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A Precarious, Fragile Thing

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Tony Stark was very much aware he wasn't the only Avenger to ever have nightmares. The only one who didn't, he was sure, was Phil Coulson. But that was because he was a zombie who Tony still wasn't talking to because of the whole 'he's dead—kidding!' thing.

Zombies, Tony was fairly certain, didn't dream at all. Though they still looked remarkably dapper in a suit and tie, and constantly managed to sound disinterested, vaguely amused and faintly disproving whenever they spoke to you. Or rather, whenever they spoke to Pepper with you standing right next to her because you refused to speak to them. And they made a lot of snide comments.

Tony stopped blearily outside the elevator, trying to remember where the hell his train of thought had actually started before it derailed so spectacularly. Nightmares. Right. And he'd been dreaming about zombies. Not Coulson; actual, dead-people zombies who shambled around and stared at him with the hopeless, accusing eyes of everyone he cared about, after he'd let them all die.

It'd taken him a couple minutes to remember that Pepper wasn't in the tower because she was in Kashmir. Not because she was dead.

But luckily, Tony knew damn well he wasn't the only resident of the tower who on any given night might wake up screaming. Which was why he was standing stupidly outside the open elevator door that was there to…take him to the common floor. Yeah. Exactly.

He got in.

J.A.R.V.I.S. had helpfully told him Steve and Bucky were there, watching Cars, because sometimes your brain hated you so much that all you could handle was fucking animated kids' movies. And what did it say about Tony's life that he couldn't think of anything he'd rather do right then, than watch a primary-colored, pixilated love-letter to a fucking archaic auto-route in the company of a national icon and a former assassin?

Well, it was either do that or go to his workshop, and he was so rattled from the nightmare that all the caffeine in Sumatra wouldn't keep him from blowing up something tonight. And Pepper was on a Stark Industries world tour, and right now Tony really, really didn't want to be alone.

He shuffled, yawning, out of the elevator, mentally queuing his back-up plans in case the world's most adorable relics were both asleep or doing something he'd rather not know about unless he could participate. He couldn't see them, but he could hear soft chuckling in the vicinity of the couch, so he figured it was okay.

Tony didn't say anything to announce his presence because traumatized assassin. But he knew the elevator made enough subtle noise to alert people without freaking anyone the hell out, and he made sure to walk audibly on his bare feet. Steve's hand rose up over the back of the couch in a sleepy little wave, and Tony smiled in relief.

He rounded the couch, intending to sit down, only to stand there blinking at how thoroughly occupied it was. Steve had bogarted most of the couch cushions to elevate his back on one end, and the rest of him was stretched out with his feet against the opposite arm. And Bucky was draped over him like a particularly lumpy blanket, with his head probably crushing Steve's right collarbone and his arms tucked under Steve's back. Tony wasn't sure how Steve managed to be breathing under that kind of weight, but he seemed fine. Content, even, by the way he had his arms wrapped around Bucky's back with his hands underneath his tee-shirt.

He grinned up at Tony, looking apologetic and slightly defiant in that way only he could. He'd been the one chuckling at Lightning McQueen's lack of work ethic, despite how the sound from the television was so low Tony could barely hear anything. But Tony had known Steve long enough by now to see the unhappiness in the tiny creases next to his eyes, as well as the hollows under them.

Bucky was so deeply asleep he'd barely stirred when Tony came in, but he was clinging to Steve like even dead to the world he was afraid he'd lose him. He'd wrapped that child's beaded necklace of his around his left wrist, and there were a couple precise lines of Bucky's random objects on the table, with the open box next to them.

Tony looked at the box, then back to Steve. "Bad night?"

He'd barely done more than mouth the words, but of course Steve heard him anyway. He nodded, mouth twitching miserably. "Bad week."

Tony nodded in understanding, then flopped into the loveseat kitty-corner to the couch. "Nothing like a megalomaniac intent on mass murder to bring back the good old days, huh?"

"Yeah," Steve sighed. He rubbed Bucky's back, smiling softly down at him like the man currently drooling on his chest was the most beautiful, precious thing in the world.

It made Tony miss Pepper a little more than he already did.

"How can you breathe like that?" Tony asked, because the only thing worse than being awake after a nightmare in the middle of the night was getting maudlin while being awake after a nightmare in the middle of the night.

Steve shrugged and Bucky made a vague grumbling noise. "I've gotten used to it."

