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Forgive My Stripes

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When they landed in a mess of lips and limbs on Bucky’s bed for the first time, they’d only been dating a couple of weeks. Of course there’d been months of flirting on and off the battlefield and just over a month of Tony rebuffing Bucky’s genuine attempts at starting something more before the dating part began, but that wasn’t something Tony liked to dwell on. Certainly not right now when he finally had Bucky exactly where he’d wanted him for all those months.

Bucky’s mouth tasted of coffee and something that was unique to Bucky but completely addictive, the taste well known to Tony now after long make out sessions on the communal room sofa or down in the workshop these past weeks. Never much further than that though, some groping here and there and one memorable time where they’d been grinding against each other, completely ignoring the movie that was playing, when Steve had walked in and actually swore at them. He had not so politely reminded them both that they have whole floors to themselves with lockout commands for a reason.

Which was why Tony had suggested they take this party to Bucky’s floor. It had been a long time since he’d waited this long at the beginning of a relationship to have sex but Bucky was different. It was why Tony had been so hesitant to accept Bucky’s overtures; if it went wrong, he’d not just lose one of his closest friends but it would mean he’d messed up one of the best relationships of his life. Bucky was the real deal, the head over heels, never forget, never regret love of Tony’s life and he’d lived in fear of ruining any chance of having that for months now. It was ridiculous really, he was so worried about it going wrong, he wouldn’t let a romantic relationship between them start but at the same time, turning Bucky down made him terrified he’d lose the soldier altogether.

He couldn’t help but want it though and finally he’d broken down and said yes when Bucky had asked him on a date to Tony’s favourite burger joint. They went on a Thursday afternoon that went straight on through to Friday evening, the two keeping up conversation with each other through their late lunch and walk through the park, through the movie they went to see, much to the other patrons’ dismay, through their walk back to the tower and late night coffee until they finally kissed for the first time while laid out together on Tony’s sofa. It was when Tony had gone to take off his Guns and Roses shirt that Bucky had gently taken his hands and asked if they could wait, softening the request with a warm kiss and whispered words of sleep and spooning.

Tony hadn’t thought much of it, put it down to old fashioned sensibilities maybe, and settled down into Bucky’s arms, his sofa plenty big enough for the two of them. Their date continued the next day through breakfast and tinkering on one of the old cars together down in the workshop. They’d been in a bubble of happiness (copyrighted by Clint) ever since.

Of course that meant it would all come crashing down around Tony because that was just how his life went.

They were both up on their knees, battling for dominance with their tongues until oxygen was needed and Tony was forced to pull back a little.

“Wow, Jesus.”

“Just Bucky’ll do for you doll,” Bucky chuckle, breathing hard himself.

Not to be outdone, Tony mouthed along Bucky’s jaw up to his ear. “Is that right, James.”

Bucky moaned and pulled Tony back to him, mouths and bodies as close as could be.

It was fantastic, the sweet sounds Bucky was making, the feel of him against his lips, beneath his hands, and then Tony started pushing up Bucky’s top, eager to get his lips and hands on all that beautiful skin.

“Stop,” Bucky said, quiet but firm and Tony did so immediately, catching Bucky’s pale blue eyes and seeing something dark in them. It wasn’t fear though and there was still so much want in them that it urged Tony to speak.

“Bucky, please, I want to see and feel all of you,” after fantasising for so long, he doesn’t add.

“I can’t. The scarring...” His words were sharp and then hesitant but Tony doesn’t pull away, would never pull away from Bucky if he thought he could help.

“You’re gorgeous Buck, perfect. God, I want you so much.”

It was the wrong thing to say though, Bucky’s face scrunching up in anger and his hands clenching into fists where they hung at his sides.

“You’re not listening to me Tony! They’re hideous! Ugly! A mess of blisters and scars and I can’t stand to look at them! How could anyone possibly find that attractive?” Tony stared at his boyfriend with wide eyes full of hurt that Bucky didn’t notice, his head turned away from his lover in what Tony was pained to realise was disgust.

“Let’s just leave it on okay?” Bucky asked, gently unwinding Tony’s fingers from where they’d gripped the hem of his t-shirt so hard that creases were bound to be left behind.

