The first time Steve coaxed Bucky out of his bedroom and into the living room with the rest of the team, it was awkward. There was no getting around it. But the rest of the team had promised to be on their best behavior, even Tony and Clint, and Steve was confident that it would go well. He and Bucky sat alone on the loveseat while Thor took Steve's place on the couch; Steve couldn't help casting him several envious looks, because usually he and Tony shared the couch, and he missed the way that Tony would inevitably end up leaning against him when he fell asleep.
That night, Thor was the one who ultimately stood and gathered Tony into his arms. He said a quiet good-night to Steve, Bucky, Natasha and Clint and left the room with Bruce hot on his heels, muffling yawns against his head. Sam was already passed out snoring, and Clint had spent the last fifteen minutes quietly tossing popcorn onto Sam's shirt. A scattering of popcorn had already landed around Sam's hair and face, and Steve suspected that it was only a matter of time before Clint got bored and threw a piece right into Sam's mouth.
The screen went dark before lighting up with explosions as a car dramatically swerved off the road. Bucky flinched, and in the wake of the glass shattering Tony walked back into the room. He looked rumpled and adorable, eyes half open as he picked up the forgotten tablet on the coffee table. The light of the television caught him in profile, and Bucky gasped.
It was a quiet sound, audible only to Steve, but no one could have missed the way Bucky's hand shot out and grabbed onto Steve's arm, so tightly that Steve gritted his teeth in pain. No one except Tony, who nearly walked into the doorway on his way out, re-orienting himself just in time and wandering out the door.
It was a toss-up as to whether or not he'd actually make it to his bed, or whether he'd end up in someone else's - or, more likely, curled up in the linen closet. Steve'd had a couple of near heart attacks before he caught on to that one.
"Buck?" he said, low and tense, and Sam came awake with a snort.
"Steve, that's not who you think it was," Bucky said.
Steve exchanged a troubled glance with Natasha. "That was Tony. You met him earlier, remember? He made eyes at your arm until you scolded him for it?"
"No, Steve, Stevie, that was - I remember. That's not Tony Stark. I killed Tony Stark over twenty-five years ago, at the same time that I killed Howard and Maria Stark. They were my targets. Stevie." Bucky's eyes were dark with horror. "I don't know who that is, but he's not Tony Stark."
The really surprising thing was, Tony didn't try to deny it.
It wasn't like they were trying to accuse him or anything. But Bucky couldn't let it go. For well over two weeks, Steve reasoned with him on an almost hourly basis. Bucky's memories were fickle at best; maybe he was just remembering something wrong. It had happened before. But Bucky wouldn't be swayed. He was completely adamant that he was right. And one night, nearly three weeks to the day that they watched the movie together, he put his fork down at the table and point blank asked Tony who he was.
"I killed Tony Stark," he said into the sudden silence. "Who are you?"
Tony looked at him. He swallowed a mouthful of food and didn't say a word.
"Are you some Hydra scum?" Bucky wanted to know, voice darkening into something chilling when he said the word 'Hydra'.
"Bucky, come on - " Steve started to say.
"I used to be."
Those four words shut Steve up instantly. A hushed silence fell. Bucky looked vindicated, but not satisfied.
"Who are you?" he asked again.
"Tony Stark," Tony said.
Bucky actually growled. "Don't fuck with me. I've killed plenty of assholes. I'm not afraid to add another name to my list."
"Barnes!" Clint said sharply, casting a look at Steve. A look that screamed 'why aren't you stopping this?' Steve couldn't respond.
"I am Tony Stark," Tony said. "That's all I've ever known. Before this, I was no one. I meant nothing." He said the words very calmly, as though they'd been drilled into him long ago, and a chill crept down Steve's spine.
"You were a plant," Bucky threw the accusation out, and it hung in the air for several seconds before Tony nodded. His shoulders slumped as though there was a heavy weight on him.
"Obadiah Stane wanted Stark Industries under his control, but Howard had left everything to his son," he said quietly. "And if that son were dead, then nothing went to Stane. It reverted into shares owned by some of Maria's family. That's why Stane reached out to Hydra in the first place. He needed a replacement, someone he could easily control. Tony Stark was too spirited."
"Who are you?" Bucky asked for the third time, sounding furious.
"I told you. I don't know. They put me in -" Tony stopped, too quick, and Bucky recoiled.
"The chair," he whispered with a dawning edge of disgust.
Unwittingly, Steve's mind provided him with an image of a child being strapped into that monstrosity. The expressions on the rest of the team suggested that they were all imagining the same thing. Blankly, Steve wondered if his face looked as openly horrified.
"I was no one. I meant nothing," Tony said flatly. "I was an orphan, I'm guessing, someone no one would miss. That's why they picked me. They did surgery to make me look like Howard. Experiments." His voice caught on the word, a thin stutter, and his hand crept up unconsciously to touch the side of his face. Like he was remembering something painful.
"Stane tried to have you killed," said Bruce, and Steve automatically looked at him. There was a faint green tinge around Bruce's face, though he seemed like he was in control for the moment.
Tony shrugged. "I was young. I had no loyalties. They couldn't watch me. I forgot them as quickly as I could. Pepper was a better influence than she knew." His smile was more of a baring of teeth. "By the time I was in my late twenties, Stane couldn't control me anymore. Not the way he wanted to. Exposing the truth would only drag him down with me. So he decided it was better to get me out of the picture permanently. That's how this happened." His hand slid down to his chest, pressing over the arc reactor.
