The Winter Soldier slipped in silently through an access door, senses alert for any indication that security had been breached. Unsettlingly, nothing happened. The Soldier ghosted through hallways, avoiding the nighttime cleaning crew and cameras alike. He found the Tower’s security room and found it empty. Most of the systems were offline. He bared his teeth in an expression that was almost a smile. That fit him these days. Almost. He was almost the Asset, almost Bucky Barnes, hovering somewhere on the edge between the two, almost broken, almost sane. Right now, though, he had a mission.
He ran up the emergency stairs, super soldier body pushing him up floor after floor, and picked the lock to the penthouse. A quick sweep of the floor told him the man he was looking for wasn’t there. Frustration built up in the back of his throat, and the Soldier dropped several floors back down, boots light as he landed, going for the next most likely place. His shoulder grated with every movement, sending searing pain through the mechanical arm. It was still functional, mostly. He hadn’t been able to rotate it fully to check, the agony whiting out his vision before he got to the top.
The Soldier stepped into the workshop, taking it in at a glance. The room was in disarray, broken glass and twisted metal scattered over everything. Pieces of paper lay among the remains of abandoned projects. A single computer was on, holographic display showing a decayed sphere of code in flickering orange light. In the middle of it all, Tony Stark was collapsed face down on the floor, a bottle of amber liquid tipped over beside him. Clustered around him were three robotic arms that were all waving themselves in a manner that could only be called agitated, prodding at their unresponsive creator and making distressed beeping noises. When the Winter Soldier strode forward, they crowded in front of him, beeping louder, blocking his attempts to get to the engineer on the floor. He tried to push them away, shoving at the appendages holding him back, but they stubbornly continued to impede his movements.
He could feel anger climbing up his chest, throbbing with the pain in his arm. He gritted his teeth, shoving harder, making his shoulder scream. The bot in the middle was the most aggressive, and he focused on that one, trying to get around it. The way it beeped and whirred at him had a cadence, almost a chittering sort of nonsensical speech that nonetheless held something like urgency, and fear. It wanted to protect its creator. Well, the Soldier needed Tony Stark alive too. He had lived so long inside walls of silence that sometimes just remembering he could speak took effort, but fuck this, he was better than a robotic arm.
“I’m trying to help!”
The words burst out, an expression of emotion that took them both by surprise. The bots stilled, and Bucky found himself suddenly breathing hard. Then the lead arm rotated its claw, twisting it first one way and then the other, and he got the feeling it was looking at him. Finally it retreated, going back to nudge Stark in the arm. The other two arms followed suit, trailing after him as the Soldier came to kneel in front of the engineer.
Stark made incoherent mumbling noises when the Soldier shifted him, checking pulse and breath against clammy skin. Not dead yet, then. That was good. That was about the only good thing right now. He picked up the bottle from its small puddle on the floor and held it up. It was whiskey, or it had been. About an inch of the amber liquid remained, and the Soldier turned to the robot hovering over his shoulder. “DUM-E” it said along the base in white lettering.
“How much was in here when he started?” It was easier, he found, to stay outside walls that were already broken than to try to break through after they’d built up again. “Half the bottle?”
DUM-E waved its claw vertically in a gesture that was obviously a nod.
“He eat anything?”
This time it was a horizontal side-to-side motion. No.
Bucky let out a long breath. He had not thought this was going to be easy, but neither had he anticipated having this particular difficulty. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he got his arms around the unconscious engineer’s torso, pulling him up. Stark made it about three inches off the floor before he vomited, flooding the Soldier’s nose with the stink of alcohol and bile.
He grimaced and then vaguely surprised himself by muttering, “You’re cleaning this up tomorrow.”
Bucky wrestled Stark into something that approximated a sitting position and then hoisted him onto his back, letting his head hang limply over his shoulder. “Don’t you dare throw up on me,” he told the man, not expecting a reply, or any sort of compliance really. It was strange. For so long, silence had been right, had been safe. Speech had been an effort, and rarely worthwhile. More often than not it had meant pain. Now he found himself reaching for it, grasping at it in an attempt to escape the suffocation of his silence, to keep from being trapped in the bone prison of himself. It was probably a good thing, if he thought about it, but he still felt uncomfortably exposed. Even if, so far, his audience consisted of three robots and guy who was currently blackout drunk.
The Soldier carried Stark swiftly back up the emergency stairwell to the penthouse and into the bathroom he’d located earlier, contemplating how to force the man to vomit again. Stark’s gag reflex was probably shot by now, but he needed to get the alcohol out of his system. As it turned out, the Soldier didn’t need to do anything because as soon as he’d propped the engineer over the toilet, he retched and heaved again, the motion of being carried apparently enough to induce nausea. This time it smelled mostly like bile, and Bucky wrinkled his nose as he leaned over to flush the toilet. He watched as Stark sighed and sagged down to rest his forehead on the porcelain bowl, some level of consciousness swimming to the surface. Finally Stark seemed to realize that this was not where he’d started the evening and pried bleary eyes open to look around. Unfortunately, in his drunken uncoordinated state, looking around involved his whole body, and as he turned to see his unlikely savior, he toppled over onto his side, knocking against the wall.
“Wha—?” Tony’s mouth tasted fuzzy and gross, and his head felt like it was slowly stretching out to one side. He squinted, trying to pull it back into more of a normal head-shaped feeling, blinking at the man standing in his bathroom staring down at him. His long hair fell over an unreadable expression, and he was wearing a dark uniform that left one arm bare. One metal arm. One metal arm with a red star at the shoulder. Oh. “You’re the—the whasit called, the Winter Soldier, yeah?”
“Uh huh. Come on. Up.” Bucky pulled Stark to his feet, grip unrelenting as he flailed and swayed bonelessly. He tipped forward and grabbed at the metal arm for support, and Bucky was suddenly too exhausted to suppress the flinch at the pain that shot up his shoulder. He half-dragged, half-carried Stark into the kitchen, setting him on a chair before going back and pulling the comforter from the bed and dumping it around his shoulders.
“Why’re you here?”
Bucky didn’t answer, just set a glass of water on the table. “Drink this.”
Stark peered at him. “You tryna kill me?” he asked, taking the glass anyway.
“No.” The refrigerator was mostly empty, so Bucky started going through the kitchen cabinets instead, ruthless efficiency making up for the minimal use of his left hand. It occurred to him to wonder how he knew what to do. Probably it had been relevant to some mission. Or maybe during the war… That gave him a second’s pause. Finally he found a can of soup on the back of some shelf and pulled it out.
Tony finished his drink and was given another with the same terse instruction. He nursed his water and watched as the Winter Soldier moved around his kitchen microwaving some soup he hadn’t even known he’d had, trying to decide if he was hallucinating. He was warm, and his brain felt like molasses, and really he just wanted to sleep. He slumped forward, putting his head on the table. “Shit, ’m drunk.”
“Uh huh. Eat.”
Tony dragged himself up as the bowl of soup was deposited by his head and a spoon was shoved at him. He fumbled the silverware and nearly stuck his face in the steaming liquid, but managed to get most of it in his mouth and keep it down despite the waves of nausea. Then he put his head back on the table and let the world go black for a while.
When the engineer had passed out, Bucky sat himself on the chair across from him, watching his breathing to make sure it didn’t stop. He didn’t move Stark from the table. He needed the man alive, not comfortable. Stark had gotten himself into this mess, he could deal with the consequences, and anyway Bucky didn’t have the energy to ignore his shoulder anymore. The morning was still hours away, but the Winter Soldier had remained motionless for more than that, had gone without sleep for even longer. He slipped easily into a state of suspended time, body and mind still, every detail of the environment passing into and through his focus over the ever-present backdrop of pain. He waited, and watched.
Tony woke up and immediately made a noise of abject misery. His head was pounding, everything hurt, the light was piercingly bright even through closed eyes, and he really needed to piss. He opened his mouth to ask JARVIS to dim the lights or something and then stopped, gut twisting. JARVIS was gone. As were the Avengers, and Pepper. Pepper…Pepper had finally told him she couldn’t do it anymore and gone off to Malibu with no word of when she would be back. If she was coming back at all. Tony had managed to hold it together for the few weeks it had taken to set up the New Avengers Facility and get everyone moved out of the Tower, occupying himself with cleaning up the penthouse in between. And then he had been left alone with a demolished workshop he hadn’t set foot in for almost a month, until last night. Which explained how absolutely shitty he was feeling right at the moment.
He cracked open one eye with a grimace and found himself in the kitchen engulfed in the comforter from the bed. That was a new one, even for him. Tony slid off his chair and shuffled into the bedroom, letting the comforter drop to the floor inside the doorway on his way to the bathroom where he promptly vomited, and then relieved himself, found some aspirin, stripped out of his grimy clothes from the day before and took a long shower. When he got out he felt marginally better, and made his way back to the kitchen to make coffee. While it was percolating he rummaged for food and came up with a box of frozen waffles. That was probably Pepper’s doing, worrying about his wellbeing even as she left him. He stuck two in the toaster, wondering if there was a point to installing AIs in kitchen appliances. By the time they were done, he had half a cup of coffee in him and was just beginning to be able to contemplate the absolute aching emptiness of the day ahead, which was pretty much the last thing he wanted to be doing. He took a bite of cheap toaster waffle instead, and then nearly choked on it as he turned around because the Winter Soldier was sitting at his kitchen table watching him.
For a moment they just stared at each other, and Bucky had a flash of panic because shit, the silence. His shoulder was a constant, insistent throb now though, washing over everything else, and that made it easier to start somehow. “I’m not picking you up off the floor again,” he told Stark, as the man continued to look at him in shock.
It took him a second to process that, and then he put down his waffle to run a hand through his hair and say, “O-kay. Okay, so. The Winter Soldier is sitting in my kitchen, telling me he was responsible for making sure I didn’t drink myself to death last night—” Tony had a vague recollection of being made to eat something, “—which, I guess, thanks are in order for, but this either means I’ve finally gone off the deep end, or, since you haven’t taken advantage of the many opportunities I’m sure there’ve been to abduct or kill me, you’re closer to being James Barnes than you seem. Why are you here?”
Stark was shrewder than his public persona would imply, and Bucky was glad he didn’t have to waste any words on this. “My arm is broken.”
“And you need me to fix it.”
It wasn’t a question, but Bucky nodded anyway, a single, sharp motion.
“Well. Can it wait until after coffee? Because I’ve got a hell of a hangover and I really need coffee to deal with this.” As if to prove his point, he took a sip out of the mug he was still holding.
Stark raised his eyebrows over the lip of his cup, waiting.
“Don’t tell Steve.” It was true that seeing Steve again had triggered the cascade of memory and emotion that led to Bucky’s current state of not-quite-Winter Soldier, not-quite-James Barnes, but he didn’t think he could face the man again. Not now that he had an idea of who he used to be, and what he’d been to Steve. He was nowhere close to that now, and he couldn’t bear the thought of Steve knowing just how far he still was, more than a year later.
“Sure,” Stark said, and a little knot of anxiety dropped away. “Oh, do you want coffee? A toaster waffle?”
Bucky nodded mutely, but the silence this time was less oppressive weight and more dumbfounded gratitude. In the space of a few minutes, Tony Stark had registered the presence of a trained assassin and former HYDRA asset in his kitchen, agreed to both demand and condition of secrecy without a second thought, and then offered him food. The man was either very smart or incredibly stupid.
Stark finished his coffee, refilled his cup and poured one for Bucky, and stuck two more waffles in the toaster. Then he sat down across the table with his own waffles, eyes running over Bucky’s metal arm as he ate. Bucky tried to ignore the staring, focusing on his coffee instead, which was stronger and more pungent than he remembered coffee ever being. Then again, his last memory of coffee was from World War Two, and it wasn’t so much a memory as the knowledge that he must have had it. His waffles popped and Stark handed them to him, going through a third and a fourth cup of coffee as he watched Bucky eat in a strange reversal of the previous night. Neither of them said anything, except for a single question asked by Stark as he handed over the food.
“Does it hurt?” They both knew he was asking about the arm.
When Bucky had finished his food, Stark disappeared into another room and came back with a toolkit.
“You, uh, probably saw the state of my workshop at the moment. Since I’m not seeing any external damage to your arm, hopefully we can do this right here, if that’s okay?”
Bucky nodded, then grit his teeth and dropped his left arm on the table, the flare of pain too much to keep it from clunking down with a complete lack of grace or subtlety. Stark pulled up the other chair without comment, sitting sideways on it as he opened his kit.
“Is there a specific place it hurts, or…?”
“Shoulder,” Bucky managed, waving his flesh hand at the red star.
Stark nodded, then said, “I might want to open the plating down to your elbow to see the full articulation pattern, since I’m not familiar with the tech. Would that be okay?” Tony watched the Soldier’s face, waiting for permission. He didn’t know what had been involved in HYDRA’s maintenance sessions, but he was willing to bet it wasn’t anything pleasant and he didn’t want to trigger anything. Hopefully, sitting at the kitchen table rather than a workshop full of machinery would also help with that.
“Well, then. May I?” Stark gestured at the arm and Bucky nodded, watching as the engineer turned his attention to opening up the plating. It was disconcerting to see the top of his arm slowly coming apart to reveal the mechanical components inside, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away. From what few hazy memories he had, HYDRA had worked on it while he was being prepped for cryo, which meant restraints and sedation so he couldn’t fight the creeping cold or the hands holding him down. It also meant he’d never actually seen anyone take the bionic arm apart before. Watching it now should have been unsettling or painful, but it wasn’t.
Stark’s hands were graceful and efficient, giving little indication that he had no prior experience with HYDRA’s creation. Bucky found his eyes drawn to the man’s face, studying the complex expression that had settled there. He was obviously fighting the effects the previous night had left in its wake, so there was discomfort, and stubborn determination, but there was also excitement and an intense interest, and beneath that there was something... Bucky stared, not bothering to moderate the intensity of his gaze, however much of that was making it through the pain. When he’d first come back to himself, the arm had been repellent, seemingly coated in blood no matter how bright the metal shone. Since then he’d learned to accept its presence, tolerate it for its usefulness in having two hands instead of one. Never had he thought of it with anything approaching the reverence he found in Stark’s expression.
The entirety of the red star had disappeared by the time Tony found what was likely the problem. A wire had gotten trapped underneath another component, the insulation stripped where the arm’s movement would press it against a sharp edge. It was, essentially, a pinched nerve, and Tony almost laughed. Delicately, he pulled it out from underneath the other component, which looked to be a battery of some kind. An old, deteriorating battery of some kind. Tony forced himself not to poke it and also to tamp down on his disappointment at not getting to open up the arm all the way as he stuck some electrical tape around the break in the wire. As fascinating as it was, it was the man’s arm, and messing around with its innards for longer than strictly necessary would probably not be appreciated. He glanced up only to find penetrating blue eyes staring back, and Tony found himself involuntarily flinching away. Immediately the gaze was shuttered, leaving Tony to find his voice again.
“How’s that? Does it still hurt?”
“No.” The pain had gone like the lifting of a weight, and Bucky could hear the change in his voice. Though it remained neutral, the sullen monotone of the Winter Soldier had retreated, the coping mechanism no longer needed.
Stark nodded in satisfaction, then began closing up the plating, Bucky watching as his arm slowly transitioned from being an intricate piece of machinery to being simply his arm again. He waited as Stark put away his tools and then fidgeted a bit, looking like he wanted to say something.
“So, uh, it looks like your power system is degrading. It probably wasn’t meant to go for this long without maintenance. If…if you wanted, I could do an upgrade, make it basically self-sustaining—you wouldn’t have to have anyone messing with your arm on the regular. At least, not because of the power source, anyway. The rest of the arm, well. It’s an exceptional piece of technology—HYDRA must have had a real genius, though I feel kinda bad admitting that—but they were obviously hindered by the times and I could do so much better—that is, um, if you wanted.” Stark trailed off self-consciously as Bucky regarded him, eyebrows raised faintly, amused despite himself. When he didn’t respond, the engineer looked away sheepishly and said, “Just, um, consider it, okay?”
A look of surprise crossed his face when Bucky actually said, “Okay.”
“Um, great. Okay. Well, then.” Tony hastily picked up his toolkit, needing something to cover the sudden awkwardness. He went to go put it away, and when he walked back into the kitchen, it was empty. Tony sighed. Somehow, he didn’t find that at all surprising.
Bucky stood in front of the dusty mirror in the abandoned apartment in Brooklyn he was inhabiting for the time being. That was right, he thought. He felt like Bucky. Maybe not the same James Buchanan Barnes who had marched off to war, but still some version of Bucky. It felt right to hold on to the name. Steve had called him that. He frowned, trying to remember if he’d felt like this before his arm was broken, before the constant pain had made him retreat into the Winter Soldier. Maybe, though it was hard to be sure. He felt unbalanced, like his left shoulder was perpetually rising above the other, which said something about how long he’d been compensating. So it might have had to do with the relief, or maybe it had to do with the talking. Before the somewhat baffling interaction with Tony Stark two days ago, the last time he had spoken had been to Steve, on the helicarrier, screaming in desperation and confusion as memories and mission warred in his head.
The face in the mirror crumpled momentarily, and it took Bucky a moment to remember that, yes, that was him. This was who he was now: shoulder-length hair, clean-shaven—he’d nicked a razor that afternoon and discovered he remembered how to use it—a left arm made of metal emblazoned with a red star, a scattering of scars across the rest of his body, and a haunted look around his eyes. Inside he was a jumble of memories from his lives as HYDRA’s Asset, as Sergeant Barnes of the Howling Commandos and the 107th, as just plain Bucky running around the streets of Brooklyn with a skinny little kid named Steve. There wasn’t much from that last one, so what he had he cherished. All his memories of Steve after he’d gotten the serum and became Captain America had been poisoned, twisted by the kill order that was still lurking somewhere in the back of his mind.
Bucky sighed. He couldn’t see Steve, he knew that. Instead he pulled on the clothing he’d stolen, now grimy and torn from a year on the run, and went to double-check what he already knew to be true. Baron von Strucker’s base in Sokovia had been the last of HYDRA’s strongholds; there would still be small cells of operatives across the world, but by himself Bucky had no hope of tracking them down. There was nothing left for him to do, and nowhere in particular he wanted to go. He shoved the battered computer he’d been using to access HYDRA’s files into the backpack with his uniform and shrugged into a sweatshirt despite the early-June heat. Then he swept the apartment clean of any traces of his presence and left by the fire escape.
This time when Bucky stepped into the workshop in Avengers Tower the room had been repaired and wrangled into some form of organized chaos. Stark was standing with his back to the stairs, body practically humming with tension as he stared down a computer. Its display was off, but it had been the one showing the orange code-sphere. Bucky let the door to the emergency stairwell creak closed behind him and Stark jumped, whirling around. There was a flash of panic across his face, followed by surprise and then delight.
“Hey!” Stark grinned at him and Bucky blinked. “You came back.”
