[personal profile] alchemyalice
Chapter One 
Chapter Two




There’s a slim red-headed woman waiting for them on the landing pad alongside Fury when they finally arrive back at SHIELD. As the ramp lowers, Tony brightens as he spots her. “Pepper! It was totally not my fault this time!”

The woman apparently known as Pepper sighs deeply. “Which was, exactly? Missing the board meeting for the fifth week in a row, or getting kidnapped by a supervillain?”

“Strangely enough, both,” Tony replies. “Be proud of me, this is totally progress.”

“Stark,” Fury growls in warning, just as Pepper sighs again and says long-sufferingly, “Tony…”

Coulson steps forward, which instantly diffuses the situation. “Sir.”

“Situation’s handled, I take it?” Fury says.

“Chancellor Merkel sends her regards.”

“Right. Captain, we have agents ready to help you to the med bay. You too, Hawkeye.”

“Aw, man,” Clint says, and Natasha smacks him again, albeit with slightly more gentleness.

Tony slings an arm around Bucky’s shoulders as they come down the ramp after Steve heads off towards medical. Pepper raises an eyebrow at them both. “Are you going to introduce me, Tony?” she says archly.

“Pepper, Lieutenant James Barnes. Barnes, this is my better half, though at this point only corporate-wise, Pepper Potts.”

Bucky looks her over and says, “Are you sure the women haven’t gotten more beautiful over the past seventy years? Because I ain’t seeing anything to the contrary here.”

Pepper flushes, her smile for him a little softer than the one she directed at Tony. “Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. Are you a new addition to the Avengers Initiative?”

“I don’t know if that’s been decided yet, ma’am,” Bucky replies.

“You will be if you want to, and if you don’t that’s fine too,” Tony says firmly.

Bucky shoots him a grateful glance, and he doesn’t know what his face looks like in that moment, but somehow it makes Pepper make a very soft oh noise.

“If you need anything from Stark Industries, Lieutenant, you just let me know,” she says warmly. “Anyone deemed worthy of Tony’s slightly more endearing qualities deserves all the help he can get.”

Tony sticks his tongue out at her.

***

Things are…kinda different after all that, Bucky notices.

For one thing, Fury now seems to count him as a permanent part of the team, which is not something that Bucky necessarily wants, all told. He reports for duty, sure, but his real strength isn’t in this sort of show-stopping hero work. He’s always been more interested in stealth, in the coordinated strikes carried out by the Commandoes and all that that had entailed.

He mentions this to Natasha, and she nods in understanding. “Sometimes, it sticks in your blood,” she says. “I’ll talk to Fury.”

Sometimes Bucky wonders if the only reason Fury’s in charge is because Natasha isn’t interested in taking the job. Then again, Fury does seem to have a preternatural skill for herding superheroes, which is about as difficult as herding bad-tempered cats, so maybe Natasha’s got nothing to do with it. Either way, a week later Coulson tosses him a dossier over the kitchen table and says, “You and Barton are going on a field trip. All right with that?”

Bucky flips the file open and scans it. “Surveillance and covert ops? You like me, you really like me!”

“You’ve got twenty-four hours before you’re due off,” Coulson says. “Use them wisely.”

“Oh, I will.”

He goes down to the workshop and leans against the glass door as it closes. “Stark.”

“Barnes,” Tony drawls, “What can I do you for?”

They’ve reached the point where Tony automatically shuts off the welding torch when Bucky comes up to him, pushing back his chair from the metal sawhorse he was working with so that Bucky can straddle him, draping his arms over his shoulders.

“I’ve got a mission from Fury,” Bucky reports, as Tony’s hands drift to his thigh and the metal arm, fingers teasing at the plating. “You got anything on tap for stealth work?”

“For you, anything.” Then Tony frowns a bit. “He sending you out alone?”

“Nah, I’m riding with Barton.”

“Barton gets you all to himself while I’m all by my lonesome? This is massively unfair.”

“Maybe he’d let you come along if you weren’t such a flashy cowboy.”

“You can be pretty flashy yourself, you just don’t know it.” But Tony snags a tablet from a nearby counter and pulls up some menus. “So, what’re you looking for?”

Bucky grins, and starts a list.

***

There are other things that are different, too, but Bucky isn’t around to notice some of them until later.

