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A Ghost Before You Were a Ghost Story

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Tony jolts awake, not sure why at first, until his brain registers the sound of a very specific alarm, and JARVIS’ calm voice speaking to him.

I’m sorry to wake you, Sir, but there appears to be an intruder on the roof.”  

Adrenaline surges through him, bringing his brain back online. “Talk to me, J. What’s our friend want?” Tony rolls out of bed—or not out of bed, out of couch, he’s on the couch in the lab, must’ve fallen asleep there—flicking his hands to bring up the Tower security feeds. He squints a little against the glowing blue holograms, bright in the semi-darkness of the lab. Even as he flips through the different rooftop camera angles, however, he knows what—or who—he’s about to find.  He’d asked JARVIS to set that very specific alarm for a very specific reason.

Per your request, Sir, this notification has gone only to you, given that the intruder shows no signs of violence at this time and does not appear to be a threat to the Tower as a whole,” JARVIS replies, just as Tony finds the camera showing a figure standing alone on the roof, black tactical gear blending into the black night sky.

Barely a shadow among shadows, save for the glint of silver along the figure’s left side.   The Winter Soldier.

Or at least, it’s the man who used to be the Winter Soldier.  No telling from a video screen who he might be now.

And he may not be an obvious threat, but contrary to all belief, Tony knows how to be cautious.  “What’s he doing, JARVIS? Anything going on that I can’t see on the cameras?”

Not that I can detect, Sir.  Sergeant Barnes has made no attempt to infiltrate the building, nor has he engaged in any actions I would deem threatening.

“Nothing at all?” Tony asks, but he knows it’s largely rhetorical; if JARVIS detected anything suspicious, he’d say so.  Tony is a paranoid asshole, though, which means he’s scanning through all the sensor logs and other external camera feeds himself even as he asks.

Sergeant Barnes did take the time to locate the primary security cameras, Sir,” JARVIS continues.  “However, so far he has done nothing save look directly at camera RFC-17.  I surmise that is for your benefit, in that he is awaiting a response or other acknowledgement to indicate you are aware of his presence.

Hmmm.  Tony figures that means there’s more Barnes and less Soldier up there at the moment.  The Soldier wasn’t known for being so...obvious.  Well, that shit in D.C. notwithstanding, because holy hell that was nuts—and Tony’s still not entirely un-pissed that Cap didn’t think to call or even text to ask for some goddamn help when he was tearing down half the government—but Hydra had wanted to raise a stink, and sending the Winter Soldier out in broad daylight to wreak havoc in the streets sure was one hell of a way to accomplish that.

“Is Romanoff in the Tower?” Tony asks.  He grabs one of his wristband suit gauntlets from the worktable, fastening it onto his wrist but not deploying the full repulsor glove just yet.  

Miss Romanoff is in her quarters, Sir, though she does appear to be awake at this time.

Tony contemplates a second repulsor, but he doesn’t specifically want to come across as an aggressor when Barnes has so far been non-violent.  He’s not looking to start anything if he can help it. “Good. If it looks like things are going to go sideways up there, call Romanoff and send her up.  Cap ain’t here, so she’s probably the best bet we’ve got to deal with the Soldier if it comes to that.”

Acknowledged, Sir.

“All right, J.  Why don’t you let Cap’s boy know I’m on my way.  Might as well see what he wants.” Tony hesitates long enough to see Barnes nod once at the camera in response to JARVIS, before heading towards the elevators.  “Keep monitoring, J.”

Always, Sir.

 

***

 

Tony has JARVIS keep the elevator doors closed as he reaches the roof.  “What’s it look like out there?”

Sergeant Barnes has disarmed himself, Sir.  He is waiting five-point-three metres away from the elevator, and does not appear to be a threat at this time.

“He say anything?” Tony asks, hand hovering over the panel with the electronic door mechanism.

No, Sir.  He has not addressed me again, despite the fact that his behaviour indicates that he is aware of my systems and at least their general capabilities.

JARVIS isn’t really able to sound anything other than calm, but Tony feels his adrenaline spiking anyway.  And really, he thinks it’s fair considering the Winter Soldier—or some approximation of him in the form of Barnes—is apparently just chilling on Tony’s roof, waiting for him to come out there. Tony wants to know why, of course he does, and he considers for a moment calling for backup now rather than if shit goes sideways in the next five minutes, but he’s pretty sure having a hoard of Avengers come busting out onto the roof was just going to make Barnes cut and run anyway, so...

However, Tony’s not going to get any answers hovering behind the elevator doors..  

“Okay, J.  Time to blow the hatch.”  

Allow me, Sir,” JARVIS says.  A second later, and the elevator door slides open.  Tony hangs back behind the elevator wall, carefully looking around the edge; on guard for some kind of ambush despite JARVIS’ low threat assessment.  When Barnes doesn’t immediately appear, Tony edges his way out of the elevator—again, he knows when to be cautious, despite popular opinion—and steps forward until he can see the full expanse of the roof.  He’s holding the hand with the hidden gauntlet at the ready, tense at his side but not raised. Yet.