At the touch of Bucky’s fingers though, Tony let go like he’d been burned, jumping off the bed and away from Bucky. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Tony couldn’t think of anything else to say, was moments away from collapsing to his knees and sobbing at the loss of something that he had just started to believe he could really have. He turned away from the other man.

“Tony?”

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. I’m sorry I’m not good enough after all.

He left the bedroom to calls of his name but Bucky didn’t come after him. It was only as the lift doors were closing that Tony looked up and saw Bucky stood frozen outside his bedroom door, heartbreak all over his face.

---

He can’t believe Tony just left, just walked away because he didn’t get what he wanted, throwing a fucking tantrum just like a fucking child.

Bucky had half a mind to storm after him right now but knew they’d only scream and shout and get absolutely nowhere. He was too damn mad to be the reasonable one right now.

There was a small part of Bucky’s brain that was whispering insecurities through his mind. What did you expect Soldier? You told him the truth and he believed you, that’s all. He realised what you’ve always known. You’re ugly, inside and out. Damaged. Unworthy. You have nothing to offer Tony Stark, and he just realised the same thing.

Bucky collapsed onto the bed, drawing his knees up tight as he leant back against the headboard. No. Those things weren’t true. He knew that and Tony sure as hell would never think that about him. He’d let his own insecurities out in a vicious blast but he’d known Tony wouldn’t really care about the scars hadn’t he? The engineer had seen them before for Christ’s sake while doing work on the arm and he’d never batted an eye. Bucky knew he wouldn’t care but then why had he left?

Bucky changed into some old, comfy sweats and crawled under the covers before realising he was an idiot.

What had happened had been all about Bucky, his own thoughts on his own scars and could he really blame Tony for being angry at watching himself hate like that? No, Tony had done the right thing by giving him some space just then. Their first time should be, would be, amazing and loving and hot as hell. Not filled with self disgust and hate. Tomorrow he’ll apologise, tell Tony that it’s his own problem with his arm, more about what the scars represent than how they look anyway, but that maybe Tony can help with that. Maybe seeing that Tony still wants him after he explains how seeing the scars makes him feel will help heal him.

Bucky turned over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. A plan now in place, it was still a while before sleep claimed him.

---

However, the following day Tony never left his workshop.

---

“C’mon Jay! This is bullshit and you know it! I know I was an idiot but I’m here to make it up to him.”

After leaving his boyfriend alone yesterday at his obvious non-verbal request (the workshop in blackout mode and JARVIS fobbing him off when he asked if Tony was coming up for dinner), Bucky had decided enough was enough. Tony had made his point so Bucky had wandered down the stairs to the workshop with some of his Tower famous lasagne from the night before as a peace offering. He’d been hoping to have their serious conversation over lunch before making out for a few hours on the well-worn sofa Tony had moved down there for Steve to lay back and sketch on.

Unfortunately, JARVIS seemed to have taken it upon himself to block Bucky’s access codes.

“I’m sorry Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS started in his coldest voice, making it obvious how not sorry the AI really was, “But it was Sir himself who revoked your access and I am unable to override such a command.”

Bucky almost dropped the plates, his heightened reflexes the only thing that saved them as his ears started to ring and his head went for a swim underwater.

“What?” He choked out. He didn’t- Why would Tony- “Why?”

He didn’t understand, could Tony really be that mad? He hadn’t tried to get in yesterday, just turned around when he saw the opaque windows. Had he been locked this whole time? God, had Tony been waiting for him to push, to prove he was really ready to talk? Yeah, that sounded possible, like something Tony would do.

JARVIS had remained silent, clearly not willing to even try to circumvent his creator’s orders.

“Can you tell him I’m here? That I want to talk, to explain?”

“Sir is already aware that you are here.”

That meant Tony was watching him, that he was choosing to keep Bucky out, to push him away.

Something was really wrong here.

“Tony,” he said, speaking into the camera he knew was hidden in the framework between the glass panels, “Please let me in. We really need to talk, face-to-face.”

Silence answered him.

