The Winter Soldier observed the Avengers as he returned with them from another mission. Through therapy and many, many conversations with Steve, he’d figured out what was expected of him in order to gain the most freedom of action. He pretended to be Bucky. He had those memories – at least some of them – he just didn’t give them much significance, didn’t feel any fondness or nostalgia for the past.
He’d also noticed that after every mission, whether Tony Stark or Iron Man went out with them or not, that immediately upon return, the other Avengers handed off broken weapons and damaged pieces of armor off to him for repair. Other times when they were more fortunate, they just made suggestions for new weapons or tech to be included in their kits.
On at least one of these occasions, Stark had still been bleeding from a cut above his eye. Did he not put the same level of protection into his own equipment as he installed in the others’? Did the Avengers not let him? Data inconclusive – more information required before reaching conclusion.
Today’s mission reduced his doubts. It’d been a long, difficult battle with semi-intelligent giant insects that had somehow managed to breach ‘the space-time barrier between parallel universes,’ according to Dr. Banner. Stark had just nodded in tired agreement. He favored his left leg and there had to be equipment malfunctions in the armor or he’d fly back to base on his own – not in the Quinjet with the rest of them.
Nevertheless, before Stark even had a chance to sit, Banner was arguing science stuff with him, while Clint complained that the balance of the last batch of arrows was off-balance. Natasha frowned at her Widow’s Bites and commented that she was sure one of them was losing power.
During a gap in conversation, Steve started critiquing the way the battle had gone. “Hey Tony, next time you should…”
No one expected the Soldier to contribute to the conversation and he wondered if they dismissed him the same way they dismissed Stark – just another asset used for the benefit of the team. This idea proved untrue when he ate with everyone else ate around the kitchen island in the common area and Stark did not appear.
When everyone else started reading or watching television after dinner, the Soldier slipped out to look for Stark. He didn’t quite trust the artificial intelligence that seemed to control so many aspects of life in the building, so he searched himself, rather than ask it.
With a limp that bad, he first checked the med bay and when the receptionist stepped away, checked their logs. No… Stark never checked in. He scowled when the woman returned to see him standing at her desk, and she stepped back, not questioning his presence – fear just another tool in his arsenal.
As his therapist kept reminding him, proper self-care was essential in order to remain fully functional and most efficient. It wasn’t quite how she phrased it, but that was the core meaning. Also, if he followed those guidelines, everyone around him smiled and treated him differently than when he forgot.
Thus, since these rules were supposed to apply to everyone, the next place he checked was Stark’s apartment. No answer at the door, so he boosted himself into the vent from the janitorial closet down the hall to investigate – it was possible the man was too damaged to come to the door or call out. The apartment was dark, though. No sign of the engineer anywhere. Few personal things too.
Stark’s apartment was larger, with more luxurious furnishings, but reminded the Soldier in some ways of his own room here. Steve kept giving him things to hang on the walls or put on shelves, which he did, smiling and thanking Rogers cheerfully. Otherwise Rogers frowned and studied him in closer detail, which the Soldier didn’t care for.
The Soldier felt the rage crawl under his skin. Did the Avengers not give Stark the same kind of small tokens for his service? Swallowing his fury, he returned to the common area. Maybe Stark had come for food and company while the Soldier searched elsewhere. It wouldn’t serve either him or Stark if the others could tell he was off.
Walking into the common area, he relaxed his shoulders, slowed his pace and looked around. No Stark. Also, all the takeout containers were empty on the counter. He opened the refrigerator and poked around – mostly to hide his growing anger. From this position, he called over his shoulder, “Hey, anybody see Tony?”
Several “nopes.” He pulled out ham, cheese, and located the bread and mustard to make a sandwich. He could keep his emotions hidden until he finished. Steve came into the kitchen, “What’s up Buck? Need Tony for something?”
He nodded, not trusting his words at the moment.
Steve smiled. “That’s great – you don’t have to try to do everything yourself Bucky. Pretty sure Tony’s still in the lab. You know you can always ask FRIDAY, right?”
He nodded again.
Steve’s eyes narrowed, “You ok Buck?”
He finished making the sandwich and put away the rest of the ingredients. As he tucked a plum in the pocket of his hoodie, then considered and helped himself to a second. Without looking up at Steve, he said, “Just tired.” He flexed the fingers of his metal arm. “And something’s off.”