"I didn't know he did that," Tony said. He knew Bucky liked tucking himself so far under Steve's arm that it was like he was trying to climb into his armpit. But he'd always stayed upright, just kind of plastering himself against Steve's side. This blanket thing was new.

"Seventy years of skin hunger," Steve said. His voice was just as soft, but for a moment his eyes flickered hot with anger, bright as the candy-colored screen. "He was always tactile. Now, when things get…well, sometimes it helps. The contact."

Tony nodded, looking at Bucky's collection. It'd grown again—he was sure that purple barrette was a recent acquisition. About a month and a half ago he'd kept Bucky company after a nightmare. They'd watched a movie, kind of like this, except Bucky had wrapped himself in a quilt and sat silently the entire time; next to Tony but nowhere near enough to touch. Tony had assumed the kid had wanted some space, had made sure not to crowd him. Now he remembered the way Bucky had been clutching the blanket and wished to hell he'd said something. Tony had done far weirder things with people he cared a hell of a lot less about.

And it looked…nice, the two of them together like that: Comfortable. Familiar. Safe. Tony knew what a precarious, fragile thing it was, to feel safe in the middle of the night.

Steve shifted Bucky slightly and went back to watching the movie. He gestured at the TV with the remote, wordlessly offering to turn the sound up. Tony waved him off with a smile of thanks. He'd seen the movie—of course he had, there were cars in it—and while he'd enjoyed it the dialogue wasn't exactly scintillating. Instead he lay curled up on the loveseat with one of the cushions as a makeshift pillow and another one wrapped in his arms. It wasn't anything like spooning with Pepper, but he was comfortable and he wasn't alone.

On the screen the little car-town had been invaded by throngs off car-reporters, and even with the sound almost off the clamor of voices made Bucky startle awake with a sudden sharp intake of breath.

Steve let go of him instantly and Bucky rocked back onto his knees, but he just blinked a few times before he apparently got his bearings. He grimaced and wiped his mouth, then blinked again when he noticed Tony and moved even further away from Steve. "How long was I out?"

"About half an hour, I think," Steve said. He reached for him. "C'mere."

Bucky rubbed an eye with the side of his hand. "What'd I miss?"

Steve's mouth twitched unhappily and he kept his arms up for a moment, but Bucky stayed where he was. Steve let out a small breath and looked at the screen. "Not that much. Um, Lightning McQueen repaired the road, everyone celebrated, and then all these reporters showed up."

"Oh. That much, huh?" He sounded disappointed.

"J.A.R.V.I.S., could you please restart the movie at the part before Blanket Barnes fell asleep?" Tony said, and then remembered that he maybe should've asked Steve and Bucky first. Pepper kept reminding him that people didn't always appreciate unilateral decisions.

But, "Certainly, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said before Tony could stop him. The picture blinked back to Lightning McQueen trying to pull an ancient paver that had a name but wasn't alive, unlike all the other vehicles. Which was actually sort of creepy.

"Um, sorry," Tony said.

"No, it's fine. Thanks," Bucky said, sounding much happier. "J.A.R.V.I.S., can you turn it up a little so Tony can hear it?" He smiled sweetly at Tony. "He's really old."

"Screw you, drool bucket."

"Buck? You gonna lie back down?" Steve asked him.

Bucky glanced at Steve, then at Tony and gave a tiny shake of his head. "Naw, I'm all right."

Steve sighed and sat up, tiredly replacing the couch cushions. He put his feet on the floor and stretched his arm along the back of the couch. But he smiled when Bucky immediately tucked himself against Steve's side.

Tony blinked at them a few times, then figured it out. "Pause the movie, J," Tony said.


"Seriously, Barnes?" Tony talked right over him. "I made you hot chocolate while you huddled in your ridiculous moose hoodie and watched How to Train Your Dragon a few weeks ago. When I came in here you were covering Steve like a bad rash and slobbering on his tee-shirt. And you're watching a Pixar movie, for fuck's sake. Any lone-wolf emotionless assassin street cred you may've had is long gone. Just lay down."

Predictably, Bucky just glowered at him, but he did scooch slightly closer to Steve, which Tony decided was enough of a win. "Roll 'em, J."

