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Winter is Coming (aka Fifty First Avengers Dates)

Chapter Text

Bucky

The soldier, who sometimes knew his name was Bucky, and who sometimes thought of himself as the Asset, lay flat on his belly in the shadow of a narrow rooftop wall and peered up at the Tower.

At first, the soldier had been keeping watch because the one called Steve (codename Captain America) returned there, time and time again. The soldier had found the small, empty apartment that Steve kept up, but it was oddly depressing to watch Steve putter around the tiny place, with no friends and no engagements, cooking his bachelor meals and washing the single pot, plate, and fork he used to prepare and eat them. The soldier found himself wanting to do something about the situation. In absence of orders, however, he didn’t quite know what that something might be.

Twice weekly, Steve went to the Tower for dinner, entertainment, and general camaraderie. They were a close knit group, the Avengers. Unlike Hydra, which was an assembly of snakes, each vying for the title of most venomous, the Avengers appeared to take comfort in each other's presence, even if they had difficulties with any sort of relationship with normal citizens who were not gifted and deadly individuals.

Occasionally, there was an alert for the Avengers to take action. The soldier had witnessed several of these, heralded by flashing lights and alarms within the Tower. The soldier surmised that there were other alerts as well, because when they happened, Steve shortly arrived at the Tower, shield in hand and uniform in a canvas bag over his shoulder. He entered the building as Steve and left, usually on the Quinjet, as Captain America, leaving the Asset to wrestle with the fear and uncertainty for a mission unfinished.

These incomplete orders swarmed in his mind, a nest of angry wasps that stung and stung and burrowed and crawled around under his scalp. Sometimes it seemed as if he could dig them out if he scratched enough, but all that happened was that he would injure himself. Activity not advised: head wounds are particularly noticeable and difficult to self-treat.

Sometimes, the soldier watched because he intended to finish the mission, to finish it and be at peace, hoping it would stop buzzing in his head, then, handlers or no handlers, orders or no orders. With nothing and no one to report back to, the Asset didn’t know what to make of this brave new world that had no ice and no cold and no commands in it. He’d looked for his masters, but they were nowhere to be found. The old bases had been abandoned, the frequencies he'd tried left unmonitored.

Occasionally, the soldier watched because he hoped that Steve would find him and rid his head of the buzzing of unfinished orders. Whether Steve did that by finding a way to supercede the current mission with a new one, or by killing him, the soldier did not particularly care. Steve had exhibited a reluctance to kill the soldier, however, despite the soldier's initial unwavering determination to kill Steve. That fact made the soldier feel...

Anomalous behavior: an Asset does not feel.

In the absence of orders, aside from the unfinished one that he was strangely reluctant to complete despite the buzzing in his mind, otherwise and left to his own devices, the soldier had waited and watched.

And in watching, he’d discovered something else entirely: Anthony Edward Stark, aka Iron Man.

It was a name he already knew. Hydra been very certain that Iron Man was under their thumb, operating out in the open like he was. While he spoke to Congress in tones of sarcasm and obscenity, and levied a team of lawyers committed to locating and exploiting every available loophole, Anthony Stark was still, in the end, bound by the laws of Congress.  And Congress, despite Senator Stern's outing and impeachment, was still almost entirely under Hydra control.

Anthony Stark was a firebrand, and like any firebrand, sometimes he set the wrong things on fire, but he was useful. His brilliant mind was still churning out ideas instead of ideals. Dr. Zola had made good use of those items which had passed from Stark to SHIELD and from SHIELD to Hydra, even when Stark thought those things had been secured, like the tesseract.

Unlike his previous business partner, Stark was not directly controllable, but the man could be goaded like nobody’s business. And Hydra had made it their business to goad him.

In absence of other orders, the soldier had improvised. He would keep an eye on Stark. Hydra valued Stark's brilliant mind, and so the soldier would protect it, guard it. Wait for orders. Keep... current, this time.

The soldier had never been current; he’d been in stasis, on ice, until he was needed. When he was awakened, he was given very little info, just a mission and a target. When the mission was completed, the soldier was returned immediately to stasis. He was a particularly dangerous weapon, after all, one that needed to be kept away from the general population, because of course, the idea of ruling the planet didn’t appeal to his masters and handlers if there were no people to rule. (Somewhere, there might be a mad Hydra scientist who wanted to utterly dominate star-nosed shrews, but they didn’t come into contact much with high-end Hydra assets.)

With no one to return the soldier to stasis, he waited. Kept current. Kept his ear to the ground, so to speak, for rumors of his masters’ return, because they would return, of course. He knew that. Cut off one head, and all that. The soldier wasn’t in it for the slogans or the patriotism. He was in it... because...

He shook his head. Watching the Tower nonstop was giving him a crick in his neck. Anthony Stark was a lot of things, and one of them was a fucking size queen, because what the hell; really, did the building need to be that tall? The soldier had overheard a rumor that Stark added two or three floors every time the Baxter Building added one, and what was up with that shit?

The soldier rubbed a hand through his hair, the gesture ending with a tight squeeze at the back of his neck. He had no right to be thinking thoughts like that. No right, really, to be thinking at all, except that without orders, he was having to improvise, and improvising meant having thoughts, that he might keep the Asset in working order until his masters came to claim him.

Maybe, he thought, there were no more masters after all. Maybe there would be no more orders.

In which case, what did he do?

The thought was... disturbing. And exhilarating. And frightening. It was not a thought that was useful, and so the soldier pushed it away, and made himself focus on his self-imposed mission: Watch Stark. Protect Stark.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Iron Man flashed by, that brilliant gold and red armor catching the light as he spiraled around the Tower. Anthony Stark was many things, but subtle wasn’t any of them. The soldier recognized the distinctive whine of the repulsors as Stark shot upward toward the landing pad at the top.

The soldier scrunched further into the shadow of the building, knowing it probably wouldn't help if Stark happened to look his way. Stark’s armor contained guided missile launchers, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have thermal vision as well.

And then the soldier forgot about hiding, because Iron Man was... The only word the soldier could summon was dancing. Bucky’s mouth dropped open as Stark circled, spun, dove and weaved around the building, not in combat, but for the sheer joy of flight, reveling in his abilities, grace and acrobatics and sheer mechanical beauty. Bucky couldn’t look away, mesmerized by the display of engineering, skill, showmanship, and above all, love. Stark loved what his body could do, what his engineering could do, and it sang out in every line of the armor, in every aerial acrobatic twist. Bucky imagined that he could hear Stark laughing with joy, though even his enhanced hearing wouldn't be able to detect that at this distance.

He stared, long after Stark had finally landed and gone inside and when Bucky reached up to rub his eyes, his hand came away wet.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

"No, I'm saying you don't need to worry about us, Cap," Tony said absently, fingers busy in the holographic display. A globe spun lazily to one side, tranquil blue interrupted with angry red hotspot of probable Hydra activity. Tony tapped the one Cap, Natasha, and Sam were approaching to check the latest intel, building an interconnected series of risk/reward probability analyses in his head while he waited for Steve's fussing to wind down. Neither his father nor his history classes had ever mentioned what a goddamned mother hen Captain America could be.

Steve's little stunt with SHIELD in DC had served to shake up the Hydra leadership across the globe, and they were scrambling now to scoop up the scattered assets and power that had been left undefended. Between the intelligence Natasha had dumped into the public domain and Hill's in-depth understanding of SHIELD's command structure and operating procedures, they'd been able to knock together an algorithm that had, so far, an 86% success rate of identifying Hydra presence.

Some of them, they were monitoring but otherwise not interfering with -- better the devil you knew, as Howard had liked to say when he was steeling himself for a meeting with a particularly obnoxious general or politician.  A Hydra cell that they could track and, possibly, feed misinformation to, was far more useful than one still lurking in the shadows. They were all smaller facilities and bases anyway, highly unlikely to be contenders for any major seats of power, and even less likely to have acquired any significant assets, like Asgardian or Chitauri artifacts, or -- by way of entirely random example -- the Winter Soldier.

The ones that might emerge as possible serious troublemakers, however, had to be shut down in a hurry and the assets recovered. Tony's highest-security vault was now home to several weapons with alien energy signatures; Tony was impatient for Thor's return so he could offload them. In the meantime, Steve had taken Natasha and Sam on a world tour of the most potent Hydra locations, ostensibly to make the world a safer place.

Tony suspected Cap's real motives were a little more personal.

Finally, Steve paused in his recitation of "how to take care of yourselves while I'm gone as if you were actually twelve and not in fact adults who somehow made it to adulthood without me watching over you" to draw a breath and Tony jumped in. "Look, I know you're the boss," he said, "but the fact that you're calling to warn us that you're about to go radio silent for the next ten days kinda suggests to me that it would be more productive to worry about you and Sam and Nat, rather than those of us remaining here in my near-fortress of a home that's got an omnipresent AI security guard and lockdown floors capable of withstanding Bruce at his verymost testy. For like the four hundredth time, now, stop worrying."

"I'm not worrying," Steve protested, for the four hundredth and first time. "It's just that I need to make sure--" Tony rolled his eyes and tuned him out, continuing to poke at the situation map and the ever-shifting collection of numbers behind his eyes.

"Hey, Stark, got a minute?"

Tony looked up to see Clint peering around the doorway. He held up one finger: wait. "Gotta run, Cap; Clint needs me to hold his hand through operating the coffee maker again," Tony said, just to make Clint glare. "I promise, Mom, we'll exercise all appropriate caution while you're off the grid. Fly safe; write when you find work. Disconnect, J."

"Fuck you, I make better coffee than you do any day of the week," Clint said, coming the rest of the way into the lab.

"That's because I have people who make coffee for me," Tony said, collapsing the map with a wave of his hand.

"DUM-E is not 'people'," Clint said, dropping onto the stool across the table from Tony, "and his coffee is even worse than yours."

"First of all, how dare you impugn my bot's personhood?" Tony demanded, suppressing a grin with what he expected was only marginal success. "That's just rude. Second of all..." Tony eyed the half-empty mug of cold coffee at his elbow. "Okay, you probably have a point about the coffee. What brings you into my lair?"

"JARVIS, can you please throw up security cameras E-25 and E-71?" Clint said, leaning on the worktable.

Tony was actually a little proud that the team had finally started to talk directly to JARVIS themselves instead of making Tony repeat their data requests like a less-busty Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest. He looked obligingly at the two screens that JARVIS projected between them. "What am I looking at?"

Clint pointed to a small dark shape amongst all the other small dark shapes against the building across the street. "Right there," Clint said.

Tony looked at it, but it was just a small dark blob. A delivery box or a bag of trash left out or maybe a homeless person who'd found a convenient corner to sleep in, though there weren't many of those in this part of town. "JARVIS, enhance?"

The picture lightened a bit, and sharpened a little more, though it was still pretty much a blob. Closer to homeless person than delivery box, Tony thought, but he couldn't resolve it into anything more significant than that. "Okay, I need a hint," he admitted.

"Pretty sure that's Barnes," Clint said, off-hand in the way he knew made Tony nuts. Payback for the coffee thing, no doubt.

"How can you-- No, I'm not falling into that trap," Tony said. "How sure are you?"

Clint shrugged. "Like, 90%?" he hazarded. "Spotting little details is kind of my thing, Tony."

Tony waved off the protestations; it wasn't like he didn't believe Clint. "When'd you spot it?"

"About an hour ago," Clint said. "I was out on the roof. Watched for a bit to be sure I was right, then came into check the security footage."

"JARVIS, can you get Cap back on the line?"

After a brief pause, JARVIS said, "I'm sorry, sir; Captain Rogers' phone seems to have been turned off."

Tony grunted. "Guess he wasn't kidding about going off the grid now. How about Tasha or Sam, either of them still online?"

"I'm afraid not, sir."

"Well, that's just peachy," Tony grumbled. "How long has Barnes been out there, J?"

JARVIS didn't respond immediately, and Clint tensed across the table. "JARVIS?"

"My pardon," JARVIS said after another few seconds. "It took me a few moments to go back through the security footage to determine the date of his first visit."

"So, what's the verdict; don't keep us in suspense," Tony said. He felt nearly as tense as the line of Clint's shoulders looked.

"If my analysis is correct," JARVIS said, "Mr. Barnes has been surveying the Tower from close enough for me to detect for approximately eighty-four days, twelve hours and eleven minutes. From the first noticeable footage." He sounded unusually tentative, which meant the margin of error was fairly high.

"Son of a bitch," Tony breathed, meeting Clint's suddenly-serious eyes. "How come you haven't noticed him before this, J?"

"He's been especially careful not to establish a pattern," JARVIS responded apologetically. "There are, after all, many people who watch the Tower on any given day. He's never tripped any security alarms."

Tony blew out a hard breath, and tipped his head at Clint. "Okay, best guess: is he trying to find Steve, or casing the joint for a break-in, or what?"

Clint snorted. "If he was planning to break in, he'd have done it already. Your security is good, Tony, but Coulson was able to beat it with just his cell phone. This is the Winter Soldier we're talking about."

"Yeah, okay." Tony muttered, not bringing up the fact that Coulson had probably known about Stark Tower from the moment Pepper had filed the construction permits. "Okay." Barnes had been watching the Tower for months, but not approaching anyone. None of the people who worked here, and certainly none of the Avengers. If he wasn't planning to break in or accost anyone, what did he want?

Tony hated a mystery that he didn't know the answer to.

"Okay," he said again, "here's what we're going to do. I'm going to put on the suit and go talk to him."

"Tony, I don't--"

"You're going to watch from your favorite vantage point, in case he bolts, so you can see where he's going."

"What do you think--"

"And for god's sake, if he tries to kill me, shoot him. You know, somewhere non-lethal, so Cap doesn't give us the puppy eyes again."

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Clint asked.

"Hell, no," Tony said. He stood up and clapped his hands. "Let's go."

It was a nice night for flying, at least. The sky was clear, visibility was good, there weren't any invading aliens. As the suit enclosed Tony in its protective embrace, he asked, "You think you'll actually be able to spot him this time, J?"

"Yes, sir; I now have his facial geometry and external biometrics on file for comparison." A moment later, JARVIS added, "Agent Barton has reached the 41st-floor ventilation shaft, sir."

Tony shook his head. "When I said 'favorite vantage point', I meant the roof. Do you think he knew that?"

"I could not hazard a guess, sir," JARVIS said.

Tony grinned. "Are we ready to rock?"

"And roll, sir," JARVIS responded, with a heavy measure of distaste in his tone for the phrase.

Tony flew in a wide circle, as if he were patrolling the city, or looking for a disturbance elsewhere. In Queens, maybe. The Bronx. Anywhere but in Manhattan, across the street from Avengers Tower. "Fly casual," he muttered under his breath, banking around to come up alongside, pretending to be on approach back to the Tower, not wanting Barnes to suspect that he was the target until the last possible moment.

Barnes didn't run, at least. Didn't melt back into the shadows to go back to being a ghost. "Hawkeye?" Tony asked when he was about thirty seconds out.

"Hasn't moved since you left," Clint reported. "Got a bead on him, just in case, so go ahead and do whatever you're going to do."

"Sir, he's watching us," JARVIS reported. The HUD magnified Barnes' image, and JARVIS was right; it looked like Barnes was staring right into Tony's eyes.

That wasn't at all creepy.

On the plus side, no need to try for subtlety anymore.

"Right." Tony decided the Superhero Landing (TM) would probably look a bit too aggressive, too threatening, and instead slid in for a gentle hover.

Barnes didn't move, even when Tony dropped lightly to the ground in front of him (as lightly as a 250-pound suit of armor could drop, anyway). They stared at each other for a long moment.

"Weapons, J?"

"None that I can detect," JARVIS said, "aside from the metal arm. I don't have much data on that, but according to Captain Rogers, it can match or exceed his own strength. Be careful, sir."

"But no projectiles," Tony summarized. "I can work with that." He retracted the facemask. "Barnes," he said casually. "This whole stalker thing you've got going is flattering, but it's not really getting us anywhere."

This close, Barnes' eyes were clear and sharp, not a vacant thousand-yard stare, but active and piercing and almost glowing in the streetlights. "Anthony Stark," he said after a moment, almost thoughtfully. "Iron Man."

"Hey, you read the papers!" Tony cheered. "That's me. Look, if you're here for Steve--"

Barnes actually flinched, drawing back toward the shadows. "No," he said quickly. "No, I don't-- No."

"No?" Tony's mind raced; Barnes didn't seem immediately violent, but maybe he was afraid seeing Rogers would re-trigger those murderous impulses. Or maybe it was guilt. Tony knew a little about that.

"Well, that works out," Tony continued, "because Steve isn't here anyway."

"Yes," Barnes agreed. "I saw him leave this morning."

"So, since we've settled that, why don't you come on in?"

Barnes gave him an incredulous look. In his ear, Clint was spluttering, "Stark, no, bad idea!"

"Come on," Tony wheedled, ignoring Clint. "No Steve for at least the next week, not even on the phone, and in the meantime, you can get a shower, a few meals that didn't come from a can. Bet we can even find some clean clothes that fit you."

Barnes stared at him. Or, kept staring, anyway. Those eerie gray eyes flicked all around Tony's face -- eyes, chin, mouth, ears, eyes, mouth, eyes -- as if the truth of Tony's words might be seeping from his skin. "Why?" he asked.

You're Steve's friend, Tony didn't say. He didn't think that argument would fly.

It's safer to have you in the Tower where we can keep an eye on you, would probably persuade Clint, but it seemed rude to say to Barnes, who was after all being very polite and not trying to kill or maim anyone yet today.

Eventually, Tony just shrugged and offered Barnes his most charming, rakish grin. "I'm an eccentric billionaire; I don't need a reason to invite a smoking hot guy back to my place."

Barnes huffed and looked away, but not before Tony saw a hint of smile on his lips.

Contrary to popular opinion, Tony could keep his mouth shut when the situation warranted it. He waited, watching while Barnes talked himself into agreeing.

Finally, Barnes huffed again, and the glance he slanted at Tony was somehow less measuring, if still intent. "Fine," he said. "Sure."

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Anthony Stark had strutted down the hall, bulky and noisy in his gold and red armor. That man could pack more expression into the cumbersome flight suit -- the suit was much more, well, suited, to flight than walking -- than a catwalk-model could pack into her six-inch stilettos. The soldier admired the poise of the man, the physical lines of him. Anthony Stark, mechanical genius, brilliant and erratic. Sexy. The corners of the soldier’s mouth twitched and he suppressed the deviant behavior. Deviant behavior was punishable by pain. Smiling was not a mission-acceptable behavior.

“Here you go, Tonto,” Anthony Stark said. “High security floor. You’ll be safe enough, here.”

Safe. What a joke. Safety wasn’t a concern for the soldier. The soldier pressed his lips together even further, a thin, pained line in the middle of his face. Stark raised an eyebrow, obviously expecting a response; some sort of response.

The soldier nodded, then unfolded his limited vocabulary. “Thanks.”

“Have a shower, change clothes, get some sleep. I’ll get JARVIS to lead you off to the kitchens, if you want some food.”

The soldier nodded again.

“Shower,” he said. “A change of clothes. Food. Check.”

“Right,” Anthony Stark clapped his metal-clad hands together with a cheerful smile. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

Stay with me. The words trembled on the tip of his tongue, almost spilling out. Don’t leave me alone. Deviant behavior was noted. The soldier forced himself to look away, look down. Needing to display correct behavior, the way eyes needed to blink, even though Anthony Stark was not his handler or his commander or his owner.

The soldier unsnapped his tac-vest and dumped it on the floor. He yanked the kevlar-nylon shirt off over his head and pulled off his boots. His hands were on his belt, jerking the buckle open. Anthony Stark hadn’t moved; his sharp, sly face held an unfamiliar expression.

“You...” Anthony Stark coughed, “you need medical attention? And food. You look like you’ve been on starvation rations, and I'm guessing you've got the same sort of metabolism as the Capsicle. When the hell did you eat last?”

The soldier closed his eyes, accessing. “Mission report, day eighty-six: Acquired soup and bread from a Homeless Kitchen on 19th. The woman there, self-identified as Addie Smith, said to ‘fill up good’. Eating is mission-acceptable for the preservation of the asset. No interference with the mission was anticipated. I ate.”

Anthony Stark licked his bottom lip, the expression in his eyes flickering. Was he angry? The soldier controlled a flinch. “What... what mission day is today?”

“Ninety-one.”

“You haven’t eaten in five days?”

There was nothing to say to that; he’d delivered the facts as requested.

The Iron Man armor whined, servos twisting back as Anthony’s arm was revealed to the elbow. It was a good, strong arm, the hand callused, the fingers stained at the nail with oil and grease. He flicked a look up at the soldier, as if asking permission, then the hand came down lightly on the soldier’s bare arm. “Shower, and then I’ll fucking feed you. My god. Cap’s going to murder someone. Probably me, first, then...”

“No.” Bucky’s hand covered Anthony’s. “He won’t. I won’t let him.”

Anthony Stark’s teeth closed with an audible click. “The longer I stay here, the longer it’ll take for you to get some food in you.”

***

The water was brilliantly hot, stinging against skin that hadn’t been warm enough in... The soldier couldn’t even remember when he’d been well and truly warm. Coming out of deep-freeze, the cold took weeks to seep away, even when he was in gentler climes than the northernmost corner of Siberia. And even then, it lingered in his joints and along his spine.

art by auripigmentum

There had been a job in Florida, once, he recalled, that had gone south and then south again, enough so that the soldier was out of the fridge for almost seven weeks, an unheard-of length of time. When he’d finally been recalled, the pain of going under had been so bad that he’d frozen with a scream on his lips. The handler who woke him, Aleksander Lukin, had taken a Polaroid photo and hung it up in the maintenance room, just across from the chair, to entertain himself with. That mission had been particularly bad; Lukin was prone to abusing the Asset. Each glimpse of Lukin’s little scrapbook had shot pain straight through the soldier’s chest, as real as bullets and as wistful as smoke.

Steve had been in one of those pictures, the soldier recalled with a jerk, splashing the shower water everywhere. Steve as he’d been when they were kids, skinny and sickly, but with a broad smile. Another picture, Captain America, a surveillance shot from during the war, eyes far-focused on his goal. Dozens of pictures: the Winter Soldier’s own victims. Lukin had liked to thumb through the book, reminiscing with the Asset as he sat in the chair, technicians looking over his arm, medics looking over the rest of him.

“Do you remember this one?” Lukin had asked, holding up a photo. “Did she scream when you shot her?”

The soldier hadn’t had answers. They hadn’t been expected.

The water was warm against his skin, but it sent him shuddering to his knees, forehead against the tiles, soap dripping out of his hair and down the sides of his face. He waited for the water to grow cold, but it never did.

Eventually, the soldier found the strength to stand. He was still shivering, despite the pinked, swollen skin on his back and arms. He toweled himself off roughly, his hair dripping.

The mirror was densely fogged over; in the dim reflection, the soldier watched himself, a mere shadow, unknown and unknowable. He swiped his flesh hand over the mirror, clearing a space, but the face that appeared was one that he didn’t know anymore.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” he asked his reflection. The glass fogged up again, unanswering.

The soldier found clothing, not his. Someone had come into the room, unknown and unheard, while the soldier was washing up, taken his tac-gear and boots, and left behind a pale pink t-shirt with a cartoon and nonsense words on the front, and a pair of loose-fitting black sweatpants. The soldier pulled these on over bare skin; the unknown person hadn’t left underwear or socks in the stack.

The carpet was oddly soft and soothing under his bare feet.

“Anthony Stark,” the soldier murmured to himself. He hadn’t expected that, not at all. He’d seen the man before, many times, of course, had seen the man’s face, his ridiculous little beard, his tousled hair, his sardonic grin. But nothing had quite prepared him for meeting Anthony Stark, with his sly and sensuous face, the mobile mouth that promised a world of heavenly sins, the laughing brown eyes, warm as coffee and just as lively. Nothing had prepared him for the naked concern on Anthony's face, much less to see it directed at himself. Anthony was... The soldier turned the word over in his mind several times, feeling that it was inadequate, but unable to summon another more suitable: beautiful.

The soldier shivered, his hair dripping onto the clean shirt, the air-conditioned building raising gooseflesh on his arm, across the nape of his neck and prickling up the back of his scalp.

Or maybe it wasn’t the air-conditioning at all.

***

“Mr. Barnes,” a voice said from the ceiling, crisp, clear. British. The soldier didn’t look up; he was used to voices from above. His more timid handlers -- or very new ones who'd seen first-hand what happened when the old handler failed to secure the soldier's compliance -- often chose to address him via loudspeakers and intercoms. Mr. Barnes. That was another one of the names these people had for the soldier. He had seen it in a museum, he thought, when he had still been trying to figure out who Steve was.

Yet another name to keep track of. He huffed out a breath; really, what man needed more than two names? Certainly, the soldier did not. But since there was no one else in the room, the voice couldn’t be referring to anyone else. "Yes," he said, since the voice seemed to be waiting for an acknowledgement. That was... different. The soldier was used to being given orders, and then expected to obey unquestioningly. There was rarely a need for him to speak.

“I am JARVIS, Tower security.”

The soldier took a quick glance around the room, the bedroom of the suite to which Anthony Stark had brought him. He didn’t immediately see any two-way mirrors or cameras, but there were enough useless knickknacks around the room to disguise them, plenty of wood grain and whorls to disguise pinhole cameras.

“Mr. Stark wonders, if you are ready, if you might like to join him for a meal?”

The soldier nodded, eager. Not so much for the food; he’d been hungrier for longer, before. Ten days, at least, had to pass before the lack of food would cause his functionality to suffer. But to see Anthony again, to know he was safe, that the soldier had purpose, had... a mission. That would be good.

“If you would please follow the light strip on the floor, sir,” JARVIS said, “I will direct you to dinner.”

There were a million questions just behind the shield of his teeth; deviant behavior noted. It was impossible to stifle them all, though. Was it a consequence of being without handler interactions? (Another question!) It was necessary, he told himself. He was required to improvise. Mission success depended on interactions between Anthony Stark and the Asset. Mission success depended on Anthony Stark trusting the Asset. The soldier shivered with anticipation, wanting... something. Deviant behavior noted.

The lift descended. When the doors opened again, rich smells filled the air, lush and delicious. The soldier’s belly rumbled. He frowned; he shouldn't seem too eager, it was too near to complaining. Even when the soldier reported injuries, it was to be clinical, detached, without unnecessary reference to the level of pain, only to the level of impaired functionality. Nonetheless, the soldier could not help but want the food that smelled so good, wanted it with a hunger that surpassed mere physical hunger. Deviant behavior noted.

“--in the dictionary, your face, right by the words Stupid as a Fucking Bag of Bricks.”

“Not in any dictionary that I’ve ever seen,” said Anthony Stark's voice. “And believe me, I Google myself often enough to know. You're much more likely to find my face by brilliant, egotistical, narcissistic, or playboy.”

“You really think you can get in the suit fast enough?” the other man said. The soldier inhaled again, only half-listening to the discussion, more focused on identifying the scents in the air: Protein, most likely red meat. Bread. Butter. Spicy tomato paste.

The word filters up from the clouded recesses of his mind: Cheeseburger.

“You’d think, with your eye for detail, Apollo,” Anthony said, dripping sarcasm, “that you’d have a decent gauge of my reaction times by now. Infiltration and betrayal don’t really seem his style. If he wanted me dead, we’d know it by now.”

Apollo huffed out a sigh. “Your funeral, Stark.”

“Look, he doesn’t have any weapons on him and--”

“How do you know?”

“The guy doesn’t remember modesty,” Anthony said. “He stripped down right in front of me, and I’ve already sent his clothes down to... be incinerated, probably.”

“Oh, really?” Apollo sniggered. “Is it true, what they say about super soldiers? That the serum enhances... everything?”

“What are you, twelve?”

“So you didn’t look?” There was a long pause, and then Apollo started laughing. “You did. You totally looked!”

“Shut up, Barton.”

The soldier hesitated at the door, not sure if he should enter while they were still talking about him, but the smells drew him forward: hot grease and fried potato and salt. Fries, his mind whispered, whatever those are. He might have known once, a million years ago in a different life.

Even as his nose drew him toward the food, his eyes seemed to have been magnetized to seek out Anthony.

No longer wearing the armor, Anthony was clad in a black sleeveless shirt and tight-fitting black jeans with an oversized belt. Near his feet was a red and gold suitcase. He leaned against the countertop, a pose that emphasized his narrow hips and long legs. The soldier liked this pose, but could not say why. Anthony was holding perhaps a quarter of a cheeseburger in one hand; as the soldier watched, he popped it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed, and then licked the grease off his fingers.

The soldier... Bucky... could not tear his eyes away. Something twisted in his belly like a snake, a tendril of... something. He bit down lest he make a sound. Something snuck out of his mouth anyway, a low groan.

Anthony looked up at the sound, and he smiled. “Hey, there you are! Was beginning to think you were going to stay in the shower for the rest of the night. Come on in and-- Wait, introductions. We haven't done introductions yet. Where are my manners? JARVIS, where are my manners?”

“I have no idea, sir,” the voice in the ceiling responded. “I haven’t seen them since the last time you cleaned under your bed, which is to say several decades, at least.”

Anthony ignored the impertinence. “Come on, Barnes, stop lurking in the doorway and meet Clint." He indicated the other man in the room, whom the soldier also knew from his surveillance: Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye. Unenhanced, by all reports, but a sniper whose accuracy rivaled the soldier's own -- might even surpass it, with his weapon of choice. "So this is Clint, resident cynic, pessimist, paleolithic weapons expert, and modern pain-in-my-ass. Clint, meet Sergeant James Barnes, aka, Bucky Bear, aka the Winter Soldier, aka the Terminator--”

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, the pause around his cultured voice serving as a reminder, “Mr. Barnes might feel more comfortable if you were to sit at the table with him rather than pace about like an overclocked Roomba.”

"Hurtful, J, that's very hurtful," Anthony said, though he sounded more amused than upset, and dropped into a chair with easy grace. He grabbed three burgers out of the bag on the table, unwrapped them and put them on a plate, then shoved the plate in front of the nearest empty chair. "Here, Barnes, sit down; we need to put some meat on your bones."

The soldier sat in the indicated chair, compliant. He looked at the food; was he permitted to eat it? Or was this a test of some sort? He was not yet at the point of malfunction, but Anthony had indicated earlier a desire for him to--

“We don't stand on ceremony here," Anthony said. "Eat, for petesake; I'm hungry just looking at you,” Anthony said. Ordered. The soldier obediently picked up one of the burgers. Anthony seemed angry. But not angry with the soldier, he thought. The anger was directed elsewhere. At the soldier's hunger? Anthony Stark was angry on behalf of the soldier? How odd. The corner of his mouth twitched. Deviant behavior noted.

The first bite was slow, tentative. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to poison him. The serum in his system had kept those attempts from being anything like successful, but sometimes he was briefly incapacitated. And it always hurt, though of course that was of secondary importance, if any.

The cheeseburger most likely was not poisoned; he detected none of the telltale scents or flavors of common poisons. Fat dripped down his chin. The meat was hot, juicy, fresh, the bun was soft. Mustard spice exploded against his tongue. His usual source of food, protein bars, vitamin supplements and nutrient shakes were bland, tasteless. Fuel. This was...

The rest of the burgers disappeared, practically inhaled.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Barnes wolfed down the burgers with barely a pause for breath, and then slammed to a halt. He put his hands on his lap and fixed his eyes on a point just at the edge of his plate. He didn't look at the pile of french fries. He didn't look at the fries so hard that it was almost painful.

Jesus. Tony stood up, unable to take it any more. "Clint, divvy up the fries, would you? You know, to each according to their insane metabolic rates. I'm going to grab us some drinks."

Barnes didn't quite flinch when Tony strode behind him on the way to the kitchen, but his whole body tensed, and Tony couldn't tell if he was preparing to defend himself or bracing for a blow.

It was beyond infuriating.

Barnes acted half like automaton, obviously perfectly capable but waiting on -- permission? orders? -- before performing even the simplest tasks. DUM-E showed more initiative, for Christ's sake. And the way his ribs stood out, the matter-of-fact expression on his face as he'd told Tony he hadn't eaten for five days?

Tony leaned against the kitchen counter with both hands, head hanging, and gave vent to a silent but vicious stream of curses.

"Y'okay?" Clint's voice was low, pitched to carry no further than Tony's ears, though if Barnes' hearing was as good as Steve's that was no guarantee of privacy.

"Of course I'm not fucking okay," Tony spat at the counter. "Did you see him?"

"Yeah," Clint said. His feet shuffled against the floor and then he was leaning on the counter beside Tony. "Yeah, I saw."

Tony tilted his head to see Clint from the corner of his eye. "Still think it was a bad idea to bring him in?"

Clint snorted. "Still think it was a dumb damn thing to do. Doesn't mean it was a wrong thing." He crossed his not-unimpressive arms over his chest and blew out a long sigh. "Just because he's docile now doesn't mean he's going to stay that way, Tony. In fact, I'm pretty damn sure he's not."

"I know." Tony scrubbed a hand over his face and then tapped absently at his sternum, feeling the vibrations thrum deep into his chest. "But I can't just send him back out there, now, can I?"

"No, I guess not." Clint was silent for a moment. "I can probably dig up a way to contact Nat, give her the news."

Tony shook his head firmly. "No. Not yet. He doesn't want Cap to see him yet, and I don't think there's an urgent need to break radio silence, do you? He could just as easily spook and disappear again before they get back."

"Okay, but what about when they're done? What if he still doesn't want to see Cap then?"

Tony thought about it, then shrugged. "Don't have enough data points to know what the pros and cons are yet." He made himself stand up and open the fridge to rummage for some sodas. "Right now I'm only planning as far ahead as tomorrow morning." He slammed the fridge closed with his hip and carried the drinks back out to the dining table. "Okay, drinks! Soda is empty calories, but I'm guessing that pretty much all calories are good calories for you at this point, so drink up." He put a couple of cans down by Barnes without checking to see what they were. Clint followed him, eschewing his chair to lean against the wall farthest from Barnes.

Tony was pretty sure Clint was in guard-mode, and that if there was something he could climb up on, he'd have already done it.

If Barnes had overheard any of the exchange in the kitchen, he gave no sign. He opened the closest can and began to gulp it down, eyes squeezed shut like it was medicine.

"Thirsty, huh?" Tony said. He dropped back into his chair and braced himself for another thing he didn't want to know. "Been a while for drinks, too, has it?"

Barnes finished the can and set it down. He shook his head. "Regular hydration is necessary to minimum performance standards," he said. It still sounded like a recitation, even if he hadn't headlined it as another fucking mission report. "Water is readily available in the city. Most recently I drank an estimated half-liter of water from the sink tap in a retail establishment."

"You've been drinking water from public bathroom sinks," Tony said flatly.

Barnes nodded and popped the tab on the other soda that Tony had given him.

"Dude," Clint said. "You keep chugging it like that and you're going to end up with--"

Hic! Barnes' eyes opened comically wide and he put his free hand -- the metal one -- over his mouth.

"--the hiccups," Clint finished wryly.

Hic!

Tony burst into laughter, so suddenly that there was no way to suppress it. It was just so ludicrous -- the Winter Soldier, the most feared assassin of the century, sitting here with damp hair and a ridiculous pink t-shirt and the hiccups. And once the laughter started rolling out, finally giving vent to the stress and fear and anger of the last couple of hours, Tony couldn't stop. Every time he thought he was going to catch his breath and get it under control, another ridiculous hic! would slip out of Barnes' throat and Tony would be off again. Clint was laughing, too, after a moment -- probably mostly at Tony, but Tony couldn't even blame him.

Every time Tony looked up, dashing away the tears and hoping that this time, he'd be able to maintain his calm, Barnes was watching him, those round eyes finally relaxing and even beginning to crinkle at their corners. Tony thought it was just barely possible that Barnes was hiding an actual smile behind that metal hand. What finally sobered him was the thought that he'd really like to see that smile sometime.

"Okay," he said, lungs still aching. "Breathing. Breathing is a thing that I can do. How's your soda?"

"Sweet," Barnes said, looking at the empty can and hiccuping again. The hiccups didn't seem to bother him; he didn't try any of the tricks that don't actually stop the hiccups at all, but that people always seemed to try anyway, like holding their breath, or swallowing sideways.

"Yeah, soda usually is. Right, well, you're clean and you've eaten... Still hungry? Or do you want to catch a few z's?"

Barnes frowned, lifted the soda can again, discovered that it remained empty.

"More of that?" Tony grinned and shoved another can across the table. "Go on, have all you want."

A spaced-out, thousand-yard stare might have been comforting. Instead, Barnes's gaze was sharp, piercing. "Mission protocols allow?" As if confirming something too good to be true. He toyed with the pull-tab, waiting for fucking permission again.

"Mission..." Tony shot a look at Clint, who shrugged and nodded simultaneously, whatever that was supposed to mean. "Yeah, protocols allow," Tony said, suddenly exhausted. He rubbed at his temple. "Mission protocols say you eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty. Whatever's in the kitchen, help yourself. Unless it's got Nat's name on it. That's just taking your life into your hands."

"Black Widow. Dangerous, yes." Barnes nodded, then stood, so silently and so suddenly that it was like a video game character glitching from one position to the next without a transitional animation, making Tony jump in surprise. He moved to the refrigerator and opened the door, eyes swift and searching. He moved food carefully, quickly, opening containers to peer inside and sniff. He pulled several slices of cheese out and piled them on the countertop, then grabbed two apples, a bowl of sliced cantaloupe with cling wrap over the top, and a container of greek yogurt, which he turned around in his hands a few times until he could read the nutritional information on the side.

Tony leaned forward on his arms to watch Barnes rifle through the food, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Metabolism like Steve's," he said absently to Clint. "Called it."

"Not hardly a surprise, is it?" Clint said back. "The stuff Steve and Nat told us was pointing at enhancements, and that power has to get its energy from somewhere."

"Every time I almost buy into your dumb jock routine, Barton," Tony said, eyes still on Barnes, "you do something like that."

"Gotta keep you on your toes," Clint sing-songed, then suddenly went tense. "Tony."

In a drawer, Barnes had found a chef's utility knife. He was spinning it idly over his fingers, the servos in his arm whining with the simple movement.

"Relax, Katniss," Tony sighed. "If he wanted to kill us, he'd have made a move before this."

Barnes danced the kitchen knife from one hand to the other, spinning, eerily beautiful under the harsh lighting in the kitchen. He picked up one of the apples, tossed it up to shoulder height, and caught it on the blade. With several quick, breathlessly flawless movements, he peeled the apple, one neat spiral that he flicked into the trash. A moment later, he had sliced the fruit into a fan-shape of crescents. He spread them over his plate and topped each apple slice with a piece of cheese. He bounced the core off his elbow and it dropped neatly into the trash.

Tony watched the performance with something like wonder. This wasn't the action of a man seeking nothing more than sustenance. This was... skill, and pride in that skill, and joy in its use. It was even -- almost, if Barnes' face had been slightly more mobile -- playful.

"Well, you want to retire from the whole assassin and spy business, we can probably get you a job working at a hibachi joint."

Barnes's mouth twitched again, the ends curling up before he bit hard at his bottom lip. Blood welled there, then disappeared with a flick of his tongue. "Not with this knife," he said. He came back to the table and offered the blade to Tony over his forearm like a knight.

Tony laughed delightedly, and even Clint snorted in amusement despite his still-heightened caution. "He throws shade," Tony observed, taking the knife carefully. He tested the blade with his thumb. "Not undeserved, though. Jesus, you'd think with the number of highly-trained weapons specialists in this place, we'd manage to keep our kitchen knives in decent order."

Barnes retrieved his snack and dropped back into his claimed chair. He ate the cheese and apple without rushing, apparently having sated the sharp edge of hunger with the burgers and fries. Halfway through the apple, he paused, then pushed the plate gingerly in Tony's direction. "Allowed? If..." Barnes flushed, a dull brick red, his fingers just tapping on the edge of the plate, confused and flustered.

Tony frowned, and glanced at Clint again, hoping for a clue, but Clint seemed to be just as bewildered as Tony felt. "Is it allowed to... what? Share food? It's a communal kitchen, sharing is kind of the point." He considered the way Barnes' eyes couldn't seem to settle, the color spreading over his cheeks. Cautiously, Tony picked up one of the apple slices and bit into it. It was a good combination, tart-sweet apple and sharp cheese. "Thanks," he mumbled around the bite.

"Communal," Barnes said, rolling the word around in his mouth like he wasn't sure what it was supposed to feel like. "Used or shared by everyone in a group. Of, or belonging to, the people in a community."

"Sure," Tony agreed. He watched Barnes as he took another bite of the apple, waiting to see what would come next.

"In this case," Clint put in, surprising Tony, "it means the Avengers. And our friends." His tone was easy and casual and soft, but his eyes were still laser-focused on Barnes.

Barnes's jaw tightened, the sounds of his molars grinding together in tandem with the servos from his arm as his shoulders tensed and relaxed sent uncomfortable fingers down Tony's spine. "Not... it doesn't... I'm... I... Deviant behaviors noted. Improvisation necessary. No orders. No parameters countermand..." He was breathing hard, in through the nose, out the mouth, struggling with the idea, trying to push it out, or push it away. "The Asset does not require friends."

"Well, maybe not," Tony said, and his jaw ached from the effort of not grinding his own teeth. "But you don't have to be the... the Asset any more. You know that, right? And Bucky Barnes has at least one friend, one damn good friend, who'd give up--" Tony stopped himself from saying his left arm an instant before it rolled past his teeth. "--just about anything to help you. And the rest of us, well. We tend to follow Steve's lead, one way or another."

Barnes toppled out of the chair, knocking the plate to the floor, where it smashed into a million little pieces. His hands came down, hard, on the linoleum and he swayed, on hands and knees, keening, anxious. "Not... not... no, no, no. Not. The Asset."  

Tony darted forward, and was jerked back, Clint's hand closing on his arm. "Don't, Tony," he hissed, "he's not stable." Tony yanked at his arm, but Clint's grip was immoveable. "Seriously, I had to nurse Natasha through this; I know what I'm talking about. Give it a minute," Clint insisted.

Tony huffed and leaned as far toward Barnes as Clint's grip allowed. "Not the asset," he stressed, low and slow. "Not ever again."

Barnes curled in on himself, wrapping his hands around the back of his neck, one palm speckled with broken plate, bleeding. "Primary mission protocols... protect Anthony Stark. No limitations. Retain. Anthony Stark. I... Barnes." He said his own name with mingled longing and disgust.

Tony and Clint both froze.

"Protect?" Clint muttered. "How can that--"

"I don't know, birdbrain, but obviously he's not going to hurt me. Leggo!" Tony managed to pull free of Clint and staggered across the room to crouch next to the shuddering Barnes. He reached out one hand, then pulled it back, uncertain. "Barnes," he said softly. "It's okay. Well. It's going to be okay."

 

art by superfizz

Chapter Text

Bucky

The soldier looked up through the curtain of his hair, staring at Anthony's face as if he was a dead man seeing the light of Heaven. Like he'd never seen anything before, a blind man finding his eyes, a deaf man hearing the soft sounds of rain. Anthony's hand reached out, as if to touch him, touch the Asset, the soldier, not in punishment or out of necessity, but in compassion. For him. Bucky Barnes. "Anthony Stark."

The soldier came back to himself with a snap; there was a scattering of porcelain shards all over the floor, not dangerous, exactly, but... protect Anthony Stark. He swept his metallic arm -- his gift, his weapon, his deadly ally -- over the floor, making sure there was a clean space for Anthony to place his feet.

He struggled, the words caught in his throat. He would suffocate on them if he couldn't get them out, die there, wishing for air and strength and the need built 'til he was smothering of it.

"I... I am. Bucky Barnes."

He waited then, for the lightening to strike, for the pain and shivering agony of erasure, for... something. He didn't know, didn't want to know, but... his heartrate was outside normal parameters; was he dying? Here? On the ground? His heart raced, his lungs burned, his...

Deviant behavior noted.

Anthony's mouth curved into another smile, even if some uncertainty lurked in the shape of his eyes. "You are," he said softly. Certainly. As if it were as easy as that, as if that name was not laced with poisons and guarded with knives and fire. As if the soldier might simply reach out and take it for his own.

The distance between the floor and Anthony's fingertips was a million miles, a lifetime, an eternity. He was an ant on a string, crossing half the distance, then half again, and making no progress, he would never close the gap.

But nothing happened. And more nothing, as if nothing would happen. Not here, not... in this Communal Kitchen. There were no handlers here, no missions.

Bucky rocked back on his heels, on his knees at Anthony's feet, and stretched his hand up.

And sobbed out loud when Anthony's hand clenched around his.

"There you go," Anthony said. He wasn't smiling now, his words sober and reassuring, but his eyes were alight with a storm of emotion. Tony stood, pulling Bucky with him. "That's right, that's it. Come on, up you go."

Clint coughed. "Get him some bandaids, for crying out loud. He looks like he should be nailed to a cross or something."

Anthony snorted, but didn't look away from Bucky's face. "One thing at a time. He's not going to bleed out, he can take a couple of seconds to catch his breath after a major breakthrough."

Bucky actually rolled his eyes. He swallowed, dry and painful, around a lump in his throat that felt as large as a watermelon. Sideways. "It's going to be... okay." Soft, not quite a question. "Need... mission protocols. Buzzes, in my head. I... please?"

Anthony frowned again, lips moving silently with words Bucky couldn't read. Then he sighed, the furrow in his brow clearing, and nodded. "Okay, we'll, we'll figure out some protocols for you. Something to keep the buzzing down, anyway."

"No killing Clint, okay, can that be top of the list?" Barton piped up from the other side of the table.

Anthony huffed with apparent annoyance, but his lips quirked into a half-smile that looked... fond? "No killing, full stop," Anthony agreed. "Unless someone's trying to kill you. But even then, let's at least make an effort at subdual. Prisoners tell a lot more secrets than dead men." Anthony tapped at his chest with his free hand, an absent gesture. "Self care, too, let's make that part of mission protocols. Eat and drink and shower and sleep and all the rest of that stuff that I'm so bad at."

They were unfamiliar mission parameters, but they quieted the angry buzz of need. Bucky bowed his head in acceptance and climbed slowly to his feet, not yanking on Anthony's arm at all; moving with easy grace, not... quite... touching, even though he wanted to... deviant behaviors noted. All right, something snarled deep in his head, I fucking get it, goddamn deviant behaviors, shut up already.

With the heel of one bare foot, he hooked over the chair, dragged it over and lightly nudged Anthony into it. "Stay," he said. Clint let out a short, sharp bark of laughter that Bucky did not understand. It wasn't relevant. He'd seen, earlier, while taking inventory of the available food, a closet. He remembered, in kitchens, before... there! Broom and dustpan. He picked a few shards out of his palm, then swept the floor in quick, neat strokes.

"Not... usually clumsy," he said. "Are you injured?"

Anthony shook his head, loftily ignoring the way Clint was still sniggering on the other side of the room. "Nah. My feet are pretty tough. Maybe we should go get you cleaned up and bandaged, though?"

Bucky did a quick check, letting his eyes slide shut; cuts on palm, superficial. Scrape on the back of the neck... deeper. Not dangerous, but a shard of plate had been driven under the skin when he'd rubbed it. Blood was dripping down the back of his neck. This was a non-combat environment; his blood could be collected, retained. Used. Bucky inhaled sharply, eyes popping open.

Anthony wouldn't let... would not allow him to be used like that. Would he? Mission protocol: self-care. All the rest of that stuff that I'm so bad at.

"Yes, Anthony," Bucky said, leaning the broom against the wall. "Self-care. Check."

***

The antiseptic smell of the small medical clinic nearly paralyzed him. How... can he force himself to walk, without orders? Not... his metal arm clamped around the doorframe. Anthony didn't notice, and kept walking, and -- protect Anthony Stark -- his flesh-and-bone hand shot out to capture Anthony's, pulling him to a stop before he ventured farther into peril.

"What's up, buttercup?" Anthony said, glib words at odds with the concern on his face.

The interior was dim, unlit. Shadows lurked there, dangerous shadows, promising oblivion and agony, tearing at his mind with sharp, icy fingers, ripping those precious moments away from him and discarding them like so much garbage.

Bucky's chest was on fire, burning up from lack of oxygen, he couldn't breathe, couldn't... "Comply... ready... Ready to... nnnnnnnnnnnnnnn..." He wasn't supposed to resist, he wasn't supposed to fight, he would be...

"Hey, no," Anthony said quickly. "Bucky. It's okay, it's not-- We don't have to go in there." He backed away from the clinic door, gently tugging Bucky along. "We're not going, okay, I've got some basic first aid stuff down in the workshop, we'll get you patched up there."

Bucky jerked away from the door, leaving behind deep grooves in the steel frame. He pulled into Anthony's tugging hand, let himself curl up into a sudden, shocking embrace. Bucky buried his head in the crook of Anthony's neck, inhaling deeply of a scent that was not harsh and medicinal: spice and cologne and sweat and metal.

Anthony stiffened in shock -- as well he might, with Bucky acting so strange (deviant behavior noted) -- but then relaxed again. His hand came up and curled gently around Bucky's neck, gingerly avoiding the cut, but still warm and solid and real. "It's gonna be okay," he said softly, breath stirring the hair on Bucky's neck. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Take a breath for me now, all right? Just one good one, like this." He drew a breath, making a production of it -- air hissing through his teeth, his chest expanding to press against Bucky's.

Bucky heaved, grabbed at the air like it was a physically solid thing that he could wrestle into submission. "I... don't. Want. another mission. I... want to stay."

For just an instant, the fog cleared and he felt... something. He was holding Anthony Stark in a close, almost desperate embrace, his hands were all over the man's back, his nostrils were filled with Anthony's scent, and--

He took a step back, his skin already aching for the warmth of Anthony's body. He couldn't quite bring himself to let go of the last point of contact, to force his hand to release Anthony's, and instead he dropped his eyes, blood rushing to the surface of his skin, making him hot with shame.

"Fucking woobified," he snapped, biting the words out. "Cracked in the head. Whimsical in the brainpan. Christ. Anthony Stark. I'm... sorry." He exhausted the sum of his words and just stood there, his panic burned out, the adrenaline seeping from his system. Anthony could order him into the chair now, put the rubber bite-guard in his mouth, and he would comply. He was ready to comply.

"No need to be sorry," Anthony said, still gentle. "You're not the only one here who's not quite right, you know. Come on. And for god's sake, call me Tony. 'Anthony' usually means I'm in trouble." Anthony -- no, Tony -- kept talking, a comforting ramble, and tugged again at Bucky's hand, leading him.

Bucky kept his eyes lowered, ready to comply but not... quite... willing to see it coming. But Tony didn't take him into the medical clinic; instead Tony took him back along the hall to the elevators, and they dropped all the way to the basement levels of the Tower.

The elevator opened into a simple hallway, except the other side of the wall was glass. Bucky squinted at it; the distortion it threw back indicated that the glass was both bullet-proof and scratch resistant, military-grade. Beyond the glass wall was...

A room of wonders. A world of imagination.

Tony's workshop.

Benches and work-tables covered with glittering metal components. Fabrication units. Three ‘bots idled at their charging stations, one of which had turned a curious component in their direction, as if waving to its creator. At least six variations of the Iron Man suit were on display, lit from underneath like ancient statues. A computer holoscreen hung dimly in the air, specs for some project left unattended for the time being.

And nothing at all that looked like a medical station, or even a restraining device.

Bucky realized that he'd pressed himself up against the glass, looking in like a kid in a candy store, his hand still gripping Tony's.

"We can, you know, go in," Tony said. "In fact, I'd prefer it."

Bucky tucked his metal arm behind his back, trying desperately to avoiding touching all the shiny and brilliant objects in the lab that called to him with a siren's voice.

"Gonna need both my hands now, Bucky Bear," Tony said, waving Bucky toward the workbench. Bucky cautiously sat as Tony rummaged through a pile of scrap until he uncovered a white, plastic box, a red cross blazoned on the top. Callused fingertips pushed Bucky's head down and whisper-soft touches moved his hair to the side. Two spritzes of a cooling substance that his nose identified as a local anesthetic; he'd once had a mission to take down some drug dealers in Bogota, where the bricks had been cut with lidocaine. The skin on the back of his neck went numb.

Bucky chewed his bottom lip as Tony dug around under the skin for the slivers of porcelain, dropping them into a metal dish. Bucky for grabbed a bit of distraction, not from the pain, which he would barely have felt even without the spray, but from the sensation of Tony's hands against his skin.

"Did you know that Steve was color-blind, before?"

Tony's hands were steady, but his breathing stuttered to a halt. "I didn't."

"Yeah," Bucky said. "I used ta help him with picking ties and stuff, ‘cause he didn't have a sense of it, at all. He told me, after; he opened his eyes after getting the serum, and he couldn't make sense of anything, ‘cause the world was so beautiful."

Tony applied two butterfly bandages to the wound. "All set, there, Buckaroo."

Bucky turned on the bench, raising his chin. "When I opened my eyes, the world was ugly. Cold. Hard. I could look at a dame and not see anything but how fragile her throat was, a hundred ways to kill her before she even screamed. I saw hate and agony and the blue shadow of death."

Tony didn't say anything to answer that. He leaned one hip against the table, a wad of bloody gauze still held in one hand, and waited, watching Bucky intently.

"And then, I saw you."

Tony turned away with a snort, busying his hands with packing and straightening the medical kit. "I hate to break it to you, but I've cast way more than my fair share of blue shadows. I'm not a knight in shining armor."

Bucky raised one eyebrow. "I know. I've seen your file."

Tony huffed, and leaned heavily on both hands, staring down into the kit as if it were going to help him unlock the secrets of the universe. "Then why--" he began tightly, then shook his head. "Never mind."

Bucky scrubbed his front teeth with his tongue, then said, "It's bigger than a baby's arm."

Tony sputtered out a laugh. "Yeah, okay, T2K." He straightened and stretched, reaching up toward the ceiling with both hands, rising up onto his toes and holding it for a long moment before relaxing into a slump. "It's getting late for little assassins and war profiteers. Let's get you back to your room so you can bunk down, huh?"

 

Chapter Text

Tony

There was absolutely nothing interesting on the wall opposite Tony. Tony knew that, he'd looked at that wall dozens of times, but Bucky's piercing gaze in that direction made Tony itch to look over his shoulder. Maybe JARVIS was putting on a pyrotechnic display. Or a highlights reel of Tony's Most Embarrassing Youtube Moments. Tony wouldn't put it past him.

"You really mean that?" Bucky said. "You trust me to stay under your roof? Might not be a half-baked plan if I was to go on my merry, before you're dreaming."

"You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding." The idea of Bucky going back out into the night and resuming whatever scrape-and-scratch subsistence survival he'd been managing for the past few months was unthinkable. Especially since he'd been steadily emerging from that spooky Winter Soldier mask to reveal the real guy underneath. "We discussed this already, right, where Steve would kill me if anything happened to you, and I'm not a fan of being killed, especially not by Captain America."

"I ain't ‘xactly a fan of the idea of you being dead at my hands, either," Bucky said, looking down at those hands, one metal and one flesh. He flexed his fingers carefully. "Feel like I'm on a goddamn teeter-totter, like a kiddie at the park. Up, down." Bucky finished gnawing on his lip, leaving a bruise behind, then steeled himself, as if braced for a blow. "I... you got paper and pen?"

"Ug, how archaic," Tony complained. He wondered at the topic change, but he went to his desk and opened the drawer. Every once in a while, the old stuff was useful. He pulled out a pad of graph paper and a handful of the several dozen expensive pens that various business acquaintances kept giving him for Christmas. They were entirely unused. The ink had dried up on most of them; he scribbled on the edge of the paper until he found one that worked, then handed it and the pad to Bucky. "Here."

Bucky placed the pen in his mouth, situated the pad on his knee. "Freaking left-handed with no goddamn left hand anymore." He fumbled a little, trying to get the pen arranged in his mechanical hand, and ended up scrawling out Cyrillic letters in quite possibly the worst handwriting Tony had ever seen, perhaps barring his father's. "You read Russian?"

"Not much, but JARVIS can translate. J?"

"Of course, sir."

Bucky blinked, then held up the scrap to be seen. "Where is he?" He craned his neck, looking for a camera or device.

Tony grinned. Of all his very many creations, JARVIS was among his favorites. "He's all around us," he said striving for a somewhat spooky voice. At Bucky's unimpressed look, he shrugged. "He's an AI, he has mics and cameras pretty much everywhere in the building. His brain lives somewhere very very secret." Tony squinted at the paper; he thought he could make out a word or two. "What've we got, JARVIS?"

"Don't," Bucky held up one metal finger, "say it out loud. Unless you need me to stop. For some reason. For any reason. I... I'm going to trust you."

Tony lifted his gaze from the paper to Bucky's face, startled. "You're talking about, what? a sleep switch? Jesus, they really did a number on you."

JARVIS scrawled an English translation of the words onto a tiny screen, just in front of Tony's eyes, which Bucky turned his own gaze away from.

Longing, Rusted, Seventeen, Daybreak, Furnace...

"It work in English, or should I brush up on my Russian?"

Bucky shrugged. "Took out most of a Hydra nest a few months ago, just to get the information. I don't... I don't know. Couldn't really see askin' one of my fellow homeless buds to check it out or anything."

"Fair enough. Seeing it written obviously isn't a problem, though." Tony committed the words to memory. He'd have JARVIS walk him through the Russian pronunciations later.

"No. And I can't program myself. Tried that." Bucky crumpled the piece of paper in his metal hand until the wood pulp was nothing but a wad of mulch. "Don't promise I won't scream like hell, if you have to use it."

Tony frowned. "That's not promising. It's... not a sleep switch, then. It's something else. What does it do?"

Bucky lowered his lashes, looking down at the floor. "I will comply."

Tony didn't understand, and then, horribly, gut-wrenchingly, he did. "JARVIS, delete all record of that code." His voice came out hoarse.

"No, no, Tony, you can't. You can't. Someone's gotta know..." Bucky didn't move, his voice was almost unemotional, without inflection at all, except on the very last word where it cracked like the precursor to a sob.

Tony's lip curled into a snarl, entirely unbidden. "I know," he spat, and lifted a shaking hand to tap at the side of his head. "I've got it. Can't get rid of it, now. No one else can have it, though. And even if JARVIS is the most technologically secure thing on the planet, never say never when it comes to security."

"Would you like to play a game?" JARVIS deadpanned.

Tony waved a hand dismissively, still too furious to play along. "That game was old back in elementary school."

Bucky shook his head. "I know you're speakin' English, but I ain't got the first clue what you're talking about."

"Oh, Buckybear, you've missed so much. Even the Capcicle has seen War Games. We're going to have to have a movie night soon." Tony swallowed down his earlier rush of anger at Hydra, and draped a casual arm over Bucky's shoulders. "Come on, Tasteefreeze, let's get you settled, and I'll have JARVIS start working on a priority list for pop culture catch-up."

Bucky muttered something under his breath that sounded like Russian. Tony didn't catch any of it. "Well, we can put Anna Karenina on the list if you want, but I was thinking of starting with some things closer to home."

JARVIS made an almost-human sounding cough. "I still have Captain Roger's list, added to extensively by Misters Barton and Banner, with some foreign films that Ms. Romanov suggested. I sent it to your phone, sir."

"Phone!" Tony pulled his from his pocket with his free hand, even as he steered Bucky toward the door. "We'll have to do something about that tomorrow, too."

Tony had long since noticed that enhanced humans tended to run warm, practically radiating heat from their skin. Which meant he noticed almost immediately that Bucky didn't allow much air between their bodies, snuggling into Tony's one-handed embrace like a drunken prom-date. Not that Tony had ever done anything as prosaic as prom.

Touch-starved, check, he thought, adding another tick in the "Things Hydra Has Done to Piss Me Off" column in the back of his head. Touch-starved, though, he could relate to that, at least. When he'd come back from Afghanistan, he'd clung to Rhodey -- quite literally -- for days afterward, keeping a desperate grip on Rhodey's hand or wrist the whole time he'd been in the hospital, teasing Rhodey into sitting right on the bed with him. Not that Rhodey had taken much convincing.

Once Steve was back, Tony figured he'd make sure Bucky got everything he needed in terms of hugs. But in the meantime, Tony could pinch-hit. It wasn't like it would be an onerous chore.

Tony pulled Bucky closer, tucking the metal arm up between them. Bucky pulled the arm across his chest so that as little of it was touching Tony as possible. "Does it hurt?" Tony asked. Bucky tensed a little, but he shook his head, eyes firmly fixed on the floor ahead of them, and didn't pull away. "Because I don't mind, honestly. I mean, do you see all the tech around here? I've been accused of harboring impure thoughts about robots which, okay, not entirely inaccurate, even if I wouldn't trust DUM-E with my dick if it was on fire."

Tony ushered Bucky into the elevator, still chatting aimlessly. Distraction, he could do.

***

Tony had built a handful of guest suites into the Avengers' living quarters when he was redesigning the tower. Rhodey came by often, but not often enough to get a dedicated apartment. Pepper needed a nice place to stay when she was in town, too, now that she was no longer sleeping in the penthouse with Tony. And Thor brought Jane and Darcy along with him as often as he could, and Darcy really appreciated having a place to crash where she didn't have to eavesdrop on the god of thunder's sex life. So yeah: guest suites. Kind of like hotel rooms, but actually comfortable and nice.

None of them were currently occupied, so Tony took Bucky back to the one he'd given to Bucky to shower and change earlier. This time, Tony gave him a quick tour of the amenities, not sure how much poking around Bucky had done earlier. But it looked like exhaustion was catching up with him, and he was drooping a little more with each breath, so Tony wrapped it up quickly, turned down the blankets on the bed, and then left so Bucky could -- hopefully -- sleep.

He closed the door softly and stood in the hall for a long moment, closing his eyes against the sudden rush of fatigue and the sense that his right side was too cold without a super-soldier plastered against it. After a moment he shook it off and made himself put one foot in front of the other.

"He doing all right, JARVIS?" Tony asked as he headed down the stairs toward the common area.

"He seems to be settling in, sir," JARVIS replied.

"Okay. Let me know if--" Tony waved a hand vaguely, not certain how to end the sentence. If Bucky reverted to Winter Soldier mode? If he freaked out and started trashing the place? If he needed another hug?

Clint was sitting on the couch, watching something Tony didn't recognize on the television, a bottle of beer dangling from his fingertips.

Tony detoured through the kitchen for a bottle of his own, then dropped on the other end of the couch with a sigh.

"Living with a death wish, Stark? Or was Killian not enough excitement for this year?" Clint put his beer on the coffee table and scrubbed at his bare arms. "I'm gonna get an apartment in Bed Stuy, and have a nice, drama free life."

Tony snorted indelicately. "Trouble will find you wherever you go, Barton, I'm pretty sure that's how it works." He took a long pull from the bottle. "He seems more lost than murderous," he offered after a moment's thought.

"Hey, man, it's your funeral," Clint said.

"You're pretty relaxed for someone who, a couple of hours ago, was trying to convince me to live in the armor until Steve gets back," Tony said.

Clint grunted. "As you so delicately pointed out, if he was planning to kill you, he'd have already done it," he said. "At this point, the danger is going to be flashbacks. Or, y'know, if he got programmed with a trigger phrase or something."

Tony suppressed a shudder, and tried not to think about the phrase Bucky had scrawled out, hands shaking and unwilling to even look at the page as he wrote. It was power Tony didn't want, yet more more weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Another link in the chains that bound him. Soon, they'd be too strong and tight to wriggle out of.

They settled in to watch the show, whatever it was. Tony wasn't paying attention, really, too busy running through the events of the evening to focus. He wondered if he'd be able to sleep, or if it would be another night of fitful dozing and startling awake and reaching for comfort only to remember that the other side of the bed was empty and cold.

Tony wondered if Bucky would be able to sleep. Unbidden, he thought of the soldier's heat pressed along his side, wondered how it would feel to have that warmth curled around him at night-- The fuck is wrong with me? he wondered, sharply cutting off the thought. Bucky was hurt and suffering and in need of help. Try not to be more of an asshole than you already are, Stark.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

The bed was terrifying.

Bucky stretched out like a starfish -- hands and ankles spread to the far reaches of the mattress like quicksand was an actual problem that he had to deal with in his life. Tony had peeled the blankets back for him, but refrained from trying to actually tuck the most feared assassin in the world into bed like a toddler. It hadn’t taken Bucky more than seven seconds after the door closed behind Tony’s soft goodnight for Bucky to kick all the blankets off in a flurry of panic.

Too soft. Too fluffy. His nostrils were filled with the scent of static sheets and lavender-vanilla detergent. He was sinking into the mattress; it was going to swallow him whole and in the morning, there would be nothing left of him at all.

This is not how I’m going to die.

Bucky heaved himself over, landing on the floor on his belly. Oof. Panting for breath, sweating, shaking. One of the blankets was under his hand. He dragged it out and wadded it up, tucking it under his head.

The room wasn’t really dark; there was ambient lighting from the clock, something in the bathroom, the power switch of a television that was practically larger than the bed he’d grown up sleeping on. And whatever Zola had done to him let Bucky’s pupils widen like a cat’s, bringing the room up to something in the pale blue ranges.

Unsafe.

Bucky reached an exploratory hand behind him; the space under the bed was no more than ten inches high, but he wasn’t wearing tac-gear. He hadn’t slept at all without a gun near at hand, not for any missions. Even after he’d been left to his own devices, he’d arranged his sleeping places with some sort of weapon within arm’s grasp, even if it was only a bit of wire or a nail-studded board. He had reason to know those were damn good weapons.

That red-headed girlfriend of Steve’s had damn near taken his head off with a wire, not all that long ago, riding him like a mechanical bull the whole time. The corner of his mouth twitched. She was talented, that one, and oddly familiar.

He scooted backward under the bed, toes feeling the way. It was a bit startling, how clean it was under there. Tony Stark was unnatural.

Bucky tucked himself up near the headboard, using the nightstands as blocks. He pushed up, curious, and was relieved that he wouldn’t be trapped under the bed; a simple heave would clear it away in case of an ambush.

He didn’t toss and turn; wouldn't have, even if there had been room for it. Restless sleeping was a bad move. He’d fallen out of trees and rolled over onto snakes before he’d learned that lesson. He wasn't sure if that was something he'd learned with Hydra, or... before. It didn't matter: long habit held him motionless.

But in his mind, he tossed, shook himself all over, and rolled around trying to find a comfortable spot. He was lost, wandering. Trying to find the path with the woods closing in around him. Fork in the road, and which way was he going to go? Hydra had made him, shaped him. He was patent-pending, stamped (literally, a fucking red star on his shoulder), and owned. They weren’t going to let him go, and why should they? A lot of time, money, and technology had gone into making him what he was, making him who he was. Did he even... have the right?

His protocols reminded him that he should sleep.