“I know I have issues Tony and I’m working on them hard, I really am. But you- you’re important Tony and I just let that stuff get the better of me. It wasn’t anything to do with you babe I swear. I don’t know what’s got you hiding but please, let me in. Let me fix it.”

---

On the other side of the glass, Tony wiped away tears no one would see.

---

Bucky had left an hour later after JARVIS had finally admitted that he would only be allowed to enter in the case of an emergency or a call to assemble. He’d spent the following two days alternately trying to convince Tony and JARVIS to let him in. He’d spent the three days after that trying to sneak and then force his way in, all to no avail. His teammates’ looks of concern and offers to talk had gone as ignored as Bucky’s failed attempts to gain access to Tony.

Right now he’d decided to take a timeout, let loose on some punch bags instead of the walls of the tower that would yield to his metal arm and knock off super serum. Damn Hulk proof glass.

He’d managed to get up a good sweat, his flesh and bone knuckles sore without the straps he’d usually wear. The serum would heal him soon enough, right now though he wanted to feel it.

“That bag done something to offend you?”

The voice from behind wasn’t so much a surprise as an inevitability. To be honest, Bucky was surprised he’d avoided this chat for as long as he had. Not that he’d done it on purpose, his response was also a foregone conclusion.

“It’s none of your business Steve, so fuck off.”

“Now is that any way to talk to an old friend? I dare say your best friend?” Steve walked around to hold the bag for him, looking comfortable in his blue jeans and white shirt, the latter pulling tight across his chest as always. It still surprised him to see Steve so built but it wasn’t like Bucky didn’t have his own muscles. The confidence though, that had always been there.

“‘Course you’re my best friend idiot, if that ain’t changed in almost a century I doubt it’s gonna be any different now.”

Bucky let loose a few punches, not full power but enough to let Steve feel his frustration at the continuing conversation.

“Well we used to tell each other everything and yet you’ve been either moping or storming around the tower all week without muttering a word to me or anyone else for that matter,” Steve laid it on thick, with the puppy eyes in full force too but Bucky had a hell of a lot of experience ignoring those.

“Aww c’mon Buck, maybe I can help?”

“Unless you wanna take the place of this punching bag, I ain’t got no use for you right now, punk.”

The grin he received was pure sass and so familiar Bucky’s chest was caught in a vice for a few seconds. Of course that meant he knew what was coming before Steve even got a word out.

“Actually, I was hoping you’d say that. C’mon over to the ring, Buck, and we’ll go a few rounds.” Steve walked off to the lockers and grabbed some sweats to change into, not looking back to see if Bucky was following his instructions.

Bucky stared at the punk’s back. He really didn’t want to hear Steve berate him for putting himself down when he’d been so proud the other day after speaking briefly with Bucky’s therapist when he came to meet him after a session. He’d yet to decide if he wished he’d had an appointment over the last few days or not. Probably not. He’d fix things with Tony first and then think about himself.

Since he hadn’t managed that so far he thought it might be worth the lecture for some advice, not that he was going to make it easy for Steve after the fellow super soldier had cornered him in the gym like this.

He caught the bag after a particularly hard swing and walked over to the bench he’d dumped his stuff on, guzzling down a bottle of water as he towelled the sweat off his face and neck. His shirt was soaked through so after a second’s hesitation, he took it off and left it behind on the bench. Steve would only tell him to stop being stupid and take it off anyway, the scars a non-issue between the two of them after spending so many years closer than brothers, before and after their time jump. He made his way over to the adjoining mats they’d dubbed “the ring”. Tony kept offering to build them a proper boxer’s ring but Steve had vetoed the idea, claiming that most of the Avengers would be too tempted to take advantage and use the ring more to carry out wrestling moves than actual fight training, Clint and Thor being the most upset which only proved their Captain’s point.

“Alright then, let’s see how many times you can immobilise me. And no head shots,” Steve added as he took a position opposite Bucky. It was easy now to fall into their old dynamic, half remembered and half instinctual on Bucky’s part but it no longer infuriated him as it once had, when he’d still been more Winter Soldier than James Barnes and the way they fell into sync with each other was regarded as a weakness instead of a strength.

