Actions

Work Header

The Ghost and The Machine

Chapter Text

As the suppressed gunshot finished echoing through the air, timed perfectly to coincide with the huge bell-tower clock that had just begun striking eleven p.m., CIA Agent Bucky Barnes took a deep breath and sighed. It had been a long mission. Just a… truly, appallingly long mission, weeks spent trailing his way through Europe as he and Agent Romanoff worked their target, watching Natasha work her magic, and waiting for his part of the job, the death sentence, to become relevant. Bucky was so tired he hurt, but it was finally almost over, and as soon as he got home he was going to sleep until he became molecularly melded to the sheets.

He’d been on standby for the past three days in a freezing cold abandoned building in Liechtenstein, across the street from the upscale hotel the target was staying in, waiting for Romanoff’s word, which had just come in twenty minutes ago. She was the one that had been in charge of making the judgement call when or if their target finally showed their true colors, and could be justifiably eliminated. She did some of the best infiltration work in the business, everything from an invisible asset to a honeypot, but still, three days in his sniper's nest following several weeks of sneaking around was a long time to sit and stew and try to sleep with one eye open.

As soon as he confirmed the kill, Bucky would be more than ready for extraction and be out of there in twenty minutes. Sometimes that bit wasn’t necessary, confirming the kill, but his line of sight hadn’t been perfect when he’d finally made the shot and he wanted to be sure.

He got himself down out of the abandoned building he’d been posted up in with his sniper rifle, breaking the gun down and loading it into an unassuming travel backpack. He was dressed all in black, but they were civvy clothes and didn’t look odd, especially when he put a red beanie on his head and turned the reversible coat inside out to show the gray side. Being on a mission like this required subtlety as well as stealth, after all

The luxury hotel across from his sniper’s nest, where they had known their target would be staying this week, had a doorman, as well as a fairly adequate security system. But Bucky had been watching the place for three days while Romanoff did her work. He knew that the staff door never closed all the way unless it was pulled shut from the inside, and the shift change for the cleaning staff had happened half an hour earlier. Popping the door open and slipping inside was easy as pie, as was navigating the halls and elevator to get to the right floor. Romanoff had left a keycard for him, in an envelope the same beige color as the wall it was taped to, and Bucky was inside the target's room without a hitch a moment later.

Just as he’d finished confirming the kill, and taking a few quick notes for his report and noting that the bullet had passed through the body and into the room across the way, something made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Glancing around, he brought his handgun up into firing position, eyes peeled. Nothing moved but the curtain across the half-open window that Natasha had opened earlier so that Bucky could taken his shot without anyone hearing the shattering of glass, the filmy fabric billowing slightly in the cold breeze.

He stood there, tense in the silence, listening hard for a full minute, waiting.

Nothing.

With a short exhale, he lowered his gun, and sent one more glance at the body on the floor, then at the hole in the wall.

He was kind of worried about that. His target was supposed to be alone, but the guy had been talking, and Bucky could have sworn he’d seen a shadow or a flash of movement a few times that would mean the target wasn’t alone. And with his line of sight not being what it should have been, and no way to move without being seen, Bucky couldn’t say for sure either way.

Taking one more glance around the room, Bucky texted for body pickup and extraction, with an alert to check the entire premises just in case, then turned towards the door.

“Hi, sorry to interrupt, but you’re a legit spy, right? Can I ask you some questions?”

Bucky had emptied the entire mag of bullets before the… thing finished speaking, and it was patting its translucent goateed face and dark-haired head with likewise see-through hands.

“Huh. I kinda wanna say something juvenile like ‘ha ha, missed me’, but we both know that’s not true. Anyway, as I was saying, questions, because I’m a writer and the internet is kind of super unhelpful about stuff like this. For example, are those bullets untraceable?”

He was hallucinating. That was literally the only explanation. And one he really didn’t want to contemplate.

Turning on his heel, Bucky ran from the room without a word, heart pounding in his chest, and he didn’t stop in his wild flight until he was three blocks over and had hailed a cab.

Sleep. He just needed sleep. Then everything would be fine. It had to be.


Since the mission had been basically routine (except for that whole complication at the end and the ghost thing that he was forcing himself not to think about), Bucky was allowed to give a bare minimum verbal report to the higher-ups once, then head home. The flight had been long, and he hadn't been able to sleep at all, so once he finally got home he shoveled some cold and deeply questionable Chinese leftovers into his mouth, then fell into bed fully clothed and didn’t move for a solid ten hours straight.

He felt much better upon waking up, good enough to head into the office and get a head start on the paperwork that had been building up to downright alarming levels because he'd been gone on ops and missions so much lately. It was only just past lunchtime when he approached his office in the CIA headquarters building for the first time in three weeks, a fresh cup of coffee in his hand and the remains of a bagel sandwich in his mouth. He got himself settled in his chair, giving a spin just for fun, then turned on his computer to check his emails and get to work typing up his report.

He was just lifting his cup to take that first miraculous sip when—

“So, I know this might be a little irregular—”

Bucky screamed, actually screamed, and his cup of coffee went flying out of his hands when what certainly looked like something out of a nightmare materialized right in front of him, partially obscuring his computer monitor.

With a hand over his chest, trying to get his heart under control, he took one look at that bewildered, goateed, translucent face and all but ran for the bathroom.

Everyone, literally everyone on the floor was watching him go, so he shouted something like, “Stapled my thumb!” as soon as he got out of his office and kept running.

Natasha and Clint, who were in Natasha's office across the open floor space from Bucky, exchanged a look.

“He literally got shot last month and didn’t even blink, but stapling his thumb has him screaming bloody murder?”

Clint shrugged as he took a bite of the breadstick that had come with Natasha's lunch. “Eh, that’s fair. Stab wounds hurt, but paper cuts are agony.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and went back to work, swiping the breadstick out of his hand and shoving him off her desk.

Bucky nearly tore the door to the bathroom off its hinges, and he scrambled to check that there wasn’t anyone else in there. Just him.

Him, and the floating ghost looking back at him through the mirror.

Bucky held back another scream, but just barely, and it strained at his vocal cords.

The ghost nodded sympathetically. “Yeah, I know, I kinda felt like that at first, but I’m a big fan of ignoring my problems until they go away. And I’m apparently dead, so your problems are clearly way less than mine. Also, you never really answered my questions last night, so I’m following up. Also again, you’re the only one that can see me, apparently, what’s all that about?”

The words… were going right over Bucky’s head. Not a single thing was getting through to him, he was still stuck on GHOST.

“WHY ARE YOU HERE?!” He finally burst out in a harsh, half-screamed whisper, interrupting what was probably going to be another stream of nonsense. “No, better question, HOW ARE YOU HERE?! How am I the only one that can see you?!”

That see-through face had the gall to look offended. “Okay, honestly, it’s hard not to feel insulted right now. Were you not listening to me at all just now? That’s rude.”

Bucky was hyperventilating. He might actually be having a panic attack. It had been a long damn time since he’d had a panic attack, and now here he was, probably hallucinating, and he was having a panic attack.

“I don’t suppose coaching you through a breathing exercise might help?”

Bucky just kind of… croaked and braced his hands on the sink to ride it out, head bowed as he tried to breathe normally.

He also kept his eyes closed, because, hello, ghost.

By the time his breathing had returned to normal, his heart rate was back down in a normal range, and he had given himself a stern talking-to about the ghost/hallucination not being real. He was clearly just slightly unhinged from being overworked and watching too many of those dumb, addicting ghost hunter shows, and Bucky told himself he was certain that he was going to open his eyes and find himself alone.

If he could just… believe that, it would be great.

He gave himself a count of three, told himself to grow a pair, and opened his eyes.

The bathroom was empty.

Breathing a huge, ragged sigh of relief, he pushed himself up off his palms and scrubbed hard at his face. He… really needed a vacation. That was a thing he seriously needed to do, and sooner rather than later.

Seeing things was definitely a sign that he needed to go get a tan, an umbrella drink, and some cheap souvenirs on a beach somewhere.

Chapter Text

Bad days were only made better with vodka, pizza, and crap TV. The “crap” part also applied to the vodka and pizza.

Okay, bad days were probably made better with a whole lot of things, like… maybe therapy and medication, but Bucky didn’t exactly have a whole lot of options at ten p.m. on a Friday night, so vodka, pizza, and crap TV it was.

Half the pizza and vodka were gone, he was sprawled out on the couch in his apartment in quite a comfortable position, and the commercial break was almost over when he heard it.

“Psssst.”

Bucky blinked, turning down the volume on the TV. Had he just heard…?

“Pssssssst.”

Yes he had.

Looking around, he tried to locate the source of the noise. When he saw no one, a creeping suspicion started making his skin crawl.

“Pssssst.”

