Tony does not immediately panic when Steve disappears.
He doesn’t immediately panic because he’s got a tracking device in the phone he gave Steve for Christmas, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and Steve has been at SHIELD headquarters the entire time.
He decides to worry just the smallest bit when Steve has been gone for three days because Tony has no idea what he could have been doing that whole time. He starts to be concerned when he gets the idea into his head that maybe SHIELD has decided to try to extract the super soldier serum from Steve’s body. Squeeze him in a press like getting cider out of an apple until the serum leaks out. Steve’s useful, sure, but maybe SHIELD has decided the chance for a whole mass of super-soldiers is worth risking just the one they have in hand.
These are the things Tony thinks about when he hasn’t had enough sleep and too much coffee.
At least he’s not panicking.
“I’m sure he’s not being squeezed in a cider press, sir,” JARVIS intones and Tony startles a little, hadn’t realized he’d been muttering that out loud. “For one thing, he is quite powerful and I’m sure they could not hope to press him against his will.”
“That would be the kind of thing he’d volunteer for though,” Tony complains. “The guy has no sense of self-preservation. Not if someone tells him he’s doing it for the good of orphans or puppies or something.”
“You really should eat something, sir,” JARVIS says. “I worry about you.”
“Is it telling about my life choices that the only person who worries about me isn’t even a person at all?”
“There are plenty of people who worry about you,” Tony hears Pepper's voice behind him.
“Worrying about me and worrying what I’ll do at any given moment are different things,” Tony grumbles, eyeing the covered plate Pepper has in hand.
“You’ve been sulking-”
“You’ve been working down here ever since Mr. Rogers went into SHIELD,” Pepper says, setting the plate down by Tony’s elbow. She takes the lid off with a flourish and Tony sees it’s an omelet.
“Did Clint make it?” he asks, because Clint’s omelets are epic. They’re kind of a food group all on their own, could feed starving millions. Anything made by Pepper on the other hand has to be viewed with a small measure of skepticism and intestinal fortitude.
“Yes,” Pepper confirms and smiles when Tony plucks the fork out of her hand and digs in.
“Did you just bring me food or did you also bring me information?” Tony asks, hopeful. When she glances away and to the right, it confirms she knows something but wasn't planning to tell him. “Spill it,” Tony demands.
“I don’t know much,” Pepper finally allows. “Just that SHIELD had a walk-in that’s got everyone ruffled.”
“A walk-in?” Tony muses, tapping his chin with his fork. “Must be major if they need Steve for the debrief.”
“Agent Coulson sounded excited,” Pepper says with a grin.
“Isn’t there a reason I desperately need to go to SHIELD HQ?” Tony says, hopping up and Pepper rolls her eyes.
“I’m sure you’ll come up with something,” she says. “I could tell you not to go but you won't listen to me, will you?”
"I just need to say it anyway to feel better."
“Whatever you need,” Tony says, leans across his table so he can drop a kiss on her cheek.
“Are you supposed to have access to this floor?”
Of all the people Tony could run into while trying to sneak around SHIELD, it has to be Fury himself.
“Wait, let me rephrase that. You’re not supposed to have access to this floor.”
“Your entire security system is Stark tech,” Tony says, waving a dismissive hand.
“I wanted to have a proper tender process,” Fury complains and Tony gives him a sunny grin.
“All other systems would have been inferior, therefore I would’ve been able to bypass them.”
“So you’re saying this is a screwed if I do, screwed if I don’t kind of situation?” Fury asks, his good eye glaring and Tony shrugs. “Are you skulking around for a reason or is it just to increase my blood pressure?”
“I wouldn’t think you’d have blood pressure,” Tony says, makes a open claw with his hand and pumps it a few times. “I think you're lacking the required organ.”
“Says the guy with the light bulb in his chest,” Fury says and Tony huffs, rolling his eyes.
