Maybe Tony had a death wish. It was either that, or glad-handing at the Gala the night before had taken all the peace-making out of him, because when he caught the Winter Soldier in his workshop at 6:30 AM, sharpening a large machete, Tony did not “gently and carefully” suggest the man leave, as all the Avengers had been coached to do by Barnes’s no-longer-necessary-court-mandated therapist.
No. Tony glared daggers at the Winter Soldier and pointed toward the door.
“Get the fuck out,” Tony snapped. “You don’t come in here without permission.”
“I have permission,” the Soldier responded simply. He didn’t look up from his sharpening task, and damn did that machete suddenly look sharp.
“No,” Tony disagreed, a little more carefully. “Barnes has permission. You aren’t Barnes.”
It had been an adventure, navigating the sweetly apologetic Bucky Barnes, who haunted the tower most days, and this man-- the Winter Soldier-- who occasionally inhabited Barnes’s body. The Winter Soldier was not apologetic. Multiple times in the beginning he’d nearly put Steve through a wall, and even Clint and Nat still tiptoed around him and his frankly terrifying Resting Murder Face.
“Leave,” Tony said again, because at this point he was either a dead man, or not, and there wasn’t much he could do about it before coffee.
“You could give me permission to be here,” the Winter Soldier suggested.
He finally looked up, and Tony recognized nothing at all in his eyes or expression. He and Bucky Barnes were not the same person, and that was just so damn weird. An innocent prisoner of war and a HYDRA trained killer sharing a body. They couldn’t punish the arguably-guilty one without punishing the other, and it had been Tony who’d railed about that unfairness to the World Council most vehemently.
In the end, the council had thrown up their hands at the legal mess and put Bucky in Avengers custody. Tony half thought it was because they'd figured everyone in the Tower would be dead in a month, and the council would be rid of the lot of them.
That was six months ago. So far, everyone’s survived.
“I don’t let strangers poke around my stuff,” Tony grumbled, as he walked past the Soldier to take a seat at his workbench.
“Easily solved,” the Soldier deflected. “Get to know me.”
It sounded like a challenge and the more sips of life-giving coffee Tony managed to swallow the more his brain finally kicked in and he realized three things:
-This was the most he’d ever heard the Winter Soldier say at one time.
-He was still alive. Yay!
-In for a penny, in for a pound.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Let’s get to know each other. I’ll start. Why are you in here?”
“The knife sharpener in the kitchen is insufficient for this task.”
“How did you get in?” Tony continued. “JARVIS is supposed to keep you out.”
“I can pretend to be James Buchanan Barnes at any time. The ceiling voice can’t always tell the difference. Neither can you.”
Somehow the soldier made the last part sound like a threat.
“You want us to trust you eventually, right?” Tony asked. “Being creepy is not helping your cause.”
The Soldier looked intrigued. “I was not aware trust was a possibility. You don’t expect you’ll always be afraid of me?”
Tony considered that. His pulse was moving a little quicker than it would be if he’d walked in on Barnes in here, but honestly, no. Once he was past the initial not-being-killed in the first few seconds of this encounter he hadn’t been afraid. The Winter Soldier wasn’t malicious. He was dangerous when startled or provoked, but otherwise only vaguely menacing.
“I don't plan on it," Tony said. "Still doesn't mean you can poke around my stuff.”
“You said the point of questioning was to become acquainted,” the Winter Soldier said, sounding satisfied that the situation has been rectified. “Now we are not strangers and you can give me permission.”
“Why do you need it, if you can sneak in as Barnes?” Tony asked.
That gives the Soldier paused. “I don’t know.”
He stood to leave, as if the confusion was something he didn’t want Tony to see. He was at the door before Tony made up his mind.
“JARVIS, add the Winter Soldier to the permissions for my lab. Let me know when he accesses.”
The soldier didn’t turn to acknowledge Tony’s words, but in the glass of the door, Tony swore he saw the faintest smile in his reflection.
Barnes (the real Barnes) found Tony a few hours later.
“JARVIS told me The Dark Side visited you this morning,” Bucky said. “I’m sorry. I can’t stop him. When he’s awake it’s like I’m not even there.”
“It’s not a problem,” Tony said. “And not your fault.”
“I know,” Bucky sighed. “Just wish it was different. It’s hard to go to sleep at night knowin’ he might be the one who wakes up. And if he hurt someone… I dunno. Maybe I oughtta be locked up. Really locked up.”
It was a testament to how much time that Bucky and Tony had spent together on arm maintenance that Tony recognized the quiet pain in his voice. The thought of hurting people really bothered Bucky-- which was how Tony knew (and knows) (and will always know) that James Barnes was innocent in the murder of Howard and Maria.
“We’ve been over this,” Tony insisted. “I know you don’t deserve prison, and I’m not entirely sure your other half does either. Brainwashing is a bitch, and we haven't seen anything that says what he did was consensual. So let’s just keep moving forward.”
“M’not Peter,” Bucky said, though he was relaxing. “You don’t gotta give me pep talks.”
“Maybe that’s my thing now,” Tony said. “Side effect of spending too much time with Captain America.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. Talking about Steve Rogers as an inspiration was the quickest way to get Bucky to call bullshit.
“You really okay? He didn’t threaten you or anything?” Bucky asked.
“I’m fine, Barnes. Now go pester someone else. I’ve got work to do.”
“I have permission to be here,” the Winter Soldier said in greeting.
“I know. I’m the one who gave it to you.”
It was 5 AM a week after Tony’s last encounter, when JARVIS woke Tony up to let him know the Winter Soldier had entered the workshop. This time, the Soldier didn’t have a visible weapon. Instead, he was sitting at one of the extra workbenches, with a collection of spare parts that looked like he’d scavenged them from the bottom of a trash heap out near LaGuardia. To his left he’d propped up a Starkpad, and Tony can see schematics. They’re zoomed in, so he can’t tell if the Soldier is aiming to make a nuclear warhead or a toaster.
“What’s the new project?” Tony asked.
