Contrary to common belief, Bucky is far more familiar with Tony Stark than he’s ever let on: Once upon a time when the protocols were all that made up the shell that was Bucky Barnes, Howard Stark ended up on Hydra’s own version of a Christmas List.
And while Howard pleaded with “Sergeant Barnes” to spare him, it was not Howard that had shaken the protocols loose.
Only hours after the mission was complete, the orders were given that the family in its entirety would be wiped out too in order to properly “cut off any loose threads”. It would be simpler than the initial job given. There was no need to make it an accident; the only remaining person in the Stark clan was a self-destructive teenage genius by the name of Tony Stark, and the only thing the Winter Soldier would have to keep an eye out for was the teenager’s robot.
In the labs of MIT with no one around, it shouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, in and out, to get the job done.
In the end, the mission was never completed.
The robot, Dummy, as Tony referred to it as, lifted the teenager up to play, and had unceremoniously forgotten its own strength and launched Tony across the room into a pile of discarded boxes.
For a second, the Soldier had been at a loss.
Was it still mission complete if Tony died on his own?
The question was quickly discarded when the robot chased after him, beeping in alarm, and then offering a tentative claw to the pile of limbs sticking out from the lumpy cardboard mattress. Tony accepted the offered hand with a groan, and the Soldier relaxed. Before startling at his own reaction, and then spending the next half an hour listening to Tony talk to his robot in mockingly reprimanding tones, “You’re always causing me trouble, you know that?”
Absently, the seventeen-year-old rubbed the growing bump at the back of his head, but continued to smile softly, sadly, at the robot he’d built with his own two hands, polishing and appraising the framework as Tony soothed, “It's okay though. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
Dummy beeped in reply, and Tony chuckled, voice low and comforting, “Yeah, yeah – I love you too, Dumbo, always; you’re family.”
In reply, the robot’s claw lifted as if to pat him in return, but was abruptly halted from doing so when Tony raised his own hand with an overly exasperated, “uh-uh-uh”.
Apparently put out, Dummy’s claw retracted and straightened too far up that it hit the sprinkler on the ceiling, triggering the fire alarm and alerting campus security and the fire department in one loud shriek.
In seconds the room was drenched, and the last thing the Soldier heard before retreating was Tony’s incredulous laugh.
The Soldier had been punished for not completing the mission, but it was decided that the penalty was worth it. Tony lived another day, and Bucky started to rouse from the consciousness of the Soldier.
Even with their body ravaged by the electrical currents forced on him and the Soldier both, consoling them with a gentle voice, murmuring in a kindness not meant for them, Tony’s voice came, “It’s gonna be okay.”
When next they were roused, the Soldier was no longer alone, and with their hearing attuned – they waited once more for that voice – that laugh.
It had been unintentional, but once they’d been sent out on their next mission, finding the source of that sweet voice, coaxing and cajoling thoughtless affection and aching fondness; seemed just as important as the mission itself.
Fortunately, it was easier than expected.
After successfully avoiding his own assassination, Tony had taken up his father’s seat in the family kingdom and raised an empire in its wake. Crime families and rebel militia the world over salivated over his weapons while the world beyond broadcasted his infamous self-introduction: Tony Stark, billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist.
Thereafter, their every defrost was marked by Tony: There was never an awakening that hadn’t been punctuated by Tony’s voice, his smirks and cheeky grins shaping every syllable of every soundbite and interview he’d ever done.
They’d measure time and mark dates based on the cadence of Tony’s sentences, the duration of his amusement, the imagined curl of his lip as he spoke.
Bucky, for his part, hadn’t even realized he’d been doing it this long until, for the first time since he’d been defrosted, and he hadn’t heard Tony say a word.
While media outlets in the past year only ever read the statements given by Stark Industries, or the Avengers as a collective; Tony’s lack of voice over the airwaves was one thing, but Bucky is actually living at the Compound now, and he still hasn’t heard Tony say a damn thing.
A petty part of Bucky had been looking forward to hearing the genius’ sharp tongue in person – getting to finally complete the picture Tony would make with that curl at the corner of his mouth, the golden brightness of his eyes. And yet…Tony has no quips for the Rogues, and nothing but a profoundly unimpressed expression for every attempt at an argument they try to drag him into.
