I've tried and you've tried
You've cried and I've cried
I've lied and you've lied
Together we've died
But sometimes, sometimes it gotta stop
I'm cold when you're cold
I'm warm when you're warm
We were friends, we're still friends
You can't love me I'm unlovable
But baby you could try
I can't love you you're so loveable
But baby let me try
- Babybird - Unloveable
The train to NYC left Union Station at what Steve and Bucky would have called oh-dark-thirty in the old days. In spite of the hour, Starbucks had a line wrapped clean around to the main lobby, full of early-morning travelers all waiting for their coffee.
"It's kind of like us," Steve said, with a joking nod to the sign. "Star-bucks, you know."
Bucky frowned. "Why is a coffee shop named after a character in Moby Dick?"
"Let's go to Au Bon Pain," Steve answered.
The line there was better, and Steve could certainly explain the name--not that he needed to. Bucky's French was pretty much flawless. He'd been good at it in school, since the girls loved it, and two years fighting in the French countryside hadn't hurt. But the only thing French about the restaurant now was the cadre of Belgian tourists chattering about their travel plans and taking over all the tables with their luggage. So Steve filled a bag with ham and cheese croissants, and they ate them in the Amtrak waiting area.
Even so early in the morning, there was plenty of bustle around the station, and Steve was eager to make sure Bucky didn't get overwhelmed. He hadn't forgotten what happened at the aquarium.
"I'm fine," Bucky said, through a mouthful of his second croissant. "You can stop looking at me like that."
"Like what?" Steve said, trying to stop, and not doing a good job of it.
"Like I'm going to detonate without warning." Bucky sighed, brushing crumbs off the front of his shirt. He was wearing clothes Sam had brought for him; a US Army hoodie and black leather glove concealed his left arm. "I can deal with a train ride, Steve."
Steve opened his mouth, closed it again. They weren't going to get anywhere if he didn't trust Bucky's own assessment of his condition. And to be honest, Bucky did seem fine. Or at least, as fine as he had been so far. He was taking up a chair and a half with his old sprawl instead of slouching like a whipped animal, and showing genuine curiosity in his surroundings. Steve was the nervous one. But that was probably because the last time he'd gotten on a train with Bucky Barnes he'd stepped back off it alone--and with a heart utterly broken.
"New York's changed," Steve said, as Bucky studied the headlines of the paper abandoned on the seat next to him. The media rumor mill had given up on Natasha Romanov and S.H.I.E.L.D., and now was picking Nick Fury's corpse. WHAT DID HE KNOW, the Washington Post demanded, above a photo of Fury's familiar scowl.
More than he ever let on, Steve thought.
"Everybody got a flying car now, a rocket pack?" Bucky reached out and flipped the paper over, so they were no longer subject to Fury's one-eyed scrutiny.
"Yeah," Steve said, wryly. "Well, one guy, anyway."
Bucky lifted an eyebrow at him, his lips twitched. "Stark never did get that car off the ground."
"He did," Steve argued. "Just... not for very long. Anyway. Tony likes his cars with the wheels on the road. But as for his feet, that's a different story."
"Tony." Bucky's face slowly contracted in a way that Steve had come to know, and dislike. It was a Winter Soldier expression, grim and closed. "...He was just a little kid back then."
Back when? Steve wondered. In 1945, Tony Stark wouldn't even be a glint in his father's eye for another twenty years. But the boarding call was announced, and Steve didn't get to ask. In fact, as they gathered up their bags and left Nick Fury's carefully concealed face behind, he wasn't sure he wanted to.
As Steve stuffed their luggage--one small duffel and another, considerably heavier backpack--into the overhead hatch, he took a moment to be grateful that Amtrak didn't x-ray and strip-search all its passengers. Bucky's arm and its spare parts would be tricky enough to explain, but the burnt and broken remains of Sam's Falcon suit would be right out.
Steve had promised he would get Tony to look at it, and he'd brought along Sam's old photographs and specs on the wing-pack in action. Sam was a mobile and agile fighter, but he was at his best in the air, and there was nobody better than Tony Stark to get him back up there. Steve had asked Sam to come with them, but Sam had declined. He had work at the VA, he said, and he didn't want to leave his support group hanging. But Steve suspected it was more than that, and Sam was still giving Bucky and Steve space to sort things out.
Bucky threw himself in the seat away from the window (in the past, he would have called dibs on the window seat), and frowned at the toes of his boots as the other passengers boarded. He was thinking hard about something, Steve could tell, and he was not quite willing to disturb him. But it was Bucky who spoke first, once Steve had gotten into the window seat and tried to make room for his legs.
"Tell me about Stark," Bucky said.
"What do you want to know?" It was a hedge, and Steve felt a twinge of guilt for it. He would tell Bucky, eventually, about everything that happened between him and Tony after New York. But not now, not when everything was still so raw for Bucky. And for Steve too, if he was honest.
Bucky kicked at a scuff in the carpet. "Is he like his dad?"
