"Hey, Boss," F.R.I.D.A.Y. said, "Captain Rogers is on the phone. He wants to speak to you."
It was late afternoon at the Facility, and Tony had his hands full—literally—with Rhodey, helping him during one of his physio sessions. Honestly, Rhodey was lucky he was gripping the parallel bars, because Tony was so shocked he nearly dropped him.
"Uh, yeah. Put him through, Fri. Wait." Tony glanced at the therapist, then grimaced apologetically at Rhodey. "You two good without me, kids?"
"You sure you're up for this, Tones?" Rhodey asked instead of answering. Tony was sure he'd have put his hand on Tony's shoulder if he didn't need both of them to hold onto the bars for dear life. He'd come a long way in the last couple months or so, but a spinal injury wasn't something you could just walk off. Even with a mobile brace.
Unless you were Steve Rogers, probably. Not that Tony had come close to paralyzing him. That had been more what Tony had done to Bucky, though for a moment there Tony had honestly thought Steve was going to decapitate him and he really needed to stop thinking about that.
"I was born up for this, Rhodeybear," Tony said. He was absolutely certain his grin looked 100% fake, but he held it like parallel bars while Rhodey stared at him. Tony let that painfully accessing gaze settle until Rhodey just let out a breath and gave Tony a sad, knowing smile.
"Just, be careful," Rhodey said. "I know how hard this whole thing's been on you. I don't—"
"I promise I'll be home by midnight with a full tank of gas, Dad," Tony said breezily, cutting Rhodey off. He turned his back and strode to the locker rooms, waving over his shoulder and taking merciless advantage of how his best friend couldn't follow him. It was a dick move for sure; just one more thing to feel guilty about. God knew Tony was used to that.
"Okay, F.R.I.D.A.Y., put him through." Tony was sitting on the bench in the shower cubicle he'd designed specifically for Rhodey. Half the showers had already been disabled-accessible (never knew when one of the regular-human types would be badly injured), but Tony had made sure the one for Rhodey was spacious, non-slip and top of the line for ease of use. He also knew he had about half an hour at least before Rhodey would finish his physio and wheel or stagger his way in here to use it.
And hey, Tony could always take a shower after the call, if he needed to scrub himself clean. Win/win.
That was…Yeah, okay, that was definitely Steve's voice. But also not Steve's voice. In that Tony had never heard Steve sound like that. Not even in Tony's Scarlett-Witchy hallucination where the guy was dying. Steve had just sounded accusing, then. Angry. Of course, that hadn't been reality, just Tony's own fucked-up brain playing pretend. Not that things had ended up particularly differently in reality, really. Other than nobody dying.
Not for lack of tying, Tony's brain couldn't help pointing out. He knew he needed to stop doing that.
But, Steve. Specifically his voice. Tony had never heard Steve sound that bad before. Steve sounded terrible. Not just tired, though if he was still in Wakanda it was going on 1:00 AM. No, Steve sounded like he was at the end of his rope, but there wasn't enough slack to tie a knot. And there were hungry wolves circling in the ravine.
Like Tony had felt in the missile silo, watching Steve pick up his friend and walk away.
"Yeah, it's me," Tony said, heart pounding. Normally he might've added something like, 'What's up, Capsicle?', go for bravado when inwardly he was quailing. But Steve sounded like death and he'd never appreciated Tony's pretense anyway. So Tony went for honesty instead. "You sound terrible. What's wrong?"
"I think…." Steve took a breath that sounded like he he'd been crying. "I think Bucky's dead."
Tony nearly dropped his phone. As it was, if it'd been anything other than a Starkphone his white-knuckled grip might've cracked the screen. "Oh my God," he said, hushed with sudden, aching fear. "What do you mean, you think he's dead? What happened?" A million scenarios were already swarming like hornets through Tony's mind: Bucky vanished in the Wakandan wilderness; Bucky abducted by Ross, or Hydra, or taken by one of the many countries where Hydra had unleashed him; Bucky trapped in his broken Wakandan cryo chamber, entombed like a bug in amber; Bucky in a coma, succumbing to poison or illness or (Dear God, please no) the unforeseen effects of the damage Tony inflicted on him.
"Was…was it me? What I did?" Tony asked, small-voiced with terror. It was horribly selfish, disgustingly self-centered of him to even ask. But Tony couldn't not. If Bucky died, part of Steve would die with him. Tony didn't think he could handle finding Bucky only to lose him again. But if Bucky died and it was Tony's fault….
There would be no hope for reconciliation, no hope for the Avengers ever again. Tony would have gained a nemesis worse than anything he could ever imagine. Other than himself.
"We don't know," Steve said, and maybe it was the lack of certainty, but it hit like a fist to Tony's solar plexus. A metal fist to his reactor and God he needed to fucking stop. "Shuri said…" Steve paused, obviously steeling himself. "She said it was possible. That…that the shock of his arm being destroyed like that might've caused some neurological damage. And then there was the kick to the head."
Tony closed his eyes, clutching the phone to his ear so he wouldn't slam it into the shower wall. "I'm sorry," he said, voice thick and rough and grating in his ears. "Steve. I—"
"I said we don't know, Tony," Steve cut him off, as if that was supposed to make him feel better. "Shuri said it was possible. But, Winter said it didn't make a difference."
Tony had spoken to Shuri, before. She'd assumed Steve and Bucky would want to come back to the U.S. at some point, so as a courtesy she'd sent Tony the specs for Bucky's new arm. It was a sleek, beautiful thing he was privileged to be able to understand. Shuri was still a child, but her intellect already shone like a sun.
He didn't know Winter, but it was a terrible relief to have someone say whatever happened wasn't Tony's fault. Except it was hard to imagine Shuri being wrong about anything. "Is Winter a neurologist?"
He could practically hear Steve's confusion. "No," he said. "Winter's Bucky."
Tony waited a beat, then another. It still didn't make any sense. "I don't understand," he said, though something in Steve's voice had a cold, quiet dread creeping up Tony's spine.
"Winter's Bucky," Steve said, as if it would be more comprehensible with repetition. His sigh sounded as heavy as the ice that buried him. "The doctors who…accessed him said it's called Dissociative Identity Disorder." He made a sound that had almost nothing to do with laughing. "I didn't even know that was a thing that could happen to people. But, yeah. Bucky isn't…Bucky anymore. He calls himself 'Winter'. He's not the Winter Soldier," Steve added quickly, "He hasn't done anything like what happened in Berlin. He hasn't hurt anyone at all. He's just…." Steve pulled in another breath that shuddered. "He's not Bucky."
Tony hadn't even been thinking about the terrifying, snarling juggernaut who'd beat the shit out of him in Berlin, but that didn't stop ice flooding his guts when Steve reminded him. Tony knew Shuri had removed the trigger words from Bucky's head. But, yeah. Nice to hear Steve's bestie hadn't shoved him through another wall.
"Why?" Tony asked, still trying to wrap his head around Dissociative Identity Disorder and Steve calling him for anything. "What happened?"
"I don't know." Steve swallowed. "Winter said he needed to protect Bucky. After…after what happened. So he wasn't…he wasn't gonna let him out anymore. And. And I tried to talk to Bucky, but Winter wouldn't let me. And…and what if he's dead? What if he's not, not even there anymore because it's just Winter now? What if Bucky's gone, and, and I—"
Steve started sobbing. Great, wracking gulps of air, each one followed by a shuddering gasp like cracking bone. "What if he's dead, Tony? Oh, God. Oh, my God. What do I do? What am I going to do?"
"Whoa, whoa. Shh. It's okay. Nobody's dead, Steve," Tony tried. Then, "Bucky's not dead!" Forcefully, when Steve just made a broken noise of negation. "That's not how it works! It doesn't work like that. Honest. I'm no expert, but, it doesn't work like that. None of the identities die, okay? They're just…in the background. Or something. I'm not sure about that part. But I promise you, Bucky is not dead."