The movie continued. Lightning paved the road and fell in love with the blue lawyer car and was ambushed by paparazzi cars and finally got to the big race in California. Tony kept sneaking glances at Bucky and Steve, and was smugly pleased to notice that Bucky quietly melted against Steve as the movie went on, until he was kind of curled on Steve's chest with Steve's arms wrapped around him. Tony had no idea how it could possibly be comfortable for either of them, but what the hell. They looked happy.

Tony missed Pepper.

The climactic, three-car race for the Piston Cup finally happened, and the villain green car wrecked the nice blue one and Lightning noticed and went back to help King instead of winning.

It was a touching moment (fuck you, Pixar), but Tony still didn't really understand why Lightning didn't just cross the finish line first and then go back for the wrecked King. One simple circle onto the grass would've done it. But no. Instead he stopped two feet from victory, waited until Chick won, then waited a bit more for some reason, and then finally went back and pushed King across so that King came in ahead of him.

Sure, Tony got it intellectually that it made for a cooler plot if the hero chose altruism over glory, but he'd never really figured out why Lightning should have to lose for the sacrifice play to mean anything. King couldn't possibly cross the finish line on his own, and in a three-car race the only spot that counted was first. So what did it matter if King came in third instead of second?

Maybe it was like laying down on the barbed wire instead of cutting it. There were things that seemed simple for other people that Tony just couldn't understand.

Tony looked at Steve and Bucky, wondering if there was any point in asking what they thought of it or if Steve would just be disappointed in him again. And then he saw that Steve was crying.

It wasn't entirely unexpected for the guy, Tony supposed. Steve felt things very deeply and had endless empathy for basically everything. And the scene was touching. Tony wasn't denying that.

But Steve was actually in tears. He kept sniffling quietly and letting go of Bucky with one hand to knuckle the water out of his eyes, and he looked like it was taking all of his Super Soldier willpower not to just start weeping into his boyfriend's hair.

Tony shoved the cushion aside and sat up, trying to be sympathetic and not start grinning, no matter how cute it was that Captain America was getting worked up by a kids' movie. "It's okay, Cap. You're not the only one who's ended up all sniffly after a Disney movie. And hell, you should've seen Pepper ugly crying at the end of Titanic--"

"Don't, Tony," Steve said. He wiped his eyes with a bent forefinger, an oddly delicate gesture for such a powerful man. "Please don't."

"Jesus, Stevie," Bucky said. He was sitting up as well now and he'd moved away from Steve so he could look at him. "It's just a buncha cars. What's the matter?" He reached for Steve's hands, but Steve grabbed Bucky and pulled him into a fiercely desperate hug.

Steve took a deep, shuddering breath, then swallowed like it hurt, holding Bucky so tightly that Tony winced for the guy's ribs. "It's…" Steve swallowed again. "I know it's just a movie, Buck," he rasped. "It's just…he gave up everything. Just like you."

"What?" Bucky squirmed, getting his hands between them. "C'mon, Steve, ease up a little."

"Sorry." Steve let go so Bucky could move far enough back to let them see each other's face. Steve threaded their fingers together, like he couldn't bear to let go of him. "But, it's just like you," he repeated, as if that would make it clearer. "You've done that your whole life. For me. Getting beat up so I wouldn't. Not eating so I could. Taking shit jobs so I could go to art school—"

"Hey, no, Steve. It wasn't like that," Bucky said.

"Yes it was," Steve insisted with quiet, unshakable certainty. He let go of Bucky's hand so he could clear his eyes again. "After Azzano, you could've gone home. You could've been safe, had a real life, finally. Something of your own. But instead you stayed to follow me, like you always did. Keep me safe…" His voice wavered and he stopped to take another few breaths. "You stayed and you died, Buck." Steve said it like it was some kind of terrible revelation. "You followed me and you gave up everything."

Steve started crying again, wracked with it like Bucky'd just dropped dead right there, and Tony felt like the worst kind of voyeur ever, like the skeeziest skeeze who ever skeezed, witnessing it. But getting up would bring attention to his being there at all, and he didn't want to make things awkward when they were pretty awful already. So he stayed where he was and tried not to breathe.

"No, Steve. That ain't how it was, all right?" Bucky sounded frustrated, but the way he cupped Steve's face with his free hand to brush the tears out of his eye was nothing less than sweetly patient. "You gonna listen?"

Steve nodded.

