He found him hiding in the alleyway, wedged in the space where Stark Tower’s walls dipped inward just before the loading docks.
At night, the docks were quiet, a hidden part of Stark Industries with cameras and security guards on patrol, but tucked away from the glare of the city lights. It was Tony’s favorite time of day, to duck down and grab his own private shipments from storage, to stroll through the vast spaces, filled with secured crates and locked containers, letting the events of the day decompress. He’d almost missed the pitch-black sneakers peeking out from the shadows. Not the usual place to hide; sometimes he’d see a guy or two loitering outside the front entrance, where pedestrians leaving the tower were most likely to pass their way and drop a few coins in hand. But never back here, in the alley that smelled of piss and car exhaust.
“Uh, hello?” Tony stepped down the metal ramp, his footsteps rattling with each step. It was cool for a late spring evening, and the breeze chilled his sweat-damp skin, still covered in grease and grime from his workshop. “Hey buddy, you can’t stay out here, it gets cold at night. I know it’s spring, but it’s still New York, y’know? There’s a shelter down east on 45th that usually has space.”
The shoes disappeared into the shadows, and Tony caught a glimpse of metal on the guy’s left wrist and fingers as the man fiddled with some fabric draped around his frame.
“No way,” Stark whispered, taking a step forward. “Friday, kill surveillance out here and prep the suit. Daddy’s about to do something stupid.”
“I suppose things have been rather dull around here lately,” the A.I.’s quiet response filtered from the StarkPhone in his pocket; it wasn’t J.A.R.V.I.S.’S rapier wit, but it would do for now.
Tony crouched down, raising his arms in what he hoped was the universal sign of don’t kill the innocent messenger, and crept forward.
He wouldn’t have recognized the bearded face turned stubbornly away in the faint light, but the tips of the man’s fingers were still visible, shiny metal with distinctive lines across the backs of the digits. It was him. Tony swallowed, hard. An inventor’s wet dream, that arm. He’d seen all the footage from D.C. and everything else J.A.R.V.I.S. could dig up last year. That arm was a work of art. Unique. A singular example of engineering that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
The possibly crazy and potentially deadly assassin attached to it? Maybe not so much.
“Yeah. Um. I’m not very good at this. But hey, yay, you made it this far. Maybe you should come inside now?” Stark settled on one knee, in the faint light of the security lamp overhead. Far away enough that he hoped he could run, if the guy made any sudden moves, or at least have enough space for the suit to form around him. But hey, the guy can’t be totally off his rocker if he showed up here, at Stark Tower, right? “You are, uh, James Buchanan Barnes, right? No offense, but I usually don’t invite random homeless guys into my tower.”
“Who’s askin’?” The figure grunted, pulling his shiny left arm closer, covered in what Tony could now see was a dark blue sling fitted around the man’s broad shoulders.
The ground rattled and steam rose from the vent nearby, a subway train passing beneath their feet, and Tony tried to gentle his smile as he studied the guy, letting the noise of the train carry away his hesitation. Barnes looked like shit warmed over, as he leaned into the light. The man’s clothes hung oddly in places; his dark hair matted in knots and appeared to have been hacked at strange angles, ironically like someone with one arm and a pair of scissors had tried to trim it. It was long enough to hide the guy’s sharp jawline and too-pale face, much too pale for a guy that had been sleeping rough for a year. Barnes’s beard was a mess, too, a scraggly thing that Tony wouldn’t be surprised if the man had lice living in that thing; it almost looked alive.
And his eyes—a brilliant blue with bruise-black bags underneath, lost and so, so afraid. The kind of fear that led men to do desperate things, haunted and fragile-looking. The man’s eyes were the only part of the guy’s face that looked alive, darting from side to side in sharp movements, as though Hydra were going to pop up from the New York sewer vents or something.
“I’m a friend of Cap’s. Name’s Tony Stark,” Stark said finally, after the train had passed. “I can help you.”
“Why?” the man grunted, skeptical. “Bet you just wanna see my arm. Stark.”
“Course I do,” Tony agreed easily, slowly rising to his feet. “But usually I try to wait until at least the second date.”
This surprised a painful-sounding laugh from the guy, and Tony grinned. “C’mon, Barnes. You can’t stay out here. It’s warmer inside, and Friday’s gonna order us some grub. You’re hungry, right? Rude to not eat when your host is eating, you know, and I’m starving.”
