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Stars Are Not Alone

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Tony had thought he couldn’t hate Hydra more.

They proved him wrong.

At this point, he was honestly just glad he’d never let SHIELD get the specs of the suit. (And he’d kept that secret-Hydra assclown from getting his hands on it. Point!) As it was, Jarvis had locked it down and nothing short of Tony giving the code and Jarvis’s discretion that it was acceptable to allow it was changing that.

He really hoped Cap had a plan soon though because Tony was done with this shit as of years ago.

Tony wondered how Hydra had learned the particular effectiveness of this method of persuasion. He supposed there was no way for him to be sure if he’d killed all or not. SHIELD – and therefore Hydra – might have gotten word of it that way. He’d certainly never told anyone about it. Maybe Obi had known. Maybe Obi had been in bed with Hydra. That’d fit. Somehow it made that old wound hurt more.

He sucked in air and water and coughed. Any time now Cap.

Clint was somewhere, nearby and out of sight, sucking in air quickly but more calmly than Tony. No way he was going to be outdone by Legolas, so Tony forced himself to calm his own breathing.

The roaring in his ears fogged out what Hydra Goon 2 was asking, but Tony didn’t need to hear to know enough to cough out a “fuck you.”

Back in the water. Tony fought to stay in the present. Not Afghanistan, not alone, no car battery, Cap was the Man with a Plan, not alone, no car battery, now not then, now not then, now not-

Choking air.

“Damn it, Stark,” Barton coughed. Tony grimaced.

Again.

Again.

Again.

The grip on Tony went slack and he yanked back, sucking in heaving breaths only to cough up water.

Focus. Focus, Stark. He caught a glimpse of Widow, heard vibranium hit the wall. Suit. Get to the suit. He barely managed to get the code out after doing a very embarrassing crawl-stumble over to it, but Jarvis, Jarvis was brilliant, he opened it and it slid around Tony, dry and strong and safe. Tony straightened, powered up the repulsors, and blasted the two Hydra agents closest to him.

Better.

Tony focused through the mission – no desert sand, no Yinsen to find, not alone – and then he blasted past the jet and back to the Tower.

He was peripherally aware of Bucky as he headed straight for his lab, still in the suit.

There was a shower down there – small, just a shower, hot water, he’d made sure it was there because it was easier than leaving his lab for his room when he wanted to stay down there. He could probably find a change of clothes from when Pep-

He kept his head out of the water entirely, and rubbed a towel over his head roughly when he got out again. There was a pair of sweats, and he yanked those on, but there wasn’t a shirt.

Dum-E appeared with the blanket from the back of the couch.

“Good boy,” Tony mumbled through numb lips, wrapping it over his shoulders, fingers clutching it in front of the reactor, close enough to feel the faint hum of it against his skin.

“Jarvis,” he called (his voice was hoarse, his throat felt torn to shreds) as he sat. The heat in the room was climbing and Jarvis was the best. “Bring up the latest project.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Tony stretched to get comfortable – shuddered as a stray drop of water slid down the back of his neck – and lost himself in his work.

 

“What the hell happened?” Bucky growled the second Steve stepped inside. Steve paused, then sighed and dragged a hand over his hair.

“Was SNAFU from the start,” he said. After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “They got him out of the suit.”

Bucky was still. It always raised Steve’s hackles when he did that because it wasn’t Bucky. That was the Winter Soldier, and though things had been better, there were still slip-ups. He carefully didn’t stare at Bucky cause that never helped, but he did stay wary. Alert.

Steve wasn’t the best at bringing Bucky down (though not the worst, either). Bruce was particularly good at it, likely because of the whole alter ego thing. Tony usually managed it, too. Steve’s theory was that it was because he had no self-preservation instinct.

“They had him and Clint for longer than we’d have liked. We had to redo the plan, get them out so he could hack their systems. He was a bit out of it.”

Bucky’s laugh was almost an ugly thing. It made Steve flinch. “He was pretty fucking out of it when he got here. I don’t think he even fucking heard me.”

Steve looked at him. “You know how it gets, Buck. Give him some time and space.”

Bucky shook his head angrily, but he was moving now and Steve eased down a bit himself. “I don’t know Steve…”

“He’s not used to people crowding him.” Steve remembered Tony’s near-viciousness after the “death” of Coulson last year. “We’ll give him some time to get his head on. Just a day or two.”

“Fine. But that’s it, Steve.” Bucky all but slammed the door on his way out.

 

The water was dirty and stank and felt gritty in his mouth. It scratched his throat and tangled in his lungs, then burned as he coughed it out. Before he could get more than a gasp of air he was pushed back in, and he was going to drown he really was, they had to let him up soon didn’t they? They wanted him alive, they wanted him to make weapons to give them the code for the suit they had to keep him alive no one was coming there wasn’t any air he was going to die again he couldn’t breathe again he-

“-the workshop in Manhattan in Avengers Tower. It is 3:45 AM. You have been asleep for approximately one hour and forty five minutes.”

“O-“ He started coughing, even though there was nothing in his lungs but air. His throat was sore. He couldn’t tell if it was from the mission or from screaming – because chances were he’d been screaming.

“We still in lockdown?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Music.”

It picked up when he’d last shut it off, in the middle of a Black Sabbath song. Jarvis didn’t turn it up too loud, but it was enough to fill Tony’s head, to discord the memories crowding in there.