"All right. First off, Jesus Christ, Stevie—you think you forced me to go rescue your stupid, skinny ass every time you mouthed off to some meathead twice your size? I wanted to do that. Just like I wanted to make sure you ate something when you would've given every scrap to your mom until you dried up like a leaf and blew away. And you know why?"

Steve snuffled like a little kid. "Because you were worried about me?"

Bucky rolled his eyes. "Well, no shit. Yeah, I was worried about you. I'm always worried about you. You're a dumbass. But that ain't it at all." He disentangled his hand from Steve's so he could put both of them on his shoulders, like that might make him pay attention. "I wanted to keep you breathing and in one piece because I love you, you idiot. You think it was some kinda sacrifice, making sure I got another day with you?" He glowered. "No fucking way—it was a God-damned gift. That's why I stayed in Europe. Because every day I made sure no fucking Nazi assholes hurt you was another day you were with me." He smiled, and his eyes were a little wet too now, bright in the glow from the television. "And I'd make the same choices all over again, every damn time. 'Til the end of the line, remember? I didn't lose anything, Stevie. I got you."

"Oh," Steve whispered. He sniffed again, blinked a few times. "I really missed you."

"I know," Bucky said. He was the one who hugged Steve this time, just as ferociously as Steve had him. "I know. And I'm so fucking sorry I couldn't reach your hand. But I'm here, Steve. I'm right here. And you're not gonna lose me again."

Tony finally climbed over the back of the loveseat and crept out when Steve and Bucky started kissing and he figured they wouldn't notice him. He leaned heavily against the wall of the elevator, feeling that much more exhausted, and shaken for no reason he could name.

"J.A.R.V.I.S., what time is it in Jammu?" he asked quietly.

"Approximately 2:00 PM, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. responded immediately. "According to Ms. Potts' schedule she is currently in a meeting. Would you like me to place a call, sir?"

"No, that's okay. Thanks, J."

"Of course, sir. May I ask where you would like to go?"

"What?" Tony blinked, realizing that he hadn't actually given a destination. "Workshop," he said decisively. He didn't have to actually build anything, he figured. It'd still be better than going back to bed by himself.

But when he got there, all he ended up doing was sitting at the lab bench, staring at the myriad of nicks, scars and callouses on his mechanic's hands. And wondering if there was anyone who would ever say it'd been a gift, instead of a sacrifice, to be with him.

Whatever existential crisis accidentally witnessing Steve and Bucky's Hallmark moment might've hurtled him into, apparently Tony's goading Bucky into lying all over Steve opened the floodgates of Buckysprawl. Suddenly there wasn't enough room on the couch anymore, because Bucky had decided that since it was okay to be Steve's blanket whenever he was around, it was equally okay to be everyone else's blanket when Steve wasn't.

Which was why Tony was forced to use the loveseat—again (and really, how had he never noticed how pathetically small that thing was?)—to go over all the quarterly reports and meeting minutes Pepper had just emailed him from Ulaanbaatar. Because Steve, as the best-behaved Avenger, was being interviewed long-distance by Latveria's only news channel. So currently Bucky was taking up most of the couch with his bare feet in Natasha's lap and his head on Clint's thigh.

Clint was reading an actual paperback and idly petting Bucky's hair, and Natasha was playing a game on her phone and ignoring Bucky entirely, and Bucky looked blissed-out and half-asleep and Tony wasn't the least bit jealous of any of them. Nope. He just wished the stupid loveseat was bigger.

Tony collapsed into the pathetically small loveseat with a sigh, and Bucky cracked his eyes open and grinned at him like the smug kitten who got the canary. Tony just rolled his eyes and snorted, and then grimaced when the snorting hurt his throat. He took another sip of his lemon tea, telling himself yet again that he wasn't getting sick because he couldn't afford the time, and the next sip of tea would make his throat feel normal again. Yeah.

And he wasn't feeling achy either. It was just nearly impossible to get comfortable because the stupid couchlet was so small. Seriously, it was like it was shrinking.

"Don't let him fall asleep, Clint, he drools. Friendly warning," Tony said as he scanned the first of the several gazillion email attachments.

"So does Clint," Natasha murmured.

"At least I don't snore," Clint said.

"Yes you do."

"Screw you, tinfoil," Bucky said sleepily.

Tony smirked, glancing over at Bucky. "Whatever, pipe-cleaner." He grinned at his mild glare as he took another gulp of tea.