The man rose to his feet almost methodically, like a coil unwound, and matched the engineer’s pace as Stark headed up the gangplank. It was strange, having a six foot plus behemoth in black and smelling of sewer, following him; like the really mangy dog that Tony’d dragged into the mansion one time, before Howard had— well, it wasn’t like he could keep a pet alive, anyway. Robots were hard enough to care for.
And here he was, ushering a stray assassin into the tower—he still expected Howard to pop out of the shadows and shout at him, as he guided the taller man into his private elevator bank.
“Lock up honey-boo, I’ll come get my special delivery tomorrow,” Tony said, tapping nervously on his leg as the doors pinged shut behind them. “And get my usual times three from Luigi’s. Tell them to hurry.”
Friday’s answering ping was quieter than usual, displaying a surprising amount of tact that Tony hadn’t expected from the new A.I.
To be fair, this was probably a bad idea. A very bad idea. Now that Steve and the others had fucked off to the secret base in upstate New York, and Pepper had moved back to Malibu after the whole Ultron disaster, the tower was oddly empty. Strangely bereft of human occupants during the night. Even Hill had moved on, splitting her time between D.C. and Cap’s fancy new training pad.
He let his eyes roam over the silent figure sharing his elevator; the man had hunched protectively around his left arm, as though the light of the small space would catch its surface nd burn. The paper-thin fabric of the sling was just as filthy as the rest of him, and when the man moved Tony could almost swear he heard metal grinding. Not quite what he expected, to be honest. When Sam and Steve mentioned they were looking for a ghost, for Steve’s long lost war buddy who’d somehow become Hydra’s secret weapon… He expected more oomph, maybe. Someone scarier, than the guy here, who looked like a Project Runway rehab reject. He almost expected to see track marks on the guy’s arm, if he looked closely.
The doors opened with a hushed ping, and Tony ushered Barnes forward. The guy hesitated only for a moment as his eyes scanned the room, lingering on the windows and exits, before confused blue eyes sought out Tony’s gaze.
“Yeah, it’s not much,” Tony gestured to the pillows scattered across the floor and a beaten-up couch he’d stolen from the MIT auditorium when he had given a speech a few weeks ago. It had taken several months, but the place looked almost pristine, now, its glass windows replaced, floors and walls repaired. Again. Seriously, at this rate Tony should just buy a contractor company, put them on retainer for the Avengers. “Just got the repairs completed. Furniture’s still on order, should be here in a few weeks. But hey, has to be better than the street, right?”
“I slept beside a dumpster last night,” Barnes grunted. Something about the man’s voice sounded off to Tony. When he spoke, it felt like Barnes meant it, that he knew he didn’t belong here, believed it, even.
“Right. Definitely better than a dumpster.” Stark turned, pointing down another corridor. “Your bedroom and shower are that way, just pick a room. No offense buddy, but you have to shower before the food arrives. You smell worse than a rotting Chitauri, and I didn’t think that was even possible. I may have just spent thirty hours in the workshop, but even I have some standards. I’ll get you some clothes, should be a towel already in there. It’s too late to call tonight, unless we want a lecture about my sleep schedule, but we can give Steve a ring in the—”
Tony choked on his words, his breath leaving him and eyes wide with confusion and pain as something, something hard, tackled him from behind.
Then he was thrown forward, landing with a pained grunt on his back, his head crashing against the tile floor with a ringing thump that left his skull tingling. There was a weight on his chest, heavy and unmoving.
“Barnes?” he gasped, before fingers grazed his skin, cutting off his air, wrapping around his throat, metal and flesh and squeezing against his pulse point, so tight—his chest felt like fire, he couldn’t breath, he couldn’t—oh god, oh god, but it wasn’t wet, this time, his chest burned but his hair wasn’t wet, and he couldn’t breath— this couldn’t be happening, why wasn’t somebody doing something, why—
Tony’s fists scrambled for purchase, his legs bucking wildly against the tiles as his sneakered feet skated outwards. It was no use; the man sitting on his chest had a good fifty pounds of muscle on him, not to mention that arm, that silver arm flashing and grinding in high-pitched crunching noises as that gorgeous metal contraption literally choked the life out of him. And those blue eyes, so scared and confused moments before—gone. Replaced with dull and death and a pale continence so empty that Tony couldn’t remember what the man had looked like, before.