“Thanks,” Tony muttered as Dum-E pushed a smoothie into his hands.

“It is safe, Sir.”

He drank it, throwing his legs over and shoving to his feet with his free hand. He pressed the empty glass back into Dum-E’s grip and made his way over to his worktable again.

“Alright, J, what have you got for me?”

“Sir, you should sleep several more hours to-“

“Nope. Gimme the next project.”

There was a moment’s silence – the equivalent of a disapproving, disappointed stare from Jarvis – before he offered in a resigned tone, “You did state you wished to make upgrades to Master James’ arm-“

“Yeah okay, sounds fun,” Tony interrupted, perking up a bit. “Dum-E, coffee. Do not spill it!” He pulled up the specs and added, “Or put motor oil in it. Seriously, I don’t want Jarvis to have to make a call to poison control.”

Tony leaned forward, scanning the current data on Bucky’s arm, just letting his thoughts drift with the info. He pulled apart certain things and threw away half formed ideas, waiting for something to catch and light up in his mind. Dum-E brought the coffee. Tony sniffed it, waited for Jarvis to give the all clear, then downed half of it. It burned the roof of his mouth and sent warmth speeding through his chest.

Nice. Good.

Oh, that was a fun idea.

With his attention caught and his focus sharpening with the presentation of a problem to tackle and fix, Tony set the mug aside and cracked his fingers, telling Jarvis to pull up the scan of the arm so he could manipulate it.

He just had to keep busy. If he slept just for an hour or two when he had to, the nightmares couldn’t get that bad.

He knew from experience.

Plus, it wasn’t like Pepper lived here anymore to drag him out of the lab and to bed. He rubbed his chest above the arc absently and zoomed in on the part of Bucky’s arm he wanted to improve.

 

“It’s been four days,” Bucky growled.

“Clint says he saw Tony last night in the kitchen,” Steve said tiredly. “He’s eating, which is an improvement from before.”

Bucky didn’t look impressed by this news.

Sighing, Steve specified, “He told Clint he’s working on a project right now. You know how he gets.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“And you think I do?” Steve asked, voice warning. Bucky glanced at him, taking in the look, and rolled his eyes.

“Course not. But you’re afraid to piss him off so you’re not gonna do anything about it.”

“He’s an adult, Buck.”

“He’s as bad as you used to be.”

Steve paused, glancing at Bucky curiously. Bucky didn’t look at him, just stared at the TV screen and shrugged. “I remember that. You used to fucking push yourself all the time, and then I’d have to hope your mom didn’t lecture me too for letting you work yourself up like that.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Of course you’d remember something like that.”

“You’re still a punk.”

“Still a jerk.”

They grinned, and it almost felt like before, but Steve very carefully reminded himself not to hold onto that kind of feeling. It’d be wrong to think of the Bucky before him as the Bucky of then. It wouldn’t be fair.

“Thing is,” Bucky continued, leaning into Steve’s space and his breath smelled like the spices from dinner. “You had people lookin’ out for you. You had me. Tony don’t have that.”

“Pepper-“

“The redhead dame right? I thought she wasn’t in the picture anymore.” Bucky had that stubborn, almost defensive look now, shoulders inched just the slightest bit towards his ears, eyes narrowed. Steve sighed.

“Yeah. They broke up before we came here.”

Bucky nodded decisively. “Then he ain’t got anyone to ride his ass to take care of himself.”

“Where are you going?” Steve knew – he just had to ask. He wasn’t even going to do anything to stop Bucky because he was familiar enough with this treatment to be resigned on Tony’s behalf. Looked like Bucky had found someone new to mother-hen.

Bucky’s eyes narrowed on him, like he could hear that, and Steve grinned a bit. Bucky huffed. “I’m gonna drag him out of that lab to his bed if I have to haul him over my shoulder to do it.”

Steve was familiar with that too, but he thought Tony would fight back a lot more than he had. “Good luck.” Bucky’d learn – or Tony would, it remained to be seen. Might even be entertaining to see them butt heads over this.

Bucky did not hesitate before getting in the elevator, and he didn’t even have to specify where he wanted to go because it started moving before he could. Jarvis was awesome. Bucky had admittedly been thrown by him when first coming here – it had been just another oddity to deal with on top of everything else in his life right then – but the AI had been… helpful. Whether it was not understanding something or waking up in a cold sweat not sure where he was, Jarvis had been a patient voice to guide him through it.

He was also fucking sassy has all get out when he felt like it, so there was that too.

The elevator stopped at the floor of Tony’s workshop, and Bucky stepped out into the silence. The floor was always quiet before you entered the workshop, with the elevator at one end of the hall, and the stairs going up at the other. The stairs only went up, to Tony’s floors, and Bucky did wonder why that was but not enough to try to figure it out too much.

“He in lockdown?” he asked Jarvis.

“At this time, Sir has not initiated a lockdown of the workshop. You may use your code to enter.”

Bucky did, walking in as the door silently opened.

Dangerous, he thought. If somehow someone got in you couldn’t hear them coming. But then, that was what Jarvis was for, and Tony seemed convinced next to no one could hack his AI.

Bucky hoped that were so, because it made even him feel safer knowing that the AI was watching over them all.

