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Try to Remember

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“Nice place you got here, Buck,” Steve said, putting down one of the boxes. 

“Don’t carry the boxes up here,” Bucky said, “that’s what the movers are for. You know, the ones I paid for?”

“You were carrying your case, and I had distinctly empty arms,” Steve said. “Just felt weird, I’m supposed to be helping you move in.”

“Uh huh,” Bucky said. He stepped into the middle of what would become the music studio, one of two rooms in his new condo that had double ceilings. He put his violin case down on the box, since Steve had moved it there anyway, and unclipped the latches. 

“You need a hand with that?” And then Steve flinched, because it was frequently the wrong thing to say. He’d made two references to hands and arms in the last five minutes. Bucky tried to tell himself he didn’t notice, which was a lie, or that he didn’t care. Also a lie. But Bucky was getting really good at lying to himself.

“Nah, I just got a new one, I’m good,” Bucky said, and he waved the prosthetic at Steve. It wasn’t anything like a real hand or arm, and Bucky was still learning to control it, but he might, possibly, be able to play again. He didn’t bother to take the violin out of its case, though. He didn’t want Steve to watch how awkward the whole thing was. He plucked the strings, pizzicato, and listened critically. The violin was still in tune after the move. That was good.

Call Me, Maybe?” Steve asked, rolling his eyes. “You’re choosing to christen your new house with Carly Rae Jepsen?”

“Been going through my head since this morning,” Bucky said. Also, if Steve was complaining about his musical choice, he wasn’t noticing how badly Bucky’s hand was shaking, playing it. He was going to declare that half a win. “And you recognized it.”

“We can’t all sight read Liebestraum in A Flat, pal,” Steve said.

“Honestly, I’m surprised you can pronounce it,” Bucky said. He’d been a concert violinist, once. 

Before the accident.

“The acoustics are really good in here,” Steve commented, which was only repeating what Bucky had said. Steve couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

“Yes, they are,” Bucky said. He closed the case. 

Steve opened his mouth like he was going to say something else, possibly sympathetic, and Bucky didn’t want to hear it. “The movers are coming up now,” Bucky said, and he brushed past Steve to get to the door.

The condo was new, the building had only opened about six months ago, and Bucky was the first owner. Everyone else in the building was renting.

He probably wouldn’t have been able to afford a place like this at all before the accident. Three bedroom, two and a half baths, more space than Bucky had seen outside a concert hall. All for him, one cat, and a lot of emotional baggage. But after the lawsuit against the Starks, especially considering that Bucky had lost his arm, as a concert violinist… well, he’d sued the estate, not the Starks themselves, given that Howard had been driving drunk and he’d killed himself and his wife in the process of mangling Bucky’s arm so badly that the doctors had decided to remove it.

And the estate had paid out a ten million dollar settlement, after the lawyers took their bites. He was wearing a quarter of that settlement on his shoulder these days, and the condo represented another three million. With four million left in an annuity, he could probably live the rest of his life comfortably. 

He didn’t need to work.

He didn’t need to play.

He looked around his big, empty, open living space and wondered what the fuck he was going to do with the rest of his life.

The movers brought the sofa in first, which was probably smart, because Bucky had them set it where he wanted it, and then flopped down on it. It looked like shit in the middle of this very nice condo. Second hand from his sister after she and her husband had combined households and he refused to give up his sofa with the two heated recliners.

“New furniture,” Bucky declared. “I’m going to need to get new furniture.”

“You’ve certainly got enough space for it,” Steve remarked. “Is anyone else coming up to help?”

“Nat’s bringing Alpine over after the movers get done, and Clint and Sam are gonna help me unpack and get settled in. You’re welcome to stay, booze and pizza for payment. You can figure out where to put my old furniture, you’ve got a good eye for that sort of thing.”

So, Bucky stayed on the sofa and watched, amused and despairing by turns, as Steve started straw bossing and interior designing Bucky’s condo.

One of the movers was wearing an ugly Fitbit sort of watch, the face huge. They were situating the table when a gleam of reflection sprayed off it into the room. For just a second, Bucky was blinded, and he raised his hand, his left hand, up to ward it off.

Bucky didn’t spend a lot of time looking at something that was attached to his body, honestly.

The robotic, terminator-style fingers, a bony, metallic framework still freaked him out on a regular basis. They didn’t do a good job of blocking the light, either.

… the bike slides out from under him, almost as smooth as if he planned it, and the road grabs rudely at his arms and legs, slowing him down, slowing, but not slow enough, and the headlights of the oncoming car are so bright.

He doesn’t remember swearing, but he probably is. He’d read a paper in college about the last things people said before an accident and they were usually swears.

Everything is moving so slowly. He has time to notice that it’s a very expensive car, a golden Mercedes Benz, practically brand new. There are two people in the car, a man who looks merely shocked and a woman who is screaming.

He hits the car’s hood and bounces off and--

The weight, oh, so heavy, and it hurt, it hurts… he’s bleeding and his skin is raw. The car’s engine is churning and Bucky is laying on his stomach, staring at the road. He’s bleeding and he can see that, the dark flow of blood obscuring the little reflections of light across the gravel.

How did I get here?

Bucky tries to push himself up, and it doesn’t work, his arm’s not working, and he screams, oh, god, he’s screaming and he can’t stop until he’s breathless. 

He rolls over on his side. The car is still running, the tires digging into the muddy ground, but it’s stuck, stuck on the tree. Bucky manages to get to his feet, he’s not sure how, but there were people in that car, there are people in that car, and he staggers to the driver’s side door, his right hand clumsy and careless and the knuckles are covered with scrapes all the way through his leather glove, and he’s so glad he was wearing his biker’s pants, because he doesn’t think he even tore skin on his legs, but damn, his arm hurts, it hurts.

He gets the door open and the driver spills out onto the pavement. 

The man wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and the way he falls, he can’t be conscious. Bucky drops to his knees. “Sir?”

“Howard?” the woman says, and Bucky is trying to find a pulse, he doesn’t remember if he knows how to do that. He’s seen it in a million movies, but he doesn’t think he’s ever tried to find one before.

He can’t find one now. There’s nothing throbbing under his fingers. 

“Ma’am?” The woman is sobbing. He thinks she already knows what he’s about to tell her. “Ma’am, are you hurt?”

“Howard,” she says again and Bucky looks up at her. Her entire belly and chest is smeared with blood, and after a moment, Bucky realizes that the dark thing -- that he thought was a shadow -- is part of a street sign, and it’s stuck in her.

“Howard’s fine, ma’am, he’s going to be fine,” Bucky tells her. She turns her head as if to look, but there’s no way she can see him.

She dies looking at him as he lies to her….

Her blank eyes are staring at him and-- “Bucky. Bucky, wake up. Come back to us.”

Bucky blinked a few times, and the light stung his eyes. Hadn’t it been dark just a-- “Shit.” 

He shook his head. Nat was there, leaning over him cautiously, those jade green eyes of hers concerned. “What?”

“You back with us?”

“Never left,” Bucky lied. He was good at lying, and while his friends all probably knew he had some trauma, if he didn’t admit to it, he wasn’t going to have to talk about it with them. God, he relived that night often enough without having to explain it to anyone. “Just resting my eyes. It’s been a long week.”

“Mm.” Nat didn’t look convinced, but she let it go. She hefted the cat carrier, turning it so Bucky could see Alpine inside. Alpine looked... less than pleased with his circumstances. “Is it safe to let him out?”

Bucky let his eyes drift around the room; there were a ton of boxes stacked and neatly labeled in the room, but no movers. Had he missed the moving crew? 

God damn it, he didn’t know how much time he’d lost, reviewing in his mind a situation he couldn’t possibly change now.

“Yeah, I think-- they’re done, right, they said they were done?” He glanced at Steve, who shrugged one shoulder.

“I signed for them,” Steve admitted.

“Great, thanks, you earned your pizza and beer,” Bucky said, and pushed up from the sofa. “Go ahead and let him out, I’ll get the box prepped--” He wasn’t even sure where the litter box was, honestly, but he’d had it set aside as one of the first things to unpack, so he just needed to find it. 

“Yes. Steve, you call for pizzas.” She looked around the frankly barren room, chose a corner, and opened Alpine’s carrier.

Perversely, now that the door was open, the cat didn’t look interested in coming out. He crept up to the door, sniffed at the floor, and froze.

Nat clucked her tongue and sat cross-legged in front of the carrier, holding out her hand, tempting Alpine to come out and be petted.

“I think there’s snacks and some of his toys in the-- ah, here it is,” Bucky scrambled in his pocket for his folding knife. It was awkward to hold and grip right handed, but his left hand didn’t always clamp down the way he thought it should, and everyone would just fuss if he cut himself by accident. He sliced the tape open and started pulling out cat supplies. 

Automated litter box; was it terrible of him that literally the first thing he bought after paying off some of his hospital bills, with his settlement money, was one of those fancy, self-scooping and packing litter boxes? 

A packet of cat-jerky, which was Alpine’s favorite snack, and a handful of cat toys -- canvas mice and balls with bells. Somewhere in another box, would be Alpine’s cat tree.

There was enough space in the condo for a couple of cat trees. And maybe one of those fancy runner-paths around some of the rooms. Alpine liked to look down on people.

He dangled a mouse for Alpine, who just looked at him blankly. Though when Nat took it, the cat showed a little interest, stepping one foot out to sniff at it, and then another.

He batted it out of Nat’s hand, startled when it hit the floor and the little bell in it tinkled, and then raced under the sofa. Stupid scaredy-cat.

“We need music,” Nat informed Bucky.

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky said. “Right now, you got crappy bluetooth speaker, until I find my damn stereo.” He was one of the few people he knew who still owned a stereo; turntable and CD player and almost two terabytes worth of drive space to hold all his mp3s. Plugging in wires and setting up his speakers and checking the room acoustics was going to be exhausting, delicate little fussy tasks that had his arm over his head. Not tonight. 

He sat the speaker in the corner, just where Steve had apparently dictated the television should be -- Bucky would have to move that, later. The westward window was going to put sunlight on the screen right when he wanted to watch his shows, but he wasn’t going to watch television today. He flipped through his playlists but nothing really screamed music to unpack to, so he just hit the upbeat music list.

“If Call Me, Maybe is on this playlist, you’re going to just have to admit that you like that horrible song,” Steve teased. 

Bucky glanced down at his phone to see if it was in the list. It was, but about twenty songs down. He could skip it. Steve would never need to know.

“It’s like a Parisian chef whose favorite food is pork rinds and gummy worms,” Nat teased, but she was wiggling in time with the music.

“Hey, they make more money than I did,” Bucky said. As if money really meant anything. It was just a way to keep score. Although, he had to admit, he liked the new condo. He’d never had so much room in his life. 

“Okay, pizza on the way, where’s the booze box, and we’ll start making this house feel like a home,” Steve said.

Well, good luck with that, Bucky decided. “I need some new art,” Bucky decided. “You should pick something.” Art would at least make the place look less empty. And the way Steve lit up was well worth paying for whatever he was going to select.

A few minutes later, Sam and Clint pushed their way in, joking and shoving each other the way they tended to do. Birdbrains.

The cat slunk further under the sofa.

Bucky tried to relax, let the warm love and subtle nudges toward helping him out actually reach him instead of making him defensive and nervous.

These were his friends, and they cared about him. He would have helped any one of them move and unpack. That’s what friends did, right?

“Friends help you move,” he said, waiting for someone -- probably Clint -- to finish off the saying.

“Real friends,” Clint started, and then he, Sam, and Nat all joined in to finish, “help you move bodies.”

Yeah, Bucky was home.

***

Someone was screaming. Loudly. Without stopping.

Jesus, didn’t they need to breathe?

Tony unglued one eyelid and pried it open. He closed it again, tightly, because the sun was evil and he really had to do something about creating and then installing voice-activated polarization control for his windows.

Of course, that would require talking, and he wasn’t sure he could move his tongue, weighed down as it was with the weight of whatever had died on it.

The screaming resolved into... scales. Someone was playing scales. Loudly. Right underneath him. Also, badly. Really badly. 

Fuck.

He dragged his eyelid open again and squinted at the clock. A little after ten. So he’d gotten maybe... five, six hours of sleep. His head was pounding, almost as loudly as the screeching scales.

The scales were not getting any better with repetition. Some kind of stringed instrument, Tony thought. Violin, viola, something like that.

Vaguely, Tony remembered seeing a moving truck double-parked out front when he’d left the building yesterday, to start his pre-party drinking. Guess he knew now where they’d moved into: the apartment right below his. Great.

The scales stopped. Tony let out a sigh of relief. He rolled over, hoping he could get another couple of hours’ sleep.

They started up again. Jesus fuck. Tony pulled his pillow over his head, which didn’t help much, and groped around on his nightstand until his hand closed on a wrench. That would do. He reached down and banged it on the floor. Knock it the fuck off, some of us are trying to sleep off a hangover!

The violin made a startled squawk, which was almost worse than the scales had been, and then several sharp notes floated up through the floor, not the off-key scales, but someone plucking the strings.

It took Tony a moment to realize what he was hearing; rap music wasn’t his favorite, but everyone had been cranking out Cee-Lo Green’s song for a few months, back about five years ago or so.

Driving round town with the girl I love / and it’s like fuck you

But the music -- if Tony wanted to dignify it with that name -- stopped after that, and really, what more could he hope for?

He sighed and snuggled back down into his blankets, but now that he’d woken up, he couldn’t quite seem to get comfortable again. He turned over and tried again.

No dice.

“Dammit,” he croaked. He threw back the covers and sat up, scratching his hands through his hair and over his face. Well. If he was up anyway, he might as well get dressed. Pick up a quart of coffee and one of those terrible grease-bomb breakfast sandwiches, and go into the office. Obie would be pleased.

I know you’re still processing your grief, son, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to rush you. But you need to put in a little effort, once in a while. It’s been six months.”

Tony rolled his eyes at the memory, and then winced, because that hurt. He pushed himself upright and shuffled toward the bathroom. He couldn’t begrudge Obie trying to keep the company rolling along, he supposed. That’s what Obie did. Obie had only taken half a day off for the funeral, even, and had been working harder than ever, since.

Maybe that was Obie’s way of processing his grief.

Though it was hard to imagine Obie being grieved about much of anything, really, except maybe a big stock drop.

Tony loaded his toothbrush with paste and scrubbed the taste of dead things out of his mouth, then splashed his face and examined his beard. Scruffy, but not too horrible. He’d shave before going out tonight; no need to shave for SI. Who was going to care?

He pulled on jeans and a t-shirt -- and then, at least 87% certain Obie would drop in on him as soon as his presence became generally known -- pulled on a button-down over that. Compromise, he was all about compromise.

He stuffed his wallet in one pocket and his phone in the other, and took the elevator downstairs. God, it had been such a good idea to rent an apartment away from the SI headquarters. It was just far enough that Obie wouldn’t drop in unannounced, and not unless it was something important. And it didn’t have all those awkward and uncomfortable memories clinging to it.

Made it easier to forget.

He wasn’t expecting the small crowd of paparazzi clustered just outside the building entrance, though, and at least one camera went off while he was still blinking in shock, before he’d managed to paste on his public grin. He paused, then exaggeratedly looked down at himself. “Yep, I remembered pants today,” he said. “What’s up, guys?”

“Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark, have you heard the latest?” one of the reporters said, bringing their cameraman entirely too close. “The man involved in your parent’s death--”

Tony’s stomach clenched at the mention, and he let his smile get a little wider, a little sharper. “Is, hopefully, re-learning how to live his life after the accident,” he said, probably just a little too loudly. “You’ll all have to excuse me; I’m late.” He ducked his head and shouldered through the throng.

“-- spent three million of your company’s money for a luxury condo, Mr. Stark, do you have a comment--”

He shouldn’t comment, he shouldn’t comment. He could practically hear the lawyers and Obie all reminding him that he absolutely should not comment on pretty much anything, but he couldn’t resist pausing just long enough to quip, “In this town, you’re lucky if three mil gets you a nicely-painted shoebox.” An utter lie, of course -- Tony’s own apartment only went for four million and some change, and there were apartments in his building that went for as low as two and a half. But disparaging housing prices in the city was like talking about the weather anywhere else. “Just wait ‘til he gets his first winter heating bill.”

Oh, thank Christ, a taxi. Tony flagged it down, and the press crowded closer to him, trying to get some last words in… “Mr. Stark, it doesn’t bother you that--”

Tony slammed the cab door and shook his head, pointing to his ear. Can’t hear you, la la la.

Christ. Couldn’t they give it a rest? It wasn’t like Barnes had bankrupted the estate or anything, and for fuck’s sake, Howard’s carelessness had cost the man his damn arm. Tony didn’t care what he did with the money.

But that wasn’t a story that played well with the press. They wanted rivalry, resentment. Sparks and spite. Well, fuck that. Tony didn’t want to hate anyone. He just wanted to build his robots and tinker with code and drink himself to sleep every night. Was that so much to ask?

Chapter Text

Steve texted Bucky before he’d even gotten the coffee maker started the next morning. Omw, tell your fancy security guard to let me up! Important!!!

Bucky considered his phone. And the message. And the general unfairness of the universe. He used to be a rapid-fire texter, and now he had to lay his phone on a surface and poke it gingerly with a stylus in order to type. Or use the voice-to-text, but that software did not like him at all, and he’d end up correcting about 15 wrong words.

Jesus. Whatever.

It couldn’t be that important, or Steve would have called.

Bucky allowed himself thirty seconds to consider the idea of just pretending he’d misplaced his phone.

Nah, Steve would never believe that. He got up, schlepped over to the intercom system and pushed the button for the desk. “This is Barnes in 32A, I’ve got a guest, Steve Rogers, please buzz him up.”

“Of course, sir,” the voice said.

“That you, Timothy?” Bucky was trying to learn the doorman’s schedules; it always helped to know the help.

“Yeah, how are you?”

“Awake and uncaffeinated,” Bucky complained. “You know how it is.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, and then disconnected.

Bucky sighed, and then went to get clothes on. He was only wearing a pair of ratty sweatpants, and while Steve had seen him dressed down, Bucky didn’t like for people to look at his arm, especially the connection points. They were scarred up and ugly. Shirt, shirt, he had to have unpacked some of them, right?

He was still dragging on the t-shirt he’d found when he heard Steve push into the front room. Why had he given Steve a key, again?

“Buck! Where are-- Oh, there you are,” Steve said as Bucky emerged from his bedroom. “Look, look at this!” He thrust his phone toward Bucky, full of indignation.

On the phone screen was the browser, open to a gossip news site. The picture at the top showed Tony Stark waving off the picture-taker as he climbed into a taxi.

“Look at that!” Steve demanded before Bucky could even skim the blurb. “That deli there is the one that’s across the street from you! This was taken right in front of your building! The guy is stalking you or something!”

“Uh, why would he do that?” Bucky wondered. He peered at his face in the mirror. Ug, he really needed to get more sleep. Or dark circles concealer. The bags under his eyes were packing their own bags, really. 

Not that Bucky had ever even met Stark. All their interactions had taken place through a thick layer of lawyers and litigation. Hah, that was alliterative. There had been no courtroom drama. Bucky had only had to go in once; there had been a whole roomful of lawyers who’d visited him in the hospital, every single one of them eager to represent him in a court of law for the 30% payout.

“Who knows why these rich assholes do anything?” Steve wondered. “Some kind of twisted revenge scheme?”

“I seriously doubt any rich asshole feels the need to get revenge on me,” Bucky said. “I’m really not that important, and in the grand scheme of things -- I think I read somewhere that SI was worth six billion dollars? Like, my settlement probably only put a dent in his expensive scotch habit for two days.”

He peered at the article. Stark looked… well, kinda pissed off really, and his hair was a disaster. But he was, in fact, right in front of Bucky’s building, and that was… weird? A little worrisome, really. Why would he be there? SI was at least half a mile or more away, and the Stark Mansion on the other side of town, as well.

“I haven’t even had coffee yet,” Bucky complained. He’d been in the process of getting the machine set up on the counter and dig out all the little pods, but someone had decided to triple tape that box shut. “I’m not sure I’m awake enough for conspiracy theories.”

Steve rolled his eyes and stuffed his phone in his pocket. “Okay, but if Stark murders you in your sleep, don’t come crying to me.”

Bucky opened his mouth, closed it again. Tried again. “Uh, pretty sure if I’m dead, I can’t complain to you about it.”

“I know you,” Steve said, brushing past Bucky and into the kitchen. “You’d find a way. Christ, who taped this box? Was it Clint? I bet it was Clint.”

“Wasn’t me,” Bucky said. Honestly, he’d come really close, a few times, to just throwing everything away and buying new when he got to the new place. His sister had convinced him not to, but she’d also packed a lot of the boxes for him. She blamed the arm.

Bucky blamed sheer, unadulterated laziness.

Burning the apartment down was not a feasible option, however.

“It’ll be fine,” Bucky said. “I bet he just wanted to get the press off his case about the partying. Maybe he’s going to send me a fruit basket.”

Steve snorted his disbelief, but he pulled out his keys and used the jagged edge of one to slice through the packing tape, then shoved the box in Bucky’s direction. “Here, coffee. Do you have a mug to put it in?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, pointing to the cabinet with his left hand, then turned the wrist a little. Huh, he hadn’t been able to do that two weeks ago. Nice. Maybe the practice had helped a little. He turned the wrist back, listening to the whirr of machinery, and the way it vibrated up the bone in his shoulder. So weird. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it.

Steve watched for a moment, then turned away quickly, like he thought Bucky would be mad about it. He pulled out a pair of mugs and put them on the counter. “You’re getting better with it,” he offered.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, slowly. “I was… a little. Trying. To, you know, practice. Yesterday. Until my upstairs neighbor started throwing a bowling ball at the floor. You want to be mad at some rich asshole, be mad at him. It was like ten in the morning, any decent person ought to be awake already.”

“Yeah, but you live with a bunch of rich swells now, Buck,” Steve pointed out, smirking. “You’re the only decent person in the building, probably. Fuck ‘em, practice when you want to.”

“Can’t be,” Bucky said. “You’re here, right now.” He’d always admired that about Steve. Big mouthed, chip on his shoulder and all, Steve Rogers was the best guy that Bucky knew. Brave and strong and standing up for the little guy. “So, now that I’ve complimented and flattered you, wanna help me unload these boxes of dishes?”

***

Tony hunched over his desk, peering at the circuit board through a magnifying lens and trying to figure out exactly why it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. That connection led to this connection, which meant the signal was diverted here, and then--

A muffled thump from below him made him groan in frustration. His neighbor was home, apparently. Time for another hour of long, drawn-out screeching notes and uneven, scratchy scales. Christ. He might as well give up on getting anything productive done; that horrible wailing made it impossible to think.

Swear to god, Tony was going to rip up the floor in here and install cork baffling. He didn’t care what his lease agreement said about modifications.

He dropped the circuit board and reached for the mini-fridge. He had to have a beer or something in here.

Instead of the nerve-wracking sawing, the notes that came up through the ceiling were plucked, soft at first, and then growing louder. The plucking, at least, was in tune, and that was great. A moment later, there was a raw scrape across the strings, like someone sobbing and using the instrument to express it.

Another scrape.

And then--

A harmonic blend of notes, before whoever was playing strummed out the first verse of… Jesus, was that Pitbull on the violin?

We’re goin’ down, I’m yellin’ timber / You better move, you better dance
Let’s make a night you won’t remember / I’ll be the one you won’t forget

The first verse was tentative, not quite the right timing, but the notes were pitch perfect. A startled, triumphant scream came from the music room, and then--

Wow, they were fucking shredding it, adding little flourishes and putting together a pretty decent arrangement. They played through the whole song, missing the notes from time to time, but not really enough to-- well, Tony’s mom had been a pianist, which often made it hard to listen to amatuers. But it was… good.

Which made it a lot less painful than the usual practice sessions. It did not, however, improve Tony’s ability to concentrate. Something about the sound of a violin vibrated straight into Tony’s head and tied up most of his processing. It wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. It just made it impossible to do anything else.

So he settled in to listen. Usually, they played for about an hour. Tony could take a break for an hour, he figured.

An hour and a half later, they were still playing.

Tony whined a little. Whoever it was had amazing range -- he played hip-hop and rock and classical and the occasional oldie -- but Jesus, wasn’t their arm getting sore? Tony had promised to get this stupid circuit board back to SI’s R&D department by tomorrow, and he really didn’t want it to cut into his playtime.

He reached for his wrench and pounded it on the floor a few times. Come on, dude, time for a break.

The violin made that startled squawk sound again, a frisson against Tony’s nerves, and then, a moment later, the violinist stamped on the floor three times, then 

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me
Twice on the pipe, if the answer is no

And somewhere, Tony wasn’t sure where there was an exposed pipe in the guy’s condo, although it might have been an instrument, there were two distinct clangs against something metal.

Tony burst out laughing. Okay, he could listen a little bit longer, he supposed.

***

Bucky wanted to object to the fact that Steve had an arm around his waist and was practically carrying him bodily into his condo, but he just didn’t have the damn strength. 

One of the connectors that bound his arm into the muscles had snapped, and the appointment to fix it had gone horribly.

Bucky wasn’t sure what the deal was with Dr. Zola, but he was a fucking sadist, as far as Bucky could tell. After freaking surgery, he’d sent Bucky off to PT, still dizzy with the after effects of sedatives, to go through the worst set of exercises ever.

Maybe Zola felt like Bucky was being careless with his expensive prosthetic and it was sort of punishment for daring to break the damn thing.

“What time is it?” Bucky muttered, swiping his card key near the door. He missed by a mile, and didn’t even make a face when Nat scooped it out of his hand and ran it over the locking system again. The door opened with a mock-cheerful two-tone beep.

Nat pushed through and held the door open while Steve helped Bucky in to collapse onto the couch. “It’s two o’clock,” she reported. “Or near enough.”

“Great, fantastic,” Bucky said. He arched off the cushions as all the muscles in his back and shoulder protested. “Think I can take a pill now, yeah?” He wasn’t sure. That’s what Steve went with him to the doctor’s for, to keep track of all the shit that Bucky couldn’t remember. There was something about Zola and those overly fleshy lips of his, those buggy eyes, that made Bucky’s brain seize up. 

Zola was the original mad fucking scientist, Bucky decided.

Steve checked his watch. “Yeah, you can have a pill now. Give me a sec, I’ll bring you some water.” He went into the kitchen and rattled around.

Nat sat next to him on the couch, brushing his hair back from his face in silent sympathy. “Maybe you should shop around for another doctor.”

“Zola’s the best,” Bucky said. “That’s what-- everyone… he’s the very best prosthetics doctor on the east coast. I hate him, but… it works. The damn thing works. I can… I can play. A bit. Not, you know, performance quality, but…”

He didn’t know how to explain it, how not being able to play was like someone had carved a huge hole in his chest and he didn’t know how to fill it. Even minor, screwing around playing, that was something.

It didn’t come close to matching the exhilaration of playing with a group, the way the music crashed together and became something effervescent with passion, with joy, but it was a little something.

His therapist had even said she was less concerned about his repressed desire for self-harm. But Bucky wasn’t going to tell Nat that, either, because then he might have to admit that he’d considered just… ending it.

Steve came back with a cup of water and a pain pill resting in the palm of his hand. “Here ya go, pal.”

Bucky was just taking a second swallow of water -- why did pills always feel like they were stuck in your throat, even when they weren’t? -- when from upstairs came a faint thump-thump-thump. It was a little slower than usual, almost hesitant.

Bucky blinked and stared up at the ceiling. “Really?” He wobbled and rocked himself on the sofa before trying to get up. He was so dizzy, it was stupid. 

Nat was there, a steadying hand on his right shoulder, and he pressed into it, the feeling over her hand warm and soothing. 

“It’s my neighbor,” Bucky said, like Nat wouldn’t have realized that. She probably did not think there were ghosts, or aliens, banging on the floor.

“What’s he banging for?” Steve asked. “We’re not making any damn noise.”

“I… I’m not sure,” Bucky said. “Maybe-- I usually practice startin’ before lunch or so. Huh. Maybe he misses it.”

There were the unsteady thumps again. Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me… “Get me my contrabass resonator-- uh, the G bar.”

Steve gave him a dubious look, but went back into the studio and came back out with the resonator. 

When the knocks came a third time -- what, had the guy been knocking on the floor every fifteen minutes all morning? That was… startlingly obsessed and kinda sweet at the same time… Bucky hit the pipe. Twice.

Nothing, for a moment, and then two thumps, this time. A confirmation of sorts, Bucky supposed. Message received.

“Did you make up with your neighbor?” Nat wondered, looking pleased. “I thought he was a late-sleeping hater of the arts.”

‘Yeah, I mean, I don’t know the guy or anything, but he… he’s been listening, I think,” Bucky said, staring up at the ceiling in amazement. “I think he wanted to make sure I was okay.”

Steve still had a somewhat pugnacious set to his jaw, but since the thumping didn’t resume, he settled back into the corner of the sofa. “Wanna throw in a movie?” He already knew Bucky wasn’t up for much of anything after one of his PT sessions.

“Yeah, movie, movie sounds great. Here, lemme scoot over a bit, I wanna rest my arm on the-- the thingie. What is that thingie called again?” God, he was high. The pain meds often made him loopy as shit. Which didn’t stop him from thinking about the way Steve looked at Nat, and that he probably should not sit between them, no matter how nice and warm that would be. But if Nat sat in the middle, next to Steve, that would be good, right?

“The armrest?” Nat offered, smiling. She didn’t argue with Bucky’s insistence on sitting on the outside, but after she sat down, she pulled Bucky back against her, and while Steve was poking through the movie choices, she dragged the blanket off the back of the sofa and threw it over his legs.

“Yeah, that… that sounds great,” Bucky said, and trying to be enthusiastic and stuff was wearing him really thin. He snuggled against Nat’s shoulder, which was a little bonier than he’d like, but whatever. In like, five minutes, it wouldn’t matter in the slightest. He’d either be absorbed in watching whatever Steve picked out of his movies (at least they were his movies, and not Steve’s horrible collection of biopics) or he’d be asleep.

King’s Speech?” Steve offered, holding it out.

“Sounds great. Mr. Darcy does parliament. Man, Colin Firth is so hot,” Bucky commented. “Might cut off my other arm, just to go to bed with him.”

Steve made a noise that Bucky’s drug-fuzzed brain couldn’t quite process. “Don’t worry,” Nat promised, stroking Bucky’s hair. “Someday, your prince will come.”

Chapter Text

Tony laid on the floor, his eyes closed. His neighbor’s playing had improved immeasurably over the last few months. Tony found himself looking forward to the near-daily concerts. Planning around them. He’d skipped a party, once or twice, even, to listen to a long-running session. It wasn’t like there was anything at the parties that he’d miss.

Today’s session started off like usual, a few scales, some tuning, the A to start off. Neighbor guy then played something bluesy that Tony didn’t know, a Bruce Springsteen song, the theme music from Pirates of the Caribbean, and then started… something that sounded vaguely Beethoven-ish, but he was apparently having problems with it, because he’d play two bars, then start over. 

And over. And over again.

The bow shrieked over the strings -- a musical expression of frustration -- and then he started over.

It wasn’t as terrible as listening to the bad scales that were Tony’s first exposure, but there was something raw and emotional to listening to him try and fail and try again.

He was almost so absorbed in what felt somewhat like eavesdropping -- except honestly, he had to know that Tony was listening in, right? -- that he barely heard the knock at his door.

His first reaction was confusion -- he was the one who knocked, and then his neighbor would make the pipe noise (Tony still hadn’t quite figured out how the guy was doing that. It definitely wasn’t a violin noise, and there weren’t any exposed pipes in the apartments). Why--

Oh. The door. He opened his eyes. “Who is it?”

“I brought coffee,” a familiar, soft female voice said. “And some of those raspberry jelly doughnuts you like.”

That was a bribe. Or bait. Tony couldn’t decide which. Didn’t matter. He wanted them anyway.

“Fine, come on in.” He didn’t sit up, but he watched as the door swung open and Pepper came in. She was, as promised, holding a takeaway coffee cup and a box of doughnuts. Tony reached up and made grabby hands. “Why don’t you work for me?”

“Enlightened self-interest,” she said. “Did you hurt yourself?” She did not hand him either the cup of coffee or the doughnuts, which seemed terribly unfair, instead putting them on the table, and letting him get a good look at the bright red soles of her shoes as she minced across his carpet.

“No. Well, no more than usual,” Tony amended. “I’m listening.” She did not seem inclined to let him have the food while he was still on the floor, though, so he sat up with a sigh.

“Well, I hope what you’re listening to is my voicemail, telling you to fill out a process plan for that chipset you were working on, the guys down at R&D can’t make heads or tails of it, beyond that it works and it shouldn’t do that.”

“If the R&D guys can’t reverse-engineer a simple chipset, they’re not worth their salaries,” Tony said dismissively. “I don’t know why I should be expected to pick up the slack.” He shuffled over to the table and knelt up to retrieve the coffee. “I’m listening to the violin, you philistine.”

“Because part of your job is to document your process, Tony,” Pepper said, like this was only reasonable. “I agree that sometimes miracles occur, but they can’t be replicated in a lab situation. So, if you don’t document, we have a miracle, instead of a development.”

“Ugh. I am going to invent an AI to watch me work and take notes so I don’t have to.” Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. He could use DUM-E’s rudimentary AI as a starting point, and--

“Let me know when you finish that project, I’ll get the patents ready for you,” Pepper said. “In the meanwhile, these--” she made a flourish at the box of doughnuts “--are a gesture of my faith that you will, in fact, get those processes done? Yes, please?”

Tony grabbed the box and laid back down, bringing it and the coffee with him. “Maybe,” he allowed. “After the music.”

Pepper almost -- almost -- stamped her foot at him. Tony could see the quiver in her knee. And then she twisted into a graceful squat. “What violin music?” And she laid down on the floor next to him. That was one of the things he really loved about Pepper. She was trying so hard to be a good corporate cog, but it was only a veneer over her own, somewhat wilder, personality.

“The guy who lives below me -- at least, I think it’s a guy, but I could be wrong, I guess -- plays violin. Almost every day. It was terrible when he started, but he’s pretty good, now.” Tony closed his eyes and listened.

Whatever classical piece had been giving Tony’s neighbor a struggle, he’d either given up on it, or whatever, because he was playing Cecilia, instead.

“Huh,” Pepper said. “He’s not bad. You ever think about, I don’t know, going down and talking to him?”

“Nope. We communicate just fine,” Tony said.

“Oh, do you now?” Pepper wondered. “And how--”

The familiar music started up. He almost always played it, at the end of his practice. That, or Cee-Lo’s Fuck You, depending, Tony had decided, on how well his practice went.

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me...

Tony grinned and stamped on the floor three times, since he didn’t have his wrench to hand. He thought his neighbor appreciated the response. At least, Tony assumed if the guy didn’t like it, he’d stop playing the song.

A moment later, there went the double pipe-clang.

“That’s either the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen, or the most pathetic,” Pepper said. “Go talk to the guy, Tony. Bring him a fruit basket or something.”

“If he were worth talking to, he’d prefer a doughnut tree,” Tony said. He took one out of the box and bit into it, ignoring the way it rained powdered sugar all over his face.

“I think you should try to, I don’t know, get out more. Let yourself meet someone who’s not looking for their next score,” Pepper said. “You’re up here, all alone, most of the time. It’s… it’s not healthy.”

“Christ, did Obie send you over to give me a pep talk?”

“Mr. Stane did ask me to look in on you,” Pepper said, because she never lied. Tony could appreciate that, even if he wasn’t always thrilled with what she had to say. “But I only do it because I care. If he asked me to check on Raza, for instance, I would tell him I was too busy. Come on, Tony, accept that people care about you.”

“If you cared about me, you’d quit working for Obie and be my PA instead.” Silence from downstairs. The concert was over for the day. Tony sat up again with a sigh. “Anyway, if you want me to write those processes up, I don’t have time to meet people.”