“Just proves the presence of my heart. I’d have to see some kind of medical documentation to believe in the existence of yours.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I wasn’t skulking.”
“Do you honestly have nothing better to do than stalk Captain Rogers?”
“Who said I was here for him?” Tony asks, defensive.
“It continues to puzzle me what it is about you that appeals to him.”
“It’s one of the mysteries for the ages,” Tony says, half grinning, hiding the uncomfortable uncertainty he's been hiding about that very subject himself. He’s constantly waiting for the other red, shiny boot to drop and Steve to realize that he’d be better off without someone like Tony dragging him down.
Tony turns when he hears his name. Fury makes an impatient noise and a gesture Tony would think was rude if Fury actually did things like that. Tony doesn’t really care though because it’s Steve walking down the hallway towards him and Tony feels relief, embarrassing but all-encompassing, flood through him.
Steve looks tired, has the pinched line between his brows he gets when he's worried. “Hey, hi,” Tony says, hopes his smile isn’t as dopey on the outside as it feels on the inside. “I was thinking about sending out a search party.”
“You knew exactly where I was,” Steve huffs, knuckling one of his eyes like an exhausted kid and then jabbing Tony in the shoulder with the same hand. “Jarvis told me about the tracking device.”
“Traitor,” Tony snorts but he can’t stay angry when Steve just reaches out and curls Tony into himself, drops his head on Tony’s shoulder and lets out a tired sigh. “Hi,” Tony says again. He gives affection haltingly and badly so it’s lucky Steve just takes it whenever he needs to.
“Hi, you been here long?” Steve asks into the join of Tony’s neck and shoulder.
“Only a few minutes. According to Fury I was skulking.”
“You don’t skulk.”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
“You strut, even if you’re somewhere you know you’re not supposed to be.”
“Exactly,” Tony says, leans back so he can look at Steve. “Can I take you home now?”
“As nice as that sounds, I can’t,” Steve says, unfolding his arms and stepping away. Tony doesn’t like the way Steve’s posture has gone stiff, almost formal. “There’s... something’s happened.”
“Something I’m not authorized to know about, right?” Tony says, trying not to be annoyed. He knows SHIELD often plays their cards close to their chest but it’s the first time Steve has done it, gone all agent on him. Steve is the leader of their group and sometimes gets intel before the others because of it but he usually passes it on.
“It’s not... I’m having trouble understanding what it means myself. I’m not sure I’m ready to...” Steve makes a helpless gesture with his hands.
“Right, so I’ll just-” Tony starts to turn, starts to close off because that’s what he does. He only stops when he feels a firm grip on his bicep.
“I was going to catch a couple of hours sleep. You could... could you stay? Can I explain everything tomorrow?”
Tony lets Steve link their fingers together because it feels like he needs the connection. “Sure, yeah. I can... I can do that.”
Tony’s rarely at a loss for words. He’s actually been known to babble when surprised but right now there isn’t anything he can think of to say.
“Bucky,” Steve breathes, almost reverential.
“I thought he was... you know,” Tony waggles his hand. “I mean... I thought he was... older,” he finally manages because he can’t bring himself to say dead.
They’re looking down onto an isolation room from a gallery set above with one-way glass. Below, James Buchanan Barnes paces. Tony knows it’s him because he found a picture of Bucky and Steve from the forties, had it framed and was planning on giving it to Steve for his next birthday. Tony was thinking it might be a nice memento of a lost friend but now, not so much.
“Wait, this is the walk-in?” Tony demands because if that’s true, then miraculously not-dead Bucky Barnes has been at SHIELD for three days. Tony turns on Steve, finds Steve’s attention still riveted to the man below. “How did this even happen?”
“We’re not sure, that’s why he’s still in isolation,” Steve says.
“You’ve talked to him though?”
