As the sunlight begins to filter through the large window on the east side of the room Tony lets go of the soldering iron and flips up his faceplate. He presses his palms into his itching eyes, sliding his chair back. When he stands his joints pop and crack, reminding him that he has been working for far too long.
He’d gotten better at this--at time management. Balance, Tony remembers Steve putting it. Steve who is due to be at the tower in just under four hours, if Tony has the days right. They’ve been blending together lately an alarming amount. The Exvengers reunion, or what Tony knows to be as the aftermath of SHIELD’s recovery from the HYDRA infiltration. An initiative to bring the team back together and through thinly veiled threats get them to be a team again! Tony snorts cynically, and his throat protests the noise.
DUM-E bumps the back of his legs and Tony turns, throwing his vision out of sync with the world for a moment, and he only remains standing by gripping the base of DUM-E’s claw. The claw that simultaneously opens in anticipation of Tony’s hand, sending a mug of steaming coffee careening down to smash against the floor.
He’s lacking balance Tony thinks, then curses as the hot liquid seeps through his jeans.
He eats cereal at the counter in his apartment, eyeing the tottering stack of dishes in his sink. He’d told the maid over a month ago to clean every place except for Tony’s floor, and now Tony is paying the price after four days of working in the lab. He finishes his spoonful of Cap’s Freedom O’s, considers washing the dishes, then stacks the bowl on the top of the tower, the spoon balancing on the rim. It pays to be an engineer after all.
Tony lets the team ride the elevator up on their own, as he takes a quick shower and puts on a suit. He meets them in the lobby, Steve and Natasha upfront, Clint and Bucky in the back. Tony blinks, belying his surprise before managing to return his face to something resembling unfazed. He hadn’t realized that Barns would be joining them, nor that Steve had grown a full beard.
“Welcome back! Fury is waiting for us in the conference room in sub level three,” Tony greets with false cheer before turning on his heel to lead the way.
Steve, predictably, takes control of the conversation by matching Tony stride for stride.
Tony ignores him. Steve either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, capturing his arm with his hand, “Tony, can we talk? Before the meeting?”
Tony stops abruptly and hides a smirk when Steve almost trips but fails to let go of Tony’s arm. “What is there to say?” He smiles lightly, the words neutral despite how trapped Tony feels right now. Outnumbered by four and heart beating quickly.
Steve’s face falls and he steps back, finally releasing Tony. His eyes watch as Tony snatches his arm back and folds them across his chest, hiding the place where the arc reactor used to be. “That’s not fair and you know it.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it is fair. We said all we needed to at the last meeting, yeah?”
“I could say a few things,” Clint says and Tony flinches when he realizes that Clint had grown closer while Steve and he talked.
Tony buries his shaking hands, pressing them against his chest. “Sorry, Stark is not taking any inquiries or grievances at this time,” Tony parrots.
The meeting goes, more or less, how Tony expected. That is to say, it was a complete and utter clusterfuck.
He is beginning to get a headache when they are finally released, Fury telling them--Steve mainly-- to get their heads out of their asses and to come back tomorrow ready to make a reasonable compromise. Tony, somehow, doesn’t see that happening.
He takes the back way to his floor and lets himself into his apartment. As a precaution, Tony had given all of the Avengers their own floor, up near where Tony used to reside with Pepper and Happy. Now Tony has the smallest floor, down by the laundry and the maid’s quarters and only a few floors away from the lab. His old apartment had felt wrong without Pepper, too empty and full of bad memories. He’d remembered his mother voicing similar sentiments when Howard was away on business. How the doors had felt like rows of teeth, waiting to eat her for overstaying her welcome.
The AI replies almost instantly to Tony’s suddenly shaky vitals. “Shall I enact lockdown protocols, sir?”
Tony had programmed that response in his AI when he’d begun to have panic attacks after the battle with Steve. When he’d begin to think how intimately his teammates had known Stark Tower, how Clint had the air ducts memorized and Tony could never really keep Natasha off any floor she wanted to be in.
How up until recently Steve had all the override codes for Tony’s quarters and lab. “Sir?” JARVIS prompts and Tony jumps, giving a startled laugh.
“Yes, J. Thank you.”
“Of course,” JARVIS replies and the voice rings fake and artificial in Tony’s ears.
He dreams of a puppet with his strings cut and the bright glint of a shield cracking into a ruby suit.
Steve invites them to a team breakfast in the morning but Tony declines to go down to the lab and hammer out the dents in his suit.