"Really?" Steve sniffled. He sounded so desperate for hope that Tony, who had trouble with other peoples' emotions at the best of times, nearly broke down himself. "You're sure? He wouldn't talk to me."
"Yeah, well, you said Winter was protecting him, right? So, he's probably in his happy place. I wouldn't want to come out either." Tony winced, wondering if Steve would think that sounded as much like bullshit as Tony did. He stood and left the shower stall, then strode into the hallway with his phone mashed to his ear. He knew appallingly little about psychology, considering how many disorders he'd been diagnosed with over the years. It was about an eight hour flight to Wakanda in a Quinjet; plenty of time to read up on the subject.
Not that he had any idea what he'd do about it, once he got there. But, Steve had called him for a reason. And even if that was to more-or-less accuse Tony of making Bucky mentally ill, Tony couldn't listen to Steve crying his guts out and just do nothing. "I'm heading to the landing pad right now. I can be at the palace in eight hours. Do you want me to bring anything? Anyone?" he asked, thinking as he moved. "Wanda's off somewhere with Vision, but she's got that hand-wavy telepathy stuff. I could—"
"Winter wanted to talk to you," Steve said. "He didn't say why, exactly. But it sounded like he wants assurance you're not going to try to kill him anymore."
Tony stopped moving so fast he practically gave himself whiplash in the corridor. His first reaction was a blood-hot flare of rage. "You sure as fuck never pull your punches, do you?"
There was a second of stunned silence. "I don't understand," Steve said at last. "I just meant, Winter doesn't want Bucky to come out. And, he really wanted to talk to you. So I thought…maybe if you can promise you won't…attack him again, it'll help?"
Tony forced back the anger he knew wasn't really aimed at Steve. "I don't get it, though. Why would that help? I mean, I won't attack him again." It felt important to say it out loud. "But, it's not like I'm a threat to him without my armor. When I tried to fight him in Berlin he kicked my ass."
"That was the Winter Soldier," Steve said. "The trigger words compelled him to come out."
"Oh." There wasn't much else he could say to that. It made sense, considering how Bucky had seemed more lethal before the silo. Which, honestly, only made Tony feel that much worse. He rubbed his forehead. "You really think Winter's taken over for Bucky because of me?"
"I don't know," Steve repeated bleakly. "But…you really hurt him, when you blasted his arm. And I think you would've killed him if I hadn't stopped you." He hesitated, maybe waiting for Tony to deny it. Tony couldn't. "So," Steve went on a too-long moment later, "maybe that's what Winter was thinking about. When he took over. That this way you couldn't hurt Bucky anymore."
"Fuck," Tony muttered. Like he didn't already feel badly enough about this whole mess. "Look. Steve? I…" He gritted his teeth. No time like the excruciating present, right? "I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I am so, so fucking sorry for what happened. I know the Accords ended up a fucking trash fire, but I'd really…. Fuck," he said on an exhale. "I was counting on you, okay? I thought that you, of all people, would understand why no one with super powers should be running around without any kind of control. After Ultron I really thought you'd agree with me about that. But not only did you not agree, you were perfectly happy to fuck me over, as well as everything I'd been trying to accomplish, to go on a field trip with your fugitive buddy—"
"Bucky should never have been a fugitive," Steve snapped. "And you know why we went to Siberia. I wasn't happy to 'fuck you over', Tony! I never wanted to go against you! I wanted your help! But you'd already signed the Accords. Our hands were tied just as much as yours."
"I did help you!" Tony said. "I lied to Ross and went to find you. I wanted to help."
"I know," Steve said. "And when you arrived, I was grateful. I thought…I thought we could start mending fences. Trust each other again. But we know how it turned out."
"You lied to me," Tony said. "You're talking about trust, but you lied by omission, and then you lied to my face."
"And then you tried to kill my best friend!" Steve shot back. "The one person who hadn't done anything wrong. Even T'Challa could see that. Why couldn't you?"
"I don't know!" That was, ironically, a lie. Tony did know. He absolutely knew why he'd lost all reason and self control and had almost done something unforgivable to a man he actually admired. He took a couple breaths through his teeth, forced himself to keep going. "I wanted to hurt you," he said at last. There was an awful, sickly relief in finally admitting it. "You'd betrayed me by not signing the Accords. With your fucking perfect teeth and perfect morality."—Tony wondered if Steve's perfect hearing caught the finger quotes—"You had to be so Goddamn self-righteous you couldn't even consider my point of view. And I was trying! I was trying so damn hard to do the right thing. To protect everyone. To make all the damage we'd done mean something. But you wouldn't even consider it."
"I read the Accords, Tony," Steve said. "And I found—"
"You could have tried." Tony shouted over him. "You could have tried, but you didn't. And it hurt. I can admit it. It hurt like hell." It still hurt: This was years' worth of pain he couldn’t hold back anymore. It felt like when Obie had torn the reactor out. "And then I got to see the Winter Soldier killing my parents. And you knew. You knew he'd done it, but you chose your friend over me. So you betrayed me again. First by lying by omission, then by lying to my face. "And I just….
"I lost it, okay?" Tony said. "I just fucking lost it. I wanted to hurt him, for what he did. And I really wanted to hurt you. I wanted you to feel the way I felt."
He could hear Steve swallow in the silence on the other end of the line. "Bucky didn't deserve that," Steve said quietly. "Maybe…maybe I did. But Bucky didn't."
"I know," Tony said. "And I'm sorry. I am so fucking sorry. I had a really bad couple days and a fucking truckload of daddy issues, and I took it out on him. And I will never forgive myself for that." He gave a sharp, unhappy smirk, "That was actually what I'd intended to lead with, when I started talking a minute ago. Kind of lost the train there."
"You're right," Steve said, and Tony gasped. "I should've tried harder to see your side with the Accords, not just what I didn't like about it. I could have tried to get them amended, come up with something we all could agree on. I'm used to acting with minimal oversight, but I also used to work on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D., and before that it was the S.S.R. I do understand the necessity of checks and balances. But I was scared of our hands being tied when people needed us the most.
"And I never should've lied to you, Tony," Steve said. "I was a coward. I told myself I was doing it for you, but I was doing it for myself. For Bucky. I couldn't bear the idea of you hating him. But I can't help thinking that if I had just, grown a fucking spine, the video wouldn't have been…so hard to take. For any of us. I was a lousy friend, and I'm sorry."
"Oh," Tony said again, just as lost for words as before. "Thank you." He didn't know if he could forgive Steve for what he'd done. Tony had been flayed alive. The fact that what Tony had done in retaliation was worse didn't—couldn't—change that. "I, um, would've helped Bucky anyway."
He owed Bucky so much more than that. It was the least he could do to begin to make things right.
"I know," Steve said, and Tony's shriveled, shrunken heart unfurled a bit, like an underfed flower reaching for the light. "I know you would. Thank you. I can't tell you how much this means to me."
"Then don't," Tony said, all breeze and bravado. "Don't worry about it. See you on the flipside."
He hung up, then asked F.R.I.D.A.Y. to tell Rhodey where he was going, and to have his armor meet him at the Quinjet, just in case. Not that Tony was expecting trouble, but, better safe than sorry. And he hadn't been feeling all that safe these days. Amazing how that happened, being alone.
One phone call couldn't change that, but….
But Tony's heart had something to reach for. It was a start.
The worst part about everything that had gone down was how, back in the day, Tony had been really, really into James Buchanan Barnes. Like, being fifteen and sobbing uncontrollably in his MIT dorm room, because he'd realized all the wishing, daydreaming or hypothesizing in the world wouldn't change how Bucky was really, truly and forever dead. Tony would never meet him.
That had been surprisingly hard to take, in 1985, after watching Back To The Future and spending months fruitlessly trying to invent a time machine just to save him.
