Tony is in his workshop, mostly left to binge-science in relative peace and quiet now that Pepper is out of the picture, at least romantically speaking, when JARVIS announces the arrival of Captain Rogers and guests.
“He knows the access codes to his and the communal floors,” Tony absently acknowledges that information, then squawks in outrage when the screen in front of him goes dark. “I wasn’t done with that.”
“I apologise, Sir,” says JARVIS, sounding entirely unapologetic, “but Captain Rogers has asked to speak with you. He is currently in the infirmary.”
That manages to get Tony’s attention. “He’s hurt? What happened? Who’s with him?”
“Captain Rogers is unharmed, which is more than can be said for his companion. I suggest you relocate to the hospital floor, Sir.”
There is a guy with goggles and a wing-backpack pacing in the hallway outside one of the operating theatres when Tony steps out of the elevator which, all things considered, isn’t the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to Tony, but definitely unusual.
“Mr Stark,” the other man greets, holding out his hand for a shake before apparently being reminded that it’s covered in dried blood and pulling it back with a sheepish little shrug. “Sorry about that. My name’s Sam Wilson, I’m-“
“Cap’s flying bird buddy, yeah,” Tony interrupts, walking around him to poke at the wing release on his back. “I’ve got to say, I’m a little underwhelmed with what the military made out of my stolen blueprints. The weight has to be killing your back. I could make this at least eighteen, no, twenty-one percent lighter, no loss of stability or integrity. Also, it’s Tony, the only people who call me Mr Stark are board members and a certain kind of kinky bed partner.”
Sam stares at him for a long moment, unblinking, but then his expression shifts, mouth curving up into a reluctant smile. “All right, Tony it is. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for some upgrades while we’re here, but we’ve got bigger problems right now, believe me, man.”
As if on cue, the door to the operating theatre is pushed open and a nurse hurries out toward them, holding out a surgical robe for Tony to stick his arms into. “Captain Rogers and Doctor Cho are waiting for you,” is all the explanation he gets before, with a last questioning glance back over his shoulder at Sam, he’s ushered into the room.
Tony’s suddenly extremely glad that JARVIS has already told him that Cap’s uninjured, because the amount of blood the guy’s covered with would probably have given Tony a heart attack. And those are serious now, with the Arc Reactor gone, according to his cardiologist.
“Tony,” Steve breathes out the moment he spots him, his relief palpable, but Tony barely hears him, preoccupied as he is staring at the man on the operating table or, more precisely, the man’s metal arm.
Because even dented and bent out of shape as it is, everything below the elbow looking like it’s been ripped off with a few cables still sparking occasionally, Tony doesn’t have to be told what he’s looking at.
Who he’s looking at.
Still, Tony can’t help but ask, “Is that-“
“Yes,” Steve says and then, “Tony, please.”
The desperate, wrecked tone combined with Tony’s own curiosity are enough to make him ignore the fact that he’s approaching the most feared assassin of the modern world and spur him into action.
“He’s stable for now,” Doctor Cho gets right down to business, which Tony appreciates greatly about her, “but we need to take off what remains of the arm. I suspect he’s slowly bleeding out due to a wound sustained in the shoulder region, but this,“ she gestures at the mess of mangled metal plates, “is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The prosthetic seems to be hardwired, for a lack of a better word, directly into his nervous system. We don’t know how to remove it without doing more harm than good.”
“Without killing him,” Tony corrects, staring Steve down when he opens his mouth to protest. “There’s no use sugarcoating it, Cap, it’s what it is. JARVIS, scan and run the diagnostics, let’s see if we can find the off switch. There’s always an off switch.”
While JARVIS does his thing, Tony skims the few files and schematics the Wonder Trio has been able to rescue during their mission of vengeance, Steve dividing his time between hovering next to the unconscious man on the table and hovering behind Tony and getting that kicked puppy look whenever Tony snaps at him to give him some space.
It’s slow progress but progress nonetheless and, eventually, Tony is fairly confident that he’ll be able to get rid of what’s left of the prosthetic without permanently maiming its owner. Or maim him more, whatever. Chances of survival are high, which is what’s essential here.