"Why didn't I know this?" Natasha asked. It sounded like a rhetorical question, but Tony answered readily enough.
"Not many people knew. It was a heavily guarded secret. I was supposed to be a weapon for them, a surprise at the last minute, but that failed. I suspect Buckaroo over there killed off the last people high enough up the ladder that would have known. I thought..." He trailed off, but the implication was clear: he'd thought he was safe.
Steve's knee hit the underside of the table when he surged to his feet. Everyone jumped. He didn't care. He bolted out of the room.
Tony tried to approach him later that night, knocking on the door just once. Steve didn't answer. He stood beside the closed door and listened to the distant sound of Tony's footsteps eventually walking away.
He managed to avoid Tony for almost two weeks. It took effort to make sure that they were never alone in the same room, especially because the rest of the team was beginning to come down hard on him. Not surprisingly, it was Clint who finally lost it.
"Dude, what the hell is wrong with you!" he said one day, when Steve blatantly scanned the room to make sure Tony wasn't in it before he entered.
"Nothing's wrong," Steve said, a little too short.
"You're acting like Tony's going to attack us," Clint said.
"You don't know that -"
"Oh, bullshit. He's been Tony Stark for way longer than he hasn't. He's still the same Tony Stark who flew through the portal. Still the same guy who makes our gear and saves our butts." Clint was spitting mad, practically hoping in place.
Natasha set a restraining hand on his arm. "I was raised in the Red Room," she said to Steve. "But you trust me."
"Or me," said Bucky, crossing his arms. "They brainwashed me for years, but you didn't care. Why am I so different?"
"Because it is different," Steve said through gritted teeth.
"How? He was just a kid, Stevie, if anything -"
"You're still Bucky. Tony is just a stranger!"
Clint flinched; Sam winced. Even Natasha tensed. Steve turned quickly, just in time to see Tony do a rapid about-face and all but flee the room. Steve watched him go, so knotted up inside that he thought he might be sick.
"Why are you taking this so personally?" Sam asked him the next day.
Steve wouldn't look at him. "He's a stranger," he repeated.
"No he's not, Steve. He's Tony," Sam said, a little gentle and a lot sad.
After a battle, Tony cornered him. "You talk about secrets," he said, and the chatter on the comms went quiet so suddenly that Steve half-thought he'd gone deaf. Almost wished he had, because then he could've avoided the sad sound of Tony's voice.
"You get angry when people keep things from you, but this is how you react. It's always how you react! Why would I have any reason to tell you? I'm still me, Steve. I'm the same person you've always known. Doesn't that count for anything?"
Steve scowled. "That right there is why no one can trust you," he snapped. "You chose not to -"
"Bullshit, Rogers." Tony's eyes were angry and hurt, a dreadful mixture. "But I guess that's what you get for making a stranger your friend." The faceplate snapped back down, and he took off without a word.
Over the comms, Clint said, "Not cool, Steve. Not cool at all."
It got harder and harder to ignore the way that Tony walked around looking like a kicked puppy, shoulders hunched like he was expecting someone to sneak up on him at any moment. He started offering proof that his gear was safe, getting it looked over by SHIELD before he would offer it to anyone on the team; it had to hurt his pride, but he did it without complaint.
"I remember that," Bucky said one day, watching the way Tony flinched when Bruce walked up behind him.
"What?" Steve said, deeply weary.
"That. It was a favored training tactic." He looked at Steve plainly. "They jump you when you're least expecting it, until that's all you come to expect."
Natasha met Steve in the gym the next morning. Normally it was a fair fight.
She thrashed him.
When he was lying on the mats, gasping for air, Natasha stood over him. "Tony loves you," she said. "And you need to decide if that's enough for you. Stop punishing him for something he had no control over. Either you trust him or you don't, but enough of the childish silent treatment."
Two hours later, with the bruises from Natasha's feet still healing, Steve went down to the workshop. Tony was leaning over, whispering something to Dummy. The naked affection in his face in that unguarded moment loosened the knot clenched so tight in Steve's chest.
He honestly didn't think that his protocol would still allow him permission to the workshop, but the door opened with no problem.
"Steve," Tony said, openly shocked, scrambling up. "What are -"
"I'm sorry," Steve said, cutting him off.
Tony blinked at him in wide-eyed shock.
"It was... a shock. To me. That you were - that you had anything to do with them. But you... you're not, right?"
"I'm not," Tony said, slowly shaking his head. "Steve, I never was."
Steve nodded. "I think I knew that, I just didn't want to believe it." He tossed a file on Tony's desk. "I combed through everything SHIELD had on paper. JARVIS did their computer files. Even the slightest trace of anything that might have been related to you is gone. All we've got is Bucky's word, and he won't break it."
"You... why? I thought you hated me," Tony said, and the honest confusion hurt.
"I hated them," Steve said, a little hopelessly. "For taking away something else that I loved."
It took Tony a few seconds to understand; his jaw dropped.
"I love you, Tony Stark," Steve said, meaning it. It was a relief to finally say it, instead of holding the words in where they burned.
"But I'm not -"
"Yes, you are. In every way that matters."
Tony's smile was slow, cautious, but beautiful. He tasted, when Steve dared to pull Tony into his arms and kiss him, like coffee.