“Well there goes my plan to shut you up,” Bucky joked but the words were only meant to distract Steve while he went to land the first punch, his metal arm gleaming under the lights. Steve blocked and they traded deflected blows until Steve managed to grab him and throw him to the mat.

Blue eyes looked down at him. “So is Tony just being Tony or have you done something stupid?”

Bucky propelled himself to his feet, taking out Steve’s from beneath him as soon as he’d landed, following the man down to the ground. “Tony didn’t like the way I was talkin’ ‘bout myself that’s all,” Bucky ground out as they grappled for dominance.

Steve frowned but stuck to the problem at hand. “If that’s all, then why has nobody seen him in a week?”

Bucky locked him down and Steve smacked the mat. Point. He pushed up off his friend but circled the mats and fisted his hair as he left Steve to get up by himself.

“I just don’t get it Stevie,” Bucky burst out, spinning to face Steve whose surprise was obvious at the anguish that was plain to hear in his voice, “Even as I said it I knew Tony was going to tear me a new one but he just shut down.” Steve frowned. “He apologised for fuck knows what and then left.”

“What the hell did you say to him Buck?”

Steve sounded outraged and it served to hammer home how strange Tony’s reaction really was. The man never backed down from a fight, whether it was regarding the demands of his company’s board of directors or whose turn it was to pick the snacks on movie night! Tony relished the chance to engage in a battle of wits. The realisation turned him defensive, he hadn’t actually done anything wrong except voice his own feelings about his own self for God’s sake.

“Nothing! I just let my insecurities get the better of me, that’s it. I have no idea what’s going on in his head right now.”

One look at Steve’s face though and he was beginning to get the feeling that his best friend did.

“What exactly happened between you two before he walked out? Play by play, exact words if you can remember them.”

So Bucky fills him in, tells him how once they’d made it to the bedroom and onto the bed Tony had gone to take Bucky’s top off and he’d gone to stop him gently, not wanting to kill the mood for either of them with his scars, but Tony wouldn’t let it go and he’d snapped a little.

“I didn’t even really mean it Steve, I’ve been getting better, more accepting of myself but this is just so new and it matters and I just-”

What did you say to him?” Steve cut in sharply, almost shouting.

“I told him my scars are ugly. Hideous, I think I said. Disgusting maybe. I don’t know, I wasn’t really focused on vocabulary just then.” Bucky broke eye contact as he took a slow breath, ashamed of the next bit most of all but it wasn’t like Steve hadn’t heard him say it before, hadn’t held him as he’d recovered, as he’d fought the urge to rip the hunk of metal from his body and throw it from the roof of the tower. The fact that it would hardly cause a dent to the appendage was worryingly the greatest reason he hadn’t actually done it. “I said I couldn’t stand to look at it, asked how anyone could find it attractive.”

Once again, the reaction he got was not the one he was expecting.

“How could you say something so cruel Bucky?” Steve was definitely shouting now. He grabbed Bucky by the shoulders and squeezed almost to the point of pain, like what he actually wanted to do was shake Bucky hard. “I don’t care if you were talking about yourself,” Steve continued, pushing Bucky away hard enough for him to take a step back for balance, “You must have known how Tony would hear something like that, especially coming from you!” The Captain looked like he just wanted to straight out punch him now and wasn’t entirely sure why Bucky wasn’t already laid flat out on the ground.

“Wait, what?”

“Tony’s self-conscious about his scars as it is Bucky, and then you practically tell him you find scars repulsive! Of course he’s going to run away from you!” Steve says incredulously, waving his hands around like the genius himself.

Absolute, unadulterated fear spasmed through Bucky’s body like electricity, paralyzing in its intensity and as sudden as lightning.

“What do you mean Tony’s scars?” Bucky choked out, terror making his chest tight and his hands shake.

He felt lost as he watched realisation dawn on Steve’s face before horror swiftly followed it.

“Oh God, Bucky.”

Steve caught him as his knees gave out and brought them both down safely to the floor.

