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but when he gets real drunk he starts reminiscin’’ bout the war, about how the Captain pulled him outta some shit hole in Italy carrying nothing but a plastic shield and wearin’ a borrowed helmet.” 

“Damn.” Tony cleared his throat. “He was at Azzano?” 

“Yep. that’s the name of it.” the bartender nodded decisively. “Azzano.” 

“I’ve got no problem buying his drinks.” Tony fished out a few more bills and laid them on the bar, then stuffed some more in the tip jar. “And I think I’m done for the night. Can you point me to a good hotel?” 

“Only one hotel here.” he collected all the money, tallied the bill and tried to give Tony the change, but Tony just shook his head. “Alright then. You can’t miss it, bout two blocks down th’ road.” 

“Is there--” Tony chewed at his lip for a minute. “Is there a hardware store in town too?” 

“Down the street a ways, won’t open until tomorrow though.”

“Right. Thank you.” 

“Take it easy, Mr. Stark.” 

“Oh.” he managed a smile. “It’s just Tony.” 

*********************

*********************

The hardware store in the little town opened at nine am and Tony was in the parking lot waiting a full fifteen minutes before the door was unlocked, leaning against his car in freshly purchased jeans and a long sleeve, sunglasses and a ball cap trying and probably failing to disguise his hangover.

The hotel from the night before had been more of a motel with tiny rooms and less than comfortable beds but Tony still slept better than he had in weeks, curled around too flat pillows that didn’t smell like Steve’s cologne, too tired to think about Bucky and what HYDRA had turned him into, too tired to dream about his parents before he fell asleep.

The coffee in the morning had been bitter and black and Tony had four cups along with wolfing down huge portions of eggs and pancakes to try and give himself enough energy to get through the day, and after paying his bill-- and stopping by the bar for a bloody mary-- Tony was ready to get on with his day.

“Sorry, you need what now?” the owner of the shop stared down at the list Tony handed him. “I’ve got most of the small stuff, tape measure and saws and the like. I got one circular saw in stock, and a whole bunch of levels, some screws, have a few different drills. But you need how much lumber? And--And--logs? Son, I don’t have logs in the back. You don’t jus keep logs in the back of a store this size. Why are you trying to build a house from a little store like mine?”

“I’m not building a house.” Tony hefted a nail gun in his hands then grabbed a drill as well, putting them both up on the counter. “I’m just repairing one. Rebuilding some pieces that were damaged. I’ll take what you have now and maybe I can order the rest through you?”

“Through me?” the owner’s eyes bugged out a little. “It’d be cheaper and easier through the big stores, faster too.”

“But you can order it for me?” Tony repeated. “I’d rather give you the business, if that’s alright. Can I put an order in and you can bring it all up on a truck for me?”

“Uh… sure?”

“Alright, find me everything you can on this list--” Tony tapped the hastily scribbled paper. “And I’ll give you a call with everything else I need.”

“And you’re fixin’ to put all this in the back of that fancy car?” he pointed out the window to Tony’s convertible. “Gonna tear it up real bad with tools and gear.”

“That’s alright.” Tony pursed his lips at the thought of the damage to his custom upholstery. “I’ve got to get it back to the house somehow.”

“When’d you buy property?” the owner called over his shoulder as he dug for some supplies. “Haven’t seen you around here before!”

“I bought it a couple months ago, but this is my first time up!” Tony called back. “I was uh-- well, as of last night I was pretty sure I was going to sell it again, but I think I’ve changed my mind.”

“Yep, that’s the thing about up here.” he returned with levels of different lengths and a small sawzall. “Some times things get rough and ruined, fire and floods and all that but every time we rebuild it's gets stronger and stronger, yeah? If you love it, gotta rebuild it, don’t let anything take it from you.”

“So I’ve heard.” Tony smiled a little and pulled his wallet out. “If you love it, you rebuild it.”

“I’ll uh--” the owner scratched his head awkwardly. “I’ll need a deposit on the other stuff, before I bring a truck up, you know? For business and all that.”

“I can pay for it all ahead of time.” Tony promised him, handing over his card. “When I’m ready to order, I’ll give you a call.”

“You’re the shiny one, huh?” he glanced down at the card and then back up at Tony. “Iron Man? Are you Iron Man?”

“Yep, apparently I’m the shiny one.” Tony motioned for the shop  keep to run the card, starting to wonder exactly how many people in this town referred to Iron Man as the shiny one. “But today I’m just Tony trying to get some work done on my house.”

“Welcome, Tony.” the owner smiled broadly and reached to shake his hand. “You need help with this project of yours, you call us, eh? Everybody in town would like a chance to build a house with Iron Man. You might have to show us the suit first of course, and my daughter will want a picture for her friends but--”

“Next time I’ll bring the suit.” Tony grinned and scribbled his name along the receipt. “Thank you very much.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” As Tony was driving away, the man called, “We believe in you!” and Tony waved as he peeled out of the parking lot and sped back towards the cabin.

********************

********************

Tony hadn’t expected the cabin to still be so picturesque after he’d taken his anger out on it with a sledgehammer, but the clearing was just as breathtaking as it had been the first time, the cabin beautiful against the mountains, the river sparkling and blue as it wound across the property.

It was encouraging maybe that even as awful as Tony had felt, as ready as he’d been to just burn the damn thing to the ground before he’d left yesterday afternoon, even though he’d bought it because of a memory that somehow hurt worse now than it had before--  it wasn’t all ruined. It wasn’t all destroyed. It wasn’t all gone.

The grass was still green and flowers were blooming alongside the water and it looked so much like hope that Tony had to give himself a moment before he got out of the car, a moment to blink back tears and steady his hands.

Hope.

The cabin inside was exactly as Tony left it, the door off its hinges and the banister knocked over with glass from the lights all over the floor. The bathroom mirror was in pieces across the cracked sink and over the toilet, and a pipe was leaking through the hole he’d smashed into the shower wall. The kitchen was in shambles, and Tony realized that he didn’t even remember going in there, much less throwing the microwave onto the tile or kicking over the table and chairs.

He wasn’t surprised he’d trashed the kitchen, in fact he was a little surprised he hadn’t trashed it worse, so after looking around for another minute, Tony took a deep breath and headed back out to the car to bring in the cleaning supplies. 

First things first was the clean up the glass from the lights and from the window he also didn’t remember breaking, and Tony carefully swept it all into a pile before climbing up on a chair and unhooking the chandelier all together so it didn’t shake more shards down on his hair. Antlers weren’t really his thing, but he could see himself liking the rustic piece, so he set the chandelier carefully on its side in a less-damaged corner of the living room. 

Now that he could walk without crunching on glass, Tony tackled the door next,  painstakingly unscrewing the destroyed hinges and tossing them towards the trash pile before carrying what was left of the door outside onto the porch. He didn’t have much to try and repair it with-- really, the damn thing was a lost cause-- but duct tape was used to cover the worst of the hole and at least when he put it back on the new hinges, it closed and and the lock turned. 

It hung a little crooked and it looked terrible with all that tape across the middle but when Tony pushed it open to make sure the bottom wasn’t scraping the floor, a burst of fresh air flooded the little cabin, and he sort of loved that. 

A bit of wind wasn’t going to fix anything about anything that had gone wrong, but it was something and for right now, that was enough. Tony didn’t know if he’d ever want to let anyone into his life again, but at least he had a door that could close people out or invite them in, and for right now that was enough. 

Back in the living room, Tony decided the two dusty sofas had to go, and one by one he dragged them outside, cursing and swearing when they got stuck at the door frame and he had to get the crowbar to rip the trim off to give him another few inches. A recliner most likely older than him was next to be tossed outside, but Tony kept the wooden end tables, deciding he liked the detailed scrolling along the edges and down the legs.

They were a nice reminder that there will still pretty things in the middle of chaos and Tony desperately needed to believe that. 

The kitchen table wasn’t a total loss, so Tony lifted it right side up and placed it under the window in the tiny dining room. The microwave couldn’t be salvaged so it was tossed towards the growing trash pile outside and Tony eyed the stove critically before deciding that yes, that should go too. He couldn’t move that by himself of course, so it would have to wait but it was definitely going out the door along with the fridge and probably the big double sink.

Kitchens were meant to be shared, for people to have coffee together in the mornings and gather around for dinners at night and even as he swept the dirty floors and groaned over the broken fan, Tony knew he’d be redoing the kitchen to be warm and cozy again. Maybe a smaller table with just three chairs because they wouldn’t want company up in their little retreat. Maybe a coffee bar near the window so they could have their morning cup looking out at the river--

Oh wait, Bucky had been fairly specific about wanting to drink coffee on the porch in the mornings and--

“God damnit.” Tony cursed as he cut his hand on a missed piece of glass, his palm splitting beneath the sharp edge and bleeding onto the floor. He was not ready to think about what Bucky would have wanted to do with this place, not ready to start imagining Steve living up here with them, no no no. 

No no no.

Tony abandoned the kitchen after that, giving the counters a cursory wipe down before shutting the door and blocking the room--and all the errant thoughts it brought up-- from view and moving on to something else. 

By the time mid afternoon hit, Tony had managed to get the bathroom cleaned up as well. The shattered mirror was gathered carefully up and set in the trash and plumbing wasn’t Tony’s forte but he managed to get the pipes disconnected and capped off so he could yank the ruined sink off the wall and toss it out with the microwave and sofas. A stripe of tape over the leak in the shower and Tony had no way of ripping out the tub now, but it was definitely on his to do list and once the bathroom was swept out, Tony decided to take a break. 

He exhausted and he was hungry and desperately needed a shower and after trying and failing to rip the stove from the kitchen, Tony was limping as he made his way down the porch steps to the car to get his phone and the bag of snacks he’d bought at the market in town. 

“JARVIS.” he said out loud and the phone chimed immediately, the AI coming online through the modified server. “Is there any place closer than an hour where I can get food and a shower?”

“No sir, there is not. You’ve managed to procure a property that is at least an hour away from anything in every direction.” 

“Of course there isn’t.” Tony wiped his arm over his face and grimaced when his sleeve came away dirtier than it had been before. “Well, might as well keep going then, right?” 

The fireplace was too big a project to even start tonight, so Tony avoided it all together and tested the stairs gingerly before deciding they wouldn’t collapse mid-step as he went up to check the damage in the loft.

The sledgehammer was still on the floor where he’d left it next to the pieces of broken curtain rod, the mattress sagging on broken pieces of bed frame and Tony crossed to the large window to open it first, to get some more fresh air in the loft. His back and shoulders were screaming at him, but Tony still jogged back down the stairs to get his broom and several trash bags before setting to work at least clearing the floor and as much of the broken frame pieces as he could.

The mattress was pushed over the side of the loft to be added to the pile outside and Tony tossed the curtain from the closet over as well. There was a old bench seat under the window, and that went over the side as well but Tony made a mental note to replace it. He liked the idea of a window seat where he could read or work on paperwork or--

Tony stopped when he caught sight of the strip of pictures he’d left there the night before, covered in dust and grime and nearly hidden beneath a piece of wood. He picked them slowly, wiping off the dust and smoothing wrinkles away shaking fingers. 

He was so young in the picture, young and happy and laughing over Bucky’s charm and Bucky was gorgeous in his uniform, his eyes sparkling and smile sweet and they were so obviously in love it made Tony’s heart hurt. They had been so in love and it made Tony’s heart physically hurt.

He remembered everything about that night at the fair-- how frustrated Bucky had been because they couldn’t hold hands or dance in public like Steve and Peggy could, how shy Bucky had been with the bouquet of wild flowers and how earnest those blue eyes were as they talked about spending the rest of their lives together. 

How could it have been seventy years ago when it felt like yesterday? How had it been most of a century since Tony had heard Bucky whisper, “I love you, sugar”, or since the soldier had pressed him to a wall and stolen a kiss that left Tony breathless and reeling and aching for more.

How could it have been so long ago, when Tony still felt like he was mourning?

“I wanna spend the rest of my life with you.” Bucky mumbled into Tony’s shoulder, dotting sweet kisses over the freckles on his collarbone. “I know we’ve been apart a lot– I was gone for almost a whole year, and even now with the Commandos I’m gone for days at a time, weeks at a time. I know it’s been real difficult for ya, an’ I miss ya so much when we’re apart. But soon it’ll all be over an’ then I can take you home. All the time apart won’t be anything, Tony. It’ll all just fall away, jus’ like it did the first time, you understand? One day there won’t be nothin’ between us.”

“There’s nothing between us now.” Tony was losing the battle with his tears, and Bucky wiped them away. “Nothing but time, right?”

“Nothing but time b’tween us.” Bucky repeated solemnly. “Soon there won’t even be that. I promise. I promise ya, sweet thing. You’ll see. I’ll take care of you for the rest of our lives.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, Brooklyn.” Tony managed and tried to pretend his heart wasn’t breaking when Bucky smiled down at him. “You hear?”

“It’s a promise I’m gonna keep.”

Tony shook himself from his thoughts, wiping away tears before they blurred the fading photograph.

Nothing but time between us.

“I don’t know this part of the story, Brooklyn.” he whispered to the black and white image. “I knew what happened back then, I knew how many days we had together but I don’t know how this part goes. I don’t know if you’re still you, I don’t know if you’re still mine, I don’t even know if I want you to still be mine after-- after all this.”

He took in a shaky breath, coughing from the dust and the dirt and the grief. “I don’t know where to begin with Steve or with my-- my parents, I just don’t know. I don’t know anything. I got nothing. Where do I go from here?”

Tony felt a little foolish talking to a picture, foolish and sad and about a thousand other things but the wind picked up just then, bringing in cool air and the sharp scent of upcoming rain and Tony closed his eyes, letting it blow across his face and settle his heart. 

“JARVIS?” he called and his phone lit up in reply. “I’d like some music please. I still have work to do.”

Perhaps a call to Captain Rogers,” the AI suggested. “If you’re feeling better?”

“I’m not ready for that yet.” Tony folded the pictures back into his wallet and got to work clearing away the rest of the bed frame and started in on the floor with the broom. “But um-- I will be. Eventually. You can maybe-- you can let him know that I’m alright, if you want. If he goes back to the Tower. Let him know I’m alright.” 

Very good, sir. I’ll let him know as soon as possible.”

*******************

*******************

The little cabin was fairly clean by the time Tony left it that night, the glass swept up and whatever furniture was left set to rights, the walls and corners dusted off and the banister pulled down so it wasn’t just hanging full of nails and screws and sharp edges. 

The fireplace still wasn’t done, but the mantle was wiped off and there in the middle of the shelf sat a small bouquet of the wildflowers that grew along the river and a strip of photos from the 1940s, pictures of two young men in love and laughing, too wrapped up in each other to care about anything else.

There was seventy years between that photo and present day, seventy years between the kiss in the second photo and the next time they’d seen each other on a bridge in DC, seventy years between the laughter and love of the fair and the heartbreak and confusion of the present day. .

But as Tony drove back towards the same motel as the night before, ready to crash out before tackling the mess all over again the next day, he thought that maybe, just maybe, seventy years didn’t matter so much now that time had brought them back together again.

“Send a text to Steve.” he said, and JARVIS chimed through his phone. “I’m fine but still need some space. I’ll be home in a week and I--” he took a deep breath. “--I hope you’re there. We have a lot to figure out and I still don’t really know where to start, but I’m willing to try if you are.”

He waited a beat, then added, “Don’t pull any stitches, Spangles. I’ve had quite enough of you staying in hospitals.” 

The stars were just coming out when Tony reached the hotel, and he threw the car into park before jogging inside, humming the song that had been playing on the radio as he drove, a song he recognized from countless lullabies from his momma.