In the back of his mind, something niggles at Tony. A feeling of too tight-muscles, a barely-there headache, and the creeping feeling of a sore throat. But Tony pushes it too far back to register.
The second meeting does not go any better and it leaves Tony feeling exhausted and achy. His muscles too tight from sitting in a chair and staying quiet.
Steve refuses to abide by any of the rules of the accords, while Fury advocates for amendments. Tony had tried to propose a few solutions but whenever he’d opened his mouth Steve had shot him a hot glare and Bucky had placed a comforting hand on Steve’s back.
The gesture, so near to what Tony would have done only a few months ago is enough to unsettle him and Tony spends the rest of the meeting trying not to fall to pieces.
James Buchanan Barnes is different from Tony’s expectations. He’d been expecting someone like Steve--brash and self-righteous. He’d been expecting arguments from Bucky’s corner, not the quiet way the man had watched and taken in information, much like Natasha’s blank expression or Clint’s facade of boredom. But Bucky is cool where Steve is hot, and quiet where Steve is loud. He’s almost what Tony thinks he’d be if Steve and he were friends again and at a press conference.
It’s enough to make Tony wonder if, under different circumstances, Steve could have had both Tony and Bucky as friends.
He enacts the lockdown protocol again when he gets back to his apartment, and falls asleep on the couch.
He’s woken hours later to alarms blaring and the feeling of being far too hot. “J?”
“Mr. Rogers is requesting access, sir.” The AI replies and Tony sits up, registering the alarms as a warning to the occupants that the lockdown procedure is actively keeping out an intruder.
“Alright, uh, turn the alarms off. I’ll go see what he wants.”
Tony’s mouth is incredibly dry and he stumbles as he makes his way to the door. He runs a hand through his hair, wincing at the shouting he can hear through the door and surprised at the resurgence of his prior headache. “God,” he whines.”
“Real mature of you Tony! Won’t even open the door for me. I should’ve known you wouldn’t be able to be mature about this. I just want to talk but it’s clear that you want to hold grudges.”
Tony cracks the door open just as Steve goes to knock again and he has to duck to avoid being punched. “Fuck, Tony,” Steve hisses, flushing deeply.
“You, uh, knocked?” Tony says, feeling completely stupid but too out of it to get his brain to supply a better combination of words.
“I came down to talk but JARVIS told me that you weren’t accepting visitors. And since when do you live on the fourth floor?”
Tony blinks as his brain processes the information. “It’s closer to the lab,” he settles on because he doesn’t feel like recapping his whole breakup to Captain Steve Rogers.
“And the locking people out thing?”
“It’s a precaution I built into J after Ultron.”
Steve doesn’t say anything but motions at the door as if to ask permission to come inside. The door is already open so Tony feels that he lost any leverage here and lets it swing open, sitting on the couch and pulling a blanket around his shoulders.
Tony can feel the judgment coming off of Steve as he looks at the towering pile of dishes in the sink and the clothes on the floor of Tony’s bedroom. Tony, for the life of him, can’t bring himself to care.
“I wanted to talk, clear the air. I’m afraid that these discussions will last longer than any of us want, and I really don’t want to live in the same tower with so much animosity around.”
Tony opens his mouth, then shrugs.“So, talk.”
This was apparently the wrong thing to say, as Steve stiffens and scowls. “You don’t have anything to contribute?”
“You were the one who wanted to talk. Barged into my apartment if I recall.”
“I want to talk for the good of the team.”
“I agree it could be worthwhile.”
“But you have nothing to say?”
“Like what?” The headache has taken full residence in his brain now and Tony curls further into the blanket.
Steve grinds his teeth together. “How about an apology?” he says, which is the last fucking straw for Tony.
“Sure, I’m sorry that you lied to me about the death of my parents in order to protect your best friend over me, your other best friend. And I’m sorry that you disagreed with the accords so much you wouldn’t even listen to all the good they could do.”
Steve stands so quickly that he bumps into the coffee table and flips it on its side. Tony flinches.
“I fucking knew this wasn’t worth it. But Buck seems to think we can work something out here. I told him it couldn’t be done because you’re an arrogant asshole who's never done anything for anyone except yourself.”
Tony squints up at him, “Are you going to keep insulting me in my own home, which by the way, you forced yourself into, or are we done here.”
Steve stares at him for several long moments, breathing heavily and clenching his fists, before letting out a breath and rubbing a hand down his face. “I guess we’re done here.”
Before Tony can say anything, Steve is gone.
