It took only seven days for Tony to fall irrationally, pathetically, and completely in love with Steve Rogers.
"He's barely been around for a week and you already want to get in his pants," Pepper scolded as Tony watched Steve pummel a punching bag from across the gym. He'd decided their business check-in meetings would be conducted there after he figured out that Steve used exercise as a way to zone out of reality. And while he was a little concerned about that whole reasoning, he couldn't resist a sweaty Captain America.
"I don't want to get in his pants," Tony protested. After a beat he corrected, "I don't just want to get in his pants."
Tony didn't know how to categorize Steve Rogers, and Tony knew how to categorize everything. Pepper insisted otherwise because the compulsion had no physical manifestation, but he had everything laid out in neat boxes in his mind. People and wine preferences and side projects all had their own subcategories and sections and levels. The other Avengers were in 'People I would trust with my life but not necessarily the lives of people I care about'. Pepper was in 'People I trust with everything', though it really should be re-titled into 'Person', as there were no other members.
Steve was in the 'Person I want to open up my chest for and show him everything inside and hope that he might feel something for me, whom I respect so much I'm almost in awe of him and would definitely like to have sex with but refuse to be anything other than serious and committed to him in a ridiculously girlish fit of romanticism' group, which hadn't even existed until a week ago.
"This is the most infatuated I've seen you since you bought the Saleen," Pepper observed, holding out a leaflet of documents for him to sign.
"He's a beautiful car and I had to have him," Tony replied. He signed the papers absently, not even close to the lines with some of them as Steve stopped for a moment to sit down on a bench to re-wrap his hands. Steve seemed to get along fine with the rest of the Avengers, friendly and unfailingly polite whenever drawn into a conversation, but he hadn't made any move to reach out on his own yet. Tony had been tracking the activity on Steve's personal computer, and when it wasn't things like 'how a smartphone works', it was history sites, looking up past wars and seeing that the world hadn't changed that much since he was around, despite all his efforts.
(Tony wasn't stalking Steve. At least, not any more than he was stalking the others. But it had been his tower before the Avengers had moved in, and he liked to at least pretend that he still had some kind of power. Besides, he was just making sure that Steve wasn't looking up anything like sites on 'How Superhumans Can Commit Suicide Because They've Been Dead for Seventy Years And Now Their Entire Life is Gone'.)
"I thought the Saleen was a 'she'," Pepper pointed out. Tony shrugged one shoulder.
"Only when it's being a bitch."
Pepper's lips twitched and she retrieved the documents, tucking them neatly back into the folder. She then leveled Tony with the Look: the one that could stop grown men in their tracks for fear of being smacked across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. It forced him to drag his gaze away from the band of skin between Steve's shirt and shorts and actually turn his head to look her in the eye.
"I'll be back from Los Angeles in a week," she said. "Don't do anything monumentally insane before I get back, alright?"
"Of course," Tony replied with a reassuring smile. Once Pepper was gone he turned his attention back to Steve, who was sitting with his head in his hands and made Tony's heart twist just from looking at him.
Three days and two sleepless nights later he was onboard a newly-designed jet bound for Western Europe, to search for a man long considered dead.
James Barnes wore a tattered blue outfit that had clear 1940s roots but with a twist: stronger and lighter material, with a flair akin to the uniform Steve had been found in—which, of course, meant the hand of Dad. Barnes was young, tall, dark-haired and handsome, with a pouty downturn to his lips that Tony suspected was a permanent fixture.
He was also frozen completely solid after spending seventy years buried beneath twenty yards of snow and ice.
Unreasonably, Tony found himself more concerned with the former than the latter.
- …I don't think we can save his arm, at least not with any level of original functioning—sir, are you listening to me? -
"Of course I am," Tony replied automatically, tearing his eyes away from Barnes' nude body to blink at the display monitors. They'd had to cut off the uniform in order to better treat the whole 'frozen' thing, and Barnes was currently suspended in a tank filled with perfluorocarbon fluid, a breathable liquid that could warm him from the inside-out.
- Please don't tell me you're more concerned ogling Sergeant Barnes than you are reviving him, sir. -
"I am not ogling," Tony said loftily. "I am ascertaining the damage to his limbs in order to determine the next course of action."
- Of course, sir, - Jarvis demurred, and Tony was positive there was a hint of humor in the AI's voice.
He walked around the side of the cylindrical tank in order to get a better look at Barnes' left arm, skirting past a table of surgical implements he wasn't entirely sure how to use—which was why he'd loaded on a medical robot that did. He'd stripped out the cargo hold of one of his lesser-used jets in order to create what was basically a compacted version of a high-performance hospital, retrofitting it with anything and everything that might help him defrost a WWII-era soldier. It hadn't been a matter of if he found Barnes so much as it had been a matter of when: because Tony had done his homework. He'd spent hours going over seized files from HYDRA bases in the 1940s, looking into their experiments on prisoners. The Kasberg facility had 'Barnes, James B' as one of their test subjects, and given what Red Skull was obsessed with at the time, it wasn't much of a leap to guess that Barnes had been one of the guinea pigs in trying to recreate Erskine's super-soldier serum.
And he had been right, of course. Preliminary scans had found traces of the serum in Barnes' blood—not a great deal, and not nearly as much as Steve, but enough that it made a difference. Enough that it had kept him alive.
"You're right, there's no saving it," Tony said quietly as he got a good look at Barnes' arm, the buoyancy in his chest over finding Steve's lost friend dipping a little. By the way they'd found him and the other injuries to his left side, Barnes had hit the ground that way, with his arm taking the brunt of the force. It was a nasty compound fracture, bone piercing through skin and wrist and fingers terribly disjointed. Third-degree frostbite had set in before the entirety of his body had shut down, and there was no possible way anything below the elbow could be saved.
Tony straightened his back.
"I'll fix him," he declared, already imagining the schematics in his mind. "How long until we're back in New York?"
- Four hours, sir. -
Tony nodded crisply, pulling up the interactive screens to start designing a new arm. He would fix Barnes. He would give Captain America back his best friend and maybe, finally, he would get to see Steve smile.
"I brought you blueberries."
To his credit, Steve didn't look at Tony like he was crazy. He just accepted the small box, taking it with that little half-quirk of his lips that he tried to pass off as a smile.
"They're from France," Tony clarified. "Also, I need to talk to you."
Steve nodded, obligingly falling into step with him as Tony meandered in the vague direction of the elevator. He'd transferred Barnes into a room on his own floor, near all the equipment he had commandeered for the retrieval in case there were complications. The man was still unconscious, his body taking longer to heal and recover from the stasis than Steve's had, but it felt wrong to have him in the building without Steve knowing he was there.
"So, has Fury given you the 'saving the world' speech yet?" he asked, going through different scenarios in his mind of how to tell Steve his best friend was still alive as they walked. Jarvis had shut down his more grand ideas—specifically the notion of throwing a magnificent party with streamers and lots of alcohol—which had left Tony rather stumped on how to break the news.