What he’s faced with is...not what he expected.  Yeah, JARVIS said Barnes disarmed himself, but he failed to mention the resulting pile of weaponry laid out on the concrete.  The rooftop lights are bright, but cast enough shadows that Tony can’t make out everything. He counts three guns and at least a dozen knives—how does someone even hide that many knives in their armor?—and some other stuff he doesn’t recognize.

But Tony only glances at the weapons for a second, because yeah, Barnes is on the roof, too; a good twenty feet away from the weapons, and kneeling on the concrete.  His head hangs down, tangled hair in his face shrouding his expression. He doesn’t move when Tony steps into view, doesn’t look up.

Defeated, is the word that crosses Tony’s mind.

A year ago he might’ve taken some kind of perverse satisfaction from seeing this man brought low, and Tony’s honestly a bit surprised to find that he’s not at all happy to find Barnes like this.

But Tony’s also no longer naive, and the first thing he does when Barnes shows no sign of moving is sidle across to the weapons pile and pick up one of the handguns.  Sure, he’s got the gauntlet hidden and waiting on his other hand, but why give away the hidden advantage? He trains the gun on Barnes from his position several meters away.

“JARVIS told me you dropped by. Is this a social call?” Tony says, sarcasm heavy in his voice, because he might be a better man that he used to be before all this superheroing business, but he’s also still himself, and snark has always been his first line of defense.  “Why are you here? On my roof, in the middle of the night? And who is it exactly that’s come visiting: Sergeant Barnes, or the Winter Soldier?”

Barnes lifts his head enough to meet Tony’s eyes.  “It’s… My name is Bucky.”

“Okay, sure,” Tony replies, weirdly thrown off by the hearing Bucky in a voice that isn’t Steve’s.  There’s sure as hell no one else referring to Barnes in that way.  “Why are you on my roof?”

There’s a long pause.  Barnes doesn’t look away from Tony, but dips his head a little and licks dry lips, like he’s gathering the words.  “I just...want to come home.”

“This isn’t your home.” The words tumble out of Tony’s mouth before he can think it through.  It sounds rude—more than he really intended—but Tony figures the universe or the patron saint of manners or whatever will forgive him, given the circumstances.

Barnes doesn’t react though, just says softly, “I want to come home to Steve.”

Because Steve is my home .  Barnes doesn’t have to say that part out loud for Tony to hear it anyway, because he knows, he knows that feeling, because it’s how he feels toward Pepper pretty much all the time.

Before Tony can figure out a response, however, Barnes keeps talking, quiet and measured.  Not as though he can’t find the words, but as though he wants to be sure he says them all just right.  “Steve lives here right now, in your Tower. I want to come home to him, but it’s your house. You deserve to decide whether to allow me inside.”  Barnes shrugs tightly. “Or have the opportunity to avenge your family for my part in their deaths. You deserve that option, too.”

That was... not what he was expecting, and Tony can’t quite stifle that dark part of himself—the part that let him make weapons for two decades—that is tempted , so tempted, whispering, This is the guy who killed my mom .  Because while Tony might not be happy seeing Barnes brought this low, that doesn’t mean the anger isn’t still there.

For the briefest moment he gives in to it, stepping closer—dangerously close, his mind insists, screaming that the threat of the Winter Soldier is still very real—until the barrel of the gun rests lightly against Barnes’ bowed head.  Tony’s tense, anticipating a reaction, but Barnes doesn’t move.

“It’s okay,” Barnes whispers, and slowly reaches up with his flesh hand to grip Tony’s where it wraps around the butt of the gun.  “I understand.”

 

Tony and Bucky in a stand-off on the roof of Avengers Tower. Art by atlantiss505.

 

It’s a frozen moment in time, Tony thinks, spinning out in silence.  Not the reaction he would have expected from Barnes, and if he’s being honest he can maybe understand why Barnes thinks this would be the way things end.

But Tony’s seen all those Hydra files; he’s spoken to Steve and heard the stories about Bucky Barnes from Brooklyn and Sergeant Barnes from the War.  And even though it’s hard, Tony can’t deny that Barnes was—and is—just as much a victim of Hydra as any of the rest of them.

Of course, the similarities are strongest when Tony looks at the arm gleaming a dull silver under the lights.  It’s not the same, not with five decades of torture separating them, but it’s not all that different either. An arm designed as a weapon, attached to Barnes by force at the hands of Hydra.  An electromagnet designed to aid only long enough for the building of more weapons, cut into Tony’s chest. The difference is that Tony was able to get out, get found by Rhodey, get rescued. Go home .

James Buchanan Barnes was a ghost long before the Soldier was a ghost story, and no one had ever been looking for him.

Except Steve is looking, now.  Tony knows that Steve and Wilson have been spending their time between Avengers missions trying to track Barnes down across the U.S., Europe and Russia, busting up Hydra bases as they find them.  Right now they’re somewhere near Romania, and due back to New York in a couple of days.

Which begs the real question, “I’m sure you know Rogers isn’t here, so why are you here right now?”  Tony takes a couple steps back as he asks, but he doesn’t lower the gun.  Yet.

