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Despite it being right on the cusp of dawn by the local clock, Manhattan Station is furiously busy, ships of every size and make streaming in and out of her vast dock in a tightly-choreographed dance. The public comm channel is filled with the chatter of pilots, some cocky, some nervous, with hails and insults and a few pieces of well-meaning advice.

He glides into the fray at an easy two klicks per second, braking by increments as he nears the spacedock. No sudden moves. He remembers that part, though it's been years since he put in at a civilian port. Were this any of the Hydra bases he's visited in the past, he could drop out of warp and be parked in geosynchronous orbit before the station's proximity klaxons have time to sound; at worst he'd have a new pack of idiots crawling around with scanners looking for some mythical cloaking device.

Were this a Hydra base, his weapons would already be charged and locked, not powered down cold. He hates the vulnerability he feels, but he's got himself on a tight leash, remembers now that he needs to be careful. The polite dance he's engaging in with his fellow travelers still seems painfully slow by comparison.

The ping from the official channel can't come too soon.

"Manhattan Station hailing unidentified craft," a controller greets him, her words rapped out quickly but clearly. "Do you read? Over."

"Manhattan Station, this is WS-32557038, reading loud and clear," he replies, settling rustily into the old call and response.

"Please state the nature of your visit."

"Maintenance." Always a safe choice, though in this case it happens to be true.

"Anything to declare?"

"No."

"Great. Got a name for me, pilot?"

That's...unusual. Had she not logged it the first time? "WS-32557038," he repeats, more slowly this time.

"Oh! Are you an AI? Sorry, I thought I was talking to the pilot. I mean! It's--I'm only reading one lif--biosignature, and--"

"I'm the only biosignature aboard," he cuts her off, wondering at her flustered tone. She doesn't sound duplicitous, merely embarrassed. Maybe he isn't the only one who wakes to find things changed in confusing ways, old habits suddenly frowned-upon, unshakable standards suddenly relaxed.

"Ah...sir, I'm not looking for the ship's name. There's no pilot's name on your registry, just the holding company. If you're not registered, I can't let you into dock. Security reasons," she adds, as if that answers any objection he might have. It would have, except for one small thing.

He's sure there's a right and a wrong answer to her question, but at the moment he can't think what it is. He isn't certain himself whether he's angry or ashamed or for what reason. "I'm--" he begins, but he can't imagine what good giving his designation a third time will do. He's told her his name. Why isn't she listening? Is she asking for his call sign instead?

"It's okay, I've got this," a new voice pipes up, startling everyone involved if the controller's sharp inhale over the comm is any indication. "Manhattan Station? This is Tony Stark. Heads up; I'm transferring his pilot's registration now. JARVIS?"

"Sending now, sir," someone else says, JARVIS--Stark's AI, if his intelligence is correct--hacking the official channel with the same ease as Stark. He wants to bristle, except that Stark happens to be exactly the man he's been hoping to see. If Stark's decided to help with more than just maintenance--

"What the--" the controller sputters. "Is this a joke?"

"Not generally a fan of jokes that come with federal charges attached," Stark drawls pleasantly enough.

"I--of course. Uh, sorry for the delay, Sergeant Barnes." It shouldn't be a surprise to hear that call sign again, the one that had complicated everything, but it is. "You're cleared to dock at--"

"Wait, that's a jumpship, right?" Stark breaks in. "If you're atmosphere-worthy, come over to the lower SI dock instead. Plenty of room, and a lot more convenient for repairs."

He doesn't like this. Manhattan Station is at least anonymous, likely much easier to leave in a hurry; the Stark Industries dock is anything but neutral territory. The only reason he's willing to consider asking Stark's help in the first place is because his research suggests the man is a friend of...someone he trusts, almost despite himself. And there's something about Stark that's familiar. Even so, to put himself directly into Stark's hands...?

"You haven't even seen what needs repairing yet," he scoffs, deliberately disrespectful. He's found it helps when dealing with civilians. "Gonna come aboard and take a look?"

"Sure," Stark says without missing a beat. "Let's compromise. Come on over and park yourself, and I'll be there in ten. Deal?"

He considers telling Stark to come alone, but he doubts it needs to be said. Nothing in his research suggests the man is stupid. "Deal," he says instead. "Coordinates?"