"I think he's been avoiding me, honestly," Steve admitted. "Trying to let me settle in, like one day I'll suddenly be okay with the fact everything I knew is gone."
There was an edge of bitterness in Steve's voice; a hidden trace of unhappy despair that came with outliving the people you cared about. There would always be the 'they should have lived instead of me', because that was the kind of man Steve was, self-sacrificing and loving with the tendency to bear the world on his shoulders.
"Maybe not everything," Tony offered, hedging around the truth as they entered the elevator and he punched the number for his floors. "You seemed to take to the Roadster fairly—" He paused mid-sentence, turning to Steve. "You're not allergic to blueberries, are you?"
Steve's lips twitched upward, and Tony had to smother the delight that rushed through him at the stifled expression.
"The serum cancelled out all of my allergies," Steve explained. "So, no. As for the Roadster…" his eyes softened. "Thank you for letting me tinker with it. It's nice to have something around that's as old as I am."
Tony stared at Steve for a long, blank moment, drinking in the sight of him looking something close to content. Something close to happy.
"I found your friend," he blurted.
Steve blinked at him.
"In the Alps," Tony barreled on, heading briskly for the room he'd situated Barnes in, Steve following after. Nervous anticipation tingled in his chest and he didn't like it, too used to always being in control of himself and eager to be rid of the feeling. "Under the snow—and, well, ice—but he survived; he'd been experimented on by HYDRA which kept him alive, and he's unconscious but he'll be alright—well, except the arm, but I'm working on that, it'll be even better than my suit—and, well…"
He pulled open the door and ushered Steve inside, and the very next moment had an iron grip clasped around his arm as Steve grabbed hold of him desperately, the blueberries tumbling unnoticed to the floor.
Barnes was lying on the bed in the middle of the room, hooked up to an IV and machines monitoring his vitals. He was still pale, his face still drawn—but he was alive and breathing, chest rising gently beneath the sheets. He'd broken his left leg in two places during his fall, now immobilized in a cast; that and his arm were the only things uncovered by the blankets. The mechanical arm was crude by Tony's standards, set in a socket he'd affixed to Barnes' shoulder with bare wires still showing through the pieces of sheet metal he'd cannibalized from various less-than-vital components from the jet.
"Tony," Steve rasped, and just like that, Tony's entire world revolved around him. He looked at Steve's shocked face, a little spark inside of him hoping for acknowledgement; for some sign that he'd done this right.
"That…he… Is he..?" Steve made a small motion with his hand that Tony translated into a question as to whether Barnes' revival was due to mad science or magic or both. He shook his head.
"It's him," he said gently. "Not a clone or robot or anything."
"I…" Steve took a few staggering steps forward, finally letting go of Tony's arm. The imprint of his palm still tingled, and Tony stayed near the door, watching as Steve reached the bedside to stretch out a trembling hand. He brushed his fingertips across Barnes' forehead, inhaling a shaky breath as if he was finally able to believe that he was real. He sank into the chair next to the bed, grasping hold of his friend's hand as though he would never let go again.
"Thank you," he whispered. "Tony… Thank you."
And when he looked up, eyes shining with tears and desperate, utter gratitude on his face, Tony knew then that he would take the world apart piece by piece if it made Steve Rogers happy.
"I don't get it."
Steve tilted his head rather adorably to the side as he watched the pieces of artwork scroll across the screen projected onto the wall. They had started around the 1940s and worked their way forward, indulging in the art student that had been pushed to the side after Captain America had been born. Currently up was Andy Warhol, with some pieces that Tony was almost certain were somewhere in his basement.
"Pepper sees something in them," Tony replied with a shrug, though he was honestly watching Steve more than the slideshow.
It had been three days since he'd brought Barnes—Bucky—back, and the change in Steve was incredible: it was as though a light had flipped on inside of him. He struck up conversations with the others and had even suffered through one of Fury's lectures, and his footsteps weren't so heavy and weighted when he walked. Granted, he'd practically moved onto Tony's floor—not that Tony was complaining—and taken up residence in the room next to Bucky's, still tucking himself away, but he had a reason to. He had a focus. He sat with his unconscious friend for hours, and after a few failed attempts at drawing him away, Tony had eventually just given up and gone with it. He sat at the desk and designed Bucky's arm while Steve read or browsed the internet, the two of them settling into a comfortable silence between animated conversations and forays into the current state of things.
Steve wasn't unintelligent, and he wasn't slow to learn, but he had a lot of ground to cover. Manuals gave him the knowledge to operate things but he didn't know how they worked, and whenever he asked a question out of the blue about how hybrid car engines function or satellite streaming radio, Tony was more than happy to explain it to him. They also talked about current and past culture—Black Sabbath was a must, as was a marathon of The Godfather and an introduction to Burger King—and tried to update him on modern social norms, which Tony was admittedly not all that qualified in. Steve talked a little about Dad but they both found it creepy, so he'd switched over to telling stories about the Howling Commandos instead, trading for tales of Iron Man.
He'd also talked about Bucky, usually with their hands clasped together and a gentle expression on his face—and above all else he smiled. Soft and shy, bright and brilliant; mischievous and a little sly. His eyes danced and crinkled at the corners and Tony was pretty sure that everything was right and wonderful in the world when Steve was smiling. He could devote odes and art and ridiculously expensive monuments to Steve's smile.
"Go back to the kinetic art," Steve said, part-request and part-demand. He'd been asserting himself more over the past few days, voicing his wants instead of politely suffering through, and Tony didn't bother to pretend he didn't like it. He grinned and raised a hand to scroll backward—and froze, Steve stilling beside him, as they heard a soft sound from the bed.
After a second that seemed to go on forever Steve surged up from the couch, at the bedside in an instant. Tony followed after him, admittedly interested but also taken in by Steve's hopeful excitement: there was nothing dishonest about Steve, and it was hard not to be pulled in by the emotions he wore on his sleeve.
"Bucky?" Steve breathed as he took hold of his friend's hand, raising his other to touch his fingertips to Bucky's cheek. Tony glanced at the screens, bringing up the brainwaves monitor with a flick of his fingers. The delta waves of the partial coma were gone, replaced with transitioning theta waves; and when Tony looked back Bucky's eyelids were already flickering, prying themselves open in hazy half-awareness.
"Steve," Bucky whispered, even before his gaze found his friend. It was like an automatic response, a memory of what had been on his mind before he'd hit ground; and as Tony watched, Steve's eyes filled with tears.
"I'm here," he said hoarsely, clutching onto Bucky's hand as he ran trembling fingers through his hair. "I'm here, Bucky."
Bucky's eyes finally found Steve, and when he smiled softly in recognition, eyelids already drooping again, Tony felt his breath stop in his throat.
"Steve," Bucky murmured as he faded back into sleep. It was a real sleep, one that would allow him to rest and recover, and Steve let out a soft sob of joy as he leaned down to hug him tightly, knowing he finally had his friend back.