***

The mission lasts two weeks, consisting mostly of being cooped up in dark, cramped hideouts with occasional bursts of bloody covert violence, and by the time it’s done, Bucky’s taught Clint the dirtiest songs from the front that he can remember, and in retaliation Clint has exposed him to the most horrendous country ballads imaginable.

They call a truce over Wu-Tang, and by the time they’re done, well.

They arrive back at the mansion, fresh from debrief and still covered in a saboteur’s blood. Clint is muttering rhythmically, “Behold the bold soldier, control the globe slowly, proceeds to blow swingin’ swords like Shinobi…” and Bucky’s cackling with the hysteria of exhaustion and the thrill of a job well done. They stumble into each other as they walk, too used to being shoulder-to-shoulder in the confines of ventilation shafts and narrow rooftops, comparing best shots and trashing each others’ weapons of choice.

“My god, we’ve created a monster,” Tony says, deadpan.

Bucky grins proudly, “Apparently, Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.”

Steve, sitting on the other couch with a paperback, says plaintively, “It’s like I don’t even know you any more.”

Clint claps him on the back, “It’s team bonding! You should be supporting him, Cap.”

Steve cuts a look at Tony, who shrugs. “I mean, they could do a lot worse in their choice of soundtrack,” he says.

Steve rolls his eyes, but says more levelly, “Nice trip?”

“Successful,” Bucky replies, ruffling Steve’s hair—it’s a habit he’s never quite managed to break, even though it’s only Steve’s lowered position on the couch that’s allowing him to do it without standing on tip-toe now. Steve makes the usual disgruntled noise, ducking away. “Fury’s happy, we’re happy. Hey darlin’,” he adds to Tony as he saunters towards him.

“Okay first, I’m not a dame,” Tony says, holding up a hand, “Secondly, you stain these couches, you pay for them.”

Bucky looks down and notices the blood. “Share a shower with me?” he says, after a pause.

“TMI,” Clint groans.

Tony just flashes his teeth and puts his tablet aside. It almost makes Bucky forget the way Steve looks at Tony as they leave the room.

***

Bucky had read the reports Steve and Tony had both turned in after they’d all gotten back safely. Zemo had wanted the repulsors to stabilise the moonstone and give it power enough to shift an entire city, which was definitely something no one wanted him to be able to do. He’d stripped Tony of his armour and had taken Steve along for the ride unexpectedly—Cap’s presence in the Avengers hadn’t exactly been hidden, but it hadn’t been advertised a great deal yet either. Then, according to the reports, while in captivity Tony had cauterised Steve’s wound, booby-trapped the repulsors to malfunction after a certain interval, and then broken out and busted up the generator in charge of maintaining the illusion-bubble-thing just in time for the rest of the team to arrive.

SHIELD is calling the bubble thing a ‘holographic disruptor field’, but whatever, Bucky calls it like he sees it.

Anyway, there was definitely a large chunk of time where Steve and Tony were apparently locked up together in Zemo’s ridiculous castle lair that neither of them were particularly forthcoming about in their reports. And now Steve…apparently looks at Tony to check things about Bucky.

Bucky doesn’t give it too much thought at first. He’s kind of relieved, and weirdly proud, that Steve got to see Tony in a positive light. Now Bucky doesn’t have to make sure they don’t end up sniping at each other when left alone in a room together.

Tony’s being plenty distracting all by himself, anyway.

“Seriously, it’s like you’re trying to kill me, coming in here all buddy-buddy with Clint and blood on your face—“

“You implying something about Clint? Because I don’t think he’d be entirely averse—“

“Fuck no, but you can’t deny he looks good in that vest SHEILD’s put him in—fuck!

He slaps the shower wall with the flat of his hand and tries to brace himself further. Bucky finds the strung tight tendon in his neck and bites down, tasting scalding water and skin. Tony keens.

“Good,” Bucky says into the sharp line of his jaw, hardly recognising his own voice, “Because the list of people I’m willing to share with is very, very short.”

He’s not even sure Tony hears him over the spray of the shower. Tony doesn’t answer in any case, just tightens around him and fuck.

It hardly matters anyway, right? Right.

They don’t leave the bathroom for a while yet.