They didn’t get any farther than that because DUM-E and his friends careened over to cluster around Bucky, unable to keep themselves still and reminding him of overeager dogs. Bucky reached out to pat them, a small smile on his face at the comparison. Tony used the moment to take in the lack of black leather, the sweatshirt covering the metal arm, the backpack slung over both shoulders. He was clean-shaven and Tony had to admit that his face cleaned up rather well when not clouded by pain and brainwashing. The clothes could use some work, though. But that might possibly be remedied, since this particular appearance did not give off the impression of a menacing assassin liable to disappear the moment one’s back was turned. This particular appearance made him look like a man who’d been living rough for a long time, who’d had more than his fair share of life’s hardships…and who was currently being enthusiastically greeted by three robotic arms of moderate intelligence.
“Wow. I don’t think they’ve ever done that to a stranger before.”
Bucky glanced up. “I saved your life. They were worried about you.”
Stark looked appropriately chagrined. “I guess they were. Thanks, again, for that.”
Bucky shrugged. “You were lucky. Also, I hope you know your security’s shit, Stark.”
“Tony, please,” he said automatically. “And the reason it’s shit is because most of it is nonexistent at the moment. I was—” The rest of the sentence was lost in a sigh. “Well, I was about to fix it, and then I didn’t. Couldn’t. You saw the rest of how that turned out. I was in the middle of trying to psych myself up to deal with it without resorting to alcohol when you showed up again and here we are.”
Bucky was trying to figure out how to respond to that when Stark—Tony said, “Oh hey, what do I call you? Since, y’know, you’re on a first-name basis with me and all.”
Tony raised his eyebrows but refrained from making further judgmental comment. “Okay, Bucky it is then. Since you’re here you can help, by which I mean watch, me fix the Tower security because you might not want to kill me or steal my corporate secrets, but other people do and I do not want to let them. So.”
Tony spun around and flicked on the computer display, and then abruptly stopped as Bucky came up behind him. The sight of the decayed code was still a punch to the gut, and despite his cavalier tone, Tony was glad for the other man’s presence behind his shoulder, keeping him from running.
“What is it?” Bucky asked quietly, sensing that whatever it was, this was important to Tony.
“This is JARVIS. Or what’s left of him,” Tony answered just as quietly. “He was an artificial intelligence that I created. Those three,” he indicated DUM-E and the other two arms, now resting in their charging stations, “were the prototypes. JARVIS was the finished product. He ran the Tower, my armor, and the fabrication units in here, but mostly people used him in place of a computer, or a phone, or to ask where other people were. He always answered. I mean, I coded him to, but he was also coded to have a measure of independence, so I’d like to think he cared, although maybe I’m just fooling myself. Jarvis—the first Jarvis—was my family’s butler when I was growing up. It figures that I create the world’s first truly artificial intelligence and I make something whose purpose is to take care of me.” Tony surprised himself with the bitterness in his voice.
“Ultron.” Now the bitterness was replaced with venom. “He was another AI. I left JARVIS to oversee his development, but instead Ultron gutted him. JARVIS managed to escape into the internet and merge with the Mind Stone in Loki’s scepter to create Vision, but it’s not the same. JARVIS is gone, and Vision just happens to have his voice. This is what’s left of his code.” Tony nodded at the decayed orange spheroid.
“It’s beautiful,” Bucky offered.
“It’s broken.” Tony sounded tired, and sad.
“Maybe it’s both.”
Tony didn’t say anything to that, just rubbed a hand over his face, letting out a long exhale. “Anyway, I have to install a new AI, and transfer all the relevant data for the Tower. It shouldn’t really take that long.”
Bucky watched as Tony pulled a hard drive from a compartment in the wall and slotted it into the computer. Another sphere of code appeared, this one lit up in a pale blue. It wasn’t as dense as the orange one, but its surface was unbroken. Tony began the initialization process, then turned to the remnants of JARVIS. Taking a deep breath, he began breaking up the sections of code, spinning them out into the air in clusters. Security protocols for the Tower went in one, the link to the fabrication units in another, the connection to the memory banks in a third. Tony rearranged JARVIS’ protocols for running the Iron Man armor into a secondary control system and then wrote a communication link to FRIDAY so the two AIs could sync their processes, fingers flying over a holographic keyboard. All of those parts were consolidated into a packet and slotted into the new AI, the code slowly turning blue as it was assimilated into the program. Tony gathered up the rest of JARVIS’ code, but just as it hovered above the digital trash can icon, he paused. It didn’t feel right, just letting JARVIS go. It’d been a month since his death, if one could say he’d been truly alive at all, but still.
From behind him, Tony heard Bucky’s voice, quiet and respectful. “Goodbye, JARVIS.”
And that felt right, that felt so right, and suddenly Tony was blinking back tears. He bit his lip and quickly whispered a “thank you” and then JARVIS was gone. He let the code go and that was it. Tony pushed the heel of his palm into his eyes, trying to hide the moisture there but at the same time stupidly grateful that there wasn’t really a reason for him to put up a façade since Bucky had already seen him at his absolute worst and was quite possibly more of a mess than he was. He could feel the other man’s presence, a silent support at his shoulder, and it was comforting in a way it wouldn’t have been if it had been anyone else, if it had been anyone who’d known JARVIS and would have wanted to say or do anything other than let Tony have his moment of grief.
Then there was a soft, cultured feminine voice, faintly accented, coming over the speakers. “Hello, Sir.”
Tony mustered up a smile and said, “Hello JOCASTA. Bucky, meet JOCASTA. JOCASTA, Bucky.”
Bucky stared at the shifting blue sphere of code, marveling that a string of symbols, however complex, could produce something that sounded so human. “Hello.”
“Hello, Sergeant Barnes.” Something about the way she said it reminded Bucky suddenly of a French dame he’d dallied with back during the war, and somehow it made the name and rank hurt a little less, so he didn’t correct her.
“Right,” Tony said. “JOCASTA’s gonna need some time alone to become fully operational, so why don’t I give you the grand tour?” He led Bucky out to the elevator and hit the call button. The first floor up was a gym with various pieces of equipment, a boxing ring, “and super soldier-proof punching bags,” Tony pointed out. Behind the soundproofed far wall was a small shooting range. Above that was the Avengers common floor, with a lounge, TV room, restroom, and a communal kitchen. There was also a reinforced room that functioned as a Hulk containment chamber. The next floor was Bruce’s lab, “which seems like weird placement,” Tony said, “but it’s directly above the containment room in case of accidents triggered by overly-intense scienceing. Shut up, that’s totally a word.” Then there were the Avengers’ private floors, and Tony’s penthouse apartment. “And this floor, should you so choose, can be your very own. I mean, if you want. It’d be easier for me to have regular access to your arm to do the upgrade, but if you don’t want to stay you don’t have to.”
“Don’t have anywhere else to be,” Bucky said mildly. Tony was a strange person. On some level Bucky was grateful that Tony was giving him the freedom of choice because Lord knows he’d had little enough, but there was something in Tony’s phrasing and his tone of voice that made Bucky think that Tony really didn’t expect him to stay. He was an odd mixture of the flamboyant public persona that loved putting on a show for the cameras and someone entirely different, who second-guessed himself and doubted and wasn’t comfortable asking for what he needed. Bucky wondered how many people saw this side of Tony Stark, and then wondered why he had picked up on it—he still had trouble allowing himself to feel emotion—although he supposed it made a certain amount of sense. The Winter Soldier had been conditioned to notice things, take in details and discrepancies in both environment and behavior, and now that he had access to memories from James Barnes, he had a way to understand the emotional cues that had previously been dismissed as irrelevant.
Bucky’s musing was cut short when Tony said, “Great. So, now that I’ve shown you around I’ve realized once again how depressingly empty this place is. The common areas are available to you of course, but feel free to hang out up here—” they had ended up back in the penthouse “—or the workshop if you want to.” Which was really a way of asking for company. Bucky had grown used to the solitude and was voluntarily breaking it; Tony had been thrust into it and didn’t know how to get himself out. Bucky thought that maybe it was good thing he now had more insight into other people’s emotional state than he would know what to do with if Tony hadn’t been so very good at putting on masks even for himself.
“Also,” Tony continued on, as if he could bury the significance of the previous statement underneath more words, “you probably want clothing other than what you’ve got right now—JOCASTA can help you with that in the morning—but for now…” Tony trailed off as he strode out of the living area into the master bedroom. He came back after a minute and shoved a pile of clothing into Bucky’s arms. “Here. It’ll all be too small, but it’s better than nothing, yeah?”
Bucky blinked down and the clothes in his hands—sweatpants and a couple of old t-shirts—at Tony standing in front of him, at the apartment in general and what came out of his mouth was, “You’re alone, aren’t you?”
Tony opened his mouth, closed it, then scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. “Yeah.” He dropped onto the couch, pushing his face into his hands, elbows braced on his knees. “God, I want a drink. This is such bullshit.” As if he could feel Bucky’s skeptical stare on his back, Tony mumbled, “See, the problem ’s not that I’m out of control. The problem is that I know why I do this but I just…can’t stop. I don’t…have any other way of dealing.”
Several things fell into place for Bucky, not least of which was that it would probably be easier to deal with his shit if he wasn’t the only one falling apart in front of someone else. Swiftly, he placed the borrowed clothes on the floor next to the couch and slung his backpack down to rest on top of the pile. Then he went to the bar across the room and, picking a bottle at random, poured two moderate glasses. He was pretty sure he couldn’t get drunk, but there was a point to be made. Tony looked up at the sound of his footsteps halting in front of the couch again, eyeing the drink Bucky held out warily.
“You drink, you talk,” Bucky said. He handed the glass to Tony then sat on the opposite end of the couch, putting his back against the arm and pulling his knees up in front of him. He watched Tony watching him through the purpling light, the room lit only by the streets below, taking a sip of his drink as he waited. It burned in a way that was familiar yet forgotten and he wondered if he’d ever liked alcohol for its taste rather than its effects or its context. Maybe at one point, before he could taste it too much.
Tony stared into his drink, watching the amber liquid swirling in the bottom of the glass, and figured he might as well give in. He took a sip, resisting the urge to just down the whole thing, and sighed. “Right, well, I assume you know the Avengers have moved to the new Facility, or you probably wouldn’t have snuck in. They were only living here for a year, though, since SHIELD collapsed and took HYDRA with it, mostly.” Tony seemed to realize who he was talking to and winced. “Sorry. Anyway, we’d only been a team for two years before that, and the Battle of New York was really the only thing we’d done as part of the Avengers Initiative. I thought it’d be easier to leave, after Ultron. I’d never had a team, or even that many people who cared about me, before…guess I left it just long enough that I was starting to get used to it.” He took another sip of his whiskey, larger this time.
“It’s more than that though, isn’t it,” Bucky asked quietly, over the rim of his own glass. He felt settled in a way he hadn’t in a while, something akin to staring down the length of his scope, feeling his body go transparent as he set aside whatever internal conflict he might be facing to focus on something outside of himself.
Tony didn’t respond and Bucky prodded him gently. “All your clothes are on one side of the closet.” When Tony raised his eyebrows, Bucky just shrugged. “You left the door open.”
Tony’s mouth twisted and he rotated his wrist, spinning the whiskey against the side of the glass and watching it settle before taking another sip. “I had a girlfriend. I probably didn’t deserve her. But for a while, she was all I had.” Bucky thought of Steve and knew exactly what that was like, and then carefully pushed that thought aside. “She was with me through all the Iron Man stuff, and at one point I made her my CEO. She’s much better at it than I ever was. But Pepper—” Tony had to pause to take a ragged breath. He hadn’t meant to say her name. “She was one of the only people I could count on always being there, her and Rhodey and JARVIS, and then JARVIS was killed by Ultron and I came back from saving the world and she tells me she can’t take it anymore and she’s going back to Malibu, maybe permanently. She just…up and left, and I’m not even sure what to do with myself anymore besides pick at the hole where she used to be and wonder if there was anything I could have said to make her stay or if this is the universe’s way of reminding me that I’m not allowed to be happy by giving me just enough for just long enough that I start to let my guard down and then ripping it all out from under me.” Tony sighed heavily and drained the last of his whiskey. “I don’t even believe in God, or karma, or anything like that.” He leaned forward and set his glass on the table with a click, then stood. “Thanks for the drink.”
Then Bucky was left alone to gather up his stuff and make his way to the rooms he’d been given to do a security sweep and turn in for the night, hoping that, if he could convince himself to sleep, this would be the night he didn’t dream of blood, and gunpowder, and death.
He woke up in the morning and for an awful moment didn’t know who he was. He didn’t have the next name, but then he remembered his own. Bucky. Steve had called him that. Steve, who had been the last name he’d received, who had made him remember, and now there would be no more names. He slid off the couch and checked his surroundings. Avengers Tower, on the floor Tony Stark had given him. Nothing had changed in the seven hours he’d been asleep. Bucky went to the bathroom and washed the sweat from his skin, then made his way to Tony’s floor to filch more of his toaster waffles, since his own kitchen was empty.
At JOCASTA’s notification, Tony wandered into the kitchen, determined not to make things awkward or weird. He’d told Bucky things he never would have considered telling anyone, or even admitting out loud to himself. It was just…the man had a distinct lack of ego that meant that when he listened, that’s all he did—there were no opinions or preconceptions to get in the way of just absorbing whatever Tony felt like sharing. He was also freakishly perceptive, and somehow the feeling that Bucky would know to some extent the things he wasn’t saying made it easier for Tony to verbalize them. Of course, all of this was because of the brainwashing HYDRA had put him through, and it made Tony feel guilty about using it to his advantage, but the truth was that it really had helped. He’d gone to bed exhausted and emotionally drained, but for once he slept without dreaming and woke up feeling less tired than he had in ages. So it was with a forced casualness that he greeted the former assassin sitting at his kitchen table as he made a beeline for the coffee machine.
“Why are you doing this, Tony?” It came out harsh, almost angrily, but the question had been nagging at Bucky, and this morning it would not be denied. He had not dreamed of gunpowder or blood, but rather of squealing rubber and the shriek of twisted metal, burning gasoline and burning flesh, a driver drunk enough that no one would question the accident. And Tony Stark had not even hesitated.
“What? Doing what?” Tony clutched his coffee mug in front of him, taken aback.
“Letting me stay here. Fixing my arm. I killed your parents!”
“HYDRA killed my parents. Not you.”
“My actions, though. My hands.”
“I don’t care.” Tony’s eyes were blazing now, jaw set in determined lines. This man was making his way back from hell and had still somehow found the wherewithal to care about how Tony felt, and Tony was damned if he was going to let him go down that path. “I read your file, I know what HYDRA did to you, I know you didn’t have a choice. You were their victim as much as my parents, so don’t give me that bullshit.”
Bucky seemed to deflate, curling in on himself at the edges. “I know. I’ve read my file too. Doesn’t make it any easier when I can close my eyes and see it all play out and remember that I did that and I didn’t feel anything.” His mouth twisted to one side and after a moment he said, “I remember Howard, you know? From the war. He was brilliant, a crack pilot. Always sort of brittle, though. Like he was never sure he’d stepped off the stage and couldn’t let himself fail.”
“Yeah, that sounds like my old man.” Tony sat cautiously at the table. Looked like this was going to be the trade-off for last night, then. “He was never much of a father, or a husband. In some ways this is better. At least HYDRA thought enough of him put in the effort to orchestrate his death. At least I know he wasn’t just drunk at the wheel again and too arrogant to spare my mom the consequences of his actions.”
They were both silent for a moment, not looking at each other. Tony watched the coffee in the bottom of his mug as if it held the answers to the universe. Finally Bucky pushed his chair back, needing something to do. The sink was a mess of unwashed dishes, most of them mugs with a couple inches of black sludge in the bottom, and Bucky began putting them in the dishwasher. Steve had been the neat freak out of the two of them, but at some point it had rubbed off on Bucky and the army just cemented it further in place.
“Hey, how come you know how to do that? Cap took forever to figure out technology.” Tony winced a little, realizing what he’d said, and wondered if they’d ever find a safe topic of conversation.
Bucky just shrugged, not looking up. “HYDRA. It doesn’t do to have your best assassin unable to complete the mission because they’re stymied by a few decades of technological advancement.”
“Huh.” Tony got up to get himself more coffee, and some food. “Guess the brainwashing came in handy for something, then.”
“Guess so.” Talking like this, Bucky realized what he’d more or less known for the last year. At first he’d hardly remembered anything, so any memory at all had been progress. It hadn’t mattered what it was, at least it was something. With that, and his mission, he’d come to a sort of tacit acceptance. He’d been used, locked out of his own mind, and there really wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it. All he could do was try to pick up the pieces.
Tony cast about for something else to say, found himself distracted by watching the movement of Bucky’s metal arm, and ended up with, “So, how’d your arm get broken? It shouldn’t have done that from normal usage.”
Bucky leaned on the counter, watching Tony’s reaction as he responded. “I was in Sokovia, Strucker’s base. They were more than I could handle, so I was getting myself out, when something exploded. Threw me over an outside wall. I managed to grab on, but it twisted the arm pretty bad. It didn’t start hurting for a while, though.”
Tony’s eyes were so wide Bucky thought they might pop out of his head. “You were hunting HYDRA too? Is that why every HYDRA base we found was about ready to implode on itself? Cap said it was fishy, but I told him not to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Bucky nodded. “It seemed like the right thing to do. I spent seventy years on the wrong side of the fight, so I might as well try to make it right. Make sure they can’t ever do what they did to me to someone else.” Then his face clouded. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve really escaped, though. HYDRA made me a weapon, and what do I do when I have the choice to be a person again? I keep killing, use myself against the people who made me. I’m not even sure what I would do with my life without combat, anymore.”
Tony considered that for a moment, munching on a toaster waffle. “At least now you’re saving the world again.”
Bucky’s mouth twisted into something that might have been a smile. “Can’t say that doesn’t have some appeal to it. Still doesn’t make it much better, though.”
“Yeah. Heroism: it’s horrible, but you can’t stop.”
Bucky hummed in agreement and pushed off the counter, going through a couple cabinets until he found the dishwashing detergent. The action made the hem of Tony’s too-small t-shirt ride up from where the sweatpants were slung low on Bucky’s hips and Tony had to blink hard and force himself to look away. It didn’t mean anything, but Tony found himself babbling a little to cover.
“So, right, since you probably want the least amount of attention and the internet is amazing and all-powerful…JOCASTA?”
The AI’s voice came through the speakers embedded in the ceiling. “Sir?”
“Would you be so kind as to introduce Buckaroo here to the wonders of online retail? Just put it on my card.”
At Bucky’s raised eyebrows, Tony explained, “JOCASTA can help you procure clothes that aren’t too small and haven’t been dragged across the world for a year. Also food, if you get tired of stealing my toaster waffles. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Oh! And J,” Tony added, “you have access to the list that was made for Capsicle, right?”
