“Can you just… not do that? It’s creepy,” Tony said. He was talking about the Soldier pretending to be Bucky – again. They’d just returned from a snack run to the common area kitchen.
“Why?” the Soldier asked bluntly. He had stretched out flat on his back, eating potato chips in the middle of the lab’s floor – close enough to Tony to almost be in the way, but not quite. Tony thought maybe the Soldier did this just to take up extra space in a room, but it was one of the least odd quirks his friends had, so Tony just tended to ignore it.
“Why do I wish you’d stop or why do I think it’s creepy?” Tony asked.
Tony sighed and said, “It’s creepy because… it’s not you and seeing you switch back and forth is just kind of… weird. Like you’re possessed or something.” He paused in the middle of eating his pretzels, one sticking out of the corner of his mouth. “I just don’t think you need to do that. You’re good enough the way you are.”
For a long time, the only response Tony got was the almost mechanical crunch of potato chips slowly being consumed. Tony was used to it. Sometimes the Soldier needed time to process an idea.
The Soldier sat up, cross-legged, “Da, ok.”
“What? Just like that?” Tony asked, surprised.
Barnes leaned back, hands on the floor behind him, “Yeah. You won’t let them send me for recalibration.”
Tony’s eyes widened with horror, “Yeah, nobody’s getting recalibrated here. They wouldn’t do that. Steve’s your friend.”
The Soldier appeared unconvinced. Tony felt a stab of pride – maybe happiness? – every time Barnes allowed himself to show any kind of vulnerability in front of him. Letting others know he questioned their opinions? Absolutely huge for Barnes. And that he trusted Tony to keep him safe? Tony smiled to himself, going back to his notes, starting to drift back into the work he was trying to finish.
A moment later, the Soldier shook himself slightly and stood to walk to the workshop’s minifridge. He helped himself to one of the grape sodas that he loved. Artificial fruit flavors were an area where he and the engineer disagreed: the Soldier on the ‘for’ side and Tony firmly ‘against.’ Tony didn’t know whether the Soldier liked the (disgusting) fruity soda because he genuinely liked it – or if he was just trying to feel Tony out, to see what would happen if he liked something Tony didn’t.
Shrugging, the Soldier said, “I’m ready to go if they decide I can’t stay.”
“What?” This was the first Tony had heard about any kind of a back-up plan.
“Supplies, gear. Can leave any time,” the Soldier responded matter-of-factly.
The Soldier had been carefully making his preparations for weeks, gathering gear and supplies as they became available. In his experience, people asking to be trusted was a red flag. So, he had prepared and put aside enough supplies to be able to lay low for nearly a month without going more than ten miles from the Compound.
He’d been wrong about Tony being mistreated by the rest of the Avengers. All things considered, he’d been relieved. That didn’t mean they’d accept the Soldier, if he wasn’t ‘Bucky,’ though. Theirs were two very different situations. Better to be prepared for the eventuality, rather than need to run and not be able to disappear effectively.
Still, when he mentioned his plans to Tony, the engineer had stared, shocked. The Soldier studied Stark, trying to determine what might be an appropriate course of action. Usually, Tony noticed when the Soldier felt uncomfortable – when he wasn’t sure how to act – and gave him cues.
“Were you planning on saying good-bye or just gonna leave whenever you felt like it, without saying anything?” Tony sounded… well, the Soldier couldn’t quite tell. Tony sounded angry, but his face didn’t look angry.
Most of the time, Tony was predictable and the Soldier found comfort in the man’s patterns. While Tony’s hours might vary, he could usually be found in only a handful of places and tended to go about his daily tasks in a specific order. Whether or not Tony did this on purpose, the Soldier didn’t know. Right now, though, his predictions were off, and it felt like a rug had been pulled out from under him.
The Soldier looked down, focusing on the edge of his boot against the floor and tried to fight the constricting feeling in his chest, reminded himself to use his words. Quietly, in case Tony really was mad, the Soldier asked, “Chto ya sdelal ne tak?” What did I do wrong?
The indignation drained away from Tony’s face and the engineer’s expression became just tired. Tony walked over and boosted himself up to sit on the workbench next to the Soldier. The engineer sighed, “Nothing, Snowflake. You’re just you and I forget that sometimes.” Tony tried to smile reassuringly, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Ya ne ponimayu, chto ty imeyesh v vidu.” I don’t understand what you mean. The Soldier started counting the bubbles forming in the soda caught in the rim of his can. Dr. Kaplan, his therapist, told him paying attention to these kinds of details in his immediate environment sometimes helped reduce the severity of disassociative episodes.
Tony held his arms open, offering a hug. The Soldier liked that Tony left the option open. Most of the other Avengers had given up trying to touch him since he tended to… react poorly to a good-natured punch on the shoulder or random pat on the back. Tony never assumed he could touch the Soldier, but he made a point to offer and allowed the Soldier to choose whether or not to accept.
The Soldier leaned into the space Tony offered, resting his forehead on Tony’s shoulder. He could feel his own muscles twitch, ready to pull away, to run. Still, he liked that Tony let him be close, and he chose to stay, inhaling the combination of scents that meant Tony – coffee, a lingering trace of motor oil and ozone, combined with whatever cologne he wore on a particular day. Some evenings a little whiskey too, but not much. From the Soldier’s observations, the engineer mostly liked to rattle the ice cubes around in the glass.
