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Sunshine and Grey Skies

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“You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” were the first words out of Bucky Barnes’ mouth in the future.

Last he remembered, he’d been crashing a fucking plane, because hell if he knew how to fly one, but he sure knew how to crash one.

Next thing he knew, he was waking up in some damned room, on a bed that was too soft and with his boots on his feet. Something was wrong with his left arm - it was gone right above the elbow, and if everything else wasn’t so weird Bucky thought he’d have choked on panic.

There was the faint noise of traffic outside, a small breeze shifting curtains at the open windows. The air smelled odd. There was a radio nearby, playing a ball game. The longer he listened to it, the more he swore he knew it.

Some lady stepped into the room, almost sending him rabbiting to his feet. She was dressed strangely - a quick look over and he knew for sure that he didn’t know any dames that dressed like that.

She tried to tell him he was in a recovery room in New York, and for a moment Bucky thought about straight up laughing.

Instead, he said, “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.”

She looked confused, but it was… faked as all hell, and what kind of fucking nurse was she, if this was a recovery room in New York - which, it wasn’t, because the air smelled wrong and Bucky Barnes knew that fucking ball game.

So maybe he scared her a bit. He wasn’t no hero, he wasn’t Steve, and he wasn’t above intimidation. (Why lie if there was nothin’ to hide, if you were one of the good guys?)

Two armed thugs came in, dressed in black, and Bucky was almost as willing as Steve was for a fight at that point.

He won, until more of them came in. Lacking an arm and outnumbered, he couldn’t keep up.

He sulked in the interrogation room they shoved him into, licking his bloody lip and glaring at the two-way glass.

“Who the fuck are you?” Bucky asked as soon as someone stepped in - a man in a suit, with a calm smile and dangerous eyes.

“My name is Agent Coulson. I’m with the Strategic Homeland Intervention and Enforcement Logistics Division.”

Bucky considered him, then leaned back, tilting his head to the side, chin up, challenging and waiting for something he could work with.

His missing arm ached.

“We recovered you from the wreckage of the crash in the Arctic.” Here the man hesitated. Bucky raised a brow and waited. Letting out a slow sigh, he continued, “Your arm was damaged severely. Our doctors did what they could but….” The man gestured and shrugged. “Over the years - and it has been many, Sgt. Barnes - most people have forgotten just how important a role Captain America played in the war, unless they’re historians or history or military buffs. And only a very few are aware of the mission that lost us Captain America, and how his best friend took up his mantel.”

“How many?” Bucky asked after a moment. Because historians and many years and only a few people knowin’ how Steve gave his life? Bucky wasn’t a fool, he could read between lines, but it made no sense. It didn’t.

He ignored the explanation about his arm.

“Nearly seventy.”

“Bullshit.”

The man pulled a slim device out of his pocket and set it on the table, sliding it towards Bucky. “I wish, for your sake, that I was.”

A simple touch to the screen displayed a time, and a date, and a fuckin’ year that seemed impossible to believe.

“If you would like further proof, we can escort you outside.”

Bucky stared at that year, and snorted softly. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

20-fucking-10.

~*~*~

“Stark, just give us access to Howard’s fucking collection.”

“No, I don’t think I will. That is definitely outside of my duties as consultant,” Tony said, flicking aside the screen with Fury’s glowering face, pulling up some general schematics for the next StarkPhone update.

“Stark-”

“Sorry, I’ve got a meeting with my lab assistants I can’t miss, bye Fury.” He closed out the call, then whistled to get the bots’ attention. “Meeting guys. You’ve all been doing a great job - except Dum-E, you keep putting something suspicious in the smoothies, and Butterfingers, don’t think I didn’t notice you haven’t cleaned up that mess for a week. You, stop moving my tools around, this isn’t musical tools. Alright guys, good talk, meeting adjourned.”

Tony dove back into work, glancing constantly at the time. He had dinner with Pepper planned. The Tower’s construction was mostly finished, just some final work on the lower floors and it’d be good to connect to his reactor technology, making it self-sufficient, running entirely on clean energy. Tony thought he could probably hire some more workers and have it done in under three months, instead of the four and a half Pepper was saying it’d take. He could have the reactor technology for the building ready by then, with only a few all-nighters and skipped board meetings. But tonight was dinner, no business, and Tony really wanted to make this work, so he was not going to get lost in work. He was-

“Sir, Agent Coulson is in the lobby.”

Tony groaned.

He had to get cleaned up soon anyway. Might as well turn the agent away in person. Coulson was the only one Tony was willing to deal with personally, anyway.

“Let him up, J, and shut all this down.”

He caught up with Coulson as the man stepped out of the elevator. Tony stepped between him and the rest of the floor, smiling widely, easily. Coulson raised a brow, expression as calmly bland as ever.

“Listen, I already have stated that-”

“Director Fury believes that you can’t be trusted with the truth behind our need for your father’s collection,” Coulson interrupted. “I’m not sure he’s wrong, either, but I do think that you’re unlikely to agree unless we give you some… incentive.”

“Incentive, huh?” Tony mused, considering Coulson. “Alright, Agent, I’ll bite. Just why does SHIELD want to dig through dear ol’ Dad’s Cap creeper collection?”

Coulson smiled, a little less bland than usual, but as nonchalant as ever. “We found the shield.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. The shield had to mean the shield - which had been on the plane that Howard had spent more time and money looking for than he’d ever wasted on anything except expeditions in the Alps. Howard had ranted more times than Tony could recall about getting it back - about finding the shield and the real Cap, and reuniting….

“That means you found the crash,” Tony said. “Anything else of interest?”

Coulson kept smiling calmly. “Depends on the person. Some are more interested in what we found than others.”

Tony didn’t have to think for long to reach a conclusion. “How about a trade?”

~*~*~

Bucky didn’t want to sleep, and he didn’t want to read any of the fucking books they gave him about history and politics and whatnot, and he didn’t want to fucking talk to any of these assholes. Agent Coulson would show up a few times a week, that Fury guy every four or five days, the therapists sometimes twice a day. He refused to go see a doctor, or allow the few that dared come to him to touch him.

It’d been a long-ass few months.

According to Agent Coulson, it’d been decided by some council or other that until Bucky started cooperating, he wasn’t allowed out into the world, for his and civilians’ safety. No one called the room he’d been stuck in a cell, but Bucky knew that’s what it damn well was.