“Good. You can leave off all the basic technology stuff, but give Bucky the rest. Mm, and add the recent Avengers stuff.” He waggled his eyebrows at Bucky. “All the history and cultural stuff you missed and must now catch up on.”
“You may find the relevant information on the monitor or the StarkPad within your suite, Sergeant Barnes.”
“Um, thanks.” More so than the technology, or finding himself suddenly adrift in the future without a coherent sense of self, or trying to figure out what it meant to have free will again, this overwhelmed Bucky, this casual generosity. Bucky was pretty sure that even before the depression of his teenage years, his family had been poor. He’d never had very many things, and as the Asset he’d had none. Tony had so many things that things had become easy, a shortcut to making people like him, a safeguard to make them stay.
As seemed to be the norm, before Bucky could decide what to do with that information, Tony stood and stretched. “Well, I’ve got more stuff to do in the workshop. Feel free to come down whenever you get bored of staring at screens and I can start on your arm.”
So Bucky spent some time scrolling through what seemed like an endless list of options, even with JOCASTA helpfully narrowing them down, and wondering how anyone was meant to make a choice, let alone traumatized and formerly-brainwashed assassins who have been displaced seven decades into the future. He tried to remember what had been in his wardrobe back in the forties, but eventually gave up and went with what seemed simple, and comfortable. Tony’s kitchen really was mostly empty, so Bucky did buy food, which was easier. Bread was still bread after all. He wondered how Steve had managed this, and then had to force himself to stop thinking about that. He skimmed through the histories he’d been given instead, but found too many places where he could see HYDRA’s influence, the corresponding missions lurking in the back of his mind, waiting to be called forth in blood and gunpowder and ash. Bucky suddenly felt uncomfortable in his own skin, so he went to go find Tony, making a detour to grab something to pull back his hair, unable to tolerate the way it brushed his neck and shoulders.
Tony smiled when Bucky walked into the workshop, dismissing the holographic windows he’d been working on with a wave of his hand. “Hey. So I could have JOCASTA run a diagnostic on your arm, but that’s no fun and anyway it’s probably a good idea for you to know what’s involved since it is your arm and all…”
“You want to open the plating all the way.”
“Pretty please? You can totally say no, I promise. If it’s not something you’re comfortable with, I won’t.”
“It’s fine. Just not the top of my shoulder.”
Tony practically bounced in his chair. “Awesome. Sit here.” He hooked another chair over and slid an array of tools across the workbench. As Bucky sat, pushing the sleeve of his t-shirt up to his shoulder, Tony pointed a screwdriver at his chest. “Question. How much feeling, compared to your other arm, does the prosthetic have? And qualitatively, what can you feel?”
Bucky thought about that for a moment. “Less feeling. The pain threshold is higher, and I don’t feel temperature. I’m okay with pressure, although I don’t know how much I’m compensating. I can hold things and know when I’m touching something, but there’s no detail.”
Tony nodded thoughtfully. “Okay, good to know. Ready?” He waited for Bucky’s nod and then set to work, systematically pulling open the metal plating and disconnecting it fully from the sensory net, placing the pieces neatly on the bench beside them. Bucky watched as his arm became a skeletal piece of machinery, fascinated once again at the movement of Tony’s hands as he became absorbed in the tech. Each piece that came off felt like it anchored Bucky more firmly in his present self. When Tony reached the wrist he paused, holding the back of Bucky’s hand as he stared.
“This is beautiful. Rotate your wrist for me?” When Bucky did, watching the play of components, Tony made a noise low in his throat. “I have the biggest science boner right now, you have no idea.”
Bucky actually snorted a laugh at that, and Tony grinned brightly back at him, thinking how very nice it sounded.
When Tony was done, the pieces of plating formed a distended shell of the arm on the workbench, and he began pointing out various parts of the now exposed machinery with the screwdriver, carefully holding Bucky’s arm outstretched by the back of his hand. “These are basically nerves, they’ll be hooked into your nervous system at your shoulder, and they connect to the motors in your joints to let you move, and also along your arm—for example, here and here—to let you sense where your limb is. Also, these bits connect to sensors in the plating to let you feel things—did you know your sensor net is down on two whole plates?” He didn’t give Bucky a chance to answer, continuing on, “This, this is interesting, this looks like it was a suspension system, but it is very much broken, and also just eyeballing it I don’t think they managed to hit the sweet spot between suspension and added weight. Which is a shame because even with your serum, the weight of this thing will eventually give you a stress fracture in your collarbone. This is your power source, basically a souped-up battery, and very much in decay. Did you know that this bit functions as a vent?” Tony pulled Bucky’s arm up a bit and twisted it to indicate the underside. “Also probably why they only gave you one sleeve, besides general badassery. Man, I miss Bruce.”
At Bucky’s inquisitive look, Tony explained, “We scienced at each other, it was great. But at least you don’t fall asleep when I try to talk about feelings.” He thought about trying to backpedal on that last statement, but settled for covering it over by changing the subject. “Anyway, the good news is that HYDRA did not build a failsafe into your arm, other than designing it under the assumption that you would remain in their care for regular maintenance. Which would be the bad news because just about everything is of an unacceptable quality and falling apart. J, make a diagram of this, would you?”
A glowing hologram of the arm formed in the air above the workbench, the systems layering themselves on top of the basic skeleton, as Tony started reattaching the plating, working his way back up the arm. He fiddled with a couple of the pieces, then poked Bucky on the arm hard when they were attached.
After the second time, Bucky couldn’t help it and burst out with, “What was that for?”
Tony just grinned, already moving on to attach the next plate. “I fixed your sensor net.”
“Uh-huh. It’ll take me a while to fabricate an entirely new arm, but in the meantime I can fix your suspension system and put in a new battery, or I can go ahead and see if I can fit in an arc reactor in your current model.” Tony flicked the head of the screwdriver against the red star, over where the battery sat in his shoulder.
Tony nodded. “Sustainable power source. Completely safe. It’s what my suits run on, and there’s one powering the Tower. If I do put one in, I’m gonna want to look at how the arm connects to your shoulder beforehand so I can make sure the reactor hooks into the bio-mechanical transition properly.”
Bucky chewed on his lip. It was one thing to watch Tony work on the purely mechanical aspects of the arm, a certain amount of dissociation keeping him at a distance from the exposed workings of the limb. The arm was a machine, a tool, and even though he could feel Tony’s touch and sense its position, it wasn’t so far removed from the synchronism he could get from his sniper rifle when covering his team in the field. Bucky wasn’t sure he was ready to look at the juncture where metal joined flesh, where there was no way to skate around the reality. He didn’t remember HYDRA working on the arm’s mechanics, but he did remember being dragged through the snow, the pulp of his left arm a blaze of agony, remembered the saw beginning to cut away the excess flesh, remembered coming to and finding Arnim Zola standing above him, remembered the first time he lifted the metal arm, his still-raw shoulder a dull roar against the effortless movement of the limb.
Tony was watching him carefully, the fingers of one hand tapping at his sternum. “We don’t have to do it now. But…if it helps, I had an arc reactor in my chest for a while. Had it taken out a couple of years ago, but before that I needed it to keep myself alive.”
Bucky stared, not sure what to make of that statement.
Tony decided to take a risk and said, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
After a moment, Bucky nodded, then pulled off his shirt before he could have second thoughts. Tony likewise pulled off the black tank top he was wearing, revealing a large star-shaped mass of scar tissue in the middle of his chest. Bucky’s flesh fingers twitched, wanting to touch, but instead Tony’s hand came up to rub at the base of the scar, his eyes sliding away from Bucky’s shoulder for a moment to stare across the workshop. Finally he got up and crossed the room, coming back with a glass case holding a metal cylinder whose center glowed blue. Around the band holding it in place were the words “PROOF TONY STARK HAS A HEART”.
Tony set the case on the workbench, looking at it for a moment before saying, “This, or previous iterations of this, is what was embedded in my chest for the better part of two years. This one was the last. Pepper saved the first one like this, but because of some…circumstances at the time, it had to be reused and I threw it out when I switched models. So when I got the reactor out for good, she made sure she got to it before me, which wasn’t really that hard since I was recovering from heart surgery.” He rubbed absently at his chest again, fingers lingering over the edge where metal had once met flesh. “I could’ve had plastic surgery to get rid of the scar, but I didn’t. The arc reactor had been a part of me for so long, I guess I wanted something to remind me it had really happened.” Tony sighed and dropped his hand, leaning back in his chair with a wry smile, eyes back on Bucky’s face. “So that’s that, if you needed the Tony Stark seal of approval on the arc reactor or having bits of metal attached to your flesh.”
“How…?” Bucky had to stop to wet his lips, unsure of how to ask what he wanted to know.
“How did I end up with this thing in my chest?” Tony finished for him, eyebrows raised, and Bucky nodded. He opened his mouth to give the flippant, non-painful press version of the answer and then stopped. Bucky had been through decades of torture and brainwashing at the hands of HYDRA, had the metal arm attached without his knowledge or volition and now had to learn to live with it. It wouldn’t be fair to shrug away what was possibly the only comparable experience simply because even four years later, Tony still didn’t like to think of it. “It’s not a pretty story,” he said instead. And because he was Tony Stark and couldn’t just deal with emotions like a functional adult, he looked away and said, “You know, if you have access to your file, you probably also have access to mine.”
“Tony, I read my file because I needed to know who I was. I’m not going to invade your privacy like that. If you tell me, that’s different.”
Tony sighed and stood, grabbing his tank top. “I’m gonna need a drink for this.”
They rode up the elevator in silence, and Tony let Bucky pour again before settling on the couch. This time he mirrored the former assassin’s position, though he still found it easier to watch his drink than meet the sharpened gaze of the man across from him.
“Before Stark Industries was focused on clean energy, we were a weapons manufacturer. I was the CEO, but I had my head up my ass, and I let my father’s business partner, Obadiah Stane, run the company while I was busy getting drunk and having one-night stands and occasionally inventing new and better ways to kill people. I was told we were helping to keep American citizens safe, and I bought it, when I bothered to care. As it turned out, Obie was selling our weapons to the very terrorist groups we were fighting, and when he thought I’d outlived my usefulness, he arranged for them to kill me. I was kidnapped and spent three months in a cave in Afghanistan as they tried to force me to build them SI’s latest missile. Instead I built the first version of the Iron Man armor.
“Anyway, when they kidnapped me, they set off an IED, and I got a bunch of shrapnel in my chest. I woke up in the cave hooked up to a car battery that was powering an electromagnet keeping it away from my heart. They had kidnapped a doctor, Yinsen, and with his help I managed to condense the prototype arc reactor that my father had developed and insert it into my chest as a permanent power source. Well, permanent-ish. The material I was using, palladium, started poisoning me, and a few months later I was dying again. SHIELD stepped in with some of my father’s old research, and I ended up creating a new element that was non-toxic and could be used in the reactor. That was four years ago.”
Tony’s fingers drummed against his chest, sounding like words unspoken, and Bucky watched the motion for a few beats before asking, “And? What’s the rest of the story?”
Swirling his drink, Tony answered, “I used the armor to escape and got picked up by the military search team. When I got back to the States, I shut down SI’s weapons manufacturing division, and refined both the arc reactor and the suit. I became Iron Man to destroy all of the weapons that had been shipped out illegally. Then I found out just how far Obie was willing to go to betray me when he stole my tech right out of my chest to make his own suit. He died when Pepper and I exploded the original prototype arc reactor to stop him. …Yinsen didn’t make it out of the cave. Before he died, he told me not to waste my life. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of following his advice. The way things are going lately, though, I’m not so sure.”
The silence stretched, and Bucky asked, “How did you get the arc reactor removed?” more to keep Tony talking than anything else. He needed time to think of the right words to say.
“Two years ago, this company called AIM approached me with a business proposal. They were working on limb regeneration technology. But it turned out that Extremis—their formula—while it did give its users accelerated healing, it also turned them into literal walking time bombs. We stopped them, but not before they injected Pepper with it, so I had to develop a way to stabilize it. Since I then had a safe version of Extremis, I injected myself with it, and found some surgeons who could take the shrapnel out. No more arc reactor.”
Tony finished his drink, and before he could leave Bucky blurted, “You aren’t wasting your life.”
The engineer actually met Bucky’s eyes in surprise at that. “I’ve managed to avoid getting wasted for the past month, except for the one incident that you got me out of. Other than that, I haven’t been doing anything that’s worth a damn. Pepper runs my company now, and I’m not an Avenger anymore.” His tone was derisive, but he didn’t move from his spot on the couch, toying with his empty glass.
“So you lack purpose,” Bucky said slowly, to make sure it came out right. “HYDRA…destroying them was my purpose, something to hold on to when nothing else made sense. Having something to do, it made it easier to deal with trying to figure out who I was. But once the last base was gone, I needed to find a new reason to keep going. I want to be able to see Steve again, but I can’t even think about him for very long before I start losing myself, so I ended up here. Just having one other person to interact with, that helps a lot.” He waited, gauging the other man’s reaction before asking, “What do you want to do, Tony?”
For some reason, when Bucky said something like that, it didn’t sound like the usual therapist bullshit at all. It sounded like survival, like clawing tooth and nail out of a pit of nothingness and being halfway out but turning to offer Tony a hand anyway. He leaned sideways to place his glass on the coffee table and figured he might as well grab on. “Honestly, the only thing I’ve got right now is fixing your arm.”
Bucky smiled at him, a real one that lit up his eyes and chased away the darkness that seemed to cling to him. “Maybe we can be each other’s reasons, then.”
With that Bucky placed his own empty glass on the table next to Tony’s and stood in one fluid motion. “Goodnight, Tony.” And then he left, leaving Tony staring at the doors to the elevator through the gathering darkness.
Several packages arrived the next day, and after a few moments of deliberation, Bucky put all the food in Tony’s kitchen. Actually having the products whose images he’d clicked on the day before in his possession made Bucky wonder what couldn’t be obtained online these days. Guns, it turned out, could be bought online but not delivered, and Bucky was pretty sure he didn’t have a legal identity to speak of, let alone one that would pass a background check. He could buy knives though, and there’d been a pervasive feeling of loss at the small of his back ever since he climbed out of the Potomac. The guns they’d given him had changed with the years, but he’d always had a knife or two sheathed just above his hips. He wasn’t sure that filling that hole was the best course of action, but it hadn’t gone away, and without the distraction of future combat, his mind kept circling back, prodding at it like a lost tooth. A knife was probably better than a loaded gun anyway.
Thinking about his weapons left him antsy and needing to hit something, so he took advantage of the gym and the reinforced punching bags until once again he was reminded too much of Steve, and went to go find Tony in the workshop. Perhaps sensing Bucky’s mood, Tony didn’t say anything about the arc reactor, setting to work fixing the suspension system instead. When he was done, Bucky’s arm once again felt like it was going to float off of his body, and he had to think about each movement to keep it in control, though Tony made noises about the arm still being too heavy. Bucky wasn’t paying much attention to that though because a different sort of weight had lifted along with the arm, and he felt a little like an observer in his own mind as he watched something flat and cold slide a little further away. That was interesting, so Bucky decided to try an experiment. Retrieving the tablet from his suite, he curled up on the couch in the workshop, automatically tracking Tony’s movement around the room as he pulled up the histories JOCASTA had given him.
“Hey,” Tony called. “You mind if I turn on music?”
“Cool. You can check it off your list. J, use your judgement.”
A wailing guitar came over the speakers, distorted and electric, a bass chugging along fuzzily in the background. It was nothing like the music Bucky remembered listening to, but that was fine. That was good. The combination of Tony, and his strange music, and a left arm that Bucky could almost pretend was just an arm helped ground him, kept him firmly rooted to his present self even as he absorbed the information on his screen on what had happened to the world while he had been someone else.
He should have known that the feeling of security he’d managed to achieve that afternoon wouldn’t last. He woke up repeatedly in the night, driven from sleep by nightmares, each bloodier than the last. Some of them were of black leather and cold slaughter, but some of them were of the war, fear and adrenaline singing through his veins as he watched blood and bone and brains spray from the lifeless bodies of boys no older than himself, the end result of a chain reaction set off by his finger on the trigger, his rifle scope paradoxically making the sniper the most intimate observer of the deaths he had caused. Those were the worst, and the third time he came silently, suddenly awake with the smell of Italian mud in his nose, Bucky gave up on sleep.
He slipped upstairs, moving quietly through Tony’s darkened kitchen by memory, and was soon cradling a mug of cocoa. Sitting at the table, Bucky closed his eyes and found an image of Steve waiting behind them, skinnier and much younger, nearly swamped by a blanket as he sat across from Bucky, both of them warming snow-numbed hands on their mugs and laughing. A small smile curling his lips, Bucky inhaled the scent of chocolate and it smelled like warmth and comfort and safety, at least for a little while. He was just wondering whether it would be better to push the image away now while it was untainted or to let himself be enveloped in it for as long as possible before HYDRA twisted it when the elevator dinged softly and Bucky opened his eyes.
Tony made his way into the kitchen, hair disheveled and arms smudged with grease. He took in the former assassin sitting slouched at the table, legs stretched out and nose almost stuck in a mug, and wordlessly went to the stove, where a pan of cocoa was still steaming. Pulling down a mug, he poured the rest for himself then sat across the table, hoping Bucky would read it as an offer of support and a sympathetic ear rather than an imposition. He didn’t move or tense up, so Tony thought that was probably a good sign. He never was good at the whole silence and patience thing, though, so finally he had to ask, “Nightmares?”
Wonder of wonders, Bucky actually sounded relieved when he said, “Yeah. You too?”
“Sometimes. They’re…mostly gone these days, but I never kept regular hours, and now with Pepper gone…” Tony shrugged, as if to say, didn’t see the appeal of sleep.
“The worst ones are the ones where I can actually feel things.” It felt perverse and wrong somehow. He’d done much worse—and had much worse done to him—when he was the Asset, was still fighting the blank, emotionless state that had been forced on him, so much so that since he’d snuck into the Tower, he’d only initiated two conversations, one of which had been with DUM-E. To be returned to the Winter Soldier in his dreams seemed as if it should be more unsettling than a war that had happened seventy years ago.
As if he could sense Bucky’s thoughts, Tony said, “It’s been less than two years for you though, right? I mean, experientially.”
“Lots of soldiers deal with PTSD—what they call shell shock nowadays. Some of them for the rest of their lives. I…hell, I flew into a wormhole to save New York from having a nuclear bomb dropped on it, and I still have it.” Tony sounded weary, and Bucky wondered how long he’d avoided it before he reached a crisis. He took a sip of his cocoa and seemed to give a little shake, then said, “This is really good. Where’d you learn to make hot chocolate like this?”
“Yeah.” Bucky could tell the little smile was back on his face, and this time when the silence stretched it was companionable. It had been a long, emotionally taxing day, and suddenly Bucky was exhausted. Tony was nice enough not to say anything when Bucky fell asleep on his couch.