“I’ll consider it,” Pepper said, smoothing out the wrinkles in her silk shirt. “But I need to stay someplace stable for a while, and you need to get yourself established as reliable. You’re a genius, Tony. A prodigy. And you’re turning out crumbs for SI. Find a meaningful direction for your life, something you’re good at, and happy doing, and I’ll come work for you. Deal?”

Happy? How the hell was he supposed to accomplish that?

Tony shook his head and said, “Sure thing, Pep. Deal.” He climbed to his feet and put the doughnuts and coffee on his desk, slid into his chair. He had work to do. “Will that be all, Ms. Potts?”

“That will be all, Mr. Stark,” she said, and then she brushed powdered sugar off his shirt, like she was his mom or something. Not that Maria had ever done anything more about Tony’s clothes than give him a lifted eyebrow to inquire if he thought that was, in fact, appropriate. She didn’t criticize. Howard criticized enough for three normal people; Maria, apparently, had thought that sufficient. “Try to come in to the office tomorrow. We’ve got a new batch of hopefuls who are all vying for two jobs. You usually enjoy that.”

“If you guys would just listen to me when I tell you to set up a gladiator arena in the fourth-floor gym...” Tony said, flashing Pepper a little bit of a smile. She didn’t really deserve his shit.

“I don’t think we need to defend science at knife point,” Pepper answered a little sharply. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

And she was gone, leaving the doughnuts, coffee, and a swirl of her perfume behind. 

***

Bucky had done pretty well, he thought, all things considered. He’d managed to buy gifts for his friends, he’d gone to not one, but two different Christmas parties, at least long enough to make a quick round and be seen before fleeing back into a hastily called Uber. 

He’d made excuses to his sister for not having Christmas dinner with them, and excuses that he was going to Jersey to visit his sister, to his friends. Unless Steve decided to call Becca (and Bucky couldn’t imagine that he would) no one would know.

It wasn’t like Christmas was supposed to be traumatic, right?

The traumatic bit was supposed to be almost ten days before, the anniversary of the car accident, and Bucky had breezed right through it, going to his therapy appointment just like he was supposed to.

Everything’s fine, I’m fine, I’m… well, of course it’s tough, but I’m doing a little better every day.

God, he was such a liar.

And eventually someone was going to find out that he wasn’t doing well. 

He was not doing well at all.

Bucky kept thinking maybe he was doing okay. He could play, and that was good, because he needed to play. He still couldn’t play well enough for a concert hall, but it was enough.

Like a few thimbles full of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert. It was something, right?

But he was surviving, right?

He found himself staring at his violin case like it was a snake, preparing to strike. 

He got around the whole arm-freak out thing by closing his eyes while he was playing. If he didn’t look, he could pretend that it wasn’t those weird, skeletal fingers, that creepy metal sheen. It bothered him, and he knew it shouldn’t, but it did.

“You can’t play with your eyes closed!” he raged at himself. Which wasn’t entirely true. He could play easy stuff, or rock and roll, or--

The songs that didn’t have to be note perfect. The songs without complicated vibrato. The songs he didn’t need to read the music while he played.

He’d learned about five bars of Partita, D minor by heart, which would probably impress a conductor. For about three minutes, until they put a piece of music in front of him that he didn’t know, and he couldn’t fucking play.

He picked up his violin, stroked the wood.

He’d thought about not playing at all today. It was Christmas, and he was alone, and he was alone by choice, but he was still lonely. He would have been lonely in a crowded room, and then he would have had to talk, too.

This was better.

Maybe he’d play for a little while. Just a few things.

He set the violin under his chin and closed his eyes, standing there in the darkness, feeling more alone than he’d ever felt.

Angels we have heard on high / sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply / echoing their joyous strains

He went through several Christmas carols, including a rendition of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, and Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer.

He was just starting to consider putting the violin away and heating up some leftover pizza when a piece of paper slid under his door.

Well, that was new. Upstairs neighbor guy had stopped thumping randomly on the floor quite a while ago, so maybe there was someone new in the building with a noise complaint.

He tucked the violin under his arm and fetched the note.

Wasn’t sure you’d be home today. Do you ever take requests? If you know Try to Remember, I’d love to hear it. Recorded versions just aren’t the same. --33A

Bucky chewed his lip. He was pretty sure he had sheet music for it -- he’d bought every scrap of music he could find for a while, but he hadn’t played it in years. If ever, really. He brought the violin up to his chin and piped a few notes of Waiting for a Girl Like You. Close enough. Hang on a minute. He didn’t… there was something special and ethereal about the not-quite-relationship he had with 33A. He didn’t want to spoil it by trying to stammer his way through a conversation.

Digging through his stacks of music notebooks, he did, finally, find it.

He stared at the sheets. He couldn’t… he couldn’t play this by rote. It wasn’t terribly complicated, so he could, in fact, probably play it. Just… he didn’t know it.

He couldn’t play this. He couldn’t--

No, no, he could. He could read the music and play it. 

His neighbor, 33A, he’d been funny in his way. Kind. Important. Bucky could do this, play this one song, reading the music off his stand. It was Christmas.

This was a Christmas present.

He could do it.

Bucky opened the balcony doors, letting in a blast of cold air, but opening his window to the world. If he was only going to play it once, let 33A hear it in all its glory.

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain so yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a young and callow fellow,
Try to remember and if you remember then follow.

Perhaps not the best performance he’d ever given, and he kept his eyes practically glued to the music sheets, not daring to look at his arm, the way the metal flashed as his bow moved over the strings.

But he played it. He played the whole thing.

He was breathing hard when he lowered his bow, not because of the difficulty of the song, but from working so hard not to see what he didn’t want to see. He closed his eyes, and--

--clapping. Applause. Wildly enthusiastic, if only from a single set of hands. Right above him, drifting down from the balcony above.

And that, that right there, was what he missed the most. The adulations of the crowd. He lived for it, had lived for it. He’d missed it, ached for it, yearned for it.

He smiled, and realized his smile was trembling, that he was weeping without even knowing it, silently. Hot tears tracked down his cheeks. 

Bucky raised his bow once more and played:

We wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.

Just barely, he caught the quiet, harsh edge of a laugh, and then the sound of the balcony doors closing again.

Bucky closed his own doors, locked them, and drew the drapes. He put the violin back in its case, ran a hand over the latches to close them.

Knock, knock, knock.

Bucky considered knocking back. Go out into the hallway and meet his neighbor, finally. He tried to imagine how that would go. People always stared at his arm, even when they didn’t mean to. Like amputation might be contagious. He knew no one meant to hurt his feelings, make him self-conscious by doing it, but it still happened.

What would they do, talk? About what? His neighbor might invite him in for a piece of pie. And then, either tentatively, trying to be sensitive, or blatant and outright curious, the neighbor would ask him about the arm. What happened to you? Why aren’t you normal?

No one meant it that way, either.

Bucky’s therapist was constantly telling him so; enough repetitions and maybe he’d believe it. Someday.

Not today.

He picked up the mallet and tapped his resonator. Clang clang. 

Twice on the pipe, if you ain’t gonna show...

 

Chapter Text

Bucky gripped the red solo cup that someone -- he didn’t even know the girl -- shoved at him.

Or he tried to. The hand twisted, wrist going up, and then, the fingers wouldn’t close. But she didn’t notice and when the cup hit the join between finger and thumb, she assumed he had it, and let go.

The cup slipped out, spilling peach margarita everywhere. 

The girl shrieked, the frozen drink plastering her white pants to her legs, getting in her shoes.

Everyone at the party probably did not turn around to stare, and certainly Bucky was hallucinating that the music slowed down, and faded out, allowing her drunken shrieking to reach every corner of the room.

Bucky took a step back, as if to distance himself from the banshee woman. One of her girlfriends was already there with a wad of paper towels, blotting at her pants and glaring up at him, like any of this was his fault.

“Clumsy,” the girl said, and she might have been directing at herself. Bucky didn’t know.

He twisted his wrist, and-- 

The indicator just at the base of the thumb showed one bar of red.

Out of Battery.

The fingers hadn’t gripped because he’d run his arm down and hadn’t noticed. The battery was supposed to last for six to eight hours of normal usage -- which meant he usually had to charge it after lunch, and again after dinner.

Had he skipped--

Yeah, he’d skipped the dinner charge-up; he’d already been running late, and Steve had really wanted him to come to the party, and...

It was not quite midnight, and Bucky’s arm was out of juice.

He didn’t have his charging cable with him, either, and it was a heavy duty one, not like the micro USB cables that people used for their phones. Which was okay; he didn’t really want to sit in a corner and charge up like he was a Dalek or something.

He ignored the girl, who was still fussing about her wet pants; that was what she got for trying to pass off a drink without even asking him if he wanted one.

He didn’t drink much these days, anyway. Alcohol and pain medication didn’t mix, and he preferred leaving the option open for taking a pill if he needed one.

A quick glance around the party yielded exactly zero Steve Rogers. Bucky sighed. He’d say sorry tomorrow. He just wanted to get the fuck out of here, now. Go home, take his arm off, and pretend that next year will be better than the last.

Just as he got to the door, Nat melted out of the crowd, because of course she did. She looked at him, then glanced over her shoulder at everyone else -- the girl had stopped yelling and the noise had started back up again, and there was something Bucky hadn’t thought he’d be grateful for -- and then tipped her head to the side with a little nod. She swayed in close and stretched up on her toes to kiss his cheek, and then disappeared again as if she’d never been there.

Well, maybe she would stay and be Steve’s New Year’s kiss. That’d be nice. The two of them had been not-dating for so long, Bucky despaired of them ever making a go of it.

He called an Uber and was pleasantly surprised when one was available almost immediately. Well, that made sense, actually, now that he thought about it. Most people were at parties and staying, at least until after the Ball dropped. Only idiot losers without their charge cables were trying to get home now.

Bucky rubbed fitfully at his shoulder. He wanted to take the damn thing off; whenever the battery was drained, it was just dead weight against his spine. He glanced up at the driver. “You mind if I take my arm off back here?”

The driver glanced at him in the mirror, then shrugged. “Buddy, long’s you’re not gonna heave or shoot your load in my car, I don’t care what you’re up to.”

“Right, thanks,” Bucky said. He had to reach under his shirt to get to the straps, un-velcroed the attachments and the nerve band, and then slid the whole thing out of his sleeve, practically crying with relief as it detached. 

The battery light flickered at him, as if scolding him, and then went dead.

He dragged the prosthetic over his lap to hold on, while the driver executed some sort of crazy get a vehicle length ahead maneuver. He’d already promised the guy he wasn’t going to puke, but Bucky wasn’t sure he could keep that promise. It was either look out the window at the crazy driving, or look down at his lap, with a disembodied Terminator arm laying across his knees.

Choices, choices.

He sank back in the seat and tried staring at the ceiling, instead.

That was… almost okay.

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to get to his building, and Bucky was getting out of the car into the sharp cold air, taking deep breaths, trying to steady himself.

Another car pulled up to the curb. Stopped.

A moment later the driver of that car got out, went around to the back, and opened the door.

Dragged someone out of the backseat by one outstretched arm. “Asshole drunk,” the guy swore, and kicked the downed man in the ribs. “Stiff me a fare and puke an’ pass out!” Kicked him again.

“Hey!” Bucky said, sharply. “No need for that.” He still had the prosthetic, bent, hanging over his right shoulder. “I can take care of the fare, you don’t need to go hurtin’ anyone.”

The driver glared at him. “He a friend o’ yours?”

The passed-out man rolled onto his side, groaning. Shit. Shit. That was Tony Stark.

“Yesssss,” Bucky said, slowly. “Let me pay the fare, okay? What was it--” He used his chin to hold onto his prosthetic and dug in his pocket for his wallet. He had cash in there. “Here. Happy New Year.” And he just handed the guy a couple of twenties, to get him to go away.

He ignored the way the driver stared at him and crouched next to Stark. “Mr. Stark? Hey, you awake there, pal?”

Stark grunted, rolled onto his front and promptly threw up something violently bright red. By the grace of... someone, he didn’t hit Bucky or the lingering driver.

“Well, you’ve had a busy night, I see,” Bucky said. “Can’t imagine what th’ hell you’re doing over by my place, this time of day. Or night. Or year, or whatever. That stalker thing, not a good look, buddy.”

He looked up to see if the driver might-- he wasn’t sure, give him a hand, or something. Stark probably needed an ambulance twenty minutes ago. But the guy had already returned to his car and was peeling away.

“‘M fine,” Stark said. It was so slurred, it came out in all consonants. Mfn. “Jus’... go’ sleep ‘t off.”

“Well, you ain’t the furthest thing from fine I ever saw, but okay,” Bucky said. He stood up, staring down at the man who was so fucking drunk that he didn’t even realize he wasn’t anywhere near his own home. Like father, like son. Hadn’t Tony Stark learned a goddamn thing from watching his father crawl to the bottom of a bottle and die there?

Well, he had gotten a ride instead of getting behind the wheel, so Bucky guessed that was a bit of an improvement.

“Jesus, kid, how old are you,” Bucky wondered as Stark heaved again. 

Stark either didn’t hear him or was ignoring the question. He crawled toward the building, and even his crawling was staggered and uneven.

“Look, do you have any friends, someone I could call to come get you?” Bucky wondered, chasing after the kid. Boy genius, Bucky had seen him called in the tabloids. Yeah, some genius, so drunk he was at the wrong building. “This is my place.”

Stark hiccuped, but managed not to puke that time. “Lossa frien’s,” he said, giggling. “Ev’one’s a frien’ when y’r rich, huh?”

“Yeah, I can see them all, hanging around, just waiting to help you,” Bucky said. He sighed. God was mad at him, this was a sign from God that Bucky was doing something wrong with his life. “Okay, okay, I get it. Good deed for the year, start everything off, clean slate, right?” He was demanding that of God, not Tony Stark, but Tony peered up at him, blearily, smiled.

“Wow, y’r bootif... byoo... pretty.”

“Uh-huh,” Bucky agreed. “Look, I only got one hand to carry you and this damn arm, so are you going to be trouble? Because if you’re going to be trouble, I’m gonna dump your ass in the elevator and leave you there, okay?”

“‘M no’ trouble,” Tony said. “Jus’ godda s’eep.”

"Yeah you can't sleep out here, Mr. Stark," Bucky said. "You'll get arrested. Or freeze to death. Come on. Can you get up? You can lean on me. There… oops, come on, good try."

It took several minutes of cajoling, but finally he managed to get Stark vertical, or at least close enough that they could stagger together toward the building door.

"Yeah, you got two hands," Bucky said. "Hold mine while I swipe us in." He shoved the prosthetic at Stark. "Don't drop it. That's like three million dollars practically, much as I hate the fucking thing."

Stark stared at it with something like wonder. “I’s wunnerful,” he breathed. He fiddled with one finger, curling and uncurling it, looking at the way the joints moved. “Mmmmm, okay, yeah, bu’ how...” He turned it over, fingers sliding over the metal with a sort of reverence. “Ohhhhh, I see.”

There was something weird and almost erotic, watching Tony Stark play with Bucky's hand. Awkwardly, Bucky tried to keep Stark propped up while he swiped the card key and got them inside. In the security office, Bucky could hear the television doing the sixty second ball drop countdown.

"Twenty-six, twenty-five…"

He considered calling the security guys out and let them deal with the drunk billionaire. That didn't seem fair to them, so he just pushed the summons for the elevator and got them into a car as the countdown hit ten.

Tony slumped against the wall of the elevator, swaying dangerously when it started moving, but not quite falling. He remained fixated on Bucky’s arm, like a toddler with a toy. When he spotted the glowing battery indicator, he frowned. “‘S not right,” he told Bucky.

"Yeah, I'm supposed to get seven hours or so, but it runs dry if I don't charge every five or six. She charges slow, too. I can spend an hour attached to a wall socket."

The charge time was another reason he was never going to play again, not with an orchestra. He wouldn't be able to stay fully charged for an entire rehearsal. That was more than expected use.

Stark shook his head. “Sec’ndary funct’ns oughtta be kint... k’nectic... k’netically charged,” he said. “Plen’y room inna arm f’r crystals ‘n’ converters. Exten’ usage by...” His face scrunched up, and it was almost kind of cute. “At leas’ sixty percen’.”

"Yeah, sure," Bucky said. "Zola and Hydra Tech are supposed to be the best in the prosthetic line up, you know. Here, this is my floor, come on. You can sleep it off on my sofa. And if you puke on it, it'll encourage me to replace the damn thing."

Stark smacked his lips together experimentally. “N’more pukin’,” he said. “Alldone.”

"Well that's probably for the best," Bucky said. "I probably got sweat pants that will fit you, if you want to clean up a bit."

He unlocked the door and nearly killed both of them by stepping on the cat. Alpine yowled and darted away. "Damn cat," Bucky complained. 

Tony leaned over to watch Alpine race out of sight, his eyes wide. “A cat!” he exclaimed, as if Bucky didn’t know about it. “Cats’re great.”

“Yeah, he’s okay,” Bucky said. “Okay, here, put the arm-- yeah, give me my arm back, it needs to charge up. And you… need to have clean clothes if you’re going to sit on my furniture. So, come on, yeah, arm down. Down, Mr. Stark, put it. Yes, just let it go.”

Stark reluctantly turned the arm loose and hovered, watching Bucky plug it in to recharge. When Bucky turned him away, nudging him toward the bathroom to change into a pair of Bucky’s old sweats, he kept looking back over his shoulder at it. But he let Bucky herd him into the bathroom at last.

He seemed to take forever in there, though Bucky didn’t hear any especially alarming thumps or crashes. After a while, the water turned on in the sink. It ran for a little bit, and then turned off again, and the door opened to reveal Stark, shirtless and wearing the sweats, though he had them on backwards, and he was slender enough that Bucky’s pants hung low on his hips. A burst of antiseptic-and-mint suggested that he’d made use of Bucky’s mouthwash and/or toothpaste. Which was probably a good thing, honestly. Tony grinned when he saw Bucky and held his arms out to the sides. “Ta-da!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, duly impressed. Well, actually he was. Stark was slender, his hips well defined where they were sticking out of Bucky’s pants, and he had arms that, really, ought to be illegal. What the hell did a drunk kid do to get arms like that? Unfair. Bucky was seriously jealous. Of course, the fact that he had two arms, too, that was… yeah. Jealousy over. “Here, drink.”

He offered a bottle of water, the lid already carefully cracked.

Stark looked at the water bottle and made a face.

“Seriously, dude,” Bucky said. “If you, specifically you, die in my house -- mine? -- you have no idea how many people are not going to believe me. Drink some water and don’t die of alcohol poisoning, okay?”

“Not gonna die,” Stark said dismissively. “C’n still talk.” He made another, more frustrated face. “C’n still think.” He sighed and took a swig from the bottle of water like he was on autopilot. “Don’ wanna think.”

“Well, that seems like a waste,” Bucky said. “Hear some impressive things about you, Mr. Stark. Look, I still don’t have a guest bed, or anything -- yeah, that’s the music room, there, and--”

Stark paused in the doorway of the music room, clinging to the door frame. “Violin?” he said softly, staring at the case. “You’re. You’re the violin guy.”

“Yeah, the one-armed violin guy, big joke, I know,” Bucky said. “I can play. The prosthetic--”

“You’re my violin guy,” Stark repeated, turning to stare at Bucky with wide eyes. “I love that music. Listen ever’ day. If I can.”

“What-- wait… wait. You’re Knock Three Times? 33A?” Bucky inhaled sharply. Well, that would make sense, if Stark lived in the building. He wasn’t stalking Bucky, they just… happened to be neighbors.

Huh. God had a sick sense of humor.

“Yeah!” Stark’s face lit up excitedly, and he knocked on the door frame, laughing. “Oh my god, I didn’ know you were playing with a pr’sthetic. That makes it even better. Like. You’ve been practicin’ so much, an’ gettin’ so much better, an’ better an’ better, an’ it’s jus...” He leaned on the door frame, and the laughter faded. “Practicin’ an’ gettin’ better, tha’s... I dunno how t’do that. Ever’thing always... jus’... whatever I wanted. Jus’ did it. Genius, you know,” he told Bucky solemnly. “Ever’thing comes easy. An’ now... an’ now ever’thing’s awful, an’ I don’ know how to fix it. C’n always fix ever’thing,” he said, looking sad, “‘cept me.”

“Well, you can’t fix anything, drunk as you are,” Bucky said. “We can worry about that in the morning. You need to sleep it off, and I’m exh-- no, no, that’s my bed--”

And there went Tony Stark, sprawled out on Bucky’s bed, limbs loose and easy. 

God was still testing him, that was the only explanation for this. “Fine, okay, fine, whatever. Push over. I don’t have another bed, and I am not sleeping on the sofa. I have enough back problems carryin’ that damn arm around without a night with my back all befrigged. You can be embarrassed about it tomorrow.”

Besides, that way he could be sure that Stark didn’t die in his sleep.

He shoved Stark over a bit, moving his hip out of the middle of Bucky’s space. Alpine merped and jumped up on the bed, investigating the mysterious stranger who’d invaded Alpine’s space.  

“Nice kitty,” Tony mumbled, patting around with one hand until it landed on Alpine’s back. Alpine cringed away from the touch, and then abruptly decided Stark was acceptable and arched into it. “Gonna fix y’r arm,” he said. “Diff’rent alloy. Lighter. K’netic charging.”

“Sure,” Bucky said. “You do that, it’ll be great.”

He pulled the blankets out and snuggled under them, leaving Stark on top of the comforter. Alpine would probably fall asleep on the guy, keep him warm.

Whatever. Not Bucky’s problem. It was warmer than the sidewalk; Stark wouldn’t freeze. That was all that mattered. He pushed pillows around until he had a little wall-barrier between him and Stark. “Happy New Year,” he mumbled, and tucked his remaining arm under a pillow. Honestly, you’d think he should be able to take both the fucking things off; the other one was still getting in the way when he slept.

Despite Stark’s ragged breathing, and Alpine starting up the purr-machine like he was sawing wood, Bucky closed his eyes and went straight to sleep for the first time in a long time.

Sweet sleep. No dreams.

Well, maybe God wasn’t as cruel as Bucky thought.

 

Chapter Text

Tony woke to a pounding in his sinuses that was all too familiar, a vague sense of nausea that was likewise familiar, and the sound of someone else’s breathing and heartbeat under his ear, which was... not as familiar, lately, but not entirely unfamiliar, either.

Jesus, where was he? He remembered going out on the 30th to pregame for New Year’s. He’d made the rounds of all his favorite clubs, and then when the clubs shut down that night (or rather, very early on the 31st), he'd found a private party that was going around the clock and... he wasn’t entirely certain what had happened after that.

He could remember flashes. Someone doing body shots off his stomach. A noisemaker blowing in his ear. Someone groping him and being irritable when he had a case of whiskey-dick. Throwing up -- Christ, he hoped he hadn’t puked in the cab. A... hand? Made of metal? That didn’t make any sense. Shit; he hadn’t been drunk enough to hallucinate in months.

Gingerly, he peeled open an eyelid. Yep, he was laying on someone’s chest. They were under the blanket and Tony was on top of it, and Tony was wearing some kind of pants, so probably they hadn’t fucked. That was good, because the ones he’d fucked were always extra snippy when he didn’t remember them in the morning.

He sat up, propping himself up on an elbow to take stock of the situation. There was a round ball of fur curled on the other side of the person Tony was snuggling; when he moved, it lifted a head and stared at him with cool blue eyes.

Tony liked cats. He reached out, extending a couple of fingers for it to sniff. It stropped its face against them, and Tony grinned as he scratched its ears a little. Then he looked over at his companion.

Masculine. Extremely good-looking; Tony mentally congratulated himself for his taste, even with tequila goggles on. Longish brown hair, tousled across the pillow, full lips, amazing shoulders... and one arm that stopped just above where the bicep would be.

Huh, that was a little unusual.

That flash of a metal hand came back, and maybe it didn’t seem quite so improbable, now.

The guy was still asleep, but Tony really, really had to take a piss. He carefully slid to the end of the bed and got up, trying his best not to jostle the guy awake.

The cat immediately flowed off the bed and twined around Tony’s ankles, meowing plaintively.

Tony winced. “Shh,” he tried. He leaned over to pick the cat up, and then immediately straightened again, because that was not a happy position for his delicate stomach and pounding skull. He glanced out the window, and that... was a very familiar view. Huh. He followed the cat out of the bedroom and -- yeah, this apartment’s layout looked pretty much identical to Tony’s. He’d gone home with someone who lived in his own building.

Well, that was convenient, he supposed. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too awkward if they bumped into each other later.

The cat had already run into the kitchen and now was coming back out, looking at him wide-eyed, as if to say, Why are you not already feeding me? Can you not see I am starving?

Tony rolled his eyes at it and went into the bathroom instead.

Those were his clothes, balled up on the floor. Okay, usually he didn’t get undressed in the bathroom, but-- He picked up his tee and then immediately dropped it again. Yuck. Yeah, okay, this had been a mercy changing, not a prelude to sexytimes.

He took care of his bladder, turned the borrowed sweatpants the right way around, and rinsed out his mouth until it no longer felt like something had died in there.

When he came out of the bathroom, the cat was sitting primly in the hall, looking up at him. Just this once, I will forgive you for not feeding me first.

Tony snorted at the imagined dialogue and made his way to the kitchen. Maybe if he fed the cat, it would be quiet and the guy, whoever he was, could get some probably well-deserved rest.

The cat’s food wasn’t hard to find, conveniently kept in a cabinet near the dish on the floor. Tony had no idea how much to give, but he emptied one can into the bowl and figured it probably wouldn’t kill the creature if it overate one time. New Year’s was all about excess anyway, right? It immediately started snarfing down the food, so Tony figured he hadn’t done anything too wrong.

There was a coffee machine on the counter and a basket of pods next to it. Thank the gods. Tony found a mug and started the machine, then wandered out into the living room while it brewed.

There was a metal arm on a table, plugged into a wall socket, the light just under the thumb joint a bright, steady green. Unable to resist the allure of unfamiliar tech, Tony perched on the sofa and picked it up. He sternly resisted the temptation to take it apart -- it was the guy’s arm; that would be really rude, and besides, he didn’t have the necessary tools on him -- but he turned it over and over in his hands, testing the joints and peering into the maintenance access ports.

The cat merped again cheerfully, washing its face, and then trotted down to the bedroom, crying plaintively. I’m starving, starving, the cat, so hungry.

“Shut up, Pine,” a deep, throaty sort of voice came out of the bedroom. “Spoiled thing. Least you c’n wait-- huh. Stark?” A tousled head poked out into the hall, some epic bedhead over a face that was even more gorgeous, once animated. “Oh, okay. Good.” He disappeared again.

Tony blinked a little, still about half-sunk in a tech haze. “Uh. Good morning?”

“Yep, okay,” the man called out. “There’s coffee if you want some. Lemme just--” There was a long pause, and then the toilet flushed. “Yes, I’m coming, you fussy cat.”

Oh, right. Coffee. Tony had started some, a... while ago. He set the arm back down and went into the kitchen, where he found a mug of coffee that was only barely warmer than room temperature.

He took a gulp anyway. He’d had worse.

The guy came out of the bedroom, attentive cat at his heels. He’d pulled a slouchy hoodie over his chest, one sleeve knotted to keep it out of the way. Moving with the sort of careless manner that suggested morning ritual, the man popped Tony’s coffee pod out, plunked another into the machine and started his own mug, then bent and-- 

--fed the cat.

Who was squirming between his ankles and purring and meowing like it’d never been fed before.

Tony opened his mouth to say he’d already fed the cat, but by that point, the guy had already opened the can and dumped it out, and taking the food away now that it was in the bowl was probably going to make the cat really mad, and it... wasn’t really worth it. Tony took another gulp of coffee. “So, uh,” he said, “if you introduced yourself last night, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember.”

The guy looked up at him, wide-eyed and startled. “Oh. You knew-- nevermind. Bucky. Uh. The violin guy.”

Tony’s mouth dropped open. “The violin--” He looked around again, and then looked up, nonsensically. “Oh my god. Is it weird if I say I’m kind of a fan?”

“I’m not sure former first chairs really… have fans,” Bucky said. He took a sip of his own coffee. “But it’s nice of you to say. I think you’re the only person who’s applauded for me in a while. Yeah.”

“Former-- What, because of the arm? But I hear you practicing; you’re getting really good. You could get back there, if you wanted, yeah?”

Bucky shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah, maybe. That’s the goal, but-- always somethin’, I guess…” He put his cup down, grabbed the empty can tin and went to throw it out. Stared into the trash can, then, “Oh, you liar cat.” He tossed the can away. “He got you, too, did he?”

Tony winced. “Yeah, I mean. Probably when I fed him he actually was hungry. But yeah.” He drank down the rest of his cold coffee and set the mug in the sink. “I hope you don’t mind too much; I was looking at your prosthetic. It’s really pretty clever, but I can think of a few ways to improve it.”

“Oh, that’s not just a drunk Stark thing?” Bucky jerked his chin at the device with something like low-grade loathing. “You didn’t want to give it back, last night.” 

Tony winced again. “Sorry about that. I’ve been told I kind of turn it up to eleven when I’m drunk. But really, I mean, the battery system here at the very least needs an upgrade. I could do some amazing things here with kinetic charging. I mean it’s an arm, it’s supposed to move, you might as well take advantage of that, right? And the weight is just ridiculous; there are some really quality lightweight alloys that could take over a significant percentage of the structure without sacrificing durability.”

“Would it look any different?” Bucky wondered. He wasn’t quite looking at Tony at all, sort of staring at the wall over Tony’s shoulder.

“A little,” Tony admitted. “I mean, if you’re really committed to the aesthetic, we can probably work around it.” He tried to suppress a rising sense of excitement. Was Bucky really going to let him rebuild the arm? This was at least twelve times more interesting than R&D’s damn chip sets.

“I.. uh, what? No. No. I… I hate looking at that damn thing. It’s creepy,” Bucky said. “Zola says they can’t put a skin over it without clogging up the joints. And it… like, I don’t… want to touch my food with it. My therapist says I’ll get… used to it.”

“Clogging up the...” Tony tried to figure out what that even meant, in practical terms. He had to turn around and go back into the living room and pick up the arm to consider the joints. “I don’t know why a cover would have to be a problem. It would have to be breathable to keep the electronics from overheating, and removable to allow for maintenance, but...” He turned it over again, considering the finger joints, which would be the trickiest. “Have to put some kind of frame around the joints to keep the material from getting snagged,” he mused, “but microhydraulics should do the trick.”

“So,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “I don’t have any idea what you just said, but it sounds expensive.”

Tony ran some numbers in his head. “R&D can be pricey,” he allowed. “But if you’re willing to do a little legal shuffling to let SI keep intellectual ownership of the developments, we can register you as a test candidate, and then the cost gets swept into that.”

“It’s… uh, very generous of you,” Bucky said. “You, you know, don’t gotta do that just ‘cause I scraped you out of the gutter last night. Anyone would have done it.”

Tony looked up at him directly. “Do you know how many mornings I’ve woken up in that gutter?” He shook his head. “Anyway, I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it because it’s fascinating tech but it could be so much better. This is... this is what I do. This is why the company keeps me around. I fix things.”

“Except for yourself,” Bucky said.

Tony went numb, just for a second, and had to put the arm down before he dropped it. “I’m... what?”

“Sorry, you said it last night,” Bucky said. “That you were jealous, because I was practicing, and trying to get better. I-- you know I don’t feel like that. I literally… can’t. I have to play, it’s like breathing, I don’t… even what I’m doing now, with you, with this-- it’s not good. It’s no good, but it’s still necessary.”

Well, Tony could relate to that. He could no more walk through his workshop without sitting down to tinker than he could will his heart to stop beating. That drive to fix, to improve, to find the next thing, and the next after that, and the next after that... “What’s not good? The playing? I mean, I’m no musician, but I can tell you’re getting better and better.”

Bucky made a face, pressing full lips together until they were a flat line. He sighed. “I was first chair in the New York Philharmonic. I worked… so hard. This… this is… I can’t play. Not… not like I need to. They’re not going to let the first chair stand there with his fucking eyes closed because--”

He made an angry, one handed gesture at the arm on the sofa. “That. Thing.”

Fix it fix it fix it, Tony’s mind demanded. “Okay, that’s... I mean, specialized prosthetics are a thing,” Tony said carefully. “They have legs built specially for running, for hiking, for... whatever, lots of things. What do you need that this arm doesn’t give you?”

“Pressure sense could be better,” Bucky said, automatically. “It took me forever to not scrape metal across the strings. More mobility in the elbow joint. And not to look like the Terminator hand.” Bucky made a thumbs up, and then let it sink down, like Arnie dying in the molten metal crucible. “I mean, I can still do fingering, that’s not so bad, once I got the hang of moving it, at least. Bowing is the really hard part, unless I drop the instrument. They said it would be possible and it… I mean it is. I don't know what I'm complaining about."

Pressure sense was probably the easiest thing to address; it just needed the sensors to be more sensitive. The elbow joint might be tricky; making it more mobile would mean sacrificing a certain amount of strength and stability. Tony’s mind bloomed with designs, and his fingers itched for his workstation so he could build them and put them through the stress simulators. “Those are not... insurmountable barriers,” he said, mind awhirl. “I mean, if you’re willing to come in to SI once in a while to help test things out.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Bucky said. There was an obscure longing in his expression, like he wasn’t sure if he dared to reach for the dreams that Tony was dangling. “I mean, if you want to?”

Tony grinned. “At this point, I’m going to do it with you or without you; the ideas are too good to just throw them out. We’ll get you hooked up with the Legal team first thing, while I’m wrangling lab space, and then we’ll see what kind of magic we can work.”

 

Chapter Text

Tony considered the server array at the back of the room. He was going to need to find a better home for that, eventually, because it was only going to get bigger. But that was a problem for Future Tony; it would be fine for a couple of months, anyway.

The fabrication units were all installed and in good working order, or they would be if DUM-E would quit fucking around with the primary drive system. Speaking of-- “Hey!” Tony snapped. “Hey, knock it off! I’ve told you, they don’t have autonomous processing, they don’t want to play with you!”

DUM-E tipped his claw at Tony in a way Tony had learned to read as “listening, but not believing.”

Tony sighed. “Just... leave it alone! Go clean up the holosuite or something.” He turned to the microassembly area and started poking through all the little drawers and cubbies to make sure all the parts he’d ordered were in place.

“You should get him a toy,” Pepper commented, startling him enough that he bonked his head on one of the cubbies.

“Ow.” Tony rubbed his head and spun around on his stool. “What, like a ball, so he can throw it at me when I’m in the middle of something delicate, or welding?”

“My sister’s kid spent three hours the other day just watching one of those drinking birds, you know the thing? Bet DUM-E would like that,” Pepper said. “I got all the paperwork for your new pet project here. I had to dodge some questions from Mr. Stane, but he’s probably going to want some answers eventually.”

Tony waved airily. He could duck Obie long enough to pull together something that would look good in a spreadsheet with dollar signs on it, and that was all Obie really cared about. “I’ll handle Obie,” he promised, holding out a hand for the folders. “I’ll just scan these in so they’re stored with the rest of the project files, and then you can take them down to Archives.”

He flipped the first folder open and pulled out the small sheaf of papers. He skimmed down the first page as he was carrying them over to the scanner, and then stopped dead in his tracks.

Right there, in the very first paragraph, couched in florid legalese, were their names. Tony’s name, and his official title with SI. And Bucky’s.

James Buchanan Barnes.

“Oh, holy shit. Pepper. Do you know who this guy is?”

“Tony, I am not in the mood for your games today,” she said. “Of course I know who he is. It’s part of why Mr. Stane is so hot under the collar. You spin this right, you’ll come out looking amazing, but it’s not going to take much for the press to color it in differently.”

“I didn’t know,” Tony said. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from that name on the page. “Pep, I swear, I didn’t know. He was just... a guy in my building. He told me his name was Bucky, for god’s sake.”