He was pretty sure some of the shows of temper he’d had those first few weeks were behind him not being let out. That, and his general lack of cooperation with anyone in this place. He’d say he was right not to trust them, either, since they’d been keeping him locked up here, like he wasn’t a prisoner if they gave him a nice room and good food and clothes and whatnot.

He spent a lot of time doing exercises to keep fit (figuring out how to do them with one less arm - and that caused a lot of fits of temper from his own frustration), trying to avoid sleep and nightmares and Steve’s disappointed ghost, and on the bed, hand behind his head and staring at the ceiling.

Sometimes he’d sing old marching songs, just to chase away the sound of the silence - though he’d told Fury it was because he had hoped to annoy anyone who was listening in by getting the damned things stuck in their head.

Fury hadn’t looked impressed.

Bucky got more of a kick out of messing with that guy than he ever had out of messing with Phillips.

Who was dead, probably.

The smirk fell off his face again and he stared at the ceiling, brooding.

2010. The future. Where everyone Bucky had known was dead. Everyone he'd cared about. It shouldn't hurt so much - he'd already lost the person that had mattered more than anyone else. He'd already lost Steve. And it felt like that had only just happened, and then he was learning he'd lost everyone on top of Steve.

It felt like the world should be grey. It felt like there shouldn't be anything to feel pleased about. Steve was gone, gone because of Bucky.

Bucky wished he could stop imagining Steve's responses to everything. He wished he could stop dreaming of Steve. Because every time he did, it was that he had him back, that he'd told Steve how much he.... But he hadn't. And he'd lost him. Bucky slept, and dreamt of a life with Steve, and woke up and lost him all over again.

It was either Bucky didn't sleep - or he never woke up. He wasn't sure which would be more tolerable at this point. (Except he could never... never throw away Steve's sacrifice by quitting. He hadn't been able to throw it away and say no to taking up the Captain America mantel, and he wasn't able to throw it away now and give in to these SHIELD people. But god did he sometimes wish he could.)

The spiral of thoughts was interrupted several minutes - it had only been minutes, right? - later when the door opened and clicked shut.

“This is damned depressing,” an unfamiliar voice drawled.

Bucky ignored it. They’d tried all kinds of methods of getting him to cooperate, to talk, to give them some measure of control over him. Probably whoever this was would comment on how he could get out, or have some freedom and fun, if only he helped them out and cooperated.

Cooperated was just a fancy word for giving in, and doing what they wanted.

“I mean, I get locking away old relics somewhere safe but seriously this is depressing. I kind of want to go laugh in Nicky’s face, except Coulson would probably set Rushman on me again and I’m not down for a repeat of that.”

Bucky stared at the ceiling and counted his breaths.

“Alright, well, this has been fun.” Hands clapped together. “J, how’re we looking?” There was no response Bucky could hear, but the voice said, “Fantastic, and showtime in three, two….” Footsteps, and then there was a face in Bucky’s line of sight, a bit of a smirk on lips and a brow quirked in cheeky attitude. “Ready for a jailbreak, old man?”

Bucky quietly considered him. He looked familiar, in some ways - dark hair and dark eyes and over-the-top charm.

“If they think sendin’ someone who looks like Howard is gonna work, I gotta say they’re seriously overestimatin’ how much I liked that guy.”

The man laughed, grin stretching into something less charming and more honest, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “I wish you could have said that to his face, I would have paid to see that. But nope, you’re wrong! Now hurry your ass up if you don’t want to stay some fancy trinket locked away in this place.” He turned and walked away. Bucky sat upright, elbow on his knee, considering the man. The door opened and he looked back at Bucky. “Coming or staying?”

Sighing - he wouldn’t give them anything, but leaving the room had to be more fun than just staying put - Bucky got to his feet and followed.

The paths they took seemed odd - the man stopped randomly, without any signs of why that Bucky could gather, and took turns and backtracks that made little sense unless he had some way of knowing who was where.

Bucky was debating just what the hell these people were trying to get from him with this show when… they stepped through a heavy door and out into the sunshine, in what looked like a cargo drop-off.

He froze, drinking in the sights of outside and breathing in the city air and feeling a surge of adrenaline in his blood, the need to just take off and run.

He’d tried that, though.

They’d found him and dragged him back.

“Come on, come on,” the man said, gesturing impatiently from the side of a… very fancy looking car. “I’ve only got another minute before they probably get their systems back online, can’t have them completely crashed no matter what I think would be good. Agent and Pep said so.” When Bucky just stood there he snapped, “Hurry up or I’m going to leave you here.”

Bucky hurried.

They peeled out faster than had to be safe in a civilian area. Bucky watched in the mirror as the SHIELD building disappeared behind them. He didn’t let out a breath until he couldn’t even make it out in the distance.

“Who are you?” he asked, turning to look at the man.

The charming grin was back in place as the man took one hand off the wheel and offered it to him. “Tony.”

Bucky shook it, eyes narrowing. “And what the hell do you want?”

Tony laughed. “Agent promised me a picture of Nicky’s face when he realizes I stole you from under their nose. I’m going to frame it and make sure it’s in view for every video conference I have with him for the next year.”

He considered that, considered Tony’s behavior so far, and sighed, leaning back against the seat. “Can’t be worse than staying there,” he said to himself.

“Hey, how do you feel about California?” Tony asked.

Bucky just stared at him.

“I’m taking that as ‘I don’t have words, I’m so enthusiastic’ silence,” Tony stated.

~*~*~

“Hey Pep,” Tony said, kissing her on the cheek, grinning at the indulgent, fond smile she gave him for it. He didn’t introduce Barnes, letting the man wander onto the plane behind him, eying everything with wide-eyed awe and suspicion. It was kind of hilarious to watch.

Pepper had to go and spoil the fun of trying to out-wait Barnes though - Tony was determined to make the guy talk to him, usually by not explaining anything until Barnes cracked enough to ask - by walking up to him and holding out her hand. “Pepper Potts,” she introduced. “Has Tony bothered to explain anything to you, or has the just been dragging you along behind him?”

“You make me sound much worse than I am,” he stated, pouring himself a drink.

“I make you sound less like an asshole,” Pepper countered with a sweet grin, making Tony breathe a little laugh and grin back. Damn, but he loved her.

