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*****

The search for Bucky is a long, and mostly fruitless one. It’s been nearly a year and a half of cold trails and barely there traces. Once, in Italy, Steve catches the brief flash of metal and unruly dark hair on a street corner, but by the time he and Sam push through the crowd to reach the corner he can’t be certain he’d actually seen what he’d thought he’d seen at all. The town is only a few miles from the burnt out ruins of what had once been HYDRA’s first base back during the war though, and Steve thinks maybe that’s a good sign.

But the months pass and it’s exhausting. It only takes four months for Steve to give in and tell Tony everything. Of course, Tony had already put together a lot of it based on shaky cell phone footage from D.C. and a thorough mining of the HYDRA and SHIELD files Natasha had released onto the internet. Natasha comes back from wherever she’d gone with a truck full of dusty files pulled from some hellhole in Siberia and Clint in tow. Bruce, comfortably ensconced in his lab in Stark Tower, listens to Steve’s account of the fight on the helicarrier, digs through the pieces of files that they’ve pulled together, and starts coming up with theories about electroconvulsive therapy, benzodiazepine, brainwashing and mental conditioning that are horrifying, and yet, not as horrifying as some of the notes actually listed in the files on the ‘maintenance’ of the Winter Soldier.

Tony watches the video of the Winter Soldier killing his parents in stony silence. They’d been going through several old video reels from the boxes Natasha had brought back, and all of them had been horrifying. Bruce tries to shut the video off as soon as he realizes what it is, but Tony smacks his hand away so hard that Bruce nearly goes green. No one says anything until it’s over. Then Tony stands sharply and heads for the door. He shrugs off Sam’s hand, ignores Steve’s efforts to talk to him, and locks himself in his workshop for three days.

When he finally comes out he stands in front of Steve, arms crossed so tight over his chest that it almost looks like his shirt is going to rip over the bulge of the arc reactor. “If it’s your friend we find, then I’ll let it go,” Tony says, though the anger in his voice matches the tension coiled in his arms and his jaw is clenched tight around the words. “But if I see even a hint of that-” He doesn’t elaborate on what ‘that’ means, and he doesn’t finish the threat either; he doesn’t need to.

Steve stares back at him levelly, and the sustained ache of rage and grief over what was done to Bucky is joined by a throb of sorrow for Tony. Steve knows what it means to be orphaned young, to be left alone in the world with nothing but pain and questions that will never be answered. He hurts for Tony, and he understands on some level, which is why he suppresses the surge of instinctive protectiveness at the implied threat and he keeps his voice low and calm when he answers. “Bucky was just the weapon, it was HYDRA that pulled the trigger.”

Tony glares at him, muscles in his forearms twitching as his hands clench and unclench. Then he nods decisively and his expression splits into a grin edged with steel. “Time to hunt some nazis then.”

They don’t talk about it again after that. Tony takes a step back from the hunt for Bucky and focuses more of his energy on rooting out and demolishing every HYDRA cell he can. Steve hates the thought of Bucky out there somewhere, alone and in god only knows what state of mind or body, but he does take a vicious pleasure in fighting side by side with his team to smash every HYDRA agent they can find in the face.

And a year passes. The search for Bucky becomes colder, more of a dream than an activity as the files are picked clean and the media alerts stay silent. The battle against HYDRA keeps them busy, and keeps them together. With Thor’s return from Asgard the whole team is reassembled and within months they work surprisingly smoothly together, both on and off the battlefield. Stark Tower becomes Avengers Tower and team dinners happen at least once a week. It’s a strange life that Steve finds himself falling into, and although it’s nice to have friends again, to not be alone and lost in a strange world, there’s a constant negative space next to him where Bucky should be.

*****

The first time he kisses Tony it’s after a particularly exhilarating bust of a HYDRA base just in time to prevent them from setting off some kind of bomb that would disperse neurotoxin over most of the state of New York. Steve is high on adrenalin and Tony’s mouth tastes like blood from when he’d bitten through his lip some time during the fight. The kiss is rough, bordering on furious, and there’s no room for air, let alone words, between them until they’ve reached Tony’s bedroom and Tony’s pushing Steve down on the bed. There’s a pause, just a moment, when Tony has climbed onto the bed over Steve, his hand on Steve’s chest as though holding him down, and Steve can feel the words he should say like a physical thing in his throat. But then something flickers in Tony’s eyes too fast for Steve to interpret and Tony surges forward, kissing him again until Steve loses track of everything but the slide of skin on skin and the metallic taste of Tony.

When it’s over and they’re both sticky but sated, Tony falls asleep with a half mumbled sigh about “doing that again.” Steve, however, lies awake for a long time. He watches the glow of Tony’s arc reactor on the ceiling and thinks about nothing in particular while he waits for his brain to come back online. It had been messy and almost frantic, but it had been so good just to be touched again. To Steve’s mind it’s going on three years since someone has touched him like that, but to his body it has technically been well over seventy, and either way he hadn’t realized the desperation with which he’d been craving that kind of connection until he’d wrapped his body around Tony’s and held on a little too tightly for as long as he could.

But the room is dark and the quiet is broken only by the soft sound of Tony breathing into Steve’s ribs, and as the thrum of satisfaction fades from Steve’s bones the hollow ache that is all too familiar is still there, only now it’s tinged with guilt. Is he being unfaithful to Bucky by sleeping with Tony, he wonders, or is he being unfair to Tony by still longing for Bucky the way he does? It isn’t like he and Bucky had ever been exclusive. Bucky had gone out with lots of girls back in the day, and Steve, well, he’d tried. They’d done it because it was expected, because they both liked girls, and because there was never any doubt that they’d both wind up back in their shared apartment eventually. Even though Steve’s never actually said anything, there’s no way Tony doesn’t understand what Bucky really means to him. And it isn’t like Steve doesn’t know Tony’s reputation. Tony probably isn’t expecting anything, he reasons. Nevertheless, he stays awake for hours worrying himself into knots over it.

When he wakes in the morning, Tony has already gone and started his day and Steve finds himself unsurprised.

******
There’s something intoxicating about being near Tony, about the frenetic energy that constantly drives him, about the way he speaks with his whole body even when he’s not using words.

After the first time, it happens again, and then it starts happening regularly. Steve and Tony never really talk about it. Steve had planned to, at first, after that first night. He’d gone looking for Tony later the next day with a speech in his head, carefully planned out and rehearsed throughout the day. It’s a confession about Bucky, concerns about disrupting team dynamics, a gentle reminder that neither of them are really in a good headspace to commit to anything. He’d gotten as far as, “last night was fun,” before Tony started kissing him and everything else he had planned to say flew out of his head.

It isn’t easy; most things with Tony aren’t. They fight more than they don’t - about strategy when planning missions, about Tony’s drinking and poor sleeping habits, about whether Star Trek or Star Wars is better. It isn’t easy, but it’s right, it’s good, and it’s better than anything Steve had ever dared hope for.

Steve still aches for Bucky like a missing limb, all the more so because he knows Bucky is out there, somewhere, and probably in need of help. Steve isn’t grieving, and he isn’t moving on. He is never going to give up on Bucky. Being with Tony doesn’t change any of that, and it doesn’t ease the pain, but he’s so unbearably grateful to not be alone.

One morning Steve wakes up and realizes that it’s been months since he slept in his own bed. Nearly all of his clothes have migrated into Tony’s penthouse bedroom. There’s a neat stack of biographies and sketchbooks sitting on the nightstand on Steve’s side of the bed. Steve has a ‘his side of the bed.’ He doesn’t mention his revelation to Tony, partially because he doesn’t want to scare Tony off, but partially because he figures Tony’s noticed too, and surely the fact that Tony hasn’t mentioned it is a tacit approval.

So Steve just kisses Tony good morning and promises to make waffles after his run and mentally counts his blessings.

 

*****
In the end, it’s JARVIS who finds Bucky for them. Steve and Tony are in the workshop while Tony dissects some weird pieces of tech they’d dug out of the basement of their latest HYDRA base, which Tony thinks are gun prototypes meant to run off of some kind of arc reactor like energy. Steve doesn’t really need to be there, but it’s late and he fully intends to bribe Tony into heading to bed soon. Besides, Steve likes watching Tony work. He likes the way Tony’s muscles flex under the old t-shirt he’s wearing and the way Tony mutters to himself as he takes the tech apart.

“Pardon my interruption, Sir, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS says, voice calm and polite as ever, “but there is an incident occurring in Brooklyn that I believe requires your attention.”

“It’d better not be aliens,” Tony grumbles, barely lifting his head from the twisted pieces of metal he’s bent over. “Or more murderbots. I have had enough of that this week.”

“I have an 89% positive facial identification on Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS replies and the bottom drops out of Steve’s stomach.

“He’s in Brooklyn?” Steve says, the words automatic and unconscious with shock. They’ve been searching the entire globe for him for a year, and of course he’d turn up practically in their backyard.

Tony’s head jerks up, the troublesome tech forgotten and he starts flipping through the interface JARVIS lights up for him. “How bad?” he asks, his voice immediately dropping to the level focused tone he usually reserves for things about to explode without his permission. “How many casualties? Are the police on scene yet? Assemble the team-”

Distantly, Steve thinks that he’s supposed to be saying those things. He’s usually the one to demand details, to assemble the team, but his eyes are caught on the holographic display in front of Tony. The display that shows a grainy video of a figure in a ratty hoodie banging on the front door of a tenement building. After a few seconds the figure looks up, the soundless video showing lips moving, and a face that is undeniably Bucky Barnes.

“No casualties,” JARVIS reports. “The police were called in on a domestic disturbance complaint. It would not have come to my attention had I not been able to pull a positive face identification from the security camera on the building. The police have arrived and radio chatter indicates that the suspect appears disoriented and agitated, but thus far is compliant and nonaggressive.”

“That could change real fast.” Tony is already up and off the stool. He grabs Steve’s shield - freshly buffed and repainted - from the next work bench over and tosses it to Steve even as he heads for his armor. “Alert the rest of the team, JARVIS, tell them to get there as fast as they can. Cap and I will go ahead and hopefully not escalate things.”

Steve catches the shield automatically, but he’s still staring dumbly at the video until Tony, encased in the armor, grabs his shoulder and shakes it. “Cap,” Tony says roughly, warning in his voice, “you with me?”

Steve takes a deep breath, meeting Tony’s eyes under the lifted faceplate. “If we can keep him calm, bring him in peacefully-”

“Let’s go then.” Tony doesn’t wait for a response, just grabs Steve around the waist and they’re zooming out through the access door and into the crisp night air.

The flight lasts seconds, and Steve is not at all prepared to deal with what they’ll find when they land. He’s aware, vaguely, of Tony speaking rapidly inside the helmet, but Tony isn’t talking to him so he doesn’t register what he’s saying. He’d spent so much time bracing himself for when they found Bucky. Every scenario he’d envisioned had involved a fight; a desperate, probably bloody struggle that at best would end with Bucky injured, sedated, and restrained as they dragged him back kicking and screaming in the hopes of being able to deprogram him. Knocking on a door in Brooklyn is so far removed from what Steve had been building himself up to handle that he can’t get around it.

When they touch down it’s a quiet street - older tenement buildings and a few small businesses. This late there isn’t much in the way of traffic, which is just as well since three police cars have blocked off part of the street in a loose circle, lights flashing but sirens silenced. A handful of cops are milling around the cars and given that they don’t look at all surprised when Iron Man touches down in their midst they’re probably the ones Tony has been talking to. One of them greets them, and his face is familiar, Steve remembers dealing with him a few times before but he’s too distracted to remember the man’s name at the moment.

He steps away from Tony as soon as their feet are on the ground and he knows he should be polite, he should talk to the policemen, he should- but none of that matters. Because there is a hunched figure sitting on the curb in the center of the knot of cars and police officers and Steve can’t take his eyes off of him. It’s as though the entire rest of the world has gone out of focus, the sound of Tony and the policemen’s voices distant and faint under the rush of his own blood in his ears. He walks forward automatically and nobody stops him. Tony is still talking to the cop apparently in charge, and the others subtly move back as Steve approaches the figure, giving them space.

Steve crouches down when he reaches the curb. His heart is pounding like it might break his ribs and his throat feels tight in a way that if he didn’t know better he might think signaled an oncoming asthma attack. Bucky’s hands are handcuffed behind his back - normal handcuffs that won’t hold him for a second if he wants out of them - and he’s wearing dirty jeans and a dirtier hoodie, effectively hiding his metal arm. His knees are drawn up to his chest and his whole body is curled forward towards them, like he’s trying to be small. His hair is loose and hanging in front of his face, but once Steve gets down level enough to see past the dark curtain his legs go out from under him and he ends up on his ass on the pavement.

Bucky looks lost. There’s no other word for it. His entire face in screwed up into a frown and his eyes are darting rapidly back and forth though they don’t seem to actually be seeing anything. He’s chewing at his lower lip, worrying at it in a way that he hasn’t since he was a teenager.

“Bucky,” Steve says, and the word is little more than an exhalation to match the thump of his ass against the concrete. Eighteen months ago he’d stood on the burning, crashing helicarrier and faced an assassin wearing his best friends face. But this is not the Winter Soldier, this is Bucky, as lost and afraid as Steve has ever seen him.

Bucky’s head jerks up, his eyes focus on Steve, and there’s a moment of absolute stillness where Steve simultaneously sees his best friend and the assassin who’d tried to kill him in the same face. But the moment breaks, Bucky blinks, and then his entire face splits into a grin. Just like that the tension goes out of his body and the look of relief on his face is so pure that it steals what little was left of Steve’s breath. “Hey Stevie,” he says, and it’s still got that rough, disused quality to it that it had on the helicarrier, a brittle sort of undertone that rings in Steve’s ears as horribly wrong. “Guess it’s only fair you get a turn to bail me out.” He’s still smiling, a crooked tilt of his lips that goes hand in hand with the soft burr of Brooklyn in his voice. Despite the too long hair and the rough edge of Bucky’s voice, it’s as though Steve’s entire world has tilted on it’s axis - again - and he’s back in 1940, as though the war and everything else had never happened.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, which is stupid, but his brain is still short circuiting from the sight of Bucky’s smile, and honestly it’s the only question that’s ever really been important when it came to Bucky.

Bucky’s smile fades a little, the crease of confusion back between his eyebrows. He twists around, glancing up at the building behind them before turning back to Steve. “I lost my key,” he confesses, the edge of confusion making it plaintive. “Ma won’t let me in. Did I do something to make her mad?” There’s something off in his voice, and although his eyes had focused on Steve at first, they’re starting to go distant and hazy again.

Steve stops, forcing his wildly tilting brain to focus on the situation at hand. He remembers on the bridge in D.C. the baffled ”Who the hell is Bucky?”, and the enraged denials on the helicarrier. He remembers files and Bruce’s messy notes on brainwashing and the application of electricity to retard the formation of memories. He takes a slow, steadying breath and he studies the building over Bucky’s shoulder, then twists around to look up and down the street. The street feels simultaneously familiar and foreign to him, like pretty much all of Brooklyn does now, but most of the buildings are updated pre-war tenements and it does look sort of like the street he and Bucky had grown up on. It isn’t; that street had been completely rebuilt sometime in the sixties, and then again in the nineties when most of the apartment buildings were replaced by a strip mall. But it’s close.

He swallows, focusing back on Bucky who is looking at him beseechingly; looking for answers. “No, Buck,” he says, because he can’t stand the vulnerability he sees in Bucky’s face. He reaches out instinctively, resting a hand on Bucky’s bent knee, aching to pull Bucky all the way into his arms though he resists that urge. “She isn’t mad. She, uh, she isn’t here.”

Bucky purses his lips, looking around again. Something’s shifting in his expression, mercurial and too fast for Steve to even hope to interpret as his eyes flick over the buildings, the cars, the policemen milling around. His shoulders flex and Steve can see his hands twisting in the cuffs, though he doesn’t break out of them. “I think I’m lost,” Bucky says finally, his lips turning down in an unhappy frown.

Before Steve can answer he hears the telltale clomp of the armor approaching behind him and he twists to look over his shoulder. Tony has the helmet retracted but the rest of the suit still on and he’s approaching warily. Tony’s wearing the politely bland expression that Steve is used to seeing a press events, complete with the barely concealed sharp edge that says he’s just waiting for someone to give him an opening for a fight.

Bucky tenses instinctively, drawing back in on himself as his arms flex restlessly again. His eyes lock on Tony, following his movements from behind his curtain of hair, the mercurial flow of his face solidifying into something hard and blank.

Steve squeezes Bucky’s knee, hoping it will calm him while subtly gesturing for Tony to stay back. Tony’s eyes are dark and guarded in the light of the streetlamps, but he stops several feet away, close enough to talk but not to loom. “Our pal Officer Alvez has agreed not to file any charges,” Tony says, his tone casual in a way that is entirely fake, “but we need to clear the street.”

Steve nods, reading what he already knows between Tony’s words; they need to get Bucky out of here without any incidents, and they need to do it quick. Bucky’s still more or less calm, and now that Steve is moving beyond shock and relief his tactical brain has reengaged enough to know not to trust it. Bucky’s calm for now, but he’s scared and confused and clearly doesn’t know where he is; the second Bucky stops being calm things are going to go south very fast.

“Nat’s around the corner with a car,” Tony adds, gesturing with his head to where Steve can see a dark van idling at the end of the street. “We should probably head that way.”

Steve turns back to Bucky, whose eyes are flicking rapidly from Steve to Tony and back again. “Come on, Bucky,” Steve says, voice as calm and gentle as he can make it under the strain of hope and terror that’s warring inside of him. “It’s cold out here. Let’s go.”

Bucky glances back and forth once more before nodding slowly. “I want to go home,” he says, that rough catch in his voice thickening as his gaze settles back onto Steve.

Steve’s stomach twists. He doesn’t want to lie to Bucky, but he doesn’t think this is the time or place for full honesty either. He settles on, “me too,” and a forced smile. He pretends his own voice didn’t crack over the words.

****
It’s so simple, so easy, that it feels like a dream. A police officer sidles up cautiously and hands the handcuff key over to Steve. Steve gently but quickly hustles Bucky to the waiting van where Natasha is in the driver’s seat, Clint next to her in the passenger seat, and Thor is waiting for them in the back. Tony elects to fly over the van with Sam, and Bucky sits silent and withdrawn for the entire ride to the Tower, pressed up against Steve’s side with his hands in his lap.

It’s among the most tense car rides that Steve has ever experienced. Thor’s posture is relaxed, but he sits with Mjolnir resting on the floor of the van between his knees and his hand never leaves the handle. Clint, sitting at an angle in the front seat so that he can keep them all in his sights at once, makes no attempt to be subtle about the gun in his hand, and Natasha pointedly only has one hand on the wheel.

Bucky keeps his eyes lowered, not looking at any of them, and Steve can’t tell if he’s noticed the weapons in the van or not. His hand are hanging in loose curls between his knees, the dim interior lighting of the van glinting dully off of the metal one. He’s sitting between Steve and the divider between the front and back, and despite the fact that there’s room on the bench seat for at least two more people, he’s pressed close enough that his body is a line of warmth against Steve from knee to shoulder. By the time they pulled into the private subterranean Avenger’s garage, Bucky has slumped over sidewise, his head all but resting against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve is keenly aware of every stutter in Bucky’s breath, of the minute tremble in Bucky’s flesh hand. He can just see part of Bucky’s face between his shoulder and the messy curtain of Bucky’s hair, and it hits him that Bucky looks exhausted. His face is an ashen gray color, cheeks sunken and deep bruises under his eyes. Steve wishes he could say something that would break the tension. The others are clearly waiting for the Winter Soldier to emerge, but Steve can’t look at Bucky and see anything but his best friend beaten, and exhausted, and worn down to the very bone. But before he can think of anything that might help they pull to a stop and Tony yanks open the rear doors.

In moments the team is assembled in a loose circle around the outside of the van. They aren’t crowding, and there are no weapons in sight except for Mjolnir, but there is a definite air of wary readiness in the room. Bruce edges carefully between Sam and Clint, his battered medical bag in one hand and Steve has a suspicion that he’s brought it mostly for the special formula sedative that Bruce had developed in hopes of controlling the big guy.

Steve takes a careful breath before moving. He gently dislodges Bucky from his shoulder and climbing out of the van backwards while keeping his eyes and a - hopefully - reassuring smile locked on Bucky. Bucky blinks dazedly, his eyes flicking around the loose circle of the team around the van, then back to Steve. Slowly, stiffly, he shuffles to the back of the van, but as he steps down he stumbles and it’s only Steve’s quick reflexes that prevent him from ending up face down on the cement. Bucky’s legs don’t seem to want to hold him and he slumps down heavily on the tail of the van with Steve’s supportive hand still on his elbow. He grunts softly as he lands hard enough to make the whole van rock, blinking in vague surprise at Steve’s hand.

“Bucky?” Steve asks. Bucky’s listing sidewise again and Steve can’t help himself; he crouches in front of Bucky, craning his neck to see Bucky’s face clearly though his hair. He grips Bucky’s biceps, squeezing gently to both physically and mentally ground him.

Bucky doesn’t respond for a long time. His eyes flick repeatedly around the room, taking in the large, bare cement garage, half filled with a mix of Tony’s sports cars and nondescript former SHIELD transport vehicles, as well as the varied group assembled around him. Finally his gaze settles back on Steve and his expression is heavy with exhaustion and sorrow. “My Ma’s dead, isn’t she?” he asks, his shoulder slumped despondently.

The words hit Steve like a punch and he swallows against the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry,” he says, because what else can he say? He has to blink as tears prickle in his eyes, his mouth twisting into an apologetic grimace.

Bucky just nods, looking lost and resigned.

When Bruce quietly steps up behind Steve, Bucky twitches slightly but otherwise doesn’t move. “I have a room ready up in the medbay,” Bruce says, his voice cautious but also gentle.

Steve doesn’t dare look away from Bucky, but Bucky barely reacts. His eyes flicker from Steve, to Bruce, and back again, and he blinks, slow and heavy like he’s having trouble keeping his eyes open. It hits Steve all at once and he has a moment of horrified shame as he finally remembers to ask, “are you hurt, Bucky?” Bucky hasn’t shown any obvious signs of pain, but all of his movements are stiff and the dark fabric of his dingy hoodie could easily hide blood.

Bucky glances down at himself, as though he has to check, as though he isn’t sure, but then he shakes his head. He’s listing sideways more heavily, his metal shoulder resting against the interior wall of the van as he sits on the edge. “I’d like to sleep now,” Bucky says, and his voice reflects the exhaustion on his face. There’s a vague look of expectation in Bucky’s eyes, a sort of understanding, as he looks to Bruce.