The lights were dark, except for the dim yellow glow of them above counters at the far edge of the room. Bucky crept forward, peering around. He didn’t see Tony at his work table – which was good, because if he’d fallen asleep there or something Bucky would have definitely had to hit him over the head with something. Those robotic arms he had were in their little stations. All three stirred a bit as he passed, but only the one – Dum-E, the oldest one if Bucky remembered right – watched him continue on, making a soft whirring noise.

Bucky wondered if it was like talking to them, those noises, or if it was just the noises machinery made. Way Tony interacted with them it was like they talked.

He’d have to ask next time he was down here for maintenance on the arm.

Tony was on that old couch of his down here, sunk into the cushions and curled tight under a thick blanket. Bucky came closer, wondering if it’d be better to leave him or to-

The scream that ripped out of Tony’s throat as he thrashed upright nearly sent Bucky a good foot into the air, blood draining from his face. His eyes were open but unfocused. The lights immediately turned bright, Dum-E whirring to life from his station, the other two stirring and then slowly wheeling towards the couch. One set itself between Bucky and Tony, and whenever Bucky shifted it did too.

He realized Jarvis was speaking, giving Tony the date, time, where he was, how long he’d been asleep, and-

“Master James is in here as well, and the shake Dum-E is handing you is not edible Sir, please do not drink it.”

Tony blinked almost childishly, setting the smoothie aside without thought. Dum-E made what Bucky was sure was an annoyed sound.

“Master Ja-… Bucky?”

Bucky pushed his way past the other bot, crouching down in front of Tony and grabbing a shoulder firmly. Tony kept blinking, looking so damned lost that for a moment Bucky wanted to simply pull him into a hug.

Then, in a rush, it changed. Between one blink and the next Tony stopped looking soft and vulnerable and became sharp and furious.

“What the hell are you doing in my lab? Get out.”

“Tony-“

“I said get out, Barnes. Jarvis, why is he in here?”

“I did not ask, Sir. You did not initiate lockdown, so there was no reason to stop or question Master James.”

Tony glared up at the ceiling. With a harsh exhalation, he shoved to his feet and pushed roughly past Bucky.

“Tony, slow down, you-“

“I said to get the fuck out of my workshop, why are you still here?”

“I-“

“Leave.”

“Let me-“

“Door’s over there.”

“Damn it-“

“I don’t hear you-“

“Shut up and let me-“

“This is my space and-“

“-never let anyone get a word-“

“-don’t see me barging into your-“

“-not going to-“

“Get out!” Tony shouted, slamming his hands down onto the table. Bucky stared at him.

“Jesus, fine, fuck it all, fine, don’t leave. Fucking hell.” Tony devolved into muttering, movements jerky as he shoved his chair back and almost fell when it wheeled away before he was fully upright. Bucky took half a step to help him and Tony jerked back, a sneer on his face. He walked around Bucky, pointedly keeping distance between them, and stormed out of the workshop.

Bucky stared for a few more moments, even though Tony was long gone, and then sighed heavily, dragging a hand over the back of his neck. “Fuck.”

“I believe it might be best for you to leave the workshop for now, Master James,” Jarvis said gently. “Sir is unlikely to return tonight, and most definitely until he is sure you are not here.”

“Yeah.” He blew out a breath. “I… tell him I’m sorry?”

“I will make sure Sir receives the sentiment.”

“Will you-“

“I have always, and will always, look after Sir, even when he would rather be left alone.”

Bucky’s lips turned up in one corner, and he glanced at the ceiling – a habit all of them had developed. “Alright. Thanks. If there’s anything I can do…”

“I shall inform you immediately. Good night, Master James.”

That was as close to a dismissal as one was likely to get from Jarvis, so Bucky did as requested and left Tony’s workshop.

It seemed rather desolate as the door closed behind him.

 

Bucky was doing that weird sulking-guilty thing. Steve hadn’t seen it since… well, likely since the last time Mrs. Barnes had caught Bucky doing something he shouldn’t have.

He didn’t know what had happened when Bucky had gone to confront Tony, but obviously it hadn’t gone well. It’d been two days, no one had seen a hint of Tony, and Bucky wasn’t talking.

He hated having to be the one to always fix things between his teammates.

Of course, he supposed he really wasn’t obligated to fix things. Just, as leader, he felt it was his responsibility to. He had to look out for them.

Alright, and maybe he didn’t want Bucky and Tony at odds.

It was movie night, with Natasha and Clint curled up together on the arm chair – Natasha somehow curling her body small into the seat, and Clint perched on the back of it, one leg supporting her back and the other curled between hers. Bruce had a tablet he was absently typing at, while Thor – who had come with Dr. Foster and Miss. Lewis from overseas and joined them in the Tower – sat on the floor with a huge bowel of popcorn, talking with Bruce about something… science-y.

Bucky was sitting on the couch, stiff and taking up as little space as possible. It was a very not-Bucky thing, not to sprawl over any space he could like some great big cat. Steve sighed soundlessly and slipped out of the kitchen and down the stairs instead.

Everyone used Tony’s lower living quarters as a common floor. Steve suspected Tony actually liked it, that they’d chosen this floor as the one they all shared together for socializing. It was in the way that sometimes, if Steve waited patiently and long enough and never looked directly at Tony, he could catch a small content looking smile on his lips.

