Are you scared this sounds familiar?
What if everybody knew the very trials and temptations
That we put ourselves through?
Now I am no angel but I got nothing to hide
Can you say the same thing for yourself tonight?
Too Much Blood - Gaslight Anthem
Tony poked his head into the lounge area. It was the wee hours of the morning. Steve and Rhodey thought he was asleep, and he'd bribed FRIDAY to not tell on him. Natasha sat on the overstuffed sofa, and looked up from her book over to him.
"Hey Tony. Can't sleep?" She asked.
"Yes and no. I'm on a bit of a mission." Tony said, stepping into the lounge. Natasha patted the spot next to her on the sofa.
"What kind of mission?"
"The kind where I try not to piss you off." Tony replied.
"Delicate operation then." Natasha said and offered a quirky smile.
"Very much so. I'd rather leave the wiring of the armour to Dummy." Tony said.
"Where is he, anyway? He's like your shadow these days."
"Charging. I told him it would be fine, and that I'd work on extending his battery life when I got Extremis sorted out." Tony said.
"Why didn't you show me him back when I was doing the assessment for SHIELD?" She asked. "He alone might have changed my entire evaluation of you." She asked. Tony looked relieved to not have to jump feet first into the heavy subject he wanted to bring up.
"Because despite how I rag on him, I am extraordinarily protective of him. Especially after the Malibu house was destroyed. Before, I didn't need SHIELD knowing I had robots capable of independent thought. I told JARVIS to play dumb and weaker than he was as a general rule. Nick got the drop on J and me once after the press conference where I casually let the entire world in on me being Iron Man. While the signal disruption didn't harm JARVIS, it did prevent him from reacting with the defense mechanisms wherever Nick was in my house, and SHIELD rerouted J's calls to emergency services back to themselves. And after Obie disabled J and took the arc reactor, J was particularly paranoid. Every interaction after that was a calculated move on our part to keep the SHIELD-shaped wolf from the door." Tony said. Natasha marked her place in her book and set it down on the side table.
"Why?" She asked.
"Because my old man was up to his elbows in SHIELD back in the day, but he never told me much about it. He never even told Obie much about it. Left the S.I. things to Obie, left me to my own devices, and kept to himself about SHIELD. Which, given how things were, was probably for the best. Obie was a money hungry businessman, and that was great for the company, and it was best to keep him doing that. I, on the other hand, was a brash, loudmouth kid. No matter how smart I was, Howard was right to keep it from me. But he was dead before I was mature enough to handle knowing about things like SHIELD. Though I sure as hell could have used a crash course about it for later on in life. But life doesn't work like that. If I had known anything about SHIELD, I might have trusted you and Coulson more. All I knew was that you were trying to keep an eye on me, and I think we've established that my trust issues have reached pathological levels." Tony said. Natasha gave him a world-weary smirk.
"Yeah... I wish Nick had been more forthcoming about that with me so I went less covert and seductive, and tried more to be honest and endear you over to SHIELD's side. I'm not sure how aware of it he it was. He likes to pretend he knows everything, and if he is surprised by something, he sure as hell doesn't show it." Natasha agreed.
"Well, at least you and I sort of got each other sorted out eventually." Tony said. "But at the time, I put on the magazine cover and viral video version of Tony Fucking Stark, to protect myself from whatever it was that I was afraid that SHIELD was going to do to me. You know now I'm not that guy. That's the guy I always thought Howard wanted me to be... I mostly hate that guy to be honest."
"He's your first armour." Natasha said thoughtfully. "I wrote my initial report about Mr. Fucking Stark... You're very convincing as him. But I'm glad I got to know the guy who wears mismatched socks and ancient t-shirts, and teaches children's songs to his robots."
"Oh god, is Dummy still whistling How Much is that Doggy in the Window? Just ask him to stop. He'll listen to you better than he will to me." Tony said. Natasha smiled.
"As with yourself, you worry about him annoying people too much. He's utterly charming, Tony. He made Wanda see the best in you. Leave him be." She said. Tony smirked and nodded at her.
"Okay. Yes ma'am."
"Good. Now, none of this is particularly upsetting to me. So what is it that you're trying to soften the blow over?" Natasha asked.
"Bruce." Tony said, and looked straight ahead, toward the door of the lounge. "I... have an idea. Maybe. Of what you had. I saw the way you looked at him. Steve noticed it too. He mentioned it to me."
"Tony, whatever has or hasn't happened, or does or doesn't happen between Bruce and I, isn't really any of your business." Natasha said, a sliver of ice creeping into her voice. Tony closed his eyes, rounded his shoulders, and curled in on himself.
"I know. I totally know that it is a big ol' cuppa none of my business, with a chaser shot of shut the fuck up... I am not trying to stick my nose in. It's not my place... But, this is your home, Natasha. This is where you live and work, and I don't want to be responsible for you feeling anything other than secure and comfortable in your home. If he'll come, I can always bring Bruce back to the tower or to my research facilities in California." Tony said. Natasha reached over and laid a hand on Tony's shoulder.
"Tony, come here." She said. They rearranged themselves and soon were cuddled on the couch. "This is your home too, Tony. You designed it for all of us, including Bruce and yourself. And since this is home for all of us, it makes us into a weird and broken family, but a family nonetheless. Families get through emotional highs and lows together, or so uplifting literary fiction has taught me. When we get Bruce back, whatever happens is what will happen. It's not going to be your fault. If he doesn't want what I want, then I have to accept that. I'll deal with it." She said. Tony sighed.
"I just don't want to see any more of us heartbroken." He said softly.
"It happens every now and again. It's inevitable when you care and love others. But this family is large enough now that we can help one another get through heartbreak." Natasha said, and ran her fingers through Tony's wavy curls of hair.