Steve can’t decide if he’s horrified or relieved by Bucky’s quiet compliance. Something has settled in Bucky’s face, some of the anxious confusion smoothing out. Without another word, Bucky quietly pulls up the right sleeve of his hoodie, his flesh arm looking shockingly pale against the dark material. He holds it out, wrist balanced on his knee and his palm up, exposing the soft, vulnerable underside of his arm.

It feels as though a colony of snakes has taken up residence in Steve’s gut, twisting him in knots of worry, anxiety, and fear, but he accept the syringe that Bruce hands him without breaking eye contact with Bucky. He hesitates, the syringe feeling much heavier in his hand than it should. It feels wrong, drugging Bucky, and even though Bucky has technically asked for it, Steve can’t be sure that he’s in any state of mind to actually consent to anything. But Bucky looks so bone weary that Steve’s not entirely certain the sedative is even necessary, and he can’t stand the sad, worn out look in Bucky’s eyes. So he reaches out, grasping Bucky’s wrist delicated with the hand that isn’t holding the syringe, to reassure himself as much as to keep Bucky’s arm steady for the injection.

“You’re safe here,” Steve says, because even if Bucky’s state of mind can’t be trusted right now, even if Bucky doesn’t really believe it, Steve needs him to know that. “We want to help you, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Bucky nods slightly, just a sharp little dip of his chin. His wrist flexes in Steve’s grasp, not trying to pull away, just shifting as though to confirm the sensation is actually there. “You’ll be here when I wake up?” he asks, and the vulnerability in his voice breaks Steve’s heart all over again.

“Yeah,” Steve promises, immediately and with every ounce of breath in him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Bucky nods again, the faintest shadow of a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. His eyes flicker down to his own exposed arm and then back to meet Steve’s eyes in a silent go ahead. Steve shifts a little closer as he carefully inserts the needle into the exposed vein of Bucky’s forearm and pushes the plunger.

It takes a second, long enough for Steve to withdraw the needle and hand it back to Bruce, and then Bucky gives a slight shudder, his eyes rolling back and his entire body going limp. Steve catches him as he starts to fall forward, his arms automatically going tight and secure around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky’s entire body is limp as a ragdoll, and his breathing is slow and hot against Steve’s neck, his face resting in the crook of Steve’s shoulder. For a long time Steve can’t do anything but sit there and hold Bucky to him. He buries his face in Bucky’s hair, not caring how dirty it is or how it smells of grease and smoke and possibly sewage. The reality that Bucky is alive - not whole, but safe and there in Steve’s arms is finally, truly hitting him and it threatens to bowl him over backwards.

Eventually, Steve forces himself to pull back, rising from his cramped crouch before gently picking Bucky up in a bridal carry. Bucky is heavy, especially on the left side, but Steve doesn’t care, cradling him close like the precious thing he is. He glances at the others, relieved and defiant and unashamed of the tear tracks that are probably visible on his face; none of them make a sound as he calmly heads for the elevator that will take them up to the medical floor.

Chapter Text

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*****

It’s been hours. Steve isn’t sure how long exactly; the private high security medical wing they have Bucky in is an interior part of the Tower with no windows, and Steve can’t be bothered to find a clock. But it was nearly midnight when JARVIS had given them the alert, and even without a window to show the sun rising Steve is distantly aware of the Tower waking up, of the lower floors filling with the various employees of Stark Industries filtering into their offices and labs. It’s an internalized thing, developed out of habit and instinct; he can’t actually see or hear any of it from where he sits and the quiet is almost oppressive, but he can’t will himself to move either.

In front of him, on the other side of a clear glass wall, Bucky lies on a pristine hospital bed. The soft, steady beep of the heart rate monitor is the only sound to disturb them, and Bucky is motionless but for the rise and fall of his chest, still deeply asleep.

There have been a myriad of doctors coming and going - all specialists, top of their fields and thoroughly background check and sworn to confidentiality, kept on retainer for any medical emergencies that might arise that the Avengers can’t trust to a public hospital. They’ve done checks, drawn blood, and scanned Bucky from every angle with every machine at their disposal. Bruce runs herd on them, since although he isn’t actually a medical doctor, he has had enough training, and more importantly, is the closest thing they have to an expert on the serum and Bucky’s particular case. He’d tried to explain to Steve what they were doing, the purpose and methods of the various tests, but Steve is too worn out and numb with shock to really process any of it; Bruce will explain the relevant results later, and that’s all that matters.

Eventually, the doctors had run out of tests to do and had withdrawn to their various labs and offices to analyse and discuss their results. They’d ensured that Bucky is comfortable, hooked up to a IV drip of saline fluids, basic nutrients, and the specialized sedative formula to keep him under for now, and then left. Only Steve remains. He could go into the room, he could sit beside the bed and hold Bucky’s hand and constantly remind himself that all of this is real. And yet, he can’t bring himself to. The front wall of the room, like Tony’s workshop and many of the labs in the Tower, is a thick clear glass, and Steve can see into the room without actually entering it. So he stays outside, slumped on the floor with his back against the far wall and his knees drawn up to his chest, staring at Bucky.

It’s been well over twenty four hours since Steve slept, and his eyes are heavy with grit. His body feels numb and distant and he thinks if his body felt any heavier he would sink right through the floor. It takes him a full minute to process the steaming mug that appears in front of his face. The scent of fancy roasted coffee beans and thick curls of steam rise from the mug, which is fire engine red and sports the words The early bird is also a smug piece of shit.

Slowly, Steve reaches up and takes it, cupping it in both of his hands. The serum metabolizes caffeine just as easily as it does alcohol, but the ceramic of the mug is warm and grounding against his palms and and the scent is reassuringly familiar. He doesn’t drink it, just cradles it close to his chest and blinks slowly at Bucky.

Sam sinks down onto the carpet next to Steve, cradling his own mug of coffee as he stretches his legs out across the hallway. Neither of them speak for several long minutes, letting the comfortable silence linger between them. It’s only when Steve takes a deep drink of the coffee that he realizes distantly that his hands are shaking.

“So,” Sam says eventually, breaking the silence. “The police report says he was banging on the door and shouting to be let in.”

Steve swallows his coffee and lowers the cup back down to cradle it against his chest. “He was looking for his Ma,” he says quietly, the hint of Brooklyn coming out in his tired tone. He feels Sam’s head turn sharply to look at him, but he keeps his eyes on Bucky, letting Sam stare at him unacknowledged.

“Was he in the right place?” Sam asks after a pause.

“No,” Steve says, but shrugs. “He was close. Close… enough, I guess. He wouldn’t have recognized the right street anyway, it’s a strip mall now.”

Sam makes a considering noise and turns his attention back to the still figure on the bed in front of them. “Guess that explains… something,” Sam offers. “He could have ripped that door off it’s hinges easy. Or found a window to go in through. He didn’t. The cops just figured he was drunk until they gave him a breathalyzer.”

“He knew me this time,” Steve says. It’s still like a punch in the gut, remembering the look of utter relief that had crossed Bucky’s face when he’d seen Steve.

“Improvement,” Sam comments; his voice is dry but sincere. It is an improvement. They’ve found Bucky and brought him in, willingly and without violence, which was more than any of them had really dared hope for.

They sit in silence for several more minutes and Steve finishes his coffee in slow, shaky sips. Bucky doesn’t stir.

“They’re going to keep him under until tomorrow at least,” Sam says eventually, gently reclaiming the now empty cup from Steve’s loose fingers. “You should go get some rest. You look like shit.”

Steve lets out a soft huff that imitates a laugh, automatic and utterly insincere. But he accepts the hand up that Sam offers him and forces his body to move enough to lever himself to his feet without risking pulling Sam over for trying to help. He trails Sam without protest to the elevator, only looking back at Bucky’s still form once before the doors close between them. Sam pauses, his fingers hovering uncertainly over the buttons of the elevator and it takes Steve a minute to realize the problem - Steve, like all of the Avengers, has a suite in the upper floors of the Tower, but he’s barely been in it in months, not since he’d started spending most of his nights in Tony’s penthouse.

Steve blinks at the elevator panel, stomach twisting, and Sam watches him, waiting uncertainly. Slowly, Steve reaches out and decisively presses the button for his own floor. Tony hadn’t been subtle about they way he kept his distance, both in physicality and mannerism since they’d gone out to get Bucky, the way Tony had very pointedly disappeared when Steve carried Bucky up to the medbay and the rest of the team had dispersed, something which no one had failed to notice. Steve is going to have to talk to him, and he has a feeling it won’t be a pleasant conversation, but at the moment Steve is so very tired, and even though he doesn’t actually expect to find Tony in the penthouse, it feels wrong to go lay down in the bed that he and Tony are supposed to share while there is so much hanging unsaid between them.

Sam’s suite is on the same floor as Steve’s, so he follows Steve out of the elevator. Steve is grateful, far more than he can verbalize, for everything Sam has done and continues to do for him. But at the moment, he is tired and aching down to his soul, so when they reach the door to his suite, he quietly but firmly says goodbye to Sam and closes the door behind him.

Steve isn’t even entirely sure how he finds the bed, but that’s where he ends up, shoes kicked off and stripped down to his underwear as he collapses onto the sheets. The room seems to spin slightly around him and he closes his eyes, rolling over onto his stomach to bury his face in the pillow.

The pillow smells wrong.

Steve’s pretty sure he doesn’t actually sleep, but he floats there, in limbo, for an indeterminate amount of time. His mind won’t be quiet, images of Tony and Bucky blurring together and layering over with a wash of blood and hazy memories of the Brooklyn that no longer exists. There’s a persistent nagging wrongness like an itch just under his skin that he wouldn’t be able to scratch even if he could bring himself to move.

The bed is too small, and yet, at the same time, it’s too big.

Steve has a blanket pulled up over his shoulders, but he’s still cold.

Everything feels wrong.

Eventually Steve gives up and rolls onto his back, staring exhaustedly at the shadows on the ceiling. “What time is it?” he asks aloud, clearing his throat when his voice cracks.

“It is 3:22 PM,” JARVIS supplies helpfully and Steve groans, pulling the pillow over his face for a moment before shoving it away again.

“Where’s Tony?” Steve asks, because he can’t ignore the irritation scratching at the back of his mind anymore and he knows he isn’t going to be able to sleep until it’s dealt with.

“He is presently in the workshop,” JARVIS answers, and there’s a faint note in JARVIS’s tone that almost sounds like disapproval and makes Steve’s heart sink.

“How long has he been down there?” Steve guesses.

“Since your return with Sergeant Barnes last night.”

Steve sighs and levers himself up from the bed. He grabs his clothes and redresses, running a hand through his hair and thinking distractedly that he probably needs a shower but it will have to wait.

When he arrives in the workshop, it looks the same as it always does. Wires, tools, and half finished pieces of whatever are strewn on every work bench, and at least three half disassembled cars sit in the open space beyond the work benches. Tony is slumped at the desk where he usually sits to do his most lengthy coding, holographic interfaces floating around him, but he doesn’t seem to actually be working on any of them and there’s a bottle of scotch at his elbow.

Steve finds himself feeling unsurprised, and a little guilty. He notes with some relief that the bottle is still mostly full, but Tony’s posture is stiff and even though he’s clearly aware of Steve’s presence Tony doesn’t acknowledge him. It stops Steve short. He can’t bring himself to actually cross the workshop, to actually approach Tony, which leaves him hovering awkwardly halfway there.

He feels wrongfooted somehow. The dazed exhaustion he’s been stuck in is finally fading, but in its wake he finds confusion, hurt, and the edge of what might become anger. He knows there’s a lot of things he and Tony probably should have talked about before now. But it isn’t like they didn’t know this change, this event in their lives, was coming. They’d all been working to find Bucky, to bring him home, which Steve is immeasurably grateful for, even if he knows some of the team were doing it more to protect the world from Bucky than to protect Bucky from the world. But this is what they’ve been working toward, and, honestly, it came about in a better best case scenario than Steve had actually dared to hope for. So why is Tony acting like Steve has some how fucked everything up and pissed him off?

Distantly Steve realizes that he’s planted his feet firmly, shoulder width apart, his shoulders squared and his arms crossed over his chest. In the silence that stretches between them as Tony continues not to acknowledge him the little ember of uncertain anger in Steve’s chest begins to bubble up rapidly, and even as Steve halfheartedly reminds himself that this is not the way to promote healthy communication in a relationship the anger threatens to boil over into rage.

But it’s Tony who breaks the silence first, and it isn’t anger that colors his voice, it’s self depreciating resignation. “I should have known better,” Tony says, a rough edge to his voice and an unsteady jerk to his hand as he reaches out and pours a good measure of the scotch into the tumbler he’s holding. “Dad did warn me, after all.”

And as fast as it came, Steve’s anger is gone. He isn’t sure if it’s the tone in Tony’s voice, or the way Tony’s hand is shaking - as much from exhaustion as the alcohol, Steve guesses - or the mention of Howard. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three, and it finally sinks home to Steve that Tony isn’t just in some weird funk but that something is seriously wrong here. No conversation between them that involves Howard ever goes well.

“Tony-” Steve starts. He takes a tentative step forward, because he isn’t sure where this is going but the several feet of workshop floor between them feels like a chasm and Steve irrationally feels like if he doesn’t cross it somehow he’s going to completely fall apart.

“You know what he said to me once?” Tony asks, cutting Steve off brutally. He looks up for the first time, meeting Steve’s eyes, and Steve is shocked by the too bright, too sharp look in Tony’s eyes. “Dad, he said, ‘it wasn’t the plane that killed him. It was losing Bucky Barnes.’” Tony laughs, dry and rough and absolutely lacking in humor. “How could I ever compete with that?”

The other shoe drops, and in one sickening swoop Steve puts it all together. “I don’t want you to compete with him,” he blurts like he’s not even saying the words, like they’ve been yanked out through his chest to hang there between them without Steve having a choice in the matter. The words are instinctive, and it takes Steve a minute to realize that they don’t entirely make sense. “I don’t want to break up with you.”

Tony blinks at sets the bottle back down so hard it almost cracks against the surface of the desk. Steve can only watch dumbly as Tony takes a breath so deep that his entire back flexes and expands with the force of it before Tony finally looks at him again. “You don’t have to let me down easy,” Tony says, like he’s the one letting Steve down easy, and like he didn’t just hear anything that Steve had said. “I saw your face when you looked at him.”

Steve is tired, and he hurts, and he realizes now that Tony is doing what Tony always does when he feels emotionally vulnerable. Tony is trying to cut his loses and run. Tony is trying to withdraw into his shell of metaphorical armor and hide because it’s easier to hurt himself than to let someone else hurt him. And Steve just can’t.

“Maybe you should try looking at my face now,” Steve retorts, and it’s acerbic. He doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be doing this. He wants to crawl in bed and hold Tony tight and sleep for a week. Tony doesn’t answer and Steve closes the gap between them in three impatient strides, he grabs Tony’s chair and turns him around, hands braced on the arms of the chair and looming over Tony, pinning him in place.

Tony makes a sound that is half indignant and half warning, his whole body bristling tense and ready for a fight. But Steve doesn’t have the energy for a fight, so he pins Tony down and kisses him instead. He ignores the bite of scotch on Tony’s breath and the stiffness in Tony’s body and holds the kiss until the tension starts to drain out of Tony and he starts to kiss back. And then Tony’s hand is fisted in Steve’s shirt and he’s pushing into Steve’s touch with a sort of desperation and the knot of fear and uncertainty in Steve’s chest starts to unwind just a little.

They’re both breathing hard when they finally break apart. Despite the strain leaning over Tony in the chair puts on his back, Steve can’t bring himself to actually stop touching Tony, so instead of pulling away he rests their foreheads together. Tony’s eyes are closed, his swollen lips parted as he catches his breath and the thought of losing this, of losing Tony is like a knife in Steve’s gut.

“Come to bed,” Steve says, his voice little more than a whisper in the space between their lips. He can see Tony rallying, see Tony pulling together some kind of off putting sexual joke. “Not for sex,” Steve adds, before Tony can get the breath to actually say it. “Neither of us are in the right state of mind for that right now. But neither of us have slept and I…” He pauses, his voice cracking and maybe he would be embarrassed about that but he needs Tony to understand how very much Steve does not want to give him up. “I need to hold you, for a while. Just… please.”

Tony falters, unbalanced by the raw honesty in Steve’s voice, then nods. “Yeah, okay,” he agrees quietly. “Sleep sounds good.”

They make it up to the penthouse without another word. Steve keeps a loose hand around Tony’s wrist, unable to make himself let go, and as they stumble for the bed they undress each other, practiced enough to do it in perfect, silent, tandem. They fall into the sheets that are soft and clean and perfect and Steve wraps himself around Tony like a life raft. He presses his chest against the length of Tony’s back, tangling their legs together and securing an arm around Tony’s ribs, high enough that his fingers can brush against the hard edge of the arc reactor. With a sigh of relief that feels as though it originates in his toes, Steve lets himself sink into the mattress, nosing at the soft curls of Tony’s hair and finally he feels as though he can breathe again.

Tony doesn’t resist, loose and pliant in Steve’s grasp, and Steve knows they still have a hell of a lot of talking to do. But sleep is dragging at both of them and Steve is relieved to just give into it and let things be simple and safe and right, just for a little while.

******
Steve wakes to the sound of his phone going off. It isn’t the Avengers alert, so he wakes groggy and dazed rather than snapping to attention. Tony is a warm, loose weight against Steve’s back, which turns out to be a goddamn miracle as Steve squints at the clock and realizes that they’ve been asleep for almost twelve hours.

Steve fumbles for his phone, noting that it’s Sam who’s calling before lifting it to his ear. “Hey,” he answers, clearing his throat to force the roughness of sleep from his voice.

“Sorry to wake you, man,” Sam says, “but it looks like Bucky’s waking up, and I figured you ought to know.”

Steve sits up sharply. “What? I thought you were keeping him sedated?”

Tony grumbles in protest at Steve’s sudden movement, but his eyes open sharply as he processes Steve’s words and immediately guesses at the correct context.

“We were.” Steve can practically hear the shrug in Sam’s voice. “But he started showing signs of increased brain activity and the doctors figured if he’s ready to wake up we might as well let him. You should get down here though, we figure your’s is the first face he should see.”

“Yeah, I’m on my way,” Steve agrees, already kicking off the blankets and reaching for his pants. He hangs up, tosses his phone distractedly back on the bed, and pulls his pants on in one smooth motion. His shirt and shoes take a little more effort to find, having been discarded near the door, and then he has to backtrack to retrieve his phone.

Tony is sitting up in the bed, the arc reactor glowing in the muted light of the room and casting Tony’s face in sharp relief. The blankets are pooled around his waist, and his body is still a loose sprawl, but there’s something a little too sharp in his gaze and it makes Steve pause.

“I have to be there for him,” Steve says quietly, and he won’t apologise for that, but he still aches to reach out for Tony, to pull him close and kiss that expression off of his face.

“Yeah, you do,” Tony agrees, and even though his voice is mostly lacking in inflection, at least the resignation and tightly contained distance of earlier is gone.

Steve can’t resist and he leans across the bed, bracing his hands on the mattress to press a chaste but insistent kiss on Tony’s lips. “We’ll talk more later?” He says, hating a little bit that it comes out like a question.

“Yeah,” Tony agrees again, a little too easily, a little too casually, but he catches Steve by the hair, pulling him in for another kiss, holding it just a moment longer before pushing him away. “Go. I’m fine.”

Steve nods reluctantly, but he can’t wait anymore. Spurred by the thought of Bucky waking up alone, surrounded by strangers, he makes it back to the medbay in record time. When he arrives, Sam and Bruce are hovering outside of Bucky’s room, watching him through the clear glass wall. Bucky looks much the same as Steve had last seen him, except that his right hand is twitching occasionally and his eyes are moving rapidly behind his eyelids as he rises back toward consciousness.

Steve still isn’t entirely sure he’s ready to face whatever is about to happen, but he certainly feels much more prepared for it after getting some rest and clearing at least some of the air with Tony. “Do we have a plan?” he asks as he comes to a halt next to Bruce and Sam.

Sam shrugs. “You be there when he wakes up and we see what happens,” he answers. His eyes can’t seem to stay away from Bucky, darting back to him warily even as he tries to look at Steve.

“The scans we did show what’s probably some scar tissue around the hippocampus, cortical regions, and frontal lobe,” Bruce adds helpfully. At Steve’s raised eyebrow he adds, “those areas of the brain are associated with memory storage and retrieval. We can probably expect some form of persistent memory difficulties, but there’s no way to predict how much or what it will effect, really.”

Steve nods grimly, but before any of them can say anything else Bucky groans, his head rolling to the side.

“Better get in there,” Sam says, but Steve is already moving.

The door to Bucky’s room opens soundlessly for Steve - thanks to JARVIS - as he approaches, and his first step into the room is almost like hitting the ice all over again. He freezes just inside the door, his chest seizing up as he watches Bucky’s eyes blink slowly and groggily open.

Bucky makes a low, pained sound. He blinks again, a deep crease settling between his eyebrows as he frowns vaguely at the ceiling.

Steve unfreezes all at once, quickly moving to the side of the bed. “Bucky?” he asks. He hates the uncertainty in his own voice, hates that he doesn’t know if his friend will recognize him, or even try to kill him again.

There’s about half a second lag, and then Bucky focuses on Steve. The frown disappears and Bucky smiles at Steve. It isn’t quite the look of utter relief Bucky had given him on the street, this time the relief is more of an undertone beneath open delight, but his expression is bright and loose. “Hey there, punk,” Bucky says, his voice raspy but so achingly familiar that Steve’s legs go out from under him and he sinks into the chair left at Bucky’s bedside.

“Hey,” Steve answers, blinking hard against the tears that suddenly threaten at the corners of his eyes. “How are you feeling?”

Bucky shifts a little in the bed, as though trying to figure out how to answer, before settling on, “Fuzzy. Little sore. What the hell kind of drugs do they have me on?”

Steve smiles a little. “The good ones.”

Bucky barks out a laugh that’s burned so deeply into Steve’s heart that it makes his chest ache. Steve reaches out impulsively, unable to help himself, and rests a hand on Bucky’s forearm - it’s the metal one, and Steve can feel the plates shift and tighten under his hand. Bucky starts a little and blinks down at the arm, the crease of confusion briefly reappearing between his eyes. Inwardly, Steve panics, trying to brace himself for any of a thousand different reactions Bucky might have-

But after a moment Bucky just sighs and slumps back against the pillows. “Guess I got shipped out, huh?” he says quietly. Steve swallows, unsure how to answer, but Bucky continues before he can figure it out. “I don’t remember… any of it. The war. Is that… normal?”