But no one had seen Tony for two days, and it’d been a week since anyone had seen him for more than a few minutes. Steve didn’t know how other people would handle this situation – and it seemed invasive to ask Miss. Potts – but Steve was going to try to coax Tony up if just for the take-out food. He’d ordered it from Tony’s favorite.

Steve only knew it was Tony’s favorite because Jarvis might have insinuated it was.

Also Tony always hoarded the leftovers.

The windows of the workshop were dark, but not completely blacked out so Steve took that as a positive sign.

“Can you ask him if he’d mind letting me in, Jarvis?” Steve asked.

“Certainly. One moment, Captain Rogers.”

Steve rocked on his feet, just once before he caught himself at it and stopped. It was a few minutes – during which Steve held his hands behind his back and tried to stay still – before the keypad by the door lit up.

“Sir has agreed to allow you to come in.”

Something about the way Jarvis said it made Steve wonder, but he didn’t ask. He entered his code and stepped inside.

The music had obligingly dropped down when he stepped inside, background noise instead of mind-numbing, and Tony glanced up from something he was working on at the lab table, something small.

“What is it?”

Steve blinked, focusing on Tony again instead of the way he stretched out his fingers, like he’d been doing the delicate work long enough for them to get stiff.

“It’s movie night,” he said. “Bruce is picking, and we ordered from that take-out place on Fifth.”

Tony’s head tilted, just a bit, his eyes flickering towards the door. Steve didn’t hold his breath, but he kind of wanted to, but then Tony slowly shook his head.

“No.”

“Want me to bring some down for you?”

Tony’s lips pressed together, his eyes flickering away again before he shrugged and waved a hand carelessly. “Whatever Cap, don’t worry about it.” He turned back to his work, pulling the goggles in his hair down again and hunching over whatever he was working on.

Steve sighed again. “Alright. I’ll let everyone know.”

Tony just waved over his shoulder, muttering to himself or his bots, Steve wasn’t sure. He hesitated before he actually stepped out of the workshop, glancing over at Tony. His hands moved smoothly, confidently, but the tension in his shoulders spoke of the intense focus it was taking, to the delicacy of his work.
He left Tony to it, but promised himself that if by the end of the movie they hadn’t seen Tony, he’d bring him some food. Chances would be good that Tony would forget entirely.

 

The next day Pepper Potts walked off the elevator into the common floor of Avengers Tower, looking like she was on the warpath and nothing was going to stop her. She tapped rapidly at the Stark tablet in her hands, while talking into the little phone piece in her ear, her heels a rapid snap against the floor.

Bucky froze.

She sharply finished her call, tapped a few more times at her tablet and then stowed it away in that bag of hers. She looked up, eyes that Bucky was sure missed no detail, from the fact that he was in pajama pants and a worn T-shirt that was a size too big for him (it was Steve’s, not that Steve knew he had it), to the fact that he had two cups of coffee in hand.

Her brow rose slowly. “He pretends he likes it black, but he actually puts so much sugar in it I’m surprised anyone can call it coffee.”

Bucky stayed still for a moment before taking a tentative step back towards the kitchen.

Pepper smiled, and it relaxed her face, turning it into something approachable if a bit on the wry side.

“Jarvis called,” she explained.

“Ah.” Bucky figured things had to be bad if Jarvis was calling in the ex.

Pepper followed him into the kitchen, gently edging him aside. She grabbed the sugar and a small spoon that wasn’t where Bucky would have expected, since none of the silverware was in that drawer.

She glanced at him to see if he was watching, then silently showed him how to make Tony’s coffee.

She handed it over, but didn’t let go of the cup when Bucky reached for it. He looked up at her, to see her rolling her lips between her teeth. Drawing in a deep breath, she steeled herself. Bucky couldn’t help tensing, just a bit, like he was preparing for a fight.

“It’s been… hard, for both of us. I love Tony,” she said firmly. “But I can’t be there for him like he needs if he’s going to do this, and he can’t not do this like I need if he’s going to be with me.” Her smile was a bit shaky. “We’re still struggling, a bit, to find a balance again. I don’t know what’s happened, exactly, but Jarvis said that he hadn’t left the workshop for more than a few hours at most in the past week. Tony… The workshop is his safe place,” she said instead. “You can’t… Dragging him out of it doesn’t end well.” She shook her head. “You’re going to have to find your own way to get through to him when he does this kind of thing, all of you, if you’re going to be in his life now. I have some papers I need him to sign,” she said, hefting her bag a bit. “I’ll try to warm him up for you.” Her smile was understanding, a bit wry, and Bucky nodded silently.

She let go of the coffee cup finally and turned. “It’ll take ten minutes, fifteen at the most,” she said over her shoulder as she headed for the stairs.

Bucky waited until he couldn’t hear her anymore before speaking.

“What exactly did you tell her, Jarvis?”

“I informed Miss Potts that yourself and the others had made attempts to bring Sir out of his workshop and had been unsuccessful. I requested that perhaps she could come and remind Sir that there is an outside world he needs to also pay attention to.”

“How did she… How did she know that I was bringing Tony coffee?”

“Miss. Potts has always been very astute.”

“Are you saying I’m obvious?”

“Those were not the words I said.”