"Hey, don't fall asleep on me. He said you drool," Clint said to Bucky. "Wake up." He tugged on a lock of Bucky's hair.

Bucky's eyes flew open on a hoarse, terrified scream. He all but threw himself off the couch and didn't stop until his back hit the sidewall. He sat heavily on the floor, wild-eyed and panting.

"Holy fuck," Tony exclaimed. He, Natasha and Clint bolted after Bucky, though they all stopped well short of his personal space. "What the hell just happened?"

"I pulled his hair," Clint said. "I'm sorry, Bucky. I should've thought it might've…reminded you of stuff." He sat down cross-legged so he wouldn't loom over him. Natasha and Tony did the same.

It didn't look like Bucky had heard him—hell, Tony wasn't sure Bucky even knew they were in the same room. His chest heaved as he gulped air, and he was looking in their direction but right through them, eyes fastened on something distant and terrible that Tony didn't want to imagine.

"Bucky," Natasha said, "Bucky, you're safe. It's 2015 and you're in Avengers Tower, in New York City. You're home and you're safe. No one's going to hurt you."

"Yeah, Buck," Clint said. "It was a stupid mistake. I'm really sorry."

"Can he even hear us?" Tony asked. He wanted to go closer, maybe touch Bucky's hand or something. But he remembered how he felt after the Battle of New York, when it seemed like anything at all could send him back there; make him so afraid it was like he was dying. Sometimes he couldn't stand for anyone to even be close to him, let alone make any kind of contact. "Bucky? Can you hear us, buddy? Do you know where you are?"

Bucky gave a tiny, jerking nod.

Natasha edged a little closer. Bucky whipped his attention to her like she was a threat. She stopped moving immediately. "Tell us where you are, Bucky. We need to know you're with us."

Bucky nodded again. "Avengers Tower," he said.

"Awesome. That's totally awesome, Buck," Tony said. Bucky was still breathing way too fast and had that fixed thousand-yard stare like he wasn't looking at anything real, but at least he could hear them. "Do you, um, do you know who we are?"

Another nod. "Hawkeye. Iron Man. Black Widow."

The way Bucky said their code names made Tony's blood run cold. It sounded like he was reciting the information Hydra had shoved into him. "We're your teammates, do you remember?"

"We're your friends," Clint said.

Bucky's eyes flicked away from the middle distance to Clint's face. It seemed to take a lot of effort for Bucky to focus on him. "I know."

Natasha asked him something in gentle, melodic Russian, and Bucky glanced at her and nodded. She stood and went swiftly to the elevator.

"Do you want to call Steve?" Tony asked.

Bucky's eyes darted to him and he nodded again, though Tony could practically feel the shame radiating off him like heat.

"J," Tony said quietly, "could you please let Steve know that we need him?"

"Right away, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.

"Great." Tony wanted to tell Bucky he had nothing to be ashamed of, but he wasn't sure if mentioning that he'd even noticed would just make the kid feel worse. "I'm getting up," he said instead, to make sure he didn't startle him. He stood with a lot less grace than Natasha had, which he pretended was entirely because she was at least ten years younger and a superspy, and not at all because he was fighting a cold.

"How 'bout we get off the floor, huh?" Clint offered. He got to his feet as well, moving slowly. He held out his hand but didn't go any closer. "You ready to get up?"

Bucky swallowed but he nodded one more time and climbed shakily to his feet on his own.

"Do you want to go back to your place?" Tony asked.

Bucky looked uncertain, but then he shook his head. He went back to the couch instead and kind of jammed himself into the corner where Natasha had been sitting, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. He could make himself remarkably tiny when he wanted to, considering he was the third tallest Avenger after Thor and Steve.

Tony grabbed his mug off the table—slowly—and went into the kitchen, dumping the cold tea into the sink. He thought about making more tea, then decided fuck it, and got the milk out for hot chocolate. It was something to do that would keep him from hovering, anyway. He hated it when people hovered over him.

He heard the elevator open and then Natasha speaking quietly in Russian, and Bucky responding so softly he was almost impossible to hear. Tony's grasp of Russian was pretty much entirely limited to the obscenities Bucky had gleefully taught him, but he did make out Bucky thanking her.