But Tony continued staring, dumbfounded, at Bucky's peaceful face. Because Bucky had had the same look of adoration in his eyes that Tony did when he looked at Steve—the same love and willingness to do anything for him; the same readiness to lay down his life again if it would help the man who was Captain America.
And that changed everything.
"Steve, if you try to spoon-feed me one more time…"
"You need to eat, Bucky. You need to regain your strength—"
"I need you to stop shoving things in my mouth!"
Tony's lips twitched in amusement as he looked up from his engineering, watching the two men bickering across the room. Bucky sat propped up against the headboard of the bed, eyes narrowed and a stubborn set to his mouth as Steve waved a spoonful of applesauce in front of his face. Just a few days since he'd awoken and already Bucky was alert and functioning, his mind active even though his body was still weak. He'd had a mild freak-out about his arm, but he seemed to be adjusting to the whole future thing better than Steve had—which Tony suspected had everything to do with Steve being there.
"C'mon, Bucky, please?" Steve wheedled. He held up the spoon and Bucky eyed him warily.
"Just because your puppy-eyes work on the dames doesn't mean they'll work on me," he informed Steve tartly. Except Tony could see that it was working, because he wasn't able to it resist either, and Bucky's shoulders were already slumping in defeat.
Steve let out a sigh, pulling back the spoon to dump it back in the bowl, and Bucky hastily reached out to grab it from him with his good hand. He scowled and scooted away from Steve with spoon and bowl, glaring at his friend defiantly.
"I can feed myself," he declared. "Go…over there, or something."
Steve raised his hands in surrender, leaving Bucky to his own devices, but when he turned around Tony could see the smirk of triumph on his face. As Bucky settled down with a disgruntled mutter Steve crossed the room, dropping into an armchair next to Tony. He tilted his head to get a look at the design he was currently toying with.
"How's it coming?"
Tony tossed out a failed concept with steel plating and brought up the one he'd been working on involving titanium alloy, twirling his finger to move the projected screen to face Steve.
"The design is solid enough, it's just the mechanics and materials that need to be fine-tweaked. The concept is based off my armor, but with much smaller components and more delicate wiring. I have a heads-up display to control the suit; this has to connect directly into his nerves."
It was also taking much longer than Tony usually needed to design anything, but he found himself hopelessly distracted whenever Steve was around—which was all the time. Plus, the arm was his supposed reason for being there, and he didn't want to lose that excuse.
"It's incredible," Steve murmured, reaching out to touch some of the components, exploding them into larger views. Tony beamed unabashedly at the praise, preening as Steve pulled back the perspective to take in the entire arm. He raised an eyebrow with a twitch of his lips, looking over at Tony.
"Gold and red?"
"They're good colors," Tony sniffed. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
"Paint it blue," Steve replied, looking over at Bucky. The once-soldier was focusing on his bowl of food with the determination of someone not used to ever giving up, and Steve's lips curled into a fond, gentle smile. "It's his favorite color."
The expression on his face was warm and adoring, reflecting the fact that he had grown up with this man, depended on him and gone through hell with him—that he would do anything for Bucky just as Bucky would do anything for him. It was the kind of relationship, the kind of friendship, that could last and had lasted a lifetime and beyond.
And that was all it took for Tony to become completely and irrationally jealous of Bucky Barnes.
The problem was, Tony would have liked Bucky.
The man was quick-witted with a sharp tongue, unafraid to speak his mind and completely unashamed about who he was. He was capable and adaptable and would likely be utterly terrifying once he discovered the current advanced state of weaponry. He had a wicked sense of humor, gave Fury as much shit as he dealt and made Steve forget that they were two men out of their time.
However, he was also currently the complete center of Steve's world.
"Are you sure you should be up?" Steve asked, hovering worriedly as Bucky took a few tentative steps on his crutches, forehead creased in concentration. The simple mechanical arm was performing well enough, with full control of every joint down to the fingers curled around the crutch handles—but Tony was a perfectionist. He could only see what the arm wasn't, and excuse to stay around Steve or not, he was going to finish the updated model soon just so he could stop twitching over the whole thing.
"If I stay in that bed any longer I'm going to murder either myself or you," Bucky huffed, clearly fighting back a grimace of pain as he limped forward. Tony wasn't really surprised it had only taken a week before Bucky had gone stir-crazy—he would have lasted just a few days. He watched enviously as Steve rested a hand on Bucky's shoulder in support, staying with him as he slowly made his way around the room.
"We could get you a wheelchair," Steve offered. Bucky shot him a narrow-eyed glance that spoke volumes, sniffing disdainfully, and Steve rolled his eyes. He let Bucky stubbornly shuffle to the armchair near the window, where he finally sat down with a low sigh. Bucky cast Steve a suspicious look when he leaned over in full mother-hen mode, and Tony took that as a fine point to steal him away for himself.
"C'mon, Steve. I think Bucky could use a little naptime," he said, motioning to the slumped ex-soldier with a shit-eating grin. Bucky straightened at that, raising his head and baring his teeth at Tony.
"Go to hell, tin man," he said cheerfully.
"Go back to bed, scarecrow."
"Alright, alright," Steve broke in, stilling the reply on Tony's tongue. "Bucky, you just rest there for a bit, okay? I'll go get you something to drink."
"Something better than water, I hope," Bucky muttered. Steve just snorted and left the room, and Tony shot Bucky a gleefully triumphant smirk before scampering after him.
"Sorry about Bucky," Steve said as Tony drew abreast of him, casting him an apologetic smile. "He just…he doesn't like feeling helpless, that's all."
The whole 'sympathetic' muscle somewhere in Tony's chest twitched at that, despite his jealousy trying to stifle it whenever it came to Bucky. But he couldn't pretend he didn't understand—he knew all too well what it was like, to lay helpless on your couch paralyzed and completely powerless. He shrugged his shoulders easily.
"That's alright, I've had worse things said to my face. Or thrown at it," he added contemplatively.
Steve graced him with an amused look as they reached the kitchen. Dummy was near the stove trying to fix the pilot light—and probably failing, if Tony knew his demented creation. Steve walked to the cabinets with the ease of one familiar with the space, reaching into one of the cupboards to draw out a glass. It had little leaf designs on it and Tony was fairly certain it was made of crystal—and he was almost equally certain he'd broken about ten of them.
"I just want to help him," Steve sighed, placing the glass on the countertop for a moment and leaning against the white marble. "I want to make him okay. I…"
He let out a quiet breath, picking up the glass again, almost compulsively, as he toyed with it in his hands. Tony just stood and watched, listening; wanting to know if he could do anything to take that unhappy expression off Steve's face.
"I still have nightmares about him falling," Steve said softly. "After it happened, after I woke up here; even now, when I have him right there in front of me. He died--fell—because of me, Tony. He was protecting me. Just…me."
Steve swallowed convulsively, and Tony's heart ached for the unspoken thought that Steve didn't believe he was worth all that; that he thought he didn't deserve that kind of loyalty.