"You promise?" Tony asked.
"If you do." She said.
"I promise." Tony said, and let out a gentle sigh.
"Then so do I... By the way, never cut your hair again. It's gorgeous." She said, and traced her nails lightly over his scalp.
"If I get back into the suit with any regularity, I'll probably have to. It'll get caught in the inner workings... And I will get absolutely awful helmet head." Tony said. Natasha laughed low and quietly. "...I'm not wrong, am I? You like Bruce, right?"
"Yes Tony." Natasha murmured. "Very much."
"That's good. He deserves someone who isn't afraid of him." Tony said.
"Oh, I'm afraid of him, afraid of the Hulk... But they've proven time and again that I don't have to give in to that fear, and that I can trust them not to hurt me even when they're angry." She said softly. "And Bruce is a snarky, well-read, clueless, dorky sweetheart. I am tired of hard men who cannot bend. Like anyone, Bruce is capable of monstrous things, his counterpart especially so. But so am I, and Bruce has found no reason to fear me. It's nice to have an equal when it comes to that." Natasha said.
"I don't know... I find it oddly comforting that you could kill me with your pinky finger and a paperclip." Tony said. Natasha continued to card her fingers through his hair.
"And I find it strangely comforting that you could blow us all to kingdom come with probably just the paperclip and chutzpah." She said. Tony laughed softly.
"Weirdest family ever. We're a family composed of weird cousins. Earth's Mightiest Weirdos." Tony rambled. Natasha's laugh had a musical lilt to it, and Tony smiled.
The team let Tony sleep in the next morning, and made their plan. So when Tony stumbled into the kitchen for coffee, and was presented with the idea of him being the one to ask Bruce directly for help in the rooms that Bruce was renting, he was somewhat surprised. "I thought I would probably be the last person for that job."
"Which is why Bruce probably won't run from you, and if Barnes is there, he'll be less likely to engage you. Especially if you appear to be unarmed." Natasha said. Steve nodded his agreement with her.
"Will I be unarmed?" Tony asked.
"It would probably be the safest option as not to agitate either Dr. Banner or Sergeant Barnes. In the worst case scenario, you have Extremis now to help you heal." Vision said. "We can have the armour nearby in sentry mode, waiting on your signal, and I can phase through any surface should there be any trouble." Tony's head bobbed side to side a few times as he considered the options.
"Is this a pathetic puppy play because I look like an underfed waif?" He asked.
"Yeah, a bit." Rhodey said.
"Great." Tony said and rolled his eyes.
"Your butt still looks good." Steve observed.
"And all that purdy hair. So shiny. So dreamy." Clint added. Steve laughed.
"Get your own boyfriend, Barton." Steve teased.
"It's not a crime to appreciate your boyfriend's wavy hair from afar." Clint said.
"I get it, I need a haircut." Tony said and sighed heavily. "Just hasn't seemed important is all."
"You don't have to on my account. I like it." Steve said.
"Oh, now that Steve likes it, he'll keep it forever." Clint said.
"I'll take that bet. Tony does what he wants." Rhodey said.
"Clint. No." Natasha warned. Clint pouted.
Tony readied the armour and loaded it on to the Quinjet next to the War Machine, and strapped it down in place so it wouldn't shift. Dum-E carried the tie-downs for him, and they both stood in contemplation of the stern expression of Iron Man. Dum-E stroked Tony's arm and wrist gently after a moment. "What?" Tony asked quietly as his gaze shifted down to his bot. Dum-E let out a series of beeps, and then touched Tony's arm again. Tony smiled and gave Dum-E a pat. "It'll be fine, buddy. I know I haven't been in it for awhile, but its looked after me when I've been in worse spots. I've got it down to an art now."
He plunked his butt down on the decking of the Quinjet and looked up at the armour with Dum-E. "Remember when I would run headlong into these things on my own, because I thought I was the only one I could trust to handle them? Those days are long gone buddy. I hope you understand that. I have people to help look after me now. It's a good thing. I'm going to be fine." Tony said. Dum-E stroked his hair. "What you think I should get a haircut too?" Dum-E shrugged.
"I should totally get you a faux fur covering. You could be as fluffy as your personality." Tony teased. Dum-E huffed. "Kidding. I promise. You're awesome just as you are." Dum-E gave an approving nod. "Now, Pietro said he'd hang out with you until we get back. Look after him for me, please? He's a good kid, and I owe Wanda a favour." Tony said and got to his feet. Dum-E looked hesitant to leave the armour and the Quinjet.
"It'll be a day or two at most. I'm not looking for this to end violently. I just want everything to be all right, and to do that, I have to get back into the world for a bit. I promise I will come home to you in one piece. Even if I have to fly the whole way home in the armour, I will get back here. And after I come back, I will go and get Butterfingers and U and bring them up to hang out with us." Tony promised. Dum-E nudged him gently. "Come on, buddy." He said. Dum-E grabbed Tony's shirt and followed him down the loading ramp.
Tony left Dum-E and his charging dock down in Pietro's room, explaining the basics to the kid. Pietro seemed gleeful at the idea that Dum-E would try to help him as best he could, and he seemed eager for a physio buddy. Tony warned him to not freak Dum-E out though, because his absence would put Dum-E on high alert. Tony didn't even bother to hide the fact that he hugged Dum-E to say goodbye, even though he was sure that would be the next damn thing to trend on Instagram and Tumblr.
It was as Tony was buckling down into the Quinjet, allowing Clint to pilot, that he heard it. At first he thought that there was a problem and an alarm was going off somewhere in the aircraft. But as he listened more closely, he found a familiar pattern in the beeping. He oh so carefully nudged open the connection in his mind, and found Dum-E's code and constant chattering questions on the other side of it. The smile he broke into was big enough that Steve, who had buckled in beside him, noticed.