Let it go, let it roll right off your shoulder

Don't you know, the hardest part is over

Let it in, let your clarity define you

In the end, we will only just remember how it feels

Our lives are made, in these small hours

These little wonders, these twists & turns of fate

Time Falls Away

But these small hours

These small hours still remain. 

Chapter Text

It wasn’t necessary for Steve to knock at the doors to the lab, not with the biometric scanner and not since Tony had told JARVIS to always allow him in, but Steve wasn’t exactly sure of where he stood with Tony right now, so maybe knocking was the right thing to do. 

He’d been home from the hospital three days now, and he’d been alone in the Tower almost the entire time. Natasha and Clint had decided to take some time to recuperate together since both of them had nearly died a few different times in DC, and regardless of Sam loudly and proudly proclaiming that he was definitely an Avenger now, he still had a full time job as a counselor so he was back home working.

The only person Steve had seen since leaving DC was the always formidable Ms. Potts, who had visited just yesterday to make sure that the penthouse was put together and ready for Tony to come home.

“He’s coming home?” Steve had asked hopefully, thinking about the one and only text message he’d received since Tony had disappeared. “When?”

“He told me he’d be in tomorrow afternoon.” Pepper told him coolly, and then– “Captain Rogers, when Tony decided to suit up and save the world, I was well aware that there would be things he either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me and I made my peace with it. I’d stress out too much knowing the dangerous things he did, and I always told him as long as he came home to me in one piece, I wouldn’t ask too many questions.”

“…Alright?” Steve hesitated. “Sorry. I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”

“I’m not asking questions about what happened in DC, Captain.” Pepper continued. “And I’m not asking what happened at the hospital that sent Tony out  to cope in all the terrible ways he does. But I will tell you this only once, and you need to know how very serious I am.”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Captain Rogers.” Pepper leaned in close, eye to eye with Steve in those wickedly high heels. “If I find out that this is your fault, there is not a god out there that can save you from me, do you understand?”

“I’m pretty sure there’s only God, ma’am.” Steve stammered out, and Pepper’s smile slid from slightly vicious to outright frightening before she turned on her heel and walked right out the door, leaving Steve stunned in her wake, feeling as if he’d just barely dodged a metaphorical– and maybe a literal– bullet.

Tony had come this afternoon like Pepper had said, rattling into the drive with his Audi in shockingly terrible condition with what looked like power tools piled in the passenger seat. He was dirty and disheveled, tan from too many hours in the sun, his hair standing on end from a windblown drive and Steve had thought he looked incredible.

He hadn’t said it then though, had only offered a careful wave when Tony met his eyes, and Steve made himself scarce for the rest of the day until he felt like Tony had settled back in and might be ready for a visitor.

So now he stood at the door to the lab and knocked because even though Tony was safe and home, chatting at JARVIS and the other robots with all the lights and machines in his lab up and humming, things between them still weren’t better and things still weren’t okay and Steve didn’t want to over step any new boundaries he didn’t know about.

“Steve.” Tony looked up and something that was almost a smile flickered across his face. “What are you doing standing there at the door?”

“I um–” Steve cleared his throat. “I didn’t know if I was allowed in here anymore.”

“Well, I’m not going to kick you out this exact second.” Tony returned, swiveling in his chair so he could see Steve fully. “But we’ll have to see how the day goes.”

“Right.” Steve nodded and his eyes tracked over Tony, taking in the scrapes at his knuckles, the jeans with holes at the knees, the faded t-shirt and messy hair. “You look good, Tony.” the words came out wistfully. “You look… good.”

“I look exhausted.” Tony said wryly, further destroying his hair when he worked his fingers through it. “But thanks anyway.”

“I mean you don’t look–” Steve made a vague motion at nothing. “You don’t look like you did–”

“At the hospital.” Tony finished and Steve visibly flinched, falling back a step. “Yeah, I uh– I’m feeling better. Got some fresh air, broke a few things.” he held up his hands, showing off busted knuckles. “I’m feeling better. Not great, and probably not stable yet, but I’m getting there.”

“Okay.” Steve smiled when Tony did, but he still took another step closer to the door, not wanting to out stay his welcome. “I’ll leave you be then. I just– I wanted to see you. And um, you said in your message that you didn’t know where to start with all this but that you were willing to try.” He blew out a deep breath. “I’m here, Tony. Okay? I’m not going anywhere until we can work through this or if you decide you don’t want to work through it with me–?”

The words were ash in Steve’s mouth, physically paining him as he finished, “If you don’t want to, then I’ll– I’ll figure that out too. Or something. I don’t know, Tony. But I’m here, okay?”

“I know you’re here, Steve. You said you weren’t going to leave me alone anymore and you haven’t.” Tony clasped his hands in front of his lap, staring down at his fingers for a moment. “Can I ask you something, though?”

“Yes.” Steve said immediately, relieved that Tony hadn’t just sent him away. “Yes, Tony. Ask me anything.”

“I need a yes or no answer.” Tony said then. “I can’t– you can’t hesitate. I don’t think I’ll be able to handle you hesitating. I need a yes or no answer because I’ve gotten a lot of thinking done this week and absolutely none of it matters without the answer to this question, alright?”

“Kay.” Steve folded his arms over his chest, then thought maybe that looked confrontational so he dropped his hands behind his back, standing in parade rest so he wouldn’t fidget. “What do you need to know, Tony?”

“Thank you.” Tony picked at the hole at his knee for a few more seconds, then met Steve’s gaze square on. “When you at Lehigh with Natasha–” Steve’s heart plummeted, but he didn’t look away. “– and Zola showed you that picture of my parents, did you know that the Winter Soldier had killed them?”

“No.” Steve didn’t hesitate, didn’t even blink. “No, I didn’t. At worst I thought the accident had been arranged somehow, the car tampered with maybe. I had no idea the Winter Soldier had been involved in any capacity at all.”

Tony’s eyes fell away and he nodded to no one in particular. “Okay.”

“…okay?” Steve asked cautiously, scarcely letting himself hope that it was just easy. “Just okay? Nothing else to say about it?”

“I believe you.” Tony said simply. “I asked you and you didn’t hesitate so I believe you. So… okay.”

“Okay.” Steve echoed, frowning when Tony still wouldn’t look at him. “Well, can I ask you something then?”

“That seems fair.” Tony’s throat jerked as he swallowed, his chair rolling a few inches back as if he needed to keep some distance between them. “Go– go ahead.”

“Honey.” Steve kept his voice very soft, hating that Tony had pulled away and resisting the urge to step forward and try to hold Tony’s hand. “Honey, should I have told you about your parents right away? Should I have told you the minute I got back from Lehigh?”

Silence in the lab for several awful minutes before Tony whispered. “…I don’t know.”

“I didn’t know either.” Steve spread his hands helplessly. “There was so much happening all at once and things were going crazy and I thought I should tell you because you deserved to know, but then I thought, you know, it’s bad enough that you lost them at all and–” Tony’s face went pale and Steve hurried on, “–I didn’t see how telling why and how would do any good. I thought maybe it was easier to let you think it was random.”

“Yeah, I could– I could see thinking that.” Tony was back to picking at his jeans, the hole growing larger by the second. “Sometimes a lie is comforting. You didn’t want to hurt me, right?”

“Sweetheart, I never wanted to hurt you.” Steve really thought he might break down over the pain on Tony’s face. “I didn’t have any idea that things would get this out of control, but I never wanted to hurt you with any of this. And I sort of– sort of forgot about it after we found Bucky and I know I shouldn’t have, that’s not an excuse–”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not.” Steve said tiredly, belatedly. “It’s not fine, and I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have had to see that in a report, certainly not printed out and laying on the bed in front of you. I can’t imagine– don’t even know how to feel about it, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“Yeah.” Tony abandoned the jeans and sat back in his chair, scratching through his less-than-groomed goatee. “Tell you what. Steve, I could have gone my whole life without knowing how my parents died or who–” he cleared his throat. “–who killed them. The police report said it was an accident, a weird slick patch on the road, the car spun out of control and the impact was hard enough that they died instantly.”

Steve grimaced and Tony’s lips twisted in a sad smile. “That was difficult enough to deal with, you know? That some stupid twist of fate had taken my parents and I was just the unlucky one who was suddenly an orphan? But it’s worse now. It’s so much worse now, knowing it was planned and that it wasn’t as– as quick as I thought it had been.

“But now I know.” he continued. “And there’s no going back from it. All I can do is try to deal, right? Being angry isn’t going to bring my–” a short cough. “–my momma back and I think between you literally blowing HYDRA out of the sky and the week I’ve spent holding a sledgehammer, the destructive part of grieving is about over, huh?”

“A sledgehammer?’ Steve questioned, and Tony held up his hands again. “Ah. I see. Um–” Steve hooked a chair with his foot and pulled it over so he could sit. “–what do we do now? I mean, what do you want to do now?”

We–” Tony emphasized and Steve felt like the steel bands around his chest had suddenly loosened. “We rebuild, right? That’s what we do. Together.”

Steve opened his mouth to reply, but Tony cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Steve, HYDRA has taken everything from me. Literally everything. First Bucky and then you, and now I find out they took my parents too. And that sucks, damn it sucks but I mean–” Tony chewed at his lip as he tried to finish his sentence. “I mean, I got you back, right? And now because of some messed up events, I’ve got a chance to have Bucky back too. I have to try, do you understand? I have to try. We have to try.”

“But what if the Soldier isn’t Bucky anymore?” Steve didn’t even want to say it, but he forged ahead anyway. “What if there isn’t anything left of Bucky? What do we do then?” ”

Tony’s jaw clenched stubbornly, but his eyes were sad as he said, “Then we’ll owe it to Bucky’s memory to at least bring the Winter Soldier in and try to help him. Whether it’s Bucky anymore or not, we owe it to him to try.”

“Then that’s what we’re going to do.” Steve decided and Tony smiled again, just a bare flash of his usual grin. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“I’ll probably be in this exactly same spot.” Tony tapped at his desk and Steve smiled one more time before leaving the lab and heading up stairs.

He didn’t let himself ask if they were going to be alright, if Tony was ever going to want to be held again or if they’d ever get back to that moment from before, where kisses were heated and looks were knowing and the best part of any day was falling into bed together.

There had been had one moment in the middle of it all, one moment where he and Tony had finally crossed the line into more and the time had been tainted with the new knowledge of the Winter Soldier and the desperation of losing Bucky only to find him again.

It had been beautiful but it had been tainted and now Steve didn’t know if they’d ever have a chance like that again. 

It didn’t matter in the long run, he supposed.

If they got Bucky home, and it was in fact Bucky, Tony would go back to his Brooklyn soldier and Steve would step out of the way to let it happen. Bucky was his best friend– his best friend– and Steve had watched for years as Bucky had struggled with finding a partner, someone who wouldn’t be ashamed to be with him, someone whose love Bucky didn’t have to hide.

Tony was that someone and Steve would never do anything to jeopardize it.

It was fine that Tony still wasn’t sure what to think about him, about their situation. Tony’s reluctance would make it easier for Steve to take a few steps away, to bring their relationship back to just being friends, back to a place where holding hands was just for comfort and sharing a bed was strictly platonic.

Steve could handle that, it would just take a little time. It was the right thing to do, it would just take a little time.

It would be fine, it would just take a little time.

…It would be fine.

***********************

***********************

Fury hand delivered the footage he had promised Tony himself, skulking through the shadows and corners of the Tower and over-riding the switches in JARVIS’s system to gain access to the lab. Always one to enjoy the drama of surprise, Fury purposefully sat on the farthest corner of the couch so he wasn’t in the light, gathering his coat around himself and trying to disappear while waiting for Tony to come downstairs.

“Hey Fury.” Tony walked into the lab almost half an hour later and didn’t even glance in his direction. “Sorry to keep you waiting. You should have called when you were on the way. JARVIS had to tell me you were here hanging out down here alone.”

Fury’s good eye narrowed in Tony’s direction and the genius smirked at him. “You broke into my house one time and one time only, Fury. I’ve got you coded into JARVIS’s program as a friend and that’s the only reason you made it through that side vent. If you were coded as an enemy, the lasers would have started and you’d be in pieces stinking up my ventilation system as we speak.”

“Is that so?”

“You didn’t over ride anything, by the way.” Tony continued, spinning around in his desk chair a few times. “That’s a dummy switch in case all my other systems are down so I can still get in. Just because JARVIS was quiet doesn’t mean you outsmarted him.”

“Are you done?” Fury asked flatly. “Or still enjoying yourself?”

“Well if there’s one thing you can count on me to do, it’s to always enjoy myself.” Tony tossed back. “What do you want? I’m busy and don’t really want to hang out with eye patches and trench coats.”

“I have something for you.” Fury held up a small USB. “Unless of course you are too busy to care about the Winter Soldier footage?”

“Give it here.” Tony ordered, clapping his hands together and ready to catch as Fury tossed it in his direction. “It’s about time. I was starting to think you’d changed your mind.”

“And I thought you were enjoying your vacation after DC too much to come back.” Fury returned. “You got something for me?”

“Yeah.” Tony turned the flash drive over in his hands a few times before putting it down to grab a large envelope stuffed clear to bursting, sending it winging over towards Fury on the couch. “There, that’s all the files I had JARVIS rip off of SHIELD before it fell. I kept the hard copies but I digitized everything available. Compressed a lot of the unnecessary information like low level personnel files and some of the more cut and dried missions that you probably know about and don’t care for. Everything else should be there though.”

“Everything?” Fury raised a spectacularly judgmental eyebrow. “You didn’t leave anything out?”

“I’m not you, Fury.” Tony said tightly, tapping the drive against his thigh. “When I promise to deliver information, I deliver all of it. I don’t keep pieces of it away for my own personal gain. If you want the other pages just let me know, I’ll have a bunch of them air dropped over your not very secret storage facility.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were bitter, Stark.”

“Yeah, well I wonder why that would be.” Old Jack’s words about bitter turning your hair white floated through Tony’s head and he smiled reluctantly. “But, that’s not really the point, is it? Thank you for bringing this video for me, I appreciate.”

“I’m sure you do. Now why don’t you tell me your plans with the Soldier?” Fury asked bluntly. “Because he’s a liability running around out there. We’ve got two super soldiers in this world and one wears his star spangled undies in bed with you–” Tony’s eyes sparked in anger, and Fury held up his hand placatingly. “–and the other is equipped with a hell of a left hook and a murder glare. What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to bring Bucky home.” Tony answered, irritated that Fury had brought up his and Steve’s relationship. “Steve and I are going to bring him home and once he’s here and safe, we’ll figure everything else out.”

“You’re just going to bring the most dangerous assassin in history home to your Tower and then try to figure things out? Great plan.” Fury snorted and Tony didn’t so much as flinch, leaning forward and repeating–

“Steve and I will bring him home.” Fury started to say something and Tony cut him off with a glare. “By the way? It would be best if you didn’t interfere. And by best? I mean don’t you fucking dare interfere, do you understand me?”

“I can help you, Stark.” Fury began. “I might not be the Director anymore but I still have resources and connections and–”

“I have people who can help me.” Tony interrupted. “And you’ll have to forgive me for being leery, but the last time SHIELD intervened, Manhattan almost got nuked. Myself and my team can handle the Winter Soldier.”

“You realize that if you can’t handle it, someone a lot bitchier than me is going to step in and handle it for you, right?” Fury wasn’t accusatory or even mocking, he just sounded tired. “And if they have to handle it, whoever Bucky is to you and the Captain will cease to exist. He will be treated like an enemy combatant, a war criminal. He’ll cease to exist outside of a cell and a number on prison issued jumpsuits, do you know that?”

