Tony thought that nothing could be worse than being tortured in a cave in Afghanistan and then literally getting his heart ripped out by a man he admired and trusted.
It turned out that getting the blame for the destruction of a city and then getting his heart metaphorically ripped out by people who were considered the paragons of virtue and honor and good was far worse.
The kicker, tough, was having to live and work with those people after said ripping out of the heart, and then having to pretend that nothing was wrong.
“Massive expansion,” Tony said as an excuse when Sam invited him to the newly reinstated team movie night.
With a frown, Sam suspiciously asked, “Massive expansion of what?”
“Production plants,” Tony replied, keeping his eyes on the blueprints he was pretending to review and approve (the schematics had been greenlighted months ago, the materials purchased, and SI would be breaking ground on three new facilities within the month. Sam didn’t need to know that, though). “I leave for Korea in two days.”
His brow furrowing, Sam argued, “We’re watching Star Wars. It will be Bucky’s first time seeing it. Clint says you hold house rights on showing sci-fi movies to alien beings and humans out-of-time.”
“Damn,” Tony said, doing his best to sound convincingly disappointed. “Between the facilities in Korea, Chile, and Morocco, it will be a few months before I have enough downtime for any Star Wars marathons.”
“A few months?” Sam incredulously asked.
Giving Sam a well-practiced pair of sad eyes, Tony told him, “No self-respecting person living in the 21st century can go that long without seeing Star Wars, I know. How about this - I relinquish house rights on Star Wars just this once. I’ll make it up with Star Trek and Firefly. And Pitch Black. And 2001 Space Odyssey.”
“Dude, Star Wars,” Sam wheedle.
“Dude, I’m flying to South Korea in 36 hours,” Tony argued.
Thirty-six hours later, FRIDAY patched a call from Pepper through to the suit.
“Tony, why are you flying to South Korea?” Pepper asked.
“I thought I’d help out with the heavy lifting,” Tony replied.
“What is that?” Tony asked. “Hand it over. As Lord Commander of Stark Tower and the Avengers, I demand that you relinquish all hot food to my care for a thorough inspection-”
“Back, Stark! Down!” Scott Lang demanded, holding the foil encased casserole dish well out of Tony’s reach -- damn Tony’s compact stature! Damn his recessive height genes! “And stop trying to implement fictional command structures to the team! You may be a Stark, but we aren’t playing any game of thrones, we aren’t the Night’s Watch, and winter isn’t coming for three months. Back, I said!”
“I need to make sure it isn’t poisoned!” Tony insisted, making another grab for the divine smelling dish.
“You can test it’s toxicity along with everyone else at dinner tonight!” Lang insisted.
“Fire where now?” Tony asked.
“Geeze, Stark, don’t tell me you forgot -- it’s ethnic food night,” Lang informed him.
Tony did his best to keep from falling into a defensive stance.
Lang was still talking. “- my traditional Irish shepherd's pie along with T’Challa’s fataya, whatever German dish Steve has been slow cooking for the past two days, and the leeks Wanda has been stinking up the tower with.”
“Foiled again,” Tony said with a dramatic sigh. “Come on, Lang? Just a bite for the road?”
“For the road?” Ant-Man repeated with a frown. “You’re not coming to ethnic food night? The team’s been planning this for a month! Sam’s trying his hand at a Cuban dish, and Clint promised some sort of French cheese thing-”
“The team may have been planning this for a month, but SI has been organizing-” he chanced a glance at his phone, and FRIDAY helpfully supplied him with Maria Stark Foundation Charity Benefit @ 8:30P.M. in Boston, “- a shindig at my alma mater for the past six months. Lord Commander Stark’s participation is mandatory.”
Lang was still frowning. “But Natasha said you’re responsible for the Italian. Fotacha?”
“Focaccia,” Tony absently corrected as he began madly texting Happy and his tailor. “My mother’s recipe, e stasera no. Duty calls. Or technically, people with so much money they can afford to give it away by the fistfuls to absolute strangers call. You run your heists, I’ll run mine. But hey, if Rhodey makes that rice dish he picked up in Egypt, eat an extra bite for me. I don’t know what sort of opiates go into that stuff, but it’s addictive, I swear.”
That evening, when Tony climbed into the back of his waiting car, Happy asked, “You avoiding a SHIELD budget meeting this evening?”
“Something like that,” Tony replied.
“Pepper told them not to email you an agenda beforehand. They promised they wouldn’t announce meeting topics until you were in the room and had your ass planted in a chair.”
Tony made sure to take note of this new machination.
Natasha was watching him with narrowed eyes.
“You went through three walls,” she informed him.
“Sure,” Tony agreed, careful to keep his posture slumped and relaxed.
“You need to visit the med bay,” she stated.
“You noticed that I went through three walls but you didn’t notice that I was wearing my armor when it happened?” Tony argued.
“Your armor only does so much,” she snapped.
“Two years ago, sure,” Tony agreed. “You weren’t around for the post-Cap-battle upgrades, though.” To demonstrate the awesomeness of his latest impact-upgrades to the suit, Tony tapped his knuckles against his sternum. “My armor could take a hit from Thor and the insulated padding would make it feel like a love tap. A brick wall, or walls as the case may be, felt like cotton.”
“That must be nice,” Natasha sniffed. “Having padded armor which protects you from serious impacts while the rest of us were beaten half to hell this morning while wearing our regular old combat gear.”
“Aww, don’t pout,” Tony demanded. “You want the special insulation, I can totally build a suit of armor for you. It would make stealth difficult, but-”
With an aggravated huff, Natasha pushed off of the counter she was leaning against, bairly flinching from her injuries, then said, “If you need anything, the rest of the team will be getting treated in the med bay.”
“Sure thing,” Tony hummed.
An hour latter, Peter Parker’s aunt was putting stitches into his leg while Peter wrapped his cracked ribs.
“Don’t you have medical professionals at the Tower to do this for you?” May asked. “Wait, don’t answer that. I know you have medical professionals at the Tower to do this for you. Half of my coworkers at the hospital are on a freaking waiting list to be considered for that very job. The Stark Tower Medical Unit is the single most coveted position in the entire city’s health community.”
“It was a bit crowded today,” was all Tony would tell her.
It was fine when Tony was interacting with his teammates one-on-one, or in small groups of three or four. The more Avengers there were in one room, however, the harder it was for Tony to keep his cool.