Maybe it was nosy, but this was his lab, and also he needed to be sure it wasn’t anything that could blow up a city block.
“A robot,” the Soldier said evenly, then zoomed out so Tony could see the whole picture. “Like this.”
Tony dug his fingernails into his palm to keep from laughing. He was looking at an honest to god furless Furby.
“Wow. That’s… a robot,” Tony agreed.
“He will be unkillable,” the Soldier declared.
“Okay,” Tony said. No way this could go wrong. Probably. “That’s good thinking. Dum-E’s pretty indestructible. You worried someone’s going to hurt him?”
The Soldier paused and stared at Tony with narrowed eyes, no doubt assessing the threat level the knowledge presented.
“A pet is a liability. If the wrong person gains information that my robot is my pet, they may harm him.”
The soldier’s hold on the screwdriver in his hand tightened and the metal tool snapped like a pretzel.
“I feel like there is a lotthere to unpack,” Tony said. “And I’m gonna need to finish this coffee before we get into it. But-- just show me what you’ve got, yeah? My dad took a crowbar to U once, when he was drunk. After that, I got pretty good at making my bots indestructible.”
“Unkillable,” the Soldier corrected.
“Yes, that too,” Tony agreed.
For the next twenty minutes Tony and the Winter Soldier went over the Furby-Knockoff diagram. There wasn’t anything dangerous about it as far as Tony could tell. It would do all the usual toy things-- beep, vibrate, chirp, hop up and down a millimeter or two, and mimic a voice. That was it.
“This is great as is,” Tony said, because he’d spent so much time in the lab lately with Harley, Peter and Ned, teaching was kind of a default. “So you can take a suggestion or ignore it, but if this guy is your pet, it might be nice to put some wheels or rollers on him? Then he could follow you around.”
The Soldier considered Tony’s suggestion and then nodded.
“That would be acceptable,” he agreed.
“And maybe a little switchblade for self-defense,” Tony added. “It could shoot out from his foot, or from under his metal plating here on the sides, right where someone would pick him up.”
The Soldier looked surprised. “That would be permitted?”
Tony shrugged. “This is the first real Winter Soldier and Iron Man collaboration. It’d be kind of anti-climactic if it can’t kick a little ass. Right?”
The Soldier didn’t even bother to hide his smile. “Affirmative and acceptable.”
“We’ll see what we can get out of these parts you collected and then JARVIS can help you find everything else. There’s a box of old Ironman suits I let Peter and Harley mess around with. I’m sure they won’t mind sharing.”
The Soldier looked back down at the table and began making adjustments to the schematics. He was quiet for several minutes before he spoke again.
“Thank you for your help.”
Bucky came to find Tony a little around four in the afternoon. He carried a box of Ironman suit parts in his arms.
“I uh… don’t know how I got these,” Bucky said. “Hopefully not by tearing them off you?”
“We really need to set up some kind of diary, or Captain’s Log or something so the two of you can pass messages back and forth,” Tony said. “Cause I get it-- you wake up to pieces of my suit in your hand, that’s gonna look bad. But it isn’t. I’m helping him build a pet.”
“Out of an Iron Man suit? You think maybe Build-A-Bear might be a better option?”
Tony laughed. “I hadn’t, but now I’m kind of dying to take one of you into one to see what you come up with.”
Bucky looks confused. “What’s going on, Tony?”
Tony shrugged. “I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I kind of like the guy. He’s funny.”
“Funny like funny in the head?”
“Funny like he said things that make me laugh,” Tony said. “And I dunno. He talks to me like I’m just some guy-- not Tony Stark.”
It’s hard to explain. Even for Tony, it’s difficult to put words to. There’s just so much baggage that sits around between all of them. Peter hero worships him, Nat and Clint were friendly but wary, Steve was a good friend but he always seemed a little extra careful-- like Tony was something fragile. Bucky was apologetic.
The Soldier had none of that.
“I can’t tell if you’re being serious.”
“He’s really not so bad.”
“He’s the Winter Soldier,” Bucky said in exasperation. “That’s the definition of bad.”
“He’s here, and it doesn’t look like he’s going away any time soon. Isolating him isn’t going to keep us safe,” Tony pointed out.
“Then let other people be his friend,” Bucky said. “Barton likes a challenge. Let him take a stab at friendship.”
For a second Tony just stared at Bucky, then he burst into laughter. “Was that a pun? Like— was that stabbing thing deliberate?”
Bucky rolled his eyes, but smiled.
“Voldemort ain’t the only one who can be funny,” he said, elbowing Tony lightly in the side. “Now tell me about this pet, cause you know I’m the one whose gonna have to water it and walk it and all that.”
Tony grinned. “Let’s start with how not to accidentally activate the switchblade and work backward from there.”
“I hate you,” Bucky groaned, though he leaned in and bumped against Tony, there was absolutely nothing hateful about it.
“I require assistance,” the Soldier announced, when Tony walked into the kitchen.
It was four in the afternoon and Tony had Peter with him, which complicated things a little. Though if the Winter Soldier was uncomfortable with additional company he didn’t show it.
“Good afternoon to you, too,” Tony said, projecting full calm.
“Wait--” Peter said, catching on immediately. “You’re the Winter Soldier? Not Bucky?”
Peter’d spent time with Bucky, while Tony worked on his arm. It was only smart to have another mechanic on standby, in case something ever happened while Tony was unavailable. This is the first time Peter’s met the Soldier, though.
Of course he would think this was an excellent development for his afternoon.
“That is my current designation,” the soldier agreed. “You are Peter Parker.”
“The Winter Soldier knows my name,” Peter whispered under his breath. He sounded a little starstruck.
“The Winter Soldier knows a lot of things,” Tony agreed. “We good?” he asked.
He wasn’t entirely sure the soldier would understand everything Tony meant with that. Like-- are you absolutely sure you’re in a good place mentally and emotionally and feeling extremely stable, because this kid is worth more than Tony’s life, and if you hurt him that’s not going to be okay.