“I know that.” Tony ground out. “But thanks for bringing it up.”

“So long as you know.” Fury watched him for another minute. “You don’t cut holes in your shirt to show off that arc reactor anymore?”

“No.” Tony glanced down at his hoodie. “After New York—“ after my jaunt through time. “–I decided I didn’t want the reactor to be the first thing people notice about me.”

“Hmph.” Fury didn’t look like he cared one way or another. “Well you look terrible, Stark. Get some sleep and maybe some sunscreen for that sunburn.”

“Always a pleasure Fury.” Tony rolled his eyes. “JARVIS, show the former director out please! Through the front door this time!”

The moment Fury was gone, Tony dropped the drive on his AI-operated table and set JARVIS to scan it for any viruses or tracking software while he pulled out his phone.

Tony?” Steve sounded worn out like he’d been running. “Everything alright?”

“Spangles.” Tony cleared his throat at the audible hitch in Steve’s breathing over the nickname. “Spangles, can you come down to the lab? I’ve got that video of Bucky pulling you out of the water and I don’t want to watch it alone, can you come down here for a minute?”  

Ten minutes, honey. I’ve been in the gym so I need a quick shower but I’ll be there in ten minutes. Wait for me?

Tony poured himself a drink as he waited for Steve, pacing through his lab and letting JARVIS continue to run scans and security on the drive.

He wasn’t– he wasn’t prepared to see the video footage. Just the idea of the Soldier being Bucky enough to save Steve almost sent him into a panic attack, and if he watched the footage and had to actually see Bucky saving Steve before stumbling off to who knows where–

God, Tony couldn’t bring himself to think of his soldier alone and most likely hurt, confused in a world he didn’t know, recognizing Steve but not enough to realize that he wasn’t on his own.

Damn it. Tony drained his drink and set the glass down at the bar, purposefully turning his back on it so he wouldn’t go back for another. He needed to be clear headed if they stood any chance of figuring anything out but damn it– “Bucky doesn’t even know I’m alive.” Tony whispered. “Christ.”

“What was that, sweetheart?” Steve was still damp from the shower, hair still wet at his forehead and he reached for Tony before he seemed to realize what he was doing, his hands falling away awkwardly at the last second. “What were you saying?”

“Bucky doesn’t know I’m alive.” Tony said out loud and Steve went a little pale. “Even if he recognized you and even if we manage to bring him home, how is he going to handle me being here too? How are we going to explain me to him without him thinking we are lying?”  

“Well….” Steve dragged the syllable out. “I think since Bucky has experienced HYDRA weapons that were practically magic back in the day, and went through the super serum and has a metal arm and has lasted nearly a century in cryo– maybe time travel isn’t so much of a jump in belief, you know?”

“Yeah?” Tony’s smile was tremulous at best. “You think he’ll just be able to handle it?”

“I handled it.” Steve shrugged. “I’ll admit I didn’t handle it well at first, but I adjusted and figured it out, right?” Tony still looked unsure and Steve added softer, “Tony, Bucky will be so happy to have you back again he won’t even worry about how it happened. It will go down as a miracle in his book and that will be enough.”

“Alright. I guess I’ll go with that line of thought because right now, I can’t really handle thinking about any other option” Tony nodded, then nodded again. “Ready to watch this?”

“I don’t know.” Steve admitted. “But I’m here, so let’s watch it anyway.”

“Okay.” Tony pulled a chair over for Steve and they crowded in front of the computer, close but not too close, knees brushing once or twice before Steve moved away just enough that it wouldn’t happen anymore. He hated the distance but it was important– it was important that he started to create some space so it was easier when Bucky came home.

It was important.

“I don’t know if I can watch this on the big TV, huh?” Tony seemed not to notice Steve moving away, too focused on booting up the drive and making sure the files had converted. “You okay with just the computer this time around?”

“The computers fine, I don’t know if I could see it on the big TV either.” Steve muttered. “Don’t know I’m shocked that Fury has cameras everywhere either, but it still weirds me out. The sky was practically on fire and yet he managed to capture this moment exactly?”

“I think maybe he had a link to the cameras on board the helicarriers so it was an automated feed.” A still shot of the tail end of the helicarrier dropping into the water filled the screen. “Here we go.”

The beginning of the video was nothing more than the helicarrier crashing, and both Steve and Tony were grateful there was no sound so they didn’t have to hear the screech and wreck of collapsing metal. The river was churning, roiling as huge chunks of structure hit the surface, breaking apart and scattering onto the banks.

A flash of dark blue fell past the camera and Steve grimaced when he realized it was him, shockingly close to the camera he hadn’t even known was there, his body limp as it glanced off a support piece of the shattered deck and hit the water, and Tony muffled a curse, telling him, “I’m damn tired of you putting planes in the water, Steve. I hate this.”

Steve jumped when Tony felt around for his hand and squeezed at his fingers, but he was too grateful to let go, ignoring the constant mental chant about distance and taking what comfort Tony was offering as they watched his body sink below the waves on the monitor.

Tony cursed again when only about twenty seconds later, the Winter Soldier half jumped, half fell from the same spot, pitching off the carrier and landing clumsily in the river.

There was moment where neither Steve nor Tony breathed as the feed fuzzed and then blacked out, jumping almost instantly to a different camera since the first had apparently been damaged. The picture came clear again just in time to see Bucky’s head in the waves, then he was physically dragging Steve out of the water by his collar, stumbling on shaky legs– “Broken.” Steve explained guiltily. “I broke his leg when we were fighting.” and Tony put his free hand over his mouth.

On screen, Bucky sat next to Steve’s prone form for at least a minute, head down and fingers digging into the dirt and gravel on the banks but then he got unto his knees– Tony flinched at the reminder of the broken leg– and shook Steve hard, plugging his nose and bending down to give him a quick few seconds of mouth to mouth and then shoving Steve onto his side when he started to cough up water.

“He didn’t leave until he knew you were breathing.” Tony pointed out and Steve nodded woodenly. “Look at him, he is standing right there behind you waiting until you were conscious enough to roll over onto your back again. Steve, did you know he was there?”

“I thought I was dead, Tony.” Steve’s voice cracked over the words. “I thought I was dead and then I was breathing and everything hurt so bad, I hoped I would die anyway. I had no idea he was standing there behind me.”

“Damn it.” Tony watched Bucky walk away, his gait stiff because of the broken leg, his right arm hanging awkwardly. “His shoulder?”

“Dislocated it.”

Damn it.”

“It’s him, Tony.” Steve said after another minute, watching the footage of himself slowly becoming more aware, the way he had patted down his body as if to make sure all the parts were still there. “It’s got to be Bucky. Why else would he save me? Why else would he sit with me for that long?”

“It’s got to be him.” Tony agreed, his eyes still trained on the video, heart starting to race at the thought of his soldier actually coming home. “We need to find him and bring him back. And as luck would have it, I have a pretty good idea where to start.”

“What?” Steve jerked around in surprise. “You know where to start looking for him? Tony, how?”

“In the file Natasha gave you–” Tony clicked the screen off and rotated in his chair so he could see Steve better, still holding his hand tight. “–you still have it, right?”

“Well yeah, but–”

“So there were notes after every mission, right?” Tony pressed. “That file had pages of mission notes and sometimes everything was fine and Bucky came back to base right away and the notes are only ‘mission completed’, other times his behavior after was erratic after a mission and he didn’t report back to his handlers for days.”

“So why do you think–” Steve hesitated, trying to see where Tony was going with his thought process. “Why do you think that is?”

“In the report about my parents–” Tony had to take a second, and Steve pressed at his palm gently. “–in that report, the notes said that it took Bucky three days to come back after wards, that the handlers were concerned about his having recognized the–the targets? And maybe it slipped his programming.”

It took all of Steve’s self control to not just haul Tony right into his lap when he saw the hurt flickering through the dark eyes. “So you think that the times Bucky was missing for a while, the times they wrote him down as hostile or hard to control again, he saw something that triggered a memory and he couldn’t process it.”

“Repressed memories can make themselves known with bouts of anxiety and explosive anger and basically dealing with your emotions in a stressful situation with the emotional maturity of a toddler.” Tony stated, counting the symptoms off on his fingers. “So if something was triggered in Bucky, a memory that had been forcefully, purposefully repressed it could send him spiraling, complete with migraines and maybe even hallucinations as his mind struggles to right itself.”

“…You sound like you know what that’s like, Tony.” Steve said very very quietly.

“Yeah, well I didn’t do real good after my parents passed.” Tony sounded like he was joking but he absolutely wasn’t. “And I don’t drink because I like the taste of alcohol, you know?”

“Tony–”

“Anyway.” Tony gave a negative shake of his head so Steve wouldn’t press the issue. “Anyway, if we track through the times and places when Bucky struggled to stay under the program, we can maybe pinpoint some areas that spark as recognizable to him. There’s a very good chance he will return to those places because it’s the closest thing to familiar as he will have right now.”

“Those places could be anywhere over the world.” Steve pointed out. “Is there anyway to narrow it down?”

“Not any that I know of for sure.” Tony blew out a deep breath. “We only have HDYRA’s notes on him, and since most of the missions were carried out against people just as bad as HYDRA, there won’t be any corroborating information. SHIELD had no idea who the Soldier was and Peggy said my dad looked into the Winter Soldier for a long time, but I haven’t found anything about him in Howard’s notes or files or any digital accounts either.”

“Alright.” Steve’s heart sank but he kept it from his face. “That’s fine. Something will turn up.”

“Something will turn up.” Tony sounded about as convinced as Steve felt, but his smile was brave. “I think I’m more nervous about this than I was New York, which is crazy, right? This isn’t anything like saving the world from aliens.”

“He’s my best friend and the soldier you love, Tony. This is just as important as saving the world.” Steve maintained, and with one last squeeze at Tony’s hand he forced himself away, standing up from the chair and putting it back at the other desk. “Have you eaten today?”

“I had a sandwich…” Tony already looked distracted, like his mind was running a hundred miles an hour. “…yesterday?”

“Can I bring you some dinner then?”

“Please and thank you, Spangles.” Tony opened up his holographic keyboard and went to work typing, completely missing the sadly fond smile Steve sent his way at being called Spangles.

“I’ll be right back, honey.” Steve murmured, and put a hand over his aching chest as he walked away.

Tony would figure out how to get Bucky back home and Steve would be so grateful to have his best friend alive and well that he wouldn’t even miss what he and Tony almost had.

It was enough to be friends.

…it was enough.

********************

********************

It was difficult for Steve to try and stay busy when he knew Tony was down in the lab creating a program to find Bucky.

SHIELD didn’t exist anymore, so there were no missions to go on or paperwork to fill out. Natasha had been called to Capitol Hill and had been waiting almost three days at this point waiting to give her deposition and statement, and Clint was there with her so Steve didn’t even have anyone else at the Tower to talk to.

He tried to fill the days with reading, picked up drawing supplies for the first time in months, worked out until he could barely walk but Steve was still antsy, still restless. He wanted to go down to the lab and pull Tony onto his lap and sit and talk, he wanted to drag Tony off and cuddle up on the couch for a movie night, or better yet, cuddle up in Tony’s bed for a movie night, but none of those were options.

Not only was Tony sleeping in the lab trying to figure out a pattern for where Bucky might be going, but Steve was determined to keep some space between them and that was physically impossible if they were both sat together in front of computer. He ached to hold Tony, ached for the comfort he always found in Tony’s arms but the longer he indulged, the harder it would be to say goodbye.

So Steve told himself it was better this way, and stayed away from the lab, texting Tony when he wanted to talk, calling him up for dinner rather than taking food down. It was better this way for everyone involved, better for the long run. Totally fine. 

Today was a rough day though, three or four days after they had watched the video footage from DC and honestly, three or four days since he and Tony had said more than a handful of words together and Steve was trying to talk himself out of going to see Tony with every step he took down towards the lab, trying to talk himself out of just snatching Tony up and falling onto the couch together because even if they just held each other for a few minutes, Steve was about desperate to just be close and–

“STEVE I NEED YOU!” Tony suddenly shouted for him over the speaker system and Steve broke into a run down the stairs, any and all thoughts of space tossed right out the window when the doors to the lab swooshed open to let him in without pausing.

“Tony?” He skidded to a stop in front of Tony’s chair, crouching down and cupping his jaw and looking him over in concern. “Honey are you alright?”

“Wow. I’m fine.” Tony swiped his hand away. “But I’d love to see you do that ridiculous panicked run all over again.”

“Ugh, Tony.” Steve groaned, let out a deep breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “I thought you were hurt. You shouted that you needed me, I thought something big had fallen on you or that you’d gotten trapped and couldn’t get up.” .

“Okay.” Tony smiled, the first genuine smile Steve had seen since before DC and it nearly took his breath away. “First of all, I’m forty two, not so ancient that I’m going to shout things like ‘help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’.”

“Tony–”

“And if we’re going to say things like that?” Tony continued, smirking when Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re the one approaching a hundred there, centenarian. If anyone’s going to fall and need help, it’s you.”

“You’re fine?” Steve asked and when Tony nodded, eyes still sparkling with laughter, he pulled away to find a seat at the next desk. “Alright then, what prompted you to scream over the intercoms for me?”

“I have been tearing my hair out trying to find a pattern for Bucky.” Tony announced. “I’ve been tagging every location from his mission notes and breaking more than a few laws by tapping into the cameras in different places. I want to make a facial recognition program but I cannot deploy JARVIS worldwide with that sort of thing. Regardless of whatever the hell SHIELD did when they were looking for Loki, that’s not really an option for those of us operating inside the law.”

He waited a beat then added, “Operating inside the law for the most part.” 

“Okay.” Steve leaned back in the chair and folded his arms. “So do you want to bounce some ideas off me? Is that why you called me down?”

“I called you down partly because I haven’t seen you more than a few times all week and I’m not a huge fan of that. Things have been– things have been rough, Steve. And I know you said you were here but it doesn’t really seem like it lately, and I know you aren’t doing real well with the whole Bucky thing and I’m sorry if being around me makes that harder–.” Tony frowned at him and Steve blurted–

“No! No, Tony. That’s not it!”

“Okay, well maybe we can circle back around to that later?” Tony raised his eyebrows hopefully. “Because I tend to get tunnel vision and only care about what I’m doing at any given moment but um–” his smile was very soft. “– I’m here too, alright Spangles? For support, I mean.”

Steve was quiet, and Tony looked a little embarrassed when he continued, “I felt like that file was going to destroy us, you know? And now that I’ve had some time and worked through some things, I realize that’s crazy. You and I have been through everything else together– including your spectacular USO tour– and you told me the truth for whether or not you knew about my parents, so there’s no reason it should pull us apart, right? Not if we don’t let it.” 

“That’s right Tony.” Steve murmured, trying to keep the sadness from his voice. “Not if we don’t let it. I’ll try to be around more, okay?”

“Good.” Tony met Steve’s eyes for a long moment, then seemingly satisfied with whatever he saw, turned back to his computer. “Okay, so the other reason I called you down here is that I actually think I’ve had a breakthrough and it’s time for you to pull your weight with this little project.”

“A breakthrough?” Steve’s eyes lit up. “Are you serious? What can I do to help? I’ve been feeling pretty useless since you’re doing all the work right now with the programs and the research, just tell me what to do.”

“Well, I need you to literally pull your weight–” Tony emphasized, and motioned towards a closet in the corner of the lab. “And bring me those boxes in the closet. It’s all my dad’s stuff and I’ve been through it before but I need to go through it again so you’re going to help me.”

“I can do that.” Steve was already up and out of the chair and headed to the closet, picking up boxes two at a time and bringing them over to Tony’s chair. “Anything in particular we are looking for?”