Tony wasn't at all surprised when he came out of the kitchen to see the new box he'd made Bucky on the coffee table, surrounded by a small, precise phalanx of tchotchkes. He remembered the barrette, which was defended by a semicircle of bottle caps and a tiny armored division of toy cars plus that one orange horse. Bucky was also in the hoodie he'd stolen from Steve with the Captain America shield design on the front.

"Can you up the heat a bit, J?" he asked the A.I. "Here." Tony put the drink he'd made for Bucky down and slid it towards him, careful to avoid hitting any of the objects. He was curious if there was a purpose behind which things Bucky chose and how he arranged them, or if it was totally random. He knew better than to ask, though. At least not now.

Bucky blinked at the mug like for a second he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do with it, and when he reached for it Tony could see the minute hesitation, as if he was expecting a trap. But he picked up the mug in both hands and took a tentative sip, and Tony wanted to punch the air in triumph when the kid finally looked up at him with a small but genuine smile.

"Where's mine?" Natasha drawled. She was sitting on the couch playing on her phone again, not looking at Bucky but close enough to be leaning against him, just a little bit. Lending him the certainty of her presence.

"I want one too," Clint said. He was in the armchair Bruce usually took, probably because it was the furthest away from the couch. He had his legs splayed out as if he were relaxed, but Tony doubted that was true.

Tony rolled his eyes, then immediately regretted it when it made his head decide that oh, yeah, he was getting sick. "Of course. What else could I possibly have to do with my time other than make Katniss and Charlotte hot chocolate? Um, 'Charlotte' is from Charlotte's Web," he said, turning to Bucky. "It's a children's book—"

"S'okay, Tony. I figured," Bucky said.

"I'm just so happy to give you purpose, Stark," Clint said.

Tony was going to respond to that with something spectacular, but before he could the elevator doors opened and Steve jogged into the room.

"Bucky?" Steve stopped a few feet away from him, obviously noting the hoodie and the box and the way Bucky was kind of hunched around his mug looking far more guarded than relaxed. "J.A.R.V.I.S. told me you had a flashback. Are you okay? Can you tell me what happened?"

Bucky shrugged, carefully avoiding looking at Steve's face. "Something happened and I just…got reminded of stuff. It wasn't…it's not important. I'm sorry. J didn't need to call you. I shouldn't've said anything."

"It's my fault," Clint said miserably. "I was horsing around and ended up pulling his hair. Nat used to hate that too, but she's been…she got out before you did," he told Bucky. "So it was a while ago, and I forgot that they would've done that to you, too. I was an idiot and I'm sorry."

"S'not. It's not your fault," Bucky said, though he wasn't looking at Clint either. He probably would've been thrilled if the hoodie could swallow him entirely, Tony figured. "I snapped out over nothing."

"Doesn't sound like nothing, Buck," Steve said quietly. He glanced at Clint. "Doesn't sound like anyone's fault, either. Except Hydra's." He turned back to Bucky and gritted his teeth, looking angry and miserable all at once. "I'm just so sorry that they hurt you."

Bucky shrugged again. "That's not your fault either." He took a long drink from his mug.

Tony could tell by Steve's expression how very, very much he wanted to argue that point, and then how he deliberately chose not to. Steve went the rest of the way to the couch, and Natasha wordlessly moved aside without taking her eyes off her game. Steve sat next to Bucky where she'd been. "Is it okay if I touch you?"

Bucky nodded.

"Thanks." Steve put his arm around Bucky's shoulders and tugged him into his side. Bucky went willingly enough, though he barely leaned into him and especially didn't do his cat-sprawl thing. Instead he took the unopened pack of candy out of his box and put it in front of the bottle caps. Then he took three of the toy cars, blue, yellow and purple, and carefully lined them up on the candy package.

"I'm actually glad J.A.R.V.I.S. called me," Steve said. "Not why, obviously. But the journalist had just asked me…" He made a face eloquent with disgust, then, clearly mimicking: "But surely, Captain Rogers, you can see that Hydra's goal was admirable, even if their methods were lacking."

"Seriously?" Natasha lifted her head to stare at Steve. "They honestly said that."

"Seriously." Steve nodded. He kissed the side of Bucky's head through his hood, as if in apology. "I was about two sentences away from a diplomatic incident."

"Glad we could help, then." Clint managed a tired smirk. "Wouldn't want Captain America to lose his Boy Scout rep." He glanced sidelong at Tony. "Our barista is slacking, Nat."

"I was never a Boy Scout," Steve muttered.