Steve considered for a moment. "In some ways, maybe. They have a similar flair for girls and gadgetry, but Tony--" Steve rolled the words around in his mouth, trying to sum up something as un-summable as Tony Stark. "He's not as smooth as Howard, though he'd like to pretend he is. I think, honestly, he's had a harder life. He's little more bitter, a little more reckless. The things he went through in Afghanistan, in New York, and even just recently..." Steve trailed off. "Well. If he's like Howard, he's not like Howard was when we knew him."
"Hmm." Bucky offered no more commentary than that, just a small, thoughtful noise. The train let out a heavy sigh as it lurched forward, and DC unraveled in its wake. The other passengers settled down to their phone games and sudoku, and Bucky closed his eyes. Steve pulled a battered moleskine from the pocket of his jacket, and as the train snaked up the east coast he filled its pages with doodles: the faces of the children in the opposite row, Trenton's graffitied backside lying like a bombed-out ruin beyond the train tracks, the interlaced angles of Bucky's fingers.
Steve was convinced Bucky was asleep, or at least alone with his thoughts, until sustained, muffled giggling from the other row made him look up. Two seats up a little girl was looking backward over her mother's shoulder, engaged in a furtive game of peek-a-boo with the Winter Soldier. Bucky was making faces at her, but only when she looked away. Otherwise he pretended to not be paying attention to her at all. There was a calculated delay of a few seconds to make sure she caught him at it. When she got too squirmy and her mother shushed her, Bucky winked at her in apology. She was still laughing at him when she and her mother got off the train at the next stop.
Something in Steve's chest came loose, something that had been bound up across his ribs since that day he lost Bucky. It was like the cracking of a glacier, and he stared hard out the window as the emotions it had held back came crashing through him in a sudden thaw. Bucky hadn't quite managed it for Steve yet, but he'd shown it to a little girl on a train: the old easy smile that Steve remembered, the one that had every little girl on their block in love with him, and every boy adopting him as a big brother. It wasn't the wrecked shell of a man sitting next to Steve, it wasn't Hydra's asset, it was Bucky. In spite of everything, he was right there, whole and alive. The realization made Steve's eyes sting, and his heart ached as though it had still been frozen until that very instant.
It's all right, Steve told himself, and for the first time since he'd gone under, he believed it.
The old Penn Station was gone. It had been a blow when Steve first found out about it, and the loss of the industrial cathedral and its mighty eagles still stung. In its place was a depressing tomb, one that gave the travelers no cause to lift their eyes. Bucky blinked at it in disbelief when they got off the train, and regarded the low warren of train tunnels with growing suspicion.
"I know," Steve said, to the question Bucky hadn't asked. "At least they left Grand Central alone. Well, apart from the bits we had to rebuild two years ago."
"Ugh," was Bucky's only comment, and Steve thought that summed up his opinion on the matter succinctly, as well. But once they got to street level, and the heat and smell of New York City enfolded them in its inimitable embrace, the architectural sins of the past generations were momentarily forgotten. Because they were in New York, together, for the first time since 1943. It would take a lot more than ugly train stations to dull that moment.
Bucky had been out in the world as the Winter Soldier, maybe even in NYC. But he bit his lip and looked up into the morning light knifing between the buildings as though it was for the first time, his eyes bright, his throat working.
"You ok?" Steve asked. He remembered how it had looked to him when he woke: the modern world juxtaposed on his memory of Times Square, its familiar bones clad in glaring lights and alien shapes. In the space of seconds Steve Rogers had traversed decades, and the terror and wonder of that instant had never fully left him. For Bucky, he expected it was much the same, only slightly dulled by his wakeful periods as Hydra's asset.
Bucky scrubbed his hand across his face, as though it was only the glare that made him squint. "I want a hot dog," he said in answer, and shouldered his duffel as he made a bee-line for the nearest cart. And though it was barely nine in the morning, Steve bought them both one and they ate them standing up, tucked into the lee of a busy storefront, with New York's pulse throbbing all around them.
"I'll get us a cab," Steve said, crumpling his hot-dog wrapper and sinking it into the trash can five yards away. "Especially since I'm planning to expense Stark for this whole trip."
"It was his invitation," Bucky agreed, his wrapper arcing after Steve's with equal accuracy. "Let's hope he can get me back to 100%." He put a hand to his left shoulder, wincing a little as he rolled the artificial joint around. There was a faint gritting sound as he did so. "It keeps locking up on me, and I don't like the noises it's making, either."
Cabs in New York had come a long way since Steve had ridden atop one in pursuit of Erskine's murderer, but they were still yellow, and there were still plenty of them lined up outside the station. The video screen mounted in the back seat played a news report on the S.H.I.E.L.D. scandal, and Steve reached out to mute it. He couldn't abide being yammered at everywhere he went, bombarded with news, advertising, or subtle implications that his teeth were not white enough and his clothes hopelessly out of fashion.