“I have not, in fact, outlined the entire grand plan to our defrosted soldier here,” Tony admitted. “Doubt he’d believe me, anyway. He’s very suspicious,” Tony said, in a very exaggerated stage whisper.

Barnes rolled his eyes.

“From what Phil-”

“Agent,” Tony corrected.

“-said,” Pepper continued, giving him an exasperated look that did nothing to hide the smile twitching at the corners of her lips. “He has every reason to be suspicious. SHIELD’s not going to be pleased with us.”

Tony scoffed, waving it off. “Agent will explain the plan to Nicky, once he’s stopped ranting about what a rash, narcissistic asshole I am.” He glanced over, caught the twitch of a frown on Pepper’s face, and continued quickly before she could start talking about Tony’s ‘twisted self-image’ or whatever again. “They weren’t going to let him out, not until they found some way to do fucking experiments involving him, and Fury’s hands were tied. They can’t do shit to stop me, because they’d have to admit that they were keeping Captain America locked up in their basement.” He set the glass down harder than he meant to, spilling some over the sides onto his hand and the table. “Shit,” he muttered, licking his hand quickly as he went for a towel.

“I know,” Pepper agreed with a quiet kind of reassurance that Tony didn’t want to admit was calming. “We all agreed this was the best way to help.”

“One fancy prison to another?”

Tony looked over at Barnes, considering him. “What, you think you’re cut out to make it in the 21st century?”

“Tony,” Pepper sighed.

“You’re not,” Tony continued. “You won’t read the history books, and they sure weren’t in a hurry to catch you up to date on technology and cultural norms. You’d be in serious culture shock, and you’d be helpless, and when they found you, you’d have no way of fighting back.”

Barnes’ jaw clenched and he looked ready to come over and sock Tony one in the jaw. He wasn’t moving, though, and Tony knew what it looked like when someone wasn’t going to hold themselves back from hitting him.

“We intend to help you with all of that,” Pepper said before Tony could continue. He turned back to the drink, wiping the bottom of the glass before downing what was in there. He let Pepper explain - that with Agent’s help they had an identity for him to slip right on into, a history that made him a person and not a ghost from the past. That they were going to California, farther from SHIELD headquarters, to start helping him integrate into modern society.

“Once you got a hang of things, you’re free to go,” Tony said, getting a slightly surprised look from Pepper. (That hadn’t been part of the plan they’d discussed with Agent. They were to help Barnes, sure, but they weren’t supposed to lose him.) “JARVIS and I can probably make another identity for you, one that SHIELD won’t have anything on to track, and you can disappear like anyone else these days.” He looked at Barnes. “Or you can stay with us. Up to you.”

“What do you get out of this?”

“I told you,” Tony said, turning and pouring himself another drink. “Agent promised me a pic of Nicky’s face.”

“We want to help,” Pepper said, which sounded good but Barnes was probably never going to believe.

~*~*~

Barnes kept that suspicious distance until he saw Tony’s workshop.

Tony didn’t know how to explain how happy he was, how Barnes’ excitement and wonder and awe filled him with this pleased kind of warmth that wasn’t anything like his usual pride in his work.

Pepper now had to drag both of them out of the workshop for meals.

~*~*~

“You know, I could probably make you an arm,” Tony said one day while working on the suit - specifically, on one of the gauntlets, which Bucky was sure was no coincidence.

“Yeah?” He considered the armor, then his arm, pondering how it’d be another adjustment, wondering how much he trusted Tony, if he wanted to or not in the first place.

Tony was watching him, quiet and serious. “It’s up to you. I don’t do anything by halves, so it’d have to be better than anything you could find out there already.”

“What are you thinking?” Bucky asked after a few minutes.

Tony grinned and pulled up some blueprints.

~*~*~

“What if you don’t have the suit nearby?” Bucky asked, sitting on top of one of the work tables and watching Tony work on the suit. He kept curling his fingers into his palm and out again, trying to get used to the sensation of… of the metal prosthetic arm Tony had made him. It’d been tricky, it’d been so many all-nighters on both their parts, and some pain, and some frustration, but….

Bucky curled his fingers again, amazed to get feedback from sensors in the fingertips about the metal of his new palm.

“Suitcase suit,” Tony explained.

“Yeah, but what if you don’t have that with you? What if there’s no suits nearby and some asshole appears in front of you on a racetrack again?” He turned his hand, staring as he dragged the pads of the fingertips over the denim of his jeans.

“I’m not allowed in race cars anymore. Pepper’s rules.” He sat back though, considering the suit, the possibilities, what Bucky was suggesting and challenging without actually doing so.

“I suppose I’d be fucked,” he concluded.

“Smart guy like you, you’re telling me that’s it? You’re just… fucked, unable to get around it?” Bucky looked up, raising a brow skeptically.

“It’d have to be able to assemble itself, or at least partially disassemble to rearrange around me, JARVIS would need a greater uplink, I’d have to have some means of marking my location so it’d-”

“So do it,” Bucky suggested, shrugging. “Also, make me a flying car.”

Tony shot him a dirty look, but Bucky just grinned at him.

Sometimes, he thought Tony was like a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of the sun through clouds. He was like a shot of rejuvenating energy that Bucky couldn't resist, even if he did still miss Steve fiercely. Even if he still had painful grey dreams of having Steve back only for him to leave again.

~*~*~

Bucky shot to his feet when Agent walked in from the elevator, looking ready to book it out to the landing pad and scale down the Tower. Tony followed Pepper, keeping a sharp eye on Agent, just in case. He trusted Agent more than anyone else from SHIELD but that didn’t mean he trusted him with Bucky.

With Captain America, sure. But not with Bucky.

Agent didn’t acknowledge Bucky with more than a glance, except to say “You might want to take a look at those files as well, Sgt. Barnes.”

Bucky didn’t walk up though until Pepper and Agent were both gone, coming up to Tony’s shoulder and looking at everything.

“The future is fucking weird,” he said.

“Oh, what, like any of this is any more weird than a guy with a red skull for a head?”

~*~*~

“Big man in a suit of armor - what does that make you really?” Bucky sneered.

“Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist,” Tony recited. “Iron Man.”

“You ain’t the hero that you think you are.”

Tony’s face twisted into a cruel sneer. “Yeah and what are you? Nothing more than some fake pretending to be Captain America .”