After that they settled into a routine. Bucky spent the mornings catching up with the world with the help of JOCASTA and the internet, or in the gym. He was used to always being on, always moving or waiting for movement, and suddenly having nowhere to go didn’t sit right. His knife came, and holding it felt so right that he didn’t stop wearing it for two days. He also ordered himself a set of throwing knives, and would spend hours at the range whipping them into the targets. The afternoons were spent in the workshop while Tony worked on his arm. Tony didn’t always need to disassemble it, but would explain to Bucky what he was in the process of designing or fabricating, and how it was better than his current arm. Bucky was reminded of the awe he’d felt at the Stark Expo, fantastic technology he didn’t understand holding out tantalizing promises of a science like magic. When Tony was done with the arm for the day, sometimes Bucky would stay, sitting on the couch with his tablet or just watching Tony work and listening to his raucous music. Other times he would go up to Tony’s kitchen and cook, feeling his way by half-remembered instinct and occasionally looking up recipes on the web. He didn’t explicitly leave anything for Tony, but the leftovers never lasted more than a couple of days. Other food items started showing up too, things Bucky hadn’t ordered, and that was how he found out about Pop Tarts and spent a morning being regaled with tales of an alien Norse god and his interaction with modern human life. At night, when Bucky couldn’t sleep, he would go up to Tony’s floor and they’d share a cup of cocoa and more often than not end up watching a movie Tony insisted he needed to see to survive in the twenty-first century. He knew Tony had JOCASTA alert him if Bucky woke in the middle of the night, and eventually Bucky asked the AI to do the same for him if Tony couldn’t sleep. That was the same day he finally unpacked the backpack he’d carried with him for a year and had kept constantly ready to move at a moment’s notice.
One night, a couple days after he had asked her to do so, JOCASTA woke Bucky at two in the morning with the information that Tony was still in the workshop. He slid out of the too-soft bed he’d actually started sleeping in, stepped on the back of his shoes, and was in the elevator before he thought to question why JOCASTA thought this was significant. He’d been getting better about it, but Tony still arrived in the kitchen for cocoa with fresh grease stains and goggle prints on his forehead half the time. He didn’t have to wonder long; the reason why was immediately obvious as soon as Bucky stepped into the workshop.
Tony stood with a wrench hanging loosely from one hand, staring at a partially strung up red and gold suit that could only be the Iron Man armor. A holographic screen flickered to his left, but his attention was entirely consumed by the suit in front of him. Bucky walked across the room, deliberately making enough noise to announce his presence, and came to a stop just inside Tony’s peripheral vision. He didn’t acknowledge Bucky’s presence, but Bucky could tell from the slight shift in posture that it had been registered. Finally Tony’s mouth twisted in frustration and he threw the wrench halfheartedly at the armor. It bounced off the chest plate and clanged to the ground, the sound echoing loudly in the quiet room. He pressed the heel of his hand into an eye as Bucky said, “You need a drink?”
“So fucking much,” Tony growled. He whirled and stalked into the elevator, leaving Bucky to follow behind.
They took up their customary positions, facing each other at opposite ends of the couch. This time Tony knocked back half his drink in one long swallow before he started.
“Couldn’t bring myself to work on the armor. I pulled it up and then it occurred to me, what’s the point? ’S no use making it any better. I’m done.”
The bitter hopelessness in Tony’s voice hit Bucky somewhere in the part of him where all the might-have-beens and the slippery slopes lived, and so he kept his voice carefully neutral when he asked, “Why?”
Tony laughed harshly. “Fucking Ultron, is why.” He glared into his drink, seemingly disinclined to elaborate. Bucky was about to remind Tony that he needed to talk, when he abruptly said, “Don’t—ask. I screwed up, okay? Badly. This whole thing with Ultron and saving the world from destruction, all of that could have been avoided—all of that was my fault.”
“The stuff we brought back from Sokovia. One of the things was an AI kernel. I thought—I thought we could develop it, give it a body, use it as a peacekeeper. Turned out, Ultron thought the only way to keep the world safe was to kill everybody in it.” The caustic sarcasm dropped away as quickly as it came, to be replaced with misery. “Bruce told me it was a bad idea. I didn’t listen. I never…listen.” Tony took another large gulp of whiskey.
Narrowing his eyes, Bucky latched on to a nagging discrepancy. “They didn’t kick you off the team, though.”
“No. I left. I couldn’t…trust myself to make decisions like that anymore. But it’s not like they put up much of a protest. JARVIS died, Pietro died, Bruce went missing, everyone else in the whole fucking world nearly died…all because of what I did. All because I was too overconfident and too arrogant to see. I don’t…deserve to be a hero anymore. Not sure I ever was one anyway.”
Bucky surprised himself when he realized that his first impulse was to insist that it wasn’t true, Tony was a hero. He knew Tony would never accept that though, so instead he said, “Ultron was an independent entity. How were you to know he would turn out that way?”
“How about the part where he came from a fucking HYDRA base?” Tony spat.
“Tony, Pietro and Wanda came from that HYDRA base. I came from a HYDRA base,” Bucky said softly, and Tony at least had the decency to wince, eyes locked on his knees drawn up in front of him.
“Right…sorry.” After a moment he muttered sullenly, “It’s different, though,” staring through the bottom of his now empty glass. “You came from somewhere else, before. You weren’t made there.”
“A large part of who I am now is because of my time with HYDRA. The same goes for them.”
“How would you know about Pietro and Wanda?” Tony asked, just to be contrary and mean, even as some small part of himself recognized that he was only lashing out because it hurt. He hadn’t really talked about Ultron with anyone since it had happened, not this part of it, just told the team he was switching to reserve and let them draw their own conclusions. And being who he was, he didn’t let himself think about it either, holding back all the guilt and self-loathing behind a front of I’m fine until he was alone and could attempt to drown them for good at the bottom of a bottle. It never worked, and he knew it didn’t, but he still would’ve felt compelled to try whenever it was that particular dam broke, except…except his life had suddenly been invaded by a former assassin fighting off years of brainwashing and torture, and Tony’s problems had been squished under the distraction of his shiny metal arm. Until now.
“I told you I infiltrated their base, didn’t I?” Bucky’s grin was feral. “That sort of operation isn’t as simple as sneaking in and shooting the first person you see. I needed to know exactly how to tip the balance to take everything down. So I saw the twins, and I saw their files.” He paused, expression sobering, and said, “I also saw Loki’s scepter. Even being hidden across the room, I could feel it, warping my mind, twisting it back to the place I’d fought so hard to get it out of. That was one of the reasons I got myself out before I did anything. If you brought the scepter back with you…”
“Yeah, and that’s another thing I should’ve known. We’d had experience with the scepter before—I knew what it could do and I did nothing about it.” Tony put his glass down on the table, perhaps a little harder than necessary. Wordlessly, Bucky slid his own untouched glass across, offering it to him, and against his better judgement, he took it.
“So you made a mistake. You wanted to save the world, to end all the fighting. That’s not a bad thing, Tony. You just weren’t thinking straight and went about it the wrong way.”
“Yeah, and that way nearly wiped out the majority of life on Earth. That’s a pretty fucking big mistake.”
“And then you helped fix it. Another man might’ve run away, but you took responsibility. I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I do know that that’s enough for Steve to forgive you, and being Steve, he’s probably managed to talk everyone else into it too. So now they’re just waiting on you.”
“What if I never…never do forgive myself?” Tony’s voice was small and fractured painfully around the edges.
“Then you have to live with that,” Bucky said quietly, firmly. “And that’d be a shame because I think you’re better than that. Stronger than that—”
“You can’t know that,” Tony broke in. “I have never not once lived up to people’s expectations, so how—how can you say that and have the gall to sound so absolutely certain?”
“Because,” Bucky said seriously, “that is the fourth drink you’ve had in the week and a half I’ve been here and not once have I had to pick your ass up off the floor again.” Tony blinked down at the drink in his hand, and Bucky stood, beginning to walk to the elevator. “I also think that some part of you will always be Iron Man, no matter how much you try to hide from it.”
In the morning, Bucky found Tony asleep on the couch in his suite. He returned the courtesy and didn’t say anything, just padded silently past to go up to Tony’s kitchen and make them both breakfast. When he asked, JOCASTA told him she’d let Tony into his rooms without asking him because Tony had said please. And the thing was, what Bucky hadn’t told Tony was that the genius didn’t fail to meet expectations; he exceeded them.
Two weeks after Bucky had first snuck into the Tower, he was sitting in the workshop with the mechanisms of his arm fully exposed from shoulder to fingertips. He’d let Tony look at his shoulder to fit an arc reactor a couple of days after they’d talked about it, but he hadn’t had the plating all the way off since that first time. Now Tony was going back and forth between Bucky’s current arm and the growing skeleton of the new model, occasionally reattaching and removing plates as he checked and double checked the wiring that would be the nervous system of the new arm, making sure it all went to the right place. Neither of them spoke, but Tony’s music filled in the silence, and Bucky found he didn’t feel so trapped within it as when he first came to the Tower. He watched Tony’s hands and face as he worked, watched Tony’s mouth as he absently half-sang, half-hummed along, and wondered if he’d recovered enough of his interpersonal skills to be thinking that Tony really was a rather attractive man.
The music paused and JOCASTA’s voice came over the speakers. “Sir, you have a call from Captain Rogers.”
Tony was squinting at a sensor terminal, a screwdriver in one hand and another in his mouth, not really paying attention to anything else. “Uh huh.” Then he felt Bucky stiffen and go completely still beside him and the full implications of the statement made its way into his brain. “Oh. Shit. No, no, don’t put him on video,” he quickly answered the AI’s next question, and then Steve’s voice was coming over the speakers.
He scrambled to get his brain in gear, trying to channel his best everything is totally fine and I definitely don’t have your best friend whom you’ve been searching for this past year sitting across from me voice. “Heya, Cap. What’s up? How’s the team?”
“They’re good. Sam’s out flying, I think this is minute seven of the handstand Nat’s holding, Wanda is meditating, and Rhodey is trying to teach Vision hand to hand.”
“How’s that going?”
“Interestingly. I think Rhodey’s just about ready to give up. Listen, um, Pepper called me.”
“Oh.” Tony tried to keep the apprehension out of his voice and maybe didn’t entirely succeed. “What…what did she want?”
“She’s worried about you. Why didn’t you tell us you’d broken up? I—we would have been there for you.” Before Tony could think of a way to brush that off, he kept going. “Just, how are you doing? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine. Doing fine.” He watched Bucky’s face, the former assassin staring unblinkingly into the middle distance, expression frozen into something complicated and conflicted as Tony said, “Keeping busy. I’ve got a…project, so it’s all good. Tell Pepper not to worry so much.”
“It’s not just Pepper that’s worried. I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good friend lately—the team is no excuse. Can I…would you mind if I stopped by to visit?”
Bucky’s eyes flicked to his, and he looked more frightened than Tony had ever seen him. He shook his head, a tiny, frantic movement, so Tony said, “Um. Things are still kind of a mess over here. In a couple of weeks, maybe…?”
“Sure, Tony.” There was a slight pause, and Steve asked, “How about the 27th?”
JOCASTA helpfully pulled up a calendar display, and Tony tried to keep his tone light when he said, “Sounds great. I’ll see you then.”
There was a smile in Steve’s voice as he replied, “Just don’t do anything stupid until I get there,” and surprisingly, Bucky suddenly looked like he might cry.
The call ended, and Tony shut off the music, watching as Bucky dropped his head, wiping at his eyes with the back of his flesh hand. “So I guess we’re done for the day,” he asked quietly.
“I told him…” Bucky’s voice was small and watery. “Told him not to do anything stupid, until I got back. From the war.” He sniffled, a hesitant smile pulling at one corner of his mouth. “He told me he couldn’t ’cause I was takin’ all the stupid with me. That punk…ain’t fair.”
Tony just hummed in commiseration, beginning to reattach the plating along Bucky’s left arm. “J, make a note of today’s progress.”
Bucky spent most of the rest of the day curled up tightly on the couch in the back of the workshop, quietly, carefully crying for himself and trying not to trigger the kill order in the back of his mind. Eventually, though, he dragged himself up and to the gym, needing to get out of his head for a while. The weight of his knife was an anchor, strapped securely at the small of his back underneath his untucked shirt as he flicked blade after blade into the targets, standing as far back as he could get against the wall while still having room to throw. He let time dilate, reduced himself to the motion of his arm and the silver blur tracing graceful arcs in the air, the choking misery slowly draining out of him. He felt better after that, managed to pull himself together a little and try to feel less empty, at least for a couple of days.
Tony walked into his kitchen late one evening to find Bucky slumped with his head on the table. He didn’t move when Tony entered the room, even though Tony knew Bucky had registered his presence. There were dirty dishes piled by the sink, and a cutting board and a knife left on one of the counters. Despite the fact that it was mid-June and sweltering outside, there was a large pot of steaming liquid on the stove and a bowl of it on the table by Bucky’s head. Even Tony was observant enough to know that this was all highly unusual and probably bad.
He slid into the chair opposite Bucky and carefully nudged his foot under the table with a shoe. “What’s wrong?”
Bucky just slid the bowl across the table, not looking up.
“Chicken noodle soup?”
“Made it.” Bucky’s voice was muffled by the table, but still audibly miserable.
“And…why is that a bad thing?” Tony asked, ignoring his impulse to try to make some sort of joke, hating how bad he was at this.
Bucky heaved a sigh, and pushed his hands over his face, elbows propped on the table. “Sarah used to make it. I didn’t…even know I was making her recipe ’till I was done. Memory works like that sometimes, but…” He swallowed thickly. “I remembered her teaching me. She made it all the time for Stevie when he was sick, and there was one winter…it was real bad. He was in bed near all the time, and they thought for a while he might not make it. T’keep both of us occupied and worryin’ less, she taught me how to make her soup. I was…twelve, maybe? I think…that was the first time I realized I loved him.”
They were silent for a while, tears freely dampening Bucky’s face and hands, until finally he said, “I miss him so much.”
“I miss him too.” And there was something in Tony’s voice that mirrored Bucky’s own, as if he knew exactly what it meant to love and have lost Steve Rogers. Bucky sniffed and wiped at his eyes, and Tony thought maybe he understood his comment about JARVIS. But instead he tried for a crooked smile and said, “But hey, we’re not going to let this go to waste are we?”
Bucky blinked and smiled crookedly back and said, “No,” so they ate Sarah Rogers’ soup together, and then Tony dragged Bucky into the living room so they could watch ridiculous and stupid movies that Tony nonetheless insisted he had to know about. He ended up falling asleep in the middle of movie three, slouching further and further down the couch until his head hit Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky just scooted himself closer until Tony was leaning fully against his side. He didn’t last much longer either, sliding into sleep almost imperceptibly as the credits rolled up the screen.
The next morning he woke with the realization that he hadn’t woken from a nightmare for the first time since he’d begun remembering. His dreams still weren’t exactly pleasant, but at least they let him sleep the night through. He also realized that he rather liked the look of Tony with sleep-mussed hair and creases through the oil smudge on his cheek from where it had been pressed into Bucky’s shirt, and that prompted him to spend the morning searching the internet for a specific topic rather than just going with whatever JOCASTA pulled up next. As it turned out, there were a lot more words these days for what he was besides fag and queer and damned, which was good for Bucky to know, and now he had a second goal. Although maybe, he thought, Tony didn’t need to know that quite yet.
“You don’t have to, you know,” Tony said, standing in the kitchen on the common floor. “You can hide, or leave the Tower altogether, and I will make something up to tell Steve if you want me to.”
Bucky just shook his head, chewing on his lower lip, unable to articulate the storm of conflicting feelings that had been growing since the previous day. He wanted to see Steve, wanted it desperately, fiercely. And yet, he was terrified of hurting him, of sliding back into the Winter Soldier persona because he wasn’t strong enough to resist the dead electricity in his brain. Steve had been a presence though, a weight in his mind for the past week, the words he’d spoken over the phone to Tony playing over and over. He hadn’t slipped back into the Soldier, but it had been an effort, the darkness lurking just below the surface. Steve’s presence might only make it worse, and Bucky didn’t know if he could deal with a relapse—couldn’t face the prospect of clawing himself back from where he’d been last year with nothing tangible for Tony to fix. Neither could he face the possibility that he might never be strong enough to see Steve—he had to hold on to the belief that he would, just to keep himself sane. At this point the only certain thing Bucky had was that he didn’t have any of the answers, and so he’d been growing more fidgety and more anxious the closer it came to Steve actually arriving in the Tower.
Tony opened his mouth to say something else, but JOCASTA interrupted him. “Sir, Captain Rogers will be arriving momentarily.”
“Thanks, J.” To Bucky, he said, “Whatever you decide, you’ll be fine.” Then Tony strode into the lounge just as the elevator dinged.
“Hey.” Steve greeted Tony with a grin and a hug, and then stopped dead, eyes fixed on the man hovering in the doorway to the kitchen. He took in the jeans and the t-shirt that left his metal arm bare to the base of the star, the long hair pulled back in a messy bun, the nervous tension held in the shoulders and the cautious smile gracing the unmistakable face of his best friend and partner. As if from someplace outside of himself Steve heard his voice ask once again, “Bucky?”
“Hey, Stevie.” Steve looked like he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to reach forward and touch in case he lost it all over again, and so before he could talk himself out of it Bucky crossed the room to wrap Steve in a hug, breathing in his presence, holding him as tight as possible. It lasted for only a moment before something shifted in him and Bucky took two quick steps back. He had to drop his eyes from Steve’s as he muttered, “Sorry. Can’t.”
Steve was lightheaded and a little overwhelmed, and he shook his head, trying to get his feet back under himself. “It’s fine. Whatever you need, Buck.” He glanced at Tony, who was watching them with his hands shoved into his pockets and a fond smile on his face. “Is this what you meant when you said you had a project?”
Tony’s smile turned into a smirk. “Maybe.”
“Tony’s been making me a new arm,” Bucky said, wiggling the fingers of his left hand.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “That’s great. What—”
“Don’t ask,” Bucky cut him off. “He’ll spend hours explaining how the model he’s building is far superior to the one I’ve got now, and you’ll never get him to shut up.”
“I don’t talk about it that much,” Tony protested, and Bucky gave him a pointed look. “Okay, maybe a little bit, but you were the one who sat there and listened and then asked questions.”
Steve laughed. “Looks like the two of you have met your match.”
Bucky blinked at that because without noticing it, they had slipped into this easy companionship, both of them comfortable with the other in ways that weren’t obvious until another person was in the room. The Winter Soldier was still within his mind, and some days it took all of his energy to keep it at bay, but it had all but disappeared from his outward demeanor. It had left marks, of course, and Bucky knew that he wasn’t the same, but this toothless sarcasm, this friendship he had with Tony, maybe that was a little bit of who he had been. Bucky had been at the Tower for less than a month, but they knew each other as if for years, and also very little. It was comforting, to be known like that.
