Tony had already sunk several hours into designing a miniature version of the helicarriers he’d created for Fury — this time they would be strictly for Avengers use only — by the time his Sunday afternoon was rudely interrupted.
For a moment, he ignored the angry screeches of the security system. He figured if it was a less-than-critical warning, JARVIS would handle it given a minute or two.
A few seconds after the alarms started to sound, Tony relented. His concentration was already broken thanks to the incessant blaring of two of the tower security alarms anyway.
“JARVIS, catch me up,” Tony demanded. He moved to the nearest computer and pulled up the feed of every security camera on the levels of the tower with Avengers-only access.
“The tower’s secure perimeter has been breached. A number of your security alarms have been tripped by an external threat. There is an unauthorized individual on the balcony.”
Tony paused momentarily because that shouldn’t be possible and there were a dozen redundancies and security measures to ensure that it could never happen. But he pulled up the balcony camera feed anyway. He stared at it, brow furrowed.
“There’s no one there, J.”
“I believe the visual feed has been tampered with.”
So this someone had the ability to mess with his security system. That wasn’t promising.
“For fuck’s sake.” Tony stood up and went for the suit. “I didn’t think it would be too much to ask for a quiet Sunday, but it looks like I was mistaken.” Tony rolled his eyes, despite there being no one around to appreciate his frustration or sassy commentary. “Is this going to be an all-hands-on-deck Avengers-type situation? Or is this something I can take care of on my own?”
JARVIS hesitated. That was never a good sign. Tony stood in a clear area and called the suit to him. The pieces began assembling around him as JARVIS responded.
“I’m inclined to believe you could hold your own against a single individual, sir, but I have no way of knowing whether this particular adversary is human, alien, or enhanced in some way.”
“Right.” Tony sighed. “Excellent.”
The final pieces of the suit slotted into place, and Tony flew to the back Iron Man exit he installed in the workshop a month after moving into the tower.
It only took him a few seconds to fly high enough to get a clear aerial view of the balcony.
“You’ve got to be shitting me.” Tony couldn’t believe it. “Is that who I think it is, JARVIS?”
“All compiled intelligence would suggest that is one James Buchanan Barnes, most commonly referred to in this century as the Winter Soldier.”
Okay. So Tony needed a new approach.
“He looped my camera footage, so he knew I was monitoring the balcony, but he obviously tripped the alarms intentionally,” Tony said, thinking aloud for JARVIS’ benefit. “I don’t think he’s coming in. I think he’s waiting for me to meet him.”
Tony flew back into the workshop and hesitated. He should call Steve. He should. But.
He ordered the suit back to its resting station.
“Sir, I do not think it is wise to address Mr. Barnes without the armor — ”
“It’s fine, J. I don’t think he’s here to hurt anyone.” Tony was about ninety percent sure of that.
“I still would not suggest — ”
“You might as well save it.”
“Captain Rogers would not approve,” JARVIS said in an apparent last-ditch effort.
“Steve doesn’t get to criticize how I address threats to the tower when he’s not home to help. Besides, it’s only Barnes. He hasn’t been hurting anyone but HYDRA agents in months.”
“Shall I reboot the cameras?” JARVIS asked, helpfully. “Then, if something goes awry, I can contact SHIELD.”
“Sure. Reboot the cameras. But I’m going out there to see what he wants.”
“Might I suggest bringing along the portable repulsor tech you spent so long developing?”
Tony thought about it for a second before snapping the repulsor-watch onto his wrist. If he needed it, at least he’d have some kind of protection. Plus, the watch doubled as a repulsor and an EMP, so it could theoretically put Barnes’ metal arm out of commission. That evened the odds a bit.
Not to mention it might keep Steve from killing Tony for being reckless about his own life.
“Call Pepper, J,” Tony said. “Let her know what’s about to go down.”
Again, this was a safety precaution mainly for appearance’s sake. Odds were that JARVIS would be more helpful if this came to a fight than Pepper. But it was good to have a human in the loop, Tony supposed.