Tony braced himself for the hit - because Bucky was going to hit him that time, for the first time he’d pushed too far -

They were all distracted by Bruce, for a bit, until Tony unthinkingly reached out to touch Bucky’s shoulder, thinking about how at least they were united against Fury-

Bucky shoved his hand off, glare vicious. “Back off.”

“I’m starting to want you to make me,” Tony taunted, stepping closer, right up into Bucky’s space.

Then everything exploded and went to shit.

~*~*~

“Tony,” Bucky said, a hint of panic in his voice, a lot of pain. “Tony, that’s - don’t be a fucking idiot, damn it.”

“Sorry,” Tony sighed. “But I think you’ve got the future well enough in hand now.” He glanced over, wondering if Pepper would pick up in time.

“To-” The words cut off with scratchy static, and Tony watched and fought for breath and….

“Please say nobody kissed me.”

Bucky gave a breath of laugh, shaking his head, and rapped a knuckle against the edge of Tony’s helmet. “You fucking idiot.”

“Hey, anyone ever tried shawarma? I saw a place for it…”

~*~*~

Bucky walked up to him after Loki was sent off with Thor and the tesseract. Tony glanced him over quickly, but he seemed better now that the blue cube was gone. Tony’d never quite seen that much hate for something before, definitely not from Bucky. They shook hands, leaning in for a quick hug/pat on the shoulders.

“Gonna follow us back?” Tony asked, gesturing to where Bruce waited next to his car. “J said some of the lower floors are still in one piece.”

Slowly, Bucky shook his head. “Nah. Like you said, I’ve got this future thing pretty well in hand now. Should probably put it all to the test.”

“Need JARVIS and I to whip you up another identity?”

“No,” Bucky said lowly. “No, I… I’ll be coming back, to SHIELD.” He glanced at Tony when Tony paused, going still and uncertain. “Listen, Tony, I appreciate it but… I’m going to be working for SHIELD. They said when I get back they’ll have an apartment ready for me in DC and that-”

“You hate SHIELD.”

Bucky shrugged. “Yeah. But….” He took a deep breath. “But it’s not about me. It’s about doin’ my part, and that means being Captain America. It’s what Steve woulda done,” he added a bit helplessly when Tony remained stiff and silent.

“If that’s what you want,” Tony finally said, shrugging. “See you around, Captain.”

Bucky watched him go and wished that it didn’t feel a lot like he’d just messed the fuck up of something.

It felt like losing Steve all over again, in some ways. Like the light had just gone out - except he'd done it himself this time.

~*~*~

Bucky punched a hole in the wall, scaring several SHIELD agents, when news of Tony’s death reached them.

He roughly shrugged Natasha’s hand off his shoulder, shoved past Clint, and left the building, dumping everything electronic SHIELD had given him at his apartment, stripping out of his uniform, even the boots, and changing into street clothes from his time with Tony and Pepper.

He tried calling Pepper three times and didn’t get an answer.

Bucky dug out the bag that he kept most of the things from Tony - a tablet and a Starkphone and a wallet with ID and credit cards - from where he’d hidden it, and slung it over his shoulder.

The airport wasn’t too far away.

~*~*~

“You fucking idiot,” he snarled, after watching the news, after going back to New York and the Tower. Tony looked like shit, bruises still dark and cuts all over and exhausted.

Bucky yanked him into a hug and held on.

Tony sighed, slumping into him, and held him back.

Bucky swallowed thickly, blinking until his eyes weren’t clouded, and looked up at Pepper, taking in the way she stood just as tiredly and how there was something nearly haunted in her eyes. He knew that look - it was a look of no longer being safe, of realizing you wouldn’t ever be safe. He lifted one arm and held it out to her.

She came up and curled against Tony’s back, letting out a shuddering breath that Bucky knew was likely a suppressed sob. He curled his arm around her, rubbing her back.

“Next time you want to take on a goddamn terrorist, you call me,” he grumbled into Tony’s shoulder. He could breathe now that he knew - he knew and could see - that Tony was alive.

Tony laughed wetly. “Okay.”

~*~*~

Bucky knew SHIELD wasn’t to be trusted. He’d known, and he’d worked for them anyway. And maybe not everyone in it was a piece of shit, but… damn it, couldn’t he catch a break? Fucking HYDRA hadn’t ruined his life enough already, taken enough from him?

He didn’t even have time to call Tony and tell him ‘hey not dead’ which was their rule but-

As soon as he had a moment, he would. Tony’d be able to help, too. Bucky didn’t know if he’d built another suit or not - he suspected if it wasn’t finished it was in the works - but Tony Stark would be just as helpful as Iron Man. And Bucky could use all the help he could get.

In the meantime, Bucky had Natasha with him, watching his every move but more in the nosy-friend way, not the stab-you-in-the-back way.

And Sam.

And they had a plan.

Which went to shit.

~*~*~

He felt like he’d just been hit by a blast, deafened and blinded to everything except….

“Steve?” he croaked.

Brows furrowed and blue eyes actually seemed to gain some life. “Who’s Steve?”

~*~*~

“Wonder who fished you and the shield out of the river,” Natasha mused, eying him sideways as she flipped through some stupid hospital provided magazine.

“Don’t play dumb,” Bucky snorted.

She grinned down at the magazine.

Bucky leaned back and tried to reassure himself this wasn't another of those dreams where Steve was back, and Bucky could have him in his life again.

It was hard - it felt like one of those dreams where Steve came back only to leave him again, taking away all the happiness Bucky felt with him.

~*~*~

Tony stood in the doorway, arms crossed and a deep frown on his face, feet bare on the wood floor. “You are in so much trouble, Barnes.”

Bucky smiled sheepishly. “Yeah… uh, don’t suppose it’s too late to ask for your help?”

Tony’s eyes narrowed further, almost sparking in his anger, and he turned to stalk away. Bucky followed him, dropping his bag next to the wall.

“Tony,” he called. He had to step a little quicker to catch up with him, dodging around in front so Tony could see him reaching for him. “Hey. I’m sor-”

“That better be an apology for thinking I wouldn’t help you,” Tony snapped.

“Okay,” Bucky said after a moment, eyes darting over Tony’s face. “I’m sorry for thinking you might not want to help me find Steve.”