Barnes doesn’t look up from where he’s staring off to one side.  “Better that he’s not around, if this was going to go bad. Whatever you might want to do to me, you’re the kind of guy who’d find it hard to go through with it if Steve was right here under your roof.”

Tony blinks, not sure whether he should be insulted or not.  He kind of feels insulted, and should probably examine that feeling at a later date, since he isn’t sure whether it’s because Barnes thinks he would just shoot him on sight, or because he thinks Tony wouldn’t have the balls to do it just because Rogers was downstairs.  “Meaning you think I’m the kind of guy to, what? Shoot you on the roof of my building and dump your body in the East River just because Captain Sadness isn’t here to know about it?”

Barnes relaxes a bit, which only serves to show Tony just how tense the guy has been this whole time.  “It’s his stupid face, all ernest and disappointed in your choices. I can’t stand against it, and I doubt you can, either.”

It’s more personality than Tony has seen from Barnes pretty much ever, and his accent is Brooklyn all over, like the more he talks about Steve the more of ‘Bucky Barnes’ shines through.  It’s startling, somehow, and Tony realizes that even though Barnes said he was ‘Bucky,’ Tony was still expecting the emotionless Soldier from the Hydra files and the video footage of D.C.  

Barnes also isn’t wrong.  Tony’s gotten the patented “Captain America Is Disappointed In You” face more than once, and it’s always enough to guilt Tony into wanting to do better—even if he’d never admit as much to Rogers’ face.

But yeah, Tony’s pretty sure both him and Barnes know that Tony’s not actually going to fire this gun.  “So this is, what?” He waves his free hand to encompass the whole scene on the roof, and spares an appreciative thought for the sheer theatricality of the whole thing, whether that’s what Barnes intended or not.

“I can’t make it right or undo what happened,” Barnes says quietly.  “But I’m sorry for all of it, anyway. And you don’t deserve to have me barge into your life, or to constantly see the face of the man who killed your parents.  So this is my apology, and a promise that if you don’t want me here, then I’m gone.” A deep breath, and Barnes met Tony’s eyes steadily. “I’ll leave, and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“You’d give up coming home to Steve?” Tony asks, because given what else Barnes has said, well...

A sad, self-deprecating smile touches Barnes’ face.  “No, I...wouldn’t be able to handle that. But I can find some other way to see him, and can keep myself away from you and out of your life.”

Tony sighs inwardly.  No wonder Rogers and Barnes are so tied up in one another; self-sacrificing idiots, the pair of them. “Like I wouldn’t know anyway, when he’d be practically oozing happiness as soon as he sets eyes on you again.”

“You oughta try playing poker against him,” Barnes mutters.  “Easy money.” Except then he blinks and frowns, like he hadn’t intended to say that part out loud.  Tony almost feels like laughing, though, because yeah, he can just picture playing cards against No-Poker-Face Rogers.  But the comment also reminds him that Barnes and Steve really do have all this history between them, and Tony’s gotta decide whether he wants to be the guy standing in the way of that.

Which means that while it sure as hell isn’t what Tony thought he’d be doing tonight, it’s time for him to make a choice: forgive Barnes for his part in Howard and Maria’s deaths and let him into the Tower, or send him away.  And yes, those are the only two choices, because Barnes is right. Tony’s not the type to consider shooting him in cold blood for vengeance or whatever, despite picking up the gun—that part was just good sense.

Except it’s not really a choice, because of course he’s going to let Barnes stay. For a lot of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Tony knows what it’s like to have someone take away his freedom and make involuntary modifications to his body. And like Barnes, Tony will always have the scars—inside and out—along with the arc reactor to remind him.  To blame Barnes for the same kind of suffering, and to imply that they make him unworthy of kindness or returning home or reuniting with Steve... That hits a little too close for comfort.

And hell, Tony doesn’t want to lose Steve’s friendship over this, either.  Despite their differences of opinion and frequent disagreements over how to solve problems—and the fact that Tony would never say as much right to Steve’s face because ugh, feelings —he really does value Steve as a friend.  He doesn’t want Steve to move out of the Tower, either; Tony also values the whole family of weirdos he’s accumulated in the Avengers, and goddammit he doesn’t want to tear all of that apart.

Guess that’s the decision made, then.

Lowering the gun to point at the ground, Tony relaxes his stance with a long exhale.  “All right, already. Just, get up, stand up, come on. We’re going down to the lab and we’ll figure the rest out later.”  He waits while Barnes stands, not entirely steady on his feet, and looking visibly relieved even though he probably meant to mask his expression.  The guy must really be tired.

Tony’s also not naive, and so motions for Barnes to walk ahead of Tony; while Barnes visibly hesitates at giving Tony his back, he does eventually nod and stride slowly toward the elevator.

“JARVIS, send one of the bots up here to get those weapons. I don’t have enough hands right now, but I don’t want to leave all that up here unsupervised.”

Yes, Sir.  Where should they be stored?