“Wiseass,” Bucky muttered, leaning against the counter.

Thirteen minutes went by before Bucky heard heels approaching again. They were slower, the tread just a bit heavier, and when she appeared in the doorway of the kitchen she looked somewhat worn at the edges. Her smile was softer but also tired looking, her eyes heavy. She didn’t come into the kitchen.

“He’s actually in a good mood this morning, considering,” she said. Her voice was softer too, full of air as if she was holding back a sigh. “He’ll appreciate the coffee.”

Bucky nodded. Pepper nodded back, decisively, and straightened imperceptibly. “Good luck, Sgt. Barnes.”

“Thank you ma’am,” he responded, the words natural on his tongue if not in his head. She smiled at him and disappeared.

Bucky wondered what they’d talked about, down there, as he reheated the coffees and made his way down the stairs.

Jarvis opened the door for him without him inputting his code. Bucky stepped in hesitantly, glancing around to find Tony slumped over at a lab table. His shoulders were hunched, his hands buried in his hair. He looked worn and resigned and tired. Bucky sighed and went over.

“Hey,” he said, stopped a foot away. “I brought coffee.”

Tony’s head tilted, one bloodshot eye peering at him from behind an arm. He appraised Bucky for a few moments before focusing on the coffee.

Bucky held the one with more sugar than a candy bar forward and slowly Tony reached out and took it. His eyes closed as he drank it, some of the tension slipping out of his face and shoulders.

Slowly pulling over one of those spare wheel chairs that were scattered around the various tables, Bucky sat down at the other end of the table Tony was at and watched him, sipping his own coffee.

Tony sighed heavily, putting the cup down and scrubbing his hands roughly over his face. There was stubble growing in outside of his usual neat pattern, and the circles under his eyes looked far too much like bruises. He looked pale and exhausted, but Bucky at the moment was more concerned with the glassiness in his eyes and the way he wouldn’t look up from the table.

“Too sweet?” he asked.

Tony shook his head. It looked like he tried to smile and failed. “Pep tell you to make it like that?”

Slowly Bucky nodded. “Yeah. Looks like you have a serious sweet tooth, Stark.” Tony made a vague sound, reaching out for the cup but not picking it up. Bucky set his own down and leaned forward. “You look like shit, either drink it or get some sleep.”

Tony shook his head, but that was all the response Bucky got. He was about to stand up and sling Tony over his shoulder, Pepper’s advice be damned, when Tony finally spoke. It was low, half muttered as if to himself or that he’d forgotten Bucky was there.

“Pepper always woke up before I did, she’d have my coffee waiting when I came into the kitchen. We’d sit at the counter on these bar stools – lost them when the Malibu house went down, probably for the best – or here we’d sit out on the balcony or greenhouse when the weather wasn’t good. She…” His voice broke.

“I wish I could have been what she wanted. She was… everything I could have wanted.”

Bucky stayed quiet. After a few minutes, Tony continued, turning the cup around and around in his hands.

“I don’t think I’ve tried a relationship since… god, maybe when I was first in college? I was just a kid, everyone was ridiculously older than me, but one girl had a sister that visited regularly, in the dorm I lived. Tried it, lasted a month. She thought I was cheating and dumped me.” His lips twisted bitterly. “Her sister told some small local paper all about it, supposedly. I didn’t care – Dad wasn’t going to see it since it wasn’t big news – but it hurt… not that it’d ended up in the papers but that I failed at the whole relationship thing and couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I was supposed to be this genius kid and I couldn’t figure out how to fix some stupid relationship with another kid.

“Never really gave it a try – an honest one – till Pepper. God I… I tried.”

“Sometimes things just don’t work out, Stark.”

He scoffed. “Sometimes you just aren’t good at something. I’m good with machines.” His hands flexed over the coffee mug. “I’m good with anything that isn’t people. I suck at people. Always do the wrong thing, make the wrong choices, fuck things up.”

“You think any of the rest of us are good at the relationship thing? Damn, Stark, do you know how many dames I pissed off? And those are just the ones I can vaguely remember or Steve’s told stories about.”

Tony shook his head though. Bucky was frustrated, but he held it back. It wouldn’t help, and he had learned patience over the years. He was sure it’d shock his mother if she’d learned it, but it was true.

“Stark, listen, no one’s perfect-“

“But I have to be!”

“Says who, Tony?”

Tony was breathing heavily, on his feet. Bucky got up carefully, trying not to spook him, and came around the table, hand extended a bit in front of him. “Tony, who says you have to be perfect? None of us give a fuck. Hell, we’re all pretty fucked up ourselves. I don’t think Clint knows how to interact with people without being a complete asshole. Romanoff probably has ten plans to kill all of us and then take over the world at any given time. Bruce sometimes acts like he’s forgotten how to interact with people because he’d rather not deal with us, and Thor’s a fucking alien of all things. And Steve – god, Steve’s got so many issues it’d take a good hour to go through them all.

“And me? I have a fucking metal arm. I sometimes forget where the hell I am – when the hell I am – because I was brainwashed. I was a Hydra weapon, Tony, I was a thing, and sometimes, sometimes I forget -“

“Hey, hey,” Tony looked a bit frantic, coming forward with his hands up. They hovered over him, like he didn’t know what to do with them, before settling on his shoulders. “Come on, Barnes, don’t go crazy on me now.” His grin was strained, his voice shaky. More than that, there was genuine concern in his eyes as they stared straight into Bucky’s.