“You should be,” Tony muttered. “JARVIS, send all we’ve got so far to Bucky’s tablet.” He slipped around Bucky, heading down the hall that led to the stairs for the workshop.

Bucky smiled fondly. Of course Tony had already started searching, had known that Bucky would be doing this, and be ready to help.

He told himself best friends wanted to tell each other they loved one another all the time, but he wasn’t sure how true that was, or if it was just another ghost from his past, a lie he’d always told himself.

~*~*~

He didn’t wonder where Pepper was for almost two months, before catching Tony out on the balcony one bitterly cold night, leaning against the railing with a drink in hand, wearing nothing but a tank top and sweatpants, not even shoes and socks.

He dumped the blanket on top of Tony’s head, making him grumble as he pulled it down but willingly adjusted it around his shoulders, not once letting go of the glass.

“Had a board meeting today - first time I’ve seen Pepper since we broke up.” Tony’s lips twisted in a bitter kind of smile. “It was fucking awful.”

“Yeah?” Bucky said quietly, not quite asking but giving Tony the opening to keep talking. There was a trick to getting Tony to talk, some fine balance between pushing and not acknowledging there was something that he needed to talk about.

Tony sighed. “Yeah. Pretty sure she was trying not to cry when it was over.” He slung back what was in his glass. “Fuck I miss her.”

“I’m sure she misses you too.”

Tony let out a huff. “She’d be better off if she didn’t.”

Bucky squeezed Tony’s shoulder. “I don’t think she’d believe that.”

“No,” Tony said quietly, face softening from the hard, jaded look into something fond and longing. “She probably wouldn’t.”

“Come on, before you freeze into a human popsicle.”

He kept a hand on Tony’s back until they got to Tony’s room.

~*~*~

“Stevie, no! Bucky shouted, darting forward, but he was too far away. Tony sighed and dropped the suit down, slamming hard into the ground between Clint and the barrel of the Soldier’s gun.The bullet ricocheted off, and Clint monkeyed his way back up into his nest, out of the way of the battle.

Tony turned to face the Soldier.

His cheeks were sunken, skin awfully pale and the circles under his eyes so dark that even Tony found it worrying. There was an almost wild kind of desperation in those eyes, so damned blue that it took Tony aback for a moment.

This… this was the original Captain America. From Project Rebirth. The one Howard had always spoken of highly, compared Tony to, wanted to find.

Tony found himself glad Howard never had. For Howard’s sake, as well as this ghost of a man in front of him.

The Soldier shifted the gun, so that it pointed right at the eye of the suit. It was bulletproof, as much as something not metal could be, but it was definitely a weak point.

Tony considered his options.

This wasn’t the first time they’d found the Soldier. It wasn’t even the first time the Soldier had appeared in the middle of a battle with HYDRA agents, or other mediocre villains that the team had to fight. Sometimes they found the Soldier already in a battle, but usually….

Tony had been thinking for a while now that the Soldier was keeping tabs on them. On Bucky.

“Aren’t you tired of this?” Tony asked.

There wasn’t a flicker of expression to be seen, the damned guy didn’t even blink. Tony licked his lips.

“So, what, you’re going to shoot me? Create a distraction, run off while half the team isn’t paying you any attention, hide away again but keep an eye on our movements? Rinse and repeat?”

The Soldier shot him. He barely shifted when it ricocheted back, slicing at his hairline, leaving a thin line of red. As Tony watched, he swore he could see it knitting back together, a hundred times faster than Bucky could even heal.

“Aren’t you tired of running away?”

He snarled something in a low, rough voice, short and sharp. Tony didn’t know what he’d said but he could guess.

“You know, I don’t even know what language that was, but I have been told to shut up enough to know what it sounds like.”

The Soldier growled, baring his teeth a bit.

“C’mon, Captain. Aren’t you ready to come home?” Tony tried.

He thought that maybe - maybe there was the faintest shift, a loosening of that snarl, a hint of longing.

One of Clint’s knock-out arrows whistled by, the Soldier dodging it smoothly, rolling to his feet and glaring towards Clint’s nest, then taking off running.

Tony just watched him go, sighing as Bucky knocked out another HYDRA goon and took off after the Soldier. Again.

~*~*~

Tony was no stranger to assassination or kidnapping attempts. He was sure more of them were attempted than he was informed about, disrupted before they could get more than a foot off the ground. Before Afghanistan, he’d been entirely uninterested in them. After… well, he was more paranoid than back then, he knew that.

He liked to at least be informed of the various threats made to him or SI or whatever whenever he went on business trips.

Pepper had been a bit concerned about this one, which was why security was doubled. Some group protesting Stark tech, claiming it was still used for war, which admittedly a lot of it was. GPS systems and body armor and various other tech that Tony made that wasn’t weapons but helped the military. There’d been threats, messages claiming he was still the Merchant of Death no matter what he claimed now.

Tony could never seem to escape that. Never would, he supposed.

Iron Man, people could forget was the same guy most of the time. Iron Man was… good. But Tony?

Tony wasn’t.

He was glad that Pepper wasn’t here, wasn’t calling him as often as she had when they’d been dating. (It’d been long enough now that it didn’t ache so much, that he didn’t miss having her right at his side all the time as badly as he had. They were tentatively trying to rebuild their friendship, and it was working out well Tony thought. Minimal awkwardness, really, and only there because they were both being so careful not to do anything too friendly. Maybe, once they got over that….)

If Pepper could get even a glimpse of him, or hear him, she’d be able to tell what he was thinking. Even now, she seemed just as determined to change how he thought of himself. To make him believe he was better than he was.

Tony sighed, reaching out for the scotch in the minibar - which wasn’t so mini in his case, but that was what money could get you. Good booze.

“No.”

The voice was rough, low. Familiar, despite Tony only having heard it once or twice.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked, pulling the scotch out and glancing around for a glass. Without one in immediate sight, he decided straight from the bottle would work.

The Soldier made an impatient, rough noise in his throat. Without a sound, he appeared at Tony’s side and snatched the bottle from him, throwing it across the room into the trash bin. Perfect shot. Tony raised his brows.

“I’ll admit that was very impressive, you should definitely look into….”

The Soldier stared at him with such a dead look that Tony let the joke trail off into silence.

“What are you doing here?” he asked instead.