Self-care. Food and drinks and showers and sleep.

All those things I’m so bad at.

Bucky wondered if Tony was sleeping, in the big, glass-walled penthouse Bucky had seen while watching the Tower.

It was almost disconcerting how easily the picture rose before his mind’s eye: Tony sprawled on crisp white sheets, one arm outstretched, the other tucked under a pillow, back bare and one shoulder visible, his hair sticking up in all directions. Bucky’s mouth was suddenly stone-dry. His tongue rasped against his bottom lip as he tried to wet it.

Warmth twisted in his belly, making him want to squirm. He didn’t, but the heat didn’t abate. Got worse, in fact, as he lost all control over his thoughts, adding himself into the scene, touching that olive-toned skin, tracing the long lines of Tony’s legs under the blankets, the strong curve of Tony's back, running his hand through Tony's hair, a black so dark it was nearly blue.

Bucky brought his metal hand up to his eyes, squeezed the bridge of his nose as if to crush his own skull and rid himself of thoughts that were both alien and at the same time... comforting?

What. The. Actual. Hell?

"Yeah, Stevie," Bucky said, his voice so soft that even a mouse might not have heard it. "I took all the stupid with me."

He rested the metal hand over his closed lids, deciding at the last minute not to play blender with his overworked brain and behind those alloyed fingers, he fell asleep.

***

The soldier woke himself up with a start, hand reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there, eyes wild. He kept his breathing shallow; his heart pounded in his chest. He blinked, vision blurry with sleep and sudden fear.

Nothing moved. There were no sounds.

GrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRROWRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

One hand dropped to his belly, which rumbled and groaned under his fingertips. Holy shit, he’d scared himself witless because his stomach was growling?

Under the bed, no one can see you blush.

His brain cleared up, probably helped along by the flow of blood to his cheeks. Face still burning, he yanked himself out from under the bed.

Self-care: shower.

Bucky bit his lip against a groan of longing, even though he'd had a shower only hours before. He really hadn’t been well and truly clean in ages. Quickly, he shucked the ridiculous pink tee and gray sweatpants he’d been wearing and tossed them on the unused bed. He wasn't sure if he would be permitted more clothes if he let these be carried away by the invisible servant who'd taken his tac gear, and while he might have been away from the world a long time, he was pretty sure casual nudity was still out of order.

He left the lights off; he didn’t need them to see, even in the dim bathroom, and with them off, it was easier to avoid looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. The scars that tore his chest and shoulder open gleamed even in the relative dark. He yanked the night light out of its socket and shut the bathroom door, closing himself in darkness.

He never knew when the darkness was going to be safe, cover him, protect him, and when it was going to flay him bare and make him vulnerable. Bucky suspected the answer was in his own fucked up head; that he was both predator and prey, both murderer and victim, both... he couldn’t figure out another simile and took that to mean maybe even his fucked up head should shut up and let him shower.

It wasn’t until he clambered into the shower stall, hissed and turned sideways in the water to protect more sensitive skin from the heat that he realized that he had... another problem.

"You’ve got to be kidding me," he said, staring down at the shape of what was quite possibly his first morning wood in seventy years. The little winter soldier did not, however, seem to be kidding. In fact, it took itself quite seriously indeed.

"Stop it." He hissed at his erection, as if that was going to fix anything. He stared at his hands, one gleaming alloy and one pale flesh. "I jerk off left-handed, you idiot."

Now there was a thought that was not worth contemplating. His fine motor control with the mechanical arm was pretty damn fine, most of the time. Especially with weapons; he could use a knife or a gun or a shock-stick, equally lethal in either hand. But the plates could pinch, and he couldn’t hold a pen worth a damn. Did he really want to take a risk on... well, actually jerking it off? He shuddered all over, skin crawling and belly twisting with that imagery. Just because he hadn’t used it in years didn’t mean he was willing to part with it entirely.

Bucky leaned his head down, touching the tiles with his forehead, water sluicing off his back and down his legs. He couldn’t remember the last time... God, his hard-on was demanding. It was like bein’ a teenager again, that first year when he'd needed his math book to shield him from teachers' prying eyes and classmates’ giggles.

He ground his hips up against the shower wall, the tiles wet and slick and cool against his hot flesh. It wasn’t a hand -- sometime when he was feeling less desperate, he'd have to learn how to use his right hand for the job -- but it would do. Once, twice, he closed his eyes, concentrated on the sensation, wet nerve endings and fiery gliding, and then...

God damn it. Well, it’s not like Tony had to know. It was hardly Bucky’s fault; he hadn’t been touched by another human with any degree of affection in years. No wonder the masculine scent of Tony’s skin got him eager and wanting, no wonder the music of Tony’s laughter against his eardrums was a delicious shiver. The sardonic twist of those lush lips, the warmth in those brown eyes. "Oh, you got it bad, soldier," Bucky whispered to himself, taking an imaginary Tony into his arms and doing unspeakable things with him.

He finished with a gasp that filled his lungs, nerves alight all the way down to the balls of his feet. Desperately, he clung to a dream that wasn’t there and as it slid away from him, he slammed his fist into the wall.

Okay. Well, maybe he’d have to tell Tony about that. The tiles were shattered, little bits of plaster and ceramic falling down to bounce off his feet before being swirled down the drain.

He washed his hair quickly, and he dumped half the bottle of shampoo with its cloying strawberry scent onto the wall to wipe away any traces of his indiscretion -- he didn’t think Tony had a superior sense of smell, but better to be safe. God, Bucky could still smell it, despite the shampoo, coming up from the drain beneath his feet, and god damn if that didn’t make him want to do it again. Dear god, what the hell was wrong with him?

He reached out, jerked the shower dial all the way to cold and let the icy sting take away the remainder of his desire.

Strawberry shampoo. Down the drain.

***

The dresser drawers were stocked, as if to spite his earlier caution, but they were a panic of too many choices, too many colors, too many fabrics, too much too much too much-- He grabbed the first things his fingers touched, not looking. The jeans mostly fit, though they were too big in the waist and kept slipping down around his hips. The shirt was a simple grey tee that had a fluffy siamese cat on it, with the words "This is my happy face" underneath. It was entirely too small for him, so tight he felt still half-naked, so he risked opening the drawer again, and found a zip up hoodie in a blue-heather material that felt soft and soothing under his hands.

None of the shoes fit except a pair of violently orange flip-flops; Bucky decided to go barefoot.

His stomach rumbled again -- this was why he didn't eat when he was on mission unless it was absolutely necessary; the body demanded more only half a day later, with noises loud enough to render any hiding spot useless.

He didn't have to hide now, he reminded himself. There was nothing in his protocols that demanded secrecy. In fact, they demanded regular meals. Self-care: eat, drink. So rather than combing his hair, he settled for raking it all back with his fingers. He ran a hand over his chin, listening to the stubble rasp. But his stomach was getting more and more insistent, and he didn’t really want to look at himself in the mirror long enough to do a decent job of shaving, anyway.

He closed his eyes, fingers on the doorknob that led to the hallway. The computer had given him directions to the Communal Kitchen yesterday. He tilted his head, accessing the data. Right, down the hall, elevator down six floors. Easy enough.

The kitchen was empty when he got there, which was really too bad because he would happily have gulped down an entire pot of coffee, but the machine that he was reasonably certain was for making coffee was so shiny and chrome that he couldn’t figure out how the hell to work it.

Trying to find a frying pan in the maze of cabinets and drawers was an adventure in bizarre and unfathomable kitchen tools, and Bucky pulled out several unidentifiable machines with a raised eyebrow long before he'd located anything like a pot. Something labeled a "Foreman Grill" would make a great blunt instrument, not to mention the 11kg mixer, which could crush a man’s skull. Is this a kitchen or an armory? Bucky wondered.

Finally, he unearthed a cast iron skillet and a smaller frying pan. By the time anyone else came into the kitchen, he had a pan full of bacon and syrniki dumplings fried up, dishes of jam and sour cream on the side.

Tony yawned his way into the kitchen, hair completely messed up and stretching his arms over his head. He barely opened his eyes, but obviously knew the layout of the place well. He went straight to the coffee-maker and began punching buttons with increasing fervor like some sort of caffeine-deprived zombie.

Bucky flipped a few pieces of bacon onto a plate and added some of the cheesy dumplings, and set the plate down at the place where Tony had been the previous evening.

"Self-care, Anth... Tony," Bucky corrected himself. He made up another plate, added several crescents of cut melon, and a bunch of grapes to his own.

Barton not long behind Tony, looking like he had slept in his clothes. He generously waited for Tony to retrieve his own coffee before beginning to stab at the buttons himself. He made three cups in quick succession, pouring each into a larger mug. Bucky wondered if the guy ran on vibrations, like a higher class of wind-up toy.

Bucky waved a hand in the direction of the stove, indicating a willingness to share, but not... quite... ready to serve Clint, who radiated a combination of smugness and distrust that set Bucky’s teeth on edge. Not that he could blame the archer, but it made his spine itch and his hand wish for the comforting feel of a pistol grip. On the other hand, it was good to know there was someone on guard. Tony had been kind. Too kind. And entirely too trusting.

Which didn’t change the fact that Bucky had to cling to the bottom of his chair to keep from taking up a defensive position as Clint passed close by. He damn sure wasn’t going to fix the man a plate of chow. Especially since he seemed to be stealing all the fucking coffee.

Tony drank his coffee without looking up, or speaking, or acknowledging anyone or anything, like there was a line on the mug that said "Okay, you can speak now" somewhere near the bottom. Bucky’d known fellas like that back in the Army; God help them all when they didn’t even have that tinned shit from the quartermaster. Gabe Jones had often cussed them out in multiple languages for the lack.

About halfway through his coffee, Tony picked up his fork and began to eat, mechanically, not seeming to notice what he was tasting. After he'd emptied his cup, he finally looked up. "Right. Okay," Tony said. "Food? How long has that been there? Oh, you have some, too, Grumpy Cat? Good, good. Sleep all right?" He shoved a sour-cream smeared dumpling in his mouth, chewed a few times, then looked back down at his plate in shock. "Did you cook this? What is it? They’re fantastic. God, I love cheese. Sleep, did I ask you..."

"Can’t answer a question when your gums are flappin’ a mile a minute, Tony," Bucky said, placing his right hand gently on Tony’s wrist, holding Tony’s hand still as if that might slow the flow of words. Which it just might, Tony seemed to talk with his hands quite a bit. "Yes, food. I got you a plate when you came into the kitchen, so about ten minutes now. Yes, I am also eating. Self-care, remember? What’s a grumpy cat? I slept. Did you? They’re called syrniki. Thank you."

Clint peered at them both blearily over his enormous mug. "God not another one who talks like you, Stark."

Tony ignored that, so Bucky did as well. "I... might have busted up some tiles in the shower this morning by accident. Sorry."

Tony smeared jam on another of the little cakes. "Broke the shower, huh? No worry, I'm sure JARVIS has already ordered repairs."

Bucky blinked, suddenly totally still, his neck heating up. "JARVIS has access to the bathroom?" He jerked his hand back as if he was going to cover his dignity, for whatever retroactive modesty that could provide. Shit, shit, shit, he thought. Did I... say anything out loud? Call out his goddamn name?

Clint crossed behind him, going back to the kitchen with his already-empty mug. He stopped just behind Bucky and inhaled. "Why do I smell strawberries?"

If Bucky could have climbed under the kitchen table and died, he would have counted that as a mercy. Hydra'd had him at their beck and call, a dog on a leash, for decades, and he’d give his other arm for a time machine to undo just the last hour.

Tony waved his fork lazily. "I dunno; maybe that was Darcy's suite, last time she was here. Why does everyone whine about JARVIS in the bathrooms?"

"Uh. Because it's creepy as fuck?" Clint shot back.

"JARVIS is the soul of discretion," Tony said, sounding wounded on his creation's behalf. "It's not like he shares that information with just everyone. It's protective. It's saved my ass at least three times. One of them literally, because, let me tell you, do not make drunken bets with Rhodey, okay, and that's all I'm going to say about that. But seriously, JARVIS is listening for requests directed to him specifically, and looking for blood on the tiles and other medical misadventures. He doesn't care about your beauty regimen or how much fiber you've been eating."

"In the interest of fairness," JARVIS supplied, "I also monitor for activity so I know when the cleaning staff may enter."

"You clean under the bed?" Bucky asked, rubbing absently at the bandage on the back of his neck. "Because I could eat off that floor."

That’s it, he thought. Flatter it. Get on its good side. Christ, is he... programmed to make judgements? The second half of that shower was cold. There was shrinkage. Where are the... He sighed, knowing he was going to tear the bathroom apart looking for the cameras and figure out what sort of angles the AI got.

"Robots," Tony mumbled around a mouthful of dumplings. "Sortof like a Roomba, but smarter. JARVIS runs them, but they're semi-autonomous. Used to have human staff, but it made the spies twitchy. And the robots do a better job anyway." He swallowed, then smirked up at Clint. "See? I can compromise."

Bucky tried to not glare up at the ceiling, or even look shady, except he knew damn well he was shady. And JARVIS knew it, too. God. Damn.

"You want to show me how to run this coffee gizmo?" He grabbed at a subject for distraction. "I feel like if I press too many buttons, I might nuke Syria by accident." That wasn’t funny, it really was NOT funny, but... anything to turn the conversation before JARVIS decided to report Bucky for either being a complete creeper or a schoolboy with a crush.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Who knew ex-assassin super-soldiers could cook? Tony gleefully licked the last of the bacon grease and sour cream off his fingers, ignoring Clint, who -- somewhat surprisingly -- had taken it on himself to explain the espresso machine to Bucky. Or maybe it wasn't so surprising, since Clint drank more coffee than everyone else in the Tower combined. Well, except for that time that R&D had fucked everything up and Tony'd had to produce the department's entire quarter's worth of work for the shareholders meeting in ten days. That had been... that had been a lot of coffee.

Bucky was listening to Clint's explanation very closely, and the back of his neck was brick red again. It had been doing that a lot this morning. Tony wondered if it was a side-effect of Bucky's expedited healing. He'd never seen Steve flush like that -- well, not because of healing anyway; Steve's Irish skin darkened readily whenever he was angry or embarrassed -- but Bucky's serum was different, so that might account for it.

Maybe Bruce could quantify the difference, now that they had both super-soldiers on hand to provide samples, or would shortly. That is, if Bucky was willing. Maybe he wouldn't be. Steve hadn't much cared, but then, Steve had shed his blood with them in battle long before they'd asked him to donate a vial to science, and that probably made a difference, if you were a former science experiment. Bruce would probably know how to ask diplomatically.

Tony put his plate in the dishwasher and washed his hands, watching with an odd sense of proprietary pride as Bucky made his own cup of coffee, making selections and measuring grounds and twisting the damper's handle with a smooth surety. Maybe being a weapons expert translated to espresso machines, too. Tony had long since stopped trying to make sense of other people's thought processes; they never followed any of the patterns he thought they should.

Thank god the family business wasn't psychology.

Bucky pulled a steaming cup of cappuccino from the machine, and took a tentative sip. His eyes widened fractionally. "That ain't half bad," he said, and Clint whooped in victory. Bucky grinned at him, a full smile that was almost painful to see.

Bucky glanced at Tony, and Tony felt his own lips curve in answer to that smile. Bucky ducked his head to take another sip. The flush on his neck was spreading up into his face.

Tony was just opening his mouth to ask Bucky if that was a normal reaction when JARVIS said, "The package you requested from Consumer Sales has arrived, sir."

"Package?" Clint piped up, already poking at the coffee machine for his own mug. "Anything fun?"

Tony made his way to the dumbwaiter door next to the elevator and opened it, then brandished the box. "Phone for Bucky," he explained. "Can't really be a person these days without a phone."

Bucky looked skeptical, but Clint gave one of those bobbing nods he used that meant, "good point, carry on". Tony dropped back down at the table and began unpacking the phone with practiced ease. "I set up an email account for you last night," he told Bucky, fingers skating over the glass screen, "and I'm loading me and Steve into your contacts. You can add Barton if you want, but I don't know why you'd want to." Tony grinned at Clint's wordless noise of protest. "I won't say it's untraceable, but it's really only traceable back to a moderately unresolveable tangle of red tape that Stark Industries uses for employee contracts, so unless you start using it to buy automatic weapons or something, it's unlikely to raise any red flags." He glanced up; Bucky looked mildly overwhelmed, wavering on the edge of protest. Tony leveled a stern look at him and pointed at him with the phone.

"Actually, you shouldn't use this to buy weapons anyway," he said firmly. "If you need weapons, tell me and we'll make it happen. And they'll be better than the shit you can get online anyway."

"True that," Clint agreed happily from the kitchen.

"But pretty much anything else you want, you can get. You probably need clothes that actually fit you and shampoo that doesn't smell like strawberries and--" he waved at Bucky's bare feet "--shoes, or whatever. I'm setting this up with a purchasing account, so go crazy, buy whatever you want." He tossed the phone in Bucky's direction, enjoying the way Bucky startled but still caught the phone with a graceful swoop of his right arm.

Bucky touched the screen gingerly with a metal fingertip.

"Yeah, capacitive screens are going to need you to use the other hand," Tony said, "or else, I guess, capacitive finger cots, but that would just look silly. Fingerless gloves: hot. Finger-only gloves: not so much. I don't make these rules. You know how to use that already, or do you need the grand tour?"

Bucky bit his lip uncertainly, and Tony was reminded to slow down, to give him time to process and absorb things. Most of the Avengers had adapted to Tony's constant stream of talk, learning to pick out relevant information and ignore the rest, but Tony always forgot that it took people a while. Eventually, eyes on the screen, Bucky asked, "This is... I am... your... employee?" The red was climbing back up his cheeks, and Tony hoped like hell it was the serum's work, and not that Bucky was angry about Tony making the presumption or some weird thing like that.

Tony waggled a hand. "For purposes of the phone accounts, sure. But that's just administrative, it's not like you actually have to do what I tell you, or anything. God knows none of these other assholes do."

"Steve's the boss," Clint put in, emerging from the kitchen with a coffee monstrosity that Tony knew from experience was utterly undrinkable by anyone other than Clint and Thor. "And Tony's the sugar daddy. This was all decided the first week we moved in. We voted on it and everything."

Bucky slanted a look at Clint. "What's that make you, then?"

"I," Clint said with a smirk, "am the hot cabana boy."

Raising the mug to his lips, Bucky finished off his cup and then shoved the empty mug at Clint. "Good. Fill this up again."

Tony cackled with glee. Clint groaned, "Aw, coffee..." and slumped back into the kitchen.

"I... have some accounts," Bucky started, tentatively. "Well, not mine, ya know, but... untraceable funds. From Hydra. For... certain higher ends, and assets on extended missions. I checked a few of ‘em, but I wasn’t eager to get some old mucky muck looking into where those withdrawals were comin’ from. Don’t know if you have people that might know how to mess with money."

Of course Tony had people who knew how to mess with money. His smile turned toothy and sharp, the way it did when he and Pepper were planning a hostile takeover. "Oh, I think something can be arranged. Shoot me an email with the details when you get a minute, or just tell JARVIS. We'll handle it."

Bucky switched the phone out to his other hand, poking awkwardly at the screen with his off-hand, which turned into a muffled swear as the servos in the metal arm squealed in protest and the phone stuttered from his hand and tipped over onto the table. More Russian came out of Bucky’s mouth, liquid fire and angry. He banged the elbow sharply against the tabletop, then flexed his hand a few times, the metal fingers straining to their full spread.

Finally, an issue Tony knew how to deal with: tech. "It been giving you trouble like that for long?" he asked.

Bucky scrubbed at his chin with his flesh hand, sighing. "Steve... Kinda hit me with the shield." He turned the arm to show scrapes and dented metal along the inside of his arm. "More’n I can fix with a screwdriver. The angle’s all bad for me, and I ain’t got much of a clue what I’m doing anyway."

Tony reached, then hesitated. It was beautiful, gorgeous tech, but it was also the man's arm, he might not want Tony fucking with it. He hadn't actually said so. "Can I?"

Bucky’s eyes widened, his breath catching in his throat, his face suddenly and completely open. Vulnerable. Naked in a way that Tony hadn't seen before, even stripped bare for the shower last night. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times before he managed, "Yeah. Of course. No one ain't ever asked before."

Tony was really going to have to get used to the way anger surged up his throat like bile whenever Bucky talked about the way Hydra had treated him, because it sure didn't seem like it was going to stop happening. He sighed. "Well, of course they didn't. I like to think I have at least marginally better manners, shut up, Clint. No 'of course' about it; if you don't want it, or want me to stop, say so."

"It’s my arm, Tony. Ain’t the one I was born with, but it’s kinda useful to have two hands."

"Sure, but maybe you want someone else to-- Never mind, I'm the only one on the continent even remotely qualified. Let's do this. Let me know if you need a breather or something, though." He scooted his chair closer to Bucky's and gently ran his fingers over the seam of the plating.

With a quick tug -- again with the lack of modesty, which made it weird that he was fretting about JARVIS in the bathroom -- Bucky pulled the hoodie and hideous tee off over his head, presenting Tony with a clear work field. The device capped over Bucky’s shoulder and had obviously been screwed in with little care for pain or easy management. The scars around the metal were brutal, but then again, who did Tony know that didn’t have scars, these days? The few who didn't have them on the outside, like Cap and Bruce, had even bigger ones on the inside.

Bucky lifted the arm over his head, bending the elbow to rest his hand on the back of his neck, to give Tony the best angle. "Hey, cabana boy! Where’s my coffee?"

"Fuck you," Clint called cheerfully from the kitchen.

Tony tuned out the squabbling. The arm wasn't vibranium, but it was some alloy harder than Tony's suits, because Steve's shield had barely left a dent in it, and Tony was pretty sure Steve hadn't been pulling his punches. There was a catch in the plating, so obviously for maintenance access that Tony had to roll his eyes at the lack of elegance. Maybe it had been installed after the arm had originally been created, because most of it was a work of art.

Tony tugged a mini-flashlight and a multitool out of his pants pocket. He put the flashlight in his mouth so he could have both hands free to work, and peered into the mechanism.

Bucky flexed a few times, a slight tightening of the interior workings of the arm, servos whirring and the plates shifting around for the greatest flexibility. Demonstrating the mechanism, though the slight smirk on his face made it look like showing off.

"I think I see the problem," Tony said. He scooted in closer and reached into the panel with the multitool's Phillips-head tip to prod gently at the sticky servo. "How much feeling do you have in here?"

Bucky didn’t flinch or wince or so much as twitch. The only motion he made at all was a slight adjustment to his jaw, like rolling a piece of candy in his mouth. "Doesn’t make much difference, does it? If it’s gotta be done, it’s gotta be done."

Tony sat back, tapping the screwdriver restlessly against his palm. "That sounds like it translates to, 'it hurts like a fucker'."

Bucky made a strange, one-shouldered shrug. "Ain’t pain, not exactly. Course, it ain’t a ‘pinch’ like what the doctor says before he stabs your ass with a needle, either. All'a them --" He gestured at the open maintenance panel with graceful fingers "-- bits and pieces, they're wired into my nervous system and cluster up in the back of my brain."

"Why are we taking the Tin Man apart at the kitchen table, Tony?" Clint asked as he handed Bucky the refilled cup of coffee and waited with barely suppressed glee as Bucky brought the mug up to his lips. "I thought Steve made a rule about no science, firearms, or disassembled robots at the table. Though I'm not sure what category this falls into."

"Well, Steve's not here, and we're going to fix the damage Steve did to it, so he can suck it anyway. But since it sounds like there's no way to do the job without it hurting, I think we're going to take it down to the workshop so I can at least do it as fast and smoothly as possible." Tony closed the hatch and put the tools back in his pocket.

"Holy Christ," Bucky exclaimed, nearly spewing coffee all over Tony; he just managed to jerk his chin to one side and doused the floor fairly thoroughly. "Fired. You are so very fucking fired. What the..."

Tony jerked back, startled, as Clint clapped both hands on his knees, bent over, laughing. "Oh, man, your face, man. Wish I had a picture!"

"What did this poor cup of coffee ever do to you?" Bucky gagged and sat the cup down on the table, shoving it away as if it might explode.

Tony leaned forward cautiously to look at the mug. "Did you make Bucky one of your monstrosity drinks?" he accused. "You have to warn someone if you're planning to make them drink hot ice cream, Clint, it's disturbing."

"Disgusting," Bucky agreed, fervently. He licked at his lips, which were turning a darker red. "Did... you put hot sauce in there? What is wrong with you?"

Clint only laughed harder. Tony threw up both hands in disgust. "Right. Come on, Bucky, let's leave the twelve-year-old here to clean up, and we'll get you taken care of." He gestured for Bucky to precede him to the elevator.

Bucky glared over his shoulder at Clint. "No wonder I have trust issues."

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Shirtless, the damn jeans slipping further down his hips every time he took a step, Bucky followed close at Tony’s heels. He couldn’t help sneaking little glances at Tony’s reflection in the elevator door as they descended into the bowels of the Tower. Whenever Tony closed his eyes, Bucky was enraptured by the way his long lashes brushed against his cheeks, sinful, inviting more touching. They probably made the dames jealous as hell.

He rubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand. He shuddered, remembering... four or five missions ago...

He was with a team, backup and extraction, but the target moved like a goddamn ghost, jetting from one nation to the next, money smoothing the way. The soldier wasn’t worried; everyone made a mistake, eventually. It was just a matter of tracking the money. And patience. And the perfect vantage point.

It was the longest he’d been awake and around other people who weren't his handlers. Not assets, but expendable troops, foot soldiers. Hydra’s goons. Cut off one head and two more will replace it. The soldier had never formed an attachment to any of them. They had names, he’d heard them, but the soldier himself didn’t have one, and he hadn't bothered to remember theirs. They’d mostly stayed away from him.

One guy, though. He was a joker, a real prankster. It didn’t bother the soldier. He didn’t have a sense of humor, but he also didn’t care. A cabinet full of plastic spiders that dumped all over the floor when the doors were opened didn’t scare him, or even bother him. He just got his cup, dumped it out, and drank his nutritional shake without comment. Several of the plastic spiders had embedded themselves into the tread of his boots, as he didn’t even bother to step over them.

The joker took the soldier as a challenge. Tried for days to get some sort of reaction out of him, the others egging him on. The closest the soldier ever got to irritation was when he woke up with magnets all over his metal arm, each decorated as a ladybug or exotic bird. But that reaction had been due to the potential hazard to the mission, should the soldier be required to act quickly while his arm was... not disabled, but inconvenienced.

But then there was the ghost pepper.

The soldier knew his cup had been tampered with. Did it matter? His serum protected him from most poisons and it really wasn’t like those shakes could taste any worse.

But whatever the joker had put in that cup exploded inside the soldier’s mouth like lava. He’d already swallowed before the reaction hit and it was choking him, burning, tearing his taste buds out by the roots. He gagged, dropped the cup, fell to his knees, his hand going to his throat in shock and agony. His skin heated. He was dying. His lips swelled, tears sprung to his eyes and streamed down his cheeks.

The men, all of them, stared and pointed. And then the laughter started.

The soldier gagged, choked, coughed. Someone -- not the joker, but one of the other men -- shoved a glass of... milk? In his hand.

"Drink that, man," the man said, still laughing, but his face was vaguely... friendly? "Chester’s an ass, man, but it’s only a ghost pepper. You won’t die."

The soldier drank and the horrible agony receded somewhat, but it didn’t fade entirely. His lips stung like he’d been attacked by angry kissing wasps. He finished the milk, gasped for air. When he could breathe again, he got to his feet. The laughter trailed off uncertainly.

The soldier took two steps forward, grabbed the joker by the throat, and lifted him into the air, his legs kicking, hands clawing at the soldier’s metal hand. The soldier thrust the heel of his hand forward, striking the joker in the sternum, crushing his heart in a single blow.

When Bucky came back to himself, he was curled up on the floor of the elevator, clutching his metal arm as if he was terrified that it would climb off his shoulder and start attacking people. He couldn't breathe. His heart felt as if it would explode, so great was his terror.

"Oh, god," he whispered. "I could have killed him. Tony, Tony, Tonytonytony..."

"I'm right here," said Tony's voice, and when Bucky forced his eyes open, Tony was beside him, kneeling on the floor, not touching him but not afraid. "You're okay. You haven't hurt anyone. You hearing me, Bucky?" His head cocked to the side slightly as Bucky looked up. "Hey, you back with me?"

Bucky looked away again. "I did, though," Bucky said, slumping against the wall. "I killed him. Crushed his heart. I barely even knew his name..." Bucky stared at his hands in horror. "He... put something in my drink."

Tony blew out a breath through his nose. "Ahhh, Clint, you idiot... That wasn't today, Bucky. You hearing me? Whatever you're remembering, it wasn't today, it wasn't here, it wasn't... You're okay, I'm okay. Even Clint's okay, even if he kind of deserves a smack."

There was no blood on his hands, not today. Bucky shuddered, turning his hands over and over, looking for some evidence of violence. Tony reached out, slowly, as if waiting for Bucky to pull away, and closed his hand over top of Bucky's, squeezed tight. "I've got you."

Bucky rocked back and forth, humming softly until the Russian words, half-sung, half-whispered, dropped from his swollen lips. A lullabye that he didn’t remember learning, the words meaningless but somehow comforting. He pulled his arms in, toward his chest, still holding Tony's hand, until he had practically yanked Tony the rest of the way down to the floor with him.

"Whoa, hey, okay, um. Okay." Tony wobbled and shifted positions. "This is a thing we're doing, okay, fine, I've been a teddy bear before, bring it on, I got this."

Bucky glanced up, his face tear-streaked, to find Tony a lot closer than he’d expected, those warm chocolate eyes wide with concern, mouth parted as he continued to talk, babble, which seemed to be what Tony always did. The heat of Tony’s breath against his cheek.

His flesh hand slipped free of his control, his own blood and bone body betraying him. He curled his hand around the back of Tony’s neck. Then, before he even knew what he'd done, he drew Tony in for a kiss. Deviant behaviors noted.

Tony froze, mid-word, in shock, and then melted into it. For one long, sweet moment, Tony returned the kiss, his mouth sliding against Bucky's, pliant, his beard scratching against Bucky's face--

Then Tony jerked back, eyes wide, panting. "Bucky, I-- Shit. I can't, you don't-- Oh, hell."

Bucky released Tony’s neck, his fingers drawn back to his own lips, as if completely stunned by what he felt. By what he’d done. He brushed his thumb against his lower lip, plump and red from the kiss, from the hot sauce in his coffee. In his chest, his heart pulled itself free from all the veins and arteries until it was a dead lump between his lungs. "Tony..." He shook his head. "Sorry. Guess them flashbacks sort of take over, don’t they?" Bucky was a liar, he was a lying fucking liar. He wiped his face on the back of his hand and sniffled. He was a disaster. An absolute trainwreck. Someday, some future Shakespeare was going to write a terrible play about the fuck up that was his life. The Winter Soldier and the Iron Man, a tragedy in three parts. And like Mercutio, Steve was going to steal every scene and have to die at the end of the first act.

Tony was still staring at him, less wildly now. "Bucky." He said it firmly, but not unkindly. Bucky thought that perhaps Tony did not believe the lie. Tony didn't retreat, though. He wasn't afraid. Maybe, if Bucky was very lucky -- though when had that ever worked out? -- maybe, Tony wasn't completely disgusted.

Bucky tried a grin on for size, that rakehell smirk that charmed dames and won him a place in the Howling Commandos for more than just his friendship with Cap. It didn’t quite fit, but close enough. "Forget it. Never happened. Just one of those damn things that..." He trailed off, not sure where he wanted to go with that; he really didn’t want to goddamn apologize for a moment that was going to be burned in his memory even if they put him back on ice.

Tony sighed, just a little, and reached up to smooth down Bucky's hair. "You have to know I can't. You asked me for a mission yesterday."

Bucky wiggled his creaky elbow around a few times. "Forget. It. Look, can we just... just fix this damn thing. I promise, I’ll be a good boy and keep my hands to myself."

He could, Bucky’s traitor brain insisted. Tony most certainly could give him a mission, order him into Tony’s arms, into his bed, on his knees, and Bucky would go. Would go gladly and thank his makers for it. He pulled up as much of the winter’s cold as he could find inside him and plastered it on his face. Tony didn't want him, but that didn't mean Bucky had to make even more of a fool of himself.  

Tony stared at him for another long minute, and Bucky refused to squirm. Finally, he bowed his head in something like acquiescence, muttering something under his breath that even Bucky's enhanced hearing couldn't make out. He got to his feet, slowly, and turned around to tap at the elevator controls.

Bucky closed his eyes and let the cold slip over his head. When he dragged himself to his feet, hitching up those damn pants again, he’d cowled and cudgeled those unruly feelings into submission. The soldier squared his shoulders and his eyes were focused straight ahead. He followed Anthony Stark into the lab and submitted to the maintenance work without a quiver. He would pay for it, later. Each scream and sob locked away would come due with a vengeance and interest to boot, but it was worth it to be able to sit there, calmly, and not hate himself.

***

It was worse. Bucky couldn’t have imagined this much pain existed in the universe, not the agony of having his arm ripped off, or being strapped down and screaming when Zola had screwed the new one in place. Which was stupid, because this pain was all in his heart, and how could he care so much, feel so much? He’d known Tony for all of twenty hours.

Maybe it was because he’d done it entirely to himself, and then Tony, (tony-tony-tony-tony, that broken part of his mind babbled over and over like a skipping record) had pulled back from him and looked... horrified. Bucky had never really told anyone that he favored fellas, that he was, as Bucky’d heard it whispered, a little temperamental.

He could make his own choices now. Hydra’s leash was well and truly slipped.

"And I’m makin’ stupid choices," Bucky said, his voice broken and hoarse. "Christ, they shoulda finished the job, dug everything out and burned it down to the ground, salted the earth an' left me nothin’ at all but a program and a gun."

He dragged himself to his feet, stumbled into the bathroom. The damn shower wall was already repaired, and he warily eyed the ceiling again before bending over the sink to splash water on his face, easing his stinging, puffy eyes. He raised his head, caught his own gaze in the mirrored reflection. For just a moment, he softened; he was shell shocked and out of his fucking mind and... he licked his lip. Tony had kissed him back. He hadn’t imagined that. Had he?

But it didn't matter, because then Tony had pulled away in horror.

The mirror exploded into shards under Bucky’s fist. With the wrong damn arm. His fingers were tacky with blood.

Christ, was his last coherent thought, I need to stop punching things.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Tony paced the length of the room, spun, and paced back, shoving his hand through his already-disordered hair.

"Tony," Bruce said, unflappable as always when he wasn't green, "if you don't stay by the camera, I can't see you. My laptop doesn't have a JARVIS to follow you around."

"I told you," Tony said, whirling to point into the nearest camera. "Before you left, I told you to let me put a mobile AI in your laptop, and you said--"

"No, Tony. I said no. Back up, sit down before you make me seasick, and start at the beginning."

Tony swallowed hard. He didn't want to relive it again.

"I kissed him," he said miserably, scrubbing his hand over his face. "How much of an asshole am I?"

"Considering it's 3 AM in Singapore right now and I'm presenting a lecture at 8, you're pretty much the biggest asshole on the planet," Bruce said agreeably. "Who did you kiss?" He lifted an eyebrow. "Not Clint, I hope. Because that--"

"Oh, god no, gross, Bruce. How could you even consider that? It would be like kissing..."

"Your brother?" Bruce supplied helpfully.

"Well, a frat brother, maybe. No. Not Clint." Tony shuddered. He and Clint actually got along very well, but he couldn't imagine-- Ew, no.

"Focus, Tony. Who did you kiss?"

Bruce really was the best. "Bucky," Tony confessed.

"Bucky," Bruce repeated. "Like... Bucky Barnes? The Bucky that Steve's been chasing all over the planet for the last year? That Bucky?"

Tony nodded.

"Tony, I'm going to regret veering off topic, but when were you planning to mention to me that you had the Winter Soldier in custody?"

Tony looked up, eyes wide. "He's not in custody! He's a guest!"

Bruce pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Tony..."

"Look, he was hanging out in the alley by the Tower, Clint spotted him, so I invited him in and put him in a guest room."

"Where you kissed him?"

"No, that was in the elevator when-- he had this panic attack, and he kind of fell over and--"

"You kissed him while he was having a panic attack? In the elevator?"

"Hey, don't knock it; elevator sex can be very-- stop that, he was all sad and scared and freaking out and then suddenly he grabbed me and kissed me!"

"So now we’re blaming the PTSD and mind-controlled guy for inappropriate contact?" Bruce patted around on his desk. "Where's my mug; I need coffee. Or Advil. Tony, you’re giving me a headache."

"No! I mean. He, he kissed me, but he was freaking out, it wasn't. It wasn't his fault. I should've. Shouldn't have kissed him back. And then he just got all..." Tony flailed his hands around, somehow hoping to convey sad and distant and utterly pathetic without having to actually use those words, because they made Bucky sound like a kitten lost in a rainstorm.

"Pepper’s never complained, not that I ever heard. Not that she usually talks to me about it. But I think if you were a terrible kisser, that gossip would have made the rounds at some point. So it couldn’t have been that bad of a kiss, Tony."

"Bruce. You're skipping over the part where he's still half-brainwashed! I can't-- He can't possibly know what he's doing!"

"It was a kiss, Tony. You didn’t bend him over the countertop -- no, do not finish that thought." Bruce rubbed at his weary eyes. "He sounds like he needed some human comfort and contact. Which you provided. And then, hopefully, you did not sprint away like a madman to come contact me for romantic advice."

"No," Tony said with what he hoped was cold dignity but suspected was closer to pitiful sniveling. "I fixed his arm first. And then he ran away, so I called you to find out how to fix this. I do not do people, Bruce, you know this."

Bruce sighed, but the important thing was that he didn't hang up on Tony, which was because Bruce was the best. Except maybe for Rhodey, but Rhodey was off in some part of the world where having your cell phone ringing might alert terrorists to your location or something. So Bruce was the best today.

"Okay. I have a few quick questions," Bruce said, "and the fun part is, you don’t even have to answer them to me. Just answer them for yourself, and then you’ll know what to do."

Tony peered into the screen suspiciously, but Bruce looked serious. And also tired. Tony really should tell JARVIS to check the time zones before he placed transglobal calls for him, probably. Except then he would be deprived of Bruce's doubtless excellent advice when it was 3 AM in Singapore. "Okay, Bruce, hit me with these magic questions of yours."

"Was it a good kiss? I mean, if you weren’t worried about his ‘being half-brainwashed’?" Bruce managed to mimic Tony’s frantic tones with delicate skill.

"Bruce, you sly dog. I didn't peg you for a gossipmonger!"

"Tony. The question is for you. I really, really don't want to know the answer. Just think about it for a second."

Tony couldn't help but answer it, at least in his head, because it had been a pretty damned good kiss, despite the weird position Tony had been sitting in and the way it had still been half-tinged with panic. It had taken an act of will to pull away.

"Next question," Bruce said, interrupting Tony's mental playback. "Do you think he’s... well, aware of modern conventions, like enthusiastic consent? In his day, I believe the convention was to kiss first and see if you get slapped second. I'm pretty sure that Hydra didn’t send him out to wine and dine. They might not have covered sexual etiquette."

Tony shot Bruce an unimpressed glare. "His etiquette isn't the problem here."

"You said he kissed you first. And I failed to hear any accounting of how you ordered a brainwashed super soldier to make out with you in an elevator like you’re filming an Aerosmith video."

"Okay, no need to get ugly about it." Tony grumbled. "No, I'm pretty sure he's not aware of modern conventions, and of course, I didn't order him to do it. I'm an asshole but I'm not 100% a dick."

"Then my suggestion, Tony, is that you use your words and go talk to the man. Either explain what your concern is and that you’re not interested anyway -- or you are, who am I to tell you how you feel? But, Tony, this is important." Bruce leaned forward until his face nearly filled the screen, looking closely to make sure Tony was paying attention. "You don’t get to tell him how he feels, either. Don’t project on him what you think he feels, or what you want him to feel, or what you think he ought to feel. If it was just... I don’t know, some sort of physical response -- maybe he likes mad scientists -- ehem, excuse me, 'eccentric inventors' -- or he’s got a fetish for skinny little blacksmiths..."

Tony glared. "You're mouthy and sarcastic when you're tired, did you know that, Brucie?"

"I believe it’s been mentioned before, yes. It’s not my best look, but far from my worst, so you get what you get, right?"

Tony sighed. "Look, I tried to talk to him, and he just--"

"Excuse me, sir. Loathe as I am interrupt your conversation with Dr. Banner--"

Bruce mouthed "pathetic ramblings" at the camera.

"--I'm afraid Mr. Barnes may be in need of some assistance before he does himself further harm."

Tony jolted upright as if the chair had suddenly been electrocuted. "Shit, is he-- Bruce, I'll--"

Bruce waved one hand at the computer. "Go, go. Sleep. It’s a thing."

"Not likely," Tony tossed over his shoulder, already heading for the door.

"I meant for me," Bruce said just before Tony left. "Ug. JARVIS? Make him call me tomorrow at a decent hour, okay?"

Tony sprinted for the elevator. "How fast can you make this thing go, J?"

"I shall do my utmost, sir," JARVIS assured him. The elevator lurched slightly and began to move faster. Tony could hear the faint whine of the motor being strained beyond its recommended limits, and the car shuddered, but Tony didn't mind; both soothed his desperate need for action.

He paced around the edges of the elevator anyway, unable to remain still when every nerve was screaming at him to move, and shoved through the doors the instant they cracked open. He sprinted for Bucky's guest suite and slammed into the door, confident that JARVIS would have already overridden the lock.

Bucky, those too-big pants barely hugging his hips, was on his knees in the middle of his guest suite, blood dripping down his arm. In his metal hand, he clenched a shard of mirror, brilliant and silver, and with quick efficiency, he laced another neat slice across his forearm, causing blood to well up and smear across his skin. Thank Tesla for accelerated healing, that some of them had already stopped bleeding and had scabbing over, and some had already faded to mere pink lines. But even discounting those, there were entirely too many, far too much blood trickling down Bucky's arm to stain the jeans and floor.

"Shit, Bucky, Jesus, what the hell-- Oh my god, please stop." Tony dove to his knees in front of Bucky, reaching for his wrists, knowing he couldn't overpower Bucky but desperately willing to try. "Bucky. Come on, please, whatever it is, it's not worth this."

"Tony?" Bucky looked up, dazed. His pupils were mere pinpricks, the brilliant stormcloud blue iris huge.

"Yeah, Bucky, it's me, I'm here. What are you--" Not helpful.

"He was winning," Bucky said. He let the glass slip from his fingers, the arm moving much more smoothly, with a liquid grace.

Tony frowned. "Who was winning?"

"Him. Me. I thought... I thought I could hold it, but it was too... too much. Easier not to feel things, but then he got hold of me, again. Dragging me down. Drowning me."

Tony's stomach roiled. "Okay. But you're you now. He's..."

Bucky met Tony’s gaze, looking utterly lost. "He’s me, too."

Fragments of nightmares danced behind Tony's eyes. "I know."

"I keep breaking your stuff. I’m sorry."

Tony blinked. "I don't-- It's just stuff, Bucky. I don't care about it. I just-- Don't break yourself."

"I’ll get better," Bucky said. He turned his bloody arm over, showing Tony the healing lines and marks. It wasn’t quite Hollywood special effects, but it wasn’t exactly nothing, either. "I needed to come back. Doesn’t... doesn’t matter. It hurt enough, it can hurt enough. To bring me out. Stupid, right? I mean, Steve broke my fucking arm when we were fighting and I couldn’t come back, but... when I do it to myself..." His voice broke.

Tony's throat felt tight. He couldn't look away.

"It’s okay, Tony," Bucky said, and how was this happening, that Bucky was comforting him. "It’s easier to hurt on the outside. You don’t know that?"

Tony laughed, harsh. "Of course I do. I just... I didn't know you were hurting so much."

"You’d think I wouldn’t be, right? I mean, it’s stupid and... I’m stupid... Steve always said..."

"Stop, no. Not stupid; Christ, if there's anything I know about you, it's that you're not stupid."

Bucky rocked back on his heels until he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a position that looked a bit more comfortable than his previous penance kneeling. "I dunno, maybe it’s just so fresh. Do you... I barely do, but I was iced in, most times. You remember, the first girl you loved? How real it was, how hard it was, being in the world where she existed and didn’t care that you did? But you were, what, thirteen? And it faded away. But while it was there, it was the realest thing you knew. The most desperate, sweetest pain."

Tony smiled, sadly. "Sure."

"I’ve been aside from the world. Been iced over, bent and broken to heel. And things... feel again. Of course they hurt, Tony. I’ll get over it."

Bucky gave Tony a smile like a gift, the sort of smile that lights up the room, the kind that could kill a man from a terminal case of butterflies in the stomach.

The kind of smile that cut, deep into the heart, and lodged there.

Tony drew a breath, feeling the ache in his chest, and let it out slowly. Waiting, because he needed to hear what Bucky needed to tell him.

"I made a mistake. I thought that... I could make it stop hurting by letting him... me. The other me. Words don’t really do this fucked up situation any justice. I opened the door and let him in. It was a mistake. I won’t do it again." He shrugged, that lopsided, endearing gesture. "If being near you hurts me, if wanting you hurts, it’ll fade. I’ll... I’ll stay away from you, I know this has got to be weird and all kinds of fucked up strange for you. Sorry about that."

"God, stop apologizing," Tony groaned. "I'm the one who messed this up. It's... yes, weird and fucked up, but I don't think it's the kind of fucked up that you think it is. Or maybe it is. Maybe I'm wrong; Bruce said I couldn't tell you what you think or feel, but I..." He looked at Bucky straight-on, making sure to catch his eyes, to know he was listening.

"Look you're, you're incredible, an amazing person. So very tempting, believe me. But last night, you asked me to give you a mission," Tony said softly. "And I did, because I want to help, and if you need me to be your... your handler, while you work through the rest of the mess Hydra left in your head, that's fine, I can do that. But if I... if I give in to temptation, if I kiss you, if I do more than that, how do I know that it's not another mission? How do I know that you can tell me no? And if I take advantage of... of being able to tell you to do things, then that's, that makes me just as bad as Hydra."

"Tony, no," Bucky said. "Yeah, you can make me do things. It sucks that it has to be that way. But you can’t make me feel things. You could make me not feel anything; the Winter Soldier’s a lot more efficient if he’s not worried about feelings. So I don’t really have those, when I’m told not to. But when I can feel, the feelings are mine. I know what I feel, and that’s not anything that you being my handler has anything to do with. I... like you. I do. Bucky Barnes likes you. And I want you, and believe me, that ain’t got nothing to do with the Winter Soldier. Those kind of feelings are the first to go. But what I’m feeling now, Tony. That’s real. That’s... solid. I don’t know how to convince you that it’s true, but it is."

Bucky smirked, that little turn up of the corner of his mouth that was familiar from old pictures that Tony had seen before, but had never seen in person. It was the kind of smile that did... things. That promised sin and delight. "I been watching you, no doubt. Months, now. Studied your file." He reached a hand out and didn’t quite touch Tony’s chest, where the arc-reactor had once been. "I saw... all the things that happened to you. He ripped your goddamn heart out, and I don’t even know how the hell that happened and you lived through it. Came back, twice as pissed..."

Shit, Tony thought, half in a daze, he knows about Obie? The memory was crushing, the betrayal worse than the feeling of his heart seizing. And Bucky knew, somehow, he knew, and he--

"You’re an amazing man, Tony Stark. Think I was a little bit interested in you, before I was even all myself again. And then, you invited me in for tea and crumpets, like I was your long lost best friend and not Steve's, even though you’d never clapped an eye on me. How could I not like you? You never... I never had a chance."

--he didn't look like he had when Tony had ordered him not to kill anyone, to take care of himself. He didn't look like he had after the flashback, eyes still wild and confused and desperate. He wasn't talking like a man who didn't know his own mind, grasping randomly for whatever comfort he could find. This was something that had been building. Something that had been considered and examined. Maybe even fantasized about.

And if Bucky wanted him -- truly and freely and convincingly of his own free will... Then maybe Tony wasn't a terrible person for acknowledging the attraction that he had been desperately trying to ignore. Maybe this was something that Tony could have. And maybe it was still a bad damn idea that was going to end in heartbreak and tears.

But Tony had never walked away from something he wanted simply because it was a bad idea.

Tony put his hand on Bucky's wrist, the metal one. He looked at the arm, at his fingers curled loosely around the metal, and dragged his hand upward, letting his fingers feel the barely-there dips and grooves between the plates, the subtle shifts in temperature over the different components. He could feel Bucky's eyes on him, but didn't look away, watching only in his peripheral vision.

"You... said you had thoughts about robots," Bucky said, his eyes serious, even with that little smile still playing about his lips. "I don’t know if that’s doing anything for you, but... it’s... doing something to me. So if you... if you ain’t interested, you best stop."

Tony smiled, just a little, and didn't stop.

Bucky coughed, a little unsteady. "Tony, these jeans don’t really fit, and they’re gonna come right off real soon now."

Tony reached the curve of Bucky's shoulder, and followed it across the seam of metal and flesh, the cruel scars, and let his hand curl carefully around the side of Bucky's neck, finally looking up. "I'm okay with that," he said, and leaned in to brush Bucky's lips with his.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Bucky froze. It wasn't quite shock and awe, but -- well, maybe the 'awe' part. Tony was kissing him. Bucky thought Tony had freaked out, been scared away. Tony was still kissing him.

Light. And tender. Not even parting his lips or flicking an exploratory tongue over Bucky's mouth, just a steady, warm pressure. Bucky waited, not quite sure what he was feeling -- yes, this was nice, quite pleasant -- and then he erupted into wanting so great it was need. Burning, searing, aching need. It consumed everything in its path, like wildfire.

Tony's hand teased at the metal skin of his arm, maddening. Bucky had told Tony he didn't feel pain there, not exactly pain. And that was the truth. Most of the time it was a feedback of pressure and some sort of artificial sensory data. He could tell if a texture was supposed to be soft or sharp or cold, but it wasn't quite the same as actually feeling it.

Tony's light touches were maddeningly like being tickled, a sensation he'd almost forgotten. It was unbearable; it was wonderful. He couldn't stand it, and at the same time, he kept turning his wrist to direct those whisper-soft caresses to new spots. The muscles in his thighs clenched. He wanted it to stop, that delightful torment, that beautiful agony. He wanted it never to stop.

He pulled away from Tony's mouth with a strangled groan, heartbeat throbbing through his groin, in his wrist, pulse pounding in his ears. He dropped his forehead down to his knees, his neck and face heating with desperate blushes, his arm held out to Tony like a sacrifice.

"Make with the words here," Tony said. His hand slowed, his fingers not quite stopping that erotic torment. "Don't leave me hanging. I can't tell if you like this or not."

Bucky raised his face to stare at Tony. "You want me t' talk with you doing that?"

"I want you to talk the whole time. I want to hear you say 'Tony, yes' and 'Tony, please' and 'Tony, more.'"

"Tony!" Bucky choked out a strangled groan.

"'Tony, no?' or 'Tony, yes?'"

He gritted his teeth and managed to get out a muffled, "Tony, more." You could have fried an egg on his forehead, so hot and painful and needy was his blush.

"Atta boy. You turn such a lovely shade of pink, Buck, I keep wondering what you could possibly be thinking." Tony's voice was lilting and sweet, the words pattering down on him like rain. He started up that tortuous exploration again, and when he reached the inside of Bucky's elbow, a spot where he'd always been unduly sensitive, Bucky bit down on a scream.

"I'm... thinkin'," Bucky gasped out, panting hard, "that if you don't stop tickling me, I'm going to squirt off in my pants like the greenest switch ever peeled."

Tony traced his hand up again, watched with a delighted grin as Bucky squirmed. "That tickles?" he marveled. "The Winter Soldier is ticklish? That is... Well, that is very important data." His smile grew downright evil. "And you like it."

He couldn't deny it; he was so hard it hurt and Tony hadn't done anything but tease along the inside of his arm. A whine of mingled protest and pleading forced its way out of his throat.

"I wonder where else you're ticklish." Tony's hand swooped down, running a xylophone of touches along Bucky's ribs. Bucky squeaked in unmanly protest. "Tony, no?"

"Oh, my god." Bucky lunged up, captured Tony's mouth in a wild, desperate kiss and knocked him flat on the floor, away from the broken glass shards. He thrust his tongue into Tony's mouth, taking everything the other man had to offer and demanding more. He plundered the silken cave of Tony's mouth, all hot need and eager desire. He pinned Tony down, his thighs bracketing Tony's legs, capturing both wrists with one hand. "You're making me crazy."

Bucky slithered down the length of Tony's body, tugging Tony's shirt up with his teeth. He dropped a line of hot, slick kisses along Tony's bared stomach and when Tony was mewling with need, blew a loud, wet raspberry against his skin.

Tony heaved and writhed under Bucky's ministrations; chortling out a protest, but quite honestly, what did the man expect? You tickled someone at your own peril, if you were sensitive in return. Tony's pinned wriggling body, under him, the little cries of dismay, combined with wanting, eager groans, excited Bucky. It felt good, too good. Bucky ground his hips against Tony's thigh, pressing, rubbing his groin against the expanse of muscle there. How good it would feel... to dominate, to possess, to demand... his vision shifted up into the high blue registers. God, god, god. What was he doing?

Bucky let go of Tony's wrists with a snap, but Tony didn't seem upset at having been held down. He hadn't struggled with more than a fraction of his strength; as soon as Bucky let him go, he snuggled into the embrace, making good use of his freed hands to trace the lines of Bucky's shoulders and back. Tony hadn't minded being pinned. Perhaps... even enjoyed it? Bucky rested his flaming cheek against Tony's bared stomach, listening to the heartbeat beneath him. "I am a bad, bad man," he confessed, pressing a kiss just under Tony's navel.

"Yeah?" Tony asked, that insouciant smirk audible in his voice. "Good for me."

Bucky was not on the verge of doing something vile and unspeakable, was not, after all, a monster. The doubt and fear fell away and he was just a man again, a man who was holding onto something -- someone -- rare and precious.

"Tony..." Bucky licked at that exposed skin, tasting the salt and spice and metal of Tony's essence, concentrating all his attention on two inches of flesh just above the waist of Tony's jeans.

"Tony, yes?" Tony asked. His fingers twined in Bucky's hair, not pushing or directing.

Bucky clenched his metal hand into a fist around the fabric of Tony's shirt, marveling at the soft, doubtless expensive, linen. "Tony, more." He wrenched his hand down; the shirt practically exploded around his fingers, hanging in tatters, baring Tony's chest.

Tony's chocolate eyes widened comically. "Oh, my God, that was..." He arched up, pressing his body against Bucky's, straining to get closer. "That was so fucking hot. I'm going to buy a hundred new shirts, just so you can do that again."

There was a smear of blood, bright crimson, against Tony's olive skin. "Oh, Christ, Tony, did I hurt you?" Bucky's guts turned to ice. What was wrong with him?

"What?" Tony struggled into a half-sitting position, looking down at his chest. "I'm fine. Well, horny as an undergrad, but... Oh, no, it's you." He traced the still-healing lines on Bucky's right arm.

"I'm bleeding on you?" Horrified.

Tony shrugged dismissively. "Hazards of the activity, it appears. I'm really more interested in what else you were doing on me."

"Yeah?" Bucky eyed Tony sidelong. Tony shifted under him, wincing just a little as the hard floor didn't yield beneath his back. Bucky considered moving them to the bed where... He inhaled. Where he'd built a little nest under the bed and... He flushed, mortified. "Look, can we... what floor are you on?" He reached for an excuse. "There's glass on the floor in here."

"Three above." Tony jerked his chin toward the ceiling. "The penthouse. It's my building after all; I feel like I should get some perks." He trailed his fingers down Bucky's arm again, smug as a cat in the cream. "The view from the bedroom is pretty spectacular, I have to say."

"Yeah?" Bucky pulled Tony to his feet, slick and smooth, all one motion. He took Tony into his arms, kissing him, running his hands down Tony's chest, over an impressive scar in the middle of Tony's chest, along his belly, which twitched under his fingers. He found the shell of Tony's ear, breathing hard into it. "Tony?"

"Yeah?" Tony moved back a little, his pupils wide and deliciously blown. Bucky turned him toward the door.

"Run."

Tony gaped at him for just a moment as Bucky crouched into a predatory stance, then, laughing, turned on his heel and sprinted for the door. The light on the elevator indicated that the car was some ten floors down; there wasn't enough time to wait. He jigged into the stairwell just as Bucky dropped into the hall. Tony squeaked, and the door swung shut behind him.

He was faster than Bucky would have guessed, but not, after all, enhanced. Bucky caught up with him in less than a flight, tearing the remainder of the shirt from his shoulders and leaving it on the steps. Bucky pushed Tony chest-first against the wall and licked him from the nape of his neck all the way down to the base of his spine, that flat little triangle of skin too visible over Tony's low-riding pants.

Tony squeaked, pushing away from the wall. "That's cold, oh my god." Bucky slipped his hands between Tony and the wall, finding Tony's nipples, perked and pebble-hard from contact with the concrete stairwell wall. "Oh, that's, I have to tell you, that is not making me want to run."

"Up, up, up," Bucky crooned, swatting Tony's ass lightly.

"I am," Tony protested, biting down on a grunt. So maybe it hadn't been quite as light a smack as Bucky had intended, but the bliss-drenched look Tony gave him was only encouraging.

Bucky chased him up the entire next flight, hands groping at Tony's buttocks, between his legs, along his ribs with every step. Tony staggered up, at one point nearly falling and continuing up the stairs hunched over, hands gripping each riser, the bent position making his back and ass and thighs into a feast for Bucky's hungry eyes.

They reached the final landing and Tony whirled on Bucky, taking the lead and kissing him, hard, backing him against the wall. Bucky leaned back and settled in, pulling Tony's thigh up, up, until they were pressed together with delicious heat and tension.

"That is completely unfair," Tony said in Bucky's ear, breathy and warm. "Being up against the wall isn't getting to you at all."

Bucky shrugged. "The cold never bothered me anyway."

Tony blinked. Shook off Bucky's hands and stepped back. "No. No, Queen Elsa, no, you did not just say that. Ug. Mood killer. How do you even know about that? You know what, forget that. I don't need an answer to that. Forget you. Forget this. Forget all about it. I'm done, I'm outta here." Tony was laughing, his eyes crinkled up with delight and so Bucky didn't take him seriously.

"Tony," Bucky said.

"Hmmmm?"

"You're not running."

Tony cackled, thumbed the DNA coder on the stairwell door and made a break for it. Bucky caught him again right in front of the penthouse door and managed to get his belt off and his pants unzipped before Tony wriggled free and nearly fell through the door as JARVIS politely opened it for them. Bucky moved, super-soldier fast, and scooped him up, bride-style, before he hit the floor.

"You don't strike me as the type to fall over the threshold, Tony," Bucky said, his prize captured in his arms. It didn't seem to bother Tony that Bucky was prone to manhandling him, which gave Bucky a stubborn sense of masculine pride, driving his wanting and need even higher, a fire stoked that couldn't be stopped.

Tony's penthouse was decorated in clean white and gleaming steel, spotless.

"You are a freak, Stark," Bucky complained. There wasn't a book out of place, no scatter of magazines on the coffee table, not a single dirty dish. Nothing. It was like the man didn't exist in his own living space. There was nothing in the decor that said "Tony" to him. Any modern rich guy could live here. The shop had more of Tony's personality than this... barren, richly-furnished room.

"Hmm. What?" Tony looked around, seeking whatever Bucky was looking at but not finding it, too accustomed to being surrounded by wealth and taste to even see his own room.

"This... room." Bucky let Tony down, slowly, terribly, letting Tony slide against Bucky's lean body, achingly aware of every centimeter of bare skin. "Next time," he promised like a threat, "next time I'm going to take you in your shop, where you actually live, so you can look around and remember it. Every time you walk in, you'll think of it."

Tony swallowed hard, his face open and utterly vulnerable. "You beautiful disaster," he breathed, cupping his hand along Bucky's face.

The bedroom was a little better, even if the damn bed was intimidating as hell, huge and, well, stark. The duvet was soft, the fabric slick and cool against Bucky's fingertips, and the bed looked a hell of a lot better with Tony sprawled out in the middle of it, denting the sheets and looking back at Bucky with an appreciative expression, as if he really wanted Bucky, really wanted a rough, brutal, dirty sort of poor kid from Brooklyn in his bed.

Bucky grabbed the cuffs of Tony's jeans and pulled them off in one smooth motion, tossing them onto the floor. Tony was wearing a pair of shiny, satin briefs that hugged his package lovingly, and he rolled over onto his back, bent his knees up, the cradle of his legs wide and inviting. Bucky gave the slightest shimmy of his hips, and the too-large pants slid effortlessly down to his ankles. He was bare underneath, having not felt entirely comfortable wearing drawers that someone else had picked out.

"Do you do anything that isn't like, ridiculously hot?" Tony asked, breathless. "I'm feeling a little inadequate here."

Which was just nonsense that Bucky wasn't even going to dignify with a response. Bucky crawled onto the bed and Tony crabbed backward on his elbows to make space for Bucky. He moved just a little bit like prey to Bucky's predator, a temptation and damnation that drove him wild. Tony was a quick learner, Bucky observed, seeming to know by instinct exactly what it was about that shattering vulnerability that felt so unholy good and stoked Bucky's passion. Or maybe... maybe Tony was just naturally prey. The monster in Bucky's heart roared its approval.

"God, you're perfect," Bucky growled. He shivered into place, fit like a glove against Tony's lean body. "Stay." He brushed a kiss against Tony's forehead, feather-light, then down the bridge of his nose, kissed each eyelid, then explored the plains of his cheeks, the firm chin, whiskers tickling under his lip. He lingered at Tony's ear, licking, nipping, and then down his neck, taking note of each groan and sigh. When Tony's hands came up to stroke Bucky's sides, Bucky caught them and pushed them back down. "Tony, no."

Tony eyed Bucky for a moment, something measuring in his gaze, but then shrugged and laid back, apparently content to be adored and petted and pleasured. He stretched his arms out, giving himself up, giving himself over, and Bucky took full advantage, kissing and stroking every inch of that glorious olive-toned skin. Tony's shoulders were gorgeous, the biceps thick with muscle earned from lifting engines and hand-crafting metal. His hands were calloused and nicked. A fading burn was imprinted across the inside of one forearm.

His body had seen work, honest labor. He wasn't a soft rich guy. Here and there, fading bruises and old scars lingered, evidence of superhero mishaps. Bucky didn't avoid the bruised skin, listening to the hiss and suck of Tony's breath as he prodded, lightly, at each old injury, watched Tony's eyes grow darker. He didn't even avoid the mass of scar-tissue over Tony's breastbone, although he flickered his eyes to Tony's face for permission before placing a gentle kiss there, not wanting to cause damage, physical or emotional. Scars could be touchy in both respects.

Like the flickery start of a movie screen, a memory strobed into existence behind his eyes: a red-haired girl under his hands, her body lithe and sensitive. His metal hand, a stark contrast against the soft, pale skin of her belly. Bucky shook it away; he had a current lover to satisfy and no time to dwell on others.

Bucky discovered a spot just under Tony's rib cage, along the side, that was particularly sensitive. He played that area with his tongue, scraping his teeth along it until Tony was writhing under him, hands clenching the blankets in crazy knots to keep himself still. There was a similar area over Tony's hip that yielded generous results and Bucky had to lock his arms under Tony's thighs to stop him from squirming. Tony's insistent erection pressed against Bucky's throat, but he ignored it except to hum occasionally, the vibrations making Tony whimper and twist.

"Bucky, Bucky, Bucky... Bucky," Tony pleaded.

Bucky looked up, his chin just grazing across Tony's satin-covered cock. "Bucky, yes? Or Bucky, no?"

Tony groaned, arched up under him. "Bucky, more."

God, how did he do that? Just his voice sent a spike of liquid heat straight to Bucky's cock and he surged forward, hard and eager and primal. The poor fabric of Tony's briefs didn't stand a chance; there was something vital and primitive in tearing the man's clothes off, stripping him bare, seeing him naked and slick with sweat.

God, it was too much. Skin to skin, Bucky was on him, pressing, touching, tasting. Too much, too much. Bucky's need was too urgent. It wasn't his first time with a man; he knew he could hurt Tony if he wasn't careful, thorough, gentle, and he... God, he didn't care, he did not care, he needed... He thrust against Tony's cock, the heat of his flesh eager against Tony's, friction delicious and unbearable. He was dripping and so was Tony and the slide between them was making him frantic. "I can't, I can't, I can't," he whined against Tony's mouth between fierce kisses, their tongues straining together around the words as Tony swallowed them whole.

"Sure sounds like you can," Tony murmured. "Tony, yes? Or Tony, no?"

"Tony..." Bucky whispered. "Tony, yes." His balls tightened and he panted for air, breath hissing in and out of his lungs like a freight train, and Tony... fuck, Tony bit down on Bucky's shoulder, and he was gone, spilling himself against Tony's belly, shouting with the force of it, blinded by the bliss. He strained so hard, holding it, gripping at every beautiful second of it that he felt tiny blood vessels swell behind his eyes. His throat burned and he shuddered all over. His fingers were tight, perhaps too tight, on Tony's shoulders, digging into his flesh.

Then the moment had passed, leaving him drained and gasping. He rolled off, sprawled onto his back, the air suddenly cool and soothing against his overheated skin.

Tony curled onto his side, running a light finger down Bucky's left arm, teasing, and it was even worse, because Bucky was overstimulated now. "So, was it good for you?" Tony found that sensitive crease along Bucky's inner elbow and traced little circles.

Bucky laughed weakly, scrunching up his nose. "Stop, stop. No fair, I can't move, you bastard." He batted half-heartedly at Tony's wicked fingers with his right hand and kicked his heels against the bed, trying to push away. The satin comforter didn't give him enough friction to slide away. "Tonyyyyyyyy..."

"Tony, yes?" Tony whispered, kissing Bucky's left shoulder, his lips pressing to the sleek metal over and over. "Well. Apparently, Tony, yes, indeed. That's definitely relevant data. Super-soldier refractory period..."

"What?" Buck heaved himself up, braced on his elbows. Oh. Oh.  

"Yeah, okay, Energizer Bunny," Tony said. "I think I can find a use for that."

Bucky blinked, then his face flooded with shame. Tony hadn't come. God, I'm a heel, Bucky thought. "Shit, Tony, I'm sorry." He bent to kiss Tony's mouth, remorseful.

Tony returned the kiss easily, ungrudging. "Jokes aside," Tony said, "I'm quite a bit older than you are. I can wait."

"Christ, Tony, I'm not nineteen," Bucky muttered.