The whisper was definitely coming from behind the couch, and Bucky carefully pulled himself to a sitting position to peer over the back of it.

Slowly, the top of a see-through head of dark hair and brown eyes came into view peeking up over the edge of the couch. “I’m trying not to scare you this time. Is it working?”

Well… kinda.

The vodka was possibly helping with that.

Bucky held very still, as if moving quickly was somehow going to spook one or both of them. “I’m not hallucinating you, am I?”

The head tipped to the side as if the ghost had shrugged. “If you are, it’s a pretty good one. I can make myself invisible if I want, and I’m stuck within a certain distance of you, but you’re the only one that can see me or hear me, and when you move the edge of my boundary moves. Does that seem like a regular hallucination to you?”

“Are you suggesting hallucinations are at all regular?”

“Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?”

That caught Bucky so off-guard that a nervous burst of laughter escaped him, and the ghost apparently took that as a good sign because his whole head came into view and he was grinning.

“What’s your name?”

He was too stunned not to answer. “James Barnes. I go by Bucky.”

The ghost looked both appalled and highly amused. “Bucky? Bucky?! Are you serious? Oh sweet Tesla, do you have any idea how many dirty jokes just sprang to mind?”

Bucky glared. “A little less of the ghost mocking me, thanks.”

“Hey, ghost has a name.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “And?” They might as well get acquainted. Since he was apparently stuck with this bizarre apparition, kind of literally. Oof, that thought made him dizzy…

With great flair, the ghost swept a bow in midair that was somehow sarcastic in its very form. “Tony. Ghost of the first degree, at your service.” He paused mid-bow, and gave Bucky a curious look. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about ghosts, would you? I have questions.”

“How the hell would I know?!” Bucky spluttered, some of the utter absurdity of the conversation, no, this entire experience, starting to dawn on him. He grabbed for the vodka and took a very large gulp before speaking again. “I didn’t even think ghosts were real! And if you are a hallucination, I’d honestly rather just not know.” The nightmares and anxiety attacks that still plagued him due to his PTSD were enough, thanks. He wasn’t looking for another symptom to add to the pile. With a sigh, he scrubbed at his face with both hands, then ran them through his shoulder-length hair, scooping it up to tie back to give himself something to do in a nervous gesture.

The ghost, Tony apparently, did a double-take when he saw the sleeve of Bucky’s hoodie ride up, revealing his metal hand. “Is that… is that a prosthetic, or a glove?”

Bucky tugged an elastic off his wrist, holding it between his teeth. “Wha’sh i’ yook yike.”

“No, seriously, is that an actual prosthetic?” There was keen interest in his voice, and he floated a little closer, tipping his head to the side to look at the metal hand.

Bucky twisted the elastic around his hair and secured it in a scruffy sort of bun at the back of his head. “Yeeees?”

“THAT IS THE SEXIEST FRICKING THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, OMG, GIMME.” The ghost was actually doing grabby hands, his eyes wide and hungry and roaming over the plates that made up the metal hand and wrist.

Bucky’s eyes were wide as he tentatively held out his prosthetic arm. “Um… you can’t actually touch it?”

The ghosts—Tony’s—grabby hands had just gone right through the metal arm, and he looked positively enraged. “DAMN IT!”

That made Bucky choke on a laugh, and the ghost glared at him fiercely.

“How dare you laugh at me, I’m going to haunt you in the bad way now.”

Bucky felt a bit alarmed at that. “This isn’t haunting me in the bad way?”

“Hey, at least I’m not screaming all spooky and rattling chains and crap. I’m making perfectly pleasant conversation.”

“You can’t touch anything, how would you rattle chains?”

The flat, unamused look the ghost shot him made Bucky snicker, and for some reason that abruptly brought home to him the fact that he was sitting in his living room, snickering at an actual, real live ghost. He eyed the vodka bottle again and wondered if vodka could possibly go bad. It would be nice to blame this on something like bad vodka.

"You okay, there? You just went pale, are you trying to be me?"

Bucky could feel himself getting lightheaded, and he had no idea whether it was the alcohol or the ghost hovering midair in front of him. “Y’know what, it's late and I’m… I’m gonna go to bed. See if this is just turning out to be a weird drunk dream left over from a mission with no sleep.”

The ghost nodded sagely. “Yes, good luck with that. Can you leave your TV on? I get reeeeally bored.”

Blinking several times, Bucky set down the remote, got to his feet, and prayed to any deity listening that he wasn’t going round the twist and he’d wake up with a hangover and nothing else. He held onto that thought with every corner of his being as he got into bed and finally dropped off to sleep.


Deities did not love Bucky Barnes that much.

“Good morning, sunshine. Still think you’re having a drunk dream?”

Bucky registered the ghostly face hovering literally inches above his own, then squawked in a very undignified way and spasmed nearly off the bed. "The hell?!"

The ghost, Tony, backed off, looking apologetic. "Yeah, okay, that's my bad, that woulda freaked me out too. Sorry."

Bucky pressed his face into the pillow and groaned when he realized that his Ghost of Missions Past was not, in fact, a drunken figment of a vodka-soaked imagination. Maybe he could suffocate himself. That would work, right? It would make his hangover go away, anyway. “If you’re not going to bring me coffee or food, go away.”

"What do I look like, your butler? I think not, Master Barnes, get your own breakfast. Not like I can touch anything anyway, I've been trying all night."

Bucky whimpered and little and dragged his blankets up over his head, so very much not ready to deal with this. "Leave me alone."

“Screw that, I’m bored. Annoying you is way more entertaining than what’s on TV.”

Bucky was just cranky enough, hungover enough, and not-quite-awake enough that he didn’t even question sassing back at the apparition. “I’ll throw something at you, if only to enjoy the way it goes right through you.”

“Go for it, I bet I can dodge it. OMG, ghost dodgeball, that’s a thing we can do.”

Bucky rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom, scrubbing at his face, still hoping that he’d blink and the thing would be gone. “So help me, if you follow me into the bathroom, I don’t care what dimension you’re in, I will find you and I will hurt you.”

Tony just snorted and floated back to the front room, right through the closed bedroom door. “Please. Your morning wash and perfume isn’t something that interests me.”

“I don’t wear perfume.” Bucky muttered after him, not expecting a reply.

The ghost’s voice came from the living room, sounding both cheerful and slightly condescending at the same time. “But at least you wash, so you have that going for you.”

Ugh. He was not awake enough or crazy enough for this.

He was also not awake enough or crazy enough for the way the ghost just kind of… hovered as Bucky sat at the kitchen table and ate toast while he drank his coffee.

“This is deeply unsettling.” Bucky murmured conversationally, weirded out by the way he could see his cabinets through the ghost's face.

“You’re sitting there drinking coffee and I can’t even smell it, my unsettling trumps your unsettling.”

Bucky glared half-heartedly.

The ghost changed the subject, a quick smirk flashing across his translucent face. “What day is it?”

“Saturday.”

“No work?”

“Nope.”

“So what are you gonna do to entertain me?”

Bucky’s brain stalled out, and in lieu of answering, he dunked a corner of his toast in his coffee before stuffing it in his mouth.

Tony’s face took on such an expression of disgust that it nearly made Bucky laugh. “You are dunking your toast in your coffee.”

“Yup.”

"Buttered toast. In your coffee."

"Sure am."

“That is disgusting.”

Bucky very deliberately dunked his toast again, enjoying the way the ghost shuddered. “So stop watching.”

“You know, you’re not very fun to haunt, I just want you to know that.”

Bucky honestly had no reply to that.

Chapter Text

The entire day passed like that, Bucky awkwardly going through the motions of living, and Tony following along behind, his talking never ceasing. He had commentary and opinions on the way Bucky washed his clothes in the communal laundry room in the basement of the apartment building, the way he loaded the dishwasher, the way he snored when he napped on the couch, what he watched on TV, what he ate, the way he texted, everything. It was like having the world’s most annoying roommate stapled to his back and there was nothing Bucky could do about it.

“What’s it gonna take to get you to go away?” He finally demanded around dinnertime, when Tony complained loudly and at length that he didn’t like the way the smell of Indian food always lingered in the air, making it very difficult to place a delivery order over the phone.

“Not like I have a lot of options there, grumpy.” The ghost retorted, looking annoyed.

“You have nothing better to do than criticize my every move?”

Tony shrugged. “It’s not like you’re watching anything good on TV.”

“No, I mean… why are you here at all?! Why me? Why is my specific existence that you’re haunting?” The frustration of the whole situation had been steadily building all day, and Bucky was starting to reach his boiling point.

“If I knew that, pal, I really wouldn’t be here. Not that you’re not a delight,” Oh, the sarcasm was dripping off those words, “but I really do think I could find a better way to spend a Saturday night than watching you eating stenchy Indian food and watching crap TV.”