The soldier nodded, and laid the butter knife in his hand down on the counter. That was good enough for Tony. The Winter Soldier wouldn’t have laid down a weapon-- even such a poor weapon-- if he wasn’t in full peace mode.
“I was looking for you. I made progress on my pet but I am encountering connectivity issues with the wheel couplers.”
“Can I help?” Peter asked hopefully.
The Winter Soldier looked to Tony. Peter did too and turned his PLEASE OH PLEASE eyes up to Level 11. Tony sighed.
“What do you say?” Tony asked the Soldier. “Do you trust him?”
He meant it lightly, but the assessing look the Soldier gave Peter said he was taking the question seriously.
“Enough,” the Soldier assented. “You can help.”
They grabbed the sodas they’d been after in the first place, then walked down to the lab. Once they were there, everything went a lot more smoothly. The Winter Soldier was still his usual direct self, but he seemed more inclined to ask questions when Peter clearly had no problem doing so.
Around 6 pm, they had the little robot nearly finished.
“What are you going to name him?” Peter asked, once the small, red and gold not-Furby was chirping away happily in the Soldier’s hands.
“A name is not required,” the Soldier asked.
“Won’t he be kind of sad if he doesn’t have one?” Peter asked.
“Will it?” the Soldier asked.
They both looked toward Tony, because of course everyone always assumed Tony had the answers.
“I name my bots,” Tony said. “Giving something a name makes it more… alive.”
“Then that’s why HYDRA took mine,” the Soldier said, like he was putting in the final piece to a puzzle that had been bothering him for some time.
“A name isn’t really something you can take,” Peter said, sounding a little unsure. “They didn’t have the right to do that. It’s still yours.”
“Bucky Barnes uses it,” the Soldier said. “It isn’t mine.”
He sounded frustrated. He carefully sat his new pet down, and Tony realized it was because the Soldier was afraid he might hurt the thing.
“Pete-- I think now would be a good time to call it a night, kid. Sorry we didn’t get to your physics questions. If you’re working on it tonight and run into a snag, text me.”
“Yes, sir,” Peter said, giving Tony a knowing look. He understood that whatever the Soldier was working through, it would probably be better to work through it without a teenager in the room.
“You know,” Tony said, once Peter had cleared the room. “Bucky uses… Bucky. That would leave you with James if you want it. Or Buchanan. We could call you Barnes.”
“You call him Barnes,” the Soldier pointed out.
“You know an awful lot about what happens with him,” Tony said.
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m always there.”
“Wait-- you can see what’s happening when you’re Bucky?”
“I can’t control his actions, but I can watch them.”
“But when you’re in control, he doesn’t see or hear anything.”
“Because he hates me. In the beginning he taught himself to turn away, now he knows nothing else.”
This is some Freud-level chaos and Tony’s got no clue what to do with it. He’s not good at this stuff when it’s all perfectly ordinary stuff. The Winter Soldier is anything but ordinary. The soldier is also staring at Tony, intently. Assessing.
“You told him you like me,” the Soldier finally said.
The question came from a complicated place, but the answer was incredibly simple.
“Because I do,” Tony said.
“Bucky thinks I’m unlikeable. Irredeemable. Hopeless.”
Tony can practically hear the air quotes. Those are all things he’s heard Bucky say about the Winter Soldier. And the truth was-- Bucky had plenty of good reasons to feel that way and to say those things. He definitely wasn’t bad-mouthing the Soldier to be cruel. Considering this was the first Tony’s heard of the Winter Soldier having a front row seat to Bucky’s life, Barnes may not even know.
“People have said similar things about me,” Tony said. “Sometimes from the people who knew me the best. You know what I did about it?”
The Soldier shook his head.
“I proved them wrong,” Tony said. “I’m still proving them wrong. And you can, too.”
“He won’t give me a chance.”
“That’s the thing. If you base it on him, then you win or you lose based on him. So you should just do you. Be the best person you can be.”
“Me. Peter. Bucky suggested Clint might be a good friend for you-- he’s a complete disaster, so that’s a definite possibility. Plus you’ve got this guy, here.”
“Spot,” Bucky said. “I want to name him Spot.”
The robot has exactly zero spots, but Tony’s not going to point that out.
“It’s perfect,” Tony encouraged.
And when he saw the small smile on the Soldier’s face after he said it, he knew it was true.
“He what?” Bucky asked.
His face was a study in horror.
“Yeah,” Tony sighed. “Here. Drink this.”
He slid the extra cup of coffee he’d brewed across the counter to Bucky. He knew he’d need it.
“I was surprised, too,” Tony soothed. “I assumed since he’s a big blank to you that you’re a big blank to him, but that’s not the case. He’s seeing and hearing this.”
Tony gave Bucky a little wave, and Bucky closed his eyes and groaned.
“How is that even possible?” Bucky asked.
“Not sure. He said you taught yourself not to watch him and now you can’t go back. Can’t say that I blame you, knowing the things he saw for like-- 70 plus years.”
Bucky took a long drink of his coffee. “All I do is shit-talk him.”
“I think he gets it. And you didn’t know. It’s not like there’s a road map for all this.”
Bucky looked down at his hands.
“What are you doing today?” Tony asked.
“Not much,” Bucky admitted. “Training. Going for a run. I’ve got a book I’ve gotta return to the library.”
Basically the Schedule of Sadness.
“Cool. New plan,” Tony said. “We’re gonna walk the High Line. Grab some cheeseburgers for lunch. Maybe get really crazy and take the subway over to Brooklyn. I hear there’s some new kind of ice cream there. Or— well, an ancient kind of ice cream. Sounded weird. I think we should try it.”
Bucky stared at Tony like he’d grown a second head.
“You could sit here and feel awkward about this all day,” Tony tried again. “Or you could clear your head with burger goodness, fresh air, and stringy ice cream. Seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Bucky only thought about it for a second.
“I’ll go grab my Metrocard.”
“How come you never take me out for ice cream?” Clint complained, as he and Tony made their way up to the roof.
JARVIS had let Tony know the Winter Soldier was up there, and Tony had texted Clint, because they’d decided to spend the next Winter Soldier Wakey Time hanging out.