"Yeah? So why are you running around commando? Expecting a quickie in the kitchen?" Tony danced his fingers over Bucky's forearm.

Bucky scoffed and rolled over onto his stomach, putting his body between Tony and Bucky's ridiculously ticklish arm. "Felt weird, wearin' someone else's shorts," he confessed.

"Hmmm, yeah, we should fix some of that while you catch your breath," Tony said. "JARVIS, pull me up some fashion plates and let's get our boy some duds."

Bucky squeaked, grabbed one of the pillows off the head of the bed and covered his assets with it. Fuck, he'd forgotten about the damn AI. Oh, God. JARVIS had seen all of that. "I swear to Christ, if your smart house starts critiquing my technique, we are so done, Stark." His face was burning, as was his neck, and he knew even without looking that his chest was showing red blotches.

"Mm, that's beautiful," Tony remarked, trailing a finger down Bucky's chest with a smirk. "What's to complain about? You were perfect and I'm feeling perfect and I'm going to dress you up to showcase that glorious ass." Tony was absolutely at ease with his own nudity, but he took pity on Bucky and shuffled around enough to pull the sheets down. "Jeez, Mr. Modesty, where is this coming from? Get under the blanket, come cuddle with me." One handed, he poked at the holoscreens that JARVIS provided. Perhaps sensitively, if JARVIS was capable of that sort of thing, the AI didn't voice any commentary, colorful or otherwise, as Tony shopped and Bucky snuggled against his side.

Tony lay on his back as he played with his tech. It was like watching a magician's dance: a flick of his fingers sent illusions spinning through the air. Bucky was still shivery and touch-starved in the afterglow and he couldn't keep his hands off Tony, rubbing, stroking, exploring, as Tony babbled on about color templates and fashion accessories and racked up some horrendously impressive orders.

Mostly, the screens flickered too quickly from one to the next before Bucky could really process them, but he caught a glimpse of one price tag and nearly choked on his own breath in shock. Holy shit, had Tony just spent seventeen hundred dollars for a pair of boots? "Tony," Bucky croaked out. "You don't have to pay me to have sex with you, you know."

Tony sighed. "We're not going to do this, Brooklyn, I swear, we're not. I'm not buying you, I'm not buying your friendship, and I'm sure as hell not buying your dick. I have already had this argument with Steve, and he finally gave up, so unless you think you can out-stubborn Captain America, I suggest you surrender gracefully to being dressed in something other than baggy, shapeless sweatpants and jeans that fall off your hips. Glorious as that is, you might want to go out in public some day and I don't want to have to go collect you from NYPD on public indecency charges."

Bucky was stuck several sentences back. "Tell me that you... Please tell me that doesn't mean you've had sex with Steve. Please, god, lie to me if you have to."

Tony choked and actually dropped his phone. "Oh my god, no, Christ. I can't even-- Does Steve know what sex is?"

The relief was palpable. "He spent half the war surrounded by USO dancing girls with legs for days who would have been delighted to do their patriotic duty for God and Country and Steve fucking Rogers. And I'm not going to tell you the story about the time I walked in on him that one night in France, because you wouldn't believe how many gals he had in with him anyway." He pressed four fingers against Tony's side, his eyes impressed.

Tony cackled delightedly and fished for his phone. "And yet he still turns into a blushing, stammering idiot every time one of the ladies wears a v-neck. You think he does it on purpose? Wait, don't answer that, I'm already scarred for life just knowing that much, and I really, really am not interested in bringing Steve into my bedroom in any form. No matter how impressive. We're almost friends these days; I'd hate to ruin that."

Bucky found that spot on Tony's ribs and nipped at it. "He still an ornery cuss? He can be hard to be friends with, some days."

Tony glowered. "I said I am not talking about Steve while you're... doing... that."

"Bucky, no?" Bucky whispered, hand slipping beneath the covers, trailing along the length of Tony's torso like river-fishing. Mmmm. There was something still going on there, for Tony. Tony groaned and tossed the phone over his shoulder where it teetered on the edge of the bed and then fell off. The shopping catalog display vanished from the air.

"Bucky, more," Tony pleaded.

Bucky disappeared under the blankets, slid between Tony's legs and swallowed him whole.

Tony nearly bucked right off the bed, lifting them both, heels digging into the mattress. Bucky tasted himself on Tony's skin like a brand and he grinned, hot and possessive, around Tony's cock, drawing his cheeks in.

He was relentless, didn't give Tony a chance to rest or catch his breath, covered him with silken licks and just the slightest graze of teeth. His hands curled around Tony's thighs, keeping him spread. He nosed deeper, brushing against Tony's balls, where he discovered the neatly trimmed black curls were so short that it looked like it belonged to a barely-pubescent boy, which was dirty, god, filthy, and so, so bad -- and it made Bucky so wild that he groaned aloud.

He hesitated, his fingers running along the inside of Tony's spread thighs. "Tony? Do, uh..." Christ, this was harder than it had been before. He'd carried a jar of vaseline in the front pocket of his wool-trousers back in the day and when he's been getting a little active duty he'd been able to produce slick on demand, to smooth the way. There'd never been any awkward questions -- hold up the container and get a nod or a no, job done -- but there'd also seldom been much in the way of play, or even exchanging names. But this was Tony, and so of course everything was more -- more difficult, more intense, more wonderful. "Do you..."

"Huh?" Tony was blissed-out.

He was going to die of embarrassment, that was a fact. "Do you... do you want..." God, how did you just ask? Bucky bit his lip and tried another tack. "You got any Vaseline or baby oil?"

Tony got it. "Come out of the 40's, Buckybear," he said, grinning. He rolled over and dipped into a drawer in the bedside cabinet while Bucky admired the sleek curve of his ass. "We've got way better than petroleum jelly these days."

Tony tossed a yellow and white cannister down to him. "Condoms?"

Bucky scoffed. "What do I need a rubber for? Ain't neither of us got the clap. I couldn't get anything like that now if I tried. What, you plannin' on getting knocked up?"

"God, can you imagine the sort of demonspawn any child of mine would be?" Tony cackled. "If anyone could get me pregnant, I'd imagine it'd be you and your super-sperm. These condoms are probably better than what you remember, but if you're sure you don't need one, we can skip it. I'm easy if you're easy."

Bucky chuckled. "You're easy, all right." He squirted some of the... lubricant? Okay, lubricant... it seemed to be specifically made for sex, which was kinda weird, and disconcerting. There was a company somewhere that was making sex products?

"Well, that's the good stuff," Tony said, apparently prepared to give a product review. "Give it a try, I'll just..." He trailed off as Bucky slid a finger around his hole, well-coated in the product which cheerfully advertised a "relaxing agent". Ug. Bucky was not going to get used to the future. He cooled his furiously blushing cheeks against Tony's knee. How did a man walk into a shop and buy sex slick? Sex slick that was apparently specifically for what he was doing now?

He knew what to do; it had been a while, but apparently some things, like riding bicycles, you just didn't forget. He eased in, watching Tony's face and body language for subtle clues. It might have been easier if he wasn't left-handed, but... he wasn't going to take that risk, not with Tony. Not with anybody. He twisted his finger, little half-turns. Clockwise, counter-clockwise, gently stretching.

His fingers were strong, long, thin, and tapered. He'd had a "friend" once who'd told him he had beautiful hands, and he put them to work, drawing out every bit of lust and heat that he could find in Tony. Tony's groans and sighs were like gold and Bucky was going to go all Fort Knox on him, hoarding each one. He pressed his metal hand on the back of Tony's thigh and bent his leg up, changing the angle, pushing deeper. He worked his wrist, sliding the slick in. Weird crazy-assed idea or not, the stuff worked, worked damn well, and he wasn't getting dry or sticky and Tony opened for him, opened beautifully.

He pulled most of the way out and Tony clenched on him with a muttered curse.

"Bucky, no?" Bucky checked in, not wanting to rush, not wanting to stain any moment of this with useless fumbling or unwanted pain or apologies.

"Bucky, more."

He added a second finger, index and middle, curling the pads of his fingers up at the end of the stroke, the come-hither gesture he'd been taught as a green boy in the army, so many years ago.

Tony went thither, raising his hips to meet Bucky's strokes, swearing a streak so blue it was almost black. Bucky strained; Gentle, dammit, gentle. The plates in his shoulder shifted, unexpectedly, where they rested against Tony's thigh. He shuddered, pulled back, away from Tony's skin.

"Hey," Tony protested. Bucky twisted the sheet up, yanking it out from the end of the bed and draped it over his shoulder, putting a barrier between his arm and Tony's leg. "Wha?"

Bucky pressed his fingers back in, adding a third, god, Tony was so loose and open. It was easy, simple, like good love should be. "Don't want to pinch your skin," Bucky explained, pushing the words through clenched teeth, his jaw working as he brought Tony closer to the edge. He didn't want to, wouldn't, hurt Tony, but his body was aching with need.

"Come on, soldier," Tony groaned, reaching for Bucky's hair. "I'm ready, I... I want... need it..."

The word skittered down Bucky's spine. Soldier.

"Say it," Bucky said. He pulled out, drew himself up between Tony's legs, pushed his knees up and back. "Say it again, Tony." He slicked himself up, not even worried about his own metal hand. God, he needed... "Tony. Bring me home."

Tony had to know, he had to know he was taking his life in his own hands. "My soldier," he rasped. "Come on, I need you now."

Bucky thrust in, one long, searing stoke that was probably too much, too fast, too big, and Tony hissed, his hand tapping against Bucky's shoulder.

"Tony...?"

"Wait, wait, just gimme a sec." He panted out a few breaths, hands clenching when Bucky started to draw out. "No, stay, I got this, just..." Tony shifted on the bed, arching his hips and it was unbearable, blissful torment as Tony's muscles clenched around him, squeezing, drawing him in, deeper, unimaginably deep. "I've got you."

"You certainly do," Bucky said, not moving, even though it seemed more effort to hold still for this than anything he'd ever done for Hydra. Sweat beaded on his face and his neck as he strained.

Tony stilled, then, with a sigh, muscles going pliant all at once. "Soldier?" It came out as a soft endearment, breaking and burning along Bucky's chest, searing all the ice away, warming him profoundly.

"Yes, Tony?"

"More."

And then it was just bodies and motion and sweat and sleek pressure. They weren't beautiful, they weren't graceful, the noises they made weren't musical, but it was deep and sweet and utterly necessary. Tony's fingers scored a line across his shoulder as he peaked and crested, clenching, and Bucky tumbled off the edge after him, the best fall of his life.

He pulled out, sated and sleepy and fell back against the bed, dragging Tony over for a cuddle, spooning him. He was so perfect, fit exactly into the hollows of Bucky's body, like the missing piece of a puzzle.

"Tony?" He said.

"Mmmprh?" Tony was almost asleep, already.

"Bucky, more?"

He wasn't entirely surprised when Tony threw a pillow at his head.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Tony woke with a start. He didn't remember dozing off, but Bucky's arm was still wrapped around him, warm breath puffing against Tony's shoulder. He looked at the clock -- he hadn't been asleep for more than half an hour.

He still couldn't quite believe it had happened, except for the feel of Bucky's naked body pressed against his. He closed his eyes and let himself absorb Bucky's heat, enjoying the feeling of someone in the bed with him, saving it up for an inevitable lonely future.

He was going to enjoy it for as long as it lasted, though. Even if Clint was going to give him so much shit when he figured it out. And Bruce, too, in his understated way. Shit, Steve was-- Steve was going to kill him. Whatever plans Steve had formed for the recovery of his fellow time-lost super-soldier, letting Bucky be seduced by Tony Stark was definitely not part of them. Fuck, he hadn't even thought about that. How could he--

"Stop thinkin' so loud," Bucky grumbled sleepily, tugging him closer and nuzzling into his neck.

"Make me," Tony responded. It had been pure reflex sarcasm, but suddenly Tony found himself on his back and straddled, staring up at Bucky's salacious grin. "Christ, you're fast."

Bucky only grinned wider. "Comes in handy." He planted his hands on either side of Tony's head and leaned in for a kiss, slow and -- god -- filthy. A groan rolled out of Tony's throat and Bucky chuckled wickedly.

Obviously, Tony couldn't let that stand; he slid his hands up Bucky's thighs and rolled his hips up, and was rewarded with a stuttering, broken moan.

"Shit, Tony," Bucky gasped, "you're gonna be th' death of me."

"Only la petite mort," Tony teased, and lifted his head just enough to lick and nip at Bucky's throat.

Bucky tipped his head back, allowing Tony access -- and then froze as his stomach complained about having missed lunch. Loudly. Bucky's eyes went round, and then his head fell forward in mortification.

Tony laughed. "Time for intermission," he said. "Let's go down to the kitchen for a snack." He patted Bucky's shoulder briskly to signal him to move. "Come on, we need to load you up with protein."

They couldn't keep their hands off each other as they reluctantly dressed, pausing at every turn to kiss and squeeze and tickle, laughing like kids and panting like porn stars. Tony made himself back off as they left the bedroom, unsure if Bucky would want to keep their relationship -- whatever it was -- on the downlow, but Bucky showed no hesitation in crowding Tony up against the wall of the elevator and nuzzling at the hinge of his jaw.

Then Bucky lifted him up like a toy and pressed him against the wall, which was just unfairly hot. The lights might have flickered, but Tony wasn't sure. It was hard to keep his eyes open when Bucky was kissing his throat and jaw.

JARVIS made one of his not-quite-noises over the open air, the pause of artificial disapproval, when Tony just knew his AI was judging him.

"Sir, I think --"

JARVIS's voice went away, blissful silence filled up by those small breathy noises that Bucky was making as he nipped at Tony's collarbone, which was great, fantastic, terrific. Would've been the best thing ever except that Tony knew there were far better things, and maybe they'd even get around to trying them in the elevator, maybe after they'd eaten? There was something thrilling about the semi-public nature of elevator sex, a thrill Bucky obviously shared.

And the elevator screeched to a halt.

"What the hell --"

The lights flickered, and then went out.

"That's... not a good sign." Red emergency lights flickered to life overhead. Bucky blinked at him and slowly let Tony slide down to stand on his own feet. The car stabilized for a moment, plunged down another two or three floors in a hell of a hurry and then rattled to a halt again.

"Sir!" JARVIS's voice was tinny and panicked and coming from Tony's front pocket rather than the speaker in the wall. "The main lift cable has snapped!"

Something thudded against the roof of the elevator and Bucky jerked them both away from the wall, crouched in the center of the car, staring up at the ceiling.

Were they under attack? "JARVIS, did someone cut the line?"

"No, sir," JARVIS said, sounding small and somehow ashamed. "There was a stress fracture in the line. When I overclocked the motor earlier to exceed the recommended traveling speed, it caused unexpected pressure and --"

"So, I did this," Tony muttered. Yeah, that seemed about right. "Okay, we need to get out, then. Let's get these doors open," Tony said. "Worst case, you can boost me up, if we're between floors." He reached for the emergency release button and Bucky grabbed his wrist.

"Don't. Don't touch it."

Tony tilted his head. "Look, I've had stuck-in-an-elevator fantasies before, too, but this is not the time--"

"Listen."

Tony listened, but he didn't hear anything out of the ordinary, not having enhanced super-hearing. He shook his head and shrugged. "What?"

"The wall's electrified," Bucky said. "I think the power cable came loose when we jolted to a stop."

"You can hear that?"

Tightly, Bucky nodded. "I'm real familiar with what high voltage sounds like."

The car rattled, dropped another few feet. Above them, the sounds of popping wires was... very loud. At least, Tony thought wildly, it was him caught in the deathtrap he'd unwittingly created, and not someone else. Except for Bucky, who-- Shit, Steve was going to be so pissed. At least Tony would be too dead to have to face the music.

Bucky jerked Tony in close and lifted him, sitting Tony on his good arm like he was a goddamn fair ride. "Wrap your legs around my waist," he said.

"I hardly think --"

"Do it, Tony, do it now." Bucky curled around him, the metal arm bracketing Tony's spine as Bucky twisted himself around Tony's body, like a human crash-cage. He cradled the back of Tony's head in that metal hand, protecting.

"How far up are we, JARVIS?" Bucky said.

"The car is currently suspended on the twenty-sixth floor, Mr. Barnes." JARVIS supplied.

Shit, that was -- Tony couldn't help doing the math in his head even when it was painful, pointless, stupid math -- twenty-six floors time three-point-five meters per floor was around ninety meters, give or take; mass times acceleration, nine point eight meters per second per second times a hundred and eighty kilograms of humans plus whatever the elevator car weighed. He didn't know how much the elevator car weighed, and that seemed like a stupid thing not to know, but any way you cut it, that was going to be a lot of force when they hit. He should build a suit that resided inside his very bones, that's totally what he should do, because if the outside of the car was electrified, there was no way to call one of the suits to him in time and not kill himself, kill both of them, even faster.

"Tony," Bucky's voice cut across the panic in his brain. "Tony, look at me. Just at me. Relax. Go limp. And press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, babe. I don't want you to bite it off by accident."

"And what are you going to be doing, while I'm all limp?" Death by sarcastic quip, that was going to happen, one day. Probably today, as it happened.

Bucky snorted. "I've lived through longer falls, Tony. I've got you. I've got you."

The elevator shuddered again, then plunged. There was no stopping it this time. Bucky's eyes, wide and dark in the eerie red light, never blinked, never let go of Tony's gaze, kept him there, not quite calm, in the center of that fatal fall.

Limp, he reminded himself, and press your tongue up, and limp, and he was trying but they were falling and he'd fallen further before but there was no suit coming to turn the fall into a graceful swoop, no Hulk to catch him and Bucky's eyes were worried and steady and god, he was beautiful and if this was the last thing Tony ever saw in this life--

Bucky roared in agony as they struck the ground; Tony felt the jolt in every bone and muscle in his body, horrible but possibly not much worse than being thrown around in the suit but still horrible. Bucky went down to one knee and shielded them from falling debris with the metal arm as the elevator car collapsed around them.

Finally, after what seemed like hours and was probably only a handful of seconds, the noise and falling debris stopped.

"Ow. You okay, Tony?"

Tony climbed off his human parachute, surprisingly intact. "Maybe? Not dead, anyway." He shook his arms out and looked down at himself, carefully testing his weight on each foot, and patted himself down. His phone wasn't in his pocket anymore; it must have fallen out. Probably crushed now. Not important. "I think I'm actually okay. You?"

Bucky was on his knees, gritting his teeth, one hand wrapped around his lower calf. "Broke my leg, but alive."

Tony clapped his hands together and crowed, "Fantastic!" A broken leg wasn't good, of course, he knew that, but he was so fucking relieved they weren't dead, it seemed like the best news he'd had all day. "I'm gonna go call for help, you just hang tight for a minute." He took a step backward, toward the crunched hole that was all that remained of the elevator doors, grinning and unable to look away from Bucky's face.

"Tony, wait--"

Something wriggling and slick touched the back of his head and he registered a numbing agony in his skull. He had just enough time to think, oh shit live wires, before his brain caught fire and--

 

Chapter Text

Clint

Clint loved Wednesdays. Wednesdays were quiet. It wasn't the weekend, so the place wasn't cluttered with the various friends and lovers and weird sort of nemesises (Nemiseises. Nemesisists? Whatever. Clint didn't do Latin -- that was Nat. But at least he never, ever dangled his participles). Reed Richards came over from time to time with the apparent purpose of driving Tony right up a wall and down a flagpole via competitive sciencing, which was highly entertaining. But right now, it was just him. And Tony. And their little lost lamb, Bucky Barnes.

So, it was nice. He could sit on the couch all by himself, pizza box on his knees, and eat anchovy pizza right out of the box and no one was complaining or hogging the remote or even viewing his pizza tastes with some major side-eye. At least until Bucky came down for dinner and inhaled the rest of the pizza.

Clint was positive, 100% and then some, that Tony really wasn't thinking this shit through. Steve was going to bust a blood vessel in his forehead when he found out that his favorite psycho had been safe and sound for days before Steve found out about it.

Yes, Cap had gone radio silent, but there was radio silence and then there was goddamn lost, and Clint was pretty sure that Nat had never been so lost that he couldn't find her when he needed her. Of course, she had left him out of the whole Winter Soldier shit to start with, so he owed her one for benching him for that. But this wasn't really about Natasha at all; it was about Steve. Which meant it was left to Clint to do the mature thing. Gross.

He pulled out his new phone, which rode awkwardly in the loose sweatpants pocket. Fifth one in the last two months because he kept dropping it in the toilet, or off the sides of buildings, and there was at least one of them that had grown legs and crawled away into the ventilation shafts, no matter how much Tony didn't believe him. But Tony was a standup sort of sugar-daddy and he just glowered and ordered Clint a new phone. Of course, he wouldn't let Clint just order his own phone; the cost of getting a new one was having to confess to Tony that he'd lost it. Again.

Clint tapped on the stupidly cute eCupid app icon. He'd gotten shit from Tony a few times about using it, but... well, if Tony hadn't figured out what Clint was using it for, Clint certainly wasn't going to spell it out for the man. For a supposed genius, Tony sure was dumb sometimes.

He did a quick search, using their keyphrases. Must like spiders. Birdwatching activities. Multilingual; Russian, Spanish, emojis.

What kind of name was Thomasina Grant? Clint shook his head and then used some of his Heartbucks to message the account. "M4F, homebody, doesn't get out much. Prefers nice nights in. Netflix and Chill. Only without the Netflix?"

Clint hit send; if she messaged him back, he'd give her a few more details, although they'd never quite worked out a code for the Winter Soldier. Eh, he'd fake it. Mention something about watching World War II documentaries. Nat was smart, she'd figure it out.

Of course, now Tony was going to kill him, since Buckydumpling didn't want Steve around, for reasons that no one had bothered to explain, but he'd just tell Nat not to mention it and it would get lost in the excessive emotional clutter that the Tower was going to experience Real Soon Now.

Clint turned his attention back to the television. It flickered a few times, which was really unusual, and then the cable dropped. "Aw, show," he whined. "JARVIS, what's up with the cable?"

Rather than answering directly, JARVIS triggered the building alarm, which meant bad things were happening. Strident, pulsing sounds blared out of the speakers JARVIS usually used to communicate, and the electricity flickered. Really bad things, then.

Clint was on his feet and rolling out before the first wave of sound had finished. He wasn't sure where he was needed, but the TV room was probably not it. He snagged a comm unit from the rack that Tony kept stocked in just about every room. He thumbed the DNA reader, then popped it in his ear. "Hawkeye, on comms. What's the problem, Tony?"

There was no Tony, which was seriously bad.

Five whole seconds dragged by, Clint poised on the balls of his feet, until JARVIS came on the line. "Agent Barton, please report immediately to the basement level. Use the stairs, as the main elevator is compromised. I have already contacted medical personnel and they will be on the scene shortly. No hostiles are on site, there is no need to detour to the armory."

"Gotcha, J," Clint snapped, jogging toward the emergency stairwell. "What's the problem?"

JARVIS didn't answer him, again. What the hell was going on?

Clint pushed through the door into the stairwell and looked down the long, long, long shaft. That was going to be fun, but whatever was going on, it didn't bode well. He sprinted down, feet rattling and the echo bouncing all around him as he jumped over a few rails. Nat would laugh at him for getting winded, and Steve would probably be able to lap him a few times around the building and climb up and down the whole stairwell, then wonder out loud where Clint was.

Clint hated Wednesdays.

The basement level hallway was filled with dust and debris, what the shit. Clint coughed and waved a hand in front of his face.

He edged forward, cautious, then heard Bucky Barnes, his voice harsh and jagged. "Come on, damn it, Tony. Breathe."

Oh, fuck.

Clint raced forward to find Barnes doing rescue breathing on Tony, who was lying unresponsive in the middle of the smashed remains of the elevator.

Really. Really. Hated. Wednesdays.

***

Bruce

Bruce stood at the observation window, watching Dr. Cho work. Tony laid still on the surgical table. Unnaturally still. Bruce didn't think Tony was this still even in his sleep. It was unnerving.

I should have been here, God damn it! 

Bruce closed his eyes, counted breaths. Tony was alive, he reminded himself. Tony had survived a fall that would have killed anyone else, and he had one of the most skilled surgeons in the world at his side. There was hope. Bruce opened his eyes in time to see Dr. Cho pulling the sheet over Tony's chest, smoothing it gently. She turned to meet Bruce's eyes through the observation window. She nodded gravely, and tipped her head toward the door.

"What's the prognosis?" Bruce said as soon as the door opened.

Don't you dare lie to me! I'll know if you lie!

Dr. Cho sighed, but she didn't look like she was bracing to tell him the very worst. "Mr. Stark is a very strong man," she said. "His brain activity already shows signs that he's beginning to rouse from the coma, though I anticipate it will take him another twenty-four to thirty-six hours to awaken."

Bruce sagged in relief. "Oh, thank god."

"There's bad news as well, I'm afraid," Dr. Cho said. She gestured for Bruce to walk with her down the hall. "The level of electrical discharge that he received was quite high -- according to Mr. Barnes, he walked directly into the main power line for the elevator while it was stripped and live. We won't know anything for certain until he awakens, but there's a high probability of some... damage to the brain."

Bruce felt the blood drain from his face. "Brain damage? Tony? That's not-- How bad? What kind of damage are we talking about?"

No! It's not FAIR, he's one of the GOOD ones!

Dr. Cho spread her hands. "It will depend on exactly where the electricity entered his brain, and the path it took, and how long it was permitted to remain. The most common side effects of this sort of damage are neurologic and neuropsychological. I expect some memory loss, and very likely some psychological effects."

Why can't you know more exactly? We have to be prepared!

Bruce huffed out a breath. "Well, he's going to hide those from us, if he can. Tony's nothing if not stubbornly committed to avoiding anything like psychiatric care." Dr. Cho rewarded that with a faint smile. "How much memory loss are we talking about?" Bruce asked. "I know you can't give me specifics, but... I've got to report back to the rest of the Avengers. Not to mention Pepper and Rhodey are both en route. It'd be nice if I could give them even a ballpark idea of what to expect."

Dr. Cho paused before the door to the waiting room. "He'll certainly have lost days, weeks. Years, perhaps. I doubt it will extend to decades. I'm sorry, I wish I could be more precise."

No, it's not enough! Do better!

"It will have to do for now," Bruce said. "We'll know more when he wakes up, I guess. How long can we expect it to last?"

Dr. Cho looked at him soberly. "That, I can't predict. Some victims regain previous levels of function in a matter of days, and some never do."

Bruce drew in a deep breath. They'd all met and befriended Tony before. If they had to start over again -- well, at least they'd know some of the pitfalls to avoid, this time. He thanked the doctor and pushed through the door, where Barnes and Clint were waiting. Barnes was squashed into the farthest corner of the chair he'd chosen, arms wrapped around his knees and eyes staring in sightless misery.

Why didn't you protect him better?!

Clint jumped to his feet as soon as he spotted Bruce. "Well?"

***

Steve

From: J. Buchanan Barnes <coldwarkid@starkindustries.com>
To: Steven G. Rogers <manwithaplan@starkindustries.com>
Subject: I'm sorry
Mailed by: starkindustries.com
Encryption: coded, DNA, fingerprint, JARVIS scrambler 109231861-a-1

Dear Steve,

JARVIS provided me with a "tablet" and a "light pen" and I hope you know what those are, because I really don't. He's learning my terrible handwriting, though, and I expect he's about sick of me switching into Cyrillic without thinking about it. Funny, I've spent most of my life writing in a language nobody I ever knew spoke, and I can't stop thinking in it. Speaking English shouldn't be so hard, but it is. I have to concentrate, all the time, just to get the words out. At least JARVIS can translate.

As you've probably guessed from this, Mr. Stark invited me into the Tower and I accepted. I'm sorry. I deliberately waited until you were gone. I wasn't sure how much I'd feel compelled to finish my mission and I know you don't want to fight with me anymore. I don't want that either. I thought this might be safer for both of us.

Please don't be mad at Mr. Stark. He said you were on radio silence, something important, and I don't want to disturb you, or rile you up or anything, even if I had to guess, by the way he avoided my questions, that the something important is actually you looking for me.

I'm not sure what to say, really. The nurse who's been chasing me out... crap, Stevie, I don't even know how to tell you this. She told me that my sitting around and staring at an unconscious man wasn't helping him, or me, and that I should try to do something productive with my time. So I don't know if you know, but Mr. Stark is hurt, real bad.

Seems like the universe doesn't like me to find my footing, because we took a fall. The elevator. He. I. Twenty-six floors. I can't even think about this without reliving it. I couldn't save him, Steve.

<image: undecipherable scribbles, with the caption: Forgive me, Captain; I was unable to interpret this. I have included it as-entered here, in the event it contains a code to which I am not privy. --JARVIS>

I don't know where you are.

I don't know what you're doing.

Please come home.

Bucky

Steve's fingers tightened around the phone and the metal started to give way. Carefully -- he wanted throw the wretched thing across the QuinJet and out into the stratosphere, but he didn't -- he laid it on the seat next to him.

Natasha had roused him and Sam at three in the morning, Bogota time, and said nothing beyond, "We have to get back to New York. Now."

She hadn't explained, just worked the extraction plan like a dream and a ghost and the spy that she was, untying their entire operation. They'd never get that close to that particular cluster of Hydra again; their path of approach was certainly going to be uncovered in their wake and blocked to future attempts. He'd been furious about that; there were rumors that the Winter Soldier had been in storage at that particular facility for some time, and now there was nothing left of it. He'd thought the trail was lost, cold again, and goddamn it, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, only the haystack was the entire world, and the needle liked to kill people when no one was watching.

"Nat?" His voice was calm. He was calm. He was not going to hurt anyone in this plane. These were his friends, but right now, he had a big damn question for Natasha and he probably wasn't going to like the answer.

"Captain?" Natasha had her professional voice on, the one she only used with him on very special occasions, usually ones where she knew she'd done something wrong and that he was going to be pissed at her for it.

"There's an email from Bucky on my phone," Steve said. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?" That was as much information as he was willing to give her, although he was a fool if he thought Natasha wasn't analyzing all his voice patterns and facial expressions and the rate his pulse was pounding in his temple. Sometimes he thought she might actually be super-powered and that her superpower was being a creepy weird pretty mind-reader. And pretty was the most dangerous adjective on the list.

It was hard to remember that he couldn't, not ever, completely trust her. Trust her to do the right thing, yeah, sure. Trust her not to use that arsenal of charm and manipulation and deadly tricks against him for her own protection? Sometimes. For his protection? Well, sometimes she did that, too. He'd lay down his life for her, without hesitation, and he was pretty sure she felt the same. He loved her, and she probably returned the feeling, as much as she was able. But he'd never seen her completely honest and he never expected to.

She took a deep breath; Steve heard it over his comm unit, over Sam's unit that was tucked in Sam's ear on the seat across from him, and from the cockpit itself. Steve was never going to get used to that. In surround sound where available, Tony had joked when Steve had mentioned it once. He took the comm out and thumbed it off, getting to his feet.

He leaned in the opening to the cockpit, studying Natasha's profile. She gave him nothing, just a smooth, almost bland, expression.

"We were on radio silence, Nat."

"I know that, Cap," she said. She still wasn't giving him anything to work with, which made Steve very nervous.

"You know, radio silent means no communication with the outside world, right?"

"I'm not a fool, Steve," she said, letting her anger show just a little, in the tightness of her jaw. Which meant she meant for him to see it. "It's a special... thing. With Clint and I. We've done it for years. Saved our asses, back in Budapest."

"One of these days, you're going to have to share that story."

"No, I don't," Natasha said. "Look, it was a burner phone, it's a dating site. We leave coded, anonymous messages there, in case of extreme emergencies. I check when it won't be noticed, a couple of times a day. It takes me two seconds to see if I have a note from him."

"Which said?"

"That things are not chill at home. That's all I know, Steve, but he wouldn't have sent it if it wasn't urgent. 'Not chill' is as bad as it gets."

Sam coughed out an uncertain laugh. "Sounds like Barton to me." It hadn't taken him long to notice that Steve wasn't on comms anymore, and Sam didn't particularly like being left out. He considered the three of them to be a special little subset of Avengers, the ones who didn't have secrets from each other. Sam was cute. Delusional, but cute.

"Was the Chitauri invasion not chill, Natasha? I'm just looking for scale of disaster, here."

"I think he'd have said extremely not chill, if we were looking at something city-wide," Nat said. "Give me thirty minutes and we can open a line to the Tower and find out, okay? I'm trying to make sure we don't trip any anti-aircraft emplacements. They always go out of their way to spoil my flight."

Steve frowned, guilt twisting around in his stomach, doing unpleasant things to his kidneys and liver while it was in there. She really didn't know. Which made Steven Grant Rogers a goddamn heel.

He scuffed one foot along the floor, feeling like a grubby schoolboy.

"So, what did Bucky have to say?" Her voice was light, cheery, and didn't fool him a bit. She'd spotted his tells, not that spotting his tells took a spy.

"Tony's hurt," Steve said, finally. "Bad, I take it."

Natasha snapped one quick look at Steve's face. Her lips disappeared into a thin, white line. "Strap in, boys."

She barely waited for their butts to hit the seats before she punched the throttle on the quinjet and sent it into a barrel roll to avoid the anti-airguns that started firing as soon as they proved to be more than a random drug-smuggler in a prop-plane. Steve's phone slid off the seat, across the interior, and smashed against the far wall.

"Some of us aren't well-equipped for you to be pulling four Gs, Nat," Sam said plaintively.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Visiting hours were for suckers.

Bucky dropped lightly to the ground from the ventilation shaft, checked over his shoulder to make sure that Nurse Robertson hadn't heard him. He turned the knob slowly, avoiding the creaking groan of the opening door, and slipped inside. He didn't turn on the lights. He made his way across the floor by rote and took his chair.

Tony's breathing was steady, not strained, but mechanical and somehow too even. It wasn't like Tony at all. It didn't sound like him when he was asleep; Bucky knew that, because when Tony had dozed off, Bucky had remained awake, memorizing every freckle and dip on Tony's back, every soft curl of dark hair at the nape of his neck, every hitch of breath and soft sigh, every... Everything. This wasn't Tony, this was a doll that looked like Tony.

He didn't even smell like Tony.

Bucky stroked the side of Tony's face. He's going to be so pissed when he wakes up and realizes they've shaved half his head.

Bucky hoped Tony would be pissed, because that was the least of the consequences hanging over them. He couldn't bring himself to even think the worst, that Tony might not--

And then there was the almost-certain brain damage and lost memory.

From a goddamn electrical current.

Bucky stifled a sob against his forearm. The nurse had already fussed at him three times today, not to mention yesterday. The doctor hadn't even let him into the observation room overlooking the surgical theater, because Bucky wasn't Tony's medical proxy. That was Dr. Banner, who had turned up a mere seven hours after the accident, looking rumpled and exhausted and tense.

Back in Bucky's time... well, Bucky vaguely recalled hours spent camped out beside a terrifyingly-still and pale Steve, the nurses smiling indulgently as Bucky read himself hoarse. The med-tents in the war had been pretty much catch as catch can, and if you lingered around a surgery too much, the doc was likely to put you to work. Bucky thought he wouldn't mind that, now; having something to do would be a mercy.

There wasn't anything for Bucky to do, though. Tony's nurse would probably go all screechy-hissy at him if she caught Bucky in the room at two in the morning, but... where else could he be?

This was his fault. He had to be here.

If Bucky ever met the bitch who kept the universe in order, he was going to break her nose. Couldn't he get just one day; was one day too much to ask? Apparently it was, because he'd only gotten to have a friend for some twelve hours, and perhaps two hours of utter bliss when that friendship had turned into something unexpectedly sweet.

Bucky sighed. He didn't even have to look to a past life to know all the things he'd done wrong, all the ways he deserved to be punished. But why did Fate have to take it out on Tony?

Footsteps and the sounds of lowered voices alerted him. He leaned over and kissed Tony's cheek lightly, then leaped up into the vent again, pulling the grill closed behind him. He didn't want to be caught, but he couldn't bring himself to leave, either.

"--RVIS reported that Tony was... very friendly with the man, Rhodey," a woman said, her heels tapping across the floor. "I don't think he'd lie to us."

"No, but you know Tony's gotten 'friendly' with some shady-ass characters before, without having the slightest idea, Pep. The man's an assassin, and now Tony's laid out, possibly lost his memories? Tell me that doesn't stink to you." Bucky recognized the man's face as he came into the room: Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes, pilot of the Iron Patriot, Tony's oldest friend.

Bucky couldn't see her face from this vantage, but "Pep" was most likely Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, previously Tony's personal assistant and, briefly, his lover. She grumbled, "He has no sense when it comes to a pretty face, I'll give you that. And I've seen pictures of James Barnes. He's quite the looker."

Bucky froze, fingers digging into the interior of the vent shaft. He couldn't even be angry at them for the suspicion. Bucky absolutely could have wormed his way into Tony's confidence and bed for the purpose of killing him or destroying his brain, if Hydra had decided that the risk of Tony Stark outweighed the benefits. He could have, but he... he didn't. And that was all the defense he had. He did not do this, even if it was still his fault.

"You know who else was a looker?" Rhodes said, voice soft and tight with emotion. "Sunset Bain. She nearly ruined him, and she was only after company secrets. I swear, after her, I thought Tony was never going to have a relationship again that lasted for more than a weekend. Not until you came along."

"Yes, well, the superhero business isn't good for my indigestion. I... miss him. I still love him. But I couldn't live with him. I couldn't live with the constant fear. I can't handle him as a man, only as my boss."

"I know, Pep, I wasn't blaming you. I'm just worried about our boy." A brief pause, a rustle of cloth. "Besides, aren't you his boss these days?" Rhodes' voice was strained with false levity.

"If you think he listens to anything I say, even now, you are sadly mistaken. I can't even blame myself for this; if I told him not to get involved with a psychotic, brain-washed assassin from the 1940's, he'd have found three more of them somewhere just to try to prove me wrong."

Rhodes chuckled, low. "Yeah, and he'd have dragged me into it, somehow." The voice was closer now, just under Bucky's vent. Bucky held his breath as he watched Rhodes stand beside Tony's bed, handsome face lined with grief. "Ah, hell, Tone. You always do manage to drag me into the craziest messes."

"He doesn't have to drag you, Rhodey. He never did. You're a volunteer, just like the rest of us," Potts said. She brushed Tony's hair -- what was left of it -- out of his face, her fingers gentle. She obviously knew the contours of his face intimately. The way she looked at Tony, the softness of her lips, that familiar touch buzzed something unpleasant and hot in Bucky's belly. Jealousy. Possessiveness. Tony was his now, and he'd only had one goddamn afternoon with the man, and now he had to watch his lover's ex be sweet on Tony? Bucky clenched his jaw and reminded himself not to grind his teeth so loud that they'd hear it.

The two of them stood for a long moment, looking down at Tony, until finally Rhodes pulled Potts into a one-armed hug. "He'll pull through, Pep. You know he will. Why don't you go on back and catch some shuteye, and I'll take this watch."

She nodded. "Yes, all right. You call me the minute he wakes up. I'll know if you don't." She leaned over Tony's still form and kissed his mouth lightly. She straightened up and paused for a long moment. "I don't know why I expected anything to happen," she said with a little laugh that was more than half-sob.

Bucky was caught between disappointment and relief and a hint of empathy. He'd tried the same thing, himself, already.

Rhodes tightened his arm around Potts' shoulders. "Hang in there," he said. "Cap and the others will be back tomorrow morning--" He glanced at the clock on the wall. "--later this morning. He'll have everyone pulling for him."

Potts laughed, a little shakily. "I know Captain Rogers is a pretty, pretty princess, but I don't think his kiss is going to work, either."

"There's your sense of humor," Rhodes said approvingly. "Maybe Natasha can scare him awake. Come on, I'll walk you back out to the car so Happy can drive you over. Are you thinking of moving your base of operations..."

The voices faded as the door closed behind them. Bucky waited until he could no longer hear them at all before backtracking his way through the shafts. If Rhodes was going to sit with Tony until morning, Bucky would just have to come back then. Why did Rhodes not have to abide by visiting hours? he grumbled to himself. Unless the nurse didn't trust Bucky either, thought Bucky was faking his concern -- his grief -- while waiting to get Tony alone and finish the job.

For a mercifully brief moment, Bucky imagined it, his hand closing on Tony's throat, and he dropped to his belly in the shaft, insides churning with self-loathing. Against mission parameters. Protect Anthony Stark. Deviant behaviors noted.

He couldn't. He couldn't. He would not.

He crabbed forward to the junction, curled up with his forehead on his knees, and sobbed.

***

Rhodes was still in the room, sleeping awkwardly in the single visitor's chair, when Bucky arrived in the morning. He let his boots touch the ground harder than normal; he didn't want to sneak up on Rhodes by accident. The man was already looking for someone to blame.

The Amazon packages had arrived late the previous evening, but Bucky hadn't had the energy then to go through them. Even this morning, he had shivered with agony at touching each article of clothing, remembering Tony's teasing about what colors would look best on him (blue and black) and insisting that Bucky have the "skinny jeans" he was wearing. (He'd had to practically oil his legs to get them on, but Tony had wanted it. Maybe Tony would wake up and be happy to see that he was wearing them).

Memory loss. Some people never recover. Bucky was going to throw up if he thought about that for much longer. Tony didn't have a super-serum protecting his brain, healing him. If I could have taken the strike for you, I would have in a heartbeat.

"Colonel Rhodes," Bucky said as the man shifted in the chair, blinking in the early morning light that spilled into the room. "I presume."

Rhodes woke instantly, soldier-style, and rolled to his feet. Head-on, Rhodes wasn't an especially imposing man physically, though his beaky nose and sharp eyes said enough. "Barnes," he returned. "I presume."

Bucky didn't offer to shake hands, and kept as much space between himself and Rhodes as the confines of the room allowed. Even though his right hand was flesh and blood -- and maybe trembling, just a bit -- most people didn't want him in grabbing range. His mechanical arm made people nervous.  With that in mind, he'd dressed in the one long-sleeved shirt that Tony picked out that was supposed to match his eyes, and while he didn't have solid gloves, the fingerless black leather pair covered most of his... abnormalities.

Siren-like, he was drawn to Tony's bedside, unable to bear the space between them, even if he probably shouldn't touch Tony, not right now, not with those disapproving eyes on him. Hell, he didn't even know if Tony had told anyone he was into fellas. And it wasn't like he could call Tony his best guy, not... not after one afternoon.

Rhodes watched as Bucky edged around him, and Bucky couldn't miss the way he was balanced, ready to move if Bucky tried anything Rhodes didn't approve of, but he didn't stop Bucky's approach, and that was all Bucky needed from him. "Clint says you were giving him CPR. When he found you," Rhodes said stiffly.

"Yeah," Bucky agreed, roughly. "He... he wasn't breathin'. We made it down the goddamn shaft okay. And it just... One minute he was fine. Crazy laughin', from relief, no doubt. He started for the door, to get help he said. For me." He tapped his leg, where the hairline fracture had been taped up, not even worthy of a cast after a few hours. "And then he was jittering an' screaming. Then he... wasn't." Bucky nearly choked on it, on the memory. He'd never seen anyone get hit with that much voltage before. Not from the outside, anyway.

Rhodes' expression didn't change, not really, but his posture softened a little. He nodded, shortly, and his eyes slid back to Tony. "Damn fool never did pay attention to the safety regs," he muttered, half to himself. He drew a breath, and another, and wiped at one eye, unashamed of his emotion. "You here to relieve me?"

"You can stay, if you want. Or get some shut eye and a bagel. I just... I can't be anywhere else, right now. I shoulda moved faster. I shoulda--"

Under the bandages over Tony's eyes, his forehead creased. His breath hitched, and then Tony shouted, struggling against the tubes in his arms, straining to get the bandages off his eyes.

"Hey! Hey, Tony, it's okay," Bucky said, reaching out to grab Tony's wrists, to keep him from hurting himself. Rhodes jumped toward the bed to help, pressing down on Tony's shoulders. "It's okay. You're okay." He prayed to a God that had turned away from him three-quarters of a century ago that Tony was going to be okay, that it wasn't a lie, because he desperately needed to believe that.

"The fuck, I--" Tony's voice was hoarse, as if he'd been screaming for days, and he continued to strain against their hands, surprisingly strong in his panic, giving even Bucky's enhanced strength a challenge. "The fuck is wrong with my eyes, I can't-- my eyes--"

"Shhhh, hey," Bucky said. "You got a, a zap of electricity and it damaged the muscles in your face. Your eyelids wouldn't stay shut. We had to tape 'em over so your eyes didn't dry out while you been asleep."

Tony froze for a moment, digesting that. "That's... that's creepy as fuck," he rasped. "Who's that? Who's there? Where-- where am I?

Bucky turned away, grabbed up a washcloth and wet it. Removing surgical tape hadn't changed in nearly a hundred years. It either wouldn't stay on, or it wouldn't come off. Bucky was going to bet on the latter, just 'cause that would be the less convenient option at the moment.

"It's me, Tone," Rhodey was saying. "It's Rhodey." His hand grasped Tony's. "It's me."

"Rhodey?" Tony said, and he sounded more apprehensive than relieved. "But you--"

"Hold still," Bucky said. He unwound the bandage around Tony's hair, unable to keep himself from sneaking a small caress against the back of Tony's head, then dabbed at his eyelids with the wet cloth. "I'm gonna try to get this off you without taking your eyelashes with it. Feel free to holler, if you think I'm pulling on something I shouldn't be."

"No," Tony said tersely. "Rhodey can do it, I don't need a-- Rhodey, get rid of the nurse, okay, buddy?"

Bucky closed his eyes, clenched his teeth to keep from throwing up at the way his heart had suddenly started pounding. "I ain't no nurse Tony, it's me. It's Bucky."

Tony's head tipped to the side, the picture of confusion even with his eyes still covered. "Who the hell is Bucky?"

 

Chapter Text

Tony

"Stop squirming, Tones, and this will go faster," Rhodey groused.

Tony muttered and tried to hold still while Rhodey peeled the tape and bandages off his face. "What are you even doing here?" he asked. "Aren't you hiding somewhere playing with your new toy?"

"You're hurt, Tony. Of course I came as soon as I could." The last of the tape peeled carefully off Tony's eyelids. "Okay, slow, now," he said. "They'll probably feel kinda gummy."

Tony blinked a couple of times -- Rhodey wasn't wrong about the gummy feeling, gross -- and grimaced at the way the light stabbed into his brain. It felt like a hangover, squared. "Shit," he hissed. "Too bright."

The mattress shifted as Rhodey moved, and then the light dimmed. "Better?"

"Yeah," Tony sighed. "Thanks." He squinted around the room. It looked like a private hospital room, but nicer. He and Rhodey were the only ones in it. "Where'd the other guy go?"

Rhodey's lips pressed tight, and his eyes flicked to Tony's shoulder before settling back on Tony's face. "He left. You seemed to not want him around."

"I didn't," Tony said. "Just didn't hear him leave." He stretched, carefully. His whole body ached, but it didn't feel like anything was out of commission. Time to get back to work; his time was running out, and he had no idea how much time he'd lost to the 'zap'. He tapped at his--

His arc reactor was missing. "What the fuck--" He ripped at the thin medical gown, desperate.

Rhodey caught his hand. "Tones, look at me! It's okay! Stop, it's-- it's okay, it's gone and you're okay, Tone."

Tony was panting, panicking. "Rhodey--"

"It's okay, Tony; you need to listen to me." Rhodey's voice was low and soothing, which only made Tony more frantic. Rhodey gave up trying to hold him down and instead helped him peel back the gown. "There, see? It's gone, you're okay."

Tony stared down at his chest. Where he'd expected to find the arc reactor was a mass of scars. Healed scars, a minimum of six months old. He swallowed, hard, then looked up to meet Rhodey's eyes. And it was hard to miss, even in the dimmed light, how much older Rhodey looked. Tony drew a steadying breath. No matter how mad Rhodey was at him, Tony thought, he could count on Rhodey to tell him the truth. "How... How long did that 'zap' put me out for?"

Rhodey let go of Tony's hand and slumped back into the chair beside the bed. "Well. You've only been out for a couple days, but... the doc said you might lose some memory. So I dunno what the last thing you remember is, but I expect you've lost... some time."

Well, fuck.

Tony took a deep breath, splaying his hand over the scars at the center of his chest. He could feel his heart beating underneath, strong and steady, if a bit fast. That urgent project suddenly wasn't so urgent any more, he supposed. He wondered, irrelevantly, if it had taken long to adjust to the lack of light at night.

Well. Stark men were made of iron, as his father had been fond of saying. He met Rhodey's eyes again, determined. "Tell me."

***

Bucky

It had been one thing to sit in a cold room, desperately worried for Tony's life, and be told there might be some memory loss and another thing, another magnitude of thing altogether, to experience it.

So much of him had been erased, his own memories, his own past. Even with the things he'd done that he knew he'd done and couldn't remember, it was the fact that a stupid fucking accident had torn Bucky clean from Tony's mind that made him want to puke. He wanted to punch something, break and tear and--

"JARVIS?" He wasn't sure the AI would answer him, when Tony wasn't around, but...

"How may I assist you, Mr. Barnes?"

"Is there, somewhere in the community floors, is there something... safe I could punch? Or shoot at? I mean, they're superheroes, right? They must work out."

"Captain Rogers has several reinforced punching bags in the gym. I daresay he wouldn't mind if you used them. I'll direct you."

Bucky changed into a pair of sweats, peeling off the skinny jeans with more effort than really, any damn jeans should be worth, and a tank. Barefoot, he padded down to the gym. By "several," JARVIS apparently meant dozens, thicker than Bucky was used to -- the reinforcement? -- and all stacked in a row. Steve apparently hadn't worked out his anger issues, either. Little punk. Bucky grabbed the topmost bag by its chain and hung it from the waiting hook. He worked methodically, going through series after series of punches and kicks, breathing heavy and regular. He was drenched with sweat, his eyes burned. He'd been well-fed and well-rested for several days now; he could go for hours before exhaustion would claim him.

He had no idea how long he'd been there when Dr. Banner came looking for him.

Banner was not a combatant; his footsteps were loud and his movements were too big for his body. Bucky whirled on him as soon as he entered the room, dropping into a defensive crouch, hands low and spread wide. The man's eyes widened, but the smell wasn't right: he wasn't afraid of Bucky, and that was... unusual.

Bucky grabbed up a towel from the bench and blotted his hair, waiting. Words were hard for him, even when he wanted to talk, and god damn it, right now, he didn't want to talk. Either Banner would speak up, or not. Either way, it was no skin off Bucky's nose. Bucky wiped his hands. His knuckles were bleeding, but they would heal, and it was a clean, straightforward sort of pain.

Banner was an unimposing sort of academic, with rounded shoulders, a soft jaw, salt-and-pepper hair, dark eyes, and a prominent adam's apple that bounced with each hesitant swallow as the man tried to decide how to begin. He was wearing a hideous purple shirt and soft charcoal slacks. Bucky'd never seen anyone less threatening inside a combat gym. "Um," Banner finally started, taking a few steps into the room. "Hey. I'm, er."

Bucky straightened, gave the man his best murderous glower, and didn't help. He paced forward, giving Banner the full, blunt force of his hunter's stalk. Go away, or I will make you go away. Could he possibly make that any clearer?

"Yeah, that... Wow," Banner said, one hand up as if to shield himself from the death stare. "Look, Tony's a friend of mine, and I... got the impression that you two... I mean, it's none of my business or anything, but... Tony would want me to look after you." He was soft-spoken, gentle, like he was used to cradling baby birds and nursing kittens.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "You're Bruce?" He started putting it together. The man the doctors were willing to talk to was the same man Tony had gone to for what he'd jokingly referred to as people advice. Bucky rubbed at the back of his neck.

Banner nodded. "Tony's 'science-bro,' if you read the tabloids. Which you probably don't."

"What's a medical proxy mean?" Bucky demanded, moving closer, too close. Banner stepped back quickly.

"It's a, um, legal position. It allows me to make medical decisions on Tony's behalf, if he's not cogent enough to make them for himself. Steve and I are proxies for most of us. The Avengers, I mean. It's a dangerous line of work," he said, an understatement.

"So, you're not like his... best guy. Partner?" Bucky shook his head, he lacked the right words... "Yego lyubovnik."

Bruce snorted. "Tony gets around more in our respective imaginations than he actually does in practice. At least these days. Which is really saying something. I don't speak Russian, what was that last bit?"

Bucky shook his head, dismissing it.

"So, um... I just wanted to let you know that you're welcome to eat with us, and do... whatever it was you were doing. And to tell you that Natasha -- the Black Widow? -- has been in touch. They should land within the hour. Her and Steve and Sam. You remember Steve, I guess. And you've, uh, encountered Natasha and Sam, too, but you probably didn't get their names."

Bucky groaned. Probably people that Bucky had hurt. The Black Widow had been with Steve, before, along with another man, some sort of flying bird costumed hero.

"Right," Bucky said, tucking his chin in a simple nod. "I'll get showered and changed. Thank you."

Bruce hemmed a bit, polished his glasses on the tail of that terrible purple shirt, and then offered his hand to Bucky. "Welcome to the Tower," he said. "We're... all glad you could make it."

Huh. Bucky took his hand for a quick shake. "You ain't scared of me?"

Bruce laughed gently. "Oh, my sweet, summer child. not even a little bit."

His smile looked... wistful, actually, which didn't make a lick of sense. But it was nice, to have people around who weren't scared of him and not stupid about it. It was one thing not to be scared and something else entirely to get on the raggedy edge and push.

***

Bucky passed a mirror on his way to the hangar and didn't recognize himself. The pants Tony had selected were plastered against his legs and the boots made his feet look long and narrow. A heavy belt circled his waist and the striped tee and blazer thrown on over gave him the look of a French poet. His hair was slicked back from his face and he'd decided against shaving the stubble on his chin, liking the air of maturity it lent his features.

Didn't matter. Steve would know him. He tucked himself in a shadow to watch the disembarking Avengers.

The red-haired girl was the first one off the plane. He knew her... and then, a shock, he knew that he'd known her.

He stepped out into the open. "Tash?"

Her chin jerked up and she met his gaze; her eyes widened until he could see whites all the way around and suddenly she was running to him. "Yasha?" She leaped into his embrace and he spun her around, her legs around over his hips as she kissed him. It wasn't a kiss of passion or longing or even lust, but a desperate kiss of loneliness and old hearts reunited and shared trauma. Her hands came up to cup his face and she was crying. Not pretty crying, not the comfort-me tears she'd been taught, but ugly and red-faced and snotty nose and shuddering breaths.

Steve twisted his jaw, watching them with hands on his hips, his bag had tumbled from his slack fingers. "What the hell?"

Bucky let her down, his forehead resting against hers, wiping the tears from her eyes with his thumbs. "Tash... you're alive, solnyshko."

"You should know," she whispered, the tears not stopping at all. "You tried to fix that a few months back."

"That was... that was you. I'm sorry, solnyshko, I'm so sorry."

"Nat," Steve said, looking unspeakably awkward. "Have we not talked about secrets before?"

"Dozens of times, Captain," she said, wiping her eyes and laughing. "It didn't matter. It wasn't him, not... not until just now. He was the Winter Soldier and not my Yasha. It wouldn't have helped you to know, and it would upset you, and I wasn't even certain I was right. He was my... trainer. In the Red Room."

"And her lover," Bucky said, still not being able to look away from her, this woman who'd... The ice burned free and... She'd saved him.

"Da, comrade," she murmured.

"Nat!" Steve threw his hands up, completely exasperated. "You don't think I... that you... that... I... You kissed me!"

"Hey, now," the dark-skinned man in the silver and red suit broke in. "I don't need the downlow on Avenger affairs. Can we get off this roof, huh? I want a dozen pancakes and some coffee and a sitrep on Stark."

Bucky nodded. "Yeah, go on, solnyshko, we'll catch up later."

Bucky watched her go, arms linked with the other man. "Steve..." He couldn't bring himself to look at his best friend, the man he hadn't remembered, had tried his damndest to murder.

"Buck." Steve's voice was cold, arctic. Bucky shivered. "Hey. Buck." His voice cracked. "Do I get a hug, too?"

Bucky swiveled around, a grin splitting his face and he let himself be engulfed in Steve Roger's oversized embrace, pounding his friend on the back. "Yeah, punk. But I ain't kissin' you."

Steve gripped his shoulder, pushing him back to look at him, and damn, decades later, it was still weird to look up at his friend. "Yeah, I... um. No. Thanks. No, thank you. Kisses won't be necessary."

Bucky turned and Steve slung an arm around his shoulders, which was so damn familiar and comforting and... "Punk." He bumped Steve.

"Jerk."

"So, um..."

"Yeah. How did this happen? Are you okay? I'm so... I'm so glad you're home, Buck."

Bucky considered it, chewing his lip. "I am... not okay. But I'm getting there. Maybe. Tony's been... Tony was helping me out."

"So, it's Tony now, and not Mr. Stark. He's okay?"

Bucky shook his head, pushing away the sense of cold panic. "He... doesn't remember. Colonel Rhodes is with him now." The winter's cowl settled over him a little; he didn't need to burden Steve with this, not now. Not when... if Tony never remembered...

"Well, we'll just have to remind him," Steve said.

Bucky squared his shoulders. "Yeah, I... we can do that, yeah, Steve." Hell. How hard could it be? Tony'd tumbled for him in less than a day's time, the first time around, and this time... this time Bucky wasn't going to be a freak. If they had to start over again, well, so be it. He could do this.

***

Tony

Tony sent Rhodey to find the doctor, and he made it nearly to the door with the red EXIT sign over it before Rhodey cottoned on and caught up to him.

"Tony, what the hell are you doing?"

"What's it look like, cupcake? I'm checking out. I've been twiddling my thumbs here for the better part of a day. I'm functional, except for the memory thing and one hell of a bruise on my shoulder -- wish I knew who gave me that, looks like I had a hell of a good time."

Rhodey's eyes slid sideways at that, and wasn't that interesting; maybe they weren't as made-up as Rhodey'd said. Tony barreled on, determined not to be distracted. "No need to sit around any longer. And apparently there's a lot to get caught up on, best get started."

He ducked under Rhodey's grab and pushed through the door, into a long hallway.

"Damn it, Tony--"

Tony started walking, quickly. The trick to getting your way with Rhodey was to just keep moving. "Come on, platypus, we're burning daylight!"

Rhodey growled in that familiar way of his that meant Tony had totally gotten his way. Tony grinned and kept walking. "You don't even know if it's daytime or nighttime," Rhodey protested lamely.

"Nope, but I'm pretty sure that's the glow of natural light up ahead." It was. Tony rounded the corner to find a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over... New York City. They had to be at least thirty floors up.

Well. That was unexpected. "Why am I in New York, buttercup? I hate Manhattan."

"You kind of blew up the place in Malibu," Rhodey said. "So we're in--"

"I blew it up? Wait, did I blow it up, or did I blow it up?"

"You played chicken with a terrorist on live television, and you totally lost."

"I'm still alive," Tony pointed out, smirking, "which suggests to me that I won eventually."

Rhodey rolled his eyes. "I guess."

Tony pumped his fist. "Still the best! Come on, even if I'm stuck in Manhattan, I'm sure I've got things to do. Let's go find an elevator."

"You broke the elevator, Tones," Rhodey tried.

That was a pitiful attempt. "That was pitiful, honeybear," Tony said. "There can't possibly be only one elevator bank in a building this tall. Where am I, anyway?"

Rhodey sighed and kept following him. "Stark Tower. Sort of."

"Sort of? Did the arc reactor power source not work right? I'm still-- I was still tweaking it when--"

"Oh, it works, Tone. It works like crazy. You've changed the world, just like you always wanted to. Look, you obviously remember Afghanistan. Do... you remember talking with Fury about the Avengers Initiative?"

Cold slid down Tony's back and he stopped walking, turned to stare at Rhodey. "How do you know about that?"

"Because I'm your pitch-hitter when you're down, Tones. You built me a suit, War-Machine, and while you were fucking around, I saved the President."

Tony narrowed his eyes. "I let you steal a suit; I remember that. And I also remember that I told Fury no."

"Yeah, if that's what you want to think, but then you built me a better one, and you told Fury yes. It was a whole thing."

There! An elevator bank. The doors on the left side had "Out of Order" tape across them, but the ones on the right side of the hall were still working. Tony stalked over (as well as he could stalk in bare feet and a hospital gown) and jabbed the "up" button.

Rhodey leaned against the wall, pretending to look unimpressed. "Where do you think you're going?"

"It's my building, Rhodey. I'm going to the penthouse, where, I presume, I live."

The elevator's control panel didn't indicate the penthouse, but if this was a building Tony had built, even if he couldn't remember doing so... "Penthouse," he said.

"This elevator does not reach the penthouse, sir," JARVIS said.

"JARVIS! Good to hear from you, buddy."

"I'm pleased to see you up and about, sir," JARVIS agreed. "Though perhaps you might make it a priority to acquire some pants, so that others in the building will see a little less of you."

Tony chuckled. "Good to know some things never change, J."

"Indeed, sir. I will take you as far as I can, after which I'm afraid you must use the stairs."

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Superheroes were ridiculously attractive, Tony decided. There was a cluster of the hottest people on the planet sitting around a common table, who all stopped and looked up as he walked in the room. He'd been to cat-walks that had uglier people, the men just as tight and beautiful as the one woman...

She turned to face him and Tony took a few steps back -- staggered, really. He knew that woman, or at least he had thought he'd known her: the untrustworthy bitch, Natalie Rushman.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Tony--" Rhodey started.

Tony shook off his hand. "Why are you in my building, Rushman?" he said tightly.

Rushman looked surprised, and then hurt, but Tony wasn't going to fall for it this time. He knew what she was.

The blond brickhouse sitting next to her looked shocked. "Natasha's a member of the team," he said sternly.

Tony snorted. "I don't know if you're aware of this, but she's a spy," he said.

"Yeah, we know," said the black guy across the table. He looked at Rushman. "Thought you guys were tight?"

She was closed off again, the same closed book she'd been when Tony had first met her. "Well, he's not feeling quite himself," she said.

The blond guy was looking offended, now. "Tony, look, I know you can't remember--"

"I remember enough," Tony snapped. "Get her out of here, now."

The dark-haired man who'd been leaning against the kitchen counter, ragged haircut covering his eyes, nodded. "Solnyshko," he said, putting a hand on Natalie's shoulder. "We're going now." For an instant, it looked like Rushman might fight him, but his hand squeezed, the arm making strange whirring noises, and her face paled. She unfolded from the chair and meekly allowed the man to direct her away from the room.

Tony blew out a breath as they left. "Seriously, whatever she's told you, she's working for Fury," he said. "She's not part of any team." He gave the word "team" finger-quotes.

The blond guy opened his mouth to argue, but Rhodey cleared his throat. "Steve," he said tightly. "Let it go, man. I don't think he's going to remember any of you."

"I seriously work with these guys?" Tony said. "Man, my standards have fallen."

The blond -- Steve -- folded his arms over his chest and looked mutinous. "Your standards, Stark, were never that high to start with."

A milquetoast man, serious and stoop-shouldered, got up. "I think I should go," he said. "The other guy's gettin' upset. Colonel Rhodes, will you keep me posted?"

Rhodey nodded, nudging Tony aside to clear the way to the elevator. "I'll let you know if anything changes, Dr. Banner."

It wasn't until the elevator closed that the name rang a bell. "Wait, Bruce Banner? Damn. Him, I want to talk to. He's done some really fascinating things with electron-collision--"

"Not when he's upset, you don't," Rhodey said. "I think our insurance rates will go up again if you have to pull Veronica out of the mothballs."

Tony grinned. "Well, the way he turns into an enormous green ragemonster is pretty cool, I wouldn't mind seeing that." Steve got a pinched look, which Tony perversely enjoyed.

"You can't possibly put Tony in the field right now, Rhodes. At the rate he's going, he'd try to deck Thor and start sleeping with Loki," another guy piped up, this one with a scruff of sandy blond hair and arms that... Wow. Lift much, bro?

"Stark's not going in the field," Steve said decisively. "If he's cleared to leave medical to recuperate, that's fine, but he'll definitely be a liability in the field."

"It's Tony, of course he's not cleared to leave medical, Steve, what... have you been asleep for the last seventy years?" Arms boy said, then smacked himself in the forehead. "Oh, wait. You have. My bad."

Tony kind of liked that one. Steve, on the other hand... "Who died and made you Captain America?" he sniped.

The entire room turned and stared at him, as if he'd made a joke in extremely poor taste.

"What? Wait, don't tell me they actually found some poor schlub to shove into a spangly uniform and pretend to be Captain America?" Tony groaned.

Steve clenched his fists, the sleeves of his tee straining to contain his muscles. "It took me years to stop wanting to punch him every time he opened his mouth." It sounded like he was trying for patient and conversational, but it rather missed the mark.

The black guy nodded. "I'm getting that, now. The real Tony's a little less prickly."

"Excuse you, I'm real," Tony objected.

"Aw, team, no," said the guy Tony had decided to like.

"Tony," Rhodey huffed, "stop being an ass. Come on, let's go get you some pants, before you decide you need to get into an actual dick-measuring contest with Captain Rogers."

"You'll lose," the funny guy quipped. "Super soldiers..." He nodded, looking smug and sly and held out both hands, measuring off a span of almost eleven inches.

Steve groaned. "Clint. Shut. up."

Tony let Rhodey steer him toward a door that promised stairs, but he twisted back to point at Clint. "You. You're okay."

"Great," Clint said. He whistled and kicked his feet up onto the table, leaning his chair back precariously. "The old Tony likes me. That's 'cause we're both twelve year olds."

"We know, Barton," the black guy said. "Believe me, we know."

"Technically," Tony told Rhodey seriously, "I'm the younger Tony now. The more handsome, charming one."

"You're really, really not," Rhodey said.

They reached the stairs and found the dark-haired guy waiting there. He fell into formation behind them, like a bodyguard. He nudged Rhodes and handed him a cup of coffee. "For Stark. Self-care. Coffee."

Tony grabbed the cup from Rhodey before he could protest and took a deep drink. Oh, god, it was good. He grinned over the mug's edge at the guy. "I like you, too," he said. "People who bring me coffee are the best."

The guy swallowed hard, his eyes shifting to the floor. "Anything you need. I'm... you don't remember me. I'm Bucky. We're... we were. Friends. I'm sorry."

"Wait, you're the Bucky who was in my room earlier?" Tony said. He smacked Rhodey's arm. "Rhodey, why'd you let me send him away? He's hot!"

"Tony," Rhodey said, his I'm not playing around you need to shut up now voice. Not that Tony ever obeyed it.

A tiny smile played around Bucky's mouth. "You've said that before."