“There was, uh-” Steve fumbles, brain scrambling. What was it Bruce had said? Something about the hippocampus? Would those words even mean anything to Bucky? “There was some… damage, to your head-” he tries, watching Bucky closely, waiting for Bucky to panic, waiting for… something. But Bucky just nods, his eyes flicking vaguely around the room.

“At least tell me I got to punch some nazis first,” Bucky says after a moment.

“Yeah,” Steve answers, unable to resist a slight grin. “You really gave them hell.”

Bucky gives a small, approving snort. “Good,” he mutters. “Serves those bastards right.”

Maybe it’s the drugs, Steve thinks, keeping Bucky calm, maybe he hasn’t completely shaken off the sedatives yet. Bucky remains loose limbed and relaxed in the bed, his head angled toward Steve though his eyes keep flicking distractedly around the room and he seems pretty alert, all things considered. Steve glances toward the glass wall, half hoping for some back up. It’s opaque on this side, becoming a two way mirror, and Steve wonders distantly if it’s always been that way or if someone had the presence of mind to darken it to reduce the things Bucky might freak out about when he woke up. Steve knows, on some instinctual level, that even though he can’t see them, Sam and Bruce are still out there watching. They don’t come in to offer any help though, so Steve focuses back on Bucky, taking a deep breath.

“Hey Buck,” Steve says, as casually as he can. Steve’s heart is pounding in his chest and he’s sure Bucky can hear it; he can’t look at Bucky, can’t meet his eyes. He doesn’t understand why he’s so terrified of how Bucky will answer him - Bucky clearly recognizes Steve, and knows his own identity, so that’s the worst case scenario ruled out. “Can you tell me the last thing you remember?” Steve keeps his eyes locked on his own hand, starkly pale against the gray metal of Bucky’s arm, nearly holding his breath as he waits for Bucky’s answer.

Bucky’s quiet for a long time. “Can’t say exactly,” he says eventually. “I remember going through basic, getting pulled aside for sniper training - Hey, I told you about that, right? Wasn’t much to it, you know, little bit on camouflage and testing on how far we could shoot. Wasn’t sure if I’d actually get to use any of it, you know? But I guess the knuckleheads on capitol hill decided to put us to work after all.” Bucky lapses back into thoughtful silence, then shrugs. “I was hoping to get a furlough in time to check out that Stark Expo I read about in the papers.”

 

“You did,” Steve says, because he doesn’t know how else to react. Quickly he files away everything Bucky said, slotting the memories into a mental timeline. “You found us dates and we went, you and I. Right before you shipped out.”

“Shame I can’t remember it now,” Bucky laments. “I bet it was keen.” Bucky shifts slightly on the bed, and Steve watches as his eyes begin to droop.

Steve swallows, and he can’t resist reaching out to brush a strand of hair back from Bucky’s face. Bucky flinches, very slightly, from the brush of Steve’s finger against his cheek, but then he frowns as though surprised and confused by his own reaction. “You should get some more rest, Buck,” Steve says gently, withdrawing his hand and pretending Bucky’s flinch hadn’t pierced him like a knife.

Bucky nods distractedly and his eyes slide closed.

To Steve, the rest of the day passes in a blur of fits and starts. Bucky sleeps on and off. The third time Bucky wakes up, Sam insists he tries drinking some chicken broth. Bucky finishes the broth easily and moves on to some mashed potatoes with enthusiasm. The fourth time Bucky wakes up he asks about his parents, and Steve has to tell him, haltingly and regretfully, that they’re gone. Bucky goes quiet for a while after that, but by the next time he wakes up Sam has brought some oatmeal and a banana for him to eat, and he becomes utterly distracted by how completely bizarre the banana tastes.

Sometime in the late afternoon, it occurs to Bucky to ask what year it is and how much of his memory is missing, which makes Steve freeze again. He doesn’t know how to answer, doesn’t know how to explain HYDRA and the Winter Soldier, and more importantly isn’t sure if he should. Bruce, who has been asking Bucky cognition questions and running him through simple coordination exercises, glances at Steve and gives him a confirming nod.

“He’ll have to find out sometime,” Bruce points out, and Steve takes a bracing breath.

“It’s 2016,” Steve says, and is utterly unsurprised by Bucky’s incredulous retort.

“You’re shitting me.”

Steve shakes his head, grimacing slightly as he tries to figure out how to explain. “You and I, we were… frozen, sort of, for most of the twentieth century.” Steve skims over HYDRA and the Winter Soldier purposefully; maybe some day he’ll have to tell Bucky the whole story, but right now he can’t bear to, not when everything is going so unexpectedly well.

Bucky contemplates that for a minute. “Like Buck Rogers,” he says, and a slow grin spreads across his face. “I always thought it’d be cool to be in a comic strip.”

Steve snorts a little but nods. “Yeah, sort of like Buck Rogers,” he agrees.

Bucky sits up straighter, his eyes sparking with excitement. “Hey, Steve,” he says, and the slow grin has blossomed into something almost blinding. “We’re in the future! Are there flying cars? And jetpacks? And robots?”

Steve can’t resist the naked delight and excitement in Bucky’s expression; it’s infectious, and something he had never really gotten to feel himself. He’d woken from the ice and found himself lost, alone, and grieving. While he’d adapted pretty quickly to the future, and there were certainly a lot of positive improvements to be found, he’d never really stopped to experience any amazement about it.

Steve’s lips twitch, and then laughter bubbles up unexpectedly in his chest. “You know what, there actually are,” he says. “Not quite like the comics in our day imagined them, but yeah. I can show you some later.”

Bucky’s enthusiasm for science and the future carries them through the rest of the afternoon as he peppers Steve with questions. Bucky finally quiets over dinner - rice and some plain chicken. At first it’s the usual quiet of people eating, but as Steve sets aside his empty plate he realizes that Bucky isn’t just quiet, he’s watching Steve with a serious, contemplative expression.

“What?” Steve asks, flushing a little under Bucky’s scrutiny.

Bucky fidgets slightly, setting his own mostly empty plate aside. “It’s just-” Bucky falters; there’s a crease between his eyebrows and his eyes keep darting shiftily around the room. Steve’s stomach swoops in anxious anticipation, but he relaxes again as Bucky’s frown disappears into a slightly bemused smile. “I miss you. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, you’re right here and I don’t actually remember any of the time we were separated, but I just-”

“No, it’s not weird.” Steve smiles slightly, hoping that it doesn’t actually look as brittle around the edges as he feels. He reaches out and squeezes Bucky’s hand. “I miss you too.”

Bucky lets out a shaky breath that’s almost a laugh. His eyes flick around the room once more, scanning the windows and doors, then he leans in and presses a chaste kiss to Steve’s lips. The kiss is brief, little more than a brush of lips against lips, before Bucky is pulling back again, eyes sweeping twardo the door yet again, just to be sure they weren’t caught.

For a second, Steve thinks wildly that his rib cage has been pulled straight out of his chest. The overwhelming rush of feelings - grief, relief, passion, loss, hunger, need - that Bucky’s kiss, brief and chaste as it was, sparked in him is quickly chased by an uncertain lurch of guilt.

Bucky doesn’t seem to notice, leaning back on his pillows with a self satisfied smirk and an echo of Steve’s hungry desire in his eyes. “Soon as I’m sprung from this place we can reacquaint ourselves properly,” Bucky says, his voice low and suggestive in a way that makes Steve’s stomach tighten and his breath catch.

For a minute the heady rush of want and the visceral realization that he has Bucky back overwhelms Steve and all he can do is grin dopily at Bucky. Then he’s brought back to reality with a sickening crash as Tony pushes his way into the room.

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*****

It’s almost hilarious, Tony muses, to watch Steve trying to explain things like cellphones and rock music and the internet.

Tony hadn’t exactly meant to spy on Steve and Bucky. Well, he had at first. During the long night when they’d first brought Bucky in, Tony sat in his workshop watching Steve sit in the hallway and stare miserably at Bucky’s unconscious form. Tony had watched, silently torn between raging jealousy and desperate desire to try and comfort Steve, and determinedly ignoring both. And when Sam’s call had pulled Steve out of bed that morning, Tony couldn’t resist pulling up the screen to watch, just in case- in case what, he wouldn’t let himself specify. Later that afternoon, after Tony had finally finished ignoring Fury’s calls, assuring Pepper everything was fine, sorting out a mildly explosive situation in the Stark Industries R&D department, and conferring with Maria Hill about making sure the Tower’s security was at the top of its game - again, just in case - he’d retreated back to his workshop and pulled up the video feed from Bucky’s room while skimming through the reports of the doctors who’d examined Bucky; ignoring only a mild sense of guilt.

It’s not like he’s the only one doing it, Tony points out to himself. Sam and Bruce are not so subtly taking turns making sure they stop by the room to check in at least every hour. Tony hasn’t seen Clint or Natasha since the team had dispersed on the first night, but he highly doubts they’ve gone far and would be willing to stake money on Clint lurking somewhere in the vents over the medbay. Only Thor, who had readily agreed that his presence might be a little too much for Bucky to handle in his current state, is out keeping an eye on the city while the rest of the Avengers are distracted.

Tony is pulled abruptly from his amused jealousy when he reaches the x-ray depicting Bucky’s left shoulder and side. He stares at it in confounded horror for several minutes, white hot rage rushing through him and wiping out everything else. Tony had never been an optimist about the human condition, and even less so since becoming Iron Man and discovering Stane’s betrayal, but he still finds himself almost unable to believe that someone could do that to another human being. His eyes flick over metal support struts, massive screws drilled into bone, bones replaced or encased in metal, sensors and wires extending right to the spinal column and wrapping around it.

It’s a goddamn miracle Bucky survived that thing being installed.

After that, the video feed from the medbay is really just background noise. Tony’s innate engineer takes over as he studies the scans and starts almost automatically working on schematics and redesigns. He only glances at the video occasionally, making distracted mental notes about how crooked Bucky’s shoulders look when he sits up fully, how he seems to be avoiding using the left hand unless he absolutely has to, the way he responds when Steve touches it. It must weigh a ton; it’s obviously putting strain on his back and shoulders despite the ample, if barbaric, bracing structure built in under his skin. Probably hurts like a bitch too.

Tony wanders distractedly about grip strength and dexterity. He knows it can pack quite a wallop; he’s seen the shaky cell phone footage of Steve and the Winter Soldier fighting on the bridge, and he’s listened to Steve talk - haltingly, brokenly - about what it felt like to get hit by the thing. How is it powered? Obviously Bucky gets some sensory feedback from it, but how much and what kind of feedback? When Bucky does move the limb it looks smooth, almost natural. Again, thinking back on the Winter Soldier’s fighting, his reflexes are fast enough to keep up with Steve, to overpower him even, which means they’re far beyond normal human reflexes.

He doesn’t even have to start from scratch. It’s easy enough to pull of some schematics on the armors’ systems and start modifying them. He very quickly realizes, however, that before he can get any real work done he’ll have to examine the current model more closely. He highly doubts they’ll be able to do much about the hardware drilled into Bucky’s body; even if they were willing to put Bucky though that, it’s hard to say what would be left after the hardware was taken out, and enhanced healing or not it’s not worth the risk. The arm itself, however, has to have ways into it, for upgrades and repairs. Once Tony has a better understanding of how it works, he can gut the damn thing and make it infinitely better, maybe detach the whole casing and replace even the outside with something lighter.

But to do that he needs to examine it, and preferably get a thorough 3D scan of both the interior and the exterior, so he and JARVIS can pick apart what they’re working with. A quick glance back at the video feed tells him that Steve and Bucky are just starting dinner - some kind of rice and chicken, Tony remembers the notes in the medical file expressing concerns about scar tissue in Bucky’s stomach from the cryofreezing, though he hasn’t seemed to have any trouble with the food they’ve given him yet. A quick dig through his workshop and he finds a prototype scanning device that meets his requirements, and after half an hour or so of tinkering it is both operational and portable, then he and the scanning device are on their way to the medbay without a second thought.

*****

He stops just outside of Bucky’s room. For a moment, he isn’t sure what caused him to stop. His chest feels uncomfortably tight for no apparent reason, until he realizes what he’s looking at; it’s Steve, staring soulfully into Bucky’s eyes like they’re in a goddamn harlequin romance novel. Then Bucky leans forward and-

Tony isn’t surprised. For a long minute he just stands there watching. His stomach is tight and twisted, but… it isn’t as devastating as he’d expected, seeing them together. He’d known it was inevitable, and, yeah, he’s jealous, but there’s also something so natural about the way their lips fit together, the way they’re drawn toward each other like magnets. Something tugs low in Tony’s chest that is… not jealousy, and he refuses to acknowledge or analyze that right now.

The kiss lasts scant seconds, then Bucky’s settling back against the pillows with a satisfied smirk and what can only be described as bedroom eyes. And if he was looking at anyone but Steve, Tony would have found it hilarious.

Steve is still blushing and looking dazed, but Tony decides not to let himself linger. He could slink back to the workshop, pretend he hadn’t seen anything. He could give in to the inevitable and just let Steve go. But he’s already tried that, he’s already sat in the dark of his workshop and brooded himself sick. And Tony Stark has never slunk away from anything in his life.

So he forces a deep breath into his lungs, filling them all the way, and pastes his best, most disarming smirk on before pushing his way, loudly, into the room.

Steve starts like he’s been shot and he flushes guiltily. Tony doesn’t spare him more than an absent glance, however, and focuses instead on the reason he’s here - that shiny, monstrous metal arm.

Bucky displays no guilt - though why would he? As far as he knows Steve is still his to kiss all he wants - but watches Tony with a wary sort of curiosity.

“Hi there, Tony Stark, and wow is it weird to actually meet someone who doesn’t already know that,” Tony says, determinedly steamrolling right over Steve’s reaction, and his own firmly suppressed emotions.

Bucky blinks. “Stark? As in the Stark Expo?”

“Not the one you’re thinking of, that was my dad, and honestly it’s probably for the best that you don’t remember meeting him.” And that was the one thing that could possibly make this situation better - bringing his dad into it. “Anyway, I’m here about your arm.”

Bucky blinks again, then turns to Steve. “I met Howard Stark?” he asks with something that almost sounds like amazement in his voice, because Tony needs another kick in the teeth right now. Steve grimaces slightly, but before he can answer Bucky has already redirected his attention back to Tony. “What about my arm?” Bucky doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s curled both of his arms in against his body, posture defensive while his voice hovers between confused and curious.

“It is both barbaric and a beautiful mystery, and I need to fix it,” Tony says breezily. He pushes his scanner around to the left side of the bed - conveniently the opposite side from where Steve is currently sitting.

Bucky eyes the scanner, then Tony, then turns to Steve uncertainly. Steve is frowning, lips pursed tight, and his eyes are moving from Bucky to Tony and back again. He looks tense, like he’s waiting for something. But when he meets Bucky’s eyes he gives Bucky a reassuring smile. “Tony’s the best engineer in the world,” he says.

Bucky considers, looking down at his metal hand as he flexes the fingers slowly. “Did you make it?” he asks, turning his attention back to Tony.

“No,” Tony says, a little surprised at the vehemence that comes out in his own voice. “I’m not that much of an asshole. I’m just the guy who’s going to remake, and do it better.”

Bucky looks faintly confused, but he nods. “What do you need to do?” he asks.

“For now, I just need to scan it. Maybe poke around a little under the hood. Once I know better how it works I can get to work on the redesigns.” Tony busies himself with checking the scanner, making sure it’s calibrated correctly and it’s direct uplink to JARVIS is online. “JARVIS, you reading me, buddy?”

“All systems are operational,” JARVIS reports, which makes Bucky startle violently. Bucky’s head whips around, first looking toward the door, then around the room, then up toward the ceiling. His expression of shocked confusion, his - really blue - eyes going wide and mouth pursing tight, is hilarious and Tony makes a half hearted attempt at hiding his sniggering behind the scanner.

“Tony,” Steve admonishes, distracted from his worrying over Bucky by Tony’s inappropriate laughter.

“I mean, really, Steve,” Tony defends, still grinning. “You spent all day blathering at him about youtube and text messaging, but you didn’t bother introducing him to JARVIS? The future is wasted on you.”

“Where is he?” Bucky asks, still looking around as though JARVIS might pop out from under his bed or something.

“Everywhere,” Tony shrugs. “In this building at least. JARVIS is an AI - an artificial intelligence. He’s a computer program, but a really advanced one. He runs the building, and I mean the entire building. Seriously, do not piss him off. Your toilet will no longer flush, your toast will not toast, and you will be forced to climb an utterly unreasonable amount of stairs.” Tony shudders a little for emphasis, because, yes, he is in fact still traumatized from the little spat he and JARVIS had had during the process of rebuilding the Tower.

Bucky is staring at him, and his expression is tight, looking almost pained. For a second, Tony worries that he’s somehow broken Bucky’s brain, but then Bucky bursts out laughing. It’s loud and sudden and both Tony and Steve jump a little at the rough bark of it. “So you’re telling me,” Bucky says, once he’s caught his breath. “That there’s like… a person, living in the walls of the buildings in the future?” Bucky looks absolutely delighted.

“Only this one. JARVIS is one of a kind,” Tony says, with no small amount of pride.

“This is even crazier than a comic book,” Bucky declares, but he’s still grinning. “I take it back, I’m not sure if I believe you any more, Steve. This has got to be some kind of nutty dream.”

“Well, if that’s the case you’re in luck, pal. The only dreams I participate in are the wet kinds,” Tony answers, his mouth running on automatic as he maneuvers the scanner into position. “Besides, expecting this much awesome from your subconscious is a lot to ask.”

Bucky eyes the scanner with a degree of skepticism. “Yeah, the talking walls are pretty neat, but that thing doesn’t look like much.”

“I wasn’t talking about the machines,” Tony smirks, with his best self-acknowledging head tilt.

Bucky laughs again and it transforms his entire face. The pallor of his cheeks and dark circles under his eyes disappear as his eyes crinkle up into slits and his teeth flash, white and sharp. For a minute, Tony isn’t looking at Bucky Barnes, love of Steve’s life, or the pieces of the Winter Soldier left behind after HYDRA’s collapse. For a minute, he’s looking at Sergeant Barnes, the flower of American youth who stood shoulder to shoulder with Captain America in the old propaganda films, and it’s… breathtaking.

But then the moment passes, and Steve is holding a small, wary smile, and Bucky is watching Tony expectantly, and Tony forcibly pushes his mind back to the moment.

“So what does that thing do?” Bucky asks, gesturing again to the scanner. He’s still smiling a little, but there’s a wary edge to it.

“It’s a fancy camera,” Tony answers, over simplifying with a shrug. “It’s going to make a digital three dimensional image of your arm, inside and out, so that I can pick it apart and recreate it, only better.”

Bucky nods slowly. “Sure, okay. What do I do?”

“Just lay your arm out beside you on the bed there and hold still,” Tony instructs. He reaches out, adjusting Bucky’s arm without thinking about it, moving it to lay flat against the mattress, palm down. As soon as he touches it a part of his brain veers off course in distraction, automatically noting the surface temperature of the metal, the way the plates shift and fit together under his touch, the faint hum of mechanisms working beneath the outer casing. He doesn’t realize that he’s lingered longer than necessary until Bucky clears his throat slightly.

“Is there a problem?” Bucky asks, and there’s something in Bucky’s voice that makes Tony think maybe Bucky isn’t complaining about the lingering touch.

Tony shakes himself quickly and withdraws, adjusting the scanner again unnecessarily. “Nope, all good. Just hold still.”

“Sure thing, champ,” Bucky says, letting his head rest back against the pillows he’s propped on. After a quiet minute Bucky rolls his head over toward Steve. “Hey, Stevie, what’re the chances I can get a smoke around here?”

Steve hesitates, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “Uh, actually, turns out that’s really bad for you,” he says, his forehead wrinkling.

“Huh, no kidding.” Bucky huffs. “So people don’t do that any more?”

“Oh no, they still do it,” Tony answers for Steve. “Humanity loves self destruction. Just mostly you have to do it outside now. Probably wouldn’t affect you much, anyhow.”

Steve tenses, making an abortive jerking motion that catches Tony’s attention and shakes his head. Luckily, Bucky doesn’t seem to notice. He’s distracted by Tony readjusting his metal hand, turning it palm up this time so that the scanner can continue from a different angle. “Does it hurt?” Tony asks, both as a further distraction and because it’s a pertinent question, one that has been burning in the back of his mind since he’d first looked at the x-rays earlier.

Bucky frowns, staring down at the hand as Tony manipulates each finger joint in turn. His frowns deepens, his eyes tracking Tony’s movements automatically. “I…” he pauses, and blinks, then his face twists into something strange and complicated. “Yeah, I… I think so?” Bucky’s eyes start to go unfocused, a shadow of the lost, uncertain look from that first night on the street creeping back onto his face. “That’s weird, right? I mean, I didn’t notice before and now…”

Steve lurches forward, starting to reach for Bucky, a look of panic on his face, but Tony quickly waves Steve off, pulling Bucky’s focus onto himself instead. “Hey, Bucky? I’m gonna be straight with you here.” Bucky’s eyes, so big and so blue, lock onto Tony’s. “This arm? It’s pretty messed up. The people who made it and put on you, they were nuts and they didn’t care how much it hurt you. But those people are long gone now, and I’m gonna fix it. I’ll build you a whole new arm if I have to, because I can do that, and it’s going to be incredible. Like, seriously, it’s going to blow this antique hunk of junk out of the water, just you watch.”

Bucky stares at him for a long minute, then all at once the tension drains out of Bucky’s shoulders and he does that crooked little grin again as he relaxes back against the pillows. “You’re making some pretty big promises, there,” Bucky says, one eyebrow quirked.

“And following through on big promises is what Starks do,” Tony insists smoothly. “JARVIS, how are we doing?”

“The scan is 87% complete, sir,” JARVIS answers promptly. “There appear to be access panels on the inside of the forearm and behind the back shoulder plate if you wish for an unobstructed view of the inner workings.”

“Excellent, let’s open her up and take a look,” Tony grins, quickly finding the edges of the panel JARVIS referred to on the forearm and popping it open. Bucky starts violently, and it occurs to Tony belatedly that seeing the inner workings of your own arm might be a little unsettling to some people. Of course, just as soon as the realization occurs to him, it vanishes again as the wave of woah, look at this tech washes over him.

Tony pokes at wires and actuators, adjusts transducers, and pulls out an outdated - frankly ancient - tracking device. “JARVIS, run another check to make sure there aren’t any surprises,” Tony says, picking apart the tracking device with a frown before setting it aside.

Steve, who has been fidgeting in increasing discomfort while trying to distract Bucky from Tony’s work, jerks, his head snapping to look at Tony.

“There is a suspicious canister near the shoulder plate and what appears to be a short circuit switch in the elbow joint,” JARVIS replies helpfully.