“Because you’re a pain in the ass,” Tony laughed. “Also because I already buy you tacos every Tuesday.”
“Those don’t count,” Clint said. “Because without me, you wouldn’t even know Los Tacos was a thing, so you owe me. Tacos. And Ice Cream.”
“You get a pay check,” Tony reminds him, rolling his eyes. “You have a bank account. I know these things because I’m the one who signs the checks.”
“Lucky’s got expensive tastes, what can I say?” Clint said with a grin.
They rounded the corner of the quinjet platform and found the Winter Soldier waiting for them, as Spot whirred in circles around his feet.
Clint raised both hands immediately, to show he was weapon free. Tony didn’t bother.
“He’s not gonna shoot you,” Tony said. Then he looked at the soldier. “You’re not going to shoot him, are you?”
“Not planning on it tonight.”
“See?” Tony said. “Just three guys and a robot, up on a roof, not shooting each other.”
“Cool, cool, cool,” Clint said. “Cause I’ve got a date later, and I don’t wanna stand this one up. She teaches preschool. I’m pretty sure she carries around cookies in her purse. Like all the time.”
The Soldier looked intrigued.
“I can see how that might actually work out,” Tony said. “So no killing tonight. Mostly because JARVIS ordered a new dartboard for the penthouse and I’m not gonna lie-- watching the Winter Soldier kick your ass at darts is gonna be the highlight of my week.”
Clint’s grin was as bright as the lights on the Empire State building.
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all year. But I don’t play for free, Stark. I win, then you’ve got to buy me Blizzards for a month.”
“I don’t play for free either,” the Winter Soldier insisted. “If I win, Tony has to buy me Blizzards for a month.”
“Deal,” Tony agreed.
“One more thing,” Clint said. “What’s with the bot?”
“Spot is my pet,” the Winter Soldier replied. “Do you have a problem with him?”
His tone was icy cold, and Clint had the good sense to shoot Bucky a bright smile rather than get defensive.
“Nope! He’s awesome!” Clint said enthusiastically. “I keep telling Nat she needs a pet. Lucky’s the best company I’ve got. Hey-- maybe I could bring him next time. He’d never chew on a bot. He’s a great dog.”
“That would be acceptable,” the Soldier agreed.
Clint smiled and turned to walk toward the the penthouse. The Soldier, Tony and Spot followed several feet behind.
The Soldier took Tony’s elbow carefully to slow him down.
“What is a Blizzard?” he asked seriously.
“Ice cream with candy mixed in,” Tony said. “You’ll like it. If you win.”
“When I win,” the Soldier corrected. Then he seemed to realize his hand still held Tony’s arm and he let go quickly, like he’d done something seriously wrong. “I didn’t hurt you did I?”
He sounded so alarmed Tony stopped walking entirely.
“You aren’t going to snap me in half that easily.”
“You’re fragile out of the suit,” the Soldier said plainly.
“I am not,” Tony disagreed.
“Like a day-old kitten,” the Soldier insisted, in a tone that was deeply unimpressed. “With insubstantial bones.”
Tony huffed in irritation, and only when the Soldier smirked, did he realize that the Winter Freaking Soldier was trolling him.
“Shut up,” Tony complained, making a face and punching the Soldier lightly in the arm.
It took everything in him not to make a face, as his knuckles met solid metal and his whole hand stung like a son of a bitch.
“Are you okay?” the Soldier asked, looking amused.
“I hate you,” Tony complained.
“I think you don’t.”
“You know anything about this?” Bucky asked, when he found Tony the next morning, eating toast out on the balcony at dawn.
He held up a note. It read ‘Ask Tony about his hand.’
“God, he’s such a nark,” Tony sighed. “I punched him in the arm. To prove I wasn’t delicate.”
Bucky reached out to pull Tony’s hand into the light. HIs knuckles were a soft shade of greenish blue.
“Not your brightest idea,” Bucky said, smiling fondly.
“I was defending my status as a badass.”
“And clearly you succeeded,” Bucky said.
“Clearly,” Tony agreed. “Oh-- speaking of success, I hope you like Dairy Queen Blizzards. You’re about to eat 30 of them.”
“Dairy Queen what?”
“Blizzards. Thirty of them. Keep up. The Winter Soldier beat Barton at darts and now your prize is all the ice cream.”
“He won them, not me,” Bucky disagreed. “Don’t know how long it will take him to get to thirty, but they’re his.”
He sounded unhappy, in a way Tony hadn’t expected.
“If you’re worried about all the sugar, I’m sure your metabolism will eat right through it.”
“It’s not the calories, nerd. I’m just not so sure he’s up for field trips yet. I know technically he doesn’t have to stay in the tower but when I think about him leavin’--”
“I’ll handle it,” Tony promised. “I was mostly figuring on having them delivered, anyway, because I’m not hauling my ass down to West 14th Street every day for anything less than an alien invasion. But just so you know, I think he’d be fine if he left the tower at this point. He’s not out to hurt anybody.”
“When he and Steve got into it, Steve was out of commission for two days. That ain’t harmless.”
“Right,” Tony said, “But that was a week into him living here, Steve kind of had it coming, and there haven’t been any big incidents since.”
Some little ones, sure. For a month or two after the Steve thing, the Soldier had thrown knives in the general direction of anyone who startled him or pissed him off, but after watching the guy play darts the night before, Tony was very sure if the Soldier had actually wanted to stab anyone, he would have done so with perfect accuracy.
It’s been four month since even a real threat of violence, and considering everything the Winter Soldier had been through for seventy-some years, that was an impressive turn around.
“You really like him, don’t you?” Bucky asked quietly.
“This is a weird conversation to have since I know he’s in there watching,” Tony deflected.
Bucky gave Tony a small, half-smile. It was definitely sad. “Yeah, I get it. I’ll leave you in peace with your coffee.”
“You don’t have to go,” Tony said. “I wouldn’t mind some company for the sunrise.”