"Well, multiple observations; the scientific process is upheld. It's official; you're objectively hot." Tony sipped the coffee, a little slower this time, watching Bucky over the rim. Tony had had thousands of coffees from hundreds of baristas, he'd learned the hard way that he couldn't brew a damn cup to save his life, and DUM-E was more likely to poison him than not, but this cup... This cup was perfect. Exactly the way he liked it. "Where'd you learn to make coffee like this?" he asked.

Bucky smiled a little wider. "Clint, actually."

"Excellent, my good taste is upheld." Tony finished off the cup and realized that they were in the penthouse; now this was more like it. Even if it did look like he'd let Pepper do the decorating. He sat the cup down on the table. "Bucky, more?"

"Tony," Bucky said, a low voice that was full of... something. "Yes." He picked the cup up and strode out the door, headed back down to the kitchen where all the whackjobs were currently holed up. Well, except for Rushman; who the hell knew where she was?

"So, pants!" Tony clapped his hands together and headed into what was obviously the bedroom. "Huh, Goldilocks, someone's been sleeping in my bed."

The room was a wreck, the bed unmade and tatters of clothing strewn all over the floor.

"Don't I have people to, you know, take out the trash?"

JARVIS made one of those not-quite-sounds. Tony would swear that sometimes he could just feel that his AI, his baby, his creation, was judging him.

"I was not expecting you home today, sir. Your cleaners have been retasked to the disaster area in the basement, in a priority rotation. I'll summon them up shortly."

These... these were not his pants. And they weren't Pepper's pants either. He finally located something that would fit him in the dresser, of all places -- who would have thought it? It was surreal, not being able to see the glow of the arc-reactor through his tee. He tapped his fingers nervously on the scar where it had been, and wondered whose pants were on his floor. He dressed, taking his time about it because he'd rather Rhodey think he was being a brat than admit he was dizzy from the minor effort of climbing some stairs.

Rhodey figured it out anyway, damn him. His arm slipped around Tony's waist and led him carefully over to the bed to sit. "I'm fine," Tony tried.

"Sure, Tony," Rhodey said. "You only fell twenty-six stories and had a massive energy surge hit your brain; I'm sure you're right as rain."

The door slid open again, admitting Bucky and another cup of coffee.

"How did you get in here? How did he get in here, Rhodey?"

Bucky scrubbed at his front teeth with his tongue. "JARVIS let me in. We're friends, JARVIS and I."

"Thank you, Mr. Barnes. Your esteem means a great deal."

That was weird, but Rhodey was rolling his eyes instead of calling security, and Bucky had said they were friends, so maybe that was okay.

Bucky sat the cup down on the bedside table, rotated the handle so that Tony could pick it up easily. His eyes widened comically, and he scooted over to the other side of the bed. He was fast, faster than Tony could follow -- watching the man move was like watching quicksilver skittering. He put a hand down on the bed and tucked something into his other palm. Whatever it was disappeared with the realization that the man had a metal hand, a totally operational prosthetic.

"Holy shit," Tony blurted. "That's gorgeous. Tell me I made it. Please. Tell me I made that work of art."

"Nah," Bucky said, "but you've done some repairs on it."

Tony pouted. "Unfair. I've had my hands in there and I can't even remember it?"

"Well, there's some incentive for you to remember, then," Bucky said, and he was smiling but there was a strain around his eyes. He yanked off the fingerless leather glove with his teeth and cuffed his jacket up, rotating his wrist for Tony to admire. Bucky muttered something in Russian, the liquid beauty of the words sending prickles down Tony's spine. "Zhelezoska, you can look, if you want."

"Damn," Tony breathed. He took the side of Bucky's hand and pulled it closer to see the way the plates moved, brushing his thumb over the side to check the movement. "This is just... Are you sure I didn't make it?"

“Tony," Rhodey sighed. "Give the man his arm back."

"He said I can look!" Tony protested, clinging to the arm. God, it was beautiful, like polished silver, shining even in the relatively dim light of the room. Tony trailed a hand down the forearm, admiring how smooth it felt, even in the joints. Bucky shivered, and Tony looked up. "Can you feel it?"

Bucky's voice was hoarse. "Yeah, I can feel that."

"Holy shit."

"I said something similar when I first saw it. And then I tore the throat out of the man who'd installed it on me against my will. But it's mine now." Bucky turned his wrist, the servos whirring and the plates shifting.

Well, that sounded uneasily familiar. Tony released Bucky's wrist and pressed his hand over the arc-- over where the arc reactor used to be in his chest. "Yeah," he agreed hoarsely.

Bucky nodded and rolled his sleeve down, tugging his glove back on. "It makes people nervous," he said, although his tone more implied that he made people nervous. "But you're right. It is beautiful."

Rhodey's expression was shuttered and thoughtful, but for a change, he didn't speak his mind. He nudged Tony's side. "Now that you're dressed -- note I do not say decent -- do you want to go back down and meet your teammates properly, or have you had enough adventure for one day?"

Bucky didn't quite reach for Tony, his hand hovering over the damnable bruise on Tony's shoulder. "Or dinner? Self-care... all those things I'm so bad at." And his mimicry of Tony's voice was frighteningly accurate, but done affectionately, as if this was something Tony had reminded Bucky of, a few times before, or was some sort of private joke between them.

So weird. It didn't feel like he was missing memories. He wasn't aware of any blank spots, the way he would be if he'd, say, drunk himself into blackout. He clearly remembered the frantic experiments, trying to prolong his stupid life when he was dying from palladium poisoning, and that still seemed like it was just yesterday, just yesterday that he was burning up from the inside. But this guy, this Bucky... They had some history, obviously, but there was no way... His head ached.

"Tony!" Hands caught his shoulders, and he hadn't been aware of falling over, but hey, look at that, he was overbalanced, face pointing at the floor.

"Maybe I'm not quite up to socializing tonight," Tony murmured, and let the hands help him into the bed.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

"Can I have a word," Colonel Rhodes said. It wasn't quite an order, but it was not a polite request, either.

Bucky shrugged. How hard could it be? he'd thought. Hard. It could be god damned hard. But he was making headway. Tony was already interested, and certainly they couldn't go to bed together, not while he was ill, but Bucky was hopeful. Unlike the others, who were faced with rebuilding years of friendship, he only had a few days to repeat. "Say your piece."

He followed Rhodes out of the penthouse and down the stairs to the kitchen. Bucky opened the fridge and started to plate himself a snack of leftovers and fresh fruit. He would put a few things on a plate for Tony, too, and bring it up later, in case Tony was feeling up to eating after his nap.

"You need to stop flirting with him," Rhodes said. "You're just gonna mess him up. He's already confused."

"I'm not flirting with Tony," Bucky protested.

Rhodes gave him a cut-the-shit glare. "Look, I don't care about... He has brain damage, and you need to leave him alone to get over it and get better."

"He has memory loss from an electrical shock," Bucky retorted. "I'm pretty fucking familiar with having my memory wiped on a regular goddamn basis. And Tony brought me home. I wouldn't even be here now if Tony hadn't... taken a risk. There aren't very many people on the planet better equipped to help him than me and Tash, and you saw how he feels about her. The only one who can help him is me."

There wasn't anyone else in the kitchen, so Bucky didn't bother to keep his voice down, using his extra inches and bulk to invade Rhodes's personal space. He wasn't quite shoving the man, but he was pushing the very edge of intimidation.

"We have a top-notch medical team," Rhodes snapped, refusing to back down, his hands coming up. "Tony can get all the help he needs from medical professionals. Not some Hydra defector with a list of psychological problems as long as my arm."

"I can help him," Bucky insisted.

"Look, I don't care that you're sleeping with him. Don't even try to lie; you were not as subtle as you thought about hiding that lube. Which, for the record, he wouldn't even have blinked at; you might as well not have bothered. I don't care, really. His memory comes back, you two can do whatever the hell you want. But for right now--"

"Buck?" Steve's voice broke.

Oh, shit. The kitchen had been empty, but Bucky hadn't bothered to do a sweep of the television area just off the side, where Steve had been, apparently, sitting and reading a book until Bucky and Rhodes had started yelling at each other.

Bucky closed his eyes. This was not happening. A giant hole was going to open in the ground and swallow him up. He waited, counting breaths in Russian. Nope. Still here. He opened his eyes and saw Steve, shocked, appalled. Disappointed.

"Christ, Stevie, this is not how it sounds."

"How it sounds, Buck? It sounds pretty damn bad. You're sleeping with Stark? Are you even aware of what a very bad idea that is, Buck?"

Rhodes sighed. "Tony never met a bad idea he didn't like, Captain. You can't blame Barnes for that."

"Oh, I don't," Steve bit the words off and spat them out.

"He saved me," Bucky repeated, glaring at both of them. "It'd be piss-poor repayment on my part to walk away from him now. And --" He turned on Steve. "-- I don't recall needing your permission to take a lover. Or four."

"That's a low blow, pal," Steve said, straightening up. He was stupidly tall and stupidly self-righteous and Bucky was reminded, utterly and completely, of how hard it had been, sometimes, to be his friend.

"Sometimes, I think you like gettin' hit," Bucky muttered, rebelliously. His hand itched and he flexed the bicep, listening to the whir and click of the plates.

"Are you threatening me?" Steve was horrified and indignant. "What happened to... "

"You know," Bucky said, "he said... He said you were finally friends, and he didn't want to mess that up."

"That was before he... Svengali'ed my best friend and then lost his memory, so I can't even beat a halfway decent excuse out of him. It's a bad plan, Buck. He's not anything like relationship material."

"He did not Svengali me. I'm seriously insulted here. I was getting your sorry ass dates back in the forties, Steve."

"Those were dames, Bucky. It's not the same thing at all and you know it."

"You live in the same building with my Tash and you say stupid shit like that?" Bucky gaped at him. "Are you suicidal?"

Steve's face was a mass of confusion, judgement, and horror. "She's not your Tash. I don't... I don't even understand any of this."

Rhodes stared back and forth between the two of them like he was watching a tennis match played over a minefield. "Why did anyone ever want to thaw you two out?"

"Steve..." He didn't want to fight with Steve, he really did not want to, not today, not really ever, but this wasn't something he was going to back down on.

"You know, I don't think I can talk about this right now. I'm going to bed," Steve said. He turned on his heel and marched off, shoulders tight.

"What the hell just happened?" Bucky banged his fists against his forehead, snarling out a frustrated sound that was part swear and part scream.

"Captain Rogers is definitely being Judgy McJudgmental here," Colonel Rhodes said. "I don't know what his problem is. But my point is, I don't care if Tony's banging you like a cheap screen door, just wait until he's feeling better. Please. Just... He's my best friend, man. I don't want him fucked up or fucked over anymore than he already is, okay?"

"Are you on my side here or not?" Bucky asked.

"I just told you, I'm on Tony's side."

"Ug. I hate. All of you." Bucky grunted. "I'm going to go punch things for a while."

***

Tony

Someone was banging on his door.

"Mrfls?"

"GODDAMNIT, STARK," someone bellowed, "OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW."

"JARVIS?" Tony mumbled, trying to roll over. He hadn't even really fallen asleep yet, just sort of drifted a bit after Rhodey had left.

"Captain Rogers seems most insistent on talking to you, sir," JARVIS reported.

"He's not Captain Rogers," Tony muttered. "And I don't want to talk to him."

"JARVIS, override: Rogers, Steven G., alpha-niner-three-seven-delta-niner. Unlock this door, right now."

"Captain Rogers," JARVIS said in his most disapproving tones, "this is most irregular."

"Belay that, JARVIS," Tony protested, but it was too late. Six and a half feet of muscled indignation was already in his living room. "Traitor."

"I'm very sorry, sir," JARVIS said. "The override codes have not been updated since your mishap."

Tony dragged himself off the bed. He hadn't even gotten undressed, which was good, because there were some conversations that a man just did not want to be naked for, and it was sounding like this was going to be one of them.

"How could you?" Steve demanded.

"You'll have to be more specific," Tony said, throwing himself down in a chair. "I have a long and distinguished history of habits, decisions, and events that can be best summed up by 'how could you?' and 'what the hell were you thinking?' The answer's almost always the same, though: seemed like a good idea at the time."

"You... you seduced my best friend. Tony, he's traumatized, he barely remembers who he is most of the time. And you... What did you even do? Ug. It's not even like you have any damn answers for me, since you don't remember. But I thought you were a better person than that. You might not remember it now, but you knew what you were doing at the time. I thought I could trust you."

Tony put his aching head in his hands and peered through his fingers up at Steve -- damn, he really did look the part, didn't he? They had found an amazing method actor for this role. "You're going to have to back up a little; apparently having your brain fried leaves you with a hell of a lingering migraine. Who did I work my evil wiles on?"

"My. Best. Friend. Bucky Barnes." Steve ground it out one word at a time, like he was chewing an iron bar and spitting out staples.

"Bucky? Oh, excellent. Good going, other me. I have fantastic taste."

Which was all he managed to get out before Captain America decked him.

"You unbelievable bastard," Steve spat.

Somehow, through the haze of pain -- his skull really was splitting open -- Tony's hands moved, as if of their own volition. He had no idea what signal he'd sent until a gauntlet wrapped around his hand, quickly followed by other pieces, wrapping him up in the comforting embrace of cold metal until he was fully armored. He clambered to his feet and thrust a repulsor up at the damned red-white-and-blue bastard.

"Get. Out. Of. My. House. Now."

Steve didn't look impressed at the threat, but he turned and stomped away, leaving without a backward glance. The automated door couldn't actually slam, but Steve certainly left that impression in his wake.

Tony dismissed Captain Self-Righteous in favor of a much more pressing development. "Holy shit, that is so cool," Tony breathed, looking down at the gauntlets on his hands that had just come to him. "When did I invent this? JARVIS, I am a genius."

"So I have been told, sir," JARVIS agreed. "I have revoked Captain Roger's override code for the duration of this... situation."

Tony waved his arms a few times; but now that he was consciously thinking about it, he had no idea what he'd done. "JARVIS, buddy?"

"Sir?"

"How do I get it off?"

The armor fell to pieces around him. "I have utilized the emergency release and sent video capture to your holo display."

"Yeah, buddy, thanks."

He threw himself back on the sofa and gingerly prodded at his eye. "Star-spangled asshole." Tony drifted off to sleep, watching videos of himself that he never made.

***

Tony woke with a start, heart pounding and skin clammy from a dream he couldn't remember. For a moment, he simply lay there, panting for breath. But as the nebulous terror of the dream receded, he began to notice... oddities.

His head felt strange against the pillow. The light was too dim, and what little of it there was came from the wrong side of the bed. His whole body ached -- well, that wasn't unusual, lately, but it wasn't the same sort of pain that he'd become accustomed to. This was localized around his face and head, bone-deep as if he'd been in a fight recently. ...More recently, anyway.

Where the fuck was he, and what had happened? The bed was far too comfortable for him to have been kidnapped again, probably. Maybe he'd gotten blackout drunk and crashed at a hotel, or someone's house. But the bed was empty, and while his head was pounding, he didn't have the muscle aches that usually came with a hangover.

He put a hand over his face to rub the sleep from his eyes -- or tried, sitting bolt upright with a yelp of pain. He touched his face again, more carefully this time. Yep, that was a hell of a shiner he'd picked up somewhere.

Sitting up had triggered the polarized windows to adjust, letting in what looked like early morning light, filtering in from gray skies over-- Manhattan? Shit, if he'd gotten drunk and flown to New York, Pepper was going to kill him. Not to mention Coulson; the SHIELD agent had been lurking around the house for days just waiting for an excuse to hit Tony with the taser.

Tony threw off the blanket and stood up, pacing to the window to stare out in bewilderment. "Where the fuck am I?"

"You are in Stark Tower in New York City, sir," JARVIS said, making Tony jump and spin around.

"Stark Tower? But that's... That's just in the planning stages, I only signed off on the initial blueprints a month ago."

"Forgive me, sir. You may wish to--"

JARVIS was still talking, but Tony stopped hearing him, because he'd just realized that the arc reactor was gone, not even the socket left behind, completely gone. Tony pressed at his chest harder, knowing it was irrational but unable to stop.

"--elevated heart rate and respiration rate--"

"--your masterpiece, Tony, your Ninth Symphony--"

--couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, chest aching for air--

"--if you would allow me to contact--"

"--new generation of weapons--"

--dizzy--

"--sir, please--"

"--palladium in the chest, painful way to die--"

--pain and more pain and pain--

There were hands on his shoulders. Hands, he was pretty sure, those were hands. They were holding his arms tight, keeping Tony from falling over. There was a sound, echoing in his ears, slowly resolving into syllables he knew.

"--ny? Come on, take a breath, you can do it. Tony. Tony, listen to my voice, okay, I'm right here, you're okay, you're all right, I'm right here, and I just need you to breathe, babe, just one breath, you can do it."

The voice was soothing but tense, unknown but familiar, a study in contradiction, and Tony clung to it like a lifeline. The hands were steady and strong and Tony leaned into them. He was... alive. He was alive and breathing, and the arc reactor was gone but his heart was still beating. Not seizing or ripping itself on jagged shards of shrapnel. There was air in his lungs, and the voice told him to let it out, so he did. He breathed in again, slow and deep, and the voice praised him, and he was happy to have pleased it.

Another few breaths later, he realized that he was kneeling on the floor and his eyes were closed. He opened them. In front of him, holding his upper arms firmly, was-- a stranger.

Probably a stranger. Tony couldn't recall ever having seen this man before, but he was beautiful, and when he smiled at Tony, his whole face lit up, and it did things to Tony's stomach.

"There you go," the man said with another of those smiles. "Feeling a little better now?"

"Yeah," Tony managed. "I just, I--"

"Shh, it's okay, deep breaths. I know it's probably a shock, but you're okay."

"Okay," Tony repeated. He looked from the beautiful man's eyes to the window, then cast a slow look around the room, at furniture he'd never seen before, in a room he didn't remember coming to.

The man touched Tony's cheek, very gently, just at the outside edge of his blackened eye. "Where'd this come from?"

"I don't know," Tony admitted. "I don't even know how I got here or--" He looked at the man again. "I'm sorry, who are you?"

***

Bucky

Bucky barely managed to choke out an apology before he was on his feet, running for the bathroom to vomit noisily into the toilet. His stomach roiled, hot acid churning in his chest and his hand closed around the edge of the sink with a horrifying crack, and the fine marble countertop crumbled into very expensive pebbles.

"So, we got drunk and had a really good time last night? Is that what I'm getting from this, here? Are you okay?" Tony followed him, only as far as the doorway, where he leaned, pale and shaky.

"No," Bucky moaned. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, Mr. Barnes?"

"How are you talking to my AI? My AI does not talk to random hook-ups unless they wander into restricted areas," Tony muttered.

"When did... when did this happen?"

"I am uncertain, but Mr. Stark woke up in quite a state. He seems to have lost all recovery from yesterday."

"Christ on a pogo stick," Bucky murmured. "Okay." He went to the sink and rinsed his mouth out, then dug in the cabinet for some mouthwash.

"Make yourself at home, of course," Tony said, sardonic and sharp, and yeah, Bucky could see how that would put Steve's back up.

Bucky blew a long breath out between his teeth. He headed for the living room and Tony moved back to let him pass, carefully avoiding contact with him. "Come here, Tony, sit down. It'll be easier to explain if I ain't worried you're gonna fall over on your ear."

Tony didn't sit, but he conceded as far as leaning against a chair on the far side of the room from Bucky. "I'm listening."

"You had an accident about a week ago, now. You were in a coma for a few days. You woke up yesterday and... well, it turns out you lost a lot of your memory. So, it's um... a few years later than you prob'ly remember. I didn't bother to get the damn timeline because I thought you were getting better.

"My name is Bucky Barnes, and I swear to god, if you say 'who the hell is Bucky,' I will punch your other eye."

Tony raised his one working eyebrow as sardonically as his swollen face would allow, and held up his hands in a "who, me?" gesture.

"Colonel Rhodes said you were having a bit of a panic about it yesterday, so let me reassure you, your arc-reactor was removed safely a couple years back, and all the shrapnel was cleared away. You are, for the most part, perfectly healthy, aside from taking a 26-floor drop down an elevator shaft and getting hit by a live electrical wire, which is, er... what caused the problem.

"You're in the Avengers Tower, which used to be Stark Tower. Yes, you did eventually agree to join, and you apparently hate my best friends. Both of them. And I'm... an enemy combatant that you invited into your home. So, questions?"

Tony rubbed thoughtfully at his chest and stared at Bucky for a long time without speaking. Fair enough, Bucky figured; it was a lot to take in at once. Again.

"JARVIS," Tony finally said, not taking his eyes (well, eye; the blackened one was swollen nearly shut) off Bucky, "are you sure you haven't been compromised?"

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS said, a touch primly. "Verification code 612-echo-823-tango-704."

"And this guy is telling the truth?"

"Yes, sir, I'm afraid so. Colonel Rhodes is currently in residence, would you like me to call him to confirm it?"

"Yeah-- wait, no. Rhodey told me all this stuff yesterday?"

"More or less," JARVIS agreed.

"Yeah, don't bother him, then."

"Oh, Tony," Bucky said, falling against the back of the sofa and covering his eyes with his hands, "this sucks so much. Like, big time suckage."

Tony shot him a look. "Yeah, I'm not really having the best time, myself. What's your beef, enemy combatant?"

"This sounds like a comic book plot, when you sit it next to what's happened to you," Bucky said. He flexed his fingers, listening to the familiar whine of servos in his shoulder.

Tony watched the fingers with interest, but didn't say anything about it, this time, clearly waiting for Bucky to finish the explanation.

"Um... do you know about Red Skull, and Hydra?"

Tony blinked. "Sure, I took American History in school, and my dad liked to tell stories."

"Right, you're Howard Stark's son. I keep forgetting. Or I don't want to think about it. At all. Ever again."

"That's two of us, pal."

"Anyway..." Bucky took a deep breath to steady himself. "Howling Commandos? Yeah." He jabbed a thumb at himself. "Bucky Barnes. Does the name sound familiar yet?"

Tony's head cocked to one side. "Captain America's right-hand man. You had extremely nerdy parents and an older brother already named Steve, maybe?"

"No. Well, yes kinda nerdy, but not... Getting off track here. I really am Bucky Barnes. I... let's just say falling down the elevator with you last week isn't the worst tumble I've taken. I was captured by Hydra and... altered. Brainwashed." He swallowed hard, his hand shaking, his bones shaking. Zola's face swam into his mind's eye. It's an experiment, Sergeant Barnes; we don't know what it will do to you.

"Jesus," Tony breathed. He was still watching Bucky, but less suspiciously now. "Seriously?"

"I wish to Christ I wasn't." Bucky crossed himself. He hadn't been to church since he was a kid and his mother made him, but it generally worked to prove sincerity. "Except, you know, if I hadn't been captured in the 40s, I wouldn't be here, now. Which considering everything, it might have been better if I'd died when I was s'posed to."

"Shit." Tony tried to shove a hand through his hair, but it tugged on the bruise on his face, and he winced and let his hand fall limply back to his lap.

"I don't think, I'm like, immortal or anything. I age, but I've spent a lot of the last seventy years in cryo-freeze. Hydra only brought the-- me out for... extreme sanction." Bucky glanced up at Tony. "God, that eye looks terrible, let me get you an ice pack. Sorry. Pretty sure that Steve did that, and it's my fault. I'll have words with him. Later." He rummaged around in the minifridge and packed some ice into a plastic bag and wrapped the whole works in a washcloth. "Here."

Tony took the ice pack and laid it gingerly on his face. "Do I want to know who Steve is, and why he punched me?"

Bucky sighed. "I don't know why he punched you, but Steve is Captain America. Yes, the real one. Yes, I know it's hard to believe. And yes, I know you hate him. Wasn't too long ago that I rather hated him myself. My last, official Hydra mission --" He stuttered over the word. "-- was to kill him. My best friend. The man I'd have walked into hell for. Which is pretty much exactly what happened. I went to hell. And I'll tell ya, Tony... hell is cold.

"And here's the second really weird part. Over the last seventy years, Hydra kept wiping my memory. By using a combination of drugs, subliminal suggestion, and... electro-shocks. So believe me, I know exactly what you're going through."

For just a second, a fraction of a heartbeat, it looked like Tony might break. Something small and frightened and terribly, terribly vulnerable flashed into his eye. And then Tony shook himself, physically, visibly pushing his fear and insecurity behind a wall. He took a breath, let it out slowly. "Iron," he said, more to himself than to Bucky. "So. What next?"

"Coffee? Breakfast? Self-care? You told me yourself, you were all sorts of bad about that kinda thing. And I don't think you've eaten since crappy hospital food yesterday morning. I mean, the food's better there than in the war, but still. Hospital food. Coffee? I'll make you breakfast, if you want?"

Tony nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "Sure. Why not. Actually, scrap that. Why?"

"Why what?" Bucky blinked, confused.

"Why are you offering to make me breakfast?" Tony asked. "If you're Steve's best buddy, and he hates me, which -- seems pretty evident -- why are you here?"

"There's the question I don't really wanna answer. Colonel Rhodes sort of... threatened me about it. And then Steve and I got into it, after which I'm pretty sure he came upstairs and punched you." Bucky tightened his fingers, the servos overclocking and hissing. "I dunno, Zhelezoska. Do you want the truth, or do you want me to make something up?" He hung his head, not quite able to meet Tony's accusatory gaze.

"They say truth is stranger than fiction, and after that fucking history -- the Howling Commandos, really? -- I want the truth. And what is that, you're calling me?" Tony's voice was urgent, demanding.

Bucky relaxed, his body stretching out and each muscle tightened, loosened. Clear directions were so much better than floundering at sea, rudderless. "Zhelezoska? Um... It's an endearment, kinda. I think in Russian these days; part of my conditioning. I can't really think in English anymore. I'm always havin' to translate. It means... little iron man? It doesn't really carry over real well. In English, I guess I'd say, uh, sweetheart."

"Babe." Tony snapped his fingers. "You called me 'babe' earlier, when I was--" Tony waved his hand, trying to convey the panic and fear and everything that had happened earlier without using his words. Bucky was getting more familiar with that tendency.

"Probably," Bucky admitted. "JARVIS yelled for me and I think I teleported through the goddamn floor to get to you. I wasn't exactly paying attention to what I was saying."

"So... What you're telling me, here -- let me see if I got all the facts together." Tony ticked points off on his long, graceful fingers. "I am currently banging an ex-Hydra agent who wants to make me breakfast, after losing my memories of the past several years and the honest-to-god, actual facts Captain America punched me in the face for... Why did he punch me? I thought he was supposed to be a good guy; where does he get off decking invalids?"

Bucky hid his face in his hands. "It sounds really bad when you say it like that."

"You think?" Tony sighed. "Get out. Just... go away."

"All right, Tony," Bucky said. He got to his feet and complied with Tony's request without another word.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Self-care. And all those other things that I'm so bad at.

Fresh fruit was one of the things that Bucky thought he'd never be able to get enough of and couldn't take for granted. The fridge in the communal area was always stocked with grapes, apples, melons, oranges. He peeled and devoured an orange before snagging a dozen eggs, a half-string of kielbasa and some fresh herbs, which he fried up in a large skillet, and slammed the whole thing onto a hotplate in the middle of the table

And coffee. He prepped one of Clint's monstrosities and handed it to him the instant the archer walked into the room.

Clint took an extremely cautious sip, no doubt expecting some sort of painful revenge. When he came to the conclusion that Bucky had not, in fact, doctored his drink, he brightened and began to gulp happily. And then shrieked like a small child when he reached the bottom and caught a glimpse of the shockingly lifelike plastic roach Bucky had attached there. The cup plummeted toward the floor and Tash caught it before it could smash.

"Aw, cup." Clint shook his head at Bucky. "Good. Good one. I deserved that."

"I'm sure you did," Tash said, ruffling Clint's hair good-naturedly.

She fixed herself a plate of eggs and fruit, rolling her eyes heavenward with appreciation. Clint helped himself to eggs but declared cut fruit to be entirely too healthy. He and Tash engaged in a subtle bit of food-shoving where Tash would edge a slice of melon or a banana in his direction, in case Clint might eat it by accident, and Clint tossing it aside.

When she tried to force a handful of grapes on him, Clint pegged one at her, which she, of course, ducked. Bucky caught it in his teeth just before it hit the floor.

Which set off a complicated, improv game, where Tash and Clint were both tossing grapes and Bucky twisted, stretched, and lunged, snapping them up. Surprisingly few pieces hit the floor, even when Clint got a little creative and pegged an apple into the mix. Bucky snapped a bite out with his teeth, tossed the apple in the air again, caught Tash's side-arm slung grape, snagged the apple out of the air, bit it again. He probably could have kept going except his mouth was full and he didn't have time to swallow.

Clint collapsed with giggles. "Oh, that was excellent. You should be in the circus, and believe me, I know circuses." He held out his fist for a bump and when Bucky lightly tapped his own fist against Clint's, the archer slid his hand under, forked his fingers, and declared, "Snail!"

Bucky cuffed him in the back of the head.

"No, okay, seriously, this time, for real, fist bump," Clint said. He offered his fist again, Bucky bumped it, and then Clint's hands flickered, up, down, side, back, bump, shake, with Bucky matching his moves with easy precision, as if they'd been working on a secret treehouse handshake for years. Clint's eyes grew wide as he tried for more and more obscure moves, Bucky keeping pace.

"How are you doing that?" Clint asked. "I mean, you got serious game, bro."

"You're telegraphing your intentions a mile away," Bucky said.

"You do not have serious game, Clint," Tash declared.

"Aw, shake." Clint shook his head. "You gotta teach me that."

"Sure," Bucky agreed. He sat back down to finish breakfast and listen as Clint and Tash struggled to outdo each other with tall tales and stuff that probably wasn't made up about the various Avengers, friends, family, and lovers that frequented the Tower, and while they occasionally mentioned Tony in passing, they steered clear of any particularly personal stories about Steve or Tony, a thing that Bucky greatly appreciated without being able to express exactly why.

He could have friends, here. Tash kept her leg braced against his, under the table, and that small contact was reassuring, comforting. Familiar.

Steve came in, his shirt sweat-stained and a towel around his neck.

"Buck," he started, holding a hand out, apologies written all over his face, but Bucky wasn't having it.

"Rogers," he said. Tash squeezed his wrist under the table and Bucky shook her off. "I saw Tony this morning."

Steve's face flushed ugly red and he opened his mouth to say something.

"He has a black eye. I'm not going to ask what happened, and I don't want to hear about it. I'm not going to ask you, because you're a shitty liar and this is a bad time for you to lie to me. And I'm sure JARVIS could confirm what happened, but I'm not going to ask him, either. I'm going to ignore this." He stood up, full height, and stepped deep inside Steve's personal space. "And I'm going to tell you this, exactly once. You hit him again, you touch him again, and I will burn. You. Down."

Steve gaped at him, impossibly hurt, shamefully mortified.

"Steve, I love you man, you know that, right? You're the best friend I've ever had and I would follow that stupid kid from Brooklyn anywhere. But you're supposed to be the good guy, Steve, and I don't want you to be unworthy of it. And what you did? That was unworthy of you."

Bucky passed him, then stopped, clapped Steve on the shoulder and squeezed. It was forgiven. Once.

***

Natasha

He was right where she expected him to be, bare-knuckling a bag in the gym. He was beautiful and she loved him, but he wasn't for her. Not anymore. And she wasn't his. Not anymore. What they had -- stolen moments, fragments of memories -- was gone, lost in the betrayal and blood and bone between them. Years had passed, and she was not the girl she'd once been.

She knew that he was aware of her approach, even though he didn't turn, or pause, or acknowledge her in any way. That was good, too. He was comfortable with her.

"Yasha," she said.

He still didn't turn. The flow and cadence of Russian came easily to his tongue, even easier than English, perhaps. "<You knew who I was, then. Would you have killed me?>"

"<You know what the highest mandate is, Yasha."> She answered him in that same language. She made no apologies.

"<Survive.>" He stopped pummeling the bag, rested his head against its surface. Sweat gleamed on his neck and his hair hung in tangled, oily locks.

"<If it matters,>" she offered, "<I am glad I did not have to kill you.>"

"<It matters.>" Yasha turned to face her, finally, and she drank in the sight of his features eagerly. As an intelligence operative, she hadn't been subjected to as many wipes as a Soldier would have; her brain was her mighty weapon and they wouldn't risk it. But most of him had been snatched from her mind, and she had been stolen from his, for far too long.

"<Will you dance with me?"> Over one shoulder hung a pair of aged ballet toe-shoes, the ribbons brilliant, cherry red.

<"I haven't danced since they took you from me."> He stared at her shoes, memories rising like a tide that could drown the world in his eyes.

<"Nor I.">

He rested his forehead on her shoulder. "I will," Yasha said, returning to English.

"One last dance," Tash agreed. "Here." She drew items from her bag, men's slippers, a stretchy pair of shorts, and a dancer's belt.

Yasha laughed. "You came prepared."

She unlaced her shirt and placed it on the bench behind her. Underneath she was wearing a nude leotard and tights and nothing else. Her sleek, fire-red hair was pinned tightly to her head. "I knew you'd say yes."

Yasha changed clothes and returned in short order.

"JARVIS?"

"Agent Romanov?"

"Bring up my playlist."

"Of course."

Yasha crossed the gym floor toward her, his movements all proud strut and dominating arrogance. He was shirtless, bare legged, brutal and powerful.

The familiar strains of Prokofiev's Love Dance filled the room. Yasha took her into his arms and they moved as one.

***

Tony

"Excuse me, sir," JARVIS said. Tony was sprawled out on his bed, his third ice-pack melting gently down the side of his face. It was too much to take in. How had he lost... almost four years? It didn't feel like that long. Well, aside from the fact that he felt older. But that might have more to do with a punch in the face from Steve Rogers -- did he really believe that? He still wasn't sure, despite JARVIS's multiple assurances of veracity -- than actual years on the calendar.

"Yeah, buddy?"

"Dr. Banner requests a word with you, if you have a moment."

"Really? As in Bruce Banner? Yeah, yeah, I can do that, I would love to pick his mighty green brain."

"He is on the observation deck overlooking the private gym. Seven floors down, I am afraid, but I am pleased to report the main lift should be repaired by day's end, which will cut down on the need to use the stairs."

Tony shook his head and wearily got to his feet. He still felt terrible, like Han Solo after being tortured at Cloud City. When he expressed those thoughts to JARVIS, the AI concurred, "I would expect so, sir. It's not every day you fall 90 meters and live to tell the tale."

"How did that happen, anyway, J? Was I in the suit?"

"I don't know, sir," JARVIS said. "You did not have access to a suit, but I'm still unable to sync with your mobile, which I assume was damaged in the crash, along with my connections to audio and video feeds in the car. Agent Barton reports that Mr. Barnes administered successful CPR to you at the site of the crash, but as your injuries aside from the electrical shock were limited to contusions and scrapes, one can surmise that you did, somehow, successfully negotiate the impact itself."

"Him, again," Tony muttered. He squelched an unpleasant cocktail of emotions; guilt, gratitude, fear, longing, shame. There was something chilling about the matter-of-fact way Barnes described decades of torture, coercion, being taken apart and utterly destroyed. It pricked at Tony's constant urge to fix things. But Tony didn't do people, he'd never done people. Not well. He had been trying his damndest to drive everyone away because he was dying -- it had been yesterday, dammit, no matter what the calendar said -- and now it turned out he hadn't died at all, and wasn't that a kick in the teeth?

But Barnes had stared at him, all aching loneliness and honest agony. Tony had never met anyone who'd been so brutally vulnerable. Except that, apparently, he had. He just did not remember.

The whole situation made him feel uncomfortably obligated, like there was something he was supposed to do, or say, or just be. And he wasn't. He never was. He never had been... enough.

It would be easier, he thought, if he could feel the blank spaces, the missing time, like a broken tooth that he could prod, over and over, with his tongue, until he finally adjusted to the change, however painful. But instead the transition was seamless. He'd gone to sleep flipping through his dad's old journals, panning them for the single flake of gold that might save him, and woken up... here. Now. Briefly, he wondered if this what how it felt for Rogers, too, but dismissed the thought; he didn't want to feel any sympathy for the jackass who'd damn near cracked his occipital ridge.

Dr. Banner wasn't the only one in the observation deck. Music was pouring in from the speakers, and most of the Avengers were in attendance. JARVIS had offered their files earlier, and while he'd crumpled the holo up and tossed it in the virtual trash in a fit of petulance and pique, he couldn't help but match each one to the little bits he'd seen.

Most of them were clustered on the left side of the room: Falcon, Hawkeye, Captain My Smile is Perfect America, and a slender, black-haired woman that he eventually identified as Maria Hill, whom he'd thought worked for Fury. He really needed to get caught up on current events. Even Rhodey was there. (The Iron Patriot was a stupid-ass name and Tony was totally relieved that he'd had nothing to do with it.) They didn't acknowledge him and while it stung his pride a little, the rest of him was just as happy that he didn't have to... do anything.

Dr. Banner sat alone at a tiny cocktail table near the ceiling to floor one-way window.

"What's up, buttercup?"

Banner smiled, quick and soft. He really did not look like the sort of guy who'd explode randomly into a giant green ball of rage, but then Tony probably didn't look like a merchant of death, either. Strange, what faces people wore behind their masks.

"I thought you might want to watch this," Banner said. "We're recording it for later, of course, but..." Banner put his hand on Tony's elbow, very lightly, and turned him to the window.

Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

They were dancing. Bucky Barnes, and -- Tony's stomach clenched -- Natalie Rushman. Agent Romanov. Whatever her name was. For just an instant, anger burned in him; what the hell was she doing in his house? Why had he allowed that?

"Zimniy soldat a takzhe chernaya vdova," Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton murmured, coming up on Tony's side. "The last dance of the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow. They've been at it for hours."

They moved together like the stars in the heavens, like molten steel and crimson blood. They were frankly brutal in their sensual, powerful movements. Tony had seen porn -- good, high quality porn -- that wasn't as as full of raw sexuality as the pair of them, dancing in tandem, gazes locked on each other.

The floor was splattered with sweat and blood -- Barnes's feet were bleeding through his thin dance slippers -- but if there was pain in his body, it was nothing like the agony on his features. He danced like he was saying farewell. Tony swallowed hard, breathless, caught up in it.

His silver prosthetic arm, which covered him from the shoulder down and looked like it might well have been burned onto his chest, was as expressive, graceful, smooth and sleek as his flesh one as he cupped Rushman's neck, touched her body, tossed her into the air. Tony took a step closer, intent. Down her arms and across her legs, she had red, angry-looking welts. Barnes caught her again, and Tony saw the plates of Barnes's arm shift and pinch her flesh for just a second, leaving another mark.

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen

Tony cleared his throat. "Why..." He glanced at Banner, who was watching Rushman with nearly as much attention as Tony had watched Barnes, his face an open book. Tony refused to open the cover of that little tale, didn't want to read a single page.

The door opened again and a Stark Industries courier slipped in, thrust a pad in Banner's direction, and handed him a long, white box. "Thank you," Banner said, mildly.

Captain Steve fucking America Rogers used the opportunity to leave, casting Tony a black stare on the way out. Tony rolled his eyes. Whatever.

"I don't know, Tony," Banner said, answering the question that Tony hadn't really asked. "You woke me up at three in the morning last week, desperate for me to tell you how to fix this. You would have wanted to see this, then. I thought you might want to see it, now."

"How is he supposedly sleeping with me when he's looking at her like that?" There was a worm in his belly, a hot snarl of... jealousy? Desire? Fear?

"Oh, are you?" Barton asked. "I wasn't sure. You two were spinning around each other like a couple of wayward planets, but I didn't know you'd collided yet." He sounded teasing and delighted, and not particularly put out by the idea. "Good for you, man. That boy is a piece of work, but I'd tap it."

"I don't remember."

"They're... friends," Banner said, softly. "Apparently, he was one of her teachers, back when they were both in Soviet Hydra hands. Both brainwashed, conditioned, highly trained, deadly, and feared. They finally cut themselves loose. Clint brought Natasha in, years ago. Barnes just came back to us recently. You may well be looking at the two strongest willed people in the world."

Good God, let me give you my life

"You like her," Tony observed. It had to be obvious, written on neon on the man's forehead if even Tony had noticed. "That's not a good idea. She's not... relationship material."

"Funny," Clint said. "That's what Steve said, too. About you. To Bucky."

"You people gossip worse than my ma's bridge club. How do you even know about that, Barton?" Rhodey snapped from across the room.

Clint looked incredibly smug. "That's what I do. I drink. And I know things."

Beyond them, the two dancers finally collapsed, caught in the storm of passion that raged within.

Banner lifted the top of the box to reveal dozens of brilliant red roses. As if Banner had a prearranged signal -- and possibly he did -- one of the mirrored windows retracted, giving the dancers a view of their audience.

Huh. There was nothing that made Tony prouder than to realize that the Avengers were utilizing JARVIS, not as a dumb bot, or a talking elevator, but as a member of their team. A friend. Tony stared down that the flowers for a moment, then snagged one up.

Barnes stared up at Tony, his face a firestorm of emotion, sweat dripping down his his temples, his hair plastered to his scalp. Tony threw him the single, red rose, and Barnes swept his arm, catching it just before it hit the floor. He cupped the blossom in his hand, brought it to his nose to test its fragrance, and then nodded. He didn't speak.

Beside Barnes, Natalie Rushman had her arms spread in glory as Banner rained flowers petals onto her head.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Bucky wrung out a washcloth soaked in a home remedy cure-all that Tash had produced from her quarters and that she swore worked wonders on superficial wounds. Tash lifted her arm and Bucky swiped the cloth across the first of her dozens of wounds while she ate a bagel one-handed. Bucky's aversion to the medical clinic hadn't eased up at all and Tash had agreed, a little too readily, to treatment elsewhere.

He wasn't quite sure what she was getting out of first-aid while sitting on the table, but she looked as smug as a cat with cream. She was taking a certain pride in the marks, delighting in them the way that Bucky often enjoyed suck marks on his neck and fingernails down his back. If nothing else, Banner hadn't left her side since she emerged from the showers, and that probably had a lot to do with it.

Bucky hid a fond smile; he was glad for her, which helped numb the guilt. "You're a mess, solnyshko."

She lifted her hair, revealing four or five marks right on top of each other where his hand had cupped around the back of her neck as they'd stared into each other's eyes. Where he'd actually cut flesh. Never again. The thought was bitter and a relief at the same time; they'd been unable to stop, moving long past exhaustion, pushing to the very limits of their flesh and bones, and in those hours, had said without words everything that ever needed to be said between them again. In the end, what was left of their love was burned out and ruined and dead and done, but it was done with joy and gratitude and he'd be warmed forever by the gift she'd given him: friendship. He couldn't feel too bad about hurting her; she'd wanted it desperately, needed it as badly as he did.

Banner, on the other hand, was fussing, flickering little green glances at Bucky as he tended to Tash's wounds.

He heard Tony's voice, coming down the hall, and moved instinctively, pulling Tash with him until they were nearly in the pantry.

"Tony..." An out-of-breath woman with strawberry blonde hair followed behind him, carrying several manilla files, her heels tapping on the floor. Pepper Potts.

"<You have a plan, Yasha?>"

"<What, hiding's not a plan?>"

"<It'll do you for a spell.>"

"<He hates you.>" Bucky muttered into her hair, watching as Banner clued in and took up a semi-blocking position, cradling his coffee mug and blocking the entryway to the kitchen.

"<Long story,>" she whispered. "<I did something unforgivable.>"

Bucky raised an eyebrow.

"<Saved his life.>"

Well, that was a theme with Tony, wasn't it? Something cracked inside his chest. Being a superhero was a dangerous job.

"... seventy million," Pepper was saying and Bucky pressed against the wall, listening hard. "Well, it's hardly chicken feed, but only a small net gain, given how much attention it's likely draw to Stark Industries. I've got a team running the return on investment, but I think we need to consider the possible cost in human life, not just the dollar tag."

"It's a double-benefit, Pep," Tony said. "Every dollar we take, they also don't have, so it's more like a hundred and forty-million. I'm always in favor of bad guys not having any money. Surely we've got some research funds that could use a little plumping."

Pepper's silence was loaded with sarcasm.

"Don't be that way, Pep."

"I'm not being any way, Tony," she sighed. "I'm just wondering what personal value you put on human life. If the remains of Hydra come after us..."

"They're going to do that anyway," Tony pointed out. "From what the man himself told me, we've got one of their prize successful human weaponization projects eating all the food in my kitchen. Speaking of which, I could commit murder for a cup of coffee."

Shit. Bucky glanced around; there! Vent in the corner. He took a knee and Tash was already climbing him like a tree. Moments later, he leaped up behind her and pulled the hatch into place. She crawled over his back, resting her chin on his shoulder so they could both hear and see.

"Oh, hey, Tony," Bruce said, super casual. Super casual enough that even with Tony not remembering him, he did a double-take.

"Dr. Banner," Tony said, both eyebrows  up and his head tilted.

Banner slid to one side, blocking Tony's passage, muttered an apology and stepped back the other way as Tony also shifted. They bumped into each other a few times before Tony's eyes widened. "Is there something in the kitchen you don't want me to see?"

Banner sighed and let him pass, trailing along behind Tony. Banner had no poker face, because the comical surprised expression on his face when they found the kitchen empty of rogue Russian assassins was obvious. "Apparently not."

"This whole... thing," Tony said, waving his hands around, encompassing his memory loss, the people living in his house that he did not know, and his ex-girlfriend badgering him with files. It was fascinating how Bucky could read Tony's eyebrows and head tilts, the way he stood with his weight balanced on one leg, tapping the other foot, the constant coded tattoo of his fingers against his sternum. It was a language Bucky was beginning to learn well. "I think I'm getting paranoid. Am I getting paranoid, Pep, do you think?"

"Getting? Tony, you live on adrenaline and conspiracy theories. You're not getting paranoid. People are actually out to get you. Real people. With extremely powerful weapons."

"Well, thank you for that fascinating insight, Ms. Potts."

"Ugh, Tony, you never change. I'll give the board your recommendation on the takeover. Read the files, Tony. Just..." She threw up her hands and walked away, the stride of her exit spoiled somewhat by her ridiculously high heels and tight pencil skirt.

Tony waited until she left the room, his fingers dancing over his breastbone. "She broke up with me, didn't she?"

Banner's lips twitched. "On Facebook, they have a relationship status marked ‘it's complicated'. That was you and Pepper for a couple years. After the Battle of New York... I think watching you die on national television on constant replay for months just... And then the Killian thing... She's not a superhero, Tony. She couldn't keep up with us. And you can't stop trying to save the world."

Tony harrumphed. "I could give it up, for the right person."

Banner shook his head. "No, you can't. You won't. You already haven't. You need someone who's as strong as you are, someone who can stand with you instead of having to shelter behind you. It's... better for us all, that way. Better for her, too."

"What's the Battle of New York? I died? But, I mean, obviously I got better."

"You have a really bad habit of falling out of the sky. You were a cat in a past life, I guess," Banner said. "Hmm. Battle of New York. Um... Norse Gods, mind-controlled SHIELD agents, invading aliens. It was a party."

"And I shot eleven of them," Clint commented as he turned into the kitchen. "You're welcome."

"I don't see how that's a party," Tony said. Next to Bucky, Natasha shifted, just a bit, and let out a breath a hint heavier than the previous ones -- a sigh or a laugh, Bucky wasn't sure.

Clint went straight to the coffee machine and brewed himself a cup. He turned to lean against the counter and his gaze wandered up to the vent. For just a second, his eyes narrowed and his mouth flattened as he pressed his lips together.

We're made, Bucky thought. Shit.

But Clint didn't say anything. "Hey, Tony," he avoided looking at the vent while he spoke. "If you're feeling better, we were gonna show Bucky Barnes some of the glorious works of art that he's missed out on."

"Big Trouble in Little China is not a work of art, Clint," Banner protested. "It's abysmal."

"Don't listen to him," Clint said. "Bruce's idea of a great movie is one of those horribly contrived pieces of shoju anime, all big eyes, small mouth, and ridiculous relationships."

"You cried like a baby at the end of Marmalade Boy," Banner pointed out. "I saw you."

"I had my heart broken by an animated character, Bruce. I suffered trauma from that event."

"Uh-huh," Bruce said. "You and Sam bonded over that series."

"Eh, Sam's good people. So. Tony. Movie's at eight. I'll get Bucky to save you a seat." His eyes flicked to the vent again, just briefly.

"Yeah, yeah, okay. I can do that. I think."

Bucky nudged Tash and they started the slow retreat down the vent shafts until they hit one of those ludicrously large intersections. "Why are the vents so damn big in this building?"

"If you ask Tony, he'll say because the air purification system is top of the line, and start quoting air molecules per square meter ratios, but in all honesty, I think he built them specifically for Clint, who practically lives up here."

"Yeah, Tony's the best," Clint muttered, dropping in on them from above.

Bucky hissed through his teeth. "You are too damn quiet."

"Yeah, I'm talented, that way. Welcome to the ex-assassin's club, we've got jackets." Clint grinned. "Come on, this way back to your room."

***

Two weeks later, a routine of sorts had been established. Bucky camped out by the door to the penthouse to sleep. JARVIS unlocked the door as soon as Tony started to wake, and it never got any easier, seeing Tony so terrified and lost, shivering and unable to breathe. All the fixtures had been changed out in the bathroom to polished titanium; the frustration was so great that Bucky had broken everything in the room at least once.

The worst morning was the one time he'd managed to convince Tony to let him sleep in the room.

He'd tried to stay on his side of the bed, but Tony was restless, and apparently very clingy in his sleep. Bucky had ended up as the small spoon, Tony's arm dangling precariously over Bucky's hip. Tony was so adorable when he slept, all soft nuzzles and sleepy sighs, and Bucky was so damn lonely for him, missing him so damn much, that he hadn't been able to sleep at all, soaking in all the warmth of Tony's touch until the sun came up.

When, naturally, Tony completely freaked, summoned the suit and started firing repulsor blasts at him. Bucky ended up having to take a dive out the window, where Sam Wilson had caught him, swearing bloody murder the entire time. Bucky had spent the rest of the day hiding under the bed in his own suite until Tash kicked the door in and dragged him out for dinner.

***

"Where's Nick Fury, anyway?" Tony demanded of Tash one afternoon. He still, sneeringly, referred to her as "Rushman". "This was his damn initiative, I'd have expected him to come around and threaten me into getting my memories back. He hasn't done that, has he?"

"Fury's dead," Bucky said, flatly, not meeting anyone's gaze. "I killed him."

"Actually..." Tash bit her lip. "He was hurt pretty bad, no lie there, but he faked his death on the OR table and we used it to draw Director Pierce out into the open."

"Oh, come on," Bucky exclaimed, relief flooding him and making him giddy. "Now I have to give a refund, and that was a kill two superheroes, get one free deal."

***

"You're suffering from depressurization sickness," Bucky said. "You decided to take up work as a hairstylist on the moon. I'm your hired sex slave--"

"Mr. Barnes," JARVIS interrupted, "I'm going to have to insist you stop doing that."

***

DOB-E, one of the cleaning bots, finally unearthed Tony's phone from the masses of rubble that had been removed from the elevator shaft. Tony, who had calmly accepted everything Bucky had told him that morning without suspicion or hostility, shuddered at being presented with the poor, shattered thing. Bucky wasn't sure if Tony was just picturing what the tumble through the shaft might have been like, or if he was actually in mourning for his technical widget.

"I'll have to crack this open and see if I can fix it," Tony said.

***

The ridiculously loud rock and roll music masked the sound of the door as Bucky came into the shop, Tony's morning coffee in his hand.

"I brought you a coffee, Zhelezoska," Bucky said, putting the mug down in Tony's line of sight.

"Who-- JARVIS, why are you letting strange men into my lab?"

"He has full access, sir," JARVIS said, patiently.

"No, no, revoke that. We're not doing that, no. I'm not having complete strangers in my lab," Tony snapped, not quite looking at Bucky, who crossed his arms over his chest and glared.

"I'm sorry, sir, I'm unable to process that command."

"What? You are useless. I'm going to break you down for spare parts and you're going to spend the rest of eternity teaching math to third graders at some inner city school. He could be a bad guy, JARVIS, have you lost your positronic mind? How are you subverting my AI? You some sort of hinky voodoo electronics wizard?"

"Right," Bucky drawled. "I'm the newest villain on the block and my MO is subverting highly advanced electronic intelligences in order to bring their creators coffee."

***

After one particularly bad day, Tony decided to try caffeinating his way out of the mess. If he didn't go to sleep, he reasoned, his memory wouldn't reset. He drank at least one whole pot of coffee an hour and chewed penguin mints in between, and by seven in the evening the following night, declared that he could taste colors. And that his hair hurt.

On the upside, he got a lot of work done, catching up on a few critical pieces for SI, fixed his crushed phone, and was generally himself for almost forty glorious hours.

On the downside, when he finally crashed, he couldn't stay asleep, so Bucky went through the whole waking panic attack six times over the next twenty hours. Bucky got exactly zero hours sleep for just over three days and was almost crying with exhaustion by the time it was over.

He'd been tempted to replace all the coffee with decaf after that, but the threat of an Avengers mutiny was too risky.

He did, however, closely control the amount of coffee Tony was allowed.

***

"<Tash, you have any vodka in there?>"

"<Did he say it again?>"

"<Yeah. I swear, if I hear ‘who the hell is Bucky' one more time, I'm gonna hit him. Not like he'll remember it.>"

***

It had been a good day. Tony had actually sort of recognized him in the morning, not enough to recall Bucky's name, but finding Bucky's presence familiar and comforting. He'd let Bucky calm the daily panic attack over his location transplant and missing arc reactor, and sat willingly to watch the 20-minute slide show and video presentation that Bucky'd had JARVIS put together, rather than have to recite the whole mess every day.

Tony had been reasonable about a shower, breakfast, and reading whatever files Pepper had sent over to the Tower that day, too. His hair had finally grown back in and the bruise from his go-round with Steve had faded, so those explanations had been dropped, and Bucky was just as grateful. Tony still bristled like a wounded dog whenever Steve said anything, and Bucky had learned that Howard had been mostly responsible for that pissing contest.

After dinner, they'd gone up to the penthouse to watch a movie and Tony had rather carelessly snuggled against Bucky's side and played with the fingers on his metal hand. Which had led to Bucky having an extremely hard, painful boner. Which Tony had noticed. And invited him back to bed to do something about it.

"Tony," Bucky protested. "We talked about this, quite a while ago. You're... you're not in your right mind. Informed consent and all that."

"But we've had sex before, right?" He swirled his fingers around Bucky's wrist, making Bucky flex his shoulder, the servos whining.

"Tony," Bucky stressed. "Just because you said yes once doesn't give me exclusive access to your person. I am... I'm trying..." Bucky trailed off, unable to concentrate while Tony had stuck his tongue in Bucky's ear and was sliding his hand down the front of Bucky's shirt. "Oh, God, Tony... Tony, no..."

"Mm, feels like Tony, yes to me," Tony purred. "Can you really tell me you don't want it?"

No, of course Bucky couldn't. "Oh, I'm going to the special hell," Bucky groaned. He rolled Tony over on the couch, slanted his mouth, and fell on Tony like the mountain coming down.

JARVIS was kind enough to wake him before dawn so he could sneak back down to his room like a teenager out after curfew, shower, and change his clothes in time for the whole ordeal to start over. Again.

***

"Who the hell is Bucky?"

"Oh, my CHRIST."

***

"Why do you care?"

"Because I am a masochist of the highest order, and apparently I have terrible taste in men and extremely bad luck. And I happen to be in love with your forgetful ass, even though you never remember me."

Tony blinked. "Did... you mean that?"

"Yeah," Bucky sighed. "But it doesn't matter. You won't remember it tomorrow."

 

Chapter Text

Natasha

"Hey, Nat." She didn't twitch, didn't take her eyes off her opponent.

Clint leaned up against the wall, watching her as she beat Sam three falls out of five in the gym's boxing ring. "Got a favor to ask you. Tony's been a little better, recently, and socializing more, and I know you gotta stay away, but I need a second opinion."

Natasha brushed her sweaty hair out of her eyes. "A second opinion about what?"

"Just... come up to the common rooms tonight. Sit in the vents and watch. If it happens, I think you'll see it, but I don't want to prejudice you."

"All right," she said. Clint wouldn't ask if he didn't think it was important. He knew how much it hurt her, to see Tony's mistrust and suspicion, bright and large and new again.

"Are we gonna finish this, or not?" Sam bounced on his toes and Natasha dropped to the floor, knocked his feet out from under him and planted her elbow in his sternum at half-strength for good measure.

"It's finished."

"I hate you," Sam coughed. "I hate you so much."

***

Yasha, since being invited officially into the ex-assassins club, had made himself more than at home in the vents. Natasha rolled her eyes as she crawled over yet another one of his food stashes, complete with a blanket and a book. He'd been getting deliveries from Amazon with new books almost daily. Which would have been all right, except that he had abominable taste in reading material. Twilight. City of Bones. Percy Jackson. Ug.

"Not much further," Clint whispered. "They were just starting Pretty Woman when I came to get you."

He rounded a corner ahead of her, and when she followed, he'd shuffled sideways so she could take the best position to watch out the vent.

She swept the room, their positions.  Apparently it was a good day, or at least, Yasha would think so. Tony was sitting on the couch with him, feet in Yasha's lap. Yasha looked tired -- he always looked tired these days, and if Natasha thought she could have shaken Tony's brain back into place, she would have -- if only not to have to look at Yasha while he felt so helpless and sad.

Clint made a hand-sign, a field signal: wait. Natasha nodded, and settled herself into stillness, watching and waiting, the spider at the center of her web.

For a long while, nothing happened. The movie played. One of them would comment; the other would answer, but none of it was out of the ordinary. They ran out of popcorn, and Tony pushed the bowl down his legs at Yasha. "More," he said, eyes on the screen, like the brat he was. Yasha got up, taking the bowl with him. Indulging him.

The sounds of punching buttons on the microwave and the distant hum as the rotator plate spun issued from the kitchen.

Tony raised up a little. "And a beer."

Yasha came back into the room while the popcorn started its crackling, beer in one hand. He thumbed the cap off with his metal hand and sat it on the table in front of Tony, returning to the kitchen without a word.

It was all perfectly normal, if a bit overly domestic. And yet, it tickled something in Natasha's mind, a nagging, persistent notion that she could not ignore, and could not quite put her finger on.

The microwave beeped, and a moment later, Yasha returned, refilled bowl in hand. He resumed his seat on the couch, resting the bowl near Tony's knee, and smiled a little when Tony's feet landed back on Yasha's thighs.

They watched for another while. Tony -- always restless -- poked at Yasha with a toe. "Rub my feet," he said when Yasha squirmed, clearly teasing.

Yasha pulled Tony's foot away from his ribs. "Stop tickling," he said, but he obligingly began running the metal thumb firmly down Tony's sole. Tony immediately went limp and boneless, groaning with appreciation. The noises he made were obscene, sexual, and exaggerated. Natasha rolled her eyes, but couldn't help a fond smile as well. Tony was such a hedonist.

When Yasha switched to Tony's other foot, they were both moderately absorbed by the movie; maybe Tony was surprised, or maybe Yasha pressed too hard. Either way, Tony yelped and jerked his leg back on reflex, sending the bowl of popcorn flying. "Shit!" Tony cursed, flailing to try to catch it. Clint huffed softly in exasperation beside her.

Yasha brushed the popcorn that had landed on his shirt off into the bowl. "Here, that's probably still edible," he said.

"Or," Tony said, drawing it out ridiculously, "you could go make some more?"

Yasha snorted. "Make it yourself, brat. Nope, don't even try those eyes, they don't work."

"Hmph." Tony pouted, mostly for show, Natasha thought. "Fine. I'll go make popcorn; you clean up the mess."

Tony got up, and Yasha slid to his knees on the carpet, still half-watching the movie as he scraped popcorn bits up off the floor.

Something cold stirred Natasha's hair, and slithered down her neck. "Do we... we don't ever clean up popcorn on movie nights," she breathed. "The bots take care of it. He knows that, he loves those stupid bots." She looked at Clint, wanting him to tell her that her fears were unfounded.

But Clint nodded, almost invisible in the darkened vent. "He doesn't do anything I tell him to do. I tried it. He pretty much told me to fuck off. I thought it was cute, at first. He obviously... I mean, he's gone on Tony. Completely."

Natasha glanced again at Yasha, then looked back to Clint in the dim light. "But this isn't just attraction at work," she said. "Is it."

Clint touched her shoulder in the dark and she leaned into his hand, needing the comfort. "He said no when Tony made it a question. But he's obeying Tony's orders."

She nodded. Her eyes were drawn, irresistibly, back down into the room. "I don't think Tony knows," she said after a moment, and Clint nodded his agreement.

"How could he? His brain's still hitting reset every morning. It's just Tony being an ass, there's nothing new about that. He orders all of us around, never expecting that any of us would actually do it."

"Do you think he knows?" She watched Yasha, reaching under the table for the last of the popcorn bits.

"No, but..." Clint groaned. "Aw, brain, no." He turned a terrified gaze on Natasha. "Nat. It just occurred to me. Tony's... sometimes a really demanding flirt." He stopped, but she had already followed that thought to it logical conclusion. Tony flirted like he breathed, and didn't even much notice who he was directing it at, except to tailor his ridiculous lines to fit. Hell, he flirted with the villains occasionally. The team barely even reacted anymore; if Tony told Clint or Bruce to "come on over here and give me some sugar," they'd just roll their eyes or throw something at him. But if he said that to Yasha... "Cap's gonna go ballistic, you know that, right?" Clint croaked. "God, I'm gonna be sick."

"Clint, do not puke in the ventilation system, please." Her mind was racing. "Steve will... not handle it well," she said. "But we can't let it just go, not--" She made herself calm. "Won't do any good to tell Tony," she said, thinking aloud. "I'm sure he'd be horrified, but he'll just forget again tomorrow."

Clint shuddered all over, rubbing at his eyes, holding his hand up close. She knew that gesture; he was checking to see if Loki's power was reflecting out of his irises. "Nat... I gotta get out of here. Now."

"Go." She shifted as much as she could to let him retreat back the way they'd come.

Clint scrambled away, not far; she heard him drop out of the vent in the kitchen. Out of sight, but not out of hearing. But everyone was used to him dropping in, unexpectedly. It wouldn't call undue attention. Well, it wouldn't have drawn attention if he hadn't started retching into the sink.

Tony and Yasha both looked around sharply at the sound. "Clint?" Tony said. "What the hell?"

"Bad Norwegian take out. No worries."

"No, why would I worry, you're just barfing all over my kitchen," Tony grumbled, not seriously.

"It's in the sink, Tony, shut up..."

"There's some ginger ale in the bar," Yasha called. "Settle your stomach."

Clint rinsed his mouth, spat in the sink. A few moments later, pale and rubbing at his chest where Loki had poked him with that damn scepter, he entered the TV room and dropped onto the floor in front of Natasha's customary rocker, leaning his head back against the cushion. He checked his eyes, once, twice, then groaned, running both hands through his hair.

Before the accident, Tony had known what that meant as well as Natasha did, and would have jumped up to distract Clint with some ridiculous challenge or ludicrous story, prodding at Clint like an obnoxious brother until they'd ended up wrestling, wrecking furniture and cursing until the air was blue. Tony didn't do 'sympathy' well, but he wasn't as hopeless as most people -- including himself -- thought he was.

But now Tony couldn't remember Loki and his damned scepter, and Yasha had never known them. Natasha pressed her lips together and backed away from the vent, heading for an exit point that was only a little less obvious than the kitchen. She was furious, but there was no one to blame; she wanted her family back, broken and battered and scarred as it was.

She made her way back around to the TV room. Yasha and Tony were watching the movie, casting occasional glances Clint's way, obviously worried but "giving him space." Idiots. "There you are," she said as if she and Clint hadn't parted ways five minutes earlier, and folded into the rocking chair, slipping her fingers into his soft wavy hair.

"Nat," Clint said her name like a dying man, pressing his forehead against her knee. He was shaking, bone deep tremors that rattled up her leg and into her spine.

Tony had tensed at her appearance, his mouth curling meanly, but he watched the way Clint clung, the way her fingernails scratched lightly across his scalp, and didn't say anything. When Clint's shuddering had finally stilled, she looked up to find him still watching.

He didn't look like her Tony, warm humor and playful wit, but the anger had leached from his eyes and the set of his shoulders. When he saw her watching, he nodded, once, and snuggled back into the couch cushions to watch the end of the movie, apparently willing to endure her presence if it was a comfort to a teammate he liked.

"Glad you decided to join us, solnyshko. It's another cinderwench story. Can you believe they make so many?" Yasha draped his arm over Tony's knees, obviously content, especially so when Tony's hand came down to brush Yasha's hair out of his face. Of course, Bruce had suggested a series of the type a few days back; Yasha was a walking, talking Cinderella story, only with a missing memory instead of a glass shoe and a rich industrialist instead of the prince.

"Of course," she said, still scratching Clint's scalp. "Everyone wants to believe they are poor and downtrodden, and that a beautiful, wealthy prince will rescue them from their fate of toil."

"I am not poor and downtrodden," Tony put in, smirking.

"Well, you're certainly not Prince," Clint managed. "He sings way better than you do."

"But I have at least twice the sex appeal," Tony shot back, grinning, obviously relieved to see that Clint was pulling out of the attack.

Yasha looked at Tony, seriously considering the idea. He'd been devouring the internet, since he was still on house arrest. Not that he couldn't leave, just that, since Tony couldn't leave, he didn't. Most of the time. "Maaaaaaybe... a little bit." He held his hand out, thumb and forefinger spread about an inch.

Tony pressed his hand to his heart in mock pain, hamming it up. "Wounded!" he gasped. "Someone back me up! The man's a musical genius, I grant, but he sounds like he's been sucking on a helium balloon! Not sexy!"

Yasha laughed and murmured something in Russian, his eyes warm. "<With all my soul, I love you.>"

Natasha had been trained from a very young age to be the complete master of her own body, and so she did not sputter or choke on her own breath. But oh, this was going to be even worse than she thought.

***

Bucky

Tony had gone to bed, and Bucky pulled out the cot that he'd been using out into the hall. Tony didn't ask too many questions, but he'd gotten creeped out a few times when he realized that Bucky was essentially sleeping on his threshold. Sometimes it was the little shit that set him off, and the fact that Bucky was going for Creeper of the Year award wasn't exactly a little thing.

He threw himself onto the cot, rubbing at his eyes. He was spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. He wanted his bed back, if he couldn't share Tony's. The cot was better than sleeping on the ground or in an alleyway, but his back was sore half the time and he was cramped -- the cot was a good three inches shorter than he was. JARVIS had offered to arrange more comfortable accommodations, and sometimes Bucky wanted to accept, but there was a superstitious part of himself that said if he started acting like this was a permanent routine that they were giving up and saying that Tony was never going to be okay again.