It isn’t long before Tony’s lack of responses grates and echoes in their silence, leaving the Rogues with nothing to listen to but their own tired defenses of why leaving their family behind for Captain America’s fight was worth it; why they’d risk everything for something they were never a part of in the first place; all in sanctimonious decrees of the safest hands are our own and you know this isn’t right. Barton, the Witch, Rogers, Romanoff crumble easily to their own arguments with no one else to listen to but their own foolishness; their hackles raise while their sneers curl sharper, their barbs cutting deeper.
Tony, for all that they wish to hear him speak, is unrepentantly unmoved by the Rogues’ plight.
Bucky and the Soldier both are unsurprised, in hindsight, that of all the things that Tony has become afflicted with during his colourful existence – purposeful mutism isn’t the worst of it.
There were times when the Soldier never talked either, not even to utter his compliance; when Bucky too was rendered speechless by the atrocities he’d wrecked.
And Tony – After what Tony’s been through, Bucky wonders if the man’s words are simply stuck in the cloying mass of ash and blood he’s been forced to swallow for too long, and maybe no one’s ever noticed until now.
Unlike Tony, Bucky’s silence is a guarantee, something to work around.
Bucky loses nothing by saying nothing, but Tony-Tony must be tired of wasting his breath; of talking and being ignored, of begging and pleading and compromising, and having it all thrown in his face every single time. Words haven’t done Tony much good, and maybe, Bucky thinks sadly, Tony’s just given up on using them.
“It’s alright if you have,” Bucky finds himself telling the engineer during an arm maintenance session in the Workshop. “Telling them to stop never made them actually do it. Hell, it probably made them try harder to hurt you. So, I get it. Why you’re quiet. We get it.”
Tony blinks at him, and yes, maybe Bucky will never see those gold eyes sparkle in their mischief or glint like amber in his fury before Tony verbally eviscerates his enemies, but they stare at them through pools of honey, and Bucky can’t find much of a downside with that at all.
And then Tony ducks his head, cheeks pale pink in comparison to the tongue that nervously traces his lips, and if Bucky and the Soldier agree that there are definitely some plus sides to this, then that’s between them.
It isn’t like some magic switch has been flipped now that Tony knows that he and the Soldier have been made aware of his deal.
Tony’s still silent, but his unimpressed can-you-believe-this looks are now thrown their way, and Bucky and the Soldier bask in the attention.
And though Tony’s taken a leave of speaking, other forms of communication are not beyond him. Like the genius he is, Tony talks to Bruce in mathematical equations that spring up in holo-screens out of thin air, and while Bucky’s always had an aptitude for the subject, it’s still too foreign for him to truly keep up. Especially when Quantum theory and Biochemistry formulas get thrown in, in what Tony handwaves as “sentence enhancers” that Bruce prefers to refer as "swear words".
Vision has no need for verbal queues either, talking back in zeroes and ones. The code Tony weaves between them in holo-screens as easily as a breath exchanged – inhale, exhale, inhale.
And whenever Tony’s in the mood, which is surprisingly often, he puts in the effort to physically write.
His brain moves quickly from idea to idea, but his handwriting is almost embarrassingly showy – something out of a Victorian diary, or a calligrapher’s training manual; all sweeping curves and curling tails; flowing from one letter to another until it’s cursive in print. Peter and Ned have countless notes from Tony dotting their homework while Harley’s blueprints are littered with the older engineer’s graffiti.
More often than not, Bucky will find a scrap of paper with what he recognizes as Rhodes’ handwriting along with Tony’s, scribbled with what was initially some kind of complex design that devolved into games of growingly intricate tick-tac-toe grids.
He almost punches Barton when the archer tries to throw it away, and even Bucky knows it’s ridiculous to be so protective over something Tony had simply touched.
The day they receive their first message from Tony, it says, “Babe” in blue ink, and a sprawl that teases just as loudly as if he actually said the words, “don’t let them don’t get you down”.
The Soldier keeps it in their pocket as a reminder along with his own chain of dog-tags: a reminder of Bucky's life, and a reminder of when the Soldier's began.
While they still miss the sound of Tony’s voice, his laughter; they get to know all the little ways that Tony simply is. With his silence, Tony's movements and gestures have grown more expressive; from the way, his brows crinkle to the way his hands twitch; they’ve even changed the way he smiles, the way his eyes glow.
They can tell, though, that it gets hard for him.
Like when the kids are around. Or when Rhodey or Pepper or Happy, or any one of the New Avengers have a need for him. While Tony’s done a good job of integrating Friday to make up for his lack of verbal communication, it isn’t the same.