The Soldier looked away, eyes shifting around the room without focusing on anything. After a minute, he murmured, “Don’t drink.” That said, he quickly, soundlessly, moved across the room to the nearest window, slipping out of it - where to, Tony had no idea. By the time he got there, the Soldier was nowhere in sight.

Three hours later, when he left to give his presentation at the conference, Happy murmured to him that there’d been a problem with some of the hotel staff, caught attempting to poison a “guest welcome basket” with food and drink for him.

Tony didn’t say that they might have already tried the alcohol in the room.

When he got back that night, he poured all of it down the bathroom sink.

~*~*~

“Tony,” Pepper said slowly, staring over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he said, grabbing their coffees, taking a long drink of his before holding out Pepper’s. She didn’t move. “What’s up?” he asked, frowning.

“...Look,” she said.

He glanced over and raised a brow.

“What, you want one?” he called.

The Soldier turned and walked off into the crowd.

Pepper was staring at him now.

Tony sighed, wiggling her coffee slightly until she grabbed it. She followed him back to the company car, sliding in with him in the back. “So, that would be Bucky’s old friend.”

“The one….”

“Yep.”

Pepper blinked, hummed a bit, and sipped at her coffee. “He looks sad,” she finally stated a few minutes later.

Tony thought he looked lost.

~*~*~

Tony watched as this time, the Soldier didn’t run at the end of a battle. He slowly lowered the gun to the ground and then straightened, holding his hands open and up at shoulder level, out to the sides a bit.

“Steve,” Bucky said, hopeful and uncertain and making Tony’s chest ache.

The Soldier stared at him, just as expressionless as ever. His eyes only moved to dart from Bucky, who was slowly walking up to him, to the rest of them, Clint and Natasha still training weapons on him, just in case. For a moment, his gaze caught Tony’s.

Tony winked.

The Soldier stayed stiff when Bucky touched his shoulder, staring straight ahead, jaw clenched tightly. Bucky swallowed and dropped his hand. “Come on. We’ll get you… somewhere safe.”

Nodding once, the Soldier followed them back to the Quinjet.

~*~*~

Tony was almost positive the Soldier didn’t sleep. They’d given him a room on the common floor, but Tony never saw him unless it was the middle of the night and he’d wandered into the kitchen for coffee.

The Soldier was always at one of two places that Tony had seen. Either he was sitting at the kitchen counter on one of the stools, picking carefully at the plate of food Tony knew Bucky put out for him every dinner and ended up wrapping up to stick in the fridge. Or he was wedged into a corner of the couch, knees drawn up to his chest, toes curled around the edge of the cushion, staring blankly at the screen of the TV as something - never the same thing, which made Tony suspect he just turned it on and watched wherever channel it’d been on last - played, casting blue-tinted light on his face.

After three weeks, Tony hesitated before returning to his workshop, watching the Soldier - Steve - just sit there, one arm wrapped around his knees, the fingers of his other hand picking at a loose thread at the hem of his sweats. He looked… young and alone.

“You know, you can always come join me in the workshop, if you want.”

The Soldier looked over and stared, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge what Tony had said. Tony lifted his cup of coffee at him, nodded, and left the room.

Four nights later, Tony purposefully did not look up when the Soldier all but tiptoed into the workshop, over to the couch, and took the same position he did on the couch in the common room.

By the time Tony finished what he’d been working on at four in the morning and stood with a stretch that cracked his back, the Soldier had fallen asleep, cheek resting on top of his knees.

Tony smiled faintly and gestured for JARVIS to dim the lights.

~*~*~

“It’s sticking,” Bucky complained.

“It wouldn’t be sticking if you didn’t shove it into a monster made of fucking goo,” Tony griped.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “You said to get the grenade in deep enough to-”

“I didn’t mean shove your hand in there oh my god Barnes,” Tony groaned.

“Whatever. Fix it, genius,” he said, grinning.

“You’re awful and I hate you,” Tony muttered.

“Liar.” Tony glanced up, saw Bucky smiling at him fondly, and grinned back.

“Okay, I don’t hate you. But you are awful.”

Bucky shrugged.

From the couch, the Soldier watched them, unnoticed.

~*~*~

“Did you make the arm?”

Tony blinked, then scrubbed at his eyes when they didn’t focus. His back hurt from how long he’d been hunched over typing in code. He bit back a yawn and twisted around to face the Soldier.

Who looked unreasonably adorable, in pajama pants with little snowmen and a hoodie, feet bare and toes curling against the cold workshop floor.

“Huh? Oh - Bucky’s arm. Yeah.”

The Soldier - Steve - stared down at the floor, hands shoved deep in the hoodie pockets, shoulders curled up near his ears.

“What happened?”

“Shouldn’t you be asking Bucky that?” Tony asked, head tilting. Steve glanced up at him, shrugging. Sighing, Tony dragged a hand through his hair and sighed. “Anyone tell you about what happened way back in the old days?”

There was a tiny furrow between Steve’s brows and he shook his head.

“Great,” Tony grumbled. Because that meant he had to, and he’d find some way to fuck it up. “I’m gonna need coffee for this.”

Steve followed him to the kitchen, waiting patiently as Tony made himself a cup of coffee - and after a moment’s hesitation, one for Steve too. He held it out until Steve took it, long fingers carefully curling around the cup.

Which probably shouldn’t be as distracting as it was, but. Well.

Tony led the way over to the couch, claiming one corner, waiting as Steve settled into the other, twisted around to face him, one arm curled around his shins, chin on his knees, and coffee in his other hand. Tony sighed, drank half his coffee in one go, and then set it aside.

“Alright. So you were Captain America, led the Howling Commandos. You know that much, right?”

Slowly, Steve nodded. “I remember it.”

“Right.” Tony nodded to himself. “So there was a… mission, to get this scientist. He was on a train.”

Steve stared at him, somehow more still than usual, eyes unfocused.

“I fell,” he whispered, but not like he was talking to Tony.

Carefully, Tony shifted closer, setting a hand on the side of Steve’s arm. He startled, just a bit, and focused on Tony.

“You did,” Tony said softly. “You saved Bucky, but you fell.” He took a deep breath. “From what I’ve gathered, from Howard and Aunt Peggy, and from what Bucky’s been willing to say, he didn’t handle it well.”

Steve frowned a bit. Tony dared to think he looked a bit irritated.

“The Commandos went after the Red Skull.”

“Schmidt.”