There’s only one problem.
“I need him awake for this,” Tony explains, much to Steve’s dismayed horror. “Look, Steve, it’s either him awake and in pain but capable of telling me if he can feel what I’m doing, or me going in blind and potentially injuring him more in case not everything’s shut down properly. And with most of the original plans for the arm missing, there’s no way for me to tell, he’s the only one who can do that.”
Steve glares some more, but Tony can see the resignation in his eyes even before he gives a single, curt nod.
Doctor Cho adjusts something on the IV line and whatever they’re pumping into him must be strong as all hell, because the moment the clear liquid stops flowing there’s movement on the table, followed by a raspy, anguished groan.
Steve’s there in a heartbeat, catching one flailing hand between both of his, which seems to reassure the other man at least somewhat since he ceases his trashing, glazed eyes trying to focus on Steve’s face.
“It’s okay, I’ve got you, you’re safe,” Steve murmurs, gesturing for Tony to come closer.
“Barnes,” Tony says once he’s within hearing distance, or what would be hearing distance for a non-enhanced human being, Barnes’ head turning sluggishly in his direction. “There you go. We need to remove the prosthetic in order to stop the bleeding underneath the shoulder plating. I think I’ve managed to turn off most of the still functioning components, but I’ll need to run some tests and you’ll have to tell me if you get a pain response. You think you can do that?”
It takes a couple of seconds of confused blinking and a reassuring nod from Steve, but then Barnes croaks out a shaky, “Yeah, I can try.”
Turns out that all but the connection to the elbow joint were either fried already or successfully disabled. Barnes grits his teeth when Tony tests and then shuts down that one, refusing the offer of a break before they move on to the main event.
“Jus’ get it over with,” he slurs, his panting morphing into gut-wrenching, tortured screams when Tony braces himself and yanks, finally disconnecting the arm.
Barnes passes out before it’s fully off, though Doctor Cho seems satisfied with his readings and immediately shoos both Steve and Tony out of the way the instant it is so that the medical team can start with the treatment.
Tony sends the prosthetic down to his workshop with instructions for JARVIS to have a reconstructed blueprint ready for him by morning, then flops down in a chair next to Sam and settles in for the wait.
Over the course of the next week, Bucky, as he insists on being called even though the name is completely ridiculous, improves physically but grows quieter and more withdrawn, much to everyone’s concern.
Tony visits daily under the guise of running more tests needed for the new arm he’s building, but he secretly enjoys their companionable silences and the sporadic questions about what he’s working on. Bucky seems genuinely interested in what Tony’s doing and doesn’t mind Tony rambling while he measures and calculates and invents a new polymer because HYDRA’s craftsmanship is terrible, of course.
It’s a match made in heaven and by the time Bucky’s strong enough to be allowed to sit up and eat solids again, Tony has developed the mother of all crushes, despite the less than ideal circumstances.
Bucky’s gorgeous and clever, as Tony finds out during his explanations and running commentary, actually following a good third of his technobabble, which is impressive. He has a sense of humour almost as dark as Tony’s own and sasses right back without hesitation.
There are bad days, of course, days when Bucky doesn’t speak and wordlessly stares at the wall, refusing to acknowledge anyone’s presence, but Tony’s more than able to talk for the both of them and sometimes, just before he leaves, Bucky turns to give him one of those tiny, grateful smiles that make the butterflies in Tony’s stomach go crazy.
On the eighth day after the surgery, Steve and Bucky are arguing when Tony steps into Bucky’s hospital room, but before he can excuse himself and awkwardly slink back outside, Steve throws up his hands and declares, “I’m going to get some coffee.”
He doesn’t slam the door on his way out, but that’s probably more because he’s a disgustingly considerate person than because he doesn’t want to.
Tony quirks an eyebrow at Bucky as he flops down in one of the chairs next to the bed and swings his feet up to rest on the edge of the mattress. “You know,” he begins in an attempt to lighten to mood, “I’m a little jealous here. Making Cap storm off is usually my thing.”