Natasha had always said it was one of the things that made him sound like an old man. Steve had always answered that he was an old man, so that was fair. He had gotten his hair cut like she said he should, and wasn't that enough? But no, Natasha had been the one who carefully, persistently nudged Steve into the 21st century, past haircuts and pants that sat at his pelvic bone, and into Korean restaurants, IMAX theaters, and rock concerts. He'd liked bibimbap, but was a little more ambivalent on the Killers. Tony had handled his fair share of Steve's transition out of the 40's as well, mostly in a never-ending stream of movie lists.
And now it's my turn, Steve thought, with a sideways glance at Bucky. He was comfortable in some aspects of the modern world--mainly the parts involving technology and weapons, but still hopelessly lost in others. Sam had spent two hours one night trying to explain to Bucky what LEGOs were, why anyone over the age of twelve would be interested in them, and how they could inspire an entire movie franchise.
"Is that it?" Bucky asked, looking out the window, and up. Way up.
"That's it," Steve answered.
Stark Tower was a gleaming blade of glass and steel thrust upward at the sky, and it showed no signs of the intergalactic battle that had raged around it two years ago. The ground-level doors opened for Steve and Bucky the minute they got within arm's reach.
"Biometric scanning," Steve explained. "Stark says it saves him a fortune on employee keycards."
The lobby was vast, swooping, and dominated by a huge modern fountain, with one towering geyser sending water down to a koi-filled pool below. In spite of its size, the lobby was totally deserted. There was a bank of elevators at the far side, but Steve ignored these in favor of a blank section of wall on back of the fountain.
"We're here," he said aloud, and with an obliging beep, a door hissed open in the granite, revealing a glass-lined elevator.
"Swank," was Bucky's assessment.
"You have no idea," Steve began, but was almost immediately interrupted by a voice that seemed to come from the walls of the elevator itself.
Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes. Welcome to Stark Tower. I trust your trip was agreeable?
Bucky tensed, glancing around the elevator uneasily, but Steve brushed their fingers together in a gesture of reassurance. "Just fine, Jarvis, thanks." He added to Bucky, in an undertone, "It's Stark's AI. He runs the joint."
"Why am I not surprised?" Bucky muttered, as the elevator whooshed upwards right through the fountain, the glass elevator shaft concealed by the cascading water. The city streets and the lobby fell away below.
In that case, Jarvis continued, as floors flickered past them, Allow me to offer my services for anything you may require during your stay. Local time is ten twenty-three a.m., and it is eighty-one degrees Fahrenheit outside. There is a chance of thunderstorms this afternoon, with decreasing cloudiness in the evening. I understand that both Wicked and The Lion King have showings this evening, though current reviews are not heartening.
"That's okay, Jarvis," Steve said. "We're not here for a show this time."
That's probably for the best, Jarvis admitted, as the elevator began to slow, and then stopped. With a demure chime the doors opened on the penthouse, an airy suite perched elegantly at the tip of the building. All of Manhattan lay sprawled beyond the glass walls, fading into a haze in the distance, and in the center of the room Tony Stark scowled at it through the projected screens floating around his desk.
"Oh, there you are, Steven," Tony said, without glancing away from the intricate mechanical specs floating past his eyes, his fingers sweeping through pages of illuminated data. "You know, your mother and I always hoped you'd bring home a nice boy someday."
Steve rolled his eyes as he stepped out of the elevator. "It's good to see you too, Stark."
Tony finally turned around, and with a twitch of his wrist the projections and screens around him vanished into thin air. He took the hand Steve held out for him, but his eyes were on Bucky, in frank, undisguised scrutiny. "And you must be the famous Sergeant Barnes."
"So I've heard." Bucky's eyes were narrowed in equal appraisal, but he was almost smiling as he shook Tony's hand. "But I'm not a nice boy."
"I know," Tony answered. "I've read your file." He crossed between the two of them to the bar, glasses clinking as he flipped them onto the counter. "Can I get you guys something? Rum and coke, kale smoothie?"
"You owe me a sandwich, Stark," Steve reminded him, tossing the duffel into the nearest chair and putting the backpack of Sam's equipment--more carefully--down on the desk. "Don't think I forgot."
"Don't think I forgot," Tony countered, splashing whiskey into the glasses.
Sir, Jarvis broke in, I reminded you of your wager with Captain Rogers at precisely 8:23 this morning.
"Thanks, J," Tony said, his smile going a little fixed. "I can sure count on you to boost my credibility."
I am delighted to be of service, Jarvis purred, and Steve thought he detected a tiny bit of smug sarcasm in the computerized voice.
"Pepper's gone down to pick up lunch--as promised," Tony said, with a tilt of his head at Steve as he passed the glasses around. "Katz's doesn't deliver, not even for me."
"What bet was this, exactly?" Bucky asked.
"I lost our last game of canasta," Tony said, and knocked back the contents of the glass.
"He wound up in the headlines before I did," Steve corrected, before Tony could keep going. "Just like I said he would." He gave Tony a knowing look. "Miami? Christmas? Large explosions and the impeachment of the Vice President? Ring any bells?"
"I am already buying you a sandwich," Tony said, through his teeth. "Gloating rights were not part of the bet. Anyway!" He put his empty glass back down on the desk, and fixed Bucky with one sharp eye. "I was promised some hot cybernetic action for this visit. So are you going to stand there looking overdressed all morning, Sergeant, or do I have to stick a dollar in your pants?"