“Got it,” Tony confirms, his tongue poking out between his teeth as he digs deeper into Bucky’s arm. Bucky’s breath catches and he squirms a little, but he doesn’t actually protest or try to pull away from Tony, and Steve’s hand on his other arm seems to be keeping him relatively calm. Luckily, the switch and the canister are both as outdated as the tracker, and it’s easy enough to pry them out without disrupting any of the rest of the circuitry. “One more thing,” Tony mutters after he’s set the canister aside. He checks the schematics that JARVIS has built from the scans, confirming what he thought he’d seen. Neither Steve nor Bucky say anything as Tony dives into the arm once more. Tony grunts, sorting carefully through the wires to find the right one, and… “Aha!” he mutters in triumph.

Bucky jerks, making a startled sound, and then goes limp, slumping back bonelessly against the pillows.

“What did you do?” Steve asks, looking alarmed.

“It… doesn’t hurt any more,” Bucky says, sounding dazed. “Or, I mean, it hurts less.”

“I cut the sensory feedback relay,” Tony says. “It’s only a temporary measure, since the arm won’t function as well without it, but give me a day or two and I can redesign the system to provide you with sensory feedback without… doing whatever it was doing that was making it hurt.”

Bucky blinks. “... Okay,” he says after a pause. He doesn’t so much as twitch when Tony closes the access panels with a snap. “I’m, uh, I’m kind of tired,” he says after another minute, glancing toward Steve in a way that looks uncomfortably like he’s asking for permission.

Steve forces a small, reassuring smile for Bucky’s sake and he pats Bucky’s flesh shoulder. “Yeah, of course,” Steve says, all faux cheerfulness. “It’s been a long day, you should get some rest.”

Bucky nods, eyes already drooping.

Tony decidedly busies himself packing up his tools and the devices he’d pulled out of the arm, pretending not to notice Steve’s hand lingering on Bucky’s arm or the dopey half smile on Bucky’s face as he stares at Steve. Giving himself another minute to stall, Tony glances at his phone and finds a text from Bruce Team dinner in the kitchen. Bring Steve.

When Tony turns back toward the bed, Bucky’s eyes are closed and Steve is staring at Bucky with a mixed expression of open adoration and an aching longing. He jerks when he realizes Tony is looking at him, expression quickly shutting down and going carefully neutral.

Tony keeps his face just as blank and gestures with his phone. “Team dinner, we gotta go,” he says.

Steve starts to shake his head immediately. “I can’t leave-”

“You can, and you’re going to,” Tony overrides him. Bruce’s text had been pointed, and even if it hadn’t, Tony can see the strain in Steve’s face. “He’s asleep. JARVIS will let us know if he wakes up, and if it makes you feel better you can… leave him a note or something.”

Steve opens his mouth to make another attempt at protesting, but then his shoulders slump and he nods. “Yeah, okay,” he sighs. He glances once more at Bucky, his expression briefly twisting up into something complicated and pained before he stuffs it all back down again and heaves himself to his feet. “This is actually going to be a team talk about Bucky, isn’t it?” Steve asks, sounding resigned.

“Absolutely,” Tony agrees, putting on a merciless smirk as he nudges Steve toward the door.

******

The elevator ride up to the communal kitchen is stiff and awkward in a way that being alone with Steve hasn’t been since the team first formed. Steve can’t seem to look at Tony, and he shifts from one foot to the other, rubbing at the back of his neck no less than six times in the span of three floors. It is not a slow elevator.

“Relax, Steve,” Tony says, taking pity on him, though admittedly with his usual lack of social finesse. “I saw the kiss and I’m not mad about it.”

Steve jerks like he’s been shot, wide eyes flicking to finally look at Tony. “I- You- What?” he sputters.

“I’m not mad. It’s fine,” Tony repeats with a shrug. “Not like I didn’t see it coming,” he adds after a beat. He tries to push a reassuring smile onto his face and finds it… surprisingly easy. It’s almost alarming to realize that he isn’t lying; he genuinely isn’t upset about the kiss. At least, not any more.

Steve bites his lip, starting to look a little wet around the eyes. His hands dangle at his sides, alternately curling and loosening again, as though he wants to reach out and is restraining himself. “I meant what I said last night,” he says after a moment, his voice a little rough. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want-” he breaks off, the muscles in his neck working as he struggles.

Tony sighs. He reaches out and pulls Steve in, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist and pressing his nose into the hollow of Steve’s throat; it’s partially selfish, because while he isn’t mad, there is still a faint ache in his chest and a kind of exhaustion pulling on his bones and he would happily live the rest of his life breathing into Steve’s adam’s apple if he could.

Steve stiffens, hesitating, then his entire body seems to sag into Tony and he hugs Tony tight, burying his face in Tony’s hair.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Tony says after a long, quiet minute. “I’m pretty used to getting what I want. And if you and Barnes come as a set now, well… we’ll find a way to make that work.” He feels Steve inhale to speak but keeps going before Steve can get any words out. “I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m not promising or suggesting anything. I’m just saying, I’m not willing to let you go, and I’m not enough of an asshole to make you give him up either. The rest we’ll… sort out, eventually. Sometime when the entire team isn’t about to be yelling at us.” His words are timed perfectly with the polite ping of warning that signals the elevator is about to stop.

Steve groans softly, arms tightening briefly around Tony before reluctantly letting go. “You really think they’re going to yell?” he asks with trepidation.

“The entire team is going to be in a room together, there is going to be yelling, that’s a given and you’ve been around long enough to know that,” Tony points out. “They probably will not be yelling at you. But there will be yelling.”

As if right on cue the doors open on Clint’s shout of “I swear to god, Wilson, get your damn fingers out of my pasta sauce!”

Tony squeezes Steve’s hand and gives him a grin. “Home sweet home.”

*****

The bustle of team dinner proves to be a soothingly familiar affair. There are, as predicted, a fair amount of raised voice, but - mostly - only playful jabs, light banter, and efforts to be heard over the general din of the crowd. Tony notes distractedly that despite having technically already eaten dinner earlier with Bucky, Steve still demolishes his usual share of pasta in Clint’s special homemade sauce. In fact, really the only sign that there has been any upset to the team lately is the reduced number of projectiles that get tossed around and the fact that everyone is shooting glances at Steve every couple of minutes - some covert and some not so much.

It’s Thor who first breaks the unspoken no-talking-about-Bucky rule. He leans back from his empty plate, rubbing his stomach absently, and declares, “I am pleased to hear that our lost friend seems to be settling well.”

Steve does not look pleased. He’s been quiet and withdrawn throughout the meal, not entirely unusual for him, but a noticeable tension in the air, and at Thor’s words his face twists into something that does not at all reflect the seemingly calm and even cheerful day he’s had reconnecting with his long lost best friend. “Yeah,” he says anyway, “he, uh… he seems good.”

“And yet a dark cloud still hangs over you,” Thor observes, leaning forward slightly. “You remain troubled.”

Steve glances around the room uncertainly, and for a second it looks like he isn’t going to answer Thor’s sidelong question. But there’s something about Thor, about his earnesty and his unfailing optimism, that no one on the team has managed to develop an immunity to yet, least of all Steve who is otherwise recalcitrant with his feelings at best. “I guess I’m just still waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Steve says eventually. His gaze moves to Bruce, and his expression turns almost hopeful, non-verbally asking his own sidelong question.

Bruce sighs, taking his glasses off and cleaning with the tail of his shirt, looking apologetic. “It is a possibility,” Bruce says, once he’s settled his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. “Frankly, what we don’t know about the human brain far outweighs what we do know, and that’s without even considering the impact of the serum.”

“You think the scar tissue might still heal?” Natasha asks, because of course she’s read the doctors’ reports too.

Bruce shrugs. “We don’t know. But that’s also not the only way the serum works. The brain is a powerful thing, and even with people who are… unenhanced, there have been cases of the brain essentially rewiring itself so as to function around damage.”

“So basically at any moment he could wake up and be the Winter Soldier again,” Clint guesses gloomily.

“Not exactly,” Bruce shakes his head. “The areas where the damage is located are associated with memory encoding and memory retrieval. There is some evidence to suggest that the damage to the frontal lobe, which is vital to memory retrieval, used to be much more extensive and has healed to some degree. Probably why he remembers his own identity now but couldn’t before. He likely won’t lose that again, not without some new trauma to disrupt the retrieval process.”

Tony isn’t listening to Bruce’s lecture on neurology; he’s read the doctors’ notes himself. Instead he’s watching the others. Natasha’s eyes are sharp and narrowed, filing away everything Bruce says. Sam’s nodding in agreement - he’s been conferring with the doctors too and has probably already discussed all of this with Bruce. Clint’s expression is pinched and slightly squinted, waiting for Bruce to get past the technical stuff and fill in enough of the big picture for Clint to make something useful out of it. Thor’s look is of serious consideration, seemingly following the conversation well despite the radically different approach Asgardians have toward the medical field. And Steve is just sitting there, looking pained, looking to Bruce for an answer that Bruce has already said he can’t give.

“So the Winter Soldier, at least as HYDRA made him, is probably gone for good,” Sam adds, answering Clint’s question directly. “But if he does ever remember any of what they did to him? That is a whole lot of trauma to slam back into a person, even a little bit at a time, and there’s no way to predict how he’ll react to that.”

“There’s no precedent for this,” Bruce shrugs, looking both apologetic and frustrated. “Sure, there are plenty of case studies on amnesia and both long and short term damage to the brain, and handful of psychological studies on POWs, even some examples of other brainwashing attempts. But there is nothing that really compares to what we’re dealing with here. Serum aside, no one else that we know of has ever survived over seventy years of combined brainwashing, torture, and deliberate brain damage.”

The room falls into a heavy silence as they all struggle to digest that. Eventually, it’s Steve who speaks up again. He looks up from where he’s been staring blankly at the table in front of him and meets Bruce’s gaze like a man determined to stand his ground even as the entire world shakes apart. “Do you think he’s going to remember what they did to him?” Steve asks, and they all politely ignore the fact that his voice cracks a little.

Bruce’s lips purse into an unhappy line. “I don’t know,” he answers, meeting Steve’s eyes with just as much gravity as Steve is leveling on him. “But I sincerely hope not.”

Steve swallows and nods. He goes back to staring at the table for a minute, his throat working and his eyes blinking a little too fast, a little too often. “Thank you,” he says after a moment, eyes flicking back up to Bruce and then around to the rest of the table. “All of you. This isn’t your mess, and I know several of you had, and probably still have, a lot of reservations about helping Bucky after… everything.” His eyes linger for a moment on Sam and Natasha, who more than anyone knew the risk of trying to save the Winter Soldier. “But thank you.”

Natasha stands, gathering up her plate as casually as though they’ve only been discussing their next movie night. But she stops on her way to the kitchen and rests a hand briefly on Steve’s shoulder. “We take care of our own,” she pronounces quietly but with absolute definitude. There’s general nodding and murmuring of assent around the table as everyone takes Natasha’s cue as signalling the official end of dinner and start of clean up.

Tony hands his and Steve’s plates off to Thor, who nods in acknowledgement. Steve hasn’t moved, his head bowed under the weight of Natasha’s proclamation as he subtly tries to wipe his wet eyes, so Tony doesn’t get up either. He rest a hand on Steve’s thigh, carefully to make sure Steve can see it coming, and squeezes just a little. After a minute, Steve rests his hand on top of Tony’s and squeezes back, a silent acknowledgement and a reiteration of his gratitude.

“Okay, but I have one more question,” Clint says. He’s sitting on the edge of the island counter separating the kitchen from the dining room, his legs swinging in the air as he idly tears apart another dinner roll. He has apparently already brushed off the solemnity of the previous conversation, though the air as a whole in the room is much lighter given the post-dinner routine is just as familiar and reassuring as the preparing dinner routine is. Clint’s tone is distinctly casual, which allows Steve to relax enough to roll his eyes slightly and shoot Tony a half hearted smile before directing his attention towards Clint expectantly.

“Is it ‘why is your ass on the counter where we prepare food’?” Sam snipes, smacking at Clint with a dish towel.

“No,” Clint responds, utterly unconcerned. He catches the towel as Sam flicks it at him again, pulling it out of Sam’s grasp and beginning to twirl it idly in the air. “Bucky’s memories end somewhere around 1940, right?” Clint glances at Bruce, then Steve. They both nod in confirmation.

“Somewhere around there, yeah,” Steve says, waiting for Clint’s point.

“Then why,” Clint twirls the towel with an extra flourish, licking roll crumbs off of the fingers of his other hand, “isn’t he weirded out by you being all big and beefy? Shouldn’t he, you know, be expecting scrawny Steve 1.0?”

Steve blinks, as though that thought honestly hadn’t occurred to him. “That… is a good question,” he agrees slowly, looking to Bruce.

“He isn’t bothered by the metal arm either,” Tony points out, idly rubbing at the edge of the arc reactor through his shirt. “That’s sort of something most people would freak out about.”

Steve, distracted as he is, noticed the tic and reaches out to catch Tony’s hand. He brings Tony’s hand to his mouth, kissing his fingers lightly in reassurance.

“Evidence that his later memories aren’t really gone, at least not completely,” Natasha suggests, delicately swiping the towel out of Clint’s grasp and using it to wipe down the counter around Clint.

“The thing about memory,” Bruce says, leaning back against the opposite counter and crossing his arms over his chest, “is that there’s no one place in the brain where it’s stored. Pieces of memory, especially memory connected to sensory stimulus, are stored all over the brain. Like making a bunch of back ups and spreading them around. Makes it nearly impossible to really wipe out a memory completely. Bucky’s memories likely aren’t completely gone, he just can’t access them, not the way he should anyway.”

“And memory rewrites itself based on new sensory input,” Sam adds. “It happens a lot with trauma as a self defense mechanism. Certain things get written over to prevent a cognitive disconnect or to put distance between the trauma and the person remembering it.”

“Huh,” Clint says, and he has about forty-five seconds to contemplate that information before Natasha does something that none of them quite catch to dump him on his ass on the floor beneath the counter so that she can finish wiping it down. “Nat!” he complains loudly, but makes no effort to get up immediately.

Steve has gone quiet again, and Tony knows that he’s listening to the conversation, processing everything and filing it away. But Steve also looks absolutely exhausted, as though he might legitimately keel over and fall asleep under the table. Steve is keeping himself together by a thin thread and sheer force of will, and Tony might not always be great with people and their emotions, but he knows what a person who has reached their limit looks like.

“I think it’s time for bed,” Tony says quietly, leaning in and murmuring the words into Steve’s ear while the rest of the team go back to bickering and idly discussing the complexities of the human brain.

“I need to check on Bucky-” Steve starts in a halfhearted protest.

“He’s asleep,” Tony cuts him off firmly. “JARVIS will let us know if he wakes up. Until then, you both need to rest. You can’t hover over him 24/7, that isn’t going to do either of you any good.” Wow, is it weird to be acting as the voice of reason. Tony is so much more comfortable being on the other side of the get-your-ass-to-bed conversation, but he figures he can pull it off for one night at least. Tomorrow he’ll call in reinforcements; Sam has always been good at herding Steve, and Natasha has probably had plenty of practice carting Clint’s ass around, and Thor could just pick Steve up and carry him to bed. But for now, Steve is tired enough to be relatively malleable and he complies without another protest when Tony starts nudging him to his feet.

A chorus of distracted “good nights” follow them to the elevator and Steve sags against the wall as soon as the doors close behind them. In a parody of the night before, Tony pokes and prods Steve up to the penthouse and into the bedroom that is effectively theirs now, instead of just Tony’s. By the time they get there Steve has rallied enough to undress himself and brush his teeth before folding down onto the bed.

Steve is quiet for several minutes, blinking tiredly at the ceiling while he waits for Tony to finish brushing his own teeth. “Did you mean what you said before?” he asks, as soon as Tony has come back into the bedroom. Tony pauses on the threshold between the bathroom and the bedroom, feeling slightly ambushed. “About us making this work,” Steve clarifies, still staring vaguely at the ceiling.

Tony sighs and taking his time pulling on a pair of sleep pants before crossing over to the bed. He sits down cross legged, facing Steve, because this isn’t a conversation that can be just brushed off. “Yes,” he says, letting the ‘but’ ring heavy in the word to make sure he has Steve’s attention.

Steve takes a breath and sits up, mirroring Tony’s position and watching him warily. He still looks exhausted, but his gaze is sharp and clear like he’s bracing himself to go into battle.

“Look, Steve, it’s not like you’re the only person who’s ever l-... cared about two people at once, romantically,” Tony says, determinedly ignoring his own awkward fumbling by relying on his usual talent for rambling. “I don’t know about back in your day, but that is a thing now, in some circles. Polyamory. People make it work. You know, there’s this whole theory about humanity actually being biologically evolved to maintain more than one reproductive partner, it has something to do with height and testicles, but the point is monogamy… it’s not the be all end all. It doesn’t work for everyone.”

“Love,” Steve says, his voice firm and effectively brings Tony’s tirade to a sharp end. “I don’t just care about you, Tony.” There is almost a note of disdain in his voice as he parrots Tony’s cop out, but it’s softened by Steve reaching out to run his fingers through Tony’s hair. He shifts forward until his knees brush up against Tony’s, and it’s a little ridiculous, sitting there cross legged like a couple of high schoolers sharing a deep confession, but Tony can’t bring himself to actually protested, and after all, he had initially picked the position. “I know I never said it before,” Steve continues, his hand settling against Tony’s cheek instead of pulling away. “I think, maybe, I was lying to myself about it, a little bit. I think I was… trying to make myself forget what it feels like, because I couldn’t reconcile feeling the same way about you as I did- as I do about Bucky.”

Tony’s chest feels tight and he has to force his lungs to inflate. It’s stupid, he tells himself, but it’s not like he’s gotten to hear confessions like that aim at him, not sincere ones anyway, very often. And when Steve is sincere he absolutely, devastatingly sincere. “Guess that settles that then,” Tony says, ignoring how breathless he sounds. He reaches up for Steve’s hand, pulling it down into his lap because he feels a little stupid just sitting there with Steve’s hand on his face but he can’t bring himself to break the contact.

“Does it?” Steve asks, looking heartbreakingly hopeful.

“On my end it does,” Tony says. “But it’s not that simple.” He takes a breath, meeting Steve’s eyes because this is an absolute deal breaker. “You have to tell him. I refuse to be the other woman, especially in my own goddamn Tower.”

Steve grimaces slightly, but he nods. “I know I have to tell him,” he agrees. His eyes are locked on their entwined hands, his fingers rubbing idly at Tony’s callouses. “And I will. But… there’s already so much that he has to deal with right now…” Steve falters, “God, we didn’t even talk about any of the social changes that have happened, not really. I mean, he’ll be glad, but… it’s still a lot to accept. So I will tell him, I want to.” His fingers tighten around Tony’s at for a moment Steve almost smiles, soft and fleeting. “But can I wait a couple of days? To give him time to settle, to accept that this is all real, before I throw something like this at him?” He’s pleading, asking Tony’s forgiveness and understanding in one breath. It’s a slippery slope, Tony knows, a couple of days can easily turn into a week, a couple of weeks, and on, but at the same time, Steve isn’t wrong. They can’t forget the reality that is Bucky’s uncertain and precarious state of mind at the moment.

So Tony nods. “A couple of days,” he agrees. “We’ll see how it goes. But we tell him soon. No sneaking around, no lying. If we’re going to do this, whatever this ends up being, informed consent only, that’s the rule.”

Steve nods all too eagerly, looking relieved. Apparently deciding the conversation is at an end, he surges forward and presses his lips to Tony’s, hard and eager and a little desperate as he practically crawls into Tony’s lap.

Tony lets him, his body twisting easily to fall back against the pillows and pull Steve on top of him. It’s nice, after long days of stress and uncertainty, to lose himself in the heat and weight of Steve’s body against his, and relief is a heady thing.

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*****

The next morning Bucky asks about going home. Which is awkward, because Steve simultaneously thinks Home doesn’t exist anymore and We are home.

Bruce shrugs and admits that there’s no actual reason for Bucky to stay in medical. Besides a little malnourishment, he’s physically in good condition. Which is how Steve ends up taking Bucky up to the communal kitchen for breakfast.

They don’t do team breakfast the way they do team dinner, given that they all tend to have wildly unpredictable sleep schedules, as well as inconsistent daytime schedules. Usually, anywhere between five and eleven AM any range of the team could be in the kitchen, but when Steve and Bucky arrive Clint, Natasha, and Thor are all going about usual breakfast activities a little too purposefully; internally, Steve suspects that Bruce might have sent out a memo. Clint is lounging in the adjacent living room, sprawled comfortably on one of the plush couches munching on a bowl of cereal and watching cartoons. Natasha is skillfully dicing fruit for a smoothie, while Thor is seated at the table digging his way through a pile of waffles.

Bucky falters at the threshold of the elevator. His eyes flick around the room, expression wary and his shoulders tighten. Steve makes it three steps into the room before he realizes Bucky isn’t following him. Steve had tried to prep Bucky before they left the medbay, telling him about the team. He’d skimmed over a few of the details, but Bucky still cackled for a full five minutes, wheezing, and said “honest to god superheroes? Like superman?”

Bucky isn’t laughing now.

“You coming, Buck?” Steve prompts quietly.

Thor looks up, giving them a broad grin. “There remain plenty of waffles if you desire sustenance,” Thor declares, his voice booming across the room.

“You weren’t kidding,” Bucky says faintly, staring at Thor.

Steve grins a little. “This is just the beginning. Come on, let’s go get some waffles.” He squeezes Bucky’s arm reassuringly, propelling him into the kitchen. “Natasha, Clint, Thor, this is Bucky. Be nice,” Steve says firmly. Clint waves idly over the back of the couch without looking away from his cartoons, and Natasha offers Bucky a strawberry.

Bucky blinks, then slowly takes it. “... Thanks,” he says.

Steve makes them two plates of waffles and Natasha deigns to share more of her strawberries. Bucky sits with two empty chairs between himself and Thor, eyeing the god warily, but he digs into the waffles with enthusiasm and Steve is relieved that the doctors’ concerns about Bucky’s ability to eat are proving completely unfounded. Steve sits next to Bucky, filling one of the empty chairs between him and Thor, and Natasha settles on the side of the table facing them with her smoothie and a plate of toast.

Steve is halfway through his waffles, and Buck is increasingly distracted trying to crane his head around to see the television when Tony and Bruce walk in fifteen minutes later. Their heads are bent together over a tablet, seeming unaware of the other occupants of the room; Tony had already been gone when Steve woke up that morning, so the fact that he has flecks of grease spotting his arms up to his elbows is utterly unsurprising.

Tony makes a beeline for the coffee pot while Bruce sets aside the tablet in favor of pulling a carton of eggs out of the fridge. Clint wanders back over, grabbing the entire box of fruit loops instead of bothering to refill his bowl.