Bucky sucked in a breath. Not to calm himself. Because he wanted to grab Tony’s face in his hands and kiss him.

This might be… problematic.

“Good now?”

Bucky nodded silently. He swallowed, purposefully relaxing the muscles of his shoulders and arms so that he didn’t look so tense. Tony relaxed in response, nodding to himself.

“Good.” He cleared his throat. “I needed you down here anyway,” he said conversationally, turning and grabbing the coffee off the table as he headed over to another lab table. “I was working on this upgrade for your arm. I mean I’ve done a lot with it but I wanted to do more, I had this idea…”

Smiling a bit fondly, shaking his head, Bucky followed after him.

“Oh, and Barnes.” Tony grinned over his shoulder. “Nice pajamas.”

Bucky raised a brow, looked down purposefully and glanced up with a smirk. “Not my usual attire but yeah, I do make it look good don’t I?”

Tony laughed.

 

“So I see you two worked out whatever was wrong,” Steve said conversationally from the couch.

Tony glanced over, looking surprised, and then ducked his head again, shrugging. “It was nothing.”

Steve scoffed quietly, looking back down at his drawing. “You gonna tell me what’s wrong still? It’s been over a week Tony.”

“Steve…” Tony had pressed his hands down flat on the table, leaning into them.

Putting aside his sketch book, Steve sat forward. “We’re worried. We’re allowed to be. We’re a team.” He hesitated a moment before venturing, “We’re friends. Aren’t we?”

Tony straightened after a moment, looking over at Steve with a smirk and raised brow. “Don’t sound too sure there, Cap.”

Steve sighed, smiling a bit. “Alright Tony, go ahead and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Tony just grinned at him, eyes crinkling at the corners with laughter that brightened his dim eyes. He looked drained, almost translucent he was so pale. Steve stood, coming over to where Tony was fiddling with one of his screens.

“Have you been getting any sleep?”

For a moment, Tony was completely still. Steve frowned, concerned, and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder to turn him. “Hey. Tony, are-“

Shrugging him off and stepping jerkily out of Steve’s reach and around the table. “I have to get this done for R&D, so if you don’t mind…”

He knew avoidance when he saw it. Steve thought quickly, deciding that in this moment it would be better to retreat and regroup. He nodded. “Sure, Tony. I’ll see you later.” Tony didn’t even acknowledge him, muttering to himself and flicking through different images on a screen.

He took the stairs two at a time, hoping Bucky was still watching TV with Clint in the common room. He was going to need help with this plan.

 

Tony blinked, rubbed his eyes. His head felt heavy and his mind was slow, and everything seemed a bit blurry at the edges. He needed more sleep. He knew he needed more sleep, but it was just like after the Battle of New York all over again. Every time he tried another nightmare was waiting for him. He thought maybe they weren’t as vicious or quick as they had been – but he wasn’t sure.

Still wasn’t enough to let him sleep more than two or three hours every other night.

He’d been trying to keep busy, but the longer it went the more difficult it was to be sure he was doing good work. He was sure the arm upgrade had gone well – Bucky would have said if anything was wrong, after all – and he knew that R&D project was… not his best work, but it wasn’t going to blow anyone up either. He’d just let Pepper know it was still in the rough stages and he wanted to make adjustments still, she’d tell the board something to pacify them (she was good with that), and he’d have…

Tony dragged his hands over his face.

“Coffee.”

Jarvis didn’t answer, but after a few minutes Dum-E brought over a cup.

“It’s safe, Sir.”

Tony drank it as quickly as he could, burning the roof of his mouth, wishing it’d take effect quicker. At this point he worried he was getting immune to the stuff or something.

He didn’t realize he wasn’t alone in the room anymore until hands came down on his shoulders, jolting him out of a daze of numbers and code that… looking at again made only partial sense, damn it.

“Whoa, hey. Relax, just us.”

Tony glanced to see who ‘us’ was and saw both Steve and Bucky.

They’d been far more persistent than the rest of the team. Widow had told him if he was trying to die again she would happily stab him in the neck with something sharp, Barton had thrown things at him from the vents until Tony had loudly told Jarvis to gas them, Bruce had come down a few times to try coaxing Tony upstairs or to talk it out. Pepper had been by the one time, which had been uncomfortable and painful for both of them.

He was expecting a call from Rhodey any day now. Pepper always tattled to Rhodey. Then they’d team up against him.

Except he was facing a different team up, and it threw him. He watched them, trying to figure out their angle, why they kept coming down here, kept insisting he talk or explain or let them help like anyone could help with something that was just him being a little more fucked up than usual. It’d pass, he’d get control over himself again.

Steve set a plate of food in front of him and Tony stared at it. It was a simple grilled cheese. It looked a little burnt at the edges actually, and it wasn’t even cut in half, who ate a grilled cheese without cutting it in half? Weird people like Steve that’s who.

Bucky’s hands were still on his shoulders. Kneading his shoulders actually. It felt rather nice, especially as he worked them in towards his neck, thumbs digging in right there and ooooh yeah definitely nice.

His eyes had shut. He forced them back open.

The sandwich was still right there in front of him.