They ordered Chinese food and ate it lounging around the common floor, and Steve didn’t comment when Bucky claimed the armchair next to Tony’s end of the couch rather than Steve’s. They danced around each other for a bit, trying to find a comfortable topic of conversation, and eventually settled on Steve catching Tony up on the doings of the new Avengers team, and both of them pitching in with stories when Bucky had a question. Bucky told Steve about the catalyst for his coming to the Tower, watching his increasingly astonished expression with amusement as Steve realized they’d been following behind Bucky for the entire year since SHIELD collapsed and had never known. Tony was animated, laughing at Steve’s recounting of the ongoing prank war between Sam and Rhodey and Vision’s confusion over the whole thing, and looking at ease in a way Bucky knew he usually wasn’t except when immersed in working on the arm. Steve, for his part, played the perfect straight man, and Bucky wondered if Steve realized that his dry wit was as much of a match for Tony as their mutual snarking.
It was easier, in some ways, actually interacting with Steve. It kept him from spiraling into disproportionate possibilities, kept him grounded in the present state of his mind, and it was something new, something that hadn’t been touched by HYDRA when they blocked his memories and they’d come back twisted. In other ways it was harder. He could hear Pierce’s voice giving the order, hear an electric whisper in the back of his mind reminding him that the Winter Soldier had never failed a mission before. There was an energy burning through his body, and he wanted to run across the room, throw himself at Steve. The problem was, he didn’t know what he would do if he did close the distance. The part of him that was Bucky wanted to hold on and never let go, but the Winter Soldier acted without thought, and he couldn’t take the risk of getting too close. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it anymore, Bucky excused himself and took his knives down to the gym. Imagining it was Zola’s face on the target, he carefully embedded blade after blade between the man’s eyes, hating him for making this so hard. He just wanted to be with Steve, Steve who had been his best friend, his partner, his lover. He had to empty his knife belt twice before he no longer felt like he was going to fly apart at the seams, and several more times before he regained some sense of balance.
When Bucky returned to the common floor, he found Steve and Tony engaged in a tense argument. They were both standing now, and neither of them paid any attention to Bucky’s entrance. Steve had his determined face on, and Tony looked like he wanted to bolt but was keeping himself there through sheer stubborn force of will. Bucky had a flash of pride for him before his mind got caught up processing the words flying back and forth.
“Rhodey’s got my place, you can use him. You don’t need me.”
“That’s not true, Tony. Rhodey’s a fine soldier, but he doesn’t have your perspective, your ingenuity or independence—”
“Yeah, ’cause he follows orders. Isn’t that what you want right now? All that shit with Ultron—that’s all down to me not being a good little soldier and disobeying your orders and look where that got us! You don’t want me back.”
“I never wanted you to leave. Maybe I didn’t agree with your idea, but what Ultron did was not your fault. And none of that is a reason to shut you out—”
“You could have told me that. You could have said something when I left—”
“I thought you were going back to Pepper! I knew she was uncomfortable with you joining us to root out HYDRA, and I didn’t want to interfere with that. It wasn’t my place.”
Tony dropped his eyes because even though Steve would never say it, he could still hear the accusation behind the words. After all the ways he’d fucked up, one more shouldn’t make a difference, but this was Steve, and so it did.
In a quieter voice, Steve said, “I would love to have you back, in whatever capacity you’re comfortable with. You’re my friend, Tony, and I value your input. Contrary to what the public might think, I’m not infallible. I don’t need people who follow me blindly, especially not now that we’re on our own.”
“Isn’t that just one more reason not to take me back?” Tony shot at him, chin at a wounded, defensive angle. “The Avengers don’t have SHIELD to hide behind anymore. When I fuck up, I fuck up bad, and the public’s gonna want someone to blame. We’re lucky they haven’t thought to question how Ultron happened too closely yet. I’m a liability, Steve.”
“Tony,” Bucky interjected quietly, and he and Steve both turned sharply, startled. “You’re not going to be punished for Ultron.” Tony opened his mouth to object, but Bucky didn’t let him. “I know, I know it’s not that easy. The guilt doesn’t just go away. So if you need a consequence, then it’s Pepper. You told me once she was all you had. But now you have other people and you can’t use being alone as an excuse for doing stupid shit. If you can’t accept that you’re part of a team, then you don’t get to take Pepper for granted.”
Tony processed that for a moment before narrowing his eyes and saying, “You know, for someone with amnesia, you have a remarkably accurate memory.”
“And you’re remarkably good at pushing people away for someone with abandonment issues.”
Tony’s mouth worked. “…Touché.”
“You’re a futurist, Tony,” Steve said. “Make your future better.”
He sighed heavily, running a hand over his face. “Yeah, okay. I think I deserve a drink for this.” To Steve’s surprise, he looked at Bucky for permission.
Bucky smiled. “Sure. We can celebrate Steve coming to visit.” He made his way over to the bar, the other two trailing behind. Sliding a glass across the counter for Tony, he glanced at Steve, took in the silent question in his raised eyebrows. “We have a deal. If he drinks, he has to talk about it. You want anything, Steve?”
“No, alcohol kind of lost its appeal when it stopped having an effect. Now it just tastes weird.”
“Yeah, same.” Bucky poured his own drink. “I don’t let Tony drink alone, though.”
“Wait, really?” Tony asked, sounding surprised. “You can’t get drunk? Not even tipsy?”
“Well, maybe if I drank a lot.” Bucky leaned his elbows on the counter. “My serum’s not as good as Steve’s. Wouldn’t be worth it, though. I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s still kinda nasty.”
“Oh.” Tony stuck his nose in his glass, his cheeks slightly pinker than they were before.
Steve was still staring at Bucky, and while Tony was momentarily distracted he leaned partway across the counter, voice lowered. “I’m impressed.”
Bucky just shrugged, sipping his whiskey. “So, you gonna tell me what started this whole thing?”
“I asked Tony if he’d join in on some Avengers training exercises as Iron Man.”
“Felt too much like going back entirely,” Tony muttered.
“I think you should,” Bucky said, giving Tony a smile when he glanced up in surprise. “When you’re ready. You’re still on reserve, and it’d give you something to do with the new suit I know you’ve been working on.”
“At least come out to the Facility sometime to get stuff to upgrade. I know Sam’s got a list of tweaks for his wings, and Wanda needs some gear.”
“Fine, jeez.” Tony threw up his hands. “Can’t say no to the both of you.”
Steve grinned at Bucky, and he grinned right back, and for a moment everything felt normal.
The conversation turned to other things as Tony and Bucky finished their drinks, and then Tony asked, “You staying the night, Cap?”
“Yeah. I gotta head back in the morning though.”
“Come up for breakfast,” Bucky offered before he’d fully thought it through, and then mentally shrugged. He’d been pretty okay this evening. The morning would be fine. “It’s just the two of us, so all the food is in Tony’s kitchen.”
“Sure,” Steve smiled.
They made their ways to their own floors, then, and that was the second night Bucky managed not to wake from his nightmares.
Bucky was in Tony’s kitchen putting together ingredients for pancakes when a soft noise made him turn towards the door. Steve was standing there hesitantly, wearing blue sleep pants and a white t-shirt, his hair still mussed.
He tried for a smile and got halfway there. “Good morning. Are you…I mean, do you need me to wait?”
Bucky considered for a moment, biting his lip. He was only up this early because he hadn’t spent a couple of hours drinking cocoa and watching a movie, but Tony probably wouldn’t be up for a while despite the extra sleep. “You’re fine. Just…make sure I know where you are?”
Steve nodded, moving into the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee with milk, then planted himself at the table. Remaining stationary seemed the easiest course of action. He watched as Bucky resumed making breakfast, a coiled fluidity underlying his movements reminding Steve constantly that this was not the same man he’d known both four and seventy years ago. “You look…better.”
Bucky smiled at the understatement. “I feel better. Still not there yet, though.”
“Yeah, but you’re a far sight from the man I fought on the helicarrier, or on the bridge.”
“S’pose that’s true. Hard to remember some days.”
“Can I ask…I just, I don’t want to make this harder for you.”
Finished with the batter, Bucky turned around, leaning on the counter. He stared bluntly at Steve. “It’s always there, in the back of my mind. Sometimes closer, sometimes farther…but I’m always scared it’ll swallow me. Thinking about you, that’s the worst. You were my last mission, and the only one I left unfinished. You’re also the person I have the most memories of. Makes it hard.”
“Oh.” Steve frowned into his coffee, looking sad and upset.
Bucky shrugged. “It is what it is. Not much I can do but try an’ get through it.”
“D’you remember much?”
“Think so. It’s all jumbled, an’ it’s hard to know what I don’t know, but I prob’ly remember more than I don’t. Everything about you though, after the serum, it’s all…twisted.” Steve was still looking profoundly sad, so Bucky stepped forward, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Hey, maybe I can’t stay on one memory for too long, but I’ve never not thought of you since I escaped.”
Steve gave him a small smile for that, leaning just a bit into Bucky’s hand before he pulled back to lean on the counter again. “I missed you.”
“I’m not the same person I was.”
“I know. Neither am I. And you don’t have to do or be anything before you’re ready, even if it’s never. I just want you to know, though, that I missed you—missed us—and I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too, Stevie. Me too.” Bucky’s smile was sad.
Tony shuffled blearily in then, heading for the coffee machine by memory more than sight. “Why are you two even up at this ungodly hour?”
“It’s not that early, Tony,” Steve said, and Bucky laughed quietly, turning to pour his own cup of coffee and then pull out the griddle.
“You always say that, and it’s never true,” Tony groused, collapsing into a chair across from Steve.
Bucky studiously avoided looking at the table again as he began cooking the pancakes, letting the cadence of their voices wash over him without meaning, the sound enough for him to place their location. It was still too soon, and he’d gotten too close to the edge, allowing himself to interact with Steve like that. Tony’s presence helped, but still Bucky felt like he was staring out at the void. He concentrated on each breath, counting the seconds in, counting the seconds out, concentrated on each movement, completing tasks with precision and attention. They had taken away the Asset’s past in order to give him a future that extended only as far as the completion of the assignment; what Bucky needed, right now, was the present, and to just hold on a little longer so he could see Steve. Steve Rogers who was not entirely Captain America, Steve Rogers who was his friend.
They ate quietly, the conversation subdued, and Bucky excused himself quicker than was probably polite. He tried to smile when Steve shot him a worried look, but it came out a bit wobbly, and Bucky didn’t quite succeed in telling himself he wasn’t running away. As soon as he stepped into the gym, though, it was as if a dam had burst somewhere inside of him, releasing a pent up energy he hadn’t known had been building and suddenly his breath was heaving in his chest, a jittery feeling running through his hands and knees and up his back. Hurriedly, he punched up the settings on the treadmill and just ran, flat out, until his legs and his lungs were burning, driving out the cold that clutched at his bones. When he couldn’t run anymore, he propped himself underneath the utilitarian spray of the gym shower for a few minutes then retreated to the range. His left arm became the machine that it was, never tiring as he spun blade after blade through the air, going through the motions of calling up the target and refilling the belt one-handed, automatically. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when JOCASTA’s voice interrupted him.
“Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers would like to notify you that he will be leaving shortly.”
Bucky’s hand stopped just as it came up to his shoulder, ready to throw, and he slid the knife back into its sheath instead. He was only halfway through the belt, but he called the target back anyway. “Thanks, JOCASTA. Where is he now?”
“The Captain is with Sir on the common floor.”
“Alright.” He left the knife belt folded neatly on the range, squashing the impulse to guard his weaponry, and made his way back to the elevator. He felt exhausted down to his core, but at least that feeling was physical and real, and that made it better.
Steve and Tony were lingering in the lounge when Bucky came in, standing slightly closer together than a normal friendship called for, though neither of them seemed to notice. “You know your floor’s always available,” Tony was saying. “Come by whenever you want.”
Steve caught sight of Bucky and broke into a grin. “Hey, there you are.”
“Sorry.” He winced a little at the compulsion to apologize.
“Don’t be. I just told Tony I can’t be mad at him for not tellin’ me you were here, since you asked. You do what you need to, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Steve.” Bucky hesitated for a moment, then blurted, “Are you gonna come back?” before biting at his lower lip.
Steve’s eyebrows rose. “Do you want me to?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do,” Bucky nodded.
“Then yes. I’ve got Avengers stuff most days, but I can come by on the weekends. Keep him out of trouble for me until then, will you?” Steve tipped his head towards Tony, ignoring the engineer’s indignant protest, and Bucky couldn’t help but smile.
“Not like either of us can talk.”
Steve rolled his eyes fondly, but looked like he wanted to say something else. After a minute he said, “Hey, if you, ah, need a way to get used to me again, without me being there, then you’re welcome to use my floor. I just…it might help.”
“Oh. Um, yeah.”
“Great. I’ll tell JOCASTA to let you in, alright?”
Bucky nodded, and then Steve really did have to go. He hugged Tony, who put up a token protest but hugged back anyway, before turning to Bucky, looking like he was desperately trying not to ask. Bucky pulled him into another brief, intense hug and this time Steve was ready for him, holding on just as tightly, though he let go as soon as Bucky did. Steve smiled brilliantly at Bucky for that, and he gave them both a two-fingered salute as the elevator doors closed in front of him.
Bucky let out a slow exhale, feeling the tension bleed out of him, leaving something clearer in its wake. A thought occurred to him. “JOCASTA, what’s the date next Saturday?”
“July fourth,” the cultured tones of the AI responded promptly.
“Huh. Steve’ll be…” Bucky did some mental math, “…thirty. How ’bout that?”
“You know, I was never sure if that was his actual birthday or just a publicity thing,” Tony said, and Bucky blinked, having been talking mostly to himself. “And I didn’t really want to embarrass myself by asking. Don’t tell me he likes apple pie, too.”
Bucky grinned at him. “Yeah, but it’s only his second favorite.”
“What’s his first, then?”
Tony made a face, only half serious about it. “That weird stuff that comes in a can and doesn’t actually have any meat in it?”
“We grew up in the Depression,” Bucky shrugged. “Canned food was cheaper.”
“That…sounds exactly like Steve.”
“I know. The punk’s gone and got older than me though, so if you wanna make him something else, I ain’t gonna say anything.”
Tony had an interesting expression on his face, but before Bucky could figure out what it meant, it was gone and Bucky filed it away for later examination because Tony was grinning mischievously instead. “And I’ll put 97 candles on it.”
Bucky laughed and took the arm Tony held out as they went down to the workshop for the day.
It took him several days to work up the nerve to go down to Steve’s floor. As soon as he stepped out of the elevator, he could feel the anxiety and fear spike sharply, but he pushed it down on an exhale and made his way further into the room. Another exhale and he made himself stop casing the apartment for security features and flaws, and just take in the slightly strange effect of Steve’s aesthetic expanded to fill a Tony-sized space. It was, much like Steve himself, instinctively familiar yet disconcertingly different.
Bucky wandered through the floor, not touching anything, automatically cataloguing and memorizing the particulars of the apartment, unable to stop imagining the way Steve would have touched each item, interacted with it, moved through each space. There wasn’t much, just the things Steve had left behind when he moved out of the Tower, but there was enough for him to have left his imprint on the floor as a person rather than an icon. Bucky left the bedroom for last, his circuit of the room a bare cursory movement until he was stopped dead in his tracks, the photographs on Steve’s night table freezing him in place. Elsewhere in the apartment were photos of a young Peggy Carter and group shots of the Howling Commandos, but here there was just Bucky, face smudged with dirt but grinning widely at the camera, rifle slung over his shoulder, and in the frame next to him a woman in a nurse’s uniform with a face so much like Steve’s that she could only be Sarah Rogers. Bucky had forgotten what her face looked like. He’d forgotten what his face had looked like, before HYDRA started haunting it, when he’d been sure of himself and his place in the world. He spun on his heel and rushed out, standing in the common lounge trying to catch his breath before slipping down to the workshop without announcing his presence so that when Tony looked over to scold U for being a distraction to DUM-E and BUTTERFINGERS and found him sitting with his back to the side of the couch playing fetch with the robot, he startled so badly he nearly dropped a wrench on his foot.
Bucky did go back to Steve’s floor the next day, looking at specific items this time, trailing his fingers across the surfaces of things. He found a bookshelf full of titles they’d missed, To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 and Harry Potter and Lord of the Flies and Charlotte’s Web and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sitting next to a copy of The Hobbit were three more books, all with a considerable number of creases where Steve had dog-eared the page to save his spot, becoming a national icon having not, apparently, taught him to use a bookmark. On the bottom shelf was a row of sketchbooks with black leather covers, all neatly dated and in chronological order. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Bucky pulled out the first one and found portraits of all the Howling Commandos, alone or as a group, a couple of Peggy and Howard and a man who was named Dr. Erskine, doodles of signs and streets and buildings that had been gone for decades, but it seemed as if every third page had been torn out. Bucky ran his fingers over the ragged edges of the missing pages, wondering, and then suddenly he didn’t have to. In the back of the book, on the very last page, was a picture of Bucky, his mouth curled in a lazy smirk, eyes bright, the top of his shirt open to show his collarbones and the chain of his dog tags disappearing off the page. He looked like he was loved, and in love. Carefully, Bucky shut the sketchbook and slid it back onto the shelf, full of something that felt like tears but never spilled over, remaining trembling, perfectly balanced, at the brim.
Steve was right, though, that seeing his things would help because the next time he came to the Tower it was much easier. Between that, and knowing what to expect, and not having to defuse an argument, and Steve discreetly making sure Bucky wasn’t alone with him again, he only needed to retreat to the gym once, and managed to wait until a decent time after breakfast to do so. He felt less like he was standing at the edge of the void, but also like he needed to inflict violence on something, which was frightening because it meant he could be fully present in his mind and still unable to stop himself from hurting the only two people in the world he cared about. It was probably progress, of a sort, but it still left him feeling unsteady and slightly nauseous as his knives thunked viciously into the targets. They had all stayed up late the night before, playing music with the volume turned up to cover the noise of the fireworks and arguing over which song to play next, so Steve stayed into the afternoon to say goodbye to Tony even though with the amount of sleep he needed he could have still left in the morning. Bucky managed to bury all of his knives to the hilt in the wood of the target before he went up to hug Steve goodbye.
That week, when Bucky went down to Steve’s floor, he wandered through the bedroom again and on a whim pulled open one of his dresser drawers. There was a neatly folded grey sweatshirt sitting on top, and Bucky pulled it up to his nose. It still smelled like Steve, just a little bit. He let himself be engulfed by the familiar scent, let it take him back to the apartment they shared for those few years, even if it could only be for a moment. And then…Bucky’s eyes flew open. Nothing had happened. HYDRA’s conditioning, reviling almost every aspect of Captain America, had not touched the way Steve smelled. He could not even remember a scent from his time as the Winter Soldier other than snow and faintly, blood. The sound that escaped his throat was halfway between a laugh and a sob, and he yanked the sweatshirt over his head, burying himself within it.