“I’ll go grab some coffee and be back,” Bucky said, sounding a little cheerier. “Give me your mug and I’ll get you some more, too.”
Tony handed over his nearly empty mug happily. “You know the way to my heart.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Infinite caffeine. Got it.”
From there, life settled into a steady routine. Taco Tuesdays with Barton, shared Blizzards with the Winter Soldier when he was around, Poker Nights with Rhodey, Homework with Peter, Arm Maintenance or Cheeseburgers or with Bucky.
It was the happiest Tony could remember being in a long time.
The other Avengers were around the tower sometimes, but they also took on a lot of missions. Tony was more than happy to leave them to it, unless they needed Iron Man specifically. And it was while most of the team was off on a mission halfway across the world that everything steady in Tony’s life came to a crashing halt.
“Sir,” JARVIS said, interrupting a conference call Pepper’d somehow wedged into Tony’s schedule. “May Parker is on the phone. She says it is urgent.”
“Call’s over,” Tony told the eight men and women, and that was the only warning they got before they disappeared from his screen. “May? You there?”
“Tony, thank God,” she said. “It’s Peter-- his school just called. He didn’t show up this morning. His friends don’t know where he might be and he’s not here. I thought maybe it was an Avengers thing, but both his suits are in his room. It’s not like him to play hooky.”
“JARVIS, what do you have for us?”
“His mobile phone is turned off, Sir,” JARVIS said, sounding as uneasy about that as Tony was. “Tracing the last signal. Accessing nearby subway and traffic cameras.”
There’s a pause. It stretches on longer than any pause the world’s most robust AI should ever need to pause.
“There were multiple, temporary system outages this morning at the time Peter was traveling to school. They appear to follow his path exactly.”
“Shit, that sounds bad,” May says. “Tell me you can find him.”
“We’ll find him,” Tony says immediately. “JARVIS, who’s in the tower?”
“Only Sergeant Barnes, Sir. Colonel Rhodes is in Nevada and could be here within the hour. If pulled from their current mission, the rest of the Avengers could arrive within 4 hours.”
“May, I’m going to let you go. JARVIS will keep you updated and send a car for you the second we've got him.”
“Thank you,” May said.
The line went dead.
“JARVIS, stay in contact with May, keep looking for Peter, and get every available Avenger on the line.”
Within ten seconds, his screen filled with the concerned faces of his friends.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked.
JARVIS filled everyone in and sent all the information they had to everyone’s phones.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Rhodey said.
“We can pull out of here,” Steve said.
“We’ll get to New York as fast as the quinjet will fly,” Natasha added.
“He’ll be okay,” Clint comforted.
“Thanks,” Tony said simply.
“Bucky, are you up for assisting Tony?”
Bucky’d been cleared to assist on missions but so far he’d only been in the field as a sniper. If Tony hadt to throw down before more backup arrived, Bucky was all he had.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Bucky agreed. “We’ll find him.”
It wasn’t Bucky. Oh, he sounded like Bucky, and of course he looked like Bucky. But somehow Tony knew what to look and listen for now. From the vidscreen of the comm, the Winter Soldier met his eye, and his stare very clearly said ‘keep your mouth shut.’
The Winter Soldier was not cleared for duty. He was barely cleared to operate a microwave. But Tony trusted him, and he wasn’t about to point out what no one else seemed to see.
“Stark Tower out,” Tony said.
The screen went dark.
“JARVIS, let Bucky know to meet me on the roof. We’ll head out from there.”
“Sir?” JARVIS asked.
“Yeah, I noticed,” Tony said.
And that was that.
The Winter Soldier had dropped the Bucky act before he stepped out onto the roof.
“We need to go to the last place his phone sent a signal,” the Soldier said, as he walked in the door. “I can track him from there.”
That had been Tony’s plan as well.
“I can fly you,” Tony said. “If you trust me. It’s the fastest way.”
The Soldier didn’t hesitate. He holstered his gun, fastened the chest strap on his backpack and stepped to Tony’s side.
They got to Peter’s last known location in under two minutes.
Working with the Winter Soldier was different than working with Bucky Barnes. When Barnes was in the field, he acted like a soldier. A good one. When the Winter Soldier was in the field, he acted like a predator, single-minded and deadly.
Luckily Peter had disappeared outside of the usual tourist areas, and the native New Yorkers all knew to give Avengers a wide berth. Tony wasn’t sure what would happen if they were approached. There were a lot of unknowns at the moment.
“They took him through there,” the Soldier said, pointing toward a door, three-fourths of the way down a nearby alley. There was a light scorch mark on the ground but no signs of struggle. Still, Tony trusted the Soldier’s intuition and hoped to get some kind of an idea of what they were walking into before they got that far.
“JARVIS, check the cameras from previous days. Does Peter always cut through this alley?”
“Affirmative,” JARVIS replied immediately.
“Does he ever go in that door?”
“Okay. See if you can get an ID on anyone who has gone in or out of that door in the last two weeks. Look for patterns. Scan against known criminal databases.”
“I have only one match, Sir. Maxwell Dillon, also known as Electro.”
“That would explain the mark on the ground,” Tony said.
“There are four addtitional people who entered this door early in the morning and unless they exited during the outage, have not exited at all. They do not appear in any criminal databases, but they are all known fighters in an underground mixed martial arts league so I do advise caution.”
“Upgraded bodyguards. Gotcha,” Tony agreed.
He relayed the information to the Soldier, who nodded his acknowledgment as he checked out the door.
“You should remain outside,” the Soldier told Tony. “Electro could compromise your suit.”
“And without my suit I’m useless?” Tony asked.
“Without your suit, you are easy to kill,” he said plainly. “I don’t consider you expendable.”
From the Winter Soldier, that was practically a profession of love, but this really wasn’t the time or place for that.
“Nice to know that you care. Now open the door. Your arm is as much a liability as my suit, and I’ve put a lot of work into making both electricity-resistant. If Thor’s bolts haven’t fried me yet, some asshole in green spandex isn’t going to finish me off.”
The Soldier’s face hardened. “Very well.”