After a moment, Tony started to explain, “I meant that I know feeling safe is really important to you. And, I guess I just thought you felt like this was a safe place for you -” It sounded like Stark bit something off at the end – as if he had more words but had swallowed them at the last second.
The Soldier pulled away from Tony, so he could see the man’s face better and asked, “What was the rest?”
Sadness tugged at the corners of Tony’s mouth, and he cleared his throat, half-laughing, before he replied, “Nothing gets by you, huh?” Tony looked off somewhere in the distance for a moment before making eye contact again, “I was gonna say that I thought maybe this –” he gestured around the workshop, but probably meant the Compound, “felt like home. Like a home for you.”
“Ya obidela tebya?” I hurt your feelings? Paying attention to other people’s emotions had always been important for the Soldier’s work – and for protecting himself within HYDRA. But that was all usually in the context of combat – or trying to avoid physical harm and wasn’t always useful here with the Avengers.
Tony didn’t answer right away.
Tony rubbed the bumps of the salt crystals on his pretzel. He didn’t often think about how he felt about Winter. In his mind, Tony liked that name better than thinking of the him as the Soldier all the time. Winter took care of him, but maybe he didn’t actually care for Tony – romantically anyway. Watching Winter’s grey-blue eyes and the cautious expression that had settled there with shades of remorse, something in Tony’s chest twisted.
For a second, Tony could feel the phantom sensation of having Winter’s nose pressed into his hair. Even if Tony went to bed alone, Winter was usually there in the morning sleeping on top of the covers. Winter seemed to enjoy touch as long as he initiated it and there weren’t any overt sexual overtones. The twisting feeling in Tony’s chest throbbed as the thought of Winter just being gone one day flashed through his mind again.
Tony swallowed and tried to keep his composure, “I really like having you here. I…” his voice cracked. Damn. He tried again, “I’d really miss you if you just disappeared on me.” Tony cleared his throat and continued, “So, yeah, you sort of hurt my feelings, but the fact that you trust me enough to talk about it? That,” he shook his head amazed, “that just kind of blows me away.” Good job ending on a positive note, Stark.
“Ty by iskal menya?” Would you look for me? The Soldier asked, his voice a low rumble, the trace of curiosity only just detectable.
“I don’t know – ” Tony started, but clearly that was the wrong thing to say, because Winter’s face closed up – still listening, but wary. Tony tried to explain, “I mean if you left without telling anybody, maybe you wouldn’t want me to look…. But then, if you didn’t tell anybody, maybe Hydra kidnapped you and I should be looking. But I wouldn’t want to invade your privacy – or take that away from you. I mean you don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But if something happened to you and I couldn’t help you because I didn’t know where you were…?”
As the what-if scenarios kept multiplying exponentially in his mind, Tony’s hands started to shake. He stared at a loose thread on the sweater Winter was wearing so intently that his eyes started to burn. Tony tried to force himself to calm down. Instead, trying to force the calm just made it worse and it felt like his ribs turned into bands of steel pulling tighter and tighter, constricting his air flow and making him gasp involuntarily. Tony clamped his eyes shut, to pretend (at least a little bit) that he wasn’t losing his shit in front of Winter, who had so much more trauma to sift through than he did.
As he tried to at least get some semblance of control over his breathing, Tony felt Winter’s arms wrap around him. “Ya by ostalsya dlya tebya,” I would stay for you. Winter murmured in his low voice as he rubbed gentle circles on Tony’s back. Part of Tony’s mind marveled how the rough edges in the man’s voice had worn away over the past few months, ‘til only the low, soothing tones remained. How long had it been since this thing between them began?
Tony leaned his forehead against Winter’s shoulder. “I’m not trying to play the pity card,” Tony said, but sounded a lot less snarky than he’d hoped.
The Soldier held Tony, rubbing the engineer’s back gently. He knew that Tony understood his offer. Just tell me to stay. Tell me to do it and I will. Give the order… please.
“Tell me to stay, Tosha,” the Soldier’s voice sounded weak, too much like begging to his ears. Tony doesn’t want a broken puppet, you idiot.
Tony shook his head, “I can’t do that, Frosty Freeze,” and again more softly, “I just can’t. I know you want me to, but I can’t.” The engineer lifted his head to examine the Soldier’s face. To survey the damage he was causing? No... probably not.
The Soldier’s chest ached in the way it always did when Tony was hurting. The best analogy he’d found was that it felt like a paracord linking his chest to Tony’s. The cord tugged so much that it hurt when Tony was in pain or distress. All the Soldier’s observations and data collecting just cinched the cord tighter and tighter – like a caribiner… or a tourniquet. Would leaving cut the line – or just draw it even tighter? Cut the band of the tourniquet and bleed out… or strangle on a noose of one’s own making? Which was better?
After a few moments, the Soldier’s thought processes led him to an inevitable conclusion: regardless of the preparations he’d made, he would stay whether the others wanted him there or not because he didn’t have the courage to sever the invisible cord that bound him to Tony – and he was too weak to let go.