Pepper reached over his shoulder to shuffle through some of the pages. “His name is Bucky,” she said. “Here, I don’t know why we needed a copy of his resume, but--” She flipped to a headshot and an impressive list of concert performances. J. “Bucky” Barnes, first violin.

“Huh.” He looked up at Pepper, feeling more than half-panicked. “I didn’t know, Pep. Jesus, he’s probably so pissed at... well, at Howard, but I make a good proxy.”

“Tony,” Pepper said, gently. “You might not have known who he was, but it’s fairly certain he knows who you are. If he was mad at you, don’t you think he’d have just left you in the gutter? You slept at his house, you drank his coffee, you petted his cat. I remember, you told me all about it. I don’t think he’d have let you do any of that, if he was mad at you. Much as everyone wants to force you into his shoes, you are not your father.”

Tony took a deep breath. “Right,” he said. “You’re right. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be great, we’ll get amazing publicity out of it and another spinoff company. Yeah. Right. I’m good.”

“Just don’t make it weird, it’ll be fine,” Pepper said.

“Pepper! When have I ever made it weird?”

“Would you like that list alphabetically, or chronologically?”

Tony pointed at her, pouting. “I don’t like you anymore. You’re fired.”

“You don’t like me any less, either. And I don’t work for you. Yet.” She clucked his chin with her knuckle. “This is good, Tony. It’s good to see you so… animated. And this could be-- if these ideas work, there’s a lot of good this could do in the world. Now, he’ll be down soon for your first scans.”

“Yeah, we are all set up for that.” Tony waved at the scanning station, then made a face at the chair. “Maybe I should pull out that chair. Put in something more comfortable.”

“If you’ll let me have access to the lab when you’re not in it, I can make some accommodations,” she said. “A nice coffee machine, for instance.”

“See? That, right there. That is why you should work for me,” Tony said. “I’ll send the passcode to your phone on the encrypted channel.”

Pepper shook her head. “Not this week, Mr. Stark. Or, should I say, Doctor Stark? Since you’ll be visiting with your first patient, shortly.”

“I do have three doctorates,” Tony pointed out. “It wouldn’t kill people to remember that, once in a while.” He finished scanning the paperwork and handed the folders back to her. 

“I remember,” she said, and then whirled out of the room again. 

DUM-E made a soft whirring noise, head tipping as he watched her go. He adjusted his arm to peer at Tony, and made the same whirring sound.

“Yeah, Pep’s the best,” Tony agreed.

***

“I, uh, ‘preciate this,” Bucky said. Of all the things he hated about the accident, the fact that he couldn’t get around on his own was one of the things he loathed the most. It wasn’t that he wasn’t -- theoretically -- able to get on the subway, but he just… couldn’t do it.

Honestly, he didn’t understand that at all. Why would getting on the subway make him feel jittery and nervous? He hadn’t been on the damn train when he was in the accident. It just didn’t make sense. His therapist had said something about control and self-determination, which was also stupid, because it wasn’t like he hadn’t been driving his own damn bike.

Whatever.

He couldn’t cope. He’d tried it, and tried it again, but he could not force himself to get on the damn subway.

Ubers were okay, and taxis. 

So much for self-determination and lack of control. He would probably never actually bite his therapist’s head off, but sometimes he thought she just wasn’t as much help as she wanted to be.

Which was great, right up until he had to leave appointments, and he tended to freeze up and not know what to do next. He ended up with the shivers at PT, unable to raise his head, until Zola’s secretary called Steve to come get him. Which had been embarrassing to the nth degree, since the secretary had insisted on talking to Bucky like he was a stubborn and particularly stupid child, and everyone in the waiting room had stared at him.

Since then, he always asked a buddy to go with him.

Steve. Nat. Clint. Sam. 

He didn’t like to be a burden, and he kept hoping it would get better. He spread it around a bit, trying not to put too much on any one person. Which was the excuse, he thought, for why he’d asked Sam.

Because Sam was probably the only one in the group that wouldn’t absolutely throw a shit fit when--

--they pulled up in front of the Stark Industries building.

“You know I don’t mind takin’ you to appointments,” Sam said, as he climbed out of the Uber, “but why the hell are we here?

“Uh, this is where my appointment is,” Bucky said. “I kinda… met Tony Stark by accident, and he got… exceptionally excited about the idea of rebuilding my arm. You know he’s a genius, like, I think he had two doctorates while I was still struggling with high school trig.”

Sam folded his arms. “Tony Stark. Is going to rebuild your arm. Is this some kind of elaborate guilt complex thing?”

“I… no, I don’t think so,” Bucky said. He dug the badge that Miss Potts had given him out of his bag and pinned it to his shirt. “I mean, I don’t know him all that well or anything, but he seemed more excited by the tech, rather than. I don’t know, Sammie. It’s why I wanted you to come along. You’re pretty good at reading people.”

Sam stared at him for another few breaths, then rolled his eyes with a snort. “Yeah, okay. Probably a good idea not to mention this to Steve yet. Good call there.” He made it to the lobby doors first and held one open for Bucky.

“It’s weird, I know, but… I kinda like him, honestly,” Bucky said. “Which is weird, and conflicty and giving me all sorts of things to talk about with my therapist.” He looked around the lobby, which was huge and modern and-- there was the front desk with a very professional security person sitting behind it. “Excuse me, I’m James Barnes, here for my two o’clock with Doctor Stark?”

The security person consulted her computer, asked to see Bucky’s ID, and then handed it back with a bright smile. “I have a note here that you’re to meet him on the thirty-eighth floor, in Lab Three.” She turned her smile to Sam, looking slightly less cheerful. “Are you with Mr. Barnes?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He fished out his own wallet and handed over his ID. “I’m here for support.”

She nodded, scanned the ID, and handed it back to him along with a clip-on badge that said “VISITOR” in large red letters. “That’s an escort pass,” she told him. “You’ll need to be escorted by a badged SI employee on any floor above the fourteenth.”

Sam pinned the visitor’s badge to his shirt and flashed the woman one of his charming grins. “Thanks, you’ve been a huge help.”

Ug, she was grinning at him, not quite giggling and blushing, but doing that thing. Sam was always picking up pretty people. “You’re my escort,” Bucky told him, nudging Sam in the ribs. “I can’t wait to tell Nat about it. Yep, Sam Wilson, hired escort.”

“Uh, I think you’ll find that you are escorting me,” Sam pointed out as they made their way over to the elevator bank. “Which makes you the escort. On your way to see Tony Stark.”

“Oh, shut up,” Bucky said, and he followed the signs toward the elevator bank. “God, this place is huge.” The elevator was only lightly crowded; at two o’clock most people were back at their desks after lunch, and not very many people were leaving for the day. Still, Bucky had to look at the floor, although that might have been more the shiny interior reflections of the elevator, which made the whole thing look bigger, and yet more crowded at the same time.

The lab floor was so white that it was practically glowing, clean floors, clean rooms, lots of glass. Lots of computers behind the glass. Each door had a huge number etched (in white) on the door. 1, 2… and there was 3.

Bucky paused in the hallway, not sure how to-- keep moving. Sometimes that happened, he just froze, and knowing that Sam was right there. That was a comfort, even if it was sometimes embarrassing that he needed someone to guide him through unfamiliar stuff. It reminded him of his grandmother, toward the end of her life, when she needed Ma to explain everything, and remind her what she was doing.

“You stuck?” Sam asked carefully, because all of Bucky’s friends had been around that block a time or seven, by now. “Or having second thoughts? It’s okay, either way.”

“Second, third, fifth, eighth thoughts,” Bucky admitted. “Let me… at least listen to what he’s got to say, right? Can’t hurt, right?” Bucky took a step, and another one, and then he was at the lab’s door. He rapped on the glass very lightly with his metal hand, listening to the way it sounded almost musical. Pretty, like a xylophone. 

“Can’t hurt,” Sam agreed. “And if he tries to lay a finger on you without your full approval, I’ll break it for him.”

Before Bucky could respond to that somewhat startling assertion, Tony appeared. He spotted Bucky through the door and waved, beckoning them in.

Bucky opened the door and was almost knocked over by the wave of sound. Rock and roll music throbbed out of the speakers, which had Sam’s eyebrows going up, and Bucky grinning. Tony hastily turned it down to a decibel level somewhat below jackhammer. “Wow, that’s some good sound proofing material,” Bucky commented.

“Thanks!” Tony said, striding toward them with his hand already out to shake. “I was part of the team that created it. Hi there,” he added to Sam, “I’m Tony, and you are...?”

“Man, I know who you are,” Sam said, but he willingly shook Tony’s hand. “Sam Wilson. I’m here for moral support.”

“That’s good,” Tony said, grinning, “as I am well-known for not having any morals. Come on in, gentlemen, let me show you around.” He wasn’t quite looking at Bucky as he led them through the various stations, explaining what each was for.

He probably shouldn’t be comparing, but Dr. Zola had never, in fact, invited Bucky into the actual lab. He’d had a doctor’s office, an intern who did measurements, and then Bucky showed up for a final fitting. And when Bucky asked a question, Tony, in fact, answered it, elaborating on function, and keeping his vocabulary somewhere out of the polysyllabic range and down into layman’s terms.

Without making Bucky feel like an idiot. He wasn’t sure how Tony managed it, honestly.

“This is some Star Wars shit here,” Bucky said, pointing at a computer that had a glowing lightboard display.

Tony laughed. “Damn, I was shooting for Trek, actually.”

“That too,” Sam said, looking around with eyes as wide as Bucky’s felt. “This was worth coming ‘cross town for just to get a look at all this.”

“And here, I thought the pretty girl at the front desk was a good enough reason to come all this way,” Bucky said. “So, uh… why don’t you tell us how this is going to go? I like knowing what to expect next.”

Tony nodded and brought them back over to the main computer station, where he dropped into what looked like the world’s most comfortable desk chair, and kicked out a couple of padded stools for him and Sam. “Okay, so first session or two is going to be scanning the existing device, mostly. We might try out some of the covering skins on it, just to see which ones you like, whether any of the fabrications have issues, that kind of thing. Then I’ll put together some alternatives and we’ll bring you in to try them out for a few days apiece -- you’ll be expected to take pretty elaborate notes, since you’re registered as a functional tester. We’ll compile those notes and try again, and that’s a process that will repeat a few times, until we hit that magical point where the cost-to-produce is going to start eating into the profit margin, or drive the price up enough to hurt sales... Well. That’s not your job; I have a whole department of folks who are happy as clams to crunch those kinds of numbers. But they’ll tell me when we hit that point, and that’ll be our product line. Might need to add to or alter your PT/OT routine a little, depending on exactly how the new pieces are put together; I’ve arranged to contract with the same company we used when we were developing our body armor line. Kim’s great, though; you’ll love her.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows at Sam. “See, enthusiastic, right?” He turned to Tony, almost apologetically. “I mean, it’s kinda cute, you know. Zola -- he’s got the mad scientist thing right the fuck down, but he doesn’t seem… you know, to see me as a person. More like a machine that’s not working right. He totally doesn’t understand why I’m complaining about my ability to play. The fact that I can hold a violin at all is ‘a great step toward prosthetic development, Mr. Barnes, you should be grateful.’”

Tony pulled a face. “Yeah, the guy sounds like a total loser. I want all the feedback you can give me. Even if it’s something I don’t know how to fix, at least I know what direction to push. Anyway, it’s not like you can’t be grateful and disappointed at the same time; the human brain is a complex organ.” He picked up a screwdriver and fiddled with it, spinning it around in his fingers. “And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway -- if you have questions, ask; if you’re not comfortable, speak up. This is going to be a part of you, it’s no good if you can’t use it to its fullest extent.”

“Well, your brain might be a complex organ. Mine’s just sort of confused a lot of the time. I’ll ask, when I have questions. I might not understand the answers, but I’ll ask. What’d I tell you, Sam? He’s pretty great.” Bucky pointed one finger at Tony, indicating him to Sam. “He likes my music, too.” Which was, to some degree, the best recommendation there was. That Tony understood, and liked, the music, well, maybe they could actually accomplish something here.

Together.

Tony raised his eyebrows at Sam. “Do I pass inspection?”

Sam snorted. “You keep even half those promises, you’re already doing better than that Zola guy.”

Despite feeling suddenly uncomfortable criticizing Zola -- the guy was an asshole, but he'd also given Bucky a working arm, a chance -- Bucky nodded. "I have a good feeling about it. Let's get started."

 

Chapter Text

Valentine’s Day was... not a good day for partying. Everyone was off getting laid. Or feeling morose about not getting laid. Tony had heard of a couple of “Fuck It We’re Single and Lovin’ It” parties, but... ug.

Honestly, if that was all that was on offer, he’d rather stay home and tinker with the next version of Bucky’s arm.

It had been a solid month, or a little more, since they’d started working on the arm, and Tony had almost gotten past wondering if Bucky was going to go off on some sort of tirade or something about how Howard’s assholery had lost Bucky his arm and pretty much ruined his life.

The first week or so had been a little nervewracking, honestly, once Tony had realized exactly who Bucky was. But Bucky had continued to be just... nice. Sarcastic as hell, a little nervy about the arm -- but who could blame him? -- and apparently honestly fascinated by all the things Tony was doing with the tech.

Tony had originally planned to get the initial scans and then only bring Bucky into the lab when he had a finished prototype to fit, but he’d issued a general invitation, and Bucky had started coming in at least a few days every week, just to hang out in the lab and watch Tony work. He asked questions sometimes, and Tony was fairly impressed at how he’d never asked the same question twice, and seemed to retain whatever Tony told him from day to day. A lot of the interns down in Automation and Fabrication couldn’t handle that.

Anyway, Bucky was smart and snarky and weirdly nice, and Tony was beginning to think that maybe -- just maybe -- Bucky actually didn’t resent Tony just for being Howard Stark’s son. That was a novel concept, really. It wasn’t very often that he managed to slip out from under Howard’s shadow, for good or ill.

Dinner time was rolling around, couples were headed off to their overpriced reservations, and--

Tony heard the soft sound of strings.

Strange. Bucky usually played in the morning. In fact, Tony recalled listening to him, that morning, mostly playing Michelle Branch and a really clever rendition of Elton John’s Rocketman, and all three of the main Star Wars themes.

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can't help falling in love with you
Shall I stay?
Would it be a sin
If I can't help falling in love with you?

Ah, a special Valentine’s Day performance. Nice. Tony closed his eyes to listen to the whole song. It was a wistful song at best, but the violin really lent it some pathos. He wondered, idly, if Bucky was serenading someone in particular, though he hadn’t mentioned a girlfriend or boyfriend while they were chatting over the arm.

Not that Bucky was obligated to tell Tony any of his private life, of course, but Tony had to admit that he’d wondered. Surely he’d have heard or seen something, though, by this point, wouldn’t he?

A few minutes later, another Elton John song… 

So excuse me forgetting but these things I do
You see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue
Anyway the thing is what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen

Of course, Tony’s eyes were brown… but it did seem like Bucky was playing, once again, to an empty room, and Tony upstairs. Some secret conversation just between the two of them. 

There was a long pause after that song, Tony wasn’t quite sure if Bucky was done or not, or maybe shuffling through his stack of music sheets, and then--

The moon above you and the streets below.
Hold my breath as you're moving in,
Taste your lips and feel your skin.
When the time comes, baby don't run, just kiss me slowly.

Yeah, okay, that might have been flirting, Tony thought.

And then, the familiar song, Knock Three Times.

Tony hesitated -- it was probably a bad idea -- but hey, he could always downplay it later as their now-familiar call-and-response, if it turned out he was reading things wrong. Right?

He grabbed his wrench and thumped the floor. Knock. Knock. Knock. And then held his breath.

Just under Tony’s ear, somewhat to the left, came a dull thud against the ceiling. Like Bucky was poking it with a broom or something. Whump. Whump. Whump.

Well, that was new.

And that was the code, wasn’t it? *knock*knock*knock* means you’ll meet me in the hallway. Tony rolled to his feet, paused in the bathroom to make sure his hair wasn't all flat on the side from lying on the floor and then, curious and breathless with suspense, went out into the hall.

He just reached the hall when the elevator moved up to his floor, announcing itself with a soft ding.

Bucky took a step out into the hall, the narrow corridor that ran between the two penthouse units. “Hey, Tony,” he said. He had his case in one hand and a pink bag looped over the metal wrist. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Tony’s lip curled in an automatic smirk. “Yeah, sure. Happy Valentine’s Day.” He couldn’t read Bucky’s expression. “I enjoyed the performance.”

“I was hoping you would,” Bucky said. “I… you know, I’ve never actually played in front of you. I thought… if you wanted? I have a whole bag of cookies that Nat dropped off for me, and some sparkling wine, if you wanted to make a little event out of it or something?”

“That sounds... nice,” Tony said. It did. Cookies and bubbly and music. He still couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be a date, or just two... acquaintances? almost-friends? friends? ...who didn’t want to spend the holiday alone.

Maybe it didn’t matter which it was, if it was something they both wanted. Tony pushed his apartment door open. “Come on in.”

“I mean, I’m not imposing, right? You’re-- not going out today?”

Tony shook his head. “Nah. Everyone’s doing the couple thing tonight. I was just going to tinker a little, maybe watch a movie or something. Come on, I’ll introduce you to DUM-E.”

“Dummy?”

“He’s a robot,” Tony said. “I usually keep him over at SI, but he keeps screwing stuff up in the lab. It’s a lot different from my usual configuration; he’s curious. But it’s annoying, and slowing me down. So I brought him here. He still gets into a lot of stuff here, too, but none of it’s irreplaceable research, so it’s a lot less stressful.”

Bucky looked around the apartment. “Huh, it’s almost the same, really,” he said, looking around. “I’m not sure why that surprises me. It shouldn’t.”

Tony grinned a little. “I think my master bedroom is a little bigger, where yours has to make room for the stairs going up. But yeah, just about the same.” He led Bucky into his workshop. DUM-E looked up curiously as he entered, and rolled over to greet the newcomer. “Slow your treads, have some cool,” he chided.

Bucky gasped. “Is that-- wow, okay, hi. I… I saw this in one of those Time Magazine articles, I think. Didn’t you make this thing when you were like, twelve?”

“Yeah. I mean, I started designing him when I was ten, but it went through a couple of iterations, and the coding took longer than I thought it would.” Tony huffed. “Coding always takes longer than you think it’s going to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Bucky said. “I took like one computer class in college, spent entirely too long trying to figure out machine language, and called it quits. Liberal arts, all the way, after that. Composing and arrangement, music history, a whole bunch of classes where I had to memorize ten seconds of a song to identify them. Ug. Pointless.”

“That sounds like the music-major equivalent of all the coding classes I took where we weren’t allowed to use prebuilt code libraries, as if anyone ever codes anything from scratch these days. Or that one engineering class I took where the professor was an architecture nerd and made us study the different types of struts used in famous bridges.”

“Will it sound really nerdy if I say that I kinda like bridges? I have a postcard collection with bridges from all the cities I played in,” Bucky said. 

“Yeah, pretty nerdy,” Tony teased, “but I like nerds, so that’s okay.” He grinned and then shooed DUM-E back into his charging station. “He’s like the world’s biggest and most useless Roomba. Did you say you were going to play for me?”

Bucky put his case down and lifted the violin, a beautiful, dark wood instrument. He turned to face DUM-E and played several bars of Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto.  He kept his eyes closed the whole time he was playing, as if he was living in the music, giving his very soul to it.

Tony laughed and clapped a little, and DUM-E opened and closed his claw a few times, like he was trying to imitate Tony’s clapping as best he could with just the one appendage.

“He’s amazing,” Bucky said, pointing at the ‘bot with his bow. “Do you think he likes the music?”

“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “I play music a lot when I’m working, and he doesn’t really seem to react much. He’s got auditory sensors so he can interpret my commands, but I don’t know what he does with nonverbal sounds.” He tipped his head, studying the ‘bot. “Hey, DUM-E, what’s your favorite song?”

DUM-E opened and closed his claw a few times, raised and lowered his arm as if he were dancing, maybe. Tony shrugged. “I’ve thought about giving him sound capabilities, but he’s enough of an annoyance when he can’t pester me with questions constantly.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “I don’t really want Alpine talking, either. Same, same. So, like… I haven’t played in front of anyone in more than a year now. Any requests?”

“I have the strangest urge to ask if you know any AC/DC,” Tony laughed. “I don’t know, what’s... what’s the most fun to play?”

Bucky snorted. “Right, sit back and let me blow your mind,” he announced. He tuned the violin for a moment, and then, with a raw scrape, started into the opening of Thunderstruck.

His robotic hand flew over the fingerboard, practically dancing as the notes came out of the violin, the metal scraping raw against the strings, which added a certain flair to the sound. His right arm worked the bow with a certain feverish glee. He had his eyes closed for a moment, then managed to open them, staring at Tony with a silver-eyed gaze that was hot enough to melt steel.

Tony’s mouth was hanging open. He wanted to laugh in amazement but couldn’t stand to break the hectic sound coming out of the violin. When Bucky drew the bow down one last time, ending the song on a flourish, Tony burst into applause, cackling with glee. “That was amazing! It’s my new favorite thing ever.”

“I could sing it, too, if I had to,” Bucky admitted, “but it kills my throat and I don’t have any gollum juice made up.”

“Gollum juice?”

“Honey, lemon juice, little bit of fresh ginger,” Bucky explained. “It’s not as nasty as some of the other recipes I’ve tried. It’s for strained vocal cords. Andy Serkis invented it, because being Gollum was killing his throat.”

Tony felt like he’d won the lottery. “Music and talent and nerdery,” he crowed. “You may be my new favorite person ever.”

“Right, okay, you asked for it,” Bucky said. He coughed twice, sung a note and held it. “Don’t laugh. I don’t think I’ve sung much since college. Orchestra doesn’t encourage a lot of choral participation.”

“Oh my god,” Tony whispered, covering his mouth with his hands. “Are you really--”

Do you believe in magic in a young girl's heart / How the music can free her, whenever it starts / And it's magic, if the music is groovy / It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie / I'll tell you about the magic, and it'll free your soul / But it's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll,” he accompanied himself, the simple melody filling up the room, hips moving slightly as he bobbed in time.

Tony laughed and joined in for the last verse, though his voice wasn’t nearly as good as Bucky’s. “Oh my god, best Valentine’s Day ever.”

***

Bucky played two more songs, Fight Song and Follow your Arrow, before finally putting down his violin. “I think I’ve played more today--” Yeah, the indicator light on his thumb was burning yellow at him. “Can I plug in for a while, an’ we’ll have some of Nat’s cookies?”

“Yeah, of course.” Tony led him back out to the living room and waved a hand carelessly. “Pick a socket, any socket.” He went into the kitchen, and Bucky heard a cabinet open and the clink of glasses.

Bucky unwound the cord from his pocket and jacked himself in on the left side of Tony’s wide and extremely comfortable sofa. “This is nice,” Bucky said. “I’m still using my sister’s second-hand. I keep saying I’m gonna get new furniture, but-- eh, it’s jus’ me and ‘Pine, and I’d probably have to toss him off the balcony if he shredded something new.” He was completely kidding; Alpine was his baby. Also, the cat mostly stuck to attacking the shag carpet scratching post.

Tony came back in with a pair of champagne flutes dangling negligently from one hand. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “Except for the workshop, I hired a decorator to do the whole thing. I really didn’t care what the place looked like, as long as it wasn’t--” He waved a hand toward the window, presumably indicating something outside. Not here.

He paused, digging in the bag Nat had fixed him, pulling out a dozen or more heart-shaped cookies with icing on them. “Really?” Bucky’s eyebrows went up. “How do you know if you can, you know, fuck on the sofa if you haven’t bounce-tested it in the shop?”

Tony shrugged as he sat next to Bucky and helped himself to one of the cookies. “I don’t really bring anyone back here,” he said. “That’s what hotels are for.”

Idgaf,” Bucky said, and when Tony blinked at him. “The cookie-- Nat made sarcasm candy hearts. For those of us who haven’t been on an actual date in… oh, lord, I’m embarrassed. Maybe three years? I didn’t have time to date when I was playing first chair.”

“Yeah, dating is time-consuming,” Tony agreed, and then thought fuck it and went fishing. “You’re not seeing anyone now, I guess, since you’re stuck in here with me.”

“Nah,” Bucky said. “Me and one of the contra bassoonists used to, you know, quick and dirty for a while, but I haven’t seen Brock…” He faded off, not wanting to bring up the accident. “We weren’t dating, you know. There’s a lot of fucking that goes on behind the stage. And on the catwalk, and in the green room.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” Tony said, a faint smile on his lips. “I’ve met a fair number of performers.” He reached for another cookie. “These aren’t half bad.” He turned it around for Bucky to read -- FUCK U -- and then took a big bite.

“I think these are the leftovers,” he said. “She had a whole box of -- suggestive commentary for Steve. My best friend, and as thick as a brick. Like, he needs to be hit with a clue by four, not flirted with. I think one of them said Ask Me OUT.

Tony laughed, which made his eyes light up, honey-pale and warm. “You should set them up on a blind date together,” he suggested.

“I’ve been trying to get them together for two years,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “It’s sort of sad, really.” He paused, taking a breath, trying to gather his nerves. “Um. So, you can tell me if I’m pushing into your personal space, but-- I thought we had some sort of connection, even before the whole, you getting your engineer on… happened.”

“You mean with the whole--” Tony knocked on the end table. Knock. Knock. Knock. “--thing? Yeah, I mean, I kind of hoped so, anyway. I know you started out just practicing for yourself, but it kind of felt like you enjoyed having the audience.”

“I do,” Bucky said. “I mean… every orchestra director will tell you that if you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re a monkey, but I think that’s partially as a way to keep from paying people what they’re worth. I love playing, but it’s the exhilaration of performance… that’s where it’s at. Getting lost in the audience response. It’s… amazing. I miss it.”

“We’re going to get you back there,” Tony said, and he sounded utterly confident. “I admire that,” he added. “How determined you are not to let the shitty fucking circumstances stand in your way. You lost so much, and you’re just... climbing back up that mountain. All I did was fall into a bottle.”

Bucky wet his lips. “It… don’t gotta be like that, you know. I mean, yeah, I get it. I’ve-- well, I’ve seen you. Heard you sometimes. And you know. You’re Tony Stark.” He shrugged, trying to play it light, but the papers hadn’t been kind to the guy. Where anyone else would have been allowed to wallow in peace, Tony was doing it right in the fucking limelight, where the whole world was a spectator.

Tony flopped back on the couch, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. “Yeah, it always comes back to that. Sometimes I think I’m drinking to forget that as much as I am anything else.”

“But you don’t… you know, have to stay there,” Bucky said. “Jus’ cause someone put you in that hole, don’t mean you can’t climb out. If… if you wanted to change it.”

Tony opened his mouth, closed it again. Opened it, closed it. “How?” he finally asked, and his voice was very soft and small.

Bucky pulled the metal arm off the sofa arm, leaned forward. Extended his right hand to Tony. “Well, first off, it helps if you’ve got a friend.” He was bad, such a bad man. He didn’t know if Tony knew who he was, how much more involved Bucky was in the Stark’s life than he’d said. But he was going to take the opportunity, if Tony would give it to him. One stolen kiss, that wouldn’t hurt anything would it, and then he could make a grand confession. 

Tony looked at him through eyes that were a little pink around the edges. “Yeah?” He reached out, slid his hand into Bucky’s. “Okay. Yeah.”

“Is… uh, could I kiss you?” Bucky wondered. “You’re like… so beautiful. Those eyes, honestly, I could drown.” Tony looked like a gorgeous, wounded bird, shivering and achingly vulnerable.

Tony looked at him for a long moment, the slightest crease forming between his brows, as if he couldn’t understand why Bucky would ask him such a thing, and then-- “Yeah. Yes. Please.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said, as if it were a gift, because it was. Just because Tony had stopped holding himself in any esteem didn’t mean it wasn’t valuable. He leaned even further in, his hand going up, knuckles brushing Tony’s cheek, and then he brushed his thumb over Tony’s lower lip. Brought Tony’s face down, felt the puff of air on his skin, and kissed him, letting his lips mold over Tony’s.

Champagne and chocolate chips, Tony was sweet and sparkling on the tongue, as effervescent as a dream. Bucky closed his eyes and let himself sink into it.

For the space of three breaths, Bucky was kissing Tony and Tony was merely letting himself be kissed, passive, and then his hand curled around Bucky’s neck and Tony’s tongue flicked out to tease the edges of Bucky’s lips and oh god, that was sweet. He tipped his head and delved deeper, mapping out Bucky’s mouth, and they were both making needy moaning sounds and Tony’s other hand was fisted in Bucky’s shirt, holding them close together.

“Oh, oh, my god,” Bucky said. Had he forgotten this, the way it felt to be close to another person? Dismissed it. Not important. Not worth putting himself out there. God, he was an idiot. “Tony--”

“Bucky,” Tony breathed, staring up at him, as if the kiss had been a revelation.

 

Chapter Text

“So, uh, yeah, that was…” Bucky stammered, his throat red and his eyelashes fluttering, suddenly and painfully shy. “That was… yeah, good, and… a little unexpected.”

Tony blinked, trying to get his brain back into gear. “That was fantastic,” he countered. “Unexpected? Was I supposed to say no?”

Bucky touched his own lips with one shaking hand. “No,” he said. “Er, no, I mean, yes, but I wasn’t… expecting to like it so much. I don’t know. I didn’t really think it through. I… probably shouldn’t have done that.”

“You are a very confusing man,” Tony said. “Why not?”

“I like you,” Bucky said. “Which… is unexpected. Lotta people would think I shouldn’t, or wouldn’t, and I don’t even know if you know who I am, or why it would be bad that I like you, or that-- I’m sorry, I know I’m not making any sense, but we haven’t talked about it, and, well, we probably should. Before I let this go any further.”

Oh. Oh. Well, there went Tony’s brilliant plan of shoving the whole messy past under a rug and ignoring it. “I know who you are,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t at first. Not until I saw the SI forms with your name on them. But. Yeah. I know. I wasn’t going to... I mean, if you weren’t going to bring it up, I wasn’t, either.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. “I didn’t know if you knew, and I-- I mean, why would you know, everything went through lawyers and… I just want you to know it’s not about that. That’s done, it’s over, it happened. You… this, whatever this is, this has nothing to do with that. You’re not your father. I don’t… I don’t blame you for any of it, I’m not holding you responsible. You… you’re just my upstairs neighbor.”

Tony had sort of assumed that was the case, really, since Bucky had declined to say anything nasty or horrible or even passive-aggressively pointed about it. But it still eased something in him to hear the words. He let out his breath, and the next one felt cleaner. “That’s... That’s good. It happened, it’s over, we don’t have to let it matter. We can just... move on. We can be something new. Something good, maybe.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed. “I want it to be something new. Move on. A new start. So, that… that was nice. The kissing thing. Think maybe we could try that again, from the top, with a little less Bucky Barnes shoves his whole leg in his mouth?”

Tony grinned, a warm spark lighting in his belly. “I don’t know that it was your whole leg,” he said. “Maybe just, like, up to the knee.” He scooted closer, turning to face Bucky straight-on. “By all means, let’s take it from the top.”

“You… you are so goddamn gorgeous,” Bucky said, and when he moved to kiss Tony again, that heavy metal hand came down on Tony’s knee. His mouth was soft, slow, sensual, his lips molding to Tony’s, before opening to let him in. He kissed Tony, not with a raging passion, but thoroughly and with rather a lot of enthusiasm. He pulled back, opening his eyes, and breathing a little harder. “Better?”

Tony’s own breath wasn’t exactly even, anymore. “A solid seven out of ten,” he said, smirking slightly. “But you know what they say about practice.” Tony leaned in again, skating his fingertips up Bucky’s metal arm to the shoulder, sliding up the curve of Bucky’s neck to trace the shape of Bucky’s ear, curling his fingers in the soft hair at the back of Bucky’s neck.

“Uh, no, I don’t know, what do they say about practice? Usually, every single day, what, you think talent comes naturally?” His voice rose and fell, mimicking someone else’s pedantic tones. “From the top, play it again--”

And then he was kissing Tony again, pushing him gently back onto the sofa. With a grumble, he jerked his elbow, popping the charging cable out when it snagged. “You think a little messin’ around will be undue usage?”

Tony kicked off his shoes and wriggled until he was comfortable, Bucky situated neatly in the cradle of his thighs. “I think if your battery runs out, we can just carry on without it.” He ran his hands down Bucky’s back, tugged up the shirt to tease at the strip of skin revealed. “Please, commence with the ‘messin’ around.’”

Bucky raised his left hand, looked like he was considering tucking it behind Tony’s back, or elsewhere out of sight and mind, but then brushed metal knuckles down the side of Tony’s face, along his throat. “It don’t… I mean, I guess I knew that, but-- it don’t freak you out none, does it?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “I like your arm more than you do,” he pointed out. He reached for the hand, lacing his own fingers through the metal ones and turning them this way and that to admire the contrast. “There’s nothing here to freak me out. Metal and wire and some moderately impressive circuitry, and it’s all attached to an amazingly hot guy who I happen to like a lot.”

“Amazingly hot?” Bucky asked, his eyes lighting up. “Yeah, you think so?” He squeezed their fingers together and the metal hand didn’t move as much, not like someone’s flesh and blood, but there was movement, there was some residual heat from the mechanics underneath, and a faint buzz and whine as the interior servos directed muscle twitches into grip and flex. It wasn’t alive, but it was very much a part of Bucky. “Let me know if-- anything’s too weird. If I pinch or somethin’. I don’t… touch people. Normally.”

He set about, however, touching Tony. Ran those rounded fingertips down Tony’s chest, slid up under the tee and explored Tony’s belly and side, watching Tony intently.

Tony arched into the touches, loving the cool texture, clearly not skin but just as delicate and careful. “You’re not going to hurt me,” he said. “And it’s not going to weird me out. Promise.” He reached up and pulled Bucky down into another kiss, bending his leg to pull them closer together, trailing his foot down Bucky’s calf.

“Well, it could pinch,” Bucky said, as if he was arguing, pugnacious and confrontational. “Got my hair caught in it once. I don’t… you know, sleep with it on, anymore.” Despite his tone, the defensiveness he had about the arm, he wasn’t stopping what he was doing, pulling Tony’s shirt up and out of the way. He followed those metal fingertips with a few light kisses against Tony’s skin, just over his navel, and around the soft, sensitive parts of Tony’s belly.

Tony’s breath fell out of his lungs, it seemed. How long since he’d had sex sober? With this kind of sweet, delicate exploration? He pushed his hands into Bucky’s hair, petting and pushing, stroking down over Bucky’s neck and back, wherever Tony could reach. “Oh, that’s... that’s nice,” he sighed.

You’re nice,” Bucky responded, blowing cool air over the wet skin, sending shivers up Tony’s spine. He tugged again, getting Tony’s shirt rucked all the way up to his armpits and then pulling the collar. “You better take that off before I stretch it all out.”

Tony grinned and sat up, keeping his eyes on Bucky’s as he reached back to pull the shirt over his head. He dropped it on the floor, then tugged at Bucky’s own shirt. “You too.” He slipped his hands up under Bucky’s shirt, spreading his palms over the warm skin.

Bucky hesitated, then, like saying a magic spell, he whispered very rapidly, “you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, it’s okay,” before sitting back to tug his own shirt off one handed, gently detangling the sleeve from around the upper arm and connecting mechanisms.

Tony tugged the shirt off one snag it was caught on, and then rather pointedly let himself look at Bucky’s shoulder and arm, the mass of violent scars, a discolored patch where they’d had to do a skin graft, the way the arm’s connectors bit into the skin. He frowned and touched one spot that looked angry and red. “Does it hurt? Should I not...?”