“By all means, go for it.”

“Wish I could, buddy. Wish I could.”

Before Bucky could pursue that thought, his phone started ringing, and his conversation with his best friend Steve, who was in Europe on an art tour, lasted for well over two hours. By the time he was hanging up and putting his dinner leftovers in the fridge, Tony had disappeared into the tiny spare bedroom with the door closed, insisting he could still smell the food even though he wasn’t capable of smelling anything ("THAT MAKES NO SENSE!"), and Bucky didn’t see him again for the rest of the night.

He nearly didn’t bother to get out of bed at all on Sunday. He slept in until noon (okay, so he woke up at six by pure habit and then every hour after that, but hey, it almost counted), decided that staying in pajama pants was an important part of his day, and become one with the couch. Tony was flickering in and out of the room as the day passed, talking to himself most of the time, but it seemed the shock of the situation had faded somewhat and Bucky didn’t do much more than look in the ghost’s direction each time he floated through a wall.

Dinnertime rolled around again, and while Bucky would have happily remained on the couch until morning, he had a rule about leaving the house at least once every three days for something that wasn’t work related. Besides, he was hungry.

“I’m going out." He announced, going into his room for a pair of jeans. "I don’t suppose you’ve got much of a choice in the matter?”

Tony, who had been floating upside down in the corner and tipping his head back and forth as he studied the ceiling, popped upright and looked excited. “We’re going outside?! Yes! I’m all for this! I have been reduced to trying to find shapes in your ceiling, I desperately need entertainment.”

Bucky wasn't about to ask him if he'd found the wiggly-shaped rabbit that you could only see if the lamp was on and you were laying on the couch just right.

There was a diner a few blocks down the street, and while Bucky was never all that comfortable around other people, it was actually nice in a perverse way to be mostly ignored. The waitress knew him, and nodded for him to take the table he liked in the corner, handing a menu off to him as he passed.

“Coke and water?”

“Thanks, Nancy.”

“Awwww, the waitress knows you, that’s precious.”

Stifling a sigh, Bucky sat down in the booth and got comfortable, skimming the menu to see what appealed to him today. A whimpering sound had him looking across the table.

Tony’s gaze was glued to the menu, and he looked like he was tempted to reach over and lick it. “That looks so good.”

Bucky turned the menu over to see what he was looking at. “Oh, the pot roast? Yeah, it’s amazing.”

Tony whined and covered his eyes with his translucent hands. “I can’t even feel hungry, but wow do I want to eat that right now.”

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, but then saw one of the other people in the diner giving him a funny look, so he snapped his mouth shut and looked back at the menu. Damn, he was gonna have to be careful about this…

Nancy brought him his water and Coke, setting them down and taking out her notepad. “What’ll you have, honey? Special today is meatloaf.”

Tony whimpered again.

“Yeah, that sounds good. Mashed potatoes?”

“Garlic or gravy?”

A pathetic moan.

“Um, gravy.”

“Broccoli okay?”

“Sure.”

“And we’ve got fresh rolls coming out of the oven in a few minutes.”

“I’ll have two of those—”

Tony let out a legitimate wail, flailing in his seat like he was being flogged. Bucky aimed a kick at him under the table, forgetting he was a ghost, and promptly jammed his toes, hard, into the base of the seat.

Nancy raised her eyebrows at the thud, and his bitten-off curse. “You alright there, honey?”

“Yeah, sorry, charley horse in my leg. Can I get double mashed potatoes?”

“Sure thing, sugar. Dessert tonight?”

Tony looked ready to wail again at the thought of having to endure more torture, brown eyes wide and pleading, so Bucky just shook his head. “No, thanks.”

“Be back in a bit, then.”

Bucky waited for her to get out of earshot, then covered most of his mouth by propping his chin on his hand and hissed at Tony, “So help me, if I get thrown into an insane asylum because of you, there will be consequences.”

“I am dying over here, you heartless goon. Dying. All this food and I can’t have any of it. I can't even smell it.”

“Then why were you being suck a dick about my chicken tikka massala? And besides, I thought you said you were already dead?”

Tony opened his mouth, closed it, then glared. “That’s it, I don’t have to stand for this. I’m leaving.”

Bucky stared after the ghost as he floated away in a huff, wondering how he’d managed that trick. Because he’d have to try that again.

He idly watched for a few minutes as Tony wandered around the restaurant, checking out what the other customers had ordered, swearing and moaning and generally being a drama queen. At one point he even laid down on the floor and sounded like he was sobbing. Eventually he came back to the table, looking very grumpy indeed, and he sat down across from Bucky with an inaudible thump.

“Go get me one of the newspapers by the door so I can do the crossword.”

“You can’t write anything down.” Bucky pointed out.

“I’ll do it in my head, it's not that hard, now go get me something to distract myself or I will start screaming and then you really will go insane.”

Grumbling about it under his breath, Bucky went to the stand of ads and newsletters near the door, grabbing a copy of the local newspaper that did indeed have a crossword puzzle on the back. He tossed it unceremoniously on the table, only straightening it so Tony could see it properly once he saw the unimpressed glower the ghost was giving him.

They sat in slightly annoyed silence for a few minutes, and Bucky was relieved to see Nancy coming his way with his food.

“Here you go, honey. Meatloaf, double mash, broccoli, a refill on the Coke, and you let me know if you change your mind on dessert. We’ve got rice pudding, cherry and almond pie, and Gary decided to try his hand at chocolate lava cake, which mostly looks like half-baked cake but it tastes alright.”

Bucky smiled at her, pretending he didn’t hear Tony’s whimper at the mention of dessert, and dug in. The ghost was very carefully ignoring him, his eyes glued to the newspaper on the table, loosely curled fists braced at his temples to hold his head up. Bucky was pretty sure he could see Tony’s lips moving as he worked his way through the puzzle, and tried reading the different clues upside down.

After a few more minutes of silence he was tempted to talk with his mouth full, just to be obnoxious, but figured that would be a bit mean. Especially since Tony was trying to hard to ignore him. And besides, his mother might teleport herself here from Brooklyn by sheer force of will to box his ears if he did that.

“How’s the crossword?” He asked, once he'd swallowed his bite.

“Not bad." Tony didn't look up. "How’s the meatloaf?”

“Not bad.” It was fricking delicious, but he wasn’t gonna rub it in the ghost’s face.

“Question.”

“I’m not that great at crossword puzzles.”

Tony glanced up. “No, not this. Actually I was wondering if I could like… job shadow you?”

Bucky stared at him for a minute, baffled, before reminding himself that he wasn’t supposed to be seeing the guy. He looked away and took another bite of meatloaf to hide his reply. “That differs from haunting and severely annoying me at work how?”

The ghost rolled his eyes. “Buddy, I have not even begun to seriously annoy you.”

Oh, now that made him want to cry.

Tony went on, “I’m pretty sure I’m a writer.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow.

“Put that eyebrow down right now, or I’ll strip naked and do an Irish jig right on this table.”

He choked.

Tony looked pleased, and continued. “I don’t know if this is all just in my head from before I got all good and ghosty, or if I was working on it before, but I have this amazing story idea in my head, and you are a perfect opportunity to get some actual research done!”

A whole host of responses came to mind, but Bucky went for arguably the most important first as he took a sip of his drink. “My entire life is classified.”

“It’s not like anyone would know, c’mon.”

“Do I need to define classified for you?”

Tony rested his chin on his hand, and actually batted his eyelashes. “Exactly how do you plan on stopping me, then?”

Well… damn, he had a point there. Bucky grunted and shoved a broccoli floret into his mouth.

Tony made a noise of frustration and all but sprawled across the table. “Oh, come onnnn, help me out here! It’s just research, I just need like… basic job information to make sure the story is believable.”

Bucky’s eyes narrowed as he scooped up some mashed potatoes. “What kind of information?”

He ticked the items off on his fingers, “Your basic job info, salary, benefits, whether it’s possible for two agents to meet out in the real world without knowing it, that kind of thing. Oh, do you have code names? And why are spies always so paranoid?”

“You have already mocked me for having a nickname, I am gonna pass on the code names thing.”

“So you do have code names!” Tony looked delighted.

Bucky just… groaned.

Under the excuse that he didn’t actually want to look like he was crazy, Bucky managed to keep conversation with the ghost to a minimum while he finished his meal and paid for it (he had Nancy box up a piece of the pie for him to eat later when Tony was distracted), then headed home, Tony in tow.

“I think you’re overlooking something important,” Tony said conversationally, floating alongside Bucky as he walked back to his house, picking up right where they’d left off.

“Mm?”

“I literally can’t not go to work with you. I’m stuck inside an eight meter radius of you at all times. I’ve been playing with it all day while you were in a coma on the couch, and there’s some kind of barrier.”