Bucky pulled all of Steve’s sketchbooks off the shelf and wedged himself into a corner of the room, sitting on the floor with the leather-bound volumes piled next to him. Carefully, methodically, he began going through each one, starting again with the first one. After that first picture of him that Steve had kept, it was as if a switch had been flipped, and as many pages as were ripped out of the first sketchbook were filled with pictures of Bucky in the second. Steve had drawn him as a child and as a teenager, in the suit he wore to Sarah Rogers’ funeral, in his army fatigues, in nothing at all. Each picture was carefully labeled, sometimes as Bucky, sometimes as James Buchanan Barnes, and one, of him standing on a mountain ledge with a rifle on his back and the empty sky beyond, looking brave and loyal and earnest, was labeled That Jerk. In between the pictures of him were sketches of Steve’s mother and Bucky’s family, of Brooklyn and their apartment, of the apartments they had grown up in, of the building they went to school in, of things no one had thought to take pictures of, things no one else but Steve remembered. Halfway through, the sketches began to change and now they were of the modern skyline, the view from Steve’s window, the chaos of the streets and Times Square, people he’d passed on the sidewalk.
Bucky had to take the sweatshirt off to let Tony work on his arm, but afterwards he went back up to Steve’s floor and picked up where he had left off. The third book held pictures of a helicarrier; of Tony, the Black Widow, Bruce, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Hawkeye; of a man in a horned helmet carrying a scepter; of bloody trading cards scattered across a glass table; of Tony. Sprinkled throughout were still pictures of Bucky, though now they were less. After that there were pictures of Washington D.C.; of scenes and little bits of technology that no one in the future would think twice about but that would hardly have been dreamed of in the thirties; of Black Widow again, now labeled Natasha; a couple of a woman named Sharon. There were none of Bucky, but sitting on a page dwarfed by blank space were carefully drawn dog tags, their chain pooled underneath them, the serial number small but clearly legible: 32557038. It wasn’t Steve’s number. It was Bucky’s. For some reason, that was the picture that started him crying, heaving and sobbing, and he had to close the sketchbook to keep from getting the pages damp, wiping at his eyes with the sleeve of Steve’s sweatshirt.
When he was just down to sniffles, Bucky pulled open the next book and suddenly there were pictures of him again, as he used to be, and as the Winter Soldier. Some of those were unfinished, his left shoulder trailing into nothing, or else his eyes, his expression, were obscured. There were more pictures of Natasha, and pictures of the man with wings, who was named Sam. Then there were pictures of New York again, Avengers Tower, the team sitting around in their sleep wear on movie night, Thor and Clint and Bruce and Natasha. There was a picture of Pepper, and a man named Coulson, and a woman named Maria Hill. There was a whole series of Tony, in the workshop, in the kitchen before coffee, in his business suit, as Iron Man, until suddenly there wasn’t and every picture of Tony after that also included someone else. By the time Bucky was done, the sweatshirt no longer smelled like Steve. He wore it to bed anyway, before tucking it back in the drawer.
Steve stayed longer that weekend, arriving late Friday night and leaving Sunday evening. Bucky managed to confine his need for violence to the punching bags, and Tony helped him set up new targets in the range, replacing the chewed up wood with fresh boards that could be set to move erratically. Steve found them as they were finishing up and attempted to cajole Tony into sparring with him, for practice. Tony resisted, but Bucky shooed both of them out of the range so he could sharpen his knives, effectively winning the argument for Steve. The two of them told stories of the Howling Commandos and their wayward youth, though they avoided Bucky’s capture by HYDRA and the train, and that also helped to fill in the personality of Steve behind the outline of Captain America. Out of habit or discretion, they also left out the particulars of their relationship, though Steve’s crush on Peggy Carter was no secret and fair game for making him blush. Throughout it all, Tony had the same interesting expression on his face from before, which was partially explained when he interrupted them to ask, “Are you two aware that your accents come out when you talk to each other?” They hadn’t been, and for some reason this was unreasonably funny. When Steve left, Bucky waited a day before he slipped down to his floor. He found the grey sweatshirt sitting out on the end of the bed, still neatly folded but smelling like Steve again.
Slowly, they shifted into a new normal. The afternoons were still for working on the arm, but now Bucky spent most of his mornings in the workshop as well, occupying himself with his tablet or a book or just talking with Tony while the engineer messed about with schematics and prototypes for various upgrades and new features for the Avengers’ equipment. Occasionally, Tony would venture down to his office at SI when there was paperwork he absolutely could not avoid anymore, and those were the mornings Bucky would return to the gym. There were fewer nights when Bucky could not sleep for fear of his dreams, and so Tony declared one day that they were watching movies in the evenings instead. He also started following Bucky upstairs when he was done with the arm for the day, hanging around in the kitchen and eating dinner with him, but that Tony did not announce. Bucky tried not to let on exactly how pleased he was by this development, and just endeavored to make Tony slightly less hopeless when it came to feeding himself. Both of them looked forward to Steve’s visits on the weekends. Bucky started sitting closer to Steve, and managed to laugh when Steve told a story Bucky didn’t remember and when Tony dug up some old footage from one of the first shows on Steve’s USO tour because it was too ridiculous not to. They traded Steve’s sweatshirt back and forth, but he still didn’t let Steve touch him for long, and sometimes he felt like he was suffocating with the weight of who he used to be. There was the Asset, yes, empty and cold, with a singular devotion to the mission and the kill; but there was also the Bucky Barnes from before the war, the echo of his voice responding to the conversation even before he opened his mouth, what he once would have said now feeling uncomfortable and false. Bucky just breathed in and breathed out, counting his heartbeats, and let Steve and Tony carry the conversation when he couldn’t because it did get better. With each week that went by, he was getting better, even if he did sometimes need Steve there to be able to see it.
Tony was just about to leave his office to escape back to the workshop when the phone rang. He narrowed his eyes at the offending item, sitting in its cradle on the corner of his desk because as much as he loved his StarkPhone with its sleek transparency and exceptional battery life and excessive amounts of features, there was something deeply satisfying about slamming the phone down when he no longer had to listen to the annoying suit on the other end of the line who was inevitably demanding his time, attention, money, or all three. The call wasn’t to his cell, and it hadn’t gone through JOCASTA, and he had just sent a very important document off to the L.A. offices almost but not quite unacceptably late, so really, there was only one person it could be. Tony sighed and sat back down, picking up the receiver.
“Hi, Tony,” Pepper’s voice said, sounding unsure but also relieved.
“Hey Pep.” Tony fiddled with a pen, staring at the glass of his window, waiting.
“I wanted to let you know I’ll be coming back to New York in a couple of weeks, and…and I’m sorry for not calling you earlier. I should have, but I didn’t, and it wasn’t right.”
“It’s fine, Pepper. Really, it is.”
“No, it’s not,” she insisted. “I knew I was leaving you alone, and I knew what that would be like for you, and I still—” Pepper let out a self-depreciating laugh. “I hid behind Captain America, and it took me a month to do even that. It’s not really behavior fit for someone who’s made it onto more magazine lists than I care to count, is it?”
“Hey, pretty sure I made it onto some of those and I wasn’t even trying, so...”
“Tony,” Pepper said in that tone that meant stop that. “I just want to know you’re doing okay.”
“Yeah, sure, I’m fine.” He could feel her exasperated look through the phone. “Like actually fine, Pepper, don’t give me that. Steve comes by. On the weekends. And I’ve been doing your work, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you’ve been doing just enough work to let me put off calling you for the past three months. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? You and I both know that seeing Steve on the weekends is not enough for your mental well-being—”
“Okay, okay, I have got someone else,” Tony interrupted before she could continue on with that thought, “living at the Tower with me. And before you get any ideas, he’s in the guest rooms. Which I guess are now his rooms, but anyway. We hang. It’s cool.”
“Tony—” Pepper said abruptly in a tone that was trying to hide disbelief at his ability to make rational decisions behind the benefit of the doubt. Really, it was amazing how many different emotions people could fit into his name.
“No, I can’t tell you who he is, and not just because it’s classified information of a top-secret government agency. I will say, though, that he’s a friend of Steve’s, so you can stop worrying.”
“SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore, and if Steve knows him, why can’t you tell me?”
“Because he might not want me to, and it’s his decision to make.” Tony had a moment to recognize the maturity of that statement before he registered the weighty silence that had descended. For reasons that escaped him, he found himself opening his mouth to say, “You know, he told me that you were my punishment for Ultron, that I didn’t get to take you for granted anymore.”
Pepper sighed, a long hiss of air. “That isn’t why I left. I just…I want you to know that. I left for myself, not—not out of any desire to hurt you, and I don’t really know how I can prove that, other than telling you it’s true.”
“It’s fine Pep. I do know. It’s just…easier, somehow, to think of it like that. Means I have to get better, doesn’t it?”
“Tony, I’m not—”
“No—no, of course you’re not. But maybe the next time I meet someone as beautiful and capable and smart as you, I might actually deserve them.” Tony said it flippantly, offhandedly, as much to keep Pepper from questioning him further as to prevent himself from wondering who exactly that might be.
Pepper seemed to accept it because the next thing she said was only, “Well, your beautiful, capable, and smart CEO would like you to know that there’s a board meeting in two weeks, and I would appreciate your presence.”
“Yeah, sure Pep.” Tony hesitated for a moment before he went with his usual fuck it and said, “Will that be all, Miss Potts?”
The smile in Pepper’s voice was small but genuine when she replied, “That will be all Mister Stark.”
He managed to put the phone receiver back in its cradle before he sighed and heaved himself up from his desk to go back upstairs.
Bucky was sitting in the common floor lounge when Tony came in, reading Steve’s copy of Return of the King. He looked up, expression immediately one of concern as he registered the unhappy downturn of Tony’s mouth.
“Do you want a drink?” Bucky asked quietly, Tony dropping himself on the couch next to him with an enormous sigh.
He rubbed at his face, pulling the skin beneath his eyes in an attempt to feel less tired. “No… No, just…Pepper called.”
“Oh.” Bucky gave in and reached for Tony, pulling him into a sideways hug, gratified when the engineer let out a contented exhalation and rested his head on Bucky’s shoulder, his hair brushing Bucky’s jaw. He put his book down and Tony slid an arm loosely around his back, shifting closer to lean fully against Bucky, and he had to bite the inside of his lip for a moment to keep back his smile.
“Pepper always…took me as I was.” Tony’s voice was quiet, only clearly distinct because of Bucky’s enhanced hearing. “I thought that was a good thing, but it didn’t do much to keep me from imploding, trying to do what I thought she’d want while not actually changing anything. I don’t think anyone could have stuck with me through all that. I wouldn’t have, if I were her.”
Bucky didn’t say anything to that. None of the responses he had seemed particularly appropriate. At some point Tony’s fingers had found Bucky’s metal ones and they both watched the fine articulation in his fingers and his palm as Tony absently manipulated his hand. Eventually Tony settled on simply holding the back of it, fingers bent just slightly into Bucky’s palm, and he was only a little surprised when Bucky curled his fingers down to hold his.
They sat in silence for several moments until Tony said, “Your arm should be ready today.”
Bucky hummed in acknowledgement, but neither of them moved. Neither of them wanted to.
When they did finally go down to the workshop, there was something different between the two of them, an energy snapping in the space between their bodies as they avoided mentioning the physical contact that had just taken place. Bucky was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining it, but was less certain of his welcome. Tony had just spoken to his ex of three months; now was maybe not the right time. So Bucky just watched as Tony fit the last of the outer plating on the new arm, and opted to keep the star at the shoulder but color it white instead of red, and agreed to come back down to the workshop in the morning to begin the process of switching the prosthetics out. Bucky had to admit, the finished arm was beautiful. It wasn’t much different from his current arm, on the outside, but he’d watched it grow, slowly, from Tony’s mind through his hands to the physical, real object sitting on the table waiting for him. He’d seen it through the eyes of Tony Stark, and it didn’t have any blood on it.
The next morning Bucky sat in the workshop with his shirt off, and Tony resolutely did not look at his chest as he removed the plating along the top of his shoulder so he could get to work disconnecting the metal arm fully. He could feel intense blue eyes watching him and against his will his cheeks started heating, which was stupid because Bucky always watched him as he worked on the arm. Tony shook his head and started talking to try to get himself to focus on what his hands were doing.
“Right, okay, so first things first, I’m gonna disconnect the arc reactor from your motor system, so you won’t be able to move anything, although you will still feel stuff. Try to wiggle your fingers for me.”
Bucky tried, and nothing happened. His fingers stayed motionless, and he had to resist the impulse to jerk his shoulder away from Tony’s hands, drag his arm off the workbench as he stared. He was weakened without the use of his arm, if anything happened it’d be a liability, a hindrance, and he had to fight down a surge of panic because Tony was still talking.
“That’s good, and now we start on the wiring in your nervous system.” Tony reached into his shoulder socket and Bucky was morbidly fascinated by the way his hands disappeared until his arm started to lose its feeling and he had to look away. He tried to ignore the numbness spreading up from his fingertips, squeezing his eyes closed, until all he could feel was that he did have an arm that was extended horizontally, fingertips curled in, and then even that was gone.
“Okay, I’m just gonna move your shoulder motor so I can get at this… And finally—” Tony stood to get better leverage and unhooked the metal arm completely from its reinforced socket, setting the heavy thing down on the table. Bucky’s eyes flew open and he had to grab at the side of his chair to keep himself from tipping over, desperately counting the seconds of his breathing. His arm was lying on the workbench, looking grotesque and foreign and dead, and for a wild moment Bucky wondered if he could just live without his left arm for the rest of his life.
Tony was watching him in concern. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine, I’m fine.” Bucky nodded at him to keep going.
“Alrighty then.” Tony got back to work, babbling a little, narrating what he was doing more fully because he knew that tone of voice from personal experience and what it really meant was, I’m not fine but I need to just get this over with. “We are very lucky that whatever precision they had in the forties—or fifties, I guess—was not down to the individual neuron because all these weird plate things that you actually can’t see but they’re embedded in your skin as a way to bridge the gap between your biological nervous system and the electronics in the arm—anyway, those are all connected to all of your neural pathways and it’s just a matter of adding in the right amount of connections on the electrical side, which HYDRA didn’t do so that’s why you have less feeling in this arm—also ’cause they didn’t have the right amount of sensors embedded in your plating—but I did, so ultimately this should feel exactly like your other arm. Except for maybe the pain threshold, since it is made of metal and thus harder to damage. But anyway, that’s all done,” Tony said, securing the final component he’d designed to replace the top of the bio-electrical transition plates. They really needed a sexier name for just how mind-bogglingly amazing they were…and Tony needed to find an adjective for that other than sexy when they happened to be attached to, well, who they were attached to. “And now we can start putting on your new arm.”
He pushed the old model out of the way on the workbench and slid the new one into its place. The plating was removed past the star, and the top bristled with the ends of wires bunched together in various groups, most of them capped with color coded tape. Carefully lifting the end of the prosthetic into place, Tony began hooking it into Bucky’s shoulder. As soon as the new arm was secure and supported solely by his own body, Bucky could feel his breathing even out, just a little bit, the horrible absence at his left side starting to be filled. Tony quickly attached a portion of the wiring, and then slotted an arc reactor into place, and just like that it was a part of Bucky’s body, of who he was.
“Wiggle your fingers?” Tony asked again, and Bucky couldn’t hold back his grin when the prosthetic—when his arm—responded. Tony grinned back. “Right, so in the interest of not totally flooding you with sensory overload, I’ve only connected about as many sensors as in your previous arm. We can connect the rest of them over the next couple of days, give you some time to adjust in between, sound good? Then they’ll need some calibration to bring your sensory thresholds to typical levels, and that’ll be that.”
Bucky nodded, preoccupied with his new arm and nearly fidgeting in impatience as Tony closed up the plating on the upper arm and shoulder, the white star visible as part of him for the first time. The grin was back on his face as he lifted his arm from the workbench, the movement smooth and fluid, easy in a way he hadn’t realized his old one hadn’t been. It was lighter, and the floaty feeling was back in his shoulder, almost as strong as when Tony had fixed his suspension system. There was an expansive helium feeling in his chest too, and Bucky realized that for the first time he actually liked his arm. HYDRA had given the first one to him as augmentation for their tool, but this one was his. It didn’t have a purpose; he could use it however he wanted, and really, the first thing he wanted to do with it was grab Tony and kiss him. The engineer had turned away to fuss with his tools, though, so Bucky settled for rotating his wrist instead, and then trying out the movement of each joint from his fingertips to his shoulder.
He was still finding the lightness down his entire limb rather strange, and seemingly contrary to Tony’s claim of the metal being stronger this time. Bucky slid off of his chair into a crouch and flattened his palm against the floor. Leaning onto his shoulder, pressing it down firmly, he lifted his weight above him until he was stretched out upside down, supported by a single hand and the rest of his limbs in a delicate balancing act. He managed to hold the position for a moment before DUM-E, who’d come over curiously at some point during the proceedings, got a little too inquisitive and toppled him over onto his back, and suddenly Bucky was laughing. When Tony turned around to find the former assassin sprawled on the floor with a shop-assistant robotic arm hovering over him and said, “I don’t even want to know,” Bucky just laughed harder, and eventually Tony joined in.
For the next several days, Bucky found himself caught between conflicting states. He was constantly surprised by the additional feeling he gained as more and more of the wiring in his arm was connected. He wandered around trailing his fingers over objects and walls, picking up random items. Once he almost burnt part of their dinner when he grabbed a pan on the stove and realized he could feel that the handle was hot. He felt a bit like a child giddy with a new toy. At the same time, whatever had been between him and Tony was dissipating, the engineer seemingly determined to force them back to the friendly terms they’d been on before. It would have been disappointing, except that it didn’t always work. As it was, it was mostly confusing. Bucky could almost see the calculation, the hesitation, the moment when Tony deliberately placed a distance between them. Emotionally invested in the situation as he was, he couldn’t figure out what it meant, and he knew Tony wouldn’t talk to him, with or without alcohol. The reason he’d succeeded in getting Tony to open up before was because he had no attachments to anything Tony talked about, but now he was what Tony needed to talk about, and Bucky wasn’t sure what to do.
It was almost a relief when Steve came to visit that weekend, and Bucky greeted him with a proper hug, none of the desperation or fear of earlier times pervading the contact. When he stepped back, he didn’t go far, and Steve positively beamed at him for that. This time it was Tony who looked like he wanted to escape, and after the fourth time he opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and closed it uncomfortably again, Bucky finally told him, “I’ll be fine if you go.” More than just a physical change, the increase in feeling in his arm was another step away from the dead emptiness of the Winter Soldier, so yes, he would be fine.
Tony practically jumped out of his seat. “Twenty minutes. Sorry.” He sounded guilty, but then he was gone.
Steve watched him go, then turned to Bucky with raised eyebrows. Bucky just shrugged. “He’s been squirrely all week.” He knew Steve would want more of an explanation than that, but he didn’t really have one, so he went with a partial truth. “Pepper called.”