“I mean, it’s weird,” Bucky said. “There are places where it’s real… tender? I guess. And some of the nerves are just shredded. Like here--” He poked one of the scars. “Can’t feel anything there at all, but, just here,” and he prodded that section, “I feel it, but over here, instead? Like, the nerve cluster just got scraped over or something. So, I… I don’t really know. But… I trust you. You can touch.”

God, that was nearly as heady as the kisses. Tony nodded, absently biting his lip as he traced the scars. “Tell me if anything hurts or feels bad,” he said. He wrapped his hand over the shoulder, sliding over the skin, feeling the texture change from bumpy with scars to smooth, and down Bucky’s chest to the light scatter of hair. He looked up into Bucky’s face with a little smile. “You’re gorgeous, you know that, right? Like, movie-star hot.”

“I’ve had a few groupies,” Bucky admitted. “Not, you know, that there’s a lot of that. Orchestra performers don’t really attract a young crowd. But a few. I… I’m glad you like what you see.”

Tony lifted his chin and caught Bucky’s mouth again, teasing it open with light flicks of his tongue, letting his hands wander down Bucky’s back, over the curve of those hips. “Tell me what you like,” he breathed between kisses, mouthing down along Bucky’s jaw.

“I like…” Bucky said, like he wasn’t sure what he liked, a bit dazed and confused. “I like… life-affirming blow jobs, an’ the kinda sex that makes you happy to be alive. I like spreadin’ a man out over the bed and seeing what every inch of his skin tastes like. I like… the curve of your back when you’re on your knees, elbows and face pressed into the pillows.”

A shudder rippled through Tony at the words, pure pleasure and desire and wanting. “Christ,” he groaned. “That’s... yeah, that’s all... yeah, we can definitely do that. Maybe not all at once.” He laughed, shakily. “Did you want to--” He gestured toward the bedroom. “Or just find out whether my sofa passes the bounce-test?”

Bucky laughed. “I am never gonna hear the end of that one, am I?” He scooted backward a bit, running his hands along Tony’s thighs, a slow drag of fingers over fabric. “We could sort of mix it up a bit. Life-affirming blow job and I can taste you-- and we’ll test the sofa’s relative comfort levels?”

Another one of those shivers. “Works for me.” Tony hooked a finger in Bucky’s waistband. “Long as I get to return the favor.” He bet Bucky had a gorgeous cock.

“Well, if you’re flexible, we might be able to give it a go at the same time,” he said, pointedly looking up and down Tony’s body. “You’re kinda short, but I think I can curl up a little.”

Tony grumbled. “I am not short.” He was average. Average! But that didn’t stop him from attacking the fastening on Bucky’s jeans, sliding his hands under the material to tease them both.

Bucky groaned and pushed himself against Tony, hips like an eager cat, begging for attention. “I fancy shorter men,” Bucky said, pointedly, the effect a little ruined by how breathless he was.

“Well, I’m shorter than you; it’s hard to deny that.” Tony reached deeper, curling his fingers around Bucky’s length, gratifyingly hard and thick. “Mm, you feel perfect.”

“God,” Bucky said, his voice a thick slur in pleasure. “God, it’s been a long damn time. Yeah, that’s--” He shifted against Tony’s hand, pushing himself up into Tony’s grip, hips flexing with sinewy grace. “Want you.” He slid his hand down, right hand moving over his buttons and zippers with the awkward ease of a lot of practice. He wasn’t, Tony knew, right handed.

But Bucky only strained a moment before the front of his jeans were open and he was pushing them down his hips.

Oh, yeah, gorgeous. Tony’s mouth was watering already.

They struggled with the clothes and the extra pillows on the sofa, knocking things askew, and Bucky grumbled when two afghans fell off the back, tossing them aside before they were both finally naked and stretched out, Bucky laying under Tony as they kissed and kissed

Bucky curled metal fingers and then brushed his knuckle down the length on Tony's cock. "God, you're so pretty. Look at you."

Tony shuddered and arched into it. “Fuck, that feels amazing.” He shivered again, and shifted his balance so he could drag one hand down Bucky’s chest and stomach, hands slightly rough with calluses, making Bucky’s skin jump and pebble.

“Here,” Bucky said, “let me.” Bucky shimmied around until he was laying on his side, pushed hard into the sofa’s back, his knee hooked up for Tony to pillow his head against. Before Tony had a moment to feel worried that he was going to fall off the sofa and onto the floor -- not a far distance, but really more than he wanted to do during a sexytimes moment, falling was not cool or sexy -- Bucky draped that metal arm over Tony’s hip, holding him in place. “I got you.”

Bucky nuzzled once at Tony’s thigh, his scruff of a beard scraping delicately over sensitive skin.

“Oh, oh yeah, okay, that’s good, that’s-- Oh, Christ.” Tony gave himself a moment to appreciate the tease, then dragged his fingers down Bucky’s cock and took hold of the base, angling it carefully before taking a lick, swirling his tongue over the head like ice cream.

Fuck, Bucky was delicious, salty and just a little bitter. Tony licked again, tracing the ridge, and then sucked it in.

There was always a push-pull to a sixty-nine, trying to keep up his fair share of the work while actively appreciating what his partner was doing, that Tony enjoyed. Bucky’s enthusiasm was commendable, really. Tony felt like he was being devoured, sucked into a wet clutch, Bucky’s tongue moving with soft, thorough strokes. His hand slid into the mix, squeezing light at the root, adding a twist of movement from time to time. Bucky’s breath was hot and quick against Tony’s thigh, and every time Tony did something right, he was rewarded with a thick hum that zinged right up his cock to his balls.

Tony was making his own share of noises, rough moans of pleasure and encouraging hums. There was definitely something to be said for the sheer dexterity of a musician’s hands, or maybe that was just Bucky, the way it seemed he was touching and teasing and fondling about six different spots at once, playing Tony as deftly as he worked the neck of his violin.

The best thing, Tony decided, was that there wasn’t room in his head for other thoughts. He had to pay attention to what he was doing, he couldn’t help but respond to what Bucky was doing, and it left very little space to worry or brood or any of the other things that Tony often combined alcohol, drugs, and sex to get away from.

His brain was calm and quiet, hyper focused on the movements of tongue and lip, of judging how far back he could take it, and whether or not breathing was something that he absolutely had to do. (It was. Boo.) It was all sensation and a wash of emotion that wiped Tony’s mind, gave him peace, even as it wound up his body and granted a very welcome tension.

Bucky pulled himself off with a slick pop. “Soon,” he said, and then, “Christ, you’re good at that.” He rubbed his cheek against Tony’s cock, the smooth skin an interesting contrast to the dark prickles of Bucky’s unshaven face. And then Bucky was soothing those spots with his tongue, silken and wet. He was breathing harder, not quite closing his mouth as he licked and nuzzled at Tony.

Tony grunted acknowledgement and pushed himself just a little harder. Life-affirming blowjobs, Bucky had said. Well, Tony was feeling pretty affirmed. And firm, heh. And oh god, what the hell was Bucky doing with his -- lips? Tongue? Whatever it was, it had Tony balanced on the knife’s edge in a matter of seconds, it seemed. He let out a soft, high-pitched moan, hoping that was enough to let Bucky know how close he was.

A slippery hand gripped the base of Tony’s dick, and then Bucky sucked in the head, just the head, and toyed with the slit, his tongue moving rapidly as his hand stroked Tony right toward completion.

Whole constellations exploded behind Tony’s eyes, and he barely had enough presence of mind to pull back a little, himself, letting his mouth gape open briefly as his climax washed over him. “Oh god,” he gasped, and then plunged forward, taking Bucky as deep as he could, at this angle.

Bucky stiffened, the metal hand pulling Tony closer, and then groaned. Tony’s mouth was flooded with a spurt of come, bitter and salty, as Bucky threw his head back and swore fervently. He shuddered all over, before relaxing again, his head pillowed against Tony’s thigh. “Wow.” 

Tony swallowed and wiped away a few drops that had spilled. “You got that right,” he agreed, his voice slightly husky. He focused on breathing for a few minutes, then pushed up, twisting to reach for the coffee table where they’d left the cookies. He took a bite out of one, then held it out to Bucky, offering. “Best way to cover up the taste,” he said, grinning.

“Pfft, it’s not that bad,” Bucky said, but Tony noticed that he didn’t refuse the cookie, either. A rain of crumbs ended up on Tony’s thigh, though, which might not have been the best planning on his part. “Uuuf, gimme a minute, your knees are cute an’ all, but really, I’d rather cuddle face-to-face.”

Tony laughed a little and sat the rest of the way up, swinging his feet back down to the floor. “I’m not sure anyone’s knees are actually cute,” he said. “They’re all... knobbly.”

It took more effort and coordination to get themselves repositioned than Tony would have guessed, but by the time they’d stopped squirming around, Bucky was half-reclined back in the corner of the sofa, and Tony was sitting between Bucky’s legs, leaning against Bucky’s chest. It was a nice chest. Broad and muscular with just the right amount of hair.

“This… might well have been the nicest Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had,” Bucky admitted, running his fingers through Tony’s hair. He’d pulled one of the afghans off the floor and spread it over their hips, just enough to keep the sweat from making them too cold. 

Tony didn’t have to consider it for very long. “Yeah, me too. Before this, the best one was when I was in college and my roommate and I were both single, so we had a platonic date. Went to this cupcake shop just off campus and bought them out of every cupcake that hadn’t been pre-ordered, then set up a table outside the robotics lab and gave them away.”

“That sounds like fun,” Bucky said. “Next year, we can do that. I’ll play cheesy romcom songs and you can give away cupcakes, like you know, a busker thing. I usually hate romance holidays. Seems too… I don’t know, heteronormative.”

“Maybe,” Tony said. “The advertising is aimed that way, for sure. But really, it’s just so much pressure. If you’re in a relationship, you have to pick -- or plan -- just the right gift. If you’re not in a relationship, everyone looks at you with pity. It’s bullshit, really.” But the suggestion that they might still be a thing, in a year, set something warm and wriggly loose in Tony’s stomach.

“Nope,” Bucky said, “no pressure.” He yawned, stretched, a warm body moving against Tony’s, then asked, “What’s your modus operandi for friends with benefits? You want I should clear out?”

“I... no. This is comfortable.” Was that what they were? Friends with benefits? Before he could quite decide if it was a bad idea, he said, “I thought we had a connection.” He knocked lightly on Bucky’s shoulder. “A little something more than bennies? Was I reading that wrong?”

“Well, I didn’t want to take advantage of Nat’s cooking,” Bucky said. “If I was just bribing you with cookies and cheap champagne. I like you… but we ain’t gone, you know, out. Didn’t want to assume.”

“Oh, well, if that’s all,” Tony said. “I’ll take you out. Be happy to show you off.”

“Huh,” Bucky said into Tony’s hair. “Okay, then.” There was a long pause, and Tony was almost asleep when he said, “wonder if she baked these cookies for me to get a clue.”

 

Chapter Text

Bucky took another sip of his drink -- something overly sweet to hide the fact that it was far from top shelf alcohol and had a little paper umbrella in it. “If she says amazing one more time, I might throw my drink at her.”

He wasn’t sure how many drinks he’d had, either. Tony seemed steady enough. He wasn’t making the terrible valley and trees painting that Bucky (and the rest of the Paint Night class) were doing, either. Bucky wasn’t sure what Tony was doing, honestly, aside from drinking and eating little finger foods and serving as a sarcastic commentator to everything their instructor said in his best Bob Ross voice.

Bucky was trying to paint a tree. A task that got harder with every drink he had.

“Happy little tree,” Bucky said, not drawing a straight line. Well, trees weren’t straight, were they?

“Paint another,” Tony advised, pointing at a more or less blank spot on Bucky’s canvas. “Everyone needs a friend.” He grinned, which made the dab of paint on his cheek look adorable rather than messy. Though Bucky wondered where the hell it had come from. As far as he could tell, Tony hadn’t picked up his paintbrush since about the fourth step of the whole process.

Bucky drew another line. This one wasn’t just not-straight, it was downright wiggly. Pretty sure there were no trees that were wiggly, anywhere in the entire history of trees. But he might need to ask an arborist. He changed brushes and drew a mostly -- wow, mostly straight -- white line overlapping the wiggly black one. “There. Paper birch,” Bucky said. “You think?”

Tony studied it with the sort of solemnity that only drunk people could manage, and then, entirely straight-faced, said, “Amazing.”

“Yep, I am,” Bucky said. “Amazing. Amazingly bad at painting.” He looked down at the paint brushes, picked another one. “My friend Steve, you should meet Steve… he’s… he’s an artist. Sneeeeeers at paint and sips. Says they’re like pre-school.”

Tony made a show of looking around him at the other people in their little group, with their half-painted trees and sky. “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen preschoolers with better art skills,” Tony said, smirking. “Which might be sad, if the point of this was the painting.”

“I think the idea is to make money by selling paint supplies and wine to bored people,” Bucky said. He rinsed off his black brush, dabbed it in the green paint. “Let me show you something Steve taught me.” He smushed the brush with its green paint on the end of the branch, making a puff. Several more puffs, and then he lined them with green mixed with black. “Look, leaves.”

What was in those drinks, anyway? It wasn’t good rum, but it might have been potent, at least. He took another sip. When did he order something with muddled mint in it? He didn’t like mojitos. Although this one seemed to have a cherry down at the bottom of the cup, and he did like cherries.

Tony clapped for the leaves. “Very nice,” he praised, then scooped his own drink, waving for the server at the same time as he tipped the glass back for the last swallow. “That’s the point as far as the company who runs these things is concerned, sure,” he continued, once he was satisfied that another drink was on its way. “But for people on a date? It’s a way to let yourself be bad at something without feeling bad about it. Or, alternately, to see how your date handles being bad at something. You don’t want to date someone who throws a fit every time they fail.”

Bucky scoffed. “You already heard me when I’m bad at something,” he said. “I was kinda a brat doing scales under you for most of a month. And while you ban… ban… knocked on th’ floor, you never once called th’ cops for a noise complaint.”

“That wasn’t bad,” Tony said. “It was brave. Anyway, what would I have said if I’d thought of calling the cops? Officer, someone is learning a new skill and it’s making my hangover worse. Yeah, that would’ve gone over well.”

Bucky gave up on subtle and just stabbed the cherry with his drink straw to pull it out of the mess of ice cubes and muddled mint. “Yeah, no, when --” he chewed the cherry up, which seemed to have been soaked in something spicy before being dropped in his drink, “-- when I was learnin’ first time? Neighbor called the cops on us so often that my Ma had to work extra hours so we could rent a little studio space for me t’ practice in.”

“That’s just rude,” Tony said. “It’s a violin, not a jackhammer. As long as you weren’t practicing at four in the morning or something, I mean...”

“Not usually,” Bucky said. “I dunno, I was five. Ish. Started playin’ recorder back when I was like three maybe. Now that’s worthy of a noise complaint.” Bucky reached over to grab a fancy appetizer, an olive and cheese goop on a cracker. Tasty. Also, had a drop or two of paint on it. He hoped the paint wasn’t toxic, because really, he wasn’t going to not eat the cracker, now that he’d managed to pick it up. “I did get stopped and searched once, on a’ airplane, because someone was joking that you could smuggle guns in a musicians’ case. I think someone watched too-- too many whaddayacall’ems? Spy movies? Film Noir?”  

Tony sputtered out a laugh and had to put his hand in front of his mouth to keep from spraying his still mostly-empty canvas with half-chewed cracker. “I mean, I could smuggle guns in my damn watch if I wanted,” he said. “If it wouldn’t get me arrested, I absolutely would make a fake tommygun, like out of wood, and carry it through security in a violin case just to see who noticed.”

“I have only been arrested twice,” Bucky confessed. “Don’t really want to do it again.” 

The waiter brought by more drinks. “Are we sampling the entire bar-specialty menu?” Bucky wondered, because this one had an orange peel shaped like a rose sitting on the top of the ice.

Tony picked up the glass and considered it. “Yes,” he said. “Until the class ends or we fall over.”

“Okay,” he said, taking a sip. “I’mma bet I fall over first.” He leaned back to look at his painting and realized there was no ground. The trees (wiggly sticks) were just sort of floating in midair. He did more leaves, this time pointed up, all around the base of his trees. Grass and stuff, that was good. “I’m going to get this framed, in like, one of those super expensive frame jobs, and I’m going to give it to Steve for his birthday.”

Tony laughed again. It was a nice sound. “That sounds perfect.” He leaned back to consider his. “I might give mine to Pepper. She’s super into art. If I put an illegible scrawl on the back and put it in a frame, I’m curious to see if she notices that it’s shit, or if she thinks I’m picking up another young up-and-comer.” His canvas was the blue sky background, and the initial shape of the sides of the valley, a couple of green triangles on the sides, and that was it.

“Are you going the creative route?” Bucky asked, mocking the instructor. “You’re amazing.” And then, just because it seemed the thing to do, Bucky reached out with his paint brush and put an inverted V on Tony’s cheek, just over the smudge of black. It wasn’t really an A, but it might have been in the same neighborhood with an A at some point. “A, for Amazing.”

“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” Tony picked up his long-untouched brush and swirled it across Bucky’s cheek in retaliation.

“Maybe a little like that,” Bucky said, then moved his drink out of the way. No sense in drinking more paint. “Looks good on you. Brings out the color of your eyes.”

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I see. Well.” He dabbed his brush in the red paint -- he hadn’t even bothered to clean it first -- and reached for Bucky’s forehead.

Bucky noticed that the other students -- and for that matter, their instructor -- were staring, some of them giggling and some glaring. Probably depending on how seriously they took the “art class,” but he didn’t really care. 

On the other hand, the paint was cold, wet, and headed right for his eye. Bucky pulled up the tail of his shirt to wipe his face off with it, and while his torso was exposed, Tony took advantage and painted a great red streak right across his chest. “Hey!” Bucky protested.

“It’s a good color on you,” Tony said, utterly disingenuous. He leaned closer. “Maybe you should just take your shirt off.”

“It’s not that kind of art class,” Bucky said, then hiccuped. “Did that, once, too. Lounged around for one of Steve’s life model classes. Fifty dollars to sit around naked with a bunch of art students. Sounds sexier’n it was.”

Tony leered cartoonishly at him. “Bet I could make it sexy.”

“Well, yeah, but you make algebra sexy, so you have an unfair advantage,” Bucky said. He scowled suddenly, looking at his painting instead of at Tony. The art students had treated him like he was a piece of fruit, mostly. Moving closer to study the lines of his toes. These days, he had no doubt that someone painting a nude of him would come up and study the scars on his shoulder.

Bucky tipped back the fancy orange flavored drink in two gulps. 

“Honey, I make everything sexy,” Tony said. “And so do you.”

Bucky scoffed. “Pretty sure folding laundry is never sexy.” It had, in fact, been so unsexy that Bucky hadn’t done it in months. From the basket to the washer to the dryer and back to the basket. It was a workable solution. “Also, I think she’s working up th’ nerve to ask us to leave.” He giggled at Tony. “So, uh, if you’re done, here?”

“Yeah, I think I’m done,” Tony agreed. He dropped his paintbrush into the cup of water and stood up, downing the last of his drink. He turned to the instructor with a wide smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Thank you, madam; the class has been most instructive.”

Bucky was still laughing at that when they hit the streets, slightly wet paintings in their plastic bags. It should have been cold outside; the weather wasn’t great in mid-March, but Bucky was sweating. And the world was spinning gently under his feet. “Well, that was edjucat-- edju-- broadening. Don’t you think?”

Tony cackled with delight, hooking his arm through Bucky’s. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “But I loved it. And after we get home, we get to wash off all the paint.” He waggled his eyebrows at Bucky as if that had been a brilliant innuendo.

“That’s probably going to be less fun than it sounds,” Bucky said. He yanked up his shirt again, red paint on both sides of the material. “Pretty much this shirt is shot, an’ I’m pre’y sure this is acrylic paint. Tha’s alcohol wipes and scrubbing. Look at that, I got paint on my nipple-- or, I guess, you got paint on my nipple. Not someplace I want to scrub.”

“Baby oil,” Tony said. “And cotton balls. I’ll take care of you, don’t worry.”

“I ain’t worried,” Bucky said, “but I-- callin’ Steve in th’ middle of the night. Hey, art-boy, is acrylic paint safe t’ get in your mouth? Why? Why? Because my boyfriend got paint all over someplace I kinda want him to suck on.”

Tony hummed, low and satisfied. “I can guarantee you I’ve had worse things in my mouth than a little bit of paint, and I would be more than happy to suck on your skin.” He leaned against Bucky’s side, making them both stagger a little before they managed to relocate their sense of balance. “Sensitive there, huh? That’s good to know. Lots of fun things to do with those.”

Bucky’s whole body went up in figurative flames. Jesus. “You’re… gonna get me in trouble.” He sat the bag down on the sidewalk and peeled out of his shirt, using the already ruined fabric to get as much paint off as possible.

Tony stepped back to watch. This wasn’t the playful leer from before, but a hungry focus that had nearly palpable weight. “Fuck, you’re gorgeous. I want to take you home and give you all the trouble you can stand.”

A couple walking in the opposite direction stared at Bucky, the guy’s lip curled up in disgust. 

“Put your shirt on, no one wants to see that--” the woman said, her voice intended to carry.

Bucky looked down at his chest -- for five seconds, he existed in a world where she was protesting his exposed skin and not his biomechanical arm -- and scowled. Steve would have already been balling up his fists, ready to start a fight on the sidewalk for Bucky’s right to free the nipple. And then he realized that it probably was the arm and the scars they were disgusted by.

“Hey, what, is this Tumblr out in the streets? These are male-- male presenting nipples!” Bucky yelled, letting his chest stick out more. “And what’s more, I gotta-- gotta damn censor line right over ‘em anyway!”

“Aw, don’t you worry, hot stuff,” Tony said, and he wasn’t yelling, but his voice was absolutely carrying. “She’s just jealous her guy doesn’t measure up.”

“Damn straight,” Bucky said. He turned back to Tony and said in a much calmer voice, “not that there’s anything straight about me.”  

“You know, I believe I have noticed that,” Tony agreed. He snuggled up against Bucky’s side. “C’mon, let’s go home and confirm that. Scientific process. Very important.”

That-- that sounded like a good idea. Much better than getting into a fight in the middle of the street, while drunk in public. “Yeah, yeah, let’s do that. But you hafta write it down. Otherwise, we’re just screwin’ around.”

Tony actually giggled. “Well, that’s fun, too.”

It wasn’t that far back to their building, and Bucky was too hot, too drunk, and too impatient to wait for a cab, so they staggered back, his arm around Tony’s shoulders.

They got more stares. At least three of them were people who knew who Tony was. Bucky probably shouldn’t be surprised that his boyfriend was both famous and recognizable, but when a pair of tech nerds and their lady friend stopped Tony to get pictures and autographs, he was. The other people were either offended (or impressed) with Bucky’s muscles. Or offended about the gay thing.

Bucky decided he didn’t care.

Much.

Tony indulged the nerds and pretty much just ignored the rest, leaning into Bucky’s side and chattering aimlessly. He was telling Bucky a story about DUM-E’s initial code incarnation, and his description of the ‘bot’s bumbling was funny as hell, when he stumbled to a stop. There was a man standing outside of their building, arms folded. He was tall and broad and bald, and there was something Bucky didn’t much like in the way the guy looked them over.

“Obie?” Tony said. “The hell are you doing out here? You hate coming to this side of town.”

Bucky let his head roll onto his shoulder until he was looking at the guy sideways. He didn’t look any better from that angle, either. Like the human avatar of a piece of rusty farm equipment. Bucky licked his teeth a moment, then said, “Who’s this?”

The man ignored Bucky completely, and looked like he was only speaking to Tony out of necessity. “There’s been some questions about funding allocation and your previous agreed upon use of lab time for the Seraphim missile project, Tony, m’boy. We need your brain power on that. Got a few minutes for me to bend your ear on it?” It did not sound, to Bucky, much like a question.

Tony didn’t seem alarmed, though, just annoyed. “This couldn’t wait for tomorrow? Christ.” He waved a hand at the guy and told Bucky, “Obadiah Stane. He’s SI’s CFO. Handles all the tedious business junk for me.” He pulled a face. “I guess this is important, whatever it is... You want to go to your place, and I’ll come down as soon as we’re done?”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll leave the door unlocked,” Bucky said. “Don’t let ‘Pine out on your way in.” And because he really did not like the way Stane was looking at them, as if Tony was in disgrace, Bucky tipped Tony’s chin and planted a chaste, but lingering, kiss on his mouth.

Tony leaned forward when Bucky pulled back, chasing the kiss, his eyes dark and sparking with desire. “Yeah,” he said, a little belatedly, as if Bucky’s words were only now registering. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

Bucky didn’t quite walk backward into the building, as if the CFO of Tony’s company was going to turn into a troll and devour Tony as soon as no one was looking, but he did watch them out the building’s glass fronted doors while he waited for the elevator.

‘Pine was waiting for him by the door, cranky. He didn’t like eating alone, and even though the kibble was there, it had been barely touched. But as soon as Bucky got to the kitchen to drink a glass of water and take a handful of aspirin, Alpine was right there, eating like he was starving to death.

“Silly cat,” Bucky told him. He finished the glass of water, poured another one and left it next to the aspirin jar on the counter. Pondered how many steps it would take to get to the bed, versus passing out on the sofa. The whole world seemed to be rocking a little more obnoxiously, now that Tony wasn’t propping him up on one side.

Bed. Bed… because Bucky knew his sofa was not comfortable to sleep on. “Need to replace that sofa,” he told ‘Pine seriously.

One day.

One day, he’d remember.

Bucky staggered back into the bedroom, hitting the wall a few times like a pinball smacking the bumpers. But he did find the bed. It was right where he left it.

 

Chapter Text

Tony pushed open the door to his apartment and stomped in, letting Obie follow behind. “You’re the worst, Obie,” he complained. “We were having a really good evening.”

“The demo was this morning, Tony,” Obie said. He moved with the ease of familiarity through Tony’s apartment. Where he’d only been twice before. Straight for the wet bar, and poured himself three fingers of Tony’s scotch. Took a long sip, and then continued, “for the Seraphim missile project. At least this was a limited demo, and not an onsite. You were supposed to fix the flight stabilizers. Does any of this ring a bell with you?”

“What? No,” Tony said, wracking his brain. He still had weeks to work on that, didn’t he? He twisted around Obie and made his way to the workshop. He pulled up his calendar and-- “Fuck. Obie, I’m sorry, I lost track of time. I thought it was next week.”

“We’re leaning toward the explanation that it might have been packed incorrectly for travel to the test location, and we’ve got a full bird colonel who’s going to be expecting significant improvement in three weeks. I need that fixed, and an increase, up to thirteen percent, in payload.”

“Whoa, where’d that come from? If you bump the payload on me, the flight stabilizers are going to need an extra power draw. Where the hell am I going to fit in more fuel?” He’d put the stabilizers off because it was too easy -- an afternoon’s work, if that. But this was more like a six-week problem, requiring some prototypes, which always took time to build, and real testing.

“Scope creep, you know how these military types are. You start with A, and now they want B, C, and D without opening a new budget,” Obie told him. “Some top brass want a bigger boom for their buck.” He poured Tony a drink and offered it to him.

Tony was still just a little dizzy from all the drinks he’d had with Bucky at the painting thing, but he took the glass and knocked back a swallow anyway. Thirteen percent, for fucksake. He could see his way clear to seven, maybe eight, but getting past ten was going to be a bitch.

“Damn it,” he said into the glass. “I’m going to have to put the prosthetic line on hold to prioritize this. Bucky’s going to be so disappointed.”

Obie tossed back the rest of his drink. “He’ll still be missing an arm in a month. This contract’s not going to sit around, waiting. This is an all hands situation here, Tony, m’boy. Sure you can understand that. I’ve been trying to ease you back into the workload, but-- time and tide wait for no man. We have to move on this, right now.”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Tony sighed. “Okay. I’ve got-- I’ll knock out some exploratory paths tonight, and tomorrow I’ll call the project manager and set something up with the design team, see if we can redistribute the weight a little. Fuck.” He threw back the rest of the scotch and casually leaned against the wall to keep from swaying. “Sorry for missing the thing today.”

“Well, the takeaway here is really, you’re back, you’re in the game,” Obie said, putting a heavy arm around Tony’s shoulders. “You do some of your best work under pressure. I know this-- this prosthetic thing, that’s… just guilt, and it’ll make the PR teams happy, a publicity stunt. No one actually expects a working model, and even if you get it going, it’s not a high demand item. No, the best idea is to keep people from losing limbs in the first place, right? Better bombs, better guns, better armor. Keep our troops safe, right? Protect the country, that’s what this is all about. We’re iron mongers, that’s what we do. When there’s more money in hospitals and baby bottles, we’ll switch it up.”

“Yeah, I know, you’re right,” Tony sighed. “I just...” He lost the train of thought in the swirl of alcohol, and shook his head. “Yeah.” He took a breath, blew it out. “I’ve got obligations, Bucky’ll understand.” Of course Bucky would understand. Right?

“Atta boy,” Obie said, thumping him once, paternal and encouraging and just a little bit bruising. “Keep Potts in the loop, she’ll keep me updated.” He turned to leave Tony’s condo. “I’ll send the team pizza in a few days. Morale. You know.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Tony said. “They’ll like that. They like to feel appreciated.” He saw Obie to the door, then flopped back onto his sofa. Thirteen percent, what the hell.

With a sigh, he fished out his phone to text Bucky. Big thing at SI, going to be scarce for a couple of weeks. Sorry. :sadface:

A moment later, Tony’s phone rang. “Hey,” Bucky said, and his voice sounded like he was underwater, or talking through a blanket or something. “Sorry, I can’t text when I’m still drunk. What’s… what’s up? Are you coming down t’ sleep?”

Tony grimaced. “I missed a big deadline today, which means I wasn’t at the meeting where they changed the specs for the big contract, so now I’m locked in to perform some kind of miracle before the next deadline.” He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to come to bed tonight, babe.” Or much at all, for the next couple of weeks, it seemed. “I’m sorry, I’ll make it up to you as soon as I get this bullshit sorted out.”

“Sleep is for wimps,” Bucky mumbled. “Happy, healthy, well-rested wimps. But wimps. Speaking of which, I am a wimp. And a lightweight. Cut off someone’s arm, apparently their alcohol tolerance goes to shit. Okay, okay, I’ll… yeah, I’ll see you soon, then, doll.”

“Yeah,” Tony said forlornly. He’d really, really been looking forward to sleeping with Bucky tonight. Not just for the sex -- though that was awesome, too -- but for the sleepy sweetness of waking up curled into the curve of Bucky’s body, warmth and affection. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “Get some sleep.”

Bucky hesitated, drew in a breath like a shudder. “Do-- weird question time, right. Do you want me t’ come up? I mean, just a warm-body comfort thing? You sound… upset. I won’t be a bother, just… be there.”

“I... I don’t want to interrupt your sleep,” Tony hedged. “I’m going to be working hard; I won’t be able to even chat much.”

“Yeah, no, I get that,” Bucky said. “Jus’... you know, ‘Pine doesn’t talk much, but I feel better, just havin’ something else alive, you know. Around. I can be there without being in the way.”

“If... if you don’t mind,” Tony said. “It would...” It would be comforting, to be able to look up, from time to time, and see Bucky there. Even if Bucky was just sleeping. “I’d like that.”

“‘Kay, sounds good,” Bucky said. “Up in ten.”

When Bucky arrived, he’d brought two bottles of cold-brew coffee, a quart of leftover egg drop soup, and some kung pow chicken in a plastic container. “Eat, get sober. You need all your brain, sounds like,” Bucky said. He kissed Tony’s forehead. “You still got paint on your face. I’ll jus’, the sofa’s fine, I can sleep through natural disasters.”

“You’re a miracle,” Tony sighed. He put the soup in the microwave and started shoveling the chicken into his mouth cold. “You don’t have to sleep on the sofa,” he said between bites. “Take the bed.”

Bucky laughed softly. “Nah, I’m awake now. Go on, do your thing. I’mma read my book for a while. If I can sober up before I sleep, hangover will be like… third highest problem.” He made himself comfortable on the sofa, managing to sit in such a position that Tony could see him when Tony looked up from his workstation -- putting a workshop in the apartment, that had been a good plan, good thinking, Past Tony -- and feel that little jolt of… something. Camaraderie? Comfort? Tony didn’t know, but he did know, especially after Bucky did fall asleep, that it helped. It wasn’t thirteen percent increase on the payload, but-- it was definitely something.

***

Bucky woke up with his arm entirely asleep and his leg complaining that it was next. He tried opening his eyes, hissed. Ow, hangover.

And Tony was practically sleeping on him, leg thrown over Bucky’s hip, and the entirety of Bucky’s arm was shoved under Tony’s chest. Which was probably directly related to the fact that they were on the sofa in Tony’s workshop and not anywhere comfortable.

“You were right,” he told Tony, wincing his way through forming actual words, because… ug, how much did he freaking drink last night.

Tony frowned and pouted and made a noise that Bucky roughly translated as awake: no. But a few seconds later, one eye opened. It looked nearly as bloodshot as Bucky’s felt. “What.”

“Shoulda slept ‘n th’ bed,” Bucky muttered. “You gotta get up, honey.”

“But I just laid down,” Tony whined. He dragged an arm out of the sofa cushions and pushed up enough to squint at the clock on the wall. “Ug. Right. Calls to make, explosions to arrange.” Despite his words, he flopped back down and tucked his nose up into Bucky’s neck. “Don’ wanna.”

“Oof,” Bucky said, intelligently, but what else was he supposed to do when at least a hundred and fifty pounds of exhausted scientist flopped on him like he was a bean bag. “You said…” he tried again. “That you had to be up at ten. Had to, pain of death or being Stane’d to death, at least. Shower, clothes. Meeting with the project manager. Work through lunch. You said Stane would send pizza.”

Tony groaned, but it was a reluctant agreement sort of groan. He sighed and nuzzled at Bucky’s jaw a little, then pushed upright again. “Okay, okay.” He maneuvered around until he was perched on the small sliver of sofa not being held down by Bucky. “Working through lunch,” he agreed. “And probably dinner. I’m...” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “This bullshit is going to set me back on the prosthetic schedule.”

Bucky pulled a face. He wasn’t quite sure what sort of face he was making, but it decidedly was one. They’d done a few tests with prototypes and things had gone back to the fabricators for improvements -- so he was still stuck with the old one for the time being. Not the worst thing that had ever happened.

“I… ok, I’m not going to say I’m thrilled with that,” Bucky said, “but I recognize the world does not revolve around me. I’m first chair, not a soloist.” He gave Tony a quick grin. “Seriously, I’m not upset, though. You have a job, an important one. You should get it done. As soon as possible, because sixteen hour days aren’t good for anyone.”

Tony gave him a somewhat wobbly smile. “You’re the best,” he swore, and ducked to kiss Bucky -- not open-mouthed, because they both probably tasted like tepid death at the moment, but firmly, with plenty of feeling. “Seriously. Amazing.”

“If I make you coffee, can I trust you to take a shower and go to work? ‘Pine’s probably climbing the walls about now, since I can't remember if I fed him last night,” Bucky said. He wouldn’t mind a shower of his own, either, and didn’t really want Tony to watch him have a hangover shower, which usually meant sitting in the tub and letting the water pour on his head until it went cold.

Tony slumped a little. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s a bunch of travel mugs in the cabinet over the coffee maker; fill up the biggest one I’ve got for me, and I’ll text you as soon as I have a few seconds to breathe?”

Bucky swooped in -- okay, he didn’t. He stumbled and almost fell back on the sofa, but hey, close enough -- and kissed Tony’s head, nuzzling at some epic science hair. Exacerbated from having slept, but mostly just that Tony, when thinking hard, had a tendency to spear his fingers into his hair until he looked like a young Albert Einstein. “Sounds good. It… it was a great date, Tony. Thanks.”

Tony smiled a little. “Yeah, it was. Sorry Obie had to show up and ruin things.” He squeezed Bucky’s hand, as if he was reluctant to let go, and then made his way toward the bathroom.