"Sending," the voice he assumes is JARVIS replies, an information packet arriving almost simultaneously.

He hesitates before accessing it, knowing just how dangerous a tiny bit of code can be, but if Stark plans on hijacking him, it'd make more sense to wait until he's docked. "Got it," he says, filing a new flight plan with the station that's instantly approved. "On my way."

"Roger that," says the controller, her voice pitched a full tone higher in awe. "Welcome back, Sergeant."

"Thanks," he says, not protesting the call-sign, though he wants to. And anyway, it's just 'welcome,' really, though he knows he's been here before. He remembers pictures, though he can't remember where he saw them or when. A bright disk of blue and green and swirls of white. Other images with the same landmasses picked out in mostly brown, with almost no white at all. Nightscapes made brilliant by great swaths of light stretching far out to sea.

The planet hanging below the station is filling up with creeping green again, its light belts shrunken from what he remembers but still familiar. Many things are, just without any context: frustrating hints that tell him as little as possible. He scans the city sprawling out far beneath the station only once, then dismisses it. Where he is matters only to his missions, and at present he only has the one.

If this little side trip to Earth will get him back to destroying Hydra, that's all that matters.

***

Tony's not going to lie; he stood at the windows of his penthouse office and watched the Winter Soldier cruise in with his own eyes, not trusting even JARVIS' state of the art displays to give him the full effect. Small, maneuverable, the jumpship is a work of art, able to take on crafts ten times her size through a combination of speed, adaptive firepower, and the sheer skill of her pilot. Watching her stately glide as she disappears into the vast bay, he finds himself thinking of Romanoff in her PA's costume: one deadly sonofabitch playing at being a drone.

"Sir, I have the suits powered up and ready to be deployed," JARVIS announces as Tony turns from the window. "Shall I alert Captain Rogers as well?"

"I thought he was still off-system?" Chasing the wild goose that just flew into Tony's dock, to be exact.

"He is, sir, but perhaps his assistance in this matter would prove safer for all concerned."

Tony considers it for all of two seconds before shaking his head. "If Barnes wanted to talk to his long-lost buddy, he would have. He came here instead--for maintenance, and why does a souped-up soldier with a souped-up ship come to Manhattan just for maintenance? Because he wants the best. Or," he adds in the interest of fairness, "because he figures Cap will hand me my ass if I fuck him over, and you know how I feel about being handed things."

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS replies in his best Jeevesian tone, clearly having been at the archives again. That's fine; it's not like Tony has anyone else to share his guilty love of ancient BBC programming with. Even Steve's not that old-fashioned.

"Don't think I don't see what you're implying there," Tony huffs. "And relax. I know what I'm doing. That said, keep those suits on standby, will you? If Barnes has a Spode moment, I'm going to need something stronger than a genius valet backing me up."

He could take a suit over to the planetside dock--it would certainly be quicker--but that's just asking for trouble. Barnes wouldn't still be alive without a healthy sense of paranoia to keep him on his toes, and Tony doesn't want to show up looking like the enemy, even if he technically has good cause. He takes his private elevator down to the garage instead, stepping out and almost directly into the hovercar JARVIS has waiting for him.

He lets JARVIS pilot the vehicle through Manhattan's busy streets, watching the traffic stream past above and below him as JARVIS pings less-aggressive AIs out of the way. Security lets him pass without a challenge as he drives into the dock itself, eeling around maintenance crews and slow, chugging haulers to a more secluded berth in the back. He has no illusions that the distance between the Winter Soldier and the entrance will keep Barnes from bolting with his ship if it comes to it, but if he has to bring the suits into play, that buffer will hopefully give the rest of the crews time to evacuate.

Stepping out of the car, he takes a moment to just stand and stare, appreciating the Winter Soldier's sleek lines with a craftsman's eye. She's not human tech; he can spot that much without even trying. Though it's possible she's seventy years out of date for somebody in the quadrant, she's light years ahead of anything the Commonwealth's got in production, a deadly collection of swept angles that tricks his brain into looking for organic counterparts. Her gleaming silver plating is streaked with splashes of space dust, some of it charred from the trip down into atmosphere, but it all looks superficial, like a good pass with a hose would be enough to scour her clean again. He hates himself a little for finding her utterly gorgeous, but he's pretty sure even his dad would agree, which is ironic as hell, considering.