“You don’t have to go to the picture house to see cartoons any more?” Bucky asks, startling them all.

“Nope, we got a whole virtual library full of ‘em,” Clint grins. “Endless hours of mindless, brain melting entertainment at your fingertips.” Clint stops, his face twisting an expression not unlike a kid on Christmas morning. “You don’t know about Scooby-Doo!” he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air and nearly showering the whole kitchen in fruit loops. “I have so much to teach you, come on!”

Steve gives Bucky an encouraging nod and Bucky lets Clint propel him over to the couch, abandoning the remains of his waffles in exchange for the pile of fruit loops that Clint dumps into his palms.

The rest of the morning is… quiet. Clint plays Bucky a broad selection of cartoons spanning the entire length of the twentieth century, seemingly jumping around at random, and by halfway through an episode of The Jetsons Bucky and Clint are gleefully chucking fruit loops in the general direction of each other’s mouths. The rest of the team cycles through the kitchen at intervals. Thor finishes his waffles at the same time Natasha finishes her smoothie, and she challenges Thor to a sparring match with a dangerous grin. Bruce lingers over his eggs, spilling several forks-full into his lap as he switches between poking at his tablet and scribbling equations on a napkin. Tony hovers over Bruce’s shoulder, commenting on his work and stealing bites of egg off of Bruce’s plate whenever he’s distracted enough not to notice.

By lunch time, Clint has introduced Bucky to video games. Natasha and Thor have returned from sparring sweaty with broad grins and a few bruises, before dispersing again to spend the afternoon in other pursuits. Sam arrives with enough Chinese take out to feed an army, which is effective in both pulling Clint and Bucky away from the tv, and summoning Bruce and Tony back out of their labs. Natasha reappears long enough to grab a carton of mu shu pork before disappearing again.

Bucky seems to be having the time of his life. Something between him and Clint has clicked effortlessly, and Steve… Steve is absolutely not jealous. Not at all. This is nothing like the old days, nothing like watching Bucky charm girls while Steve is left holding up a wall and waiting for an excuse to pick a fight. Steve is relieved, frankly, that Bucky is making a new friend. Bucky needs that, he needs someone who can help pull him into the future instead of holding him back.

Steve is so busy not watching Clint demonstrate how to make a tiny bow out of straws and toothpicks that he startles when Tony’s hand lands on his shoulder. Tony is standing behind the armchair that Steve has been occupying for the past several hours - ostensibly reading on a tablet that he hasn’t even bothered to turn on - and Tony’s hand lingers, cupping the side of Steve’s neck and slowly sliding across his shoulder in a way that makes Steve’s breath catch.

“Quit hovering, poppa bear,” Tony teases, his voice a low murmur in Steve’s ear. “Let the kids play. He’s doing fine.”

“I’m not bothering them,” Steve retorts, and immediately regrets it when he realizes how petulant and defensive he sounds.

Tony frowns and moves around to sit on the arm of Steve’s chair, narrowing his eyes at Steve. “Seriously,” he says, with an eyebrow arched, “you need to relax.”

Steve ducks his head and shifts uncomfortably, embarrassed. But he doesn’t say anything, and he can’t help his eyes flicking back toward Bucky for probably the hundredth time in the past ten minutes.

Tony leans back and throws his hands in the air. “That’s it, I’m calling in reinforcements. Someone in this place must know how to talk reason into you.”

“Seriously, I’m fine,” Steve grumbles, unable to stop himself. “I’m reading.” He stubbornly picks up his tablet again, pointedly turning it on.

Tony rolls his eyes and stands. “Whatever, sweetcheeks,” he says. “Well, when you’re done brooding or whatever, bring Bucky down to the workshop in a couple of hours, I should be ready to start replacing the neuro-relay systems in his arm by then.”

Steve mumbles a vague assent, pulling up a news website at random and glaring at it determinedly. Tony rolls his eyes again and leaves.

Eighteen minutes later Steve gets a text from Sam reading You have fifteen minutes to get your ass down to the gym or I’m sending Natasha in to drag you there followed forty five seconds later by a text from Natasha that’s just a smilie face and a knife emoji. Steve groans, tossing the tablet aside and letting his head fall forward; Natasha does not make idle threats.

But… going a few rounds in the gym does sound like a good idea.

He takes a deep enough breath to make his entire chest expand, then he pushes himself to his feet. Bucky and Clint don’t seem to have noticed anything; Clint is gesticulating wildly and attempting to explain the plot of Star Wars to Bucky, who’s grinning in bemusement. Steve crosses the room over to them, and for all that Clint had apparently been engrossed in his conversation with Bucky, his eyes flick to Steve before Steve has made it more than a few steps and by the time Steve reaches them Clint has ended his tirade and flicks a peanut at Steve’s face.

“Hey there, Cap,” Clint says, lounging back against the arm of the couch behind him as he tilts his head up to look at Steve. “You heading down to training?” Clint is all blithe innocence and sometimes Steve forgets that one third of his team is made up of spies.

“Uh, thinking about it,” Steve says, shooting a glance at Bucky.

Bucky is looking up at Steve, a faint frown on his face and something that looks a little like guilt.

“Well, you’re going to miss out on a great movie marathon,” Clint says with a sympathetic sigh, “but work is work and you can’t skip out on training.”

Steve narrows his eyes at Clint; this is blatant manipulation, which is usually more Natasha’s style than Clint’s, who prefers a more direct approach. But, presumably this plan was hatched by Natasha, with Sam’s help, and Clint just got brought in on it.

Bucky’s lips purse and he narrows his eyes. “You ain’t ducking out on something important to keep an eye on me, Stevie, are you?”

‘Naw, it’s not that-”

“Go, Steve, I’m fine,” Bucky cuts him off before Steve can finish protesting. “Clint and I are just going to hang out and watch movies.”

Steve hesitates, but Clint makes a shooing motion behind Bucky’s back, and Steve reluctantly nods. “Okay, uh, if you run into any issues or anything JARVIS can get a hold of me.”

“That sure is handy,” Bucky grin, tossing a couple of peanuts into his mouth. “See ya later, Stevie.”

“Yeah, okay…” Steve looks back twice before the elevator doors close behind him, but Clint and Bucky have gone back to their previous conversation and don’t seem to notice.

******

“What the hell is this?” Steve demands as soon as he reaches the gym, where Sam and Natasha are stretching.

“This is exactly the point,” Natasha says calmly, stretched into a taut bridge.

“You’ve been getting tenser and grumpier all day, man.” Sam doesn’t look up from where he’s wrapping his hands. “And that’s not good for anyone.”

“Look, Bucky is-” Steve tries.

“Settling in. Making friends,” Sam cuts him off. “That’s a good thing. He needs room to breathe, and you need to work out some of that tension.”

Steve glowers, but he knows when he’s been outmaneuvered, and honestly he has to admit that Sam is right. “Fine,” he grumbles, “two hours. Then I’m going back.”

“Sure thing, champ,” Natasha says, standing smoothly and patting him consolingly on the shoulder.

Three hours later Steve is sprawled out panting on the mat with Natasha’s thighs around his neck - for the fourth time. Steve startles at the sound of a loud whistle and clapping. Natasha graciously releases him and rolls to her feet, smiling triumphantly and allowing Steve to twist around enough to see Bucky leaning against the nearest wall, a crooked grin on his face as he claps his hands together slowly.

“That was one hell of a show,” Bucky says, pushing away from the wall and strolling over toward the mat. “You’ve come a long way from getting your lights punched out in every back alley in Brooklyn,” he smirks.

Steve can’t help the blush that rises up his neck; the best he can do is hope it’s hidden under the flush of exertion. Natasha gives Steve a smirk that Bucky can’t see and pats Steve’s shoulder. “See you later,” she says with an entirely too knowing look before ducking out between the ropes around the sparring ring and following Sam toward the locker rooms.

“The hell did you learn to fight like that?” Bucky asks, strolling over to lean his arms on a corner post.

“New Jersey, then London, Italy, Germany,” Steve shrugs. “But Natasha’s the one that really taught me the best moves.” Steve gestures after Natasha’s retreating form.

“Yeah, she does seem like… one hell of a dame,” Bucky agrees distractedly, also glancing in the same direction.

Steve snorts. “Don’t let her hear you call her that,” he warns with a grin.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Bucky boosts himself into the ring, sliding lithely between the ropes. “You think you’ve got another round left in you?” Bucky tilts his head invitingly, a playful smirk on his lips as he rolls his shoulders.

Steve goes stiff, his gaze catching instinctively on the glint of Bucky’s metal arm under the bright lights and for a second Steve flashes back to the helicarrier. “Uh,” Steve say reluctantly, “that might not be the best idea.”

“Why? Don’t think you can take me?” Bucky teases. He’s pacing slowly closer, and Steve’s stomach twists into knots until he realizes that Bucky’s gait holds nothing of the predatory lope he’d seen in the Winter Soldier. It’s just Bucky, loose and playful; the same Bucky that had taken Steve out behind their school and taught him how to throw a punch when they were seven, the same Bucky that Steve had stood back to back with in alleys from Brooklyn to the Swiss Alps.

Bucky throws a right hook at Steve, light and aimed for his shoulder, a blow that barely would have glanced him anyway. It’s a test; Steve blocks the hit instinctively, falling back a step. The next punch is aimed straighter, and a little harder, and Steve doesn’t give ground this time. Bucky’s still loose and grinning and his moves are all back alley street brawl. Thoughts of the helicarrier flee Steve’s mind, replaced instead with an appropriated boxing gym in London.

“C’mon, Stevie, put ‘em up,” Bucky teases, and the words echo both in Steve’s ears and in his memory. Instinct takes over. With no real intent behind it, he and Bucky still flow together like they always have, a playful push and pull, trading jabs back and forth. Until Bucky does something unexpected, and so fast Steve almost doesn’t see it.

Steve finds himself flat on his back with Bucky’s thighs squeezing tight and Bucky’s arm a bar against his neck. Bucky’s hair has fallen forward to cast a foreign shadow on his face, but the face itself is so achingly familiar, his eyes so bright and blue and alive. Steve gives in and does exactly what Bucky wants, he presses forward despite the bar against his neck and kisses Bucky soundly.

Bucky groans into Steve’s mouth, his arm falling away so that he can brace both hands on the mat on either side of Steve’s head. Bucky’s body is all lithe, solid muscle against Steve’s own, his hips rolling with the motion of their kiss as he pushes his tongue into Steve’s mouth.

“I saw you watchin’, earlier,” Bucky drawls, barely pulling away enough to whisper the words against Steve’s lips. “When me an’ Clint were talking. You were jealous, weren’t you?” There’s an edge of laughter in Bucky’s voice, low and teasing. He rolls his hips down against Steve pointedly, making Steve choke and groan.

Steve’s hands take on a mind of their own, reaching up to grip Bucky’s ribs, smoothing down the line of his body until he can slip his fingers under the hem of Bucky’s shirt. Bucky’s skin is hot, almost too hot against Steve’s fingertips and Steve can’t get enough of it.

“You know I’m all yours, babe,” Bucky keeps going, his mouth moving down to work against Steve’s jaw and down the line of his neck. “No one else means anything to me.” Bucky’s hands start to tug at Steve’s shirt. The hard brush of his metal fingers are a shock but not enough to pull Steve out of the haze of need he’s fallen into. “Lemme prove it to you. Lemme show you how much-” He breaks off, seeming to finds words superfluous as he nuzzles against the sensitive spot at the hinge of Steve’s jaw.

And for several long, heady minutes, Steve lets himself have it. He lets himself fall into the heat and strength of Bucky, into the taste of him and the sound of his panting breaths. Then he forces himself to pull back, resting a hand on Bucky’s chest to prevent him from insisting. “We can’t, Bucky,” he says, breathless and heavy with regret. “Not here, not now.”

Bucky groans, dropping his head to rest against Steve’s chest. There’s a minute tremble running through Bucky’s body and his breathing isn’t just heavy, it’s ragged. His arms on either side of Steve’s head flex, and then collapse.

“Hey,” Steve says quietly. He sits up, catching Bucky easily and pulling him closer. Bucky ends up half curled in Steve’s lap, but he keeps his face pressed into Steve’s shoulder and he makes a small, almost wounded sound. “Bucky?” Steve tries to push Bucky back enough to see his face but Bucky resists, clinging to Steve tight enough to hurt. So Steve switches tactics, tightening his own arms around Bucky’s shoulders instead.

It only lasts a few minutes, then Bucky is letting go, sniffing and huffing and pulling back but still trying to keep his face hidden from Steve. “Sorry,” Bucky mumbles, voice rough and raspy. “Sorry, I don’t know- what the hell-” Bucky sniffs again but Steve has had enough.

He cups Bucky’s chin, gently forcing his head up so that he can meet Bucky’s eyes. “You got nothing to apologise for,” Steve says firmly. He presses a gentle kiss to Bucky’s temple, rubbing soothing circles on Bucky’s back, refusing to let Bucky pull away too far. “You’ve had a rough couple of” -decades, Steve thinks- “a rough time lately,” he says instead. “There’s no shame in letting it out.”

Bucky huffs. “Didn’t I used to tell you that?” he grumbles, swiping irritably at his own eyes once more.

“Yeah, at least a couple of times a year,” Steve agrees with a faint smile.

Bucky grunts and shifts out of Steve’s lap; Steve lets him go reluctantly. Bucky’s eyes are red around the edges, but the evidence of his tears is otherwise mostly gone. “Guess it’s only fair then,” Bucky mutters. He runs a distracted hand through his hair, and Steve is relieved to see that Bucky’s hand is steady and controlled once again.

“I, uh, Tony mentioned earlier that he’d like us to come down to his workshop this afternoon,” Steve says carefully. “He wants to work on your arm. But if you’re not feeling up for it right now, that’s fine. We can do it later.”

Bucky hesitates, lifting his arm - his left arm - to run a hand through his hair again but stops.

“If it’s hurting you again, Tony can help,” Steve adds quietly, because Bucky fails to completely hide the slight wince as he drops his arm back into his lap.

Bucky nods slowly. “Yeah, okay,” he agrees. “We can go.”

Steve grins and rolls to his feet, holding out a hand to pull Bucky up as well. “Great,” he says, forcing a smile that is just a little too large while he pointedly does not think about what he and Bucky had just been doing. “You’re really gonna love Tony’s workshop, Buck. That’s where the robots are.”

*****

“Welcome to the playhouse!” Tony declares loudly, spreading his hands wide as they enter the workshop.

Bucky stares.

Just as Steve predicted, Bucky is delighted by the workshop. Within minutes, Bucky’s earlier break down is all but forgotten as he explores. Steve, trailing after them both while Tony gives the grand tour, feels a little bit like a parent following a kid around Disneyland accompanied by the world’s most enthusiastic park attendant. Bucky is immediately entranced by Dummy, Butterfingers, and You, while the bots appear equally entranced by Bucky’s metal arm. It’s actually pretty hilarious to watch the three bots crowd around Bucky, examining him curiously while he pokes back in fascination.

Eventually, Tony shoos the bots off and corrals Bucky into sitting on one of the stools, directing him to lay his left arm out on the adjacent work table. There’s a brief touchy moment when Tony opens the access panel on Bucky’s forearm and Bucky’s whole body goes tense, a low growl issuing from his throat. Steve lurches forward quickly, putting a light hand on Bucky’s flesh shoulder just in case, but Tony hardly misses a beat. He just starts rambling about electrical relays and kinetic conduction while casually stepping back to grab a few tools - as though that had been his intent all along - and by the time he moves back to hunch over Bucky’s arm Bucky has relaxed again, his eyes tracking Tony’s every movement but his shoulders loose and his breathing calm.

And Tony doesn’t stop talking. Tony talks in the way that only Tony can, a jumbled mess of techno babble and pop culture references, interspersed with half finished instructions to JARVIS and frequent off kilter jokes. It’s dizzying and amazing, and one of the things Steve has always loved most about Tony. This isn’t the ramble Tony does for an audience, this isn’t the show Tony puts on when he wants to prove he’s smarter than everyone else in the room, or when he’s trying to distract people from whatever he’s really doing. This is the pure, genuine Tony, the Tony who talks because he loves talking, and because he is the smartest person in the room, but he isn’t trying to show that off he’s just trying to share some of his knowledge. If there’s one thing that Tony loves as much as his own brilliance, it’s sharing his brilliance with someone who will appreciate it.

It’s almost startling when Steve realizes that Tony isn’t talking to him. Steve has spent so many hours down in the workshop, sketching or checking over files, or just sitting and watching the show while Tony works and talks. Mostly of the time he only understands about one third of what Tony says, at best. But this time Tony isn’t talking at Steve, he’s talking to Bucky, and Bucky is nodding along. Then Bucky asks something about circuitry and electric current and Tony’s enthusiasm ramps up by ten.

Tony is talking faster than ever and Bucky is listening avidly, regularly interrupting Tony’s flow to ask another question and Tony only gets more and more delighted with each one. Tony’s fingers fly as fast as his mouth, flicking through holographic designs and digging around in Bucky’s arm. Bucky keeps his eyes on Tony’s face, too enraptured by the conversation to pay attention to whatever Tony is doing to the arm.

There’s nothing for Steve to do but sit and watch. It’s mesmerizing, the way Tony moves, the glitter of excitement in Bucky’s eyes. Steve’s mind drifts, not actually paying attention to the words either of them are saying but letting the flow of their voices wash over him. Their dark heads are bent together, Tony showing Bucky some piece of circuitry that he’s about to install in the arm, explaining it with broad gestures and rapid words, and Bucky is smiling, wide enough to crinkle the corners of his deep blue eyes and to catch dazzlingly in the light.

Steve’s stomach hits the floor like a free fall as he has a moment of dear lord, I have a type. But his chest feels tight and full and warm in a way that actually makes it easier to breathe and for the first time he really, truly starts to think that maybe everything will finally, truly be okay.

Minutes, hours pass; Tony and Bucky don’t seem to notice, or care. Eventually, Steve quietly requests that JARVIS have some pizza sent down and Steve goes to retrieve the food when it arrives without disturbing the other two. Tony waves him off and mumbles something about almost being done when Steve returns with the pizzas and announces dinner time. Steve has learned better than to trust that, so he gives them five minutes before coming over and insistently taking the tiny screwdriver out of Tony’s hand.

“Dinner,” Steve says firmly. “Go wash your hands.”

Tony grumbles, but closes the access panels on Bucky’s arm and complies.

They go quiet as they eat, and Steve would be tempted to believe Tony had talked himself out if he thought that was possible. But Bucky, sitting next to Steve on one of the couches set up in the corner of the workshop, starts slumping against Steve’s shoulder three slices in.

“Guess I wore him out,” Tony observes quietly, watching from his favorite chair across from them.

“It’s been a long day,” Steve points out, just as quietly. Carefully he shifts, pulling his own shoulder out from under Bucky and easing him down so that he can lie comfortably stretched out across the couch. He pulls the half eaten piece of pizza out of Bucky’s fingers and tosses it back into the mostly empty box before grabbing the soft blanket folded over the back of the couch and tucking it gently around Bucky. Steve lets himself linger for just a moment, smoothing the hair away from Bucky’s face and letting himself revel in the relief at how peaceful and relaxed Bucky looks, in the fact that Bucky is safe and home.

Tony gets up follows Steve without a fuss when Steve grabs the last pizza box and moves across the workshop so that they can talk without waking Bucky up. Steve clears off a spot on the farthest workbench and pulls himself up onto it, letting his legs dangle as he sets the pizza box down within easy reach. Tony leans against the bench on the other side of the box, grabbing himself another slice.

“Thanks,” Steve says quietly after a minute, “for… what you’re doing.”

Tony pauses, blinking with the pizza halfway to his mouth. “Fixing his arm?” he asks. “It’s not exactly altruistic. Don’t get me wrong, the Soviets and HYDRA are all shitbags, but that is one hell of a piece of machinery, I mean-”

“I don’t mean that,” Steve cuts him off. “Thanks, for that too. But that’s not what I meant.” Steve lets Tony blink at him for a moment, and Steve can’t help the slow smile that spreads across his face. “You’re being nice,” Steve clarifies with no small amount of relish.

 

“How dare you,” Tony growls in mock offense. He half turns away, stuffing the pizza into his mouth as though that can hide the chagrinned look on his face.

“I mean it,” Steve insists, voice low and sincere despite the small grin still on his lips. “I know you have every reason to hate him, or… or be jealous, at least.” Steve pauses, biting his lip before continuing. “You didn’t have to talk to him like that, or answers his questions. But you did, and that was really nice. He… He was having a lot of fun, I could tell, and that means a lot to me. That you did that.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony grumbles, looking embarrassed and distinctly disgruntled about it. “He isn’t, you know, totally awful, I guess. And at least the man knows how to recognize genius when it’s standing in front of him.”

Steve laughs and he can’t help himself, he reaches out, pulling Tony over so that he can stand between Steve’s legs. Steve lets his knees tighten against Tony’s ribs, pinning him in place, and gently extricates the remains of the pizza from Tony’s grasp. “Thank you,” he says again, voice low with both sincerity and warmth as he leans in to kiss Tony’s grease stained lips.

Tony hums in wordless acknowledgement, leaning in to Steve’s touch and opening his mouth all too happily. Tony’s hands smooth absently up and down Steve’s thighs, his head angled slightly upwards to meet Steve’s kiss. It’s perfect, the way their bodies fit together, the slow slide of lips and tongue and breath.

Then everything falls apart all at once.

Tony’s eyes, which he’s kept open, flick to something behind Steve and Tony starts to pull back. At the same time, JARVIS starts a warning, “Sir-” but before JARVIS can even finish the word he’s cut off by an unholy shriek.

Instantly Steve is whipping around, dislodging Tony from between his legs, though Tony is already pulling backwards anyway. For a second all Steve sees is Dummy hovering in front of the couch where Bucky was sleeping, his claw outstretched as though to adjust the blanket. Just past Dummy Steve can see Bucky jerking up, the shriek still coming from his lips, his eyes wide and horrified. Bucky tries to scramble away from Dummy and ends up throwing himself over the low arm of the couch. He lands hard, still scrambling, and his metal elbow collides with the glass front wall of the workshop. The wall shatters in a shower of glass and immediately sets off a blaring alarm. Steve launches himself over the workbench he’s been sitting on, Tony only half a step behind him as they both rush forward. Tony is shouting instructions to JARVIS over the alarm, something about sealing off stairwells but Steve isn’t listening, his only focus is on getting to Bucky.