"Hi Dummy." Tony offered.
"Hey Tony." The code responded. Tony's eyes misted over. It was the first time he'd heard Dum-E say his name in English and not his own language.
"You're not gonna bug me at an important moment or anything are you?" Tony asked.
"Depends on if you want me to. I assume that interrupting board meetings is still fine, but while you're having sex is probably out." Dum-E replied. Tony snorted and laughed out loud. Steve turned to him.
"You okay, Tony?" Steve asked.
"Technopathy is going to have some interesting side effects." Tony said aloud.
"Tell me about it. This is a bit fucking weird. But I had to try." Dum-E said.
"Of course you did, buddy. That's what you are meant to do." Tony said.
"I just... had to know if I could find you... if I needed to." Dum-E explained.
"That's fine. Really. I mean it." Tony replied.
"Okay, good... I just needed to know-Oh OH! Ball! Pietro threw the ball! I gotta go get the ball!" Dum-E's presence went screeching loudly out of Tony's mind, though Tony couldn't help but laugh.
"Bye, Dummy. I'll be back soon." Tony sent, though he wasn't sure if Dum-E was still listening. All he could hear was the bot repeating the word ball over and over.
"Interesting how, Tony?" Steve asked him.
"There are robots talking in my head." Tony said. "And I realize how insane that sounds."
"No weirder than the insane Nazi scientist who saved his brain in an entire cavern of data tape." Steve said with a shrug.
"That is not comforting." Tony said.
"You're the one with robots talking to you via Wi-Fi. It's the only comparison I have for human beings who have uploaded themselves."
"I am just going to have to give you better associations." Tony said. He smiled, and curled into Steve's side as best he could.
"Now that is comforting." Steve replied and put his arm around Tony.
The plane took off and Clint had them cruising smoothly for some time before Tony spoke again. "So, you and Barnes..." Tony started, and then his thought drifted off quietly, letting his tone say what he wanted to know.
"Really, Tony? Now?" Steve asked.
"I don't see why not. We should talk about it, and we've got hours before we hit Madripoor." Tony replied just loud enough for Steve to hear him over the engine noise.
"You should be resting and trying to keep your strength up."
"Do you honestly think that will work on me, Steve? Did it ever work on you before 1942?" Tony asked. Steve rolled his eyes, but acquiesced to the sentiment.
"Fine. Yes. Bucky and I have-" Steve said.
"Really?" Tony asked, sitting up a bit, and suddenly fascinated.
"So... If we find him with Bruce, will you... Still want him?" Tony asked. His insecurities roared to the surface.
"It's not like that, Tony... Buck is... He only ever wanted me like that when... before..." Steve trailed off, and his cheeks started to flush.
"When you were... Small." Tony inferred, hoping he hadn't chosen a horribly offensive way to describe it.
"Yeah, Tony. When I was smaller... softer." Steve said and gave a little shrug of his shoulders.
"So, at the risk of sounding incredibly crass, was it a size kink thing?" Tony had to ask, had to know. He and Dum-E had more in common than he would like to admit.
"No... Maybe a little? Mostly no. He was very closeted, as modern slang would say. We had to be. You could get tossed in prison for it, and the reputation would linger. But he had a type. He liked women shorter than him too. We fooled around off and on when we were lonely, cold, hungry, or bored... But it wasn't really about sex. Not at the heart of it. I couldn't have asked for a better friend than Bucky. I could rely on him. I probably wouldn't have made it as far into adulthood as I did without him. After I found him and got him out of the HYDRA base, things were different. I wasn't as attractive to him anymore." Steve said, barely loud enough to be heard. Though the rest of the team was occupied with various other activities.
"And you did everything in your power, and beyond to make sure that he didn't have to go war alone, saved him from goddamn HYDRA, and then he didn't want you?" Tony asked, his whisper pained on Steve's behalf.
"But he was still my best friend, Tony. That aspect was always more casual. I wanted him more than he wanted me. If he had a steady girl, I laid off. I think it would have been the same had the opposite ever been true. I think he saw what I had developing with Peggy, and that contributed to the way he reacted. It was a huge readjustment for him to have to deal with. Suddenly I wasn't the helpless little guy too stupid to walk away from a fight anymore. It changed our whole dynamic as my therapist pointed out. You can see where what happened to me, might make him feel either emasculated or simply not attracted to me physically. But that didn't stop us being friends. He followed me onto that goddamn train without question... Well, he did ask me if it was revenge for the time he took my sorry asthmatic ass on the Cyclone and I puked, but he still went with me. He was so loyal, Tony. When we were starving in Brooklyn, and went to war, there was no one else I could trust more. The least I can do is be loyal to him now, whether he wants me or not." Steve said.
"You still want him." Tony said.
"Sure... But it's more wanted. Past tense. I know that now." Steve replied, and paused for a moment. "I'll tell you something great about Peggy... She saw value in me before the serum. She was so used to being looked over because of her gender. But she, like Erskine, saw that there was more to me than my narrow chest and weak lungs. Bucky had more issues with that. Thought I shouldn't be anywhere near a battlefield, and I suppose he was right. I wouldn't have made it far... But when everything went smoothly, and it worked, it was a bonus for me, sure. But Peg didn't stop sassing me, or demanding the utmost respect from me. She knew I was the same man who went into that weird Vita Ray coffin contraption Howard cooked up." Steve said and smiled down at Tony.