It wasn't only because Bucky Barnes had been hot as hell, with his movie-star smile and dapper army uniform, then even hotter in his Howling Commando duds with vengeance in his eyes. It was because Bucky had excelled at school as well as athletics, and had been a futurist with the same love of far-flung science fiction as Tony. It was because Bucky had wanted to be an engineer, would have probably worked for Howard and S.H.I.E.L.D. if he hadn't died.
It was because Bucky was loyal, and kind, and tough and brave. The beautiful, brainy ideal Tony had actually wanted to live up to, unlike the blond god Captain America who Howard kept shoving in his face. And unlike Captain America, there were rumors (unsubstantiated, of course, because homophobia) that Bucky he might've been gay. Aunt Peggy had been certain Bucky was jealous of her, not Steve, and there was no mention anywhere of a girlfriend or wife. The only letters Bucky sent home were for Steve or his family.
Basically, Bucky was the closest thing Tony could conceive of to an actual soulmate. And more than thirty years and several ill-fated romances later, Tony's feelings hadn't changed. He loved Rhodey, sure, but like a brother. And after nearly six years of trying, Iron Man had been the hill his and Pepper's relationship finally died on.
Tony had tried his best, he really had. But Bucky had stolen his heart and fallen out of a train with it. You can't give what's already gone.
He'd actually made peace with it, more or less, and then it turned out Bucky hadn't died after all.
The first thing Tony had done when he'd found out was broken down sobbing like he was 15 again. Then he'd quietly helped Steve search, when he wasn't too busy with Stark Industries, privatizing S.H.I.E.L.D. and building the Facility to house the Avengers. He didn't tell Steve. Tony told himself it was because he didn't want to get Steve's hopes up, not when Steve was already careening like a drunk pinball between wild optimism and clawing despair.
That was true, but it wasn't the only reason. In his heart of hearts, Tony was hoping he'd find Bucky first. Maybe he'd be able to keep Bucky to himself for a few days, before Steve came. Because Tony had no illusions about how attractive Bucky would find him once he had Steve back.
Except, Bucky hadn't wanted to be found. And then Ultron happened and nearly took the world to Hell on a road paved with Tony's good intentions.
So then came the Accords, only for Tony's good intentions to lead straight back to Hell. The difference was, this time he walked over the Brink himself, and dragged Bucky down with him.
No wonder Bucky hadn't wanted anyone to find him.
Later, after Bucky and Steve had vanished with T'Challa and Tony had limped back to New York, he'd manned up and gone through everything about the Winter Soldier and Sergeant James Barnes Natasha had dumped on the web. He'd ended up sobbing again. He'd thrown up a couple times too. But mostly he'd sobbed like a guilt-stricken, heartsick teenage boy, and vowed to do whatever it took to make amends.
There was so much red in Tony's ledger he was swimming in it. But one thing Tony was good at was solving problems. Even ones he'd made himself.
He'd gotten the Accords repealed, and wrangled a full pardon for Steve and everyone who'd sided with him. Getting Bucky Barnes pardoned, reinstated with full current rank plus backpay was tougher, but having saved the life of the President helped.
He'd offered Shuri his resources, his ideas, his expertise… anything she wanted to help rebuild Bucky's arm and heal his brain. She hadn't needed much, but he'd tried.
God, he'd tried.
Frankly, he'd never expected to hear from Steve again, and he'd long since given up on having anything to do with Bucky. Tony told himself that if he knew Bucky was happy, that would be enough. It'd have to be enough, since it was the most Tony would ever get.
And now one unexpected, frantic phone call later, he was on a Quinjet going to Wakanda. Because Steve was grasping so hard at straws he'd convinced himself that the man who'd almost killed Bucky—the man who, maybe, had caused Bucky's mental illness in the first place—could somehow help. No pressure.
Tony sat in the pilot's seat of the Quinjet, wishing like hell J.A.R.V.I.S. was with him, and wondering if it counted as irony that he might have destroyed the one person he might've loved.
Steve was waiting for him in the courtyard of the royal palace when the Quinjet landed, as well as Shuri. Bucky was not.
Tony stopped on the bottom of the jet's ramp, Steve less than twenty feet in front of him. It was uncomfortably like those movie scenes where long-separated loved ones gaze in wonder before running into each others' arms.
Tony and Steve didn't run into each others' arms. Not that Tony didn't have a strange urge to do it, though: gallop across the courtyard separating him and Steve and hug the hell out of him.
"Hi, Steve," Tony said, not moving. He didn't wave, 'cause that would've been stupid.
"Hi," Steve said. Steve looked like hell, which was to say really terrible while still beautiful as always. The thing that squirmed over his lips could almost have been a smile. "Thank you for coming, Tony."
"You're welcome," Tony said. He wanted to ask where Bucky was. He didn't.
"May Bast save me from you two," Shuri lamented suddenly and loudly. She met Tony halfway as he finally stumbled into the courtyard, taking his hands and smiling warmly. "I have been looking forward to meeting you in person, Mr. Stark. I hope we might be able to confer later on some projects, once you've visited with Bucky."
"Yeah, sure," Tony said, nodding distractedly. "And, uh, call me Tony." Shuri looked anxious too, but it was hard to tell when Tony could barely keep his eyes off Steve. "So, uh, where are we doing this thing?"
"This way," Shuri said. "He has been staying on a farm outside the capital. I will take you there." She led them towards an obviously local aircraft, that looked sleek and purposeful in a way Tony would've loved to examine more closely if his stomach wasn't too knotted to let him concentrate. "I will have your things brought to the palace," she said to Tony over her shoulder. "I hope you're prepared to stay for a few days, if necessary."
Tony nodded, feeling like he was controlling his body from the outside, like one of his suits. "Yes. That's fine." He glanced at Steve, only to realize Steve had been staring at him, looking like there was something he wanted to say.
Steve looked away. "I'm sorry we're dragging you into this immediately. I know you must be tired, especially with the time difference. It's just…."
"Hey, don't worry about it, Cap," Tony said, then winced inwardly at using a nickname he'd probably lost all rights to. "I slept on the jet. No problem."
"I know you're lying, Tony," Steve said. He sounded tried.
Tony wasn't tired; he was too jittery. Which was why he hadn't slept. "Guess you just know everything about me, huh?" It was a nasty thing to say. Tony regretted the words even as they left his mouth, but he didn't apologize. There was so much to apologize for already.
Steve glanced at him, then away again. "You're right. I never knew you at all, did I?"
It was just the truth, Tony told himself. There was no reason for it to hurt.
There was food and drink waiting on the Wakandian jet. It was all delicious and Tony could barely eat any of it.
They landed, and the back hatch of the jet opened on what looked like a typical, Old-World type farm. There were goats wandering around a vast, open field, a couple huts that could have been painted clay but were likely anything but, and a pond that was surrounded by flowers and reflected the sky like glass. It was hot, but not unbearably so, even in the flood of midmorning sunlight.
Bucky was a short walk from the jet, playfighting with three kids. Tony couldn't tell from this distance if they were boys or girls, but they were trying very hard to tackle Bucky to the ground. Two children were wrapped around each of his legs, with the third dangling from Bucky's right arm. The children were shrieking in gleeful terror, being hauled along with each of Bucky's steps.
Bucky said something to them in a language Tony didn't recognize, then realized had to be Wakandan, since the kids immediately responded. The two attached to Bucky's legs started pulling on his knees, and Bucky obligingly dropped and flopped gently on the ground. Then he lay there facedown with his arm and legs akimbo while the kids hollered in triumph and tried to pin him. He said something that had to be praise, given how the hollering got louder.
Steve smiled softly like he'd rather be bawling. Then he and Shuri walked towards Bucky and the children. Shuri called out a cheerful greeting as Bucky rolled over and sat up, carefully dislodging the kids.
Tony hung back, heart pounding. He was nervous, of course. But he was also just…just….