“I wasn’t in a coma.”

“You stayed in one position for six solid hours and I’m pretty sure you didn’t even blink, Buckaroo. That’s practically comatose.”

Bucky wasn’t about to have his questionable life choices questioned by a being that was literally floating six inches off the pavement. “What do you mean, a barrier?”

“Like… a sorta squishy wall, I guess? It feels somewhat malleable, but I can’t break through it. Like I’m slamming myself into a rubber wall. And it doesn’t matter if I just kinda lean on it or go running at it like I’m trying to access Platform 9 ¾, either way I can’t pass it. And it moves with you.” Tony stopped moving alongside Bucky, waving for him to keep walking. Bucky got halfway down the block, watching over his shoulder as the ghost just hovered there, then it was exactly like an invisible force had come up behind Tony and was pushing him along.

Bucky stopped, waiting for the ghost to catch up again, his brain turning the information over.

“Like I said, literally stuck with you.”

“Can you be eight meters above and below me too?” Bucky asked.

Tony looked surprised. “What?”

“You said an eight meter radius, does that include above and below me?”

The ghost’s eyebrows went up, and he looked a little impressed. “Well, color me surprised. That was a legitimately intelligent question.”

Feeling as if he’d rather like to punch the ghost whether or not it would do any damage, Bucky scowled and kept walking.

“To answer your question, yes, it includes above and below you. Poked around your neighbors’ apartments today. This is going to come as a shock, but you’re still more interesting than them.”

“You spied on my neighbors?”

“I’m not sure a person who is literally a spy for a living gets to be all offended when I go try and relieve my boredom by watching the old lady under you knit and the single mom above you slowly lose her mind while her kids watch Peppa Pig.”

Bucky snorted, unsure if he was laughing or not, but Tony just grinned as they walked and floated the rest of the way home in silence.

Chapter Text

Later that night, as Bucky was just thinking about going to bed, Tony glanced over from where he was somehow flopped all over the ratty chair next to the couch (ghost physics, what the hell). The ghost had been relatively quiet, absorbed enough in the space documentary Bucky had chosen that he hadn’t talked much. Now though, he was looking at Bucky with a contemplative look on his face.

“You know, you’re remarkably… unfazed by this. It's kind of concerning.”

Bucky spoke around a yawn. “This being?”

Tony gestured to his translucent self. “Ghost.”

He just shrugged as he arched and twisted his torso, his back popping very satisfyingly a few times. “Well… to be honest, you’re not my first hallucination.”

Tony’s expression was curious, but he also looked as if he wasn’t sure if he should ask. Bucky answered him anyway.

“PTSD can get pretty whack.”

He honestly didn’t expect the nonchalant nod he got back. “Soldier?”

Bucky nodded, brow furrowing. “How did you know?”

Tony shrugged. “You stand like a soldier.”

His curiosity was piqued (probably from being around Tony too long), but before he got the chance to ask, Tony’s eyebrows scrunched together. “So how do you know I’m not a hallucination?”

Bucky took a slow breath, his gaze unfocused as he mentally peered over the edge of exactly that terrifying thought that he’d been avoiding ever since Lichtenstein. He didn’t meant for his voice to sound so hauntingly bleak when he quietly replied, “I don’t.”

Tony watched him for a moment, his expression unreadable, then nodded. “You going to bed?”

He was a little taken aback at how, well, chill Tony was being about it. Usually people looked at him like he was either going to go all psychotic and lunge at them with his teeth bared, or like he was so fragile he might break. This casual, nothing weird going on here attitude was... unusual. “Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“Alright.” The ghost floated away, through the wall into the second bedroom, tossing off a wave and a bland smile. “G’night.”

Bucky sat on the couch for another few minutes, having a think, when Tony’s head popped back through the wall. “Remember, I’m job shadowing you tomorrow. So get some sleep, I expect you to be on your best behavior.”

Snorting, Bucky threw a balled up napkin at that grinning face, hearing Tony laugh as he vanished back through the wall.


“I can’t believe you’re following me to work.” Bucky glanced at the ghost floating right beside him as he put his coffee mug in the sink the next morning. Tony all but dogged his footsteps as he got his wallet, keys, gun, and work IDs together, getting ready to leave.

Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “You expected something else?”

“Dude… I work for the CIA. We’re talking all kinds of security and secrecy and the kind of thing that a civilian is not allowed to know about.”

The ghost just snorted. “Yeah, and who exactly do you think I’m gonna tell all these secrets to? It’s not like I’m pal-ing around with Jesus right now. Satan isn’t even here, just little old me, who had to watch an ungodly number of infomercials last night while you were counting sheepies in your bed. We forgot to turn the pages on the books. And when I say we, I mean you.”

“Sheepies?”

Tony threw his transparent arms into the air. “I’m just saying that I’ve got every right to be excited about following a legit spy to work instead of staying here all day watching more TV!”

“You have no idea the trouble I could get into!”

Tony just folded his arms and fixed Bucky with a stubborn glare. “Exactly what is your Plan B, then?”

Which was how Bucky ended up walking into work with a ghost trailing a few steps behind him, those wide, translucent brown eyes taking in every detail as he asked question after question in between a running commentary.

“Do they require two-factor identification to get into the building? Pass cards are too easy, a college kid with a laminator could get by that. Retinal scans would be good, those are tough to crack, do you have to do a retinal scan? A full-hand scan might even be better, especially if they measure for body temperature and a pulse, that would be super tricky to falsify. How many people work here, anyway? Do they have people working night shifts, or is the building actually unoccupied during the night? It would make sense to have security guards, but you’d have to get some serious muscle for that, probably with some Special Forces training.”

Bucky scanned in with his ID card and thumbprint, then used the general commotion of people streaming in through the security lines to mutter over his shoulder, “Are you going to talk the entire time?”

“Why wouldn’t I? I’m a brilliant conversationalist.”

“According to whom?” Bucky muttered as he approached the elevator, and he had the distinct impression that if the ghost could have shoved him, he would have.

“It’s the kind of knowledge one just knows, you ignoramus. Oooh check out all the concealed weapons happening in this elevator! I think it gave me a tingle!”

Bucky had to resist the urge to bury his face in his hands. He really didn’t need to know about another man’s tingling, whether or not he was corporeal.

He was glad to get off the elevator, as it was hard to keep a straight face with a ghost running somewhat rude commentary about the other agents in there with them, and he was looking forward to getting to his office so he had the option to slam his face into the keyboard if he so desired.

Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff were approaching from the other direction as he neared his office. They both nodded at him, and then Barton clapped Bucky’s shoulder and said, “How you doing, Machine?”

Tony snorted. “Machine? Did he just call you Machine?”

“Barton. Romanoff.” Bucky nodded back at his coworkers as they passed and studiously ignored Tony, who ignored his ignoring him.

“No, seriously, Machine? Is it because of the arm? Please tell me it’s because of the arm, because if it isn’t I am going to need to hear that entire story, beginning to end, and I reserve the right to laugh uproariously at you afterward. I’d still like to hear the arm story too, actually, but I need to hear the Machine story first.”

Bucky hoped that once he got to his desk, the ghost would obtain some modicum of chill and maybe shut up for five minutes. It became immediately clear once he sat down in his office chair that that would not be the case.

“Okay, I admit, I was not expecting your files to look exactly like they do in the movies. I mean, they’ve even got Top Secret stamped on the front, this is hilarious!”

Bucky glanced around, hoping nobody was watching him through the glass, hoping he wasn’t acting as weird as he thought. How had he never noticed if he talked to himself at work or not? “I have to work now.”

“I would hope so, I’m pretty sure they don’t hand out paychecks to schlubs that don’t work. Hey, open that file, Machine, I wanna see inside.”

“Absolutely not.”

“You’re no fun.”

Bucky sighed and turned on his computer, starting to seriously dread this work day. “You’re catching on.”

He lasted all of ten minutes before he was on the verge of strangling himself with his computer cords, just so he could enter the afterlife and murder his own personal manifestation of hell that hovered right over his shoulder and would not shut up.

“I’m calling Ghostbusters.” He muttered with gritted teeth, trying to unclaw his hand from around his computer mouse that was creaking ominously in his fist.

Tony wasn't the slightest bit fazed. “Ha, joke’s on you, they probably aren’t allowed in the CIA. Tell me the Machine story.”

Scrubbing his hands over his face, Bucky shoved his chair backwards (and partially through Tony, who was hovering right at his shoulder) and stalked off towards the bathroom. Something had to change, this was going to drive him to insanity before ten in the morning, and he'd been through too much therapy to finally go crazy because of something as stupid as a ghost.