It makes Bucky chuckle, although that doesn’t last long. He’s biting his bottom lip, clearly nervous as he says, “I gotta ask you somethin’ and you gotta tell me the truth. Steve,” he pulls an exasperated face, “he means well but he’s not tellin’ me everything. I know he’s not.”
“He’s worried,” Tony points out.
Bucky shoots him a flat, entirely unimpressed look. “I was brainwashed and used as a weapon by a weird, cultist neo-Nazi organisation for the last seventy years, I think I can handle the truth about what’s goin’ on with me.”
“All right, easy there, tiger,” Tony snorts, nudging Bucky’s calf with his foot. “What do you wanna know?”
“The sensation in the stump, how much of it is going to come back? I can’t feel anything right now and I- I need to know what to expect, I need to know what’s goin’ to happen to me, I hate not knowing, I can’t-“
“Hey, okay,” Tony hushes him, moving closer so he can cup Bucky’s face between his hand, smiling what he hopes is a reassuring smile as he soothingly strokes his thumbs over Bucky’s cheeks, choosing to ignore the intimacy of the action since Bucky isn’t complaining. “I understand, I do.”
He’s reluctant to move away again, but he does eventually to take Bucky’s chart from where it’s hanging at the end of the bed. The prognosis isn’t good, which he tells Bucky.
“You’ll be able to feel pressure again, but that’s about it,” he says, wincing apologetically.
Bucky smiles, though, a little sad but genuine. “Thanks. Just, thank you.”
“Any time,” Tony promises, and means it.
The fitting of the new prosthetic is anticlimactic, all things considered. Tony hooks it up and then it’s just a matter of calibration and trial and error coupled with a lot of physical therapy.
Bucky is released from the infirmary after three more weeks, moving into one of the guest rooms on Steve’s floor because, “It’s bigger than the apartment me and my family lived in back in Brooklyn, Tony, I don’t need an entire suite. Or a fake fireplace, for that matter.”
Not that Bucky spends all that much time in his own quarters, as Steve points out a week or so later.
Tony frowns at him. “What do you mean?”
“Tony,” Steve sighs, somehow managing to sound amused, disappointed and chastising all at once. It’s a little creepy. “You’re practically attached at the hip, the only thing you don’t do together is sleep.”
Tony doesn’t blush at the thought of that, he absolutely does not.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” Steve continues, interpreting Tony’s flustered silence as an uncomfortable one. “He’s making friends, that’s a good thing.”
With an excuse about some time-sensitive experiment he’s got running, Tony flees down to his workshop and Sam’s waiting wings, distracting himself from all the warm and fuzzy feelings by burying himself in work until JARVIS kicks him out after the third time he falls asleep and nearly pokes out one of his eyes with some tool or other.
It’s late morning by the time Tony claws himself back to consciousness, dragging himself out of bed only to stumble over a warm, grunting lump lying on the floor right next to his nightstand.
“Ouch,” Tony complains, propping himself up on his elbows, Bucky moving to do the same, wearing an embarrassed deer caught in the headlight expression. “What are you doing?”
Bucky scowls at the carpet for a minute, but then he mumbles, barely audible, “Couldn’t sleep.”
And yeah, Tony knows all about that. Still, though. “And you, what? Decided to take a walk up to my bedroom? Why didn’t you go find Steve who’s, you know, living in the same apartment?”
“He always makes a fuss,” Bucky says defensively, straightening up and, after a moment of consideration, offers a hand to Tony. “I’m sorry, won’t happen again.”
“No,” Tony blurts, mentally cursing himself and his lack of emotional control whenever he’s around Bucky. “No, it’s fine, you just startled me, that’s all. And for God’s sake, get in the bed next time, it’s more than big enough for two.”
“I, uh, kick,” Bucky admits sheepishly, scratching at the back of his neck. “When I dream. Sometimes.”
Instead of using this as his out - because seriously, Tony’s masochistic tendencies are getting out of control here, he’s inviting the man he maybe, kind of, sort of likes likes in a totally unrequited fashion into his bed, there has to be something seriously wrong with him - Tony says, “JARVIS can monitor your breathing and wake me up before it comes to that. Which, by the way, he should have done last night when someone came into my room uninvited!”