“Of course,” Steve says, finally turning back to Tony. “He was pretty freaked out.” Steve is smiling, large and genuine which Tony hasn’t seen in a while. They’ve all been working hard, not much downtime and even less of that alone and Tony tries not to think about how much he missed that smile, mostly because he didn’t put it there. He feels like an ass for having that kind of thought but he can’t help where his brain goes, the selfish avenues it takes.
“Hey, what’s with the face?” Steve asks and Tony blinks at him, hates Steve can read him so well.
“No face,” Tony says, tries a grin that doesn’t seem to fit. “I mean I have a face, it’s not like I don’t have a face but it’s my normal face, always have this face-”
“Tony,” Steve interrupts his babbling, pinches Tony’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. Tony jerks his head out of the grip and Steve frowns at him. “You’re pissed off,” Steve says, looking confused.
“Maybe I don’t like being kept in the dark,” Tony says, hates how he just blurts it out. He knows it’s ridiculous as soon as he says it and Steve confirms it by his expression closing up.
“This is not about you,” he says slowly.
“I know that,” Tony snaps, crossing arms over his chest, defensive.
“Then stop trying to make it about you,” he says and when Tony opens his mouth, Steve holds up a hand. “I wasn’t allowed to tell you, Jesus,” he growls.
“I would’ve told you about something this big,” Tony says and dammit, he sounds hurt. It’s really not about him, he knows that and Tony’s at a loss as to where this is all coming from. Pepper always says he’s out of touch with his feelings and Tony is tending to agree because he's being a dick to a guy who just found out that his best friend was miraculously alive when he’d thought everyone he cared about was dead and he has no idea why.
“I’m not having this argument with you right now,” Steve says, pinching the bridge of his nose. He sounds so disappointed that Tony wants to get down on his knees and apologize, beg for forgiveness for being such a moron. He doesn't get a chance to because right at that moment Coulson appears, looking disgruntled.
“Mr. Stark, a word please?” he says in the tone he uses when he’s contemplating deadly force to get what he wants.
“Sure,” he says because he’s a giant coward and Coulson’s provided him with a means of escape. He's worried that if there's a way he can make a bigger ass of himself in front of Steve he'll stumble upon it in the next few minutes.
Tony follows Coulson out into the hallway and down around a corner. He almost runs into Coulson’s back when the man stops abruptly and turns on him. “Why must you continually...” Coulson seems to be at a loss as to how to finish that sentence. “Be you,” he finally settles on.
“I’m not sure how to be anyone else?” Tony tries.
“You people don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word classified.”
“It’s fine,” Tony says. “Steve only told me what he was allowed to.”
“What exactly was he allowed to, do you think?” Coulson asks coolly.
“Um... nothing?” Tony hazards because he’d thought Steve had gotten some kind of permission to bring him into see Bucky but apparently not from the way Coulson is glaring at him.
“Not ever,” Coulson grits. “This is a very sensitive situation. We’re not really sure how this happened or why and the last thing we need is for the wrong people to know that this is even possible.”
“Why’s that?” Tony asks and Coulson looks at him like he’s dense, which despite being a genius, isn't a new experience for Tony.
“The theory is that Mr. Barnes came into contact with a small amount of the serum-”
“The Steve serum?”
“Yes, that serum. We think he had enough of it in his system that it reactivated his cells and tissues after a prolonged time frozen.”
“He came back from the dead?”
“What did you think happened?”
“I honestly had no idea,” Tony says and he doesn’t. “Cloning?”
Coulson rolls his eyes to the ceiling, silently begging for strength. “You can see the need for secrecy, right?”
For a moment, Tony doesn’t but then his brain makes the leap. If anyone finds out that they can cheat death with the serum, the only source of it currently in Steve’s body, they might not be particularly nice about getting their hands on it.
Steve’s many things but he’s not completely indestructible.
“Cider press,” Tony breathes and when Coulson just gives him a puzzled frown, Tony waves a dismissive hand. “Never mind.”