They know this – they’ve been watching every available video and audio file of Tony as far back as the Internet remembers. They can tell in the frustrated pinch of his forehead and the lines around his mouth.
Sometimes, Tony will even open his mouth as if to say something – but then he’ll frown, sigh, shake his head. No, not yet, he conveys, and because his family, Bucky and the Soldier understand, they’re not disappointed. But they are sad, and Tony knows it too.
Those moments become more regular over several days, spanning into hours before bleeding into days and then blurring into weeks. And while he still can’t talk – sounds are not beyond him.
Tony snorts more often, snickers under his breath, even laughs on occasion. Those are their favourite. Tony even willingly sees a therapist, though he’s still relegated to a notepad, a week later.
“It doesn’t work like that you know,” Bucky tells him, and Tony’s whole body moves with his eye-roll, don’t you think I know that, babe?
Chuckling, Bucky teases, “That’s what you get for holding off on the mental health care for so long, darlin’.”
With a deft movement of his hand, Tony scowls at him, is this really the best time for an I-told-you so? His eyes roll again, a small smile smothered at the corner of his mouth. You and Rhodey, seriously. Two peas in a pod.
“I’m just saying, you need to give it some time. You’ll talk when you’re ready to, and we’ll be ready to listen when you do.”
At that, Tony hums, hand moving to sign Thank you like he's blowing them a kiss before he turns his head to focus on the maintenance he’s doing for DUM-E. The sight makes Bucky smile, even as the Soldier struggles to control the blush on their cheeks. “Did I ever tell you how I first met you?”
Over his shoulder, the engineer raises a brow, and the Soldier holds his hands up in defense. “It’s a nice story, I promise.” He pauses. “Well, the middle part was.” When Tony makes a go-on motion, they lean back against the counter, crossing their arms and grinning at DUM-E’s camera. “You were seventeen, DUM-E wanted to play catch and thought you’d make a great ball.”
Tony splutters indignantly, DUM-E does the best approximation of a bark of laughter; his crane moving up and down as if agreeing.
“You told him it was okay though, that you love him.” Bucky licks his lips. “That everything’s gonna be alright.”
“Boss was seventeen?” Friday asks, and if her brows could furrow, Bucky would imagine they would. “Boss just turned -” she cuts herself off at Tony’s waving – no, no, don’t say the number out loud, it’s not fair.
“What I mean is,” Friday says, amusement changing the shape of her words, “that was a long time ago, and you remember that?”
“Well,” the Soldier begins haltingly, “it’s not every day a voice breaks you out of Hydra’s control.”
Tony’s neck practically snaps up in attention. “W-w…” He moved onto stuttering a few days ago, sometimes he even manages a word or two around company. Just last week, Pepper reportedly got a whole sentence out of him before Tony had gone quiet again. It’ll happen with them eventually, Bucky thinks with an encouraging smile as he recalls, “You didn’t know it, of course, but you were the voice I used to anchor myself from one decade to another. I remembered parts of myself because I remembered you.”
Tony’s cheek flourishes pink and despite the confident step he takes, his voice is paper-thin, “M-me?”
“You,” the Soldier repeats. “It was always you.”
Tony's silence then is expected after all this time, but what isn’t is how close Tony’s gotten in the pause between. He’s practically standing in the V of their legs as he looks up at them entreatingly, questions in his eyes that they've grown comfortable with deciphering.
“That’s why we knew something was wrong,” Bucky answers for them, “because we were awake and we didn't hear you anymore. It was probably selfish of us to try and get to hear you again, bringing it up with you at all, but we didn’t feel right without you. As right as we could be, anyway.” His smile then is weak, and then he’s shaking his head at the sudden heartbreak in Tony’s expression. “I don’t want you to feel bad because you shouldn’t. You’re not responsible for me and the Soldier and our mental state. And even if you were,” he sighs, digging nails into the seam of his jeans. “Turns out, we didn’t need your voice to remember why it was you-you were all we needed.”
The other man still looks concerned, and being so close that their foreheads are touching means there’s nowhere to hide. He’s ridiculous, Bucky thinks with an incredulous laugh.
“You, Tony, you’re all we need. No matter what state you’re in; whether you’ve got words for us or not. Got it?”
Almost begrudgingly, he pouts, and shifts in their position just enough that their lips touch.
Between one breath and the next, Tony whispers lowly, “Got it, babe.”