Bucky hardly seems to notice the glass falling around him. He twists around, getting his feet under him and starts pelting up the nearest set of stairs. By the time Steve reaches the bottom of the stairwell, Natasha, Clint, and Sam are standing at the top of the stairs, Bruce and Thor appearing presumably from Bruce’s lab one floor further down, and Bucky has stopped somewhere midway up the staircase, his back pressed against the wall and his knees hugged up tight to his chest.

Steve takes the first half of the stairs three at a time and stops in front of Bucky, careful not to touch him yet. Bucky’s eyes are wide, darting frantically around and his breath is coming in hard, sharp pants.

“Bucky?” Steve asks cautiously, crouching down in front of Bucky.

“S-Steve,” Bucky stutters with something like relief. “Where are we? What… What the hell was that thing?”

Steve frowns, glancing back toward the workshop. He can just see around the edge of the stairs, Dummy still standing next to the couch, clutching the blanket in his claw and somehow looking as baffled and alarmed as a robotic arm is capable of looking. “It’s… It’s okay, Buck,” Steve tries to reassure him, reaching out to place a gentle hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “We’re still in the Tower. You fell asleep in Tony’s workshop. Don’t you remember?”

 

Bucky’s eyes dart around again. His breathing hasn’t calmed down at all, and now that Steve is touching him he can feel the way Bucky is trembling. “What… What’s happening?” Bucky asks in a small voice. His eyes flick up to Clint, Natasha, and Sam, then down to Thor, Tony, and Bruce. “Who are these people? Where are we?”

Steve sits back on his heels. He can hear his own heartbeat still hammering in his ears, even though it feels like his heart has sunk right down to his toes. “You don’t remember,” he says, and it isn’t a question, because he’s come to know that look on Bucky’s face, he remembers it from the street in Brooklyn, from when Bucky had first awoken in the medbay. Steve swallows hard and forces back the brewing maelstrom of his own feelings, because now is not the time. “It’s okay,” he repeats again, squeezing Bucky’s shoulder just a little and forcing Bucky focus on him. “You’re safe here. I’m gonna take of you.”

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*****

It takes Steve a while to calm Bucky down; Tony feels exhausted just watching. They run through the whole future, war, robots, Buck Rogers spiel again, to a distinctly less enthusiastic reaction. Bucky sits stiffly on the bed in the medbay while Sam carefully picks glass out of his flesh arm and Steve holds his metal hand and explains everything. The rest of the team try not to hover or exchange too many worried glances, and Clint successfully restrains himself from making more than two deja vu jokes.

When Bruce brings in the portable MEG machine, Bucky panics and nearly breaks through another glass wall. Steve catches him in time to keep him in the room, but Bucky won’t calm down again until the machine is out of sight. He can’t explain to anyone why the machine terrifies him so much, but no one presses too hard about it. Bruce does admit, quietly and with a regretful twist to his lips, that if they want to be able to help Bucky they really need an updated scan. Bucky agrees to another sedative easily enough, but he remains tense and clinging to Steve’s hand until the drugs take effect.

The team dispurses while Bucky sleeps the sedative off and Bruce takes the scans to consult with the neurologists they’d brought in initially. Steve stays by Bucky’s bedside, staring blankly at Bucky’s limp form for several long minutes after the scan is done, then he turns sharply and leaves the room without a word.

Tony finds Steve in the stairwell, where he’s resting his forehead against a wall and his right first is wrist deep into the plaster. Steve’s entire body is one tense, trembling line of coiled wire and there’s a sound coming from between his grit teeth that falls somewhere between a sob and snarl.

Tony starts to reach out, wanting to touch Steve, wanting to comfort him in someway but he stops, because Steve looks like he’s fracturing into pieces, and Tony is not equipped for this. For three long minutes neither of them moves. Then Steve very slow, very carefully, extricates his hand from the drywall.

“I should have known,” Steve says, his voice as cracked as the wall he’s leaning against. He hasn’t looked at Tony, hasn’t directly acknowledged Tony’s presence. His forehead is still pressed against the wall and his arms are drawn into his body, knuckles pushing against the wall like he’s both clinging to it and trying to push it away. “It was too easy.” There’s a dry, humorless laugh in his voice. “It was too goddamn easy. I really… I really almost believed that I could just… get him back. That he’d be-” Steve breaks off and it sounds like the words are tearing his throat on their way out. Slowly, so slowly he turns to look at Tony. There’s a pinched look to his face and for the first time Steve truly looks old, and so very tired. There’s a beat where Tony just stares, helpless, and Steve’s knees buckle. He slides down the wall to slump on the floor, his knees curled in tight to his chest, his hands still clenched in impotent fists. “He went off to war, and I found a way to follow him, to find him. Then he fell off that train, I watched him fall, and I… I didn’t follow him right away, because I still had a job to do, but I finished the job, or I thought I did, and I followed him to the ground. But it didn’t… it didn’t work and now I’m here and everything just… just keeps getting worse. But I found him again, I found him and he’s here and I can keep him safe this time, I can. But he’s… I still lost him. And I keep losing him-” There are tears on Steve’s face, but Steve doesn’t seem to have noticed, his eyes glazed over as the words keep pouring out of his mouth. “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life chasing after him, and my whole life losing him, over and over, and I should have known better than to believe that I could finally get to just keep him.”

Steve isn’t looking at Tony anymore; it’s possible he’s forgotten Tony is there at all. Tony takes a breath and his entire mind just goes fuck it, it’s not like having no idea what to do has ever stopped him from jumping headlong into a situation before. Tony shifts forward and lowers himself to the ground in front of Steve, close enough for Steve’s updrawn knees to poke into Tony’s stomach. He leans forward, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders and it is incredibly awkward. It is possibly the most awkward and uncomfortable position Tony has ever been in because Steve is pressed up so tight against the wall that Tony can’t actually get his arms around him, and Steve’s knees are providing a frustratingly effective barrier that forces Tony to curl up and around him to even reach him and the best Tony can do is get Steve’s face mashed up against the arc reactor.

Steve is very stiff under Tony’s touch, and for several seconds Tony thinks Steve might throw him against the far wall, but then a sound comes out of Steve that almost sounds like a real laugh and Steve’s hands unclench enough to curl into the fabric of Tony’s shirt. “Is this supposed to be a hug?” Steve asks, his voice muffled from the way his face is pressed into Tony’s chest and the edge of the arc reactor is probably gouging painfully into Steve’s cheek but Steve doesn’t try to pull away.

“Well, if you don’t want it-” Tony starts, leaning back. Steve moves so fast Tony has no idea how it happens, but a split second later Steve has straightened his legs out and Tony is straddling Steve’s thighs with Steve’s arms cinched tight around Tony’s waist and Steve’s cold, sniffly nose poking into Tony’s throat.

“Don’t you dare,” Steve mumbles wetly.

Tony can’t help but laugh a little and Steve has leaned forward into the hug so Tony manages to get his arms properly around Steve’s shoulders and holds on. He shifts one hand up enough to run his fingers over the short hairs at the nape of Steve’s neck, eliciting a sound that is almost a mewl from Steve and he sags even more against Tony’s chest.

They sit like that for a long time as Steve’s breathing evens out and his body relaxes in fits and starts. Periodically Steve’s breath catches again and Tony’s shirt gets a little wetter. Steve’s arms flex around Tony, squeezing a little tighter, and Tony’s fingers smooth through Steve’s hair again, soothing and patient.

Eventually Steve settles down and pulls back, wiping at his reddened eyes. “Sorry,” Steve mumbles, “I’m sorry. God, I’m just such a mess.”

Tony snorts. He lets Steve pull back but doesn’t move out of Steve’s lap or withdraw his fingers from Steve’s hair. “Yeah, you’re definitely being really over dramatic right now,” Tony tells him with a crooked smile and a sarcastic roll of his eyes.

Steve makes a wet sound that’s almost a laugh and lets his head fall back against the wall. “Fine, you’ve made your point,” Steve relents. He takes a breath, deep enough that it makes his entire body flex. “So what now?”

*****

As it turns out, there isn’t a whole lot for them to do. The new scans show no change in the scar tissue in Bucky’s brain. Bucky wakes from sedation with the same calm curiosity he had the first time, and a pervasive sense of deja vu settles over the Tower.

They spend a lot of time talking about theories on memory encoding and retrieval, neuro-conductivity, and how different parts of the brain function. The doctors have several debates about whether the source of Bucky’s problem is in new memory encoding, or in his ability to retrieve the memories once they’re encoded, but either way they conclude that the result is essentially the same; somewhere along the line of Bucky’s memories being moved into long term storage something goes wrong, and Bucky wakes up back in the forties. “It’s going to keep happening,” the doctors say with grimaces and helpless shrugs. “It’s probably permanent,” they add, but they suggest continuing to take new scans regularly, just in case.

The first time a long term care facility is mentioned Steve resolutely thanks the doctors for their help and politely but without apology kicks them out. No one else says anything about it.

It’s three days before Bucky’s memory resets the next time. Bucky asks about the war, he asks if Steve got hurt. He has a long conversation with Sam about the Civil Rights Movement and watches with rapt attention when they show him videos of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. Clint teaches him to play video games again, and Bucky thoroughly enjoys getting trounced at Mario Kart.

His memory reverts again after four days. Steve goes through the welcome to the future routine again over breakfast. When they reach the “like Buck Rogers?” part, Clint drops his breakfast burrito to point first at Bucky, then at Steve and crows in delight. “Buck. Rogers. That’s hilarious.” Bucky blinks at him looking bemused, and then they both end up laughing themselves under the table while Steve resists the urge to roll his eyes and goes back to his omelette.

The next time, Bucky’s memory only lasts for two days. Steve pretends he’s okay as he tells Bucky for the third time that everyone he’s ever known is dead. That afternoon, Clint takes Bucky down to Tony’s lab to re-meet the bots while Natasha takes Steve to the gym to work out some aggression.

*****

It’s been two months, and Bucky’s memory has reverted back to the ‘40s eighteen times. Despite several positive developments including Bucky’s easy adaptation to technology, an improbable but consistent friendship with Clint, and the fact that the majority of the time when his memory resets it’s a relatively calm affair, Bucky’s presence in the Tower requires a lot of adjustment.

Bucky, as it turns out, has the least difficulty with the adjustment. For all that he forgets what year he’s in every couple of days, they learn that his procedural memory, by and large, remains intact; within the first few weeks Bucky becomes adept at using cellphones, Clint’s video game controllers, and even Tony’s holographic interfaces. The majority of the time he reacts to the discovery that he’s suddenly in the future with equal measures of confusion and excitement, though the occasional nightmare will lurch him into the future in a haze of panic and terror.

Steve, unsurprisingly, has the hardest time adjusting. For the first few weeks, the rest of the team has to alternately manipulate and bully him into giving Bucky some space. If left to his own devices Steve will inevitably hover over Bucky until both of them become tense and snippy, to say the least.

Which is why Tony is surprised to find Steve sitting in the communal living room, curled up on a couch with a book open in his lap, completely alone. Surprised, but admittedly, a little bit delighted. It has been an incredibly long day of dealing with lawyers and accountants, and Tony is more than happy to take advantage of the lack of Steve’s other boyfriend in the room to flop himself directly into Steve’s lap in a wordless but obvious demand for attention. Of course, the drawback is that the book Steve is holding happens to be a hardcover, and Tony ends up cracking his skull against an unreasonably pointy corner.

Steve looks down at his lapful of Tony with a bemused raised eyebrow, before pulling the book out from underneath Tony’s head and holding it over Tony’s face, presumably in order to continue reading.

“You could have moved it out of the way,” Tony grumbles, eyes narrowed accusingly. “I know your reflexes are good enough.”

“You should look before you flop,” Steve responds evenly, turning the page.

“Cruel,” Tony grumbles. “That’s it, I’m making a press release alerting the world to how cruel Captain America really is. It’s my civic duty to warn them.”

Steve just makes a vague humming sound in response, but he also deigns to drop a hand to rest on Tony’s chest, just below the arc reactor, his fingers curling in slightly in a way that is very much not like petting and that Tony definitely does not love.

“Not that I’m complaining, or in anyway want to break the mood here,” Tony says after several quiet minutes, “but you’re surprisingly relaxed considering the absence of your extra appendage.”

“Clint took him out for ice cream,” Steve answers. His voice is still level and calm, but Tony doesn’t miss the way his fingers tighten very slightly around the edge of the book.

Tony can’t resist snorting a little. “You let Barton take him out into the city?”

“They’re both fully grown adult men,” Steve says, and there is a faint undertone to his voice that makes it sound more like something he’s been telling himself repeatedly. “Besides, Sam and Thor went with them.”

“Sam is a very brave man,” Tony quips dryly. Tony shifts to sit up but stays angled so that he’s leaning against Steve’s shoulder. He pointedly reaches out and plucks the book from Steve’s grasp, setting it aside.

“I was in the middle of a sentence,” Steve protests, but it’s half hearted at best.

“Really? What’s the book about?” Tony challenges.

Steve fidgets slightly, eyes flicking toward the book but Tony has purposefully positioned it so he can’t see the cover. “... Presidents,” he says, but his inflection verges on a question.

“Nice try. The correct answer is astrophysics.” Tony sighs, reaching out to run his fingers through Steve’s hair. “You’ve gotten a lot better at pretending to be calm.”

Steve sighs and lets himself slump, his head tilting back to rest against the back of the couch as he leans into Tony’s touch. “I actually am calm… er, calmer, than I was.”

“Oh, well, as long as you’re calmer than you were before, I guess everything’s fine.” Tony lets his voice drip with sarcasm and Steve’s hand swats in the general direction of Tony’s shoulder.

“Actually-” Steve hesitates and Tony braces himself to be serious. “I’ve been thinking, well, mostly talking with Natasha, about going back out in the field.” Steve fidgets again, his fingers plucking distractedly at a loose thread on the arm of the couch. “We’ve been really lucky that nothing big has come up since we brought Bucky in, but Nat’s been picking up rumors of AIM setting up a new base, and we know there are still HYDRA cells out there.” Steve bites his lip and shrugs, a little helplessly. “I’ve still got work do.”

Tony purses his lips. “You do realize that you’re not the only superhero in the world, right? Hell, you aren’t even the only one currently in this room.”

“I didn’t mean-” Steve starts, but Tony waves him off.

“You’re just being you,” Tony says, acknowledging and dismissing at the same time, “trying to carry the whole world on your shoulders. And, by the way, I am not at all saying that you shouldn’t go back to work. I’m just saying, you don’t have to. I know you like to feel responsible for every lost kitten and stubbed toe that you don’t personally avert, but seriously, Steve, no one will judge you if you’re ready to retire.”

Steve pauses, blinking, and Tony can see on his face that he’s never even considered that. But now that Tony’s said it, Steve does consider it. Tony watches for the fifteen seconds it takes for Steve’s face to go from surprised, to relieved, to uncertain, to resigned. “I just…” Steve swallows, and Tony can see the excuses before they’ve even formed on Steve’s lips. “It isn’t fair, to Bucky. Or to anyone else, you know?” He glances at Tony, looking for a validation that Tony is not going to give him. “I mean, what if something happens to me? What if Bucky has one of his nightmares and he wakes up and he doesn’t remember any of you-”

“This is really a conversation for our Resident Unofficial Therapist,” Tony grumbles, “but seeing as he’s currently out supervising three overgrown five year olds hopped up on sugar, we’re gonna have to do this my way. It all comes down to one question; do you want to keep fighting?”

Steve takes a breath, sudden and a little too sharp. His hands flex, tightening and loosening again in his lap. He opens his mouth to answer, pauses, opens his mouth to give a different answer, and pauses again. It’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to watch.

“You don’t have to,” Tony continues, because Steve clearly can’t settle on an answer. “If you want to hang up the shield, no one will blame you. You could still help plan missions and go over intel, or you could get out of the game entirely, become a famous artist, or hell, just sit around the penthouse and be my kept man. I have always wanted to have a kept man.” Tony’s fingers are curled around the back of Steve’s neck, loose and stroking at the short hairs there. It’s a relief to hear Steve’s soft huff of laughter and feel a little of the tension drain out of his shoulders. “That’s fine, if that’s what you want to do, whatever you want to do, we will all support you in it.” Tony takes a breath and tilts Steve’s head, forcing Steve to meet his eyes. “But the one thing you cannot do, Steve? Don’t quit because of him. He won’t thank you for it.”

Steve sighs and he slumps so heavily and so suddenly that for a wild moment Tony thinks he might fall over. But Steve ends up with his elbows braced on his knees and his face resting in his hands. “I know,” he admits quietly. “You’re right, Sam’s right, Nat’s right, you’re all right. But I just…” Steve swallows thickly, “I hate the thought of him waking up alone in a strange world.” The like I did is unspoken, but Tony hears it anyway.

“Me too,” Tony says quietly, and with an uncomfortable amount of sincerity. “But you know we won’t let that happen, right? He might not remember us all of the time, but we’re not going to leave him alone. We’ll look after him whenever you can’t.”

Steve turns his face to look at Tony without sitting up, and the naked emotion in his eyes makes Tony shift uncomfortably but he refuses to back down. “You mean that,” Steve says. It isn’t a question, but Tony is a little insulted by the undertone of wonder in Steve’s voice. “I was worried, you know,” Steve admits quietly, “that you’d hate him.”

“Well, to be completely honest, I tried hating you at first and look how that turned out,” Tony says. He tries to play it off as a joke, but he can tell by Steve’s expression that he falls short.

Steve straightens up and pulls Tony in with one smooth motion. Tony leans into the kiss, glad to be done with talking about feelings, at least for now. Kissing is much less stressful and embarrassing. Tony really likes kissing.

Tony lays back across the couch, coaxing Steve on top of him as his fingers find the hem of Steve’s shirt. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get much beyond spreading his hands across the thick muscle of Steve’s back under his shirt before the elevator pings open and the combined cacophony of a Norse god, a super soldier, and an ex-carnie all hopped up on sugar immediately kills the mood that Tony had been hoping to built.

“Steve! Do you know they put unbaked cookies in ice cream now?” Bucky declares, his voice distinctly louder than necessary, even across the large room. “You have got to try it.”

Steve, with his lightning reflexes, had rolled off of Tony in the split second before the elevator doors opened and has conveniently reclaimed his book to cover his lap. “Yeah, Buck, they’ve got a whole lot of pretty creative flavors these days,” Steve responds, his voice back to the nearly perfect calm that’s only betrayed by the slight flush creeping up over the edge of his collar.

Forty minutes later, after selections from the gallons of ice cream they had brought back from the ice cream parlor have been scooped into bowls and passed around, along with several tubs of popcorn, and Natasha has appeared to veto Clint’s movie choice in favor of the Wizard of Oz, Steve leans in to Tony enough to speak into his ear without being overheard. “You promise you’ll look out for him when I can’t?” Steve asks quietly, a flash of vulnerability in his eyes.

Tony nods, slow and serious. “We won’t leave him alone,” he promises, holding Steve’s gaze until Steve nods, satisfied, and returns to his ice cream.

*****

JARVIS lowering the volume of Tony’s music is the first thing that alerts him to the presence of an intruder. Tony is elbows deep in some new upgrades on Steve’s motorcycle, and JARVIS lowering the music instead of setting off an alarm means it’s a friendly intruder, so it takes him a few minutes to extricate himself from the arc reactor powered engine prototype he’s working on.

It’s Bucky. Wearing skinny jeans, one of Steve’s hoodies, and a distinctly grumpy scowl. Tony isn’t surprised by the scowl, given that the morning had started out less than smoothly. Steve and Natasha had been planning a raid on a new HYDRA cell for a few weeks. It’s not the first mission Steve has gone on since his resolution to go back to work, but he still struggles with his anxiety about being separated from Bucky for more than a few hours at a time. He and Bucky had talked the whole thing over several times, and while Bucky clearly doesn’t like Steve going out to fight without him there, after a few demonstrations, he’ll grudgingly accept that between Natasha, Clint, Thor, and Sam, they should be able to watch Steve’s back well enough.

Of course, that had been all well and good until JARVIS had alerted them via alarm early that morning that some suspicious activity near the HYDRA base they’ve been investigating indicates they need to move up the timeline of their attack immediately. And, of course, Bucky had emerged from his room - formerly the guest room on the penthouse floor - with the expression of dazed confusion that means he had no idea what year he’s in. Steve, already in his uniform and with the others down in the quinjet waiting for him, had nearly refused to leave, despite the urgency of the call.

Tony was forced to call in Bruce - who had been deemed thankfully unnecessary for this mission - and between the two of them they’d managed to reassure Steve enough to hustle him down to the quinjet and Bucky into the kitchen for breakfast. Bruce made Bucky a bowl of oatmeal with fresh strawberries, gave him an abbreviated version of the Welcome to the Future speech, and settled him on the couch to watch some cartoons and old movies with relative ease. Tony, who, unlike Bruce, hated being left out of the mission, had a Very Important SI meeting to attend which Pepper had threatened to disembowel him if he missed. So Tony had been forced to wave Steve and the others off and leave Bruce to entertain Bucky while he put on his big boy pants and kept his cell phone close at hand, just in case.

By the time Tony had escaped the Very Boring SI meeting, they’d had word from Natasha letting them know that the situation was contained and they’d be done mopping up in a few hours. Bucky seemed relatively content watching How It’s Made with a bowl of popcorn, and Bruce had retreated to his own lab to get some work done. Tony had chosen to follow Bruce’s lead and has been happily pulling Steve’s motorcycle apart for the better part of an hour before Bucky’s entrance.

Bucky hesitates, just inside the doorway, and looks around. Tony can’t help but grin a little as he watches Bucky experience his workshop for the thirty-second first time. It is undeniably Bucky’s favorite room in the Tower, and no matter how anxious or grumpy Bucky is feeling before he comes in, he never fails to appreciate Tony’s inventions for the pieces of genius that they are. And sure, it’s awkward to spend so much time with his boyfriend’s other boyfriend, who only sometimes even knows who Tony is, let alone that Tony is also dating Steve. But as it turns out, it’s really hard not to like the guy. In fact, despite his occasional dark moods and bouts of anxiety, Bucky is terminally, frustratingly charming and likeable.

“Hey there, ginchy,” Tony calls, carefully stepping around the disassembled pieces of motorcycle and grabbing for a semi-clean rag to wipe his greasy hands on.

Bucky blinks at him, and his face scrunched up into a bemused sort of half smile that Tony definitely does not find adorable. “Are you doing that thing where you use outdated lingo that you don’t actually understand in order to make fun of me?”

“I never say anything I don’t mean,” Tony declares loftily, waving it off. “You looking for something to do?”

Bucky shrugs, poking despondently at a broken gauntlet laying on the workbench nearest to him. “The, uh, the guy in the ceiling said Steve probably won’t be back for a couple more hours yet.”