And today had been a good day; Tony had been willing to buy the whole story right away, not even putting up a token protest. Bucky was getting better at setting the stage. Coffee helped. If he could have Tony's coffee ready so that it was exactly right when he woke up, even the panic attacks weren't as bad. The smell seemed to ease him, somehow. Or the warm cup helped bring him back. They'd snuggled most of the afternoon, watching horrible movie after horrible, cheesy movie after horrible cheesy sappy movie. Tony wasn't even a closet romantic; he was out and proud. Bucky wasn't going to admit how much he liked it.

He closed his eyes against the smile he somehow couldn't help, and was ready to sink into slumber when JARVIS spoke up, pitched quietly so as not to disturb Tony. "Mr. Barnes, Agent Romanov asks if you would be so kind as to meet her in the gymnasium."

Bucky groaned. He'd just been in the same damn room with her not ten minutes ago. "Of course. Gimme a minute."

He was practically dozing against the elevator wall when the lift came to a stop and the doors slid open. "Tash? I'm a growing boy, you know. I need my beauty rest."

She was sitting on the mats, stretching. She didn't smile when she saw him, but her eyes were warm nonetheless. "Yasha. Come and sit with me."

Bucky threw himself onto the mat, not sitting at all but laying all the way down, arm thrown over his eyes. "<I have not been this tired since Calcutta. Do you recall it?>"

"<Poor Yasha,>" she sighed, brushing the hair back from his face. "<He takes it out of you, I know.>"

English was coming easier to his lips and he switched back. "Even when we have a good day, it's... draining. It bothers him if I'm upset. But if I try to hide it all, that's bad for everybody. So I'm in limbo, trying to feel it and not show too much. I envy you; it seems to come naturally to you, to show only what you wish and no more."

Tash kept petting his hair; it felt nice. Different from when Tony did it, but still nice. "It comes naturally to me because it is how I was raised," she reminded him. "And Tony was tiring even before all this happened. You must have noticed, even for the short while you were here. He can be very... demanding."

Bucky chuckled. "He's a little brat. Used to getting his own way. He needed a passel of younger siblings hanging off his belt while he was growin' up."

"And yet you indulge him." Her tone was teasing, but there was something heavy underneath it.

"It makes him happy." He shrugged, that strange half-gesture. He had full motion with his arm, but for some reason, it never seemed to want to lift when he was shrugged.

Tash's hand stilled on his hair. "But does it make you happy?"

"It's familiar. I used to take care of Steve all the time, when we were kids, and even all the way up until he joined the Army and started takin' care of me. And believe me, Tony's a lot more appreciative of the effort." He sighed. Things still weren't right with Steve; they didn't argue, exactly, but there was a certain tension that nothing seemed to cut. Didn't help that Tony was such a belligerent cuss when Steve was around. Both Steve and Sam had been in short supply in recent days, avoiding Tony out of necessity to keep the peace.

Tash's hand tightened on his head, gentle pressure of support. "Yasha..." She sounded uneasy, which was not like her at all. "Is it only because of your youth with Steve that it feels familiar?

He moved his arm, leaning up on his elbow. "What... what are you getting at, Tash? Just say it, you're makin' me nervous."

"You're... obeying him," she said softly. Her eyes met his, steady and sad. "Complying."

He dropped into Russian in his shock. "<No. No that can't be right, no.>" He pulled himself up, scrambling onto his knees and backing away from her. He heaved a few, quick breaths, mouth open.

She stood, swift and graceful, but didn't try to follow him. She was, he noticed suddenly, between him and the door. "So you didn't know," she said, quiet, as if to herself. "It's not all the time," she told him, her compassion like acid against his skin. "Only if it's phrased as an order."

He was trapped, pinned in. She was almost entirely his equal, lithe and faster than he, even if not as strong. And he wasn't armed, not so much as a knife. He'd gotten soft, gone native.

"Where would you go, Yasha?" she asked, correctly interpreting the darting of his eyes. "Would you abandon him? Who will be with him when he wakes, if you go? Me? Steve? You're the only one he trusts entirely, since Rhodes had to go back on active duty. You can't leave him."

Bucky gritted his teeth. Deviant... deviant behavior noted. The voice drummed across his brain, searing fresh lines in a path long grown cold. "Mission protocols... protect... protect Anthony Stark. Sanctions only when necessary. Self-care. Don't kill Clint." He gasped, sucking air into lungs that didn't work...  

Her lips pinched together, and then she was smooth and cool. "Go on and report, then," she told him, her tone strangely sympathetic. "If it will help." The word echoed in his head: Report. Report. Report.

"Deviant... behavior... mission report... deviant behavior..." He drew his arms back, his head thrown back, the cords in his neck strained as he bit down on a scream, working his jaw and half-expecting a rubber bite to be shoved in place.

There were hands on him, then, hands on his face, lifting it, a face in front of his eyes. "Behavior acceptable," the face said. "Deviant behaviors mission-acceptable."

"Communal kitchen. Sharing is kinda the idea," he said, voice still in report-mode.

"Yes," it murmured. "It is."

"<This soldier has failed the mission.>" He continued to report, lost, lost... he was gone. "<Rogers, Steven G, alive. Mission failure. Fury, Nicholas J, alive. Mission failed. Pierce, Alexander G, removed from the board. Deviant behavior, sexual desire. Deviant behaviors, failure to obey orders. Deviant-->"

"<Current mission supercedes all others,>" it said. "<The soldier has discretion.>"

He was shuddering all over, flinching in anticipation of pain, dreading the crackle of electricity. And then... discretion. the soldier has discretion. The face resolved into a person. "Tash?"

"Yes, Yasha. I'm here."

"Oh, God," his voice broke, he was broken... "What... what happened? What happened to me?"

Tash pulled him into her arms, cradling him against her like a child. "A trap they left behind for you. One of many, most likely, but this one has been disarmed."

"I... wanted to hurt you."

"And yet you did not," she said firmly.

"It is... it is no longer in my nature to resist it, if you... if you ordered... punishment. I... I deserve..." He ached for the pain; the sooner it began, the sooner it would be over. The silver snap of electrics, the brain-searing agony of memories being ripped free. Wiped, start over clean, no confusion... "God, Tash, help me."

"You deserve many things, Yasha," she said. "Punishment is not one of them." She held him tighter. "I'm here."

"What... what do we do now? I... Tony..." Bucky said his name like a prayer. "I... I need him, god, I need him."

"I think," she said slowly, "you soothe him, you make him laugh, you are the one he looks for when he's frightened. The one he lashes out at most in anger and confusion, as well. He needs you, as much as you need him. I think he loves you, too, even through the wall in his memory. "

"I... I can't comply... I don't... I don't... I don't want to. Not even... not even for him."

Tash smiled, then, like the sun. "Good. That is the first step. There are ways. We will help you, Clint and I. If I could be freed, so can you."

Bucky snorted, wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "Is that what that was about this morning? He was being a bossy little shit."

"Clint... Clint's heart is in the right place," Tash said.

Bucky got to his feet and stretched, pulling his arm over his head and unkinking the muscles in his shoulder. Adrenaline dump was painful. "That's relevant data," he said, mimicking Tony's voice. "Convenient for when I decide to rip it out of his chest."

Tash wrinkled her nose at him. "He is not that bad."

"Oh, no, Tash, he is exactly that bad. We just all love him anyway." And, god help him, that much was true. Crazy, stupid, weird, deranged and fucking broken, he was growing to love all of the people in this building. They were... family.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony

"It's gettin' a little better," Bucky said tentatively. He hadn't spoken for the last hour, since he'd finished walking Tony through what was apparently a habitual daily panic attack and briefing on his broken fucking brain, and then gently nudging Tony out to the kitchen for breakfast.

And Tony would have sworn on JARVIS' databanks that he'd never met Bucky Barnes before this morning, but he could also swear that Bucky was acting strangely quiet and subdued and not at all like himself, which made his head hurt like hell.

He pushed aside the peculiar feeling and looked at Bucky over the rim of his second mug of coffee. "What's getting better?"

"The morning... thing. The panic attack, and the--" Bucky waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the penthouse to indicate the whole morning routine. "The flip-out isn't as bad as it was at first, an' you're not arguing or getting skeptical about the infodump so much, either."

"If you say so," Tony said. The panic attack had for damn sure felt pretty bad, and he absolutely was skeptical about the whole "team of superheroes" thing. Though that, too, felt... not familiar, but right. He'd probably put too much stock in Fury's hoo-ah flag-waving and internalized it, like the sucker he was.

Bucky lapsed back into silence, poking morosely at the remnants of his breakfast with his fork, and Tony suppressed a sudden urge to try to comfort him. What the hell?

Tony was nearly to the breaking point of asking, "So, now what?" when a man walked into the kitchen. Sandy blond hair, athletically fit all over, but with arms and shoulders like a Mr. Universe contestant. Clint Barton, his brain supplied, helpfully giving him the file he'd dutifully skimmed this morning, aka Hawkeye. Sure, he could remember that, but apparently not the last four years of his life? Christ.

"What's shakin', bacon?" Clint said. He greeted Bucky with a friendly clap to the shoulder, and shot a huge grin at Tony. "How's the resident amnesiac?"

"I can't remember," Tony answered, and Clint snorted.

"That's like the hundredth time you've made that joke, you know," he said.

"I can't remember that, either," Tony said, smirking. He liked this one. At least, he thought he did.

Clint dropped into the chair next to Bucky's. "You fill him in yet?"

Bucky didn't look up from the extremely fascinating shape of some leftover bits of scrambled egg and toast crumbs. "Done the dailies," he said, almost sullen.

"But not the new thing?"

Bucky leaned back and scrubbed his face with his flesh hand. "No, I... Not yet."

Clint looked sympathetic. "Want me to run it down for him?"

"New treatment option?" Tony guessed, looking from one to the other.

"Something like that," Clint agreed, "but not for you. For him." He jerked a thumb at Bucky.

"Yeah?" Tony focused on Bucky, whose hand was still covering his face, a pretty blush spreading out from behind his fingers. He didn't look sick, but then, neither did Tony. "Lay it on me."

Bucky stood up abruptly, shoving his chair halfway back across the room. He put his plate in the sink and walked away, as fast as he could.

Tony watched him go with a raised eyebrow, then turned it on Clint.

Clint's eyes were still on the doorway. "He told you about the brainwashing thing."

"Yep."

"Okay, the part that I guess he didn't tell you is that there's... bits of it still stuck in his head. One of those bits has sort of locked on you as his... hm, let's say his mission commander, sort of. So when you say something that sounds like a command, he's conditioned to obey."

That shot through Tony like a bolt of lightning, pulling his spine straight and widening his eyes. "Then why the hell is he the one getting me up in the mornings?" he demanded. "Christ, I say all kinds of shit when I'm half-awake; what if I told him to go jump off the building or something?" Cold clenched at his chest, a sick echo of the arc reactor's unrelenting pressure. "What have I already made him do?"

Clint held up a hand. "Nothing that he wasn't willing to do anyway," he said, firm and certain. "He didn't even realize he was doing it until we-- until very recently. But now that he knows, well. We want to dig that bit of nastiness out of his brain. You willing to help?"

"Obviously," Tony said. "What's the plan?"

***

Bucky still didn't look very happy, but Tony couldn't blame him for that; they were going to be poking at his brain with a sharp stick, after all.

They were seated across the table from each other, almost but not quite within easy arm's reach. Clint sat next to Bucky, one hand on his shoulder -- support and reminder all at once. "Ready?" Clint said.

"Not even a little bit," Bucky huffed. "But I'm not gonna get any readier for wishin'."

"Okay," Clint said. He rummaged in his pocket and came up with what looked like a cheap plastic toy Batman from a fast food meal. He set it deliberately on the table between them. "First task, something simple and harmless. Pick it up."

Bucky twisted his neck around to give Clint an eloquent look of disbelief. "You've gotta be kidding me."

"Nope," Clint said, popping the 'p' with relish. "Got to start somewhere. This is where we started with Nat, too, when she first came in, though she got Hello Kitty toys. If you can resist this one, we'll work our way up to something bigger."

Bucky rolled his eyes. "Fine."

He looked a little less nervous for the irritation, and Tony wondered if that had been Clint's purpose. He eyed Clint narrowly, but Clint only winked at him. Tony shrugged. "Works for me," he said. He held out a hand. "Give it to me."

Bucky picked it up and tossed it to Tony, then cursed fervently.

Clint nodded solemnly. "Yeah," he said. "Gotta start small. Again."

Tony set the figure back on the table, and met Bucky's eyes. "Ready?"

Bucky's jaw set. "Do it."

"Pick it up."

Bucky hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then snapped up the toy. "Dammit." He set it back down with a bang, as if nailing it to the table in his mind. "I can do this."

Clint stood up and leaned his hands heavily on Bucky's shoulders. "Concentrate on me," he told Bucky. "Focus on my hands, and remember you don't want the Batman."

"'Cause Iron Man's much better," Tony quipped, and Bucky managed a weak grin.

"Okay," he said. He reached up and wrapped his hands around Clint's wrists, anchoring himself. "Okay."

"Pick up the toy," Tony said.

Clint grimaced as Bucky's grip tightened, but he didn't so much as hiss.

"It's like an itch," Bucky said, gritting his teeth. His eyes were locked on the little Batman. "I can't..."

"You can," Clint said softly.

"I..." Bucky stared for another heartbeat, then whined in the back of his throat like an unhappy dog and picked up the toy. "Fuck." He slammed his metal fist down on the table with a loud crack.

"Nothing worth doing is ever easy," Clint said. He set the Batman upright again. "You just gotta keep workin' at it until it's muscle memory to... well, to not."

Bucky chewed his lip, which did all sorts of interesting things to Tony's innards. What the fuck is the matter with me? Jesus.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good. Try it again."

"Pick it up."

This time, Bucky moved instantly, not even able to resist for a second, for a half a second, like some muscle in his brain had been overtaxed and just would not hold. A wash of cold dropped over his features and he stared at Tony with something so close to hatred that Tony shuddered, completely able to believe that this man was the most feared and successful assassin of the last seventy years, and oh, god, he was so fucked, he was so so very dead...

Bucky roared, rage, fear, shame, guilt. Clint was exceptionally agile and that was a good thing, because Bucky surged backward and Clint was forced to dive and tumble out of the way. Bucky whirled, his whole body grace and power and danger, driving that silver fist into the refrigerator, tearing the door off with the blow. Ketchup, milk, cola, a handful of pill bottles that were meant to stay cold, and at least two dozen eggs smashed to the floor.

The silence was very loud, broken only by Bucky's labored breathing.

"Ooookay," Tony said. "Guess it's time for a break."

A bottle of barbeque sauce tumbled to the floor and shattered.

Clint rose from his defensive crouch. "Nope. Back to work, bitches. This ain't gonna happen by itself. But maybe we could go somewhere a little less... breakable. You're an expensive one, Bucks. Good thing Tony's your boyfriend; you'd bankrupt anyone else with all the stuff you bust up." Then Clint winced. "Aw, mouth. Shit. Sorry, shit. Barton, you are an asshole."

"Boyfrie--" Tony blinked and Bucky had taken a step back from the fridge, panting for breath, but that glorious red blush of his was spreading up his neck until he raised his head as if daring it to go any further. "I don't remember that from our little morning ‘catch Tony up to the current day' lecture."

Bucky sighed, cupped his forehead with his metal hand, the servos whining and plates clicking. "I didn't say anything because it either freaks you right the fuck out, or you start trying to take me to bed. It's bad enough I'm being fucking creepy and stalkery as shit an' sleeping on your goddamn doorstep like a lost puppy every goddamn night for three. Fucking. Months. Sometimes when I tell you, you start shooting repulsors at me, so you know... we've done this, Tony, we've done this so many times."

Tony's mouth dropped open.

It'd taken Tony less than two weeks to piss Rhodey off so bad that he'd stolen one of the prototypes and flown off with it, and even less time at only three-quarters of his very-most assholery to get Pepper to leave him behind without a backward glance.

And this man... this glorious, beautiful man, had spent months taking care of him? Every goddamned day? Talking him through his panic, calming him down, while... what? Facing mental trauma from brainwashing, having lost seventy years of his life to being a programmed tool. That was... that was dedication on a scale that Tony had never, ever personally been faced with from a living being.

"JARVIS?"

"Sir?"

"Confirm, please."

"Yes, sir," JARVIS said. "You and Mr. Barnes have been intimate a number of times, the most recent--"

"JARVIS!" Bucky gasped out with a strangled sound. The blush had topped out at the roots of his hair and he looked -- and sounded -- absolutely mortified. Which was really cute. "Please don't..."

Tony waved a hand. "It's okay, buddy, I got the general idea."

"Of course, sir. My apologies, Mr. Barnes."

Clint spread his hands. "I ain't judging. Tony's got game, even when he's not at his best. No one's gonna blame you for succumbing to his charm."

Succumbing. A shiver of ice pierced Tony's spine and he pushed that thought away with both hands. Nope. Absolutely not, he was not going to think about that, not at all, not even a little bit. "And how long have we been together?"

Bucky hung his head. "Three months... and... one day."

Tony blinked. "One... Damn. I am amazing. Truly, epic sex. You... wow." Tony fist pumped, grinning. "You are the Best Boyfriend EVER. Go me, for landing you!"

Clint groaned. "Adorable as this is, people, we have work to do. Before you start blowing each other on the kitchen table."

Bucky buried his fingers in his hair and yanked his chin even further down on his chest. "Clint, my god, shut up."

***

Bucky

The gym was a little more resilient, but had its own problems.

"Don't tell me to punch things, Tony, I already want to do that," Bucky said. He sighed, looking over at the shattered remains of one of what were commonly referred to as "supersoldier sandbags". And the wall behind it. Which was twenty feet away. God damn it.

"It's a thing with him," Clint agreed. "You saw your bathroom, right? The boy is hard on the fucking furniture, man. If I didn't know better, son, I'd say you had aggression issues."

Tony was flabbergasted. "I just wanted to see what would happen. Wow, you are. You are really strong. Like seriously strong. Like, you've been eating your Wheaties strong. How do you rank up against Captain Tightpants?"

Bucky jerked his chin up, his teeth bared in a snarl. "I almost killed him."

"But you didn't," Tony pointed out. "So...?"

"So I'm a bad murderbot that has feelings. He got inside my head, started pullin' on the bits of string that were left there, untied some knots. I... he did good by me, and I don't fuckin' deserve it. There's so much, Tony. So much."

"Hey, now." Tony caught up Bucky's hand and laced their fingers together, utterly unafraid despite the destruction he'd seen Bucky cause. "If Dudley Do-Right is the one who made it possible for you to be you, then I'll thank him for that. But we've all done shit we're not proud of. If you could run him off by being a jerk, then he's not really your friend."

Bucky snorted. "No, asshole, you're the one who's run him off by bein' a jerk. Well, and my telling him if he punched you again that I'd make sure he got a matching arm." Bucky flexed, not entirely kidding. "I think it's a combination of the two things. He wants to hit you, and I'd rather he didn't. Steve's a good guy, he really is, but arrogance bothers him. He sees it as a symptom of being a bully and it took him a long time to realize that... that's not what you are. You're not a power-hungry showboater. He... Peggy once said, about your dad, that if you took Howard out and showed him a man that had been shot with one of Howard's guns, showed the life that man left behind, the widow, the kids who depended on him... that Howard would have picked up the gun and tried to figure out what was wrong with the rifling."

Tony snorted. "Yeah, that sounds like Dad. Though 'power-hungry' isn't the right word.  It wasn't about power, for him. I don't think, anyway. It was just that he never let people get in the way of making things better."

"You remind Steve of all his own failures. He's put them on you, in some sort of misplaced aggression thing. That Howard helped make him... wrong, somehow. Not fast enough to catch me fallin' off that train. Not smart enough to figure out what the Red Skull was up to. Not powerful enough to get out of the ice on his own."

Tony huffed. "Well, he needs to get over that. I wasn't even around when my dad was playing doctor with your buddy."

Bucky nodded. "I know. But... Tony, you're just like him. Not like Howard, like Steve. You take the world on your shoulders and it breaks you when you can't hold it up. And neither of you, really, is a team player."

Tony waved a hand dismissively. "I take on what I have to. But you're right about me not being a team player. I'm a little surprised Fury ever let me in, to be honest."

"Steve makes everyone want to be better, just by being in the room. Do better. Be stronger, more honest. It's a gift, but it's also hard. It's hard to be his friend. You spend half your life feelin' bad that you ain't meetin' his expectations. Tony, you stand in the wreckage, fist to the sky and say ‘fuck you, world, you can't keep me down.' And then you try again."

"Speaking of trying again... if this mutual admiration love session is done?" Clint threw up his hands. "You've had your break, crybabies. Time to do the serious work. Seriously. This time, I really mean it."  

"Let's get serious!" Tony said, pumping his fist into the air with patently false overenthusiasm. "People tell me that all the time."

"Then how come you never are?" Clint jibed. "Come on, guys, I know you can do this." He rolled the stupid little Batman down his arm and bounced it off his elbow toward Bucky.

It took another two hours and three more destroyed sandbags, but finally, Bucky answered Tony's quiet command with a harsh "No," pushed through his gritted teeth. "Pick it up your own damn self."

Tony shouted in triumph and lunged across the space between them, catching Bucky's face in his hands and kissing him thoroughly.

"Oh, geez, why," Clint complained. "I don't need to see this."

"Shut up, Clint," Tony said happily against Bucky's mouth. "Positive reinforcement. It's very effective, I'm told."

"I'm very affected," Bucky assured him, laughing. And then kissed Tony again, just because he could.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

The next day was both better and worse and then better and then worse and then much, much worse.

Usually Bucky's day started moments after Tony woke, controlling the panic attack, getting Tony's coffee, and then playing Show-and-Tell with the amnesiac. Pretty textbook, by that point.

This particular day started, for Bucky, quite a bit earlier than normal.

He hadn't been having nightmares for a while; he was too damn exhausted to even dream.

Most of the time.

It started with the fall, that endless, icy plummet, legs and arms flailing for purchase and finding nothing, watching Steve's face disappear from view and the ground that came for him so fast... He remembered hitting the ground, probably only saved by the good fifteen feet of snowdrift he fell into, and it was cold, so cold, and he kept waiting to die, hoping to die, praying to die, and then being terrified that he would not die. That he was already in hell and that hell was cold and pain and blood and terror.

This time, this time however, he twisted in mid-air and came down in the snow on his feet, blowing the drift into a blizzard of flakes, silver arm already in place. At his feet...

Was a man, bleeding and broken. Covered in red and gold armor, the faceplate smashed open to reveal dark hair, brilliant eyes, a mouth made for sin and smiles and kisses and full of blood...

The soldier dropped into the snowbank. He put his silver hand around the man's neck.

"Bucky?"

"Who the hell is Bucky?" the soldier asked. It wasn't important. Only the mission was important.

He squeezed. The man struggled. They always struggled, even when they were already dead and they just didn't lie down. It didn't matter. Only the mission mattered.

A whisper of a voice: "The soldier has discretion."

"Oh god. Tony."

Bucky let go, he let go, but it was too late. Tony's head lay at an unnatural angle, blood pouring from his mouth.

Protect Anthony Stark. Mission... failure.

---And woke up to Tony Stark's beautiful face, not inches from his own. Tony's hands on his shoulders, shaking him awake.

"Hey," Tony said, his eyes crinkling up in the corners. "Hey, Dorothy, time to wake up now. The wicked old witch is dead and you've come home."

Bucky swallowed hard, his throat aching. He'd been screaming, screaming. God... He shuddered. "Tony? What... how..." He couldn't face it if he was still dreaming, if this was one of those layered nightmares that never went away, when every time you woke up it was something worse and then worse again and then, when you finally did wake up, you didn't know, for hours, if you were still fucking dreaming.

"Two days," Tony said. "I've now had the best boyfriend ever for two days."

"I don't understand."

"I don't remember anything before yesterday that wasn't, well. But yesterday, I've got. I remember yesterday. When all my troubles seemed so far away." His smile faded. "Uh, that is. It was yesterday? Wasn't it? It feels like yesterday."

Bucky scrubbed a hand over his face, listening to the rasp of his stubble against his palm. "Okay, logic. I can do logic. I can especially do logic when I just murdered my boyfriend in my sleep and haven't had any coffee, yet. I love logic. I eat logic for breakfast. Um... What do you remember from yesterday?"   

"That you're almost as strong as Steve. Also, Batman."

"Batman sucks," Bucky said.

"Speaking as a fellow billionaire genius playboy philanthropist, I'm offended," Tony said. "But we can raid Clint's toy collection for Wonder Woman next time."

The penny finally dropped into Bucky's nightmare-fogged brain. "Oh, god, Tony," Bucky whispered like a prayer, "you do remember." And suddenly he was crying, painful, utterly silent, but crying, and it wasn't fear or anger or grief, but a sort of desperate, burning joy. Even if it was just something they could build on, even if Tony never remembered those missing years... god, it was something.

"Yeah, most of my relationships involve a lot of crying, it's a thing," Tony said, but he was holding Bucky close, mumbling the words into Bucky's hair tenderly.

"...Asshole." Morning breath, tousled hair, crusty eyes, the remains of nightmares fogging up his ears be damned, Bucky kissed Tony good morning for the first time ever.

***

Tony

It was getting easier. Four times out of five, Bucky could shake off the commands, so long as Tony used his indoor voice. Which really was an improvement, Clint insisted.

"Look, Tony's an ass, but most of the time, in day-to-day shit and combat situations, if Tony's barking orders, you probably want to be listening to them anyway. And when he's just goofin' around, well, now he probably won't accidentally have you pickin' popcorn up off the floor by hand."

"Well, don't I feel foolish," Tony asked, rhetorical.

"Jerk." Bucky scooped up the little Wonder Woman figure -- it turned out that Clint did have one, after all. And Green Arrow, which was kinda cute in a sad sort of way, and even Aquaman, who Bucky complained had to be the most useless hero that he’d ever heard of -- and zinged it at Clint with deadly accuracy. Clint caught it easily, and then hissed as it stung his palm.

"Damn, you are hostile," Clint said, blowing on his smarting hand. "Just for that, Tony, I think you should step up your game." He tossed the doll back to Tony, who stood it back on the floor where it wobbled uncertainly. "Again. Mean it this time."

"Give it to me!" Tony barked.

Bucky's arm was moving instantly and he made a desperate attempt, with his flesh and blood hand, to catch the wrist before his fingers closed over the figurine. He hissed with shock as the plates shifted, pinched over his hand, and the doll dropped to the floor.

Bucky turned his hands over, palms up, as if he'd never seen either of them before. Blood trickled down his wrist.

Both of them jumped back as Steve's shield came spinning into the room and lodged in the floor between them.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Steve's arm was around Bucky's chest, half-hugging him and half trying to drag him away. "Buck, you don't have to do this. Nat said... she said you... imprinted on Stark. This is madness. You've both lost your fucking minds. And Clint? What were you thinking? This is not okay."

"Woah, woah, big guy," Clint said, holding his hands out. "We had to do something. You know how Tony is--"

"Yes," Steve said, blue-eyed demon glare boring into Tony's face. "I know exactly how Tony is."

"Then you know why we gotta train it out of him. It ain't pretty, but neither is ridin' a bike the first dozen times or so. And we got the trainin' wheels on. It's all safe and sane and consensual."

Steve shook off Clint's words to whirl around on Tony. "What else have you been ordering him to do? Huh, Stark? This is all fun and games for you, right? Your own fully functional human doll."

"What the fuck is the matter with you? Is it pick on the amnesiac day or something?" Tony snapped. "I don't remember."

"Yeah, well, that's convenient."

"Speaking as the guy who's lost the last four years, I'd have to say no, it's pretty damned inconvenient, actually."

"Steve," Bucky said, his voice cracked, breaking. "Don't, pal. Please. They're tryin' to help. They are helping. I don't... I don't want to be this way anymore. I gave Tony my words because I trusted him. Even if I never get out of this, even if I always, always have to comply, then I trust Tony to treat me right. But if we can get it out of me? Steve. I would do anything for that. Suffer anything. To be free again."

Tony blinked at Bucky in confusion. "What words? What are you talking about? You didn't--" He looked at Clint. "Do you know what he's talking about?"

"Compliance commands," Natasha piped up, coming into the room. "Will you stop going off half-cocked, Steve?" Bruce was close behind her, worry all over his scholar's face and his eyes shimmering green.

Tony wanted to glare at Natasha, but she was telling Steve to back off him, and for some reason he couldn't really summon the suspicion and sense of betrayal that he could remember feeling what seemed only days ago, after he'd discovered who she really worked for.

"What are compliance commands?" Steve bit off, still glaring at Tony as if all of this, the entire situation, all the way back to Bucky falling off the train was Tony's fault.

"Exactly what it sounds like," Bucky said. "It's a passphrase of... words of particular importance to me." He flicked his eyes in Steve's direction. "The last one is gruzovoy vagon. Freight car."

The word shuddered down Tony's spine. He wondered what the other words were, then shook himself. It was better that he couldn't remember, if they made Bucky even easier to control.

"When the first word is spoken, he'll start to go into command mode," Natasha said, not quite looking at anyone, her voice flat. "By the time they get to the end, he'll be completely malleable. You could order him to do anything. It fades, over time. Depending on the strength of will of the soldier in particular. There have been others, but Yasha was their protegee, their star pupil, their one triumphant success."

"I gave the words to Tony, before... before the accident. Because I trusted him with that. Before anything happened between us, before the first time I..."

Steve did not look reassured. As a matter of fact, he looked downright sick. "Buck. Did he... command you into his bed?"

Rage boiled in Tony's veins, but so did the sick, half-guilty thought that it was more than possible. Based on what he'd seen, yesterday and today, if he'd only said something teasing that was phrased like a command... Get over here and kiss me. Or Take me to bed now. It was, sickeningly, stomach-churningly, not entirely out of the question.

The fear and guilt must have shown on his face, because suddenly Steve was bellowing with rage and the shield was in his hand like it was born part of him. He drove it down toward Tony's unprotected head, faster than Tony could think to dodge.

It struck Bucky's arm; the unstoppable force and the immovable object collided with a force that exploded through the air like a hurricane.

There was a split second there when everything was still and silent, as the various superheroes in the room looked at each other and subtly shifted stances. Taking sides. Deciding who was backing whose play.

Into that silence, JARVIS spoke. "Excuse me. Normally my privacy protocols would forbid me from speaking, but as I judge that significant harm to Mr. Stark is otherwise imminent, I find I am able to exploit a safety loophole in my code. I believe you may find this footage highly relevant and illuminating."

On the floor, just to the side of battle about to begin, JARVIS threw a 3D rendering, obviously culled from his security monitoring cameras: Bucky, half naked and shaking like a leaf on the floor of the elevator, and Tony, next to him.

Bucky rocked back and forth. He pulled his arms in, toward his chest, not releasing Tony's fingers, until he had practically yanked Tony to the floor with him, crouched over and off-balance.

"Whoa, hey, okay, um. Okay." Tony wobbled and shifted positions. "This is a thing we're doing, okay, fine, I've been a teddy bear before, bring it on, I got this."

Bucky glanced up. He curled his hand around the back of Tony's neck and brought him in for a kiss.

For a long moment, Tony returned the kiss, and then he jerked back, eyes wide, panting. "Bucky, I-- Shit. I can't, you don't-- Oh, hell."

"Forget it. Never happened. Just one of those damn things that..."  Bucky trailed off.

Tony sighed, just a little, and reached up to smooth down Bucky's hair. "I'm not going to forget it," he said. "But you have to know I can't. You asked me for a mission yesterday."

The image flickered, showing Bruce's face over the image-within-an-image.

"Hey, don't knock it; elevator sex can be very-- stop that, he was all sad and scared and freaking out and then suddenly he grabbed me and kissed me!"

"So now we're blaming the PTSD and mind-controlled guy for inappropriate contact?" Bruce patted around on his desk. "Where is my coffee? Or Advil. Tony, you're giving me a headache."

"No! I mean. He, he kissed me, but he was freaking out, it wasn't. It wasn't his fault. I should've. Shouldn't have kissed him back. And then he just got all..." Tony flailed his hands around.

Bruce frowned. "I forgot about that," he admitted. He shot Tony a wry look. "Calling me at 3am will do that."

Tony spread his hands. "I'd say I'd try to keep that in mind, but let's be honest. I'm going to do it again."

Another scene settled into place. Bucky was on the floor, slowly slicing his arm open, a ladder of bleeding cuts from elbow to wrist, blood dripping down onto the carpet.

"Bucky, Jesus, stop. Oh my god, stop, please." Tony dove to his knees in front of Bucky, reaching for his wrists. "Bucky. Come on, please, whatever it is, it's not worth this."

"Tony?" Bucky looked up, dazed.

Flick: the same scene, somewhat later.

"Look you're, you're incredible, an amazing person. So very tempting, believe me. But last night, you asked me to give you a mission," Tony said softly. "And I did, because I want to help, and if you need me to be your... your handler, while you work through the rest of the mess Hydra left in your head, that's fine, I can do that. But if I... if I give in to temptation, if I kiss you, if I do more than that, how do I know that it's not another mission? How do I know that you can tell me no? And if I take advantage of... of being able to tell you to do things, then that's, that makes me as bad as Hydra."

Flick.

Tony put his hand on Bucky's wrist, the metal one. He looked at the arm, at his fingers curled loosely around the metal, and dragged his hand upward.

"You... said you had thoughts about robots," Bucky said. "I don't know if that's doing anything for you, but... it's... doing something to me. So if you... if you ain't interested, you best stop."

Tony smiled, just a little, and didn't stop.

"Tony, these jeans don't really fit, and they're gonna come right off real soon now."

Tony reached the curve of Bucky's shoulder, and followed it across the seam of metal and flesh, the cruel scars, and let his hand curl carefully around the side of Bucky's neck, finally looking up. "I'm okay with that," he said, and leaned in to brush Bucky's lips with his.

Clint clutched his chest, sniffing with exaggerated emotions. "Oh, that's so beautiful, I could just cry... The feeeeels."

Bucky was staring open-mouthed at the video rendering, mortification on every single line of his face. "JARVIS..."

Natasha shifted, slightly, from one foot to the other. "I don't know about that, but... huh. Tony, you've got game, I'll say that." She bit her lip. "Kinda makes me feel all... tingly."

"They make a cream for that now, you know," Tony told her, his best straight-man delivery, and it felt strangely right to joke and banter with her, rather than snap and snark.

The image didn't flicker and the Bucky in the real world was making strangling, choking noises while the Bucky in the recordings was rolling Tony over and pleading for more. It was, Tony had to admit, extremely hot and it was a damn shame that he couldn't remember it, because that would be one to drag out and rub one off to from time to time when he didn't have a partner.

Bucky -- the real one -- went to his knees, covering his head, the back of his neck furiously red.

"Hey... mmmm... Keep going here, huh, J? I mean, wow... that's... yeah..."

Even Clint was turning an interesting shade of pink, though Tony's impression was that Clint was nearly as shameless as he himself was. Natasha nudged Clint with her elbow. "Getting a little hot under the collar there, Sokolyonok?"

"Duh. I mean," Clint said, "look at that."

Natasha chuckled, low and wicked. Tony had heard that sort of sound -- had made that sort of sound -- often enough to know what came next, but then somehow Bruce was edging between the two of them, and was it Tony's imagination, or was he just a bit... taller than Tony remembered him being?

Tony grinned and pumped a fist in his head. Go get it, science bro!

"Oh, my god, JARVIS, please..." Bucky cried out. "Turn it off."

Steve was also blushing, furiously, looking everywhere except at the display, which flickered to a freeze-frame of Bucky tearing Tony's shirt off, literally. Tony was absolutely going to have JARVIS save that image to his personal file for later enjoyment.

"With due consideration for Mr. Barnes's privacy, I can assure you that, during the remainder of their intimate moments, Mr. Stark never gave Mr. Barnes an order. In point of fact, it was Mr. Barnes who..."

"JARVIS, I don't think I need you to finish that sentence," Steve blurted.

"Of course not, Captain."

Steve gave Tony a tense little... it wasn't quite a salute, not quite tapping his heels together, but some sort of muddled... gesture. "Tony. I'm sorry. You... you were right. But... I really have to go now."

"If you spank off to that, later, Rogers, you owe me one," Tony called after his retreating back.

"Oh, god, kill me now," Bucky moaned.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

"I've never been so embarrassed in my damn life." Bucky dropped onto the couch and slumped back into the cushions, throwing his arm over his face.

Tony didn't think Bucky had stopped blushing even once in the last hour. It was probably wrong of him to find it so adorable, wasn't it? He tossed his phone onto the table and climbed onto Bucky's lap, straddling those glorious thighs. "Aw, honeybunch." He leaned in, nuzzling under Bucky's chin.

Bucky didn't move his arm, but he did tip his head back a little further to give Tony better access.

Tony hummed and worked his way along Bucky's jaw. "I'll make it up to you," he whispered, spilling warm breath across Bucky's neck, then nipped at the soft patch just under Bucky's ear. Bucky shivered, and Tony chuckled wickedly. "Tony, yes?" he purred.

Bucky groaned, and both of his arms wrapped around Tony's waist, pulling their bodies together, deliciously on the edge of too tight. "Tony yes," he said, and Tony rewarded that with a string of hot, open-mouthed kisses down his neck, tongue and teeth, delighting in the way Bucky gasped and shuddered and whined whenever Tony found a sensitive spot.

"Plus," he breathed into Bucky's collarbone, "you were doing really well, up until we were so rudely interrupted. That definitely deserves a reward. Positive reinforcement."

Bucky grunted. "Gotta be somethin' wrong with-- ha, god, Tony, there --somethin' wrong with that," he panted. "I'm gonna start gettin' a stiffie whenever I get ornery an' don't wanna do what I'm told."

Tony laughed, working his hands up under Bucky's shirt. "That's not exactly going to discourage me, you know. I'm contrary at the best of times. Besides, more boners for you is more fun for me."

Bucky let go of Tony just long enough to let him pull Bucky's shirt off, then dragged him into a bruising kiss, plundering Tony's mouth. "Tony, Tony," he groaned, "god, Tony, I--"

Tony wrapped his arms around Bucky's neck. "Wanna take this to the bedroom, soldier?"

Bucky stood up, lifting Tony effortlessly, and wasn't that hot as hell. Tony wrapped his legs around Bucky's waist and sucked a hickey onto Bucky's throat while Bucky carried them into the bedroom. Bucky dumped him unceremoniously onto the bed, and Tony laughed.

Bucky shucked the rest of his clothes without looking away from Tony, then crawled over him, eyes predator-intent. It made Tony shiver and want to show his throat in a way he rarely allowed -- trusting people, historically, did not go well for him. But the trust Bucky had shown him... Just the thought took his breath away. Bucky was staring down at him, hungry in a way that made Tony feel exposed, even though Bucky was the one who was naked and he was still fully clothed.

"You look like you're deciding how to cook and eat me," Tony said, sliding his hands up Bucky's chest.

"Zhelezoska, I am going to devour you," Bucky said, a dark growl that went straight to Tony's cock. He caught Tony's hands in the metal hand and pinned his wrists to the bed. Tony tugged experimentally, but Bucky's grip didn't budge even a little.

Bucky paused, suddenly and strangely uncertain, his eyes searching Tony's face questioningly, as if it were even remotely possible for Tony to be anything other than one thousand percent on board with this plan.

Tony stretched up to kiss Bucky, nuzzling at his mouth until Bucky returned the kiss. "Bucky, yes," Tony whispered against his lips, then laid his head back, closing his eyes and offering his throat.

From Bucky came a sound, desperate and needful and hungry, and then his mouth was on Tony's throat, lips feathering over Tony's adam's apple, the heavy throb of his jugular, unbearably tender. Tony's whole body arched off the bed, seeking Bucky's. Bucky's teeth closed on Tony's throat, like a wolf's, gentle in his possession.

"Bucky, more," Tony begged. "Please, god, I need--"

Bucky released him, sat up, and Tony opened his eyes in time to watch Bucky take hold of his shirt and rip it in half. Bucky-- giggled, then, a sound entirely at odds with the possessive dominance he'd been projecting. "You made that same face th' first time," Bucky said.

"I assume that's because I was as impressed then as I am now with how fucking hot that is," Tony told him. "It's actually really difficult to rip cloth that hasn't been damaged, you know that, right?"

Bucky looked smug. "Not for me." His hands went to work on Tony's belt and pants, apparently content to remove those in a more normal fashion. He pulled, and then they were both naked, hard and panting and staring at each other like starving men viewing a feast.

Bucky's eyes slid up over Tony's body, gratifyingly appreciative, and finally zeroed in on something over Tony's head-- ah, his hands, still crossed at the wrist and left where Bucky had pinned them. Tony had forgotten about them, to be honest, too consumed by the spectacle Bucky presented. But the way Bucky's pupils widened gave Tony plenty of incentive to leave them there.

"God, Tony, do you know what you do to me?"

"I sure don't," Tony said, grinning cheekily. "Wanna tell me about it?"

Bucky climbed back on the bed. "Rather just show you."

Bucky was looking at Tony again with that hot, possessive gaze, and Tony absolutely would have said something witty and pointed in response but then suddenly -- son of a bitch but Bucky was fast -- Bucky had swallowed Tony's cock, and the heat and the movement of his tongue and "Oh, god," was all he could manage to gasp out.

And Christ, but Bucky had not been kidding about devouring Tony; his tongue and his lips were relentless, driving Tony mad with sensation. Words were rolling out of his mouth, praise and filth (not demands; a significant portion of the tiny fraction of Tony's brain that was still able to function was frantically focused on diverting away from anything like a command) and begging. When Bucky pulled off with an obscene "pop", Tony's throat was already scratchy and hoarse.

"Jesus, you're good at that," Tony said. "Gonna let me return the favor?"

Bucky leaned back and studied Tony as if he were a particularly complicated math problem, or maybe a piece of military hardware that needed to be put back together. "Mmmm. No." He trailed the pads of his metal fingers up Tony's stomach, just barely sifted over his nipple, the silvery fingertips impossibly smooth and liquid and... just cold enough to raise gooseflesh over Tony's skin.

"No?" It spiraled up into a whine as Bucky touched him. "No. Okay. I'll just, just hang out here and let my brain melt from pleasure, no problem."

Bucky's mouth was hot and his lips were delightfully red and swollen from kissing and he did this thing -- dear god -- that went straight through Tony's brain, raising his eyes to meet Tony's gaze and licked along one nipple and then dragged right across the scars on his chest until he came down to nip and scrape his teeth across the other.

Tony cursed. He lifted one hand to grab Bucky's hair, and then caught himself and put it back down and cursed some more. "Bucky, god, please..."

"Look at you," Bucky breathed out, eyes appreciative, gaze tracing every line. "You perfect, utter miracle." He touched his tongue to Tony's lower lip, drawing back with easy grace every time Tony lunged for him, breathy little flicks, used the very tip of his tongue to tease at the sensitive join in the corner where his lips met, tormented him until Tony was gasping.

"I am really, 100% positive that the miracle in this room is you. You, and the fact that I'm not shooting off like a fourteen-year-old at a cheerleader convention."

Bucky laughed, ran his hand through his hair and scrubbed at the back of his neck, an oddly shy and endearing and fucking adorable gesture. "You say the most outrageous things, Tony. You gonna kiss me with that mouth or just lay there gapin' like a fish?"

Tony glared at Bucky in mock outrage. "Asshole, I've been trying and you're being all coy about it."

"Yeah, well," Bucky said, flicking his eyes up. "I'm shy."

"We're going to talk later about how cute you are when you're blushing, but right now I would really appreciate it if you would fuck me."

Bucky inhaled sharply, his eyes shuttering, that lustful, teasing expression falling off as if it was wiped away with glass cleaner. "Tony..." He shivered, breath coming faster, anxious...

Tony froze, because that was no longer happy-sexy breathing, that was, what did he-- fuck, that last bit must have been a little too close to a command. "Shit, belay that, I'm sorry, I--" He sat up, propped himself on one elbow and gave in to the lingering urge to put his hand in Bucky's hair.

Bucky wrapped his arms around Tony's chest and lay his head down against Tony's belly, cheeks hot and took a deep breath. "I'm okay, I'm okay... I'm okay... soldier has discretion..."

"Sorry," Tony said again. "But you, you held off, you managed to stall it. Even though you weren't expecting it. That's great!"

Bucky nodded against Tony's skin. "I... Tony, if I could hurt you -- and if I'm not careful, Tony, I could break you in half -- there's a conflict. That's a good thing. Primary mission protocols: protect Anthony Stark. Self-care. Eat, sleep. Don't kill Clint."

Tony snorted at the last, even though the situation was far from funny. "I know you could hurt me. That's... not news. I don't think you will, though."

"I'm okay," Bucky said, more to convince himself than any sincerity. "Just... gimme a minute. It's..."

"All the time you need, sugarbritches."

"Where do you even come up with all those ridiculous pet names?" Bucky snorted, his arms tightening a little around Tony's chest, the fingers on his right hand stroking the small of Tony's back, the left arm held preternaturally still.

Tony laughed, still carding his fingers through Bucky's hair. "College," he said. "I took a minor in it." He grinned at the little snort Bucky let out. "Mostly I started doing it to try to get a rise out of Rhodey. He's weirdly unflappable."

"Yeah, that's you all over, just makes you try harder, huh?"

"Little bit," Tony admitted.

Bucky sighed and straightened up, sitting cross-legged, his knees touching Tony's ribs. "I hate this," he said. "I... you haven't been you, not for months. I mean, you have, you've really been you, sometimes even obnoxiously you--"

"Speaking of 'me all over,'" Tony put in with a smirk.

"But you haven't been my Tony. And I've missed you, I can't even tell you. And I don't want to waste a second of it, because you could be gone again tomorrow. And if that happens, I'll wait and I'll hope and I'll be here... But it would be really, really nice if you could stay."

"I would really, really like to stay. Apparently the future is pretty awesome."

"You should see it from my side of things... my last, really rich memories are still thinking that talkie movies are pretty cool... Four years ago, you still had I can haz cheeseburger."

"That... is not something I want to appreciate about the future," Tony said. He cocked his head to look up at Bucky. "Have we done any 3-D movies with you yet?"

"Um, Finding Nemo."

Tony gaped. Then he shook his head. "That had to be Clint's pick. Only he would think it was funny to show a recovering brainwashing victim and an amnesiac a movie with a fish who has memory problems."

"We've watched While You Were Sleeping and Groundhog Day, too." Bucky agreed. "Sometimes I think he's trying to traumatize me. Either that, or he's got a really morbid sense of humor. I like that about him, really."

Absently, as if he wasn't really aware of what he was doing, he tapped his metal fingers against Tony's knee, not simple drumming, but complicated patterns that made the servos in his arm ratchet and shift, the plates sliding neatly into place. He flexed, a tiny smile playing over his mouth -- Oh, Bucky absolutely knew what he was doing -- as Tony's lust for Bucky's body and concern for Bucky's well-being sort of vanished behind the dry-mouthed astonishment of just how incredibly well-engineered his arm was.

Tony twitched his fingers, itching to put his hands all over the glorious tech. He needed to test the alloy with his fingers, with his tongue, he needed to hear the hum of its electronics and catch the barely-there scent of the oil in the servos and joints. It wasn't only the tech, though that was alluring enough in its own right; it was Bucky, at least in part, and somehow Tony felt that if he could know this part, it would provide some key to the rest of the man, no matter how nonsensical that seemed.

"It's the first thing you liked about me," Bucky said, looking over at Tony through lowered lashes. "Oh, man, Tony, I was a fuckin' mess, and you? You just looked at me and said ‘Hey, you wanna come inside? Have a cheeseburger?' Like it was that easy." He ran his hand over his hair and cupped the back of his neck, tugged, letting the bones in his neck and spine pop and stretch.

"It is so weird hearing you get all nostalgic about stuff with me in it that I can't remember. Vuja de, the feeling that this has never happened before," Tony whispered. "Like, I keep thinking you're gonna say 'April Fool's' at some point. I'm the guy who can't even save himself, much less anyone else."

"You don't give yourself enough credit, Zhelezoska," Bucky said. "You saved me. Hell, Tony, you save me every goddamn day."

Tony leaned forward, and it wasn't desire, it wasn't wanting, it wasn't lust. It was compulsion. He had to kiss Bucky, right at that moment, or the world would end, it would simply stop spinning on its axis and there was nothing more important and Bucky met him halfway, mouth open, not teasing anymore, not playing, but kissing Tony back as if his heart would break. Bucky unfolded his long legs and let Tony bear him down to the bed, let Tony touch and explore and stroke him, which... did not have the weird overlay of not-quite-memory-but-familiar-somehow on it that everything else did.

Bucky grinned at him, radiating smugness, and tucked his arms under his neck, elbows bent. "I'll be a good boy," he said. "For now." He gave Tony a look filled with such simmering possession that Tony's throat went dry.

And that was... Oh, that made his throat close with emotion, Christ, would Bucky ever stop giving himself to Tony? As if Tony deserved any part of that trust.

But this -- bodies and mouths and hands and cocks -- this was something that Tony could do, and do well; he'd always enjoyed sex, even when he hadn't been terribly discerning in his partners, he'd still enjoyed this part. Taken satisfaction in learning the particulars of a lover's body, the way he knew the little quirks and personalities of each of his cars' engines.

So at least for now, for this moment, he could be worthy of the gift Bucky had given.

He touched and licked and nipped, teasing and testing until Bucky had recovered the erection that Tony's thoughtless slip of the tongue had ruined. He slid between Bucky's thighs and teased some more, licking a stripe up the inside of Bucky's thigh and blowing cool air across the wet skin, laughing at the way Bucky shivered and groaned.

Bucky didn't move like a man who'd ever been given pleasure before, only one who had taken it, and he quivered as Tony moved over him, eyes glassy and pupils blown, panting in quick, urgent gasps, as if every touch was a revelation. "Tony, Tony," he crooned, voice soft, almost singing the words.

"Is that Tony yes?" Tony teased, darting kitten-licks down toward the join of his thigh and his hip. "Or Tony no?" Tony nuzzled downward, breathing hot over Bucky's balls.

Bucky jerked forward, doing almost a perfect crunch, and held himself there, stomach muscles straining and tight. "Tony... please... more."

"Oh, why didn't you just say so?" Tony chuckled, and looked up, catching Bucky's gaze and holding it as he licked a broad stripe up Bucky's cock. Bucky looked half-stunned, though Tony would have bet half his cars that this was hardly Bucky's first blowjob.

Tony gave him a heavy-lidded smile, and sucked the head of Bucky's cock past his lips, exploring its ridges and salt-bitter taste with slow enjoyment.

Bucky twisted his hand up in the sheet, practically clamping himself to the bed, his right hand taking hold of the back of Tony's head, not quite shoving Tony down on his dick, but it was close, and his hand was firm, practically yanking Tony's hair.

Tony nearly choked -- it had been a while since he'd done this (or maybe it hadn't, and he just couldn't remember, but the effect was the same) -- but then recovered, curling his hand around the base of Bucky's cock so he could control the depth, and humming in satisfaction.

Bucky changed his grip,cupping the side of Tony's face gently, thumb rubbing against his cheek. "Sorry," he murmured. "Forgot."

At Tony's comically raised eyebrows, because he was not actually planning on taking Bucky's package out of his mouth to ask a stupid question, Bucky chortled. The vibrations that sent through Bucky's body caused shockwaves that made them both groan.

"I..." Bucky leaned back against the sheets on one elbow, watching. "I, er, don't have to breathe  as much as you do."

Pop! "Excuse me?" Tony backed off, ignoring the faint whine from Bucky's throat. "What was that, lover boy?"

"Super. Soldier. Tony. I can hold my breath for about eleven minutes."

Tony blinked several times. "We're going to have to discuss this. At length. Later." And ran his mouth, wet and slick and half open, down the length of Bucky's tool, like he was playing a harmonica.

Bucky keened and let his head fall back until the tips of his scruffy hair brushed against the sheets, his throat working. "That's good, Tony, oh, god, that's sweet."

While Tony knew his behavior wasn't always the best, both in general and specifically, one thing he never did was talk with his mouth full, so he contented himself with humming again, and pressing his tongue down a little harder, letting the vibrations work their wicked magic.

When Bucky was whimpering again, Tony pulled off long enough to ask, "So probably we covered this before, but since I don't remember it -- top, bottom, or switch?"

Bucky shuddered all over for a moment, blissed-out and blinking slowly.

"Actually, we never did." Tony gaped at him like a fish. How the fuck had they not fucked? Okay, he knew some guys didn't care for it, but Bucky really didn't seem the fussy or squeamish type, and Bucky had for damn sure been checking out Tony's ass all day. Bucky, spotting Tony's expression, clarified, "Didn't discuss it, I mean. Usually I just... what did Rhodes call it? Bang you like a cheap screen door? But, erm... I'm easy."  

Tony sniffed indignantly. "Excuse you, I am a very expensive screen door."

Bucky laughed, tucked one arm under Tony's back and rolled over to press his weight onto Tony. Tony leaned into it, enjoying the closeness, Bucky's added warmth. "I... like it, sinking into you," Bucky said. He was blushing again, which Tony wanted to never stop. "You're so beautiful, and I just... mmmm. Want you, so bad, I love it, and I... like watching you fall apart."

Tony shivered a little at the mental image those words conjured. "Oh, I am all kinds of okay with that. Just trying to get an idea of the lay of the land. So to speak. So, mostly toppy, but not averse to switching it up occasionally, is what I'm hearing, here? Might enjoy some fingering, from time to time, during other activities?"

"Tony." Bucky sounded half-strangled and his blush was even brighter. Tony very deliberately ran a fingertip down Bucky's hip, just to watch the way his eyelids fluttered and feel him squirm as he thought about it. "God, Tony, can we just..."

"Hmmm?" Tony drew it out, knowing damn well what Bucky meant but wanting to see more of that blush.

Bucky bit his lip, which was just really unfair. Tony wanted to tease the lip out from under his teeth and suck on it, but he was enjoying Bucky's bashful fidgeting. "Slick?" Bucky managed eventually.

Tony gave in and wriggled half-out from under Bucky to fumble blindly in the nightstand drawer. He found the tube and tossed it to Bucky, then flopped onto his back and folded his hands under his head casually, grinning at the ceiling. "Have at it," he said.

The lube was a little chilly as it first made contact, but that was all right, because Tony could stand to come down a notch or two. And it wasn't really any cooler than the metal fingers wrapped around Tony's thigh. Actually, there was a thought. "Mmm, you think a latex glove would keep the plates in your hand from pinching, or would it have to be something thicker? 'Cause I seriously, at some point, need to have that thing inside me."

"Oh my god," Bucky rasped, pressing his face against Tony's knee. "The things that come out of your mouth, holy shit, Tony." He sounded like he was either horrified or desperately turned on by the idea. Maybe a little bit of both. The best things were always just a little bit of both.

Tony laughed, a little breathlessly because the lube was warmed up now and Bucky was carefully twisting two fingers against his hole, exactly the way Tony liked it. Probably Tony had taught him that, sometime before, that he couldn't remember. Which was a shame, because sex with Bucky was amazing and Tony didn't want to be missing any of it, but also because he rather liked the idea of teaching Bucky how to make love to him, of them learning each other, together, and the amnesia had robbed them of that.

But it was hard to be too sad about that when Bucky was already two knuckles deep and peppering the insides of Tony's thighs with hot kisses and sharp little lovebites. And Christ, they'd definitely done this a few times before, even if Tony couldn't remember it, because it was like Bucky had cribbed notes written on the inside of his arm to tell him exactly how fast, how hard, and what angle he should use to drive Tony absolutely. Fucking. Crazy.

He was moaning and gasping in minutes, his back permanently arched off the mattress and his hips rolling frantically, desperate for just a little bit more pressure, a little more stretch. "Bucky. Bucky, please, god, I need you in me now, Bucky, Bucky, please."

"All right, babydoll," Bucky rumbled, and damn but that old-timey Brooklyn drawl was turning into a booster switch for Tony's libido. "I gotcha, baby, I got you." Bucky's fingers slipped free, and Tony didn't even have time to whine about that before Bucky was on top of him, that sweet weight pressing him down, something that seemed to whisper safe to Tony's hindbrain, even though he knew it wasn't true; and protected, even though it wasn’t necessary; and, most dangerous of all, loved.

"Bucky," he said, knowing he was whining and begging and not caring in the slightest. "Bucky, please, more."

"Kak khotite, Zhelezoska," Bucky whispered against Tony's neck. "Hang on." And then he was pushing in, slow and careful but so good. Tony's body gave way for him as if they'd been lovers for years.

Bucky's arms were wrapped under Tony's shoulders, holding him close, and his breath spilled hot and shivery down Tony's neck, and when he began to rock his hips, it was like everything Tony could ever have wished for, and nothing he could ever have expected. They fit together like a key in its lock, like pieces of a puzzle, like the plates of Bucky's arm.

There were tears in Tony's eyes, but he ignored them, wiping them roughly away against Bucky's shoulder.

Bucky was whispering to him as he moved, a babble of Russian that Tony wouldn't have had a hope of deciphering even if he knew more than a bare handful of words. The meaning didn't matter, though; Bucky's voice was tender and joyful, overwhelmed and grateful, inexpressibly beautiful.

Tony combed his fingers through Bucky's hair, dragged his hands over Bucky's back to feel the muscles shifting under the skin. "Bucky, yes, yes," he gasped, and his balls felt hot and tight, squeezing. "Shit, Bucky, I'm almost--"

"Do it," Bucky said, voice rough. "Let me see you. Come for me, Tony."

Tony came, a rush that whited out his vision and roared in his ears like the wind at 30,000 feet.

"--so damn beautiful," Bucky was saying when Tony could hear again. Bucky’s movements were becoming jerky and frantic, and Tony was glad he hadn't missed this. He rolled his body, spine and hips undulating to match Bucky's rhythm, listening for the hitch in Bucky's breath that told him when to clench down, to tighten his grip, to bite down on the curve of Bucky’s shoulder, a spark to ignite the flame. Bucky keened, an animal sound, and came, face pressed into Tony's neck.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Bucky groaned about fifteen minutes later and staggered out of the bed. He kissed Tony on the bridge of his nose. "Need a drink?" he asked, but didn't even wait for Tony's vague hand-wave of agreement. He cracked open a bottle of some sports drink that looked like windshield wiper fluid and tasted like a dentist's office smells, and downed half of it in one long gulp. For Tony, he got a bottle of sparkling water, twisted the top, and left it in easy reach on the bedside table.

Bucky washed his face, and swished out his mouth, then got a wet washcloth and went back into the bedroom to help Tony clean up.

That was fun, since Tony really, really didn't want to move and Bucky got to manhandle him around on the bed like a ragdoll, and also took proud and thorough note of all the soft, red bruises along Tony's thighs, and one spectacular grip-point on his hip. Bucky nudged Tony to one side of the bed and then -- much to Tony's bemusement -- stripped and remade the bed around him, only needing him to roll over twice.

After he shoved the laundry down the chute, he turned around to find Tony shaking his head. "Why are you doing that? We have... I mean, I've got people for that."

"Bots, Tony. You have bots for that. And... I dunno, it... just feels weird to me to ask your kids to clean up our sex-mess. They're a little young for that sort of thing, don't you think?"

"Are you... anthropomorphizing... the cleaning bots? Just to make sure I'm clear, here. They have an assignment, they do a job. I expect JARVIS controls them, mostly. That seems like what I'd do, since I don't remember doing it."

"They are semi-autonomous, with initiative motivators,” Bucky told him, because he was proud of having learned not only those words but what they actually meant. “They're also capable of learning. DOB-E was one of my first friends in the building. They have a lot of latitude in their interpretation of their directives. It's... led to some interesting moments. They're not complex, but they do have feelings. Probably somewhat less than I project onto them, but still. Like a pet, really. And they adore you. We kinda bonded over it. A bit."

"DOB-E," Tony muttered.

"I didn't name him, Tony; he had that stamped on him the first time I saw him."

"I named a bot after the house elf in Harry Potter? That’s... Wait, scratch that; that’s exactly something I’d do. On the other hand, I can't create feelings, Bucky."

"I don't think you did," Bucky said. "You more... created the possibility. They learned feelings, on their own. Like when two people have a kid. The baby is a blank slate. It learns feelings and information and interaction skills from observation."

"That's... Huh. Kind of amazing."  

"You're amazing," Bucky said, catching Tony's fingers and kissing them, drawing Tony's pinkie into his mouth for a lingering taste.

"He says I'm amazing when he's doing that?” Tony demanded of the ceiling. “Has anyone defined amazing for this guy? I mean, really, sweetcheeks, your education is still lacking; not surprisingly, this from a guy who still thinks Steve Rogers is the best guy ever, but I would have thought one of our little playmates from downstairs -- Clint, maybe -- would have gone over correct descriptors for me before now."

Bucky shrugged, not really listening. "Hm. That's true. I should probably go talk to Steve." He glanced at the clock; Steve would be around. It wasn't even really all that late, but it had been a busy day, and if he hadn't completely worn Tony out, it hadn't been for lack of trying.

Tony's eyebrows went way up. "That is not good bedroom etiquette at all. Aren't you... Do you not want to stay?"

"Oh, I want to," Bucky whispered, kissing Tony's palm and letting Tony's fingers curl around his jaw. "But we still don't know... You could wake up tomorrow and be the same, building on what's happened today. Or you could wake up and be back four years ago, again.

"It's the other reason I'm cleaning up. You're gonna know tomorrow that you had sex, and I probably shouldn't have done it, but... When I'm in the bed with you in the morning, it freaks you out. And I'm not just talking about a bad panic attack, Tony. I had to run around the room in my shorts, playing dodge ball with your repulsor blasts and then took a seventy-story dive out the window. I'm still not sure Sam's forgiven me for that. Was kinda fun, though. When you get better, I want you to take me flying--"

"Hold up, I shot at you?" Tony demanded. His hand slid the rest of the way around Bucky's neck, fingers tightening in Bucky's hair, clinging tight and reassuring himself that Bucky hadn't splattered himself on the sidewalk. "And Jesus, what if Sam hadn't had his damn wings close at hand? Is there even anyone else here who can fly? What if-- You could have been-- Bucky."

"Occupational hazard," Bucky said. "It's... we live in a building full of super heroes. Well, I do. You all live with a bunch of heroes and one broken murderbot, but the point is, Tony, is that we're all very dangerous people. If Steve and Sam and Tash can forgive me for what I've done while I was out of my fucking mind, and I'm working on forgiving myself for it, then... I'm not brushing you off here or anything, but Tony, it's not a big deal. It's why, I think, you all live together: so you're surrounded by people who can survive your accidents. If you remember, talk to Clint about all your shit I've busted up because I can't keep a hold of my temper. Check with Pepper; she's got all the insurance paperwork for Bruce's occasional demons. That's not even including the political ramifications of Tash's infodump of S.H.I.E.LD.'s databanks to the fucking Internet. You guys were trending for weeks."    

Tony did not look reassured. "But I shot at you," he repeated. His face had gone pale. He let Bucky go, snatching his hand back as if it had been burned. His post-coital lassitude vanished in a rush of self-loathing that he didn't bother keeping off his face, and he flung himself out of the bed, pacing and waving his hands agitatedly. "Fuck, why are you even still with me? Pepper gets ticked when I can't remember her birthday, but I think that's pretty much trumped by the fact that I can't remember anything about you, including your fucking existence, from more than two days ago! I am literally the worst boyfriend ever."

"Tony... Tony, stop." Bucky got up and intercepted Tony's restless path, catching his flailing hands and tugging him into a hug. Tony didn't fight it, just folded into Bucky's arms, shivering with adrenaline, head tucked to hide his face. "It's okay. You're fine, you're doing the best you can, I know that, okay?"

Tony snorted derisively. "The best I can do, sure. I'm broken, maybe even more of a mess than I was when I was dying--"

"Hey, Zhelezoska, come on, we spent most of the goddamn day and half of yesterday playing Simon Says with my brain and a fucking comic book doll. Do you think less of me for that? Think I'm weak?"  

"I know what you're trying to do, but it won't work. You've got seventy years of torture and experimentation and who knows what all kind of conditioning and fuckery to work through; it's a goddamn miracle you're able to get out of bed in the morning. I'm just--"

"Just recovering from an actual injury to your brain," Bucky said firmly. "We're lucky as hell you're even still breathing, so cut yourself just a little bit more slack, okay? We're all making allowances and workin' with what we got, so that you're safe and I'm safe and maybe one of these days, we can be normal enough to function. It'll be okay, babe. It's not there now, but we're working on it. We've both had major breakthroughs, and things are already a million times better than they were just yesterday morning. Yeah?"

Tony muttered and grumbled against Bucky's chest, though Bucky thought he had mostly come through the panic and fear and was back into the much more familiar territory of being frustrated that things weren't happening at the speed he wanted. Bucky smiled fondly and caught Tony's face in his hands, tipping his chin up until he met Bucky's eyes. "Now, kiss me goodnight and I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

Tony was happy to oblige with the kissing part, although it took a minute for Bucky to untangle his hands so that he could actually leave. Didn't help that he really, really didn't want to go.

As he shut the door behind him, he gritted his teeth for a minute, rested his head against the door. Wish I'd told him I loved him, he thought. Bucky considered sticking his head back in and calling it out, but... no, that was probably going to be yet another conversation, and Tony was good at conversation, would want to hold the idea up to the light and see what reflected and what parts peeled off and Bucky... just didn't have it in him. Not today. It would keep until later. Not like it was going to change.

"You are so stupid gone on that man, soldier," he muttered. Boyfriend thing fixed for the moment, Bucky headed downstairs to fix the best friend thing, which he'd been avoiding and compartmentalizing for weeks in favor of more pressing problems, and truth be told, whatever he said to Tony, a fuckton of guilt and baggage and lack of motivation. It was going to be a hard conversation to have, but it needed to be done, and the longer Bucky had put it off, the worse it was going to be.

***

Steve

The book was open in Steve's lap, but he hadn't made any progress on it. He had probably read the same page at least twenty times, but since it was gone from his memory as soon as his eyes left the words, it was a wasted effort. He wasn't even sure what the title was. He tucked his finger into his place and closed the cover around it.

Cinder. Black glossy cover with a woman's severed robotic foot on it. Huh. Must have been one of Bucky's picks; he'd been mad for novels almost since he'd arrived. The Amazon guy, who had clearance for the Avenger's Tower now, had tentatively suggested that Bucky might want a Kindle and then he could just read the book he wanted when he wanted it, rather than using the vast empire of Stark Industries money to abuse a delivery guy into a running a couple of paperbacks over in the middle of the night. Bucky had given the guy a tip and shut the door in his face.

"Books," Bucky had declared, petting the cover possessively, "smell nice. And they feel nice. And I like reading them with a flashlight, none of which work with some shiny little overpriced tool."