Bucky looked at him and his grin was almost as bright and wicked as it normally was. "You wanted to be one, though. You just couldn't afford the uniform."

Steve shook his head, but he was smiling now too. "You got that wrong, Buck. Ma would've got by—I just didn't want to be a Scout because you didn't."

Bucky blinked, then he beamed at Steve. And then they were kissing again and Tony rolled his eyes and figured that if Bucky was up for liplocking than he was probably fine and Tony could safely retreat to the kitchen. "All right, Nerf or nothing," he said to Clint, "I'll make your goddam hot chocolate." He cleared the snot that had started dripping down the back of his throat (yuck) and made sure he was facing away from everyone before he winced when that hurt.

"Don't forget mine," Natasha said serenely.

"I want another one too," Bucky called from the living room. "And make one for Steve. They're really good," he added to him.

"I would like one, if you don't mind, Tony," Steve said.

"I'm only making one for Steve, since he's actually polite," Tony said loudly to all of them.

"As if," Clint snorted. "We know you love us, Tony."

"That's irrelevant!" Tony retorted, and then realized what he'd actually said when Clint started laughing. "Oh, fuck you all. Except Steve."

"Anytime," Clint said cheerfully.

"Pepper might not like that," Natasha said.

"Pepper can come too," Clint said reasonably. "Or she can watch. Whatever."

"Can I watch?" Bucky asked.

That question, for some reason, made Tony blush so badly he could feel the blood heat his face. Another reason to be glad no one could see him. "No," he said, then had to clear his throat again. "No you can't, you pervert."


"Hey, I'm hurt," Steve said in a voice that Tony knew would be emphasized by enormous blue and completely false puppy-eyes if he looked at him. "What about me? I'm all polite and everything."

"Oh my God," Tony groaned, then winced again. He was very, very happy that none of them could see his face and the fact he was still blushing crimson like a virginal adolescent. "That's it. Never mind. I hate all of you. And I'm making hot chocolate under extreme duress. Just saying."

"Don't forget the whipped cream," Bucky said.

Tony didn't remember falling asleep on the couch.

He certainly remembered getting out of his bed—again—and stumbling his way into the common floor's living room with his Starktab under his arm, because he felt awful and his bed was too cold with just him in it. J.A.R.V.I.S. had told him apologetically that everyone else was actually asleep for once, but Tony stayed on the common floor anyway, trying to get some more reading done on the documents Pepper had sent him.

She was in Siberia, so he supposed that he was the luckier of the two of them. But he was hot and shivery all at once and he felt like hell and even his hair hurt, so it was hard not to feel sorry for himself.

He'd still planned on reading every one of the attachments though. He knew for sure that he'd even started doing just that. But now he was suddenly awake without remembering falling asleep, or with any recollection whatsoever of what he'd actually been looking at before he did.

At least he knew why he woke up, since Bucky was shaking him.

"Wha," he muttered, twitching his shoulder. Even doing that hurt.

"Jesus, Tony. I thought you weren't gonna wake up for a sec." Bucky did seem honestly relieved, crouching in front of him all wide-eyed and worried-looking. Tony wanted to point out that J.A.R.V.I.S. would've alerted anyone if he'd actually kacked it in the middle of the night, but it felt like too much effort. Bucky was in jeans and a tee-shirt and his feet were bare, despite how horribly, horribly cold it was. His hair was damp, like he'd just come out of a shower. There was a plate with four pieces of peanut-butter toast on the coffee table behind him. The smell almost made Tony gag.

"You hate the cold," Tony said.

Bucky blinked at him, then put his left palm on Tony's forehead. "Yeah, you're sick all right. You're like Steve used to get. J.A.R.V.I.S., you said he wasn't that bad," he told the ceiling accusingly. "I think he needs a doctor." He bit his lip. "Or a hospital."

"No," Tony croaked.

"While you concern is understandable, Sergeant, Sir's temperature is still within acceptable tolerance limits, given his physiology and medical history," J.A.R.V.I.S. said, because the A.I. loved him. "I believe that some Tylenol would make Sir more comfortable, however. There is some in the bathroom medicine cabinet on his floor, if you would care to get it."

"No," Tony repeated. "Don't," he said to Bucky, trying to make his eyes all puppyish like Steve. He didn't want Bucky in his bathroom. It was weird.