Tony slinks out of SHIELD headquarters without saying goodbye to Steve. He figures he's probably the last person Steve wants to see right at that moment and Tony’s a master at making himself scarce. He’s only been hiding in his workshop for three hours when Clint and Natasha manage to break in, despite JARVIS actually listening to him and locking them out for once.
“I can’t tell you,” Tony blurts when they advance on him like a pair of nightmarish, leatherclad twins.
“We know,” Natasha says and when Tony narrows his eyes at her, she rolls her own and says, “Code name Winter Soldier.”
“Am I the only person in this house that didn’t know what was going on?” Tony complains.
“We’re agents with actual clearance because we can be trusted. You're continually drunk, sleep with journalists and tell everyone you’re Iron Man,” Natasha says. “The whole secret identity thing was just lost on you, huh?”
“We haven’t told Bruce, if that makes you feel better,” Clint interjects and Tony curls his lip at him because it doesn’t.
“I don’t sleep with journalists anymore,” Tony says, petulant. “Unless Steve’s doing a Clark Kent.”
“This is about protecting Steve. I thought you would be on board with that.”
“I am, but it’s not really, is it?” Tony says. “It’s about protecting Captain America, making sure the only super soldier is the one SHIELD owns.”
“Steve would be in real danger if this got out,” Clint says, being annoyingly reasonable. Luckily Tony has learned the art of tuning out reasonable, considering how long he’s been exposed to Pepper.
“Give me a break. If you could patent Captain America, you would.”
“Tony,” Natasha sighs, sounding exasperated.
“Hey, don’t try and make out like I’m paranoid or anything. I remember a certain governmental body trying to steal my suit. That turned out to be an excellent plan, right?”
“He’s got a point,” Clint says and twitches sideways when Natasha aims an elbow at his ribs.
“If you could figure out how this Barnes guy got exposed to the serum then you’d-”
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of the how, already,” Natasha snaps.
“C’mon Tony,” Clint chimes in. “Two guys exchanging bodily fluids...there was a war on... stuff happens?”
“Oh my god, tell me you are alluding to them bleeding on each other,” Tony says, pained.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Clint says with a smirk and Natasha successfully elbows him this time.
Tony really hopes it hurt.
Tony loses some time then, ends up back at SHIELD and doesn’t have Pepper on hand to run interference anymore when he’s about to do something monumentally stupid like, say, this.
"So I'm left wondering, how did Bucky end up with trace amounts of the serum in his body, enough that meant he survived that fall and his cells regenerated after being defrosted?"
"Just ask me want you want to ask me, Tony," Steve snaps. "It's not like you to miss an opportunity to be uncomfortably blunt about something."
"Fine," Tony grits out. "Did you, at any point, share bodily fluids with him?"
Steve just sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. He doesn't get headaches anymore but if he did, Tony knows he would be the cause of most of them. "Okay, I wasn't expecting you to be that blunt."
Steve, very justifiably walks aways at that point, says something about only talking to Tony when he’s decided to be a rational human being.
“Well, you’ve got a long fucking wait ahead of you!” Tony yells at his retreating back.
Tony’s screwed, and not in the good way.
Tony ends up in SHIELD’s commissary because he's distracted enough to get turned around, but he can never resist pie so he loads a tray with six pieces of every different combination they offer and sets to, agents eyeing him warily and trying to be subtle about it. Someone drops into the seat opposite him and Tony looks up, expecting someone like Natasha or Fury come to kick his ass, nearly chokes when it turns out to be Bucky.
“Wow, that really is spooky,” Bucky says while Tony tries to be surreptitious about spitting the cherry pie in his mouth into his napkin.
“I’m sorry, what?” Tony manages, not really sure what Bucky Barnes, recently undeceased would find spooky.
“You’re just a dead ringer for your dad,” he says, shrugs and steals the only untouched pie, the apple. He takes a huge forkful and grins at Tony with bulging cheeks. “What’d you do to Steve? I thought that kid didn’t have the capacity to be pissed off.”