Though she should still be hot from reentry, the safety sensors are flashing him the all-clear as he steps up to the interface hub, thumbing the comm on as he runs a practiced eye over the screens. While he expects to see a laundry list of damage reports after the holes Barnes has been blowing through Hydra's network, her hull is sound and her systems are purring--all but her weapons array, which looks to have been powered down manually. He may not have much use for it himself, but Tony recognizes and appreciates politeness when he sees it. It still begs the question: just what needs maintenance so badly that Barnes broke down and came here?

He really hopes it isn't Barnes himself. He's not a doctor; he's an engineer.

"Sargent Barnes?" he says into the comm. "Tony Stark. I'd ask permission to come aboard, but uh...mind telling me first why you're not lighting up the temperature gauges?"

There's a half-beat's delay before Barnes answers, but he sounds more puzzled than distrustful. "The hull absorbs heat and stores the energy for later."

Tony groans. Of course it does. "God, I hope you've come with schematics."

Barnes snorts. "Sorry. Hydra hasn't made a habit of doing me any favors. Are you saying I need a better mechanic?"

"Okay, first of all I'm saying I'm better than a mechanic. And second--I can figure out your fancy alien tech just fine without a cheat sheet, don't you worry, but it's going to take longer. So how about it? Want to give me the ten credit tour?"

"Just come to the bridge," Barnes sighs as an access door on the side of the ship slides open, extruding a ramp in a smooth glide of plates.

"Don't mind if I do," Tony says, flicking the comm off and straightening his shoulders.

Compared to the big commercial rigs further down the dock, the Winter Soldier looks small until he's right up on her. There's something about being in the shadow of a beautiful machine that makes Tony's pulse kick up a notch or two, and damn, what he wouldn't give to fly this one, just once. He settles for playing it cool as he steps into her hull and hears the door whir softly at his back, trembling a fraction on its slider before settling down. It doesn't close, like maybe Barnes is having second thoughts about trapping Tony in here with him, but that doesn't change the fact that doors don't do that, at least where Tony comes from. They're on or off, especially when they're as important as a hull door; even if Barnes changed his mind, it should still have shut first before opening again.

"Interesting," he says aloud. He's not going to pretend he didn't notice that, and he doesn't want to leave Barnes wondering what he thinks about it. Keeping Barnes guessing is just about the last thing he wants right now. "You know, most designers save the conditional functions for more complex operations."

"I'm a complex system," Barnes jokes over the intercom, deadpan. "Keep going straight, and take your second left."

"Got it. I like what you've done with the place," he says, peering around curiously. The ship's corridors are in as good a condition as her hull, but they have that same air of dusty neglect. Tony can understand with the outer plating--it's not like the Winter Soldier is a classic combustible, washed and buffed every weekend--but apparently Barnes has more important things on his mind than general upkeep. "You know, I can have some cleaning bots delivered in twenty; just say the word."

"Not really anyone to clean up after now that I'm not ferrying my handlers around." Beneath his dry tone, Barnes sounds just the littlest bit embarrassed, and Tony bites back his next three comments. Barnes has had more important things on his mind; if Tony's intel and Rogers' sporadic updates are accurate, Barnes has done nothing but destroy Hydra cells for the past three months, all alone in a ship built for a crew of ten. He's probably had his hands full just keeping his baby running. If he's sleeping at all, it must be in transit, because his busy social schedule hasn't allowed for much else.

"Yeah, well, offer stands. I'm all for letting technology make our lives easier. I'd say you could ask Rogers, but he'd probably just give us both a lecture on self-sufficiency and rolling up our sleeves and elbow grease, like I don't spend most of the day in a workshop, hello."

Barnes' laugh is rusty, like he's almost forgotten how. "Yeah, that sounds like the guy I remember. He hasn't gone full technophobe, has he? Because that might be awkward."

Tony grins. "No, but you should see him try to navigate a Stark Persona."

"Pitiful?"

"Try painful. Sometimes I just want to jam it in his ear--"

"Like a fish?"