***

Life continues on in its surrealist fashion; or at least, that’s how it seems to move for Bucky. He gets in the habit of going to the Avengers meetings just so he can annoy Fury, and ask questions about the future when Steve is the one clearly filing those questions away to look up later.

The Avengers fight giant snails on the Jersey shore, and Doombots (again), and Bucky goes to Istanbul with Maria Hill, and then Sudan with Coulson and a guy named Sitwell who’s secretly hilarious and isn’t too bad as backup.

Tony keeps building things for him—for everyone on the team, obviously—but especially for him.

“You don’t have to buy me with shiny stuff, you know,” Bucky says to him at one point. “I’m kind of a sure thing at this point.”

And Tony smiles at him, pleased and almost disbelieving, like Bucky’s said something profound. “I know.”

He begins to settle in. The first time he catches himself calling the mansion ‘home’ he nearly walks into a lamp post in surprise, and Steve just looks at him with a wry sort of smile.

Steve doesn’t say anything, in fact, until they’re a few blocks further up, headed towards Harlem. He and Bucky have been walking the boroughs, touching on the familiar spaces, filtering in small sections of the newness at a time. Steve says, “I’ve started thinking of it that way, too.”

“Yeah?” Bucky looks at him. “I mean, it shouldn’t feel like that, right? There’s nothing homey about it.”

Steve shrugs. “Home is where my friends are. You know that.”

“Even when they’re all under Tony Stark’s roof.”

Something Bucky doesn’t recognise crosses Steve’s face, and then melts into a very small smile. “Sure,” he says, like he’s only just decided. “Why not?”

“Okay. What happened in that damn castle anyway?” Bucky asks, because finally he can’t not. “You and Tony have a talk or something?”

Steve shoves his hands in his pockets. “We had a few. We had some…misapprehensions to work out.”



Before:

It’s very clear to Tony that Zemo hadn’t been expecting Steve. He snarls inarticulate rage and says, “You still linger here, Captain, after all this time?”

Tony’s immobilised, caught in some sort of bullshit forcefield that JARVIS is trying urgently to get reads on and producing absolutely nothing. He throws himself at the barrier, over and over as Steve batters through a whole group of goons, but even Captain America can’t take on fifty well-armed soldiers, not in a closed space, not when one of them has what looks like a high-powered stun gun that he jabs straight into the gap between Steve’s cowl and suit just as another fires a gun that produces a beam of power Tony’s never seen before.

The beam is clearly an accident; it sears through the top of Steve’s leg in a glancing blow before entirely vaporising another soldier in its path. Zemo shrieks for ceasefire, but it’s Steve who crumples to the ground.

Tony doesn’t even realise he’s shouting, screaming, until Zemo looks straight at him.

He walks straight up to the force field, cocking his head. “Hm,” he says. “You know, I often imagined Captain America’s death as being the sweetest imaginable thing. It even felt that way, when he buried himself in the ice. I’m beginning to question my previous feelings, however.”

Tony forces himself to silence. Takes gulping, shallow breaths. More than half a year working with Captain America, but he’s never seen him go down like that, and it makes something in his brain go still with fear. He tries to shove it aside.

“Methinks a far sweeter revenge,” Zemo continues, watching him steadily, “Is using him.” And then, to the guards, “Put them both downstairs.”

And then Tony feels more than sees the forcefield around him contract, closer and closer until the buzz of it is deafening, overwhelming, and then he feels nothing, nothing at all.

***

He awakens with the feeling of a bad hangover, his muscles sore like he’d wrenched them all out of whack, his head pulsing. He risks trying to raise his head, and immediately regrets it.

He groans against cold, damp concrete. Armour’s gone, then.

“Tony?”

It’s Steve. He sounds…not good. He sounds scared.

Tony cracks his eyes open and it’s only his own protesting body that prevents him from sucking in a sharp gasp.

Steve is sitting in a pool of his own blood.

Tony makes himself get up. “Jesus Christ, Steve,” he croaks, crawling over to him on hands and knees, “What…?”

“It’s not healing fast enough,” Steve says unsteadily, “Something about those guns. The one thing the serum does is regenerate blood fast, but the other stuff not so much. So.”