“Sir, scans indicate a heat signature behind the door.”
“Thanks, J. We’re on it.”
They met the first guard as soon as they pulled open the door. The guy seemed like he’d been expecting them. He threw a lightning fast punch that would have flattened most interlopers. The Winter Soldier dealt with him comically fast.
The Soldier side-stepped the punch before Tony clocked it coming, grabbed the man’s arm, and snapped it like a pixie stick. In the same motion he took hold of the guy by the neck, lifted him off the floor then paused.
“Should I leave him alive?”
“You should probably leave all of them alive, if you can,” Tony said. “But feel free to knock this one out for the next day or two.”
The Winter Soldier nodded, head-butted the guy, and dropped him in a heap.
“That works,” Tony said.
All talked out, the Winter Soldier didn’t reply. He led Tony down through the basement and then through a trapdoor that led down to the tunnels beneath the buildings. Probably old bootlegger tunnels if Tony had to guess. They looked like they’d been dug out in a hurry and not use frequently. The floors were dusty, but there were no footprints, because of the body that had been dragged down the halls recently.
Tony had to focus hard on just about anything other than that because if he thought about it too much, the next guard they came up against was going to end up a pile of ash on the floor. The Winter Soldier wouldn’t need to lift a finger.
When they did run into the second guard, the man got off two gunshots. The Soldier dodged the first, and used his arm to deflect the other, right back into the man’s shin. Though it wasn’t strictly necessary, since within the next second the Winter Soldier was on him.
Goodnight bad guy.
Tony didn’t comment when the Soldier took the man’s gun. He was already carrying a gun of his own so it wasn’t like being more armed would make a difference in whether or not he killed anybody. It turned out, when they met thug three, the Soldier threw the gun and hit him square between the eyes, dropping him like a sack of potatoes.
It was almost too easy. Almost.
Because once they came out to the main room they ran into a whole new problem straight away.
Peter was there, restrained in a chair, with an ominously buzzing electric field humming all around him.
“Don’t get close!” Peter yelled urgently. “It’s booby-trapped! Please, I don’t want you to get hurt!”
Tony and the Winter Soldier both froze. Peter was a wreck. The field shocked him every few seconds, and from the way he’d hold his breath and flinch, it had to hurt like hell. His hair was mussed up in every direction and he was sporting a couple of nasty bruises that had nothing to do with electricity.
Suddenly, Tony wished they’d taken a little more time kicking some ass as they made their way in. At least one of those jerks had used Pete as a punching bag. But worst of all, his cheeks were streaked with tears.
Electro had made Peter cry.
Tony was ready to kill.
“Oh! You two? How disappointing!” a voice called from a doorway beyond Peter. “I was hoping for the whole collection and all I get is a has-been and a kicked-puppy-side-kick!”
He sounded genuinely upset about it. He’d also made the (very wrong) assumption he was dealing with Bucky Barnes, who’d definitely gotten a reputation for staying clear of the big fights.
“Let the kid go,” Tony said. “And you might get out of this alive. Anything else bad happens to him, that deal’s off the table.”
“Oh no!” Electro cried dramatically. “A threat from New York’s Least Favorite Socialite.”
The Winter Soldier pulled his gun and took aim. Tony hoped like hell that somewhere in all that HYDRA programming, Bucky Barnes or the Winter Soldier still knew Morse Code.
Tony tapped out a quiet, tinny rhythm, his pointer finger against his thumb. The noise was so soft, without super hearing you’d never hear it.
“Ohhh. Bullets won’t work on me when I’m all charged up,” Electro taunted. “I know your old-timey brain may be confused by electricity--”
The first shot took both Electro by surprise. Only the Winter Soldier hadn’t shot the Electric Man. He’d shot the water pipe directly above his head. Water exploded out, soaking Electro who began to scream like the witch at the end of Wizard of Oz.
Then the Soldier shot Electro, first in the leg, then in the arm.
Electro dropped screaming to the ground.
“He talked too much,” the Winter Soldier said.
Electro continued screaming in pain. “You shot me!”
The Winter Soldier charged around Peter, and the shock field that held him in place, and shot Electro again, twice more, point blank.
The screaming stopped.
“He’s not dead,” the Soldier said.
“I’m sure I’ll be glad about that eventually,” Tony said, flicking up his faceplate, as the next random jolt of electricity from the field hit Peter and Peter cried out.
“Peter-- just hang on for a minute. I’m gonna get that field down. JARVIS-- you seeing this?”
“I am, Sir. But Electro created a field with self-referential code. It can not be taken down from an outside network.”
“No problem. There’s no way Johnny Neutron over there was smarter than I am.”
Tony moved to the nearest computer and began to type. He had to hand it to the guy-- Electro may not have been in MENSA but the guy knew electricity. If they were in Tony’s lab he could’ve figured out a solution in a matter of minutes, but with all the components looped around the room, and back ups and booby-traps built in to every switch, it was going to be tricky to release Peter without accidentally frying him.
“Tony-- please-- hurry--” Peter ground out.
He was trying so hard to be brave, as the electric crackled and shocked him every few seconds.
“What can I do?” the Winter Soldier asked.
He was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, clearly irritated by a situation that shooting or stabbing wasn’t going to solve.
“You did great already,” Tony said. “Just give me one more minute…”
Shit. It was going to take more than one. Too long. Impossibly long. Peter’s eyes were closed now, and he was biting down on his bottom lip trying to keep from crying out.
“We’re going to have to short it out,” Tony said.
“Water?” the Winter Soldier asked. “Worked well on that guy.”
“We could end up electrocuting Peter,” Tony said. “No-- we need to short circuit it. We need to find something that we can send through the electricity, that won’t make it worse, then have it disrupt the connection between the generator and the grid.”
“Would Spot work?” the Winter Soldier asked. “He’s unkillable, right? He should be able to do the job without frying. If we made him right.”
“We made him right,” Tony said easily.
The Soldier shrugged off his backpack, unzipped the front pouch and pulled out his small, metal pet.