He shoved open the door to the bathroom, perhaps a little more violently than was necessary, glad to see that nobody else was in there. He waited until Tony followed him, then motioned him into the large handicap stall and locked the door.

Tony waggled his eyebrows. "I thought we had rules about bathrooms."

"Get. In. The. Stall. Now."

"Fine, sheesh, grumpy. You need to work on that."

Bucky locked the door behind them, then had to take a very deep breath, letting it out slowly. And then, when he realized that Tony was floating in midair, tapping his toe and looking at him expectantly with his eyebrows raised... he did it again.

“I am begging you, please stop talking.”

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not."

"I mean while I'm trying to work!"

Tony tipped his head to the side, considering it. “Mmmmm, nope. Machine story first, or no dice.”

Bucky’s mouth opened and closed several times as he tried to find words. Any words, any words would do, but he still surprised himself when he blurted out, “It’s not a story, really, it’s just… It’s because I work hard, I’m good at my job, I’m dedicated.” He jogged his metal elbow. “And I guess a little bit of it is the arm too.”

Tony was looking at him with an inexplicable expression on his face. “You work hard.”

“Yes.”

“You work hard, and that’s why they call you ‘the Machine’.”

Bucky scowled, keeping an ear out for anyone else coming into the bathroom. “You’re making it sound dumb on purpose.”

“Oh, buddy, it’s really not hard.” Tony shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re Bucky the Machine. How did this even happen to me, what is my life.” He glanced down at himself, through which the toilet behind him were clearly visible. “Or, well… afterlife? You know, I've been thinking. Maybe this is a curse! Like, I've angered a witch or something. Witchcraft is totally legitimate, I'm already a ghost, who's to say that witches aren't a thing too? Like, crazy witches with cauldrons and black cats and the pointy hats. I bet it was a witch. This is totally something the Sanderson Sisters would do for a laugh.”

Bucky just closed his eyes. “I have to pee, would you pretend you’re not haunting me long enough for me to get this done? I’m not exactly accustomed to having commentary while I do this.”

Rolling his eyes, Tony wandered out of the stall and stayed mercifully quiet while Bucky did his business, and was apparently trying to find out if ghosts could turn on the automatic hand dryer by doing the macarena in front of it when he came out.

Bucky washed his hands and splashed some cold water on his face, trying to shock himself into the kind of mental state necessary to actually focus on work. Barton came into the bathroom while he was still dripping into the sink, and he grunted a hello.

Tony was still over at the hand dryer, gyrating and doing something obscene with his hips that was really just… Bucky was looking away now.

Barton came over to the sinks after doing his business, just as Tony did a little spin, pulling some kind of Michael Jackson move, and struck a pose. Bucky couldn’t resist.

“Hey, Barton, do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Look in that mirror and tell me if you see anything weird over there.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the hand dryer.

The guy’s eyebrows rose. “Weird?”

“Yeah.”

“Just… weird, that’s the only help you’re gonna give me?” Barton sighed and looked into the mirror. Apparently more than willing to help Bucky test out his sanity, Tony gave a jaunty wave, did a little hop-skip thing as he spun in a circle, then flipped the bird at the other agent and stuck his tongue out.

Barton glanced over at Bucky. “I see nothing weird. Except you.”

Tony started laughing, and Bucky was pretty sure that sound triggered an instant headache.

“Okay. Thanks for checking.”

“What exactly was I supposed to see?”

Tony was sniggering now, and Bucky tried to be subtle about shooting him a glare. “Oh, nothing, I just thought I saw something super annoying a minute ago, but guess it’s gone now.”

Barton nodded in a way that clearly communicated that he didn’t understand, but didn’t want to know, and left. Tony looked at Bucky with the very definition of a shit-eating grin on his face.

“You having fun with this, Machine? Because I won’t lie, I kind of am. Maybe I didn't anger a witch, maybe I did something really good in a former life and this is my reward, annoying you to the point of violence.”

Bucky just sighed. “I hate you.”

“Rude. You are so rude, seriously, there were no manners in your upbringing, were there?”

“And I’m about to get ruder, so brace yourself. I can’t have you talking and distracting me while I’m working. Not only do I actually need to work, I’ve got a ton of mission reports and paperwork backlogged that I’ve been putting off because I've been gone so much, but if I’m going to look crazy if I try to talk to you.”

“You don’t ever talk to yourself?” Tony looked baffled, and maybe scandalized.

“You do?”

“Hey, talking to yourself is a sign of genius, and I’m certified, baby.”

“A certified wacko,” Bucky muttered under his breath, bracing his hands on the sink. “I’m serious. I have to get some work done, you have got to leave me alone and let me do that.”

Tony narrowed his eyes and folded his arms, looking contemplative. “What do I get if I do?”

Bucky shrugged helplessly. “What in the hell would I even be able to give you, you’re not real!

“Hey, just because nobody else can see me and I can float through walls doesn’t mean I’m not real!”

With a groan and something that Bucky was going to deny was a whimper, he considered trying to drown himself in the sink. He was an assassin, he was sure he could come up with something to make that possible.

“I think you hurt my feelings.”

Bucky’s head bobbed up, looking at the ghost in surprise. “I what?”

“You hurt my feelings, you jerk. Now a witch is gonna come after you, too.”

Bucky gaped like a fish a couple of times. “How?”

"How would I know, I don't remember how I got like this!"

"No, not that, the hurting your feelings!"

“Oh, that. Well... I’m real, okay." Tony's voice was suddenly serious, in a way that Bucky hadn't heard before. "I don’t get this whole thing, I don’t know what’s going on, if it's a witch or an accident or some kind of crazy dimensional magic or whatever, but I’m real. You’re proof of it.”

There was… an actual hint of hurt in the guy’s face, and Bucky closed his mouth. He’d crossed a line, apparently, and it didn’t really matter if the line had human or a ghost (or a witch) on the other side.

He nodded, meeting Tony's eyes in the mirror. “Okay, fine. I’m sorry I said you weren’t real.”

Tony, wow, he was honestly pouting a little bit, and Bucky very nearly smiled.

“Are you really sorry, or are you just saying that to appease the witches?”

Throwing his hands in the air, Bucky sputtered for a second. “What do you want from me?!”

The ghost grinned at that, prompting a dirty glare, and bowed slightly as he gestured to the door. “That’s all I wanted. Shall we?”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “You’ll be quiet and let me work?”

Tony considered it. “I will make an honest effort.”

Well, that would have to do.

Chapter Text

It worked, kind of, Tony attempting to be quiet while Bucky tried to work. Bucky was still stressed out by the whole thing, and did a double-take a few times when he got absorbed in working then saw the ghost just floating around in midair out of the corner of his eye. But Tony stayed relatively quiet, keeping his talking to a quiet mutter, and he meandered away several times to go look over the shoulders of other blissfully ignorant agents that were passing or in the offices nearby.

Bucky managed a full two hours of work, and made his way through a couple files from past missions that he’d been neglecting, then gathered up some papers he needed to make copies of.

The second he stood up, Tony perked up like a dog that had spotted a squirrel. “Ooh, where we going?”

Bucky tucked the files under his arm and rubbed at his temples. “Copy room.”

“Thank Tesla, I was getting bored.”

Bucky was slightly concerned he was going to develop a Pavlovian fear response anytime the ghost muttered those words.

The copy room was down the hall, and Tony floated along behind, taking in everything, muttering to himself just quiet enough that if Bucky made his footsteps just a little bit louder, he could pretend he didn’t hear anything. Hopefully the fact that was stomping his way to the copy room wouldn’t register as weird to anyone.

Tony’s reaction to the small-ish, nondescript copy room was utterly out of place. The ghost’s eyes were so wide he looked in a state of permanent awe, and Bucky had to work very, very hard not to ask in case someone passed by and heard him.

“Is this a legit copy room, or do you like… have a secret dungeon hidden behind the filing cabinet?

Bucky snorted as he turned on the copy machine. “No, there’s not a secret dungeon.”

“There should be, that’s way more fun.”

Tony inspected every inch of the room while Bucky made his copies, only grumping for a minute when the spy refused to open the filing cabinet drawers and move the copy machine so Tony could check for secret doors.

“Please, I beg of you, can we go back to your office the long way?" The ghost begged as Bucky gathered up his copies. "I’ve officially been in CIA headquarters for like three hours and all I’ve seen is your office. I’m dying of curiosity.”

Bucky smirked at the wording of that, prompting a dirty look from the Tony, but acquiesced and headed for the break room. He could use some coffee anyway. He took a long, meandering path, walking slowly enough that Tony could flit off from time to time, his curiosity taking him this way and that through the occasional wall or door, asking questions one after another until Bucky was dizzy with it.