He’d been smart enough to tie a tourniquet, but not strong enough through the blood loss to tie it tightly enough. He’s too pale, his eyes big in his face, and he’s scaring Tony half to death. He thinks disjointedly, Steve didn’t come all the way here to bleed out on the floor of an old enemy’s fucking dungeon, before he forces himself to think over the sound of the static in his own head.

“Okay,” he says, “Okay,” and then he kneels up when he reaches Steve and ignores how the shins of his undersuit immediately soak through with blood. Mustering his strength, he twists his fingers around the ends of the tourniquet and yanks hard, pulling it painfully tight around Steve’s thigh.

Steve makes a strangled noise in his throat, but doesn’t move.

“How long was I out?” Tony asks.

“Not long. Fifteen minutes, maybe. Can’t be totally sure as I was out myself for a while.”

“Okay. Good. If you start to lose feeling in your leg, tell me. I think maybe I can cauterise the wound if I can rig something up to the arc reactor. What’ve you got on you?”

“Tony,” Steve says, brow furrowed, “Are you okay?”

“I’m sore all over, but I’m not the one who’s bleeding out. Let’s see, I think I’ve got some wiring tucked in somewhere—“

“Tony, your hands are shaking.”

Tony looks down. So they are. Doesn’t matter.

“If you’re doing any sort of delicate work with my leg, then it does,” Steve says.

Tony pauses. “I said that aloud, huh? Well, I stand by it. Once we have a plan, I’ll be fine. I’ve worked in worse conditions than this, it’s fine.”

“The real plan,” Steve says, “Should be figuring out how to get out of here with my shield and your armour.”

“Can’t exactly do that when you’re bleeding out enough plasma to keep Keith Richards in transfusions for the rest of his life,” Tony snaps. “Let me fix this first. I’m gonna fix this.” His heart is beating too fast against his ribs now. This scene is too familiar. He’s knelt over too many bodies. Steve can’t be one of them.

Steve looks at him, really looks at him. Then he says, “Okay. Okay, Tony,” and he lets Tony work.

***

After an interminable time in isolation, Zemo reappears in front of their cell, and Tony is almost one hundred percent sure that knows what’s coming. His dread becomes a freezing, searing presence in his throat.

“The suit,” Zemo says, nostrils visibly flaring beneath his hood. “Give me the codes to access its power.”

“Not gonna happen, Zemo,” Steve snarls, but he sounds weaker than normal. Tony has his doubts, too. Even with the wound mostly cauterised (spare wires hooked up like light bulb filaments to the arc reactor do the trick, with Tony never daring to tell Steve just how fucking dangerous that was), he’s healing too slowly to be much good in a fight, and strain could easily reopen his leg. Tony himself is stripped to the waist, the torso and sleeves of his undersuit sacrificed for bandages. He feels far too vulnerable, and worse, far too worried about Steve to be anything but helpless.

Zemo clearly doesn’t miss this, either; his gaze darts between Tony’s bare arms and Steve’s strapped up leg, and the way Tony has insinuated himself slightly in front. He makes a gesture with one hand, and a laser sight appears, in perfect focus, directly between Steve’s eyes.

“The codes, Stark,” Zemo says evenly.

Tony meets Steve’s eyes; Steve stares at him in confusion for a moment, but then apparently reads enough on Tony’s face to have an idea of what Zemo is threatening. He squares his jaw. “Don’t do it, Tony,” he says. “I’ll be fine.”

Tony squeezes his eyes shut, and then opens them again. He touches Steve’s knee. “No, you won’t,” he says. And then, to Zemo, “Seven-four-foxtrot, Nine-two-lima-whiskey-victor.”

“Oh yes,” Zemo demurrs, “This is far more satisfying.”

He leaves in a swish of cloak.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Steve says.

“Forgive me if I value your life over my armour,” Tony snaps, and then immediately looks away. This has really not been a good day for his brain-to-mouth filter. But seriously, what did Steve think he was going to do?

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve says, and it takes Tony a second to realise that his tone is a little different, a little softer around the edges, and so he risks looking back at him. Steve watches him with sharp eyes, but he’s not frowning like he usually does at Tony. “I just meant that maybe we could stall him a while.”

Tony looks down at his hands, and then allows himself a very, very small smile. He did the right thing, then. Even in Steve’s eyes, and that…that’s important. He doesn’t allow himself to consider why.

He looks at Steve, and says in an undertone, “Who says I didn’t?”