“Uhh, Avengers armoury, I guess.  For now, anyway, but keep them separate from the rest of gear and lock it all up.”  Tony is an expert and Barnes’ weaponry is clearly all top-of-the-line; depending on how this all plays out in the next days and weeks, he’s not entirely averse to eventually returning Barnes’ toys in return for good behaviour.

As Barnes steps into the open elevator, Tony realizes that Barnes isn’t just moving slowly, but is also holding his left arm still and close to his body, as though he’s hurt; but of course the metal arm itself doesn’t hurt.  Everything around the arm, maybe, because who the fuck knows exactly what Hydra had to do to get it to stay attached, but nothing that Tony’s seen in the Winter Soldier files indicates actual pain receptors or sensation in the arm itself.  It could be damaged, though. He’d need to examine Barnes and see him use it to know for sure.

Good thing they’re already on their way to the lab.

“We’ll look at that arm in the lab, too.  Don’t try and lie to me and tell me it’s fine, either. You’re not Steven ‘Walk-It-Off’ Rogers, and I’m the best engineer on the continent.  I can tell when something mechanical isn’t working right.”

Barnes just nods, gaze directed somewhere off to the side and away from Tony.  His mouth moves, like he’s trying to say something, and he finally manages a reluctant, “It’s damaged.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” Tony replies as the elevator descends.  “Fixing things is what I do.”

 

***

 

Stepping out of the elevator feels like stepping into the future—which is something Bucky’s already done more than once—but Stark’s lab screams futuristic in a way that he’s not quite prepared to handle.  Bucky finds himself almost reluctantly fascinated with the lab and everything in it, even as the prickle of unease remains; the animal knowledge in the depths of his mind screaming that labs mean pain .  But while there are similarities to places he was kept during the Hydra years—metal worktables, unidentifiable tools, looming equipment—it’s also really, really not like a Hydra lab at all.

For one thing, Tony’s careless gesture as they entered the room brought rock music blaring out of the speakers; for another, the disembodied computer voice that Bucky identifies as Stark’s AI system is both soothing and extremely polite.  Every shelf and flat surface is cluttered with equipment, but clean, and none of it looks medical—only electronics and robotics. The only smells are those of machinery, metal and oil; no disinfectant or the scent and stains of old blood.

The blue holographic images hovering in the air throughout the room draw his attention as he moves close enough to see the details.  He identifies the camera feeds from the roof, and in one little video window he can see a multi-armed robot carefully picking up the weapons left on the roof and depositing them in its body cavity.

He looks away from the hologram screen at the sound of whirring wheels on the floor.  Two other robots are driving themselves around the lab, picking things up and bringing them to the workbench. Stark talks to them like they’re real; like they’re alive.

Bucky envies Stark’s relationship with his technology, just a little.  Seeing how Stark acts with his A.I., with the bots; it’s something Bucky doesn’t understand. None of the tech he’s seen or used as the Soldier or the Asset has ever given him good things; only pain and fear with the Chair; blood and death with the arm.

But Stark’s bots bring him tools, and equipment, and...is that a smoothie?

It’s obvious that Stark likes them, in perhaps the same way someone might like a pet.  Bucky wonders if the bots like Stark in return.

However, his interest in the lab and the robots isn’t enough to distract him from the reality that he’s about to give up his arm in exchange for being given sanctuary in Stark’s tower.  Whether Stark disables it or removes it entirely, it hardly matters. Either option serves to mitigate the considerable threat implicit in the presence of what remains of the Asset hiding inside this version of Bucky he’s been working to rebuild.

Not that he’s happy about it, but he understands.  The arm is dangerous, he’s already said as much to Stark.  One good thing, at least, is that the arm can be removed without surgery thanks to a Hydra upgrade sometime in the 80’s where they built a dock into the shoulder joint that the rest of the arm connects to.  It’s still unpleasant when the neural connections separate or rejoin, but he’s prepared for it. He knew before coming here that even if Stark let him stay in the Tower—which appears to be happening—that Stark would prefer Bucky not have use of his metal arm.  As soon as Stark brought Bucky to the lab, he knew his guess was correct.

Tony claps his hands to catch Bucky’s attention, pointing at a stool beside the work table.  “Okay, Red Menace, over here, have a seat. Prop your arm up here where I can get a look at it.”  He taps a screwdriver against the tabletop to indicate where he wants Bucky’s arm.

Bucky eyes the stool, grateful it’s just a flat, square padded seat, no arms or back, and it doesn’t look anything like the Chair.  He sits down slowly, and gingerly lifts his metal arm to rest it extended across the table. To try and distract himself, he watches one of the bots pushing a cart with tools and electronics scattered across the top, bins with parts and screws on the bottom shelves.

Stark rolls over on his own stool, close enough that he can reach the arm but clearly trying not to crowd too close into Bucky’s personal space.  “Show me where the problems are,” Stark says, and it’s understandable that Stark would want to know exactly how incapacitated the arm is currently.  Bucky slowly moves the arm into different positions, flexing the joints and pointing out where plates grind or stick.