With that, Tony marched up the stairs from the lab.
When he reached the Avengers’ common floor, which was empty and had been for nearly a week now, Tony realized — not for the first time — how much he missed everyone.
Steve had been right to call what the Avengers experiment had become a family. His— no, their family. It’s what Tony always imagined a real family would feel like; sometimes it was even better. God, he missed them.
“Alright, J,” Tony said, standing at the back door. Barnes was still at the corner of the balcony, near the edge. He wasn’t close enough to call attention to himself from the street hundreds of feet below. Both hands, flesh and metal, were obviously and entirely exposed. “If I’m not back inside in thirty minutes call in the big guns.”
He pushed open the door to the balcony.
The wind this high was worse sometimes than others. Today was one of the rare days where there was only a light breeze and nothing more. It was quiet and still.
The setting didn’t match the conversation Tony was expecting at all.
“Stark,” Barnes said after a minute. He hadn’t moved his hands even an inch in a deliberate show of reassurance.
“You can relax, Barnes,” Tony said. “I’m not going to come after you.” He paused and when Barnes showed no signs of relaxing in the slightest, he decided to add, “But Steve isn’t here, if that’s who you’re looking for.”
Barnes’ mouth quirked up slightly in what Tony thought was the ghost of a smile.
“I know. I left him and Sam chasing a trail that’ll go cold in Kharkiv a week from now. Figure I can be back there before then if needed.”
Tony appraised Barnes silently. So. They’d been underestimating him. He’d been leading Sam and Steve across Europe for nearly two months straight, and clearly that remarkable feat hadn’t been the least bit difficult for him. No one had a shot at getting close to him unless he intended to be found. So that was… just great. Fantastic.
Barnes watched the realization play out on Tony’s face and smirked. It didn’t touch his eyes.
“Bucky Barnes,” he said with a slow, careful wave of his non-metal hand. “International assassin. And a pretty successful one at that.”
Tony raised an eyebrow in challenge.
“Tony Stark. Leading name in black-market arms deals.”
The smirk dropped off Barnes’ face immediately. He glared at Tony.
“Oh, sorry,” Tony said, voice laced with sarcasm. “I thought we were introducing ourselves with whatever horrible things we’ve been involved in without our consent.”
Barnes snorted at that, a little sound that could pass for a laugh if you’d been tortured and turned into a Nazi organization’s living weapon for several decades. He was smirking again even as he rolled his eyes. Tony thought that seemed like a good sign.
“Funny,” Barnes said. His gaze flickered to the balcony door behind Tony and along the glass windows for a moment. Scanning the perimeter, Tony realized. The smirk vanished along with any trace of amusement. Barnes took a deep breath. “I killed your parents.”
Tony nodded. “I know.”
Barnes’ eyebrows shot up in shock.
“I wasn’t sure you did,” Tony added. “You remember them?”
“I remember all of them.”
Tony looked Barnes over. His shoulders were tense, and the hollows beneath his eyes were the kind Tony recognized from his own history with sleeplessness. That all-consuming bone-deep exhaustion was painfully familiar. Barnes was leaning forward on his feet as if he were ready to run, but he’d also squared his shoulders in preparation for a fight.
“And Steve?” Tony asked. “You remember him?”
Barnes nodded slowly. Hesitantly. “His mom’s name was Sarah. He used to wear newspapers in his shoes.”
Tony laughed outright at that.
“Okay, wow. That’s just… fantastically embarrassing material I didn’t know I needed on Steve. Thank you for that.”
“Happy to help,” Barnes said, still tense.
“Come on.” Tony waved Barnes toward the tower entrance with one hand and ran his other hand through his hair. When Barnes didn’t move an inch, Tony sighed. “At ease, Sergeant,” Tony said, switching from ‘soldier’ to ‘sergeant’ at the last second. “I’m not going to fight you. And no one else is either. I’m the only one here.”
“I know that,” Barnes said, eyes scanning the empty Avengers floor behind Tony again.