“Not… not really?” Tony tore into a box and started to toss random bits and pieces out on the floor. “I’ll know it when I see it though. Here’s the thing, I’m sitting here at my computer starting to feel like one of those villains from the old crime shows–”

“–um?”

“Right right.” Tony sighed over Steve’s obvious confusion. “So my dad and I used to watch old crime shows together. Old school detectives that said things like ‘say, sonny’ and ‘the dame’s got moxie’ and other stupid things that I think no one actually ever said in real life.”

“Got it.” Steve put down another armload of boxes. “So you felt like a villain from a crime show.”

“Dad and I used to watch them all the time because neither one of us slept like a normal person and the shows were always on late.” Tony abandoned that box and reached for another. “We spent the entire episode comparing notes on how we would solve the case faster if we were the good guy, and then how we would get away with the crime if we were the bad guy.”

“That seems…” Steve paused, searching for the right word. “Constructive?”

“Well it kept us from shouting at each other so Ma encouraged it.” Tony’s smile was a little sad. “Anyway, one of Dad’s pet peeves was that the bad guy always hid the safe behind the most obvious painting in the house, or beneath a hideous rug in the floor. Diamonds were always in the pantry because no one would think to look with the food, keys were always hung on a chain worn around the neck of their ridiculously buxom girlfriend and the microfilm full of scandalous pictures or incriminating files was always always–” Tony yanked a picture out of the box and smacked it onto the table triumphantly. “–in the frame of the picture on the bad guys desk.”

“Is that Peggy standing there with your dad?” Steve picked up the portrait and held it to the light. “Son of a bitch, look at her in that dress.”

“Language, Cap.” Tony said first, and then– “Yeah, my ma hated this picture. She always said that Peggy had no business wearing a dress like that and my dad had no business keeping it.”

“Howard kept this on his desk?” Steve whistled softly. “No wonder your ma hated it.”

“Yeah, I gotta say I’m uncomfortable with how hot my Auntie was back in her prime.” Tony admitted, scratching at the back of his neck with a sheepish expression. “Was bad enough seeing this picture growing up but then I actually got to see her during the war and uh– yep. Very uncomfortable with it.”

“Easy, Tony.” Steve only sounded like he was half joking. “That’s my girl you’re talking about.”

“Trust me, I’m aware of gross it is.” Tony flipped the picture frame over and slid a straight edge along the glued backing. “Dad kept this front and center on his desk every day for years and years. I always thought it was some weird thing he had for Peggy, which wouldn’t have been fair to my ma but also wouldn’t have surprised me at all. Dad was kind of a dog.”

“Tony!”

“You met him, you know how he was.” Tony scoffed. “And we’re getting off topic. So Peggy told me a while back that Dad was sort of obsessed with the Winter Soldier, kept files on him and that sort of thing but I hadn’t found anything and I’ve been through these boxes at least three times.”

“So you thought your dad hid a microfilm in the back of a fairly inappropriate picture of him and Peggy?” Steve guessed, tossing the piles of discarded files back into their appropriate box. “Because that’s what they did in the old films?”

“Because that’s what they did in the old films!” Tony held up a square disc and waved it around gleefully. “He actually hid it in the super obvious photo on his desk! I can’t believe it!”

“I can’t believe it either.” Steve chuckled at Tony’s excitement. “That looks too old for your system, can you even read it?”

“Sure, I just have to put it into an adapter and then transfer the data to a readable format and then have JARVIS download it for me.” Tony blinked up at Steve a few times. “Did you not know that?”

Steve didn’t answer, just sighed pointedly and irritably and tried not to think about how much he would miss moments like this when Tony was snarky and sarcastic and smiling like that.

“JARVIS, go to work.” Tony ordered, plugging the floppy disc into a machine that had to be at least twenty five years old. “Pepper told me to throw this thing out years ago because when would I ever need a disc drive for floppies and ha! Proves you wrong, Ms. Potts!”

“You going to call her and tell her?” Steve called from his spot putting boxes back in the closet and Tony called back, “Are you crazy? Not ever!” and Steve laughed out loud.

“Hey Steve?” Tony tapped his pencil on the desk a few times while he waited for Steve to finish. “Is it odd that I cover up my reactor all the time?”

“I don’t think my opinion would matter when it came to that sort of thing.” Steve dusted off his hands and closed the closet door. “I commented on your clothes one time back during the war and you lectured me for half an hour. Learned my lesson, never doing it again.” 

Tony huffed at him, and Steve grinned. “Why do you ask?”

“Fury mentioned that I don’t show it off anymore.” Tony opened his shirt and pulled the dark tank top away so the blue light of the reactor shone on his face. “I didn’t really think anyone noticed.”

“I noticed.” Steve shrugged, dropping back into the seat across from Tony. “But I had such a hard time adjusting to you having the damn thing that when you started to cover it up again I was sort of relieved.”

“You had a hard time–” Tony frowned. “Why?”

“Because my Tony didn’t have something that looked an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon in his chest.” Steve said pointedly. “I had a hard enough time reconciling you from 2010 with you from the forties anyway, and the arc reactor out on display made it more difficult. So when you started to cover it up after New York– I mean, it was sort of a relief. It was easier for me to see the you I remembered when I didn’t have to also see the reactor.”

“Huh.” Tony pressed his palm over the light thoughtfully. “You know, I think I started to cover it up because it freaked me out too. I had gotten used to not having it and all the sudden I had it again and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It used to feel like protection but all it did after New York was make my anxiety worse for a while.”

“Wow.” Steve shook his head. “Time travel is just–”

“–awful.” Tony finished. “Yeah, you have no idea. Some days I’m still not sure I really believe it but then–” He motioned to Bucky’s file on the desk, then between he and Steve. “How could I not believe it, right? No way you and I would be this close if it weren’t true.”

“No?” Steve widened his eyes in mock horror just to see Tony smile again. “You don’t think we’d be best friends for life if we didn’t know each other from before?”

“I can guarantee I didn’t love you before New York.” Tony snarked back and Steve had to tell himself not to react to the words. “Keep sassing me and I might decide I don’t love you now, either.”

“I’m quaking in my boots.” Steve managed to sound sarcastic instead of miserable, and Tony wrinkled his nose teasingly. “How long do think it will take to–”

Sir.” JARVIS interrupted Steve’s question. “I’ve transferred the data from the disc drive, but I’m afraid I can’t read it.”

“What do you mean, you can’t read it?” Tony turned to his computer and clicked around a few times until the screen filled with a jumble of letters and numbers and symbols. “Son of a bitch, it’s in code.”

“What?” Steve peered over Tony’s shoulder. “It’s in code?”

“My Dad hid a floppy disc in the back of an uncomfortably risque picture of my Auntie and then coded all the information inside.” Tony muttered. “Brilliant bastard. Sometimes I actually miss him.”

Steve put a comforting hand on Tony’s shoulder for just a split second, resisting the temptation to linger. “Can you break it?”

“Can I break it?” Tony repeated. “Of course I can. I’m way smarter than my dad was. I won’t even need JARVIS to manage this code. I bet I’ll have it by dinner time.”

“Should I leave you to work in peace, then?”

“Yeah, I have a hard time concentrating when you’re around.” Tony already sounded distracted, but he felt behind him for Steve’s hand and pulled him down for a quick kiss. “Three hours. Four tops. I’ll call you when I’m done.”

“Um–” Steve closed his eyes tight against the rush of longing and forced himself to nod. “Four hours tops. Good luck.”

********************

********************

Steve came down to check on Tony when four hours had passed with no word, then again at six hours and eight hours.

By the time Tony had been at it for nine hours, Steve was starting to get worried, and at ten and a half hours he showed up with food and blankets and water, fully prepared to forcefully bundle Tony up and into bed to make him take a break.

“Don’t you dare.” Tony warned when Steve advanced on him with a blanket. “No way. I will break this code if it kills me. My old man was not smarter than me, I can do this.”

“Have you at least asked JARVIS for help?” Steve questioned and the AI answered, “Yes Captain Rogers, I’ve been asked for help and then told I was a worthless disembodied voice when I couldn’t break it.”

“Tony!”

“He knows I don’t mean it.” Tony grumbled, taking at least a few seconds worth of break to stretch and pop his knuckles. “I’m starting to think this isn’t code at all. It’s just gibberish. My dad his a disc full of gibberish hidden in a troublingly sexy picture of my Auntie. Gibberish.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“No.” Tony thunked his head down on the desk and groaned out loud. “But I don’t know what else it is!”

“Okay, here’s an idea.” Steve carefully sorted and stacked the pages and put them aside. “Let’s get some rest and then maybe go spend a few hours with Peggy. I owe her a game of gin rummy and you could use the distraction. Then we’ll come back with fresh eyes and this time I’ll sit with you and try to figure it out. I don’t know code, but I’m very good at finding obscure patterns and that might help.”

“Fine.” Tony yawned and pillowed his head in Steve’s shoulder. “Take me to bed, Spangles.”

“You’ll probably sleep better in yours, honey.” Steve picked Tony up anyway, holding him close. “And I’m not tired. I don’t want to keep you up when you’re this exhausted.”

“If you aren’t in bed with me, I’ll just come back down here and work.” Tony threatened sleepily and Steve grinned over the sheer amount of stubborn Tony could be even when he was exhausted.

“Alright, alright. I’ll lay with you for a little bit.”

“Good.” Tony burrowed closer, hiding his face in Steve’s chest. “We haven’t slept together in weeks. Miss you, Spangles.”

“I miss you too, Tony.” Steve whispered, and they didn’t say another word until Tony was tucked into Steve’s bed, warm and secure under the blankets.

“You’re coming to bed?” he asked, cracking one eye open to see Steve. “Yeah?”

Steve swallowed hard. One more time won’t hurt. “Sure am, sweetheart.”

Chapter Text

Peggy glanced at the cards in her hands, up at Steve’s frustrated expression, and then over to a very bored looking Tony and announced, “You two are hiding something from me, and I won’t stand for it. Out with it, Captain Rogers. It isn’t polite to keep secrets from a lady.”

“We aren’t keeping anything from you, Auntie.” Tony said immediately, drumming his fingers on his thigh in a repeating pattern. “You know all of our secrets and then more secrets on top of the previous ones. What could we possibly hide from you?”

“Well you’re correct about that.” Peggy laid a card down and Steve’s frustrated frown got a little more severe. “But you’re still keeping something from me. And by the by, Captain Rogers? It’s boring to play cards with a man who is so obviously losing, control your face please.”

“Control your face please.” Tony mocked and Steve scowled something fierce in his direction. “Auntie, we’re just working through some things. It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Tony wasn’t exactly lying, he and Steve were definitely working through some things, he just didn’t want to elaborate that all those things revolved around Bucky. They’d agreed not to tell Peggy about the Winter Soldier being the one who had taken Tony’s parents, and Steve had added that maybe they shouldn’t tell her the lengths they were going through to track Bucky either, and just let her think they were using normal government channels.

Tony’s misplaced guilt over letting Bucky go back in the war was bad enough– Steve could see it flashing across his face every time they read through the file again, every time Tony was reminded that Bucky hadn’t just died when he fell, that he’d been captured and tortured and broken down over and over– and Peggy didn’t need the stress of all the what if’s, not when she was already ailing, not when her bouts of exhaustion and weakness were more frequent, her memory slipping more and more every day.

No, Peggy didn’t need the stress and she certainly didn’t need the grief so Steve and Tony had decided not to tell her.

It was surprisingly difficult to keep secrets from Peggy though, and even semi-distracted by a game of gin rummy she was more observant than either gave her credit for, her eyes narrowing and sharpening in Steve’s direction when he didn’t answer her question.

“Steve?” She asked again, and Steve offered her a smile. “What’s going on?”

“Just like Tony said, Peggy.” Steve started to lay a card down, hesitated and rethought the move and replaced it with another. “We’re just working through some things.”

“Are you being stupid?” She asked plainly and when Steve’s head jerked up, Peggy sent a meaningful look in Tony’s direction. “Hm?”

“No.” Steve lied said shortly. “No, I’m not.”

“I think you are.” Peggy fanned out her cards on the table. “And I think I just won. Pay better attention, Steve. This is almost embarrassing.”

“Damn it.” Steve sighed and both Peggy and Tony admonished, “Language, Captain.” while Steve collected the cards, reshuffling them to deal another game. “How do you do that?”

“It wasn’t as easy as it usually is, not with Tony distracting me by tapping out code over there on his leg. Honestly, Tony. It’s bad enough that I can’t forget half the missions we did even if I wanted to, I don’t need you over there reminding me of them while I’m trying to relax.”

“I’m sorry.” Tony’s fingers paused. “I’m distracting you by doing what now?”

“Tapping out code.” Peggy said impatiently, echoing the last pattern Tony had done on her desk. “Are you reading about the battle at Florence during the war? Steve and the Commandos were spectacular during that, do you know?”

“No no.” Tony’s eyes were very wide. “I’m not reading about Florence anything. But how did you know that?”

“Howard’s code.” Peggy said simply. “It is frustratingly simple. You are tapping out the morse code abbreviation for Florence, FLR. He wrote everything in morse, that aggravating man. But instead of letters, it’s numbers, and not just numbers, but the coordinating number to which letter of the alphabet it is.”

“FLR as numbers is six-twelve- eighteen.” Tony objected. “This isn’t the dot-dash for six-twelve-eighteen. No way.”

“Sure it is.” Peggy picked up her cards and looked them over in interest. “But only if you’re counting in Latin, darling.”

Sex.” Tony mumbled as he worked through the rhythm again. “DuodēcimDuodēvīgintī. Oh my god. Oh my god! It’s Latin! He was spelling out mission locations and coordinating sightings in abbreviations using Latin! That brilliant–” Tony threw on his jacket. “– obnoxious–” jogged over and smacked a loud kiss onto Peggy’s cheek. “–conniving old shit. I love you very much, Auntie. Thank you for your help. Steve–” a kiss onto Steve’s cheek. “I’ll see you at home. I have to go right now.”

He was out the door in the flash, shouting something about coming back to see Peggy in a week, and then it was just a still chuckling Peggy and a somewhat confused Steve left in the room.

“You recognized the code?” Steve asked curiously. “Just by him tapping it?”

“Sweetheart, code is just a language that only certain people are fluent in.” Peggy said offhandedly. “And when you’ve read and written hundreds of documents in the code, you are not only fluent, but you hear the letters in everything. Listening to people type on their cell phones about drives me mad because my mind still tries to convert it to code even after all these years.”

Peggy lay down a card and picked up another, eyebrows raising just the slightest at apparently getting what she’d wanted. “But Tony was very specifically coding for Florence. Is there any particular reason for that?”

“Not one that I’m going to tell you.” Steve decided and Peggy sighed loudly in his direction. “How are you feeling today?”

“Well, I’m not dead, am I?” She sniffed. “And don’t change the subject. I asked you before if you were being stupid about Tony and you outright lied to me about it, which I don’t approve of at all. Why are you being stupid about Tony?”

“I’m not–”

“Captain Rogers, do not make me ask a third time.”

Steve huffed a quiet laugh. “You know just about everything, don’t you?” and Peggy mmhmmed in agreement. “We’re just um– we’re trying to get Bucky back, Peggy. He’s my best friend and I want him home.”

“Your best friend.” Peggy nodded in agreement. “And the soldier Tony loves.”

“….That too.”

“I meant the other soldier Tony loves.” Peggy emphasized. “Don’t you sit here and think for one moment that Tony doesn’t love you too, Steve. We both know he is absolutely head over heels for you.”