"And you want to know the great thing about you, Tony? At least what I think is, anyway... You see me as I am now... I'm still a bit screwed up, still a lot behind the times, still very fucking angry with all that's happened now and then... But you see the good in me. You see the part of me that's worthy to carry that shield and the title of Captain America. You see that guy, and you see Steve Rogers with his very human flaws, with sarcasm as his only communication system, and you like both of them. You see the value of in both of them. I'm grateful for that. I can't tell you how good it feels to be wanted as much as I want someone else. After all this time, someone reciprocates how I feel about them. It's... It's wonderful." Steve said. He dropped a kiss on Tony's forehead. Tony angled up, and caught Steve's lips for a quiet, tender kiss. Steve happily thought about all the opportunities he would have in the future to indulge in this.
"Well, if you can't actually put words to it, will you show me sometime soon?" Tony asked cheekily.
"It's a date." Steve said, and laughed quietly.
Tony and Vision landed gently on the roof of the building where Bruce was holed up. The armour hovered high above with Rhodey and Sam who were reconnoitering the perimeter, watching carefully. Tony's mental connection to Iron Man meant he could use the sensors to see what was inside of the rented rooms. The heat signature of a man with an unusual arm registered in the bedroom. "Barnes is in house." Tony broadcasted without need for a com unit to the team, who were waiting at a distance in various strategic spots.
"Gimme a minute, Tones. Wanna see if I can get a sightline on him through the window or fire escape." Clint murmured quietly back. Tony saw Clint start moving over rooftops through the eyes of the armour. Tony remained silent and still. "Okay, he's on the bed. I can get a solid shot on his thigh. Maybe torso if I shoot through the wall."
"As little damage as possible." Steve warned softly. He hated that he was so far out with Wanda, but he knew that his presence wouldn't be conducive to everyone remaining calm.
"I am all for that, Cap." Tony replied. "Okay, V. Take me down to the door. I want to walk through the door like a regular person."
"Are you sure, Tony?" Clint asked. "Banner's not there."
"But he'll come back for Bucky. Barnes would be in the wind as soon as he knew we'd made contact with Banner." Tony reasoned.
"I have a visual on Banner." Natasha said. "He's headed your way. Looks like a run for takeout."
"Probably taking advantage while the rain has let up." Clint said. "Hurry it up, Tony. I am working on a horrible case of swamp ass, and I know you don't want me pressing my ham up against the pilot's chair with it."
"Still not as humid as that night I ended up at the Princess Bar." Tony observed.
"Wait, when the hell were you at the Princess? How are you still alive?" Clint hissed.
"Chatter." Steve said. He was falling into protocol at his nervousness at losing Bucky one more time.
"Clint has a point." Natasha said. "It is impressive that he's still alive after that."
"Chatter." Steve said again in his best Captain America Doesn't Need Your Shit voice.
"Okay, going in." Tony said. Vision offered him a hand. Tony took a quiet, calming breath, and took Vision's hand without trembling.
Tony smirked at Vision as he knocked on the paper-thin door, and then tried the knob. It didn't have a lock. "Careful Tony, Barnes is moving." Clint warned. "Closet in the bedroom. Visual line to the door." Tony gave thumbs up to Vision, and then walked inside the rented room, closing the door behind him. Vision phased into the wall, and waited on Dr. Banner's arrival or the explosion of violence from the Winter Soldier... Whichever came first.
Tony observed the ramshackle rooms, with no door between the living area and the bedroom. Dilapidated didn't even begin to cover it politely. The place was more a tumbledown of building materials that had been thrown together so haphazardly, it was probably only the miracle of monsoon season that kept it from going up in flames. He saw the closet door ajar, but didn't focus on it. Instead he focused on the rickety table and two chairs. He crossed the room and sat down on the chair where he could see both the closet door, and the front door.
"Jesus, Stark. Just make yourself at home. I'm getting you a wheelbarrow for Christmas so you can carry your balls around." Clint said. Tony let out the barest puff of breath and smirked a little.
"Banner is imminent. He hasn't seen any of us." Natasha said, not at all sounding winded from her pursuit and the humidity.
Tony sighed, and leaned forward in the chair, elbows on his knees, passive and inert. The chair protested his movement, but soon settled. Bruce entered the room and froze when he laid eyes on Tony. "Please don't run." Tony said, just above a whisper.
"You have about five seconds to tell me why the hell not." Bruce said. His eyes were wide with anger and fear.
"Because without you, I'll be dead in a year. I need your help. Ask me anything you want. Please help me, Bruce." Tony said. Bruce looked down at the floor, but his eyes remained open, and a bitter expression settled on his face.
"Can't do a fucking thing by halves, can you, Tony?" Bruce said.
"I think we've established that is a moot point." Tony said, trying for levity. Bruce's mood didn't rise, though his eyes did. Tony looked at Bruce, and finally let all the exhaustion he was feeling show on his face. He was hoping the fact that he was still underweight, pale, and very vulnerable without the armour would help demonstrate his lack of threat.
"Where are the others?" Bruce demanded.
"Close, but not too close. I told them to stay away though unless there was a Code Green." Tony said.
"And Veronica?" There was hate in Bruce's tone, and Tony knew it was justified.
"I never replenished her. Sent the rest to scrap... I... I never want to do that again. I would rather work on ways to channel the Hulk for good. Find a more reliable lullaby... Anything where I don't have to repeat that insane idea."
"You're not endearing my trust by your lack of contingency plans." Bruce warned.
"Full discloser: I have an armour hovering a half a mile up to help me escape if I need it." Tony admitted suddenly. "But I haven't even stepped into this one yet, and I don't want to if I don't have to. I may never again anyway. Body is getting too weak to hold up to the strain."
"You do look terrible. Why do you need my help?" Bruce asked.
"Extremis." Tony said and sighed.
"Tony, no. I can't."