His vision went white around the edges—not like this, not now—white to gray and then the room started to fade, darker and darker. Tony blinked, the fear and pain and pressure on his chest burning him, burning from the inside out— and god, just let it end, already— just let it end—
And then it was over.
Tony rolled to the side, suddenly free, gasping for air. His hands came up to circle around his bruised throat, cradling the tender skin and choking as he inhaled, tried to keep his desperate breaths even and slow. It was no use. Every movement, every breath left him choking and coughing as his lungs sucked painfully inward. He could hear Friday’s frantic tone, a level of fear he didn’t remember programming into the newly minted A.I. as she called for him, over and over again. He groaned.
“Sir!” Friday called again, this time sounding as though her protocols had finally kicked in, and where was the goddamn suit? “Sir, I am dispatching emergency protocols—ambulance, emergency services—”
“Belay!” Tony gasped, clutching his throat. “Belay that, Friday. No. No ambulance.”
“But Sir!” Friday protested, “By my readings your throat may have sustained damage that—”
“I’m okay,” Stark interrupted, shoving himself sideways until he managed to sit up. He blinked, taking another, shallower breath, feeling the way his chest rose and fell against his fingers. His scar tissue hurt, his chest burned. It took so much effort, to slow his breathing. “No cops.”
“Sir, this violates regulations set in place after—”
“I know the damn protocols, Friday,” Tony hissed, before coughing violently. His throat was bruised, there would probably be marks soon, the skin felt raw and sore to the touch. “Send me a damn gauntlet,” he choked a breath, a hand rising to hold against the scar tissue of his ruined chest. “And don’t go tattling to your big brother, either!”
The A.I. fell silent as Stark pushed up, using the wall to brace his weight as he stood. He scanned the room.
There, in the corner, tucked behind the edge of the dingy couch, was the man Romanoff had called the Winter Soldier, his head buried in hands of flesh and metal, hiding his face. This… this was the man that the Black Widow had feared, the soldier who’d fought Steve in D.C., and won. Tony couldn’t believe the video footage, back then.
Now, though, now he believed it.
Somehow during the scramble, the sling had fallen away, and the man’s metal arm whirred and twisted in unnatural movements, its panels and wires exposed as though it were possessed; a ghost in the shell of what once was a human being. The man’s shoulders seemed tense, his flesh and metal hands fisted painfully tight in the dark clumps of hair. The room was silent but for a quiet murmur from Barnes’s lips that Stark couldn’t quite make out.
Tony moved with slow steps, rubbing his throat as he went, pausing by the elevator as the door opened and a gauntlet formed around his left arm.
Two more steps took the genius to the cabinet he’d converted into a temporary wet bar, and armed with three fingers of scotch, he moved to sit on the lone couch, mere feet from the man who’d almost killed him.
“That was,” Tony coughed, taking a gentle sip before he continued. “Not what I was expecting.”
“Sorry,” Barnes gasped the words, then repeated it again, louder. “Sorry. Sometimes, some words—it’s like everything disappears and I’m back there, again. Sorry.”
Tony blinked, letting his head rest gently against the sofa cushions. “Wait, wait. It was something I said?”
“Don’t say his name.”
“Holy shit,” Tony muttered. He waved his gauntleted hand. “Okay. No talking about Capsicle by name. Got it.”
“I should go—” the man began to uncurl and Tony glanced over.
“No,” Tony interrupted. “You are safer here, and St—he would kick my ass if I let you go now.”
“I’m not safe,” the man protested, still on the floor. His voice sounded wrecked.
“Nope, you aren’t,” Tony agreed easily. “Probably at least a few scary former nazis lookin’ for you out there, not to mention a guy in red, white, and blue tights and his new sidekick.”
“Be reasonable, Stark.”
“Am.” Tony grimaced, pushing himself to his feet. “Just saying, it’s safer here than out there. Now come on Barnes, you still need a shower and I wanna get some ice for this totally unsexy collar of bruises. I seriously don’t even get a good story outta this one. At least, not a story that anyone would believe.”
“And then?” Barnes muttered reflexively.
“Then, we’ll have pizza and talk.” Tony tried for a casual shrug, wincing as his muscles protested. “Now chop chop, buddy. More showering, less stinking up my penthouse.”