“You gave both Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers full access to the penthouse level,” JARVIS reminds him, “Maybe you should have been more specific in your request, Sir.”
Tony would complain about being snarked at by his own damned creation, but the exchange makes Bucky chuckle so, because he’s a total pushover, he refrains.
Bucky continues to seek Tony out when his nightmares won’t let him get any rest, JARVIS alerting Tony to his arrival now in order to avoid any more accidents, and at first they simply talk, aided by the darkness, until one or both of them fall asleep again.
Over time, though, and with some coaxing from Tony, who’s hurting just from watching Bucky sleep on the floor, Bucky starts to tentatively curl up at the foot of Tony’s bed. Which turns into the very edge of the side not used by Tony, into the whole free side and, eventually, into Bucky wrapping himself around Tony more nights than not, nose buried in Tony’s hair and breath tickling Tony’s neck.
Tony simultaneously loves the contact and wants to weep at the platonic nature of it.
And it’s not merely their new sleeping arrangements, Tony and Bucky spend virtually no time apart, Cap hadn't been wrong about that, loath as Tony is to admit to the other man being right. About anything. They’re competitive, it’s their thing. And mostly friendly these days.
For the most part, it’s not a problem, rather the opposite, in fact. Tony enjoys having Bucky around, he’s good company and, more importantly, a good friend, but, as weeks and then months pass by, it becomes more and more apparent that not everything’s all sunshine and rainbows.
Sam calls Bucky a duckling once, during one of his visits to the tower, only half-joking, and Tony can’t help but see it, too, after that.
Bucky seems perfectly fine with the amount of people he’s got in his life, those being Steve, Sam, Tony and his therapists, and while Tony’s the last person to judge someone for being antisocial, he suspects that Bucky’s minimal interaction with the world around him doesn’t stem from a lack of interest, but rather from one of confidence.
No one is trying to push him too hard, too fast, but they all see that Bucky’s stuck. The first people Steve decides to introduce to him are the rest of the Avengers and, well, Tony tends not to think about that disaster of an evening.
Bucky hadn’t spoken or eaten at all, listlessly pushing his food around his plate and clinging to Tony’s sleeve, literally, not metaphorically, almost desperately, tucking his face into the crook of Tony’s neck during the movie and staying like that until the others had left.
He steals Tony’s clothes which, while not a problem per se, can be difficult when he refuses to go to his appointments because the few items that actually fit him happen to be in the wash and he balks at putting on something of his own.
Actually, getting Bucky to attend his therapy sessions at all is always a fight. Tony feels for him, his own skin itching at the mere thought of baring his soul to a stranger, but he knows it’s important for Bucky’s recovery progress, so he does his best to calm him down, talks him into going and then ends up going with him at least half of the time.
Tony doesn’t mind being Bucky’s crutch, he absolutely doesn’t, but it makes him wonder sometimes, how healthy their behaviour and constantly growing co-dependency really is. Because he wants more for Bucky, so much more.
It’s not all bad, all the time, though. Tony can see it in the soft, carefully nostalgic expression Steve gets on Bucky’s good days, that there’s still something left from the man Bucky used to be, changed and different, but still very much present.
Having Bucky value Tony’s opinion above everyone else’s has neat perks as well, since Steve and Sam, if he’s around, usually let Tony pick their food and movies. Bucky eats what Tony eats and watches what Tony watches without question, which is a huge responsibility that often scares but also humbles Tony.
Tony gets to teach Bucky about everything he’s missed and see Bucky being delighted about the changes or watch him passionately rant about them for hours, which Tony finds much more adorable than he probably should.
And Bucky’s not the only one profiting from their unusual friendship, Tony gets as much out of it as he does, if not more. Bucky provides companionship, either by actively engaging with Tony or by simply being around, reading in a corner or tinkering with Tony’s cars, something a person as used to loneliness as Tony starkly appreciates. With being in charge of Bucky’s nourishment, Tony starts eating more frequently as well, and with Bucky not used to forty-hour work stints, Tony actually develops a regular sleeping schedule for the first time in two decades.
They find a balance, between the good and the bad days, between relying on each other and growing too dependent, and Tony is okay with that.