"Don't let Tony hear you dissing tech like that," Nat had said, looking at him over her bowl of late night, girl talk, maybe I'm thinking about considering dating Bruce ice cream. "You'll be out on your ear without a character reference."

"I'm not dissing tech, Tash. I'm dissing Amazon's racketeering, profit-driven, author-murdering scam."

"Have you been reading book-review blogs again? I told you not to do that."

Bucky had carelessly flipped one silver finger up at her, not taking his nose out of the book. "Shut up, Tash, I'm reading."

Steve sighed, put the book down without marking his place. It's not like it mattered. He'd probably picked it up just because it was Bucky's book, and there weren't many parts of Bucky left that he could have. Yeah. He scrubbed his fingers through his hair. Fucked that one up, but good, Rogers, he thought.

And having to apologize to Tony-my-ass-shoots-fucking-tech-rainbows-Stark afterward. The. worst. Ever. Like, even worse than three shows a day across Iowa, where it had been flat and ugly and covered with horrible black dirt that got caught up in the wind and no matter how often you washed your hands, you always had black dirt crescents under your nails and black dirt in your socks and down the back of your pants, and the sky was too big. Worse than that.

Not as bad as having your best friend come back from the dead and then try to kill you. Not that bad.

"So," he announced to the empty room, "I have completely defined my life as moments that are worse than Iowa and better than the Winter Soldier." What life?

He'd moved into the Tower after they'd gotten back from the horribly-gone-awry mission in Bogota, but now Steve wasn't sure why. He'd done it to be close to Bucky, to be close to Tony, who was horribly injured...

And they didn't want him around.

It was worse to feel alone in a crowd than it was to just be alone.

The old apartment had too many memories, though. Sharon Carter, no longer working as a SHIELD agent -- pretending to be his neighbor and actually keeping an eye on him -- had taken care to get the place cleaned up, bullet holes patched, window repaired, Fury's blood off the carpet. Or maybe she'd had to replace the whole carpet; that seemed likely.

The little bit of his life he'd been able to manage, to bring back together, had started to unravel the night that the Winter Soldier shot Nick Fury, and Steve hadn't managed to get his feet under him since.

He saw movement from the corner of his eye and startled. For just an instant, he thought he saw Dum Dum with that terrible, stupid hat, leaning against the doorframe.

Crap. It was going to be another one of those nights. When he'd first come out of the ice, after Fury came after him with his little recruitment speech, Steve had spent weeks being chased around by the ghosts of his dead friends, seeing them everywhere he went, hearing their voices. And instead of being terrified, or worrying that he was crazy, he'd been weirdly comforted. It felt like they were just waiting for him to catch up with them.

They'd faded since then. Not entirely gone, no, but it happened less and less. Steve missed them so bad it was stupid. How could you miss a hallucination?

Didn't matter. He wasn't going to sleep tonight.

He got to his feet and fished his gym bag out of the closet. Might as well go a few rounds with the sandbags. If Bucky had left any of them intact.

Steve was so used to the ghosts of his old friends following him around that when he opened the front door of his suite and saw Bucky there, hand poised as if to knock, he just kept going, assuming he could just walk right through.

It was such a shock to come to slam into a hard, warm body, to feel hands come up to catch him, that Steve's brain locked up entirely and he could only just stare, wordless, at the figure that rolled its eyes at him.

"Cripes, Stevie," Bucky said, "I know you're pissed at me, but are we really gonna play this ‘you don't exist' game? You haven't done that since you were nine and I broke your mom's hand-mirror and let you take the blame for it."

"I was on auto-pilot," Steve responded, because he sure as heck wasn't going to tell Bucky that he was hallucinating dead people and thought Bucky was one of them, because there was no way that conversation played out at all well. "What do you... er, what can I do for you?"

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "Invite me in?"

That hurt; it shouldn't have, but it did. In no time, in no single episode of his life had he ever, ever invited Bucky in. The first day they'd met, Bucky had just walked in the door after him, and since that moment, only a locked door had kept one of them from the other, and sometimes -- Steve rather painfully remembered the episode in France -- not even then. "Since when do you need an invite?"

"I don't," Bucky said, slamming him in the shoulder on the way by. "You got any beer in this joint?" That was, obviously, a rhetorical question, as Bucky was already bent over at the fridge, grabbing the dark bottles in the back that Steve had been collecting for flavor. They came from small, local breweries, and actually tasted somewhat like the way he remembered beer tasting. It didn't affect him at all, of course, and he didn't actually even like beer, but once in a while it soothed the ache in his memories, and it seemed to be a thing people did -- keep beer on hand to offer to guests -- so he kept them in there, fresh and chilled and ready.

Bucky was probably the first person to drink one. And that was damn depressing.

Bucky popped the tops off two bottles with his metal thumb like a circus trick and handed one to Steve. "What should we drink to, Steve?"

To old friends, Steve wanted to say, but then Bucky would want to talk about them, bring up old memories that were knives twisting in Steve's side. "To..." What would Bucky find toast-worthy? Steve scarcely knew anymore. "To the future?"

"May it be better than the past and twice as bright," Bucky answered, clinking their bottles together.

Steve half-smiled -- Bucky had always been like that, easy with his words and ready for every occasion -- and lifted the bottle to his lips. The bitterness seemed entirely too appropriate.

Bucky drank, tilting the bottle all the way up and letting the beer slide down his throat in a few heavy swallows, watching Steve sidelong, studying whatever expression Steve was projecting, then belched, loud, proud and improper. "God, that's nasty, Stevie. What dumpster did you dive in to get this?"

Steve looked down at his own bottle. "I... I guess it's just beer now, maybe. I think Clint suggested this one."

Bucky shook his head, grinning. "This shit is so hoppy, I expect it to start jumping around an' laying Easter Eggs."

"I only keep it around to be polite. Alcohol doesn't work on me anymore."

"Polite? You? Who are you, and what have you done with Steve Rogers?" Bucky scoffed.

That felt... real. Almost good. Steve smiled a bit more and pushed Bucky playfully. "You just never rated me bein' polite to," he said, almost startled at the sudden emergence of the accent his USO stage manager had carefully trained out of him.

"Oh, I'm wounded, man." Bucky clapped his hand over his heart. "Come here, you bastard." Bucky opened his arms for a hug, that easy, devil-may-care grin playing on his mouth.  

God, Steve wished it could be that easy. He fell into it and wrapped his own arms around Bucky's back, letting himself pretend for a moment that it could. "God, I missed you," he admitted into Bucky's collar.

Bucky drew back just a little and Steve was astonished to see those stormcloud eyes were bright with tears. "Good, good to know. You're willing. I wasn't sure you would be, after... It wouldn't shock me at all, and I'd never hold it against you, if you didn't... want to be friends anymore."

Steve gaped. It was Bucky who'd pulled away, who'd avoided Steve. "Why the hell would I want that, Buck?"

"Um, even when I was back in my own mind, I did sort of threaten to kill you if you punched my boyfriend? And then I've been pretending you don't exist? Kinda been a jerk, Steve."

Relief and guilt and frustration tangled into Steve's gut. "Already knew that. Jerk. Anyway, I thought you'd... Well, either you'd come around, or you didn't want me around."

Bucky threw himself into a chair. "Get me another one of these terrible beers, wouldya? I guess I'm lucky, I have a head for alcohol, but I ain't immune."

"Well, now I'm jealous," Steve said, trying to keep it light. He fished in the fridge and came out with a fresh bottle. He handed it to Bucky unopened, and settled onto the couch. "Bruce and Tony did something... science-y and figured I'm not immune, but... I'd have to drink so fast and hard I wouldn't really be able to stop and enjoy it. Thor said he might bring me something to try, next time he comes back from Asgard."

"Oh, god, count me in for that. I haven't been shit-faced in a long damn time, Stevie."

He didn't mean to say it; it just slipped out. "I haven't really given it a try since you died."

Bucky closed his eyes for a long, painful moment, his jaw working like he was chewing his own tongue. "Sorry I left you, punk. I didn't want to."

"Didn't think you did," Steve said, feeling a flush crawling up the back of his neck. He took another swig from his bottle to cover his embarrassment, and let himself grimace at the flavor. "Damn, this is awful. I thought it was me."

"It's Clint. He would totally do it to punk you. Look, just say it, Steve, okay. I know you feel that way, so you may as well get it out in the open: you're sorry you let me fall."

It was like being punched in the gut. All the breath left his body, and he had to lean forward and put his arms on his knees for balance. "I am," he managed after a minute, looking down at the bottle dangling from his fingertips, the narrow, dark neck like a tunnel of secrets. "I'm so, so sorry."

Bucky took a deep breath, let it out, like he was steeling himself to put his hand -- his other hand -- into a pit of molten flames. "And I'm sorry I left you. I'm sorry you couldn't rely on me. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you needed me. I'm sorry you crashed, I'm sorry they woke you up after everything was changed and everyone you ever knew was dead, and I'm sorry I tried my damndest to kill you and that all of that was my fault ‘cause it never would have happened if I hadn't been so fucking stupid as to get caught by Hydra in the first place and then never fucking tell you that they'd changed me."

Steve looked up, shocked. "Buck, none of that was your fault!"

"So, maybe, Stevie... maybe if you don't think it's my fault and I don't think it's your fault... maybe... just maybe... we could stop blaming ourselves for this fucked up shit, yeah?"

Steve snorted. "Sure, pal. You figure out how that works, you let me know."

"Yeah, sarcasm. Come on, Steve, you can do better than that. You always were better than I was."

Steve blinked. "Now that's a crock of shit. Who's the one always pulled me out of fights, always took care of me when I was sick and hurt?"

"You told me, after Erskine blew you up like a pufferfish... He said the serum brought out what was best in you, the best of the outside man and the strongest traits of the inside man. That's why Red Skull was such a fuck-up and you're Captain goddamn America."

Steve huffed. Captain fucking America could get bent. "You know, for about a year after -- the whole time I was with the USO -- I thought it should'a been you. I got big and strong, sure, but you were the better man. Loyal and brave and smart and--"

"And bloodthirsty." Bucky stared at him, level and even and unblinking. If he was lying, he didn't know it.

Steve shook his head. "No, that's. That's Hydra, Buck. You're not like that."

"Yes. I always liked you, punk, so it was icing on the cake, but I got into that first fight not because I thought you were right, or because I was standing up for a weak kid, but because I like to fight. I like it. I always have. You just gave me something to fight for, instead of against."

That wasn't right. Couldn't be. It was a lie Hydra had told him, something else stuck in his head like that damned compulsion to follow orders, or the -- the compliance code, that Nat had mentioned.

"I never told you,” Bucky was saying. “I didn't want you to be ashamed to be my friend. You were the best thing in my life, Stevie, and you've always made me want to be better. Do better. And I was better. With you. Losing you was like someone put out the sun."

Steve tried not to say it, didn't want to chase Bucky back into the shadows, knew it was a shitty thing to even think, much less say, but months of resentment and anger forced it through his teeth anyway. "Then why the hell did you pick him instead of me?"

The bottle fell out of Bucky's fingers, hit the floor and the flat beer guzzled out onto the carpet. He stared at Steve, utterly, utterly wrecked. "Are... are you jealous? Is that... is that what this is about? God, Steve, talk about missing the boat." He groaned, rubbed at his head with that artificial arm so hard that Steve became mildly concerned that he might hurt himself.

Then Steve realized what that must have sounded like, and his concern for Bucky got lost in his own inner maelstrom. "No!" he protested, half-choking. "No! Not... Not like that."

"Oh, thank god." Bucky slumped in relief.

"I just. He." Steve closed his eyes tight. "When I stop to think, I know it's not really him. But he's... He’s everything about this time that's flashy and loud and arrogant and... It felt like he'd turned my own best friend against me, and I--" Steve ground to a halt, groping for words.

"Stevie, you punched him in the face when he was sick. I'm sorry, man, but that was beyond rude."

"He seduced you," Steve pointed out. "While you were not terribly clear about who exactly you were."

Bucky scoffed. "The fuck he did. Wait, that came out wrong. Hang on, let me rethink that."

Steve gave him a flat look. "Okay, it turns out it wasn't quite as... sinister as I'd feared. But you have to admit, Buck, from the outside it looks pretty damning."

"Thanks," Bucky said, placing his right hand against Steve's forearm, which was quite a stretch, and really, he hadn't noticed in the events last year, but Bucky had gotten taller, too. "I'm... grateful, more grateful than you know, that you think I'm worth defending."

"I haven't ever exactly been shy about getting into a fight."

"But never for the wrong person. Maybe the wrong reasons, but you've always stood up for people who deserved it. I don't... don't always feel like I'm one of those, anymore."

"You're my best friend, Bucky. The only one I've got left from... before. I don't care if you do hate me, I'll still fight for you."

Bucky flinched, his fingers tightening on Steve's arm, hard. His lips moved, mouthing words. "...but... I knew him," and he looked up at Steve with a pained expression. "Til the end of the line."

Steve's throat closed even as something in his chest eased. "Til the end of the line," he agreed.

"I'd lost that, for a bit. I... my memory's about as cracked as Tony's is, sometimes. After... after the bridge, they wiped me again, because I recognized you."

Horror washed over Steve like icy water. "God, Buck, I--"

"Don't you fucking dare pick up that guilt, Stevie, you leave it alone. That's on them, that's on Pierce, that's on Rumlow. Not you. Never, never you."

Bucky looked fierce, like he'd fight the whole world -- Steve included -- to keep Steve from apologizing. A warm wave of fondness swept aside the guilt, if not the horror. "Okay," he said. "That one can be on Pierce and Rumlow." He wondered how Bucky knew Rumlow, though, and another lump of coal was added to the slow-burning fire of his anger for that betrayal.

"Did you get that bastard? I know you got Pierce, but Rumlow just never reported back."

Steve shrugged. "Sam squared off with him about the time I was falling in the river. According to him, Rumlow got caught in the wreckage when the helicarrier smashed into the building."

"He was a... They'd jabbed him a few times and since he was already, as Clint would say, drinking the Kool-aid, they didn't have to wipe him. But if you didn't bury a body, he's probably still out there. Somewhere."

The bad news just kept piling up, didn't it. "Damn. We didn't know he was enhanced. I'll let Nat know that we'll need to keep an eye open."

"Your stuff and mine work different. I got a file on it, back from a strike I did before I came to the Tower. They couldn't replicate Erskine's work, and what they did come up with killed a lot of us. They eventually started doing these smaller changes, little jabs, that build up over time. Combined with Dr. Sarkissian's little joystick... I dunno, like a treatment program. Took months. Rumlow wasn't done yet, but he was on his way."

"Well, enhanced or not, if he survived, he'll be a long while recovering. Getting caught between a building and a helicarrier isn't something I'd want to try. That might slow down even the Hulk."

"Ah, just rub some dirt in it, you'll be fine.” Bucky grinned, then sobered again. “In all seriousness, Steve, I don't know what to tell you about Tony. Well, I do, but I don't know that you'll believe me," Bucky said. The way he said Tony's name, like he was one of the USO girls about to break out into song was... Well, it would have been kinda sweet, except it was still Tony, and even when Steve and Tony had been getting along, Steve had never really understood the appeal romantically. As far as Steve was concerned, Pepper was a saint for having put up with Tony as long as she had.

"Well, I won't know if I can believe it until I hear it," Steve said. He still wasn't sure how he felt about it, but the last few months had made him realize that he for damn sure didn't want to lose his friend over it.

Bucky rested his forehead on his fingertips, a bright pink flush climbing up his neck. "Do you believe in anything, anymore? God. Fate. Karma? Destiny?"

Steve thought about that. It was a harder question to answer than he would have thought, but he owed Bucky a more truthful answer than the glib platitudes he'd have given anyone else. "I'm not sure," he said finally. "Maybe. There's an awful lot of coincidence in the world for there to be nothing, but..."

Bucky nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much exactly it. Look, I joined the Army, and you met Erskine, and he helped you, but things got off track, and you joined the USO, which brought you to the 107th and Peggy and Stark and... Well, then you came and rescued me, while they were making me. And we finished that job when I fell, and you went into the ice. I mean, what are the odds, Steve? That both of us would be here?

“And then, god, I’ll have to tell Tony someday, but I really don't know how. Steve, I killed Stark. Howard, I mean. It was a mission. I didn't even know him when I did it. It was over fast, at least, which is about all I can be grateful for. And that event made Tony what he is. If Howard had lived longer, would Tony have ended up in Afghanistan? Become Iron Man at all? When I say we were made for each other, Steve, I mean it, quite literally. My life is so wound up in his, we're so tied together, I couldn't get free of him if I wanted to, and I will lay down my life to prevent it from happening."

Steve swallowed, hard. He'd known Howard had been killed by Hydra -- Zola had all but said it in words -- but he'd hoped it hadn't been Bucky.

And as maddening as Tony could be, Steve wouldn't have wished Afghanistan on him, or the pain of having been orphaned. Was it worth that pain, for Tony to have turned around a life of dissolution and callousness and become Iron Man? Was it worth it, for him to be someone that Bucky could care for?

Maybe it was fate. Steve couldn't deny that he was glad that Bucky was here, now. But if something was controlling their lives -- Fate, God, or destiny -- then that something was a cold-hearted son of a bitch.

Steve realized he'd been silent for a long while, and looked up to see Bucky's face creased slightly with worry, waiting to hear Steve's verdict.

Steve sighed and scratched at his head. "I'm still kinda figuring out how you two work. He's... I get it, that you're friends. He's a lot like you, sometimes, and you always did like cars and futuristic stuff. I just can't imagine-- You were never into guys, before."

"Oh, Stevie," Bucky sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I always been like this. Ain't nothing new."

"But you used to get with gals all the time, Buck, it just..."

"Bisexual," Bucky said. "Or pan, maybe? I ain't met anyone I know of who's genderfluid or trans, well, ‘side from Celeste, and that was a long time ago, before I had the words for it."

Steve blushed. Celeste had been an exotic whore, thin, flat-chested, delicate, exuding animal attraction. Bucky had rescued her from the Nazis during an op in Boulogne, and visited her often afterward as they recuperated in London, coming back to the base covered with bite-bruises and a grin a mile wide. When Steve found out she hadn’t been born a woman, he'd wondered. Bucky must have known, so why would he... But you didn't ask about what a fella did to get through the black. You accepted that people had needs and one of those needs was joy. Anyone could be dead tomorrow; you did not fuck with another man's joy.

"You went to him because..."

"Her."

"Yeah. Her. Because?"

"I didn't go to her because she had a dick, if that's what you mean. I loved her because she would let me be myself. She did things that I needed and she liked them, or at least I'm pretty sure she did."

"How are you--" Steve broke off, his neck heating painfully. He'd known Bucky his whole life and aside from some rather awkward conversations about gals in their teens, he'd never known this. "How do you even have the words for this conversation?" Steve had only barely skimmed the surface of what people called "gender relations" today.

"JARVIS brought me up to speed, along the same lines as what S.H.I.E.L.D. did for you. I saw the rec, Stevie. Some guy, Philip Coulson, wrote up a full template for a certain time-lost super soldier. JARVIS adapted it for me, and we--" Bucky broke off. "Stevie, you okay?"

Steve swallowed hard. That was a name he hadn't expected to hear. "I knew Coulson," Steve said, his voice rough. "He was murdered just before the Battle of New York. Of all the people I've met since I woke up... Phil Coulson was one of the best. Brave, loyal, smart, funny in an understated way. You'd have liked him."

"Hell yeah," Bucky said. "sounds like you, punk. Sorry for your loss."

"It was everyone's loss."

Bucky nodded thoughtfully. "All I know about the man is that Tony keeps expectin' him to pop up with a taser and zot him. But you know, he's getting better. Tony, I mean. We've had a couple of days now where he's kept everything. He still doesn't remember the last few years, but a couple days. I'm hopeful."

"That's good, Buck." That was good. Maybe some of the team who weren't on the best of terms with the old Tony might be able to re-build their friendships. Natasha in particular had been hit harder than she tried to show, Steve knew -- before the accident, she and Tony had been close, in some way Steve found hard to understand. And Steve would be happy to stop having to walk on eggshells around Tony's frequent belief that Steve was just an actor pretending to be Steve Rogers, or else that he was exactly the man Howard had painted him as. It wasn't Tony's fault, Steve kept reminding himself, but it was highly unsettling.

"An' I know, he's got hang-ups about you for miles," Bucky said, shaking his head. "Both of you have made yourselves real crystal clear about that. He's quirky and fucked up and has issues with his issues. I know, he could still wreck me. It's possible, hell, it may even be likely. But I will never love anyone else the way I love him, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd... I dunno, cut him some slack, maybe?"

Those words were so plain and heartfelt -- I love him. As simple as that, and it was like a puzzle piece dropping into place. Maybe it would still be a disaster that ended in tears and blood. But Steve would be the worst kind of ass if he refused to stand beside his friend. If Bucky wanted Tony -- and, God help him, it seemed that was the case -- then Steve would try to accept that. He put a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "I dunno, Buck. It seems to me, if he's gonna be courtin' my best friend, I oughta be pretty clear about what kind of standards I expect."

"You can give ‘im a shovel talk if you want to, but I guarantee, he ain't listenin'," Bucky said, laughing. He reached up and drew Steve into another of those back-breaking hugs and it was a relief for Steve to actually be able embrace someone and know -- know -- that he wasn't going to hurt them by accident, to have someone at his side, at last, who was an equal.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Tony woke, and the angle and quality of light seemed odd for a moment, and then it didn't. New York, he recalled. Avengers Tower. Then he stretched and felt the particular aches in his body that meant he'd had a very good time the night before, and: Bucky, his brain supplied, and promptly proceeded to trigger some kind of response. His heart pounded and his stomach filled with butterflies and his dick stirred with interest, and he was all but writing Anthony Barnes on his notebook and surrounding it with little hearts arranged in the shape of one big heart, Jesus Christ.

Stop that, he told himself sternly. I've known the man for two days.

Well. More than two days, and it had become obvious yesterday that whatever block there was in Tony's actual memories -- and he could still swear that three days ago, he'd been in Malibu, kept under house arrest and forced to dig through Dad's old shit under threat of Coulson's taser -- whatever his actual broken memories were, the (ug) emotions associated with people were beginning to seep through the barrier and color his present feelings.

Whatever. Brains and memories were weird things, a science that even neurologists still struggled to make sense of, and Tony might never recover the missing memories, but at least he seemed to be making new ones correctly.

Or was he? What if the two days he could remember were an anomaly, and he'd lost even more days after those? What if it had been more than three months since the accident? What if Bucky was going to get that pinched, disappointed look when Tony announced that it was Day Three of him having the best boyfriend ever?

God, but Tony hated that look, and he could only remember seeing it the once. Shit, shit, okay, he could do this, he could figure this out, he was Tony fucking Stark. Broken brain or not, he was still a genius, and he was damned if he was going to let Bucky patiently ease him out of a panic attack over upsetting Bucky.

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed and oh, yeah, that stung; he had definitely gotten fucked last night. He got up and half-limped his way to the bathroom. He took stock in the mirror, taking in the fingertip bruises on his hip and the red and purple lovebites on his thighs, the red mark that wasn't quite a bruise on one wrist, and the hickey on his collarbone.

He thought he could remember Bucky nipping sharply along his thighs last night -- did that mean his memory was intact? Or just that it was something Bucky really liked doing to him? Tony groaned and scrubbed his hand over his face.

"May I be of assistance, sir?" JARVIS asked.

Tony lifted his head and stared into the mirror. "You're an idiot," he told himself. Why hadn't he thought of asking JARVIS right away? "Yeah, J," he said, "I'm trying to figure out if I lost time again."

"A not-unreasonable concern," JARVIS admitted. "What do you remember most recently, if I may ask?"

Tony smirked up at the pinhole camera set in the bathroom mirror frame. "Most recently? Bucky banging me like a -- how did he put it? -- cheap screen door."

"You'll have to narrow that down for me somewhat," JARVIS said drily. "Perhaps some other, less frequent event might have occurred beforehand?"

"Well, there was you busting through your privacy programming to show off my smooth moves to the whole damn team, how about that?" Tony had kind of enjoyed that; he'd had his sense of shame forcibly removed before he'd gotten his first degree, and both Cap and Bucky had blushed like fire engines. On Bucky, it was adorable; on Cap, it was wickedly satisfying.

"I must need an upgrade, sir, as I fail to detect anything 'smooth' about your moves," JARVIS said. God, Tony loved it when he was sassy. "But that event was, indeed, yesterday. Your sense of time seems not to have degraded further."

Tony leaned heavily on the counter as his knees actually went wobbly in relief. He didn't even care, since there was no one there to witness it except JARVIS. "Oh, thank god."

"Indeed, sir. Shall I inform Mr. Barnes?"

"Hell, yes, get him up here, now."

***

Bucky

"You want a kiss?" Tony asked, leaning over the chair and draping one arm around Bucky's neck.

"What do you think, Zhelezoska?" Bucky leaned back, grinned up at him.

"Close your eyes."

Bucky shivered. He knew it was deliberate; Clint had been determined to keep up with Bucky's deconditioning, and today was the start of the surprise commands. He took a breath. Another. The part of his brain that wanted to respond was screaming at him that lack of compliance would be punished, that he had to obey, had to, had to, had to... Soldier has discretion, he reminded himself.

"I could," Bucky said, finally, and they both pretended to ignore the way his voice grated out of his throat. "But what's in it for me?"

Tony crinkled something out of sight. A lush, rich smell filled the air, sweet and dark and promising. "Very good job, babe," he praised and Bucky warmed to it. "It's a surprise. If you wouldn't mind, will you close your eyes, please?"

Not a command and Bucky had no problems with letting his eyes drift shut. He expected Tony's sinful mouth to come down on his, but instead that smell got more powerful, more incredible. It was familiar, teasing at the edges of his memory, a little like Clint's ridiculous coffee, more like something from before, something he couldn't quite... Something firm and cool was pressing on his lip. He opened his mouth, puzzled, curious and then...

"Oh, my god." His eyes sprung open, wide and delighted. He shut his mouth with the -- chocolate, his brain belatedly supplied, except this was a million times better than anything he could recall, melting and glorious and so sweet. He'd heard Clint use the word food-gasm before and that was exactly correct. He almost creamed his jeans, every bit of him clenched up with culinary rapture. It was gone, too quickly. "What was that?"

"A Kiss," Tony replied, holding up a bag of foil-wrapped candies. "Special dark."

"Oh, my god." Bucky repeated. "Give me another one?"

"A kiss, or a Kiss?"

Bucky pointed at the bag, while Tony clutched at his heart in mock-despair.

***

Tony

"I'm bored now," Tony announced.

Clint was in the kitchen, pegging Hershey kisses at the back of Bucky's head. Bucky was catching, unwrapping, and eating them, all without looking away from the television, where they were marathoning Firefly. Neither of them had really moved much for the last twelve hours.

Sam threw a pillow at Tony. "Come on, man, these are the last two episodes, you gotta let him watch the rest."

"It has been seven days since I had a memory relapse," Tony complained, poking Bucky in the side and grinning every time Bucky tried to block the probing fingers; in combination with Clint tossing chocolate at him -- Bucky was stupid-crazy for chocolate, they'd discovered -- Tony had gotten in some particularly wicked tickles.

Clint pitched something from the kitchen, Bucky reached up to grab it and there was a dull, metallic thunk. He drew his arm back down to see a heavy duty, half-circle magnet stuck to his forearm.

Bucky and Natasha exchanged a few words in liquid Russian before Clint piped up, "Hey, I speak Russian, you know that, right?"

"Your accent is so bad, it hardly counts," Natasha responded.

Another magnet came whizzing out of the kitchen and veered directly at Bucky's arm, striking it with a hard clang.

"That's it. Mission protocols or not; I'm gonna kill him." Bucky stood up, flipped backward over the sofa, nearly spilling Tony to the floor and it was worth every second of it to watch that glorious body in motion.

Clint yelped and turned to flee, and Bucky disappeared after him into the vents, hot on his tail. For quite a while, there were very loud, worrisome noises coming from over their heads and behind the walls.

Tony glanced up at the ceiling with concern. "They're going to break my house, Nat," he said. "Make them stop." He still occasionally distrusted Natasha and he was pretty sure she knew it, but he'd looked over her files a few times and reviewed footage that JARVIS rated as particularly key elements of their relationship, and he could admit that the suspicion was probably unwarranted. Even if he couldn't shake it entirely yet, he had trained for press-conferences and product junkets since he was a boy. He could fake friendship with the best of them. Natasha didn't call him on it, and as the week progressed and his memory didn't falter, the fake friendship started feeling more and more real until he couldn't quite remember why he hadn't liked her in the first place.

Natasha sighed, unfolded herself from the sofa and stepped gingerly over Bruce's sleeping body on the floor; he'd been passed out since "Jaynestown." She stepped up to the entertainment room's vent, yelled "No bleeding in the air-ducts, children!" and then sealed the vent against them.

"Ready for the next episode, Tony?" she asked, taking her seat.

"At least you won't abandon me," he agreed, mournfully, and patted the seat next to him. By the time Bucky and Clint recovered from their fit of the crazies, Natasha was cuddled up against Tony's side and he was absent-mindly feeding her popcorn as they discussed what to do next.

***

Tony

Tony woke up to the blissful smell of coffee and a gorgeous brunette leaning over him.

"Best boyfriend, ever," Tony whispered.

"Really? Who would that be?"

"Bucky," Tony purred.

"Yeah? Who the hell is Bucky?"

Tony's heart stopped. Then-- "Oh, you fucking bastard, that is not funny, that is not fucking funny."

Bucky held his fingers out an inch or so. "Little bit funny."

Tony snatched up his pillow and hit Bucky over the head with it a few times until Bucky wrestled it away from him and pinned him to the bed, driving him into the mattress. "I'm a bad man," he said, leaning down and taking tiny bites of Tony's shoulders. "Forgive me?" He didn't sound terribly contrite. His mouth closed over Tony's nipple and he sucked, hard, sending a blinding flash of sensation into Tony's stomach.

"Forgive you for being a bad man? No. I'm going to punish you for it for the rest of your life."

Bucky groaned, hot and needy, going weak at the thought. He rolled them over, settling Tony over his hips. He raised his arms over his head and crossed his wrists. "You can start now, if you want."

***

Bucky

"Hey, Tony?"

"Yeah?" Tony didn't look away from the array of holoscreens on which he was doing something that looked very complicated, having to do with, as near as Bucky could figure, the flight stabilizer for his armor. Bucky had flown enough craft to know what that looked like. But miniaturized the way these were, he had no idea what, precisely, Tony was doing to them.

"Will you take me flying?"

Tony's head spun around so fast that Bucky was surprised he didn't strain something in his neck. "Say what."

"Flying," Bucky repeated, grinning. "You and me. In the air."

"Like, in the armor?" Tony glanced toward the displays where the armors stood, obviously already working out which one would be best.

"Duh," Bucky said. "Like Superman and Lois Lane."

"It doesn't bother you that you're Lois, in this situation?" Tony looked amused.

Bucky shrugged. "Whatever gets me up there with you."

"You really want to go up with me? You're not worried I'll drop you?"

Bucky shrugged. "Might be fun if you did, actually."

"Uh."

Bucky put his book down and sidled up to Tony, wrapped his arms around Tony's neck and nuzzling in under Tony's ear, and then played his trump card. "I trust you to catch me."

Tony huffed. "You might be an even bigger adrenaline junkie than me and Steve put together."

Bucky didn't try to deny it. The thrill of danger was one of the few things that satisfied him as well as a good fight. "Is that a yes?"

Tony shook his head, rueful. "Have I actually ever said no to you?"

"Only once," Bucky said. He kissed Tony soundly. "Can we go now?"

"You are such a spoiled brat," Tony chided, teasing, but he'd already closed the holoscreens with an imperious wave and was up and striding toward the armors.

"Zhelezoska?"

"What?" Tony said warily.

"After we go flying, can we stop at that Indian place on 43rd again?"

Tony laughed outright.

***

Tony

"Been looking for you, all day, Angelface," Tony said, grabbing Sam's arm and yanking him in the direction of the elevators.

Sam twisted his mouth slightly. "Tony, my dinner is back that way."

"Chop chop, then, Sammy Davis, Jr. I'm not getting any younger." Tony watched as Sam looked back and forth between his dinner plate in the kitchen and Tony's own eager anticipated expression, and finally caved to curiosity.

"Okay, but make it quick."

"Sure, sure," Tony said. "I just need you for some last minute tweaks."

At this, Sam's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What did you do to my pack, Tony?"

"Just a few adjustments, I promise," Tony said, drawing him into the elevator and then out to the lab. "Increased the speed by nearly 27%, added some extra ailerons, to keep you stable in sharp banks and in reverse."

Tony had never quite known how to say thank you, to express his genuine gratitude for what another person had done for him, because very few people in his life had ever done anything for him without expecting some sort of return -- money or power or business leverage or celebrity. He'd been hit and hurt and betrayed so many times that he found it easiest to return every kindness immediately, before that debt of gratitude could be called on, with... a thing. Things were easy. He could make or fix or improve or implement, and then, when the person left -- and they always fucking left -- the thing would go with them, and it was work well done and he could take some satisfaction in that, but he'd never have to see the thing again, either.

He didn't people. He knew that. There was no way he could sit down with Sam and say "Thanks for saving Bucky's life," and just leave it at that. It would give Sam would have a hold over him, a Damocles' sword of obligation hanging over his head. Not that he expected that Sam would abuse his trust. But he'd been proven wrong so many times...

And Sam had done something for him, so he was paying it back.

So, two hours later, Sam had an upgraded pack, completely new tactical armor, a pair of combat goggles with an advanced HUD, and his own personal AI. (Tony had firmly resisted the urge to call the AI Bird Brain... it was hard, but he'd managed.) And, that done, Tony could feel that he had paid out his debt. The lingering look of shock and delight on Sam's face... Well, that was just a fun bonus.

***

Bucky

"What. The fuck. Is this," Bucky said around the wad of... stuff in his mouth.

Clint held up a garish yellow package. "Peep!" he exclaimed. "Isn't it great?"

Bucky forced himself to swallow, but it wasn't easy. The goo clung to his tongue and throat, and the crystals of sugar scraped painfully as they slid down. "It's horrific," he said. "This is another one of your terrible pranks, isn't it?"

Clint had the audacity to look wounded. "Peeps are a beloved tradition," he said.

"Liar," Bucky said. "Tash, smack Clint for me, would you? You're closer."

"I'm always happy to smack Clint just on general principle," Tash said, "but he isn't actually pranking this time."

"People actually eat this? Voluntarily?" Bucky snatched the package from Clint to look at it more closely, causing a spray of violently yellow sugar to scatter across the table.

"I'm afraid so," Tash said. "They're better if you let them get stale first."

Clint turned a look of horror and disgust on her. "Is this a Russian thing," he asked, "where everything has to be bitter and tragic? Why won't you love yourself, Tasha?"

She swung at him lazily, and he ducked.

"It's a marshmallow covered in sugar," Bucky said. "Marshmallows are like 99% sugar to begin with, why do they need more sugar?" He fished a finger around in his mouth, scraping out what appeared to be brown wax. Peep eyeballs. Uchk. Vile.

"Dude, you can make Peeps joust!" Clint put in. "So much fun!"

Bucky narrowed his eyes across the kitchen at him. "You can make them what?"

"Clint, no," Tash said, and smacked him on the back of the head.

***

Tony

Helen was amazing, and Tony really, really wished he could remember getting to know her the first time around, because she actually seemed to like him, and that was somewhat rare. She teased him about how superior her brilliant scientific advances were to his, but never hesitated to tell him where he could help improve her designs, and listened seriously to him when he made his own suggestions, even if she didn't always agree with him.

Tony was a sucker for anyone willing to stand up to his carefully-cultivated larger-than-life personality and go toe-to-toe with him.

It did make his checkups take somewhat longer than they should, though. When Bucky stopped by the medical unit to collect Tony for their dinner date, Tony was still laid flat on the exam table, deep in discussion with Helen about the latest advancements in artificial neurotechnology.

"We'll continue this next week," Helen told Tony firmly, with a warm smile for Bucky. (Another reason to like her, Tony thought.) Tony waited until she'd pulled the scanner back and sat up to pull the electrode off the back of his neck, where she'd been monitoring his spinal fluid for infection and measuring relative inflammation and rate of healing in the damaged tissue where the electricity had hit him.

As he was buttoning his shirt back up, she said, "Oh, I nearly forgot -- I stumbled across a research clinic in Indiana that's doing some really groundbreaking work in memory retrieval. It might be worth looking into. They might be able to help both of you."

Tony slipped his arm around Bucky's waist, leaning into the warmth -- great as Helen was, the brain scans always made him feel chilled. "Send me the info; I'll take a look. Right now, I've got a date."

The new Vietnamese restaurant was waiting, and Bucky was dressed to the nines. Tony was going to ply him with pho and then take all night to peel him out of that suit.

***

Tony

Tony skimmed down the page and turned it. Again. And again. Christ, how long was this contract, anyway? And it was all boilerplate stuff, no surprises, nothing that actually warranted Tony reading it instead of, say, the large and expensive Legal Department that SI kept for exactly this purpose. Pepper was punishing him for something, no question about it.

He sighed and turned another page. This one had a little yellow sticky-note on the margin, so he dutifully initialed in the space provided. "Ug, digital signatures and imprints would be so much more secure," he muttered. Another page.

"Tony?"

Oh, thank god, a distraction. To get a break from this, he'd even willingly talk to Captain Stick-Up-His-Butt. "Hey, Capsicle, pull up a couch or, I dunno, a tank or something; I feel like pulling up a chair would just be underkill."

"A chair will be sufficient, really. No need to rearrange the building's layout." Steve was almost rigidly at attention, as if he expected Tony to bark at him. Or salute. Something.

But that had actually been kind of funny. Probably not on purpose, because Steve didn't really do humor, but hey, he was rescuing Tony from paperwork; Tony could be generous. He grinned and waved at the armchair nearby. "Fine, chair, then, you underachiever. What's up? Is that situation in Peru heating up?"

Steve glanced at the chair as if briefly tempted to bench press it, just to prove a point. Or maybe Tony was putting words in his mouth. Thoughts in his head. Whatever.

"Right, no, um..." Steve cracked the knuckles on one hand, which was a little threatening, but he wasn't looking at Tony while he did it, instead staring at the floor as his neck started pinking.

Was Cap actually nervous about something? That was a first. Especially since Tony didn't have any cleavage to speak of. Usually he just barrelled into any given situation was with all the delicacy of an Asgardian in a china shop. "Oh, this I've got to hear," Tony said. He closed the contracts book and leaned back to give Steve his full attention. (And if the spotlight made the good captain squirm a little more, well... that was fine with Tony.)

Steve took a deep breath, then looked up at Tony, his shoulders curled in a bit as if in a deliberate attempt to make himself seem smaller, less dangerous. "Promised myself that I'd do this right, and I mean to do what I promise. So... to start with, no Buck did not put me up to this. He didn't threaten to withdraw his friendship, or anything. I don't want you to think that there's any selfish motivation going on here."

Tony blinked. Whatever he'd thought this was going to be, that wasn't it. What would Cap want to say to Tony that Bucky would have put him up to? As far as he knew, Bucky and Steve were squared away, and Cap hadn't threatened to punch Tony since--

"I'm sorry."

"I, what. I'm not sure I heard that correctly." Damn it, Steve was going to think Tony was being obnoxious, and he really, honestly wasn't sure he hadn't hallucinated that.

Steve sighed, glowered a little bit. "Sure, go ahead, get your phone out; you need a new ringtone anyway." He waited, apparently serious. Bemused, Tony got out his phone and held it up, then fumbled for the recording app at Steve's impatient gesture.

"I'm sorry. I was wrong. And I misjudged you."

Tony stared, phone forgotten. "I'm... not sure what you're apologizing for, here."

"You're really gonna make me spell the whole thing out, Tony?" Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes drifting closed as he breathed in and out a few times.

And the thing was, the thing was, Tony wasn't any more comfortable in this moment than Steve appeared to be. He didn't have a lot of experience with this. People apologized for making him finish their R&D projects. Or for accidentally stealing his coffee; that had happened. Pepper had apologized once last week when she'd stepped on him. But this sort of -- apparently -- sincere apology, over a non-superficial transgression, that. That wasn't something Tony knew how to deal with.

Still, he'd managed to befriend (re-friend?) Natasha. And she'd told him that Steve was a good guy, once you managed to work past the awkward belligerence, and that the two of them had actually been trying to work things out, to be friends, before the accident.

Tony looked at the deepening red on Steve's neck, and the asshole in Tony's brain that never shut up said, Wouldn't it be a kick in Dad's pants if you actually got Steve Rogers to like you?

"I'm sorry I hit you," Steve started, with a wince. "I know Buck tells me you don't remember that, and I probably shouldn't bring it up, but I did it. I've always hated bullies, Tony, you know that. It's... pretty wretched to realize I was one, in that moment."

Tony actually knew about that, even if he couldn't remember it, because Clint had told him. He just stared, and before he could summon any words, Steve took another one of those steadying breaths. Apparently, he had more to say.

"I mean, it's not the first time someone on the team has gotten into it -- you and Thor went at it hammer and tongs for a while," Steve continued, oblivious to the pun he'd made. "And of course, being around Bruce when he's gotten upset isn't safe for anyone. But I hit you knowing full well what I was doing and I'm ashamed of myself. I thought you were hurting Bucky, and I'm aware that I'm not always rational where he's concerned. It’s not an excuse, I know, but..."

Tony nodded thoughtfully. "Sometime, I'll tell you about the time this bitch broke Rhodey's soft marshmallow heart and the epic revenge I wreaked," he said. "There's a whole separate set of rules, when it's your best friend at stake. Trust me, I know."

Steve looked at Tony like he was trying to find a way to disapprove of that without totally wrecking his own case. Tony grinned, and leaned in to clap a hand to Steve's shoulder. It was like smacking a brick wall, and Tony ought to have expected that, but no, it still made his fingertips numb. "I'm saying I get it, Cap. It's okay. We're good."

Steve scratched at the back of his neck. "Buck said I could even give you a shovel talk if I wanted to, but I think you already kinda got the message."

"He said what?" Tony scowled. "He's not supposed to encourage that. That's, that's just bad boyfriend etiquette, is what that is. What the hell kinda crummy guy is this friend of yours, anyway, Rogers?"

Steve leaned back in the chair, shaking his head and laughing quietly. Tony was stunned. Steve laughed? Since when? And Jesus, Tony hadn't actually clocked how fucking sad Steve looked all the time until he finally looked happy for once. It was like night and day. Black and white. Microsoft and StarkTech.

Damn it, maybe Bucky actually had a point about playing nice with Steve.

***

Bucky

Bucky leaned against the door frame and rattled the fingers of his metal hand against Tash's door.

"Hey," he said, when she didn't answer him immediately. "You're late." After that blood-wrenching last dance, they couldn't quite bring themselves to do that again. But sparring was almost the same, and Bucky looked forward to their weekly sessions. The years had separated them enough that they had both learned new tricks, just enough to make sparring fresh and fun again. They had been gathering quite an audience lately, too, as Sam felt that it was only fair that Tash get her ass kicked once in a while and Bucky was the only one who seemed to manage it with any regularity.

He was leaning on his enhancements, just to keep up with her, full speed if not full strength.

"Not now, Yasha," her voice came through, quiet and strained.

"What? Tash, you okay?" He leaned against the door a little more urgently, his shoulder dropping to break it down if he had to -- Tash was never sick.

"Not. Now. Yasha."

With his ear pressed to the door like that, he could hear the dark rumble of a man's voice, quiet enough that he couldn't catch the words, but... He blinked.

"Is that Bruce?" Shit, was she sick enough to need medical--

"<Go. Away. Right. Now.>"

Oh.

Ooooooh. Right. Going now.

***

Tony

"Whatcha doin'?" Bucky said, flinging himself onto the couch next to Tony.

"Just a little shopping," Tony said casually. He identified the exact moment that Bucky realized what was on Tony's tablet by the way he choked on his breath and suddenly started putting out noticeably more heat as his blush flared to life. Tony suppressed a laugh.

"Tony, is that... I mean... That's where you, um."

"Largest online retailer of 'intimate accessories’ in the country!" Tony said cheerfully. He added a bottle of flavored lube to the shopping cart, glanced at Bucky sidelong, and then rather deliberately clicked over to the BDSM Supplies page.

"Tony," Bucky whined. "We're in the TV room."

"Pretty sure every single resident of this building is fully aware of the fact that we have sex, Buckybear," Tony said. "Lots and lots of it." He clicked on Bondage Gear.

Bucky made another strangled noise, but he didn't get up, and his eyes were glued to the screen.

Tony clicked on one popular set of cuffs and twisted cotton cords in a lovely bright red. "These would look lovely against your skin. What do you think?"

"Oh, my CHRIST."

***

Bucky

Steve coughed, gasped, gagged. "What is this stuff, gasoline?" He held out the clear bottle with blue writing.

"Polish vodka," Bucky replied. "Rectified alcohol, almost 190 proof. Tash made a special trip to Warsaw to get it for us."

"Are you out of your mind?" Steve shook his head, wheezing. "It's almost like having asthma again."

Bucky slung his right arm around Steve's shoulders. "Look down the street, Stevie. Before you, you see the longest strip of bars and dives in the country, where every sort of craft beer and custom-blend whiskey await us. I figure you can nip out of that between bars and we might be able to keep your blood-alcohol ratio below the legal limit."

"You're insane," Steve said.

"Yeah. Ain't it fun?"

Steve took a long look at the bottle in his hand, jaw working until it somehow got even more square than usual -- Steve’s version of getting into mission-mode. Then he took a long pull. "Okay. I'm with ya, Buck."

"Til the end of the line," Bucky responded. "Or the end of the street. Or until you pass out. Whatever comes first."

***

Tony

"Sugarbear! Did the big bad generals finally let you off the leash?"

Rhodey walked into Tony's waiting arms to hug him. "They sent me over to poke at you about that new ejection system you've got in the works for jets, actually"

Tony rounded his eyes at Rhodey. "New ejection system? What new ejection system?"

Rhodey froze. "Yeah, you-- Oh, shit, Tony, did you--" Then the penny dropped and he punched Tony in the arm. "You asshole."

Tony cackled. "Nah, the system's nearly there. We're still working on balancing the power levels. Doesn't do much good to get the pilot out of the craft if the gees are going to kill them. I'll take you down and show you the new schematics after lunch, maybe you'll have some ideas."

"That sounds great, Tone. How've you been? Pepper says you're still missing a big chunk of time."

"Yeah. Might never get it back, Helen says, brains being the delicate flowers that they are. But I haven't lost anything new in, what, like six weeks now. I'm getting caught up; pretty soon it'll just be one of those blank spaces in my memory. Like most of my twenties, really."

Tony forced a smile -- he didn't want to worry Rhodey -- but Rhodey just gave him that look that meant Rhodey knew damn well Tony was fronting.

Tony sighed. "Look, it'll be fine. Helen's got a bead on some clinic in Indiana, of all places, that's doing some really interesting things in memory research. She's trying to get us on their calendar."

Rhodey wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders. "Yeah? Okay, that's, that's good. I mean, compared to two months ago, it's great, yeah? Things going okay with your, ah, houseguest?"

Tony rolled his eyes, back onto solid footing. "Boyfriend, Rhodey, I'm pretty sure you can say boyfriend. He's great. Amazing. Best boyfriend ever. He brings me coffee in the morning and he's shy, which. You know me, it's like catnip. And the sex is--"

"Here we go, straight down the rails into things I didn't ask about and don't want to know," Rhodey sighed.

"--fantastic, really, super-soldier serum for the win," Tony finished, talking right over Rhodey and grinning at his exasperated glare. "Nah, it's good, cupcake, he's working hard on getting the junk out of his brain, and he takes good care of me, I promise. He's like your mom, that time I came home with you for Christmas break and your little sister gave me the flu."

Rhodey laughed. "I'm not telling Mama you've replaced her, Tony; it'll break her heart."

***

Natasha

The inside of the microwave was absolutely coated in pink and blue sugar and smelled like charred marshmallows.

Natasha looked down at the plate of leftovers in her hand, then back to the mess inside the microwave. She hitched in a deep breath.

"YASHA! CLINT! I better NOT find you!"

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

The white papers made absolutely no sense to Bucky. He squinted, held the paper out as if the long strings of word salad might be more sensible at a distance, but it didn't help. Bruce had handed him the file with an expectant look, saying the white paper really "cut it down into layman's terms" which meant a normal post-grad student could probably understand it, somewhat, but Bucky had barely made it out of high school.

"You're gonna have to cut this up into bite-sized pieces for me," Bucky admitted, "if you want me to make sense of it. But if you and Tony think it's okay..."

He thumbed through the papers, skimming over long blocks of text surrounded by little diagrams of brains, cross-sections and charts. Just handling the papers twisted his gut. He was tired of being a science project. He'd very reluctantly donated a few vials of blood to Bruce, and that only because Ms. Potts assured him that a complete work-up was the only method to getting full status as a Tower resident, and therefore being under the direct protection of the Avengers. Even Thor had rolled up his sleeve -- well, inasmuch as the man wore sleeves.

The last page was a single black and white photograph of the scientist, one Dr. Joanna Phillips. Unlike the usual headshots that Bucky had seen in several of Tony's files, she wasn't facing the camera. Instead, her body was half turned, and the photographer had caught her in profile. Her long hair was caught in a braid at the base of her neck, she had a shapely jaw, full lips that were painted with dark lipstick, and the front of her hairstyle curled in such a way that the rest of her face was in shadow.

She was tall for a woman, standing next to another female scientist, who was indicating something in a file for Dr. Phillips's perusal; Phillips towered over her.

Bucky shuddered and shoved the file back at Bruce.

"You don't have to do anything. You know that, right?" Bruce said, pulling the file closer to his chest. "This is just a preliminary tour of the facility; the science is still highly experimental."

"That'd be the part that bothers me," Bucky admitted. "I've had just about as damn many people poking at my brain as I want."

"As you've already lived through two lifetimes of them, I completely understand. Being an unwilling subject in an experiment can make one a little gunshy." Bruce said. That was an understatement; Bruce himself had some form of the super-soldier serum, which had then been triggered with gamma radiation; as opposed to the Vita-rays that had shaped Steve, and Bucky's own, less pleasant amplification process.

For himself, he would refuse. Absolutely, and outright. The fact that he could, that he could actually decide not to subject himself to any more scientific studies, still sent cold shivers down his spine. Even Bruce, as fond as Bucky was of the man, sent itches and tingles through Bucky's nervous system, triggering the impulse to obey, to submit. At least Bruce didn't wear a labcoat most of the time; those terrible purple shirts of his kept the desire to comply at only mild levels of compulsion.

But for Tony... that's where the problem truly lay. Bucky had come to grips with the fact that there were probably holes in his memory, but most of the ones that remained were really not memories he wanted anyway. He had enough trouble sleeping on the nights his victims displayed behind his eyelids. The diplomat he'd shot through Tash's abdomen. A scientist and his family, who'd developed and was refining a particular genetic mutation that would protect humans from most sorts of cancers. The Winter Soldier had burned them all alive to make sure the treatment wouldn't spread to the next generation. And Tony's parents, always Howard and Maria Stark. He promised himself that he would tell Tony about it, eventually. Before any... additional commitments were made.

But Tony was a genius, and some of his creations were languishing because he didn't have enough notes to recreate his original thought processes. Even JARVIS could only help so much, and in the meantime, valuable, life-saving technology was lost. If Tony wanted to, not just accept the risks, but willingly embrace them, well, that was a different story altogether. Bucky would burn down the world rather than accept any more damage to that beautiful brain.

"Is it safe?" Bucky asked, at last.

"Some of it is still theoretical in the extreme," Bruce hedged. "They've had some successes with reverting former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who were forced to comply. We think. I skimmed the interview tapes; the rogue agents seemed refreshingly unprogrammed. Hard to tell for certain, of course. Agents who've been through a compliance program are good actors, as I’m sure you already know. Obviously, they're still being detained. And Tony's damage was accidental, involved more physical damage and a less-controlled area. It's probably a better chance that Dr. Phillips can help you than fix Tony, but it may only be a matter of degrees. That's why I recommend that you go ahead and tour the facility. With Tony’s sense of tech, if he can get his hands on it to explore, we might be able to adapt the procedure and bring it back here."

"Might make me more comfortable."

"Dr. Phillips has expressed some reluctance to open her facility and research to potential rivals, but Tony's got a lot of money to throw at additional grants for her, so she came around. There's nothing quite like waving unlimited funding around to encourage us scientists to share our toys."

Bucky cracked a reluctant smile, still uneasy. "Well, we'll see what Tony has to say. He's the brains in this partnership."

***

"What... what are you doing to me?" Bucky gasped out, straining against the upgraded metal bindings. He'd yanked loose a set of leather ones and the Hydra soldiers had restrained him again, swift and violent. At least three of his fingers were broken on the hand that he had left.

His left arm -- his left stump -- hung useless against his side. He'd seen men with lost limbs before; every man in the Army probably had. It shouldn't have been healed so well, so quickly.

"It is an experiment, Sergeant Barnes," Zola said, from his observation position across the room. He rubbed his dry hands together with a sibilant hiss that made Bucky's stomach turn. The short, bald man was positively gleeful at the prospect, which was somehow worse than the faceless, emotionless goons, or the fearful technicians. "We simply don't know what it will do to you."

"Oh, shut up, you idiot," a woman said. She towered over Zola, close to six feet, with short, ragged hair that looked as though it had been hacked off with a dull kitchen knife. She wore a gleaming white mask that covered her forehead and the left side of her face, revealing only the lines of her nose, a single, deep green eye, her full mouth, and an oddly gamine chin. "Is he prepped?"

"The last of the drug was administered this morning, Madame," one of the technicians reported. "Since then, the subject has gained increases in strength, oxygen capacity, endurance, and pain tolerance."

"Has he?" The one eye gleamed with delight. "I shall test that." She pulled a short rod from underneath her spotless lab coat, twisted one end. It powered up with a dull, subaudible thud.

Bucky could not move, he could not squirm away.

She touched the end of it to his shoulder. Dull agony flared, but it was... manageable. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a scream. His jaw clenched, eyes squeezing shut. He didn't scream. After a moment she lifted the rod away and he opened his eyes to stare at her in sharp hatred.

"How beautifully he suffers. Don't you agree, Dr. Zola?"

"Or perhaps your device is not as potent as you believe."

The woman snarled, whirled on one of the technicians and struck him with the device. The man shrieked, screamed, could not seem to pull himself away from her weapon. He screamed until his vocal cords ruptured, until his eyes and ears were gushing blood, and then he collapsed on the ground. "You were saying?"

Zola looked annoyed. “Was that necessary? He was a good worker, well-trained.”

“You will find another,” the woman said, unmoved. “If you do not wish to lose any more assistants, you will cease doubting me.”

Bucky tried to tear his gaze away, but couldn't. He simply could not look away from her while she held that... thing. He couldn't wait in the darkness for her to hurt him.

And she did. The first blow was only the merest taste of the pain she dragged from his body. Each dose flared through his nerves, like every cell in his body was being crushed.

"If he survives," she said, pausing momentarily to converse with Zola, as Bucky struggled to breathe, choking on his own blood, "then you can move ahead with plans to implant the prosthetic."

"No, no, no, no," Bucky babbled as she moved toward him again. He could not get out, he could not get out, he...

She touched him, lit every last nerve in his body on fire and he was drowning in blackness, in his own fluids, utterly ruined.

***

The soldier woke with a start, his body aching from muscle spasms. His mouth was full of the coppery taste of blood. Something shifted near him and he scrambled away as fast as he could, soldier-fast, terror-driven. The sheets, wrapped around his hips, tugged at him and he yanked free, rolling the other occupant of the bed over several times before they both landed on the floor. The soldier kept going, back, back until he was against the wall, the servos in his arm whirring as he prepared to attack.

"Ow, fuck! Shit, Bucky. Bucky. Wake up, babe, come on, it's me!"

Someone was talking, but the soldier wasn't certain he recognized the voice. He was trapped, pinned in, there was no escape. He could not get out...

"Damn it, you're stuck, aren't you?" The sheets tugged and pulled, the other person struggling to free themselves. "Shit. How about, uh. Oh, hey, what are your protocols, soldier?"

The soldier straightened, painfully, each muscle protesting. He was in agony, but... "Protect... protect Anthony Stark. Self-care. Don't kill Clint." Had he awakened? Been pulled from stasis? Was there a new mission? He blinked. He had killed handlers before, he turned his hands over, looking for blood.

"That's right, that's good. You with me, yet? Can you look at me?"

It wasn't an order. Why not? He raised his chin slowly, tracing the lines up of a nude, male form to a sleep-rumpled face. The...

"Tony." Bucky snapped into place, shuddered, and let gravity take hold, dragging him down the wall to collapse in a puddle on the floor. "Oh, thank god." He muttered in Russian to himself, soothing, easy words with soft lilting cadence.

Tony sighed in relief, and crawled back across the floor to Bucky's side. "That was a doozy, huh? Can I touch you, or do you need a little space for a bit?"

Bucky held out his right hand, not even aware of how badly he was shaking until he saw his own fingers trembling.

Tony caught the hand between his own, pulled it against his chest so that Bucky could feel the sharp thudding of his heart. "I'm here," he said. "It was just a dream."

"Not a dream... a memory, oh sweet Jesus."

"Shit. But. It's done, it's gone, okay? You're not there anymore. You're here with me."

"Pre-conditioning," Bucky said, his voice almost, but not quite dropping into the monotone of mission reports. "Everything I had, everything I was, she took from me with pain."

"Well, that sounds horrible." Tony tugged gently, and Bucky could resist if he wanted, but god, he didn't want to. He let Tony pull him close, stroking his back and side like a cat, warm and present and now, murmuring quiet comfort nonsense into his hair.

"She would have killed me, if Zola hadn't already started his experiments. She killed a man in front of me; his heart exploded from one blow. She must have struck me a hundred times that I remember, more that I don't, and god, I remember too much, Tony. I don't want... I..." He burst into tears.

"Hey, you're gonna be okay," Tony promised, holding him tighter. It was a lie, or at least a promise that couldn't be kept, but maybe it could be true for a little while. "I'm sorry they hurt you, babe. I wish I could make it better."

"I'm sorry," Bucky sniffled, wiping his face. "I know you were hopeful about this. Thing. But I can't, please, Tony, don't ask me to let them..."

"Hey, no, we're not doing anything you don't want, got it? You're your own person, you get to decide for you."

"I'm going with you on that tour. And I'm going with full tac-gear, you hear me on that? I... No. I'm not going to let anyone hurt you." Bucky rubbed his face and pushed back a little. "Not sure I could, really, let you go without me. It's hard enough being in a different part of the fucking building. It... bothers me when I can't see you. Not sure how much of that is the mission and how much of that is how fucking gorgeous you are. Pretty sure I don't care."

"It's totally my beautiful face, no question. Who'd want to look at anything else?" Tony grinned, and kissed Bucky's cheek. "Look, you haven't tried to follow me into the bathroom, at least not without an invitation, and the rest of my day is pretty much wide open for you, so feel free to follow me all you want. Wear all the gear you want, if it'll help you feel better. Safer."

***

Tony

"Look, both of us can fly this thing, and the Winter Soldier himself is going along as my bodyguard. I really don't think we need to terrify the normals by invading in force, right? It's a tour, to meet Dr. Phillips and discuss her methodology. Nat checked her credentials, and while she's a little underpublished for her age, I accept that sexism is still a thing, no matter how brilliant she is. I don't think anything sinister is going to happen."

"Quite possibly you're not remembering the rest of your life, Tony," Steve huffed, getting all concerned. It was cute. Except, really not. Neither Howard nor Tony's history classes had ever mentioned what a goddamned mother hen Captain America could be. "At least take the suitcase armor."

"No point," Tony said with disgust. "I can't operate it half the time, even now. That memory eludes me still, and watching the video doesn't help. DUM-E got in the line of the camera at a crucial moment, and I just..." Tony shrugged, rattled. It bothered him that he was missing some of his own genius, couldn't duplicate it. He'd upgraded the case several times in the years (years? How the fuck was it years, it was two months ago! His brain insisted. Stupid brain.) and it worked now on the same nanotech that the main suits were keyed to. He'd designed and produced two new, regular suits, using the old tech, but... that would be too intimidating for a team of scientists to handle. He wanted to get help, not occupy the building.

The door opened and a dark figure strode into the hanger. Dressed in matte-black from the tips of his boots to the wrap-around face mask. His left arm was bare to the shoulder, the alloy plates shifting with each movement. A single fingerless leather glove covered his hand. Fully armed with two handguns, a rifle across his back, and a belt-full of combat blades, he was a mobile army in one man. He wore goggles over his eyes, giving him a vaguely insectoid appearance, and he moved with graceful, implacable determination, his stride having no other possible description aside from murder strut.

"Holy shit," Tony breathed.

Next to him, Steve shuddered. "Can't say I'm happy to see that again."

It was probably inappropriate to find the Winter Soldier incredibly hot, given how distressing it was for both Bucky and Steve, but Tony had grown up around weaponry -- he'd learned to shoot when he was three or four, a light pistol with a minimum kick out of deference to his tiny frame -- and there was a part of him that was always going to be wired to admire deadly elegance. He swallowed. "That is... That is really something."

Bucky didn't salute, when he approached, but there was something very military and formal about the way he snapped upright as he stopped in front of Tony. "Ready when you are, Zhelezoska," and he peeled the goggles away from his face, revealing the bright, brilliant gray of his eyes. He sounded like he was smiling, and his head tipped the way it did when he knew Tony was turned on and was deliberately showing off.

"Still think I need to be worried, Cap?" Tony asked, clapping Steve on the arm, which, damn, he really needed to remember not to do that. Ow.

"Tony," Steve sighed. "You're my friend. Of course I'm going to worry."

Well. That was... unexpected. Tony stood there at the base of the gangplank, trying to find words and failing utterly.

Bucky grinned, visible in the crinkles around his eyes. "I'll do pre-flight, Tony. We'll be underway in ten." He passed Steve, giving him a not-quite-discreet high-five as he went by.

"Yeah, I’m just gonna..." Tony jerked a thumb toward the jet. "Keep an eye on Clint. We’ll be back in a day or two."

Steve nodded. "Take care. And, Tony?" Steve’s smile was soft and fond. "Good luck."

A few hours later, they were touching down in a lot near a converted missile silo, where Dr. Phillips was one of dozens of scientists conducting grant-funded specialized research. A mouse-faced boy who looked barely out of grad school was there to greet them, along with a burly man in an orderly’s scrubs. The boy introduced himself as Micah Blackwell, Dr. Phillips’ assistant. Tony vaguely recalled the name from the information he’d read.

Micah eyed Bucky a little warily, but led them into a small, plain lobby/waiting area furnished with the cheap furniture that was endemic to grant-funded offices. "If you could just go with Daniel, Mr. Stark, we'd like to get some baseline vitals." Micah indicated the orderly. "I understand you still have many questions, but it shouldn’t take long. I’ll bring Mr. Barnes directly to Dr. Phillips, and as soon as you’re done, Daniel will bring you to her as well. She’s set aside several hours this afternoon for the two of you."

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

Dr. Phillips wasn't pretty; her height and angular limbs imposing rather than elegant, and her hair was trimmed to soften and concealed a series of old scars down the side of her face. Her sharp nose and oddly gamine chin were suddenly, terrifyingly familiar. Bucky snatched the pistol from his hip and fired: once, twice, three times;  he emptied the clip and she dodged every one. She fucking dodged, her grace and deadly beauty spelling it out for him: she was like him, like Rumlow would have been, one of Hydra’s super-soldiers and Bucky felt sick, wanted to scream, even as he drew a second weapon and took aim.

"Zhelaniye," Sarkissian said, because that's who she was, Ophelia Sarkissian. And that's where his dream had come from, not fear of future pain, but from pain remembered, his subconscious recognizing that face even without her signature mask, but now it merely echoed with the thing she had said. Zhelaniye: longing.

Bucky froze. He couldn't move, couldn't twitch, could barely breathe. Oh, Tony, Tony, oh, crap, oh no...

Longing.

His desires were wrong. He knew that. Sinful, obscene, an abomination. Hydra would help him. They would erase those foul and wrong feelings, make him clean and pure and sinless again. He just had to stop fighting.

They were going to help him, they would take care of him, and in return, he would give over everything, everything, every part of him, each piece of his soul, each fragment of his mind and they would mold him, shape him, turn him into the savior of the world.

But they couldn't do that if he was fighting. They couldn't help him if he clung to things that were wrong and unnatural and horrific, disgusting, obscene. He was loathsome, and Hydra was the only place he would find a home, the only place that could understand him, that could fix him, that could make him.... Better.

He just had to stop fighting.

"Rzhavvy." Rusted.

There was a cadence to the words; they beat in his head and in his heart and she hadn't the right, she hadn't the right, goddamnit, and they'd been practicing and he'd gotten stronger, but--

Steve had been twelve when Bucky had convinced him to climb up a fence and through the alley to sneak into the talkie; movies with sound were new, at the time, and of course neither Sarah Rogers nor Bucky's own mom had enough pennies saved for it, but one of the kids at school had told him how to sneak into the Palance where they could watch from one of the old abandoned balconies, left over from when it used to be an opera house.

It was stupid and foolish and dangerous, especially for Steve, asthmatic and weak and skinny as he was and sitting in a dusty old opera box wasn't going doing him any good whatsoever. But Steve was usually game for whatever Bucky was playing and they were twelve and thirteen years old, just stupid dumb kids.

The talkie had been amazing and Bucky’d stared, open mouthed and eyes as big as saucers, the whole time, Steve leaning against his side and wheezing slightly in the dusty air.

But it turned out the dust wasn’t the problem. It was the damn nail that Steve scraped his arm on while sliding under the grate and into the cellar. The cut had swelled a few days later. Later, during the war, Bucky would receive a few shots of the recently-developed tetanus vaccine, because there was a fuck-ton of rusted shit all over the place in Europe. But he hadn't known anything about it at the time.

What he had known was sitting at Steve's bedside, stroking his hand and getting him water and reading to him from penny-dreadfuls while he shivered in the middle of August's heat and waited to see if Steve would die, from a god damn rusted nail.

He'd endangered his friend. He was a risk to decency and to safety and Hydra would help him. He just had to stop fighting.

"Semnadtsat." Seventeen.

The year of his birth, his beginnings, the date that started everything. Birthdays had never really been a big thing in the Barnes household; too many kids and never enough money, but Steve had always remembered, had always said something, given him a quick sketch, or a bit of smuggled hard candy, and for his seventeenth birthday, Steve had scrounged around for loose change in gutters and alleyways and won about twenty-three cents pitching pennies with Scooter McAnly against the dimestore wall, and bought Bucky a full-sized chocolate bar, something called a Toblerone, which had been absolutely the best thing he'd ever tasted in his goddamn life and he and Steve had shared it, sitting out on the balcony of his house, their fingers coated in melted chocolate as he let the honey-rich taste of it slide down his throat.