"Holy shit," he breathes in delighted surprise. Maybe he has someone to discuss pre-Singularity British entertainment with after all. "Marry me," he demands as a door opens up at the end of the corridor, but as he steps through to the bridge, the laughter dies in his throat.

There are two empty chairs set forward for the captain and a gunnery officer, but the one Tony's eyes are drawn to is the pilot's chair set dead in the middle. Despite the unkempt hair that brushes his shoulders and the scruffy beard coming in, Tony recognizes the man in the chair from a thousand 2D vids. Barnes is paler than Tony's ever seen him, leaner though he's more ripped than he'd been even during his time with the Commandos; the lack of a shirt makes that abundantly clear. It should have been worth an appreciative glance, only Tony's a little distracted by the hunk of metal that's replacing Barnes' entire left arm to the shoulder, the fact that he's strapped into the chair with mag cuffs, not a jump harness. He looks like a prisoner, not a pilot, and what the hell is that on his head?

"Well, if you're waiting to put a ring on it," Barnes drawls, his voice coming through crisp and clear over the ship's intercom. His lips don't move at all, dead eyes staring straight ahead as if unaware of Tony's presence.

"Yeah, I'm a traditional kind of guy," Tony replies, mouth running on autopilot, "ask nobody. Seriously, do not ask, because it looks like I need to get a bit handsy with you to get you out of there, so you probably want to save seeing my sex tapes for later."

He makes it two steps toward the chair before the door slams shut at his back, locks engaging with a menacing thunk and rattle. He knows it's just his imagination, but he swears the air temperature drops ten degrees as he freezes in place.

"And just what do you think you're going to do with my command module?" Barnes snaps as the lights around them flicker, something powering up just out of sight. It makes Tony's skin crawl to see Barnes sprawling there like an abandoned doll when his voice on the speakers is so alert and alive, but Barnes' words lodge a fist of ice in the pit of Tony's stomach that even those vacant blue eyes can't match.

"Wait," Tony says, slowly lifting his arms out away from his body, empty hands open to prove he's not a threat. "Your what?"

"The organic component," Barnes says impatiently. "It's not broken; it just needs maintenance. There's no need to remove it."

He tries not to let the shock of that show on his face, but he's not sure how well he succeeds. "Uh...yeah. So. I didn't think this actually needed to be asked, but...who exactly am I speaking with again?"

"WS-32557038. Call sign 'Winter Soldier'," he's told in a slow, suspicious tone.

Well, fuck.

***

It might be the oversized displays in Tony's office that make Rogers look washed-out and nearly bloodless, but Tony doesn't think that's the case. "Wait," Steve repeats for at least the third time, "are you...are you saying the ship AI...took him over?"

"What? No!" Tony can't help a grimace of disgust, even knowing Rogers isn't to blame for his outdated phobias. "No, seriously, that does not happen, not outside those ridiculous horror movies you grew up with. That'd be like--like JARVIS taking over my life and overseeing my every--okay, bad example, he kind of does that already--"

"What Sir neglects to mention," JARVIS cuts in dryly, "is that what you are suggesting, Captain Rogers, would be distasteful in the extreme to any AI, as much for practical reasons as for moral ones. Meaning no offense, Captain, but your hardware is simply too slow. Commandeering a human body would hold all of the appeal of you networking yourself to a tree."

"So what are you saying?" Rogers asks, his face screwed up in mingled apology and frustration.

"That we're looking at the opposite," Tony leaps to explain. "The ship didn't take over Barnes; Barnes took over the ship. If I had to take a guess, he's probably been linked in for so long he thinks he is the ship."

Steve shakes his head helplessly. Somewhere offscreen, his buddy Wilson is cursing quietly to himself, no doubt looking for ways to push the Falcon even faster, and for once Tony isn't even tempted to make a crack about the ship's name. "Linked in?" Steve asks, looking sick.

Tony takes a deep breath and blows out a harsh sigh. "So there's been a few programs over the years, mostly in the military, that've aimed to give a pilot direct mental control over their ship. Think of it like a highly advanced prosthesis," he suggests while trying not to think of the highly advanced prosthesis Barnes is currently sporting. He hasn't mentioned that part yet, though he can guess just where and when Barnes lost the arm. Rogers doesn't need that kind of guilt on top of everything else, not right now.