“I know you know that. So you might as well come inside. There’s no reason for us to have this conversation out here. People get nosy sometimes.” Particularly when they know Steve’s out of town.
“Stark — ”
“Why don’t you just tell me why you’re here?” Tony tried again. “If you don’t want to come inside, I mean.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to come inside.”
“Steve wants me here. I know that,” Barnes said, carefully. “But… this is your home, Stark. I killed your parents. The least I can do is give you the chance to say you don’t want your parents’ murderer anywhere near you without forcing you to deal with Steve’s kicked-puppy face.”
Tony blinked in shock. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that.
“Just say the word, and I’ll disappear. I’ll get Steve to stop looking for me. I’ll get him to come home. And you’ll never have to see me again.”
“You think you’ll be able to get him to stop looking for you?”
“I know I can.”
“Then you don’t know Steve.”
“Oh please,” Barnes rolled his eyes, looking truly perturbed for the first time since he’d arrived. “I know Steve. Know him well enough to know I could get him to come home to you. He loves you.”
“He— well, yes. But— ”
“Look, I know you have no reason to, but would you just trust me on this? I can get Steve to give up trying to bring me in.”
“Right, sure — ”
“It’s a pretty simple question, Stark. Do you want me out of your life?” Barnes stared at Tony evenly. “I’m not going to tell him it was you. He’ll never find out about this conversation.”
“Of course he will. I love him. I’m not going to lie to him about something like this. He loves you, too. I won’t ask him to choose between me and his best friend.”
“That’s why I’m asking you, not him.”
For just a heartbeat, he let himself imagine a future without Bucky Barnes in it. One where Steve came home unsuccessful in his search, but was somehow perfectly content. Tony didn’t have to see the man who killed his mother over breakfast every morning or share popcorn with him during movie nights. Steve was happy and, most importantly, still madly in love with Tony.
It was good. Maybe even great.
But it was a fantasy, and Tony knew it would never be real.
Bucky was looking at the ground. He shifted on his feet.
“You’re sure about this?” He met Tony’s gaze and raised an eyebrow skeptically. Tony recognized something light, something that looked a lot like hope rising unwelcome but unstoppable in Barnes’ eyes.
Wonder what it’s like to think you might be able to stop running after all this time. It all but made the decision for him. Tony wasn’t going to be the person who left him without a safe place to go.
“Positive,” Tony said. He turned and pulled open the door into the tower. He held it open for Barnes. He’d made his decision, and now all Tony wanted to do was move forward. “Now, come on. I’ll introduce you to JARVIS, and you two can get acquainted while I call Steve.”
“The tower is empty,” Barnes said, sounding uncertain suddenly. The tension that had eased out of Barnes’ shoulders ever so slightly was back in full-force.
“Yes, sorry. JARVIS isn’t a person, he’s artificial intelligence. Basically, a smart computer that helps me run the tower and keep everyone inside it safe.”
“I feel obliged to inform you both that I resent being called a ‘smart computer,’ sir,” JARVIS said.
Barnes froze in the entryway.
“Sorry, J. So that’s JARVIS,” Tony said, brightly. He thought pushing forward past Barnes’ inevitable elderly-super-soldier weariness was his best bet. It’s what he’d done with Steve. “He’ll answer any questions you have about the tower, the people inside it, and the people with access to it. Got that, J? Let’s give Sergeant Barnes here full Avenger access to the tower and your records. Exercise temporary discretion for records on Romanoff, Bruce, and Barton until they tell you otherwise.”
Tony didn’t want to violate anyone’s trust by giving a professional assassin access to their files. He also knew there was next to no information on Thor that couldn’t be accessed by the general public, so there was no point censoring Thor’s files.
“You’re going to call Steve?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “Want me to pass along a message?”
Barnes opened his mouth like he was going to say something but stayed silent. He pressed his lips together tightly and shook his head.
“You sure? Even after I charter them a private plane it’ll be several hours before they’re here.”
“I’m sure,” Barnes said. “But uh. Thanks.”
“Sure thing,” Tony said. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.”
He took the stairs down to the workshop two at a time.