Steve’s eyes widen just a fraction, but it’s enough for a fiercer glint to come through. “Good,” he says, just as quietly but fervent, “Good.”

Tony settles himself, shoulder to shoulder with Captain America, leaning against the cold stone wall, just avoiding the pool of congealed blood that sits just off to the side of them, now. He very carefully doesn’t look at it.

“How long until he notices?” Steve asks, barely moving his lips.

“Six hours, give or take,” Tony murmurs. “Long enough for him to think it’s working, but not enough to get enough power through to do any real damage.”

“I think I saw a generator on the floor above us,” Steve muses, “I came to for a couple moments while they were dragging us down here.”

“Think it’s important?”

Steve gives him a dry look. “Would I mention it if it weren’t?”

“Oh, you are not allowed to sass me when I’m the one that bought us time,” Tony hisses.

Steve gives him an innocent look. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He narrows his eyes. “We’re going to have strong words about this later.”

“I tremble at the thought.”

Tony rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. He hopes Zemo doesn’t have any cameras around to pick it up.

***

Unfortunately, six hours is a long time to wait when you’re stuck in a barren cell that goes from just chilly to outright cold, night bringing in an insidious temperature drop.

“You’re cold,” Steve says, after a while.

Tony cuts a glance at him. “Well, yeah,” he says blankly. “Kinda underdressed, here.” He gestures at his bare torso.

“You should take my jacket,” Steve shifts, trying to shrug out of the top half of his uniform. Tony makes a tutting noise and pushes his shoulders back against the wall to still him.

“You’re still recovering from blood loss and and trying to knit your leg back together. You need the warmth more than I do. It’s fine.”

Steve’s jaw tightens. “Stop sacrificing. You don’t need to.”

“I don’t sacrifice anything!” Tony snaps. “History clearly demonstrates that I am not a sacrificial type. Don’t worry about it, Rogers, I’m fine.”

“You know, the more you say it, the more I don’t believe you.”

“And there you go, sassing me again. This is unacceptable.”

“Tony,” Steve sighs, “Please just stop.”

Tony subsides, but not before muttering, “You started it.”

He stares down at his hands for a long moment, ignoring the goosebumps on his arms in favour of algorithms. He reviews the gauntlet protocol he’d programmed in a moment of drunken self-awareness, which is basically the best state to be in while designing fail-safes and backup plans. He may be a futurist, but part of that is always knowing that in the end, there will be something or someone who will be capable of taking away everything from you, and will do so.

He is startled by the warmth that descends around him in the form of weight and the smell of leather. “I said I was fine,” he says, but even he can’t altogether hid the way he wriggles into the confines of the jacket.

Steve nods, and says, “Put your arms through the sleeves before they go cold.”

Tony obeys, grudgingly. He feels strange and off-balance, though, wearing the stars and stripes.

“Three more hours, that’s all,” he says aloud, because he’s been keeping track, of course.

Steve nods. “Not long at all, then,” he says. He wraps his arms around himself, like that will shield off the cold just as well as leather and reflective plating would.

Tony makes a tutting noise in his throat and, without thinking, throws an arm around his shoulders, the folds of the jacket surrounding them both. Steve swallows, and after a moment, leans into him too, hunching down to fit comfortably beneath Tony’s arm.

“I’ve never liked the cold,” Steve says, several minutes later. “Before the serum, winters in Brooklyn were bad enough without also being not much more than skin and bones. And then after, going to battle in winter, it was still awful. Too many people dying of exposure, with bad equipment and not enough intel. It’s always awful.”

“It’s the way your bones start to ache,” Tony says, surprising himself. “Makes you feel weak. That’s why they turn down the thermostat in interrogation rooms. Body feels weak, tells the mind that it’s weak too.”

Steve shoots him an unreadable look. “I take it you know that from experience?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and he’s again surprised by how easy it is to say it. “Yeah, I do.”

They fall silent.

“Then why’d you try to refuse my jacket?” Steve asks, with an open curiosity that Tony’s pretty sure he’s never been on the receiving end of before.

He shoots Steve an incredulous glance, and then abruptly turns away again when he realises how close together their faces are. “I’m not stupid,” he says, “I know what latitude you went into the Atlantic on. I hate the cold, sure, but put me in water, and I’ll be begging you for whatever help you can give me. Cold’s the least important source of my issues. ” He shrugs. “I’m guessing it’s a little higher on your list, though.”