When Tony found himself with five or more Avengers at once, he felt like he was living in that children’s song about monkeys jumping on beds before falling off and hurting themselves. Except that instead of a bump to the head, the chant which ran through Tony’s mind was something more along the lines of One fell off and put an arrow attached to a line through my back in an attempt to keep himself from plummeting to the earth below. Or one fell off and cushioned her fall by pulling some Inception bullshit to get me to lie between her and the pavement. Or that one didn’t fall off at all, but pushed me so that I fell instead.
Tony didn’t like being an Avenger anymore.
The alternative to being an Avenger, however, was to not be an Avenger, or house the Avengers, or supply the Avengers with intel and weapons. And if he wasn’t doing all of that, someone else would, and he didn’t trust anyone else not to go “SHIELD is Hydra” on their asses all over again.
As long as he spent time with only a few of them in small doses, everything was fine.
“Tony,” Steve called.
“What’s up Mon Capitan?” Tony immediately replied, turning on his heel so that he was facing Steve but still moving away from him.
Technically, Tony was backing away from him, but Tony was backing away towards the kitchen which was where he had been headed anyways, so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that carefully and quickly backing away from Steve was exactly what he was doing.
“What are you up to?” Steve carefully asked as he dogged Tony’s movements.
“I am up to my eyes in work,” Tony answered, only turning his back to Steve once he had arrived in the kitchen. As Steve took a seat on one of the stools at the bar, Tony quickly put the island between him and Steve and then watched the super soldier’s reflection in the chrome finish of the kitchen appliances. “And everyone knows that if you’re up to your eyes in work, you need to be completely submerged in coffee. Ooh, FRIDAY. Take note. Coffee bath. Like, in the pool area next to the hot-tub. A coffee-tub. Or a coffee-wave-pool. FRIDAY, I want the tower to be Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory only with coffee instead of chocolate. Well, maybe a little chocolate -- mochas are never a bad thing. Clint can be the Oompa-Loompas. FRIDAY, you can be the flying elevator at the end of the movie. We’ll need to hire someone to be Willy Wonka, though. I don’t grow or roast coffee, FRIDAY. I drink it. I’ll be Augustus Gloop. Lord Commander Augustus of Wonka’s-Coffee-Tower and-”
Tony almost had a coronary when Steve’s hand came down on his, halting his attempt to take a sip of the freshly brewed coffee he’d just poured for himself.
“I think you’ve had enough coffee today,” Steve quietly told him. “I wanted… We need to talk, but I think it might be best if you go get some sleep first, Tony.”
“Sure thing,” Tony numbly agreed as he carefully set his mug on the counter (he liked that mug. He really, really liked that mug. It deserved better than to be smashed against Steve Rogers’ face. In the Captain America vs. Mug battle, the mug would loose, and Tony liked that mug). “Sleep. Okay then.”
Steve was right, of course. As Tony quickly and surely made his way towards the penthouse, Tony knew that Steve was right. Tony really needed some sleep. Sleep meant that he would be fully alert the next time he faced Steve, and he wouldn’t forget to keep eyes on the other man. Sleep meant that no one would sneak up on him or intrude in his space or touch him or-
Tony clearly needed sleep.
The Avengers had been in residence for six months, and Tony had done a fine job of avoiding Bucky Barnes during that time. The rest of the team -- fine. Whatever. He could handle them. But Barnes? Tony needed time to deal with that shit.
Six months was more than enough time to properly armor himself, though, so when Tony pressed the button for the common floor and FRIDAY informed him, “Sargent Barnes is currently reading in the living area, Boss,” Tony didn’t immediately say fuck that and press the button for the penthouse. Instead, Tony said, “Fuck that. I’m too tired for the half-caff shit Vision keeps sneaking into my coffee maker. I want the full strength stuff they keep in the Action room.”
FRIDAY didn’t reply. Instead, the button for the common floor lit up and the elevator began to move.
When Tony stepped from the elevator, Barnes glanced up from the paperback book he was reading, spotted Tony, and treated him to a narrow-eyed gaze.
Tony stopped walking when he saw the title of the book Barnes was reading.
“Seriously?” Tony asked.
“What of it?” Barnes replied.
“The guy who was kidnapped, held prisoner, and then brainwashed is reading a book about a guy who kidnaps a woman, holds her prisoner, and attempts to brainwash her.”
“I thought it was only Hydra,” Barnes informed him. “Apparently that sort of treatment isn’t reserved for megalomaniacs attempting to create weapons. It’s for people in love, as well.”
“That is not love,” Tony announced, pointing an accusing finger at the book.
“For her, no. For him? It’s the only sort of love he knows. It’s what he feels and what he understands. Just because it’s unhealthy, destructive, and unconventional doesn’t mean that his emotions are invalid.”
“He tortures that poor woman,” Tony pointed out.
“Because he’s imperfect,” Barnes agrees. “If he truly wanted to find love, he would assess his limitations and objectively consider his possibilities. There are plenty of pretty young girls out there who are desperate to escape their lives and would be susceptible to the emotional manipulation he’s attempting to employ --”
“Great science, you admire that sick son of a bitch,” Tony realized.
“I admire his ambition,” Barnes corrected. “He is a simple man with simple needs with the means of getting what he wants. He’s a complete idiot about it, of course. But he doesn’t care about power or influence or prestige. He’s a lonely man in need of company, and he would be content with such.”
“Oh, don’t be naive,” Tony snorted. “I know you’ve been on ice for most of your existence, but you should understand just as well as anyone that nothing ever works like that. He built some fantasy in his head, and that girl was lucky enough to die before he could be faced with reality. Once he was faced with reality, he would have dealt with it the same way he dealt with everything else in his life - inappropriately. Probably with violence. And if things had gone his way? Well that wouldn’t have gone well either. The reality wouldn’t have been as good as the fantasy, and his behavior would escalate until-”
“Calm down, Stark,” Barnes demanded with a sneer. “It’s a story. He’s not a real person.”