“Yep. They shoved Bucky into the spare Captain America uniform and-”

“ Why.”

Tony paused again, eying Steve who seemed oddly angry, fingers curled tightly into the side of his leg.

“Aunt Peggy said it was to keep up hope - back when he was a POW, Bucky got some bastardized version of the serum from Zola and-”

The cup in Steve’s hand shattered.

“Shit!” Tony hissed, jumping to his feet.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, eyes wide and… fearful, shit, shit, shit.

“Let me get a towel,” Tony said, heading for the kitchen, grabbing one and a plastic bag to drop the pieces of cup into. When he got back to the couch, Steve was picking up the last few pieces, placing them delicately into his other hand. A few had pink smears. Tony silently held out the bag, letting Steve drop them in there, and then passed him the towel.

“How’s your hand?” he asked.

Silently, Steve held it out for Tony to see. There was a faint pink tint to the skin, that even as Tony watched paled. Any cuts that had been there were already gone.

“Gotta love that healing factor,” he murmured.

Steve shrugged, eyes distant once again.

Tony let out a sigh and dropped onto the couch again. “Right. So they put Bucky in the uniform, and they went after the Red Skull. There was a plane, with bombs, heading for New York. Bucky crashed it into the fucking ocean. The crash… damaged his arm.”

He looked over at Steve, but the man had gone blank and empty again.

Gently, Tony reached over and squeezed Steve’s arm. “Get some rest, big guy,” he murmured, and left for his room.

~*~*~

Two days later, Steve crept into the kitchen and set a new coffee cup at Tony’s elbow.

Tony smiled and reached out to pour some coffee into it, then nudged it back over to Steve.

“So, Sunshine, has anyone showed you the wonders of the internet yet?”

~*~*~

“Thank you for-”

“Shut up, Barnes.”

Bucky smiled at him, hand holding tight to his shoulder for a moment before letting go. Tony might not want anyone to acknowledge it, but Bucky couldn't ignore how much better Steve was doing, how it was like Tony was pushing the same rejuvenating energy at him like he had for Bucky way back when.

“You’re a good man, Stark,” he called, walking over to the elevator. “No one is fooled anymore.”

~*~*~

The first time Steve ventured into the common room when the rest of the team was there, he avoided looking at anyone, but went straight to the couch where Tony was sitting. Tony scooted over, opening space between himself and the arm of the couch. Steve gave him the smallest, grateful smile and settled in as he usually did.

After eating, after the movie, after everyone else had drifted off to their own rooms again, Bucky came over and kissed the top of Steve’s head.

“Proud of you, Stevie.”

Tony didn’t think Bucky caught the little smile that lit up Steve’s face at that.

~*~*~

“Bucky?”

He looked over, surprised to see Steve almost hovering in the doorway of the gym. It was disconcerting still, sometimes, to see the changes in how Steve carried himself. When he’d been small, Steve had always stood as straight as he could, chin up, defiant and blustering and daring someone to overlook him for one reason or another. After the serum, he’d stood straight but at ease, confident in a calm, almost settled manner. People looked, but it didn’t matter if they did or didn’t. Now, he curled in, like he was always trying to seem smaller than he was, to be overlooked.

He hoped that one day Steve would be comfortable in his own skin again. Feel safe enough to been seen.

“What’s up, Steve?”

He watched Steve squeeze his own wrist tightly, something Bucky had noticed him doing when he was anxious and trying to… well, Bucky wasn’t sure if it was reassure himself or punish himself. He was afraid to ask.

“Tony said… if I wanted to talk that I could call him.”

Bucky waited.

“I don’t know….”

“How to call him, or what his number is?” Bucky asked, giving Steve a bit of a break.

Steve relaxed, just a little. “His number.”

Bucky snorted, going over to his stuff and digging his phone out of the pile. “Idiot always forgets little things like that.”

Steve was frowning a bit at him.

Smiling reassuringly, Bucky said, “Tony’s so smart that sometimes it makes him a little bit of an idiot. He overthinks, or jumps ahead of the rest of us and forgets to bring us up to speed. He probably figured you’d ask JARVIS for it, or that he’d already given it to you.”

Steve shrugged, not replying to the JARVIS thing, eyes focused on the number for Tony Bucky was showing him.

“You okay?” he couldn’t help but ask.

He nodded, then looked up at Bucky and smiled a bit, shyly almost. “I miss him.”

“Me too,” Bucky sighed.

~*~*~

It took Bucky a while to realize it.

Steve was in love with Tony - or well on his way to it.

He watched the two of them, how Steve was so much more relaxed with Tony - still quiet but calm, comfortable. And if the grins Tony shot Steve, the constant teasing that was just a bit more gentle than with the others, the way his eyes lingered on Steve when he thought Steve wasn’t paying attention… if those were any sign, then Tony felt the same way.

Bucky knew what Tony falling in love looked like - he’d been watching it happen between the two of them for months before they brought Steve back, but neither of them had done anything about it.

He needed to think.

Not even the future seemed to have much of a clue when your two best friends had no idea how much you loved them.

~*~*~

“Is Bucky upset with me?” Steve asked Tony one day, a small frown on his face as he watched Bucky and Sam in the kitchen. Tony glanced over at them, watching. By chance, he caught Bucky’s eyes - watched Bucky quickly dart a look at Steve before turning away.

“No,” Tony murmured, focusing back on the tablet he’d been messing with in his lap, a sick knot of… something in his chest. “He’s not upset with you.”

~*~*~

“You’re hurting Tony,” Steve downright growled at Bucky, prowling into his space without any hesitation or uncertainty. Bucky stared at him in surprise, having to tilt his chin up a bit to keep eye contact with Steve.

“What?”

“Just fucking tell him you love him already,” Steve snapped - his expression breaking just the smallest bit. “Just tell him that you love him, too, and-”

“He loves you, Steve!” Bucky exclaimed.

Steve blinked, eyes going wide and that angry confidence derailed. He took a step back from Bucky, shrinking in on himself a little. “What?”

“Jesus, punk, can’t you tell?”

Steve’s arms curled around himself, and now there was a hint of panic to that returned uncertainty and shit Bucky had fucked this up.

“Stevie-”

Steve bolted.

~*~*~

Pepper considered the man on the couch in her office through the glass.

She called Tony.

“You wouldn’t happen to be missing a super-soldier, would you?”