"Tony," Steve began in warning, but Bucky obligingly shrugged out of his hoodie, something like a chuckle in his short exhale of breath.
"Relax, Cap." Tony dragged his fingertips across his desk, and monitors and schematics blossomed in their wake. "I'm not going to break him." His eyes flickered over the smooth segments of the metal arm; he made a little noise of interest when Bucky took off his shirt to reveal the seam where the prosthetic began. "Now that's a pretty thing," Tony said, and Steve knew it wasn't Bucky's bare chest he was talking about. "Have a seat, Sergeant, and we'll see what we can do for you."
Bucky's hesitation was minimal, but telling. He glanced at the black leather chair by Tony's desk, at the monitors already pulling his vital signs out of the air, and emptied his whiskey glass before he sat down.
"He doesn't need any weird attachments," Steve said. "Not everything needs to be fitted with rockets, you know."
"Excuse me, Captain Underpants," Tony said, unraveling cables from some hidden compartment on his desk. "I do know how to run a diagnostic. What I don't know is what is up with S.H.I.E.L.D.--not answering any of my texts, changing their profile pic to a Hydra emblem--" Tony slapped a metal-tipped connector to Bucky's wrist, and the monitor behind him overflowed with a rush of incomprehensible data. "I'm starting to think it's over, actually."
"Of course it's over," Steve said, dragging a chair away from the bar so he could sit down next to Bucky. "We kind of blew it up."
"And I'm kind of glad I got my consultant's fee from Nick Fury in advance." He mounted another cable to Bucky's shoulder, and this time Bucky couldn't repress a shudder, his flesh-and-bone fingers digging into the padding of the armrest.
"Tony--" Steve said again, more firmly this time, but Tony Stark had already shooed all the monitors behind Bucky, where he could no longer see them.
"Hey," Tony said, rolling around on his stool to meet Bucky's lowered gaze. "Bucky. I know this is hard. You just tell me if you need a break, all right?" All of Tony's cutting staccato had vanished from his voice as though it had never been there. His fingers rested lightly on Bucky's metal forearm, as gentle and reassuring as a surgeon's in their competence.
Bucky swallowed, nodded. "I'm fine," he said. "It's just-- It's a little--" He broke off as though the words weren't the ones he wanted, and shook his head in frustration. Steve and Tony exchanged a glance over his head.
"Did they ever show you how it worked?" Tony asked, and coaxed one screen around front again, letting it hover just over Bucky's knees. "Let me guess: no. They just treated you like a goddamn electric screwdriver--and don't you dare go Tony at me again, Rogers."
Steve, about to do just that, shut his mouth with a snap.
"Here." Tony leaned over Bucky, and with a few taps, the screen in front of Bucky blossomed into a beautiful cobweb of light. "Have a look at that."
Bucky lifted his head. "What is it?" His eyes were dull, his voice sullen, as though the chair and the wires had wiped away all the progress he had made, and left the wrung-out shell of the Winter Soldier behind. Steve pressed his lips together unhappily, but didn't interrupt.
"It's your nerves," Tony said. "Hydra jacked them in for your muscle control, but it looks like most of it was never activated. Probably to keep you from feeling any pain in a fight. Now." Tony tapped a key on his desk. "Watch that screen," he said, and then he ran his thumb along the sleek interior curve of Bucky's elbow.
A wave of light swept over the delicate lines in the display, and Bucky's eyes went wide. He took an involuntary breath as he felt actual sensation in his arm for the first time in seventy years, and a shiver rushed through his whole frame.
"Static sensitivity," Tony said, sounding pleased with himself. "Just like your cell phone screen. Responds to a little discharge when it's touched, sends an appropriate signal to your brain. You've got some temperature and pressure sensors in here, too. I can dial those in to a higher notch, give you something closer to a natural response." Tony flashed Steve a wink, and Steve could only shake his head with wordless gratitude.
"I could only control it," Bucky whispered, flexing his fingers in newfound wonder. "I couldn't feel it."
"Well, Hydra did a pretty good job of giving you a weapon." Tony brought up another schematic, and he examined Bucky's arm for an opening. "Let's see if we can give you an arm. Ah-ha. Here we go." With deft fingers he flipped up a segment of armor on Bucky's upper arm, and squinted at the little flickering lights inside. "I'm going to switch off your nerve endings here for a bit--you won't be able to move your arm or feel anything while I'm working. That okay?"
Bucky looked over at Steve, who covered Bucky's right hand with his own. "I trust him, Bucky," Steve said. "It's going to be fine."
Reassured, Bucky nodded his agreement.
"Of course it's going to be fine." Tony had loosened another section of Bucky's arm, fanning out a segment of nested internal electronics. "You're not squeamish, are you, Sarge? How much do you know about this?"
"Only what it can do," Bucky admitted, his voice rough.