"Bruce, I have to fix it, or I'll die. If you had been listening instead of snoozing that day, you would know that if I deactivate it, my chest is hamburger and scar tissue. My body won't keep up the changes Extremis makes and I don't know why. My body won't heal itself like it used to... And I'm not ready to die yet. I have so much work to do. So much to make up for."
"Like perfecting Ultron?" Bruce asked.
"Ultron is obsolete in the face of Vision, and if you help me, to a lesser degree, myself." Tony said. Bruce stilled and went pale despite the steaminess of the room.
"What did you do?"
"I didn't set out to do anything. Extremis evolved. Upgraded itself using the tech already inside my body to do so, and now its eating me alive slowly to survive." Tony said in a quiet rush. Bruce rubbed his temples.
"And what if it starts to spread, like an actual virus?" He asked.
"It can't. I'm the only one on the planet other than the Winter Soldier and that poor Mike Peterson guy with this much tech in my body, and neither of them have the nanotech I do so far as I know."
"Who's Mike Peterson?"
"Someone I noticed when SHIELD's files got dumped. I... It's not important at the moment, though I need to follow up on what's going on with that when I am able to help. First I need to get my own house in order, and I really need you for that. I'm... Well, as you can see, I'm sort of a mess right now. I had a severe emotional collapse not too long ago. Pepper left. I stopped eating. Stopped functioning. FRIDAY called Steve in. I've been at the new facility upstate for a few weeks now. I'm... getting there. Slowly. But I need your help."
"For what, exactly?" Bruce asked. The set of his shoulders was relaxing a little. His mind was working, and his fear response was calming down.
"To get Extremis to run my body and the tech in harmony, without one trying to dominate the other. If I don't want to be constantly bombarded with wireless signals sent right into by my brain, I have to be consciously telling Extremis not to do it. I've written it into the code of the tech to not do it, but I need to refine Extremis itself, so it quits trying to make the tech do it." Tony explained.
"Why should I help you?" Bruce asked, bitter again.
"Because I recently found out that I do indeed have things to live for." Tony said.
"What? The singularity?" Bruce asked. Tony almost smiled, but kept it to himself.
"No. That's a side effect of staying alive... I still want to help the world, Bruce. I'm willing to stand sentry for the rest of my existence to ensure that another Ultron doesn't happen. That every invasion is warded off... I want to see people fed, and educated, and maybe bring about a global renaissance. The kind where we figure out that society is only going to succeed and progress through helping one another. I want to actually achieve what I wanted to do after I got out of Afghanistan, before my goddamn ego got in the way... I'm slowly chopping it down, I swear... I want to stand beside Steve and know in my heart of hearts that I did everything I could." Tony said.
"Steve?" Bruce asked, narrowing his eyes at Tony.
"We're standing on the cusp of something that could be the best thing that's ever happened to me, Bruce. Pepper left because she couldn't handle the changes Extremis was creating in me. Not that I blame her. All I was doing was reminding her of her own traumatic experience with it. She couldn't handle that I was trying to embrace it in a new way... Steve gets my Quixotic desire for a better world... And miracle of miracles, he wants me too. But to be able to really take that step, I have to be in control, I have to ensure everyone's safety, especially his." Tony said, thinking of the night he'd called the armour to his and Pepper's bedside.
"Please come back with us, Bruce. Types like us, while we can make it on our own for a long while, it makes us miserable. Thing is, we don't have to... The new facility is... It's the closest thing I've felt to home since sitting in Rhodey's mom's kitchen while I sobbed into her shoulder after Jarvis died. I was talking to Natasha about this, and she's pretty sure we've got a weird, broken, little family started, and that it's a good thing. That we all need it." Tony said.
"Tony, the mildest problem we have is that things are going to be awkward. I'm pretty sure Natasha is going to attempt to kill me, and the Other Guy is going to have something to say about it." Bruce said. The warm, sad, spot in his heart where Natasha resided bubbled to the surface.
"She doesn't want to kill you, Bruce. She cares about you very much. She wants to see you safe... And she can handle whatever it is that you want or don't want between you. She'll be very explicit about consent when you ask her directly. It doesn't have to be a soap opera... If you want to pursue something with her, you can. You both love reading, art, and culture. You both love to cook. And you both know the hollow, empty feeling that comes with knowing exactly what you're capable of... Successful relationships have been built on less." Tony said, and grinned a bit. His mind was still screeching at him about the Winter Soldier behind the closet door though.
"I'm almost twice her age." Bruce said.
"Same goes for me and Steve, with, surprise surprise, me not being the cradle robber... Whoda thunk that, am I right? Look, Natasha Romanov has already seen more of life than most ever will. She knows herself well enough to know what she wants, and she's mature enough to handle it like an adult. Because she is one. If you don't want anything, she'll still care about you. She still thinks you're a good man... Make your choice, tell her, and go from there. Romance or not, who else among us will go with her to readings of new literary fiction? I mean, Steve would go, but he'd fall asleep. Then I would have to make narcoleptic senior citizen jokes, and then he'd get Dummy to rick-roll me or something, and it would be chaos." Tony said, rambling, trying to buy any kind of time he could so Bruce would see his point of view.
"It's a nice idea, Tony. But it's a fantasy. You're forgetting one thing." Bruce said, his voice laced with sadness. "I'm a wanted man, Tony. If I go back, even if it's with you, the team, I'm still a prisoner again. I can't ever live a normal life again. Not after what happened in Africa."