He can feel Steve’s gaze on him, but he refuses to meet it with his own.

“Three more hours?” Steve asks, after a long, long moment.

“Yep. Two hours, forty minutes, more like.”

“We can do that.”

Tony exhales, watching his breath mist in the air, and says, “Yeah. We can.”



Now:

Bucky can picture Tony quite easily, drowning in Cap’s jacket, the two of them huddled. It makes something in his chest go tight, but he doesn’t know what emotion to assign to the feeling—not jealousy, never that, but something fierce, a gladness that Tony could make Steve talk about anything at all beyond the team and the mission, but also something a little more twisted up in his instinctive possessiveness of Tony as his partner, and Steve as his best friend.

He’s so caught up in trying to sort it all out that he almost doesn’t realise that Steve is still talking.

“You know, when I said I didn’t see something that you were seeing in Tony, what you said, that wasn’t right at all,” Steve is saying, which sounds like it should be judgemental but the way he’s smiling means it isn’t, at all.

So Bucky asks, “How d’you mean?”

“You said it was probably Tony’s fault, that my eyesight was fine. But that wasn’t true. You just didn’t realise what it was you were seeing that I wasn’t. Tony, he’s…he’s like you, in that way. Neither of you realise how amazing you are. You just give and give and you never stop, even when it hurts, and you make that choice every day. The only difference is that you know that that’s worth something. Tony doesn’t. Not yet.”

And Bucky doesn’t reply, because what the hell could you say to that?

***

He of course isn’t given much chance to think about it, because apparently there are aliens invading Manhattan.

As they do.

He goes in with the Avengers and apparently it’s his turn to take a hit, because he’s blindsided halfway through drowning a secondary ship in the Hudson by a rogue fucking laser cannon that knocks him clean out.

He comprehends the vague and all-too-familiar sensation of falling and then the entirely unfamiliar impact of water before there’s nothing.

When he comes to, he’s in the Helicarrier, he’s missing his metal arm, and Steve and Tony are arguing in the corner of the room.

“You said you built the arm with shielding—“

“Of course I fucking did, do you think I’m stupid? It has to be activated—“

“This wouldn’t even have happened if you hadn’t gone off plan—“

“The plan wasn’t fucking working—“

“Shut up, both of you, or you’re leaving,” Maria Hill snaps.

Bucky opens his eyes and sees the both of them looking shamefacedly at the floor. “Gentlemen,” he croaks, “You can’t fight in here.”

“This is the War Room,” Steve and Tony both say with him, because the whole team had watched it weeks ago in a moment of hilarious and unexpected solidarity. Tony grins crookedly at him, and Steve’s at his side immediately.

“How’re you feelin’, Buck?” he asks, a portrait of worry, and Bucky manages to reach over and pat his hand.

“Crooked. Bit floaty. What happened?”

“We won,” Tony says, “But I had to fish you out of the river. Be glad I waterproofed the suit or neither of us would be in good shape right now.”

And Bucky can see the haunted shade in both his eyes and in Steve’s, and knows the source of them too. He’s sure he’ll have one to match when whatever they have him flying high on wears off.

Falling. Water. Falling.

What a mess.

“‘Bout my arm?” he says.

“Took the brunt of the laser,” Tony says briefly, wincing. “Pretty much slag. I’ll build you a better one, automatic shielding, it’ll be like eyes in the back of your head.”

“I know you will,” Bucky murmurs. He’s already feeling sleepy again. These are great drugs.

“Get some sleep,” Steve says, “We’ll be home soon.”

Bucky nods, and just before he goes under again, he hears Tony say, “I’m sorry.”

And Steve, sounding weary and old but also grateful and firm, answers, “Don’t be.”

***

Several days later, when he gets back from medical, Bucky finds out that Natasha and Clint run a mean insomniac’s poker game.

He stumbles on it in the middle of the night when he gets up to get a drink, because the painkillers have fucked up his sleep schedule like nothing else. He finds four of them are all sitting at the breakfast table, mostly in darkness except for the tasteful pendant light overhead, and they all look up when he comes in.

He blinks and squints at them. “Coulson? The fuck are you doin’ here?”