Awestruck wasn't too big a word for it. The last time Tony had seen Bucky was in Siberia, looking scraggly and bloody and half dead as Steve dragged his bleeding carcass out of the missile silo. And before that, Tony had really only observed Bucky in passing, with so much other stuff going on. Like trying to keep Bucky from murdering him. All Tony really remembered was the scruffy hair and those remarkable blue grey eyes.
Fucking Hell, how could he have forgotten that Bucky was beautiful?
Bucky's hair was longer than it'd been when they'd fought, long enough for him to have scooped up the sides and tied them back. He had a full but well trimmed beard now too, as opposed to the messy scruff. He didn't look as bulky, but he looked healthier. No longer a 'roided-up alley cat skulking for his next meal, but a sleek wolf basking in the sun.
He only barely resembled the kid with the movie-star looks in his brand new army uniform. Then again, that gentle, sepia-toned picture had been taken a long time ago. Bucky looked sharper now, honed by the kind of wisdom that cuts deep and leaves scars. Tony knew about that. He had scars too.
Bucky was on his feet and talking to the kids by the time Tony finally caught his breath and got moving. The children scampered away, waving and yelling their goodbyes. Then Bucky just turned towards them and stood with his legs apart, back straight and his single arm at his side. Waiting. Not quite at attention but close enough. He'd been smiling with the kids. He wasn't smiling anymore.
But it wasn't until Steve was close enough to Bucky to touch, and didn't, that Tony remembered that this man wasn't Bucky; he was Winter.
"Hi, Winter," Steve said. He put on a smile that might've fooled a drunk USO girl if it wasn't so pained. "It looked like you and the kids were having fun."
Winter didn't smile back. "I was demonstrating how to subdue a larger assailant."
"Thank you for ensuring the safety of Wakanda's children, White Wolf," Shuri said. Her smile was warm, like she was talking to the real Bucky, and her voice held just a hint of teasing.
Winter didn't respond to her teasing either, if he'd even recognized it. "'White Wolf' has never been my code name."
Shuri grinned, though it'd definitely lost it's luster. "Well, it is now. You'll just have to put up with it. This is Tony Stark." She held out her hand, gesturing at Tony. "Do you remember him?"
All hint of human expression drained completely from Winter's face. Tony had no idea if it was out of guilt, anger or fear, or something else entirely. He wasn't sure what would be worse. "Yes. I remember him." He turned to Tony. It was like being confronted with the ghost of a very large robot. "Captain Rogers passed on my message?"
Tony was peripherally aware of Steve's slow blink, and the way he seemed to pull into himself. His deep, silent breath like he was trying not to show pain. "Yeah, Winter," he said. "I told Tony you wanted to talk to him. That's why he's here."
"Thank you," Winter said, and when he looked at Steve his mouth flicked up in a tiny, featherweight smile. For a second he looked close to how he had when he was playing with the children: not happy, but, less burdened. Less afraid.
Then he turned back to Tony and any it evaporated like dew. Winter had looked more real when he was trying to kill people. It wasn't a pleasant thought.
"I need to speak to you alone," he said.
"Oh." Tony blinked. He looked at Steve and Shuri, suddenly wondering how long he'd live once they were out of sight. "Uh, I'd rather—"
"I won't hurt you," Winter said, anxiety flicking back into his eyes. The binary on-off of his emotions was dizzying. "I don't want to hurt anyone." He looked at the jet they'd flown in on, then back at Tony. "Do you have your armor?"
Tony nodded. "Yeah. It's…." He gestured vaguely at the jet behind him. "You want me to get it?"
"Yes." Winter nodded in a way that almost seemed eager. "It will make you feel safe. I can't hurt you, if you wear that."
Steve's expression clouded even further, and his jaw worked like he was chewing something unpleasant. Tony didn't know who it was aimed at.
"Do you think you'll try to hurt Mr. Stark?" Shuri looked between Tony and Steve, her expression full of confusion and concern. "He hasn't hurt anyone since he arrived," she said to Tony.
"No." Winter shook his head. "I won't do anything to him. But he needs to feel safe."
That was oddly sweet and kind of horrible at the same time. "It's okay. I'm not scared of you," Tony said, trying to mean it. He forced a smirk that wasn't too much like a grimace. "I mean, you probably didn't ask me to come all this way just to get payback—"
"I didn't. I won't do that," Winter said immediately. He sounded almost human, like he meant it.
"Jesus Christ, Tony," Steve said.
"Sorry," Tony said. "Bad joke. I'll, uh…." He used his implants to call the suit, flying it out of the jet to land a few feet away from him. "There. All better."
"Are you sure you want to be alone with him?" Steve asked Winter. The after what he did to you? hovered over Tony like an anvil made of implications.
"Yes," Winter said simply, nodding. "I want to speak to him alone, please."
"Let's let them to that, then," Shuri took Steve's wrist, tugging gently. "Use your beads when you want us to return, Winter," she said. Then to Tony, "I'm looking forward to showing you around later." She grinned, bright and mischievous and exactly like the teenager she was. "You will be so jealous."
"Can't wait." Tony chuckled, wishing his heart was in it.
He tried not to see the tragedy of Steve's expression, or how many times he looked over his shoulder as Shuri led him away.
They watched the jet disappear over the horizon. Tony tried not to feel deeply, painfully alone, with just his empty suit and this honed, beautiful predator for company. Not that Bucky—Winter—looked all that predator-ish, really. More just…blank. And empty.
"Look," Tony said on a breath, before the silence could settle and strangle him. Or Winter did. "I don't know what to say—"
"You were right," Winter said. "About the Accords," he went on, when Tony just stared at him. "You were right. Captain Rogers shouldn't have challenged you."
Tony blinked, opened his mouth then just closed it. "I have to admit that was nothing like what I thought you'd say," he managed finally. "But, um, how do you even know about it?"
Winter tilted his head slightly and blinked, which for him was probably the same as gaping in confusion. "T'Challa gave me access to the document."
"Ah." Well, that made sense. Tony wanted to ask Winter why he'd bothered to read it, since it wasn't a thing anymore, but forced himself to stay on topic. Whatever topic this actually was. "The Accords were flawed," he said, which was a hilarious understatement. He'd asked for help to put some limitations on the most dangerous humans on the planet, and ended up giving 117 governments the right to weaponize their own citizens. And that was leaving aside how mindbogglingly quickly a 'United Nations Panel's Deliberations' degenerated into 'General Ross's Whims'. "You almost died because of them. When they found you in Bucharest, I mean," he added quickly. Because yes, Tony had almost killed Bucky tangentially because of the Accords, but Bucharest would have been much more direct. If Steve hadn't broken the law, T'Challa would've ripped Bucky's throat out.
"It wasn't flawed," Winter said. "Dangerous beings need to be controlled. That's why I was given handlers. I'm not safe."
Handlers. Fucking Hell. Well, that pretty much summed up the problems with the Accords right there, didn't it? "The Accords weren't supposed to be about people with special talents of abilities having handlers," Tony said. "They were supposed to make sure we only went where we were wanted." Not even needed, because that implied the Avengers got to decide who needed them, not the nations who actually did. "So we wouldn't hurt anyone."
And look how well that turned out. The Accords had ended up hurting plenty of people. It was just that the wounds had all been self-inflicted. A micro-scale civil war.
But, "Yes," Winter said, nodding like they were still in agreement. "We need to be controlled, so we don't hurt people. And if we can't be controlled, we have to be destroyed. Like you tried to do in Siberia." He stepped closer, his eyes suddenly alight with a terrible kind of hope. "You can do that now, with the armor. Captain Rogers and the princess aren't here. Nobody will stop you."
"What?" Tony had heard everything, but none of the words made sense. "Wait. Wait a second. Did you just…." He put his hands up and backpedaled a couple steps, as if putting more distance between them would make Winter comprehensible. "You want me to kill you? Is that what you said?"
"Yes!" Winter kept nodding, excited. "I won't fight you. I won't do anything—"
"No!" Tony shouted, then wanted to scream at how hurt Winter looked. Like Tony's rabid denial had disappointed him. "Jesus Christ! How can you just…." Tony put his hands on his head, gaping. "You wanted me to come here to kill you? You're really asking me that?"