“I know he loves me.” Steve muttered. “But when Bucky comes back–”

“You think Tony will drop you off at a corner with the other abandoned kittens and go and play house with Sergeant Barnes.” she finished and Steve flushed a dull red. “Leave you alone like some unwanted dog he grew tired of? Trade you in for the one he really wants?”

Steve’s teeth nearly cracked he ground them together so hard, but he didn’t answer and Peggy tsked at him in disappointment. “You really have that little faith in Tony? Shame on you, Captain. I can’t believe we’re actually having this conversation. I understood when Tony struggled with thinking he had to give you up because of Bucky, but you act as if you want to push Tony away and I don’t understand why–”

“Wait.” Steve interrupted. “Tony thought he’d have to give me up if we found Bucky?”

“Of course he did.” Peggy said reproachfully. “He worried about whether it was fair to Bucky’s memory for him to want to be with you even before all this mess. This time around he worried that he’d have to choose between you two because he can’t just leave Bucky out in the cold, but he doesn’t want to give up everything you and he have worked so hard for.”

“I–” Steve frowned down at his cards without seeing them. “I didn’t know Tony struggled with that.”

“No of course you don’t.” Peggy lay down a card and arched a perfectly annoyed eyebrow in Steve’s direction. “Because neither of you believe in communicating like adults, instead you cast a few words about like absolute buffoons and hope the other knows what’s happening. Tony has been so afraid to let himself care for you because he thought it was too soon after Bucky, and now he’s finally decided to be happy for once and you’re going to turn your back on him?”

“I’m not turning my back on him.”

“No, you’re just withholding physical affection and time from him, even though Tony needs your support right now more than he ever has.” Peggy put another card down. “You’re right, that’s absolutely not turning your back on him. What was I thinking.”

“Peggy–”

“No no, please tell me how you are pulling away from my nephew at a time in his life where he is quite literally one drink away from a complete emotional breakdown.” Peggy glared at him this time. “How you are letting your own stupid–”

“This isn’t exactly easy for me either, Peggy!” Steve burst out, slapping the cards down on the table and throwing his hands up in the air. “Do you think I want to lose Tony? Do you have any idea how difficult this is? God damn it!”

He jumped up from the table and started to pace. “I want to bring Bucky home more than anything in the world. That is my best friend– my best friend! I wasn’t enough to save him back then and I let him fall, Peggy. I let it happen, and now here we are seventy something years later and I have a chance to make it up to him? To give him back his life and the man he loves and a chance at being happy again and I will do anything to make that happen. Anything.”

Steve was breathing hard, dragging his fingers through his hair. “I would do anything to fix what happened to Bucky, and if that means I have to be miserable watching him and Tony be happy, then that’s what I’m going to do. Tony doesn’t realize how much happier he’ll be with Bucky again, but I do. I’m taking steps to make the change as easy as possible on everyone and you need to stop making me feel bad for it!”

“You think I want to do this and I don’t. And it’s killing me.” Steve’s voice broke then and Peggy looked away to dab at her eyes. “Because Tony is everything that I didn’t even know I wanted. He’s my best friend too, he was there for me during boot camp and the serum and the USO and the war– he was there for everything and god, I thought I loved him then as friends but that isn’t anything compared to what I feel now. It’s not anything. I don’t even have words for it.”

“And you’d give that up to give Tony and Bucky a chance to be happy again?” Peggy asked quietly. “Hm? You’d give it all up.”

“Yeah.” Steve crumpled onto the bed, hiding his face in his hands. “Yeah, I would. Because they deserve to be happy. I’d be happy if they are happy. They’re my best friends.”

“You’re a self sacrificing idiot and I love you so much for it.” Peggy murmured. “Steve, sweetheart. You’ve been so busy thinking about what you can do to make sure Tony is happy that you’ve forgotten to ask him what he thinks.”

“I’ve forgotten to ask him what he thinks.” Steve repeated, the words muffled in his palms. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Have you sat down with Tony and asked what he wants out of all of this?” Peggy clarified. “Tony is a man that is not used to open, honest, affection from those in his life. He spent his childhood trying to gauge Howard’s moods to avoid being yelled at, he grew up in a world full of fake smiles and faker friends. You have to be honest with him or Tony will always assume the worst. Always. You think you’re making this easier on him? You might just be breaking his heart and you don’t want to do that, do you? Have you two talked at all about what will happen with trying to bring Bucky back?”

“He told me that we were going to bring home Bucky together.” Steve said flatly. “And back before the helicarriers left DC, he told me that he wasn’t sure about a lot of things but he was sure about–”

Steve’s voice trailed off and Peggy waited patiently.

“I’ve got to go.” He finished after another minute. “Peggy, I’ve got to go. I love you.” Steve kissed her forehead. “We’ll schedule another card game and you can beat me again but I’ve got to go right now. I’ve been an idiot and I have to go fix it. Tony already told me what he wanted and I didn’t hear it. Thank you for your help.” 

“Always a pleasure, Captain.” Peggy said loftily, and as he ran out the door, she muttered to no one in particular, “Self sacrificing idiot. If it’s not planes, it’s relationships. Someone save the poor fool.”

*******************

*******************

Tony was hunched over his computer typing as fast as he could, translating line after line of the code from Howard’s disc and putting it into JARVIS’s program so he could access cameras in the nearby areas and set up alerts if Bucky or anyone that even looked like Bucky passed by.

Sir, perhaps a composition between Sergeant Barnes’s enlistment photo and his most current look as the Winter Soldier?

“Yes.” Tony slammed back the rest of an energy drink and tossed the can towards the trash. “Yes, that’s a good idea. It’s not likely he’d change his looks at all, but just in case, give me a composite sketch and feed that into the facial recognition software as well. I don’t want to miss anything at all, alright?”

Yes, sir.”

The lab doors swished open and Tony only had to hear the heavy footsteps to know it was Steve heading his way. “Hey Spangles, listen I thinking–oh!”

Tony startled when Steve whipped the chair around and knelt in front of him, arms wrapping tight around Tony’s waist as he crushed their mouths together.

Mmm!” Tony only managed a surprised sort of sound, clutching at Steve’s shoulders for balance when strong fingers gripped at his sides, ran up his back to tangle in his hair, tugging his head back so Steve could deepen the kiss, mouth falling open when Steve made a soft, coaxing sound against his lips.

“Spangles.” he gasped when Steve finally let him go, their foreheads pushed together and both of them panting, Steve’s hands back down at Tony’s waist and flexing at his hips and temptingly lower. “Spangles, what– what–?”

“I kept thinking I had to give you up.” Steve rasped, nuzzling at Tony’s cheek with his nose and mouthing a gentle kiss at his jawline. “I just wanted you to be happy, so I was trying to give you up so when we bring Bucky home I wouldn’t be in the way.”

“Steve, you wouldn’t be–”

“But you said we were going to do this together.” Steve finished, brushing their mouths together again. “And you said you were sure about me and about us and I should have believed you–” Tony tipped his head up, and Steve kissed him again. “–I should have believed you but I was making myself miserable being a self sacrificing idiot–”

“Peggy’s words?”

“–well she’s not wrong.” Steve admitted and Tony smiled against his lips. “I’m sorry I tried to pull away when I know you need me, and when I know I need you and when we both need–” the words disappeared behind another kiss, Tony looping his arms around Steve’s neck and hugging him close again.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear about things.” Tony whispered. “But hey, kissing works too, right?”

“It works pretty well.” Steve budged closer and Tony spread his knees to accommodate his size, burying his face in Steve’s shoulder once he was close enough. “I’m not going anywhere, Tony. I’m not going to leave you down here to do all this work and only show up when you call me, I’m going to forget all about giving you space.” he pinched Tony’s side and Tony jabbed him right back. “I’m here. For all of this. We’ll bring Bucky home together and unless you tell me different–” Steve lifted Tony’s hand and pressed his mouth to his palm. “–unless you tell me different, right here is where I want to be, alright?”

“You are a self sacrificing idiot.” Tony confirmed and Steve grinned. “But Peggy’s called me the same a few different times so we can’t be all that bad, right?”

“Right.” Another long kiss and Steve finally pulled away, but only far enough to grab a chair and sit right next to Tony, hooking their fingers together in his lap. “Can you show me what you’re working on?”

“Okay look at this.” Tony squeezed Steve’s hand before turning back to the computer. “So I’ve been translating my dad’s code and running it through JARVIS’s system and it’s a list. It’s a list of Winter Soldier sightings both alleged and confirmed and then this over here–” he pointed to the right side of the screen. “–this is a coordinating location where you and the Commandos carried out a mission, or where SHIELD had a mission after the war. My dad tied every possible sighting of the Soldier with a mission carried out within ten miles.”

“Okay.” Steve scanned the list quickly, the names of several cities jumping out as recognizable from his days with the Commandos. “So Howard thought what, that HYDRA was using the Winter Soldier as clean up for missions carried out during the war? For revenge? What?”

“My dad thought you were the Soldier, Steve.” Tony said quietly and when Steve tensed beside him, Tony squeezed his hand again. “He and Peggy thought for a long time that you had survived the ice and maybe you had gone vigilante, gone rogue and looking at this–” he motioned towards the screen. “There are a lot of missions that line up fairly close. It’s not that much of a stretch.”

“But how could they ever think I would–”

“Peggy told me that at least if you were the Soldier, she hadn’t lost all of you.” Tony explained and Steve’s eyes closed for a second to hide the hurt over Peggy wishing he’d done all this just so she knew he wasn’t gone. “And if you were the Soldier then my dad could focus more on bringing you home and less on how he’d lost you and now couldn’t find you. It would help with the guilt.”

“Jesus.” Steve muttered, and then again. “Jesus, I can’t believe–”

“I would have hoped the same thing.” Tony cut in. “Not now, not knowing that Bucky went through what he did. But the idea of Steve Rogers out there handing out justice and fixing things the war couldn’t? It’s encouraging in a weird way. It would mean that I hadn’t lost you completely and even now with Bucky– I haven’t lost him completely, you know?”

“Okay.” Steve blew out a deep breath. “Keep explaining this to me.”

“So this is what I have JARVIS doing.” Tony picked up Bucky’s file and opened it to the list of missions. “I’ve taken every confirmed sighting of the Soldier from my dad’s files and cross referenced it with HYDRA’S list. Then I checked the notes.” he turned the page and Steve leaned closer to see. “And any mission where Bucky’s handlers noted that he was aggressive or missing for some period of time after the mission, I’ve ear marked and then checked against my dad’s notes and look–” 

Tony jabbed at the file, then at the computer. “Right here. The Florence campaign was one where you and the Commandos quite literally swept in and saved the day, and the Winter Soldier was sent on a mission two towns over from where you guys had been. It would be familiar territory to any of the Commandos, I wasn’t in Italy with you so I don’t really remember it, but Bucky would.”

“And in his files…” Steve picked it up and read through the notes. “Soldier took four days to return to base. Soldier was aggressive and hostile, resistant to re-immersion. Cryogenic freeze initiated with notes to immediately reprogram and trigger upon next time waking.”

“It took Bucky four days to come back after that mission.” Tony reconfirmed. “He was aggressive and hostile, they had to throw him back in freeze just as an attempt to control him.”

“He recognized where he was.” Steve realized. “Recognized the area from when we were there–”

“–and repressed memories make themselves known with anxiety and bouts of explosive anger.” Tony finished. “Something here triggered Bucky, whether it was a certain smell or a particular landmark, whatever it was. He recognized it and his mind couldn’t handle the strain.”

Damn.”

“So I have JARIVS running facial recognition software every place that these notes match up with my dad’s, and I’m adding new places as I come across them.” Tony’s smile was just this side of hopeful. “This could work, Steve. We can find him like this. And the second he pops up on the radar, you’re going to go get him. He won’t know who I am, not at first, but Bucky knows you. You could get him and bring him home.” 

“Does this mean I’ll have to wear the stars and stripes every time I go looking for him?” Steve made a face and Tony teased back, “Yeah, specifically the old cheesy one from the war. I’ll steal it from the Smithsonian for you, I have an in with the guard.”

“Well I’ll order some pizza and sit with you while you finish coding.” Steve decided, dropping a kiss onto Tony’s hair before he stood. “I’ll be right back.”

“Love you.” Tony said absentmindedly, reaching for another page of Howard’s code to start analyzing. “Also, nothing with olives on it, okay?”

“No olives.” Steve repeated, and then with a hitch in his breath, “I love you too.”

*********************

*********************

It took six hours, an entire pizza and most of a twelve pack of beer before Tony had finishing transcribing Howard’s code into the computer so JARVIS could put it to use, and Steve sat with him the entire time, rubbing slow circles onto Tony’s back, shifting to sit behind him to work on tense shoulders, physically scooting Tony’s chair away from the computer so he had to at least nibble at pizza and take a drink every once in a while.

And when Tony finally shouted “yes!” and pumped his fist triumphantly in the air over having finally finished, Steve scooped him right up from the chair and into his lap, framing Tony’s face between his big hands and kissing him soundly.

“I finished.” Tony was grinning but exhausted, his smile tired but eyes bright. “All my Dad’s notes. The guy’s been gone twenty years and sometimes I think he’s still taking me to school, still teaching me things but some days–” his smile wavered behind a yawn. “–some days the student becomes the teacher and today is that day.”

“I’m proud of you.” Steve bumped their noses together and Tony pressed closer, chasing a real kiss and humming contentedly when Steve gave him one. “I can’t believe you figured this all out. I never could have done this.”

“Yeah you could have.” Tony disagreed. “Maybe not through the computer, but you would have figured out the link between Bucky’s mission reports and the Howling Commandos. You’re the Man with the Plan, right? Break out those tights and do something about it.”

“I think you’re obsessed with my tights, Tony.” Steve said dryly, and Tony snarked back, “I’m just saying, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if you wore them again!”

“Whatever you want, sweetheart.” Steve palmed over Tony’s hips, slipped down over his rear and snugged him tighter into his lap, capturing his mouth with a warm, easy touch that had Tony sighing and whispering his name in a low tone that made Steve’s mouth dry and his heart pound. “Time– Time for bed?”

“It’s definitely time for bed.”

The walk to Steve’s bedroom took longer than it ever had, with Tony too tired to keep himself from stumbling up the stairs, and Steve nearly tripping himself trying to keep Tony from falling. And then hands started to wander— the helpful touch at Tony’s waist to keep him level turning first possessive and then greedy as Tony leaned back into it and pursed his lips for a kiss that Steve attempted to keep somewhat chaste, but abandoned rather quickly for one full of tongue and muffled moans.

Tony might have faked a stumble as they passed the kitchen just so Steve would grab him tighter, but Steve wasn’t complaining when he got to back Tony into the wall and cage him in with his body, sucking a bruise onto the base of Tony’s neck and when Tony gasped and arched into it, Steve used his teeth to rip a cry from Tony’s mouth, surging back up to swallow the noise.

They were panting, grasping at each other, Tony standing on his toes to try and get closer and Steve working a thigh between Tony’s legs and rocking forward until Tony cursed and ground down against him with a shameless groan and Steve’s entire body lit up when Tony’s hand stroked boldly, purposefully over the front of his pants.

“Tony Tony Tony–” Steve would never know how the hell they made it to his room, too distracted by the feel of Tony’s hands at his chest, scratching lightly down his ribs and spreading over the still raised scar from the bullet. “Sweetheart, I–”

Pants came off at some point as they were falling onto the bed, first Steve kicking out of his jeans, then dragging Tony’s down his legs before collapsing back into the blankets and Steve brought Tony down onto his chest as they fell, rolling to pin him to the pillows, tangling their legs together and shuddering when he felt how much Tony wanted him.