“He actually talk to her?”
“Sounded like it.”
Steve sighed, resting his head on the back of the couch. “I still wish he’d told us they’d broken up. That’s so much like him, though.”
“D’you think we ever broke up?” Bucky tucked his feet underneath Steve’s thigh, ignoring the spike of wrong wrong wrong in the back of his head, and Steve picked his head up to look at him. “I mean, I just fell off a train.”
Steve frowned. “Don’t joke about that,” he said quietly. “I thought you were dead for three years, you jerk.” The affectionate insult took some of the sting out of the reproach.
“Sorry… Don’t have much of a choice, though, do I? I treat everything in my life like some tragedy, I’ll end up wallowing in guilt an’ never get out.” Bucky watched Steve looking at him, watched the thin press of his mouth twist into a half smile as Steve forced himself to adjust to this version of him. Bucky thought maybe he loved Steve for that.
“…That’s another thing, innit?” Bucky asked, going back to their earlier topic of conversation. “You’ve been un-frozen for four years but I’ve only been out for one, so how do we count that? And then there’s this, which I’m not sure what it is…”
“It’s whatever you want it to be, Buck.”
He groaned. “You’re no help, you know that?”
“Always.” Steve smiled dorkily at him. “Did you know it’s okay for two guys to be in a relationship nowadays? Can even get married if they want.”
“Yeah.” Bucky smiled back, and then it turned into more of a smirk. “You tell the public you’re bi yet?”
“Oh God no, I think it would break them.” Steve was all wide-eyed incredulity and mock outrage. “There seems to be this impression that just because I’m considered old-fashioned these days, I’m some goody two-shoes virgin. I either get really invasive questions or blatant innuendos, and I can’t decide which one is worse.”
Bucky burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. “They have no idea how much of a punk you really are, do they?”
“And I was in the army!”
“And dating me. Oh Lord.” Bucky collapsed sideways against the back of the couch, and Steve grinned along with him, his hand coming to circle Bucky’s ankle lightly.
When Tony came back, in the middle of a discussion about bananas, and Bucky didn’t immediately latch on to him, Steve cautiously floated the idea of coming to the Facility. “Between the two of them, Coulson and Hill probably have enough resources to get a legal identity established for you, even without the official channels SHIELD had when they found me.”
Bucky was enthusiastic about the idea, which surprised Steve, so Bucky rolled his eyes at him. “The internet’s great an’ all, but I ain’t actually seen much of this future. And HYDRA didn’t have anything to say about it to me, so.”
“Would you like to come?” Steve asked Tony.
“You don’t have to,” Bucky said when the engineer made a conflicted face and didn’t immediately respond. “But I can’t be your kept man forever, can I?” He shoved Tony’s shoulder lightly, getting a well-practiced laugh in response. It only sounded forced to those who already knew.
Bucky spent the rest of Steve’s visit surreptitiously watching Tony, who was himself watching both Steve and Bucky, except when he was deliberately not watching them. Neither of them let on that their attention was on the other, though Bucky was of course much better at it, which was how he knew Tony was paying attention to him and not the movie whose science Tony was currently criticizing. Bucky came to the conclusion that the way Tony had started interacting with him was exactly the same as he was interacting with Steve, though with Steve it was much more practiced. Which was…interesting, to say the least.
Over the next week, Tony and Bucky spent hours painstakingly calibrating the sensors in Bucky’s arm, which involved trying to decide if he could feel various minute stimuli on individual plates, and then doing it again with his eyes closed. When he couldn’t, it either meant Tony had to work with a magnifying glass—or JOCASTA’s holographic equivalent—or open up Bucky’s shoulder, and occasionally both. Afterwards his arm would feel weird and oversensitive, even though it was now supposedly equivalent to his flesh arm. They left his pain threshold mostly the same, since the arm wasn’t likely to be injured; the heat sensors would overload after a certain point, even if it wouldn’t otherwise damage the metal, so that was the only change there. “Your feedback system only runs on one speed, though,” Tony said, “so if your arm does break, and it’s not being continually irritated like it was before, you’re not going to have a constant reminder. So you should just be aware.”
Throughout the process Tony had become increasingly melancholy and withdrawn, and Bucky did at least know the reason for that. So on Saturday, when Tony announced that his arm was done with a complete lack of enthusiasm, Bucky caught his wrist before he could turn away. “This doesn’t mean I’m going to leave, Tony,” he insisted.
“I didn’t say you were,” Tony said a little too quickly, shifting backwards slightly but not actually pulling away from Bucky’s grip.
“Not explicitly, no,” he agreed. “But I do remember what you were like when I first came here, and I wouldn’t do that to you again.”
Tony’s eyes slid away. “You say that now…”
Bucky gave him a slight shake, making Tony’s eyes flick briefly to meet his. “Tony. I wouldn’t.”
“Steve’s taking you to the Facility, though.” There was a lot hanging off of that sentence, weighty and unsaid.
“I’m not just gonna drop everything to go live with Steve. I’ll be back tomorrow. The Tower is my home, Tony.” Behind them, the elevator dinged, audible from the hallway through a relay. Tony glanced over Bucky’s shoulder, but Bucky ignored it, continuing on in a softer tone of voice. “I can’t leave, anyway, because there’s something important to me here.” He shifted closer, and Tony was staring at him now. Bucky cupped the side of his face with one hand, thumb brushing briefly over his cheekbone. “Someone important.” He gave Tony enough time to pull away, refuse him, and when he didn’t, Bucky kissed him.
It was a short and somehow uncomplicated declaration of feelings, and Tony was left chasing after his mouth for the briefest of moments when Bucky pulled away. Then his half-lidded eyes came fully open again and he was left slightly stunned, barely cognizant of the hand still circling his wrist as Bucky finally turned to acknowledge Steve.
“Hey Buck. You ready to go?”
“Yeah, arm’s all done.” He turned back to Tony, hand sliding down to hold his, squeezing lightly. He smiled. “Thank you, Tony. For everything. I’ll see you later, yeah?”
Somewhere, Tony’s brain managed to find words to come out of his mouth that probably were along the lines of, “Later. Yeah. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later,” but stupidly all he could think was that Bucky’s eyes were really pretty when he smiled. They were darker than Steve’s. He was so incredibly fucked.
Steve managed to hold it together until they were in the elevator, and then he broke out in a teasing grin, wide and bright, all directed at Bucky, so Bucky shoved his shoulder. “Shut up, punk.”
Steve knocked his shoulder back against Bucky’s, expression firmly in place. “I didn’t say anything.” It was almost, almost a sing-song.
“You were going to.” All the bite was taken out by the smile Bucky was trying to hold back.
“If I did, I’d say I think you’re good for each other.” Steve managed to sound slightly more serious.
Bucky gave up fighting his smile and put his head on Steve’s shoulder for the rest of the ride to the garage, their fingers brushing. “Thanks, Stevie.”
The Facility was some hours away, in a relatively secluded area of upstate New York. When Steve pulled into the garage, parking the non-descript silver sedan he’d taken instead of his bike next to several others just like it, there was a woman waiting for them. She had short fiery hair and was wearing a black uniform and a guarded expression with equal ease, her arms folded across her chest. Bucky recognized her from the footage he’d seen of the Battle of New York, from Steve’s drawings, from their own fight on the bridge. The Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff.
“Nat—” Steve started as they came around the car to find her blocking the way to the rest of the Facility, but Romanoff cut him off, speaking in Russian directly to Bucky, her tone short and clipped.
“You have done a lot of damage.” And I won’t let you pass unless I think my team will be safe, was the implication, coming across loud and clear.
Steve looked uncomfortable, having understood the tone if not the meaning of the words. He opened his mouth to say something, but Bucky stopped him with a touch to the back of his hand.
“HYDRA’s done a lot of damage. I have to live with the memories,” he replied evenly, the Russian words waiting for him on his tongue.
“You nearly killed the Captain,” she said, using Steve’s title half to keep him from recognizing his name and half to see what sort of reaction it would get out of Bucky, her tone just short of venomous.
“You left Antoshka alone,” he shot back, using the Russian endearment for Tony for the same reasons, and because he wanted to.
Romanoff lifted one brow a fraction. “Antoshka? Is it you and him now?”
“If he’ll have me.” He tilted his chin defiantly, deliberately.
She shot a pointed look at his and Steve’s hands, still touching, fingers almost entwined, at the way Steve had shifted protectively closer to Bucky, unsure of the exchange that was going on around him, but trusting Bucky’s judgement to hold back.
“Once,” he explained. “Not now. When I’m ready. He knows that.”
“You planning to leave your Antoshka?”
“I’ll take your other arm if you hurt either of them.”
“I’d deserve it if I did.”
Abruptly, she changed tact. “Where were you for the past year?”
“You left the job unfinished.”
“I was acting alone.” He knew she wouldn’t miss his use of past-tense. He’d been acting alone, but wasn’t any longer. “I made your job easier.”
Romanoff gave him a slow, spare nod. Unfolding her arms, she braced them on her hips, the fingers of one hand tapping at a spot just above the bone. Bucky watched the deliberate beat for a moment before returning to her still closed-off expression. There would be no hints there. He narrowed his eyes assessingly.
“I’ve shot you twice, haven’t I?”
Just like that, Natasha dropped her hostility, face opening up into something actually slightly friendly. “I keep the good vodka in my room. You should come by sometime.”
Bucky allowed himself a wry half-smile in response. “You won’t get me drunk.”
Natasha waved her hand, dismissing the comment. “That’s fine. You’re not the only one with red in your ledger here.” She made it sound as if those statements should be reversed, and Bucky decided he liked her. Turning away and switching to English for Steve’s benefit, she added over her shoulder, “You should talk to Clint sometime, too.” Then she disappeared into the Facility proper.
Steve turned to Bucky, confusion written across his face. “I have no idea what just happened, but I feel like I should apologize.”
“It’s fine,” Bucky smiled. “I think we’ll be friends. Oh, I should say, she knows about us, and about me and Tony. She threatened to take my arm if I hurt him.”
Steve went wide-eyed. “I didn’t tell her where you were, I swear. I only told Sam he could stop looking, and I didn’t tell the team you were coming to visit until yesterday.”
“As if that’s enough to keep someone like her from figuring it out. But I wouldn’t’ve come if I wasn’t okay with them knowing.”
Steve opened and closed his mouth a few times, and then resigned himself to a shrug. “I don’t suppose you got around to exchanging names or anything.”
“Well, welcome to the Facility anyway,” he sighed, pushing open the door.
Bucky met Maria Hill and Phil Coulson, former SHIELD Agents who were now working with the Avengers in an administrative capacity. Hill was brusque and efficient, and Coulson had a politely bland demeanor that Bucky almost couldn’t tell was an act. Both of them assured him they would get him a legal identity, bank accounts, everything required for life in the twenty-first century, all discreet and free from any repercussions for his time as the Winter Soldier. HYDRA had been sure to leave out the specifics, but there was enough in his file to confirm that he hadn’t been in control of his own mind. Still, there would always be some who would demand to see him face consequences in lieu of the actual perpetrators. When he and Steve left the agents in a conference room, they were both tapping away at tablets and flicking documents back and forth, trading suggestions for who to contact.
Steve led Bucky briefly through the administrative and support section of the Facility, where Hill and Coulson were building their own pseudo-SHIELD to handle everything from the Avengers’ unique international diplomacy issues to mission intel to medical. Mostly it looked like an office. A high-security office where everyone knew their way around a gun, but an office nonetheless. The portion of the Facility that was given over to the Avengers’ exclusive use was more interesting, closer to the feel of the Tower. Each team member had a private suite and there were various communal spaces open for anyone’s use. The only one using them at the moment was a wiry man with a neatly trimmed beard and chocolate-colored skin, reading a book in one of the armchairs. He looked up when they entered and immediately stood with a grin, coming over to them.
“Hey, you made it. Sam Wilson,” he said, extending a hand. “Heard a lot about you.”
“James Barnes. Bucky’s fine, though.” He took the proffered hand. “You’re the man with the metal wings?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Sorry about—you know.”
“It’s fine.” Sam waved it away. “I’m glad you’re doing better. I gotta say though, you are not an easy man to find.”
“Only when I don’t want to be. I knew you were there, though. You serve?”
“Two tours with the Air Force, ended up in pararescue.”
“That would explain it. You ain’t used to working without the military intelligence machine.”
“Bucky,” Steve chided.
“Man, he’s right though,” Sam said. “Sometimes I wasn’t even sure I was close—”
Bucky glanced over, suddenly feeling a presence in the room. The girl was slight but carried herself with a certain gravity, her light brown hair falling across the shoulders of her red jacket. She gave him a nod as she headed into the kitchen, and he returned it.
“Wanda Maximoff,” Bucky finished for Steve. “I know.”
“Wait, you know her?” Sam asked, looking to Steve for confirmation and getting only confusion in return.
Bucky rolled his eyes a bit when they both turned to him. “I told you I was in Sokovia, Stevie. ’Course I saw her.”
“Whoa, hold up, you were in Sokovia?” Sam asked.
Bucky grinned at him. “You’re not gonna like this story.” He told them again about his year destroying HYDRA, and their narrow miss at Strucker’s base when Bucky damaged his arm, which led to him living at the Avengers Tower for the past couple of months. He could feel Wanda’s attention on them, hovering in the doorway, weighing his words for truth, but when he looked over again, she was gone. True to Bucky’s word, when he was done Sam looked incredulous, casting his eyes towards the ceiling.
“Aw, man, now I feel bad. All that time…”
“Ain’t on you. I am one of the best.”
“Yeah,” he grumbled, then straightened up. “Hey, I used to work at the VA down in D.C., helping people with PTSD and things like that, you know? So if you ever need advice or just someone to talk to, I’m happy to help.”
They took their leave then, Steve showing him through the rest of the common areas and the gym. The grounds outside were spacious, with a gently rolling lawn and enough room for training exercises involving all of the Avengers. At the bottom was a firing range and a course designed to simulate a building, with various targets and an open roof to allow access from above. The usual stalls were also open air and thus could be set up much, much longer than then ones at the Tower, and Bucky’s eyes lit up when he saw.
“Can I try it out?” Steve made a constipated face and Bucky rolled his eyes. “Come on, Stevie, I’m not that fragile. ’Sides, I’ve been getting bored of my knives. Could use a gun again.”
“You’re sure you’ll be okay?”
“Wouldn’a asked if I wasn’t.”
“Okay,” Steve sighed, leading him over to the weapons locker.
“You got anything high-caliber?” Bucky asked, watching Steve open it up.
“No, Clint was our sniper, but he stepped down after Ultron. He preferred to use a bow, so I don’t know that we would have had much for long range anyway, if he’d stayed.”
“No shit?” Bucky considered for a moment before picking a rifle. “Who’ve you got now?”
“Well, Sam, Rhodey, and Vision can all be eyes in the sky, but Sam’s the only one dedicated to the air.”
Bucky tsked, attaching a scope. “You need a sniper.” Then he rolled his eyes at Steve’s face. “I don’t mean right now. Too many times I forgot my name taking down HYDRA. I don’t trust myself in combat, but one day I will and one day you’re gonna get into a fight and want to have someone on high watching your six.”
The comfortable shop-talk they’d fallen into was interrupted when Bucky loaded the magazine and snapped it into place on the rifle. He blinked past the image of swinging the rifle to his shoulder, taking aim, pulling the trigger, watching Steve’s face. He wouldn’t. Those days were gone.
“Do you need me elsewhere?”
Bucky shook his head, clearing it of the last traces of that thought. “Just stay out of my peripheral when I shoot.”
He headed out of the locker, snagging a pair of ear muffs on the way. His hearing would be fine, but that didn’t mean he had to listen to it being loud. As they walked down the line towards the range with the farthest targets, there was an increasing whine from above, and a man in a silver suit of armor flew overhead before landing to fall into step with them, removing his helmet to reveal a wide grin.
“This I wanna see,” he said. “Hey, Cap.” Then he turned to Bucky. “James Rhodes. But everyone calls me Rhodey. I’d offer a hand, but, well.” He lifted the appendage in question, indicating its currently armored status.
Bucky lifted an eyebrow at him. “James Barnes. But everyone calls me Bucky. My hand’s not much better.” He waggled his metal fingers.
Rhodey laughed at that. “Some of your shots are legendary, you know. Even in the Air Force, we hear things.”
“Oh, from the war, of course.” They both knew there were other shots he’d taken that had ended up as whispers amongst the intelligence and black ops community, but neither of them mentioned that.
“Well, it’s nice to know I’m remembered for something other than being Captain America’s sidekick.” Bucky paused, ignoring Steve’s protests. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Tony.”
Rhodey groaned. “I’m telling you now, whatever he’s said, it’s not true.”
He put on his best innocent voice. “Really? Because most of it has been rather positive.”
Rhodey threw up his hands as best he could while still in the armor, which was really rather comical. “Oh now he says something nice.”
They’d arrived at the 500-yard lane, and Bucky double checked his rifle, waiting for his words to sink in. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Hold on, you’ve been talking to Tony?”
“Better than that. I’ve been living at the Tower for the last coupla months.” Rhodey looked like he didn’t know what to say to that, so Bucky smirked at him, remembering the feel of Tony’s lips on his own. “Now, you wanna see me shoot or what?”
Steve took that as his cue to slide out of Bucky’s line of sight, and Bucky pulled on his ear protection as Rhodey flipped his faceplate back down, both of them turning to zero in on the targets just over a quarter mile away. Hefting the rifle to his shoulder, Bucky could feel the familiar narrowing of his senses, everything focused on the intervening distance between him and his target, the wood and metal of his weapon seeming to hum in his hands. This wasn’t the Winter Soldier, not entirely. This had come before, with the war, and had been exploited and expanded to fill everything that HYDRA had erased. Now he was no longer empty and this feeling was as it should be. Bucky took a breath, sighted his target, and fired. Ten rounds in ten seconds, all tightly clustered at the center of the target. He lowered the rifle with a grin.
Next to him, Rhodey opened his faceplate again, letting out a low whistle. “Knew I came down here for a reason.” He watched Bucky break down the rifle for a moment, then said, “I’m glad you’re there for Tony. Between the Air Force and the Avengers, I haven’t been, and he needs someone.”
Bucky met his eyes. “Yeah. He does. Just lucky I got there when I did.”
Rhodey nodded, and there was real gratitude in the gesture. “Speaking of Tony, I have more data to collect for him on the suit, so I’ll see you two around.” Steve gave him a nod and Rhodey launched himself back into the sky.