"Then you should watch," Tony said, shifting a monitor over so it would project what he was doing in front of Bucky. "This is your main motor control, see? It's been wired into your tissue further up your arm. Looks like it's had a little damage--I'm going to clean it up to start. You just ask if you have any questions. How's the Captain America exhibit?"
Steve was used to Tony's hairpin-turn changes of subject; he answered before Bucky's confused expression could become a question. "What, you didn't get enough Thanks to Stark Industries on the donation cards, you need a personal one, too?"
"It wouldn't hurt." Tony opened a compartment on his desk and rolled out a set of tools, picking up and discarding several of them before deciding on a little probe. "But mostly I should be thanking the Smithsonian for saving me the trouble of hosting the world's most patriotic yard sale... Do you know how much of your junk my dad collected over the years? He said it was because he designed most of it, but I know it's probably just because you touched it." Tony shot Bucky a knowing glance over his arm. "Something of a hangup going on there."
"Howard," Bucky said, and if the point of Tony's tool scraped a little too roughly over a bit of grime-coated metal, Tony pretended it hadn't. "You look like him, you know."
"So I've been told," Tony answered, briskly switching tools.
Bucky looked like he wanted to say something else, but he leaned back in the chair instead, watching on the monitor as Tony dissected his arm components. It was a relief when Pepper arrived with lunch.
"You could have said we were having company," she said, stepping off the elevator, a large brown paper bag in her arms.
"Figured you would have guessed that." Tony pushed a just-cleaned electrical chip back into Bucky's arm, with a little grunt of effort as it took both thumbs to get it in the slot. "Since I don't normally eat three pastrami sandwiches at one go."
"You don't normally have half-naked men lying around our apartment, either." Pepper put the bag down on the coffee table, and toed off her shoes. "But it's nice to see you, Steve."
"Hi, Pepper," Steve said, warmly. He had always liked Pepper Potts, ever since they'd met in the back of Phil Coulson's car, two years ago en route to La Guardia. "Sorry to drop in like this."
Pepper blew up at her hair. "Ugh, like I ever mind having Captain America drop in." She reached out a hand halfway to Bucky, as though she'd like to greet him with something like propriety, but he was shirtless and half of his arm was lying on Tony's desk. It was an off-putting tableau, to say the least. "And... this is?"
"The most impressive piece of prosthetic technology I've ever seen," Tony said, fidgeting with some new component in Bucky's arm. "The rest of him is called Bucky Barnes, and I took the liberty of ordering him the corned beef. Sarge, Ms. Pepper Potts."
"Ma'am," Bucky said, with a modest little nod.
Pepper had gone pale under her freckles, recognizing first the name, and then the face, of the man in front of her. "Bucky... Barnes?"
"Yep. Not as dead as previously advertised. But he's not getting his old outfit back, because I already gave it to the Smithsonian." Tony tossed his safety glasses onto the desk. "You need both hands to eat, Sarge? I can put this back together if you do."
"I can manage," Bucky grunted, easing up from the chair.
"Good," Tony said. "Lunch, then."
Pepper was still having trouble adjusting to Sergeant James B. Barnes sitting in her living room, decidedly more alive than implied in the last wikipedia article she'd read about him. "I'll... get some drinks."
They sat around the coffee table to eat, and Steve took the opportunity to bring Tony up to speed on the events in DC. Pepper had only heard the bare minimum, along with whatever Tony had ferreted out on his own, and her sandwich sat uneaten as Steve peeled back the layers of deception and betrayal for them. She looked over at Bucky in undisguised horror when she found out what had been done to him, and put her hand on Steve's arm when she realized what he'd had to do to bring the helicarriers down.
"Hydra's targets--" she began, and then didn't finish, glancing over at Tony and letting her face say everything she wouldn't speak out loud.
"Yeah, I was one," Tony said, as though he had sub-orbital machine guns aimed at him every day, on the hour. "J noticed the tracking."
Pepper swallowed hard, blinking. "I owe you both more than lunch."
Steve shrugged. "You don't owe us anything, Pepper."
"I can at least get you something better than iced tea to drink." She hurried to her feet and came back with a bottle of wine, and busied herself getting it into glasses for all of them. "You're both welcome to stay as long as you need to, there's plenty of space. And Tony, I don't care if Sergeant Barnes wants his arm gold plated and capable of whistling Dixie, you'd better do it for him."
Tony put a hand to his chest, as though wounded. "Do you think I would do anything less? Though frankly Star Spangled Banner would be more fitting than Dixie, the man's from Brooklyn--"
Tony spread his hands, looking from Pepper to Steve with an air of persecution. "Why does everyone say my name like that?"
"I haven't done anything," Bucky said, to his half-eaten lunch. "I don't deserve--"
"Any friend of Steve's is a friend of ours," Pepper said firmly. "Besides..." She had gone a little pink now, and not from the wine. "I um, I did a history report on you in third grade. We had to pick World War Two heroes and I thought you... were... cute." She jabbed at her sandwich several times with her fork. "So! It's the least I can do for getting your date of death wrong."
Tony still had a mouth full of pastrami, but he had stopped chewing. "For some reason," he said, "I feel so utterly betrayed right now."