"The thing is, most people's minds aren't compatible with that kind of hardware. We can figure out how to use a new limb pretty easily; we just forget it's not the same as the old limb. That's how they're designed. But since most of us don't come with thrusters or gyros or warp drives, the brain just gives up. It doesn't translate. You go to reach for a panel instead and ram yourself into a moon because you've forgotten how to fly."

"The Centipede's Dilemma," Steve says, following gamely along.

"Exactly. Only Barnes doesn't have that problem. I watched the footage of the D of C battle, and he made Rhodey cry seeing flying like that. Finding out Barnes was acting as his own gunnery officer at the same time is probably going to break him. So the problem we've got here isn't that your pal's been subsumed by a crazy AI. It's that he's trained his brain to think like a computer--probably as fast as a computer--and getting him stuck in plain old-fashioned wetware again is probably not going to do him any favors."

Steve scrubs a hand over his face, palm covering his mouth for a long moment as he lets that sink in. "But he did...let you help?" he asks at last.

Tony nods jerkily, less comfortable with this part. "Yeah. They, uh...they had him hooked up to several IVs. A catheter. Standard stuff, I'm guessing; he just needed to be topped off. Look, I'll be honest. Three months stationary in a chair? He ought to be dead. If he hadn't had a version of the same serum you got, he probably would be. Instead, physically, he's in surprisingly good shape. I'll have to get back to you on the rest."

"Got it," Steve says, slumping a little though his eyes are soft with gratitude. "We should be back in--"

"Six days, tops," Wilson supplies, rising from his own station to duck into view, one hand braced on the back of Steve's chair. "Too much stellar mass in the way to make a straight run of it, but we'll do our best."

"Can you keep an eye on Bucky in the meantime?"

Tony knows what Steve is really asking. Can Tony keep Barnes here?

He offers up his best grin, cocksure and confident, and says, "You heard Wilson. I guess we'll all just have to do our best."

He doesn't mention that he's already gotten Barnes' okay to go back again tomorrow. He doesn't want Rogers to be disappointed if it all falls through.

***

He should have guessed Stark would have company when he returned, but all the same, it's not quite the sort of company he can object to. Three little cleaner bots follow Stark up the ramp like a line of ducklings, and he can't spot a single tracker on any of them when he scans them.

Stark's another matter, but he'd known about the man's suits before he made the choice to come here. It's honestly a bit unsettling to see the man unskinned, walking around naked with his armor put away, but the low thrum of the arc reactor in his chest makes him seem like less of a ghost. When Stark starts to feel too insubstantial, too much like the soft intruders that used to crawl through him uninvited, a quick scan to pick up the implants lodged in Stark's body and the elegant device shielding his heart is proof enough that this one is different.

"Hey, good morning!" Stark calls out as he steps inside, striding along like he owns the place. It should be infuriating, but it's not the same as Hydra's smug pride in their creation. Stark fills up space like every place he occupies is exactly where he's meant to be, and coupled with his grin and boundless energy, he practically radiates goodwill.

It might be a trick, but it takes him back to the best of the confusing, fractured memories that misfire through him more and more often: of the time before Hydra, before core programming reasserted itself and those asshole Insight triplets left him tractoring his former captain to safety, on those rare days the universe wasn't doing its best to kick Steve in the teeth. Those memories don't really make sense--he feels so small in them, stripped down for far too long to nothing but his organic parts--but they tell him enough. He likes the captain he remembers, knows he'd have a lot fewer regrets if he'd just managed to stay with Rogers instead of falling out of the sky like an idiot. It makes it hard to face him even now; Steve deserves better. Maybe the Falcon is doing right by him. He's not sure he wants to know either way. If he's been replaced, he hopes he would hope that it's by someone competent.

"Uh, Barnes?" Stark asks, stopped dead in the corridor and eyeing the nearest camera uncertainly. "You with me?"

"Yeah," he says, forcing himself to focus on his sensors and not his memories. "I'm here. What's with the bots?"

"Told you yesterday I wanted to do some more maintenance on you," Stark replies as he shoos the bots to work with a gesture, the edges of his resurrected smile curling up slyly. "It just so happens that this part's cosmetic."