Everything that he was belonged to them.

"Rassvet." Daybreak.

He'd opened his eyes to the light, seen his own gleaming hand, and body horror had dropped on him like a building coming down. What was this thing, what had they done to him? Pain and pain and fear and hated.

Soldier, you will be the dawn of a new age of men. This moment will live on in history as daybreak for a glorious era. Leaders will be toppled from their corrupt and ruined empires and you will be the one to shape the world, to change everything. Everything you do, from this moment, from here on out, will be for the greater glory. The most perfect world imaginable will be shaped by your hands.

And Bucky was screaming, screaming, trying to drown her out, praying to a cold and careless god that someone would hear him, that someone could help him. He couldn't move, he couldn't stop her. Her voice thundered in his ears and he was losing himself, he was losing himself, and... oh god... and Tony would be gone. Erased as if he'd never existed. The slow climb to pull back himself was for nothing, it was for nothing, and it could be undone in a heartbeat, she was unravelling him, unmaking him, and he was destroyed.

"Pech'." Furnace.

Steve had a hundred bullies; he made enemies like most people made friends, and something about his skinny, sweet face and his absolute inability to shut the fuck up drove people to desperately want to hit him. And they did.

Steve had a hundred bullies. Bucky had one.

And Bucky had never told. Never told anyone, until Hydra came along and then he'd told them everything. They'd dug into his mind with their drugs and their tools and their toys, they'd gleaned his secrets -- hell, they didn't even care about American secrets, not really, not the scientists. The brass who'd come in, they'd been interested in that, but by the time Bucky was functional enough to spill secrets, Hydra was already in hiding. The Valkyrie project was over; there was nothing he could say that would hurt anyone now, and he knew it, which was okay.

But the scientists. He broke himself over their knees. Them, he told.

Harvey "Beemer" Hastings, an older kid, fifteen or sixteen to Bucky's thirteen. Big and mean, prone to talking with his fists.

Somehow, Beemer had figured out that Bucky was just as likely to look at a fella as to gawk over a dame. Bucky hadn't really thought about it; it just was the way he was, and since he'd kissed Sadie Williams under the mistletoe the year before, and people had all seen it, he hadn't worried overmuch that other people would find out that he was... temperamental. As long as he didn't do anything about it. It was just a thing, and there was no harm in lookin' and he'd get married some day and raise a bunch of rugrats and that would be okay, too, right?

And Bucky hadn't realized what it meant, that Beemer had figured it out; it wasn't until the Army and the war that Bucky realized that Beemer had also been temperamental, but much more inclined to self-hatred than Bucky himself...

At first, it was a simple beat-down and then blackmail. A dime, once a week, to keep the secret. At first.

But the thing about blackmail was that it never stopped. You could never pay enough, or promise enough, or go on long enough for it to stop. It wasn't the money, it was the power that Beemer craved.

Bucky never talked much, after. Steve had seen the black eyes and the bruises and, one time, the ring of fingermarks around his throat, and nudged Bucky for rumblin' when he didn't have to. But there were other things, things that Steve didn't understand, things that were vile and slick and sickening in the darkness. Things that Beemer had made him do. Had done to him, there in the blackness, in the furnace room under the steel and ironworks, where the only thing to be seen was the red light reflected on Beemer's sweaty face, and the only thing to feel was the searing heat and the hatred, the absolute loathing of being forced, of being humiliated.

It stopped after Bucky got burned. Beemer had shoved him away, laughing and taunting about how much Bucky had liked it, how precious his mouth was and... Bucky'd fallen against the furnace, his hands outstretched, and he'd screamed, he'd screamed like he never had before as the skin blistered and blackened before Bucky could jerk his hands back.

Beemer had fled before someone had come down, but Bucky couldn't escape, he couldn't stop screaming. He’d cradled his burned hands to his chest and screamed and whimpered and screamed some more. Eventually someone had come and they hadn't even asked any questions, just taken him to the hospital, and no one knew and everyone assumed that his sullen silence for weeks after was from the pain of the burns.

And no one knew.

Until he'd told Hydra everything.

"Devyat'." Nine.

Nine arms of Hydra. Binding and pulling and tugging and ripping him apart. The old dream -- they'd probably implanted it -- of being stretched starfish, each limb tangled and held by thick, rubbery tentacles, and they were cold, so cold that it burned, scored him, destroyed him. His throat encircled, constricted, he couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, head pulled back.

Another around his waist, pulling him up, back arched painfully...

In his mouth, sweet Jesus, invading and probing and... he gagged, pushed with his tongue, couldn't... oh, god...

The monster fell on him and bore him down...

"Dobrokachestvennaya." Benign.

That was the lie. It was a lie. Bucky fought it, the one powerful truth he'd discovered that unlocked everything else: Hydra lied. Hydra was not benign. Hydra was a monster, ruthless and predatory and it made monsters of people, made monsters of them all. Took the worst, most vile and depraved parts of humanity and nurtured them, brought them to the surface, twisted everything until you were a believer and it was a lie.

The truth was love and light. The truth was family and friends. The truth was freedom, and freedom sometimes came with a cost, but he'd always been willing to pay it.

Tony. Tony was truth. Fucked up and flawed and glorious and brilliant and a thin slice of nutloaf. And Bucky loved him, loved him, and still hadn't actually said it when Tony would remember, but...

He fell to his knees, gripping his head, fighting, fighting.

They lied. They lied to him. Everything that built him, every foundation and clay brick and silver window was a lie.

You can do this. The soldier has discretion. Current mission supersedes all others.

He lifted his head, painfully, slowly, and glared at her. Struggled to one knee, slow, inexorable.

It. was. a. Lie.

"Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu." Homecoming.

He stumbled.

Somehow, they twisted him, scrambled his emotions, like putting the wrong song in a movie soundtrack, mournful dirges at the adventure scenes, heavy drums and trumpets at the touching moments.

Steve, Captain America, had come and taken him out of there, had taken him away from pain and fear and ...

Taken him. Home.

Home. Tony. Please, god, Tony, help me...

But it wasn't his home, it wasn't his anymore, he didn't belong there, he wasn't one of them. He was othered. You couldn't see it, looking at him, but he was... different, now. He was speed and he was strength and he was vision in the darkness. He was deadly accuracy and merciless heart.

And Hydra had come and taken him home.

"Odin." One.

Not the only one, but the first. The best. The strongest. He was perfect, a glorious achievement. He belonged to Hydra. They made him, shaped him, they knew what was best. They knew how to protect him, how to utilize him. He was successful beyond their wildest dreams and he was going to change the world.

"Gruzovoy vagon." Freight car.

He fell.

He fell and there was nothing to grab hold of.

Love, light, desire, truth, they all slipped away and there was nothing to grab hold of.

He fell.

"Ya gotov otvetit'." The words came out of his mouth against his will, he was screaming inside his head, and then...

And then there was nothing.

The soldier stood up, ready, and willing, to comply.

From her first word to his answer had been a mere two minutes.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

The orderly -- David? Donnell? Daniel, that was it! -- led Tony through a maze of professionally-bland, unmarked hallways studded with doors. "How do you even know where you're going?" Tony wondered. Daniel just shrugged and turned another corner.

Tony's sense of direction was excellent, but he was beginning to wonder if he'd be able to find his way back to the lobby.

Which was setting off warning bells in the back of his head. Had they walked into a trap? Pepper said she'd been keeping Tony's condition out of the media and on a need-to-know basis within SI, and Bucky's presence at the Tower wasn't general knowledge, either, but it only took one weak link... The Amazon delivery guy, maybe? Or maybe he was being paranoid and it was just a new facility -- it did have that fresh-paint kind of smell about it -- and their signs were still on order. Grant-funded, after all.

Then the orderly opened a door and stepped aside to usher Tony through, and there were three men in tac gear pointing machine guns at Tony. Just because you're paranoid, he thought wryly, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. He held up his hands. "Whoa, hey, guys, let's not do anything hasty, here."

The door was swinging closed behind him and he probably couldn't dive back through before he'd been shot anyway. It closed with an ominous click. Tony took a steadying breath, and considered the odds.

Three of them, on the far side of a room that was at least twenty feet deep. Tony was getting pretty good at mixed martial arts, but these guys looked like they knew a thing or two about fighting, themselves. Anyway the guns made that more or less a moot point. The safeties were still engaged and fingers carefully resting against the trigger-guards, so they weren't planning to kill him right away, but Tony doubted they'd let him just walk away, either. He'd play along for now, and wait for his moment.

"So what's the plan?" he asked. He cautiously took a few steps further into the room. The muzzles tracked him, but the guards, or whatever they were, didn't otherwise respond.

Tony took another couple of steps toward them, and the one in the middle said, "Stay back, please." The left-hand guy shifted his aim until it was pointing at Tony's leg and thumbed off his safety. They wanted him alive, but not necessarily undamaged. Okay. Okay.

Tony raised his hands again and took a step back. "Sure thing, hoss, you got it." He looked around the room critically, but there wasn't much to see. Walls, painted industrial white, the sort of cheap, easy-to-clean, easy-to-replace flooring found in scientific laboratories. The door Tony had come in through. Another door behind the guards. No furniture or decorations or windows. "So, what happens next? I mean, I assume I'm going to meet the boss at some point so they can make with the threats and demands, but I'm kind of on a schedule here, and--"

The door behind the guards opened. They didn't react, so they must have been expecting it. But it was Bucky who stepped through, and Tony nearly sagged with relief. Bucky would take out the guards and then--

Bucky wasn't taking out the guards. Why wasn't he taking out the guards? He wasn't really looking at Tony, either, and that was... "Bucky?"

A woman stepped from behind Bucky into the room. She was tall, taller even than Pepper in heels, dressed in black and green, with long black hair. Bucky didn't react, and Tony felt a cold ball of dread forming in the pit of his stomach.

"Welcome, Mr. Stark," she said. "You may call me Madame Hydra. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"I'm going to have to go ahead and admit that I'm not really feeling pleasured right now," Tony said. "What did you do to Bucky?"

"I have recovered a valuable asset," she said. "Which was my initial aim. I have to admit, I didn't know that you'd walk into my trap as well. It's very exciting. I'm tempted to call it fate, even."

Villain monologue, blah blah blah. Tony stopped listening to her, and focused on Bucky. "Bucky," he said. "Snap out of it, Klondike, time to go." Bucky didn't respond.

"He is not the man you think you know, Mr. Stark," said Hydra-Girl (or whatever her name was). "He is not a man at all, only a simulacrum of one. And like all creations, he must occasionally be... adjusted." Bucky did react to that, a bare flicker of the eyes and subtle tensing of the shoulders. Tony only saw it because he was already searching Bucky's face for signs of life.

"It's hard for a creature like him to operate without orders. But since he's brought you to us, we might be prepared to forgive some of his deviant behaviors, write them off as mission protocol." Bucky's eyes were on her again, wary and hopeful. She was ignoring him as thoroughly as if he were a table, still talking to Tony. "As long as they're not repeated in the future, of course. As long as he obeys."

Tony felt sick. "He's not going to obey you," he snarled.

Green Eggs and Ham smiled, gracious in her victory. "Oh, I think you'll find that he will. I do, after all, hold his compliance codes. I helped create him, and he most certainly belongs to me. But don’t worry, I’m not planning to separate you just yet. We'll have to be very careful wiping you so we don't damage that intellect. You aren't improved yet, after all."

"Lady, if you think I'm going to sit still for you--"

"Oh, Mr. Stark. If you think that you will resist us for long, you are sorely mistaken."

"A whole camp full of dead Ten Rings fanatics will be happy to tell you how well I respond to torture," Tony spat.

She sniffed. "Ten Rings has no imagination. There are so many more ways to ensure compliance than hurting you. Hurting someone else, for instance." Her eyes slid toward Bucky.

Tony's stomach dropped, clenching, and he refused to let her see his fear. It was when they'd threatened Yinsen that he'd caved, after all. Or pretended to. But the Ten Rings hadn't had Hydra's memory-wiping technology. The instant he hesitated, it was over.

"Take Mr. Stark down to the lab and get him strapped down," she instructed Bucky coldly.

Tony stared at Bucky, willing him to refuse, to fight, even to collapse in pain the way that meant he'd encountered a mission conflict.

But Bucky simply nodded, stepped past the guards, and wrapped a hand around Tony's upper arm to guide him, rather forcefully, out the door.

Tony swallowed down rising panic. "Okay, so, that was all just an act to get us out of there, right?" he tried. Bucky kept walking, pulling Tony along. "Bucky, come on, you know me."

"Yes," Bucky said, not looking at him. "Anthony Edward Stark. Certified genius, level 6. Primary specialties: mechanical engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence."

"Also your fucking boyfriend," Tony said, desperate to reach through the Winter Soldier fog. "I mean that literally, because we have done a lot of fucking, you know. Really damn excellent fucking."

"Yes. Deviant behavior is no longer permitted," Bucky responded.

"Ug, not this again," Tony groaned. "What happened to 'the soldier has discretion,' huh?"

"Current mission supersedes discretion."

"Current--" Shit, shit. How long before the others got nervous and came looking for them? A couple of days, at least. Plenty of time for Madame Goth to fry his brain again. Plenty of time for them to be moved to literally anywhere else in the world. If he couldn't get Bucky to snap out of it, he -- they -- were completely and utterly fucked. "Okay, right. Right. So just out of curiosity, what is your current mission?"

"Current mission," Bucky recited, "escort Anthony Stark to conditioning laboratory and secure pending corrective maintenance."

"Well, I knew that. What're the current standing protocols?" Would-be dictators tended toward overconfidence; he hoped Snake Bitch Queen had left him some loopholes to work with.

"Primary mission protocols: Protect Anthony Stark. Self-care. Don't kill Clint. Obey Madame Hydra."

Tony twisted as much as Bucky's grip allowed to stare at him in disbelief. She hadn't rescinded the existing protocols. She must have assumed Bucky had been wandering around without any protocols at all, and that her orders had filled a void. Okay, Tony could work with that.

"I'm pretty sure letting Madame Hydra wipe my brain is in violation of 'protect Anthony Stark,' Tony pointed out.

Bucky's step stuttered just a little. But then he recovered and said, "Damage to Anthony Stark's person is permitted only in extremity; lethal force not authorized. Corrective maintenance will leave intellect intact. Anthony Stark's safety is not in jeopardy."

Damn it. Of course when Bucky's personality -- his entire personhood -- had been suppressed, he couldn't see the removal of Tony's personality as a threat. Right, back to the drawing board. "I'm going to fight her, you know. She'll be forced to hurt me."

"No," Bucky said, and that had a hint of passion to it. Tony was hopeful for a brief instant, until he continued, "You will be secured. No additional force will be required."

Fuck. Tony wracked his brain. "What the hell does it take for you to accept an override?" he growled in frustration.

Tony hadn't really expected Bucky to answer that, but he did. "Mission and protocols may be updated by Madame Hydra, or overridden by a handler in possession of the correct compliance codes."

Well. Tony was supposedly in possession of Bucky's compliance codes, but they were locked behind the wall of his fucked-up memory. And even if he could remember them, he sure as fuck didn't want to use them. Bad enough Bucky's self-determination had been taken away; for Tony to be the one holding Bucky's leash... Tony shuddered. No. There had to be a better way.

There had to.

***

There wasn't a better way. Tony had tried everything he could think of that had even a remote chance of getting through to Bucky, and some other things besides, just out of sheer desperation. Nothing got through.

Bucky had pulled him through a door and into a laboratory straight out of a horror movie, with a whole bank of computers and ominous machines with wires that all converged on -- was that a fucking dentist's chair? -- at the center of the brightest lights, rigged with clamps and straps that looked sturdy enough to contain Bucky, let alone an unenhanced and armor-less Tony.

Tony had struggled then, fought with every dirty trick he'd learned, but he was no match for Bucky's strength, even when Bucky was obeying his mandate not to damage Tony, weirdly gentle as he wrestled Tony into the chair and engaged automated restraints.

"Bucky," he gasped, yanking fruitlessly at the heavy metal cuffs even as Bucky snugged a thick leather strap across his chest, "babe, please, you have to snap out of it!"

Bucky didn't answer, just kept buckling that belt into place.

"I do have your compliance code, you know," Tony tried, grasping at one last, desperate straw. "You gave it to me. Don't you remember that?"

"I remember."

"So I'm overriding the mission!" Tony snapped.

Bucky looked at him for a moment, almost expectantly.

"You know I have the words, do I really have to say them? Come on, work with me here!"

"Change of handler requires the appropriate compliance code," Bucky said, a rote response that had doubtless been ground into him over god only knew how many months and years.

Tony snarled in helpless frustration. Bucky watched for another moment, then apparently decided that Tony was not going to produce the code. He straightened and went to the bank of computers, picked up the handset of a phone and punched a single button. "Mission complete," he said into the phone. "Anthony Stark is secured for maintenance." There was a brief pause as he listened, and then he nodded. "Understood," he said, and hung up. He walked over toward the door and took up a guard position.

Tony's mouth was sour with fear and anger, but he hadn't surrendered to the Ten Rings in the face of torture, and he wasn't about to surrender to Hydra without a fight, either. All he had to do was stall; he would find his moment, or the team would come for him.

He hoped.

"So, what's the new mission?" he tried.

Bucky didn't look at him or break his pose at all. "Guard. Await Madame Hydra's arrival."

"Yeah? When's that? She can take her time, really; I could use a nap."

"She is on her way now," Bucky reported.

And oh god this was real, this was going to happen. She was going to fucking erase him, erase everything he was, everything he'd ever done that was good in this world. And in Hydra's hands, in full compliance, he would surpass his reputation as a Merchant of Death and become Death Incarnate. That bitch was going to flip the god damn switch and electrify his brain, and maybe it was cowardly but he was afraid. He knew that pain, he'd shocked himself a thousand times in myriad projects, thrown himself halfway across the garage once when he'd accidentally crossed the leads on a car battery, had--

--backed into the elevator cable, brilliant blinding pain, muscles seizing so hard he couldn't even move. Dimly aware of Bucky tackling him to the ground, current still juddering through his nerves like liquid fire, his heart stuttering and jolting in confusion, unable to draw a breath to scream--

"Longing," Tony gasped, a smudged piece of paper floating suddenly before his mind's eye.

Bucky, standing guard by the door, actually turned his head to look at Tony.

"Rusted." Bucky wasn't looking away. That had to be a good sign, right?

"Seventeen. Daybreak. Furnace."

Bucky's pupils were responding, expanding wide and dark and then drawing down into pinprick dots. It was working, it was working. If there was any other way -- but they were out of time.

"Nine," Tony panted. A headache was building; he could feel the tension behind his temples and in his neck, drawing tighter and tighter, a loud buzzing in his ears.

The door opened and Madame Hydra came through, smiling like a cat with a canary in her claws.

"Benign," Tony rasped. The buzzing in his ears was getting louder, the pain creeping up his neck like tentacles. It was hard to hold on to anything else. Tony clung to the image of the paper like a lifeline; he could not fail.

"Homecoming." Madame Hydra's eyes narrowed and then widened in sudden understanding.

"No!" she shouted. She grabbed at Bucky's collar and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. "Don't listen to him! You're mine!" Bucky's head rolled with the blow and turned back toward Tony as if it were magnetized.

"One." He hoped Bucky would be able to forgive him.

She abandoned Bucky and dove at Tony, her fingers curled into claws, frantic to silence him. Her hand slammed down on Tony's face, the impact jarring enough to make the building headache explode, a sudden and searing agony that whited out everything else.

There was a thing. A thing Tony was supposed to say. There were fingers on his neck, trying to stop his breath so he couldn't speak. But the thing, the thing he was supposed to say, was already rolling out of his throat, and so Tony released it: "Freight car."

The woman screamed, but not louder than the buzzing and ringing in Tony's ears, not enough to drown out the barrage of color and sound that was four and a half years of memories rushing back into his brain all at once, a furious storm that battered Tony in its twists and eddies of pain and triumph and joy and sorrow.

And at the center of it all, a constant lighthouse beacon of support and comfort and warmth. "Bucky," Tony choked through her grip, tight, shit, she was strong. "Help me," he tried to say, but he wasn't sure whether the words actually left his lips before the maelstrom swept him up and away.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

The Winter Soldier's cowl was down low over his heart and his head. But Bucky was screaming inside. Pounding on the walls inside his mind, screaming for release.

Sarkissian had triggered him; as clean and cold as if she'd placed a gun to his temple and shot him. He died. Watched himself die. The soldier fell to his knees at her feet and let her pet him like a dog, like a beast, and she'd done that, made crooning little pleased noises over him and told him how very delighted she was to see him again, that she'd missed him, and what was left of his heart had beat faster for her.

"Mission report, soldier," she snapped, and he reported. Everything. Every deviant behavior mentioned was punctuated by another jab from her stick until he was staying upright by sheer will alone.

"No more deviant behavior. You will obey me."

"Mission protocols accepted. Ready to comply."

And then she'd taken that damn stick of hers and hit him with it four or five more times, just to watch him writhe in agony, scream in anguish, and know he could do nothing. He lay, panting at her feet, for a long moment, not sure how he got there. "Get up. We have work to do."

The soldier wiped his mouth on his sleeve and snapped his mask in place, falling in at her back. Wanting nothing more than to listen, to obey. His head was quiet now, no loose threads. There was nothing to fear, pain was irrelevant. He was home.

Deviant behavior slammed into the foreground when she gestured for him to proceed her into the room. Anthony Stark, held at gunpoint. He flicked his eyes up; Anthony Stark had not been damaged, not even roughed up, and the soldier subsided. He stepped to one side to let his master in the room, his eyes at her feet.

His master conversed with Anthony Stark, all sly sarcasm and biting wit, and the soldier ignored it. Not relevant to the mission. His master promised forgiveness for his disloyalty and the soldier could only hope she meant a cessation of the pain from her weapon, but he would endure it, if it was necessary to the mission. Nothing mattered but the mission.

She continued, exchanging terse barbs and banter, and then...

"Hurting someone else," she said, her eyes indicating the soldier to Anthony Stark. The soldier could see it writ very small in the mobile places in Anthony Stark's face. Damage to the soldier, pain for the soldier would ensure Anthony Stark's compliance. The soldier didn't move, didn't allow himself to move. Why... the soldier was strong, he could endure. There was no reason to... protect Anthony Stark... a soft voice, barely heard.

Well, the soldier could do this much, at least. Protect Anthony Stark from the pain of watching the soldier endure. If Anthony Stark complied, everything would be all right. The soldier would not let himself be harmed; he would obey the mission, he would protect Anthony Stark from pain.

He circled Anthony Stark's upper arm, led him from the room. Anthony Stark didn't struggle; that was good. The soldier had struggled sometimes, being led to maintenance. It was always worse to fight it, always worse. Better to face it on his own two feet.

Mission protocols did not dictate that he could not answer Anthony Stark's questions and in an effort to comply with primary mission protocols, he did what he could to ease Anthony Stark's concerns. Answered truthfully, but never more information than what was requested. It would be all right. Anthony Stark would be safe. Some tiny part of him screamed in agony over that. Another part wondered if, both compliant, the soldier would be allowed to stay with Anthony Stark. That's what the soldier wanted; but what the soldier wanted was irrelevant. Only the mission was relevant.

Once the soldier had secured Anthony Stark for maintenance, the voice in his head grew louder, the one that was forcing him to look what you're doing, you're hurting him, look how much pain he is in. Mission in jeopardy.

The soldier reported to Madame Hydra, hoping she'd say something, that she'd do something, to ease this growing fear, this growing need to break protocols, to engage in deviant behavior. She didn't. She was a poor handler, she had no sense of what her soldier needed from her, no desire to provide it. Deviant behavior noted: disloyalty.

Conflict with protocols.

Protect Anthony Stark.

Anthony Stark will not be harmed. It is necessary for Anthony Stark to comply. Compliance is its own reward. Anthony Stark will not be harmed.

"Longing."

The soldier's head snapped up. No, no, Tony...

Anthony Stark knew the words, he--

"Rusted, Seventeen, Daybreak. Furnace."

There was no deliberation, no cadence. The soldier was swallowed up by the commands, the events and threads of his life that wove the very fibers of his chains, punched and pummeled by them. A ragdoll under a boxer's expert hands. A leaf on the wind.

"Nine."

The monster... he... staggered forward a step. Madame Hydra, his master, his creator, in some sick, twisted way, his mother, entered the room, and her pleased smile eased him.

Help me. She would help him, she would save him.

Mother, help me!

Tony! Tony, no... please don't make me...

The two sides of himself went to war.

"Benign."

"Don't listen to him, you're mine, you're mine, do you hear me?" She came down on him, fist raised and beat him back, but the words, the words... he looked for the source.

"Homecoming."

His master whirled, cat-fast and sleek, her arms upraised to strike Anthony Stark down, to crush his skull, desperate, more desperate to keep her soldier than she was to preserve Anthony Stark, who was a great prize, and there would be pain for that, pain for having failed his mission, pain for costing his master such a valuable asset..

"One."

He could... not... fail....

"Freight car."

She was hurting Anthony Stark.

Choking the life from him and...

"...help me..."

She was killing Anthony Stark.

The soldier surged forward; all rage and violence and surety. His mission and his master in one. She turned on him, too late, her mouth starting to form the words that would lock him back in place and he punched her in the throat, knocking the sounds from her lungs, forcing them back, damaging her vocal chords so that she could not, she would not hold him again. Never again. She was weak. She was... a bad master. She was not worthy of an Asset like himself.

She snarled, wordless, and pulled the device from her pocket. It hummed to life with a dull thud. Hateful thing.

She struck him with it and he roared in anguish, in agony. It stopped him in his tracks and he arched his back, laced across the heart with fire.

Anthony Stark stirred, lifting his head from where he'd collapsed, his face pasty and gray with pain. "Bucky!" he called, but that was not a command, and the soldier was already engaged in his primary mission.

There wasn't enough time, even to unholster his gun. Even if there were, Anthony Stark was in the line of fire, there was no clear path behind him, if the soldier missed. The soldier moved, sliding to one side, striking out, punches, kicks. She moved with him, his equal in speed and grace, his match in stamina. She was his maker, she was his most proper and fitting opponent. His hands found a knife in his gear, lashing out at her.

The device struck him again, discharging its liquid agony across his thigh and his leg buckled under him, he went to his knees. The knife spun away, under the maintenance chair. He was weaponless, defenseless.

She pressed her fingers to her throat, coughing. She struggled to speak, wasting precious moments to escape, or to strike the killing blow. She could have, he was exposed, vulnerable, but she didn't. "Lo..."

"No, no, no, no!" The soldier surged upward, hands grasping, reaching. Deviant behaviors noted. Mission protocols engaged. Obey... No... PROTECT ANTHONY STARK.

He grabbed her, neck and leg, lifted her high over his head and brought her down across his knee with a snap, breaking her back. She went limp in his arms like a doll, gasping.

"I... I made you..." she said, her arms unmoving, legs still, breathing choked and ragged. Her heartbeat faltered.

"Shhh." The soldier pressed a gentle finger to her lips, letting his metal hand, her great creation, touch her skin there, at the end. "It's over. It's over now, Mother." He cupped her face, gentle. So gentle. She died, looking up at him with quiet, shattered betrayal.

The soldier knew her strength. It was his own, and he could not take the risk... he slid backward, grabbed his knife from under the chair. Without really looking at Anthony Stark, he sliced the bonds free, unlocking those which were impervious to his blade. And then with neat, brutal efficiency, the soldier cut out her heart. He placed it on the floor beside her and wept.

***

Tony

The blinding headache that had accompanied the rushing return of his memories was beginning to fade. If he could keep it instead of the heartache that he was pretty sure was about to hit, he would.

Bucky was still kneeling on the floor next to-- to what had been Madame Hydra. The woman he had called "mother". The woman who, if he understood the few words they had exchanged, had tortured him into becoming the Winter Soldier.

The woman he was... mourning.

Tony wanted to throw up, and it wasn't entirely the pain. He swallowed it down. Whatever the repercussions would be, it was too late to change anything now, and they still had to get out of here, away from Madame Hydra's minions.

He dragged himself upright, onto his feet. The room spun, and he swayed. He took a couple of deep breaths, and when he was a little steadier, he said, as gently as he could, "Bucky."

Bucky's head snapped up, and he stared at Tony with red-rimmed eyes that had gone as cold as cryofreeze, cold that seeped across the space between them and pasted a rime of frost on Tony's heart.

He had fucked up and ruined everything, of course, but they didn’t have time for it now. "We need to go," Tony said. "Preferably before her minions find us here."

Bucky nodded, short and sharp, acknowledging. He climbed to his feet without another glance at the body on the floor, and went to the door. He listened, then opened it and peered out. "Stay behind me," he said, without looking at Tony, either, and slipped out into the hall.

He seemed to know the way out perfectly. Super-soldier memory, perhaps. Or maybe there was a trick to it that Tony didn't know because he'd never been Hydra. It wasn't, he sensed, the time to ask.

After the second turn, they encountered Daniel, the "orderly". Bucky dispatched him before Tony could even open his mouth, a swift blow to the stomach and one to the face; Tony could hear the crack of bones shattering from several feet away. Daniel didn't make a sound as he dropped. Tony wondered if he still lived. It didn't much matter.

After they'd gone another few turns, an alarm sounded and the lights flashed -- either Daniel or Madame Hydra had been discovered. Bucky pulled Tony into an alcove, and a moment later a trio of soldiers ran past. None of them noticed Tony or Bucky.

They didn't encounter anyone else. Even the lobby was deserted. Bucky punched through the lock on the door, and they walked out.

Bucky didn't speak unless Tony asked him a direct question until they were back on the quinjet. He'd left Tony to do the preflight checks while he swept for bugs or sabotage devices, and then sat in the copilot's seat, staring straight down the nose of the jet while they took off.

Bucky didn't speak for the entire flight home. Tony threw him a few glances, but he never looked back.

As they touched down and the automatics took over stowing the craft, Tony had to try: "I'm sorry."

Bucky looked at him, expressionless.

It was as much of a reaction as Tony had gotten in the last hour, so he pushed onward. "I tried... I didn't want to. It was the only way. I wouldn't have, if there were any other option. I had to do it. You know that, right?"

"And you had to know that I would hate you," Bucky said, meeting his gaze as he broke Tony's heart with cold efficiency. "If you'll excuse me, Master." With that, he left the quinjet without looking back.

Tony watched the space where he'd been, trying to make the words come out differently. They didn't. They repeated, over and over, echoing in the shocked silence of Tony's mind, and every time it was a knife to his heart.

It was no less than he deserved. Bucky had trusted Tony with-- with everything, and Tony had betrayed that trust in the most profound way possible. It didn't matter that their lives had been at stake; it didn't matter that the world had been at stake. It was still a betrayal.

But hey -- his memories were back. So when he folded himself into his lab to mourn the loss of the best thing that had ever happened to him, he could fully appreciate every moment that he had spit upon, and know exactly how few others had ever come close to loving him the way Bucky had.

Tony was still staring at the empty quinjet hatchway, he had no idea how much later, when Bruce came, gently chivvied him out, and put him on a cot in the medlab.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky

The soldier went to Tash, because who else could he go to?

The urge was driving him backward, to protect his Master, to kneel at his feet, to...

He knocked on her door. Please, god, Tash, be home. And she opened the door, let him in.

"<What happened?>"

It was blessed relief to speak Russian, comforting, familiar, easy. He was grateful for anything that took less effort than standing upright and betraying all of his protocols in a tongue that was no longer his own.

"<The Asset is damaged. Damaged. Mission failure, obey Madam Hydra. Mission failure, self-care. Mission failure, protect Anthony Stark.>"

"<Where is Anthony Stark?"> Trust his sister in arms, his student, his former-beloved, to ask the right, first question.

"<Quinjet. Injured. Injured. Mission failure, protect Anthony Stark.">

"Bruce," she said, and she wasn't talking to the soldier any longer, but to a dark-haired, soft-seeming man who was buttoning his shirt hurriedly.

"I'll take care of Tony," Bruce said, brushing his jaw lightly against Tash's cheek before leaving the room.

"<Report injuries.>" She wasn't his handler, had never brought him into compliance, but she was a valued teammate and Anthony Stark would have wanted... self-care.

"<Injuries, severity prioritized. Broken rib, left side, third. Punctured spleen. Kidney failure, right side. Internal bleeding. Fractured vertebrae, thoracic curve, TH5, TH6, TH7. Possible spinal damage. Torn muscle, left thigh. Torn groin muscle. Bruises. Damage to artificial unit, upper musculature.">

Tash whistled, low. "<How are you even standing up, Yasha?>"

The soldier kept his breathing shallow, further strain on ribs could result in punctured lung. "<Because my master has not released me from duty.>"

Tash started swearing in Russian, moved into Polish, dabbled for a moment in Italian and finally ended up with a few choice words in Portuguese. "<And who's your master now?>"

"<Anthony Stark.>"

She lifted an eyebrow at him, the obvious question plain on her face: why hadn’t he requested permission to seek medical attention? For a long moment, the soldier said nothing. How could he, without orders?

"<I can't. Soldier... has no discretion. It will hurt Anthony Stark. The soldier has to stay away; Anthony Stark will be harmed if... I will not allow him to be harmed by continuing to utilize compliance protocols.>"

Tash stared at him. "Well. Crap."

For just a moment, the irony just about killing him, Bucky stirred himself at her words, gave her a ghost of a smile. "Indeed."

"<You need medical care, Yasha, you're all busted up.>"

"<I can’t see him. Please, Tash, I can't... I can't face him. I... conflicted. Protocols. I... I was never cleared to disobey. I killed her, killed the one I was supposed to obey.>"

Tash nodded abruptly and excused herself, leaving the soldier standing, swaying. It might be easier, he thought desperately, to just let himself die. He was a good soldier, strong, faithful. Could it not be enough? But Tash had saved him once before, when he was haunted by the need for his own death, had taught him to love and live again, and she would help him now.

The pain... was not irrelevant. The Asset was damaged, severely damaged. He... would be failing mission protocols, self-care, to let himself go without medical attention. He would... cause irreparable harm to Anthony Stark by letting himself die. More pain than would be caused by seeing the soldier’s compliance, likely.

"Here." Tash shoved a cell phone up to his ear and he couldn't even reach up to grab it.

"Sir?"

Anthony Stark's voice was almost unrecognizable. "Soldier, relieved from duty. Seek medical attention. Eat. Rest."

"Ready to comply."

And the world slipped away as blackness descended.

***

Bruce

Tony had bruises and scrapes on his wrists and ankles and chest that looked like he'd been struggling against a restraint, and Bruce cursed his life that he even knew how to identify those particular injuries. There was blood trickling down Tony's temple, but not enough to be worrisome; and there were bruises on his face, small ones, spaced oddly. He sat silent and still while Bruce cleaned him up, checked the wound in his head to see if it needed stitches, and found some antiseptic ointment for the scrapes.

The head wound was just past Tony's hairline and topped a goose egg of some size. Someone had hit him hard. Damn it, if his memories had gotten scrambled again...

No one hurts my friends and gets away with it.

Bruce swallowed the growl before it reached his throat and got a flashlight. He made Tony look up so Bruce could check his pupil response.

"You've got a mild concussion, it looks like," Bruce said.

Tony nodded and looked past Bruce at the wall.

A quiet Tony was... not entirely out of Bruce's experience, but it never meant anything good. Combined with the injuries and the state that Barnes had been in when he'd turned up at Nat's door...

Whoever hurt him, they'll be sorry.

Bruce pulled a chair around so he could sit facing Tony, knee to knee. "Tony. I need you to talk to me, here."

Tony closed his eyes. "Concussion," he said. "I heard you."

I'll make them sorry.

"What happened out there?"

"Trap."

"Tony," Bruce said, just sharp enough to cut through the fog. Not enough force to let the monster slip its leash. "I need details. Barnes looks--" Tony flinched at Barnes’s name. Hard.

Did Barnes do this? I'll kill him, I don't care--

Bruce took a slow breath. "Details, Tony. A few."

Tony sighed and put a hand over his face. "Trap. Mistress Hydra Girl or something. Was trolling for the Winter Soldier, got both of us. She. She had his codes."

"The compliance codes?"

Tony nodded. "Turned him. Was going to, to make me an asset, too." He dropped his hand to grin at Bruce like a rictus. "We'd have made a gorgeous team, don't you think? The Winter Soldier and the Merchant of Death?"

A roar of defiance echoed through Bruce's body at the thought of Tony in Hydra's hands. The jolt of pure rage was so strong, Bruce had to get up and pace the room, willing his pulse to slow, his mind to calm.

Tony waited, knowing what it meant when Bruce got so restless. When Bruce faced him again, Tony said, "She's dead, Bruce." He laughed, a sharp, bitter bark. "I've never seen anyone quite that dead, in fact. Which is saying a lot."

It was; Tony had seen a lot of deaths, most of them ugly. Good, Bruce thought, with a hum of satisfaction that made his stomach churn.

"How? Did he break through the-- No." Bruce recalled the desperate look in Barnes's eyes and the frightened one in Natasha's. "You turned him back. You... remembered his codes?"

Tony looked down again, at hands hanging limply between his knees. "Remembered everything. Got it all back, just in time to lose it."

"I don't understand."

"He hates me," Tony said. "He can't stand to look at me, he--" He choked, and slumped. "He's right. I thought I loved him. But I betrayed him. How could I--"

He can't possibly hate you more than you hate yourself. Stop being so stupid!

Tony hated sympathy, refused to accept it, so Bruce didn't offer his, though he wanted to. "Would you do it again?" he challenged instead.

"In a heartbeat," Tony said without hesitation, fierce. "I'd rather he hate me forever than let them hurt him again."

"Sounds like love to me, Tony." Bruce leaned back in his chair. "And take it from me: love and hate are not opposites, and they're not mutually exclusive."

Don't you dare throw this away without fighting for it! Don't you dare be such a coward!

Tony jerked his head up to argue -- and it was good to see that much life in him -- but Bruce's phone buzzed an interruption.

"It's Nat," Bruce said, looking at the screen. The look on Tony's face was a painful mix of hunger and fear. Bruce answered. "How's it going?"

"Put Tony on the phone now," she said, brusque. Frightened.

If she's been hurt, I'll tear the world apart until I find whoever did it; I'll--

Bruce held out the phone to Tony, but Tony shook his head. Bruce sighed and fumbled the phone's menu open and thumbed the speaker button. "On speaker," he said.

Tony glared at Bruce. Bruce ignored it.

"Tony?" She sounded gentle, worried, almost tentative.

Jealousy flared emerald-hot. Neither of them are worthy of her.

"What," Tony said, flat. Bruce might have thought he was uncaring, except for the flutter of pulse at his throat and the way his pupils contracted and dilated.

Still gentle, but firm, Natasha said, "Tony, you need to do this for me, and you need to do it well. I know it's hard, but he's going to die right in front of me if you don't help us. Please. Just order him to stand down. To get care. Nothing else, okay? Don't ask forgiveness, or try to explain, or thank him, or anything. He's wide open, he can't resist at all. Anything you say, anything you even imply, he'll do it to make you happy."

Fucking Hydra, we should burn them all to the ground. No mercy.

Tony looked pale and nauseous. "Stand down, get care," he repeated. "You're taking care of him?"

"I'm trying," Natasha promised. "But I need you for this."

Tony closed his eyes. "Yes." Bruce put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed. Tony didn't shake it off.

There was a rustle, and then Barnes’s voice, cracked and hoarse, said, "Sir?"

Tony shivered violently. He took two quick breaths and then said, soft and mechanical and not at all like himself, "Soldier, relieved from duty. Seek medical attention." He hesitated, then added, "Eat. Rest."

Barnes said, "Ready to comply," and Tony broke.

He swept out his arm angrily, knocking the phone out of Bruce's hand. By the time it hit the floor, disconnecting the call, Tony was sobbing.

***

Steve

"The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows... compassion." Erskine had said those words to him a lifetime ago. At the time, Steve had been dubious, embarrassingly flattered, and nervous. He'd never thought of himself as a good man, just a person who saw what needed to be done and took it upon himself to do it.

Problems should be solved by the people who see them, his mother had told him once. Admittedly, she had been talking about doing the dishes and emptying the trashbin. It applied to everything else, however. Steve was used to shouldering responsibility. In some strange way, it defined him, the tasks he'd laid out for himself. Even in this world where nothing was as clear as it should be and there was very little right and wrong, only a series of very messy choices, he kept his promise. Most of the time.

And right at that very moment, he wished that his inside man had not been so amplified, that he had some lack of compassion, some lack of duty. Anything that would prevent what was about to happen.

The group clustered in the room were the best at what they did, a highly-trained group with unique skill sets and appropriate standing for the matter at hand.

Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, deadly and devious, skilled at close-quarters melee and deep cover espionage, but above all, she had years of training with the Red Room program and an ability better than most to hold sway over a lethal assassin who had no reason to listen to her directions, and did anyway.

Clint Barton, Hawkeye, fiercely accurate and just as fiercely loving. Clint didn't take many people into his inner circle, but when he did, he gave everything. He had a careless way of saying things and more often than not, was engaged in active foot-in-mouth compulsion, but at the same time, he often managed to say exactly the right thing to de-escalate the situation. No one better for what they were about to do.

Dr. Helen Cho, one of the best surgeons in the world; one of the only people that Tony Stark would let near him with a scalpel. He'd trusted her to remove the arc-reactor and keep his heart in one piece, and Steve forced himself to concentrate on that; this woman had saved Tony Stark and she was not a tiny little butcher in disguise.

And, of course, Steve Rogers, Captain America, the man with the plan. He closed his eyes for a moment and hated Dr. Erskine, hated him with every fiber of his enhanced being, because if Erskine had not made him strong, then he would absolutely not have to be here.

"What's the situation, then?" Steve asked, hearing himself as if he were miles away from his body.

"We have tried every soporific drug and analgesic that we have on hand. And we have enough to knock out the Hulk, so... He's exhibiting extreme reluctance to go under, and with that in mind, his bodily enhancements are working double-time to clear his system. When he's calm, we could probably keep him in a twilight state, awake, but without pain. As it stands; there's nothing we can do for him," Dr. Cho said.

"But he'll heal up, right?" Clint asked, absent-mindedly spinning an arrow in one hand. Steve wasn't sure when he'd picked it up, or if he intended to do anything with it aside from show off. Maybe it was Clint's way of calming his nerves.

"It is true that his enhancements lead to extremely rapid healing," Dr. Cho admitted. "However --" with that, she turned on a display, showing a scan of Bucky's internal organs. Or, at least, Steve thought that's what they were. There was an awful lot of black in the scans which frightened him without even knowing why. "-- as you can see here, he has excessive internal bleeding. And his spleen is damaged beyond repair. It's a common injury for the sort of high impact trauma that occurs with a car accident. Or in his specific case, damage from an alien gravity weapon. You can see on these other scans, the damage to his shattered bones is already healing. The problem is, his spleen's not going to heal. It's going to go septic inside his system."

"Do what?" Clint asked.

"Rot," Natasha translated for him. "It'll get gangrene. Which will kill him, eventually. And he'll be in terrible pain the entire time."

"We don't have any choice," Dr. Cho continued, heedless of the interruption. "His spleen must be removed. And we're going to have to do it while he's awake. And aware. Mr. Barnes has agreed, reluctantly, to be restrained, and that more for my safety and the safety of the surgical team. And even with the restraints that can be managed and accommodated to resist his immense strength, I'm going to require, Captain Rogers, that you hold him down. I will not perform this surgery if there is more than a mild risk to my surgical team, and I hope you can understand that."

"No, of course, you don't want... I... I understand." Steve said. And he did. Brutally understood it. He'd been lucky; the fall into the Potomac had knocked him out, and if they'd done anything surgical to him while he was out, he'd never known or thought to ask. He'd woken up in the hospital with Sam reading a book and playing terrible seventies music, and it had never occurred to him that there might have been injuries his serum hadn't been able to deal with.

Strange, after so long, to realize that he actually counted on the damn stuff.

"I'll stay with him, and you, Cap," Natasha said. "I can help him relax, breathe. Dr. Cho will do it as quickly as possible."

"And my job," Clint said, dancing the arrow across the back of his hand like a majorette, "is to make sure Stark doesn't decide to storm the building if he hears the screaming." He shot a look at Steve. "Why do you get the easy job?"

"I'll get him prepped, then," Dr. Cho said, and her soft, angular eyes were particularly expressive. Steve shivered out some sympathy for her -- she could not possibly want to do this, any more than he did, and she was going to be the one with the knife in her hand. "We'll do it as fast as safely possible."

"I know."

He'd thought he was prepared, when he walked into the Operating Theater. Of course Bucky was in a lot of pain, of course he was probably scared. But knowing that, and seeing it... Bucky was wrecked. Over the last two months or so, while Steve would never, ever in a million years take Bucky's presence and his sanity for granted, he had sort of gotten used to it. It was familiar. The way Bucky's wide grin illuminated the room; his quick, sharp sass; even the stupidly-sappy way he looked at Tony was familiar and right.

This... this was not right and Steve's fist itched for a problem he could punch. Maybe it was a small taste of what Bruce lived with, all the time.

He didn't bother to smile for Bucky; it would have looked horrible and fake and felt like a lie on his lips.

Nastasha was a step behind him, and she did smile. Even knowing what he knew about her, it looked real, looked... beautiful, and the pained agony in Bucky's eyes leached out a little. He blinked a few times.

"Tony's all right," she whispered to him. "Mild concussion. A few scrapes. Nothing major. You--"

"Good God, Buck, what did you do to yourself?" Steve blurted when he drew close enough to see over the surgical drapes. Everywhere there was skin showing, it was blacked, bruised, cracked, or bleeding.

"Finished the mission," Bucky whispered. Almost smug. Satisfied. "Thank you for telling me."

"All right, Mr. Barnes," Dr. Cho said, impersonal and anonymous behind her surgical scrubs. "I need you to control your breathing, as much as you can. Try not to move. No, Ms. Romanov, you cannot hold his hand right now, he will break your fingers. Put your hand here, on his arm. Let him see you. Captain Rogers, hold his shoulders down."

Trapped, trapped, trapped. Bucky's eyes darted around the room, so wide the whites could be seen all the way around. For all that his best friend was as tall and as muscled as Steve himself, Bucky exuded an air of something small and vulnerable; something lost and caged. Something hurt that couldn't heal.

"It'll be all right, Buck," Steve swore, tasting the lie. "I'm here for you."

"Are you certain, Mr. Barnes," Dr. Cho said, hesitating, "that you don't want. That it wouldn't be easier for you to have Mr. Stark give the order for you to sleep?"

Bucky took a deep breath, held it, let it go, and quite obviously willed himself to relax. His muscles rippled and loosened, and by the time he was done, he appeared almost sleepy. "No. Anthony Stark will be harmed by seeing the soldier's pain."

Steve nodded at Dr. Cho's signal, leaned his forearms across the upper part of Bucky's chest and pushed down. Hard. Bucky's stertorous breathing puffed against his cheek, hot and moist. Natasha brushed Bucky's hair out of his face and said something to him in liquid Russian.

"Nyet."

Even Steve knew enough Russian for that one.

"What did you ask him?" He said, bracing his legs, finding the grips in the floor with his feet.

"If he wanted to bite down on something. Watch your arms, Cap," she said.

The stinging scent of antiseptic washed over him; pointless, he thought. Bucky couldn't get an infection.

"I'm opening now," Dr. Cho said, calm, her voice low.

Bucky's breathing sped, his jaw clenched up and Steve was rocked by the initial surge that came as Bucky strained upward. No sound issued from between his lips, and Steve pushed back, exerting harder, hating every second of it, and only knowing that it was necessary. What sort of damage could occur if Dr. Cho's scalpel was inside Bucky when he struggled?

Natasha kept up a string of encouragements, her voice soothing in that choppy, yet weirdly sweet cadences of Russian which Steve was starting to feel he ought to learn, just out of self-preservation.

"Let me get some suction here," Dr. Cho addressed her team. "There's a lot of blood. Carsen, see if you can find out where it's coming from and tie it off."

"You're kidding, right," the man answered, Carsen, obviously. "Looks like potluck spaghetti dinner in here."

And Steve marked that man. Anonymous surgical scrubs or not, the absolute full weight of Captain America Does Not Approve was going to come down like a mountain on top of that man.

"Less talk, more action, people," said a woman wearing pink scrubs and a mask with a kitten-face on it -- Dr. Cho had introduced her earlier as the surgical coordinator. "We're on a mission here, let's get it done."

Pained, breathy sounds issued from Bucky's lungs.

"Come on, Buck," Steve said, encouragingly. "Hard part's over."

"...fucking liar..."

"Please try not to talk, Mr. Barnes," Dr. Cho said, hands wrist deep inside Bucky's stomach. "I'm under your rib cage now. Take a deep breath and hold it for me, if you can."

Bucky inhaled and then... went away. His eyes slipped closed and he stopped breathing. It would have been terrifying, was terrifying, except Steve knew that he could hold his breath a long damn time. He'd never timed it, never seemed particularly relevant, but...

"Here we go," Dr. Cho muttered. And there was a sound, a squelching, wet, sticky sound that Steve would have given anything to never hear again. "Got it."

And Bucky screamed, painfully loud against Steve's ear, painfully agonized against his heart. He surged up again, fighting against Steve's grasp, eyes wild, the cords in his neck straining. Realistically, Steve knew he could only possibly be screaming for a few seconds, but it went on and on and on and when he was finally done, fallen back and gasping, Dr. Cho still had to sew everything up.

Bucky bore those stitches with less stoicism than he had done for the original cutting, little whimpers issuing constantly from his throat. Despite Dr. Cho's warning, Natasha had her hand laced with his, her lips brushing against his knuckles.

Finally, Dr. Cho exhaled and stepped away. "We're done." She let her assistant strip off the bloody gloves, pat her forehead down with a blotting cloth. She walked away from the OR as the rest of her team cleaned up the area and stripped away the surgical tent. Steve's enhanced hearing caught just the tail end of her sobbing as Dr. Cho escaped the room.

"Well," Bucky coughed out, his voice rough, scratchy. "That wasn' so bad, eh, Stevie?"

Steve just looked at him.

"Oh, c'mon, Stevie," Bucky said, his Brooklyn accent thicker than Steve had heard it in a while, "don't gimme the face. I can't take the face right now, man."

"Love you, you jerk," Steve said, straightening up and letting his arms drop to his sides, all pins and needles. He kissed Bucky's forehead.

"We’ll take him to recovery," Natasha said as one of the assistants came round to the head of the mobile bed. Carsen. Yeah, Natasha had marked that guy, too. Steve decided to leave it in her hands; Natasha was infinitely more terrifying than he was.

"Love you, too, punk," Bucky said. "Thanks."

"I'd say anytime, but don't you fucking dare do this to me again. I mean it."

***

Tony

He couldn't remember a time he'd cried so hard. It had been devastating when Pepper left him, but he'd seen that coming, even if he hadn't wanted to admit it at the time. When his parents had died, he'd stifled most of his reaction, Obie whispering in his ear about being strong for the company's sake, and then buried his grief in alcohol and drugs. He'd wept for Yinsen, but the obsession that was Iron Man had blunted the force of that pain. Obie's betrayal had left him more shocked and furious than grieving.

But this.

Tony didn't often let people close. In the end, they betrayed him or left, and there were only so many disappointments that a man could bear. He wasn't sure how, exactly, he'd let Bucky worm in under his armor.

The amnesia, he thought. Months of meeting the man fresh every morning had primed him for a subconscious, visceral belief that Bucky would always be there, an impression that lingered even when his conscious memory refused to cooperate. An unshakeable sense that Bucky was one of the few that Tony could really trust.

And so naturally, Tony had fucked it up.

He'd cried for hours on Bruce, and then let Bruce put him to bed, where he cried for hours more, alone. Eventually, he'd run out of tears, even though the pain was still sharp and fresh. He'd given up on sleep, and come down to the workshop. If he couldn't work himself into an engineering fugue, then at least the bots would be company.

It was actually kind of great to be able to make sense of his projects again, and Tony threw himself into them with abandon. Of course, engineering on as little sleep as Tony'd had for the last few days, and a concussion on top of that, wasn't the best idea, as he discovered when he burned himself with the soldering iron.

"Fuck shit fuck." And naturally, naturally, the first aid kit was out of burn cream. Tony sighed and dragged himself to the elevator. "Medical," he grouched at JARVIS.

JARVIS obeyed, though apparently he was in a snit, because the elevator moved about as slow as it was possible to move and still qualify as functional.

Well, Tony had known that Bucky was befriending JARVIS and the bots; he could hardly blame them for coming down on Bucky's side. Finally, they reached the medical floor.

The instant the doors cracked, Tony heard someone screaming, distant and desperate and muffled. "What the hell--" And then he registered the voice: it was Bucky. He forgot about the burn, turning away from the dispensary and sprinting toward that sound.

It led him toward the surgery, and as Tony turned the last corner that led to the operating room, he saw Clint in the middle of the hallway, feet planted. Obviously waiting. He caught Tony by the shoulders when Tony tried to pass him.

"Tony, stop," he said. "You can't."

"The hell I can't. Let go of me, birdbrain."

"No can do, man. Promised Nat."

That awful scream went on and on, and Jesus, didn't he have to breathe? "Fuck that," Tony snarled. "You can't expect me to stay here when he's--"

"Dammit, I told Steve he had the easy job." Clint sighed. "You can not go in there. He's in surgery. If you go in there now--"

"Steve's in on this, too? What the actual fuck is going on?"

Clint punched himself in the forehead, once, hard. "He's immune to anesthetics. Won't go under, positively refuses. So. He's awake. Steve's holding him down. Should be over soon. I hope." He rubbed at his temples. "Ow."

Tony stared at the surgery door, but a curtain had been drawn across the window. There was nothing to see. Tony stared anyway, memorizing every line and dent of the door. He concentrated on it as hard as he could, because otherwise he had to acknowledge the hazy memory-replay of that first heart-surgery in Afghanistan. He'd woken at least twice under Yinsen's knife, and there were fourteen bolts holding the porthole-style window in place.

"He's holding himself down, as well as he can, but if you went in, he might try to get up, to... comply. We were hoping to be done with it before you found out. He's got some sort of obsession going on that it hurts you to see him being hurt."

Tony flinched at that. "And this doesn't hurt?" he demanded.

"Hey, you're both emotionally compromised idiots, don't blame me for that."

The screams had faded down to pained whimpers, soft but agonized. That wasn't much better than the screaming. Tony clenched his hands into fists. The burn on his hand flared into agony as the skin stretched, and he was grateful for it, for giving him his own pain to focus on. "He specifically said he didn't want me there, didn't he?"

Clint nodded, reluctantly. "He did. It went something like this: 'The soldier will not allow harm to come to Anthony Stark by bearing witness to the soldier's pain.' Honestly, Tony, that stuff is creepy as shit. Watched him walk into medical with busted ribs and a broken back. Even I'm not that badass and you know how I am about medical."

Tony hadn't realized Bucky's injuries were that severe, shit, shit. Had he hidden them from Tony for Tony's sake, or his own? Tony should have asked. Should have noticed. Should have known.

"Yeah," Tony said, not really listening, not thinking about anything but how much it felt like failing. "Yeah. Right. He'll probably be happier if I'm not around when they take him to recovery, too. I'll just..." He looked up, straight into Clint's unnaturally serious eyes. "You'll tell me, if anything... goes wrong."

Clint nodded. "Yeah, I will, bro. Thanks for not making me shoot you, because I totally would have. And I'd have felt fuckin' lousy about it, too."

"Yeah," Tony said, turning away. "It really sucks to hurt someone you care about."

Right. Good to have it confirmed that things could always get worse. Back to the workshop.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Tony’s music cut off mid-drum solo. “Sir,” JARVIS said through the ringing of the silence in Tony’s ears, “Agent Romanov would like a word.” JARVIS didn’t really make it sound optional.

Well. He'd known she would come, sooner or later, to read him the riot act. He tossed the wrench into the open tool box. "Sure, great, why not. No better time."

The glass door slid away and Natasha walked into his workshop, her step tentative rather than firm, and her eyes large, revealing concern, trepidation, and all those other facial cues that made Tony want to do something for her.

“Hey, Tony,” she said, making herself at home on one of his benches. “Clint asked me to be the one to come down and give you the report. He figured you’d prefer tact and comfort to poorly-timed jokes and a complete lack of filter.”

Tony sniffed. "It's not like I have a filter, myself. But sure, go ahead. If you think he'd want me to know." He leaned against the toolchest and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Frankly, this feedback loop you two have going is really not helping,” she sighed, with a little bit more heaving bosom than Tony was actually comfortable with, except now he had to look at it, since she’d gone to such trouble to show it off. “He wanted someone to come talk to you. So that you would know he finished the mission. That he’s going to be fine. He’s still in recovery, of course, and Steve is with him, so he’s not alone.”

The fucking mission. Jesus. He'd nearly killed himself to defend Tony, and all he wanted was to report on his god. Damned. Mission. Tony pinched at the bridge of his nose, suddenly feeling the exhaustion of the past days.

“He’s going to be fine, Tony. Dr. Cho tried to put some fluids into him, but that didn’t work out so well. His healing factor is incredible. There just wasn’t anything we could do about the ruptured spleen aside from take it out.”

"Yeah, okay." She'd delivered the damn report; the least he could do was acknowledge it. "Healing. Suffered horrific damage and then open-cavity surgery without so much as a local anaesthetic, but it's good to know the mission is done." He couldn't have kept the bitterness from his voice if he’d tried.

Natasha took a deep breath and blew it out so hard Tony swore he could feel his hair ruffle from halfway across the room. “Look, it was an accident. If it wouldn’t make me sound like a three-year-old, I’d point out that she started it. The problem isn’t the physical pain; that’s bad, but it’s temporary. The problem is with his mission protocols. Are you okay to listen, or do you need some time?”

Tony reminded himself that he probably shouldn't alienate Natasha any more than he could help; she was his only real link back to Bucky. "If you think there's a way to fix this mess, I'm all ears."

“I do, actually.” She smiled tightly at him, the pain under it too flat and too strained to be anything but real, and that in and of itself was terrifying. “Okay… what happens when you tell a computer to add 2 + 3? You get 5, right? So, what if you tell the same computer that, in no circumstances, is 2 + 3 = 5, that it’s 7, or 70, or 81 to the 9th power?”

Tony shrugged. "Computers do what you tell them. Though if you're going to change the definition of 2+3, it’s going to cascade and a lot of other things are going to break. Are you saying--"

“She opened him up, a full open. There are key events and reminders that are built into each word that you use to unlock me. Us. Him. Traumatic events, one on top of another, and it leaves the mind vulnerable. Once he was all the way open, she installed a major protocol, Obey Madame Hydra. Which had conflicts with his other major protocol, Protect Anthony Stark, because it didn’t occur to her that he’d have any remaining active protocols.

“So within the limitations of opposing commands, he did what he could do. Answered your questions, tried to preserve you. And then you opened him again, same traumatic reliving of events, a full open. And the first thing that happened after that, no removal of either of those old protocols, he was forced to kill the woman he was supposed to obey.”

Shit. No wonder Bucky had been so distraught. He was only lucky that Bucky’s protocol had been to obey her, and not to protect her. No wonder Bucky didn’t want anything to do with Tony now.

Natasha leaned forward, dragging Tony’s attention back to her. “Tony, listen to me. No matter what he said, what he feels right now isn’t hatred for you. It’s hatred for himself. As far as he’s concerned, he failed a mission. He’s expecting punishment for that -- no matter that he knows better; it’s too deeply ingrained. He’s getting as far away from you as he can because the larger part of him is so desperate not to lose you that he can’t bear it, and he already knows the punishment for failure is losing you. Is losing all the memories of you. He’s preparing himself for the wipe.”

Tony was glad he was already leaning against the toolchest, the impact of that made him dizzy. "Okay, leaving aside that obviously he's not going to be wiped, because I get that's... that's not a logical thing. But even leaving that aside, he didn't fail, Natasha. I didn't-- I couldn't have retracted his order to obey her, even if I'd known it was necessary, because she was choking the life out of me."

“For what it’s worth, he wanted to obey you. If he’d been truly conflicted, he’d have just stood there. Or let her take him back. He gave you those codes for a reason, Tony, and that reason was that he trusted you to do better by him than Hydra did. Better than anyone else could. Hell, he could have given them to me, I’m better trained for it. But he didn’t. He never even once suggested that I should have them, even when he knew you’d lost your memory, even when he knew that you couldn’t help him. He wanted you to do it, if someone had to.”

Tony wanted to argue -- he'd more than proven that he wasn't worthy of that trust -- but that wasn't going to fix the problem. He half-shrugged, acknowledging her words without fully accepting them.

“In further fact, Tony, when he was babbling in recovery, because he really was -- and I almost wish you could have seen it, it was kinda weirdly cute -- he said that Madame Hydra was a weak master, that she was unworthy of having him as her soldier. That she had no sense of what he required of her. A complaint, I might add, he vehemently denied applied to you.”

Tony snorted. "Well, I won't argue about her worthiness, or lack thereof. I’m all in favor of the bad guys not being in control of pretty much anyone."

“So, if you’re up to it,” she said, “he needs you in recovery, so you can wipe out those primary protocols, let him know the mission succeeded, and then set up new protocols, so that you two can stop looking like someone tore the world apart.”

Tony rolled his eyes at her. "That's it? I just say 'good job, mission done' and it's over? And what new protocols? Giving him protocols is what got us into this mess in the first place, isn’t it?"

“We’re toys, Tony, don’t you get it? The unlock sequence is hard because they don’t like to share their toys, but once you’ve got it? We’re dolls. Any idiot can point us in the right direction when we’re open.“

Tony mostly tried to avoid thinking about Natasha's past, because-- well, for lots of reasons, but the idea that someone had done this to her filled him with an ache he couldn't articulate. He studied her, the alien lack of poise that meant she was truly shaken. "It's still in your head, too, isn't it?"

Natasha shook her head. “Not quite the same way. I… I’m not a soldier, I’m an operative, although a lot of the training is similar. My ability to reason, to think on my feet, to change the plan, to manipulate and destroy, that… I can’t get orders enough in the field to take on that sort of operation. I’ve always had discretion. Yasha generally doesn’t. I broke my own conditioning, managed to get inside it, turn it on its head. I’m protected from the inside by a secret. And by a great truth. Other methods of mind-control would work -- that stick Loki had would probably work on me, and I’ve heard of some metahumans with control powers. But no one else, no human will ever trigger me again.”

Tony turned that over, feeling around the edges. "It's not an idle question. I'm trying to... if I have to go up there and give him another protocol, another mission, I need to make it the right one. So you tell me -- as someone who's been in a similar place -- what's the protocol that you should have had, when Clint first brought you in? What would have made it easiest to break the conditioning?"

“Autonomy,” she answered without hesitation. “Sure, there were consequences when I pissed S.H.I.E.L.D. off, but I chose to do so. That’s power. There’s strength in making your own choices. To choose to love, choose to kill, choose to take happiness offered to us. To deny or refuse orders. I’ve done it all. I chose to live. To really, really live. To use my skills, the things they taught me, but to give back, to help, to wipe out the red in my ledger. He may make different choices. I don’t know. But having the ability to do so? That’s the key.”

That made sense, yes. Tony nodded. "Okay. Okay, I can do that." He took a breath. "When? Is he strong enough?" He wanted to see Bucky so badly it hurt, physically, a pulling sensation in his chest. He needed to undo the tangle he'd inadvertently created, and the sooner, the better.

Funny how quickly tangles became knots... And, like the Gordian knot, how simple and brutal their solution could be.

“Strong enough? Ah, Antonishka, you would not believe how strong he is. There’s never been anything like him before in the world.”

"That, I believe." He straightened, shoved a hand through his hair, probably smearing oil into it. Fuck it. "Fine, let's go do this."

***

Bucky

The soldier lay back against the pillows; they’d even found a hospital bed that accommodated the length of his legs. After Cho gave up trying to shove an IV in his arm, she’d admonished Steve to make certain he rehydrated with some foul-tasting concoction and Steve was alternatively pushing a straw into his mouth and reading aloud to him from a truly horrible romance book that had him laughing when he wasn’t trying not to cry. Both options were extraordinarily painful, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to ask Steve to stop. Listening to Steve stutter over the author’s word choices (cock, turgid, heaving and bosom) was worth every erg of pain.

The door to the recovery room swung open, and the air shifted. Like a riptide under the smooth surface, the soldier knew the instant that his master was nearby. He could smell it like blood, feel it like the tingle of lightening in the air before a storm.

He pushed himself up, straightening up as much as he could. It wasn’t very much, but there was no shame in being seen after the battle was over, he reminded himself.

“Wha-?” Steve glanced up, putting his finger in the book to mark his place.

“Anthony Stark,” the soldier whispered, turning like a magnet toward metal, a sailor toward the North Star.

Anthony came around the privacy curtain and stopped at the foot of the bed, his expression guarded. If the soldier were to be permitted to speculate, he would guess that Anthony was deeply unhappy. The thought grated in the soldier’s gut, Anthony’s displeasure stirring shame and concern and stark terror.

“Sir.” The soldier dropped his eyes. It wouldn’t do to stare, even if all he wanted to do was drink in the sight, try to hold it for as long as he was allowed... He wasn’t worthy. He controlled his breathing, and tried much less successfully to control his distress.

"Soldier," Anthony said. "The mission is successfully completed. Thank you." His voice was flat, almost emotionless, but nevertheless resonated in the soldier’s chest.

The soldier checked Anthony’s face, a quick flicker of his lids. Relief and pride trickled down his spine, easing the pain there. He suppressed a flinch as the TH5 vertebra snapped into place, his accelerated healing still at work deep inside him. Now was not the time to show weakness.

Tash came into the room, sliding gracefully into the space beside Anthony. Her hand curled gently around Anthony's upper arm. When the soldier's gaze drifted to her face, she nodded at him, very slightly. The soldier wasn't sure what that nod meant, but it was reassuring, nonetheless.

"It's been brought to my attention," Anthony continued, "that I have been remiss in upkeep of your protocols." His voice trembled, a little.

The soldier nodded. “Ready to comply.”

Steve shifted in his chair. "Buck, you don't--"

"Steve." Tash stopped him, her voice quiet but firm. "Trust me."

The soldier pushed them from his thoughts. It wasn’t important. Only the mission… only Anthony Stark mattered.

Anthony rested one hand on the rail at the foot of the bed, his fingers tightening as if he needed the support. "All current protocols are..." He looked at Tash with a soft huff, and then at the soldier. "Null and void. Done. Released."