“Nope,” Bucky said, “he doesn’t get that much power. Nothing was ruined. Great date. I’ll look forward to your text, assuming the feral cat doesn’t eat me alive as soon as I walk in the door.”

Tony laughed as he closed the bathroom door. “Good luck staving off the ravening beast,” he called.

Bucky decided that living under his boyfriend was probably the next best thing to living with one. He had his own space and didn’t have to put up long-term with any weird decorating tastes, and it wasn’t all that hard to stagger home after a late night. He didn’t even bother to put on his shirt and shoes.

Which did lead to startling his other neighbor, the one across the hall, who eyed him with avid curiosity, but didn’t ask any terribly awkward questions. Aside from, “you’ve got… erm, paint on you.”

Bucky groaned. He’d forgotten about that. He waved one hand, enough to see that the power indicator wanted him to charge up, and closed the door behind him. Alpine, as predicted, declared to the entire universe that he’d been hungry for as long as he could remember.

“Feed the cat, charge the arm, take a shower--” he said, because telling Alpine his task list for the day did not guarantee that they’d get done, but sometimes he’d remember. “Pharmacy.” He fed the cat and then opened the fridge and poured out the last bit of OJ. “Grocery store. Call my sister, she might want to have lunch today. Do you think we should do something nice for Tony this afternoon, what do you think, baby?”

Alpine churred a little bit, which was probably just a pleased-he-was-fed noise and not approval for Tony’s existence, but Bucky decided to interpret it the other way.

He plugged in his arm, and then took his cell phone into the bathroom with him. He put his phone on the edge of the sink, turned on the shower, and dialed his sister, hitting the speaker phone.

“Hey Bex,” he said, drawing the shower curtain closed and settling into the few inches of water at the bottom of the tub. “How’s my favorite sister?”

“Who is this?” Becca demanded. “I’m no one’s sister. I used to be a sister, but then my brother decided he was too busy to call me...” She couldn’t finish, already laughing. “It’s been a while, Bucks. How’ve you been?”

“Weirdly… good?” Bucky asked more than said. Like he needed permission to be doing well. He found a washcloth and dipped it in the water, wiping off his face. “A little hungover today, but good, nonetheless. I… uh. Met someone.”

Becca gasped. “Met someone, as in met someone?” she squealed. “Okay, you are provisionally forgiven for not calling me in forever as long as you dish up the dirt! Tell me everything!”

“As in met someone,” Bucky said. “And it’s a little weird, so I understand a bit of freaking out, but don’t, you know, flip. Okay?” Scrubbing at the paint line across his chest was not really helping. Only little bits of the paint were flaking off. Ug.

“Weird,” Becca repeated. “Why is it weird? Is it some really old guy?”

“No, no, no,” Bucky protested. “No one from the seventh string.” That was a joke, what he and his orchestra cohorts had called the group of codgers and cougars who sometimes tried really hard to pick up a musician, just for the joy of scratching it off their to-do list. “It’s… uh. I’m just going to say this. Please for the sake of my hangover, don’t scream at me. It’s… Tonystark.”

“Tony-- Did you say Tony Stark?” Becca demanded. “Like. The son of the guy who nearly killed you and ruined your whole career? That Tony Stark?”

“That’s not quite not screaming,” Bucky pointed out. “I said it was weird, didn’t I? It’s weird. I know. But… Bex, I like him. I like him a lot. Howard Stark’s already paid for what happened, as much as he ever can. This… this has nothing to do with that. We… kinda liked each other a little before I even knew who he was. He’s… erm. My upstairs neighbor. The Knock Three Times guy.”

What?! Sorry, sorry, I know, no screaming, but oh my god, Bucks, only you, I swear to god... This kind of shit could only happen to you. So, what, you’re dating now?” She hummed thoughtfully. “I mean, he’s kind of cute, I guess. Is he treating you okay?”

For a brief instant, Bucky had an almost out-of-body experience, remembering Tony straddling his hips, face radiant with pleasure. “Yeah, he’s… kind of a nerd, really. He’s good. So much better-- Alpine likes him.” Which was saying something, since ‘Pine took a long time to warm up to people, most of the time. Came from being a stray for a while before Bucky adopted him. “And he’s got a robot. And-- he thinks my arm is ‘really cool tech.’”

“Oh my god, he’s not just, like, using you to get a leg up on Hydra Tech or whatever they’re called, is he, like, some corporate spy bullshit? I will rip off his arm and beat him with it if he’s toying with your affections, Bucks, I’m not even kidding.”

Bucky chuckled, turned it into a cough, and then coughed for real. Stupid lungs. “I know,” he wheezed. “I know you would. And I mean, yeah, he’s been all up inside it, and everything. Pulled it half to bits, really. Got another three hours out of the battery life. And… he’s designing a new one. So, yeah, it’s a little bit science stuff, but I don’t think it’s all science stuff… I mean, we’ve all got our issues, right? I could just as easily be toying with his affections, to get back at a dead man. We’re… being adult about everything. I think. It’s hard to tell, I don’t have a lot in the way of good role models for healthy relationships.”

“Well, that’s the truth,” she sighed. “You really like him, huh? Does he make you laugh?”

Bucky was glad he was laying down in the shower, and not, like, looking in the mirror or anything, because he legit thought he must have the sappiest expression on his face. “Yeah, yeah, he does,” Bucky said. “I… yeah. He makes me feel alive again.”

“Yeah?” She sounded pleased. “Does he like your music?”

“He does,” Bucky said. “I played Thunderstruck for him, and I thought he was going to fall right out of his chair. Not really a piece that goes well on violin, but yeah, I shredded it.”

“Of course you did,” Becca said proudly, even though she’d been utterly disdainful and incredulous the entire time Bucky had been learning to play it. “Well, if he likes your playing, then I suppose he can’t be all bad.”

“So, once I finish drowning myself, did you maybe want to have lunch today or something? I have to go out and run errands, and it’d be nice to have something fun to kinda round out the morning. My treat,” Bucky said. 

“Oh, absolutely. We’ll eat something terribly bad for us and you can tell me all the details.”

“Great. I’ll text you when I’m closer. First I need to get paint off my skin,” Bucky said. He stretched out his arm and ended the call on his sister’s squawk demanding why he had paint on himself. He grinned. It was too good a story to tell over the phone.

He ignored the fact that he’d seen his sister a grand total of four times since the accident, if he didn’t count the fact that she was practically glued to his hospital room. Or, he didn’t ignore it. He was going to do better, though. He promised.

The water was still warm, but it was almost up to his knees. He sighed. Maybe it was time to think about getting out and getting on with his day.

Well. Maybe five more minutes.

 

Chapter Text

Tony figured out the stabilizers, because of course he did, and after a couple of weeks of subsisting on coffee and delivery and power naps, he even got the thirteen percent increase in payload worked out, more or less. Close enough that the primary team could take over to work out the remaining little kinks, anyway.

When he submitted the design, he fell into bed for a solid forty-eight hours, then emerged to kidnap Bucky and take him up to Cape Cod for a long weekend by way of combined apology and thanks for everything he’d done to help Tony out. They walked on the beach and toured kitschy museums and ate fresh lobster and then spent most of a night having sex, slow and intense and passionate, until they were both too exhausted and overwhelmed to do more than cling together as they fell asleep.

It was great.

The problem was, now that Tony had put his hands back on the company, Obie kept coming around, finding things for Tony to do. This project was falling behind schedule and could use Tony’s genius to bump things along. That project had a materials cost that was way too high and maybe Tony could figure out a way to pare it down. This other project had a solid foundation but the Board of Directors needed some gladhanding to approve its funding.

It was getting so just the sight of Obie, a glass of scotch in his hand, was enough to make Tony droop in tired resignation.

“Hey kid,” Obie said, coming in to the lab, seriously, not fifteen minutes until it was five o’clock, and he had reservations for the evening. Tony considered, briefly, if he could get away with hiding under the table or something equally childish.

Tony slumped in his chair. “What now?” It came out a little whiny. He didn’t really care. “I have plans tonight, Obie, don’t you dare dump another damn emergency on me right now.”

“No,” Obie said. “Came down to give you an ‘atta boy’ since I don’t think you hear too many of them.” He paused, then waved toward the small office space on the side of the lab. “Come and have a drink with me, I won’t keep you long.”

Well, that was a fucking switch. Tony made his way across the room and took the glass that Obie had filled before he’d even gotten there. He took a quick swallow, feeling the mellow burn at the back of his throat, and sighed out the warmth. “What went right, for a change?”

Obie pulled out a folded up newspaper -- the stock report. “You’ve turned us around, Tony, m’boy. You know the financial guys were hoping to get back to the pre-accident point within a year. Didn’t quite make it, but you--” He poked Tony in the chest a few times, pleased as punch. “You got us up and over. So, good, good job. Glad to have you back and more focused.”

“Oh.” Tony took the paper and looked at the report. “Well, that’s... That’s good.” It was good, of course it was. “Great. Maybe now I can actually get a little progress on the prosthetic project.”

Obie took a long sip of his drink, eyeing Tony over the rim of his glass, then, “Now, you know I don’t like to meddle in your life, Tony, m’boy.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Tony muttered into his scotch.

“Don’t care who you sleep with, what you drink, or how many speeding tickets you get,” Obie said. “Figure it’s not really my business, and you got enough grief from Howard for that. But he’s gone now, and… well, Tony, you’re all I got left. You and this company. Been as much a father to you as your old man, true?”

“Maybe more,” Tony admitted cautiously. Obie at least had cared to ask occasionally what Tony was interested in, whether he was enjoying himself, if he was dating anyone. But this wasn’t an opening gambit that boded well.

“So, hear me out, hear me out,” he said, like Tony had protested. “I just gotta say, I’m concerned. I know losing your mom and dad hit you really hard. You were a mess, for a while, but I thought you were handling it. Getting better. Tell me, then. Why are you spending all your time with the man who killed your parents?”

Tony’s hand clenched on the glass so hard he had to put it down or risk breaking it. “You mean the man my dad nearly killed?” he said.

“Do I?” Obie asked, just as cool as a cucumber. 

“I’m sure you remember the whole business with the lawsuit,” Tony snapped. “The one we lost, because Dad had more booze than blood in him. If you’ve got something to say, Obie, then just say it.”

“I’d known your father for most of my life,” Obie said. “He was my best friend, we built this company up from nothing . And I’d seen him drive a straight line with more to drink than he had that night. You know it, I know it. Your father might have been legally over the limit, but you know there wasn’t a machine on this planet that Howard couldn’t drive or pilot to within an inch of his life. So I gotta wonder, how did he end up on the wrong side of the road, running over some scraping by the skin of his teeth musician?”

“Bucky was not-- ” Tony bit back the rest of that, because it was irrelevant whether Bucky was a corner busker or Mick fucking Jagger; Howard’s bullshit had still cost the man his arm . “I don’t know, Obie,” he sighed, “but it’s not like Bucky was trying to end up under Dad’s front tires.”

“No, I’m sure that wasn’t--” Obie cut himself off. “So, is it guilt? Tony, you gotta see that, this is. It can’t be healthy for you. In either case.”

“It’s not guilt,” Tony groaned. He scrubbed at his face, then snatched the glass back up and knocked back the rest of the scotch. “What we’ve got, it has nothing to do with Dad. I didn’t even know who he was when we first met.”

“I only worry because I care,” Obie said, and that came out a little stiff. Not unexpected; neither Stanes nor Starks were overly emotional people.

“I know,” Tony sighed. “I know, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing to worry about. Okay?”

“If you say there’s nothing to worry about, I won’t worry about you,” Obie said. “And I know, I’m old and stuck in my ways, and you don’t want to talk to me about these things. But you should talk to someone about it. Maybe not a professional, but a sympathetic bartender, at least.” He toasted Tony with his almost empty glass and finished it off.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Obie. I’ll think about it. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got reservations.” He put the glass down and tossed the newspaper back toward Obie. “It’s great about the stock thing, though.”

Obie picked up the paper, smoothed it out, and tucked it away again. Tony didn’t turn around to look, but he could feel Obie watching him, the whole way, out of the lab, down the hall, and into the elevator.

***

Tony managed to put Obie’s insinuation out of his mind for a while. SI was keeping him busy, and he didn’t want to ruin what time he was able to scrape together to spend with Bucky by poking at old wounds. He and Bucky were happy together; that was all that really mattered. Right?

Except late at night, when he was alone and there was nothing to do but try to drown out the constant, never-ending buzz of his thoughts.

Because Obie was right . Howard, even blind drunk, was a better driver than that. He should at least have been able to swerve enough to keep the accident from being quite so bad.

“...these skid marks,” the police officer said, pointing at some picture Tony barely looked at before turning back to the one of his mother. Her hair was a wild tumble. Her mascara was running down her cheek and her lipstick had been smeared halfway up the side of her face. He’d have to be sure, he thought irrelevantly, to give the funeral director one of her favorite publicity shots to use as a reference. She’d always hated anyone seeing her -- even Howard or Tony -- in any sort of disarray.

“...BAC of almost double the legal limit,” the officer continued. “Frankly, it’s astonishing he was able to walk, much less attempt to operate a vehicle. He should’ve been in the hospital getting his stomach pumped. The guy he hit--”

“Is going to sue the pants off the estate,” Tony said. That was what Obie had said on the phone. He felt numb. Why couldn’t he feel anything? “Obie said he was going to spin up the lawyers, right after he hung up with me.”

Tony was looking at the photo of his mother again. There was so much blood, he couldn’t tell which earrings she was wearing, or which bracelet. “Did she suffer?”

The officer snorted. “Look at her, kid. Does that look like--”

One of the other officers interrupted. “Christ, George,” he said, “have a little empathy, would you?” He came in and set a paper cup of coffee down near Tony’s hand. “She was probably in too much shock to really feel any pain,” he told Tony gently. “Look, we’ve got everything we need for positive identification, and the first responders are working on getting their reports filed. We’ll be in touch if we find out anything else, all right? Let me give you a ride home.”

“No,” Tony said. He wrapped his hand around the cup and was pleased that it didn’t shake much at all as he lifted it to his lips. He didn’t taste it, but it was police station coffee, so that was probably for the best. “No, that won’t be necessary.”

“Sir, you’re in no condition to drive.”

Tony shook his head. “I’ll walk.” It was only a couple of miles back to the house. He had an offer to stay at Obie’s place, but that was too much like giving in to the situation. He’d never stayed overnight at Obie’s. It would be too strange. If he went back to the house, it would be quiet, and he could pretend they were just off on one of their trips.

“What?” Tony said, shaking off the hazy memories. Bucky had said something, and he’d missed it.

“First chair,” Bucky repeated, slowly. “She’s going to be stepping down to have a baby, in another couple of months. They’re holding open auditions for her seat. I was-- you know, I know you’re busy with SI and everything. But the conductor reached out to me specifically, to let me know. I was wondering if things would be ready. By September?”

Try to remember the kind of September... Tony shook it off again. He was really having trouble focusing tonight. “I... Yeah. Yeah, we can make that work.” Hell, if it weren’t for SI’s demands, he’d have it done in another month, probably. He managed a smile. “That’s great news, babe.”

Bucky made a low, snorting sound. “I probably won’t get it,” he cautioned. “Open auditions. Oh, my god. You have no idea, they’re going to be up to their ears in violinists. Right now, the only thing I have going for me is the novelty of being the world’s only first chair, one-armed violinist. That might bring people in to watch the show.”

“You deserve it,” Tony said. “After everything.” He meant it. Everything Bucky had suffered, because of Howard.

Why are you spending all your time with the man who killed your parents?

Shut up, Obie. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Bucky shook his head. “It’s… not about that,” he said. “I deserve it. If I’m the best. I don’t know that that’s me anymore. It’s not about… who suffered most, or anything.”

Tony closed his eyes. He couldn’t stop seeing that photo of his mom. He wanted to remember her as she’d been before, alive. Or even at the funeral, bruises covered with makeup and her hair neatly combed into a chignon.

She was probably in too much shock to feel any pain. That’s what they’d told him.

Tony tipped back another swallow of wine and rubbed at his eyes. “Can I... Can I ask you something really horrible?”

“Yeah, I mean, you already know that I put mayonnaise in my cottage cheese, how much more horrible can-- sorry, you’re really serious about something, aren’t you? Sure, you know I’ll tell you anything,” Bucky said.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I didn’t mean to kill the mood, but I just can’t stop... Will you tell me? About the accident? What you remember?” He couldn’t look at Bucky, so he took another swallow of wine.

“Jesus,” Bucky said, softly. He reached past Tony for the bottle and poured out another glass for himself, and then topped off Tony’s. “Are you sure that you wanna hear about this?”

“No,” Tony said with a short, bitter laugh. “But I can’t stop thinking about it, wondering...” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I need to hear it.”

“I’ll tell ya, Tony,” Bucky said, and then he was silent for a long time. Enough so that Tony wanted to shake him, to make him talk again. “People say, a lot of times, it was over so fast . Or I don’t really remember , or it was all a blur . I wish… I wish it was like that. Something soft and fuzzy, like a dream I haven’t quite forgotten. But it’s not. I close my eyes all the time, and I can see your mom’s face.”

Pain, right though Tony’s chest, closing his throat in a knot. “Yeah?”

“I mean, I didn’t know who she was,” Bucky said. “At the time. I was… uh, honestly, I was ridin’ home from Brock’s place. I had a roommate back then, another guy from the orchestra, so when Brock and I would have our… moments, you know? I always went to his place. I wasn’t supposed to. There’s a whole list of shit we weren’t supposed to do, as part of the orchestra. Fraternizing. Riding a motorcycle. You name it, we weren’t supposed to do it. Motorcycle accidents can -- well, I mean, you’re an asset for the orchestra, they don’t want you damaged.” Bucky gave a bitter sort of laugh. “Things would be a lot different, if I’d, you know. Not been stupid.”

“Not stupid,” Tony said. “Just... not cautious. Tell me?”

“It was late,” Bucky said, and he looked off into the distance, like seeing the road unspooling under his tires. “I remember thinking it was a nice car, real pretty. Golden. I could see every line, the way the paint glittered. Beautiful. And then there was so much light . The headlights were huge, and the bike slid right out from under me. I heard it go under the car and I remember thinking oh, fuck, I’m next. I… that’s the only part that’s really unclear, probably because of the pain. The front tire went right over my arm, and then the back one, and the car kept right on going, snapped off a road sign and then hit a tree. The engine was still running. I was laying on the ground, staring at the road, and everything was so bright, I could see… everything. I didn’t realize how bad I was hurt. Shock, I guess. Tried to get up. That hurt, let me tell you. I don’t know, I might have lost some time there, because then it was dark, the light was all gone, and I-- there were people in that car, I remember thinking.”

My parents , Tony thought. My parents were in that car. He reached for Bucky’s hand, wishing he could offer some real comfort, or tell Bucky to stop. But he couldn’t. It had possessed him.

“I got up,” Bucky said. “I thought I was going to faint, or puke, but I managed to get up. There were people in that car . I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought I could do. But I got up, and I staggered over to the car. The engine was still running, wheels spinning, but the car wasn’t going anywhere. Opened the driver’s side door, and the driver just… he fell out onto the road. The engine spluttered, and then went idle.” 

Trust Howard to keep his foot on the accelerator right up to the very end. “Was he--?”

“He was already dead, I’m pretty sure,” Bucky said. “He just… fell. I couldn’t find a pulse. Your mom, she was alive.” Bucky swallowed hard, closed his eyes. “She said, ‘Howard?’ and looked at me, like she expected me to do something. Or say something comforting. She… I mean, you must know what happened to her. She was bleeding like anything, and there was nothing I could do. I lied to her. Howard’s fine, ma’am, I said. You’re going to be fine. And she just looked at me and… then she died.” Bucky didn’t open his eyes, but a tear slid down his cheek.

Tony’s vision blurred. That didn’t sound... as awful as he’d imagined it. Awful enough. But she’d just asked for Howard, she hadn’t been screaming in pain or anything like that. That policeman had probably been right about the shock. “That was good,” Tony said, not startled to hear how rough his voice was, from pushing through the knot in his throat. “The kindest thing, really.”

He couldn’t help a stab of jealousy, that Bucky had been there to see her last breath, someone who hadn’t even known her. Logically, that made no sense, but there it was. He tried to ignore it. Squeezed Bucky’s hand. “Thank you.”

How had there been light after the accident, he wondered suddenly. Both headlights had been smashed to bits.

Maybe Bucky was remembering it wrong. Trauma did strange things to people’s memories, he’d read that somewhere.

“She died, and I couldn’t stand up anymore. I… kinda ended up sitting on the ground next to your dad. Howard. I didn’t know who he was, and I just sat there, kinda just talking to them, in case either of them could still hear me. Ambulance would be coming soon, we’re all going to be just fine, everything… and then there was an ambulance, and fire trucks, and everything got very noisy for a while. Someone bumped my arm when they went to check my blood pressure and-- I don’t really know what happened after that, for a while. The next thing I remember really clearly is being in the hospital, and my sister… well, none of that’s important now, I guess. Not really.”

Tony nodded. “Guess not. I’m sorry for asking, I didn’t want to--” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. Thank you for telling me.”

“I’m so sorry, Tony,” Bucky said. “I shoulda been smarter, or not so reckless. In the hospital, they told me who-- uh, who died, and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t-- did I do that, did I kill two people? But the cops said no, it wasn’t… that Howard had… well, you know the rest. But still, I’ve relived every minute of that night so many times, wondering if there was something I could have done different.”

Tony shook his head. “No, don’t think like that. Don’t-- He was on the wrong side of the road. How could you have been prepared for that?”

“Yeah, my therapist says that, too, like if time travel was an actual thing, we’d all be stuck in fifth grade, trying to get our first date right or something,” Bucky said. “That it’s over, and I need to deal with what’s in front of me now, rather than trying to fix what happened in the past. Easier said than done, right?” Bucky sniffled and rather inelegantly used the tail of his shirt to wipe his face off.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed, dragging his arm across his own eyes. “Yeah. But we’ll get there, right?”

The thing with the light was niggling at his brain, wouldn’t leave him alone. Maybe a streetlight?

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Yeah, I hope so. We’ll get there. Together. I… I dunno, I hope it helped, hearing about it? I wish it’d gone different, I really do. I mean… I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss and that I was involved in it, and it’s still done. It’s over, and sometimes I wish my head would let it be over.”

“It’s over,” Tony repeated. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Was it? wondered a voice that sounded suspiciously like Obie’s. Where did the light come from?

“Thanks,” Bucky said, and that came out breathless. “You know, my lawyer kept telling me the whole time, not to apologize. I guess the estates lawyers had the same idea, because no one… ever said it. Not after the cops did their little diagram-thing, where they showed it all as they pieced it together. No one ever said…” Bucky shook himself all over like a cat that had gotten spritzed with water.

“Lawyers are allergic,” Tony said. “They think if you say you’re sorry, you’re admitting guilt, not just... sympathizing with someone who’s had something utterly fucking shitty happen to them.” He gave Bucky a wan smile. “I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”

“It’s your parents,” Bucky said. “Do you, I don’t know, need to go see them? It sounds like you’re having a hard time with your grief right now. I just… want to help.”

Tony shook his head. “Nah, I’ll be okay. Hearing that helped, I think. Thanks. I know it wasn’t easy. I just need to, you know, process it for a bit.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky said. “Do, uh, you still want to stay tonight, or do you need a little space to process?”

Tony chewed on his lip, thinking. “I... might need some space,” he admitted. “I’m not going to be any kind of company for a bit, I expect.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, and while he didn’t look exactly happy about it, he wasn’t pouting or complaining or even protesting. “You know your emotional state best. Just… if you don’t want me to bring you coffee at the lab tomorrow, send me a text. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, definitely. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He leaned in to kiss Bucky’s cheek. “Sorry.”

 

Chapter Text

“This is dumb,” Tony told himself. “I’m not going to find anything useful.”

That was probably true. But his hands were still moving over the keyboard, delicately sliding sideways into the city traffic-cam database. He hadn’t slept since hearing Bucky’s story of the accident. Hadn’t been able to reconcile Bucky’s tale with the sequence of events the cops had put together.

City traffic videos were kept in storage for at least three years, according to the policy he’d dug up. So all he had to do was find the right server, and--

The cops hadn’t bothered to comb the cameras; Howard’s toxicology report had shown such a high BAC, and the car was on the wrong side of the road. What happened seemed obvious enough not to bore some officer with the task of checking the footage.

There. There it was. The traffic cam wasn’t perfectly situated, but it should show enough. Just enough to settle Tony’s restless mind.

“This is dumb,” he repeated aloud. “What are you going to do if it turns out he was actually at fault?” He didn’t have an answer for that.

He downloaded the file anyway.

The camera wasn’t very good. The image was black and white, and not a full video either; one of those every three second things, so the images jerked and skipped across the screen, the timer underneath running along.

Tony had been there, a few times, after his parents’ funeral. Trying to feel something, maybe. See the shorn off road sign post, the tire tracks on the road. He knew the shape of the trees on one side, shops on the other. A narrow side street on the north side of the road.

He skimmed through the regular day traffic, watching as the timer got later. No one had ever really told him what time the accident had happened. Some time after midnight, Tony knew. He’d been woken by Obie at something like five in the morning. 

031723 - 121616

The strip of road was empty for a long moment, then Howard’s car, a weird shade of pale grey on the film, entered the image. Tony couldn’t see in the front window, and maybe that was a blessing. The Mercedes was on the proper side of the road. Something flared, a light, from the northern side of the road, and then--

The motorcycle was already sliding sideways, riderless, the headlight splashed straight up onto Howard’s car.

Tony could barely see his father, then, a shadow of a silhouette, shoulders tense, as he struggled with the wheel. Turning. As far as Tony could tell, Howard never hit the brakes at all. The car struck the motorcycle, and its rolling rider.

The car spun like a top, until it was backward across the road, zoomed forward another few feet, and snapped off the street sign, and then it was out of sight, leaving a body clad in dark leather, splayed across the street.

The light faded. After a moment, Bucky struggled to get up, fell back to the road. If he was screaming, Tony couldn’t tell. He couldn’t tell anything.

Tony backed it up, watched it again. He still couldn’t tell where the light was coming from -- it wasn’t the car’s headlights, or the bike’s. It was coming from the wrong direction for either, and far too bright. And there was no hint of what had caused Bucky to wipe out -- he’d already fallen by the time the motorcycle came into frame.

Bucky rolled in just after the bike. Just in time for a swerving Howard to run him over.

Tony backed it up and watched it again. The sequence of events was evident: The car, moving straight and fast and in the correct lane. Then the bike, sliding and spinning across the road. Then... the accident.

Obie was right. Howard hadn’t caused the accident.

Bucky had.

Tony covered his mouth with his hands, unable to tear his eyes from the screen. “Oh, god.”

***

Bucky got coffee and a bearclaw for both of them from the shop just a block away from SI, like usual. He took an Uber to the coffee shop, and then walked the rest of the way. His therapist said getting outside was good for him; she’d been very proud of how far he’d come in the last few months.

He was abusing the hell out of his SI badge to bring Tony lunch and coffee and sometimes just hang out while Tony was working on other, non-prosthetic related projects. He even suspected that the front desk guys knew that, and were overlooking it. Bucky sometimes reminded himself to pick up doughnuts for the staff, but he never remembered until it was too late.

“He’s not here, Mr. Barnes,” the security guard said, raising an eyebrow as Bucky strolled in, drink tray in one hand, the bag of snacks clutched under it while he swiped his badge in through the front.

“What?”

“Mr. Stark didn’t come in this morning,” the guard said. “Guess he called in sick or something.”

Bucky frowned, put the coffee down on the counter. “Huh.” He checked his phone. No texts. “Look, this’ll be cold by the time I get back home. You want it? One black, one light cream and two sugars.”

He heard the desk guard say thank you, but he was already opening his Uber app and out the door before they could finish.

He texted Tony. You okay?

There wasn’t a response before he got in the Uber and despite watching his phone like a cat waiting in front of a mouse hole, there were no replies by the time he got back to his building, either, despite it being nearly a thirty minute trip by cab.

Was Tony sick? Or just--

Angry.  A tiny, guilty voice said in the back of his head. Upset, Bucky corrected his inner voice firmly. Tony was upset last night. 

“I shouldn’t have left him,” Bucky said, punching in the button for Tony’s floor. His imagination gave him vivid views of Tony, grieving for his parents, crying his eyeballs out on the sofa, with no one to hold him. “God, I’m such an asshole.”

The elevator doors opened, and he crossed the hall to knock on Tony’s door. Knock three times, he sang in his head, the way he always did. The way they both always did. It was their thing.

There was no answer.

Bucky rapped again. “Tony? Honey, you okay?” He leaned against the door frame to listen. They hadn’t processed yet to giving each other keys. It seemed kind of silly, all things considered, since they were neighbors. What was the point of having a key; if Tony wasn’t home, Bucky could just go back downstairs. Except… what if Tony had gotten hurt, he was in his apartment and sick, or hurt, or--

His brain was going way too fast for this. Bucky took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down. Too much talk about dead people, yesterday, it seemed. “Tony?”

There was a soft thump, and then footsteps, uneven. The door opened suddenly on Tony, still wearing the same clothes he’d had on the night before, his eyes rimmed in red and his hair stuck up at all angles. “What.” He reeked of alcohol.

“Tony? Oh, my god, honey, are you-- are you okay?” Of course he wasn’t okay, Bucky was such an insensitive ass. “Oh, oh, wow, I should not have left you alone last night, I’m so sorry.”

“Me? I’m fine,” Tony said. “Absolutely fine.” He stumbled back into the apartment, but he left the door open. “I’m processing.”

Bucky took a few steps inside, reached, and then drew his arm back. He’d never seen Tony like this, wild and almost hostile. He’d seen Tony inebriated more than a few times; a worrisome number of times, really, all things considered, but Tony was usually a very happy, cheerful sort of drunk person, and really, Bucky was probably overreacting to that sort of thing. Not everyone who drank a lot had a drinking problem. “Hey, Tony, sweetheart,” Bucky tried again, catching Tony’s elbow to steady him. “Come on, let’s sit down for a minute, yeah?” 

Tony pulled his arm free. “The police didn’t check the cameras,” he said, and it was almost... cold. “Dad was drunk, they figured it was open-and-shut. But they didn’t check.” He stared at Bucky, eyes intent, and not in a good way. “He wasn’t on the wrong side. He was fine. Until you hit him.”

Bucky felt like someone filled his head up with novocaine and then smacked him with a baseball bat. Numb and swollen in a way that he knew was going to hurt like hell as soon as the numb wore off. “What?” he said, his lips barely forming the word. “What, Tony?”

“The traffic cameras,” Tony said. “Dad didn’t hit you. You wiped out and skidded into him.” His eyes, usually so warm and light, were dark and cold. “You killed my mom.”

“No,” Bucky said, but there was no strength behind it. “No, I didn’t. I… didn’t kill anyone.”

“It’s on the video. Car’s going perfectly straight before the bike hits it.” Tony turned away, stalked to the bar at the far side of the room, and poured a drink. “It was you.”

His guts rolled together like so many snakes. He swallowed a surge of guilt; he’d told Tony what happened, he’d told him, he’d… he’d told that story only twice, once to the cops when they asked, and once, again, to his lawyer. Even his therapist was still bringing up that he might feel better if he talked to someone about it. “This-- this is why you asked me-- made me--” 

He was shaking. Even beyond the guilt, beyond the sudden uncertainty that his memory had betrayed him somehow, there was… this horrible, sinking sensation. Tony had lied to him about why he wanted to hear it. Bucky had torn his own heart out of his chest again, to have it thrown in his face as an accusation?

“I don’t think you need any more to drink,” Bucky said, astonished that his voice was so steady. Get Tony to sober up and they could talk about this, not fling accusations around. 

“I don’t think you get to tell me what I need,” Tony snapped, and took a gulp of the drink, like a defiant child.

“So,” Bucky said, and he still sounded incredibly calm. Calm in a way that would have Steve reaching for his shoulder to hold him back. Bucky didn’t get angry, not the way Steve did, suddenly and over little things, but when he did, Bucky was merciless. “Let’s have the rest of it, then. You’ve, what, decided that I lied about everything? That I knew it was my fault and I lied, that makes me, what? A murderer. Go ahead, say it, I know you’re thinking it. That it wasn’t just an accident. But you know that’s not true. It was a shitty accident Tony, that’s all it was.”

For just an instant, a flicker of shame flashed across Tony’s face, but then it was gone, and he was baring his teeth viciously. “Get out,” he snarled.

“You know, I never hated your father for what happened,” Bucky said. “Never.” 

It wasn’t far. Out of the living room, down the stairs, and into his own apartment. But it had never seemed quite so far, either.

And the condo had never seemed less like home.

***

The door didn’t quite slam behind Bucky, but it had that sort of final feel. Tony looked down into his glass and tried to summon some sense of triumph. Or righteousness. Or anything that wasn’t so close to abandonment.

He wasn’t sure why he’d even opened the door. Why he’d told Bucky what he’d found. The plan had been to get utterly, blackout drunk -- nearly there, well done -- and then try to put the whole thing behind him. It wasn’t like Bucky had wiped out on purpose, after all. He knew that. He’d just wanted one night to deal with the shock of it not, actually, being his father’s fault at all, after spending so long trying to push past that anger and resentment.

And now he’d fucked up the only good thing that he’d had. Well, that was par for the course for him, wasn’t it? Bound to happen sooner or later.

Tony stumbled back into his workshop, glass cradled in his hand, and watched the video again.

Where was that light coming from?

He reached for his phone, scrolled down the contacts list, and thumbed Obie’s name. Restarted the video while he listened to the ringing.

“Tony-- heh-hey!” Obie’s voice, fruity and loud and full of avuncular good cheer, came over the line. “How are you?”

“Been better,” Tony admitted. “I want to re-open the accident investigation.”

There was a long silence on Obie’s end that Tony chose to interpret as surprise, and then getting his thoughts in order. That was probably projecting. Tony’d never been able to gauge Obie’s mood, even after knowing the man for his entire life. Obie might have been goal-oriented, company driven, profit-margin squeezing, but he was also a closed book. “Tony, m’boy, I was spitballin’ and worried about your mental health. Case’s done. It’s been more than a year. No new evidence.”

“But there is,” Tony said. “There’s a traffic cam that catches most of the accident. Dad wasn’t swerving or in the wrong lane, Obie. Just like you said.”

“Huh,” Obie said. Another long pause -- or maybe it just seemed like it.  “Let’s not get your britches in a bunch just yet. Take a few minutes for yourself. I have that shareholder report to finish off. I’ll come see you tonight, and you can show me this evidence of yours.”

“Okay,” Tony said reluctantly. “It’s, ah, not admissible evidence, what I’ve got. I may have acquired it through questionable means. But we’ll find a way to make them agree to go look at the official record, right?”

“Ah,” Obie said, knowingly. “I’m sure we can do something, clear your old man’s name.”

“Thanks, Obie. See you later.” Tony hung up, feeling almost ridiculously grateful. He and Obie didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but Obie had always had his back.

Tony thought about going to bed for a few hours, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Worse, the sheets probably still smelled like Bucky, and he didn’t want to torture himself with that, not right now.

He took another sip of scotch and replayed the video.

Tony wasn’t sure which drink he was on -- the bottle had been more than half full when he started and he’d stopped drinking from the glass and was working on the bottle direct, when there was the sound of metal against metal, and the door slid open to reveal Obie, neat and crisp and polished in his suit.

“Kid,” he said, “you still here?”

Tony looked up, surprised. He hadn’t been expecting Obie for hours, yet. Maybe he’d fallen asleep at his computer, for a while. That had happened before. “Obie? Hey, come on in.”