“Why are all the women here wearing high heels, that’s just stupid, have you ever tried to run in high heels? Let these poor women wear flats, at least. Especially her, she looks like she could harvest my soul through her eyes without so much as lifting a finger, she deserves the fanciest and most comfortable of combat boots.”

Bucky was also pretty sure that if Agent Hill put her mind to it, she could probably harvest someone’s soul with her eyes, but he certainly wasn’t going to suggest any wardrobe changes. She wasn’t Director Fury’s right hand because she was pretty, it was because she was a BAMF.

“How many floors does this office have, I forgot to check in the elevator. And does your security system cover the vents? That’s how all the spies infiltrate in the movies, they crawl through the vents. That door says office supplies, but I’m pretty sure that’s a lie, can we go in?”

The walk back from the break room wasn’t any better, especially since Tony sent him a dirty look every time he took a sip of his coffee. He was distracted pretty well when they passed a red door, however, with no knob, a camera over the door, and a retinal scanner at eye-height.

“Ooooh, what’s in there?”

“We don’t go in there.” Bucky said after a long pause, purposefully letting his voice take on a mysterious, foreboding tone, trying not to grin at the reaction it got.

“OMG, IS THAT THE ROOM WHERE YOU KILL PEOPLE?!" Tony skidded (how?!) to a stop, but Bucky was still walking and the edge of Tony's bubble came up and dragged him along. The ghost fought and flailed dramatically, and Bucky very nearly burst out laughing when he wailed, "Wait, come back, I HAVE QUESTIONS! We’re not even at your desk right now, you can’t just ignore me all day! BUCKY, COME BACK!”

Half an hour later, it became clear that Bucky had made a Mistake.

Because Tony was like a dog with a bone now, and he was not letting it go.

“A red door. Red, that’s significant. All the other doors are gray and black, which I’m sure has some kind of wacky symbolism, but red. Red is death and danger and anger and passion and blood. You definitely kill people in there. Or it's for connubial relations. It's one or the other, I’m sure of it, still leaning towards the killing one.”

“If you're sure of it," Bucky snarked, "why are you still talking about it.”

“Because I’m still waiting for my source to confirm,” Tony replied, glaring at him pointedly. “You can just nod, y’know, you’re not gonna compromise national security with a nod.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Oh, hey, that sounded like it had a story behind it, do tell.”

“Shut up, Tony.”

“Nope. Explain the red door first.”

By the time lunch rolled around, Bucky was ready to tear his hair out.

“Just one little word, Buckster. Yes or no. The CIA has a special red door room specifically for killing. Yes or no. That’s all I need.”

Romanoff stuck her head in the office, one red eyebrow going up when she got a look at Bucky, who had just run a hand through his hair and now it was poofing up a little. “You’re looking kinda frazzled there, Barnes.”

“It’s been a trying day.” Bucky very carefully didn’t look at Tony.

“Paperwork sucks. You coming down or eating in here?”

“Answer the red door question, Barnes.” Tony all but growled, making it very difficult for Bucky to keep ignoring him.

He made a snap decision about lunch. “There. I'll come down there. Yep. People are good to be around.”

Both of Romanoff’s eyebrows went up that time (clearly he needed to maybe work on his hermit image a little), but Bucky just grabbed his insulated lunch bag out of his desk and followed her out into the elevator. Maybe with more people around, he could pretend that he couldn’t hear Tony.

Wishful thinking.

“Do your coffee machines and microwaves have experimental AI? Inquiring minds want to know.”

“No.” Bucky muttered shortly as he sat down at a table in the lunch room and unpacked his sandwich, highly aware of all the other agents and personnel that were hanging around.

“You sure? Maybe they’re working on mind control and their own employees are the test subjects.”

“No.”

“If you don’t eat all those carrot sticks you packed, are they going to punish you for it? Maybe good nutrition is just CIA propaganda, and vegetables make it easier for them to take over your brains.”

Bucky was exactly one thin inch from losing his entire shit, and he abruptly decided that he maybe needed to not be around other people right now. At least in his car he could put on his headset and pretend he was talking to someone on the phone while he lost his mind. He shoved his lunch back in the bag, and managed to ignore the fifteen obnoxious comments and seventeen questions that came out of Tony’s mouth on the way out to the car, but as soon as the door closed behind him, he lost it.

“How is it possible that every single thing out of your mouth is a question?!” Bucky all but yelled after checking that nobody was around.

Tony settled himself in the passenger seat, looking utterly calm and collected. “Like the one you just asked?”

“Seriously, what is wrong with you?!”

Tony glanced down at himself, then waved his hand to encompass his whole body. “Ghost.”

“No, no, it’s not just that, it’s… something. Something very wrong.”

“That hurts, I feel like you don’t like me.”

“You’re literally haunting me!”

“That makes you special, I can’t haunt anyone else!”

“Would you just shut up?!”

“I will if you answer the red door question!”

It was a rough afternoon.


“Spies are boring.” Tony announced the moment they were back in the car that evening to go home.

“What?!”

“Spies are boring. All you did today was paperwork, and you didn’t even tell me about what’s behind the red door. If not for the interrogation room two floors under your office, I could have had a better time at a tax office.”

“I just got back from a mission, if you recall, of course I have paperwork, and what do you mean I have an interrogation room under my office?!” Bucky didn’t know why he was feeling so defensive about his job being called boring, when he himself had thought that during nearly every single mission he went on when he was forced to sit and wait for his part of the action. It was just wrong for someone else to suggest his job was boring, no matter how nonsensical that was. Also, the interrogation room thing now had him panicked.

“What, did you not know about it? Yeah, straight down from your office is a cluster of interrogation rooms. I can only go in the one, the others are right at the edge of the bubble so I can only stick my head in.”

“Why can’t you just stay in my office?!”

Tony just grumped and slumped down in his seat. “Haven’t you been listening? It’s boring.”

“Well, begging your pardon, Master Anthony, but I can’t be doing fun stuff every day.”

“See, even you admit that it’s boring.”

“No I did n—”

Tony flipped his hand up and pointedly looked away. “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the ghost ain’t listening.”

Muttering mutinously to himself, Bucky made his way out of the parking garage and into traffic, turning the radio up louder than usual just to have an excuse not to talk to or listen to the entity of annoyance sitting next to him.

An ad for fried chicken a few minutes later ended the tenuous truce in the car.

Tony obviously saw the way Bucky’s interest was piqued when the radio announcer, amid sounds of crunching and yummy sounds, also went off on a description of potato wedges, coleslaw, and warm chocolate chip cookies. The ghost narrowed his eyes, then all but yelled over the next ad, “If you get fried chicken, I will cry.”

Bucky turned the volume up higher. “I’m getting friend chicken.”

Tony hollered to be heard over the hair removal ad jingle, “I will cry and wail and get all snotty on purpose!”

Bucky’s hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel, and he spoke through gritted teeth. “My life, my choice, my dinner.”

Chapter Text

Tony punished Bucky for getting the fried chicken by singing, off-key and out of rhythm, at the top of his voice, the entire way home. It didn’t matter if Bucky found music, talk radio, or another slew of annoying ads, Tony’s deliberately jarring voice rose over it all, slaughtering hits from AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Led Zeppelin alike. Bucky nearly took out the big apartment complex mailbox at the end of the driveway in his rush to get home so he could at least escape the confined space of the car.

He ran up the stairs and down the hall to his apartment like he was being pursued by a demon (he was) and slammed the door like it just might keep the demon out if he slammed it hard enough (it didn’t). He was just unpacking his dinner on the kitchen table when Tony floated in at a leisurely pace, a bored look on his face.

“Since you don’t like rock and roll, I was thinking of entertaining you with show tunes. Or maybe country? I must have dated a girl that liked it once, because I am positive I know at least one Taylor Swift song from her early days, and I know the chorus to several Shania Twain songs, because they bop.”

Bucky sat down with a thump, tearing the plastic silverware out of their thin plastic packages savagely, and fixed the ghost with a beady eye.

“If you let me eat my dinner in peace, I will tell you what’s behind the red door.”

Tony instantly stilled, and Bucky knew he had him. “You promise?”

“If you go in the other room, and stay there, quietly, the entire time I’m eating, all the way through the cookies, I swear on my grandmother’s grave I will tell you what’s behind the red door.”

The ghost narrowed his eyes. “You’ll tell me tonight ? I’m not stupid, y’know, I can’t be had by an open-ended promise.”

“Yes, I swear I’ll tell you tonight. Deal?” Bucky held out his hand to shake on it.

Looking disgusted, Tony turned his back on the offered hand and floated away. “I can’t believe you just tried to shake my hand, you uncouth heathen.”

Bucky ground his molars together and huffed out a breath. “So do we have a deal? Tony?!”

He yelled back through the wall, “Yes, you insensitive jerkwad, we have a deal! Shut up and eat your chicken!”