Tony stared at it, like maybe if he did long enough someone would explain what they wanted from him, that they were invading his workshop and giving him food and massages. People just didn’t do things – they wanted things. So what did they want? Tony couldn’t figure out an answer that made sense. He was missing a variable or something.

“What do you want?” He was too tired to keep trying to puzzle it out. Sometimes there was nothing for it but the direct approach. He hated the direct approach, felt too much like admitting defeat.

“For you to eat,” Steve said, sounding surprised. Tony’s eyes were burning, and glaring actually kind of made that less obvious. But Bucky’s massage felt too good to turn to glare at Steve so he ended up glaring at the grilled cheese on a nice little plate.

When did he even get plates like that?

Pepper had probably picked them out. Tony sighed, closing his eyes and slumping forward.

“I didn’t mean that,” he muttered.

“We know,” Bucky said above him. “But that is part of what we want. You need to eat. Do not make me shove it down your throat, Stark.”

Heavily, Tony reached out, dragging the food to his mouth and eating mechanically. It didn’t taste like anything, or maybe he just was beyond processing taste as this point. He fought off a yawn halfway through chewing and swallowed it down, took another bite, chewed, swallowed, repeat. He kept it up until the sandwich was gone, figuring they’d leave.

Bucky’s hands squeezed his shoulders, then just… rested there.

“When’s the last time you slept?”

When Tony remained stubbornly silent, Steve sighed but it was Bucky that made an impatient sound. “Jarvis.”

“Hey, that’s-“ Tony started, straightening a bit.

“Sir last slept for two hours and fourteen minutes thirty hours ago.”

“Cheating,” Tony said, resigned. “Traitor,” he added.

“It is in your best interest to listen to Captain Rogers and Master James. I am merely following my programming.”

“I did not install creative interpretation,” Tony muttered, but they both knew better. Tony hadn’t made Jarvis not to grow and adapt, and Tony would not have his AI any other way. Jarvis was not what he’d started as, and Tony really couldn’t be positive where he was going, but Jarvis was… Jarvis was Jarvis, plain and simple, and Tony would do whatever he could to keep him that way.

Bratty attitude, interfering tendencies, and all.

“Why won’t you go to bed, Tony?” Steve asked, all gentle like Tony was going to break or something and he wasn’t fragile, okay, he could handle it. He was Tony Fucking Stark, and Stark men weren’t weak.

He tried to shrug Bucky’s hands on his shoulders off, but all Bucky did was shift his grip, holding tight to the back of his neck and… that shouldn’t feel as good as it did, really, it wasn’t fair for it to feel good. To feel… comforting or something.

“No more bullshit. Talk to us.”

“’S nothing.”

“I said no bullshit.”

“If it was nothing,” Steve interrupted, “You wouldn’t have been hiding out down here so long, and you’d be getting more sleep. Let us help.”

“You can’t, okay? It’s just me, you can’t fix me. It. You can’t fix it.”

“Tell us anyway.”

“Jesus, Captain Do-Good, I’m-“

“Does it have to do with what happened on that mission?” Bucky’s words were blunt and cut straight through Tony’s mind, bringing it to a stop because water choking trapped and he drew in a long breath to steady himself.

“Can you two fuck off already? Go find another pet project.”

“I am about twenty second from throwing you over my shoulder and dragging you out of here, Stark, so cut the bullshit already,” Bucky growled near his ear.

“Tony, please.” Steve sounded so earnest, and they were ganging up on him. They were super soldiers and Bucky could definitely throw Tony over his shoulder and toss him in his bed – not like that, not that it was a bad thought but –

“I just can’t sleep okay? It happens, it passes, I sleep for two solid days, everything goes back to normal. Can you leave now, I have-“

Bucky’s grip loosened, turning from holding to almost stroking, and Steve just let out a very simple, comprehending “Oh.”

Tony tensed further. “Yeah. Oh.” He tried to shrug Bucky off again. Instead the grip tightened once more, refusing to leave.

“You think we don’t get nightmares?” Bucky said. “Hell, Tony, you think I don’t get them too?”

“I-“

“Don’t lie to us, please. It’s insulting.” Steve sounded calm, steady, and Tony couldn’t see that Captain America look that made minor villains start crying and repenting but he bet it was there.

Since talking wasn’t working, Tony decided to just freeze them out. If he said nothing they’d give up eventually and leave him alone.

Except they didn’t. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Half an hour and they were still there, Steve leaning against the table in his peripheral vision and Bucky still holding his neck in that startlingly reassuring grip. Tony was fading. No longer moving or doing anything it was harder to keep himself awake, but he was not going to sleep. Not yet – and certainly not in this chair. It was uncomfortable.

“When we were in the Howling Commandos,” Steve started, quietly. Bucky’s fingers flexed a bit on Tony’s neck, like even he’d been taken aback by it. Steve either didn’t notice or decided it wasn’t important, because he kept going. “We saw a lot of things, Tony. We did a lot of things, honestly. And some of it didn’t sit well. Some of it kept coming back, night after night, worse and worse until all you wanted was a night of sleep, a couple hours of sleep would do, so long as you didn’t have to see it again. It happened to all of us, but no one thought less of you when it was your turn for a sleepless couple of nights. Neither of us think less of you for it.”