“Ah-ha, there you are,” Obie said, like Tony was still a kid and they were playing one of their rare games of hide and seek. Obie had never pretended to not be able to find him, but Tony had been so desperate for a playmate when he was a child that it didn’t matter. Ten minutes of play with Obie had been a tiny bit of joy. “Couldn’t concentrate. Let Davis handle the shareholder thing. He probably won’t screw it up that bad.”

Obie took a bottle of scotch out, one from Tony’s father’s collection -- he knew the label. Howard had been saving it for a special occasion. 

Tony blinked at it, then at Obie. “Really?”

“What’s the sense in having a flunkie if he doesn’t do some of the work, sometimes?” Obie wondered. “He does pretty well at these shareholder things. He’ll never be the scientist that you are, Tony, but he makes the shareholders feel smart, and that’s worth something.” He wandered behind the wet bar to find the whiskey stones and a second glass. A religious experience, Tony’s father had once said, should not be diluted. 

Well, okay. Tony would have thought that bottle was better saved for the successful conclusion of the investigation, but whatever. Obie was hard to read. He tossed back the rest of what had been in his glass and handed it to Obie to fill. “Let me show you what’s on the video,” he suggested, jerking his head toward the computer.

“All right,” Obie said. He finished messing with the glasses, and then came around behind Tony to watch, handing him his drink. “You know Howard was my best friend. Good partner. Good man. We both want this laid to rest.”

“Yeah, of course,” Tony said. Though he wasn’t sure he entirely agreed with the good man assessment. But maybe that was just Tony’s bitterness at having never come first in his father’s affections -- when he had them at all.

He took a swallow of the scotch -- Christ, that was good, even though Tony was already pretty drunk. Smoky and rich. Though it had a faintly bitter aftertaste that he wasn’t sure he cared for. Maybe the bottle was starting to turn. That’d be a shame.

Or maybe it was something that would grow on him. He took another sip, letting it roll across his tongue, and played the video, oddly aware of Obie looming behind him, leaning over him to watch it.

Obie watched the video, scowling. Like it was a badly performing ballistic missile. “Play it again?” He took Tony’s cup. Tony could hear the booze making its familiar gluk gluk as it poured into the glass.

He handed the glass back to Tony and they watched the video again, the only sounds the swallowing of alcohol, and their harsh breathing.

“Well, that’s pretty damning,” Obie said. Tony wasn’t quite sure when Obie poured him a third glass, but the amber liquid had a siren’s call that Tony found hard to resist. “Did you tell anyone else about this? Dubiously obtained evidence has to be treated with all the reverence of radioactive material.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Of course not,” he said. “I know I’m pretty reckless, but I’m not dumb.” Well, he’d told Bucky about it. But he hadn’t told Bucky how he’d obtained the footage. And he really, really didn’t want to bring Bucky up to Obie and have to listen to Obie’s told-you-so. “When do you think we can move on it?” he asked instead. “What’s the next step?”

Obie puffed up his cheeks and blew out a breath, the way he always did when he was getting ready to make a hard decision. “Make a copy-- and then delete this off your hard-drive. Bury it, make sure the file can’t be recovered, just in case. All traces of whatever you did to obtain it. We want to make sure our guys come at this clean.”

Tony nodded. He found a flash drive in a drawer and copied the file to it, then wiped the hard drive. His fingers stuttered on the keys a little as he entered the command to overwrite the file with a sequence of random bytes, which was a little weird. If Howard had been able to pilot any vehicle even while drunk, Tony was able to code just as smoothly. The scotch must be a higher proof than he’d expected.

“Yeah, okay,” he said. His voice sounded mushy, even to his own ears. Definitely extra high proof. He pulled out the flash drive and held it up for Obie. “Superclean,” he promised, and giggled a little.

“Good boy,” Obie said, ruffling his hand through Tony’s hair like he was a puppy. “You look like you’ve had a bit much, kid. Let me help you over to the sofa.” Obie didn’t wait for Tony’s yea or nay before sliding an arm under Tony’s shoulders and moving him gently. Which was probably good, really, because Tony’s legs didn’t seem to want to work at all. Obie dropped him on the workshop couch. “Whoops, can’t forget this.” He plucked the drive from Tony’s fingers and--

-- started moving around the workshop. He pulled a handkerchief out of his vest pocket and--

-- wiped down all the surfaces in the ‘shop that he’d touched. The bar, Tony’s desk, the bottle of scotch.

“Wh... Wha’ you doin’?” Tony mumbled. He tried to sit up, but his arms didn’t want to support his weight.

“Covering my tracks,” Obie said, as if this was obvious. “Don’t want anyone to know I was here. Not that they’ll look, but sometimes, like with you, someone gets a flea in their ear.”

Tony’s brain was foggy, slow. “Wh’ th’ hell? Why--?”

“Would have been satisfied to leave well enough alone,” Obie said, “but then you had to go and get involved with that Barnes boy. Sooner or later, the two of you were going to compare notes, and it might as well be on my time, right? Gave you a nudge and you did just what I knew you’d do. Went and asked him about it, didn’t you? Got yourself a flea, an itch, and well, I didn’t know about this video, so I guess that’s good, right?”

Obie came over to the sofa and looked down at Tony. “You really have been sowing your own seeds, m’boy. No one will ask too many questions, I expect.” He used his handkerchief to pull out a… pill bottle? From his jacket. Opened the lid. Held it out for Tony to take, and when Tony couldn’t move his arm to take it, Obie pressed it into his hand. “There we go.”

Tony’s brain caught up, finally, but he couldn’t quite make himself believe what was happening. “In th’... scotch?” He looked over at the glass, then back up at Obie. “Why?

Obie stood there, looming. Staring down at Tony like Tony was some sort of lab experiment gone wrong. “Well, I suppose it won’t hurt anything for you to know,” he said. “You’re going to die, you know. Xanax, a little street drugs, alcohol. It’s your own fault. Digging. Always digging. Sooner or later, you were going to find out the same truth that killed your father.” Obie gave him a grin that looked like a rusty bulldozer blade. “Couldn’t have you finding out that I’d arranged your dad’s accident. Just like I couldn’t have him reporting unlawful weapons deals in the middle east. That it leaves the company clean and clear for me, well, that’s just icing on the cake, wouldn’t you say, Tony m’boy.”

Tony tried to shake his head, but he could barely move it. “No,” he managed. “No.”

“Your dad,” Obie said, shaking his head. “Wanted peace. Peace. Bah. Peace and we’d be out of a job. We’re iron mongers, that’s what we do. Clean energy initiatives, bah. Ridiculous. Costs more to make that it’s worth. He couldn’t make it work anyway. Waste of time, of resources. Like your prosthetics program. Both of you.”

Obie looked around the room, satisfied. “Well, I think this is just about as over as it can get. Don’t want to be here when things get messy. And I have an alibi to attend to. Bye kid.”

Obie took the glass he’d been drinking from with him, left everything else. The scotch, the drugs. Tony. And walked away.

“No,” Tony said again. “No!” He struggled to sit up, and only succeeded in falling off the sofa. Groped for his phone, but it wasn’t on the table where he’d left it. Obie must have moved it. Somewhere out of reach. “Obie! Don’t--!”

The apartment door closed, very gently, barely a soft click in Tony’s ears.

“No...” Tony groped around, but his hands wouldn’t hold anything. He looked around, what little he could see from his workshop floor. Dustbunnies under the sofa and table, his chair, a few files and blueprints. DUM-E in his charging station. “DUM-E,” he gasped. “DUM-E. Knock.” He tried to knock on the floor, too weak to make enough noise to even reach his own ears. “Knock, DUM-E.”

DUM-E rolled forward, tipping his camera to study Tony. Tony demonstrated again, weaker by the second. knock. knock. kn-- The world went black.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky stared down at the broken neck of his violin in shock. The strings had given off an unpleasant squawk as they tore free, breaking the bridge and snapping the pegs. The fingerboard cracked and splintered.

Fuck,” Bucky breathed, all his anger and fear and guilt dissolving into a swirl of muddled emotions. “Oh, God, I’m sorry.”

You killed my mom. Tony’s voice was a dim echo in his head. Guess I’m good at that, he thought, looking at his murdered violin.

It was an accident, it was a shitty accident.

Bucky backed up a few steps and sat down, cradling the pieces of the instrument in his lap with the tenderness of someone saying goodbye to a beloved pet. 

His fingers moved slowly, like he was half numb, running over the body and waist of the instrument, petting it.

Except it hadn’t been an accident, not this time. He’d snatched up the violin, furious with Tony, furious with himself. Full of rage and grief and guilt and betrayal; sick with it. It was, he'd decided, entirely the violin’s fault. If he hadn’t been so driven to learn to play again, Tony never would have heard him. They’d never have met. None of this ever would have happened.

Even further back, if he’d never played at all, he wouldn’t have been on a particular road at a particular time of day.

“Your fault,” he’d hissed at the violin, snatched it up, prepared to smash it wholesale against the wall in his fury, but he’d gripped it too tight in the left hand, the wood had been no match for the pressure of Zola’s mechanical hand, and--

“Oh, god,” Bucky said again, and then he was sobbing, pushing what remained of his beloved instrument out of his lap so he wouldn’t get the wood or strings wet -- for whatever good that would do him now -- and wept.

He wept for the instrument; for the Starks, dead apparently at Bucky’s hand; for Tony, who hated him. For himself.

He cried longer and harder than he had when he’d lost the arm in the first place, knowing his career, his life, was ruined and over.

Maybe he was weaker this time, too many hits and he just couldn’t face it. Or, the shattering bits of what remained of his hope -- he had been getting better, just in time to be knocked off a cliff -- broke him.

He didn’t know. Didn’t care. 

There was the whole rest of his Tony-free life to figure it out.

I never hated your father for what happened.

He’d given Tony the benefit of the doubt, hadn’t he? Even when there was no reason to be kind to the man. Why couldn’t Tony have extended him the same courtesy? 

Bucky didn’t know, he hadn’t known. He’d told the police what happened, what he remembered, everything that he knew, and the police had said it wasn’t his fault.

He didn’t stop weeping so much as he just… ran out of tears. He drew a few hitching breaths, but there was nothing left. He was exhausted.

Bucky got up, gently lifted the pieces of his violin and took them into the music room, laying them tenderly in their case. He groped in his back pocket for his phone. Selected a number from his contacts. 

“Black Panther Strings, what can I do for you today?”

“Shuri,” Bucky said, relieved, if only a little. “This is Bucky Barnes, remember me? False arm? I was wondering if you might like a little challenge. I… broke the neck off my Rocca.” 

“The Kriesler? Are you a madman?” Shuri demanded. Despite a girl several years younger than he was yelling at him as if he was a toddler, Bucky felt the first wave of relief. Of course Shuri remembered him, remembered his precious violin. If anyone could repair her, it was Shuri. “Bring her to me-- I have an opening tomorrow afternoon, at three. You bring her to me, every splinter! I am very disappointed in you, Mr. Barnes.”

Knock knock knock.

“Thanks, Shuri,” Bucky said, and he sniffled. 

“Aw, Mr. Barnes, you are upset,” Shuri said, “but don’t worry. I will repair her. I have done more, with less.”

“I know.” He hung up, and glared at the ceiling.

Knock knock knock.

“I don’t want to talk to you, asshole,” he told the ceiling. Besides, Tony knew where he was. If Tony wanted to apologize, he could bloody well come downstairs and do it like a man, not make Bucky race upstairs to grasp at any crumb Tony was willing to throw.

He probably didn’t say it loud enough, because sure enough, there came another three knocks a few seconds later.

Bucky grabbed up his mallet and thumped his G resonator box. Clang clang.

Twice on the pipe means you ain’t gonna show.

Knock knock knock. It was almost rhythmic, the precisely-timed knocks, and the space between them.

“No!” Bucky yelled and threw the mallet at the ceiling. He was being childish and he knew it, breaking things, throwing things. All it was leaving was a great big mess for Bucky to clean up--

Knock knock knock.

Jesus Christ!

Bucky sighed. Fine, fine, whatever. Bastard.

He went into the bathroom and washed his face. Brushed his hair and tied it back. He might not be one hundred percent fine with what happened, but damned if he was going to let Tony see it.

The rhythmic thumps were still going on as he left the condo. 

No Tony in the hallway. “Oh, come on! You could at least meet me halfway, here, you’re the one who’s bein’ a dick,” Bucky yelled.

No answer.

Bucky knocked on the door.

No answer.

From behind the door, though, he could still hear it. Thump thump thump. Pause. Thump thump thump.

Bucky tried the knob. It didn’t turn. There were more thumps. Rhythmic, steady, but-- Bucky was probably reading too much into it, but they almost sounded… desperate.

Yeah, that’s what you thought yesterday, Tony was sick, or hurt, or upset, and look what that currency bought you.

“Tony, you open this door, or so help me, I’ll break it down!”

Thump thump thump.

Bucky sighed. “Well, I warned you,” he said. He considered the door, steel core, he knew that, but-- well, a door was only as good as its frame. He gripped the knob with his left hand and rattled it. The artificial arm was stronger, at least in the grip, than his regular hand. “This is going to fucking hurt.”

Bucky squeezed the knob, hard as he could, braced his foot against the frame, and pulled. All sorts of alarms went off as he pushed the structural capacity of the arm to its maximum yield. “Swear to god, you better be fucking dying in there,” Bucky muttered, ignoring the fact that his arm sounded like a malfunctioning microwave oven. Pulled the knob up, pushed it down, the whole thing, loosening it inside the door’s structure.

With a crack like a gunshot, the knob gave way, splintering the door around it, leaving a fist sized hole clear through it. “Tony!” No answer. Bucky picked a few wooden slivers out of his arm, and then inserted it into the hole, reaching up for the deadbolt. He got it, turned it.

Then he had to get his damn arm untangled from the hole, and honestly, it had been easier going in than coming out. He must have done a number on the door from the other side.

Finally, he was in Tony’s apartment. Staring around at the living room.

Which was… anticlimactically, empty.

Thump thump thump. That was coming from the back of the apartment. Tony’s workshop. And now that he was in the apartment, it sounded... metallic?

“Oh, my god, DUM-E, if he set you up to--” Bucky took a few steps into the workshop and something crunched under his shoe. He lifted his foot to…

What the hell? He knelt down. He’d stepped on a pill of some sort, spreading white dust everywhere. And not just one pill, but three. There were more scattered on the floor. “Tony?”

DUM-E thumped on the floor again, then lifted his arm and opened the claw to peer at Bucky. He looked from Bucky toward the sofa, where--

Tony was on the floor by the sofa, in an awkward heap, as if he’d fallen there. There was a pill bottle in his hand, and he wasn’t moving.

“Tony? Oh, oh, oh, Christ, Tony, no no no no no,” Bucky was babbling, and aware of it. He didn’t realize he’d moved until he was turning Tony over in his arms, searching his face, anything, for any hint that he was still alive. “Oh, Christ, Tony, no, I’m not worth this, you stupid--”

Tony lolled, unresponsive, in Bucky’s grip, but he was breathing, shallowly. His skin was waxy-pale and clammy, but warm, almost feverish. He reeked of alcohol, even worse than before.

Jesus Christ. Bucky cradled Tony against his chest, keeping him upright, and scrambled in his pocket for his phone. He punched the Make Emergency Call button on the front rather than bothering to key in his PIN. 

“Yes, dispatch,” he said, very calmly, “I have an unresponsive man here, mid twenties, possible overdose of drugs, combined with alcohol.” He gave the address. DUM-E had stopped beating on the floor, rolled over and peered at Tony and Bucky, his claw/camera like a worried face.

“Good boy, DUM-E,” Bucky managed to say, before dispatch was asking him a bunch of questions that needed his attention.

***

Something was beeping, and it was annoying as fuck. Tony ached all over, his stomach and his head and his neck, and something was itchy and prickling on the inside of his arm. He didn’t want to wake up, but all the minor irritations were conspiring to keep him from drifting back down into the warmth of sleep. He whined a little, scrunching his nose as he realized how dry and fuzzy the inside of his mouth was. What the hell had he been--

Obie.

His eyes shot open and he tried to sit up, flailing at whatever was draped over him, a blanket and some kind of tubing--

The heart rate monitor, because that’s what it was, Tony saw, as he fought with the blanket -- and fuck, he was so damn weak -- spiked and then settled out again. He was covered in tubes and wires, a needle in his arm that went up to a bag of solution at the head of the bed. One wrist had a familiar-looking hospital band on it, name and info. Another one, bright red, had black blocky letters on it. 24 HOUR WATCH. That band was hard plastic, not paper, and locked on his wrist like a damn zip tie.

Suicide watch, he translated. Obie had been trying to make it look like a suicide. He twisted to untangle the tubes, and then stopped, staring.

Next to the bed, slouched in an uncomfortable hospital chair, was Bucky. He was sleeping, chin dropped down to his chest, the artificial arm outstretched and plugged into the wall, the other one tucked awkwardly around the back of the chair as if to keep himself from falling onto the floor.

“Oh my god,” Tony croaked. His eyes filled with tears, as if even the most basic level of self-control was utterly out of reach. Maybe it was. “Bucky?” He shouldn’t wake Bucky up, probably, but on the other hand, if he didn’t, Bucky was going to have a hell of a crick in his neck when he did wake up. Tony coughed a little to clear his throat. “Bucky?”

Bucky didn’t mutter sleepily, or shift around, or anything like that. He went from being asleep to regarding Tony through too-calm eyes. “Hey,” he said, almost too gently. “I’m supposed to call the nurse the instant you wake up.”

“Okay,” Tony said, and pushed on to the most urgent thing. “Listen, you didn’t tell Obie where I was, did you? Or, did they?”

“What? No, I didn’t tell anyone. Been working with the hospital staff to keep it hushed up. Since you’re… well, you. They’re going along with it right now. No paparazzi or anything. You’re welcome.” He held up one hand. “Now, I just wanna say my piece, before-- well, before you say anything, okay?”

Bucky still looked mostly calm, but he had that set to his jaw, that meant he was determined to push on ahead, no matter what. If Obie didn’t know Tony was here, then... Okay, they probably had enough time for Bucky to chew him out. God knew he deserved it. Tony tugged on one of the tubes so it would settle a little more comfortably against his arm instead of tugging on the IV, and then nodded. “Okay.”

“You owe that robot of yours your life, by the way,” Bucky told him. His voice was shaking. “Look, I’m… I’m sorry. Tony, I am so sorry. When I woke up in the hospital, I told the police what happened, and they-- they said… they told me that it wasn’t my fault and I believed them. If… if you have evidence that shows that it happened different from what I remember, what they said… I mean, I can’t make this right, Tony. Even with the annuity, I don’t think I can ever pay back what’s already been spent, but I’ll… I’ll make it right, I swear, I will. I’m so sorry. Tony… this-- I am not worth this.” He waved a hand at Tony’s arm, the bracelet, the hospital. “Please, you can’t just… give up like this.” He was crying, soft and steady, and his voice was shaking so badly that Tony could barely understand him.

But barely was enough.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Tony said. He tried to meet Bucky’s eyes, though it was hard. “It was Obie. Everything was Obie. He set up the accident, so he could take over the company. And when I realized it wasn’t Dad’s drinking that caused the problem, he...” Tony waved at himself. “He came over -- to look at the evidence, he said. But he spiked my drink with pills and shit, set it up to make it look like I’d done it.” Bucky was blinking at him, not fully understanding. Tony leaned forward. “It wasn’t your fault,” he repeated. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I said it was. It wasn’t true, even before I knew about Obie, I just... I was mad and upset and lashing out and that was a shitty thing for me to do, and I’m sorry.”

“I don’t,” Bucky said, wiping at his face with a shitty hospital tissue. “I don’t understand. How could… how could Stane be responsible for the accident, he wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I don’t... But he said it. He said he killed Dad because he was dealing weapons in the Middle East, and Dad found out, or was going to find out, I don’t... It’s all hazy. But he definitely said he’d arranged the accident. And that he was killing me. He wiped up his fingerprints and put the pill bottle in my hand, and I couldn’t move--” Tony covered his face with shaking hands. “Fuck, I need... I need to call someone. Police. FBI. Something.”

“Tony,” Bucky said, soft and soothingly. “You had your stomach pumped. Twice, I might add. You drank almost a bottle and a half of booze, took god knows what with it.” He was chewing his bottom lip, eyes wide and worried. “And you’ve been really upset the last few days.”

“I’m not making this up,” Tony said. He dropped his hands and looked up. “I swear I’m not. I’m not trying to, to say I’m not fucked up, or making shit up to try to get you to not be mad at me. And I know I was drunk off my ass last night, but Obie... he’s the one who put the pills in my drink. And I don’t know how, but he’s the one who killed my dad.” Christ. If Bucky wouldn’t believe him, who would?

“I’m not mad at you,” Bucky said in that same, gentle voice. “Everything’s gonna be okay, now. Okay? You’re safe, and I’m gonna make sure that you stay that way. Get you the best doctors, therapists, whatever you need, okay?”

“Will you stop that?” Tony demanded. “I’m not crazy! And as soon as he finds out I’m here, he’s going to -- I don’t know, have me quietly committed until everyone forgets about me and he can just finish me off! Check me into a rehab program or something, and leave me there to rot!”

“I am not going to let anyone take you anywhere and forget about you,” Bucky said, fiercely. “Tony, you almost died in my arms, can you please forgive me for not wanting to yell at you right now?”

It was the little catch in his voice that brought Tony up short. He looked at Bucky closely, seeing all the little details -- the rumpled clothes and the red-rimmed eyes with their bruise-dark circles under them, the pale skin, the trembling hands. “I... Okay,” he said. “Okay, I’m... Yeah, all right.” He closed his eyes. “It was that close, huh?”

“It was,” Bucky said, softly, pushing a lock of Tony’s hair out of his face and tucking it behind his ear, infinitely tender. “If Shuri’d had an appointment slot open, I’d have left. I’d have left you and I know… damn it.” 

Tony shivered. “I’m sorry,” he said, softer. “I should have trusted you from the start. Thank you for saving me. Again.”

“Tony Stark,” Bucky said, “I love you. I probably shouldn’t, but I do, and… I am not going to let anything happen to you, so help me god.”

Tony stared. Bucky was shaking and frightened and fierce and no matter what he said, he was probably going to be utterly furious with Tony once the shock and terror wore off, and Tony had never loved anyone more. “Okay,” he said. He felt a little stunned. “I love you too. I promise, I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”

Tony found himself engulfed in a trying-to-be-gentle and not-quite-managing-it hug and Bucky sniffled in his ear. “Idiot.”

Tony tried his best to hug Bucky back without yanking the IV out of his arm or detaching any of the other doodads. “Yeah,” he agreed, and sniffled. “But I’m your idiot.”

“Thank god,” Bucky said.

“Well, in fact, Mr. Stark, you’re our idiot,” someone said, and Bucky all but yanked out a handful of tubes, jerking away from Tony.

The man in the door was no one Tony had ever seen before; the very definition of mild-mannered, with a gently balding head and soft blue eyes. He wore a fitted, but not expensive suit, and he had an air of competence around him. “I’m Agent Phil Coulson. Come with me if you want to live.”

Agent Coulson paused. “I always wanted to say that.”

 

Chapter Text

“Agent Coulson,” the man said, holding out one of those leather badge holders. “Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. You can call us S.H.I.E.L.D. We’re working on it.”

“I’ve never heard of you,” Tony said. He leaned over to look closely at the badge, though. “What can we do for you, Agent Terminator?”

“I like to consider it a mutually beneficial arrangement, Mr. Stark,” Coulson said, offering the badge to Bucky. Like Bucky had any idea what official identification looked like. Anyone with a computer and a 3D printer could probably make an official looking badge these days. He looked it over carefully anyway, just in case there was something obviously false. Also, it let him catch a quick look at the so-called agent. 

Who was carrying a gun up under his jacket, short and professional-looking. 

“You get ‘round the clock protection, your own personal doctor to take over your case, and a vacation,” Coulson said. “Witness Protection, at least for the short term. We have good reason to believe your life is at extreme risk. In exchange, you fill us in on whatever I wasn’t able to overhear there in the hallway and any other evidence you might have. We’re building a case against Stane.”

“Oh my god, you-- You believe me,” Tony said, his eyes wide and shimmering. “Oh, thank god. Yes, yeah, I’d--” He broke off, looking up at Bucky. “You’ll come with me, right? When he realizes I survived, he’ll come after you, too.”

“I ain’t gonna leave your side,” Bucky swore, letting his hand clasp around Tony’s. He still wasn’t sure he believed all this murder and conspiracy stuff. It sounded like the plot to a bad movie that got solved with more guns and bullets than brains. 

“We’ve made arrangements for Mr. Stark, a supposed transfer to a high security, exclusive mental health resort for high risk, high profile cases,” Coulson said. “It’s a good cover, medical confidentiality prevents anyone from answering any questions. You--” He pointed a finger at Bucky. “You we don’t have a story for. Do you have family or friends out of state that you could visit? Nevermind, we’ll get the story out there on the way. We need to move Mr. Stark, the sooner the better. Assuming you’re going to cooperate.” 

Tony hesitated. “How do I know you’re not actually working with O-- Stane?”

Coulson’s mouth twitched a little out of that professional, bland smile. ”I understand you hacked the pentagon’s computer base when you were in high school, Mr. Stark. On a dare. It shouldn’t take you long to crack SHIELD’s systems, if you have to. We’re an off-shoot, shadow agency under the general oversight of the CIA, handling operations considered too sensitive for CIA spooks. And, if I were in Stane’s employ, I’d have come in as a nurse and killed you right here in the hospital. No one would ever know.”

“You are seriously creepy,” Bucky said, eyeing Coulson suspiciously.

“Thank you, I’ve been working on my spook routine,” Coulson said. “When we get to the secure location, I’m willing to share what we’ve put together so far, but I cannot risk compromising our case by bringing classified materials into the city emergency room.”

“Is it weird that I actually found that a little comforting?” Tony asked. “It’s weird, right?” Despite the bright and familiar rhythm of his patter, Tony was leaning tiredly against Bucky’s side. “Okay,” he said. “Work your spooky magic. There had better be a decent computer wherever we’re going. Vacation or no, I’ve got work to do.”

“And I want my cat,” Bucky said. 

Coulson actually rolled his eyes. “You better have good information.”

“I’ve got information, and I know where to dig for more,” Tony promised.

“One cat, one boyfriend, one computer,” Coulson ticked off on his fingers. “All right. Sign here.” He pulled out a small stack of papers. “This gives us permission to transfer your medical files, so Dr. Cho can treat you on site. This one gives us permission to remove personal articles from your home, including your computer. It’s not a warrant, since you’re not under arrest. Here’s the form that puts you into SHIELD custody. I’ll be getting one for you, too, Mr. Barnes.”

Tony took the pen that Coulson offered and actually skimmed the documents as he signed them, but it didn’t take long. Which was good, because by the time they’d reached the bottom of the stack, Tony was leaning heavily against Bucky, and trembling with even that much exertion.

“You’re gonna be okay,” Bucky said. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

“Well, I hope not everything,” Coulson said, tucking the papers away. “We hope that Mr. Stane will be having a very bad day, and that as soon as possible.”

“I just wish I knew why,” Tony whispered. “He was like family.”

“My guess?” Coulson gave Tony a sympathetic smile. “Power. It goes to people’s heads sometimes. It, everything, starts being more about the game, the points, the favors, the double-deals. It’s addictive. And then you make a mistake, and you have to cover it up with more mistakes, otherwise you’ll lose everything you worked for. Some people end up gambling, some people… well, they do other things.”

Tony sighed and turned his face against Bucky’s shoulder, half-hiding. “Is that everything, Agent?”

“For the time being,” Coulson said. “Your transfer will come through soon. We’ll be moving you in a private ambulance and then we’ll do some fancy spook stuff. I’d say you’ll love it, but you are quite ill and I don’t think it’ll be nearly as much fun for you. We’ll speak again soon. Mr. Barnes, I’m going to send you home with one of our agents. Pack some stuff for yourself, your cat, and your boyfriend, and I’ll have a car come around and get you.”

Bucky nodded, but there was an icy stone where his guts used to be. That he was going to say goodbye to Tony and never see him again. That this was all some giant, strange conspiracy and-- 

“I love you,” he told Tony, ignoring Coulson who was leaving the room anyway. “I’ll see you really soon, okay?”

“Love you too,” Tony said. He brushed his fingers down Bucky’s face. “See if you can find my phone, too, okay?”

Bucky nodded, then reached into his pocket. “Here’s mine,” he said. “Call Steve if anything… weird happens, okay? And I’ll call you as soon as I get your phone.” He whispered his pin in Tony’s ear, just in case someone was listening.

Tony took the phone with a nod, and whispered his own code in return. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Bucky kissed Tony’s forehead and then gave him a long, steady look. This was so freaky and weird, he wasn’t sure what he believed, but he knew one thing for certain; he was already in deep with Tony. He was going to see it through.

***

Alpine, who, as far as Tony knew, was never an outdoor cat, sat by the french doors that led out to the patio and pool area and yowled like he was going to die this instant if no one let him out to chase bugs.

“The answer remains no,” Tony told the cat, with no expectation whatsoever of being listened to. “If we’re here for a month, we’ll look into getting you a run. Or maybe a harness. That’ll make you really mad.” He double-checked his calculations and leaned back in his chair while the model rendered.

“I will literally pay actual cash money to see someone try to put a leash on that cat,” Bucky said, stuffing a handful of chips into his mouth and chewing noisily. He flipped another page. “I can’t even figure out what I’m looking at here, there’s so many black lines through everything. This is useless.”

He picked up a photograph, black and white, of Obie shaking hands with a scruffy looking man. “Who is this guy, anyway?” Bucky held up the photo to show Tony. “Ulysses Klaue?”

“Oh, hey, I know that guy,” Tony said. He scooted his chair closer to look at the picture. “You run into the weirdest people at conferences. He bills himself as a collector, but I’m pretty sure he’s a smalltime arms dealer.”

“Well, I suppose talking to an arms dealer isn’t the same as, you know, trading weapons on the black market or anything,” Bucky said. “This case is weak. I wouldn’t even take it through a deposition. This is… speculative at best.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “We need real dirt, not just hearsay and threats. I wish I could get into his computer at SI, but I don’t have a backdoor into those servers.”

“Personally, I still think this SHIELD guy is using you to close his own case,” Bucky muttered, snapping his fingers until Alpine came away from the window to sniff at him. “Tony Stark, computer consultant, off the books.” 

“Lucky for him,” Tony said idly, turning back to the screen. “Do you have any idea what my hourly rate is for consultations? SHIELD’s government-funded. No way could he afford me.”

“So, no backdoor into SI,” Bucky said. “What about the front door? I mean, you have friends at SI, right? I don’t know much about computers, but wouldn’t someone be able to, I don’t know, lend you their account or something?”

“Hmm, maybe,” Tony mused. “But the only people who’d have the permissions to dig into Obie’s files would be Obie and--” For the first time, Tony understood why cartoons showed a lightbulb going off over someone’s head to represent an idea. It literally felt like a blinding light had gone off inside his eyes. He sat up and grabbed for his phone. “Pepper.”

“What?” Bucky asked. He was leaning back in his chair, as the cat tried to sniff at his mouth. “It’s a chip, you stupid cat, you don’t like chips.”

“So let him sniff one and then he’ll stop pestering you,” Tony suggested. “Pepper is Obie’s PA. She’s amazing; I’ve been trying to talk her into coming to work for me for two years now, but she’s resisted my charms. But she likes me! I can tell. She just doesn’t want to work for me, which: fair. I’m a sucky boss.”

Bucky snorted. “You certainly suck like a boss.”

Tony grinned. “Only for you, darling.” He composed a text. Next time the boss is in a meeting, give me a call. Important!

Bucky offered Alpine a chip. The cat sniffed at it and then made the yuck cat face and jumped down, offended. “I hope she likes you. Not as much as I like you, mind.” He got up and nuzzled Tony’s ear. It had taken Bucky most of a day to kiss Tony again after his stint in the hospital, but eventually Bucky admitted that it was the way the activated charcoal had dyed Tony’s teeth black that was freaking him out. Several very thorough brushings had ended that particular problem.

Tony tipped his head to invite Bucky to continue that exploration. “I did hit on her once,” Tony admitted. “Only once. The woman is terrifying when she wants to be.”

“You’re sure she’s not, you know, in on it?” Bucky wondered, but wondering didn’t seem to keep him from nipping the shell of Tony’s ear and then sticking his tongue in it.

“Pepper gets mad about the sales guys giving out specs,” Tony said. “And she hates how much Obie leans on the good ol’ boy network. I’m pretty sure she’s on the up and up.”

Bucky was just sucking a hickie on the side of Tony’s throat, one hand sliding down the collar of his shirt to tease at a nipple when Tony’s phone rang.

Ug, timing. Tony opened one eye to check the caller ID, but-- “Yeah, I’m going to have to answer it,” he sighed. He nuzzled up Bucky’s cheek. “Hold that thought.” He took a couple of deep breaths so he wouldn’t sound like a bad porno when he answered the phone, and thumbed it on. “Pepper!”

“Tony, oh my god, Tony, are you okay, they’re letting you have calls now, I heard you--” Pepper hitched in a breath. “Okay, it’s really you. You’re… I didn’t know what to think.”

Okay, play it cool, he told himself. There was no way of knowing what story Obie had told her. “Yeah, they finally let me have my phone back,” he said. “What, uh. What did he tell you?”

She lowered her voice, as if someone might hear her, or she was trying to be comforting. “Am I allowed to? I mean, are you allowed to talk about it? Obie said… he said you hurt yourself and you were in the hospital, like… rehab.”

“I hit a low point,” Tony said. Well, that was true. “But I’m getting help.” That was true, too. King of the half-truth, he was. “Pep, listen, Obie... I’m sure he means well--” Okay, that was an utter lie, so much for that run of truth. “--but I don’t think everything he’s told you is quite... accurate. I need you to do me a favor.”

“I… yes, of course, a favor,” Pepper said, crisply. “What do you need?”

“I need some files off his server. It’s for a project I’m working on, you know, when I have time. I don’t want this to set SI too far behind, you know?” And he was back on that half-truth wagon. “He’s probably going to have them on a ghost drive; I’ll email you a passcode--” virus “--that should get you right to them. Just pull everything onto a flash drive; I’ll sort it out when I get it.”

“Tony, are you sure you want to be working on anything except getting better? SI will roll along without your input for a few weeks,” Pepper hedged. “I mean, it’s great that you’re interested in the company again, and you’re doing a lot of work, but… well, I care about you Tony, and I don’t want you… you know, to hurt yourself again.”

“It’s all cleared with my, ah, hosts,” Tony said. “Look, if you want to make sure I’m not trying to slip anything past you, I’ll give you my case worker’s contact info. He can decide what to pass on. Okay?” Straight into Coulson’s hands might be for the best, anyway. If Tony actually had to see the evidence... He didn’t know what he’d do.

“All right, Tony,” Pepper said. “I take it you don’t want me to mention this. Is Mr. Stane trying to be all paternal? He does that to me when I catch cold, it’s remarkably uncomfortable.”

“...Yeah, you know how Obie is. Anyway, after the scare I gave him, I thought if I can get this thing done, it would be a surprise for him. You know?”

“All right, email me and give me your case-worker’s email, I’ll get you what you need. And then, when all this is over, I’m going to buy you lunch and remind you that people love you, Tony. I should know. I’m one of them.”

Tony smiled. “Thanks, Pep. I love you too. You’re the best. Obie doesn’t deserve you.” And that was nothing but 100% unvarnished truth.

“You take care of yourself,” Pepper said, and then she disconnected the call.

Bucky was sulking, making an over-exaggerated pout face. “You’re going to leave me for some floozy named Pepper? Tell me she has red hair, with a name like that, she absolutely has to have red hair.”

“Sort of strawberry-blonde, but that’s reddish,” Tony said. He caught Bucky’s hand and pulled until Bucky gave in and bent to give Tony a kiss. “I’m going to leave you exactly never,” he promised. “You’ll love Pep, too, once you meet her. Though maybe not if she ever hears you called her a floozy.” He grinned and kissed Bucky’s nose. “You’re my favorite, promise.”