It was the nicest forty-five minutes Bucky had ever had. He was starving, so he didn’t eat slow, but he definitely took his time over his cookies and the last of his beer. He even played a few rounds of Chuzzle2 on his phone to pass the time, and managed to level up.

Tony’s patience only extended so far, however, and finally he poked his head through the wall. “You done yet? If you’re not, you gotta come open a book or turn the TV on or something.”

Bucky sighed, gathering up his trash and shoveling it all into the plastic bag his dinner came in. “Yeah, I’m done.”

Tony came all the way through the wall, his arms folded, but there was an excitement in his eyes he couldn’t hide. “Well?”

Bucky couldn’t help but give him a bit of a Look and a smirk.

The ghost looked the faintest bit panicked. “Barnes, you promised me on your grandmother’s grave!”

“Yeah, I know. Okay, the red door. It leads to…”

Tony’s eyes widened slightly, his translucent body nearly quivering in anticipation.

“…the janitor’s closet.”

There was a pause, then Tony narrowed his eyes. “What.”

“Yeah. Janitor’s closet.”

“The red door. With the camera and the retinal scanner and no doorknob and the whole deal.”

“Yep.”

“The janitor’s closet.”

“Yep.”

“You are flat-out lying to me right now.”

Bucky couldn’t stop grinning. “The best part is that I’m actually not. The head janitor is this old guy, Stan, that knows Fury somehow, that’s how he got the job, and he is a literal tyrant. He claimed that someone kept stealing supplies out of his closet, so he pitched a fit about it, and when Fury didn’t take him seriously enough, he and the other janitors went on strike for three weeks, including locking that cleaning closet from the inside and refusing to hand over the only key. He only agreed to stop and come back to work when Fury agreed to his demands, so now that dumb door has the highest security in the place except for the records room, armory, interrogation, and holding.”

Tony was looking absolutely dumbfounded, his mouth even hanging open. “You are joking.”

“I’m really not. We’ve all got pictures of it, it was the funniest thing ever! Fury was mad as hell, but I’m pretty sure he’s got a really tight, maybe even familial relationship with the guy, so he had to give in. Those were a rough couple weeks after all that, Fury in a snit is not a fun thing to experience, but it was worth it. And taking turns cleaning the bathrooms sucked pretty hard, I won't lie.”

Shaking his head, Tony floated slowly out of the room, mumbling to himself in a tone of disbelief. “I can’t believe I’ve spent the entire day wetting my pants over a janitor’s closet…”


Tuesday’s work hours began much the same as Monday. Despite a fairly amicable night and morning at home, some kind of switch got flipped when Bucky got to his office, Tony on his heels.

“What’s the CIA’s preferred font for reports?” He asked, immediately after settling into the chair across from Bucky’s.

Bucky ducked his head so nobody passing would see his lips moving. “When in hell fire will you ever need to know that detail?”

“If I ever had to write about reports, of course!”

Bucky had to repress the urge to slam his head into his desk until he lost consciousness. “Is this your first time being extremely annoying to someone while they’re working, in the name of fiction?”

“Of course not, don’t be stupid, I’m a writer. I’ve done this in a coffee shop, pet store, post office, gas station,” Tony was ticking them off on his fingers as Bucky watched, wide-eyed, “mayor’s office, ER, college, and I tried to get into the White House once but they really don’t mess around there.”

Bucky was gaping, he knew he was gaping, but he couldn’t help it. “Why were you…”

“Maybe you’ll know that one, actually, is the President really a lizard in an ill-fitting suit and we’re just being lied to? Because that would explain so much.”

Bucky wasn’t going to touch that one, even as he abruptly wanted to know for himself. “Did you actually get into all those places?”

Tony shrugged. “Eh, about half, I’d guess, if I’m recalling accurately. Surprisingly, the ER was super chill and let me stay until I threw up during the bowel resection. The smell, you would not believe… But heaven help you if you try to go behind the counter at Starbucks, those New York baristas are packing and they know their policies and procedures.”

Bucky sighed and scrubbed his hand over his face, scraping over stubble (he’d forgotten to shave) and tired eyes. “Tell you what, I will make you a deal, because I have to preserve my sanity somehow. For every actual helpful thing you do, I will answer one question.”

“Actually answer, or just ignore it and pretend you can’t hear me?”

“I will actually answer.”

Tony thought about it for a second, then shook his head and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “No deal unless all helpful actions count. I checked the coffeepot for you this morning to see if it was ready, that counts.”

“It does not.”

“May I remind you that I am fully capable of lurking right above your face while you’re sleeping, prepared to scream bloody murder at any time? All night long?”

Ghosts sucked so bad, it was official. “Ugh fine. Any and all helpful actions, including something as dumb as checking the dang coffee pot.”

“Goody!” Tony rubbed his hands together, looking somehow diabolical. “I know you won’t believe this, but I’ve actually been saving up a few questions. Dumb ones that are more fact-checking than anything, but I’m a writer, and I respect my research. Realism is important, even in fiction. And, come to think of it, I could totally ghost write—OH MY GOSH, EVEN LITERALLY—if you ever decide to write your autobiography.”

Bucky propped his cheek on his hand as he looked at the ghost and waited for the babble to stop before speaking. “I’ll make you another deal.”

Tony quirked an eyebrow. “Conditional to the first one?”

“Apropos of the first one.”

“I’m listening.” He leaned forward and propped his ghostly chin on his steepled fingertips.

“For every half hour of undisturbed silence you give me at work, I’ll answer one question.”

Tony perked up. “Ooh, that’ll get me more answers much faster!”

Bucky seriously doubted that, but it was worth a try. “Deal?”

“Absolutely. As long as my absence still counts as leaving you undisturbed.”

That… made him highly suspicious. “Absence as in…?”

“I’ll just wander around and let you do the boring part of your job. Poke around and see what’s going on, and all that.”

“Poke around. In the CIA.”

“I can only go eight meters, give me a break.”

“Eight meters is a lot when I now know there’s an interrogation room under my office.”

Tony raised an eyebrow and leaned forward slightly. “Allow me to put it this way… how you gonna stop me?”

Well… he had a point there. Bucky sighed and sat back in defeat, feeling like he'd somehow been had.

Tony was looking supremely pleased with himself, and immediately launched into talking again. “Coffee pot helpful thing equals one question, so here we go. There’s no way you actually call the CIA training place ‘the Farm’, right? I mean… come on, Machine. Tell me the truth.”


Wednesday was no better.

“Please stop pouting and whining when I’m drinking my morning coffee, you are ruining this entire experience for me.” Bucky complained as he juggled his thermos, lunch bag, wallet, keys, and work ID on the way to the door. Thankfully, he'd already stuck his gun in his holster so he wasn't juggling live rounds alongside all that.

Tony, who was apparently feeling just as grumpy as Bucky was, grouched back, “I haven’t had coffee, which is basically the only legitimate proof that there is a God, for at least six days now, so you just… shut up.”

He vanished for most of the morning, earning himself a tidy sum of questions for Bucky to answer later, then came back just in time to bother Bucky into taking a trip to the break room around eleven.

“I can’t wait to get my body back so I can sketch out the layout to this place.” Tony sighed, looking around as if he were trying to memorize what he was seeing.

“Why in the name of all that is holy would you need to do that to write a book?” Bucky muttered, practicing talking without moving his lips (he had even watched a few YouTube videos about ventriloquists to help).

“It helps my writing process!”

“You do that, and I can pretty much guarantee someone will be sent to bump you off.”

Tony appeared to contemplate that for a moment. “Almost worth it.”

Bucky shook his head in vague disbelief as he poured himself a cup of coffee (Tony whined). “Were you this reckless and stupid when you were alive?”

“Probably. I have a vague memory of mugged once, and the guy said I was really annoying because I wouldn’t shut up.”

“My heart goes out to that mugger.”

“Pretty sure if I was like… murdered or something, or whatever it was that got me into this state,” Tony gestured at his see-through self, “I was probably asking questions up until they snuffed me and chucked my body in a dumpster. And check me out, I’m a ghost and I’m still asking questions! Research matters, Buckaroo.” He glanced around again as they headed back to Bucky’s office, a thoughtful look on his face. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to take a few pictures on the sly for me? So I can describe everything correctly.”

Bucky’s expression was somewhere between unamused and bored. “You realize that could literally get me killed, right?”

Tony shrugged. “At least I’d have better company. Live you is a grouch, maybe ghost you would be more fun.”

He didn’t mean to, but… Bucky smiled.


Thursday was a little bit better. Tony was getting invested in some kind of drama that was going down in Sitwell’s office next door, so he kept popping out to keep up with that, and Bucky, well. He honestly had expected to be assigned a new mission by now. The past several months, he’d been out on one op after another that could last any amount of time from one day to a few weeks, with barely a day or two in between at his desk. So this stretch of nearly a week without something new coming across his desk was weird.