Until he’s not, anymore.
The Avengers are called out and, initially, the attack appears straightforward and centred around the lab of the compound AIM is trying to break into, stopping them from doing so routine for the team by now.
The guy materialising right in the room where Tony’s trying to evacuate the last of the scientists is a surprise, however. Without thinking, Tony blasts a hole into the closest wall and has just enough time to shove the panicking civilians through it before the whole building shakes with the force of an explosion.
Tony braces himself, the suit’s sensors blinking in alarm, and then the HUD goes dark and the first chunk of ceiling hits Tony in the back, sending him to his knees.
Already knowing it’s futile, he nonetheless tries the comms. “Cap? I could use a hand here.”
Nothing but silence.
Another explosion, more debris, a shooting pain in Tony’s back, and then darkness.
It’s difficult to say how long he’s been out, but eventually Tony fights his way back into consciousness, following the desperate shouts of his name until he manages to blink open his eyes to find Bucky’s scared face hovering over him, a shaking hand brushing dirty hair away from his forehead.
“Buck?” Tony coughs and then winces because ouch, one hand twitching around helplessly until Bucky catches it and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Nngh?”
“We’ve got to get you outta here, Tony,” Bucky says and goes to put something over Tony’s nose and mouth, causing him to flinch back and flail some more. “It’s oxygen, Tony, it’s okay, it’ll make breathing easier.”
Now that he mentions it, Tony realises he’s gasping for air, his lungs burning. He gives a weak nod and Bucky smiles, sliding the mask in place.
“The armour’s stuck, I gotta take it off,” Bucky continues, already digging his fingers under the suit’s collar to get at the release mechanism. “Something in the lab’s burnin’ and it doesn’t smell like we’re supposed to be near it. SHIELD’s freakin’ out about it, didn’t seem too thrilled with me barging in here.”
Tony wants to ask what exactly Bucky is doing here, why he’s here when he can barely bring himself to leave the tower for his therapy appointments, but his throat is dry and his eyes burning and all that comes out is a hoarse, confused grunt.
Bucky opens his mouth as if to answer the unspoken question, then shakes his head and closes it again, smiling sadly. “Don’t worry, almost got it.”
True enough, mere moments later there’s a whirring and the armour starts peeling back, Bucky pulling at the pieces that don’t fall away automatically, hands moving carefully along Tony’s sides and back to check for injuries.
Once he’s satisfied, he slings one of Tony’s arms around his neck and slowly, with a lot of hissing and cursing on Tony’s part, they struggle back upright.
Clint spots them the moment they clear the last of the rubble, shouting to alert the others all gathered around, obviously waiting. Cap’s the first to reach them, limping pretty badly with the cast around his foot but not deterred in the slightest by the paramedics calling after him.
“What were you thinking?” he snaps at Bucky, voice trembling with worry as he pulls both Bucky and Tony into a hug, holding on tightly. “You stupid jerk.”
“They said the gas was dangerous-“ Bucky starts defensively, only for Steve to interrupt him again, moving back enough to glare at his friend.
“Exactly! How does that translate to running toward the source of it?”
Bucky glowers right back, chin lifted defiantly. “What was I supposed to do? Leave Tony?”
There’s a tic in Steve’s jaw and Bucky’s lips are pulled back into a sneer, but then they’re embracing again, Tony caught right in the middle of it, before the doctor’s are obviously fed up and start bullying them into the med tent and onto cots as far away from each other as possible in the limited space.
Tony’s lucky, the medic tending to his scrapes and burns tells him, the gas didn’t have enough time to do any damage and everything else is superficial. He doesn’t even have a concussion.
What he does have is a moment to think and piece together what must have happened during his black-out, and he doesn’t like the conclusion he comes to, not one bit.
No one’s hurt enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, so everyone bundles into a spare SHIELD van for the journey back home, too exhausted to talk much. Or, in Tony’s case, too angry.
He waits until they’ve all said their goodbyes and slunk off to their own quarters, only Bucky and him left in the communal kitchen before he says something.