“Yet here you are talking about how great he is-”
“I just called him an idiot!” Barnes argued. “I don’t admire him. I relate to him, you ass. I’m not good at interacting with people or the world and I don’t like to, but I’m lonely. I’d like nothing more to go sequester myself in a cabin somewhere and steal a bit of company, but I’m not stupid. I know that wouldn’t make me feel better, and I know perfectly well what Stockholm Syndrome is. Now fuck off, or else I’ll make a point of being present any time you watch any of those futuristic movies you like so much, and I’ll tear apart your favorite characters in all of them.”
“Where did you even get that?” Tony asked, motioning to the book.
“Natasha’s room,” Barnes replied.
Barnes should have started with that fact. Tony made a quick retreat before Natasha realized that someone had been in her room and that they had taken something from it.
Sam had family, Rhodey had family, Lang had family, and Clint had family. Clint took Natasha to the farm (and Tony was always a bit uncomfortable saying that, because it sounded like a euphemism for enforced superhero retirement, and because Tony was sure that Laura had enough tranqs hidden around the house that such a euphemism could one day become applicable).
Steve stayed in the kitchen for the most part, cooking enough food to feed the Avengers who remained in the tower, Santa, Santa’s reindeer, and Santa’s army of dwarves.
“Elves, Stark. Elves,” Wanda corrected for the fifth time.
“Elves, dwarves, ents, orcs -- whatever LotR species Santa is conscripting to assist in toy making this year, Steve is cooking enough food to feed them all,” Tony replied.
“Thank you, Wanda,” Vision said with a small smile as he finished inspecting… whatever it was that Wanda had stuffed into a too small, glittery, green-and-red bag for Vision.
Tony was glad that Vision had opened his gift from Wanda before Tony stuck his hand into the snowflake covered bag she’d given him. The forewarning was appreciated.
He was also able to tell her, “You are such a troll. You are a Christmas troll. Please tell me you gave Natasha your first attempt.”
“General Ross received my first attempt. He has been instructed to wear it to the summit next month. It has beads.”
Laughing, Tony said, “Forget Santa. You are responsible for all of the Christmas miracles. So, uh…. Thank you for the… homemade knitted… is it supposed to be a cumberbund?”
“It’s a cowl,” she corrected with a frown.
“What’s a cowl?” Tony asked. “Is it like a towel? Is this supposed to be used like one of those paperless drying mechanisms in cheap gas stations where everyone drys their hands on the same cloth and its always damp no matter how much you turn it-”
“The pattern’s creator described it as a clothing garment to wear draped around the neck, similar to a scarf, but with closed ends,” Vision quickly supplied.
“Oh. Cool. Thanks, Wanda. And keep practicing! Hey, give it a couple more tries and the neck clothing garment you give me next Christmas might show up on the front cover of Vanity Fair as the next great winter fashion.”
“That one is more likely to wind up on the cover of Vanity Fair,” Wanda pointed out. “Fashion is like modern art -- put something formless and ugly on a person, put that person on a magazine, and suddenly it is considered attractive.”
“You see?! You’re a fashion diva in the making. If that whole crime fighting thing doesn’t work out for you, you can always fall back on-”
“What is this?” Barnes asked as he unwrapped Tony’s present.
“It appears to be dead insects,” Vision supplied.
Of course Steve chose that exact moment to deliver a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls to the living room, and he frowned at the framed butterfly specimen which Bucky had unwrapped. “They’re… beautiful,” Steve slowly said. “But… why would someone do this to something so pretty? It seems cruel.”
“Preserving butterflies and other insects in special glass boxes is extremely common,” Vision oh-so-helpfully explained.
Barnes blinked at the glass encased butterflies with their Latin names written underneath, then at Tony. “What… what is this for? Am I supposed to… do something with 'em?”
“It’s… for decoration,” Tony said slowly.
“You think Bucky wants to decorate his apartment with dead butterflies?” Wanda asked, eyeing Tony as if he were insane.
“Well, no, it’s just… The Collector,” Tony explained. “By John Fowles? The book? It’s a reference to a book by John Fowles.”
“Ah,” Steve said slowly.
“Thank you, Tony,” Barnes informed him with a strained smile, setting the butterflies aside and reaching for his next present.
What the fuck? Tony wondered.
“What the fuck?” Barnes cried.
Tony jumped, his hand knocking into his cup of coffee and sending it spilling across the table and ruining the sections of the newspaper Steve had set aside to read later.
It was the 29th of December, the day before the rest of the Avengers were supposed to return to the tower, and Tony was doing his damned best to condition himself to tolerate Steve’s presence. He’d been so hyper aware of Rogers, however, that he hadn’t been paying any mind to the other Avengers sitting with them.
“What is wrong with you?” Barnes continued to yell, throwing a book at the table with such force that it bounced off of the tabletop and against Tony’s chest, making him fumble. “Why would you taunt me with something like that?!”
Looking down at the book, Tony saw that he was holding a newly purchased (and now coffee splattered) paperback version of The Collector.
“Bucky, what’s wrong?” Steve asked.
“That asshole gave me a reference to a story about kidnapping and psychological torture as a form of love for Christmas!”
“Stark!” Wanda snapped.
“Tony, why would you do something like that?” Steve asked, giving Tony that same fucking look-
“Seriously!” Barnes snapped. “What is wrong with you?!”
“Me?!” Tony cried. “What’s wrong with you?! I wasn’t taunting you! You said you liked it!”
“I liked it? Liked what? Being tortured and brainwashed?”
“The Collector, you jerk!” Tony snarled, throwing the book back at Barnes’ chest.
“Why would you think I like something like this?!”
“Because you told me you liked it! You said you related to the main character, and you admired his ambition even if he was a complete idiot and… and… and you have no recollection of that, do you?” Tony realized. “You don’t remember stealing a copy of The Collector from Natasha’s room and reading it in the living area. You don’t remember us talking about it and getting into an argument. Thor save us, I had an argument about inappropriate forms of love with the Winter Soldier and then got him a Christmas present to commemorate the argument.”
Around the kitchen table, the other Avengers present looked horrified.
“Let me see if I have this straight,” Lang said slowly. “Whatever T’Challa and his people did to deactivate the Winter Soldier’s programming worked, we think. But the Winter Soldier wasn’t destroyed. He’s still… in there with Bucky. And we only found out about it because Tony Stark gave Bucky a Christmas present which was actually meant for the Winter Soldier.”
“After FRIDAY reviewed the tower’s security footage of the last six months, she determined that the Winter Soldier becomes dominant at least three nights a week, and he wanders around the tower,” Steve quietly explained.