"You have to!" Winter protested, as if this was an unquestionable truth Tony wasn't accepting. "I'm dangerous! I hurt people! You know what I did to your parents!" He stepped forward; Tony backed up. Winter stopped dead, looking miserable, his one fist clenched at his side. "Please," he said, eyes wide and imploring. "You were right. I shouldn't be here. I need to be destroyed. No one else will do it. It has to be you."
"You really asked me to come here to kill you," Tony said, voice soft with horror. "This is assisted suicide. You're asking me to fucking help you kill yourself."
"I would do it myself, but I can't," Winter explained, like that made everything reasonable. "There are cameras. They'll stop me. The only place there aren't any is inside my hut, and there's nothing there I can use. They're too worried."
"Well, no shit, they're worried! They obviously fucking should be!" Tony exploded. "What the hell's going on here? Steve told me you'd locked Bucky up to protect him! And now you're telling me you want to fucking die? How is that protecting him? How the hell is killing yourself going to keep him safe?"
"I don't know what else to do!" Winter shouted. "He hurts! He's in pain and I can't stop it! He knows all the things he did, now that the words are gone. He knows everything! He remembers everything Hydra did and it hurts and I can't protect him!" There were tears in his eyes. "Please. They won't put us back in cryo, and nobody else will help. You know we need to be put down. Please help me so he doesn't have to hurt anymore."
"Oh, my God," Tony said. "No, Bucky—"
"I'm Winter," Winter said.
"Right. You're Winter. I'm sorry." Tony made himself go closer, then slowly reached out and put his hand on Winter's arm. Winter was shaking, trembling like leaves in harsh wind. He looked down at Tony's hand, then back at his face. He didn't move.
"Will you help me?" Winter asked. The mix of dread and hope in his eyes was heartbreaking.
"Let me talk to Bucky," Tony said. He straightened his spine, put steel in his voice, trying to channel Captain America and Pepper at her most imperious. "I promise, I'm going to help you, but I have to talk to Bucky first. I need to know what he wants."
"He wants the pain to stop," Winter said.
"I know," Tony said. "I promise I'm going to help. I just need to speak to Bucky first." He squeezed Bucky's arm a little bit, trying to be reassuring. He wasn't even lying. He'd come here to help. There was just no way in Hell he'd do what Winter wanted.
Winter looked uncertain, then he just looked desolate. But he nodded. "I'll get him."
Tony wasn't sure what he expected, but all that happened was a momentary vagueness passed over Winter's features, and then he blinked, and then his eyes widened and he wrenched his arm out of Tony's grip and stumbled backwards like he was about to be punched in the head.
Tony pulled his hands away instantly, lifting them to show the palms. "It's all right. You're safe. I'm not going to hurt you. Steve and Shuri are nearby. You can call them with the beads anytime you want. I won't stop you." He turned his head to see where Bucky's still too-wide eyes had fastened, remembered the goddamn suit and then dismantled it with a wave of his hand. The armor fell to the grass in pieces, rattling like spoons. "I'm not going to hurt you, I swear," he repeated. "Winter wanted to speak to me. That's the only reason I'm here. I swear to God I'm not going to hurt you."
Bucky nodded mutely. He looked around with his fist clenched, like he still wasn't sure he wouldn't have to fight or run. "Where am I? Is this Wakanda?"
"Yes," Tony said, gratified he could at least give him that much. "You're in Wakanda. Somebody's farm. You're safe," he added, because Bucky really looked like he needed to hear it again. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Bucky eyed Tony warily. He licked his bottom lip, which was pink and plump and in other circumstances might've been distracting. "I was…" His eyes went distant, focusing inward. "Recovery room. After they took me out of cryo." He reached across his body, putting his hand on what remained of his left shoulder under the knotted blanket. "The words were gone. I…." He stopped speaking, his face going white with anguish. "I was remembering," he whispered, like he'd just confessed something unspeakable.
"Who's Winter, Bucky?" Tony asked, voice just as soft.
Bucky took a deep breath. There were tears trembling like threats in his eyes. "The words made him," he said. He pressed his hand more tightly against his shoulder, and Tony realized Bucky was hugging himself, trying to eke out comfort. "I don't know how it worked. But, they'd say the words, and…I vanished. I'd just…stop. Sometimes I'd…come back with blood all over me. Or, in the Chair, or my cell. I used to not know what'd happened. Or, just…bits and pieces."
The words. He meant the laundry list from Hell. Jesus. "You can remember what you—what Winter did?"
Bucky nodded. He blinked and the tears spilled. "I remember all of them now."
There was something in the way he said it that trickled ice water down Tony's spine. Bucky had chosen that phrase deliberately, a repetition. "What about in the missile silo?"
Bucky hesitated, then shook his head.
Tony frowned. The trickle turned into a stream. "Then why did you say you did?"
Bucky shrugged, taut with resignation. "If I'd told the truth you would've been angrier. I was hoping that if you believed me you'd at least leave Steve alone."
"Fuck." Tony scrubbed his face. "Look. Bucky—"
"Did you come here to kill me?"
Shocked, Tony snapped his head up. "No! No, I swear I didn't come here for that. Not for anything like that! Steve called me. He was really upset because you, uh…." Tony gestured vaguely at the man in front of him. "You were taking an extended vacation in your head and Winter had asked to speak to me specifically. And since I figured I kind of owed you big time for the attempted homicide, here I am. I had no idea what Winter was going to ask me until I showed up. And then when he asked me to fucking kill both of you, I told him I needed to speak to you first. Because I was really, really hoping he'd let you out. And thank God I was right. Because I don't want to hurt you. At all. I never should have in the first place."
"I thought getting rid of the trigger words would get rid of Winter, too," Bucky said. He looked so upset Tony wanted to hug him. "But he's still here. I can feel him." He looked at Tony in miserable confusion. "Why did he ask you to kill us?"
"He's trying to protect you," Tony said. "Look, I know it's weird," he added at Bucky's deepening frown. 'Weird' didn't come close to covering it. "He told me he took over to protect you, 'cause you were in so much pain from everything you're remembering. Can you remember that? him talking to me?"
Bucky's eyes went distant again. "Yeah. I…" He sucked in a breath, then started shivering, eerily like Winter. "I don't want to die, Tony! Please, I don't…. He's not me! I don't want to die. I wouldn't do that to Steve!"
Well, it wasn't exactly the 'life is beautiful' affirmation Tony was hoping for, but it was a hell of a lot better than Winter begging for a quick exit. "Hey, hey, it's all right. I know. I know." Tony quashed his urge to step in for a hug, but he couldn't stop himself from reaching for Bucky again. Bucky went still like a deer in headlights, but at least he let Tony touch his right shoulder without panicking or pulling away. "We're gonna work this out, okay?" Tony said. "We'll get Winter to calm the hell down and assimilate with the Bucky Collective or whatever, and it'll be fine. I promise. Nobody's dying, Bucky. It doesn't matter how much Winter works it with the puppy eyes. I swear on my parents' graves I didn't come here to hurt you."
As heartfelt promises went, he probably could've chosen a less fraught one than that, considering how Bucky kind of iced over and then stepped away from Tony again. He looked down, his beautiful eyes clouding with guilt and despair. "I wish so badly there was some way to take that back," he said, voice cracking like dry clay. "It was terrible, watching the video when I didn't remember. But…" He swallowed. "I remember everything now." He looked at Tony again, eyes wet. "I'm sorry. I know that's not good enough, that it'll never be good enough. But there's nothing else I can say. I would give anything to take it back. For your parents to still be alive. For it…for it not to have been me."
"It wasn't you," Tony said.
For a second Bucky looked puzzled, and then he looked gutted. He shook his head. "Of course it was me. Winter's me. Just 'cause—"
"I meant, it wasn't you because it was Hydra," Tony said.