“I asked him if you guys were sleeping together,” Tony says, always a believer in being direct and tries not to feel a little better about everything when it's Bucky’s turn to choke through his pie. Bucky wipes at his streaming eyes with a sleeve.
“We weren’t like that, pal,” he says, good humor evaporating. “Don’t get me wrong, he was the love of my goddamned life, but I was too chickenshit to do anything about it when it would have mattered.”
“Well, congratulations, second chances all around,” Tony snarls, makes to get up but Bucky shoots out a hand and grabs Tony’s collar, yanks him back to seated.
“It’s too late for me, considering he’s gone for some narcissistic asshole with a god complex.” Bucky releases Tony and tucks back into the pie in front of him. “That’s you, by the way.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Nah, you don’t get it,” Bucky says, rolls his eyes. “I mean, I understand, I’m that guy too.”
“What guy?” Tony asks, confused.
“The guy that’s bent on sabotaging every good thing in his life because he doesn’t think he deserves it.”
“Did you really come back to life to impart relationship advice?” Tony asks, defensive because he knows he’s been a monumental idiot and that’s always an uncomfortable realisation.
“I swore I’d always look after that kid,” Bucky says, ignoring the jibe. “Seems that means from beyond the grave too.”
“He can look after himself now,” Tony says.
"I've been a monumental idiot," Tony says. For an opening gambit, he thinks it's a good one but Steve fails to look impressed.
"About the whole..." Tony waves his hands about, then tucks them back into himself. "I listened to Clint," he adds. "Obviously not my most brilliant moment."
"Does it matter if that was how he's back?" Steve asks and Tony frowns at him. "Honestly, why does it bug you? It was years ago."
"Not for you," Tony says, drops into the seat opposite. "For you it was... it wasn't that long ago."
"Yeah, I guess," Steve admits. "Feels like it though."
"I just... how can I compete with someone like that?"
"That does not sound like the Tony Stark I fell in love with," Steve says, doesn't blink when Tony's mouth drops open. "No, I fell in love with an arrogant asshole who thinks he's better than everyone."
They haven't had the discussion, the one where there are feelings involved. Tony knows it's because he's been dreading it, thought Steve would grow tired of him eventually like everyone did. Tony Stark was all shine when you first got to know him, but the shine wore off pretty quickly.
Tony's seen it dozens of times, the way the eyes go dull when he's let a person down just one too many times, been himself and so been disappointing.
"I'm not asking you to compete with Bucky. I never asked you to do that," Steve adds.
"I know, I just... I know what he means to you."
"Obviously you missed how much you mean to me. For someone who's a genius, you really are a bit dense about this stuff."
"I'm not feeling the love," Tony complains because he's never been so casually insulted by someone not breaking up with him.
"I'm saying that you don't have to be anybody else for me, I know who you are and that's who I'm with. I'm not going to wake up one day and decide I don't want you anymore if that's what you're waiting for."
"You're not?" Tony says, hates the way it comes out small, a question.
"Okay, I might if you continue to insist on having stripper poles in the jet," Steve says, rubbing his chin.
"Hey, it's a good workout. They'll help maintain your upper body strength and that's fun for me."
"Are we okay?" Steve asks, ducking his head, making sure he has Tony's eyes.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"I'm just saying, Bucky's going to need a lot of my time, I'm not going to begrudge him that because it's the least I can do for him. I don't want you to feel threatened though and I don't want it to come between us."
"It won't," Tony says and when Steve raises an eyebrow at him he adds, "Anymore, I swear." Tony sighs, allows Steve to pick up one of his hands, clasp it between both of his. Tony can't imagine Steve as a small, frail thing. Everything about him is large, overwhelming, all encompassing. Tony can't believe there was ever a time where he wasn't completely surrounded by Steve on all sides.
"I reserve the right to still be an idiot about some things," he says and Steve chuckles.
"I wouldn't expect anything else."