"I don't think I could go through that again," Steve continued lowly. "Not again. I just want him to be safe, be alive, but he still…"
He shook his head, shoulders hunching.
"He still looks at me like I'm some kind of hero. Like I'm something special. And—and it scares me. I know he'd do it all the same if given the option, and I can't…" he trailed off, quiet for a few moments before saying hoarsely, "I just can't lose him again, Tony. I won't."
In the ensuing silence, punctuated only by Dummy's soft whirring, Tony had a moment of crystal clarification that usually only came with technical breakthroughs. The love in Steve's voice was achingly deep—but the mirroring anguish was equally strong. Steve needed Bucky right now, and Tony would do anything to give Steve what he needed, regardless of anything else.
He crossed the kitchen to the liquor cabinet, pulling out the bottle of Black Pearl cognac and two tumblers and bringing them back over. He poured a generous amount into each, handing one to Steve.
Steve blinked, a puzzled frown creasing his forehead as he took the glass.
"But I can't—"
"Drink it anyway," Tony ordered. He hopped up onto the counter and after a moment Steve did as well, leaning against the cabinets as he took a sip. After a few more his shoulders lost a little of their tense set, just the familiar act of drinking loosening him up some. Tony took a healthy swallow and tilted his head back, contemplating the ceiling for a few minutes.
"I hate to break it to you, but you are something special," he said at last. "And I don't mean because of that serum they pumped into you. There weren't many people like you back when you were chosen for the project, and there definitely aren't many people like you now." He paused. "I mean, maybe Mother Teresa if she'd taken a more actively aggressive stance on peace—but you don't know her yet anyway, nevermind—"
He took another drink, gathering his thoughts back together and trying to pretend he didn't notice Steve watching him, listening intently as he spoke.
"Anyway, back to the point," he said, glancing over at Steve, meeting his eyes. "You're a good person, Steve, and that's rare. You don't really understand that because that's just how you are, but to the rest of us—you're something we're not. You're something we wish we could be like. You're honest, and kind, and selfless, and you care about everyone you meet…"
Tony stopped himself with another hurried sip of the cognac, trying to stifle the adoring words spilling from his lips. He cleared his throat, looking down at his glass before meeting Steve's gaze again.
"All I'm saying is, don't be afraid of caring for people, all right?" he said softly. "And don't be afraid of them caring for you."
He tried to ignore how close the words hit home, but by the gentle look in Steve's eyes, he wasn't hiding it well enough. But he'd done the whole lone wolf thing; he'd been in a place where he'd tried to rely solely on himself, and he didn't want Steve to go through that. Not Steve.
So, if Steve needed Bucky, Tony would urge him towards Bucky.
"Thank you, Tony," Steve murmured. Tony blinked, suddenly finding Steve standing in front of him with a glass of water in his hand, not having even noticed he'd moved. His eyes were bright blue, grateful and warm, and Tony couldn't breathe for a second, just pinned in place by the affection present in Steve's gaze.
Steve leaned up and before Tony could even comprehend that chaste lips were pressed against his own, they were already gone.
He stared at Steve's back as he slipped out of the kitchen, uncomprehending. He glanced at Dummy, who cooed at him inquisitively, and then back at the doorway.
"…What just happened?"
"He's not made of glass, you know."
"Sometimes I wonder," Steve replied, finally looking away from Bucky stubbornly limping into the medical wing amidst an escort of SHIELD doctors. He had finally been deemed well enough to withstand the tests they wanted to run, back to his former level of wellness aside from his arm and leg. And considering the man's restlessness in the past few days, Tony was fairly certain Bucky had given in out of sheer boredom.
"For some reason, I have the feeling that you shouldn't say that to his face."
Steve shook his head ruefully as he turned to Tony with a grin.
"No, that wouldn't end well," he agreed. He had that little smile that he'd been giving Tony ever since That Night: the fond upturn of his mouth and affectionate eyes that made Tony's insides go disturbingly squishy and warm. He had a special look for Bucky, too--but this particular one was for Tony, and Tony alone.
"We should go out," Tony said.
After briefly considering and then discarding the idea that Steve might know what 'going out' meant in colloquial high-school terms, Tony nodded decisively, tucking his arm through Steve's and steering him in the direction of the elevator.
"Totonno's," he said judiciously. "It's not that far, and if you want we could wander around Coney Island afterward. We'll ride some roller coasters and pretend that we're not mocking the tourists—you can shoot things and win me a big stuffed unicorn."
Steve raised an eyebrow at that, but he was still smiling and he wasn't protesting, which Tony generally took as a good sign when it came to interacting with people. He grinned back, delighted that Steve was allowing his attention to be pulled away from the stress of the tower: away from Fury's rants of doom-and-gloom, and away from his constant worrying over Bucky.
"We could also stay in," Steve suggested as they reached the elevator. Tony cast him a dubious look.
"I don't know what's in my fridge. You might only have crackers and pretzels to work with. Unless you meant you wanted me to cook--in which case we'll have to go out, because Pepper said I'm not allowed near a stove anymore."
Steve laughed, the sound warm as he punched in the number for Tony's floor.
"I'll cook. And I think I'll be able to manage to put together something," he added, eyes twinkling. "I was around for food rationing, after all."
The fridge turned out to actually be surprisingly well stocked, and when Tony asked Jarvis if he'd allowed any deliveries without notifying him, the AI was conspicuously silent. He let it go for the sole reason that it meant Steve got to cook. He sat down on one of the stools at the counter, spinning around on it a few times before settling, a small grin on his lips as he watched Steve putter around the kitchen.
"I still can't get over how...decadent food is, these days," Steve commented as he rummaged through the freezer, pulling out a bag of chicken breasts. "Drive-through meals--I never could have imagined that."
"If it makes you feel better, it's probably going to end up killing us all," Tony offered, resting his chin on his hand as he leaned against the counter. "Trans-fat, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives... Food is more dangerous in the twenty-first century."
"It was dangerous in the twentieth century, too," Steve replied, digging out some combination of spices that Tony hadn't even known he owned. "Have you ever tried military rations?"
Tony shuddered. "God, no."
Steve chuckled and pulled out a couple of eggs, cracking them open into a bowl. Tony watched him warily.
"You're not making an omelette, are you? The last time something began with an omelette I was dying and ended up destroying my own Expo."
"No, Tony, I'm not making an omelette."
"Can I kiss you?"
Steve paused at that, looking up in surprise. But he had been talking and Tony couldn't take his eyes off his lips moving and he'd been thinking about how they felt for days now. He shifted on the stool, antsy, and Steve's mouth quirked up.
"Yes, you can."
Tony was off the stool and across the kitchen before Steve even finished the sentence, taking Steve's face in his hands and kissing him hungrily. He heard a small clatter as the whisk was dropped onto the counter, Steve's fingers curling in his hair as he pulled him eagerly closer. He was more demanding than Tony would have thought, more than willing to maneuver until he got exactly where he wanted, and Tony decided then and there that he would never underestimate Captain America again.