“It helped… not to talk about it, honestly I was and still am shit at that. If you don’t want to tell us what happens in your dreams you don’t have to tell us. We won’t push. But it helped to know that you wouldn’t be alone when it happened.”

“Turnin’ soft Barnes,” Tony muttered, eyes so dry now that he was tempted to simply close them.

It felt like giving in.

Stark men didn’t give up.

“No shame in admitting you need help from friends.”

“Don’t need help.”

“Maybe not,” Steve said softly, reminding Tony he was – oh wow, right there, he was definitely closer than before. The two of them were warmer than most people, fast metabolisms or something, Tony couldn’t remember right then because was Cap wearing a shirt too small on purpose?

Steve chuckled. “Bucky keeps stealing mine.”

“Do not!” Bucky objected.

“Uh huh.” Steve sounded unconvinced. “You started stealing my shirts back in France, you think I wouldn’t realize you still did it?

Bucky was quiet for a bit, then just said, “Huh,” like he hadn’t…

“You didn’t remember that?” Steve said softly. It was only half a question, but Bucky shrugged – Tony could feel the shift.

“Nah.” It was said calmly, casually, and Tony hoped it wasn’t bothering Bucky because he was honestly too tired to turn and check.

“Apparently old habits do die hard,” Steve mused. It made Bucky laugh. Even Tony cracked a smile, tired as he was and – shit when had he closed his eyes?

“Listen,” Steve said. It took Tony a minute to realize Steve was talking to him, and he tore his eyes open to tilt his head just enough to see Steve’s face. It wasn’t that stupid earnest expression that made Tony feel guilty, but a understanding, serious one. “Being down here by yourself? It obviously hasn’t been helping. So why don’t you just give it a try our way. Just for a night or two.”

“And your way is?” he mumbled.

“Easy,” Bucky said with another shrug. “Sharing a bed.” Tony made a choking sound, and Bucky squeezed his neck. “Not like that, Stark. This isn’t about that kind of comfort.”

“This is about knowing you’re not alone.”

It sounded good. It sounded really good to know he wasn’t alone. And where would be safer than between two super soldiers, one the well-loved hero Captain America and the other a deadly assassin with the best mechanical arm Tony could make.

But he’d tried sharing a bed when like this before, and it hadn’t gone well. He’d almost killed Pepper with the suit.

Pepper hadn’t been super-strong then, though. Obviously she could now – and Tony was sure that Bucky’s arm could take care of the suit, if he wanted to.

And Tony was pretty sure he’d fixed that particular little problem, anyway.

“I… fine. Just this once.”

Bucky’s hand gave a firm squeeze, pushing forward just a bit so Tony would stand up and start for the door. Steve grabbed the plate and took it with him, smiling calm and reassuring like. As if Tony was going to spook or something. Like he was afraid to share a bed with them and was going to back out. Yeah, right. One there was no way he’d say no to sharing a bed with either of them, and two, he was a Stark and backing out would be like giving up or being weak. Not gonna happen.

They went upstairs to Tony’s room. Bucky nudged Tony with that hand on his neck towards the dresser and Steve came in just a few moments behind them, plate gone, toes peeking out from the too-long ends of his pajama pants. Bucky shoved off his pants, hand dropping from Tony’s neck to do so.
It felt uncomfortably cool without that weight there, even though the metal was cooler than his skin.

Tony had never had any problems with nudity – or if he had, he’d long forgotten those days. He was a bit wary of showing the arc reactor off without any barriers, so he left his undershirt on but the rest went to the floor.

Well, and his boxers. Bucky had said it wasn’t that kind of comfort after all, and who knew if the rumors of Captain America’s virginity were greatly exaggerated or not.

Besides, he’d be sleeping with two super soldiers. He was not going to need many layers of clothes.

Steve was already shifting the covers around, settling in, and Bucky nudged Tony forward so he’d end up between them. Good thing he was so tired or his libido might have gotten ideas.

Tony couldn’t help but lay there stiffly for a bit, not sure where to rest or how to touch in this kind of situation. Did friends sleep in the same bed? Tony wasn’t sure how that worked. What kind of rules of touching was there, because he –

Steve’s arm slid around him from behind, hand on his stomach (below the arc reactor, without having to be asked or told and Tony was grateful for that, really). Bucky tugged Tony half on top of him, hand once again around his neck. It was like an anchor, really, holding Tony safely in place and god this was comfortable. Why hadn’t he slept in the same bed as friends before? Why had Rhodey never suggested this?

Maybe it had to do with the various occasions when Tony had tried to sleep with him while they were in school. If so, he’d screwed himself over obviously. This was… nice.

“Try to sleep, Tony,” Steve said quietly against the back of his shoulder. “We’ll be here.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, but his thumb rubbed steadily against his pulse.

 

Tony did wake up, trying to remember how to breathe past water in his lungs. Steve’s hand was rubbing up and down his back, the pressure firm and steadying. Bucky mumbled sleepy nonsense against his temple, things that made no sense. Maybe because Tony was half asleep or because Bucky was, Tony didn’t know.

Tony did know this though. He wasn’t choking for air, he wasn’t going to drown, and he was not alone. His eyes fell shut again and he buried his face in Bucky’s shoulder, sighing.

Stark men didn’t ask for help.

But maybe they could allow themselves to be bullied into accepting it.