Tony’s shirt came off slower than Steve’s had, Steve careful not to jostle Tony so much and laying the softest kisses possible over the scars stretching over Tony’s chest and down his sternum, branching out from the cold metal of the reactor. “Steve–” Tony started, but Steve shook his head and spent another moment just there, silently thankful for the reactor that kept the man he loved alive, grieving the scars but knowing that they were physical proof that Tony was here.

Alive and whole and here, scarred and tired but here.

“I love you.” he whispered raggedly and Tony tugged at him until they were face to face again, sharing kisses and sharing air and letting their fingers roam and explore until Steve was breathing hard again, canting his hips and groaning when Tony lifted against him, gathering the brunette as tight as he could as their kisses grew more and more urgent.

Tony had to let go only for a minute to fumble in the side drawer for something slick to ease their way and even then Steve didn’t let him go far, scraping his teeth down Tony’s side and gripping tight at lean hips to drag Tony back across the bed and back beneath him where he felt so right.

“Here.” Tony managed, shoving the lube into Steve’s palm. “Fingers–” a sharp bite at Steve’s bottom lip and Tony would have laughed over the helpless, hungry noise Steve made if he hadn’t been struck completely breathless. “Slowly because it’s been a while–” another kiss that was more teeth than lips, this time at Steve’s ear and the blonde sagged into him. “–but not too slow because I’m an impatient sort of guy.”

“I’ve never done this before, though.” Steve uncapped the lube nervously, his hands visibly shaking. “Other than the last time–”

“Hand jobs on a couch is different than this sort of thing.” Tony allowed, thoroughly charmed by how soft Steve’s blush was, the way the dark eyes sparked with want but the smile was still so shy. “But we’ll be fine. Don’t stop alright?”

“Tony–” Steve shook his head. “I don’t think I’m ready–”

“Hey, it’s alright.” Tony whispered, grasping at Steve’s hand and kissing his palm, settling the shaking fingers by placing them over his heart. “Slow down, we can slow down. We have time, we don’t have to rush this.”

“It doesn’t seem like we do though.” Steve said hoarsely, swearing softly when Tony’s other hand tracked down his side, down his hips, down further to where he ached to be touched. “I feel like I’m running out of time with you, Tony. Feel like I’ve got to have all of you right away but I still need the time to–”

“Shh Shh Shh.” Tony hushed him gently, shaking his head when he heard the distress in Steve’s voice. “I told you Spangles, I’m not sure about a whole lot right now, and when we find Bucky things are going to probably get awful and crazy and stressful before they get better, but no matter what happens, I’m sure about us, okay? I’m sure about us. We got all the time in the world.”

Steve nodded, took a few deep breaths until the trembling eased. “All the time in the world?”

“Starting with all night tonight.” Tony confirmed, and his eyes fluttered shut at that first touch down between his legs. “We have time, babe. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was easier then, with Tony pliant and trusting and Steve was still nervous but it helped that Tony sighed over every touch, that the first push had Tony’s knees falling open and his back arching over a breathless “Oh–!”, that Tony tossed his head into the pillows and pulled at the sheets and chanted yesyesyes when Steve filled him slowly, so slowly and so so carefully.

And when Steve was more comfortable, when he wasn’t as afraid of breaking Tony in half, he let himself explore, let his hands roam up Tony’s body following the lines of muscles, touching lightly over the softer parts, asking in nothing more than a whisper before closing his hand around Tony’s cock and stroking him first lightly and then with a firmer hold when Tony thrust into his palm.

Steve didn’t last long, not with Tony beneath him and saying his name like that and when Steve’s hips stuttered and his back bowed, he bent far over Tony and kissed him as hard as he could, his mind whiting out with pleasure as he felt Tony’s core tightening around him, pushing him right over his edge.

“Tony–” he gasped, pushing as deep as he could until Tony cried out over the pressure. “Tony Tony Tony…..”

*******************

*******************

“Spangles.” Sometime later– Steve had no idea how much later– Tony’s hands in his hair brought him back, whispers of, “Spangles, you weigh a thousand pounds, come on, come back to me.” 

Mmmsorry.” Steve mumbled and Tony chuckled at him, patting at his back. “Don’t want to move, you feel so good.”

“So do you.” Tony’s voice was sweetly affectionate, the words ringing with truth. “You feel good but you are so heavy–”

“Sorry.” Steve shook himself more awake and started to lift away, realizing belatedly and guiltily first that Tony had finished without him noticing and then– “Slowly!” Tony yelped when Steve tried to pull out too fast. “Steve! Don’t vacate the premises like they’re on fire! Damn it!”

“Vacate the premises–” Steve’s mouth fell open, then he blushed harder than he might have ever blushed in his life, but Tony started to laugh, louder and louder until his shoulders were shaking and then Steve was laughing too, pressing his forehead carefully to the arc reactor and giggling right along with Tony.

“Mark that down as something I never thought I’d say after sex.” Tony tittered and Steve sat up just enough to kiss him, sighing when Tony wrapped both arms around him and kissed him right back. “Go get me a towel or something.”

“Right, a towel. To clean up with. Sorry.” Steve blushed again. “I uh– yeah. My brain isn’t quite online yet.”

“Mine either.” Tony said softly, honestly and Steve kissed him again just because he could. “Clean up and come back to bed, yeah?”

“Yeah, sweetheart.”

He was back in bed just a few moments later with a damp rag for Tony and the moment Tony had wiped clean, Steve gathered him up close, hiding his face in Tony’s hair and closing his eyes as he tried to find the ground again, to stop his head from spinning.

“Alright?” Tony asked after a few minutes of contented quiet, drawing idle designs into Steve’s back with his finger tips. “Spangles?”

“I spent years watching Bucky be too scared to love someone.” Steve said then and it probably wasn’t the best time to say it, not so soon after they’d been together but he needed to get it out, and said a silent prayer of relief when Tony didn’t tense or pull away or anything. “I watched him hide what he felt and trying to get by on short hook ups, maybe a one night stand if he was lucky. He took girls to dances and they never knew he was sad when they flirted with him, but he was.”

Steve took a deep breath and Tony nodded encouragingly. “He’s my best friend, Tony. And the day he met you, I knew it was special. I knew that you were the one he’d been waiting for and he loved you right away. Never saw Bucky look at anyone the way he looked at you.”

Steve shifted in the bed so Tony was held snugly onto his side, head over his heart. “I didn’t even know I wanted you like this until New York, Tony. I never would have done this before, not all those nights we spent together in the USO, not with all the jokes and all the talks. I loved you but I never would have crossed this line, never would have tried to take you away from Bucky.”

“I know, Steve.”

“I’m not going to do it now, either.” Steve continued, and this time Tony did tense and Steve hushed him. “You love him, Tony. Fate brought you two together once and now it’s doing it again and I would never do anything to jeopardize that. You’re my best friend and Bucky is my best friend and you deserve to be happy together.”

He paused, hesitated, wet his lips nervously and Tony waited with his heart in his throat for Steve to finish, “But I’d sure like it if you were happy with me too. Do you think– you think you can be happy with me, Tony?”

“I think you’re stupid to think I’m already not happy with you.” Tony replied and Steve shook his head and smiled at the sass. “And if you think I’m going to give you up–”

“Peggy said you were afraid you’d have to choose between Bucky and me.” he interrupted. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to do that, Tony.”

“Seems to me like you were trying to make that decision for me by giving me so much space.” Tony returned and Steve smiled again. “A terrible idea. One of your worst.” 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get Bucky home.” Steve said quietly. “And I know I’ve said this a lot but I mean it, Tony. I’m here. If you want me here, I’m here.”

“I want you here.” Tony felt around for the blankets, pulling them up around their shoulders. “Bucky wasn’t the only one fate and time brought back to me, Spangles. We’ll figure it out. I’m not going to let you go, so we’re just going to have to figure it out.” 

**************

**************

It was almost exactly a week later– a week of long talks and quiet finally spoken truths, of lingering kisses and mornings in bed where neither wanted to move away from the other– almost exactly a week later when JARVIS came online during breakfast to say–

My facial recognition software has pinged Sergeant Barnes present in Germany, sir. I’ll have an exact location in fifteen seconds.”

“I need correct coordinates and a time frame.” Tony said immediately, chugging the rest of his coffee and jumping to his feet. “Back check surrounding cameras for at least two weeks so we have an idea of how long he’s been in the area, I need any physical information you give me from the video. Is he limping, is he hiding his arm, is he in disguise or wandering around in the open. I want to know everything.” 

Yes sir.”

“Give me as many shots of his face as we can get, jump onto as many CCTV’s as you can to keep track of him. Steve I need you to-”

“Hey.” Steve caught Tony’s hand, spun him around and held him still. “Breathe, sweetheart.”

“It’s Bucky.” Tony’s eyes were a little wild. “Steve–”

“I know.” Steve said gently. “And I’m going to be on the plane to go get him as soon as I shower and get going. Forty five minutes at the very most, have a jet fueled up and ready to go for me, yeah? You can send any updated information to me on the way. But I need you to breathe first.”

“I’m breathing.” Tony nodded quickly. “And I know you might not find him this time–”

“–But I’m going to do my best.” Steve finished, and kissed Tony carefully. “I’m going to shower. You get the jet set up. I’ll be back down to kiss you goodbye in a few. Breathe for me, honey.”

“Breathe.” Tony repeated a few times. “Breathe, breathe, breathe. Alright, I’m breathing. I’m breathing. This is fine, this is fine, this is fine–”

Tony was headed for a full on panic attack by the time Steve came back downstairs, but he managed to hide it behind a worried smile and anxious kiss goodbye, and by the time Steve texted to let him know the Quinjet was in the air and rocketing towards Germany, Tony was collapsed on the kitchen floor with a hand over his chest and his head between his knees.

Sir?” JARVIS spoke up quietly. “Perhaps instead of waiting by the computers, you retreat to your cabin until Captain Rogers has returned. Your vitals are alarmingly erratic and too long like this and your system might shut down.”

“Right right right.” Tony forced a deep breath in, then blew it out slowly. “The cabin. That’s a good idea. I’ll take my tablet to keep in touch and rehang a normal door or something. That should help.”

I think it will.”

“Okay.” Tony gave himself another minute and then stood up slowly, taking even, measured breaths until he didn’t feel light headed anymore. “JARVIS, put in a call to Ms. Potts and to my Honeybear and ask them to meet me at the cabin, would you?”

Yes sir.”

“Thank you.” Tony headed for the penthouse to pack a few things. “It’s probably about time I fill them in on a few details, huh?”

******************

******************

(Somewhere in Germany)

The little town was as picturesque as anything he had ever seen, tucked away in the hills alongside a river and he didn’t know exactly what had drawn him to the place but it seemed familiar.

Or at least, the town felt like what he thought familiar meant, the buzzing in the back of his head growing stronger as he passed a memorial to soldiers of a war from nearly eighty years ago.

Was that familiar?

There were flower stands and vegetable stands and someone selling jewelry, and he drew his fingers over stones in a brilliant shade of blue that made him think familiar and then darker stones in whiskey warm brown that made his heart beat faster for a reason he didn’t understand.

A fruit stand, piled high with apples and pears and cherries and he stopped to reach for a sweet plum, holding it curiously and carefully in his left hand.

“Hello.” a little girl popped around the corner of the stand and he blinked down at her in surprise. “Do you like plums?”

The answer was almost an automatic no, but he stopped to think to actually think about his answer, about the dialect the little girl was speaking and his accent was probably terrible but he made an effort to answer in the language she would understand, stumbling over the pronunciation of, “Yes, I think I do.”

“I do too!” She replied cheerfully and he attempted what felt like a smile. “My name is Anja! What’s your name?”

“…Bucky.” he said slowly and the little girl lit up with a sweet smile. “My name is Bucky.”

Chapter Text

Pepper stepped out of the helicopter and right into a pile of mud, her brand new shoes sinking no less than three inches into the muck and she squealed just a little bit, hiding her eyes to ask, “Oh James, please please tell me I stepped in mud and not something worse?”

“Something worse like a big ol’ cow pie?” The Colonel suggested and Pepper squealed again. “Stop making that noise. It’s just mud and it’s sort of shockingly deep but honestly, Ms Potts. Who wears Jimmy Choos to a cabin?”

“Colonel Rhodes.” Pepper huffed, making a useless attempt to straighten out her skirt. “First of all, these are Louboutins, and second of all, this is Tony we are talking about. When he said cabin, I assumed he meant mansion with some wood decorations and when he said woods I assumed he meant we could see a few trees in the distance!”

“That’s fair.” James agreed and then just bent and swooped the flustered woman right into his arms, marching easily across the mud and into the grass of the clearing. “Especially since when he bought the Malibu home he described it as ‘charming and quaint’.”

“Ugh.” 

He put her down the moment they reached the wood porch, and Pepper sighed mournfully over the ruined shoes before kicking out of them and then reaching under her skirt to pull the nylons down too, balling them up and tossing them towards a trash can.

“Oh don’t you look at me like that, Colonel.” she huffed when Rhodey’s gaze swept down her frame and landed at her feet. “The last time you looked at me like that, we drank entirely too much wine and ended up doing something fairly stupid, don’t you remember?”

“Vividly.” Obediently, James quit ogling her legs but his smirk didn’t lessen at all. “Maybe I just think you’re adorable in bare feet.”

“Don’t you dare.” she warned, but her green eyes were sparkling playfully. “We are here to see Tony for the first time in months and I don’t need you distracting me with half ass come ons and less then well intentioned smiles.”

“I’d never, Ms. Potts.” The perfect picture of a decorum, Rhodey opened the door for her and swept his arm through to motion her forward. “After you, of course.”

“So you can ogle me from behind?” Pepper retorted. “I’m well aware of all your tricks, James. I spent years as Tony’s assistant, don’t you know? I’ve seen it all.” 

“I taught Tony every single move he used to get all those people in bed.” Rhodey scoffed and Pepper chuckled as she agreed, “Oh, I’m well aware.”

“Honeybear!” Tony came thumping down the stairs from the loft in torn jeans and a ripped shirt, his hair nearly standing on end and a big smile on his face as he grabbed Rhodey into a hug. “It’s about time you got here!”

“Heya Tones.” James held his oldest friend close, privately so relieved to see Tony smiling that he thought he could tear up about it. “Sorry we’re late. Ms. Potts had a run in with some mud and I had to carry her over the yard.”

“Oh, that is quite enough from you.” She reprimanded and then nearly strangled Tony in a tight hug, dotting kisses all over his cheek. “Tony, you look like you had a close encounter with an electrical socket, what on earth is going on with your hair?”

“You’re not entirely wrong about the electrical socket.” Tony ran a rueful hand over his overly fluffy hair, and then smiled at Pepper, his heart squeezing over how beautiful she was. “You look lovely as always, Ms. Potts.”

“Oh, Tony.” she pulled him into another hug and this time Tony rested his head on her shoulder for a few seconds. “Tony, I’ve missed you. And I’ve been so worried about you! You hole away in that Tower with Steve–”

“We should talk about that.” James interrupted.

“–and then you were dropping planes out of the sky in DC–”

“Yeah Tones, we are definitely talking about that.”

“–and now you’re up here in the wild in some prehistoric cabin–”

“Prehistoric?” Tony leaned away with a laugh. “Pepper, you just mentioned my electrical encounter! How is this place prehistoric if there’s lights?”

“I ruined a pair of thousand dollar shoes in your yard.” She said firmly. “And now I’m standing barefoot on a threadbare rug that has been here since prohibition days and you look as if you haven’t had a bath in days. Honestly, what universe is this?”