“He’s definitely broken into people’s rooms and watched them sleep on several occasions,” Tony announced.
“Tony!” Steve cried, and Barnes covered his face with his hands.
“Well?!” Tony cried back.
“I am not okay with this,” Lang immediately declared. “Hope is the only person allowed to watch me while I sleep. If she finds out someone else has been watching me while I sleep-”
“House Rule 28,” Steve snapped.
With a long sigh, Lang dutifully recited, “Weird bedroom stuff stays in the bedroom and between the active participants. Seriously, Captain, if you think watching people while they sleep counts as weird bedroom stuff-”
“He wouldn’t be such a prude if he had to share a wall with Wanda and Vision,” Clint groused.
“Hey!” Tony snapped. “This is Stark Tower, not some cheap, poorly built apartment complex! I know for a fact that Wanda and Vision could use jackhammers when engaging in foreplay-”
“Oh, ouch,” Rhodey muttered as his expression twisted in distaste.
“-and no one would hear a damn thing!”
“It’s not the soundproofing that’s the problem, Stark!” Clint snapped back. “When Vision gets worked up he doesn’t always realize that he’s phasing through the walls-”
“House Rule 28! House Rule 28!” Lang began to yell.
“Now that we’ve established that there are far worse things than the Winter Soldier staring at us while we sleep,” Natasha dryly intercepted, “can we determine if this is a problem?”
“Tony,” Sam put in. “You said you had a full conversation with him. How did he seem?”
Tony shrugged. “Pretty messed up, but in a self-aware, basic-understanding-between-right-and-wrong kinda way.”
“You got that from a fifteen minute conversation in which you believed you were talking with Bucky Barnes?” Natasha pressed.
“It was a conversation about The Collector,” Tony insisted.
“Ah. That is… an interesting choice of reading material.”
“I thought so, too,” Tony sighed.
Tony was exhausted.
Ever since the team had found out that the Winter Soldier was still a thing and that Tony was the only person who had spoken to him directly, the rest of the Avengers were constantly harassing him.
Actually, they were trying to talk with him to determine what this meant for the team dynamics, their living arrangements, and their battle strategies.
But it sure felt like harassment.
“Tony, this is serious,” Steve ground out, interrupting Tony in the middle of one of his I-don’t-have-time-for-your-shenanigans tirades. Which was somewhat understandable, considering the tirade had devolved into a why-aren’t-my-employees-competent lamentation.
“I can tell that it’s serious,” Tony rejoined. “Do you know how I can tell? It’s because you’re wearing your Game Face, Rogers.”
Calling it Rogers’ Game Face wasn’t completely accurate. Mostly because it wasn’t only Steve’s expression, it was his posture and body language as well. He stood squarely in front of Tony’s work table with his feet evenly spread and firmly planted on the ground, his back straight and spine stiff, and his arms crossed over his chest. He was doing that thing where his chin was stubbornly jutting out which left him to look down his nose at where Tony was sitting at his work bench.
“This is not my Game Face, Tony, because this is not a game!” the man snapped. “You’re the only person the Winter Soldier has interacted with! You have a report with him! We need for you to approach him again and fully assess the situation so we can understand why he still exists and whether or not he could be controlled by Hydra!”
On the screen in front of Tony, FRIDAY flashed a message which read Deep breaths.
Tony had to follow her command ten times over before he trusted himself to do something which wasn't born from panic. As soon as he was able, Tony slowly stood from his chair and stated, “He’s been here for months, Steve. Months. And in that time, the Soldier has never left the tower or FRIDAY’s supervision. He hasn’t attempted to access any information on SHIELD or Stark Industries, he hasn’t been recording information or sending messages to anyone outside the tower, and the only time he accesses any weapons is when he goes to the gym or shooting range. Quite frankly, I don’t see a problem, and in this instance I’m not going to go out of my way to create a problem. Barnes is your project, and I will not be held responsible for him. If you want to assess the situation, you can build a report of your own with the guy.”
Now, Steve was using his Tony is Being Unreasonable glare, which was far more dangerous than the man’s Game Face.
“You have just as much cause to be weary of the Winter Soldier as anyone else in the tower,” Steve pointed out.
Now, FRIDAY’s reminder of Deep breaths was flashing red.
“Then it sounds like you should try to talk about this with anyone else,” Tony informed Steve.
Tony had gotten very, very good at coming up with excuses and extraneous work in order to avoid the Avengers. Every now and then, however, the excuses and extraneous work was not of Tony’s creation, and there were legitimate work emergencies which arose.
Tony had been on the phone for 10 straight hours with the contractors in Chile. Hours 1-8 had been Level 10, Red Alert, Full Crisis Mode. Hours nine and ten had been damage control.
“The situation is stable,” Tony assured several of the investors as he dug out some leftovers from the fridge in the communal kitchen and stuck the cartons of Chinese food in the microwave.
“Why weren’t we informed that the facility was being built in an area of the country prone to earthquakes?” one of the men seethed.
“Because it’s Chile,” Tony replied with a role of his eyes. “The entire country is prone to earthquakes. Which was taken into account during development and production. Seriously, guys, relax. The three people who were injured have already been treated and sent home, and there were no fatalities because the staff had training for this exact scenario, the facilities were designed to withstand earthquakes, and preventive measures were taken on day one of construction.”
“And construction will continue as scheduled?” the younger of the two men pressed.
“Hell no,” Tony replied. “It was a magnitude 8 earthquake and there was massive damage! The Stark facilities are being used as an emergency shelter while the damage is being assessed in surrounding communities, and the equipment is being used to assist with rescue attempts. No, construction will not continue as scheduled, you asshole. Come on!”
“Ignore Daniel, Mr. Stark,” one of the other men instructed him with a long sigh. “My son is rather short-sighted when it comes to matters of long-term investment and gain. I’m glad to hear that there was no major damage to the production facilities and that the community now has a safe area to retreat to in times of danger.”
“Hey, that’s Stark Industries for you -- providing investors with more money at some point in the future and providing communities with stable jobs and safe work environments. Improving the world one earthquake resistant facility at a time,” Tony chuckled.
After ending the call, Tony dug into his appropriated food, despite the fact that it hadn’t been nuked long enough and there were mildly disgusting pockets of cold in the rice, all the while furiously texting on his cellphone. The food was almost gone when Clint wandered into the kitchen and began cursing at Tony.