"So what? It's as good as any of us is going to get. Save for exiling you off the planet, you'll never be free anywhere, and even Asgard would keep you under lock and key. And I'm just as responsible as anyone else for what happened there, and I have yet to be charged. It's was just a shitty circumstance, and I am trying to fix everything I can... The difference between a small cage and long leash means everything. Come home. The food is better. The beds are softer, and are definitely vermin and mold free. There is a place for you to do actual, needed, and important work. People who love you are there. So yes, it is a prison of a sort. But it would be one of your own choosing, and not this rough illusion of freedom you've made for yourself. Trust me, I just gave up this rugged individualism bullshit, and for the first time in forever, I can sleep at night, Bruce. I have ideas again. Real innovation. Feels like it's been ages since I had an idea worth putting shoulder to. I want you to be able to feel that way again too."
"And if I say no?" Bruce asked.
"Then I have to respect your choice and find another way. But it would be easier if you were there. I would trust the outcome more... And I would be so happy to have you home with us. Maybe you could find some of the comfort you need too. We're not complete without you there... Collect the whole set and all. Coulson would have been proud." Tony said.
"And the Maximoffs?" The venom returned to Bruce's voice.
"They're not evil, Bruce. They're just... young. They're so terribly young, and traumatized by what happened to them, and were taken advantage of, and abused because of that. They've been seeing specialized grief and trauma counselors and psychologists I picked up after the SHIELD fiasco... And it took me some effort, but Wanda helped me find you. I let her into my mind to keep my consciousness together while I scoured online resources for traces of you." Tony said.
"How did you find me?" Bruce asked.
"Here on Madripoor? The security cameras at the Princess Bar." Tony said. Bruce tensed again. "Where you were before that and how I found out, can remain our little secret... And I know that Barnes is in the closet with a gun trained on me right now. So if you need my help to escape him, I can call the suit here in seconds, and have the team here almost that fast. I can have Wanda paralyze all of us until we can be extracted without violence. But if it's both of you need help, then I will do anything within my power to do so and keep you safe. And I know the rest of the team are on board with that, because we've talked it over." Tony said, purposely not mentioning the presence of Vision. He looked over to the closet door. It creaked open and the Winter Soldier stepped out, pistol still trained on Tony's skull.
"Surprised the floor can withstand the weight of the stones you got, Stark." Barnes said.
"You and Barton are going to get along famously." Tony said and smirked at him.
"Odd attitude for a man about to get his head blown off." Barnes said.
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose or something." Tony mumbled.
"You don't think Steve would feel your loss?" He countered and pressed the end of the barrel into Tony's temple.
"I don't have him yet. Not really. I need to do some healing first, and so does he. But we've been working on it together, which is nice. And I don't think you want to cause him any extra pain, Mr. Barnes. I know you wouldn't want to add another 'could have been' to Steve's list. Because I do want him. I want to be so good to him." Tony said. He didn't look up to plead, or shiver when Barnes shifted. He was well trained for this kind of stress now. So he didn't sag with relief either when Barnes lowered the pistol, reengaged the safety, and holstered it.
"You say you're gonna look after Stevie?" He asked.
"Yeah. I'd help both of you too if you want." Tony offered again, and finally made eye contact with the haunted face of James Buchanan Barnes. He knew Steve would be glued to the screen on the phone that Tony was broadcasting his sightline too. Barnes looked over to Bruce.
"This is who you told me about? Howard's son?" He asked Bruce.
"Yes." Bruce replied. Barnes held his upper arm in front of Tony's face.
"It hurts. Been sending shocks down my body since I left South America. Can you fix it?" Barnes asked.
"Pretty sure I can. But it looks complex. I'd need to go home to the proper equipment. If you want, if you're ready, to come in from the cold, we will protect you." Tony said and knew that was a promise the team would keep for Steve's sake alone.
"I don't wanna hurt no more." Barnes said, with sounds of older Brooklyn surfacing in his voice. "I can't concentrate on anything else now."
"I'll do everything I can." Tony promised.
"Okay... I'll come... I wanna see Stevie. Think I'm ready now." Barnes said. Tony could only hear the whoop Steve let out in the confines of his own mind, made tinny by the phone and com units' microphones. He had to fight to not smile as wide as Steve surely was at the moment. Instead, Tony looked over at Bruce.
"What about you? Will you come home, Bruce? Same offer applies."
"I reserve the right for James and I to leave whenever we want if either of us feel unsafe or threatened." Bruce said.
"I don't see an issue with that. You both have proven that you're in control. The offer comes with the use of my extensive legal team to keep you out of custody." Tony said.
"Yeah, all right... I'm just... So tired." Bruce said and nodded.
"It's okay... Not exactly like this, but I know what that feels like. To feel like you don't have anything left... You okay to walk out of town to the Quinjet? I can carry you in the armour, and Vision is nearby if you need it."
"Walking's good... I... I remember walking out of some horrible places now. It'll be good to get my head together." Bucky said softly, almost absently.
"Sure. We should go before the rain starts again." Tony agreed and stood up quietly. He took the bag of takeout from Bruce's hands, and gathered up chopsticks from the table. "You guys can eat on the way."
Bruce eyed up Vision carefully when they reached the street. Vision gave Bruce and Bucky a nod, and offered Tony a fist bump. Tony grinned and returned it. Vision then looked up to the sky and was gone, though Tony could feel he was close. There was silence on the coms as everyone regrouped to follow carefully while they walked back to the Quinjet.
Tony knew it would take at least an hour, and handed off the Styrofoam containers of food off to Bruce and Bucky. Bucky didn't hesitate and ate with military precision and enthusiasm, shoveling spicy noodles into his mouth as he walked. He used the metal arm to support the container, cradling it against his body. Tony could hear something inside of it grinding underneath the long sleeved, dirty shirt he wore. Bruce was more hesitant to eat, eyes wary and looking for danger. They would stand out in Lowtown now. Very much Westerners who were out of place. Tony had a hoodie covering his growing hair and his untrimmed beard would hopefully help him pass unrecognized.