“You’re my favorite, too. Well, except for ‘Pine. But he was here first,” Bucky said. He spun Tony around very slowly in his chair and then straddled Tony’s lap. “How are you feeling?”

Tony’s hands came to rest on Bucky’s hips, steadying, feeling the warmth of Bucky’s skin through the shirt. “Hopeful,” he said. “Mostly recovered, physically anyway. How about you?” He smirked a little, tipping his head back to study Bucky’s expression.

“Not, mind you, that I am encouragin’ you to pick a fight with me,” Bucky said, giving Tony a heated look from under long lashes. “But we never did get t’ have that make-up sex, what with you bein’ poisoned an’ all.”

“That’s true.” Tony let his thumbs tease up under Bucky’s shirt, seeking skin. “Think you’ve got a little time in your schedule just now, then?”

“I got a few things, but I can clear a space on my calendar, especially for you,” Bucky said, leaning in and capturing Tony’s mouth.

 

Chapter Text

In his quick dash through their apartments to pack clothes and computers and other necessities, Bucky had, as it happened, thought to grab a bottle of lube. That was the good news.

He had not, however, stopped for condoms. That was the bad news.

“Not even one?” Tony whined, searching fruitlessly through the pockets of the suitcase. “Not even a slightly suspect expired one?”

“I was out,” Bucky said. “Meant t’ get ‘em next time I was at the shop and forgot. And I didn’t see any at your place. I don’t even have my wallet condom, we used it, remember, when you decided you needed a 20 minute sex break from work.”

“Oh, yeah.” Tony sat back on his heels, grinning dopily. That had been fun. But it did mean they didn’t have a condom now. “Okay. We can solve this. There’s a corner store, like, two blocks away.” He reached for his jeans.

“Right,” Bucky said. “Okay, yeah… that’s probably better than waiting for a Prime Now shipment.” Which was how they were doing most of the rest of their shopping; Coulson had given them both S.H.I.E.L.D. debit cards, because their actual cards were suspect, if someone was tracking Tony through his funding. Which, given the situation, paranoia was probably reasonable. “You got cash? I can go distract our guard for a bit.”

Twenty-four hour protection was exactly that. An unmarked car or van was parked near the drive. They’d discovered that the hard way when Tony had decided fresh air would be a change. Coulson had yelled at them for almost ten minutes, pointing out that the air in the backyard was just as fresh as the air they’d find anywhere else in New Jersey.

“Yeah, okay.” Tony zipped up (carefully!) and pulled on a tee. He checked the cash in his wallet -- there were a couple of twenties, at least, more than enough for condoms -- and watched as Bucky wandered outside to strike up a conversation with their guard.

When the car’s window rolled down, Tony sighed in relief. Coulson wasn’t on guard duty every day, but he did take a shift now and then, and he did not tolerate any bending of the rules. Mack, on the other hand, could be counted on to chew the fat for five minutes or so before gingerly shooing them back inside.

Tony watched as Bucky leaned against the car door, his arm waving in a way that meant he was talking about sports. Baseball, probably. Mack liked baseball.

When he was sure they were well into the conversation, Tony went out the back door, ducked quickly through the narrow strip of side-yard where it was possible that Mack might spot him, and vaulted over the fence into the neighbor’s yard.

The neighbor wasn’t home, as usual -- Tony suspected that was another safehouse, actually -- so Tony darted around behind the house and came up on the sidewalk on the far side of the street from where Mack and Bucky were still talking.

The corner store was right where Tony remembered it being. He kept his hat tugged down low over his eyes as he shuffled through the store. He grabbed a package of crappy little doughnuts, a couple of sodas, and a ten-pack of condoms.

The cashier didn’t even look up as she rang him up and shoved everything into a plastic bag for him.

“Have a good day,” she said, her voice rote, “and thanks for shopping at Kwik-e mart.”

Bucky was no longer leaning against the car door by the time Tony got back, so he was just going to have to hope Mack wasn’t paying attention as he darted back toward the pool garden’s gate. 

Mack didn’t leap out of his car to yell, “Stop, fugitive!” or anything like that, either, so Tony assumed they were safe. He slid inside and made a beeline for the bedroom.

Bucky had… decided to get back into the mood, stripped out of all his clothes, and was laying, sprawled and provocative, across the bed, lazily masturbating.

Tony had to stop and brace himself against the door frame against a sudden wave of urgent need. “Oh, Christ,” he breathed. “You are so god damned gorgeous.” He fished the condoms out of the bag and tossed them on the bed, then pulled his shirt off and started unbuttoning his jeans on his way across the room.

“Sorry I didn’t wait for you,” Bucky said, not sounding sorry at all, the menace. “But you were gone forever. I counted.” He watched, avid and greedy, as Tony stripped and then bounced onto the bed next to him. Bucky rolled Tony onto his back and kissed him.

Tony wrapped his arms around Bucky’s neck and arched up into it, stropping his body against Bucky’s. “Oh, god, you feel so good.”

“Gonna make you feel even better,” Bucky promised. Bucky cupped the back of Tony’s neck, pulled him even closer, tilted his face to give Bucky complete, unfettered access to Tony’s mouth. “I love you.” He took Tony’s mouth prisoner, gave no quarter, kissed him with a blinding intensity, as if there was nothing else in the entire world he’d rather do aside from devour Tony whole. Kissed him as if he were air that Bucky had to breathe, the food to sustain him, as if he was necessary. Essential. As if Bucky would die without him. 

“I need you,” Bucky told him, the words throaty with his desire. His lips skidding off Tony’s mouth, across his cheek, nuzzled at his neck.

Tony groaned, threaded his fingers into Bucky’s hair and pulled until Bucky kissed him again. His whole body was undulating, rocking up against Bucky’s, the drag and pull against his skin just on the edge of too much. “Yes,” he gasped. “Yes, want you, need you...” He groped blindly until his hand found the bottle of lube. “Love you.”

Bucky shifted around to lean on his left arm, let Tony pour lube into his right hand. Tony might have admitted to having a few naughty thoughts about Bucky’s arm, but Zola’s tech, while very good, was full of pinching joints and edges that Tony didn’t really want against tender bits of his anatomy. Later, later, when Tony finished his own design, maybe they could try it. 

“You beautiful man,” Bucky said, slipping his hand between Tony’s legs, teasing at the base of Tony’s balls with slippery fingers before moving back to get the lube where it was needed. 

Tony’s breath stuttered as he threw his head back, reveling in the sensations, the gentle burn and the wonderful filling sensations of being fingered open. “You,” he murmured, barely even knowing what he was saying. “You’re so good to me, so sweet, so perfect. Love you, love you so much...”

“Could do this forever,” Bucky said, leaning down and licking over Tony’s nipple, the scrape of teeth at the end a brilliant shiver. “Jus’ to watch the way you take it.” He got two fingers in and twisted, stimulating Tony’s rim, tugging gently on the muscle, coaxing him to relax.

Tony stroked through Bucky’s hair, down his back and shoulders, wherever he could reach. “Sometimes want it to go on forever,” he sighed. “But then you-- oh, god, yeah, right there, yes, oh fuck--” Waves of pleasure flattened Tony to the bed until he was gasping and needy. “Yeah, forever’s not happening today.” He wormed one hand between them to stroke himself. “Need you too much.”

Bucky shifted around again, grabbing the box of condoms. “Here, get one for me, would ya?” Little, delicate tasks were still difficult for Bucky to manage, and condoms were sometimes an exercise in comedy, watching metal fingers try to open foil packets.

Tony tore into the box and ripped off one of the packets. He tore into it and tossed the wrapper on the floor, squinted at the condom briefly to make sure he had it turned the right way around, and then tugged at Bucky’s hip with his free hand. “C’mere. Let’s get you dressed for this party.”

“So bossy,” Bucky mock-complained, but he knelt up, between Tony’s thighs, so that Tony could roll the condom on. Bucky shuddered and groaned as Tony slid it on with slightly more production than the job required. 

Tony grinned, his own body shivering in response to the sounds Bucky was making, his own cock twitching and straining for the relief it knew was coming. Condom snugly fitted, Tony stroked his fingers up and down Bucky’s shaft, teasing, slipping back to cup his balls. “You’re so pretty.”

Bucky quivered under Tony’s touch, so responsive. “Works out well, then,” he said, hooking Tony’s knees up, practically bending him in half like a deck chair. The false arm was cold against the sensitive skin of Tony’s thigh for just a moment, and then it warmed. It was hard, too, and was probably going to leave a bruise, but Tony didn’t even care. What he did care about was that Bucky was pressed against the entrance to his body. “I’ll be the pretty muscle and you can be the brains, sweetheart. We got all the bases covered.”

Bucky threw his head back, showing off his throat, and pushed, breaching Tony’s opening.

Tony probably would’ve said something smartassed, but the feel of Bucky sliding into him, filling him up, stretching him, knocked every thought out of his brain. All he could think to say was, “Oh, god,” and “Yes,” and “Bucky--!” He clutched at Bucky’s shoulders, curled up to mouth along Bucky’s neck, scraping his teeth and sucking at the salty skin.

“I got you,” Bucky told him, sliding in an inch at a time until he was fully seated. He shifted his hips, rolling side to side, as Tony adjusted to the stretch. Bucky made a breathless sound, half-moan, half singing. Pulled all the way out, and just as Tony was getting ready to complain or whine about it, pushed all the way back in. “God, that feels so good, baby.”

He kept that terrible, wonderful pace up for a while, intense and delicious and awful at the same time, until Tony was squeezing as hard as he could to try to keep Bucky with him, clutching his fingers into Bucky’s shoulders.

“Bucky, sweetheart, oh god, yes.” Tony groaned and fell back onto the pillow, pushing down as leverage to lift his hips, pushing up against Bucky’s thrusts, straining for more and deeper and harder. “It’s perfect, you’re perfect, god.”

Somewhere in there, in the perfect bliss and ache of need, Bucky moved Tony around like he was a ragdoll, and quite frankly, Tony felt like a ragdoll, until Tony’s knees were hooked over Bucky’s shoulders, a position that got Bucky a hell of a lot deeper, and made Tony’s abs ache in the best possible way.

It also, Tony discovered a moment later, let Bucky get a hand free to stroke and play with Tony’s cock, curling his hand loose around it to allow Tony the friction he needed.

It was… almost like doing sexual sit-ups, really.

“Best workout ever,” he said, giggling a little. If he was doing sit-ups, then Bucky was doing pushups. Or maybe planks. Something like that. The image popped into his head of a sex gym, with various workout stations and equipment and-- “Personal trainers,” he said, laughing helplessly, knowing Bucky had no idea what he was talking about but not able to stop laughing long enough to explain, and Christ, each chuckle shook their bodies and jolted his balls in the best way, shooting electric pleasure up his cock.

“You are punchdrunk on it, baby,” Bucky told him, shaking his head and grinning. He thrust a few more times, and then -- something he did, Tony couldn’t quite see, but Bucky twisted his wrist at the top of the stroke, and Tony clenched up, almost involuntarily, every bit of his body focused on those few, precious inches of his dick, the way Bucky was moving in him.

“Oh, shit, do that again,” he gasped, humor giving way in the wash of pure pleasure. Bucky obliged, and a desperate whine leaked from his throat. Heat slid through his veins like a volcano boiling over, pooling in his groin until it was too much to keep inside him, until he was burning up and flying away. His whole body arched and tensed and shuddered as he cried out.

Bucky rocked with him a few times, his pace picking up. He let Tony’s legs go and seated himself in the deep vee of his spread thighs, rocking in, thrusting, practically fucking the rest of Tony’s orgasm out of him until he groaned, strained, and shuddered. Bucky rested his forehead against Tony’s sternum, back curved up and then. “Oh, god.”

For a long moment, they just stayed like that, locked in that beautiful embrace, until Bucky’s arm beeped warningly, and he laughed and rolled over, laying next to Tony on the bed. 

Tony laughed a little, breathlessly. “Good thing I extended your battery life.” He grabbed a tissue from the box on the nightstand and wiped up most of the mess, then rolled over to snuggle against Bucky’s side.

Bucky muttered something about giant anime robots and their extension cords before kissing Tony’s forehead. “Hang on a minute, gonna ditch th’ condom and clean up a bit, then we can snuggle as long as you like. While m’ stupid arm charges.”

Bucky clambered out of bed, stretched up on tip toes to realign his back, which crackled like a bowl of Rice Krispies, and headed to the bathroom.

Tony caught his breath for another minute, then finished cleaning himself up. He kicked the blanket off the bed -- they were both overheated at the moment anyway -- but pulled the sheet up over his hips and stretched out, tucking his hands behind his head smugly.

The water ran in the bathroom for a minute, and then shut off. “So, what gave you th--” Bucky broke off as there was a soft click from the living room.

Bucky came back into the bedroom, a damp washcloth held in one hand over his dick, head cocked to stare at the door.

“If you even step one toe out of this house in the next few days, I swear to god, I will taze your ass and watch SuperNanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson said, showing up in the door, his suit perfectly in place, his scowl matching it. “What the hell do you think a safehouse is?”

“Jesus!” Tony yelped, yanking the sheet up like some kind of blushing virgin from a romance novel. “Coulson, what the fuck?

Coulson raised an eyebrow. “I could ask you the same question, but I think I’ve figured it out,” he said, calmly. As if he wasn’t looking at two people, post-coitus, the smell of sex still heavy in the air. “We’re investing a lot of time, money, and man-hours into keeping you safe, Mr. Stark. It’s not just a decoration. Mack will, if the situation calls for it, take a bullet for you. I suggest you hold his dedication in a little higher esteem and do not needlessly take risks that might get you seen and one of my best men killed. You’re one of the most famous people in the world. Other people will recognize you.”

Tony’s shoulders hunched. “Sorry,” he muttered. He’d known that, really, but hadn’t thought about it much. “We’ll be good.” He made a face, then brightened a little. “Oh, hey, I gave your email to Pepper -- Potts, Obie’s PA? She’s a friend. Don’t worry, I didn’t give anything up, I let her think I’m still in a halfway house and that I’m going stir-crazy and need a project to work on, so she’s going to send you some files she pulls off Obie’s ghost drive. If there’s nothing in there you can use to nail his ass to the wall, then there isn’t anything to find.”

Coulson’s eyebrows went up for a moment, then he shrugged. “I’ll keep an eye out for it, then,” he said. “Barnes, put on your pants. I’ll give you a minute, then come out to the dining room. I have a few questions about associates of Mr. Stane’s. If you know anything about them--” Coulson gave them one last, long look. “I know this is boring. Trust me, I spent three weeks in a safehouse in Helsinki with my partner, and we didn’t even have cable.”

That was a threat, as much as an anecdote. Tony exchanged glances with Bucky, then nodded. “We’ll behave,” he promised.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky paused, mouth full of toast with jam on it, to peer out the window. “Tony, there’s a half-naked lady on our back deck,” he reported, letting the curtains ghost shut again.

Tony froze in the act of pouring his coffee, and then had to recover quickly before the cup overflowed. “How did our guard dog not spot that?” he wondered. He came up beside Bucky and opened the curtains a sliver to look. “Wow, that’s a-- Pepper!” He dashed for the back door and yanked it open. “Pepper! What the hell are you doing here?”

“Good morning, neighbor,” she said, sitting up and pushing her sunglasses into her hair. “Why do you have a pool and I don’t?”

Bucky leaned in the doorway, not quite coming all the way outside, to watch. Tony appeared genuinely excited to see the woman -- Pepper Potts, Bucky recalled. Obie’s secretary slash personal assistant. Who was supposed to be Tony’s friend, was getting him information.

Bucky, well, maybe he was just overly suspicious and a tiny bit jealous. “You’re the person what moved in next door,” Bucky wondered. Because he had seen another unmarked car, with a suspiciously bland man moving in a few boxes.

She turned to look at him, and she smiled. It looked entirely genuine, as if she was actually delighted to see him. “And you’re Bucky Barnes,” she said, coming toward him with her hand held out. “You have no idea how happy I am to finally meet you. Yes, Agent Coulson thought that, once I’d compromised Obadiah’s security, I’d be better off taking a short vacation until things were settled.”

“You’re Tony’s friend who refuses to work for him,” Bucky said. He’d been paying attention, he really had. “Nice to meet you, Miss Potts.”

“You’ve had such a great influence on Tony,” she enthused. “It’s really quite amazing--”

“Hey!” Tony protested.

“--and of course, your music is wonderful. I’d love to hear you play again sometime, if you don’t mind.”

“Again?” Bucky raised an eyebrow. “I can’t play right now, I--” he glanced at Tony, because he hadn’t told Tony about it, Tony had too many other things to worry about. “My, uh, my violin is in the shop.”

“Wait, what?” Tony said. “Is that why you haven’t been practicing since we got here?”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Pepper said. “Well, some other time, maybe. I did get to hear you once before when I stopped in on Tony while you were practicing. I was quite impressed.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said. “It’s getting better.” He wiggled his artificial elbow. “Hopefully Shuri will do her magic on the Rocca and I’ll get it back soon. She’s amazing, I’ve seen her work before, you can’t even tell that it’s been broken without a microscope.”

“That’s good,” Pepper said warmly, and then her expression darkened a little. “Was it something Obadiah did, that broke it? Because we will absolutely make him pick up that repair bill, if so.” She turned to Tony before Bucky could answer. “I can’t believe what he’s done! Tony, oh my god, I can’t believe you didn’t warn me!” She waved a hand. “I know, I know, you couldn’t, but imagine my shock! I helped broker some of those deals! I had no idea! And what he did to you!” She was tearing up.

Tony pulled her into a careful hug. “Hey, I’m okay, Pep, it’s all right.”

“It is not all right,” she said fiercely. “But we’re going to make it all right.”

“Stane didn’t break my violin,” Bucky said. “The Rocca’s worth almost a quarter of a million dollars. But it’s okay, she’s insured for stuff like this. Neck needs reglued, fingerboard replaced. The sound box wasn’t damaged, and that’s the really important bit. All the music I’ve ever played is stored in there. Wood memory. Everything that anyone’s ever played on her, she… remembers.

“I’ve heard that, about wooden instruments,” Pepper said, nodding. “The vibrations of the sound affect the shape and density of the wood in subtle ways.”

“The really old ones, even if the sound box gets split, you try the repair first. You can’t beat old wood for music,” Bucky said, not quite meeting Tony’s curious gaze. “You think Stane’s gonna make a run for it? If I was guilty of all sorts of horrible things and the people closest to me who might know something started disappearing, I’d worry. Not sure who I’d worry about more -- if the arms dealers are coming after me, or the cops, but I’d be worried.”

He almost hoped Stane was worried, that he was scared and not knowing what was going on. On the other hand, if he wasn’t worried, not suspicious at all, then maybe SHIELD would have an easier time catching him and pinning his ass to the wall like a boy band poster.

Tony seemed to give the question some consideration. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Obie’s always been the kind of guy who says the best defense is a good offense. If he thinks something’s coming, then he’ll be gearing up for a fight.”

Pepper nodded agreement. “Which is why I’m here. Well, there.” She waved toward the house next door. “I hope it’s all settled soon, though. This is going to be enough of a huge shake-up with the company as it is without all the actual business getting mishandled.” She gave Tony a stern look. “You’re going to have to step up once the news breaks, you know that, right?”

Tony grimaced, but nodded. “Yeah.”

“What’s that mean, exactly,” Bucky wondered. “Stepping up? Tony’s already working sixty hour weeks at SI -- or he was.”

“As the public face,” Tony said gloomily. “PR and interviews and stuff like that. The stock’ll tank when news about Obie gets out, and the Board and the investors are all going to want warm fuzzies about what we’re doing to fix everything he broke. Rooting out his cronies, tracing the supply leaks, all of it. And they’ll want to know that whoever’s in charge -- which will be me for at least the interim period -- has a good grasp on it.”

“Well, that hardly seems fair,” Bucky said. “Stane makes a mess and you have to clean it up. If there’s anything I can do to help, just say the word. Bring you coffee, if nothing else.”

Tony caught Bucky’s hand and leaned in to kiss him. It wasn’t a deep and dirty kiss, but it wasn’t a quick peck, either. “You’ll help keep me sane,” he promised.

Pepper was smiling at them. “You’re so adorable, I can’t even stand it.”

“Well, that’s what the loungers are for,” Bucky said. “So you can sit down. It’s not quite warm enough for swimmin’ just yet, but the sun feels good.”

“Yes, that’s just what I was doing when Tony came out,” Pepper said without an ounce of shame. “Though I hope we’re able to go home before it gets that warm.”

“It can’t be long now,” Tony said.

“Well, when we get home, both Tony and me got access to the rooftop pool,” Bucky said. “We’ll have a party or somethin’.” A year ago, he would never have even thought about a pool party, having people see so much of the artificial arm. He squinted at Tony. “I, uh, you know, I never asked about it, since I take this one off t’ shower an’ all that, but will I be able to swim, do you think?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Please. What do you take me for? Of course it’ll be waterproof. You’re not going to be swimming any races or anything, but the electronics will be in a watertight barrier.”

“I,” Bucky said, pulling Tony into a hug, huffy attitude and everything, “take you for a genius, a scientist, and a show-off. If anyone could do it, it’d be you. But I don’t want to have unreasonable expectations either.”

“Well, that makes you a better customer than ninety percent of our government contracts.” Tony leaned into the hug, letting Bucky prop him up, and turned his grin on Pepper. “As payment for using our pool, you’re required to come over and have dinner with us once in a while. I think we’re both well past the point of ‘not having anything to do is relaxing’ and well into ‘cabin fever’ stage. Having someone new to talk to will be nice.”

Pepper leaned in and kissed Tony’s cheek, and then, much to his surprise, Bucky’s. “I was hoping you’d say that,” she said, winking. “You cook. I’ll bring the wine.”

***

Tony stared at the ceiling, listening to the music piping in through his headphones and occasionally pushing off with one foot to keep his office chair spinning slowly around. He didn’t know why he couldn’t look at the computer screen while a render was in-progress, really. Some superstitious ritual that he’d picked up at MIT, maybe.

Finally, the little two-tone “all done!” sound chimed, and Tony sat up straight again to check out the results.

The arm was a little heavier than he’d hoped, but well within the tolerance range, so that was good. Articulation was excellent, nearly 85% of human normal. Reaction speeds were well over human normal, which was fantastic. So was strength. The power draw was within tolerance. Sensory feedback levels weren’t measurable yet -- there wasn’t enough test data to work with yet -- but Tony had high hopes there, too.

And it looked... mostly like an arm. Made out of metal, granted, but given a glove made out of the specially-designed fabric, it would look at least as much like a real arm as a non-functioning prosthetic. Tony spun the design around, examining it from every angle, and then shrugged. He wasn’t the one who’d be wearing it. “Hey, babe?”

Bucky wandered in from the kitchen where he’d been mixing up a peach upside down cake to take over to Pepper’s -- she had the larger television, so they’d been watching movies at her place. “Taste this,” he said, offering Tony a spoon of some sort of sugared goo. “Too much cinnamon?”

“Mm, no, that’s about right. It might need just a little salt, though?” Tony waved at the screen. “Tell me what you think.”

Bucky looked over at the screen, tucking the spoon into his mouth. He’d seen a few of these before. “Can you run it through the simulation, for movement? I want to see how it flows.” Tony had gone through a few different skin surface styles; the plating was good for cooling the circuits and had great flexibility, but there was an external issue, namely that clothing, or someone else’s skin, could get trapped and pinched in the plates when Bucky flexed.

This rendition closed up those gaps with a fine layer of mesh, practically invisible unless someone held it up and inspected it under good lighting. 

Tony ran the movement sims so Bucky could watch, and then ran them again at half-speed, so they could watch for stutters and catches.

“Well, it looks pretty,” Bucky said, at last. “Slick. And the hand looks, you know, more handlike. Not all night of the living dead shit.” He clicked his metal fingers as if to punctuate his complaint. “And it’s all sealed, right. No more digging shit out with a paint brush and compressed air?”

Tony nodded. “I mean, I can’t promise it’ll never get anything in it, because wear and tear is a thing. But the mesh that keeps the plates from pinching is fine enough to catch even pretty small particles. It’ll still need to be vented and cleaned out once in a while.” 

“Well, yeah, I didn’t expect nothing, I gotta wash the rest of myself, it just makes sense, but-- yeah, getting gunk in the joints regularly was not making me a happy camper.” Bucky eyed the sim one more time. “This is the final go/no-go call, yeah?”

“I mean, it’s me; there are going to be improvements and upgrades and stuff down the line,” Tony hedged. “But if you like the form factor, then yeah, this is the basic shell we’ll be starting with, once I can get my hands on a fabricator again. Assuming you want to sign off on it. So yeah, speak up now if there’s anything at all you don’t like.”

Bucky couldn’t seem to stop watching it, his eyes strangely intent. Finally, he reached out his right and brushed it along the screen, as if he could touch it. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go for this.”

“Yeah?” Tony glanced up at him, trying to read his face, to make sure he wasn’t just settling for “good enough.” But he didn’t look reluctant or hesitant, so Tony just nodded. “Okay. There’s our Mark I model, then. We’ll have one put together as soon as I can set foot back on SI grounds.”

There was a rapid three-knock at the front door, followed by the sound of a key in the lock. Coulson, then, or one of his flunkies. They had a key, they didn’t bother to call ahead, but after the second time someone walked in on them either during, or just after sexytimes, they’d started knocking.

“Cancel your dinner plans,” Coulson said, his voice carrying through the house.

“How does he know we have dinner plans?” Bucky asked Tony, very slowly putting down Tony’s wrench that he’d picked up, just in case it turned out not to be Coulson. Honestly, the SHIELD Agent’s paranoia was rubbing off on all of them.

“This is not my first rodeo,” Coulson said, coming into the computer room. 

“And what are we doing instead of dinner?” Tony wondered, even as he was saving his work, triggering the backups, and shutting everything down.

“You’re going to come with me and then sit in a room with uncomfortable chairs and drink bad coffee while I question a suspect,” Coulson said. “I’m nice, so there’s a one way mirror and speakers, so you’ll get to hear what he’s got to say.”

“Wow, that sounds like a great time,” Tony said drily. He scooped up his phone and shot a text to Pepper. Dinner cancelled. Agent Agent wants us to take him out on the town. “Who’s the suspect? Or more to the point, what do you think he did?”

“That I can prove at the moment,” Coulson said, “Mr. Zemo took quite a bit of money from Obadiah Stane for services rendered. That I can also prove? He was involved in a hit-and-run on December seventeenth.”

Bucky hitched in a breath. “You think they’re related?”

Coulson nodded. “I do. I’ll show you what we managed to dig up before Stane buried it. He’s got someone in the city archives doing dirty work for him.”

Tony’s heartbeat trebled. “This could be it,” he breathed. He reached out for Bucky’s hand, squeezed, probably too tightly.

Coulson escorted them out into a rather large -- but boring and black -- SUV with dark tinted windows and bland license plates. “This is Agent May, she’ll be driving.” 

The woman peered at them over the rims of her aviator sunglasses and then pushed them back up her nose as if they weren’t interesting at all. 

“This,” Coulson said, handing them a laptop, “is some very interesting information from the traffic cameras.” He reached over from the front seat and poked a command. “First, the footage from the actual accident, which Miss Potts recovered from Stane’s ghost drive.”

Tony settled onto the bench seat in the back, snugged up close to Bucky so they could balance the laptop on their legs and watch together. He squinted at the scene as it came into focus. “Oh, this.” This was the footage Tony had already seen. He’d watched it so many times, it scrolled past his eyes at night when he was trying to sleep.

Bucky winced, then out and out flinched. “This? This is what you saw?” Bucky turned a sickly shade of grey, his mouth trembling. “Jesus.”

That segment of the video ended.

“What we couldn’t figure out,” Coulson said, “was where all the extra light was coming from. One of our tech guys did a few mock ups, and then we changed where we were looking. Here, this is the map of that section of road, and then the surrounding roads. If there was a car here--” An invisible hand circled an area of the map. “--that would explain it. At least somewhat. The beam splash would have pointed straight, not toward the accident.”

Tony nodded. “I wondered about the light, too. You think someone was there, watching?”

“We thought so, at first, but why would they just drive away from an accident like that and not call it in? Most people, I believe, are good people, unless they have a reason not to be. And then we found this--” Coulson said, tapping the monitor. “This is from the store across the street; they’ve been having a problem with vandals, and they shifted their camera. We were lucky. They’re supposed to delete their files every six months, but their IT guy was lazy and just requisitioned more cloud storage. You can get dummy accounts everywhere these days.”

That camera showed the northern road, where a truck was parallel parked near the curb. Exhaust and steam billowed out from the tailpipe. The engine was running.

Tony squinted, but he couldn’t make out the license plate. Maybe if he had Agent Agent’s Super Spy Gear. “What kind of truck is that?” he wondered. “It’s huge.”

“Nissan Titan Pro,” Coulson said. “One of the biggest on the market. Won’t fit inside a standard garage. Reinforced grill. Extended cab. Gunmetal grey.”

“That’s very… specific,” Bucky said.

“We had reason to look into it,” Coulson said, mildly. “The truck just sat there, for almost an hour, then--”

The truck moved a few feet, without turning on the headlights. 

And struck a rapidly moving motorcycle, sending it spinning into the road. A split second later, Howard’s Mercedes came through and swerved to miss the bike. Didn’t. 

The truck’s headlights came on, flooding the area with light. A man got out of the truck, stared at the mess for a long moment without making any moves to help anyone or do anything. When Bucky rolled over, he got back in his truck and turned the headlights off, then slowly backed up.

“We caught the same vehicle, somewhat later, at an intersection with one of those red-light cameras, got a plate number,” Coulson said.

“I… he hit me,” Bucky said, staring.

“Bumped really,” Coulson said. “Just enough to knock you into the path of danger.”

“That’s the man that killed my parents. And maimed Bucky.” Tony stared at the screen, even though it had reached the end of the video and stopped. “And that’s who you have in custody? This Zemo guy?”

“Indeed,” Coulson said. “We think, based on speed and trajectory analysis, that his original intent was to strike Mr. and Mrs. Stark’s vehicle; at the speeds Howard Stark was known to travel, he probably would still have been killed in the collision.” He glanced at Bucky, who was still sitting there, barely blinking, his breath coming in short, urgent pants. “You were, unfortunately, just collateral damage.”

Tony twisted, facing Bucky as much as he could. “Honey? Bucky? Look at me -- are you...” Tony trailed off. Of course Bucky wasn’t okay. There was no being okay with that. “What do you need?”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Bucky said, almost numb. “Why don’t I remember-- the impact?”

“At a guess? You smacked the ground pretty hard; I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused some memory loss. Or maybe it’s just buried, though since you remember the rest of it...” Tony shrugged, shaking his head. “You weren’t thinking about driving. You were thinking about the guy you were seeing, or about the next day’s rehearsal, or... Whatever. And it happens so fast -- by the time you knew something was wrong, you were already falling. There wasn’t time to register the first impact before the next one hit.” He squeezed Bucky’s hand again. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Bucky allowed Tony to coax him into resting his head against Tony’s shoulder, and Bucky shuddered several times as if he was weeping. “I didn’t-- I didn’t kill your parents, and I know, it’s selfish as fuck of me to be grateful for it--”

“It’s not,” Tony said. “It’s not selfish, it’s huge, it’s important. Of course you’re glad it wasn’t your fault, Christ.” He stroked Bucky’s hair soothingly, ignoring Coulson as much as he could. To his credit, Coulson didn’t attempt to butt in, seeming to understand it was a moment the two of them needed. When Bucky had calmed a little, Tony took a breath and refocused. “Is there anything else we need to see?”

“That’s all. We tracked the truck back -- it had been sold, repaired in a chop shop that didn’t report the VIN, and then resold. It took a while, and they could have been more careful. I suppose we should be grateful that they assumed they got away with it, otherwise they would have covered it up better,” Coulson said.

Tony nodded, still holding Bucky as tight as he could. “And this Zemo, you’re going to drop him in a dark hole and forget about him. Right?”

“Well, that’s part of what today is, in fact,” Coulson said. “He claims to have valuable information to trade, for leniency.”

Tony scowled. “You’re not just going to let him go--

“No,” Coulson said. “But he’s just the weapon. If he can give us Stane, wouldn’t you rather have the person who pointed him at your parents?”

Tony ground his teeth. “I’d rather have both of them,” he gritted. “Anyone willing to take money for murder is not someone who should be set free.”

“We’re talking about a reduction in sentence, perhaps,” Coulson said. “Charged with conspiracy and intent to commit. Technically, based on what happened, your father’s BAC and the involvement of Barnes muddles it for a jury. The law says that your father could have been in the backseat playing Monopoly, and it wouldn’t have mattered, but get it up before a jury, and you’re going to have a lawyer saying hit and run, reckless driving, involuntary manslaughter. He’ll be out in seven years. We need something to tie him to Stane. And we’re not going to get it, if he doesn’t want to make a deal.”

Tony sighed, slumping back against the seat. “You’re the expert,” he muttered. “I just...” His gaze drifted back to the laptop. It wasn’t showing the accident any longer, but he could still see it, anyway. “I want it all done.”

“And we’re doing it,” Coulson said. “We’ll get Stane. There’s only so much he can get away with.”

Bucky linked his hand with Tony’s, and then covered their joined hands with the metal one. “Justice, maybe,” Bucky said. “That would be nice.”

“Well, I’m old fashioned,” Coulson said. “Revenge is a good motivator.”

 

Chapter Text

“... definitely a flight risk, and a probable danger,” Coulson was saying. Alpine punctuated that with a yowl, highly displeased about being back in the cat carrier. “So, the judge denied his lawyers’ request for bail, so. At least for now, home sweet home.”

Bucky groped in his pocket for his keys; the whole thing seemed like both deja vu and this has never happened before in my life at the same time.

He opened the door to the condo and went in. Same ugly second-hand furniture in the same beautiful, modern condo. The air had that no one’s been here in a while smell.

Tony and Pepper had gone off to SI immediately upon being released from protective custody, PR and press conferences and getting things on the right track. Whatever it was that they were going to be doing. Bucky would go over and bring dinner, if he hadn’t heard from Tony by six.

Alpine yowled again, and Coulson gave Bucky a tiny little salute before putting the cat down. “I’ll let you settle in,” he said, “and we’ll be in touch as the trial moves forward. Thank you for your service. Stane is, forgive me for saying it, a blight on this country’s integrity, and we’re glad to have him out of circulation.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, he’s a bastard, all right.”

Mack dropped the rest of Bucky’s things by the door. It wasn’t that he couldn’t carry stuff -- Zemo’s mechanical arm was pretty strong, but people seemed to want to do things for him anyway. Maybe once Tony’s new prosthetic was in place, people would believe Bucky capable of functioning as an adult person, all by himself.

Not, he thought, that he was all by himself.

“All right, I have some calls to make, now that I’m clear to make calls,” Bucky said. Steve and Nat, Clint and Sam. His sister. Shuri. Dear god, the number of people who were going to blister his ear today was epic. 

Maybe he could just go into protective custody for the rest of his life.

Might be easier.

The door closed and Bucky got out his phone, plugged it into the wall near the sofa and sat down. This… this was going to take a while.

Bucky brought up Steve’s contact info and stared at it. Maybe he could just invite everyone over for a single-time explanation party. Get delivery sushi and break the news to everyone at once.

Not a bad plan, really.

He did, in fact, call Shuri. There was probably something wrong with him that his first call was to check on his violin -- fixed, finished, and in perfect working order -- and arrange to have it delivered to him.

And then he texted everyone else. Come over in three hours. Sushi platters and an explanation of where I’ve been for the last two months.

He opened his laptop and pulled up GrubHub. He knew almost everyone’s tastes in sushi. Well, except Becca’s, because he didn’t think they’d ever been out for sushi together.

Bzzzt! Bzzzt! The phone was vibrating. Steve.