“Do good,” the Soldier whispered.
He gave Spot a little tap on top of his head and the not-Furby chirped happily a few times and then rolled straight toward Peter. He wheeled through the field and the power surged. For a scary few seconds Peter screamed and then Spot whirred his way to where the generator and the field connected. Spot flicked out his little switchblade and plunged it into the metal casing that held the trap together. The whole thing went dark.
Tony and the Soldier rushed to his side.
“Peter?” Tony asked. “Pete-- c’mon wake up wake up wake up. JARVIS?”
“His vitals are strong,” JARVIS assured Tony.
“He needs rest,” the Winter Soldier said.
He snapped the restraints holding Peter in place, and scooped him up gently, like he was something precious. He turned and handed him to Tony.
“I can get myself to the Tower. You get Peter to help.”
It was nearing midnight when Peter’s eyes blinked open. May and Tony were by his side.
He was still too tired to talk much, but when he asked for some juice, May was quick to jump up and offer to go get it.
“I wasn’t worried you wouldn’t find me,” Peter said quietly. “I knew you would. I just didn’t know how long it would take.”
“I had help,” Tony said.
“I didn’t think the Winter Soldier was cleared for missions.”
“The Avengers may have been under the impression they sent Bucky out with me.”
“Do they know now?”
“I’ve got no clue,” Tony said honestly. “Haven’t talked to them. I haven’t left your room since we got here.”
“I think I’m gonna close my eyes again. I’m really tired. Will you stay until I fall asleep?”
“It’d take the Hulk to drag me out of here,” Tony told him. “Maybe not even then.”
Peter visibly relaxed, right in time for May to return with his juice.
When Tony returned to the Tower, Bucky was waiting for him in the penthouse. He was sitting on the couch, with his feet propped up and a blanket pulled up over him.
He started to get up when he saw Tony, and Tony shook his head.
“Don’t feel like you need to go anywhere,” Tony said. “Company would be nice. Give me a second to grab something to drink, then I’ll join you.”
Tony kicked off his shoes, poured himself a glass of water, then sat down on the other end of the couch.
“Peter’s okay?” Bucky asked.
“Yeah, he’s fine. As long as nothing goes wrong overnight he’ll be discharged in the morning,” Tony said. “That kid is resilient as hell. May and I talked and she’s going to bring him here to stay for the next couple days-- at least until we can figure out what Electro wanted from him, and how many other people may know about his identity.”
Thankfully, Electro was now in Avengers custody, and Natasha had volunteered to conduct the interrogation. They should have some answers before long.
“When I realized what had happened I was kind of surprised anyone got out of there alive,” Bucky said. “Then it turns out everyone got out alive. I didn’t know the Winter Soldier knew how to leave survivors.”
“He’s not who you think he is,” Tony said.
“I’m starting to believe that,” Bucky said softly.
A soft chirp from Bucky’s lap caught Tony’s attention. He raised an eyebrow.
“This guy’s growing on me, too,” Bucky admitted.
Looking a little guilty, he pulled Spot out from under the blanket. When Tony’d last seen the bot, Spot had been functional but singed. Now he gleamed.
Tony looked more closely at Bucky. It’s not like this would be the first time the Winter Soldier had fooled him by switching identities and so far, Bucky Barnes had never shown the slightest bit of interest in the Furby. But no-- there was a gentleness in his eyes, and some shyness and apology that was unmistakably Bucky.
“Did you tell the team about what happened earlier?” Tony asked.
Bucky shook his head. “I will if you want me to,” he said. “But-- I think maybe there’s some things not everybody needs to know. At least not while he and I are still figuring things out. I think-- I think he deserves a little space and privacy.”
Tony smiled. “I think that’s fair. JARVIS can fill me in on what you put down in the report.”
“Umm-- well, about that,” Bucky said, now looking fully guilty. “I kinda spent the whole evening pretending to be the Winter Soldier so everyone would leave me alone and I could avoid the paperwork?”
Tony let that sink in and then he started to laugh. Once he started, he couldn’t stop.
“That’s why I was carryin’ Spot around everywhere. Mostly I just glared. I don’t know-- JARVIS told me I was doin’ okay.”
“It was an admirable performance, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS chimed in.
That only made Tony laugh harder, and then Bucky joined him, and it was nice. It was so nice to hang out with someone who was every bit the train-wreck that Tony was, and to know that no judgement was happening in either direction.
It struck him then, as the laughter faded, how easily he could get used to having Bucky (or the Winter Soldier) up in his penthouse. When they were there, everything felt right.
Tony could have gone to Rhodey for advice, but in matters of complicated relationships, there really was no one better-versed than Clint Barton. Thankfully, Tony had a standing Taco Bro-Date with him every Tuesday.
Clint had listened, without interrupting, as Tony explained that he had feelings for both Bucky and the Winter Soldier, and would like to ask them both out on separate dates. It was only when Tony got to his Big Concern that Clint nodded knowingly.
“I’m kind of unsure about how much the Winter Soldier can actually consent to being in a relationship,” Tony said, picking at his Adobada taco. “It’s not even all about the sex, if it ever happens. He still doesn’t have a name. How much agency can there be?”
“You came to the right guy,” Clint says easily. “Uncle Clint’s got all the answers.”
“Please never ever call yourself that again,” Tony replied.
“It’s good you’re thinking this through,” Clint plowed on. “But you don’t have to overthink it, you know? Just ask yourself some simple questions. Is he of age? Yes. Is he capable of saying no if he doesn’t like what’s going on? Double yes. I’ve seen him throw multiple knives to get that point across. Is he clear-headed and not drugged? I’m pretty sure drugs don’t even work on super soldiers, so yes. Are you gonna check in multiple times to make sure you’re good to go? Since we’re having this conversation, that’s a yes.”
“And what if one of them says no but the other says yes?” Tony asked.
“Dude-- I’ve seen the way they look at you. They way they both look at you. You’ll be fine.”
Tony cracked a smile. “You’re weirdly good at this.”