Bucky stopped, staring at him. "You said that didn't matter."
It wasn't his choice!
I know. But he killed my mother.
Tony worked saliva down his throat. "I never should have said that. What happened to my parents wasn't your fault. It was never your fault. It was Hydra's. Hydra forced you to kill people, just like Steve said. And I knew it. I knew it wasn't your choice. I just…." He broke off. He'd already said this to Steve, but it was harder, somehow, saying it to the person who most needed to hear it. "I wanted to punish Steve for lying to me. And I wanted to punish you because my parents were dead. And…and for a lot of other things that had nothing to do with you. You were there and it was convenient."
"But, I did it," Bucky said.
"No." Tony shook his head, trying to convey the weight of his conviction. "You didn't do it. And I don't mean because Winter took over. I mean, everything you did was Hydra's fault. They reshaped you entirely against your will, turned you into their weapon. You didn't want any of it, did you? Do you remember how hard you fought? You fought them for decades, until they finally managed to break you. Did Winter leave you that?"
Bucky nodded, though it looked grudging as hell. "I should've fought harder."
"Uh, no," Tony said. "As in, you fought as hard as you could, considering you were trapped like a rat in a fucking washing machine and there was no way in hell you could've prevented anything they did to you. And yes, I do know what I'm talking about. Because I only watched ten hours of video of what they did, and those ten hours will give me nightmares for the rest of my fucking life. And it was barely a teeny-tiny fraction of what you suffered through. For decades. So, yeah. When I say that you fought as hard as you could, I mean it. And anyone who's not a sadistic Hydra asshole who gets off on watching people in agony is going to agree with me."
"S'kinda hard to believe it," Bucky said.
"I know," Tony said. "Guilt has a way of making you think that if you'd just been good enough or smart enough or faster or whatever than the bad thing wouldn't've happened. But you're wrong. You fought as hard as you could, Bucky," Tony repeated. He put his hand back on Bucky's shoulder, wishing the contact would make Bucky accept the truth. "I know you did, because I watched you fighting so hard they almost killed you. And I…." He stopped, cleared his throat, then swiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Fuck. I'm not good at this, okay? Just, bear with me."
He took a breath. "I should have never, ever gone after you. You didn't deserve it. You never deserved it. You were the only actual innocent victim in that whole fucking mess and I should have helped you. Not just when I realized how Zemo had played all of us, but especially after I saw that tape. I already knew what Hydra had done to you. Not…not as much as I do now, but I knew. I should have helped. I should have protected you. But I decided to have a tantrum instead. That's on me. I have to live with that." He took another breath that shuddered a little bit. "But I want you to know that I am so, so incredibly sorry for what I did. And I swear by all I hold holy—which isn't much, I know, but it counts—that I will never hurt you again. And I will do anything I can to make this right."
Bucky stared at him. "Do you forgive me?"
Tony blinked. "Uh, that's actually kind of the exact opposite of what I was going for here. As in, I don't have to forgive you. Because you didn't do anything wrong. The ones I have to forgive are Hydra. And let me tell you, there is no way I am ever forgiving them for killing my parents. But, they're the guilty ones. Not you."
Bucky shook his head. "But they forced me to kill them. I killed them."
"No!" Maybe the word was louder than necessary, but Bucky wasn't getting it. "What'd I just say? You didn't do it! Hydra used you! It wasn't your choice!"
"I know." Bucky said, stricken. "But, I killed your mother."
For a genius, Tony could occasionally be pretty fucking glacial on the uptake. But he got it, finally. He understood.
"I forgive you," he said. "I forgive you for what Hydra made you do."
Bucky blinked, then his eyes went big and liquid. "Really?"
"Yeah. Really." Tony nodded. "I forgive you, Bucky."
Bucky's eyes filled with tears, and then he started to weep. He put his hand over his mouth, muffling the tiny, anguished noises he was too distraught to contain.
"Oh, fuck," Tony murmured. He wasn't good with tears in general, let alone an outpouring like this. "Fuck. I'm sorry. I didn't…." Tony had no idea what he was apologizing for, other than he hadn't intended to make things worse. His hand was still on Bucky's shoulder, so it wasn't too difficult to maneuver him into a hug.
Pepper and all of Tony's therapists would probably have things to say about asking for consent, but Bucky was suffering. Tony knew what that kind of pain felt like, and how often he'd wished someone would hug him when he was in its teeth.
Bucky stiffened at first, sucked in a breath. But then leaned in and hugged Tony back like both their lives depended on it, clutching him desperately with his one remaining arm.
"I forgive you," Tony said, over and over because Bucky so clearly still needed to hear it. "I forgive you for my parents. I forgive you for what Hydra did. I forgive you for everything you couldn't control. I forgive you for surviving. It's okay, Bucky. I forgive you."
Bucky wept and held on to Tony for a long time, until Tony ran out of words and just rubbed his back while Bucky's tears soaked Tony's tee-shirt. Maybe it should've felt awkward, especially because Tony used to fantasize about this: Bucky warm and pliant in his arms, relishing the contact as much as Tony did. But, it didn't feel awkward. It felt necessary.
Tony's fifteen year-old self would've wanted it to end in a kiss. All adult Tony wanted was for Bucky to feel better.
He had no idea how long they held each other like that. Tony only knew he would've held Bucky as long as he needed. The sun was a bit higher in the sky, though, stinging the back of Tony's neck.
Bucky pulled away first. Tony tried not to miss the solid heat of his body, or how good Bucky had felt in his arms.
"Thanks," Bucky said softly, wiping his eyes.
"Anytime." Tony smiled, slid his hands into his pockets instead of reaching again. This wasn't about him.
"We should go inside, get out of the sun." Bucky wiped his eyes again.
"Okay," Tony said.
Neither of them moved.
"Is Winter okay now?" Tony asked.
Bucky blinked, like he'd forgotten who Winter was. "I don't know," he said. "He's…quiet. But, he was always quiet, 'less something pulled him out. He wouldn't hurt you."
"I know," Tony said. "I'm worried about him hurting you. I mean, he was pretty keen on you shuffling off the mortal coil. You, uh…" God help him, he wanted to brush away that last bit of moisture clinging to Bucky's cheek. "You don't really want to do that, right?"
Bucky shook his head. "I've fought too hard for any life at all, to let Hydra win like that. It's just…."
"Hard," Tony filled in for him. "I get it. Believe me." He pointed at his chest. There was no longer the glow of an arc reactor, but the scars would never fade. "Stark Industries used to make weapons. In 2008, I was captured by a group of Hydra-adjacent terrorists called the Ten Rings. They wanted me to build a copy of a Stark Industries weapon prototype that they shouldn't've known about. I also got tortured a bit and ended up with a tiny reactor in my chest keeping shrapnel out of my heart. The details don't matter. But the point is, that was how I found out my company had been selling weapons to terrorists for years, all without my knowledge. Mostly because I'd been too drunk or high to care. It's not the same, I know that. I had a choice about my complicity; you didn't. But…I know how it feels. Thinking that what happened means everything good in your life is behind you."
"Yeah." Bucky nodded. "I know that's not true. I mean, I'm free now. And I'm here. And I have Steve and…and a chance to help people. 'Stead of hurting them. But…." He sighed. "Yeah."
"It gets better," Tony said. Some days it got worse, too, but Bucky didn't need to hear that.
"Thanks," Bucky said again. "And, um." He pulled up a tiny, sweet smile, with just a bit of tragedy sticking to the edges. "I forgive you too. I know why you attacked me. And…maybe I didn't deserve it—"
"You didn't," Tony said immediately.
"—But I understand why you did it," Bucky said. "And, I forgive you. I mean it," he continued, as if he could guess Tony couldn't quite bring himself to believe him. "I mean it, Tony. I forgive you."
"Oh," Tony said softly. That one word really should not have made his throat ache like that. "You, uh." He swallowed. "You don't have to."