Tony misses the third meeting, woken up only after by another round of blaring alarms and loud knocks. “J, remind me to extend the protocol to the whole floor next time.”
He feels even more terrible than yesterday and finally realizes that the past few days have been building up to a nasty cold or the flu.
His head spins as he rights himself, and he coughs harshly into his blanket. The sky outside is dark, but Tony knows that it’s not the same night, meaning he’s slept at least sixteen hours.
When he stands, he has to grab onto the wall, and even then he begins to sink down it, not hitting the ground only for the hands suddenly wrapped around his forearm. He jerks and the person curses, apologizing.
Through the brain fog, Tony makes out a sleek face with long dark hair and long-lash lined eyes. Then, he passes out.
There is a cold cloth on his head, and he’s horizontal on a flat but soft surface.
“You’re awake,” Bucky says before Tony even opens his eyes because supersoldiers are like that. Tony remembers how Steve could tell the instant anyone in medbay came to.
He pries his eyes open. Bucky is in a chair next to his bed, a book by H.P. Lovecraft on the side table, and a wet cloth in his metal hand.
“How’d you get in?” Tony asks, the words breaking. Bucky hands him a glass of water, leaning forward to perch his elbows on his knees.
“The door just unlocked.”
“Your vitals triggered an override of the code, sir.” Tony winces curses the AI under his breath. This triggers a light chuckle out of Barnes, who is more amused than he has a right to be while taking care of a man he’s never met outside of a fight.
“No offense--” A single eyebrow raises on Bucky’s face, “but what are you doing here?”
Bucky rolls his eyes dramatically, swiping the cloth over Tony’s face, who grabs it and keeps it on his forehead. Bucky leaves it without a word and pulls back. “You didn’t show up to the meeting. I only know because Steve was out of his mind about it. Told him to go check on you if he was so mad, but you know how he is. Figured if Nat and Clint hadn’t come down yet, they weren’t gonna.”
“So you came?”
“You’ve gotta understand I’ve been looking out for Steve since he was little. I know you guys have issues but Steve’s been...well let’s just say he’s been happier. I thought if you guys made up then maybe he’d stop moping around the house.”
“He’s been moping?” Tony asks, stunned. The towel on his head has gone warm and clammy so he takes it off and struggles into a sitting position. Bucky looks as if he has opinions about that, but keeps his mouth shut.
“I swear sometimes it seems like you two have never even met each other.”
Tony swallows and grimaces as it ignites his throat. Bucky passes him a glass of water and presses two tablets of painkillers into his other palm. “I still don’t understand why you stayed. The door was locked, why didn’t you just take Steve’s word for it and assume I really was just an asshole.”
Bucky scoffs but somehow the sound isn’t as mean as Tony is used to. Having finished the water, Tony places the glass on the side table. “Steve may have been blind to it, but I can tell when a man is worse for wear.”
“Are you trying to say I look like shit?”
“If bags under your eyes, yellow skin, and a fever amounts to it, then yes.”
Tony cracks a smile at that. “Fair enough.”
A flat object vibrates in Bucky’s hand and he turns over the screen, tapping out a response before letting it grow dim. Tony scowls. “No, no more of that face. And I had just gotten you to smile too.”
“Your Stevie face. He has one for you too you know.”
Tony folds his arm against his chest and turns toward the window. Outside he can make out a delivery bike go by, zipping past cabs stalled in traffic. “I can’t speak for the two of you as friends, as I never saw it. But I have to say, for two guys who claim to hate each other, both of you seem pretty miserable apart.”
“I’m just miserable because I’m sick.”
“Maybe, but if that were true you would’ve kicked me out the second that you woke up.”
“Still might,” Tony grumbles, but it lacks heat and he feels like a coward for not being able to meet Bucky’s eyes. Instead, he watches as a cat slinks across a slanted rooftop toward a perched bird.
“And that’s your right. But I think you don’t mind me taking care of you. I think you trust me because you know Steve, and you know he’s usually friends with good guys.”
Tony swallows his immediate response, that Bucky quite literally killed his parents, but he knows that’s false. He’d acted more on the pain of Steve’s lies than on the belief that Bucky deserved to be punished, and he believes it even less now that he knows what Bucky went through. That HYDRA had access to his head.
The chair creaks as Bucky stands up, his footsteps heavy on the wood floors. “I’m going to go get some soup, while I’m gone will you consider what I’m asking?”
“You haven’t asked anything of me."
Bucky smiles again and Tony feels oddly like that perched bird. “Sure I have.”