“That was mine, jerk!” Clint declared when Tony blinked at him. “What part of DO NOT TOUCH can’t you read?!”
Tony glanced at the carton he held, only just noticing that DO NOT TOUCH was indeed scrawled across the side of the carton. He also realized that it was a carton from the good Chinese place. The one that kept unpredictable hours and could only be accessed via quinjet.
“Oops,” Tony said. “Want the last bite?”
“No, you inconsiderate assmonkey! I don’t know where your mouth has been! Seriously, Stark, would it kill you to get out of your own ego and pay one iota of attention and respect to other people?! Damn it!”
Clint stormed from the kitchen, still cursing Tony’s name, and his mother’s, and that of Tony’s bastard child which probably existed somewhere in the world.
“You’re not going to defend yourself?”
Tony spun around to find Barnes sitting on the counter, his legs crossed and his back resting against the side of the refrigerator. Tony was sure the man hadn’t been there a few moments ago.
“Newton’s shriveled balls!” Tony exclaimed. “Have you been there this entire time?”
“No. I was sitting on top of the refrigerator, before. Why doesn’t anyone ever think to look up?”
“There isn’t food or coffee on the ceiling,” Tony explained.
Barnes didn’t seem concerned with where food was or wasn’t located within the common kitchen. Instead, he said, “He just called you inconsiderate and disrespectful of other people. While you’re dealing with a crisis which occured on the other side of the planet and organizing rescue and assistance.”
“People get tetchy about food,” Tony said with a shrug.
“Fine. But I don’t understand why you allowed him to treat you in such a way. After he called you an assmonkey, why didn’t you tell him to either shut up and leave you to your crisis management or inform him that food is only for those who earn it.”
“Wow. Let me guess. I am currently conversing with the Winter Soldier, right?” Tony guessed.
The man’s eyebrows furrowed. “Was it not immediately obvious? I was of the understanding that my speech and behavioral patterns were significantly different from those of Sergeant Barnes.”
“I bet they are, but I have officially had more conversations with you than with Barnes.”
“Is that so?” the soldier slowly asked. “Odd. I believed that you were unperturbed by your interaction with me because you had been exposed to Barnes for extended lengths of time.”
“Kinky. Kinky, but no. Does that mean you aren’t aware of what he gets up to when he’s in the driver’s seat?” Tony questioned.
“I am not.”
“Huh. The gang will be glad to hear that, I think. Steve will definitely be relieved to know that there isn’t a voyeur critiquing his technique when he’s making out with Barnes.”
The soldier made a face at the idea of kissing Captain America, and Tony quietly chuckled.
“If Barnes has nothing to do with your composure in my presence, then what is the reason? You can’t have forgotten that I was responsible for the death of your parents.”
Tony blinked. Because… those words, coming out of Bucky Barnes’ mouth even if Barnes wasn’t the one saying them…
With a sharp inhale, Tony told the soldier, “I have not forgotten, no. But you didn’t have any choice in the mater. You were being controlled by Hydra.”
His eyes narrowed at Tony, the soldier stated, “You didn’t know I was here. No one knew I was here. Not until you and I spoke, correct?” At Tony’s nod, he continued. “It wasn’t me you were avoiding. It was Barnes. Why?”
“Because you may not have had a choice when it came to killing my parents, but Barnes has made plenty of his own choices. They all have.”
“Ah,” the soldier hummed.
“FRIDAY says you spoke with the Winter Soldier again,” Steve said by way of greeting.
“She’s such a gossip,” Tony wearily sighed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it was a private conversation.”
“Tony!” Steve snapped, and Tony was glad he wasn’t holding anything, or else he would have dropped it. “We need to know when things like this happen! We need to protect Bucky!”
“You need to protect Bucky,” Tony snarled. “We’ve been over this, Steve! Bucky Barnes is not my responsibility!”
“How can I protect Bucky if you won’t share the information you have on the Winter Soldier with the rest of the team?!”
“I don’t know and I don’t care!”
“Tony, he’s my friend,” Steve argued.
“Well the Winter Soldier is my friend! So you look after yours, and I’ll look after mine. There. Handled. Done. Now fuck off, Steve!”
“What do you think you’re doing, Stark?”
Glancing up from his tablet, Tony asked, “Programming an automatic response system for the quinjet?”
“What are you doing with Barnes?” Lang asked with a roll of his eyes.
“Nothing. I’ve barely caught a glimpse of the guy from the corner of my eye since Christmas.”
“Yeah? You have conversations with him from the corner of your eye, too? Because word around the tower is that conversations are happening.”
Tony rolled his eyes and returned to his tablet, adding a few lines of code as he told Scott, “There have been zero point two conversations with Barnes if you count Christmas. There have been two point zero conversations with the Winter Soldier.”
“And two point zero conversations with the guy means that you’re in his corner?” Lang pressed.
“Someone has to make camp there,” Tony agreed.
“Hank was right about you. I’ll be the first to admit when Captain America asked me to have his back at Leipzig/Halle, I totally agreed because Captain America. But after hearing the rest of the team talk about you while we were laid up in Wakanada, I thought Hey, maybe this one isn’t just like the other. Hank warned me that you’d pull something like this, though. The Starks always have to have the biggest and shiniest weapons, don’t thy?”
By the end of Lang’s rant, Tony was staring at him with raised eyebrows. “Okay, you lost me there. I don’t know who Hank is, I don’t care about your pow-wow in Wakanda, and the Starks don’t make weapons anymore. You didn’t eat the green stuff in the fridge, did you? For fuck’s sake, Lang, Vision made that stuff. Vision. House Rule 41.”
“Don’t change the-”
“House Rule 41, Lang!”
With a heavy sigh, Scott recited, “Don’t eat anything made by Vision.”
“Don’t eat anything made by Vision! He’s technically related to DUM-E, Scott. They share some sort of binary code that only they can understand - like those secret languages that creepy twins sometimes speak with each other. And they share the same cooking skills, too. You’re an adult - an adult human. You should know better than to eat strange substances in the refrigerator made by-”
“Just forget it!” Scott cried, throwing his hands in the air, turning on his heel, and stomping away.
“NEVER forget House Rule 41!” Tony yelled after him.