“The arm isn’t infallible,” Bucky explains quietly.  “It needs regular maintenance. There’s been too much happening since the last time, and there’s only so much I know how to do myself.  Even then, I’m a field medic, not a surgeon. There’s water damage, dented plates from bullets while taking down a few Hydra cells. It’s mostly functional, but not at optimal operation.”  He quietly offers a few instruction on repairs, then points out the plates Tony needs to pry open to get at the interior of the arm.

Stark moves to start poking at plates and wiring.  Bucky looks away from the arm and toward the robot beeping across the room as it seems to be trying to sweep the floor.  But he knows he can’t put it off forever, so he takes a measured breath and says, “The mechanism to detach it is behind the shoulder and under the bicep plates.”  He tilts his arm a little and points to them. “You can do what you want with it once it’s off. Lock it away, destroy it, whatever. I won’t stop you.”

Stark pauses and rolls back a little way, giving him a strange look.  “Uh, do I have to take it off in order to fix it? I’ll have you know that I’m a genius, and therefore can obviously fix this while it’s still on you.  JARVIS, do a scan for me and show me some schematics, will you?”

Bucky gives Tony a confused look right back, because that’s not the response he was expecting.  “It’s...no, the arm can be repaired while it’s attached, but I know you don’t want the arm in your tower, even though you’re still willing to let me stay.  It’s okay, I was prepared to lose it when I came here.” He takes a deep breath, and repeats, “It’s okay,” but it’s as much for himself as for Stark’s benefit.

What!? ” Stark exclaims—loudly—and Bucky whips his head around.  Stark looks genuinely shocked; did he not realize Bucky already knew he’d have to give up the arm?  But Stark tosses down the tools he’s holding, letting them clatter onto the cart, and even rolls his stool back and away from Bucky.  “What, no, what the fuck, Barnes. I’m not taking your arm away from you! Why would I do that?”

Bucky shrugs.  “It is a weapon.  It’s dangerous. Why would you allow it into your home?”  He says it like it’s obvious, because it is.  You wouldn’t bring a loaded cannon into your living room.

Stark groans—a little theatrically, really—and rubs both hands roughly over his face and back through his hair.  “You’re making me feel feelings and I don’t like it.” He sits up again and focuses on Bucky with a direct expression.  “Look, you’re right, it’s not like I can lie about it. I don’t love the arm as a concept, but I’m not going to take your arm away from you .  One, because I might be a jackass but I’m not that much of a jackass, and two, Captain Sadness would give me that disappointed face and-or yell at me for an hour and I refuse to deal with any of that.”

“Oh.”  Bucky blinks, genuinely surprised.  He feels...bad...for assuming, apparently, the worst of Stark.  Which seems dumb now that he’s confronted with it; Steve considers Stark a friend, so Bucky should’ve realized that there would be a decent guy under all the flash and Iron Man suits.  “Thank you.”

“Whatever,” Stark waves it away and points to the cart.  “Arm, here, now. I’m going to fix what I can tonight, then find you somewhere to sleep.”

Bucky nods.  He doesn’t say thanks again, since clearly it makes Stark uncomfortable when someone acknowledges his generosity.  But the next hour is surprisingly...easy. Stark is nothing like the old Hydra techs. He’s constantly moving, and keeps up a constant stream of chatter—about the arm’s issues, talking to and directing his robots which seem to be named ‘Dummy’ and ‘Hey You’, muttering to himself or talking to the JARVIS A.I.

Eventually Stark closes up the arm panels and tosses his tools aside, rolling his stool away.  “Okay, Barnes. We’re not done here, but that’s all I can do tonight until I get some components fabricated.  JARVIS, you got that list I’ve been making?”

“Yes, Sir.  The materials you requested should arrive in two days.

“Great, excellent! Then it’s time to find Barnes a bed.”  Stark clapped his hands and gave a little spin on his stool before standing up.  “Cap’s place work for you?”

Steve’s apartment?

Bucky is so, so tempted, but as much as he wants to be in Steve’s space, surrounded by Steve’s things, it feels weird to do it when Steve isn’t actually around, or aware Bucky’s even there, so…  “I think...not right now.” He might be pretty sure that Steve would welcome him, but there’s still the fact that the last time they saw each other it was to face off on the Helicarriers. When Bucky shot Steve, and he might be pretty sure that Steve will forgive him, but pretty sure isn’t the same as certain .

Stark just nods and, surprisingly, doesn’t question it.  Bucky’s grateful, since he isn’t sure how to explain the mix of longing and fear of being turned away that twist inside him.

“Yeah, guess we don’t want to give the old man a heart attack when he comes back to find you sitting on his couch or whatever.  J, what other apartments are available right now?”

The suite on the 78th floor is currently unoccupied.  This would be on the floor below the Captain’s, should the proximity be desirable.

And that’s better, Bucky thinks.  Close, but not encroaching on Steve’s space.  “78th floor is good, thank you.”