Steve relaxed and nodded, “Yeah, it’s nice to be able to relax with the team after a mission. C’mon back after Tony takes care of your arm. We’re gonna play Mario Kart. This time we’re all ganging up on Clint.” Steve grinned and patted the Soldier on the shoulder, “Want us to wait for you?”
He shook his head, flashing a practiced, easy smile, “Nah, that’s ok Stevie.”
Steve wandered back to the lounge area and the game of Scrabble he was playing with Sam Wilson. As an afterthought, the Soldier grabbed the half-full bottle of orange juice (fortified with calcium and vitamin D) from the fridge and tucked it under his arm as well.
On his way to the lab, he tucked the first aid kit from the janitor’s closet under his arm also. Likely all the first aid supplies in the lab had been exhausted.
The Soldier wanted to believe he was wrong, but all evidence pointed to Tony Stark being the Avengers’ Asset: deprived of sleep and food, forced to work regardless of physical condition, not to mention the ways the team talked down to Stark and hardly acknowledged his poor physical condition. They used his first name as though he were their friend or teammate, but the Soldier hadn’t observed any other evidence to support that idea.
The Soldier knew that Stark was aware of the fact that his parents’ murders had been one of his missions. Stark spent as little time with the Soldier as possible, using clipped tones whenever verbal communication was required. From the way Steve’s body language radiated tension whenever the Soldier interacted with Stark, evidence pointed to Steve knowing also.
Why would the Avengers bring the one who murdered a teammate’s parents into their fold? Conclusion – Tony Stark was an asset, not a team member. The Soldier had so given over to the rage building within him, he hadn’t realized he was clenching and grinding his teeth until he heard them squeak as they ground together.
Indeed, Stark was in the lab, standing at a workbench flipping through screens of notes and designs, weight resting on his good leg.
Tony worked in the lab, trying to see where in the latest design for Clint’s arrows the balance distribution might be off as compared to the previous model. Personally, he thought Barton was probably hungover and making excuses, but whatever.
This last battle had been a real bitch. He’d been trying to follow the plan that Steve laid out, but the robots seemed to have some kind of hive-mind intelligence, so he had tried to keep the two groups of them separate and when that hadn’t worked, he’d taken a hit to his knee (again).
Going to med bay would’ve been a waste of time since they’d just wrap it, tell him to stay off it for a while, and to ice it. The scratch on his forehead had bled a lot, but really was just a scratch – nothing that needed anything more than a little cleanup and light pressure.
One of his boot jets had gotten damaged during the fight also. That’d need to get fixed before he took the Mark LV out again. He could’ve limped it home, but he was tired and hadn’t wanted to deal with the hassle. To top it off, Rogers had started sending him text messages on the flight home, reminding him of the team’s post-mission cool-off dinner.
Because why wouldn’t Tony want to eat dinner with the guy who killed his parents and said assassin’s best friend who pretended not to know about it. Maybe MurderBot 10,000 had Rogers and those guys fooled, but Tony could tell that the guy was just as much the Winter Soldier as he’d ever been – just without the trigger words… or a kill switch, either.
His eyes moved to look through the holographic display out the window to the hallway where the guy stood, glaring at him with the most murderous expression he’d ever seen on anyone – and he’d been in fights with people trying to kill him personally. Tony flinched as the assassin drifted toward him effortlessly – how anyone could stomp with such purpose and not make a sound was a marvel of physics.
Barnes stopped, just inside the door to the lab. Before his tired brain could stop it, Tony’s mouth said, “Hey killer, what can I do for ya? Trouble with the arm?”
Barnes shook his head and sucked the corner of his lip, as if indecisive. Indecisive assassins. Tony would rather have rampaging robots or another one of those gross slug creatures in his personal space, but he tried to put a positive face on. Maybe then the guy would beat feet and leave with haste.
Apparently making up his mind, Barnes stalked forward, then blinked. Please don’t put on that fake ‘Bucky’ character. There was very little that Tony saw during waking hours that he found more unsettling than watching that transition – except the fact that no one else seemed to notice it. Frankly, the guy was a shiver looking for a spine to crawl up and Tony generally did whatever he could to avoid him.
The Soldier’s lips twitched again with indecision, then he started setting down stuff on the workbench. A sandwich, juice, fruit? Seriously, what the fuck?
Barnes glared at him and pointed to the stool next to the workbench. “Sit.”
Tony sat, and the assassin frowned. C’mon – I did what you wanted. What’s with the murder glare?