“You didn’t know?” Steve asked although the answer was obvious. Bucky managed to shake his head against Steve’s shoulder, the other super soldier’s hand a grounding presence on the back of his neck. “Even when Tony had the arc reactor, the skin around it was far from unmarred, it was an angry red on the good days, covered in welts and sores on the bad ones.” Bucky could only think of the pain of his own shoulder, before Tony had built him a better version that pulled on his flesh, muscles and tendons a hell of a lot less. “I only know that because Tony collapsed once with an infection and JARVIS’ programming allowed him to override Tony’s privacy instructions in order to save his life. JARVIS informed me that I was Tony’s first emergency contact, so to speak, after Miss Potts had requested Tony find a replacement for her. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how she once had to connect a new arc reactor into Tony and he almost died.”

Bucky managed to get his breathing under control as Steve spoke and leaned away from him so he could watch Steve’s expressions as his friend continued.

“After Tony decided to have the arc reactor removed, it took months of healing both in mind and body before he could even bear to have Pepper near him and there’s no doubt in my mind that Tony still wonders if the pattern of raised white lines spanning most of his chest are part of the reason she left him. He knows better I’m sure, Pepper would never allow him to think that for a second, but he still wonders. It took a year for any of the team to see him shirtless again and if Tony hadn’t gotten himself injured on the battlefield who knows how long it would have taken.”

“And after all that, his boyfriend goes and tells him he hates scars. You’re right, of course Tony is going to think I’ll apply the same feelings to his scars. He’s hiding himself, protecting himself from me. Fuck Steve, what have I done?”

“You didn’t know.”

“Like that’s a fucking excuse?! I’m his boyfriend Stevie, I knew about the reactor and was just too self absorbed to realise that Tony would have scars from that. Do you know how long it took me to get him to give me a chance after Pepper so thoroughly broke his heart? I’ve practically thrown that trust back in his face now haven’t I?”

“Talk to him Buck, explain to him that you’re an insecure, self absorbed asshole sometimes.” Bucky punched Steve in the shoulder but Steve just ignored him. “You’re two peas in a pod on that front.”

“Hey now, only I get to call him an asshole.”

Steve shook his head but a smile was trying to break though.

“He’ll forgive you Bucky. He wants it to work between the two of you just as much as you do.”

“There’s only one problem with all that though, Tony has the workshop on lockdown and JARVIS is playing guard dog perfectly and with no short amount of vigour. I’m guessing Tony’s been callin’ me in there and his prodigal son has made it his mission to protect him from more harm.”

“C’mon, you can’t tell me that the great Bucky Barnes, Howling Commando and ex-assassin, can’t find a way to get into one mechanical engineer’s workshop.”

Bucky thought through all the measures he’d already taken to do just that and quickly discovered a glaring hole in his methods. Smacking himself on the forehead and running a hand down his face, half in embarrassment and half in exasperation, he said, “I’m going to need your help.”

-----

Tony was pacing the workshop, doing his best to not trip over Dum-E who seemed to be making it his life’s mission to run over Tony’s feet under the guise of offering support. He’d long since stopped the heavy bass music, preferring the whirring sound of his bots moving around and Dum-E’s soft beeps of sympathy as his mood steadily changed from anger to confusion to sadness.

At first Tony had thought Bucky was being cruel but that only lasted until he got over the shock of it and remembered that Bucky would never be so callous. No, he’d aimed all that hatred and disgust at himself but if that was how he felt about his own scars, no wonder he’d never tried to undress Tony, had stopped Tony from doing so himself during their first date. It felt like a long time ago now. He’d thought the super soldier was being gentle, respectful, but Bucky mustn’t have wanted to be turned off, more than happy to leave his own shirt on in exchange since he had the same issue with his own scars. There had been a moment where Tony had thought that he could live with that, to have Bucky under his hands and lips again, to banter and flirt and watch films and snuggle together again, but that wouldn’t have been fair to either of them and Tony had regained enough self worth over the last couple of years that he could see that.

Then Bucky had come down to the workshop on the second day of lockdown and Tony realised the other man had no clue at all why Tony was avoiding him, why he’d reacted to Bucky’s words the way he had. The only explanation of course was that Bucky didn’t know about Tony’s scars, however unlikely that seemed when they lived in a tower full of busy body spies.