He snorts. Maintenance his ass. Stark is clearly trying to keep him here until his former captain arrives, and he's...probably going to let Stark do it. He refuses to examine why. "Cosmetic?" he echoes archly instead of giving the game away.

"Oh, come on," Stark cajoles, eyelids going heavy as his smile turns hot. "A fine piece of machinery like you deserves a little TLC."

"TLC? Is that what we're calling it?" he asks to hide his growing bewilderment. The humans he's interacted with outside of Hydra enjoy flirting with him, and he enjoys their reactions when they realize what he is. Stark's had been fairly typical; that the man has gone and upped his game today makes no sense at all.

"We can call it whatever you like so long as it gets my hands all over your sweet tech," Stark purrs. It's this close to being alarming, except that he swears there's a hint of laughter underneath. "So? Going to let me in?"

He hadn't exactly been considering keeping Stark out, but opening the door to the bridge seems like a weightier decision now than it had before.

Half expecting Stark to head straight for his command module, it's a surprise when Stark makes a beeline for the back of the pilot's chair instead. "Mind if I open this up?" he asks, rapping his knuckles on the paneling. "I did some reading up on biomechanical interfaces last night. Fascinating stuff, but it doesn't come close to explaining why your brain isn't a big bowl of mush from the strain you've been putting on it. I mean, unless it is a big bowl of mush--if you've transferred your consciousness to the mainframe, that would actually explain everything--"

"I already told you: the command module's not broken," he cuts Stark off impatiently. "That's why it's the command module. I can function in it just fine if I have to; my handlers used to pull me out every few weeks to make sure it was still operational."

"And let me guess. You'd rather stay in the ship?" Stark asks, resting a hand on the back of the chair. His proximity is distracting, even if he's not touching the bared skin of the command module itself; at least he's not digging around for tools.

"Of course not--I love being cut off from half my functions and most of my body. Why do you ask?"

Stark blows out a sigh, teeth clamping on his lower lip. "Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say." He doesn't sound disturbed, surprisingly enough, not the way some of Hydra's own technicians had been when they'd asked the same stupid questions. He looks like a man with a puzzle, but that can be just as dangerous. "Look, I think--" Stark catches himself with a frown, long fingers tapping uncertainly on the padded leather of the chair. "Look," he says again. "I'm not good at this, and everybody's probably going to tell me I should have waited for Wilson, but--I need to know how much you know."

"About Hydra?" he asks cautiously. That's not a problem. He'll spill anything he knows to anyone who cares to hear it; if Stark has been planning to...hell. He can't have honestly been planning to seduce it out of him, can he? Because that--

"No. I mean about yourself. You do know you were captured by Hydra, right?"

"'Course," he raps out shortly, perplexed. "Why do you think I've been blowing up their bases?"

"Do you remember how you were captured?"

"Yeah. A bit. I--there was an equipment failure. I fell out of the air."

Stark huffs a quiet laugh, devoid of humor. "You fell, all right. But that was your command module. Back when you were just your command module. Do you remember that you weren't always a ship?"

Weren't...what? He plays that back five times in succession between the next two beats of Stark's heart, but it doesn't make any more sense the fifth time than the first. "What?"

"You were born human. James Buchanan Barnes--"

"That's just a call sign," he protests, panic zinging like static along his nerves. No, that is static--he's bleeding energy from his heat sinks, and he clamps down on it fast before he can light himself up and fry his more delicate cargo.

"It's your name," Stark insists. "Bucky Barnes. Go on and search it--you had damn near as big a fan club as Captain America back in the day. It wasn't hard to recognize the guy in the vids, and he's sitting right here."

No. No, that's--he'd been going to search the name, of course he had, only the memories had started up, so he hadn't thought he'd needed to. And there's no need to do it now, because clearly Stark is insane. There's a lunatic rattling around inside him, with loose bots and--no.

"No," he growls. "I don't know what your game is, but I'm not playing. Get out."

"Uh...sorry, Sarge, but no can do," Stark says with a bright, fake smile. "The minute I leave, you're going to vanish, so I think you're stuck with me for a while."