Next, the Soldier carefully set down a… first aid kit? Maybe Tony had fallen asleep on his feet again and hit his head. It certainly seemed a lot more likely than the alternative – that this was somehow his life now.
Mister Murder seemed to be trying to look non-threatening, which Tony honestly found hilarious, but thought better than to laugh. “Ne dvigaytes'.” Hold still. His voice still sounded surly, but lower and without the snarl that Tony expected. “Can I touch?”
Clearly, someone had spiked his coffee and was having a laugh at Tony’s expense. Second most likely after an inadvertent head injury. Next would be that the hood vents weren’t working properly. Tony nodded – if for no other reason than the spark of curiosity at where this was all headed.
The Soldier – and there was no doubt that it was the Soldier – held Tony’s face in his hands, looking from one eye to the other critically. Then more gently than Tony had thought possible, palpitated his jaw, cheekbones and forehead. Nodding as if satisfied, the Soldier retrieved one of the alcohol pads from the first aid kit and disinfected the small cut above Tony’s eyebrow, following it with the antibacterial ointment as he grumbled about there not being any Russian language descriptions of the contents.
Tony even got a small bandage. At this point, his eyes were probably the size of saucers – staring as Barnes moved. Now the assassin was examining Tony’s arms clinically. Then satisfied, the Soldier knelt in front of Tony, gently pushing up the pantleg of the engineer’s lounge pants to examine his sore knee with feather touches soft enough not to hurt, but deliberate enough not to tickle either.
Trying to hold absolutely still, Tony still noticed the Soldier frown again when he flinched as Barnes slowly flexed his knee. The Soldier muttered to himself in angry Russian too soft for FRIDAY to pick up and translate into Tony’s earpiece. After carefully returning Tony’s sore leg to a resting position, the Soldier stood abruptly and pointed to the little picnic on the workbench, “Eat,” and stalked away.
For a few minutes, Tony’s self-preservation instinct struggled with hunger. Hunger won. The food was simple, but tasty enough. He was just finishing when the Soldier returned carrying a very soft-looking purple blanket and a pillow.
Swallowing the last of the orange juice – he always forgot he liked it best plain, sans vodka or champagne – Tony asked, “Is that Clint’s blanket?”
The Soldier looked up as wide-eyed as possible and shrugged, “Found it in the laundry. Clean.” He draped it over the workshop’s sofa and added the pillow. Returning to Tony, he knelt down again, then looked up for permission to touch again.
Tony nodded again, thinking, ‘Fuck. This might actually be my life…’ Again, more gently than Tony’d ever been handled by actual medical personnel, the Soldier started to expertly wrap his knee with an elastic bandage – supportive, but not too tight. He gave a cursory examination to Tony’s other leg, but seemed satisfied that there was no further damage.
“Hey, uh… thanks Robocop.” The (former) assassin’s features smoothed out into an expression Tony hadn’t seen there before. Not the weird fake ‘Bucky’ persona, but not the Murderbot Tony was accustomed to seeing glimpses of either. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take a look at your arm as long as you’re here?”
The Soldier scowled again and shook his head, then leaned forward and using what Tony had started to think of as the guy’s ‘don’t scare the children’ voice, said, “Hold on,” and scooped him up to deposit Tony on the couch, tucking him into the extremely cozy and incredibly soft purple blanket. The extra pillow went under Tony’s knees to support and raise them to help with swelling.
The Soldier added cold packs for Tony’s sore knee, taping them gently, but securely into place. Finished, he straightened up and plucked the earpiece from Tony’s ear and set it on the workbench, speaking in rapid, firm Russian to FRIDAY, who said, “Of course, sir.”
The lights dimmed and the holoscreens within his line of sight dimmed also. There was enough light to still be able to see fairly clearly, but with the bright lights dimmed, fed, and comfortable, Tony’s eyes were already starting to feel heavy.
That relaxed expression had returned and Tony realized how attractive Barnes could be when he wasn’t trying to kill things with his mind or pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Barnes took a few steps back, “Sleep, now. No one will bother you.”
Tony snorted derisively, but Barnes tilted his head to the side, and sounding smug, said, “No calls, no text or email notifications.”
“If they can’t get ahold of me that way, they’re just going to come down for progress reports,” Tony sighed.
Barnes’ eyes glittered, and he smirked, “That’s why I’ll wait outside. To… discourage interruptions.”
The rest of the team had definitely not seen this face of the Soldier before. Danger practically seeped from his pores. The murder-strutting singlemindedness Tony had seen before had nothing – nothing – on the sheer menace in that expression.