They ate dinner with the team, the conversation flowing easily around Bucky without leaving him feeling excluded. Maybe he’d never be quite the extrovert he had been, but he’d forgotten how nice just being around other people could be. He watched the girl, Wanda, with interest as she interacted with her new teammates. She seemed to be settling in well, adjusting to a life far different than the one HYDRA had given her, and looking much better than the half-deranged child he’d seen through the walls of a holding cell, nearly mad with her power. She noticed him watching and quirked a wry smile at him as she deliberately used her power to scoot the salt shaker a short distance across the table into her waiting fingertips. Bucky tipped a smile back at her, acknowledging his observation, before turning to listen in on Steve’s conversation with Natasha. It seemed they were ready to take the new team into the field hunting down the last HYDRA stragglers, but were unsure as to whether each target required all of them or could be handled in twos or threes. Bucky wondered if they always talked Avengers business at the dinner table.
Halfway through, a strange man came in and took a seat at the table. His skin was a deep magenta and he did not eat. Embedded in his forehead was a yellow gemstone that sent tension running down Bucky’s spine when he caught sight of it. The man quietly introduced himself as Vision, and Bucky’s eyebrows went up. Tony and Steve had talked about Vision, of course, but neither of them had quite explained all of his peculiarities. On the other hand, Bucky wasn’t sure what he had been expecting.
“I understand that you have been living at Stark Tower,” the android said, his voice smooth and even-toned. Bucky tried to imagine it coming from the ceiling of the Tower as an AI named JARVIS and mostly succeeded. Tony had said that Vision and JARVIS weren’t the same, though. “I have been monitoring the activity there for some time, though I did not realize that you were the man our good Captain had been pursuing until the two of you had already met. You are known as the Winter Soldier, are you not?”
Bucky bristled slightly. “I don’t do that anymore.”
Vision merely inclined his head in apology. “I do not mean to fault you, only to gather data. Tony Stark is my creator. As such I feel a certain responsibility for him. From my interface with JOCASTA and my access to JARVIS’ memory banks, I have ascertained that your presence in the Tower has been beneficial for him, and you have my thanks.”
Bucky blinked. “Uh, thanks, I guess.” An android with magenta skin and a stone in its forehead capable of enslaving the mind had just told him he was good for Tony Stark. The future was a very strange place indeed.
He woke the next morning in a panic. He didn’t know where he was or what he was supposed to do. There was something he had to remember—something important—was it a name? His name was Bucky. He caught sight of himself in the mirror on the closet door and saw the white star at the top of his arm. The arm Tony had built for him. Tony was waiting for him back at the Tower. Which meant that this was the New Avengers Facility, and he’d slept in one of the guest rooms. Bucky dropped back onto the bed and rubbed at his face with a groan. He’d forgotten what waking up in a new place could do to him, and he didn’t have JOCASTA to remind him of where he was. Slowly, he took a breath in, and then out, trying to remember what she told him. His name was James Buchanan Barnes. Today was August…16th, probably…2015. He was at the New Avengers Facility, in upstate New York. Steve was taking him back to the Tower today, and he’d get to see Tony and maybe kiss him again. The thought made him smile, and he went to go figure out how the showers worked in this place and then see what sort of food superheroes kept around for breakfast. It was probably better than toaster waffles.
Bucky and Steve were just stepping out of the elevator onto the common floor when JOCASTA notified them that there was a call from a Miss Virginia Potts, and did they want to take it? Steve shrugged and said, “sure,” and then “Hello, Pepper.” Bucky’s eyebrows shot up. Why was Tony’s ex calling the Tower?
“Oh, hello Steve.” Pepper’s voice came from the ceiling, sounding relieved. “Have you seen Tony recently?”
“No, I just got back to the Tower. Why?”
“I’ve been getting a large amount of paperwork from him over the last several hours.”
“Oh.” Steve and Bucky shared a look.
“I’m actually in the middle of moving, or I’d come over myself, but…”
“Don’t worry about it, Pepper. We’ll talk to him.”
There was a pause, then Pepper said, “Thank you. And…Tony said he had someone living at the Tower with him, but he wouldn’t tell me who. Just…give him my thanks as well, would you? For being there.”
Bucky was stunned enough that he barely processed Steve and Pepper’s next words until the call was disconnected and Steve was asking JOCASTA where Tony was.
“Sir is currently in the workshop,” was the response from the ceiling.
“How long has he been there?”
“Sir returned to the workshop ten hours and forty-three minutes ago after spending an hour on various other floors. Before that he had not left the workshop since he entered with Sergeant Barnes on Saturday.”
Bucky blinked. “Of course he had to go and freak out about it.”
“You did kinda kiss him and run,” Steve pointed out.
“’Cause he was freaking out about me leaving! I’m not just gonna abandon him after that! Why is it that I gotta fall in love with idiots?” Bucky collapsed onto the couch in mock exasperation.
Steve sat next to him. “Maybe ’cause you’re also an idiot.” Before the conversation could devolve into affectionate insults, Steve continued on with a rueful smile, “I’m surprised you know that paperwork equals panic. It took me forever to figure Tony out.”
Bucky sat up, and this time it was his turn to grin lasciviously. “You like him. Don’t even try to deny it, I know you do.”
Steve’s ears turned pink, but he admitted, “Yeah, I like him,” and Bucky crowed victoriously. It was so much like the old Bucky—before the trauma of HYDRA and the war, before all the terrible things that tried to break him—that Steve couldn’t help but shift closer. Without really thinking about it, he asked, “You know who else I like?” and when Bucky turned to answer, Steve leaned forward and kissed him.
The kiss took Bucky by surprise, and he allowed it for a moment before gently pushing Steve away.
“Steve…don’t. I can’t…I’m not ready for this with you yet.”
“You kissed Tony.” He couldn’t help sounding hurt, sounding defensive.
“I know. I did. And I’m sorry—I can’t be with both of you. Not—” Bucky shook his head. “Not yet.”
Steve’s voice was small when he asked, “Can I ask why?”
Bucky sighed. “I suppose I owe you that much. It’s…I’m trying to put myself back together from pieces of everything that’s happened over the last century, and I’m not the same as I was before the war. You look at me sometimes and it’s like all you can see is who I used to be, who I’m not anymore.” Before Steve could say anything to that, Bucky preempted him. “I know you’re trying not to—I know, I do. But I have these expectations—of how I’m supposed to act around you, react to you, and I don’t know if they fit anymore.” It was mostly the truth. He couldn’t bring himself to say that sometimes, loving Steve still felt wrong, that he could still feel the cold electric voice in the back of his head that wanted to kill, complete the mission, fulfil his purpose. The Winter Soldier was still too close, too present, and there were still too many times when his own mind felt dangerous. “Tony…Tony just lets me be.”
Steve was silent, mouth pressed together tightly, eyes sliding down from Bucky’s face to his own clasped hands, fingers holding on a little too hard. Finally he spoke, his voice almost a whisper. “I’m afraid I’ll lose you again.” He didn’t ask for a promise. However much he wanted one, he couldn’t ask for that.
“Hey.” Bucky reached out and cupped his cheek in one hand, and Steve leaned into the contact, eyes falling closed for a moment. Bucky’s voice was warm when he continued. “I’m not running away. I still need you.” Tony might have given him a new arm, but Steve had given him his memories back. Steve was the one who had rescued him once again, and even if they hadn’t been lovers before, that was reason enough to love him now.
Steve took hold of Bucky’s hand with his own, bringing it down to tangle their fingers together and Bucky let him. “I know. It’s just…I’m scared.” They had never had a closed relationship, and that had been fine, that had been good, because the two of them had always been solid. Steve had always been sure Bucky would come back to him, but that had been before, and now…now he didn’t know.
Bucky squeezed his hand comfortingly. “I’ll come back to you. Promise. I just need some time, that’s all.” At Steve’s surprised glance, Bucky laughed. “How long have I known you, punk?” That got him a smile, small but genuine.
“Question is how long you’ll stay.” Steve said it lightheartedly, teasing, but it was too close to the pain for its response to be a joke, so Bucky answered seriously.
“’Till the end of the line.”
“End of the line,” Steve agreed, their affirmation an anchor point, and then his smile slipped away. “Tony—”
“—would not keep me from you. He’ll understand how our relationship works.”
“Oh he will, will he?” The smile was back on Steve’s face, and Bucky was glad.
He smiled back. “Damn straight he will. Though actually, I might not be able to get rid of him when I come back. The man’s infatuated, Stevie,” he said in mock seriousness, and Steve laughed.
“I’m not objecting to that,” he said and it was Bucky’s turn to laugh.
He took a chance and kissed Steve, lightly, quickly, but on the mouth and undeniably there. Steve looked surprised for a moment, and then he just looked overwhelmingly happy, squeezing their fingers that were still interlaced. He didn’t press further, and Bucky felt something swell in his chest, pushing the dead foreignness a little further away, a little further into the past.
“Hey, so wish me luck. I have an incredibly dumb genius to woo.”
Steve laughed as Bucky stood. “Good luck.”
“Hey.” Bucky walked into the lab to find Tony hunched over a stack of paperwork. There was a much larger stack at his elbow, evidently having been completed. He was twirling a pen in one hand and had still somehow managed to get grease on his face. The room was unusually silent.
“I am seriously going to revoke your access code if you insist on using it to bother me,” Tony said without looking up. He frowned and signed the bottom of the page.
Bucky raised an eyebrow, patting DUM-E on the arm as the bot came trundling over to say hello, and leaning one hip up against the workbench. “No you wouldn’t.”
Tony sighed. “No I wouldn’t.” He slapped his pen down and swiveled his chair to face Bucky. “What’s up?”
“JOCASTA says you’ve been down here without a break for eleven hours, Tony.”
“Well, that’s…not unusual.”
“You’ve been hiding.”
Tony spluttered. “What? No! Please, I don’t—I wasn’t hiding! I was busy. I had stuff to do. Ask Pepper—I’ve been very productive. She’ll tell you.”
“She did tell me. You’ve been doing paperwork, Tony. How bad does something have to be that you’re willingly doing a thing you usually treat like the plague in order to avoid it?”
Tony gave up and sighed through his nose, running a hand through his already-disheveled hair. “Pretty fucking bad, and you know it. This is your fault after all.”
Bucky grinned. “Hard to believe you’re the one with the reputation here. So? How about it? You wanna step out with me?”
“Bucky!” Tony sounded shocked. “You can’t just do that!”
“Kiss me! In front of Steve! And then ask me out like it’s no big deal!” Tony was definitely reaching serious freak-out levels. This was the entire reason why he had been doing paperwork in the first place, and the faintly amused expression on Bucky’s face was not helping in the slightest.
“Why not? I like you. I want the two of us to go out.”
“Because you—and Steve…! And I’m not—there’s no way I’m getting in the way of that. It’s not happening.”
Bucky straightened up, serious now. “You’re not getting in the way of anything.”
Tony stabbed a finger at Bucky’s chest. “You can’t tell me you weren’t together. You can’t tell me you don’t want to get back together.”
“Yeah, but I talked to Steve and he’s okay with it. We’re good, me and him.”
“You can’t just— Don’t give me that. There’s no way you’re good after that. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. Hell, you’ve seen the way he looks at you because you were making the exact same lovesick puppy face right back! So why in the world are you down here with me?” There was a desperate, slightly hysterical edge to Tony’s words.
Taking a couple steps forward, Bucky sat himself in Tony’s lap, hands on Tony’s shoulders, forcing him to pay attention to the immediate moment. “Tony. You’re not listening.” The way the engineer leaned back into the chair was less of a flinch and more of an act of will, and Bucky had to suppress a smirk, but he was definitely paying attention. “Stevie and me, we love each other very much, but we’ve never been exclusive, and right now I just need him to be my best friend. I’m messed up in the head, and a lot of that has to do with how I remember feeling about him, and what HYDRA shoved in about Captain America. And until I’m able sort that shit out, I can’t be his lover, however much both of us want it.” Bucky let that sink in for a moment before continuing, “I am, however, sane enough to know that I want you.” He poked Tony in the shoulder, just below his collarbone.
Tony, meanwhile, was looking very confused, which Bucky found to be particularly adorable, especially considering that, being a genius, it didn’t happen very often. “Wait, back up. Explain this. You’ve never…?”
Bucky rolled his eyes, smirking for real this time. “Just because it wasn’t as acceptable as it is now doesn’t mean the twenty-first century invented these things, you know. Not only were Steve and I in a same-sex relationship in the forties, we were in a bisexual polyamorous relationship in the forties. It might’ve just started out as needing a dame for a beard, except that at some point we realized we actually cared about those relationships, as much as we cared about each other. We didn’t question it, we just knew it was right.”
Tony was gaping, he knew he was gaping, he just couldn’t seem to stop. Bucky had that devilish half-grin on his face as he watched him that hinted at the charming, confident man he might’ve been once, a long time ago. It made Tony realize just how handsome Bucky was. It also made him realize just how much he wanted to do things to him. Tony forced himself to blink, and then to close his mouth and take a breath, and then another.
“So, when you want Steve as more than just your friend again…what then?”
Bucky shifted on Tony’s lap into a more relaxed position, arms sliding over his shoulders, and Tony’s hands came up almost unconsciously to settle at his hips. “Then I tell him that, which might involve words, but more likely will involve just kissing him stupid. And Steve will share me with you.”
HYDRA’s serum had given Bucky enhanced senses, and their assassin training had given him the ability to use them. He was also about a foot away from the object of his observation. So he didn’t miss the way Tony’s breathing picked up and his fingers jerked just a little tighter, nor did he miss the subtle dilation of the pupils in Tony’s wide eyes at those words. Still, Tony sounded like he was trying to keep himself from wanting too much when he said, “Two things.”
“One, you make it sound like I’m a sure thing.”
He raised his eyebrows a fraction. “And two?”
“Two, when you say share, what exactly do you mean?”
“Well,” Bucky said slowly, as if Tony needed to have things explained with extra patience, “either I have two lovers, or all three of us do. It’s your choice. You may not have noticed, being too preoccupied with your own crush and all, but Steve has been sweet on you for a while. Probably would have made a move around about now, if he could figure out how without having me there to do it for him. Lucky for him I have excellent timing.”
Something in Tony broke and he dropped his head to Bucky’s shoulder with a muffled groan. “You two. You two are going to be the death of me and I’m not even sure I care.”
“And that would be the answer to the first one, wouldn’t it.” Bucky slid his fingers into Tony’s hair, tugging his head up. He got a glimpse of the smile curling Tony’s mouth before he was covering it with his own and Tony was kissing him back for all he was worth, hands moving up his back to pull him closer. Tony tasted like coffee and motor oil, and he let Bucky take over as the kiss deepened, the chair tipping back dangerously far. When he finally let Tony up they were both flushed and more than a little out of breath. Tony leaned his forehead against Bucky’s, fingers idly stroking over the curve of his shoulder where metal met flesh under the fabric of his shirt as both of them grinned stupidly and tried to get their breathing under control.
“Yes,” Tony said as soon as he could talk again.
“Yes. To your…second question. I would very much like to go out with you.”
Bucky burst out laughing. “Well, I’d hate to think you’d let me stick my tongue in your mouth and then say no. You’re such an idiot sometimes, Stark.”
“Hey, all these genius brain cells had to have come from somewhere. It’s not my fault they got taken from the bit that does social skills.”
“Mm.” Bucky made himself comfortable on top of Tony, arms dropping from his shoulders to circle his waist where there was a gap between body and chair, face tucked into Tony’s neck. “Is it too soon to say I love you?”
Tony’s arms tightened around his back again, nose buried in Bucky’s long hair. “No. No it’s not.” And he was surprised to find that it wasn’t.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Bucky said quietly into Tony’s hair, flesh fingers tracing random patterns over the warm skin of Tony’s abdomen.
“Dangerous thing to do,” his lover mumbled, smile audible even through the sleepiness. “I should know.”
Bucky huffed a laugh. “I was thinking, I’ve been doing much better lately, an’ I wanna go back to sharing Steve’s bed.” The Winter Soldier was a rarity in Bucky’s mind these days, and it was harder to find excuses to ignore the fact that he missed Steve like crazy when he wasn’t there during the week. Even tonight, in bed with Tony, Bucky had felt like something was missing, some Steve-shaped absence that needed to be filled. He and Steve had never shared lovers before, but somehow this felt right.
“Thank fuck. I was beginning to wonder if it’d be rude of me to go date Steve without waiting for you.” Tony could feel Bucky’s laughter reverberating against his back.
“Only if you didn’t tell me first.” After a moment, Bucky said, “I suppose this means we’ll have to move out of the Tower. Stevie doesn’t really do distance relationships. Last time we tried, he became Captain America.”
This time it was Tony’s turn to laugh. “Can’t argue with that. It’ll be easier for me to upgrade the team’s equipment, anyway. Now hush, some of us have to sleep after mind-blowing sex.”
Bucky just smiled and let himself relax back into the darkness, holding Tony safe.
Steve walked into the Tower late Friday night to find Bucky in the Avengers’ common room, playing one of the video games Clint had left behind, eyes narrowed in concentration as his virtual go-kart whipped around yet another curve of rainbow track. Steve sat himself on the couch next to Bucky, comfortably close enough that their knees were touching. Finally the cart slid over the finish line and Bucky paused the screen, tossing his controller on the coffee table and leaning back with a smile.
“Hey yourself. Where’s Tony?”
“In the workshop. Couldn’t take the suspense. He’ll be up soon.”
Steve looked confused. “What suspense? I always get here at this time.”
“Yeah, but I was thinking…” Bucky leaned over and kissed Steve just as the elevator dinged again, heralding Tony’s arrival. Neither of them paid it much attention though, caught up in the heat of the moment as Steve made a soft startled noise and Bucky took advantage of it to slide his tongue briefly into the other man’s mouth, leaving no room for doubt about his intentions.
Steve pulled back, pupils wide as he licked his lips and asked, “Yeah?”
Bucky grinned back at him. “Yeah.”
And then Steve was reaching for him, and Bucky was sliding onto his lap so they could kiss again, deeply, passionately, cataloging all of the little differences the future had etched into each of them and all of the things that had stayed exactly the same. Steve’s hands were broad and warm as they slid from Bucky’s hips up underneath his shirt, fingertips just brushing the scarring at his left shoulder. Bucky had hold of Steve’s shirt in one hand, the fingers of the other running through his hair, their bodies pressed tightly together, and Bucky wanted to be close enough to climb inside Steve’s skin, suddenly conscious of all seventy years they’d been apart. Breathless, half formed words slipped out in between the press of their mouths, “missed you,” and “love you,” and “Steve.”
Interminable moments later, there was the sound of an empty glass being set down on the table and they looked up to find Tony standing next to the couch, expression an equal mixture of being happy for them and being rather turned on. This latter was confirmed when Tony said, “That was quite possibly the hottest thing I have seen in my life.” He plopped down next to Steve, who slid a hand from Bucky’s back to reach for him even as Bucky took hold of Tony’s hip, half turning him to meet Steve’s kiss. Tony made pleased noises into Steve’s mouth, the fingers of one hand teasing their way just underneath the waistband of Bucky’s pants at the small of his back, the other hand braced against the couch. Bucky watched as his lovers past and present—and both of them together his future—shared their first kiss, and he thought that if there’d ever been a moment in which he’d been happier than this, for once he didn’t want to remember it.