“I’ve missed you.” Tony leaned in and kissed her cheek, then smacked a kiss onto Rhodey’s cheek as well. “I’ve missed both of you and I’m sorry I’ve been secretive and sort of MIA but I promise that will change soon. We have lots to catch up on.”

“So much.” Pepper agreed, eyeing a rather dusty recliner uneasily. “I want to sit but I’m not really sure there’s anywhere safe. Should I just stand?”

“High maintenance.” James said, but his smile was fond and his eyes were soft and Tony glanced between them in surprise. “Listen though Tony, I’ve got a few things to talk to you about too, specifically about the fall out from DC and how the government wants certain safety measures put in to make sure that shit doesn’t happen again.”

“Well, if the government didn’t let Nazis run around through DC then shit like that never would have happened.” Tony returned and Rhodey didn’t have much to say to that. “I got the notification about a proposed Accords or something, I’ll admit I didn’t really read yet it but–”

“Tony, you have got to read them, this is really important. Right now it’s just our government involved but there’s talk of the United Nations stepping in to put a leash on the Avengers.”

“I know.” Tony picked up a drill and a pail of screws. “Why don’t you guys come upstairs and we can talk while I’m working.”

“What are you building, Tony?” Pepper looked around the cabin in interest, noting the fresh wildflowers at the fireplace mantle, the way the door had been recently replaced and how most of the lights had been unscrewed and taken out. “I thought all your purchases still went through Stark Industries but I don’t remember seeing a real estate purchase and certainly not for one within a stone’s throw of Canada.”

“No, this is mine personally.” Tony said over his shoulder as they followed him up. “I didn’t really intend for it to be this close to the border, but all I told the real estate agent was I wanted a cabin somewhere upstate with a river and a porch so you know–” he shrugged. “–she delivered exactly that.”

“Alright, but why did you buy a cabin in the first place?” Rhodey wanted to know, a steadying hand at Pepper’s back since there was no railing at the stairs. “Your little drill is cute, but you’re not exactly a handyman. One time you shot yourself through the foot with a nail gun, do you remember that?”

“I was fifteen.” Tony snapped and Rhodey grinned unrepentantly. “But thanks for bringing it up.” 

“Oh, anytime.” 

“Focus, boys.” Pepper reminded them, dodging a pile of dirty rags at the top of the stairs. “Tony, why’d you buy this place?” 

“Why did I buy this place.” Tony blew out a deep breath. “Well that is a very very long story.” 

“And all long stories have a beginning.” Pepper prompted, wiping a spot on the wall before leaning back gingerly. “And we’re here to listen, so just start there.”

“At the beginning?” Tony asked and both she and James nodded firmly. “Okay then, I’ll just start at the beginning. That sounds easy enough.” 

He drove a couple screws into the bed frame, tightening the brace at the corner and said “So it started in New York with the wormhole, then it got a little worse when the nuke happened and a little worse then that when my suit shut down and I fell.” 

Tony paused, turning the drill in his hands a few time. “And then I was gone. One minute I was staring at a whole lot of aliens and listening to JARVIS fade out, and then the next minute I was gone.” 

“Physically gone?” James interrupted. “Like you blipped out somewhere in the wormhole?”

“Physically gone.” Tony repeated. “For a little less than a minute.”

“Well where did you go?”

“I woke up in a dumpster in Brooklyn.” Tony put another screw in the brace and looked up to meet to meet Rhodey’s eyes steadily. “In the 1940’s.”

Pepper forgot all about the dust and dirt on the floors and slid right down the wall to sit with her hand over her mouth. “You woke up when?” 

She and James were mostly quiet after that, listening in disbelief– and the uncomfortable, lingering knowledge that it had to be true– as Tony talked about suddenly not having the arc reactor or any of his scars, about meeting Steve and Bucky and how weird it was to see Steve before he was Cap, to meet Bucky before he was just a legend and a picture display at the Smithsonian. He told them how Steve could barely breathe after climbing a flight of stairs, how Bucky had to brace him when he coughed, how they were so obviously each other’s entire world.

James snorted a little at the mental picture of tiny Steve getting his ass kicked in fights and sneezing too hard and giving himself a bloody nose, but sobered up when Tony talked about how they’d given him probably the last sandwich in the house and offered him the couch for as long as he needed, how Bucky had been so adamant that he and Steve weren’t together because those sort of feelings could get a fella killed.

“I sold my watch to buy clothes and to put food in their kitchen.” Tony showed them the watch around his wrist. “Sold it to a guy named Mr. Lee in this little shop across the tracks.” Rhodey’s eyes widened and Tony nodded with a grin. “Went and bought it back from him a few weeks after New York. Trippiest thing, I swear to God. Can’t even tell you how weird it was to walk into that shop and have him tell me I looked just like the other guy Steve had brought in some seventy years ago.”

He told them about Steve being so fiercely protective about Bucky’s feelings and how guilty he’d felt for being attracted to anyone at all and Pepper murmured a soft, “No, Tony. Oh no.” when he admitted how he struggled with feeling like what he and Bucky had was betraying Pepper.

“He and I just worked, we just clicked. I was too freaked out to see it at first and I tried to pretend like it wasn’t true, but–” Tony shrugged and moved to the other side of the bed frame. “I’ve never loved anyone like I loved him, Pep. I love you with my whole heart but what Bucky and I had was different, it was–” his voice trailed off and Pepper nodded in understanding.

James did laugh when Tony told him about how he and Steve had discovered they both had terrible coping skills and how shocked Tony had been about a non judgemental pint sized Steve and he laughed even harder when Tony talked about leaving Steve alone for all of five minutes in the movie theater and the punk was already out in the alley in a fight, using a damn trash can lid as a shield

“Seeing my dad was surreal.” Tony admitted. “Seeing him up there with that stupid hover-car? I saw that video so many times growing up that I knew every word he was going to say right to the second he said them. But then I panicked because I thought maybe he would recognize me, but you know, how would he recognize me? It was so weird to see him as Howard and not as Dad. He was just a person right around my age trying to put on a show and then trying to change the world with the super serum program and it was… it was surreal.”

Tony talked about meeting his Aunt Peggy and how fierce she’d been and how absolutely star struck Steve was from the very start. Talked about boot camp and the grenade– “That story is real?” Rhodey asked doubtfully. “I always thought it was something they made up to make him seem more heroic.” – and how smart Steve had been with getting the flag off the pole.

The bottom part of the bed frame was put together by the time Tony got the part about the super soldier serum, about the power outage and the bomb and the way he’d helped his dad out afterwards to put it all back together. He smiled when Pepper gasped over Steve literally yanking a submarine out of the water, then frowned in remembrance of how depressed Steve had been that night, how sure he had been that he still wasn’t enough.

Rhodey laughed until his sides hurt over the USO costume changes and cheesy lines, and he graduated to full on cackling, tears running down his face when Tony got up and paraded around in a spot-on mockery of the Star Spangled Man, adopting the terrible poses and flexing muscles as he told them about the USO girls fawning over Steve and how continuously lucky the Man with a Plan had gotten back in those days.

“Man with the Plan?” Pepper snorted. “Man with something transmitted maybe.”

“Yeah, thank God for that All American Immune system.” Tony waggled his eyebrows and they both groaned loudly at him.

He talked about working with the Commandos and meeting the men he would call Uncle later in life, he talked about the time in the lab with Howard to improve their gear, the missions where Bucky and Steve were gone for weeks at a time and how happy he was every time they came back safe. Pepper put a hand over her heart when Tony blushed a little at the memories of sneaking around with Bucky, afraid to get caught but too in love to stay away and James rolled his eyes until he about gave himself a headache.

Tony stopped working all together when he talked about how he knew his days with both Steve and Bucky were limited, how he knew every part of the story, every important mission and date and even in the happy moments he couldn’t help but think about how little time he had left, how he didn’t know what he’d do after they were gone, if he’d be stuck in the past or somehow get back to the future.

The Colonel had to clear his throat and look away when Tony told them about losing Bucky, about the bar and how Steve had drank every bottle in the place trying to get drunk so he didn’t have to think, and Pepper blinked tears when Tony said–

“We lost him, after that. I had tried to be ready to lose Bucky, but I wasn’t ready to lose Steve. He just stopped existing and I remember thinking–” he smiled a little but it was sad. “– I remember thinking that I never knew that Steve had been gone long before Captain America went in the ice. I never knew that. I thought I knew all the parts to the story, but I didn’t know that one. Wasn’t prepared for that one.”

“Tones–” Rhodey’s eyes dimmed in grief. “Tony, I’m sorry. You lost both of them just like that?”

“I knew we found Steve eventually.” Tony pointed out with a watery smile. “I just didn’t know if I’d be alive to see it this time around.” 

“Christ.” Pepper didn’t know what to say, to think, about a world where Tony wouldn’t be standing right there with them. 

“Anyway, um, I went back to Brooklyn after Steve disappeared.” Tony scrubbed a few tears from his face. “My Dad offered me a job working for him as long as I cut my hair and Peggy told me that I could work with her if I wanted. They didn’t call it SHIELD back then, but I knew that’s what she was talking about. I couldn’t do it though, couldn’t keep living in that world without Steve and Bucky so I figured I’d go West, right? Get to California and start making computers or maybe I’d try my luck at gold. Something. Anything. I just couldn’t stay there.”

“Did you make it West?” Pepper’s eyes were very wide. “Do you– I mean are there pictures of you from back then? Could we find them and see you? Were you a bank robber? You were a bank robber, weren’t you?” 

“I never made it West.” Tony shook his head, amused at the excitement from Pepper. “I fell asleep in the Brooklyn apartment a few weeks after we lost Steve and I woke up on the pavement in New York City. Aliens were crash landing all over the place and Hulk was roaring at me and Steve was whispering something about not being able to watch me fall too–” he shook his head again. “I was just back. Just like that.” 

“You were gone for almost two years.” Rhodey said slowly. “Two years, Tony. From the time you let go of the nuke and the time Hulk caught you, you were gone two years?”

“Just about.”

“And you remember all of it?”

“Like it happened yesterday.”

“So you’ve only been home–” Pepper counted off the months quickly. “Tony, you’ve only been here in this time for eight months?”

“Right around eight months, though we are probably pushing nine now.” The corner of Tony’s mouth down up a little. “I know I was unfair to you right after New York, Pep. I know I was shutting you out and I wasn’t explaining anything and I’m sorry. We weren’t exactly in the best place before all that, but I know I didn’t make it easier on you.”

“Are you kidding me?” Pepper’s voice rose and James put a comforting hand on her knee. “Tony, are you kidding me? You were gone for two years in a weird timeline and–and the war? And you fell in love knowing you were going to lose him and then you lost Steve and you’re sorry for not adjusting well? Tony!”

“Pep, I–”

“There are literally thousands of things you could apologize for.” She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Literally thousands. I could just write you a list. But you do not have to apologize to me for not coping well with all of this. How are you even coping at all? I don’t understand how you’re coping at all!” 

Pepper stopped abruptly, put a hand over her heart and softened her voice to a whisper. “You must have been so heartbroken. I thought it was post traumatic stress or nightmares or anxiety or paranoia maybe but you were still mourning your Bucky, weren’t you? Oh Tony.” 

“I didn’t really know how to tell you I felt like I was cheating on a man that had been dead for seventy years.” Tony said ruefully and Pepper just sort of crumpled back into Rhodey’s shoulder. “I figured if we parted mutually then it would spare you all the grief and all the things I couldn’t explain and maybe I wouldn’t feel so guilty.” 

“So you were worried about hurting Pepper, but then you were just alone there by yourself? Every time I texted you said things were fine and they weren’t? What, you just figured if we didn’t worry about you, things would be okay?”  Rhodey threw up his hands in exasperation and when Tony nodded, he muttered, “Self sacrificing idiot.”

“Yep, been called that lately.” 

“Okay okay okay.” Pepper drew her legs up beneath her body and reached for a bottle of water from the case Tony had stashed in the corner. “Tell me about it again.”

“Tell you about it again?” Tony repeated, a little stunned at Pepper and Rhodey’s apparent acceptance of his story. “Which– which parts?”

“All of it.” James got a bottle of water too. “Start with how tiny Steve was though, because the next time he acts all high and mighty and holier-than-thou I’m going to remind him that for a long time it was hazardous to his health to even sneeze.”

“And tell me more about Peggy.” Pepper encouraged. “She has always been incredible, I would have loved to know her back then.”

“Did meeting Howard–” Rhodey paused while he searched for the right words. “Did meeting Howard change how you remember him? Or do you still think he was a cold hearted bastard?”

“Did you ever meet your mom, or was she not around yet?”

“Please god, don’t tell me you wore a fedora.”

“Was the food different?”

“You had like six different fedoras, didn’t you?” 

“Did you scoff at everything at the expo or did you do that thing where you nerd out over weird, ancient technology?”

“Was Colonel Phillips that big of a blowhard, or has history sort of exaggerated his personality?” 

“Was Bucky gorgeous?”

“Let’s leave the details about Bucky to the imagination, thanks in advance.”

“You want to hear it again?” Tony looked between them incredulously. “You don’t think I’m crazy? Or that I dreamed it? Or that I’ve been drinking?” 

“You showed me the data, Tony.” Pepper said simply. “One minute you were in your suit falling from that wormhole and the next minute you weren’t. You were gone and I don’t know how or why but you were definitely gone and now you’ve lived this whole life in those few seconds? I want to hear everything about it. Every detail.”

“Not every detail.” Rhodey warned quickly. “We can leave some of the romance out, right?”

“Oh my god, I was so worried about telling you.” Tony slumped against the wall and put his face in his hands. “I’ve been going over and over it in my head, trying to figure out how to tell you so it wouldn’t sound quite so far fetched but–”

“Tony.” James interrupted. “Earlier this year, a god from another world showed up on Earth, opened a wormhole to another dimension and started pulling alien things from the sky to rain hell down on New York. You teamed up with a hundred year old super soldier, a scientist who is also a monster capable of ripping planes apart, two super spies and another god. Honestly, time travel doesn’t even register on the ‘far fetched’ scale any more. This is much easier to deal with than whatever the hell the Chitauri are.”

“Okay then.” Tony’s laugh was a little shaky and a whole lot relieved and he pulled the photos out of his pocket, crossing over to give them to Pepper. “Well as far as I know, this is the only photo of me that exists from that time. It’s me and Bucky at the fair two weeks before we lost him.”

“Oh, honey.” Pepper touched the pictures carefully. “Look how happy you are, how much he so obviously loves you.”

“You’re like twenty seven in that picture.” Rhodey peered at it in interest. “Look at you all baby faced and adorable.”

“Thank you.” Tony said dryly. “And yes, somehow I was about twenty seven, maybe twenty eight. None of my usual scars, no grey hair and definitely no arc reactor.”

“Did you panic when you figured it out?” Pepper wanted to know and Tony raised his eyebrows to reply, “Multiple times over several days. Time travel wasn’t even something I believed in before New York, much less figured would ever actually happen.”

“And that’s why you and Steve are so close!” Pepper’s face lit up. “You were best friends back then, but you hated each other in this life time and then you went back in time and now you’re back to being friends?”

“Friends and then some.” Tony allowed, and Pepper clapped her hands in excitement while Rhodey just made a sort of disgruntled noise. “But um, it get’s more complicated.”

“How the hell could it possibly get more complicated?” James demanded. “I know I said I don’t think it’s far fetched but it’s sure as hell complicated. What could be more complicated than time travel?”

“Rhodey.” Tony took the pictures back from Pepper and folded them into his wallet. “You’ve heard the name the Winter Soldier.”

“It’s come up in the last few weeks in several horrifying ways.” Rhodey said slowly, eyes narrowing. “Why?”