"I want to," Bucky said simply. "I don't want to be angry at you. I want…" He sighed. "I want to move on. I want to get better. And, I can't do that if I can't forgive." He laughed, though it was so bitter Tony could practically taste the ashes in it. "Still working on Hydra. But, yeah. I want to forgive you, Tony. I don't want to be angry at you anymore."
The crushing weight that had hung around Tony's neck like a concrete albatross since the missile silo didn't vanish. But it shifted, so quickly and violently that Tony actually swayed on his feet, like a sailboat in a sudden wind.
Bucky steadied him with his one remaining hand. Of course he did.
"You okay?" Bucky asked him, his big eyes as bright and blue as the sky.
Tony wasn't okay. He wasn't sure he'd ever been okay, and doubted he ever would be. But, "Yeah, I'm okay. Thank you," he said. Because Bucky had forgiven him, and what else could he possibly say to that?
"Swell," Bucky said, and he smiled. He was so beautiful.
"I really want to kiss you," Tony blurted. His face burned immediately, blood rushing everywhere except his stupid, stupid, filter-less brain. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry! I shouldn't…I…." He wanted to blame it on the relief; the lack of sleep; the overwhelming weight of his gratitude. But Bucky looked so startled, then shocked, then so utterly poleaxed that the words got tangled like paperclips and just rattled around uselessly in Tony's head. "I'm sorry," he managed at last, hauling his shoulders back and wrapping his tattered dignity around him like a frayed towel. "That was inappropriate."
Bucky didn't look any less astounded. "You really want to kiss me?"
"Uh, yeah." Tony tried not to nod like a bobblehead. He plastered on a lopsided smirk. "I've, ah…. Tell you the truth, Bucko, I've wanted to plant on one you since my dad showed me your picture when I was…ten. Yeah, since I was ten years old." The pause was a lie; Tony didn't have to think about it. He remembered that moment the way normal people remembered their weddings. "Which, you know, probably would've been a highly awkward thing to say even if I hadn't tried to kill you. So, I—"
Bucky took one big step right into Tony's personal space and kissed him.
It was…not the most technically proficient kiss Tony had ever had. It was kind of unexpected, for starters. Not to mention how sadly apparent it was that Bucky was still trying to remember how this whole kissing thing even worked.
Until he did. And suddenly it switched from a decent first time kiss to fucking spectacular. Though part of that was probably how this was just about every fantasy Teen Stark had ever had, played out in technicolor underneath a glorious Wakandan sky. Bucky's fingers were in Tony's hair and Tony had one hand on the side of Bucky's steel column of a neck and the other on his waist, and Bucky's mouth tasted sweet and clean and every lave of his tongue burned like the best kind of fire all the way to the base of Tony's spine.
"Oh, my God," he panted when they finally broke apart. His heart was pounding like a marathon. He probably looked wrecked. He felt wrecked. The best kind of wrecked, where all he wanted to do was continue the wrecking.
Bucky looked a little wrecked himself. "That was really good," he said, blinking.
Tony laughed, because it was either laugh or cry or lunge at Bucky's lips again, and if he did that this would probably end up in one of the nearby huts and definitely somewhere he was comfortably certain neither of them were ready for yet. "Yes it was," he agreed. "If I'd known that was going to happen, I would've come here sooner."
That made Bucky laugh too, and then he gave Tony another one of his blindingly beautiful blue-sky smiles. And for the first time in years Tony thought that maybe everything good in his life wasn't entirely behind him.
They did finally go into one of the huts, because Tony was starting to burn in the sun, and Bucky was beginning to look a little overwhelmed under the enormousness of the sky. Bucky used one of the beads on his bracelet to call Shuri, and then there was nothing to do but wait 'til the jet came back, and not stare at Bucky too long in case they started kissing again.
"Will you come back?" Bucky asked.
"Of course." Tony made sure not to meet Bucky's eyes, because he didn't want him to see the relief and longing Tony couldn't hide in them. "You know, this isn't how I imagined this would go," he said finally.
"Me neither," Bucky said. He chuckled a bit, though he wasn't trying to look at Tony's eyes either. "I actually figured that either I'd never see you again after Siberia, or if I did, it'd be 'cause you were coming back to finish the job."
No question what 'job' Tony would have been finishing. Tony winced. "No! No, God. Bucky." That kind of heartfelt declaration merited eye contact, so Tony forced himself to make it. "Yes, I can completely cop to not wanting to see you again, but that was out of guilt, not…not hatred or anything. I would never have hurt you. I never should have hurt you in the first place. Like I said." He found a chuckle matched Bucky's. "Frankly, I'd figured that either I'd never see you again, or if I did, it'd be 'cause you were coming for some well-deserved revenge."
Hell, his armor was still out there, slowly heating to broiling in the sun. Tony took Bucky's hand, threading their fingers. "Thank you, for being a better man than I ever was."
"No." Bucky frowned at him. "You came here thinkin' I might kill you. But you came anyway, just 'cause Steve asked you to."
"Yeah, well." Tony cleared his throat. So much water under that bridge. God only knew when he'd stop feeling like he could drown in it. "I didn't do it for him."
"I know," Bucky said. He licked his lips, which was instantly and painfully distracting. "He hasn't forgiven you."
"I know." Tony shrugged, keeping hold of Bucky's hand. "It's only fair, really. I haven't forgiven him either."
"You need to."
"No, I don't."
"Yeah, you do." Bucky looked at him with those earnest blue eyes. All Tony wanted to do was fall into them. He really didn't want to talk about Steve. Steve was like an open wound. "Holding on to anger's just going to fuck you up. You're the one who's gonna suffer, not him."
"You sound like Yoda."
"I don't know who that is," Bucky said evenly. "But that doesn't mean I'm wrong."
Tony gave him a flat stare, then let out a breath and scrubbed his face. "He lied to me. He lied about the worst thing that ever happened to me. He knew my dad wasn't just a drunk asshole who crashed the car. He knew Hydra killed my parents, and he didn't tell me. He let me keep thinking it was my dad's fault. For years! How could he do that? I thought we were friends! How the hell could he do that to me? And…and it was because he was protecting you! He chose you over me! And—!" Tony forced himself to take a breath and calm the hell down. None of this had ever been Bucky's fault. He tried to pull his hand out of Bucky's, too angry at the world to want the contact. Bucky wouldn't let him. "And I thought we were friends," he finished lamely. "I thought we were friends. But he lied to me."
"He lied 'cause you are friends," Bucky said. "He was scared of losing your friendship. 'Cause if he told you and you hated me, you wouldn't be his friend anymore." He shrugged his remaining shoulder when Tony blinked at him. "'S true. It was a dumbass fucking decision, but it's true. He didn't want his best friends to hate each other."
"How'd that work out for him?" Tony said dryly.
"About as well as I could'a told him it would if I'd been there," Bucky said. "But, he lied to you 'cause he was too scared of losing you to tell you the truth. It wasn't that he chose me over you. He was trying not to have to choose either of us."
Tony thought about that. It didn't sound plausible, but he had a suspicion that was more his problem than Steve's. "Oh," he said. "He, uh, his letter didn't say that."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "That's because his pride wouldn't let him basically draw a picture of you with little hearts all over it. But that's what he meant. Believe me. He misses you. He talks about you all the damn time." He laughed. "Winter was getting pretty sick of it."
Considering what Winter had wanted from Tony, Tony could understand that. "I'll try to forgive him," he said. Then, "I promise I'll try," because Bucky looked so sad and resigned, like he hadn't expected more but had hoped for it.
Bucky smiled, sadness still clinging to it. "Okay," he said.
"It, uh, might be easier if he forgives me," Tony said.
"He will." Bucky nodded, sharp with conviction.
"You seem pretty sure of that."
"That's 'cause I am." Bucky gently squeezed Tony's hand. "I forgave you, so he has to too."
It sounded good, but Tony kind of doubted it.