Coulson just looks at him flatly. “What does it look like, Barnes? I’m playing cards.”

Maria Hill smiles at him. There are a couple of people around the table he doesn’t recognise—two ladies with dark hair, one petite and slim, the other also petite but curvy in all the right places.

The curvy one looks at him over the top of her horn-rim glasses and says, “Who’s the eye candy and why aren’t we friends yet?”

Clint, surprisingly, flushes. “Barnes, meet Darcy. She once took out Thor with a taser. Darcy, James Barnes.”

“I’m also Phil’s PA, so don’t mess. And that’s Dr. Foster,” Darcy says, jerking a thumb at the woman next to her. “Astrophysicist for SHEILD and Thor’s girlfriend.”

“Call me Jane,” Dr. Foster says.

Bucky’s pretty sure he’ll never get used to the type of company he’s keeping nowadays.

“Nice to meet you both.” He scratches the back of his neck, and realises belatedly that he’s wearing Tony’s pyjama bottoms and is sporting an impressive hickey. He decides not to care. “Mind if I join?”

Natasha smiles. “I’ll deal you in. Don’t be surprised when we take you for everything you’ve got, though.”

Bucky slides into one of the empty chairs and grins. “You say that now, but…”

“Yeah…” Clint drawls, “Don’t speak too soon, my friend.”

Maria Hill, as it turns out, is the one to destroy them all with a series of monumental bluffs followed by a full house.

When Bucky finally gets back into bed at four, lighter by sixty bucks and an SI assault magazine, it’s to Tony muttering imprecations at him even while curling back around him.

“Where you been?”

“Poker,” Bucky says, tangling his legs up with Tony’s.

Tony makes a disapproving noise. Bucky snorts.

“Don’t blame me for getting disbarred. Not my fault you bet your cars and get pissy when you lose.”

“Not listening. Too many words. Early. Sleep.”

“Fine, fine.”

“Hill bluffed you into oblivion, didn’t she?”

“Maybe,” Bucky replies, wincing.

“Don’t trust ‘er. Means trouble. Also, still no fair.”

“Go back to sleep, Tony.”

Poker means gossip, though, so while the weird sleeping hours last, Bucky gets in the habit of going back. He starts winning, too, which cheers him up significantly.

It’s also how he hears about all of the missions he hasn’t been on.

“Man, you should have seen Cap and Tony when they first met,” Clint says at one point. “That wasn’t even frenemies, that was straight up mutual antipathy.”

“It was not an auspicious start,” Coulson affirms. “Call.”

“Functioned fine in costume, that was enough for me,” Maria says, waving a hand dismissively while throwing in her chips. “Though the yelling was a bit much.”

“Thank god for the pudding,” Clint says.

Maria, Coulson and Natasha all make agreeing noises. Bucky looks around at them. “…Pudding?”

“Sentient pudding,” Natasha says. “It was…messy.”

Jane makes a face.

“But, Tony saved both Cap and his shield from drowning in it, so,” Cling shrugs, “Things were a little more functional after that.”

“And of course, we have you to thank for the rest,” Maria says dryly.

“I ain’t done anything,” Bucky protests.

Natasha rolls her eyes and Clint snorts. “You’re Cap’s best bro and you’re banging Stark,” he says. “You’re like Switzerland, only better.”

“Ooh, I didn’t know that,” Darcy says, eyes going big. “Hot. Also, call.”

“Seriously?” Clint says.

Darcy gives him an incredulous look, and then turns back at Bucky. “Stark’s, like, super awesome in bed, right?” she says. “He has to be.”

Bucky is…honestly a little shocked, which he didn’t really expect, but like most things he’s encountered in the 21st century, he decides to just run with it. “I’ve got nothing to complain about,” he says. “But I still think I didn’t do anything. Between Tony and Steve, I mean.”

“Definitely underestimating yourself,” Maria says, shuffling absently after Natasha claims all of the chips from the round. “Cap would never look at Stark the way he does now without you buffering in the outset.”

Bucky stares at her for a long moment, but she doesn’t look up, just starts dealing again.

He’s pretty sure she’s got it wrong. He doesn’t really know what to think about it, either.

Jane, thankfully, chooses that moment to ask a question about Texas Hold’Em, and the group lapses back into discussion of the game.