There was no moment of possibility this time, Tony had long since learned not to get his hopes up and it was easy to fall back into that mindset; a few weeks of happiness couldn’t erase a lifetime of experience after all. Instead he realised straight away that it didn’t matter, that even if his boyfriend didn’t know, if Bucky had such a reaction to his own scars, hideous, ugly, then Tony knew exactly how he would react to Tony’s scars when he did find out about them. He couldn’t stand the thought of that kind of rejection after opening his heart to the soldier.

At that moment, Tony decided to save them both the heartache and just stop this now.

Unfortunately Bucky still didn’t seem to be getting the message after just over a week of Tony’s self enforced isolation, since Tony was nowhere near strong enough to put his decision into words, to actually tell Bucky it was over.

And so he paced. And tinkered. And shouted. And cried a little. He even slept occasionally on his beaten up sofa and ate what little there was in his fridge and then got by on his stashed power bars once that was empty.

“Sir,” JARVIS’ voice filtered in through the speakers, interrupting Tony’s thoughts on a possible foraging mission to the kitchen, “Captain Rogers is requesting entry.”

“You know what to do, Jay.”

“He asks what kind of glass the windows are made of.”

Tony frowned at the windows in question and asked JARVIS to put him through.

“Don’t you dare Rogers.”

“I know Bucky’s arm didn’t make a dent but I’m stronger, and the shield is 100% solid vibranium.”

Tony sighed. Bull-headed centurions.

“I’m on my own Tony.”

“I can see that.” JARVIS had opened the security feed when he’d opened the comm channel and looking over, Tony could see that the Captain wasn’t lying. “You’re still not coming in though.”

“You don’t even know why I’m here.”

“If it was an emergency, you’d have your Cap face on instead of your Steve face.”

Steve chuckled and Tony smiled for the first time in a week at the familiar camaraderie.

“He’s hurting too you know,” Steve said quietly after the laughter had died out.

“You told him then?”

“You realised he didn’t know?” Tony left the question unanswered. “Well after finally managing to get him to talk about what happened, yeah, I told him. He needed to know. If you figured out he didn’t know about your scars then why are you still hiding in there?”

“Because it doesn’t matter,” Tony said calmly.

“Of course it matters! Bucky can be an idiot but you and I both know he’d never have said that if he’d known.”

Tony was so tired, he was trying to do the right thing here damn it! Bucky wouldn’t have to feel guilty about breaking up with Tony once he’d seen the fallout of the arc reactor and Tony wouldn’t have to live in fear of that moment.

“Why are you here Steve?” Tony sighs, sounding more defeated than he’d intended to.

“I may have understated Bucky’s mood just now,” Steve winced.

Tony slammed his hand down on the emergency release for blackout mode a split second before his mouth gave the same order to JARVIS, his body moving faster than his mouth for once. The second he had the door open, he latched a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“What’s happened?”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face. “Nothing yet, but since we talked a couple days ago, he hasn’t left his room, refuses to let me in, refuses to come out for meals. I’m really worried about him Tony, he can’t afford to isolate himself like this.”

“Like I can you mean.”

“You know I don’t agree with your marathon inventing sessions Tony, so don’t start with that load of crap, you won’t draw me into your pity party so easily.”

“You’re blaming me for all this?” Tony couldn’t help the retort, defence was his default setting when he was feeling as raw as he was right now.

Steve actually had the nerve to roll his eyes. Bucky was clearly a bad influence on the good Captain.

“No, I’m not. But Bucky’s ignorance shouldn’t mean he loses all the ground he’s gained since coming to the tower. I’m not saying that’s your fault Tony, I’m just telling you that Bucky’s feeling pretty awful about all this and you can do something about that.”

“Enough Steve, I’ll go see him. He deserves that, I owe him that.” Steve was watching him, waiting for what Tony wasn’t sure. “I can’t- This isn’t going to have the ending you’re hoping for. I’m left to do the difficult thing here, and like always, I’m going to come out the monster.” Tony squeezed the hard muscle beneath his hand before letting go and turning towards the elevator. “Just remember that I’m doing this to protect him and me both, okay? I love him Steve. Whether I end it now or wait for Bucky to end it, this was always going to hurt me more.”

Tony didn’t look back as he entered the lift and Steve remained silent.