“Yeah, well, the clean up is always the longest and most obnoxious part.” Tony watches Bucky carefully, and he doesn’t miss the tension in Bucky’s shoulders or the fact that he’s got his left hand shoved into the pocket of his hoodie. “We can call him, you know, if you want,” Tony adds. “He’ll probably honestly welcome the distraction at this point.”

Bucky hesitates, his loose hair casting his face into shadow, but he shakes his head. “I don’t want to bother him,” he mumbles, setting the gauntlet aside again and shoving his right hand to join the left in the pocket of the hoodie. “What he’s doing, it’s important. Kinda blows my mind, you know, knowing he’s out there actually winning a fight for once.”

“He’s gotten pretty good at it,” Tony agrees. He doesn’t approach Bucky directly, but rather winds his way between the work benches, half to give Bucky some space and half to figure out where he’d left the gel he’d been working on. “We’ve got videos of him sparring, if you want to see them.” Steve had given Bucky a live showing a few times before, and it always seemed to reassure Bucky to see that Steve really can handle himself now.

“No, uh, JARVIS showed me, earlier,” Bucky says, his voice tripping slightly over JARVIS’ name. “He really is something to see. I mean, always was, but, you know, he’s really impressive now.”

Tony notes the falter in Bucky’s voice and mentally files it away. “Yeah, he really is,” Tony agrees distractedly. He grabs the tube of gel he’d been looking for and casually winds his way over to Bucky. “Anyway, since you’re here, mind if I look at your arm a bit?”

Bucky hesitates, and Tony can see the way his shoulders stiffen and his gaze flicks toward his own shoulder.

“It’s hurting you, isn’t it?” Tony prods gently. “I can help with that.” Over the past few months Tony has successfully replaced most of the metal arm, one piece at a time, making it lighter, stronger, and faster, but for all Tony’s genius, there’s only so much he can do about the way the arm is anchored to the rest of Bucky’s body.

Bucky twitches, his jaw tightening. There’s a wary uncertainty in his eyes, and Tony reminds himself that as far as Bucky knows they’ve really only met each other in passing that morning. But the moment passes, something inside of Bucky unclenches and he nods. “What do you need?”

“Access to your shoulder.” Tony gestures to a stool. He keeps his distance, giving Bucky time to settle himself.

Bucky shifts slightly, but then he nods and in one smooth movement he pulls the hoodie up over his head, revealing no shirt underneath. And that is a very distracting moment. Not that Tony hasn’t seen Bucky shirtless before, but somehow it’s different this time. There’s something about the way that Bucky’s thick muscles flex as he pulls off the hoodie, the stretch of his pale skin pitted with scars, the contours of shadow cast by his hair and the arch of his cheekbones. Bucky straddles the stool, resting his arms on his knees, his shoulders hunched forward. “What are you going to do?” he asks. He keeps his weight angled forward and his body curled in tight on itself, but his head is half turned, tracking Tony’s movements.

“Well, thing is,” Tony says, forcibly pushing his distracted thoughts away. He approaches carefully, making sure to telegraph his movements well before actually touching Bucky. “The problem is in the joint here, where the metal meets the skin. Dummy, bring that lamp over here.” It takes several minutes of swearing and cajoling at Dummy to get the lamp into place so that Bucky’s shoulder is well lit. Tony prods gently at the swollen scar tissue that rims the edge of the metal arm and Bucky cranes his head around to look. “The metal is irritating the skin, rubs it raw everytime you move the arm, right?”

Bucky nods slowly, his shoulder flexing. Bucky’s eyes follow the motion of the plates shifting and slotting together to compensate for the movement. “You built this,” he says.

“I rebuilt it, technically,” Tony agrees. “Or, I am rebuilding it. I’m not done. Might never be done completely. I could make it even cooler, you know, build in some gadgets.”

“It’s already pretty…” Bucky distractedly traces a finger over the star etched into the shoulder of the arm - painted blue now, which was Steve’s idea originally but Bucky had agreed readily enough. “I mean, it looks like something out of a comic book. Yesterday I couldn’t have even imagined something like this. Well, yesterday for me, anyway.”

“Well, anyway, what I’m going to do today,” Tony reaches for the gel tube and a thin injector, “is insert this gel polymer I made in between the casing and the skin to act as a cushion. It’s a patch job, really, for now, the gel will have to be reapplied regularly. But I’m still working on coming up with a more permanent solution.”

Bucky eyes the injector warily. “It’s gonna hurt, isn’t it?” he asks, but it isn’t really a question.

“A little bit,” Tony agrees, “just the injection, but afterward it’s gonna hurt a lot less.”

Bucky grits his teeth, but nods. “Yeah, okay. Do it.” It’s consent, but it’s sharp and tense. There’s always so much tension in Bucky, and Tony realizes with a sharp stab of clarity that he hates that. So Tony does what he does best - he puts on a show. It’s easy enough to stall a little on getting the injector ready, to work Dummy, Butterfingers, and You up into a frenzy of failing utterly at being helpful, to start up a bickering match with JARVIS and fill the room around them with technobabble and witty remarks and befuddling pop culture references. And it works. Soon enough Bucky is caught up refereeing a tug of war between Butterfingers and You over some tool that Tony doesn’t actually need; the set of Bucky’s shoulders have loosened and he isn’t quite laughing but there are little crinkles in the corners of his eyes and he’s shaken the hair back from his face as he reaches out with his flesh hand to pull the tool out of You’s grasp and chides the two bots.

“Okay, show time,” Tony interrupts. “Butterfingers, You, you’re on time out, yeah, you heard me, get over there to fabrication. Dummy, get that thing out of my sight. No, don’t you give me that look, I said go put it away.” Bucky hands the tool over to Dummy and pats his claw lightly before Dummy wizzes away with it. “Alright, Buckaroo, I need you to hold still for me. We’re gonna have to give the gel a minute or two to set before you can move the arm.”

Bucky scowls at him, but the crinkles are still edging the corners of his eyes and he braces his metal arm on the workbench to keep it still. “Buckaroo? Really?”

“Buckini then,” Tony smirks. He keeps his tone light, but his hands are careful and steady as he inserts the tip of the injector in between Bucky’s shoulder and the edge of the metal plate.

Bucky hisses, tensing slightly before he lets out a slow breath and forces his muscles to relax. “Sure thing, Antonio,” Bucky grumbles, “whatever pops your corn.”

“Nice try, but I’m more offended by that ridiculous idiom,” Tony tells him loftily.

“Whatever teeters your totter,” Bucky shoots back, “razzles your berries, sizzles your bacon, humps your camel.”

Tony snorts, honest to god snorts. “Those words that just came out of your mouth, those are an affront to linguistics. I’m choosing to blame Barton. You are officially not allowed to hang out with him any more.”

“Nope, that’s all me, cupcake,” Bucky shakes his head. “I don’t remember hanging out with Barton.”

“That is a dastardly blow, Barnes.” Tony shakes his head in mock disapproval. Tony carefully scoots his way around Bucky so that he can apply the gel to the front part of Bucky’s shoulder, which means that he can see the smug smirk on Bucky’s face. It also means that as silence descends over them, Tony can see the smirk falter and slip off of Bucky’s face.

“I like him, though,” Bucky says quietly, his eyes focused vaguely on a point somewhere over Tony’s shoulder. Tony pauses in checking to make sure that the gel is evenly spread all the way around the seam. It suddenly occurs to him how close they are, Tony’s knees nearly bumping up against Bucky’s as Tony hunches forward to better see Bucky’s shoulder. “Barton,” Bucky continues, a faint crease between his eyebrows. “I don’t remember ever even meeting him face to face, but he’s… he’s fun to be around. I don’t know how I know that, but I do.”

“He’s obnoxious,” Tony retorts, focusing back on the task at hand. Now that he’s acutely aware of the fact that he and Bucky’s faces are only a few inches apart he’s finding it uncomfortably difficult to ignore that fact. Bucky’s revelation isn’t surprising; they’d figured out weeks ago that while Bucky lost all narrative memories every time his mind reset, he retains some things, on some unconscious level at least.

“That too,” Bucky agrees. Bucky tilts his face down to actually look at Tony and Tony is struck by how very blue Bucky’s eyes are. His lower lip is plump and swollen from being chewed on and there’s still a faint line between his eyebrows which somehow both contrasts and complements the slight uptick at the corner of his mouth. “I like you too,” Bucky says, so simple, so direct.

It isn’t the first time in his life that Tony’s been struck speechless, but it’s a rare enough occurrence that he finds it very unsettling. His hand is still resting on Bucky’s shoulder, right at the seam between hard metal and soft flesh, and as Bucky shifts to face him more directly their knees knock against each other. Tony is still half hunched forward toward Bucky’s shoulder and with Bucky’s face tilted down to look at him, Tony can feel the soft brush of Bucky’s breath against his face. Tony’s brain is rushing forward at full speed, putting together the inflection in Bucky’s voice - distinctly different from the way he’d said he liked Clint - the lack of space between them, the little tilt to Bucky’s lips, the intensity with which Bucky has focused on Tony, and it’s all leading to one thing. Tony sees it coming, he knows what Bucky is going to do well before Bucky actually does it, but Tony’s frozen, unable to react until Bucky’s lips actually brush against his.

It’s light, careful at first, really just a ghost of a touch. But then Bucky’s flesh hand lifts to cup the back of Tony’s head, lifting him up and pulling him closer into a better angle and Tony is opening his lips instinctively, pushing into it. Tony’s hand tightens around Bucky’s shoulder unconsciously, his other hand falling to brace himself against Bucky’s thigh as he half stands out of his chair to reach Bucky better. Then all at once it’s rough and hungry, as much teeth and tongue as it is lips and they’re panting into each other’s mouths.

But, as quickly as it began, it’s over. Bucky knocks over his stool in his haste to flee the workshop and Tony is left reeling. He lurches after Bucky on instinct, but while Tony knows the layout of the workshop like he knows his own mind, Bucky is damn fast. By the time Tony reaches the foot of the stairs, Bucky is long gone.

Chapter Text

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*****

Considering it was a relatively simple mission, by the time Clint sets the quinjet down in the Tower hanger, Steve feels inordinately exhausted. He grunts as he pushes himself to his feet, his side and thigh throbbing where he’d been grazed by a couple of stray bullets during the fight. The wounds are shallow but long, and although they’re already starting to close they’re a constant annoyance, along with the ache in his shoulder where he’d wrenched a muscle catching the shield from a bad angle.

“Careful, old man,” Natasha jabs as she passes him. It’s half hearted and distracted, most of her energy focused on trying to shake flakes of ash out of her hair.

Steve just rolls his eyes and ignores her. They’d gotten the job done, wiped out the HYDRA base and handed the few survivors over Sharon for the CIA to deal with, which was honestly more time consuming than the fight itself had been. All Steve wants to do is take a shower and curl up on the couch with twice his bodyweight in Chinese takeout. What he gets instead, once the loading ramp has finished lowering for them to disembark, is Bucky pacing in restless circles just beyond the ramp and muttering to himself.

Bucky looks up sharply at the sound of the ramp settling against the concrete floor of the hanger and starts moving forward with such intensity that Steve almost reaches for the shield. Steve has enough time to observe the determined set of Bucky’s jaw and the deep crease between his eyebrows before Bucky launches himself up the loading ramp and into Steve. Steve is tired enough that he stumbles back half a step from the force of Bucky’s body colliding with his, but then his brain shorts out as Bucky’s tongue pushes its way into his mouth.

Steve is only distantly aware of Thor chuckling as he passes them down the ramp, his boots clomping heavily over the metal. By the time Bucky pulls away enough for Steve to regain any awareness of the rest of the room, everyone else has cleared out and they’re alone in the hanger. Bucky pulls back enough for Steve to see his face, but his arms stay locked around Steve’s shoulders. Bucky’s lips are swollen from the kiss and there’s an intensity in his eyes that makes the pit of Steve’s stomach do a swoop. There’s something familiar about it, something that niggles in the back of Steve’s mind, but he can’t quite place it.

“That, uh, that was a hell of a welcome home, Buck,” Steve manages once he’s caught his breath again. He can feel a flush burning on the back of his neck and something tight in his chest. Steve has had plenty of opportunities to kiss Bucky in the past few months, but there had always been an edge of caution to it, an uncertain distance that they both continually stepped around without talking about. Bucky pouncing on him and kissing him in front of most of the team, that is something entirely new and Steve is dizzy with it.

Bucky’s hands slide down Steve’s chest, roaming and eager and… possessive. That’s it, the familiarity that Steve couldn’t place clicks in his mind. He flashes back to before the war, to curling up miserable and alone in their apartment while Bucky is out with some girl - not blaming Bucky for it, not begrudging the girl a piece of Bucky’s attention, but lonely and maybe a little bitter. But only until Bucky came home, until Bucky crawled into their bed, smelling faintly of perfume but all roaming, groping hands, more eager and possessive than ever. This is Bucky feeling guilty, this is Bucky reasserting his dedication to Steve.

But before Steve can say anything, before he can ask the baffled question of who?, Bucky’s roaming hand finds the graze in Steve’s side, still wet with blood. Steve bites back a soft hiss at the renewed stab of pain, but Bucky is pressed close enough to feel Steve’s breath catch in his chest. Bucky pulls away, first glancing at Steve’s face, then down at his own flesh hand, now smeared with Steve’s blood.

Bucky swears, stepping back and grabbing for Steve’s uniform, trying to pull it up enough to see the wound. Steve is fast enough, just barely, to catch Bucky’s hand and fend him off. “It’s fine,” Steve tries, but Bucky’s gaze has found the blood staining Steve’s pants from the other graze on his thigh and his expression twists up into a tight look of mixed horror and rage.

“You got shot,” Bucky accuses, his voice a sharp hiss. “What’re you doing standing here? You need to go to the hospital.” Even as he’s talking Bucky tries to tuck himself under Steve’s shoulder and prod him forward.

“I do not need a hospital,” Steve denies. He twists out of Bucky’s grip so that he can stand in front of Bucky, stopping his forward motion but keeping an arm around him. “I heal fast. I’ll be good as new in a couple hours. All I need’s a shower and some dinner, I promise.”

Bucky scowls at him, looking unconvinced. “You need a doctor,” he argues firmly.

“Sam checked me over on the flight in,” Steve protests and Bucky makes a loud “hmph” noise.

Sam,” he says with emphasis, “is not a doctor.” He's pushing at Steve, not hard, but enough to prod him gradually in the direction of the elevator and a part of Steve wants to laugh because they have had so many arguments very similar to this in back alleys all over Brooklyn.

“No,” Steve agrees. “He's a field medic, which means he specializes in bullet holes.” He says it smugly, and keeps talking before Bucky can work up another retort. “Look, if you really want to help let's go inside and you can make me dinner.” It's a trick Steve had learned early on in life; the best way to distract Bucky from hovering over him is to give Bucky something else to do. “I'll even let you give me a once over before I shower.”

Bucky grumbles the whole way and keeps a stubbornly supportive arm around Steve's waist, but he let's Steve steer them into the elevator. Steve pushes the button for the penthouse instead of the communal floor because he has not forgotten the intensity of Bucky's greeting and he still intends to get to the bottom of it.

By the time Bucky has thoroughly poked and prodded all of Steve's scrapes and bruises, reluctantly declared himself satisfied, and retreated so that he can procure dinner while Steve showers, Steve's annoyance at being fussed over has melted into fond familiarity and he's very much looking forward to spending the rest of the evening curled up on the couch, preferably with his head in Bucky's lap.

When Steve emerges from the shower, damp haired and wearing his most comfortable pajamas, he's delighted to find a pile of cartons from his favorite Chinese takeout place on the kitchen table. He's somewhat less delighted to find Bucky trying to look like he's doing something important in the kitchen while Tony tries equally hard to look busy messing with the television remote in the adjacent living room.

Steve pauses for a moment in the doorway to the master suite, watching them both. Watching as they determinedly don't look at each other, as Tony grumbles under his breath at the perfectly functional remote and Bucky collects cutlery with a little too much force. And all the pieces fall into place.

Well, frankly, Steve would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about it before. About the way Tony and Bucky just seem to flow together, about the way they both light up when they’re in the workshop, and about how magnificent they would look in bed together. But that doesn’t mean he knows how to react to the very obvious awkwardness standing in front of him.

Bucky and Tony don’t give Steve much time to figure out a reaction, however. The thought has no sooner occurred to Steve than Tony is tossing the remote onto the armchair - without having actually done anything with it, as far as Steve can tell - and Bucky appears from the kitchen armed with forks, knives, and chopsticks.

“About time,” Tony declares, throwing himself down into the armchair on top of the remote, “I’m starving.”

“You didn’t have to wait for me,” Steve points out. It takes more effort than it should have to push himself away from the doorframe and across the room. Now that the last of the adrenaline from the fight has washed down the drain with the film of soot and blood he’d scrubbed off in the shower, exhaustion weighs heavily on Steve’s shoulders and all the aches and pains that he’d been ignoring make their presence known with a vengeance. He has to breathe carefully around the burning itch in his side and his injured thigh throbs with every step; most people wouldn’t have noticed the slight limp, but neither Tony nor Bucky are most people.

“You’re grounded, by the way,” Tony adds, “I told you not to get shot this time.” Tony’s eyes don’t linger on Steve, just flick to him long enough to note the limp, the way he can’t help hugging his injured side a little, and the swelling bruise on his cheekbone, then away again as he starts digging through the piles of takeout cartons and unloading half of them all together into a very large bowl.

“Not my fault,” Steve complains. Bucky, having deposited the cutlery on the coffee table - narrowly missing Tony’s head as he’d done so - hurries over and shoves his shoulder under Steve’s armpit to help him to the couch. Steve doesn’t actually need the support, but after everything, there’s a certain novelty to Bucky being there to fuss over him again, so he allows it. “The other kids wouldn’t play fair.”

Tony brandishes a pair of chopsticks at him, accidentally flicking a few grains of rice onto the floor. “Grounded,” he repeats.

Steve grunts as his ass lands on the couch with a loud enough thump to make him wince a little. “Sure, fine,” he relents, and he can’t help smiling a little. Tony hands him a bowl piled high with fried rice, lo mein, and at least six different kinds of chicken.

Bucky, on the other hand, is not so easily satisfied; though, in fairness, Steve reasons, Bucky has had less experience with Steve getting shot in recent memory, and Bucky’s faith in the serum’s capabilities seems to fluctuate. He settles himself on the couch next to Steve, leaving next to no room for personal space between them. Even though he’d already inspected Steve before his shower, he starts pulling up Steve’s shirt to prod at the bandage Steve had taped over the half healed graze in his side.

“Buck, come on,” Steve complains around a mouthful of rice. “Could you not undress me right now?”

“Why? Tony’s seen it before,” Bucky dismisses offhandedly and Steve freezes. He can sense Tony tensing up a little in the chair as well. Bucky notices and pauses, his gaze flicking up first to Steve’s face, then over to Tony. “I saw you kissing him goodbye this morning,” he says, like it’s nothing.

Steve stomach flips a little uncomfortably; he’s tried hard to be mostly honest with Bucky about his and Tony’s relationship, but there hadn’t been time before he left for the mission that morning, and he’d only given Tony a brief, chaste kiss when he thought Bucky was in the other room. Steve is too busy processing that to protest any more and Bucky peels back the edge of the bandage enough to satisfy himself before giving Steve his modesty back.

Seemingly unperturbed by Steve’s reaction, Bucky grabs a spring roll from the pile of takeout and settles back into the couch cushions without further comment. Tony, having recovered from his initial surprise, doesn’t seem to notice Steve’s discomfort either. Tony’s attention is on Bucky, his lips pursed and his eyes slightly narrowed in the sort of look that he usually aims at a new piece of tech that he is mentally disassembling.

“Is that what this afternoon was about?” Tony asks.

Bucky pauses for a fraction of a second, then shakes his head. “This afternoon was-” He pauses again, eyes flicking to Steve and away again. “It was a mistake, I guess.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Well, I’m insulted,” he complains. “You didn’t exactly give me time to show you my real moves.”

“No, I-” Bucky swallows, licks his lips in a nervous tell that he never used to have. “I didn’t realize it was the first time,” he admits, and his eyes flick back and forth between Steve and Tony again, watching them both carefully.

Steve realizes that he’s been holding a piece of chicken halfway up to his mouth for the past several minutes only belatedly as he drops the fork and it clatters against the edge of his bowl.

Bucky starts slightly at the sound and his eyes are a little wide when they lock onto Steve’s expression. “I kissed him this afternoon,” Bucky clarifies, his mouth pulling down into a tight line of guilt. “I’m sorry, I didn’t- I thought-” he fumbles, his breath starting to come a little faster and he’s squeezing the remains of his spring roll a little too hard, bits of carrot and cabbage spilling out onto his hand.

“It’s okay,” Steve says immediately, because Bucky panicking is the last thing he wants right now and that’s the priority. “I, uh, I sort of figured.”

Bucky blinks. “How? Did the computer-”

Steve can’t help but chuckle a little at the deer in headlights look on Bucky’s face. Carefully he sets his bowl down on the coffee table - clearly, this is a conversation that requires all of his attention, and the bowl is mostly empty anyway. “Your greeting wasn’t exactly subtle, Buck,” he points out, and his voice would be gentle if only he could stop smiling. “Didn’t realize it was Tony until I saw you two avoiding each other, though,” he adds, and his grin only widens at the sound of Tony’s annoyed huff.

Bucky relaxes enough to finish the last couple of bites of his spring roll and lick his fingers clean. He can’t stop himself from frequently glancing at both Steve and Tony, a certain lingering hesitation in his face, but there’s a slow smirk spreading at the corners of Bucky’s mouth, one that is so familiar it makes Steve’s chest ache. “You remember, Stevie,” Bucky says slowly, taking his time licking the last bit of cabbage off of his finger, “how we used to talk about sharing a girl, sometimes, you know? Taking her back to our place, holding her between us in our bed, working together to take her apart.”

Steve can’t help the slight blush that rises up his neck. “You talked,” he argues, shaking his head. “I was never delusional enough to believe that any of those girls would take a second look at me.”

Bucky’s face twists and he lurches so fast Steve almost backs away. Before Steve knows it Bucky is half in his lap, Bucky’s left hand resting lightly at the base of Steve’s neck, metal thumb just slightly pressing at the hollow of Steve’s throat. His eyes are narrowed and burning with an intensity that is breathtaking. “Those girls were blind and dumb not to see your worth,” Bucky says, his voice little more than a low rumble that sends a rush of heat all the way through Steve’s tired body.

Steve swallows convulsively, and he has no response to that except to lean forward and close the scant distance between their lips. He kisses Bucky hard and fast, his hands automatically settling on Bucky’s hips and pulling him closer. It’s deep and hungry, their teeth clicking together in their haste but Steve doesn’t care. When they finally part they’re both flushed and breathing heavily and Bucky’s eyes are such a deep, sharp shade of blue that Steve thinks he might get lost in them forever.