***

He starts paying attention, after that. His sleeping hours remain strange, but that means that more often than not, he’s actually sharing more conscious hours with Tony than usual, and so he gets in the habit of going down to the workshop whenever he has free time.

Tony builds and talks, and enlists Bucky as a tester for his prototypes, and between that and the databases JARVIS has at his disposal, Bucky is most definitely never bored.

Steve comes down, too.

At first he does so on the pretence of looking for Bucky, calling him out to take one of their city walks or to grab lunch, but increasingly it’s to bring Tony sandwiches when he’s forgotten to eat, and to look at both of them disapprovingly when it’s past midnight. He comes down to curl up on the ratty couch shoved off to the side that Bucky sometimes naps on (and sometimes jumps Tony on) and props a sketchbook on his knees, and fills the pages with Tony’s machines, and Bucky’s face.

He draws Tony as well, always in motion. Bucky only catches a glimpse of that page, but it’s filled with light and dynamism, hands reduced to smudged-out blurs, like Steve is trying to capture the essence of futurism on the page.

It’s…romantic, is what it is.

Steve catches him looking at the sketch pad, and quickly turns the page, shoulders hunching.

Bucky doesn’t say anything, pretends not to notice.

“Hey Barnes,” Tony says from the middle of the room, “Get over here, I got something to show you. Rogers, you too.”

Bucky goes over to him, Steve trailing behind, to find yet another arm sitting on the worktop. He’s been using his low-impact, high-articulation model since his last battle-ready one got lasered, and this new one looks halfway between the two extremes—light and detailed, but also clearly packing some heat.

“Said I’d give you a better one, right? Here you go. We’ve got,” Tony touches various contact points inside the shoulder joint to demonstrate, “Fully automatic fire from the outer forearm, high calibre fire alongside, plus your favourite spy accoutrements from the missile-launcher arm, I remember how much you love those. And,” he pauses dramatically, and says with a flourish, “A fully automated defence system.”

The arm emits a burst of blue light that expands into a wide convex surface, sending blueprints scattering across the table. Steve makes a noise of surprise.

Tony taps the surface of it, and it sparks beneath his fingertips. “Highly controlled electromagnetic field surface. It’ll repel almost anything, save maybe a nuclear warhead. Try not to get nuked. Yeah?”

Bucky manages, through the grin that’s threatening to split his face in half, to grab Tony by the waist and pull him in.

“So can I try it on?” he says against Tony’s mouth.

“Absolutely. Here, Steve, you should see this so you know how to help.” And Tony goes through the motions of helping Bucky out of the old arm and into the new, checking through the contact points and deftly manoeuvring through the click and slide.

Steve watches with rapt attention through the whole process, and then also as Bucky flexes the new arm, unfolding and refolding each of the weapons. Finally Bucky throws the shield out, and laughs out loud when Tony throws a wrench at him and it bounces off like a rubber ball. “Fuck, Stark,” he says, feeling both giddy and safe, “You’ve really outdone yourself.”

“Yeah,” Steve says suddenly, startling them both. He sounds hushed and maybe even a little reverent. “It’s really incredible, Tony. It’s amazing.”

Tony gives Steve a strange, open look before saying, “Thanks, Cap. Means a lot.”

And Bucky experiences a strong, sudden wave of conviction that he’s losing Tony to Steve.

But then he thinks about it, looking down at the new arm and watching the joints bend and rotate, and realises that Tony hasn’t done anything at all to make him think that. All this time, in the workshop and on missions, Tony has been completely normal (well, as normal as he can be).

It’s Steve.

Steve is the one tumbling, head over heels, and Tony has been nothing but Bucky’s all this time.

It’s at this point that Bucky has the equally fleeting thought that hah, he’s never been able to deny Steve anything, he’d give his other arm (and his head, and his heart) to Steve, if he asked.

Except, perhaps that thought isn’t quite so fleeting. Particularly when it resonates with a second, far more dangerous one: Might as well give in and share, all told.

Huh.

Well.

“Anything wrong?” Tony asks, startling him out of his thoughts.

Bucky swallows, glances between him and Steve, and tries to smile. “Nah. Everything’s perfect.”

He’s gonna need to think about this.


Chapter Four
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alchemyalice

March 2013

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