“What is wrong with you?” he barks, feeling a little bad when Bucky flinches back, startled, but barrels on anyway. “You can’t just do shit like that, Bucky, for fuck’s sake!”
Bucky averts his gaze, sullenly staring at his shoes. Annoyed, Tony throws his hands in the air and turns around, stalking toward to walk-in freezer to get an ice pack for the bump on his head.
“Why would you do this?” he demands, punching in the code to open the doors and storming inside, rummaging around, dimly aware how hypocritical he’s being here but not caring, still too scared to be rational when he thinks about what could have happened, that Bucky could have been hurt. “Why would you put yourself in danger like that? Why would you-“
“Because I love you, you ass, and I wouldn’t know what to do without you here, with me!” Bucky yells and Tony, certainly not expecting that, stumbles and just barely manages to catch himself with a hand against the wall, accidentally pushing the button to close the doors again.
It’s not a big deal, especially not compared to Bucky’s confession, the freezer can be opened from the outside as well as the inside because Tony isn’t an idiot, but the moment the doors start closing, Bucky’s face goes white and blank and he jumps forward, presumably to keep them from sliding shut completely.
All he ends up doing in his panicked haste, however, is punch the number pad, the door groaning and the pad beeping miserably before everything stops moving.
“No!” Bucky wails, sounding absolutely wrecked, palms pressed against the glass and shaking, his mind very far away if his glazed eyes are anything to go by.
It doesn’t take someone of Tony’s genius to guess what he’s seeing, not after Bucky’s experiences with cryo at the hands of HYDRA, so Tony, after ordering JARVIS to send DUM-E upstairs with a crowbar, immediately starts talking like he always does when Bucky is in danger of drifting off into a flashback.
“Bucky, hey, come on, listen to me,” he tries, relieved when Bucky’s faraway gaze clears a little and shifts to Tony’s face. “There you are, darling, hey. You’re okay, you’re safe. It’s 2015, you’re in Avengers Tower in Manhattan, everything’s all right apart from you being a massive moron and risking your life by running into collapsing buildings.”
Bucky blinks, chest still heaving, but most of his attention is on Tony now.
“You lovesick fool,” Tony teases, chuckling softly. “Don’t ever do something like this again, I don’t think my poor old heart could take it.”
“Not that old,” Bucky croaks, lips twitching up into a shaky smile.
“Flatterer,” Tony laughs, thoroughly flattered. “You back, sweetheart?”
Heaving a deep, steadying breath, Bucky nods. “Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
In a show of perfect timing, the elevator dings and DUM-E rolls out, actually carrying a crowbar and, thankfully, no fire extinguisher.
“Good boy!” Tony coos, earning himself a series of pleased beeps from the robot and an amused eye-roll from Bucky, who takes the crowbar in exchange for a pat to DUM-E’s claw-arm.
Getting the door open after that is a matter of minutes and once he’s back inside the kitchen, shivering a little but otherwise perfectly fine, Tony can’t hold himself back anymore. Fisting a hand into Bucky’s shirt he yanks him in close and presses their mouths together, sighing contentedly when Bucky doesn’t hesitate to kiss him back.
“You too,” Tony breathes against Bucky’s lips, “I love you, too, God, so much, you have no idea how much-“
“You shoulda said somethin’,” Bucky hums, nuzzling Tony’s cheek.
“Shut up,” is what Tony comes up with in reply to that, nosing his way along Bucky’s face until he reaches his lips again. “Less talking, more kissing.”
And then he whines when Bucky pulls back, placing his hands on Tony’s shoulders when Tony tries to follow.
“You were in there for nearly fifteen minutes,” Bucky reminds him, gesturing back at the freezer.
Tony pouts at him. “I’m fine, better than fine, in fact, so fine-“
“So,” Bucky begins, grinning mischievously, “what you’re sayin’ is that you’re not up for some naked cuddling with me to warm you back up?”
“I could be persuaded. Maybe,” Tony says, betraying his nonchalance by nearly falling over in his hurry to get out of his clothes.
“Oh my God, finally,” Steve exclaims an hour later, picking up Bucky’s shirt and Tony’s pants on his way to get a post-battle snack. “About damn time.”