When they finally broke apart Steve's cheeks were flushed and his lips deliciously swollen, and Tony was fairly certain he was in a similar state.
"I've been thinking of doing that for weeks," he said breathlessly. Steve leaned back in for another kiss.
"What was stopping you?"
"A clearly-misplaced sense of propriety." Tony pressed closer as Steve's hand settled on his back, drawing him in. Steve kissed like he acted, earnest and sweet with just a hint of command, and Tony would be lying if he said he didn't find it incredibly arousing. Steve laughed, pulling back to grin at him.
"Tony Stark, Moral Compass?" he teased. Tony wouldn't have blamed him for being incredulous except that, from the look in Steve's eyes, he knew he wasn't. Despite all of Tony's many character flaws and unfortunate habits, Steve honestly believed him to be a good person.
"I know, I'm going to have to change my entire image," he mourned. He reached up, cupping Steve's cheek in his palm, brushing his thumb across the soft skin beneath his eye. A rare bout of seriousness stole over him. "I didn't know where I stood with you," he admitted. "Especially when I saw how much you love Bucky."
Steve sighed at the mention of his friend, the sound one that held years of complex emotions and regretful uncertainty. But he didn't pull back, didn't move away, keeping one arm loosely circled around Tony's waist.
"I do love him," he agreed softly. "I think I've loved him ever since we were kids. We were there for each other when no one else was--when no one else cared. I don't know what I would do without him." His voice lowered. "I didn't know what to do without him. When he--fell, when he was gone...a chunk of me went with him. It was... I was almost relieved when I found out I needed to crash the plane."
Tony's grip on Steve tightened spasmodically. Steve's fingers curled against his back, like a silent reassurance that he wasn't going to do something like that ever again.
"And now... All I can remember is him dying. That he fell--that I wasn't able to save him. That I couldn't protect him. After all the years he took care of me and I couldn't reach far enough to keep him from falling."
"Steve," Tony began softly, but Steve shook his head, barreling on.
"He always protected me. He kept doing it even after the serum, after he knew I was able to take care of myself. That's why he--" Steve swallowed. "I can't lose him, Tony. I need him to be safe, I need to know that he's going to be okay."
"You can't keep him locked up forever, Steve," Tony pointed out. "You can't stop him from caring about you, not even if you try to push him away."
"I love him," Steve said plaintively. Tony leaned in to kiss him gently.
Despite the jealousy and the increasing levels of sharp-tongued taunts exchanged between them, Tony found that he was actually growing fond of Bucky. The man was unfailingly loyal and despite himself Tony respected him immensely, especially as he learned more bits and pieces of his and Steve's past. He was brave, and honorable, and despite his prickly exterior seemed to find it completely normal to do anything in his power to help other people.
And now it was clear that there was no Bucky without Steve--and that there was no Steve without Bucky. No matter what form their relationship took, the two couldn't function without each other.
Loving Steve meant, in a way, loving Bucky--and Tony found that he was surprisingly okay with that fact.
- Sir, if I may be so bold, may I point out that running around Stark Tower with a dismembered limb isn't the best way to convince Director Fury that you're of sound mind? -
"It's not dismembered," Tony snapped, poking his head into the gym only to find it empty. "It's a highly-advanced piece of technology that is completely useless unless attached to the person it was made for. And since you've turned traitor and won't tell me where he is, I have to hunt him down myself."
- Mr. Barnes was very clear in his desire to avoid you, - Jarvis replied in his ear, and the AI sounded like it was getting far too much enjoyment over Tony's distress. He scowled.
"I made you!" he railed. A few passing SHIELD agents cast him concerned looks as he stalked down the hallway, apparently talking to himself while carrying a mechanical arm slung over his shoulder. "When I'm done with this I am definitely reprogramming your loyalty functions."
Fury had finally managed to wheedle a semi-public appearance out of Steve, at last able to give the adoring people some news about their re-found hero. It helped that the president himself was dying to meet Steve--which in turn tugged on Steve's innate sense of duty--and so Fury had bundled him into a jet before he could change his mind, flying them off to Washington for a few days of press conferences.
Predictably, before he had left, Steve made Tony promise he would make sure Bucky didn't get into too much trouble.
Also predictably, by the time Tony had turned around, Bucky had already disappeared.
"Whatever happened to the second law?" Tony grumbled, pushing open the door that led to the room they'd designated as the Avengers' meeting area. Clint and Thor were talking near the windows but when they looked up Tony ignored them completely, going right out through the door on the opposite side of the room toward the direction of the observatory. "You're supposed to obey my orders."
- If you recall, sir, you decided that Asimov's Laws were 'too constrictive' when you designed me. However, if I were bound by those laws, I would have to disregard the second in favor of the first, as my allowing you to locate Mr. Barnes would likely lead to you being injured. -
"He's on crutches!" Tony spluttered. "How dangerous can he be?"
- Apparently, very. He is rather formidable with throwing knives. -
Tony halted in his tracks, eyes narrowing.
"Where did Bucky get throwing knives?"
- From Agent Romanoff, sir. -
"Her!" Tony seethed, doing an abrupt about-face. "Why is it always her? I swear my life has been nothing but complicated ever since she showed up."
- Yes, because things were always so peaceful, before. -
After he'd graciously allowed the Avengers to take up residence in Stark Tower, Tony had also graciously installed a firing range in the basement. It was split between a sound-proof area with both stationary and moving targets for guns, and another area for bows and throwing knives and whatever demonic new trinkets Natasha had designed to hurt people with.
Tony found Bucky at the very end of the range, his crutches lying on the floor beside him as he sat backwards on a folding chair, bad leg stretched out to the side in front of him. A wicked-looking bandolier of throwing knives were slung over one shoulder, half of them already gone--buried in neat concentric circles around the bullseye on a human-shaped dummy.
"Alright, I have to admit that's a little terrifying."
Also incredibly hot, but even Tony knew how to censor himself. Sometimes.
Bucky cast him an amused look, though he did weigh the knife in his hand contemplatively for a moment. After seeming to decide he was not, in fact, going to impale Tony, he tucked the knife into the bandolier and leaned back, tilting his head to the side.
"That for me?"
"What?" Tony blinked. Then he belatedly remembered the arm over his shoulder. "Oh. Yes. I haven't attached all of the plating yet in case there needs to be rewiring done--which there won't be--but it'll be an upgrade either way."
Bucky nodded, lifting up the bandolier and dropping it on the floor next to his crutches. He'd been throwing with his good arm, and it hadn't passed Tony's notice that he was loathe to use the mechanical one all that much. He handed the new arm to Bucky and dug out the tools he'd shoved into his belt, starting to unscrew the crude connections of the old arm to the socket in Bucky's shoulder.
"So, any particular reason for running off today?" he asked, letting the screws drop carelessly to the floor. Bucky snorted.
"You're not my babysitter."
Tony raised an eyebrow.
"Steve's the only one who gets that distinction?"
"Steve thinks he is. He's not."