Bucky rolled his eyes, but he carded his fingers through Tony's sweaty hair. That not only didn't hurt but felt so nice that Tony couldn't help the whimper when Bucky stood up.

"Don't worry, Tony. I'm not gonna see your lingerie hanging on the shower rod. We got some Tylenol for Sam the last time he was here. Be right back." He snagged one of his pieces of toast and chewed on it as he went to the elevator.

Tony must've dozed off because the next thing he knew he was awake again and Bucky was helping him sit up and wrapping the SSR and Howling Commando quilt around his shoulders.

"Here. It's the Tylenol. Open up," Bucky said softly. Tony did, feeling too lousy to be embarrassed at Bucky treating him like a baby bird. "Put it under your tongue so you won't taste it," Bucky added once he'd dropped the pills into Tony's mouth. He pressed a mug into Tony's hands. It was warm. "Drink that."

Tony lifted the mug to his mouth obediently, vaguely aware that Bucky was helping him hold it so he wouldn't spill everything out of his shaking hands. It was the same kind of lemon tea he'd been drinking the night before.

"I could smell it," Bucky explained at Tony's questioning noise. "Just like I could smell your post-nasal drip from the other side of the room. Yes, you're completely disgusting. Don't worry about it." He sounded almost fond.

Tony wanted to say something scathing but settled for staring at him blearily. Bucky must've got it anyway because he grinned.

"Why're you…here?" Tony finally managed.

Bucky tilted his head towards the kitchen. "Steve used the last of the peanut butter. I saw you passed out here when I came in, but your A.I. said you were fine." He glared at the ceiling again.

"M'fine," Tony murmured. "Finish your breakfast."

Bucky glanced at the plate, then back at Tony. "I guess you want to be alone, huh? I hear you—Steve used to hang onto me like a fucking koala when he was sick, but I always hated having people fuss over me." He stepped back and straightened. "But, you'll be okay, right?"

Tony nodded, staring at his tea so he wouldn't risk Bucky seeing how much he actually did want to cling to him like a koala. Clinging like a koala sounded perfect right then. But Bucky wasn't Pepper or Rhodey and Tony felt ridiculous and pathetic even thinking about asking.

Besides, he really doubted Bucky would be any more thrilled with Tony doing a koala impression on him than it sounded like he had with Steve. And, well, Bucky loved Steve.

"You sure?" Bucky sounded worried again so Tony tilted his head up so he could see his face. Bucky looked torn, and concerned, and like he cared a lot, even though there was no reason for him to. And it really hit Tony exactly how evil Hydra was, that they could've purposely ripped all of that out of him.

"You're too nice for what Hydra did to you," Tony said.

"Yeah, okay, that made no sense," Bucky said. "But thanks. I think." He picked up his plate. "So, you know where to find me if you need anything, right?"

Tony nodded. "Thanks. For everything." He took another sip of tea. It was nice and hot, but still hurt when he swallowed.

"Oh, fuck it," Bucky said on a breath. "I can't do it. I can't leave you like this. You're fucking tragic. Like, a wet kitten in a quilt."

"Hey," Tony protested, but Bucky completely ignored him in favor of moving the couch cushions so that he could lean on them. He sat down and pried the mug out of Tony's weak grip long enough to yank him onto his chest.

"J, could you please tell Steve where I am? Here." Bucky carefully put the mug back into Tony's hands.

"You don't have—"

"Shut up I don't," Bucky said, his rough words completely belied by how he'd started rubbing Tony's back. "Yeah, I do. You're my friend."

"Oh," Tony said. He shifted a little, almost clipping Bucky in the chin with the top of his head, then managed to drink more tea without spilling it. He was starting to feel warm. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Drink your tea." Bucky grabbed another piece of toast and took a bite. "So, wanna watch The Hobbit? I hear some of the actors are pretty hot."

They did watch The Hobbit, though Tony fell asleep again before the dwarves showed up. He dreamed he was in the Tower, which was somehow also a hobbit hole at the same time, except he was himself and not Bilbo. He didn't have his armor, but the other Avengers were there and they did. Bucky was Thorin instead of Steve, with his left arm as the oaken shield.

And Tony dreamed that Smaug was outside, and so were Loki and Ultron, and they all wanted to get in and burn Tony alive. But even without his suit, Tony wasn't afraid of them. He knew he didn't need armor because he had his team. And he was protected, and safe, and home.