"Eat." Tony said softly. "We have eyes in the sky. We're safe."
"Who?" Bruce asked.
"The gang's all here. Rhodey, Falcon, Vision and my armour are above us. Steve and Wanda are with the jet, and Natasha and Clint are riding swing... Hey you wanna see Clint's baby? He's surprisingly adorable, which I assume is his mother's doing. Totally out of the Winston Churchill squished phase." Tony said, pulled out a phone and fiddled with the clear glass pane until a translucent image of a happy, chubby baby came into view. Bruce paused a step and looked at the infant's face. "I swear this kid isn't going to be able to get away with anything... Unless I sneak off with him to help him do it." Bruce's expression soured.
"Oh, not like that... I meant fun stuff. Like, taking him to the Hayden Planetarium or disrupting the surface tension of a two litre cola with Mentos and shit. We'll return him and siblings all sticky and smarter to Barton. It'll be a riot watching him flip out while he tries to get high fructose corn syrup out of the kid's hair." Tony said and Bruce finally reluctantly smiled.
"There's kids where you and Stevie are?" Bucky asked.
"Naw, old McBarton has a farm, and his family lives there. However, I am all for playing doting, indulgent uncle every now and again. We do have a hilarious robot though, who is as endearing as he is incompetent." Tony explained.
"Where are we going?" Bucky asked.
"Upstate New York." Tony said. He had a million questions about how Bruce and Bucky managed to be splitting a hovel in Madripoor, but held his tongue on that.
"Tony, right?" Bucky asked, as he tossed his now empty food container.
"Yeah. I'm Tony. The mechanic." He added in and offered his hand. Bucky shook it with his right, his upper body stiff with pain.
"I'm Bucky Barnes." He said, and looked relieved that he could say that with certainty. "Sorry about threatening to shoot you."
"Better than actually being shot at, and you're definitely not the first, so it's cool." Tony replied. He noticed that Bruce was now taking tentative bites of his own dinner as they walked.
"Who's tailing us?" Bucky asked.
"Natasha and Clint. The Black Widow and Hawkeye. For our protection." Tony said.
"Black Widow... That sounds familiar." Bucky murmured.
"I believe that the two of you have met at least once before SHIELD went down. She holds no grudges. A job is a job." Tony said.
"Oh, her... I remember her. She's tough. Smart."
"She is. She's also within ear shot, so good play on complimenting her." Tony said. Bruce looked around cautiously. "Good luck finding her Brucie-Bear. If she doesn't want to be seen, she won't be. She's making sure we get out of this damn town alive, and without making a fuss."
"It'll be most dangerous once we hit the edges. People are more desperate there." Bruce warned. He carried a small shoulder bag, and Tony was fairly certain he'd give what little money he had away at some point before they hit the Quinjet. Bruce continued eating, thankfully.
"Noted." Tony said.
"How is Stevie?" Bucky asked. He was shy and uncertain now.
"He's doing all right all things considered. I think he is. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am." Tony said. "He misses you like crazy. Been desperate to have you come back."
"I don't know that I'm the same man he'd want to come back." Bucky admitted.
"Neither is he. We've all seen too much, to be honest. But he still wants to know you and get you the right opportunities to heal. He cares a lot. He misses you. Loves you." Tony said tentatively to gauge Bucky's reaction. Bucky nodded his head, but stared off into the middle distance.
"I miss him too... He's solid in my memory. A lot fades in and out. But Stevie's there. I wake up and he's there, and I know who he is. First one I got back." Bucky agreed.
"How much do we have of you? You still way out in left field?" Tony asked. Baseball metaphors would be understood and familiar if the way Steve swore at the Dodgers games was any indication.
"Centre field maybe... For now. Ball in glove, and headed in toward second base to tag the runner myself though." Bucky said. Tony smiled. Following the metaphor was a good indication of his state of mind.
Tony felt relief when he saw the landing lights of the Quinjet get closer, but he started to feel a new kind of nervousness. The hatch was down, though the rain had started up again, and the rest of the team stood on or around it, save for Clint who was still trailing at a distance. Natasha had circled ahead and arrived just before they had it seemed.
He wasn't quite sure what to expect, but what happened was low on his list of possible outcomes. Steve managed to keep his approach to an easy jog and they met just inside the light cast by the jet. Steve pulled up short and froze when his gaze fell on Bucky's. "Don't hug him too hard, Steve. He's in pain." Tony warned gently.
Steve broke into a hesitant, shy, smile. He got closer, but didn't barge in. First he gave Tony a quick, tender peck on the lips, and smiled sweetly at him. "Amazing job. Thank you." He murmured, and then turned back to Bucky. "Hey jerk." He said softly.
"Hey punk." Bucky replied. Steve looked a bit shocked to see Bucky come even closer and open his arms. But he wasn't so shocked that he didn't react. He threw his arms around Bucky, but he was mindful of his strength and Tony's warning.
"I missed you so much. I can't believe you're back." Steve whispered into Bucky's untrimmed hair. "I thought I'd lost you forever." Bucky held on to Steve as if he were drowning. He couldn't help his reaction. Steve's voice and warmth sent him over the edge.
"Oh god... What did they do to us, Stevie?" Bucky asked and let out a quiet sob. More followed the first.
"It doesn't matter, Buck. We're here now. I got you." Steve replied. He was openly crying now too, unable to hide it. Seventy years of separation, experimentation, war, torture, and cold dark silence were too much, and they crumbled into one another. Captain American resolutely losing his shit would have shaken the team had Tony not stepped up.
He caught Rhodey's eyes and spoke softly, but clearly. "We should get the armours secured, unless you want to fly home solo. Clint, how much time do you need to get us in the air if you're generous about it?"