It was three in the morning, and Tony almost tripped over Barnes.
Blinking down at the man sprawled across the floor just in front of the elevator, Tony asked, “Whatcha doin, Soldier?”
“I’m attempting to gain comfort,” he replied, his eyes remaining fixed on the ceiling above him.
“Don’t get me wrong, I used nothing but the finest and most expensive materials when building this tower, and I don’t doubt that the concrete you’re lying on is the most deliciously plush concrete you’ve ever reclined against, but if it’s comfort you want, you might consider relocating to the couch.”
His lips twisting into a sneer, the soldier informed him, “I am attempting to gain comfort by immersing myself in something familiar. you think Hydra let me kick my feet up on their couches?”
Blinking, Tony looked around.
Most of the common area was decorated in beige (Pepper nixed the red), but the elevator's lobby was nothing but white, and the elevators doors were a shiny chrome. It occurred to Tony that if the soldier wasn’t on missions for Hydra, then he spent most of his times in labs and military bases. The concrete floor, the clinically white ceiling, and the chrome finish of the lobby was probably the closest thing to familiar the soldier could find without going and loitering in the med bay, and Tony totally understood why the soldier wouldn’t want to hang out there.
“Join me in the workshop?” Tony asked. “There are concrete floors and white ceilings in there, and far fewer people to step on you. Also, food. Rhodey brought me a couple of pizzas for dinner, and I’m trying to watch my figure so I only ate one of them. You can have the others if you like.”
“What kind of pizza?” the soldier suspiciously asked.
“The kind that doesn’t have fruit, vegetables, or anything else which can pretend to be healthy.”
“Fine,” the soldier said, sitting up from his place on the floor. “Lead the way, then.”
In Tony’s workshop, the soldier forewent finding a comfortable bit of floor to lie on and made himself comfortable on Tony’s workbench, instead, straddling the seat and immediately helping himself to one of the pizzas conveniently located directly in front of him.
Tony left him to it, parking himself on the other end of the bench and resuming his soldering work.
“So how’s the workshop rank on the comfort scale?” Tony asked almost an hour later, after the soldier had eaten his fill, abandoned the workbench, and began inspecting the workshop and Tony’s bots.
“12.7,” the soldier instantly replied. “Your workshop is eerily similar to the most advanced of Hydra’s research facilities, but without the looming threat of invasive medical procedures or torture implements. Also, it’s better lit.”
“Yeah, lighting is key when establishing the difference between a safe workplace and a Hydra workplace,” Tony idly agreed. “And the rest of the tower?”
“I want my own room,” the soldier immediately stated. “It’s getting difficult to hide things from Barnes and the Captain in the quarters I cohabitate with them.”
“Hide things? What is it you’re needing to hide?” Tony asked.
“Those lovely butterfly specimens. I found them at the bottom of a trash can several weeks ago along with a copy of The Collector which I assume was meant as a holiday gift for me.”
“You did like it!” Tony crowed. “I knew you’d appreciate my offbeat sense of humor!”
“Your inappropriate sense of humor, you mean. But yes, I appreciated the gesture.”
“In that case, you can have one of the rooms in the penthouse. The room at the end of the hall is Pepper’s, and the first door on the left is Rhodey’s. Mine is the one with a door that looks like a vault entrance. The rest are up for grabs, though. Rhodey might give you a mean side-eye the first few times he sees you hanging around, but he won’t go into your room and mess with your stuff when Barnes is in the driver’s seat.”
“Good,” the soldier muttered, wandering over to the couch next to the bots and making himself comfortable in the seat as Tony began to tell the soldier the origin story of Tony-and-Rhodey’s-Epic-Bromance.
Tony didn’t stop talking until the morning, when FRIDAY sent him an alert stating that he had a meeting at 1:00 P.M., and he needed to sleep for a few hours if he didn’t want to alarm the board members with his manic energy.
With a long sigh, Tony said, “Sorry soldier, but I’m locking the place down -- it’s bedtime. The board doesn’t like me when I’m manic, and they whisper mean things behind my back about throwing me out of the company for real if they think I might attempt to take over the world while I’m sleep-deprived. Did you want to go check out…”
Tony’s words trailed away when he turned to the couch and discovered that Bucky Barnes now sat in his workshop, staring at him with an incredulous expression.
“Oh. It’s you,” Tony said by way of greeting. “How long have you been here?”
“An hour,” Barnes replied. “I have been here for an hour, with no idea where I am or how I got here. Are we even in the tower right now?”
“Yeah. This is my workshop,” Tony informed him. “The soldier likes shiny things, so he was chilling with me here. Come on, I’ll drop you off at your floor.”
At Tony’s insistence, Barnes stood from the couch, allowed Tony to heard him into the elevator, and then mechanically stepped onto his floor, still clearly thrown by the whole waking-up-in-a-strange-and-unfamiliar-place thing.
Rhodey watched with an incredulous expression as Tony set up the soldier’s room, meaning that Tony found a room which wasn’t occupied and threw a cellphone, a tablet, and a credit card on the bed, then declared his work done. If the soldier wanted to repaint or get a new bedspread, he could do it his own self.
“Rodgers and Barnes have an entire suite,” Rhodey pointed out as he followed Tony from the room and back towards the living area. “Why can’t he have one of the extra rooms in their place?”
“Because Rodgers would let himself in anytime he felt like it, rummage through the soldier’s things, and then form opinions and judgments of the soldier without actually talking to him, and he’d make decisions on the soldier’s behalf. Barnes would probably trash the place in some attempt to pretend that the soldier doesn't exist. As such, the soldier’s safe place will be on our floor.”
“But our floor is our safe place,” Rhodey argued.
“Relax, honeybun. Once you meet the soldier and get to know him, you’ll get along with him, I’m sure. He’s one of those military types you like to fawn over and buddy up with.”
“He killed your parents, Tony.”
His hands clenched into fists, Tony snapped, “I know!”
“Then why are you letting him into your home?! He’s hardly even a person!”
“Only because he hasn’t had the chance to be one, yet!” Tony replied. “He’s only ever functioned as a machine before, Rhodey. The only difference between Vision and the soldier is that Vision didn’t act as a weapon before gaining free will.”
“And again, I reiterate, the Winter Soldier killed your parents!”
“I know! And he knows! He’s admitted to it!”