Tony claps his hands again and moves toward the elevator.  “Done. JARVIS already knows who you are so he’ll have unit access set up by the time we get down there.”  Bucky follows him into the elevator, which descends smoothly without Stark needing to do anything. “Common floor is on 87, the science labs and workshop floors are 80 through 86, and residential is 68 to 79.  Everything else is offices for Stark and other businesses. Anywhere you’re not supposed to go, JARVIS won’t let you in; please don’t be mean to him if it happens.”

Bucky nods.  No disabling or circumventing the A.I.  He gets it; Stark looks at his technologies as friends, after all, so of course he doesn’t want them getting damaged.  It’s an easy agreement to make, because Bucky finds he likes the A.I. and the little robots, too.

The elevator doors slide open soundlessly, and Stark leads the way into a quiet hall with several doors leading off, spaced at generous intervals.  These look like regular size apartments, not the huge full-floor suites that he knows from his recon belong to the rest of the Avengers who use the Tower as their residence or primary base.  It feels a little like a hotel, bland and quiet and clean.

“No one else is staying on this floor right now, so it’s pretty private, which I assume is something that matters to you,” Tony says.  A door down the hall slides open as they approach, accompanied by JARVIS’ voice.

Sergeant Barnes, if you place your hand on the keypad I will set the door lock to your authorization only.

Bucky figures he’s supposed to use his flesh hand for this, so he presses his right palm against the little rectangle screen next to the doorframe.  He watches as it flashes green, then blue, and beeps quietly.

Thanks you, Sergeant.  Voice activation for entry is also available, should you require it.  In addition, I am available inside the apartment by voice activation should you have any requests.

Nodding, Bucky looks at the ceiling, even though he’s pretty sure the A.I. is everywhere and not just in the cameras he can see above.  Then he adds out loud, “Thanks,” because he’s honestly not sure how the A.I. works; it seems to be able to read his body language sometimes, but he can’t be sure.

He enters the apartment slowly.  It has the same hotel feel as the corridor; nice but unlived in, with bland furniture and decor, though it’s all clearly high quality.  He runs his eyes over everything while Tony hovers in the entryway and repeats JARVIS’ information.

“J can get you pretty much anything you need.  Someone will stock the fridge tomorrow, but there’s plenty of takeout places in the Tower that will deliver to the apartment.  They’ll leave it at the door and leave, no questions asked, so don’t worry about any civilians seeing you. Also, don’t let any civilians see you right now. That’s gonna be a whole other PR tango that Pepper will have to manage, but now isn’t the time.”

It’s so much more than Bucky expected; to be treated not just with tolerance, or bare-bones civility, but with this level of generosity.  He turns to Stark, not quite meeting his eyes. “Thanks.” Bucky needs to say it again, even knowing Stark probably doesn’t want to hear it, and he’s right.

Tony makes a gesture with both his hands, index fingers extended—Bucky thinks he saw on the internet it’s called finger guns —and very obviously ignores what Bucky just said.  “Well hey, get comfortable, do whatever. The good Captain should be back soon, maybe tomorrow if the heads he’s knocking are less ornery than usual, so do what you want ‘til then.”  For a moment, his voice lowers, like he doesn’t intend for Bucky to hear but can’t quite keep the words inside. “If only Dad could see me now. Captain America and the original Sergeant Barnes, together again and in my house…”  Shaking his head, he waves one arm expansively and turns to the door. “So, I’m going to go drink or break things in the lab until I don’t have all these feels anymore. J, tell me I’ve got the good scotch and a rocket boot or something to test.”

Bucky doesn’t really mean to say it, or maybe he does, who knows.  But it builds up inside him until the words spill out. “I bet people always say you’re just like him.”  And he doesn’t have to say, like Howard , for them both to know that’s who he’s talking about.  

Tony stops, and almost but not quite turns around.  Only a sliver of his profile shows to Bucky where he looks back, but he can see the tense set of Stark’s shoulders; the fact that Stark wants to leave but can’t, caught in the snare of Bucky’s words.

“Sure. Never heard anyone say different,” Tony responds.  He sounds...bitter.

It’s not what Bucky meant, though, and he tries to put his thoughts into the right words.  Voice hesitant, he says, “No, it’s…. I bet people always say how much you look like him, what with the…”  He wags his finger around in the vicinity of his chin as though to say, the facial hair , then sort of waves his arms in an unenthusiastic imitation of Stark’s usually expansive gestures.  “They’re not wrong, but it’s all...surface. You’re so different from him where it counts.”

When Tony doesn’t speak, but also doesn’t leave, Bucky keeps going.  “Howard was a good guy. Y’know, back then. Had lots of good intentions, anyway, but he was...careless, inside.  There was always something more important to him than caring about things, or people. And the war changed him, hardened him.  I only knew him for two years when he worked with the Commandos, but I could still see it happening.”

Bucky’s voice drops. He knows it doesn’t make sense, but it’s like he’s afraid to say the name out loud.  “The...Tesseract...changed him. It changes anyone who sees it. Just knowing about it...being aware of its existence, is enough to change you.  Howard spent his life chasing what he saw in it. A perfect source of energy, a perfect weapon, even if he thought he meant to use it to protect.  It’s what the Cube does to people.”