"Not long, twenty minutes tops if I do all the regulation safety checks." Clint said casually, like he wasn't staring at their emotionally fraught Captain.
"All right, you do that then. You riding with us, honey bear?" Tony asked.
"I think we should all go home together. This is the fun-vee all over again." Rhodey replied. Tony nodded, liking the symbolism.
"Bruce." Tony called softly. "You sure about this?" He asked. Bruce looked back at the city for a moment and then nodded.
"I'm sure. We have work to do." He said. Tony took Bruce's wrist, and pulled him close for a moment.
"Thank you for saving me." He whispered into Bruce's ear. Bruce held Tony in return, unaware of the significance of Tony's words. The last thing he'd said to Yinsen was one of the few things he felt he'd gotten right in his shit show of a life.
"We're not there yet, Tony." Bruce said.
"But we will be. I know we can get it right if we work together." Tony said. He pulled away from Bruce. "Can I introduce you do Wanda properly? I would love if you could come to forgive her eventually."
"I'll be civil." Bruce said coldly.
"I will totally settle for that." Tony agreed.
Wanda was doe-eyed and scared of Bruce, and he knew he'd given her every reason to be. He saw then how young she really was, and realized how badly they'd both been abused and manipulated by others. His empathy for his fellow humans roared up unbidden, and it nearly made him shiver to think what had happened between them. All he could see was the moment that he, not the Hulk, had threatened to choke the life out of her. It was an intimate, violent type of murder, and it made him recall every horrible thing his father had done to his mother. Everything he'd hated about his father was what he embraced at his lowest point. Bruce's guilt hit him next, despite what he'd been manipulated to do by Wanda, she hadn't been the puppeteer, and he knew that now.
"I'm sorry." They said simultaneously, and were both given pause by that. Bruce did his best to appear unassuming and smiled, though it didn't reach the sadness in his eyes.
"Why would you apologize to me?" Wanda asked.
"Because I threatened to do harm to you, when I should have known better. I was terrified of what I'd been made to do. I hate violence, and all I did was offer it when I needed to have the best control of myself... They messed with you as badly as they messed with me, didn't they?" He asked.
"Who are they?" Wanda asked.
"Doesn't really matter who they are. What matters is that they have power to make others do what they want." Bruce said. Wanda nodded.
"Then yes. They did do that." She agreed.
"Okay. Good talk." Bruce said and turned from her toward the jet, where Natasha stood on the ramp. He approached her, and she leaned ever so slightly closer to him. He reached out, and moved a strand of hair back from her face. "Do you hate me?"
"No." She replied simply.
"Are you angry at me?"
"I was hurt. But I'm not angry, Bruce. Not anymore. Not after all that happened sank in. I can understand why you and the Hulk thought it was best to not stay around." She said.
"You're beautiful, Natasha. I don't deserve this."
"You're sweet, Bruce. I don't deserve this either." She challenged.
"Maybe... I need time." He said.
"That's fine. I probably do too." She replied. Bruce looked relieved. He leaned in close, taking in the scent of her hair, and then backed off slowly and entered the Quinjet.
Tony secured the armours and the flight suit with Rhodey and Sam, and let Steve and Bucky have a few moments. He didn't go to retrieve them until Clint was in the pilot's seat, waiting patiently for them to go. Tony went back into the rain and stepped out into the sopping wet grass. The audible crying had stopped, but they were still clinging to one another for dear life. Tony took a moment and remembered when Rhodey had held him like that in the desert. Sam came and stood beside him, and Tony instantly knew that he must be thinking about Riley and how he would never come home.
"I got an idea of what you're thinking about... I'm sorry you lost your friend." Tony said quietly to him.
"Me too... But I got other people who I know who care about me just as much. Makes all the difference in the world." Sam said.
"Yeah, it does." Tony agreed. "Let's get them inside. We can probably still threaten them with pneumonia and muscle memory from the 1940's should take over." Sam laughed.
Steve practically carried an emotionally exhausted Bucky up the ramp, unwilling to let him go. They managed to separate them wide enough to get them on the Quinjet and settled near the back against the wall. When Tony went to strap himself in for takeoff, Steve grabbed his pant leg. "Stay close?" He asked.
"Sure, Steve. Just let me get off this wet shirt and get you a blanket, okay? I suspect Barnes might go into shock if we're not careful."
"Thanks, Tony." Steve said. Bucky was silent, eyes closed, trying to shut out the world as the hatch to the Quinjet closed. His left hand gripped weakly on to the harness that held Steve's shield, and his right was wrapped around Steve's back. Sam was holding the shield from his seat, already belted in.
"Turn off the AC for a little while, Clint. Barnes might go into shock. We should keep him warm." Sam said. Clint turned, saw Bucky's position, and fiddled with the climate control.
Bruce looked up from his steady gaze studying his feet. "He's okay medically except for the pain the arm is causing him. As soon as we get to cruising altitude, I can administer a heavy duty painkiller if he consents."
"I'll be fine." Bucky mumbled. "Just get me out of here, Stevie. Get me away from all of this."
"Sure, Buck. We'll get you home." Steve said, accepting the blanket from Tony. He once again grabbed Tony's pant leg. "And you're staying right here with us." Tony looked a little perplexed, but gave in to Steve's demand. He settled on the floor beside Steve, near to a handgrip if he needed it.
"Keep the shiny side up, Barton." Tony warned as he pulled himself closer to Steve.
The Quinjet hummed to life around them, and Tony looked around at the occupants of the jet. Broken creatures Loki had called them... And he was right. But they weren't lonely anymore, and that was a good goddamn start in his opinion.
-End (for now).