“Bucky didn’t–” Tony cleared his throat and tried to keep his voice steady. “There was never any reports that Bucky survived that fall, no evidence that he might have made it in any files or reports or history books. As far as everyone in concerned, Bucky Barnes perished as a hero during the war, the only Howling Commando that didn’t come home. But that’s– that’s not true.” 

“Tony.” Rhodey went very very still as he realized what Tony was trying to say. “You can’t possibly mean to tell me that the ghost assassin I’ve been hearing horror stories about–” 

“It’s Bucky.” Tony finished and the Colonel cursed out loud. “The Winter Soldier. It’s Bucky. We just found out a few weeks ago.” 

“I need a goddamn drink.” Rhodey muttered. “I need a goddamn drink before I can hear this story.” 

“The nearest bar is an hour away.” Tony put his tools down and dusted his hands off. “It’s a pretty drive if you feel like going and I know the time travel thing was overwhelming, but there’s a whole lot I still haven’t told you and the story only gets worse at it goes. Rhodey, you’re right. You’re going to need a drink.”

“So let’s go.” Pepper stood to her feet determinedly. “Because it’s honestly a miracle you haven’t completely self destructed yet, trying to deal with all this. I’m not about to let you deal with the rest of it alone. Let’s go get a damn drink and I want you to tell me everything.” 

“I’m not completely alone.” Tony defended, turning his cheek so Pepper could kiss it and holding her hand tight as they headed down the stairs. “I have Steve. He’s with me all the time and–”

“We are definitely not talking about how my best friend is sleeping with Captain America!” James said loudly. “Time travel and aliens is fine, but I cannot talk about that, okay?”

“Fine.” Tony waited until Rhodey had made it down the stairs before cocking an eyebrow and challenging, “Should we talk about how my best friend and my secretary are sleeping together instead?”

Rhodey’s mouth about hit the floor and Pepper turned an unhealthy shade of red, but she still managed to put her nose in the air and sniff, “I am your boss, Mr. Stark. Not your secretary.”

“Of course, Ms Potts.” Tony said dryly. “What was I thinking?”

*********************

*********************

Over drinks in the little bar, the rest of the story came out and Tony told them everything he knew about HYDRA taking Bucky and torturing him for twenty years, about the attempts to break him and the surgery, about the cryogenic freeze and only waking him for missions.

James kept shaking his head when Tony quietly listed off dates and places of Winter Soldier missions that had quite literally changed world history– like the one in Dallas in the 1960’s– and when Tony told them about the mission notes, how Bucky was never listed as anything other than subject and occasionally soldier even while they talked about torturing him, Pepper had to put her drink down and clasp her hands tightly together so they wouldn’t tremble.

“Seeing him on the bridge was–” Tony picked at the label of his beer, staring down at the printed letters. “I can’t tell you what that felt like. I was finally feeling okay again, finally feeling like I might actually make it through this nightmare and Steve and I would be happy. Then he took off his mask and looked right at us and asked, ‘Who the hell is Bucky?’ and I really thought–” Tony blew out a deep breath. “–I really thought my world had ended, Rhodey. I didn’t think things could ever be as bad as they were right then.”

“But they got worse.” Pepper said quietly, not so much a question as it was a statement she already knew the answer to. “Things got worse, didn’t they?”

“So much worse.” Tony choked out. “God, DC was awful. I read so many files, so many missions that were sanctioned by SHIELD not realizing they were being carried out by HYDRA. People killed just for getting in the way? The list of names that included senators and governors and school teachers and policemen– it was unreal, Pep. I could show it to you and you still wouldn’t believe it.” 

“And then helicarriers were coming down and Steve wouldn’t leave when I told him too–” Tony’s eyes shuttered in remembered pain. “He wasn’t going to give up on Bucky, and as a result the doctors  had to pull four bullets out of his midsection and stitch up a knife wound. Bucky’s leg was broken and his shoulder dislocated– he and Steve almost killed each other up there and Steve kept telling me o leave him alone and go help innocent people get out of the building–” 

“–which was the right thing to do.” Rhodey assured him. “It was, Tony.” 

“It didn’t seem like it at the time.” Tony confessed. “I didn’t care about anything other than what was happening up on the carrier. After it was all done, I found Steve on the banks of the river, but it wasn’t until later I found out that it had been Bucky who pulled Steve out of the water. Bucky saved him.”

“Does that mean the Winter Soldier–” James paused and corrected himself.. “–I mean, does Bucky recognize Steve? Is he slipping his programming enough to be rescued.” 

“I’ll come back around to that, because there’s more you need to know.” There was silence at the table while Pepper and Rhodey waited for Tony to continue, watched him bite at his lip and stare unblinkingly down at the lines and cracks of the table as he tried to figure out how to say it. 

“Losing my parents wasn’t an accident. HYDRA activated the Winter Soldier for a mission in December of 1991, and my parents were the target.”

Rhodey’s bottle dropped from his hand, tipping over and spilling across the edge of the table and for a long minute the only sound was beer dripping down into a puddle on the floor.

“…what?”

“It wasn’t an accident.” Tony said again, and Pepper was out of her seat in an instant to sit on his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him tight and Tony pushed his face into her shoulder to mumble, “I don’t know why they were a target, I have no idea how or why my mom and dad caught HYDRA’s eyes, but it wasn’t an accident and Bucky– the Winter Soldier– was involved.”

“I don’t– I don’t–” James was at a total loss for words. “Tones how are you even functioning right now? And what are we going to do about all this? That’s why you’re telling us, right? Because you want our help? Seriously how are you functioning?” 

“I’m only functioning because of Peggy and Steve.” Tony said honestly. “I went to Peggy after New York because I needed answers and I needed to know I wasn’t crazy and she has been my rock. She gives me advice and keeps me steady and I always knew I would’ve been lost without her as a teenager but now? I know I wouldn’t have survived after New York without her.” 

“And Steve?” Pepper prompted. “Him too?” 

“It took a while for us.” He said slowly. “Steve was dealing with me not being the me he remembered from the forties before New York and then all the sudden I was me and we had a lot to work through. Our grief over Bucky and the fall out of the battle and I was angry with him for a while for not just talking to me about it. I was so sure I was losing my goddamn mind in those first few weeks and he never said anything and I sort of hated him for a while. But we made it and now we’re in a good place.” 

Tony’s smile was a little sheepish, and a little worried as he squeezed at Pepper’s waist. “You aren’t angry with me, are you? About Steve, I mean. I didn’t leave you for him, Pep. I swear.”

“I could never.” she declared, smacking a kiss on his cheek before departing his lap for her own chair again. “Tony, I would never be angry at you for finding happiness.”

“Yeah, I’m not real thrilled about you and Stars and Gripes, but the way you smile about him makes it okay.” James admitted with a grimace. “And if he’s helping you deal with all of this then I guess I’ll keep my more annoyed comments to–” 

“You most certainly will.” Pepper interrupted with a scowl towards the Colonel. “I’m sure Captain Rogers is just as invested in this whole mess as Tony is. Tony, what can we do to help?”

“Rhodey, I need your help with the Accords.” Tony began. “I know right now it’s just politicians fussing about SHIELD apparently running amok and Steve sort of going rogue to deal with it, but depending on how things go with Bucky, I know it could become an international issue very quickly.”

“You’re damn right about that.” Rhodey finally rescued what was left of his beer, waving an apology at the server before mopping up the mess with a handful of napkins. “Tony, this could get real serious, real fast. After this SHIELD debacle, half the suits on the hill are shouting that Steve never actually retired from the military and is still considered active duty which means he should be court martialed for what happened in DC.”

“Christ.” Pepper rolled her eyes. “They’re going to court martial Captain America?”  

“More than that.” James took another beer from the server with a smile before continuing. “They’re talking about making the Avengers a branch of the military, of incorporating you guys into the government and putting regulations on where you and the team can and cannot go under the name Avengers. Do you understand that? Tony, they are trying to make it illegal for the Iron Man suit to leave United States borders without permission. They are saying Steve shouldn’t have access to his shield or his suit unless he’s on active duty, or that your friend with the wings–”

“Sam.”

“Right. Sam Wilson. They want to confiscate his wings. This isn’t something you can ignore, Tones. I’m not saying that all this nonsense will happen, but the problem is that it’s even being discussed. If word of the Winter–” Rhodey corrected himself again and Tony quietly loved him for it. “–of Bucky gets out to the higher ups, there’s a very real chance they will treat the situation as a reason to push the Accords through international channels. A super soldier with recorded kills all over the world? Every country will be out for blood and we might have to turn him over just to avoid bigger issues.”

“Yeah, I know.” Tony pushed his drink aside and motioned for a fresh one, holding up Pepper’s glass as well for a refill. “Steve and I are working on a plan to find Bucky and try to bring him home. Steve was gone two weeks in Germany last month, and he’s in Italy this week. Basically every time JARVIS pings with the recognition software, Steve hops on the jet and goes to find him. We’re going to try and do that as legally as possible but Rhodey, I’m going to need your help with it.”

“You got it.” James said immediately. “Whatever I can do, whoever I can talk to. I can’t promise a whole lot of anything definite, but I will be there beside your soldier every step of the way to make sure he’s treated right and gets a fair shake. I’m not going to let them cart him away–”

Tony started to cut in and Rhodey pointed a finger at him to warn– “and if the worst does happen and they want to hold Bucky for a while, you are in no way to launch an attack and break him out. I will not have my best friend branded a war criminal because he was horny for some hundred year old dick, do you understand?”

“Rhodey–”

Do you understand?”

“I understand.” Tony sulked. “And for the record, please don’t use the words ‘horny for some hundred year old dick’ ever again.”

“Don’t be horny for it then.” James snarked and Tony opened his mouth to reply right back but Pepper interrupted with a sigh and–

“That’s quite enough of that, boys. Tony, tell me what can do to help.”

“I need a safe center.” Tony switched gears instantly. “I don’t know where yet, probably wherever Steve finds Bucky. I don’t know if he will be ready to come home right away, I don’t even know if Bucky will want to come home right away, so where ever they are, I need a safe center basically ready to go. A safe home, access to therapists, food and supplies. Whatever Bucky will need to transition back into a real life or if he’s too far gone–” he shook his head. “– if he’s not Bucky anymore, than the Soldier will still need help. I want the funds available to make it happen.”

“Of course, that’s not even an issue.” Pepper pulled out her phone and made a note to herself. “I’ll get some money moving and solvent and put it in a specific account for you. It won’t need board approval to move, it won’t need my approval as CEO, you just take it and use it or let me know how to use it, alright?”

“Okay.”

“You really loved him didn’t you?” Rhodey finally asked. “You really did. Enough that even if it isn’t Bucky anymore you’re willing to help the Soldier that replaced him?”

“Absolutely.”

“Wow.” He tipped his beer back up for the last few swallows. “Tones that is– after everything? After your parents and what he did to Steve?”

“Absolutely.” Tony’s eyes dimmed then, his mouth pulling down into a frown. “Because there’s still something of Bucky left in the Soldier and I’m not going to abandon him.” and then quieted, “And because I keep thinking I’m to blame for all of this anyway.” 

“Tony!” Pepper’s mouth fell open. “No! How could you think that!”

“Because I didn’t stop Bucky from falling.” Tony whispered and Rhodey looked away from the heartbreak etching across his best friends face. “I knew it was going to happen and I didn’t stop it. And now all I can think is– If I’d stopped Bucky from going on that last mission, if I’d saved him, would I have saved my parents too?”

“You can’t think like that, Tony.” James shook his head. “You can’t do that to yourself. Things happen, shit happens, no matter what we do to try and fix it. Don’t sit here and think about everything you could have changed.” 

“I try not to.” Tony said honestly. “But then at night my mind sort of wanders and–” 

“We’ll stay with you tonight, then.” Pepper decided. “So if your mind wanders and you start thinking awful things, you have us to turn to alright?” 

“You don’t have to–” 

“We’re staying.” Rhodey agreed. “Not a whole lot you can say about it, Tones.” 

“Kay.” Tony’s smile was less sad this time around. “I love you guys.” 

“We love you too, Tony.” 

“You aren’t going to be alone anymore, alright? We’re here now too. We’ll figure it out.” 

“We’ll figure it out.” Tony repeated, and felt the first real surge of hope over the whole situation. “Alright then.” 

***************

***************

(One Month Later)

“Tony?” Steve was calling from somewhere in Austria this time, his voice tinny over the phone. “Tony, you there?”

“Hey.” Tony crawled out of the bed in the loft, careful not to disturb Rhodey on one side and Pepper on his other, looking back with a smile when they automatically moved together in their sleep once he was out of the way.

“Hey, I’m here. Sorry.” He shrugged into a sweater and tiptoed down the stairs to the living room to curl into one of the recliners. “Spangles. It’s good to hear you.”

“It’s good to hear you, sweetheart.” Steve said softly and Tony smiled into the dark. “Been a long few weeks just texting, huh?” 

“Yeah babe, sure has.” Tony felt around for a blanket and pulled it up over his feet. “How’s it going over there? Any luck finding our soldier?” 

“I still haven’t found him.” Steve sounded exhausted. “I’ve followed his trail, JARVIS has been updating me with new information as fast as he can, but I just can’t keep up with him. I’ve asked around and sometimes people recognize him, but nothing solid. Nothing real.” 

“Okay.” Tony pinched at the bridge of his nose and told himself to breathe, reminded himself that just because they hadn’t found Bucky this time or the last time or the time before that, it didn’t mean they wouldn’t ever find him. “Okay. Come home and we’ll start again, yeah? And come home soon. I miss you. Sharing a bed with Pepper and Rhodey just isn’t as fun as sharing a bed with you.” 

“They aren’t as fun as me, huh?” Steve chuckled at Tony’s petulant tone. “Still pretending they aren’t dating?” 

“Dating?” Tony snorted. “They’re halfway to in love and acting positively stupid about it. This is the third time they’ve been up to the cabin to see me and each time they act like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen each other in pajamas. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” 

“Not the worst thing.” Steve countered. “I bet I’d act all stupid if I got to see you in pajamas too.” 

“You’ve seen me in no pajamas and you’re stupid over it.” Tony informed him and Steve laughed out loud. “Will you call me when you land? I’ll come down from the cabin.” 

“I’ll call you when I land.” Steve promised. “I love you, Tony.”

“I love you too, Spangles.” 

Click

In Austria, Steve stared down at the picture of Tony on his phone for just a minute longer before putting it away in his pocket and pulling out his suitcase to start packing to leave. 

This trip had been a bust, but he wasn’t going to let it discourage him. Bucky was out there and Steve would find him even if it took years. He wasn’t about to give up, but right now all he could think about was getting home and getting back in Tony’s arms. 

Across the street sat another hotel, and in a window almost directly across from Steve’s room a man sat mostly in the shadows, almost completely hidden behind the curtains with a pair of binoculars trained solely on the blondes window. 

He had been in Germany, the blonde man had. Then he’d shown up again in Italy, and now here he was in Austria. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and he wasn’t carrying a shield and wore a hoodie and sunglasses instead of a red white and blue suit, but that didn’t make him any less easy to identify. 

A red notebook sat on the man’s knee, open to a page near the back and line after line was filled in steady, blocky writing:

Steve Rogers

Captain America

Howling Commandos

Steve Rogers

What is ‘the end of the line’? A mission? A code name?

And on the very very back, where the writing was uneven and spindly because he’d had a blinding migraine that day, his fingers shaking as a memory or feeling trying to make its self known with pain bursting behind his eyes and at the base of his neck:

My name is James Barnes

My name is Sergeant Barnes

My name is Bucky Barnes

My name is Bucky

…my name is

…my name is

My name is Brooklyn?

My name is Brooklyn.