Pepper swatted him in the arm. "You were the one who already had his shirt off before I even got here," she huffed. "Eat your stupid sandwich."
Bucky smiled at Pepper, wry. "Sorry, Ms. Potts," he said. "I've logged a lot of mileage since the last time a girl called me cute. Not sure I still qualify."
"You still qualify." It wasn't Pepper that said it, it was Steve. And he wadded up his sandwich wrapper like he was daring anyone to call him on it. "You done stuffing your face, Stark? I promised Sam you'd look at the Falcon pack for him, and I'd like to give him some good news."
"I can fix the Falcon wing suit," Tony said, with offended slowness, "because I invented the damn thing. But we're keeping Pepper from her CEO duties, as I know she's so very anxious to get down to that Marketing meeting this afternoon, and there's no reason to leave Sergeant Cute over here with half an arm any longer. C'mon, let's get you finished up."
It would be hours before Bucky was anywhere close to "finished up," as Tony worked to first fully understand the prosthetic, and then to repair it. Steve's fight with Bucky in the helicarrier had left the arm with plenty of damage, and his continual use of it afterwards had taken a toll, as well. Tony had to have several new parts machined for him by Jarvis, but he wasn't content with just leaving it as it was, insisting on improving Bucky's speed and sensitivity. If he had his way, Bucky's arm would be equipped with everything from optional webbing for greater water mobility to a blender attachment before he was done. Steve managed to talk him down to the bare minimum, as Bucky submitted mutely to his surgery, lost in thought.
The sunset--magnificent from the tower--was fading from the sky by the time Tony put down his soldering iron, and dragged a hand over his forehead. "I guess that'll do."
Bucky's arm shone with new polish, the joints moved soundlessly as he gave it an experimental stretch. He put both hands on the chair armrests and stood, then unfolded his arm in a motion too fast to follow, with only a little whoosh as it cut through the air. Bucky made a little noise of approval. "It's nice. Thanks, Tony."
Tony blew the gratitude away. "I should thank you. My surgical prosthetic division is going to go nuts over the specs I got from you, it'll revolutionize the things they're doing to treat injuries. You're about to make life a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people."
"And Stark Industries' stock a whole lot better, too," Steve put in, but his tone was only teasing. He was too pleased at Bucky's repairs for anything more stern.
"That is a wholly coincidental side effect." Tony stretched his back with an audible popping noise. "Now, I think we've had enough work, and it's time for some play. Let's get cleaned up and see what NYC has in the fun department for tonight, hey? And I'm sure Pepper wants to be rescued from her office for dinner. Jarvis, we got rooms for these guys?"
Of course. The west-corner guest room is ready for Sergeant Barnes, and I assume that Captain Rogers will be staying with you as usual, sir.
The silence in the room was so sudden, so abrupt, it was like some vacuum had come into existence without warning. Steve looked at Bucky, who stared back at him as though the words had been a physical blow across his face.
Tony groaned, looking heavenward, though his belief in an almighty was negligible at best. "Jarvis," he said, sounding pained. "Tact. We've talked about tact, remember?"
Yes sir, mostly your inherent lack of it.
"Well, you're not winning any prizes for it today," Tony snapped back.
"Bucky," Steve said. "It's isn't how you think--"
"No," Bucky said, and his smile was awful, betrayed, and utterly transparent. "I'm pretty sure it is." He bit his lip, flicked his gaze to Tony and then back to Steve again. "Shouldn't be surprised. Don't stand at my grave and weep, I guess."
Bucky shifted his jaw, and spared just the barest twitch of his hand in Tony's direction. "Thanks for the tune-up, Stark," he said, without taking his eyes from Steve's face. "But I think I'll call it a night. I'm sure you two have plenty of catching up to do." His hands curled into fists as he turned away. "I've already been an idiot. I don't like the idea of being a third wheel, too. "
"Bucky, please," Steve said, but Bucky was already walking away, striding down the corridor to the penthouse's guest suite.
"Steve, you probably shouldn't--" Tony began, but Steve was already shoving past him to go after Bucky.
"Why does nobody ever listen to me?" Tony said, in exasperation, to the empty room.
I do, sir.
"Switch off, Jarvis," Tony said.
The doors in Stark Tower didn't have the capacity to slam shut in someone's face, but the abrupt whoosh of the guest room's sliding door was succinct enough. Steve put his hand against it, and then his forehead. "Bucky, open the door."
Silence. Steve was unsurprised, and switched tactics.
"Jarvis," he said. "Open this up for me."
My apologies, Captain Rogers. Jarvis did, indeed, sound apologetic. Sergeant Barnes has locked the door, and Mr. Stark has suggested I switch myself off.
"You sound like you're on, to me."
I have found it advisable to not take Mr. Stark seriously on such occasions.
"Jarvis," Steve said, struggling to keep his voice even, "You better take me seriously, because if you don't open this door, I'm going to break it down. Violently. And then I'm going to tell Tony you don't listen to him."
There was an electronic sigh, very put-upon. He knows I don't listen to him, Jarvis answered. But I'd prefer you to not damage the tower. We've only got it just back together, you know.