“He admitted to it,” Tony said again. “No cop-outs, no lame excuses, no brushoffs. He didn’t whine about how it wasn’t his fault and didn’t have control of himself. He just… stated it as an unquestionable fact. Honestly, Rhodey, I think the soldier is doing better at coming to terms with himself than Barnes is. He’s doing better, and he hasn’t had people tripping over themselves to help him or make things easier for him. He might hardly be a person, or whatever, but I don’t think he’s a monster, either.”
Rhodey stared at Tony hard for a few moments. Then, the man released a long breath, ran a tired hand over his eyes and said, “Fine. Fine. But if he watches me while I sleep or anything like that-”
“I’ll tell him to only pull those stunts with the others,” Tony resolutely promised.
“It’s my jet. It'll wait for me,” Tony groaned, rolling onto his stomach and pressing his face into his pillow.
“Someone’s watching the tower.”
Blearily looking around his darkened bedroom, Tony realized that it was the soldier standing over his bed, not Pepper.
“Are they watching the tower through a rifle scope? Are they holding a bazooka?” Tony asked as he sat up with a sigh.
“They’re taking pictures,” the soldier growled.
“FRIDAY?” Tony asked.
“Facial analysis indicates that the photographer is Devin Lobbins, an employee of Stark Industries. Specifically, Lobbins works jointly for SI’s media division and advertising division.”
“So I pay the guy to make Stark Industries look good?” Tony confirmed.
“That’s right, Boss. It’s likely that a photograph of the tower at night beneath a quarter moon will soon appear as a background on the company’s website, considering that Lobbins has been tasked with providing a visual depiction of the tower’s green energy at work.”
“And the other photographer?” the soldier pressed.
“That would me Marcia Johnston,” FRIDAY informed him. “She’s a freelance photographer who sells photographs of high-profile celebrities to gossip publications. She’s been routinely scanning the tower’s balconies every night for the past week.”
“See?” Tony asked. “FRIDAY has it handled. Maybe next time ask her before coming in here and waking me up in the middle of the - Hey! How did you get into my room?!”
“What if the photographer wasn’t an employee or a gossip rag photographer?” the soldier replied. “What if it was someone attempting to gain insight to the tower’s schematics, the inhabitant's schedules, or-”
“The entire tower is covered in one-way glass,” Tony informed him. “We can see out but no one can see in. Also, my bedroom? It’s essentially a safe room. I lock the door for the night and it becomes almost impossible to enter-”
“They’re staring at me,” the soldier argued. “The entire far wall of my room is a window. I can feel them looking at me.”
“You seriously need to start chatting with FRIDAY. She could have told you exactly who those two people staring at you were, and then she could have blacked out your windows. Or she could have projected a view of the Caribbean over them. Or a view of a waterfall. Or a psychedelic light show. Hell, she could project a line of Bucky-Bears doing the can-can if you wanted. And then I would still be asleep and blissfully ignorant of the fact that my bedroom is not as secure as I thought it was, and I wouldn’t have to spend the next week rebuilding the security protocol-”
“The security on your room is fine. FRIDAY let me in,” the soldier snapped.
“You’re in a mood,” Tony realized. “Why are you in a mood? I’m the one who was needlessly disturbed from my rest! Do you know how often I sleep?”
“Not often enough,” the soldier stated.
“Exactly! Not often enough! Yet here I sit, growing increasingly alert by the moment, and you’re the one in a mood! Why are you in a mood?”
“I don’t know!” the soldier snapped. “I tried reading, and training, and I put in an hour at the shooting range! I rearranged the Black Widow’s knives and set-up Vision to take the fall for it! I ate unhealthy food while watching bad television! Nothing is helping.”
Blinking, Tony said, “Huh. It sounds to me like you need to destroy something.”
“What?” the soldier incredulously asked.
“It sounds like destroying something is exactly what you need. Want to help me test some of the prototypes SI is working on? I don’t build weapons anymore, but we still have contracts with the military for defensive products - armor, shields, heat-resistant materials, pressure resistant materials - let’s go check out what the kiddies in R&D have been up to and then we can go fuck up their stuff.”
“Will I get to use a flamethrower?” the soldier asked. “My handlers would never let me use flamethrowers on missions.”
“Heat-resistant materials it is!” Tony cheered as he hurried to get out of bed.
After donning experiment-appropriate clothing, Tony escorted the soldier down to the R&D floors where they found a whole floor dedicated to heat-resistant materials as well as one employee who was happy to abandon the work she was engrossed in to show them around.
“-and this is the polymer we’re developing for firefighters,” the overly eager, sleep-deprived woman explained to Tony. “Technically, we’re developing the material for all sorts of things, but the NYC fire department has agreed to help us out with field testing. We’re going to incorporate a calcium silicate base-”
“Awesome. Melony, was it? Melony, I love how your mind works. My friend here couldn’t care less, though. Think you could show us to the Blast Zone and set him up with some lights? Then, you and I can take a look at what you’re working on.”
“Sure, Mr. Stark!” the woman easily agreed, leading them into the lab and helping the soldier track down some protective gear which fit him.
The three of them remained in the Blast Zone for the rest of the night, Tony geeking out with his new buddy in R&D as the soldier gleefully came up with new and creative ways of destroying all of Melony’s hard work.
“This is great,” the woman gushed as Tony and the soldier were preparing to leave. “Donnie’s been talking about partnering on a project with one of his buddies at NASA - some of this data might give him an idea for close-contact materials to send a satellite towards the sun-”
As the woman started back towards her station, still talking to herself as she slumped into her desk chair, Tony turned his eyes to the Winter Soldier and asked, “Feel better?”
“Yes,” the soldier definitively replied.
“Told you destroying stuff would help,” Tony said with a grin. “And see here? You were able to productively destroy stuff. Now we know the limits on all of those polymers my peeps have been working on.”
The soldier hummed as he moved to lean against the elevator wall, flicking a knife from somewhere and using it to pick soot out from under his nails. He’d probably need to shower three times over in order to wash all of the soot and ash out of his hair and skin. He may have gotten a bit over enthusiastic when he was handed a flame thrower.
Tony grinned as he turned to face the doors again.
The soldier may not be showing how pleased he was with how the evening had gone, but Tony knew regardless.