“I know, right?” Clint asked. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of having sex with aliens. Now be a good nephew and go grab me some extra salsa. Uncle Clint likey the spicy.”
Tony nearly banged his head on the table. “I will pay you actual money to never say those words to me again. Ever.”
“Ten bucks and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
The logistics of asking two people who shared a body out on a date were nearly as complicated as figuring out how to make dates like that work. At least the first step was obvious. Tony would need to talk to the Winter Soldier first, because if he talked to Bucky first, then the Soldier would hear everything, but have no voice.
The unfairness of that wasn’t lost on Tony.
He never knew when the next time the Soldier would appear would be, so he had JARVIS on the lookout. The next afternoon, JARVIS chimed in just after lunch to let him know the Winter Soldier was in the workshop.
Tony tried hard to ignore the nervousness he felt as he walked inside and took a seat at the table across from the Soldier and Spot.
“Spot looks good,” Tony said. “JARVIS ran some scans, and he’s functioning great. No permanent damage.”
“Even if Spot had been damaged it would have been worth it. Peter Parker is not expendable,” the Soldier said simply.
“No, he’s really not,” Tony said. “I’m glad you were there with me. We make a good team.”
“We do,” the Soldier said. “You trusted me.”
“I did,” Tony agreed. “And you trusted me, too. That’s some big progress I think.”
“There’s more progress,” the Soldier pointed out. “Bucky left me this.”
The Soldier slid a piece of paper toward Tony. In Bucky’s neat hand-writing it read:
Tony felt a stinging around the edges of his eyes.
I thought about looking in a mirror and trying to have this conversation since I know you’re listening, but that’s just too weird. I’m sure you’re watching as I write this, but that feels different I guess. To me, anyway.
Thanks for helping out my friends. I know you didn’t have to, but you did, and you didn’t kill anybody in the process which I also really appreciate. I don’t want any more blood on my hands and it’s good to know we’re on the same page there, pal.
I’m sorry for being so hard on you before. You had to listen to me gripe about you for months and talk about you like you were some kind of monster. You aren’t.
Peter told me about what you said, about HYDRA taking your name to make you not a person any more, and how now I’m using the name so you don’t have anything left. That’s not strictly true. I’m using Bucky, which is a name Steve gave me when we were six. Our mom and dad gave us the name James, long before that. I want you to have it. You can use it or not, but from now on it’s yours.
You’re a person with a name, and a lot of good stuff ahead of him.
You can write back if you want. Might be kind of fun to have a penpal.
“It’s a good name,” Tony said carefully. “Do you want it?”
“I do. It’s mine.”
“James,” Tony said, smiling. “It suits you.”
“It better,” James said, smiling in return. “It’s the only one I’ve got.”
“It also makes it easier to do this part,” Tony said. “I-- I’ve been thinking about how much I like spending time with you, and I was wondering, even though it’s complicated-- if you and Bucky would like to go out on some dates. You’re both great, and since you share a body, dating you both is really the only way that it doesn’t seem creepy or non-consen--”
“Yes,” James said, cutting Tony off before he could ramble himself into knots. “I would like that.”
Tony let out all the breath he’d saved for his big, convincing speech. “That’s good news.”
“Does that mean we can go get a Blizzard?”’
“It absolutely means that,” Tony agreed.
“Right now?” James asked.
“If you want to. I still haven’t asked Bucky on a date, though, so maybe it should be a Blizzard between friends this time.”
“He’ll say yes when you ask him,” James reassured him. “Before I visited your lab, he’d spent months whining to Natasha about all the reasons you’d never be interested in him. I’d watched you as you’d repaired his arm, and could see he was incorrect in his reasoning. The way you looked at him overcame every objection but one.”
“Which one was that?” Tony asked, intrigued.
“Me,” James said. “He said you would never be able to accept him as long as I existed. I thought that might be true.”
“To be fair, I thought that might be true, too,” Tony said. “Until I got to know you.”
“And now you want to go on a date with me,” James said, with a smug smile.
“I want to go on lots of dates with you,” Tony agreed. “And I want to hang out when you’re around.”
“That’s acceptable,” James said.
But the look on his face said that it was more than acceptable. And the look on Tony’s face said that, too.
---- 6 months later ----
Tony heard footsteps behind him, but he was too focused on typing in the last few lines of code to turn. That was fine. His boyfriend carefully placed a coffee down next to his keyboard, and then took the seat across from him.
It only took Tony another couple of keystrokes, and he was finished.
“You are a godsend,” Tony said, pulling the coffee toward him happily and then finally looking up.
It was the damndest thing, but lately, James and Bucky were harder and harder to tell apart.
James smiled often, at funny things, and silly little things, and at sweet things and endearing things. He smiled when Tony walked into a room, or when Peter showed him his latest science project, or when Steve told him old stories about their childhood.
He was relaxed and content and safe.
So was Bucky. It had taken a while but he finally believed Tony’d forgiven him, and once he began to accept that James wasn’t a monster that needed to be locked away, Bucky was also able to forgive himself.
They were still separate people, but happiness suited them both.
“You gonna drink that, or just stare at me all dreamy-like while it goes cold?”
Tony laughed. That would be Bucky then.
“Just thinking how lucky I am to have you,” Tony said, taking the hint and lifting the cup to his lips.
“Nah,” Bucky said. “You were tryin’ to figure out which boyfriend brought you breakfast.”
“You caught me,” Tony admitted.
“I don’t mind,” Bucky said easily. “I’ve seen the other guy. He’s easy on the eyes.”
“You’re such a nerd,” Tony teased, reaching a hand across the table to squeeze James’s wrist.
“Takes one to know one,” James agreed, with a besotted smile.
“We’re right here,” Peter said, from across the room, waving a hand as if to get their attention. “And I don’t think me or Spot should be seeing this. It’s like watching our dads date.”
Pete wrinkled his nose and Spot, who was sitting on the table right next to Peter’s elbow, chirped indignantly in their direction.
“Think we should move this party somewhere more private?” Tony asked.
Bucky laughed. “Do you even have to ask?”