“Oh thank god,” Tony breathed. “Where are - he’s in your office?” Tony sounded confused. “What’s he doing there?”

“I don’t know,” Pepper said simply. She glanced at Steve again, thoughtful. “See you in an hour,” she added and hung up, pocketing her phone before stepping inside, closing the door and murmuring for JARVIS to blackout the glass.

“Steve?” she murmured. “Are you okay?”

He looked at her, eyes red but not wet. “Sorry for bothering you, Ms. Potts.”

“You’re not,” she said, coming over to sit next to him. She rubbed his arm, shifting to look at his face. “What can I do to help?”

He sighed, hugging his knees tighter to his chest. “I need to… make Tony stop loving me.”

“Impossible,” she stated. When he gave her a desperate look, she raised her hands sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Steve, but Tony doesn’t stop loving people. His former business partner tried to kill him, multiple times, and-”

“Who?"

She paused, eying the abrupt change from uncertainty into deadly focus. “Obadiah Stane died years ago. He’s not a threat any longer.” She waited until Steve relaxed again before adding, “And despite all he did to deserve Tony’s hate, I’m not convinced that there’s not still a part of Tony that loves that man, and misses him, and regrets him dying.”

Steve shook his head sharply. “That’s - why, that’s - he doesn’t deserve Tony’s….”

“No, he doesn’t. But Tony tends to be stubborn once he’s decided to care about someone. Sometimes it ends up hurting him, but that’s why the rest of us have to stick fast and be there to protect him.”

“Bucky can do that,” Steve argued obstinately. “Tony loves Bucky, they should-”

“That’s for Tony - and Bucky - to decide. Not just you Steve.”

He looked sullen, almost, and Pepper sighed, giving his arm a pat and getting to her feet.

“Tony’s on his way. I’d bet good money that Bucky will be with him.” She went to settle at her desk, getting to work on the paperwork that had stacked up that morning.

Less than forty minutes - definitely not the hour she’d said for Tony to wait - later, Tony and Bucky all but barreled into her office.

She shot Steve an ‘I told you so’ look.

~*~*~

Steve wouldn’t touch the uniform, but sometimes, Bucky could convince him to take the shield when the two of them practiced training moves.

He still used it with a natural grace and instinct, never hesitating on a throw or twist, like it was part of him even after all the years and things he’d been through. The only times Steve hesitated with it was to pick it up, or give it back, reluctance in every line of his body each time. Bucky didn’t remark on it, and Steve never said anything either.

Whenever the two of them sparred in the training room, with the shield, or other weapons, or none at all except themselves, Tony would at one point or another wander in to watch.

They both ended up showing off once Tony arrived.

~*~*~

It was a few very awkward, stilted conversations between them before they moved past the pining thing, as Natasha referred to it.

Steve didn’t always like to speak up about what he needed from them - whether that was space or more of their attention didn’t matter. Bucky and Tony tried to talk it out with him, but after a while Bucky decided it wasn’t getting through and he went what he thought of as the ‘old’ route - the same thing he’d done with Steve as a little punk refusing to admit he needed help. He taunted and teased and pushed , until Steve snapped and snarled and then slumped.

Unlike before, afterwards Tony was there, letting Steve curl into his shoulder while he talked with Pepper over the phone about their plan of attack for an investors meeting.

Bucky watched Tony absently stroke his fingers through Steve’s short hair, scratching lightly, watched how Steve relaxed until he was blinking long and slow, feeling safe right there against Tony. Tony leaned over to kiss the top of Steve's head, murmuring "Comfortable, Sunshine?" and smiling when Steve nodded. Bucky was abruptly so glad that they had Tony with them.

And that Tony had them - Tony was so physical, gave out affection so easily but accepted it with far more difficulty. But Steve curling up against him meant that Tony could tell himself that it was all for Steve’s benefit, even as it was good for Tony, too.

Bucky only had to go sit on Tony’s other side and stretch an arm over, or rub the back of Tony’s neck while doing something not focused on Tony.

Sometimes, they would all curl up in a tangle on Tony’s ridiculously big bed, doing various individual activities. It was comforting, relaxing. Bucky liked to do it when he got back from missions - it felt grounding in a way nothing else ever had.

Slowly, Steve seemed to relax into everything - he grew more comfortable with everyone on the team, with their relationship, with himself. Bucky had to stop and stare the first time Steve initiated a kiss with Tony, practically melting into it, shifting so they were closer and holding on to Tony, making these soft little noises that were so sweet . And Tony, he’d just curled his hands along Steve’s jaw and kept it soft and tender.

Bucky’s throat had gone dry with the surge of want, as well as straight-up fucking love he felt for those two.

He felt it so often with them. When Steve would curl up on the couch with his head in Bucky’s lap, eyes half-lidded as he started to doze off (trusting and safe). When Tony would exchange little kisses with either of them in the hallway, near-absent pecks on his way to do something else or sweet brushes of lips that he took his time with. When they were in the middle of that big bed and Steve wiggled around between the two of them, until he somehow had them both wrapped up with him and he gave this quiet, content sigh.

One day, Bucky knew Steve would be comfortable enough with the team to start opening up to them, trusting them like he already did Bucky and Tony. One day, Steve would be comfortable enough to venture out into public. To join them on missions, to fight to protect people once again.

Bucky didn’t think the world would ever see Steve be Captain America again - and Steve didn’t seem inclined to picking it back up. That was fine; Bucky would keep it alive for him, just as he’d always done.

Steve seemed… happier, anyhow, without the pressure of Captain America on his shoulders. Bucky would do a lot of things to keep Steve happy.

“What are you thinking?” Steve asked, frowning at him curiously.

Tony had brought Steve a sketchbook and some charcoal pencils a few days ago. Bucky didn’t think Steve’s hands had been clean of smears of the charcoal since, a lot like Tony’s were rarely completely clean of grease.

Bucky smiled. “Nothin’. Just... you have no idea how much I love you.”

Steve smiled - a little pleased thing, bright and warm - even as he rolled his eyes and went back to his sketch. Bucky leaned back into the couch, threw his feet across Tony’s lap when Tony obligingly lifted the tablet he was using up out of the way, and closed his eyes to bask in the simple happiness of having Steve back, and having Tony there, too.

Bucky didn't have problems with the grey, painful dreams anymore.