The soldier shuddered all over, his back arching up as if pulled through the navel by invisible thread. When it was over, he collapsed against the pillows, panting. The wipe, god, the wipe was coming. Please, no... He made himself speak, clearly if huskily: “Ready to comply.”

"New primary protocol: The soldier has discretion and autonomy. Protocol may override any and all mission orders." Anthony swallowed audibly, and fell silent.

The soldier ducked his chin down to his chest, considering this new information. This new, entirely irregular protocol. No mission? Discretion as primary protocol. His eyes jittered back and forth, taking in all the objects in the room, all the people. His…

Was Anthony Stark still his master? If he had discretion? Could he… Could the soldier truly decide for himself which orders he wanted to obey?

He reviewed recent events, summoned the memory of his misbegotten creator and considered it. Of those in Hydra who had owned him and held him and bound him, she was the closest thing he’d ever had to a permanent guide. But she had not deserved him. She was unworthy. He set the memory aside, noting that it no longer pained him. He didn’t mourn her, nor did he regret her death. He didn’t feel glad or relieved for her death, either. It was simply... no longer relevant.

He wet his lips. “Protocols… accepted. Locked.” Slow. He flicked his gaze around again, touching each of his… friends. Steve, so worried, slowly turning the book to pulp in his hands. Tash, beautiful and devious and smiling gently in that way of hers that always warmed him. And…

Protecting Anthony Stark was no longer his protocol, his mission. But, looking at the grief-ravaged face of the man he loved, it became his purpose.

“Tony?”

Tony's eyes were still on him, had never left his face. Now he tensed, bracing. "So that worked, I guess," he said, straining hard to be casual and failing entirely. "Feeling a little more yourself, I hope."

Making decisions was a strange, awful, joyful burden. He’d spent so long letting the Winter Soldier protocols guide him, had tried so desperately to be the man Anthony Stark wanted him to be -- which he was relieved to discover seemed to match with the man he actually was -- that he wasn’t entirely sure how to begin to be a person again.

Tony was standing near the foot of the bed, shuffling just a little as if he were reluctantly planning to leave. That couldn’t be right, could it?

Bucky reviewed his memory again, searching for the reason. Why would Tony leave-- oh, Christ, he was an idiot, and he needed to fix it, right now, before Tony slunk out the door and went into hiding again.

“Seems I might be missin’ something,” he said, tilting his head to one side.

"Did I do it wrong? What do you need?"

Bucky tried on a smile and found that it fit easily enough. “Seems like someone I know was a big damn hero and might deserve a kiss, don’t you think, Tony?”

Tony blinked several times, as if that were so far from what he'd expected that he was having to reboot his brain in order to properly process it. He looked at Tash. Tash's mouth was curved, just the suggestion of an impish smirk. "Told you," she said cheerfully.

Steve opened his mouth a few times and snapped it shut again. Finally, he managed, “Well, that’s my exit cue,” and disappeared behind the curtains. Tash, on the other hand, made no move whatsoever to depart. She looked from Bucky to Tony and back with bright expectation, the brat.

Tony walked around the end of the bed, moving mechanically, as if on autopilot. He stopped at Bucky's elbow, looking down at him. Slowly, the pain and loss eased from his face. "Big damn hero, huh?"

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “I’m lookin’ at him.”

Tony's eyebrows lifted. "I know my memories have been suspect lately, but I'm at least 98% certain that all I did was get captured and strapped to a really uncomfortable chair."

Bucky scoffed. “I wouldn’t have done it. If I had to choose between you and the rest of the world, Tony, I’m looking at what I’d pick. Now, do you want this kiss, or not? It’s a limited time offer, you know.”

"I hear limited-time offers are really just a marketing trick to drive up demand," Tony said, but he leaned in, putting his hands on either side of Bucky's head.

Bucky let Tony draw him up, licked his lower lip without closing his eyes, not wanting to miss a second of it. Tony’s eyes were so warm and still wary, like Bucky was a dream and the smallest wrong move would tip them into waking. Bucky pressed his mouth to Tony’s, soft, soft, gentle, trying to say all the things with his touch that he didn’t know how to put into words.

Tony's breath stuttered out of his lungs and he drew back just far enough to look at Bucky wonderingly. "I'm so sorry," he said, nearly a whisper.

“I know,” Bucky said. “I… Tony, I’m sorry, too. I was scared. I knew I was going to lose you. I failed the mission, Tony. I ain’t never been forgiven for that. I wanted to go out on my own feet. And if I meant to hurt you, it’s because you were being taken away.”

"You only failed the mission because I was an idiot. No, I was. If I'd thought to give you back to yourself that first night, none of this would have happened." He paused and considered. "Well. Most of it, anyway." He shrugged. "That's-- that's what I'm the most sorry for."

Bucky met Tash’s gaze over Tony’s shoulder. She was clapping softly, her eyes shining like stars. Bucky’s heart squeezed in his chest. “Go away, Tash,” he mouthed at her.

“It’s not what I’m most sorry for.” Bucky turned back to Tony, not really caring if Tash went or not. “Classic case of my bad fuckin’ timing, Tony, but I need to tell you, before… Before this thing between us gets any more serious.”

"If it's about your terrible taste in breakfast cereal, I already knew," Tony said, but then he saw the edge of nervousness in Bucky's eyes and sobered. "Okay, sorry, I'll-- Yeah, go ahead."

“One... One last mission report,” Bucky said. “My choice, Tony, although it wasn’t at the time. Howard Stark recreated the super soldier formula, at last. 1991, December. He… Karpov found out. I--”

The blood drained from Tony's face as soon as Bucky said the date. "No."

“The Winter Soldier was dispatched to recover the serum,” Bucky said, toneless, because if he allowed himself emotion now, he would scream in anguish. “And to eliminate Howard Stark.”

"No, I-- There was an investigation, it was an accident, it can't... It wasn't, I can’t... Oh, god." Tony put a shaking hand over his mouth.

“It was before, Tony,” Bucky said, words spilling out. “Before I’d started fighting my conditioning. Before Tash, before Steve, before you. I… God, Tony, he knew me and I didn’t even know who he meant when he said my name. I didn’t even know myself.” Bucky curled in on himself and wept. He had killed, so many, so very many. His hands weren’t merely covered in blood, he was drowning in it.

"Oh, god," Tony repeated, faint. "I-- I have to--" He was up, then, lurching for the door to the small, utilitarian bathroom. A second later, the sound of retching echoed out.

Tash hadn’t budged. Her face wasn’t showing even the slightest bit of shock. Bucky wondered if she’d known, all along. “I had to tell him,” he whispered. “I couldn’t have it between us, this dirty, horrible secret. I couldn’t.”

"No, you couldn't," she agreed. "That would've eaten you from the inside out, the longer it went unsaid."

“If… Tash, if he decides to kill me, you don’t let him, okay? I don’t want that on him. I’ll, I’ll go away, I’ll go as far as he needs me to--”

"No one's killing anyone," Tony said, voice raspy, from the bathroom door. "There's been..." He swayed and caught himself, eyes fixed firmly on the floor. "There's been enough killing."

Bucky looked down at his hands, glittery with tears, the mechanical fingers still stuck, curled, from the damage he’d taken. “More than enough,” he said.

"Tony?" Tash said. She took a step toward him, one hand extended, an offer of support and comfort.

Tony drew away from her touch. "I need... I need to think." He hesitated, on the brink of saying something more, but then he was gone.

Bucky sighed, watching the space where he’d been. “I had to do it,” he said, and wasn’t sure if he meant the murders, the obedience, or the telling.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

The workshop was dim and quiet; Tony felt too raw to endure light and sound, as if every single bit of input scraped along his nerves. He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there when a sturdy housekeeping bot trundled up and settled beside him with a low mechanical whir. Tony looked down, too emotionally drained for surprise, but vaguely aware that the housekeeping bots rarely let others see them -- even Tony himself, unless they required maintenance.

There was a book tucked in its carrying bin, a thick leather cover embossed with gold. He picked it up, and it resolved into an old photo album. The dusty smell of the paper made Tony's eyes water. "Did I... ask for this?" he asked. He might have; the time since he'd left medical was a bit blurry.

"Not specifically, sir," JARVIS said, subdued. "You did say you wished you could see them again. Apparently, this unit took it upon itself to... interpret."

Tony blinked down at the little bot. "That's a pretty sweeping interpretation for a cleaning bot," he observed.

"Yes, sir," JARVIS agreed. The bot rocked back and forth on its wheels, and a quick high-pitched whine emerged. "I've found that the units befriended by Mr. Barnes have a tendency toward unusual self-expression."

Bucky again. Tony closed his eyes, let his fingers slide over the cover of the album. If he opened it, they would be there: Howard, looking impatient with the photographer for wasting his time, or perhaps a candid shot of him working. Maria, serenely smiling in formal portraits, laughing with girlish delight or beaming proudly at her son in the others.

There was a collection of pages toward the middle, Tony recalled, that was filled with photos of robots and circuit boards, terribly out of focus and half out of the frame -- souvenirs of Tony's first efforts with a camera. He'd been perhaps three. Tony couldn't remember taking the pictures or his parents' reactions to them, but he could imagine well enough Howard rolling his eyes and telling Tony to throw them out as useless, and Maria catching them and saying she intended to keep them, even if they weren't art.

"Tone?"

Tony jerked his head up. The housekeeping bot was gone, and Rhodey was standing in front of him. "How'd you get here?"

"I was in DC; it's a quick ride up to New York in the suit."

"Colonel Rhodes, did you misappropriate the War Machine for personal use?" Tony teased out of habit, though the effect was spoiled by his flat delivery.

Rhodey shrugged, crouching to match Tony's level. "A little spider told me my friend needed some backup," he said. "I came as soon as I could."

Tony looked away. "She shouldn't have bothered. Nothing you can do," he said.

"Gonna tell me anyway?"

Tony traced a gold-leaf spiral on the album cover with his fingertip. "Bucky's the one who." His throat closed. He wasn't sure he could get the word out. "Mom and Dad," he said.

Rhodey got it, a sharp intake of breath. "Shit, Tony."

"Yeah."

"Do I need to put the suit back on and go kick his ass?" Rhodey sounded 100% serious.

"No," Tony said. "No. He's already hurt bad from the, the thing, and it's not... not his fault. It was Hydra's fault. You know that."

"Maybe," Rhodey allowed. "Do you?"

Tony shoved a hand through his hair again, and rubbed the back of his neck. "I... yeah. It took me a little bit to come around to it, but... I've seen him when he's been triggered. There's no-one home; he's basically an automaton. My fucking housebots have more free will. It's creepy as hell. No way did he have any choice at all."

Rhodey nodded slowly, his eyes on Tony. "Okay." He put a hand on Tony's knee, warm and comforting. "Tell me what's going on in your head, then, man."

Tony sighed. "I just... I've spent twenty years thinking it was an accident. And Dad... Dad worked for the government and S.H.I.E.L.D. and maybe some other places as well, and he was always shit at diplomacy, and hell, I knew when I was nineteen that he had enemies. That's why Obie ordered an investigation when it happened. It sucks, but -- I get why it happened.

"But Mom? She was... Harmless. She was a society matron who lived for the opera and the ballet, who did charity work in her spare time. There was no reason-- She died because she was there. She was a bystander. She didn't deserve that."

Rhodey slid onto the couch and pulled Tony into a half-embrace against his side. "She didn't," he agreed. "But I gotta say: who does? And you don't know it was strictly a bystander thing, Tone. I mean. Stane turned out to have his fingers in a lot of pies, and he pretty much had free rein with the company for years. Largely because you were so knocked back by the acci-- by losing them, that you didn't really want anything to do with the company. Hydra had to love that."

Tony looked at Rhodey in disbelief, and Rhodey hunched his shoulders defensively. "I'm not saying it was like that," he said. "I'm just saying, if you're looking for a reason, if it helps to think about it that way, it could have been. It's plausible."

Tony shuddered. "I don't want to think about it at all."

"Okay. So tell me why you're hiding down here alone."

"I'm not alone. I've got you."

"Tony. Have you told him you don't blame him?"

"I... I'm not sure. Probably not. The last little while has been kind of. Fuzzy."

"So, being relatively new to the Tony Show, he doesn't realize you're holing up to lick your wounds. He thinks you've run off because you hate him."

"No he doesn't," Tony said. “I mean, I was mad, but he knew I just needed a little time.”

"Man, I will bet you fifty bucks he thinks the only reason you haven't actually broken up with him yet is because you forgot to actually say the words."

"Rhodey, that is the dumbest--"

"Don't make me call Pepper," Rhodey threatened. "She will come over here and kick your ass, and her shoes are a lot pointier than mine."

Tony threw his hands up. "So what am I supposed to do? Go up there and say, 'hey, you know we're still dating, right?'"

"I guess, if you're going to insist on all the emotional maturity of a four-year-old," Rhodey said. "But yes, something like that. Go on, go do that. I'll wait. Wilson owes me dinner anyway from that last obstacle course, and I'm pretty sure I owe Barton a beer still from that one target practice. I'll round up the team, we'll get out of your hair."

Tony rubbed his thumb one last time over the cover of the album, then set it aside. "You're so pushy. You and Steve, like a pair of mother hens, it's ridiculous." He was still rocked and uncertain, but the banter came a little easier, his lungs struggled less with each breath, and when he stood up, he felt lighter. "Fine. Because you came all this way, I'll humor you. But don't let Natasha take you guys to that Indian place on 43rd. That one's mine."

"Go, Tony," Rhodey chided. "Go make up with your boy."

"Thanks for coming." Tony hugged Rhodey hard before he headed for the elevator. God, he missed Rhodey sometimes. It was good to have a reminder that Bucky wasn't the only person who'd never broken Tony's faith in them. "You heard the man, J," he said. "Take me to him."

***

Tony staggered out of the elevator into a darkened hallway. Where the hell… It wasn’t the penthouse, it wasn’t medical, and it certainly wasn’t the guest suites where Bucky would be living if he wasn’t still staying with Tony in the penthouse. “Where the hell am I, JARVIS?”

“Forty-second floor, sir,” JARVIS reported.

“That’s surprisingly uninformative,” Tony said. Stark Tower had eight-nine floors, at least in this wing. The other two in the triad were somewhat shorter, but he almost never went to those except on business. The top ten floors belonged to the Avengers exclusively; the ten floors below that were the domain of SI’s best and brightest research teams. The bottom twenty floors of the Tower were public-access -- retail shops and rented offices. But this was somewhere in the middle, and Tony wasn’t sure exactly what he could expect to find.

“Floors forty through forty-six were initially set aside for research stations not requiring special reinforcing, as well as a few intern and scholarship programs, including two residence halls for promising young persons. The research labs are all in use, but the residential program didn’t work out after the Chitauri invasion, sir. There were safety and liability concerns that have been occupying legal for some months now.”

“Okay, that’s very interesting, I’m sure,” Tony said. “Which doesn’t explain why I am here now.”

“You wished to see Mr. Barnes, sir. In the early days of his arrival, when he required a secondary residence, for the purposes of ‘bolting’ as he called it, I allowed him access to this floor. You did say to do everything in my power to make him comfortable. Having a place to which he could retreat was critical in achieving that goal.”

“Hinky voodoo electronics wizard,” Tony muttered, staring up at the ceiling as if JARVIS had somehow grown a head, or a body. "Is this where he goes to subvert my housebots, too?"

“They have been known to congregate here, when not otherwise occupied. He does not mind their presence, and I believe him to be quite fond of organizing certain activities for them. Hide and seek, races, games. Before he joined us, sir, I believe the housebots were, for lack of a better term, bored.”

"Bored. Only I could create bored bots who are too lazy to do their damn work," he muttered, raising his voice a bit as he spotted a bot scurrying past. He took a few steps down the hall, following the signs (good job, whoever put up signs; that was smart thinking; it seemed like the sort of detail Pepper would have checked) to the residential side.

Bucky was in one of the tiny little rooms that had been intended for a pair of college students to share, curled up on the floor and wrapped in a blanket. The television was on, volume turned most of the way down, and apparently Bucky was watching... old videos of Tony? As Tony watched, he caught a montage of middle school science fairs (filmed by Jarvis), his high school commencement (Jarvis again -- he’d been fourteen), and a few shaky home videos that Tony had made himself of spectacular college experimental failures.

The room itself was eclectically decorated, with mismatched furniture chosen more for comfort than appearance. The walls were covered with large sheets of paper that had been painted with childlike drawings. Based on their perspective and subject matter, Tony would think they had been made by the bots, if he didn’t know better -- and right now, he wasn’t sure about that.

The door had been left open, so Tony didn't bother knocking. He leaned in the doorway, mildly surprised that Bucky hadn't seemed to notice him yet. "Cozy," he said. "But what's with the floor? There are chairs, I can see them."

Bucky turned around slowly, revealing one of the bots tucked under the blanket with him, its appendages wrapped around Bucky’s mechanical arm. “DOB-E doesn’t like being on the sofa. He falls down a lot.”

Tony squinted at the bot. "That's the one from earlier, isn't it, J? The one with initiative."

"Yes, sir."

"Hm." He looked from the bot back to Bucky. "So this is how you're winning them over -- you coddle them. And cuddle them, too."

Bucky shrugged, that oddly endearing one-armed gesture. “They… they’re part of you, Tony.”

***

Bucky

It was dark and his eyes weren’t adjusting. The serum was working overtime just keeping him in one piece, so it wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that his other enhancements weren’t working quite right. Tony had stepped into the room and spoken before Bucky actually realized he was there and that hadn’t happened since just after Bucky joined the Army.

Tash had tried to get him to stay in medical to recover, but he couldn’t take the smell on top of all the other pain and heartache. He’d come upstairs to look through Tony’s file one last time, and to say goodbye to JARVIS and the bots.

Bucky twisted the ring on his hand and the television went dead. “Here, this is yours. I didn’t have any right to it.” The ring was black, studded with red gems all the way around; from a distance, it could be mistaken for a modern wedding band. From up close, the gems glittered with their own internal light and the entire device was deceptively heavy.

Tony took it when Bucky held it out, examining it curiously. "Wow. Datacrystals, really? Very Star Trek. I thought this tech was still theoretical. What's on it?"

“Your file. Couple other things. It’s not nearly full. Each crystal holds some five or so exabytes of data, and there are twenty crystals, total. So, yeah, lots of room. And the displayer. JARVIS and I rigged up an interface for it, so I could send the signal to the television, back a few weeks after I got here.”

"This is fantastic."

“Stole it from Hydra. I had a few lucid weeks after I dragged Steve out of the Potomac. Went looking for my file, found this and a few other things. Didn’t really know what to do with them. ‘Course now I have that damn graviton persuader as well. You can have that, too, if you want it.”

"Much as I'd like to just chuck that in the incinerator, I should probably put it in the vault for study." Tony made a face, then looked at the ring again. "You sure you don't want to keep this? I mean, I definitely want to have a look at the tech, but you can hold on to it."

“It’s your file, Tony. Your life. Your personal… I never had any right to it.”

"As it happens, buttercup, I already know about my life. But that's fine, if you don't want it, cool."

Bucky muttered under his breath. “<Passive-aggressive, reverse psychology bullshit.> Give it to me, then.”

Tony handed it back over with a small smile. "So if you're up here playing with the bots, I guess you didn't know Natasha sicced Rhodey on me. She could've just sent Bruce down, really, he's a lot closer."

Bucky shoved the ring back on his finger, rubbing the datacrystals with the side of his thumb, feeling them hum and purr underneath his fingertips like a very tiny kitten. He’d take it with him, then. JARVIS had loaded a few extra files on there, mentioning that sir had them saved for his own collection and that Mr. Barnes might enjoy them as well. He hadn’t gotten around to looking yet.

"He's gone to try to drag everyone off for dinner or something,” Tony was saying. “He thinks we need time and space to work out the whole ‘still dating’ thing, which is the dumbest thing he's said since '87. We can probably catch up with them if you want to go eat, but honestly, I wouldn't mind a little quiet time, either. It's been a crazy few days."

Bucky had been a city boy, then in the Army, and then on ice, so he’d never really gotten a look at a fish once it had been yanked out of its comfortable home in the stream, but he sure could relate. His mouth dropped open and there was air, but it was somehow very wrong air, not doing him any good whatsoever. “What?” he croaked.

Tony cocked his head. "Were you not exhausted by the whole..." He waved his hand vaguely, encompassing all recent events. "I mean, I know you've got the serum going for you and everything, but even you have to be a little tired."

“Of course I’m exhausted, Tony. I broke my back. That takes a bit of healing. But… no, forget that. Go back to the bit about dating. What… how… just explain it, okay? With little words?”

Tony squinted at him. "Son of a bitch, Rhodey was right again. You really thought I was going to-- what? Dump you? Kick you out?"

“I was… sort of expecting you to want to shoot me, actually.”

"We already went over that," Tony said, and he had the nerve to sound testy. "I know I was kind of puking my guts out right about then but I definitely remember saying there wasn't going to be any killing."

Bucky scrubbed at his face with one hand, hearing the rasp of stubble on his cheeks. “I… don’t always think that I count. I mean, can you kill me? I’m already officially dead. I… Tony, what you say and what you mean don’t always line up, and… I dunno. It’s one thing to let me walk away, or forgive me for it, but something else entirely to still want me in your life, or in your bed, after something like that.”

Tony dropped onto the squashy, overstuffed couch, fingers tapping restlessly at his chest. "I admit, I was... rocked. If I hadn't seen, first-hand, just how... how tight their grip on you was, then I might not have believed it. It took me a little while."

“I didn’t even want to tell you,” Bucky admitted, tucking his chin down and trying to avoid Tony’s eyes. “But… if you’d found out from someone else… some other way? I couldn’t… I couldn’t let that happen.”

Tony grunted, half ironic laugh, half imagined gut-punch. "Yeah, definitely best that you told me yourself. That would've pissed me off even worse, when I did find out. But I've been right here for the last six months, Bucky. And every god damn day you took care of me. Even when I shot at you. Multiple times. You put up with my shitty moods and you walked me through the fucking panic attacks and you even watched all those terrible romcoms with me."

Bucky blinked. Six… six months? Of course he’d been here six months, it was almost Christmas for crying out loud, but for Tony… “You… You got your memories back?”

Tony paused. "Yes? Did you not pick up on that? I thought I'd said-- well, you had a broken back and a ruptured spleen, so I guess you get a pass for not hanging on my every word. Oh, yeah, let's add that to the list: you fucking damn well nearly killed yourself to protect me." That came out as nearly a snarl. "So I've got plenty of evidence that you are a good man, who was forced to do terrible things. And if you think I'm just going to turn my back on that, after everything we just went through, just because another difficulty popped up, then I think you need another review of that damn file, because even when I was an irredeemable slice of nutloaf, I've always been a stubborn bastard."

Bucky tucked his chin down further, brushed his stinging eyes against the knees of his jeans. The urge was still there, a little, to kneel at Tony’s feet. He was already pretty close to doing that as it was, gazing up at him with adoration, but… Soldier has discretion. If he did it, it would be because he wanted to.

Right now, what he wanted was to feel Tony’s arms around him, to breathe in the scent of machine oil and cologne, to rest his head on Tony’s chest and listen to his heart beating. He patted DOB-E on the head and sent him off to go color and climbed onto the sofa with Tony, letting the blanket drape around his shoulders.

Tony frowned at his tee-shirt. “Where, exactly, did you get a tee that says ‘precious cinnamon roll’ on it?”

Bucky shrugged. “DOB-E brings them to me, once in a while. I dunno.” He cuddled up against Tony’s side, feeling the warm, living presence, soaking in every heartbeat and breath.

Tony's arms wrapped around him, almost automatically. "This is what we're doing now? Cuddling?" He paused. "Okay, sure. Cuddling. Maybe a little napping. This is a good couch. It's ugly as hell, but comfy."

“Scrounged. The SI employees on the 3rd floor got a new one for their break room. The bots and I bought it up.” Bucky absently twined his fingers around the locks of hair behind Tony’s ear, sifting the short strands across his knuckles. “I… thank you, Tony.”

Tony craned his neck to look at Bucky's face. "For what?"

“Everything. For giving me back my life. My humanity. For loving me well enough to forgive their loss.”

Tony hummed, and his fingers slipped into Bucky's hair, idly petting and scratching gently until Bucky nearly started purring. "I didn't give you anything," he said. "Maybe I helped you find what was already there. But loving you -- yes. That's. That's true."

Bucky’s breath caught in his chest, his heart thudded a little harder than normal. It had been implied, and he knew he’d said it to Tony, a few times, usually in Russian because he was a coward, or sometimes because it was just easier for him to be intimate in Russian… and he remembered one of the first things Tony had said to him, when he first started coming out from underneath his conditioning. It’s okay. Well, it’s not, but it’s going to be. And maybe everything was going to be all right. “Love you, too,” he managed. “<With all my soul.>”

Tony dropped a kiss on the top of his head, and muttered, "I can see I'm going to have to learn Russian."

“Ow.” Bucky looked down, one of DOB-E’s clamps was around his ankle, tugging. “Timing, little one, you need to work on your timing.” The bot held up a piece of paper with the other clamp and presented it. “Huh. This is… pretty good.” He handed over the sheet to Tony, a simple, charcoal sketch, with tracer lines still in place, of Tony and Bucky on the sofa, snuggled together.

"Not bad," Tony agreed sleepily. He pointed it at DOB-E. "Don't think this gets you out of cleaning under the beds."

Bucky snorted, snuggling closer. “He can take a day off once in a while. You could eat off the floor under those beds, Tony. I know this. I have done so.”

 

Chapter Text

Tony

Tony was working with JARVIS on a redesign of the suitcase armor's power supply system when a warm arm wrapped around his waist, pulling him back against a solid chest.

"How's it goin'?" Bucky rumbled in his ear, sending delightful little shivers down Tony's spine.

"About half-done," Tony said. He tipped his head to let Bucky nip at his neck even as he considered the wireframe floating in front of him. "I'm pretty sure I can eke out a 5% gain in power from the-- ohhh, that's nice, that. Right there, yeah."

"Mmhm." Bucky nuzzled behind Tony's ear. "You at a place you can stop for a while?"

"Uh." It was hard to think when Bucky was doing that. "Yeah. What time is it?"

"Time for me to have my wicked way with you," Bucky rumbled.

Which, yeah, Tony could definitely get on board with that, except. "Mm, glad you're feeling better, babe, but Helen threatened dire consequences if I let you engage in any 'rigorous physical activity' before you were 100% healed, and the woman has surgical access to parts of my body I'm still using, so--"

"Just came from medical," Bucky said. "All clear."

Tony twisted around to look at Bucky. "Already? Really? You're not cheating, are you? JARVIS, hack into Helen's records and check--"

"Or you could just call her and ask," Bucky said. "Let's start with that, huh, J?"

"Of course, Mr. Barnes," JARVIS said. He sounded relieved.

"Stop subverting my AI," Tony complained. "I am his creator, literally his god, he should not like you better."

"I begin to understand why so many religious figures turn to drink," JARVIS said dryly, and then continued before Tony could respond to his sass. "Dr. Cho is on line."

"Well, that didn't take long," Helen said. "I assume you're after reassurance on Mr. Barnes' all-clear."

"Yes, in that I regularly let you near me with sharp medical implements and I have no intention of giving you cause to use them."

"Unusually prudent for you; I approve. Yes, I just finished checking his injuries, and they are all healed. You are now free and clear for all physical activity. I don't want any details, thank you."

"Thanks!" Tony called before JARVIS disconnected, and before he could say anything else, Bucky spun his chair around and kissed him, hungry and urgent and teetering on the edge of violence, plundering tongue and scraping teeth. Tony surrendered unconditionally. The last week had included nothing more strenuous than cuddling and kissing, and while it had been beyond wonderful to wake up in the morning to Bucky's arms wrapped tight around him, it had also been an absolute misery of suppressed lust.

Bucky lifted him out of the chair, holding Tony up with the metal arm, which: yes. Tony wrapped his legs around Bucky's hips. "Yes, good, that's-- oh, Christ, come on, upstairs. Bed."

Bucky hummed thoughtfully against the kiss. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I remember promising once to give you somethin’ to get hard about in the ‘shop.”

"Oh, yeah. Yes, that's definitely a yes. Couch?" Tony pointed. "Unless you're planning to just fuck me against the wall, but I'd like to point out the walls down here are freezing, it's not as sexy as you'd think."

Bucky breathed into Tony’s hair, seeking out his ear and nipping at the shell. “I could just hold you up, but… no. I thought…" He tipped his head back a little to check Tony’s expression. “I thought maybe you could… do me for a change?”

Holy shit. Tony sucked in a breath and dropped his head to Bucky's shoulder. "Oh god, are you trying to make me shoot off in my pants like a teenager? God."

Bucky laughed. “Well, that might be fun to watch. Do you think I could? I wonder what that would involve.”

Tony echoed the laugh, weakly. "Apparently a week of abstinence and some surprise dirty talk gets me pretty damn close."

“Next time, then,” Bucky whispered like an oath.

Tony shivered. "I might hold you to that."

Bucky carried Tony across the workshop, dodging DUM-E, who was a little too interested in the proceedings. “Knock it off, bot-brain, I ain’t hurtin’ ‘im. Go charge.”

Usually Bucky was eager, fast, impatient to get his hands on as much of Tony’s skin as possible. Also, probably he still had problems with buttons, but this time he was slow, careful, peeling Tony’s shirt off an inch at a time and covering each revealed triangle of skin with soft kisses, licking and nuzzling.

Tony squirmed, arching against Bucky and slipping his hands under Bucky's shirt to work it off. "Come on, Bucky, why now with the teasing?"

That button snapped off and went bouncing across on the floor. “Shit.” He peeled back Tony’s shirt, exposing one pale nipple and drew a slow, teasing circle all the way around it. “Because I been thinkin’ about this every damn day an’ I aim to take my time.” He nipped Tony's skin, lightly. “Been rubbin’ it out in your shower most mornings. Pretty sure the shower thinks I’m cheating on it with you.”

Tony pulled back to stare at Bucky. "You've been cheating?"

Bucky crinkled his nose, eyes widening. “You haven’t been?”

"Of course not! I did, actually, have a concussion, and unlike the rest of you, I do not have super healing or, in Clint's case, an unshakeable hatred of medical orders that surpasses all common sense."

“Aw… babe, I’m sorry… I’ll make it better, yeah?”

Tony pouted at him, hamming it up a little. "Damn straight."

Bucky peeled the shirt down, halfway down Tony’s elbows, then twisted the fabric, trapping his arms behind him. “Bucky, yes? Hmmm?” He stared like Tony was something to eat.

A surge of heat shot down Tony's body and he groaned at its intensity. "Bucky, yes."

Bucky growled, a possessive, brutal noise, and bent Tony over his arm, kissing him like old-fashioned heroes used to kiss their leading ladies in black-and-white movies, although his metal hand did come up between Tony’s legs and that was nothing like those movies would ever have shown. Tony didn’t mind; the blood rushing to his head made each shiver and touch more potent, his toes barely brushing the floor as Bucky manhandled him.

"Bucky, oh shit, yes." He pulled at his arms a little, not trying to free himself but testing the way the shirt bound him, seeking a slightly more comfortable position for his wrists. "This is, tell me this is going to be a thing, because I am totally on board with this."

Bucky lay a row of kisses down the middle of Tony’s chest, nuzzling at the edge of his navel. “JARVIS, capture please.”

“Of course.”

Bucky chuckled, wickedly. “I was looking over the file, like you told me to do. Found some other files there. J said you were saving them for your personal collection.”

"My--" Tony's eyes widened. "JARVIS. You loaded up Bucky's files with the sextapes I culled from security? You sneaky bastard."

"Indeed, sir. I can't imagine from whom I might have learned it."

"Oh, shut up." He tipped his head back, a silent request for Bucky's mouth. "Any particular, mm, faves?"

“Remember that night, in your penthouse, on the sofa? Where I sorta broke the coffee table? That was good.” Bucky stuck his tongue into Tony’s navel, tasting, then further down, along the waistband of his slacks.

"Oh, yeah, that was. That was really excellent, good choice. I mean, they're all good, there's no wrong choices there, I'm just..." Tony shuddered and writhed, trying to coax Bucky's mouth further downward.

Bucky slowly pulled Tony back to an upright position, steadying him as the blood rushed out of his head and back where it belonged. “I’m talented,” he said, radiating smugness, “but I don’t think I c’n get your pants off while you’re bent in half like a hairpin.”

"Yeah, good call, I'm. I'm pretty flexible but there are definitely limits. And I am all in favor of a pantsless environment, here." Tony blinked off the brief dizziness from the rush of blood and lifted his head to watch Bucky.

Bucky dropped to his knees and -- holy shit -- used his teeth to open Tony’s belt.

"Holy shit," Tony said weakly. "So you've been watching ALL my videos, then."

Bucky just smirked, glancing up from under his messy haircut, perfectly disheveled. His eyes were wide and rapidly darkening as he used his tongue on the zipper pull tab. Tony’s zipper came down with a soft purr and then his slacks were around his ankles and Bucky was nudging him backward across the floor to the couch.

Tony scooted readily, even if it was a bit awkward with his hands trapped behind him. He left his pants behind without a second glance. "It's NoPantsTopia over here! Come and join me!"

Bucky got to his feet in one of those lightning-quick movements that looked like a special effect, hands working his own buckle and zipper, the predatory-gleam in his eyes. He peeled off his tee and the thermal underneath, discarding them behind him. “Ah, Tony… you…” He went into a quick babble of Russian, the words sliding free as he crawled over Tony, pressing him firmly into the sofa cushions, caressing and kissing every inch of skin he could reach. Shocking enough, he was using both hands to do so, the whine and shift of servos musical and soft. “Tony, Tony…”

Tony arched up into Bucky's hands - hands, plural, and god, that was so fucking hot, it felt so good, the smooth cool metal on one side a contrast to the heated flesh on the other. "Bucky, you-- oh, god." He panted for breath; forced himself to focus. He couldn't lose it this fast. That was just embarrassing. "If I find out you're whispering sweet nothings in Russian that turn out to be your pizza order, babe, I'm going to be very disappointed in you."

Bucky found the shell of Tony’s ear. “Nope. Coffee order. Only the best for my man.”

Tony burst into laughter. "You really do know the way to my heart."

Tracing the outline with his nose, Bucky kissed a quick circle around Tony’s scar. “It’s right about here,” he said. “I can hear it across the room, you know. I know every twitch and flutter and I could find you in a black room just by listening to it.”

“Heartbeats, huh.” Tony closed his eyes. "I don't have super hearing. But the other night I woke up and you'd pulled me right on top of you, and my head was on your chest. And I closed my eyes and listened to your heart and your breathing and I thought: so this is what home feels like."

“Tony…” Bucky stared at him, utterly wrecked. “God, you… are a sap.” He kissed the tip of Tony’s nose. “Never, ever change.”

"You knew what you were getting into. You watched all those damn movies with me. I can't even blame Pepper for them anymore."

Bucky drew back, twisting Tony a little until he was all the way on the sofa, legs sprawled and his bound arms visible. “There. Just like that,” Bucky said. “I want to… just look at you. The things you make me want to do with you. To you.”

"Yeah?" Tony grinned. "We'll have to talk about that sometime soon. There are a lot of things on my lists for you, too, you know."

Bucky slitted an evil, wicked look at him. “Give me your throat, Tony.” Almost, but not quite an order, Bucky bared his teeth, fierce and eager.

Tony stared, his mouth open in surprise, for a long second, then breathed, "Oh... Bucky yes," and tipped his head back as far as it would go.

Bucky’s mouth came down on him, nipping, his teeth sharp, tongue hot, wet against his skin, drawing the blood to the surface, leaving what was probably going to be a hell of a hickey, later. Bucky groaned against Tony’s skin, his weight bearing down, rubbing against him, hands in Tony’s hair, pulling his head back even further. “You… don’t know what that does to me,” he gasped. “Tony, Tony… yes.”

Tony hissed as Bucky's teeth worked his skin, arms pulling against the cloth around them, head tugging against Bucky's hand in his hair, not hard, not wanting to pull free, just... feeling it. "Think I'm getting an idea," he panted. "Gotta say it's a heck of a rush." Considering Bucky's strength and his obvious place in the order of the world as a predator, it should have been a thrill of fear, exciting for the danger of it. But Tony closed his eyes again to focus on the feel of Bucky's hands, Bucky's weight pressing him down, and felt... safe. Protected.

Bucky kissed every inch, bit, tasted. He licked the shell of Tony’s ear and deposited soft kisses against his eyelids, hovered a moment with a quick word in Russian -- moy -- before coming down on Tony’s mouth, kissing him as if his very life depended on doing it well.

Tony surged up into the kiss, surrendering his mouth to Bucky's desperation, moaning with pleasure. He wrapped one leg around Bucky's, hooking their ankles together and pressing. I've got you.

Bucky let Tony come up for air, panting and gasping a little himself. “Hey, you,” he said, leaning his forehead against Tony’s.

Tony felt a smile tugging at his lips. "Hey."

He pressed one finger to Tony’s lips. “C’n I do somethin’? And like, don’t freak out about it, okay? I want to.”

That sounded... possibly worrisome, if Bucky thought he might freak out, but, well. He was self-aware enough to know that there was very little he'd refuse Bucky at this point. "Okay."

Bucky slid off the sofa and Tony shivered, missing his weight, his warmth. Bucky helped Tony with the rest of his clothes, getting him untangled, pressed a kiss into the palm of each hand, and then… sat, cross-legged, on the floor at Tony’s feet, resting his head against Tony’s knee.

“I always… always wanted to be here. Because I chose to do it.”

The breath caught in Tony's throat, and he had to forcibly remember to breathe. Carefully, he slipped his fingers into Bucky's hair, lightly brushing through it. "Bucky, I..."

“I just wanted to do it, once, when I knew I could get up, whenever I wanted. That I’m here because you’re worthy of it.”

Tony shook his head, even though Bucky couldn't see it. "Because you choose, for yourself," he said. "I'm, I'm touched and honored that you chose me. Even if only this once."

“Yeah, I ain’t sittin’ on the floor for you all the time, Tony,” Bucky said, getting to his feet easily. “The view’s great. But my ass is getting cold.”

Tony laughed. "Okay," he said easily, still sitting, smiling up at Bucky. "Whatever you want."

“Yeah,” Bucky said huskily, his voice full of emotion. “Whatever I want.” And much to Tony’s surprise, he executed a triumphant victory whoop, punching the air. “God, that feels good!”

"Is this going to be a thing, now? Like a two-year-old who's just figured out that 'no' is a word they can say, so they say it all the fucking time?"

Bucky crossed his eyes at Tony, then threw himself down on the sofa. “Oh, like you didn’t cut loose the first time you put the Ironman suit on and went for your first flight. Don’t lie.”

"I'll have you know I was a model of professional restraint," Tony said loftily.

“Well, butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, you liar,” Bucky said, shaking his head and smiling broad and bold. “C’mere and see if you can’t melt me, hmmm?”

"I didn't say I was a good model," Tony muttered, but he straddled Bucky's thighs, pressing their bodies together and wrapping his arms around Bucky's neck. "But let's see what we can do to heat you up." He kissed Bucky, slow and deep, until they were both panting for breath, and followed it up with a line of light nipping kisses from the corner of Bucky's mouth down along that gorgeous square jaw.

Tony nuzzled at the soft spot under Bucky's ear. "Going to let me take care of you this time, gorgeous?"

“That’s the idea,” Bucky said, tipping Tony’s jaw up to catch him on the mouth, his metal hand coming up to slide along Tony’s jaw, the slick thumb brushing against Tony’s lower lip.

Tony sucked that thumb in, keeping his eyes on Bucky's as he traced the tiny joints and plates with his tongue.

***

Bucky

Bucky keened, his head rolling back against his shoulder, his hand held still, even though the servos in his arm were whining constantly as his bicep flexed minutely. “Tony….” Each tug and caress pulled through him, throbbed and shivered along his bones, answered by a quiver in his dick, which was no longer even vaguely taking orders, straining against the fabric of his shorts. He pressed up, rubbing against the hot vee of Tony’s legs. “Tony, Tony, wait… I…”

But Tony didn’t wait, he was apparently done with waiting. His tongue pressed against the pad of Bucky’s thumb and licked, obscene, dirty, filthy, and God…  His mouth slid free of Bucky’s thumb with a slick, wet sound. “Go ahead,” he whispered, eyes intense, laser focused. “I want to watch you fall apart.”

Bucky arched up, pushed two fingers into Tony’s mouth, finger fucking that glorious wet silk cavern, Tony’s tongue slick and wet and writhing between them, and he was gone, he was… thrusting up against Tony’s leg, his fingers matching his rhythm. He spilled over, soaking his shorts, leaking up his belly, and “Oh, god, Tony…”

Tony let Bucky’s fingers go with a soft sigh and slithered down the length of Bucky’s body, finding the spillage and licking him clean with obscene, filthy little licks. He peeled the soiled shorts off Bucky’s legs and tossed them aside, and when that sinful mouth came down on Bucky’s softening cock, Bucky almost went through the ceiling. “TONY!”

The look that Tony slanted up at him was pure want. "Tony, no?" he teased, breath hot on Bucky's skin, lips brushing Bucky's cock in an unbearable taunt.

“Evil,” Bucky muttered, scrambling around for his scattered thoughts. Tony licked him, just the softest flicker and everything vanished again into a haze of pleasure. “God, Tony, yes, whatever you want, just… nnnnnng… yes.”

"Atta boy," Tony said, and rewarded him with more of that mouth, that heat. Tony's hand pressed against his shoulder and Bucky let Tony lay him down, arrange them so Tony was curled between Bucky's legs, mouth still working at Bucky's cock, gentle but relentless.

Still so hard to lay back, to let Tony… It was deep in his nature to either take or to serve, and very little had ever prepared him to accept being served.

But it was Tony, and god, those little noises he made while his mouth was working Bucky over were driving Bucky wild. Bucky stroked the back of Tony’s neck, over his shoulders, not directing, not squeezing, just wanting to touch as much of that smooth, sex-heated skin as possible.

There was a wicked, visceral thrill to watching that dark head between his legs, watching his cock vanish into Tony’s mouth. He was hard again already, so sensitive and overstimulated that each touch was a torment, but God, he couldn’t have moved if someone set the couch on fire. “Tony… dorogoy, darling, sweetheart.”

Tony hummed, and shit, Bucky's hips jerked despite his efforts to keep them still. Tony didn't pull away, though, just took it as Bucky's cock slid into the smooth passage of his throat. And oh god, Bucky was close again already.

“‘M gonna--” and then intentions didn’t matter and boyfriend etiquette didn’t matter and if he blew all over Tony’s face, Tony was just going to have to deal with it because Bucky’s orgasm slipped the tracks and plowed him down like a train, forceful and heedless and white-hot and he shouted with the strength of it, metal hand clamping down on the back of the sofa and shit, he heard tearing fabric and cracking wood and he did not care, could not care about anything but “Tony!”

Tony pulled off, licking come from the corner of his mouth like it was cream and looking smug as hell. One hand petted Bucky's leg, soothing, bringing Bucky down even as he mused, "Mm, nice. Wonder how many times you can go in a row."

“Bastard,” Bucky managed. “Jesus, I don’t know.”

Tony chuckled, low and dark. "I'm adding that to the list."

“This list, it’s titled ‘How to Kill a Super Soldier’ right?” Bucky closed his eyes and worked on breathing; his heart was still racing away and… God damn it, his cock was already stirring, the eager little fucker.

"But what a way to go!" Tony said brightly. He started peppering the inside of Bucky's thigh with kisses, and then his hand was slipping along Bucky's crack, fingers cool and slick. Where the fuck had he gotten lube from? Tony Stark was a fucking lube ninja. "Don't tense up," Tony said, accenting it with a sharp little nip. "I've got you."

“<I know>,” Bucky said, slipping into Russian in his haze of hormones and bliss. He canted his hips up, one foot sliding to the floor to aid his balance.

"That's it," Tony crooned, and it should be weird, shouldn't it, that Tony sounded so sweet, so tender, when he was pressing so relentlessly into Bucky's body?

Always the hardest bit, giving himself over, was that initial resistance, the ring of fire that burned as he struggled to push past it and accept. He was half-tempted to tell Tony to forget about it, just push in and get it over with, he’d heal, but Tony had wanted to take care of him, had looked so pleased... “Okay… okay, you got this,” he muttered, forcibly unclenching his jaw and letting his hands relax against the surface of the couch. He opened his eyes to find himself trapped, snared in Tony’s gentle gaze.

Tony dropped a kiss on his knee, holding Bucky's eyes, his finger still slipping and pressing and burning. "You feel so good," he said. "Hot like a bonfire. You're going to burn me up; I can't wait."

Somehow, the combination of Tony’s urgency and tender patience was the exact mix that Bucky needed. With a shudder, he let go, stopped holding himself together and let Tony take him apart, brick by brick. “Then don’t wait.”

"That's it," Tony praised him, and added another finger. "Soon. I want to know you'll enjoy it, that I'm not going to hurt you even a little." He ducked his head to lick Bucky's straining cock.

Bucky shuddered at that wet pull, his muscles stopped pushing and squeezed instead, clenching, drawing Tony deeper and… It was okay, and then more than okay, it was good, it was brilliant. He inhaled, sweat-soaked hair clinging to his face, wanting, needing to be filled and when Tony’s fingers slipped out, he actually moaned in dismay.

"Shh, I know," Tony said. "Just give me one--" and then Tony was looming over him, pressing into him, slow like dripping honey, face tight with concentration.

“<Beautiful>,” Bucky whispered, his metal fingers tracing the line of Tony’s jaw, careful, the click of plates shifting gentle as rain. “<I have you. Let go, Tony. Let me bring you home.>”

Tony tipped his head to kiss those fingers, then touched his lips to Bucky's, not a kiss, but a tantalizing brush of mouth and breath. "<I love you. I'm yours, and you're mine.>"

“Tony!’ Bucky’s eyes snapped open. “You little sneak.” He shifted and there was sudden slide and heat and… oh, god. He hooked his leg around Tony’s hips, pulling him closer. “<You’re learning Russian?>” Oh, there, and he lost track of the conversation, let the pull and slick between their bodies take over until he was humming with bliss, lost in the smells and sounds, moving with Tony’s gentle thrusts.

"<For you,>" Tony said, breathing it into Bucky's ear, the tumbling syllables like music that only heightened the pleasure. "<I said I would. It's part of you.>"

Bucky chuckled softly. “<Your tutor’s Kievan,>” he muttered. “<Spoiled rich boy.>” He lifted his hips again, drawing Tony in, the ring of muscles loosening further. “<Come on, Tony… Now, now, now.”>

Tony groaned and began to move faster, added a roll to his hips that made lightning zing through Bucky's limbs, sparks that built on heat already forming. "Bucky, god, yes, yes..."

Bucky slipped a hand between their sweat-slick bodies, his cock aching and urgent and dripping. He stroked himself, short, rapid, eager.   

"Come for me," Tony said, nearly a growl. "I want to feel it, want to feel you come while I'm inside you."

Bucky groaned, twisting. “Say it,” he urged. “Your soldier, Tony, say it, please, god.”

Tony's teeth closed on Bucky's earlobe, a bright lance of sensation. "Moy soldat."

Bucky stuttered, then shot past the goal line, spilling himself over his cupped hand, clenching down, not even able to make a sound, mouth gaping breathlessly, everything turning blue and shining in his vision as his pupils shifted.

Tony followed after, rhythm stuttering until he let go with a hoarse shout. "Oh god," he gasped, body shuddering with aftershocks. "Bucky. That was... fuck. Amazing." He shivered again, and let himself collapse onto Bucky's chest, panting.

Bucky curled around Tony, the sweat cooling along his shoulders, sending exhausted, sated shivers down his back. Something cold and metallic poked him in the arm and he turned to see DOB-E offering him a red fleece in his carry bin. “Oh, jeez, child…” He pulled the fleece over Tony’s back, a small red mask in one corner of the fleece like a face. Bucky twisted it around to read the embroidered logo. “Who the hell is Deadpool?”

 

Chapter Text

Three months later (March 10)
Bucky

It was snowing, a freak storm that had dropped onto New York overnight just as everyone had been preparing to pack away their winter clothes and embrace the warmth of spring. The wind-chill factor on the landing platform was way below freezing and Bucky rubbed at his hand, watching the Quinjet as it spiraled in for a landing. Siberia was colder, he reminded himself, but this past winter had been the warmest and mildest of his life and he might have gotten a little soft. A kid from Brooklyn with bad shoes and a coat with holes in it, he’d gone to living in a Manhattan penthouse, wrapped in a thick wool coat in a dark shade of blue that brought out the stormcloud-gray of his eyes.

Or so Tony said, and who was Bucky to argue with Tony Stark about fashion? Tony’s clothes always looked good. They looked good in the closet and they looked better on him, and they looked best of all strewn all over the penthouse floor.

Just to Bucky’s left, Bruce shaded his eyes from the swirling snow.

The Quinjet’s ramp opened and Bucky wasn’t stupid enough to get between Tash and Bruce; eager as he was for her news. One or the other of them would shove him out of the way, with prejudice, and Tony would kill him if Bucky took a tumble off the side of the building. Again. “I have a heart condition; what’s the matter with you?”

Bruce took Tash’s hand and pressed it to his cheek. Bucky coughed, looked to one side. There was a strange pain, there, in that soft, gentle greeting, one that made it hard to watch, knowing that what they wanted was always, always just a little out of reach.

When Bucky looked up again, they were walking down the plank together, hand in hand, swinging their arms like little kids.

“Happy birthday, Yasha,” Tash said, leaning up to kiss his cheek.

“You got it?” Bucky asked, nervous and excited and desperately praying all at the same time.

“Wasn’t easy,” Tash said, understated as always. “But we did it.”

Sam came down after, an antique leather satchel over his shoulder. “Holy shit, you weren’t kidding, man,” he said. “Siberia is fucking cold. Heater on the ‘jet did not come close to thawing me back out. Can we get coffee? Hot chocolate? Something.”

“I started the fireplace before I came up to wait,” Bucky said, clapping a hand on Sam’s shoulder, fighting the urge to rip the satchel off him and peer inside.

Steve came down the ramp last, still big as life and twice as spangly, his suit torn and bloodstained at the shoulder, revealing pale Irish skin and a puckered red line that would be faded to white by dinner and gone by morning.

“‘M fine, Buck, stop looking like that,” Steve said. “Crazy ninja shit. Why the heck are there ninjas in Russia? That’s just not okay.”

“Welcome home, Cap,” Bucky said.

“Inside? Can that be a thing we’re doing?” Sam asked, shivering.

“Wimp,” Bucky said, even though he’d been shivering himself ten minutes ago. He drew his friends back into the hangar and then the elevator, which had been playing assorted renditions of “Happy Birthday” all day and while Bucky was damned sick of the song, he appreciated the thought. Sort of. DOB-E had been very enthusiastic about the idea of birthdays. He’d woken up to a cupcake on his bedside table, which had been nice. He would have to have JARVIS have a talk with the kid about the music, though.

“You’re kidding me,” Sam said, staring up at the speaker.

“Not my fault,” Bucky said. “Clint’s been running up and down the stairs all day rather than listen to it.”

Sam sighed. “Redwing, can you?”

The AI that Tony had given to Sam earlier in the year said something in the earbud of Sam’s armor, and the elevator went blessedly silent.

“Won’t last,” Bucky warned. “JARVIS has been turning it off all day; it just comes right back on a couple minutes later.”

“Two floors, that’s all it has to last,” Sam said. The elevator doors opened a moment later, spilling them into the common area.

“Fire, fire, fire,” Sam muttered, stripping off his gloves.

“Don’t burn yourself,” Tash said, pulling him back when he got within six inches of the huge fireplace.

Bucky couldn’t wait any longer, and snagged at the satchel strap. “Gimme that.”

“Hey, hey, hey! Cap, help, I am being mangled by the Russians here.”

“Where’s Tony?” Steve looked around. “I would have thought he’d be crawling the walls right now.”

“I sent him off to work,” Bucky said. “I think he actually forgot. He's been working in upgrading the suit’s seals again. I think Michigan gave him a complex. Another one. JARVIS is sorting it out.”

“It doesn’t bother you that your boy forgot your birthday?” Sam said, handing over the bag, finally.

“It’s not important,” Bucky said, snatching the bag away and dropping onto the sofa to rummage through it. Inside were two sealed metal containers about the size of his fist, a thick file with his picture paper-clipped to the front, that old, half-forgotten boy he’d been in uniform during the war. His dog tags, god, the old ones, rusting with age. He cupped them in his hand, shaking now.

Bucky set them aside and turned over one little metal box, terrified to open it, and then he set his jaw and opened the catch. Inside, a simple glass tube full of pale green liquid was packed in foam. It looked so innocuous.

“What is it?” Clint asked, finally looking away from the television.

“An earlier form of scopolamine,” Bucky said, “with some extra stuff thrown in. It’s what they used on me to start the brainwashing protocols.”

“And you didn’t mention you were going to be bringing this into our home?” Clint looked horrified.

“It’s for me, Clint,” Bucky said. “Bruce and I’ve been working it out -- privately. I still haven’t told Tony. No point if we couldn’t get our hands on the stuff anyway. But now… we’re going to try a full reset of the system. JARVIS is going to give me new code phrases, and then erase his records so no one will know them but me. The idea is that we can keep anyone from ever triggering me again.”

“Hell of a risk,” Clint said.

“Not so much as you might think,” Bruce added, his arm around Tash’s shoulders, holding her against his side. “We’re going to try it under extremely controlled circumstances. The notes that Natasha emailed me indicate that sometimes, when an agent or soldier was compromised, their trigger phrases falling into enemy hands, that these resets were used to preserve the asset. The only thing we’re doing differently is letting Barnes chose his own words and keep them secret.”

Bucky opened the other metal container. He shuddered. The injection kit inside was gleaming and bright, the needle a wide-gauge made from vibranium, one of the few metals that would open his vein long enough to get the dose inside him. And that was going to hurt. A lot.

“Right. Happy birthday to me,” Bucky said. It was real, it was real and this was actually going to happen. It was going to hurt like fuck, but he was going to get himself back. Battered and torn and broken as he was, he was going to be entirely his own man. Finally. “Time to tell Tony. If you hear screaming, please someone come save me.”

Steve laughed, shaking his head. “Happy birthday, jerk.”

“Punk,” Bucky retorted, then hugged Steve, pounding him on the back. “Thanks for this, for… everything.”

“‘Til the end of the line,” Steve said, cupping the back of Bucky’s head and holding the embrace for a few seconds longer after Bucky would’ve let go.

“‘Til the end of the line.”

“Happy Birthday” was playing again as Bucky stepped into the elevator and rode it down to the workshop.

JARVIS opened the door for Bucky. revealing Tony wrist-deep in holograms and maps.

“Hey, Zhelezoska,” Bucky said, leaning against the counter, watching Tony work like the technical wizard he was. He took a breath, steeling himself. “Gotta minute?”

***

Tony

Bucky's voice pulled him from a lattice of locations and activities, of probabilities and analyses. Tony blinked a few times to clear his eyes of the hologram cobwebs, and felt warm delight flood him when he finally focused on Bucky's face and let himself process the words. "Hey there, gorgeous. For you, I might even have several."

“So,” Bucky said, chewing his lip nervously. “You know that mission Tash and Steve and Sam were on? They’re home. It was a success.”

"Oh, good. JARVIS, cross that one off the map, will you, and start running the impact analysis." Bucky was still chewing on his lip. Why? He only did that when he was worried. "They okay? Anyone hurt?"

“Steve apparently had a run in with a Siberian ninja, but you know how he is. It probably stopped bleeding before he got on the ‘jet. No, it’s… well, here.” He took a file out of an exceptionally ancient-looking bag and handed it to Tony. The snapshot on the front showed an impossibly neat young man in a military uniform. The face was unlined, smooth, the smile wide and open in a way that Tony had never seen before, but he knew the features. God, had he ever been that young?

Tony glanced up sharply, eyebrow raised. "They found your file?" He slid fingers down the front of the yellowed old manila.

“Specifically, my conditioning file. Bruce and I have been talking it over, recently. We think... Well, we have an idea.”

Bucky was still gnawing on the corner of his lip. "I'm not going to like this idea, am I?" Tony asked. It wasn’t really a question.

“‘It’s an experiment, Sergeant Barnes,’” Bucky whispered, mimicking someone whose voice Tony had never heard before, except in old recordings. “‘We don’t know what it will do to you.’”

Just the mockery of that voice made Tony's insides turn cold. "Bucky."

Bucky opened his hand to reveal a stoppered tube of fluid, pale green and viscous. “This is what they used, the first time. To open up my mind and let their words and their traumas etch themselves inside my brain, to make me comply. There’s a procedure here for re-affixing compliance, if my codes ever fell into the wrong hands. To preserve the asset.”

"And you want to try it," Tony surmised; it wasn’t a difficult guess. "To... To re-affix your compliance." Just saying the words made his throat draw tight.

“Who knows how many copies of my file there are? We never expected to run into Sarkissian; I can’t imagine she’s the only one out there who could open me up. I… Tony, I couldn’t live with myself, if I… I need to try, don’t I?”

No, Tony thought. He wanted to scream it with everything in him. No, we'll protect you; you can't put yourself through that... But Bucky was right: if Madame Hydra had found the codes, there was no way of knowing who else might have them. More critically, however much he might wish otherwise, it wasn't Tony's choice to make. The soldier has discretion. He drew a breath, aware that it was unsteady and not caring.

Tony reached out and drew Bucky close, kissed him hard and fierce enough that they drew back panting. "I love you," Tony said. "And I hate the thought of it. But you're right. Tell me what you want me to do."

“Thank you,” Bucky said, taking a deep breath. “You’re going to have to open me up. Give me the injection, and tell me to reset protocols. Then leave. JARVIS will give me my words, I’ve already chosen them.” He touched Tony’s cheek. “The last one, the one that seals the lock? Is ‘Stark.’”

Tony put his hand over Bucky's holding it against his face, holding that warmth to him. "And when it's done, the only one who will have your words is you," he said, wanting that confirmation.

“That’s the plan,” Bucky said.

Tony searched Bucky's face. He didn't want to know, he didn't; but he had to. "What are the risks?"

“Bruce thinks we can lower them quite a bit, if…” Bucky shook his head. “Sorry, I’m doing this backward. Tash doesn’t think they’ve changed the drug formula since my time, but if so, it might not work, in which case I’d be opened again, without any benefit. Which isn’t really a risk so much as a frustration. Or, um. I could have a psychotic break. It’s possible. Bruce thinks we can lower the risk of break if I… Well, you know how my words are tied, specifically, to trauma in my life, right?”

Tony nodded tightly, hating this, hating it.

“Bruce thinks that keeping those reasons secret, not being able to talk about it, about the things that have been done to me, that reinforces the hold those events have. So… he thinks I should talk about it. To you. To Steve. Which will be hard, and I don’t… You don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to say it, but… I told Steve this once before: I would do anything, live with any pain, to be completely free again.”

That much, Tony understood well. "All right. And if it doesn't work, if the new words don't... take. JARVIS will call me back in and I'll re-set your autonomy protocol? Which sucks, but at least not more than things already suck, I guess."

“Yeah, no doubt. I… hate staying behind, while you’re all avenging shit, but it’s not safe for me to be in the field, you know that. And it’s killing me, never knowing that you’re going to come home again.”

Pepper had said much the same thing; it was an uncertainty she hadn't been willing to live with. Tony closed his eyes for a moment; it didn't hurt anymore, but it ached and pulled at his chest, like tugging stitches free from an almost-healed wound. "Okay," he said. "I don't like it. I don't want it. But it's... You know I'd do anything for you, moy soldat." He tried on a smile, a small one.

Bucky shivered and pressed himself close against Tony’s chest, his fingers curled around the drug. “I don’t. I can’t tell Steve about this one, so, just listen, all right?” He lowered his voice and spoke rapidly, almost emotionlessly, one of those damned mission reports that Tony had hoped he’d heard the last of, which made him sick, and then even sicker as he realized what Bucky was telling him, how he’d been molested and abused for months as a young teenager, long before the war.

And yeah, that wasn't one Cap should hear, because by the time Bucky was done, Tony was shaking with rage, and Steve's anger management skills weren't even up to Tony's low standards. And aside from the anger, Steve had known Bucky when it happened, and Bucky had never told him. That’d probably kill Steve outright, knowing he might have helped, or at least tried to, and hadn't.

Tony drew a shaking breath and pulled Bucky tighter. "It wasn't your fault," he said, in the calmest voice he could manage. Which probably wasn't very. "I need you to know that. It wasn't your fault."

“He was never going to stop,” Bucky managed to gasp out. “I was a fool for thinking it was, that one day he’d have enough, but… I just couldn’t. I couldn’t let… couldn’t let people find out. Couldn’t let Steve find out.”

Tony nodded his understanding. "I know, sweetheart. But that didn't make it your choice." He drew back, cupped Bucky's face in his hands. "Say it for me. Even if you can't believe it yet."

“It, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want it. I didn’t like it. God, I hated it, every second of it.”

Tony kissed Bucky again, gently. "It wasn't your fault," he repeated. "And I love you."

“Let’s get this over with, b’fore I lose my nerve,” Bucky said, wiping his eyes, not quite able to meet Tony’s gaze.

Tony had JARVIS bring Steve down and Bucky told them the rest. His self-hatred for letting Steve be hurt, his disgust for his own sexuality and desires, the terrible nightmares they’d installed and reinforced. The ugly joy they’d yoked to their own ambitions, a whip to drive him.

Tony was sickened, horrified by the things Hydra had done to this man; they’d torn him down with guilt and remorse and self-loathing, terror, and built the Winter Soldier on top of him with arrogance and praise. Brutally susceptible, unable to resist, they’d reinforced his worthlessness with pain and let him know the only surcease would be to comply.

No wonder Bucky had complied. Who wouldn’t?

“God, Buck,” Steve said at one point, soft and low. “I’d forgotten about that. I didn’t even get tetanus, just a fever. It went away a couple days later.”

Bucky uttered a weak, croaky sort of laugh. “You weren’t the one sittin’ at your side, watchin’ you burn with it, neither. I never forgot, not… No. I did that to you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

“If there was ever anything to forgive between us, you already have it, Buck,” Steve said, gripping Bucky’s shoulder tight, his fingers digging into the fabric of Bucky’s tee.

“I know.”

Bruce joined them for the next bit; there was no way Tony was going to be able to stab his lover in the throat with a needle the size of a cocktail straw. Nope, wasn’t happening, not even a little bit. He couldn’t even watch as Bruce did it; he held Bucky’s hand tightly but looked away until Bruce squeezed his shoulder in sympathy, then left.

Tony opened Bucky up, slow, each word distinct and careful, with space and time to process each nightmare as they screamed through Bucky’s mind and out of his mouth. It was agonizing to watch his love, his lover, slip away, bit by bit, battered and destroyed in the process until the Winter Soldier straightened and jerked himself to attention.

“Anthony Stark. Ready to comply.”

Bruce had scripted him through the process of reset, prepping Bucky for retraining. Carefully, aching, Tony cancelled all standing orders, missions, and protocols. Took away Bucky’s autonomy, shaking and furious and hopeful.

“You ready for your part, JARVIS?” Tony finally asked, voice hoarse with the need to scream. Bucky was looking at him expectantly, waiting for his new protocols, needing them.

“It is my honor and privilege to assist, sir,” JARVIS responded. The AI was solemn, and even, perhaps, a bit sad, that empathy that made him Tony's proudest creation.

“Soldier, you will allow JARVIS to reset your compliance commands.”

“Accepted.”

***

The soldier stood at attention, hands tucked at the small of his back, parade rest.

“Samoopredeleniye,” the voice in the ceiling said. Self-determination.

The soldier has discretion. The soldier has autonomy. His choice. Always his. To live. To love. To accept what happiness is offered.

“Padeniye.” Falling.

Somehow, it all came back to the fall. Every great moment in his life, every terrible thing, had been preceded and predicted by a fall. Fall from grace, fall from the train, the fall through the elevator shaft. Each time he’d surrendered to that bitch, gravity, she’d reshaped his life.

“Pamyat’.” Remembrance

For all those things he didn’t want to forget. For all the things he wouldn’t allow himself to forget. Each face, each death at his hands, each sweet and stolen moment. Never to forget and always to remember. Always. The good and the bad. The worst he could ever do for his victims would be to brush them from his mind like snowflakes.

“Druzhba.” Friendship.

Tony. Steve. Tash. Clint. Sam. DOB-E. JARVIS. Bruce. The Avengers. The Howling Commandos. Howard. Peggy. Celeste. Each rare and precious jewel, each brilliant and sparkling personality, each clever and amazing mind, the lives who had touched him, shaped him. Saved him.

“Sozhalet’.” Regret.

Because he had those, too, more than a lifetime’s worth. His hands weren’t merely covered in blood; he was drowning in it. He would have pushed it from him, but didn’t dare. There could be no justice without remembrance, without accountability. He would find his makers, those that remained, and drive their pestilence from the surface of the planet, to bring peace to all the death and pain they’d caused, had done with his body, and against his will.

“Phoenix.”

To rise from the ashes of his death, the remains of his honor, the grave of his humanity, to reclaim those things that were rare and precious, that made him who he was.

“Obshchiy.” Communal.

Sharing is kinda the point. To be one of many, to belong. A greater reward and comfort than he deserved, one that he would grab onto with both hands and never let go.

“Vsegda.” Always.

His own man, finally. Always. Never again would anyone take him against his will, never again would he be a tool in someone else’s hands. The consequences of his actions would be his own again, for good or ill.

“Soldat.” Soldier.

What he’d always been, even before Hydra took his honor and placed a lien on his soul. His father had served, and it had been all Bucky had ever wanted to do, everything he’d ever wanted to be. He couldn’t see defining himself any other way, even now. It was the defining word of his life; he quickened to the name on the lips of his beloved, and it was his again, his identity and his purpose and his calling.

“Stark.”

Of course. Could there ever be anything else for him, but Tony, the man that Fate had fashioned for him; for whom he had been made? Could there be a more welcome brightness, sharp as a blade, and as cutting, warm and comforting, ruthless and generous, the ultimate and perfect match for his cool head, his warrior’s eye?

“Compliance codes accepted. Soldier… has discretion.”

“Indeed, Mr. Barnes.”

"Erase codes from all storage and memory; overwrite media to prevent recovery."

"Deletion complete."

Bucky shook himself all over, inventorying. He was whole and healthy. His commands whispered in his mind like steel voices. Self-determination. Friendship. Remembrance. Stark.

“Tony.” Tony was out there, waiting for him. He pushed the door open and stepped out of the room. It was his birthday. It was his re-birth day. And if anyone ever in the history of the world deserved a fucking piece of cake right now, it was Bucky.

But he’d share. Because sharing was kinda the point.