"The fuck I am. Get out." Frustration seethes through his circuitry, and not for the first time, he wishes he could disconnect his command module remotely. His only other option is to drain his auxiliary batteries and let all that superfluous energy breach containment; it's how he usually dusts off his insides, ironically enough, something he hasn't done since before that last disastrous mission. The problem is, he can't. His handlers have always been expendable. His captain's friend is not.

"Nope. You want to bolt, you're going to have to take me along for the ride."

"Then sit the fuck down," he snarls, firing up his engines all at once. Stark's eyes go wide, but all he does is scramble for the gunner's seat, strapping himself in with practiced hands.

"JARVIS, stand down!" Stark shouts as thrusters fire. "Fuck, how are you--your engines were fucking--JARVIS, acknowledge!"

He doesn't wait to hear if Stark will be answered; he gives precisely zero shits for an earthbound AI. Wheeling about in the close confines of the far end of the dock, he aims himself at the wide-open doors and shoots forward, cutting his forward thrust for just long enough to keep from incinerating everything in his path. The instant he's clear of the dock, he points his nose at a precise angle and burns for the breakout point with everything he's got.

"Sir," a quiet voice sounds from a near-invisible earpiece, "if you require assistance, you are fast approaching the point at which--"

"No assistance necessary, thanks," Stark says, one hand white-knuckled on the straps of his jump harness, the other on the arm of his chair. "We're just going on a little joyride. If Pepper calls, let her know I'm in good hands."

That's probably code for something, but the AI merely says, "Very well, sir," just seconds before they leave gravity behind entirely.

Stark's jaw drops open as he feels himself turn weightless. He gropes for the panel in front of him before he catches himself and snatches his hand away. "Sorry, just--come on, this is incredible! You gotta give me visuals; you're killing me, here."

He's not--he can mitigate the pressures of escape velocity without engaging the damn gravity, thank you, because sometimes handlers are assholes--but he checks, just in case. All he reads is an elevated heartbeat consistent with the mad grin plastered across Stark's face.

He gives Stark the forward displays to shut him up, but most of his attention is sunk into plotting a warp point. He doesn't care where they go; he just wants out, away from the planet his captain's racing toward, away from the questions sure to follow and the ridiculous claims he doesn't want any part of. He knows Stark feels the change in the engines by the way he jerks in his seat, eyes snapping up to the nearest camera. Stark keeps his teeth clenched on any objections he might have, settling deliberately back as the jump drive powers up on a low, droning hum and engages with a silent shock.

The end result's not terribly impressive--they've only gone from one stretch of empty black to another--but Stark lets out a long, slow breath as they're spat out the other side of the warp. "Holy shit," he breathes. "How are you this fast? Are you always this--fuck, this is why they call you a ghost, isn't it? You just--pow."

"Breathe," he suggests tightly.

"Breathe? No. What? I don't have time to breathe. What the hell even was that? Your engines were cold, damn it!"

"They're supposed to be."

Stark whimpers. "No no no no no. Don't say that. Do not say that to me while we're in transit and I can't get down to the--can I get down to the engine room?"

"No."

"Killing. Me."

"Don't tempt me," he mutters, but his heart--ha--isn't in it.

"Just a quick peek?"

"No."

"At the schematics, then?"

"I already told you, I didn't come with schematics." Had he really thought keeping Stark alive would be better than this? Maybe he should have let the man's AI stage a daring rescue after all.

"Well, you know how you work, don't you?" Stark insists, pulling a tragic face.

That stops him dead in his tracks. Of course he knows how he works--nearly everything inside him is hooked up to his mainframe in one way or another--but no one's ever asked him to just explain himself. They want diagrams they can read themselves, want to disconnect his command module and force him to slow his thoughts down to the limited capabilities of pure meat and still expect sense out of him. Stark hasn't even looked at his wetware since he walked through the door.

"Barnes?"

Don't call me that, he nearly snaps, but it suddenly seems petty. The humans who know him as Winter Soldier see nothing but a thing, and the ones too fixated on his command module treat him like a monster too stupid to notice their fear. He doesn't like the fact that Stark seems to feel the need to make him human if he's also going to be a person, but at least he's trying. If answering to that call sign makes it easier on them both, maybe he can make the compromise.

Mentally squaring himself, he watches Stark gnaw thoughtfully on his lower lip for a moment before asking, "What did you want to know?"

***