Tony gently twisted the arm joint back and forth to loosen it, eliciting a low hiss. He glanced over at Bucky, who was frowning at him as he watched.
"I suppose this is where you go on to say you can take care of yourself perfectly fine."
"Apparently not well enough."
Tony paused, surprised that he didn't get the snarky answer he had been expecting. Bucky looked away moodily at the floor, silent and brooding, and he sat back on his heels for a moment to look up at him. He'd been too busy stealing kisses and touches from Steve for the past week to really comprehend the quietness that Bucky had fallen into, but, yeah, he got it now.
Tony studied him for a few more moments, taking in the tense set of his shoulders and the unhappy downturn of his mouth.
"You don't think I'm good enough for him, do you?"
To his credit, Bucky neither avoided the question or lied.
"No, I don't."
His pride oddly unhurt because of the frank reply--and because he knew it was true, they both knew it was true--Tony nodded slowly.
"You aren't, either," he pointed out, not taunting or petty but honest; matter-of-fact. Bucky smiled briefly, the expression crooked.
The unspoken 'but he picked you' hung between them, and Tony didn't know how to deal with that sort of thing. He couldn't find it in himself to feel smug or superior, because this wasn't the place for it--not something this important, not something so dear to both of them. After a while he motioned questioningly to Bucky's arm, receiving a brief nod in return, and he carefully finished removing the old model. Bucky's teeth ground together as it slid from the socket but otherwise he didn't make a sound.
"This might feel weird," Tony warned as he took the new arm, no stranger to having foreign things embedded in your body. He waited until Bucky was ready before sliding the connectors into the socket, the piece automatically attaching itself to Bucky's shoulder.
Bucky yelped and then Tony was flying across the room--hitting the ground with a new appreciation for the pain he inflicted on unarmored people while in his Iron Man suit.
"Well, we know it works," Tony called cheerfully, staring up at the ceiling for a few minutes as he tried to regain his bearings. A concerned face eventually encroached on his vision and he looked up as Bucky extended his mechanical hand to help him, leaning on one of his crutches as he searched Tony's face worriedly.
Tony reached up to clasp Bucky's hand, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. As he saw the look in Bucky's eyes a delighted grin stole across his face.
"You were actually worried about me, weren't you?"
Bucky gaped at him.
A moment later he turned in a huff, limping back over to retrieve his other crutch and the bandolier of knives--but not before Tony saw the flush that stole across his cheeks.
"In your dreams, tin man."
Bucky headed for the elevator, shoulders set and back stiff, and gruffly ignored the smug smirk that played around Tony's lips for the rest of the day.
Tony froze in place, the muzzle of his gun pressed against Bucky's throat. Steve's voice was hoarse, strangled, and Tony twisted around so he could look at him in surprise, ignoring the man squirming beneath him as he sat straddling Bucky's hips.
Pain exploded in his jaw and Tony threw himself back with a howl, clutching at his chin as Bucky scrambled to his feet.
"You cheater!" Tony sputtered, spitting blue paint onto the floor. Bucky just shot him a toothy grin, though the smug expression was dampened a little by the way he was panting and the splotches of yellow staining his vest.
"You've never been in a real combat situation, have you?"
"I have so!" Tony protested. Bucky raised an eyebrow, snorting.
"That tin suit doesn't count."
They both paused, turning back around to look at Steve. The panicked expression was only now beginning to fade from his face, leaving him flustered and confused. He also had to have just gotten back from Washington--he was still wearing a suit, Italian and black and expensive, and Tony very blatantly ogled him in admiration.
"You look good," he commented with a grin. The tips of Steve's ears turned pink and he glanced involuntarily at Bucky, who was thankfully otherwise occupied by a jam in his paintball gun. Steve raised questioning eyebrows and Tony shrugged. Bucky knew about them and he wasn't going to come between them--and after the past few days of relaxed camaraderie he might even approve a smidgen--but Steve's guess was as good as Tony's when it came to the enigmatic man's feelings on the subject. Unhappy and disappointed were certain, but Tony knew that Bucky was also utterly selfless when it came to things that made Steve happy.
"Thor said you were down here shooting at each other," Steve said, walking further into the massive room. Half of the entire floor was devoted to a convoluted paintball course (because when you were rich and liked shooting people in a friendly manner, you were allowed to do these things), while the other half was made up of a mini theater and a climate-controlled storage room that housed Tony's extensive collection of comic books.
"Well, we were, technically," Tony pointed out as Bucky came over to join them, clinking along the way. Steve stared blankly at the brace now encompassing his friend's leg, and Tony beamed with pride.
"I--we," he added as Bucky shot him a glare, "Made that while you were gone. It's basically just a technologically-advanced cast. He didn't break the knee itself, so the joint is still able to move--and don't worry, there's no stress on the leg to get in the way of healing; it has a built-in suspension system. The entire thing is operated pretty much automatically in conjunction with the good leg. It's actually very ingenious," he said modestly.
"You have no concept of humility, do you?" Bucky mused.
"What? It's a brilliant design."
Bucky rolled his eyes and clapped Steve on the shoulder--with his bionic arm, which he had taken to utilizing more often, which made Tony absurdly pleased--before heading toward the elevator.
"Welcome back. I'm going to go wash the paint out of my ear; you two have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"That's not much!" Tony called after him. Steve watched as the elevator doors closed on Bucky's rather rude gesture before turning back to Tony, shaking his head.
"I'm kind of amazed you two didn't kill each other while I was gone," he admitted in that plaintive, 'I don't know what just happened' tone of voice he sometimes had. Tony smiled fondly and tucked an arm around his waist, completely unconcerned about the paint rubbing off on his suit as he pulled him close.
"We've come to an understanding." He raised a hand as Steve opened his mouth with a worried frown. "Bucky wants you happy, you know that. So he'll be okay with anything that makes you happy. But he does still love you."
'And you'll have to deal with that eventually,' Tony wanted to add, but kept his mouth shut for once. It was probably a wise decision, by the emotions that warred across Steve's face: concern that Bucky was still undyingly loyal combating with the relief that he still cared about him.
Tony spared a lamenting moment to wonder how he had landed in such a tangled mess of repressed and unspoken and implicit emotions--but it passed quickly. He knew this was where he wanted to be.
"You know, I think we scarred him for life."
Steve let out a breathlessly wry laugh into the crook of Tony's neck, warm air tickling against his skin. He nuzzled his ear gently, worming his way closer beneath the light sheet thrown over them.
"It was kind of his turn. I can't remember how many times I walked in on him with some girl when we shared an apartment."
Tony grinned, because, yeah, that was typical Bucky. But he still felt bad.
The past month had been spent in a kind of sleepily blissful haze, punctuated by a few scattered missions Fury had sent them on in order to test Steve's readiness. Bucky's leg had healed up--a side effect of the serum, which seemed to have advanced his body's ability to repair itself quickly--and he'd accompanied them on some as well, slipping into the role of advance scout that Tony knew he had taken during the war. Between rather ridiculously easy assignments Tony was able to enjoy Steve completely, taking him on outrageously expensive dates and curling up with him on the couch to watch classic movies and going to sleep with him at night and often doing more than just sleeping at night.