With a click and a hiss the door opened, and Steve stepped inside. Bucky was lying on his side on the bed, his back to the door, his eyes on the view outside the window. Lights were springing to life in all the streets below, glittering in the distance. All the color had left the sky.
"I would have put a chair under the doorknob if it had one," Bucky said, showing no reaction to the intrusion. "Since even the computer here is on your side."
"There isn't any side," Steve said, in something like a plea. "Bucky. Please let me talk to you."
Bucky lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I don't see anyone here to stop you."
"Will you turn around and look at me?"
Steve scowled. "Listen," he said. "Me and Tony... it's not... it's not the kind of thing you think it is."
"Oh?" Bucky's tense back belied his light tone. "So you're not fucking him? Because that's what I think it is." Bucky rolled up into a sitting position, and spared Steve just the barest glance over one shoulder. Steve, disarmed, had no answer. "...I thought so."
"I thought you were dead," Steve said, his voice low. "I thought everyone I knew was dead. Tony was comfort, a distraction. A friend."
"I was your friend," Bucky shot back. He stood up and turned around, and from the look on his face, Steve wished that he hadn't. That hollow-eyed look of betrayal would haunt him the rest of his days. "I was your friend, because you wouldn't let me be anything else."
"Because I was scared!" Steve retorted, loud enough to make the windows ring. It was enough to shock Bucky into silence, and Steve drove onward, his face twisted up with pain. "You kissed me that night," he said, "and I wanted it. I wanted you. But I was too much of a goddamn coward to say so. We were on the verge of everything--I was finally able to do the things I was made to do: to help people, to fight for my country, to do the right thing. I thought about what would happen if we were found out. I thought they might send us home, or worse. I thought about everything that had been sacrificed, the people who had died, just to get me there. I thought about all that, and for that second, it was more important than you and me. More important than what we could be together. I couldn't let myself be in love with you. No matter how much I was." Steve squeezed his eyes shut, unable to meet Bucky's gaze any longer. "It was a mistake, Bucky. One I've had plenty of time to regret, every day, every hour, since you died." He took a long, unsteady breath, and steeled himself to look at Bucky again. "And until I saw you on that bridge in DC, I didn't think I would have another chance."
Bucky's head was lowered, he held his hands out open in front of him, studying them. "Our past is gone, Steve. We can't bring it back. We can't change what we've become." Slowly, he folded his fingers into fists, and his face closed up along with it. "I'm sorry. I won't ever be the man you loved back then."
Steve crossed the room in three strides and Bucky's hands were in his, steely strength in both of them, both of them shivering now with restrained emotion. Steve put them over his heart, first the hand he had always known, with its square, sturdy palm, its readiness to be given in friendship or curled into swift fist of defense. Then he laid the sleek, powerful hand of the Winter Soldier on top of it. "Then be the man I love right now."
Bucky looked from their overlapping fingers to Steve's face, and the scant few inches between them was too much. They moved into the kiss like soldiers to the charge, fierce and fearless. It was not the one-sided ambush that Bucky had sprung on him all those years ago in London. Steve cradled Bucky's face in his hands, and with open mouth and closing eyes gave him an answer long-delayed. This time it was Bucky who hesitated, but not for long. His hands slipped under Steve's shirt, his body arched up against Steve's in a hard curve of yearning.
Steve said Bucky's name against his lips, his fingers unraveled Bucky's hair from its ponytail. "I'm sorry," he breathed, pressing kisses to the rise of Bucky's cheekbone, the ridge of his eyebrow. "I'm sorry it took me so long."
Bucky nudged Steve's shirt higher, tugging it up to his shoulders. His smile was the uneven one that had always gotten them both into trouble, but the look in his eyes--of unrestrained desire--was not one that Steve had seen before. "Just how sorry are you?" he asked, and Steve's shirt was on the floor, Bucky's fingers were on his belt buckle, and the bed was too far away.
"Sorry enough that I hope Stark's walls are soundproofed," Steve gasped, and they were both falling, landing in a crosswise sprawl on the bed, arms and legs and tongues all tangled, wearing entirely too many clothes.
It was not the way Steve would have planned it, he knew. If he'd had any idea that Bucky was still alive, all of Tony's offers would have been rebuffed, and Steve would have waited. But now, with Bucky's hot weight on top of him, he couldn't regret it. For too long they had been uneven. Bullied weakling and protector, hero and sidekick, soldier and sniper. It had been the same in love, with Steve's insistence on waiting for the right partner, and Bucky's dance card perpetually full.
But Steve was no fumbling virgin now, and Bucky responded to his confident touch with closing eyes and a stuttering moan. The experience of those lost between-years had made them more than a match for one another, and as they moved into the heavy rhythm of shared pleasure, it was with the steady cadence of equals. Steve's modified cells gave him an advantage not possessed by most men, but Bucky met him for every rising wave, every desperate crescendo. It was the only thing they'd never shared, and as the city sank further into sparkling darkness, they made up for that again and again.