“What it still does to people,” Tony says, and it’s clear he’s thinking of the same events Bucky read about in the Hydra files.  Fury and SHIELD trying to harness its power; Loki trying to use it to subjugate an entire planet.

“Everyone who knows about the Cube wants to use it--”

“Except Steve,” Tony muttered.  “Too good for this world, as usual.”  There’s a bitterness to his words, but not true anger.

Bucky can’t help but snort out a tired, half-laugh.  “Yeah, he’s always been an asshole that way.”

Tony huffs a tired breath that could generously be considered a laugh.  “I can’t believe I have to admit I might like you, except that you throw shade at Cap like it’s your job and that’s an art  form I highly appreciate.” He still doesn’t quite look directly at Bucky, but some of the tension across his back and shoulders has faded.  “But whatever, I’m leaving before this gets all meaningful. Make yourself at home, mi casa , et cetera.”  He waves over his shoulder and walks quickly back to the elevator.  Less than five seconds and he’s gone, the elevator doors closing behind Stark as JARVIS whisks him to wherever Stark likes to go after dealing with ex-assassins and stories about Howard.

Bucky lets him go, doesn’t try to say anything else. All in all, he thinks this went okay.  Stark may never really like him, or consider him a friend, but it doesn’t seem like he plans to hold a grudge.  It’s honestly not what Bucky expected the outcome of tonight to be, but he’s not going to complain.

For a few minutes he just stands near the door, listening to the quiet.  He lifts his metal hand and moves it around, flexing the fingers and making a fist, listening to the smooth sound of the plates sliding and adjusting.  The little grinding noises are gone, now that Stark realigned the damaged plates across the palm, and the irritating twitch in his pinky finger is gone thanks to some replaced wiring.  

It feels like more of a kindness than he probably deserves, but Stark was insistent, so.

Leaving his boots in the entryway, he slowly wanders through the apartment, a combination of an exploration and a security check.  He notes the cameras; they’re well hidden but he’s very, very good at spotting surveillance. Most likely they’re for JARVIS to monitor the space, so Bucky doesn’t do anything to disable or obstruct them, for now.  

The apartment is fully furnished; living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom.  Spacious and clean, and orders of magnitude nicer than any other place he’s been in recent years...hell, in decades.

But it also doesn’t feel like home, and he knows that’s because home is with Steve, not an empty apartment, no matter how nice it is.

He doesn’t want to sleep in the empty bedroom; isn’t sure he’ll even sleep at all.  So he just shoves the big armchair into the corner beside the window, avoiding the sightlines from anywhere outside, and stares out at the Manhattan skyline and the lights of the buildings that make up New York twinkling against the night sky.

 

***

 

Against all expectations, Bucky must have fallen asleep for at least an hour or two, because he wakes abruptly to bright morning sun shining in through the window, and a quiet but insistent chiming sound.  He’s disoriented for a few seconds, until he remembers where he is— Avengers Tower, Manhattan, Stark’s building —and why.   Coming home .

The chiming noise resolves itself into something familiar, a sound that he heard in Stark’s lab yesterday.  Hesitantly, Bucky says, “JARVIS?”

I am sorry to wake you, Sergeant Barnes.  However, I deemed it prudent to inform you that Captain Rogers has returned from his current mission and is on his way here.

Oh.

It’s not quite what Bucky was expecting to wake up to today.  Stark had said Steve and Wilson would be away for a few more days, at least. But he figures it doesn’t really matter, in the end.  He’s never going to feel one hundred percent ready to see Steve again, no matter how much time he has to wait and prepare and think about all the ways it could go.

“How’d he even know I was here?” Bucky muttered, mostly rhetorical, but he forgot that when you’re in range of an omnipresent A.I., rhetorical isn’t really a thing.

I’m afraid Mister Stark was unable to contain himself, and announced your presence almost immediately after Captain Rogers landed,” JARVIS said.  If a computer can sound exasperated, Bucky figures that’s what he’s hearing now.

And the very imminent appearance of one Steve Rogers makes Bucky unsure whether he’s actually ready for what comes next.  “Can you, I dunno, delay him or something?”

JARVIS sounds almost apologetic, which is certainly a feat.  “I can attempt to prevent Captain Rogers from coming here in the elevator, but it has been my experience that mere doors and several dozen flights of stairs are insufficient to impede his progress when he is...determined.

Which is...fair.  Bucky’s seen Steve kick a hole in the side of a tank, back in the war.  A few security doors might as well be cardboard after that.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay.  Don’t try and stop him or nothin’. Just...let me know when he’s at the door.”

Of course, Sergeant.

Bucky stood up from the chair, then sat down again.  Nervous, unsure where he wanted to be when Steve showed up.  Would it be weird if he’s sitting? But he’ll have to get up to answer the door anyway...No, wait.  Automatic doors, JARVIS can open everything--

Heavy muffled knocking thudded against the door, accompanied by that oh-so-familiar voice.  “Bucky!”

Captain Rogers has arrived,” JARVIS’ voice follows.

Bucky starts to stand as he says, “Yeah, you can let him in.”