Bucky sighed. Well, of course Steve wasn’t going to wait. He was an impatient asshole under the best circumstances. He hit the speaker button. “What part of come over later was unclear--”

Bucky barely got the words out of his mouth.

“Bucky, what the fuck? You can’t just, just disappear and then--”

Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Another incoming call. Nat.

“--expect us to just hang around and wait even longer for an answer! Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

Bzzzt! Bzzzt!

“--Jesus, you guys, I didn’t open a conference bridge,” Bucky yelled, switching from one call to the next. Oops, that was Becca.

 He got a poorly spelled and revoltingly grammared text back from Clint. Sushi gr8. Eeeeeel sauce. Well, at least one person could follow directions. Scary that it was Clint.

“Bucky, oh my god, you’re back! I called the police like ages ago and all they’d tell me was that they were aware of your disappearance and that it was in your best interest for me to just go on with my life??? As if you’re not part of my life???” Becca sounded highly indignant.

“Bec, Becca, Rebecca,” Bucky said, like it was a talisman. “I-- look, remember the guy? Some bad shit happened, I’ve been in protective custody, okay? I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m home. Hang on just a minute, literally everyone I know is trying to call me.”

He switched calls. Steve hadn’t, apparently, noticed that he’d been switched, because he was still ranting, full force. Bucky put him back on hold and selected Nat’s call. She’d apparently been calling, and then calling back, and then calling back again. In a weird sort of way, it was nice. To be loved, to be reminded that there were people in his life who loved him. Even if they all wanted to yell at him right now. “Nat.”

“James. You are well?” She sounded perfectly calm, but Bucky recognized her knife-sharpening tone.

“Nat, hey,” Bucky said. “Alpine says hi, he’s missed you. I promise, there’s actually a good explanation for all this.”

Bzzzt! Bzzzt! His sister again. Apparently she’d hung up and was trying to call back. 

“Very well,” Nat said. “I will see you in three hours. I will bring vodka. If I like your explanation, I may share.” She hung up.

“Becca,” Bucky said. “Look, I’m okay, I promise.”

“Well, good, but what happened?

“Tony was almost murdered, I saved his life, and we were put in protective custody by an offshoot of the CIA to keep the murderer from trying to finish the job,” Bucky said, nearly out of breath by the time he finished. 

“...Oh my god.” He could hear her drawing breath for some kind of rant.

“Hang on,” he said, putting her on hold. “Another call. Just… look, just come over.”

Bucky took a deep breath. “Stevie.”

“--gone for two months and... What?”

“I know,” Bucky said. “Look, I wasn’t allowed to call out. I couldn’t tell you where we were. Not without putting you in danger, putting Tony in danger.” He winced, because he hadn’t exactly told his friends he was dating Tony Stark. The only one who really knew anything about it at all was Sam, and Sam thought they were just… working together. “Look, it’s a long story, I made a bunch of mistakes. I have a lot to tell people. Please, please, pal, I’m askin’ nice. Can you just come over? I want to see everyone again, an’... man, it’s been crazy, I swear, I think I’m going crazy, just a little.” Bucky took another breath and was not quite surprised that it was nearly a sob.

Steve was quiet for a second, and then he blew out a breath. “Okay, pal. Okay. I just... Yeah. But I’m comin’ over now; I ain’t waiting three hours.”

Bucky nodded, realized Steve couldn’t see him. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “I expect everyone else t’ turn up early, too. Except maybe Clint. He’ll be late.”

Steve laughed a little, and it sounded like he was teetering on the edge of tears, too. “Yeah. We missed you, Buck.”

“I know,” he said. “Missed you guys, too. In between all th’ bein’ scared, and traumatized, and all the great sex I’ve been having. I had a few minutes left over to miss you, pal.”

“Wait, what?!

Come over.” And he hung up. 

***

Tony had gone to the fabrication lab the instant he and Pepper had made their way past the security desk. He handed the drive with the copy of the specs for Bucky’s arm to the tech on duty. “Build this for me,” he said. “Exactly as it’s in there, don’t change a single thing. I want it by close of business.”

He swanned back out before the startled tech could change gears from “staring in shock” to “asking questions” because he’d already threaded the questions gauntlet from the reporters clustered in the lobby. He was going to have to answer some questions soon, but not until he’d met with Legal to find out what was and wasn’t allowed. He was going to have to play things pretty straight for a while. Ugh.

By the time he’d made it the rest of the way up to the executive suite, Pepper had collected a whole sheaf of files from Obie’s office and was sitting at the conference table in Tony’s, sorting them. “Legal and PR are both going to be here in one hour to hash out the press release,” she said crisply, even before he’d managed to get all the way through the door. “It looks like the individual department heads have been keeping things rolling while we were both out of touch, but you’ll want a full report. Do you want one big meeting or to do them separately?”

Tony was already developing a headache. “If we let them all in the room at the same time, it will take longer than just doing them individually,” he said. “One-on-ones. Well, two-on-ones. I want you there, too.”

Pepper made a face, her mouth turning a little pinchy. “Are you sure? I’ve been Mr. Stane’s personal assistant for longer than most. I’m not sure if my presence will be well received.” She made another face, and then said, “Honestly, I don’t even know what my job is, anymore. I’m not Mr. Stane’s assistant, and I was hired for him, personally, not for the position of CFO, which will have to be filled. And very soon.”

“Yeah, about that.” Tony slid into the sleek leather chair across the table from Pepper. “I think it’s you.”

“Excuse me?” Pepper exclaimed, then put a hand over her mouth as if she’d yelled something rude by accident. “Tony, are you even kidding, what?”

“Don’t pretend you can’t do the job,” Tony said. “You’ve been at Obie’s elbow for, what, three years? Four? And I’ve seen your resume. We might have to appoint one of the board members pro tem, until the stock stabilizes, but I’ve been giving it some thought, and it’s you. It’s always been you.”

For a long moment, Pepper just sat there in shock. “Well, that’s going to make waves; the first female CFO of a company the size of Stark Industries.” Her face underwent one of those emotional journeys. Shock, pride, astonishment, denial, and then she smiled, as crafty as the Grinch getting ready to steal Christmas. “There’d be a lot of changes. Are you sure you’re prepared for that?”

Tony grinned. “Nope,” he said, popping it. “But I’m looking forward to it. You’re going to do great.”

Pepper tried to keep her expression strictly business and neutral, but she failed miserably, pushed back the rolling chair and squealed, spinning around in a circle and doing a triumphant fist pump. When she settled back down, she gave Tony a fierce glare. “You did not see that, I did not do that, and I will deny it if you say otherwise.”

Tony held his hands up. “I saw nothing. But in the meantime, we’ve got a preliminary press release to draft and half a dozen or so executive meetings to prepare for. And I’d really, really like to go home in time to have dinner with my boyfriend, so if you don’t mind...?”

“I’ll get the ball rolling,” Pepper said. “I’ll send in the PR team and go down to HR to transfer me to your department in the meanwhile. Someone will probably send you a memo about salary, but that’ll make the transfer official. And I’ll be back in time for the first exec meeting. With coffee and maybe some of those raspberry jelly doughnuts you like so much.”

“I always knew I’d get you on my team sooner or later,” Tony said smugly.

Pepper stood up. “If that will be all, Mr. Stark?”

“That will be all, Ms. Potts.”

***

Bucky was exhausted. Rehashing everything, multiple times, because Steve had come over and refused to shut up, even with Bucky’s quick sum-up, so he’d gone through the whole thing once before the sushi even arrived.

And then sushi, which was lovely, Bucky loved sushi. He stuffed most of an eel roll into his mouth before anyone else even got there, but the next person was Shuri’s courier, who brought him back the Rocca. He had to sit down and just cradle the instrument in his lap for a few moments before he could sign for the repairs.

Thank God he had money these days; yikes. And of course, he’d file with his insurance, because that’s what he had insurance for. But still, he was pretty sure that the deductible was more than his rent had been, back when he’d been renting.

His sister stayed the longest, kept circling around behind him to put her hand on his shoulder. 

“I’ve almost lost you twice now,” she told him fervently. “You’re all I have left, you idiot.”

It was nice to be loved, although he would have preferred it to be a little less aggressively, sometimes.

She’d barely been gone half an hour when there was a knock at the door, three measured raps.

Bucky hauled his weary ass off the sofa where he’d been sitting, staring at the ceiling. Peered through the peekhole, because really, it would just be his luck to get murdered right after getting home. Becca would never forgive him.

“Tony--” Bucky said with relief, opening the door. “Come in, please. Have some leftover sushi.”

Tony was still in his shirt and tie, though it looked distinctly more rumpled than it had this morning when they’d parted ways. He was carrying a long case, which he set down carefully before leaning into Bucky for a very thorough kiss. “Hi.”

“I almost wish you’d been here for today,” Bucky said, “as most of my friends did not, I think, at first, believe me. On the other hand, you meeting the friends and family under fire like that. No, probably would have made you run screaming to some, I don’t know. What do they call the place where monks live and don’t have sex or boyfriends?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t plan to ever need to know,” Tony said firmly, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s waist. “I’m glad they left you in one piece, at least. You get everyone calmed down?”

“Mostly,” Bucky said. “My sister wants to have dinner as soon as possible, in the next week. To meet you. She figures if you’re going to get me killed, she ought to at least know who you are from something other than scandal magazines. Steve cried; that was weird, I hope to never see that again. Nat didn’t yell at me, which is scarier than you could possibly imagine. It was an afternoon.”

“Poor Bucky,” Tony sympathized. “I spent the day having to assert myself with department heads who’ve been getting used to being mostly unsupervised for the last couple of weeks, which was a headache. And listening to the PR team argue with the lawyers about what I can and cannot say on record. But it did have some bright spots. I got to tell Pepper she’s in line for a promotion. That was fun. And I brought you a present.”

“They’re not the only ones who have been mostly unsupervised for a few weeks,” Bucky said, tugging Tony back for another kiss. “You know, aside from Agent Agent watching us like a damn hawk.”

“Well, true. But I’m looking forward to not having to clear it just to walk next door. Or having to worry about various agents bursting in on us in flagrante delicto.”

“That was a little mood-killing, yeah,” Bucky said. “What present? You didn’t have to get me any--” He eyed the case that Tony was carrying. “Wait, is that--”

Tony held the case up. “Let me give you a hand.” He grinned, a little too wide. “I’ve been waiting all day to say that.”

Bucky groaned. “That’s terrible, Tony.” His heart skipped and then tripped on, practically racing. “I mean, can-- lemme see.” He wasn’t sure he was ready for this, but if he didn’t get it over with, he might be tempted to put the case somewhere, unopened, and never get back to it.

“Of course,” Tony said. He set the case on the coffee table and flipped open the catches, then stepped back, waving at Bucky to actually lift the lid and watching Bucky intently, lip caught between his teeth.

His hands were shaking. Both of them. The left one more than the right, as if it knew it was going to get replaced. “Christ,” Bucky swore, and then lifted the lid. The room’s lighting caught on skin of polished black metal. Lines of pure gold accented the mechanical muscles. It was smooth, and Bucky couldn’t resist reaching out to run a finger down it. There weren’t gaping holes and metal bones showing the way Zola’s creation was, displaying him as a freak for everyone to see. “It’s… it’s beautiful,” Bucky said, because that was true. It was lovely, the way expensive jewelry was lovely.

Tony looked pleased. “Good,” he said. “I know you signed off on the render, but sometimes it doesn’t really settle until you’ve seen the finished product.”

In the past several weeks, Tony had made small adjustments to the cap-end of Bucky’s arm, upgrading and tinkering, for this moment. “It… can just…” Bucky was nearly speechless, which wasn’t entirely unusual. He’d been speechless when he’d first seen Zola’s arm, too. Of course, that had been when it was on him; he’d never seen the model before he’d gone into surgery for the last of the hookups and woken up with the device pre-installed. He shuddered that memory away. “We can just try it out? We don’t… I mean, I can--” He didn’t really know what he meant to say.

“If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t work perfectly, we can take it right off again,” Tony promised, “and we’ll try to fix whatever’s not right.”

Bucky nodded, slowly. “Sure, okay, let’s just… try it.” He swallowed hard, and then looked at Tony. “I’m gonna be nervous ‘bout it until we actually do it, jus’ try to bear with me, okay?”

“You be as nervous as you need to be, honey. I don’t have anywhere more important to be.”

Bucky stroked Tony’s cheek with those bony metallic fingers, hopefully for the last time. “If I haven’t said it today, I love you.”

Tony put his hand over Bucky’s, turned his head and kissed the palm, then leaned in to brush another kiss over Bucky’s lips. “Love you too.” He smiled sweetly, then wriggled a little. “I have to admit, I’m kind of dying to see it on you.”

Bucky took a breath and huffed it out as a laugh. “Okay, okay.”

It wasn’t quite like popping off a doll’s arm and sliding a new one in place. Bucky had to strip to the waist and then remove the old one, laying it gently in one of the chairs so he could plug it in. Might as well recharge it, in case he hated the new one, right?

And then Tony had to-- fiddle with the connecting circuits in Bucky’s cap end.

“That always… tickles,” Bucky complained, squirming a bit.

“I’ll take tickles,” Tony said, slightly distractedly. “I was worried it might hurt.” He did something else that sent a shivering ghost of sensation down the arm Bucky didn’t actually have, squinted at the cap, then squinted at the connections. “Yeah, I think that’ll do it.” He grinned at Bucky excitedly. “Ready to be even sexier than you already are?”

“Not possible.” Bucky flexed. “You see before you a man at peak sexual attractiveness.”

“Honey, you are absolutely a ten. But I can’t help but appreciate the idea of you wearing something I made.” Tony smirked, even though the back of his neck was turning a little pink. He lined up the arm, triple-checking the connection matchups. “Here we go. This will probably feel weird right at first; give it a count of ten to settle.”

Weird was not even close to accurate. Bucky felt a burst of-- something. Like living static attached to him. Like being attacked by a wrong-tuned radio. It shot little not-quite-stinging sensations up his shoulder and down his spine and into his neck. “It’s like… tryin’ to hug a cactus,” Bucky whined, trying to count to ten.

“I know, honey, I know; just give it a few more seconds...” Tony was looking back and forth between the socketed arm and Bucky’s face, somewhat nervously.

“It prickles,” Bucky whimpered, and knew that he was being a complete wimp, and then suddenly it dawned on him. “Wait, wait, wait-- it prickles… in the arm.” Like terrible pins and needles, but in the arm that he didn’t have anymore. Phantom feeling and then-- “Oh. Oh.” Something locked into place, or the connections lined up correctly, or… 

He didn’t even mean to move it, it wasn’t a voluntary, thought out motion, which most of the movements in the old arm were, very deliberate.

He just… clenched his fist.

And-- it happened. From instinct to action without any strain. Just like the rest of his limbs worked. 

“Oh, my god.”

“What? Is that good? Is that a good oh my god or a bad oh my god? Does it feel okay? Does it hurt? Nerve connections are seriously bonkers; I have to admit I’m glad Zola laid the groundwork there, or this would’ve taken, like, three times as long.” Tony ran out of breath and paused to suck air.

“Uh… it feels,” Bucky said, sort of brainless, but he wasn’t sure how to explain it. He shifted a little, brushed his fingers down the expanse of his thigh, feeling the rough denim underneath. “Oh… my god. Tony.” He was somewhat aware that he was freaking Tony out -- that he was freaking out. But he couldn’t stop rubbing things. He touched his jeans, ran those metal fingers through his own hair. Through Tony’s hair. Down Tony’s cheek, feeling the soft texture of his skin, the heat of it. It wasn’t quite like touching with his right hand, but… “Tony, it feels.”

“Well... yeah? Really, the only way to get the kind of responsiveness that you need is to offer neurosynaptic feedback that--” He cut himself off. “Yeah, honey. It feels.”

Bucky clenched his fist again, rotated it. Looked at it. “Tony--” He hitched in a breath and it came out as a sob. “Tony.” He knew he was probably upsetting Tony, but it was a lot, it was so much, and-- “I never thought I’d feel anything, not ever again.”

“Does... Does that mean it’s okay?” Tony reached for him, hesitated. “Bucky? Are you okay?”

Bucky used his new arm, his arm, it was his, not the arm, or that arm, but his, and he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to explain that to anyone, how being able to claim it, feel it, make it his own, was so much more than he’d ever expected, and pulled Tony in. “Just… let me,” he said, and he folded Tony up in an embrace, tucking his face in the safe hollow of Tony’s throat. Feeling two strong arms around Tony’s back. “So… so much better than okay.”

Tony let out a shaking breath and put his own arms around Bucky. “Oh, good. That’s good. I’m glad you like it.” He leaned into Bucky, lightly stroking Bucky’s back. “Could you-- I mean, you don’t have to, you’re probably tired and everything, but it’s been so long and I just... I’ve missed your concerts, and... Do you think you can play with it? Will it work?”

“I can play,” Bucky said, voice still shaking. “I should play. Test out Shuri’s genius and your genius. Really. I’m just the interface between you and Shuri. What do you actually need me for at all?”

He was kidding, and he kissed Tony’s mouth firmly before getting up to get the Rocca. He hesitated a moment before he took it out of the case, then brought it out. She looked like she’d never so much as broken a string. Beautiful girl, Bucky thought. He went back into the living room where Tony was sitting.

Even as his fingers touched the strings along the board and he took up his bow, he knew, this might well be the most important piece of music he ever played in his entire life.

He went through a few quick exercises and then struck up the beginning of Try to Remember.

Softly, he accompanied himself, singing. “Try to remember the kind of September, when life was slow and oh so mellow. Try to remember the kind of September, when grass was green and grain was yellow.”

Tony joined in, a little warbly, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “Try to remember the kind of September, when you were a young and callow fellow. Try to remember and if you remember -- then follow.”

When he finished the song, he took his violin down from his shoulder. “Sound okay?”

“Perfect.” Tony came close enough to cup Bucky’s face and draw him in for a kiss. “It sounds perfect. How did it feel?”

“Perfect,” Bucky agreed.

 

Chapter Text

Tony had been idling in the No Parking zone for at least twenty minutes. Bucky’s audition was supposed to have been over an hour ago, and he’d told Tony to give him an extra half-hour to either chat with old colleagues or have a slight nervous breakdown, depending on how the audition had gone.

The cop came by again, peering suspiciously, and Tony waved. If Bucky didn’t come out in the next ten minutes, Tony was going to have to go inside and find his boyfriend.

The door swung outward and a woman appeared, and following close behind her was Bucky. He kept the door pushed open for her, and then came out. She was tiny, chatting up at him with a smile. They stopped just before the bottom stair.

Bucky had pulled out his kit the night before, but Tony hadn’t seen him before he’d left. Getting SI back on track was taking a ridiculous amount of time, and Tony was becoming one of those annoying -- and annoyed -- early risers. Which meant Tony had never before seen his boyfriend in a tux.

White tie and vest, black tails, and perfectly fitted, from his neatly combed hair to his polished shoes, Bucky looked every inch the sort of hero that might grace the pages of the latest best selling romance.

It was a good thing Tony was already sitting down. Holy shit. All he could do was stare. And, okay, invest a little bit of what brain power he had left in imagining taking that whole rig off Bucky, slowly, one inch at a time. Christ.

Bucky raised his head, as if he’d heard Tony’s lascivious thoughts from across the sidewalk, then smiled, gesturing with his left hand, toward the car. The woman patted his arm, and then walked with him over to the side of Tony’s vehicle.

Tink tink. Bucky knocked one metal finger against the glass, and when Tony rolled the window down. “Tony, I’d like you to meet Maestra Carter. We’ve worked together before, and she was sitting in at my audition today.”

“I wanted to see the famous inventor who gave one of my brightest stars a chance to shine again,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Tony leaned over to extend his hand. “Ms. Carter. I’m pleased to meet you. We’ll have to have you for dinner sometime so we can trade stories.”

“That sounds delightful,” she said. “In the meanwhile, I won’t keep you any longer.” She turned her attention to Bucky again. “It was lovely to see you again, James. I shan’t wish you luck, as you and I well know that you don’t need any such thing. But, I look forward to hearing the results of your audition. You should know, in a few days.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky said, and then dodged a swat. 

“Don’t you ma’am me,” she told him pertly. “You have your hands full with this one,” she told Tony as if in confidence.

“It’s a mutual handling,” Tony said, deadpan. “Hope to see you again soon.” He straightened as she turned away and went back to admiring (ogling) Bucky while Bucky climbed in and situated his instrument case. “Well?”

"Uh," Bucky said. "I think it went well. I should get a call in another few days. Had to answer a lot of odd questions. Mostly about the arm."

“Eh, they’re bound to be curious,” Tony allowed. “And I’m sure there were even some legitimately important questions in there, like your battery life and repair cycles.” The cop was coming around the corner again, so Tony pulled out into the street before Bucky had finished buckling his seatbelt, giving the cop a final, cheery wave. “Well enough that I get to take you out for dinner?”

"I don't even really care too much if I got the position," Bucky said, and that didn't even seem to be fronting or bravado. "What I care about is that I did well through the audition. I didn't freak out and I played damn well. If someone else gets it, it's because they're a better violinist. So, yes. Dinner."

“Fantastic!” Tony flashed Bucky a grin and downshifted, scooting across two lanes and lackadaisically flipping off the delivery truck that honked at him. “There’s this little place I’ve been dying to take you. Hole-in-the-wall kind of place, very quiet, very intimate, amazing food.”

Bucky made a show of grabbing for the car's safety bar. "Sounds good," he said. And then, when he didn't think Tony was looking, he did a quick, double-fist pump, a look of wild triumph painting his handsome features.

Pomona’s was located in a residential district, an old Victorian house that had been specially remodeled. The ground floor was divided, half bar and half kitchen, open-plan so that people at the bar could watch the kitchen work. The upper three stories were a sequence of cozy dining rooms, spotless tablecloths set with fresh flowers and flickering candles and real -- but whimsically mismatched -- china and silver. Unlike most restaurant chairs, designed to only be comfortable for half an hour or so in order to keep the tables turning, these were well-padded and welcoming, inviting diners to linger.

Neither Bucky’s immaculate tuxedo nor Tony’s slightly-rumpled business suit looked out of place, somehow. The waitress brought them a tray with a half-dozen little samples of cheese and fancifully-shaped bits of fruit, and recited the evening’s menu for them. Tony decided on the beef wellington, with the chef’s recommended wine. “The crown roast is good,” he told Bucky. “I’ve had it before.”

“I’ll try that, then,” Bucky decided. “Otherwise I’ll be too tempted by the veal parmesan and trying to get marinara out of a white shirt is a pain.” He winked at the waitress as she nodded and gave them a “very good, sirs,” before departing for the kitchen. 

“Smells amazing in here,” Bucky noted.

Tony nodded. “It always does. I’ve been here... oh, maybe half a dozen times since they opened, a year or so ago.”

Bucky put his hand on Tony’s wrist, metal fingers warm and smooth. “Thanks for sharing with me,” he said. “And you know, thanks for everything else, too. Peggy -- Maestra Carter, which she doesn’t actually like to be called, but she’s earned it -- had a few other suggestions, if this doesn’t go through, so it’ll be nice to have work again. None of this would be possible… if it wasn’t for you.”

Tony turned his hand over to take Bucky’s, thumb brushing over the side of Bucky’s palm, knowing that every light touch was still a miracle and a marvel for Bucky. “It wouldn’t have been worth it, without you.”

“Well,” a vaguely familiar voice said, in the way that a lot of voices were familiar. Tony had met so many people in his life that almost everyone seemed vaguely familiar, somehow. “Isn’t this cozy? Tony Stark, I thought that was you. Good to see you again.” She offered Bucky a hand. “Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair magazine, so nice to meet you, Mr.--?”

Christine,” Tony said, as if he’d totally forgotten the name until she’d said it, and pasted on his press smile. Damn it. “Right. Allow me to introduce Mr. Barnes.”

“Pleasure, Mr. Barnes,” she said again. “Would that be the famous James Barnes, formerly of the New York Philharmonic?”

Bucky’s cheery expression dampened a bit. “And hopefully again, soon.”

“Well, that’s encouraging, but of course, everyone’s heard about the brand new prosthetic you’ve got, courtesy of Stark Industries,” Christine breezed on. “While I admit, it’s not surprising that SI would do so much to help you on recovery, I am shocked to see how… intimate you two are. I would have thought it might have gone, you know, quite the other way.”

“Would you?” Tony said mildly. “Is it really so unbelievable that two victims of my ex-CFO’s perfidy might strike up an acquaintance and learn they have more in common than tragedy?”

“Better that,” Christine said, giving Tony her shark’s smile, “than the other rumor.” The way she was staring at them, gaze moving from one to the other like she was watching the world’s most interesting tennis match, she was practically daring Tony to ask.

“Hmmm,” Bucky said, thoughtfully. “Vanity Fair. I might have done an interview with-- do you know Karen Page? Oh, well, she might have moved on by the time you started work there. She’s with the Bugle these days. You know, real, investigative reporting.”

Tony leaned back in his very comfortable chair and smiled. “Rumors,” he said, affecting amusement. “I keep trying to tell people, that thing at MIT was a fluke. I didn’t actually get to be any good at pole dancing until I was in my twenties.”

Christine dug in her bag and pulled out a business card, holding it between two fingers. “Well, let me know if you want to do an interview, to tell the real story. You know, just between old friends. Mr. Barnes, thank you for your time. I’ll let you get back to your… celebration.”

Bucky watched her walk away, a little furrow between his eyebrows. “What… was that?”

Tony waited until he could no longer hear the staccato rap of Christine’s heels on the restaurant’s wooden floors. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of letting her know I don’t know.” He tapped his fingers on the table a few times, suddenly restless. “Be rude and google ourselves at dinner, or spend the whole meal distracted by wondering about it?” he asked.

“Go ahead and look,” Bucky told him. “Otherwise, Pepper’s just going to call you tomorrow and yell about it. I do, in fact, know Karen Page -- she covered the Punisher murder trials, you know -- if we need a reporter in our court.”

“That’s good to know,” Tony said. “I’ve used up most of my goodwill with the press lately, overturning the rocks of SI’s corporate leadership to see what kind of bugs scurry out.” He was thumbing the query into his phone as he spoke. “Though really, there actually are rumors about me all the time. I can’t imagine what Everhart found that could possibly lead her to-- Oh. Shit.”

Bucky’s eyebrow went up. “Do I want to know?”

Tony rubbed at his eyes with one hand and passed the phone across the table to Bucky. “Some pap got a shot of us, and the rag they sold it to is speculating that we conspired to kill my parents and depose Obie.”

Bucky choked on nothing, and then groped for his water glass. “You’re kidding,” he spluttered, and then coughed again. “That… that was a bad murder plan all the way around. Really. Even that Zemo asshole got… I hate to say lucky, but Jesus, there are so many things wrong with that plan. I could have come up with a better damn plan if I was conspiring to murder someone.”

Tony laughed weakly. “Yeah, exactly. Though probably you should not say that to... anyone else, really.” He sighed and massaged his temples. “Okay, this is not ideal, but it’s fixable.” He took his phone back and sent the link to his PR liaison, with Pepper on CC so she wouldn’t have a heart attack when she stumbled over it. “I was hoping we could stay out of the limelight for a little longer,” he pouted. “Now we’re going to have to go public.”

“Is… uh, is that bad?” Bucky asked. “I mean, people are going to see us together, sometimes. And I seriously doubt the jurors in Stane’s trial are going to be allowed to sit if they’re Weekly Sun readers.”

“If the DA thinks it will help Obie’s case...” Tony shrugged. “Going public isn’t necessarily... bad. I mean, I love you, and I’m proud to tell the whole world that we’re together -- but it does mean a certain lack of privacy. And a lot of people who want to tell us that we’re Doing It Wrong.”

“I dunno about that,” Bucky said, rubbing Tony’s wrist with his thumb. “You don’t seem to have any complaints…”

“I don’t,” Tony said emphatically, enjoying the faint shiver of heat that Bucky’s touch set off under his skin. “But other people will have a lot of complaints. And opinions. And they will be very determined to make us listen to them.” He made a face. “Well, can’t be helped,” he sighed. “Might as well lean into it.”

“Hey, we survived me thinkin’ you were stalking me,” Bucky said. “We’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter what other people think. Besides, lemme tell you something. My being somewhat infamous? That puts butts in seats at orchestra performances, which means the symphony will love it.”

Tony couldn’t help a startled laugh. “Okay,” he said, and glanced at his phone, which was already buzzing with instructions from his PR coordinator. “Free up some time tomorrow morning to come into SI for a round table, and we’ll get the ball rolling.”

“Your PR person is going to hate me,” Bucky predicted. “I’ve done interviews and public appearances and all that. And sometimes I do what I’m told… and sometimes, I do what I damn well please.”

“If it makes you feel any better... Me too.” Tony lifted his wineglass. “Here’s do doing what we damn well please.”

***

The air conditioning had been going full blast when they got there, and it was a little chilly, but as the room slowly filled up with press and camera men and other interested persons, it got almost to the point where Bucky was sweating under his sport jacket.

Tony, of course, looked perfect.

Of course, Bucky was biased.

And nervous.

Despite what he’d told Tony about doing public appearances, very few people actually cared about what various classical musicians were doing. He wasn’t David Garrett, for Christ’s sake.

Pepper had handed him a little stack of cards, and given a similar stack to Tony. “These will help you with most of the expected questions. Take deep breaths, don’t try to win them over, and above all, keep ahold of your temper.”

Me?” Bucky asked, affronted, but she’d moved on to picking invisible lint off Tony’s jacket and straightening his tie.

Tony endured her fussing, though it seemed he wasn’t really listening to her, either, flipping through the cards. “Sure,” he said to Bucky. “You’re the good one; you need to maintain that image. If they start slandering me, are you going to be able to laugh it off?” He grinned at Bucky, half-challenging.

“I literally picked you up out of the ditch in front of our building,” Bucky pointed out. “I don’t think there’s much they can say that’s actually slander.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed, causing Pepper to tsk and re-straighten his tie. “Hold onto that thought, snowflake.”

“If we’re really lucky, someone out there’s talked to some of my exes, and you’ll get a glorious accounting of what a floozy I am, instead,” Bucky said. “We’ll be fine, Tony. Promise. Besides, Karen’s out there. I think. She’s supposed to be. She made a serial killer look good for the papers, she can spin this in her sleep.”

“Yeah, I’m counting on her to throw us some softballs,” Tony said. He leaned in and kissed Bucky firmly. “Ready?”

“No,” Bucky said. “Is there still time to run away?”

“No,” Pepper said, putting one hand on his back and pushing him in the direction she wanted him to go.

Bucky had spent most of his adult life under stage lights, even if no one was looking at the orchestra. Cameras flashing was nothing, comparatively. He told himself that, even if he didn’t quite believe it. Searching the faces of the crowd, seeking some sort of support. 

He leaned in, talking directly into Tony’s ear. “I’m reminded of that old Don Henley song. Do you think they’ll let me play during the press conference? A round of Dirty Laundry might not go amiss.”

Tony huffed. “I’m trying to imagine that on the violin and not managing it. You’re going to have to play it for me later, now.”

“Anything you want,” Bucky said. There. He spotted Karen about midway back, and while he didn’t actually wave to her, he met her steady gaze. She pushed her hair behind her ear and gave him a quick smile. At least someone was on their side.

They’d barely made it to the podium when half the reporters were jumping to their feet, “Mr. Stark, care to comment--” and waving their hands, wanting to be the first one to get a pointed quip in.

Tony had on his press smile, wide and photogenic and not at all him. “Okay, okay, settle down. I should’ve known my sex life would bring more of you out here than our product line announcements.” He let the polite chuckle ripple through the room. “You’ve all read the introductory briefing, I assume. We’re here to lay some speculation and rumor-mongering to rest. Mr. Barnes and I are dating, and have been for...” He glanced at Bucky, eyebrows raised. “What, about, four months now?” He scanned the room and pointed, seemingly at random. “Let’s start the questions there.”

“You two seem to have bonded over both tragic and suspicious circumstances, Mr. Stark,” someone said. “And now there are speculations that you’ve known each other for quite a bit longer than you say. Do you have any comments about that?”

“What do you want me to say?” Tony asked, spreading his hands theatrically. “If you want to believe the Weekly Sun’s gossip column, nothing I can say is going to change your mind. However, if you’re listening to that nonsense, then you should definitely look into what Bat Boy has been up to with his flock of vampire sheep, lately. That kid’s not right.”

Bucky put his hand against the small of Tony’s back, then added, “Truthfully, we did sort of know each other for a while, before we officially met. Apparently Tony and I share a love of modern architecture, because we both chose to live in the same building -- several people made a note of that, quite a while ago, as you recall. Anyway, Tony is my upstairs neighbor, and he was the first to really appreciate the effort I went through, on the road to recovery.” He made a wildly exaggerated squinched face, as if hearing a badly played instrument, which got a laugh from most of the audience.

Tony chuckled along with them. “It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “But at the time, we’d never actually spoken. I didn’t even realize how we were connected until after he’d inspired me to launch SI’s prosthetics research.”

Bucky waved his left hand. “While I credit Dr. Armin Zola with the first real synaptic-movement arm, this one -- well, I just have to say, SI’s designs take everything up several notches, in performance, capabilities, and style. I mean --” He hitched up his sleeve to show it off. “--just look at how beautiful this is.”

“I couldn’t put just any old machine on him,” Tony said in a stage-whispered aside. “I mean, look at the man.”

“So,” someone else butted in, “you’re denying that there was any conspiracy in the double murder of Howard and Maria Stark, and that you two being neighbors and lovers is all… what, we’re supposed to believe that it’s just… coincidence?”

Tony directed a scathing look at the man. “Yes,” he said. “It was a coincidence, whether you believe it or not. As for conspiracy, there absolutely was one. I don’t know if you actually read the news, but you might have spotted it -- Obadiah Stane conspired with Helmut Zemo to murder my parents.” He glanced over his shoulder at the representative from Legal, and shrugged. “Allegedly,” he added, making finger-quotes in the air, because while the case against Stane was airtight, it would still be weeks if not months before the actual trial began.

Karen stood up, then, a little scrap of a woman, looking too small and slight to be the powerhouse reporter that Bucky knew she was. The woman had dug into the Frank Castle case and made his story compelling, if still completely awful. “I understand from sources at the local hospital that your own life was recently at risk, Mr. Stark. While I’m sure you don’t want to relive those moments, I heard a rumor that your life was saved--” she held up an old copy of Time Magazine, open to the article about Tony when he was at MIT, where he and Rhodey were kneeling by DUM-E. “-- by this robot. Care to comment on that?”

“DUM-E is amazing,” Bucky said, leaning closer to the microphone. “Also annoying, persistent, and very vigilant with the fire extinguisher.” 

“Lord, don’t tell him that; the last thing we need is a robot with an ego.” Tony grinned at Bucky and then told Karen, “DUM-E had seen me communicating with Bucky by knocking on the floor; when I lost consciousness, he pounded on the floor until Bucky came up to see what was going on. If he’d been half an hour later, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because I’d have joined my parents at the big SI in the sky.”

“And that’s the truth? Murder, conspiracy and heroic robots,” Christine Everhart said. “You two should write a book.”

“Maybe we should,” Tony said amiably. “You want to ghost-write it for us, Ms. Everhart?”

“I hardly think--”

“We’ve noticed,” Bucky said in a low voice, not quite meant to be heard by more than the first row. “Look, that’s what happened, as crazy as it sounds. We moved into the same building. We met. We discovered we have a lot in common. It’s not any weirder than what happens every day. People meet, they share some interests, they decide to try to see if it can go anywhere. It’s both the most amazing, rare and precious thing ever, and it’s the oldest story in the book.”

Tony reached out, and Bucky took his hand. “You want the truth?” he said, looking out over the reporters and bloggers. “The truth is...” He turned to Bucky, and his press smile fell away, leaving only, purely, Tony, eyes soft. “The truth is, I love you.”