It was well past two in the morning when the door of the guest room opened, and Bucky Barnes eased out of it. The main room of the penthouse was dark, but there was a chair pulled over to the windows, and Tony Stark was in it, half-empty glass in his hand.
"If it's any consolation," Tony said toasting Bucky in their shared reflection, "It was my idea. And I did make sure he didn't sleep with my dad, first."
Bucky crossed in front of the windows, the diffuse light of the city an intermittent flicker on his arm, his face. "Steve didn't sleep with your dad, Tony," Bucky said, and came to a halt in a patch of shadow. "I did." Tony's face remained still; the ice clinked as it melted in his glass. "It was a rebound," Bucky continued, "but he was kind enough not to take it personally."
"Well," Tony said, and then paused. "Doesn't surprise me, really. Dad slept with a lot of people. And there was a war on, you know. You're hot, he was hot, it happens. It was seventy years ago."
Bucky shifted his weight, just enough to bring his face into the light. "Tony," he said. "Thirty years ago... I killed your father."
Tony took a long drink from his tumbler, and a longer look out the window. "...Hydra killed my father," he said finally, with no breach to allow any argument. "How's that wrist joint treating you?"
"Shut it, Sergeant," Tony said, in unconditional terms. He stood, unraveling from the chair in one urgent motion, so much like Howard it hurt. "If you're looking for someone to hate you for it, you're just gonna have to look somewhere else. I know the difference between a murderer and a victim, and he was your friend, too." He put his glass down on his desk, hard enough for the ice to crack in protest. "We've all been lied to, we've all done things we aren't proud of. I hope the hell I'm never called to answer for the lives lost courtesy of Stark weapons, because if I am, I'm going to give that crazy old Winchester bat and her ghost mansion a run for their money." Tony took a long, slow breath, and ran both hands through his hair. "Dad wouldn't blame you, Bucky. I sure as hell won't."
"I do," Bucky said, quietly.
"We all always do," Tony answered. He sounded tired beyond all measure. "Anyway." He made a gesture, and dim lights came up in the penthouse. He leaned on the edge of his desk, folded his arms, and arched an expectant eyebrow at Bucky. "I assume there's some other reason besides that why you're out here with me, and not in bed with the man you waited seventy years to sleep with."
"I... need a favor," Bucky said. "Two, actually."
Tony nodded. "Best man? I'm game. You thinking a spring or fall ceremony?" He stroked his goatee, thoughtful. "Something outdoors would be nice. You could do dress uniforms. Desaturated reds and blues and creams for colors. Very classy. Very vintage."
"If you want to pick colors something," Bucky said, and put his hand to the crimson star on his metal arm, "Let's start with this."
Tony was unswayed. "So being best man is the second favor?"
"The second favor," Bucky said, with only a moment's pause, "...is a pair of scissors."
When Steve woke, dawn was just breaking over the skyline, turning all the buildings into a gray charcoal sketch against a golden sky. The bed beside him was empty, but the rucked-up sheets and the pleasant ache in his limbs told him that the night before had not been a dream. But when he saw the figure silhouetted against the vast window, Steve couldn't be sure he wasn't still asleep. He knew the profile and the stance; he'd drawn them a hundred times, seen them at his side for an infinity more. It was Bucky standing there, but Bucky as Steve hadn't seen him since before the war, his pose relaxed and a faraway look in his eyes.
"Couldn't sleep," Bucky admitted. "Just as well Stark's got a hell of a view up here."
Steve blinked, but the man in the window remained. He wasn't dreaming. "Did you... cut your hair?"
"Pepper cut my hair," Bucky corrected. "But the result was pretty much the same." He slid his fingers through the loose strands over his eyes. "I was tired of seeing Hydra's asset in the mirror. Does it look okay?"
Steve nodded, not quite trusting his voice. The light in the sky had become a burning line behind the buildings; it crept up on Bucky from behind and bathed him in color. He wasn't a ghost, or some pre-war Bucky pulled out of time. The Winter Soldier's arm still gleamed in cool metal planes against his bare chest, the old pain left a stain behind his eyes that would never be completely washed away. But the Bucky standing there was more than he had been, not less. He was richer, stronger, wiser. And, Steve thought, he had never looked as heart-stoppingly beautiful as he did at that moment.
"That must be Tony's paint job, though," Steve said.
"You like it?" Bucky smiled down at his arm. Where the Hydra scientists had emblazoned him with a crimson star, the concentric rings of Captain America's shield now shone in bold red and blue.
The laugh caught Steve off guard, even as it came out of him. "Of course I like it," he said. "But I figured by now you might want an emblem of your own."
Bucky pushed himself away from the window, and there was a warm promise in the slant of his hips as he came to stand next to Steve. "Why would I do that?" he whispered, lifting Steve's face in his hands as he bent down to kiss him. "Captain America's my favorite. Ever since he was Steve Rogers, that scrawny little kid from Brooklyn."
"I'm still just a kid from Brooklyn," Steve admitted, resting his hands over Bucky's.
"Yeah. Me too." And Bucky smiled his old smile, just for Steve, as they tumbled back into bed together.