Tony clears his throat pointedly. “Well, that was one hell of a show,” Tony says, and his voice is dry, but Steve knows him well enough to hear the edge of arousal to it. Bucky is still in Steve’s lap, but he twists around to look at Tony and Steve can tell that Bucky heard it too.

Steve takes a breath, forces away the want and the need enough to pull his brain back online. “Tony isn’t just some girl,” he says quietly, drawing Bucky’s attention back to himself.

But Bucky just smiles, that slow, easy smirk again. He drapes an arm around Steve’s shoulder but keeps himself half turned as though displaying them both to Tony’s gaze. “No,” Bucky agrees. “He’s so much better.” Bucky leans in, running his nose along the line of Steve’s jaw in a slow drag, but his eyes remain on Tony. “He sees you the way I do. He sees how much you’re worth.”

Steve can’t help the shiver that runs down his spine, or the way his breath catches in his chest. Tony hasn’t moved from his chair, but his eyes are dark and heavy, and the air in the room is so thick with lust that for a moment Steve finds it hard to breathe.

Smooth as silk, Bucky slides out of Steve’s lap without so much as jostling Steve’s injuries. His hips sway a little as he crosses the short distance to Tony’s chair. He holds out a hand to Tony, all swagger and charm and if they weren’t all so wound up alright it would have been hilarious. “What do you say, big shot?” Bucky asks, hand still outstretched. “You gonna show me those moves of yours or not?”

Tony, responding to the undertone of challenge in Bucky’s voice, matches Bucky’s smirk. “Oh, I’ll show you moves,” he agrees. “I’ll move you right out of this world, baby.” Tony accepts Bucky’s hand, using it to pull himself to his feet and right up into Bucky’s personal space, pressing in close, both teasing and tempting.

Steve can only stare at them for a long minute, and then he loses it. The feeling just wells up in him like a helium balloon until it overtakes him and he has to double over, clutching his wounded side as it spills out of him. For a moment, he isn’t sure if he’s laughing or crying, the feeling is just too big and too all encompassing to assess. Maybe it’s both. But all at once all the tension, all the uncertainty and anxiety and guilt that he’s been carrying for months, for years, it’s bursting out of him and all he can think is fuck, I love these two idiots.

By the time Steve comes back to himself enough to be aware of his surroundings again, Tony is sitting beside him with a hand on his shoulder and Bucky is squatting in front of him, his hands braced on Steve’s knees. Tony looks worried, while Bucky looks faintly bemused. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” Steve manages to wheeze, working to get himself back under control. It’s an adrenaline crash, at least partially, Steve knows that. He’s experienced plenty of them before and the heady, shaky rush is familiar.

“You’ve had a long day,” Tony says. He runs gentle fingers through Steve’s hair, and god but that feels nice. “I think it’s time for bed.”

“No,” Steve protests. Exhaustion is settling back over him, heavy, trying to drag him down, but it’s not enough to ward off the sudden rush of panic that starts to bubble up in his chest. “I’m fine. Don’t- You should-” he fumbles, his tongue uncoordinated and he’s not entirely sure what he’s trying to say except that Tony and Bucky are now focusing on him instead of each other and that’s not what he wants.

“Definitely time for bed,” Bucky agrees, overriding Steve’s protests. Between the two of them they lever Steve up off the couch and propel him toward the bedroom. Steve has no choice but to follow, half tripping over his own feet as he tries to cling to both of them at once. They deposit him on the bed, but he manages to keep a hold of Tony’s shirt, dragging Tony down with him. Tony doesn’t resist him, gently shoving at Steve so that Steve is lying the right way across the bed and Tony can get the blankets over him.

Over Tony’s shoulder Steve sees Bucky heading for the door, leaving the room. “No!” Steve insists, trying to lunge after Bucky but Tony catches him, pushing him back down.

 

“Easy, Steve,” Bucky says, raising an eyebrow at him. “I’m just going to put the rest of the food away, I’ll be back.”

Steve doesn’t like it, the overwhelming rush of too many emotions at once still racing through his veins. But Tony is pushing him down onto the pillows, half laying on top of him to keep him from trying to get up again, and the bed really is very comfortable. “You should-” Steve tries half heartedly to push Tony away. “Go back to what you were doing. Go… be with him, he… you two are good for each other.”

Tony smiles at him, pushing hair back from Steve’s face before leaning down and kissing him gently. “We will, Steve. But it’ll be more fun if you’re coherent enough to enjoy it too. We have time.”

“No,” Steve protests, irrationally, a distant part of him knows. But he’s so tired, and he’s spent so long, since they found Bucky, but really since before that even, since he’d first fallen into bed with Tony, since he’d found out Bucky was still alive, he’s been trying to reconcile his two worlds, his two loves. Splitting himself between Tony and Bucky, letting himself believe that it was fair, that there was enough of him to go around, that he could protect them both, keep them both happy. But this, now that the option is sitting in front of him, the idea of not splitting himself between them, but of having them both, together, safe and happy not just with him but protecting and taking care of each other as well; it’s more happiness than he’d ever dared dream of for himself. And yet, he might not get to keep it. “There isn’t time. He’ll… He’ll forget, he’ll forget you. It isn’t fair.”

“Okay, first of all, Steve, I’m gonna need you to take a deep breath,” Tony says. He lets Steve sit up enough to lean back against the headboard; Steve is so exhausted his whole body aches with it but there isn’t a chance in hell that he’s going to fall asleep any time soon and he can’t bear how vulnerable and out of control he feels laying on his back.

Steve does as he’s told. The panic and renewed surge of adrenaline are beginning to fade and ruthlessly works to wrestle his emotions back under control. In the wake of his melt down he’s left with a cold, horrible sense of reality. “This isn’t fair,” Steve says quietly, after several moments of strained silence while Tony waits for him to calm down. Tony is sitting next to him on the bed, cross legged and angled so he can face Steve, one knee just brushing up against Steve’s hip. “This, none of this, I should never have put you in this position. You or Bucky.” Because Steve can see it now, see all the ways that he’s been deluding himself for months. He thinks about Tony’s resigned withdrawal when they’d first brought Bucky in, the way Tony has kept his distance, allowed Steve and Bucky time alone together, never said anything on the nights when Steve ends up sleeping in Bucky’s bed instead of the one he and Tony are supposed to share. And Bucky, watching them silently, how many times Bucky has woken up in a strange world to discover Steve is with someone else. “God, I’m so fucking selfish.” He can’t look at Tony as he says the words, his throat going tight and filled with bile.

“You’re a dumbass, is what you are,” Bucky says, his voice equal parts grumpy and affectionate. Steve startles, not having heard Bucky come back in. But Bucky come over to the bed, sitting on the side opposite Tony, one knee folded to rest on top of Steve’s shins while the other dangles over the edge of the bed.

“No, Buck, you don’t understand-” Steve tries, but Bucky doesn’t let him finish.

“Look, I know I’m like seventy years behind the times, but I’m not stupid,” Bucky cuts him off firmly. “So let’s see if I’ve got this right; a bunch of bad shit happened to me, which, frankly, I’m probably glad I don’t remember, and now my memory is messed up for good. Somewhere in all that you moved on and found yourself someone to settle down with - which, by the way, you were supposed to do when I signed on for the war to begin with. But then I came back and you’ve been tearing yourself to pieces trying to keep us both happy. Except now that we’re offering the very obvious solution of all three of us sticking together, you’ve somehow convinced yourself that this is all too good to be true and you don’t deserve happiness or some other bull like that.” Bucky crosses his arms over his chest, giving Steve an expectant glare. “What exactly don’t I understand?”

Steve blinks and Tony snorts. “Well, he does know you pretty well,” Tony says. Damn them both.

“It ain’t that simple, Buck,” Steve says, slowly, quietly, agonized. He can’t help looking at Tony and Tony meets his eyes. There’s an understanding there, in Tony’s gaze, but Tony just shakes his head and smiles a little. He rests a hand on Steve’s thigh, gentle and reassuring, and how can Tony be so calm? Because this whole situation, it only really works for Steve, because Steve wants this, aches to be able to wake up in the morning with both of the men he loves at his side, he longs to watch them together, to spend the rest of his life memorizing all of the ways Bucky and Tony work together like perfectly matched gears. “He’s going to forget you,” Steve says, staring at Tony, because that’s the cold, horrible reality that both Tony and Bucky are refusing to acknowledge. “Tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe even the day after that, he’s going to wake up and not know who you are. You can’t- How could you live with that? And we can’t hold him to any promises that he doesn’t remember making. It’s not… it won’t work.”

Bucky is frowning, his full lips pursed. His eyes flick to Tony and there’s a hesitation there, an uncertainty.

 

Tony, on the other hands, seems utterly unperturbed. “Bucky,” Tony says, his voice calm and his expression level, “let me ask you a question.”

Bucky’s frown deepens, but nods slightly and he tilts his head, waiting.

“Earlier, you said that when you kissed me this afternoon, you didn’t realize it was the first time.” Steve blinks, mentally reviewing the tumultuous past hour to find that Tony is right. “What made you think that?”

Bucky blinks, at his eyes shift from Tony to Steve and back again, looking baffled. “Because of the videos,” he says, “in the file?” There’s a slight up tick to his voice, turning his answer into a question. But Steve is just as confused as Bucky is.

“What file?” Steve asks. They have plenty of files on Bucky, files about the Winter Soldier, his medical files since they brought him in, but no videos, nothing that would make Bucky think he and Tony are dating, at least not that Steve knows of.

“On the- The computer showed me.” Bucky gestures in a vague way the encompasses both the ceiling and the flat screen monitor mounted on the wall. He looks sort of helpless, blinking at both of them.

“JARVIS?” Tony prompts; unnecessarily, as the monitor on the wall has already turned on and a file opens on the screen that contains several video clips as well as a few jpegs. “Why are there files on my servers that I don’t know about?” Tony asks, his eyes narrowed.

“There are many files on the Tower’s servers which you have not personally curated,” JARVIS responds, calm and unflappable as ever. “These files have been stored at the request of Sergeant Barnes, although there are a few that I have taken the liberty of adding by my own initiative.”

Bucky blinks. “My request?”

“What are they?” Steve asks, distinctly less interested in the who and how.

“They are-” JARVIS pauses, not a hesitation but a consideration. “Memories.” JARVIS opens one of the files and Steve recognizes it immediately as a video clip from the automated cameras throughout the building that serve as both security measures and JARVIS’ eyes.

The video shows a broad angle on the common room, and the half empty bowls of popcorn and miscellaneous array of pillows indicate the tail end of a team movie night. The room appears deserted except for the Steve and Tony, visible even in the low light thanks to JARVIS’ highly sensitive cameras. Steve is stretched out across the length of one of the couches, his head tilted back against the armrest, while Tony is half wedged in between Steve and the back cushions of the couch, his head resting on Steve’s chest with Steve’s arms wrapped securely around him. They’re both asleep. A few seconds in a third figure enters the frame, moving with careful stealth. The light glints off of Bucky’s metal arm as he carefully drapes a blanket over the sleeping pair, but instead of pulling away Bucky pauses. After a still moment he reaches out and very gently brushes a lock of hair back from Tony’s face, before he pulls back and walks back out of the frame.

The clip last for less than twenty seconds, but it makes Steve’s chest go tight with something warm and tender.

The image on the screen goes static, but then audio kicks in, Bucky’s recorded voice whisper soft, both secretive and tentative. “JARVIS? You, uh, you have cameras all over this joint, right? Recording us? Could you, maybe… could you save this, for later? I…” Bucky’s voice catches slightly, just the faintest pause in the recording and Steve distantly realizes that he’s holding his breath as he waits for Bucky to finish. “I don’t want to forget.”

The breath goes out of Steve all at once in a gush and he blinks hard against the sudden prickle in the corners of his eyes. “Bucky, I-” Steve starts, but he doesn’t know what to say.

There are dozens of files listed in the folder JARVIS has pulled up, some of the videos only a few second long but others contain hours of footage. Tony pushes himself off the bed, crossing to the monitor and digging through the files with a sort of frenzy. There are clips of the whole team, and a lot of it is pretty mundane; Bucky and Clint playing video games, Bruce expertly flipping pancakes, Tony arguing with Dummy. It isn’t everything Bucky has experienced and lost over the past several months, there’s no way that it could be, but it’s a good sampling. But of all the bits and pieces, all the snippets and fragments of Bucky’s life with the Avengers, so many of the clips are Tony. Tony working, Tony laughing, Tony reading, Tony sleeping, Tony bickering with Bruce, and drinking with Clint, and flirting with Steve. It seems like half the clips are set in Tony’s workshop, which isn’t surprising; Steve knows better than most that the workshop is where Tony is happiest, where Tony is most genuinely himself.

Tony is flipping through the files rapidly, muttering to himself and grumbling at JARVIS by turns, but he isn’t paying attention, he isn’t seeing what is now so brilliantly obvious to Steve. Because it’s right there, the puzzle piece that they had all been missing. It’s in the choices of clips Bucky had asked to be saved, but it’s also in the clips themselves, in the way Bucky watches Tony, the way he leans his cheek on his fist as he listens to Tony ramble about his latest invention, the way his smile brightens when Tony enters the room, the way he seems to gravitate toward Tony, always sitting close by even when the whole group is together. Steve sees it, Steve recognizes it with a sense of giddy delight, because he’s seen Bucky looking at him that way since 1934.

“Do you, uh, do you remember any of this?” Steve asks quietly. Tony isn’t paying attention to them, but Bucky is still sitting beside Steve, their shoulders pressing lightly together as they watch the rapidly changing slideshow of moments in time. Steve tries not to let the tiny, treacherous flicker of hope show in his voice, because deep in his heart he knows the answer already, but he can’t stop himself from asking anyway.

He fails, clearly. Bucky glances sideways at him with an expression of apology and regret. “No,” he says quietly, shaking his head. He catches his lower lip briefly between his teeth, worrying at it as he looks back to the screen. There’s a clip playing from last week; Tony and Natasha are twirling gracefully around the open space of the gym floor doing some sort of waltz, beside them, Clint and Sam are alternately trying to imitate them and cracking up laughing. Bucky’s teeth release his lower lip and his mouth twitches up into a small, quiet smile instead. “I don’t remember it, but I… I remember how it felt. How it feels.”

Bucky’s metal hand twitches, the plates shifting and readjusting, and Steve instinctively reaches for it, threading their fingers together. He rubs his thumb over the smooth metal, reassuring, grounding, and Bucky smiles at him. “I remember him,” Bucky says, and there’s both a frown line between his eyebrows and the hint of a beatific smile at the corners of his lips. “I never met him until this morning, but I…” Bucky fumbles, his mouth shaping the word but the sound getting stuck somewhere in his throat. After a moment he gives up and just squeezes Steve’s hand. “You know?” he asks, and Steve nods. He maybe doesn’t get it, maybe will never fully understand what it’s like for Bucky to wake up over and over in a life he doesn’t know. But the expression in Bucky’s eye when he turns his gaze back to Tony, that Steve gets.

“Tony,” Steve calls, unable to tear his eyes away from Bucky. “You can argue with yourself later, but you need to come over here and be a part of this moment right now.”

It takes a moment, but then the bed beside him dips and Bucky pulls away from Steve enough to lean over his lap and kiss Tony.

It’s good. Almost too good. Steve leans back, relaxed, comfortable and safe and a little drowsy. He watches Tony and Bucky kiss over him until eventually Bucky gets impatient enough to crawl across Steve to reach Tony better. Steve is happy just to watch for now, too tired to be much of a participant anyway. So he watches, enjoying the sight of Tony and Bucky getting to know each other better; watches them explore each other and drinking in the soft sounds of pleasure that they make.

Steve almost doesn’t realize he’s falling asleep until he feels Tony settling down beside him. Tony arranges them so that he can curl up against Steve’s uninjured side, his chin resting on Steve’s shoulder, and Bucky settles himself on Tony’s other side, his arm stretched across Tony to rest his hand on Steve’s stomach. Bucky settles the blankets over all three of them and Tony mushes pillows into place. Steve can’t be bothered to rouse enough to help, but once they’re both settled he curls his own fingers around Bucky’s hand on his stomach, and he turns his face to press a kiss into Tony’s hair.

“JARVIS, add this to the file,” Steve says. His eyes are closed and he can’t be bothered to open them. There will be time in the morning, time for talking and touching and making plans, but now he’s drifting off in a haze of exhaustion, wrapped up in warmth and the knowledge that the two men he loves are right there with him. “None of us should forget this.”

Chapter Text

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*****
EPILOGUE
*****

Bucky wakes up, and he doesn’t know where he is. The bed beneath him is too soft, and it’s too quiet. There’s no clanging of half rusted pipes, no neighbors shouting upstairs. The air smells wrong, too clean and vaguely like something flowery.

He takes a breath, slow and careful, and he’s almost alarmed by the fact that he isn’t alarmed. Another breath, and he forces himself to open his eyes. The room is simple, and yet alien. First of all, it’s a bedroom, just a bed, two chests of drawers, a couple of bookshelves, and a strange flat screen on the wall, and yet it’s easily as big as his and Steve’s entire apartment. There’s something off about the furniture too, it’s too clean, too smooth, nothing like the hand me down furniture he’s used to.

He takes it all in, cataloguing everything that’s different and strange distractedly, but his gaze is drawn to the massive windows that take up most of one wall. They’re tinted somehow, so that though the sun has clearly risen outside the room remains comfortably dim. But through the window Bucky can see that he’s in New York still. He’s higher up than he’s probably ever been before, and although there are too many buildings, too tall and in too many weird shapes, he knows with an unshakable certainty that this is New York.

“Good morning, Bucky.”

Bucky whirls around at the sound of Steve’s voice, instantly relieved. But Steve isn’t there, just a picture of him on the flat screen on the opposite wall. The image is so sharp, so clear, that for a second Bucky thinks it must be another window of some kind; but it isn’t, and somehow he knows that.

“First of all, I want you to know that you’re safe,” the picture of Steve continues. His hair is shorter than when Bucky last saw him, short enough to stand up on end in little spikes. He looks older too, in a way, nothing obvious, nothing Bucky can really describe, but there’s something at the corners of Steve’s eyes. Steve is smiling at him through the screen though, the same familiar blue that Bucky has been falling for since before he knew what it meant. “You always said you wanted to see the future, Buck. Well, it’s 2016, and there’s a lot for you to see.”

Bucky finds himself drifting closer to the screen, and he can’t look away. Images move over it, pictures of newspaper headlines reading Hitler Dead and War Ends As Japan Quits. Steve narrate over the images, he tells Bucky how together they helped win the war, and about how they both slept for a long time. Then Steve tells him about the Avengers.

Bucky watches as clip after clip plays across the screen. Himself and a blond man throwing little balls of paper at each other. A redhead woman sharpening knives while a different blond man, this one the size of two normal men, sits behind her and braids her hair. A dark skinned man and Steve throw a ball back and forth while a robotic arm - an honest to god arm made out of metal and wires - bounces in between them trying to steal the ball. Bucky doesn’t know any of these people, but he stares at their strange faces, listens to their voices as they joke and laugh and talk on the screen, and a warmth fills his chest, a calm reassurance settling over him.

Then there’s Tony. Tony, who is a comparatively small man, but seems to vibrate with so much life, so much kinetic energy. There are clips of him building things, amazing things better than any comic book or novel that Bucky has ever read. There are clips of him lounging in just his underwear, a curious blue light shining from his chest and a pen caught between his teeth as he pokes at floating screens around him. There are images of him holding Steve close, kissing Steve, and distantly Bucky wonders why he doesn’t feel jealous at the sight, but then there are clips of Tony kissing Bucky too. And then there’s all three of them, curled around each other.

How long the video lasts Bucky has no idea. He stands there, mesmerized, drinking all of it in, learning names and faces that are at once completely foreign and yet fit perfectly into his mind. Feeling swells up in his chest, so big and complex that he thinks he’s choking on it, and for a moment it hurts, for a moment this life he never lived but is apparently his is too much to handle. But then the moment passes. The slideshow of moments he’s lost ends, and the screen shows Steve’s face again, familiar and beautiful and reassuring.

“When you’re ready,” Steve says, “you can come find us. JARVIS can tell you where we are.”

Bucky hesitates. He feels raw and brittle around the edges, but there’s an ache in his chest and he knows instinctively that only one thing will fix it.

“JARVIS?” he asks carefully, glancing toward the ceiling where the voice attached to that name seemed to emanate from in the video.

“Good morning, Sergeant Barnes,” says the polite British voice. “Mr. Stark and Captain Rogers are currently in the communal kitchen eating breakfast. They are awaiting your arrival.”

Slowly, Bucky follows the directions given to him by the disembodied voice. He’s still lost, still vaguely dizzy with the colliding sense of alien and yet home. But the elevator doors open into a large and cozy living room which leads directly into a kitchen. At one end of the long table sit Steve and Tony. Steve is holding a newspaper, Tony something flat and black. They’re bickering about something in between bites of pancake and sips of orange juice, but they stop and look over as Bucky steps out into the room.

“Morning, Buck,” Steve says, and there’s something cautious, something almost brittle around the edges of his eyes but his smile is soft and genuine.

“Morning,” Bucky responds, automatically. But his gaze is drawn past Steve to the dark haired stranger who is watching him with careful eyes. Before Bucky is even fully aware of it, his feet are carrying him across the room to stop just in front of Tony. There’s a pause, only a split second really, but it feels like half an eternity as they look at each other. Then a smile, slow and deep and entirely uncontrollable spreads across Bucky’s lips. He lifts his hands - one flesh and one metal - and slides them around the back of Tony’s head, holding him in place as Bucky leans down to kiss him. And this man, this stranger that Bucky somehow knows like the beat of his own heart, tilts his head up and kisses back until the lost, nervous sensation in Bucky’s chest dissipates, leaving in its wake only a comfortable sense of warmth and security.

“Hey there, stranger,” Bucky says when they finally pull apart. And it’s terrible, but it’s a joke and it’s true and somehow that’s all okay. “Hope you saved me some bacon.”

Chapter Text

gncurrier recorded the initial podfic of this story. Right now, you can download

chapter one (right-click, save-as)

chapter two (right-click, save-as)

Additional chapter download links will be added as they're completed.

HUGE thanks to reena_jenkins for pinch-hitting for this round of pod_together! Real life hit hard during the summer, and I unfortunately wasn't able to finish recording in time to do this fic justice, but reena came in and made something wonderful and amazing out of this incredible fic in ONE. DAY. Definitely a BAMF.-gncurrier

 

 

reena_jenkins recorded the pinch-hit podfic of this story. Coverart created by reena_jenkins.

Download the entire podfic as a zipped mp3 file here (just click)

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