The door slides open and Steve stumbles into the apartment, clearly in the middle of getting ready to either knock again or kick in the door.  They both freeze as soon as they lay eyes on each other: Bucky half hunched from getting out of the chair, and Steve with his arms held awkwardly half-outstretched, like he was trying to find his balance.

Straightening slowly, Bucky raises his metal hand in a little wave.  “Hey, Steve.”

Steve heaves a few deep breaths, then gasps out, “Bucky,” sounding desperate and surprised and disbelieving all at once.  Like he’d expected Bucky to have vanished again, or for Stark to have lied to him, who knows?  He’s a mess, blond hair sticking up everywhere from taking off the cowl, dirt streaked across his face and the uniform.  Steve’s eyes are wide, and so, so blue, darting everywhere around Bucky as though he wants to study every part of him at once.

“Bucky,” Steve says again, more certain and less shocked.  He moves slowly toward Bucky, like he’s afraid Bucky will cut and run if he gets too close.  But now that they’re both here, now that Bucky’s seeing Steve again up close, there’s no way he’s running again.

When less than a foot separates them, Steve stops.  Waiting.

Bucky swallows, and takes a breath.  He meets Steve’s eyes, and he can’t hold himself back any longer.  Closing the last bit of distance, Bucky leans against Steve and rests his forehead against Steve’s shoulder.  He doesn’t quite raise his arms for an embrace, but instead curls his flesh hand into the utility belt at Steve’s hip.  “Decided it was time to come home.”

Steve’s face does something that looks like he’s not sure whether he wants to laugh or cry, but joy seems to win out and he doesn’t hesitate to slide his hands around Bucky’s back in a tight embrace.  “Welcome home, Bucky.”

They stand like that for long minutes, and Bucky sighs in relief.   It’s going to be okay .  And it’s not that he thought Steve would turn him away, not really, but to finally be here, to be close, it felt like he could finally, finally relax.

Eventually Steve pulls back enough to get a good look at Bucky’s face.  “I can’t believe you’re here, Buck.”

Shaking his head a bit ruefully, Bucky sighs softly.  “Couldn’t seem to make myself stay away any longer.”

“Good,” Steve mutters, his arms crushing Bucky tight against his chest.  “Been missing you.” They’re quiet for a few minutes before Steve speaks again.  “Tony said you came back last night?”

Bucky nods.  “Yeah. I’m tired of running, Steve.  I got enough of my memories back that I can remember what we were, and I just...wanted to come home.  To you.”

Steve’s face goes all soft and smiling and stupid.  “I’m glad you’re finally here. I know Sam and I were looking, but I figured we probably wouldn’t find you until you decided you wanted to be found.”

Bucky shrugs, because Steve’s not wrong, exactly, and Bucky’s both a little embarrassed at how determined he was to avoid Steve for so long, and oddly proud—both that he managed to stay ahead of the tenacious bulldozer that is Steve Rogers, and that Steve never gave up on him.  “You were pretty close in Algiers.”

Steve just gives a soft laugh.  “Not close enough, though.”

Bucky shrugs again.  “I just...wasn’t ready.  Didn’t have enough of myself back.”

“Sorry I wasn’t here when you decided to come home,” Steve says softly, blue eyes soft and a little damp, and Bucky squirms a little inside because he doesn’t want to start things off with evasions and half-truths.

“You don’t gotta apologize for not being here, Steve. I came here intentionally when I knew you would be out on a mission.”

“Oh,” Steve says quietly.  “Why?”

“Felt like I owed it to Stark to talk to him first, since if I was going to come back to you, it would be here in his Tower and...I figured he deserved the opportunity to tell me to fuck off.  After everything I’ve done--”

“Buck, that wasn’t you--”

Bucky shakes his head.  “But I still did it. And I’m not just gonna drop into his life and be a constant reminder when he doesn’t want me here.”  

“So, what? You were just going to disappear again and never come home?” Steve demands.  Bucky tightened his hold on Steve, an almost involuntarily reaction.

“No, Steve.  One way or another, I was coming home.  Only difference would’ve been that if Stark wasn’t okay with me being here, then I would’ve left and found you somewhere else, eventually.”

Steve’s expression lightens, and he’s starting to smile again.  “I notice you’re still here, in the Tower.”

“Yeah, we talked it out, and we...might never be real close, but I think it’ll be okay.“  Bucky laughs softly, still a little disbelieving. “He’s letting me stay. Even fixed my arm last night.”  He holds his metal hand up where Steve can see it and flexes the fingers and wrist. Everything still sounds smooth, just the quiet slide of plates.

“Tony’s a good guy,” Steve says.  Bucky can hear the happiness in Steve’s voice, see it all over his face.  “He reminds me of Howard, in some ways.”

Bucky smiles, and leans his head on Steve’s shoulder.  “Maybe sometimes,” he says. “But not where it counts.”

Steve hums in agreement, and rests his own head against Bucky’s.  The apartment is quiet, and warm, and Bucky exhales slowly. He feels safe, and happy;  finally ready to move forward for real.

Not a ghost story any more.