They'd tried to be discreet in the beginning, worrying about Bucky's reaction, but he took the whole thing in stride, not even batting an eyelash when Steve was laying with his head in Tony's lap or when Tony draped himself over Steve when he cooked. They had nevertheless tried to be careful about when they sex, because Steve was, in ways, still adorably prude.
However, there was no avoiding it when Bucky had gotten back early from a meeting with Fury to find them tangled together on Tony's workroom cot.
(Tony wasn't entirely sure how he felt about the fact that when he'd caught sight of Bucky's wide blue eyes he'd immediately come all over himself.)
To his credit, Bucky hadn't even tried to make the situation any less awkward. He'd just cleared his throat and stepped back out the door; leaving Tony to delight in the bright pink flush that suffused every inch of Steve's body. It had taken a bit to get Steve back into the mood, but Tony was nothing if not determined.
"You really should to talk to him, you know," he commented as he lazily traced his fingers down the defined lines of Steve's back.
"I am not bringing this up in conversation with him ever."
"I meant in general. I think he spends more time with me in the workshop than he does with you, lately."
His tone was light, but Tony had felt increasingly worried as he'd observed the two's interaction. He had grown incredibly fond of Bucky, certainly, appreciating his dry wit and having company while he worked on whatever project currently held his attention. But even as he and Bucky became closer, Bucky and Steve moved further apart: both trying to distance themselves to try to dull the ache. Tony knew they were close to a breaking point, the relationship strained and stressed, and he knew that something had to happen sooner or later.
"He's been getting along with the others, too," Steve pointed out, though even he seemed unconvinced. It was true, though: Clint and Bucky had become fast--if terrifying--friends, and Tony was seriously contemplating keeping Bucky away from Natasha because the two always looked like they were plotting. They spoke in Russian and exchanged notes on assault rifles and Bucky had come back on more than one occasion with new and even more alarming tiny projectile implements of death.
"I don't think that's really a good thing," Tony muttered.
- Incoming message, sir, - Jarvis said, and Tony let out a groan.
"I already told Fury--"
- It's Mr. Barnes, sir. -
"Oh. Well, patch him through."
Steve sat up quickly, nearly knocking his head against Tony's jaw as they both scrambled out of bed. Bucky's voice was faint, strained, and fear coiled in Tony's stomach as he grabbed for some kind of clothing, Steve yanking on his underwear.
"Bucky? Bucky, it's Tony. Steve and Tony. What's wrong? Where are you?"
"Jarvis, track his signal," Tony snapped as he raced barefoot to his workshop, Steve on his tail. He practically threw himself into his armor as Steve pulled on his gear, bringing up the tracer as soon as his helmet was on.
- Tracking. New England. Connecticut. Southwest Connecticut. -
"We're going to be there soon, Bucky," Steve said as he grabbed his shield, slinging it across his back. There was a hint of a waver in his voice, an inability to hide the terror he was feeling, and Tony felt it resonate in his chest.
- Derby, Connecticut. Edward Marlowe Psychiatric Asylum. Basement level. There appears to be significant damage to the exterior of the building, sir. -
Tony turned to Steve, about to offer to stick with him, but was cut off by a sharp negating motion of Steve's hand.
"Go. Get to him. I'll follow you in the jet."
Tony didn't question the order. He nodded curtly and sprinted toward the open balcony, hurling himself out into the air and soaring toward the clouds, going supersonic as soon as he was high enough above the city.
"We're coming, Bucky."
'Significant damage' didn't begin to cover the smoldering ruin that was the Marlowe Asylum.
The entire east wing was reduced to rubble, walls blown out and floors leveled; burst pipes gushing water and small electrical fires flickering in the blasted-out rooms. Paramedics and firefighters were already at the scene, escorting patients out of the building who looked as though they had been tortured more than rehabilitated. The air was thick with dust and smoke and the tang of arc reactor technology, traces of the energy signature identical to the modified flight-stabilizer Tony had installed in the palm of Bucky's bionic arm.
- Information from Director Fury, sir. Edward Marlowe is an alias used by Johann Fennhoff, who also calls himself Doctor Faustus. He has been under SHIELD observation for some time due to his advancements and study of cybernetics, as well as his interest in psychological warfare. In his native Austria he was brought up on charges of human experimentation, and disappeared for a time before resurfacing here in Connecticut. Mr. Barnes was sent to infiltrate the Asylum in order to install cameras to allow for detailed monitoring of the premises. -
Tony dove right into the middle of the chaos, landing in a lab amidst shattered glass and broken lab equipment. There were old bloodstains beneath the ash covering the floor and he felt something sick rise in his gut.
"Surveillance and infiltration are child's play to Bucky. Something had to have gone wrong. Are you picking up any trace of him?"
- The infrared scanner can only pick up generalized heat signatures at the moment due to the fires. X-rays indicate a number of human bodies, all unmoving. Blueprints of the building show that a stairwell leading to the basement is down the corridor to your left, if you exit the room you are currently in... -
Tony raised his hand and blew the walls apart.
- ...or, of course, you could just destroy everything in your path. -
Tony didn't bother dignifying that with a response as he sprinted through the passage he'd just created. He leapt down the stairwell, covering the distance a landing at a time until he reached the bottom. The area he entered was less a basement and more of an underground bunker: thick walls and heavy doors, dim lighting flickering as he stalked through the mess. He passed rooms that had exam tables with chains for restraints; cramped cells with fresh blood on the cots. There were bodies of what looked to be guards masquerading as orderlies littering the halls, and Tony couldn't say that he didn't feel a vicious satisfaction as he passed by them.
The trail of carnage led him to a vaulted room that was accessible through a subcellar. An impressive array of screens lined the walls: some displaying blank white, some playing what appeared to be footage of Nazi interrogations. What was probably very expensive equipment was now mangled and strewn about the room--as well as a pair of creepily lifelike robots with generic human faces and empty, soulless eyes. They were in pieces tossed in one corner of the room, unmoving and destroyed.
And at the center of the destruction lay Bucky, prone and bloody beneath a chunk of heavy machinery. Tony's chest tightened and he raced to his side, pulling the twisted metal component off him like it was paper, dropping to his knees and gathering Bucky in his arms. Bucky's bionic arm was uselessly mangled, pieces of plating torn off and the joint connecting wrist and hand severed; little sparks fizzing from unconnected live wires. Blood stained the front of his shirt but initial scans showed a relieving lack of serious damage to his body, and as soon as they were complete Tony retracted back his helmet.
Bucky twitched, head lolling to the side as he struggled to come back to consciousness. Tony reached up to brush some of the blood-matted hair away from his forehead, wishing not for the first time that his suit had more tactile capabilities--and then Bucky's eyes flew open, wide and unseeing.