“FRIDAY, is the soldier up top?” Tony asked as he hurried into the penthouse.
“He’s resting in his room, boss,” the AI reported.
Hardly pausing, Tony asked, “What do you think the likelihood is that he’ll attack me when I burst into his room and wake him up?”
“Analyzing the soldier’s previous response to sudden and unexpected stimulus… There’s a 64% chance that he’ll react violently, but with mild force,” FRIDAY informed him.
“Worth it,” Tony decided just before bursting into the soldier’s room.
As the door bounced off the wall and the lights came on, the soldier reacted within the 46th percentile as he abruptly sat upright in bed, but didn’t make any move to launch himself at Tony as he hurried into the room.
“Up and at um, Soldier! I just finished the prototypes for SHIELD’s new drones! Come on - FRIDAY says a lacky will be by to pick them up at noon. We only have five hours to take these puppies out for a spin. Come on, come on, come on.”
Tony found a discarded pair of pants on the floor and threw them at the soldier before headed for the closet.
“Dude, where do you get these things?” Tony asked as he opened the door and found the closet stocked with guns and ammunition rather than clothes. “Whatever, I don’t care.” Slamming the door, Tony headed for the dresser.
“What do you say, soldier?” Tony asked as he opened one of the drawers and pulled out a hoodie and some gloves. “Want to go incognito and head to the park with me, or should we take R8? - no, the RS7. That one has tinted windows.”
“What?” Barnes stuttered.
“Oh, it’s you,” he realized. “Damn. Don’t tell Steve.”
“Where am I?” Barnes asked.
“The soldier’s room in the penthouse,” Tony replied. “Speaking of which - you are not authorized to be here. You aren’t authorized to be here, and you have heard nothing about anything I’m working on for SHIELD-”
“Ow, stop it!” Barnes hissed as Tony began to pull him out of the bed. “I’m moving! Jeez - and I know about the drones, Stark. Natasha was talking about them last week-”
“Fine, but you don’t know anything about any progress I may or may not have made with them, capice?”
“Were you - were you going take the Winter Soldier out of the tower so that you could fuck around with SHIELD tech with him?” Barnes hissed as Tony finally got him out of the soldier’s room and into the hall.
As Tony continued to shove Barnes into the penthouse living area, Tony said, “No. Why on Earth would you think that? I swear to Thor, if you so much as even hint to Steve that I was going to do any such thing-”
“You’re damn right I’m gonna tell Steve!” Barnes snapped, firmly planting his feet on the ground and shoving Tony away from him. “What part of any of that plan seems like a good idea to you? What if he hurt someone?”
“I doubt anyone would get hurt,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes. “The bombs I put in the drones are color bombs. The powder is non-allergenic, and it doesn’t even stain clothing! It’s less surprising than most of the stuff which people see on the streets of New York, and only mildly disruptive-”
“I’m not talking about the drones, Stark! I’m talking about innocent people who might bump into him or set him off or piss him off-”
“I think you’re confusing the Winter Soldier with the Hulk,” Tony snorted. “He is capable of self control, you know, and I don’t think he has an instant kill mode or anything-”
“You’re right. He probably doesn’t,” Barnes seethed. “But probably isn’t good enough! Just… use your head! What happens if something sets him off?”
Tony shrugged. “I don’t know, the same thing that happened last time?”
“Last - what last time?” Barnes asked, his brow furrowing.
“Last time something set him off,” Tony answered with a snide twist of his lips. “Which is to say that nothing happened. Well, not nothing. He came and woke me up in the middle of the night. Usually that would piss me off, because beauty sleep, you know? I need it from time-to-time. I wasn’t too upset, though, because it was a good excuse to go down to the Blast Zone and science it up.”
“Blast Zone?” Barnes weakly repeated. “Science?”
“The Blast Zone - Stark R&D product testing facilities. The soldier operated the pyrotechnics, Melony and I took data. It was fun and productive. Unlike the outing we were supposed to go on this morning, which was only going to be fun and not productive in any way.”
“He’s interacting with other people now?” Barnes asked, still frowning.
“All the time,” Tony replied. Listing off his fingers, Tony told him, “He interacts with cab drivers and food industry employees whenever I send him to pick up take-out, he’s on a first name basis with everyone in security and even joins them for poker nights every now and again, and he watches Animal Planet with Rhodey - You’re gonna love this. One of their favorite shows is called Monsters Inside Me. Half of the episodes are about naturally occurring parasites which affect people’s neurological functions.”
“Good Lord above,” Barnes sighed, running a hand over his eyes.
“Yeah,” Tony dryly agreed. “You know it’s bad when the trigger-happy psychopath has more friends than you do.”
“Stop,” Barnes demanded.
Rolling his eyes, Tony went to the kitchen, hunting down a thermos and debating whether or not Rhodey might be amenable to terrorizing the good people of New York for a couple of hours. The two of them used to get into all sorts of trouble together before Rhodey had gone strait-laced when he started getting promoted in the military. Tony was sure that Rhodey would like to indulge once again, but at the same time, Rhodey was one of those pesky people who was mindful and considerate of others, and he prefered shenanigans which didn’t directly interfere with people’s daily lives. Maybe -
“You gave him a room in the penthouse?” Barnes asked.
“What? Yeah,” Tony hummed as he considered the pros and cons of taking the drones to the park vs taking them to touristy places, instead. My grandmother got color bombed by a superhero while visiting Time Square and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.
“Why?” Barnes asked. “There are plenty of rooms available on the Avenger’s floor. There are rooms available in Steve’s and my suite.”
“The dude doesn’t want to live with a bunch of people who hate him -slash- are scared of him -slash- don’t trust him -slash- who he doesn’t trust not to fuck with his shit. He was pissed when he realized that the glass of the butterfly box I gave him for Christmas had cracked when you tossed it in the trash. I had to buy him four more before he quit bitching about it.”
“And he… he goes outside? He goes outside and people don’t recognize him?”
“Oh, they recognize him,” Tony informed Barnes. “He gives them high-fives when they greet him as Winter Soldier. When they address him as Bucky Barnes, he gives them this ‘Aw, shucks’ spiel which you would find absolutely humiliating. The guy’s a fucking troll,” Tony finished with a laugh.
At this, Barnes was quiet for several long moments. Then, he quietly asked, “So what exactly are you doing with those drones?”