Even so, Tony found a small smile tugging the corners of his lips, “Strongly discourage?”
Barnes shrugged carelessly, and the Danger Smirk returned, “If necessary.”
Tony recognized intellectually, that he should not find either the implied threat of extreme bodily harm to his friends and coworkers or the facial expression that accompanied it so alluring, but maybe he was as self-destructive as everyone said.
Tony smiled, “All right, Mary Poppins, I’ll sleep.”
He’d just gotten comfortable and Barnes had just reached the door, when the former assassin looked over his shoulder, frowning with confusion, “They trust you to repair and create their weapons – their armor…. A few imperfections and you’d be free. Why don’t you take that opportunity?”
The Soldier tried again, “A small flaw – something no one but you would notice. You could escape. Why don’t you?”
What? Tony was really too tired to be having this conversation, but again, apparently this was his life now. “Hey, c’mere.”
The Soldier did as requested and sat on the floor facing Tony, one leg splayed out, the other tucked loosely in front of him. He waited patiently for Tony to continue.
“I’m not a prisoner here. I like spending time in my workshop.” Tony hadn’t expected Barnes to roll his eyes and sigh like a teenager, an unspoken 'whatever.'
“All right, what’s your evidence, Sherlock?”
The Soldier knew it was bad when Stark denied being a prisoner, but then Stark challenged him for evidence to support the conclusion. That surprised him.
“They expect you to function while damaged.”
Stark propped himself up on one elbow, voice taking a gentle tone he’d never heard the man use before, “We’re all damaged, Snowflake.”
The Soldier frowned at the nickname, but it didn’t bother him as much as it might’ve another day. “They demanded repairs and equipment upgrades while you were still bleeding.” He was unable to keep the note of outrage out of his voice.
Tony smiled – almost fondly, “They know I don’t like to be reminded that I’m mortal, so they don’t call me on it when I get hurt. I don’t call them on it either.” When the Soldier opened his mouth to protest, Tony added, “Trust me – if I had an untreated broken arm or something? FRIDAY would seal off the ‘shop.” The engineer smiled sleepily, “What’s next on your list?”
He felt his lips twitch, uncertain – Stark’s gentle smile contradicted his theory. “They don’t let you eat with the team.”
The man’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times before he responded. The Soldier narrowed his eyes, watching for tells indicating lies. Stark finally said simply, “They did invite me – they do invite me – and I turn them down. You can look at the messages Steve sent me earlier while we were on the Quinjet.”
After retrieving the phone, the Soldier searched through the messages. Steve had asked Stark to join them and the engineer’s response had been, ‘too tired 4 ur bullshit rogers.’ No punishment had been implemented.
Indeed, Stark had received several messages from Natasha to check on his injuries and offering to save him some of the Thai food they’d ordered, and he’d declined medical treatment and the Thai food. Even Clint had sent a couple of teasing texts followed by an honest one just ten minutes ago making sure that the Soldier wasn’t bothering him. (‘WS went down 45 min ago. Still alive?’)
He felt his face flush and he mumbled, “Sorry,” as he handed the phone back to Tony.
The Soldier felt Tony’s hand close over his and he fought the urge to jerk it away, leaving his arm trembling. In that same calm voice, Tony said, “Hey, compassion is nothing to be ashamed of, Snowflake.”
As Tony snuggled back into the pillow, “I think it’s a red flag to me if my self-care habits are being mistaken by you for abuse.” Tony yawned, “Maybe it’s not so bad that you stepped in.”
The Soldier watched Tony’s eyes flutter closed, wondering what to do now, when Tony peeled an eye open, yawned again, and added in a sleepy mumble, “And for the record, your observations – spot on. You were just missing the context, so you added what you knew, and tested your hypothesis. I appreciate your use of the scientific method. You go get some sleep too, ok?”
Quietly, he said, “Da, ok,” but didn’t move until Stark fell asleep.
When the Soldier was sure the engineer was sleeping, he tucked Tony’s hand under the blanket and arranged himself in a sitting posture next to the couch in a way that he could share the edge of Tony’s pillow, closed his eyes, and folded his arms over his chest.
As sleep started to steal in, the Soldier smiled to himself. After all, even if he was wrong about Tony’s place within the Avengers, he knew for a fact no one dared wake up the Soldier when he was sleeping. Therefore, Stark would be able to sleep uninterrupted as long as he wished with the Soldier nearby.