The same sleek jet landed in the field and the back hatch opened, letting Steve into the sun. Shuri was right behind him.
Steve walked a few feet towards Bucky, then stopped, frowning. "…Bucky?"
Bucky smiled and wiggled his fingers. "In what's left of the flesh. Hi, Steve."
"Bucky!" Steve ran to him and all but hurled himself into Bucky's arms. "Bucky! Oh my God, Bucky! You're back!"
Bucky murmured comforting things to his overwhelmed Super Soldier buddy while Steve hugged the Winter Stuffing out of him. Steve's eyes were wet when he finally disengaged. Tony could relate; it'd been that kind of a day.
"What happened?" Steve asked, snuffling. He looked at Tony, gratitude warring with suspicion in those expressive eyes.
Tony shrugged, reminding himself not to get defensive. "I asked to speak to Bucky, and Winter let him out."
Steve stared at Tony, then stared at Bucky. "That's it?"
Bucky nodded. "Yeah. That's it, pretty much." He glanced sidelong at Tony, tacit agreement not to mention Winter's request for assisted suicide.
"Where is Winter now?" Shuri asked. "Is he gone? Or still in your head?"
"Still here." Bucky tapped his temple. "He's quiet, though. Tony…." He hesitated, glancing at Tony again, then back at Steve. "Tony apologized, for what happened. Winter's not scared of him anymore."
That was…an interesting spin on it. Considering Tony remembered a hell of a lot more completely unnecessary forgiveness and not nearly as much groveling on Tony's part as there should have been. But this was Bucky's show, here, and if he wanted to basically lie to his bro's face, Tony wasn't going to argue.
Especially since for the first time since the silo, when Steve looked at him there wasn't contempt in it. "You apologized?"
"Yeah." Tony nodded, nothing glib or artificial here. "I told him that what I did was the dickiest of dick moves, and that he didn't deserve any of it and that I'll regret it for the rest of my life." He was looking right at Bucky as he said it, because it bore repetition.
"I forgive you, Tony," Bucky said. His smile was so sweet Tony wanted to lick it all over again.
Steve gaped at Bucky. "You forgive him? Just like that?"
"It's not 'just like that', Stevie," Bucky said. "It's been months. And, I don't want to be angry anymore. He fucked up. He regrets it. He won't do it again. And also, it was a little bit your fault."
Steve winced. He looked down at the grass, rubbing the back of his neck. He was wearing sneakers, Tony noticed: big, white sneakers with the black Puma logo on them. He wondered if, considering where they were, if it was some kind of subtle joke. They made him look oddly young and innocent.
Bucky was wearing sandals. Shuri was in very stylish boots that had probably been made locally, like the sandals. And this was a stupid train of thought but so much easier than everything Steve hadn't said.
"It was partially my fault," Steve said at last. He was speaking to the grass, curling delicately around his sneakers. He took a breath and lifted his head. His face looked like he did when they were going into battle. "I'm sorry, Tony," he said, sincere. "I should never have withheld the truth from you. I—"
"It's okay, Steve. You already apologized. Very nicely, even," Tony said. "And, uh." He swallowed, glancing at Bucky.
Bucky nodded, smiling at him.
Tony didn't quite have it in him to smile back. This was somehow so much worse than apologizing to Bucky had been. "I forgive you, Steve," he said. "Bucky explained what you were thinking. And, I get it. I forgive you."
The words didn't stick in his throat, but he couldn't make himself entirely mean them, either. He mostly did, though. He could feel that. He was still angry, but he could forgive. He could work on it.
Steve stared at Tony in shock. "Thank you," he said, so heartfelt Tony could feel it like the sunlight. "I didn't expect that. Thank you."
Bucky beamed at them both, bright and as beautiful as the day surrounding them. "That's great," he said to Steve. He gestured at Tony. "So, now you gotta forgive him."
"He doesn't have to," Tony put in quickly, because Steve's face had just hardened like granite. And he got it, he did. If Steve had done to Rhodey what Tony had done to Bucky, Tony didn't think he'd be ready to forgive so quickly either. Regardless of what Rhodey wanted. Some things you didn't let go.
"Yes he does," Bucky said. He turned a mild glare on Steve. "Yes you do. 'Cause it's gonna keep eating you up inside, otherwise. And I just got my mind back and I don't wanna keep dealing with this bullshit. It's done, Steve. It happened. It was really fucking awful. It's over. Tony apologized. You need to forgive him. I need you to forgive him, okay? So, please. Just do it."
"Your friend is right," Shuri said. "Your anger is keeping you stuck in the past. We can't change what happened. All we can do is move on. I forgave the man who murdered my father," she added softly. "It was not easy. I still cannot tell you that he deserved it. But I did."
"And Tony came all this way thinking the Winter Soldier was probably gonna kill him," Bucky added. He spread his hand when Steve looked startled. "What? It's true. But he came anyway. That's gotta be worth some brownie points."
Steve pulled in a breath. "You're right," he said on an exhale. "You're both right." He put his hands on his hips, looking at his shoes again as if the grass-stained leather could tell him what to do. "This is hard." he said when he lifted his head. "You almost killed my best friend. But you apologized for it, and I know you regret it. As much as I regret lying to you. Not just because if I'd told you the truth earlier we wouldn't have ended up in that situation. But because you're my friend, and you deserved better."
Tony's eyes widened. "I'm your friend?"
"Yeah, you are." Steve nodded. "You really are, Tony. And since you're my friend, if Bucky can forgive you, then I can get over myself and forgive you too." He squared his shoulders, every inch Captain America in a too-tight tee-shirt, beat up jeans and sneakers. "Tony, I forgive you."
Tony didn't sway on his feet that time, but it was a near thing. And he was not going to cry, for fuck's sake. Even if this was everything he'd been hopelessly fantasizing about since Siberia, suddenly delivered in the space of a morning. "Thank you." He hated how desperately grateful he sounded. But, God, he was. He was. He felt like he could breathe. First Bucky, and now Steve. Tony was freed; he'd been forgiven. For the first time in months he could breathe.
"You two should hug," Shuri said with authority. "All this unresolved sexual tension between the two of you is killing me."
It was obvious she'd only said it to make Steve blush—which he did—but Tony couldn't help glancing at Bucky anyway. Because if he was feeling sexual tension with anyone it wasn't Steve. But, well, he knew as well as anyone that you could love someone and be indifferent to seeing them naked. He'd always felt that way about Rhodey, and he'd felt that way about Pepper for a few months now. And Steve.
So, hugging him really wasn't a problem. Especially since Steve chuckled, still blushing, and then opened his arms and said, "Come here." And Tony did.
This didn't solve everything. There was still Winter, for starters: skulking cold and afraid in the depths of Bucky's skull. Tony didn't know how to help Bucky with that, other than what Tony had already done. But he was hopeful that Shuri did.
The Avengers were still scattered to the wind, and Tony wasn't sure how to collect them, or if they'd all even want to come back. Tony wanted his team desperately, but then again Tony had problems with letting go. Always did. But if he and Steve were friends again, maybe the others could be his friends too?
"I need you to promise not to lie to me again," he said to Steve. "No matter how awful it is, just tell me. I can take it. And if I can't take it, that's on me. Just, give me a chance to try, all right? I deserve a chance to try."
"I promise, I will never lie to you again," Steve said. He held him a little harder, but not enough to hurt. How could Tony have forgotten that Steve could be so gentle? "Just, promise me you won't hurt Bucky to get at me. If you want to beat me up, fine. Do it. But, not him. Promise me you won't take your anger out on him."
"I promise I'll take out my anger solely on the people or things that deserve it. And I won't be a murderous asshole anymore," Tony said. It was the easiest promise he'd ever made.
"Thank you," Steve said, and he exhaled like he'd been waiting to breathe again too.
Shuri whooped and clapped her hands. Then Bucky grinned and winked at Tony over Steve's shoulder, and Tony lost his breath again. But in a good way.
He had a lot of things to look forward to.