Bucky's gaze snapped to Tony's, some of the residual fear draining away as he focused on his face. He licked his lips.
"Tony?" he rasped.
At Tony's reassuring, worried nod, his mouth curled up, a slightly hysterical laugh escaping him. "I thought you were smaller."
Bucky sighed, resting his head against Tony's chest: against his arc reactor, which sent a shiver through the armor and through him. He tightened his grip on Bucky gently as he spoke again, voice tired and strained.
"On his way," Tony reassured. Bucky tilted his head in a miniscule nod and waved his hand toward a corner of the room.
Tony looked in the direction Bucky was pointing, spotting a figure he hadn't noticed before. There was an older man in a labcoat pinned lying unconscious on the floor, his lower body trapped beneath a blasted-out wall. Tony narrowed his eyes as he stood up, Bucky cradled carefully in his arms.
"Someone else can deal with him. Let's get you out of here."
Bucky didn't even put up a token protest. He just laid his cheek against Tony's arc reactor like he was sure he was going to take care of him, make sure he was alright, and a kind of honored pride crept over him. He carried Bucky to the stairwell and lifted off, taking him away from the wreckage of the asylum. When he set down on the grass Steve was already running toward them at full-tilt, the jet having landed on a nearby freeway in lieu of an actual airstrip; a group of SHIELD agents heading toward the asylum. Steve reached them just as Tony was helping Bucky get his feet on the ground, Bucky's good arm still wrapped around his neck for support.
"Bucky," Steve croaked, the sound stressed and terrified and broken as he skidded to a halt. He reached out, hands searching as he looked Bucky over for any serious injuries, patting him down frantically as if to reassure himself he was still there.
Once he was done he took Bucky's face in his hands, pressed close and kissed him like the world was ending.
Tony blinked as Bucky let out a soft sound: at first surprised that Steve was finally giving in to his feelings, and then at the fact that he wasn't even the slightest bit jealous. After a brief moment of contemplation he discovered that he actually had the same compulsion--which led him to the realization that he also, in fact, loved Bucky Barnes.
"Huh," he said, and was ignored by both.
"Don't you ever--I swear to god, Bucky--"
"Steve, I'm alright," Bucky rasped. "I'm alright."
"Why didn't you call us sooner?" Steve whispered, his hands still cupping Bucky's face, thumb brushing across his cheek. "We would have come. You know we would have come."
"I know," Bucky replied softly, glancing away. "I just thought I wouldn't need help. You guys...you don't need me anymore, not with how you work together. So I shouldn't need--"
"Don't finish that sentence," Tony warned.
"And don't you ever think we don't need you," Steve said fiercely. He waited until Bucky nodded, cheeks flushed, before letting out a shaky sigh and leaning in to press a kiss to his forehead. "You stupid jerk," he said softly, without heat. "You scared the hell out of me."
"Not to mention sending SHIELD into an uproar. What the hell happened, Barnes?"
Bucky straightened as Fury walked over, the soldier drilled into him taking over. Tony and Steve both shot the man dirty looks, hovering protectively around Bucky, wanting to get him back to the tower as soon as possible.
"Sir. I had half of the building wired before I was...compromised." Bucky said the word distastefully, as if it shouldn't belong in his vocabulary. "Apparently Faustus had the underground cells on a timer that distributed hallucinogenic gas at regular intervals. I was there when it went off."
Bucky's voice was calm, matter-of-fact, but Tony suspected there was more to the story. Irrelevant to the report, but significant to him.
"When I came back to my senses I was strapped down to an exam table. I thought..." his brow furrowed. "I thought I was back at HYDRA's Kasberg base. Arnim Zola and Johann Schmidt were there, and I was in Zola's lab, being..."
He glanced away, and Tony suddenly realized the reason for the Nazi interrogation tapes being played around the room he'd found Bucky in--as well as the blank-faced robots, empty and generic to allow Bucky's mind to project itself onto them.
"The gas did something to my perception," Bucky continued stoutly. "It took me a while to remember the present, that I had a way of freeing myself. I got out once I did, and released as many of the 'patients' as I could before going back to find Faustus, and then..."
He shrugged, in a 'the rest is history' sort of manner. Tony tightened his grip on Bucky's shoulders, getting a surprised look in return that melted away into gratefulness.
"I'll have the scientists look into what Faustus was working on, analyze the compounds he was using on his patients," Fury said, nodding to himself. "In the meantime, you get back to base, and get checked out by the doctors for any lingering effects. I'm assuming your escorts can manage that?"
"We'll see what we can do," Tony said breezily, already tugging Bucky away towards the jet. Steve got out a quick replying affirmative before catching up with them, slipping an arm around Bucky's waist just because he could; both of them holding him up.
"Come on. Let's get you home."
"Sometimes I wonder if you just don't like it when I make you nice things."
Bucky snorted, rolling his eyes and turning his head to the side as if he could dismiss Tony from his attention. It was a futile gesture, however: Tony had finished his arm while Steve and Bucky had been sleeping, so Bucky had barely been awake before Tony was straddling his hips, pinning him down so he could attach the newly-complete totally-not-breakable-anymore arm.
"Why don't you ever make me nice things?" Steve asked with a mock pout, a smile on his lips as he laid on Bucky's other side, absently tracing designs on the skin of his good arm.
"You don't regularly break yourself," Tony informed him. "And you don't require a doctorate in robotic engineering and millions of dollars to operate."
"Just a manual," Bucky added, grinning unrepentantly when Steve punched him in the shoulder. He looked down as Tony connected the wires between elbow and forearm, the fingers of his bionic hand twitching reflexively.
"Fury was saying the other day that the lab would probably be able to come up with a lifelike cover for your arm," Steve commented, laying his head against Bucky's shoulder as he watched Tony work. "It would look and feel real."
Tony raised his head in alarm, a crestfallen expression on his face.
"What? Why? That completely defeats the purpose. I disapprove of this idea." He scowled. "I won't allow it."
Bucky and Steve both stared at him for a moment before bursting out into laughter.
"Why am I not surprised that technology gets him hot?" Bucky snickered, turning his head to smirk into Steve's hair. Steve just shook his head, grinning at Tony.
Tony narrowed his eyes, slipped two fingers into the wiring of Bucky's arm and twisted.
Bucky's back arched off the bed, his eyes huge and mouth falling open with a choked, strangled whine. His fingers clenched in the sheets and his toes curled against the mattress and a few wracking, helpless shudders rocked through his body; the muscles of his stomach tightening as he orgasmed hard and sudden with a breathless gasp.
"It's amazing what you can do with electronically-controlled nervous systems," he said casually. Beneath him, Bucky let out a quiet whimper, and Steve was suddenly eyeing the arc reactor in his chest with a speculative, calculating expression. He glanced down at Bucky, who was still trying to regain the ability to breathe, and then back at Tony. He licked his lips.
"And just how connected is your nervous system?"
Tony grinned, eyes half-lidded and smug as he sat back on his heels.
"Why don't you come find out?"