He was only about halfway through the pile of paperwork that had been building up, and he was honestly tempted to just throw the rest of it in the shredder. He remembered all the details of all those missions just fine, so it wasn’t a problem to write the reports and fact-check everything, it was just so tedious. After you’d shot, stabbed, or strangled your first couple dozen people, describing it all in a report just lost its excitement. And writing about holing up in some abandoned building or on a rooftop somewhere for hours or days at a time was never exciting to begin with.

He was starting to really identify with Tony’s near-constant boredom, and found an excuse to go on a wander at lunchtime, not willing to admit to himself that it was kind of entertaining to listen to Tony’s endless prattle as they walked past the garage, outfitting, HR (“Exactly how does the CIA handle interoffice complaints, because I’m picturing lots of things involving guns now,”), and even the highly secured daycare.

“You have infants. In the CIA.” Tony sounded halfway between disbelief and tired acceptance.

“It’s so the parents can work easier, c’mon, it’s nice.”

“You are literally raising little baby agents and nobody suspects a thing.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, remembering the cameras too late, and had to pretend he’d gotten a phone call just in case anyone was watching.

Chapter Text

“Barnes, you remember the Serbian terrorist case?” Romanoff stuck her head in Bucky’s office on Friday, waiting until he looked up from his computer to continue. Tony was off somewhere out of sight within his eight meter bubble, and Bucky knew the ghost was gonna be mad that he missed this.

“Uh, yeah, we were chasing down a few leads before Lichtenstein.”

“Yeah, and we found one.” A file landed on his desk. “Give that a look then meet me down in Interrogation 4 when you’re done.”

Romanoff left as Bucky picked up the file, flipping through it to re-familiarize himself with the case and learn about the lead they had downstairs. He was just finishing up when Tony wandered through the wall to the right, hands in his pockets.

“Sitwell over there is not only cheating on his wife, but he’s doing so with a barely legal college student by the name of Mike. Honestly, my opinion of the CIA wasn’t exactly sunshine and roses before this, but some of your coworkers are giving me a very grim view indeed.”

Bucky snorted as he stood up, file in his hand. “And you haven’t even met Rumlow yet.”

“Who’s Rumlow, and where are we going?”

“It’s your lucky day, Ghostbuster, we’re going down to interrogation.”

Tony looked as if he’d been presented with the greatest gift in the world. “Really?! Oh, praise the spy gods, something fun is finally happening!”

Hiding a smile, Bucky made his way to the elevator and then to Interrogation 4, Tony chattering at his shoulder the entire way.

“Ooooh, is this your standard interrogation room? IS THERE A SCARIER ONE?!”

“Shh, working,” Bucky muttered as he scanned his ID and thumbprint at the door that let into the control room, nodding to the other agents inside that were running the computers and machines that tracked the biometrics of their suspects.

Tony's voice was full of awe as he took everything in, his eyes wide. “Oh woooow, I might be popping a boner right now.”

Sending Tony a quick, grossed out glare, Bucky sidled up next to Romanoff and took a look at the suspect waiting for them in the box. “How we looking?”

She smirked. “He just started sweating. You want first crack?”

Tony's voice broke into Bucky's focus. “There is literally a machine over his measuring this guy’s sphincter reaction. I don’t know whether I’m more amused or intrigued. Possibly horrified.”

Bucky held back an annoyed sound, trying to focus on his conversation with Romanoff. “You found him, you get first dibs.”

“Oh, ew, how close are these people monitoring his eyeball, I can see the veins in there!”

Completely unaware of the translucent irritation over in the corner, Romanoff shrugged. “I went first last time, it’s yours if you want it.”

Nodding, Bucky started to head towards the door (he liked conducting interrogations, it was a skill he prided himself on), but when Tony pulled himself away from another one of the computer monitors and far too eagerly headed his way, he paused.

“Actually… gimme just a minute, need to send a quick text.” Phones weren't allowed into the box, so at least he had a good reason to duck out for a second.

Romanoff quirked an eyebrow at him, in that way she had that made you want to reconsider all of your life choices, but Bucky did his best to ignore it and went out into the hall. He made sure the door was closed before leaning against the wall and taking his phone out, keeping his head down so he could mutter at Tony without his face being seen.

“You’re not coming in there with me.”

The ghost sounded exactly zero amounts of concerned about Bucky's opinion. “Ha, the hell I’m not, I’m gonna be front and center for this game, baby.”

Bucky gritted his teeth. “No. You’re not.”

“I’d like to see you stop me, Machine. I have a very vested interest in this process, and I’m not gonna lie, that sphincter machine has me very grossly curious, I’m kinda wondering if I’ll have to get uncomfortably up close and personal with the charming grumpy-pants in there.

He held back a frustrated sigh. “I have a job to do here, Tony. Stop being a dick and just do what I tell you." As an afterthought, he added, "I’ll give you five questions for it.”

Tony’s voice was light and somewhat mocking, different somehow than the usual way he spoke. “Oh, you poor thing, I cannot even tell you the number of people I have deliberately disappointed just because I refused to do what they wanted me to do, bribes or not.”

If Bucky could have, he would have thrown that fricking ghost in a garbage bin, his anger at both the ghost and his own inability to do anything about it rising swiftly. “I have a sudden and visceral understanding as to why someone killed you.”

Tony snorted. “Don’t go there, secret agent man, I can make life very difficult for you.”

Bucky gritted through his teeth, “And that’s different from what you’re doing now how?!”

Tony suddenly got right up in his face, possibly in his face, literally, which was so many kinds of wrong and made Bucky drop his phone and bang his head against the wall to trying get away.

“I have not even begun to make your life difficult, my dude.”

Well, wasn’t that a delightful thing for Bucky to contemplate on his way to an interrogation. He was about to... well, do something or say something, he wasn't sure what, but Romanoff opened the door and looked out at him, curiosity bordering on suspicion clear on her face. “You having fun out here?”

Picking his phone up and putting it back in his pocket, Bucky forced himself not to look infuriated. He needed to get himself under control, stop rising to the bait when Tony was being particularly rage-inducing, especially when he was at work surrounded by people that didn't miss anything.

Ignoring the way Tony was suddenly looking very pleased with himself, he handed his phone to Romanoff and stalked through the control room and into the box, making sure he had his murder face carefully in place as he sat down across from the suspect. Channeling his anger and frustration, he allowed himself a moment to gather his focus before acknowledging the man.

He fixed the suspect, a Mr. Harrington with ties that implied he was working as a liaison with a Siberian terrorist group, with a flat, chilly look and asked, “Do you know why you’re here, Mr. Harrington?”

The man sat there in stony silence, unmoving, unblinking, and Bucky almost smiled as he anticipated a long, tough interrogation that would be all the more rewarding when he finally found the weak spot that would crack the man wide open.

And then Tony opened his mouth.

“Do you have to torture him?”

Bucky had to work very, very hard to keep a straight face and not glower at Tony. His irritation, still simmering barely controlled under the surface, leaked out as he snapped, “Answer the question, Mr. Harrington. I don’t have all day.”

“Because I’ve always wondered exactly how you do that, I’d be very interested in seeing it. I can handle a little blood, don’t you worry about me.”

Bucky clenched his fists under the table in order to keep from throwing a useless punch at a ghost that only he could see.

“We’ve come across evidence of some very suspicious behavior on your part," He said, forcing his thoughts away from Tony. "Behavior that suggests ties to a certain terrorist group in Serbia that we’ve been watching.” Bucky took a sheet of paper out of the file he'd brought in, a list of calls and texts between the man across from him and one of the suspected members of the terrorist group. “Very suspicious indeed, seeing as how you went through some effort to try and hide it.” He slid the paper over, watching the suspect's face carefully for any kind of reaction. The machines in the control room were better and more accurate at measuring the body's response to interrogation, of course, but few were better than Bucky Barnes at reading people in a situation like this.

However... that didn't seem to be the case when he was distracted by trying not to burn a hole in the back of a ghost's see-through skull.

“Okay, ask him another question, I’m gonna go see if his sphincter does anything funny. Make sure you speak up, I don’t know how involved I’m gonna have to get with his ass in order to see this.”

Bucky lasted all of five more minutes before he had to admit defeat, knowing he couldn’t possibly focus enough to do the job properly with Tony in there being… Tony.

One could only handle so much talk of another man’s sphincter before it got to be too much, and once Tony gave that up and started hovering directly in front of the suspect’s face in order to track pupil reaction, the whole thing was pointless anyway.

“You seemed like you had a hard time in there.” Romanoff commented when Bucky finally made his way out of the interrogation room, pissed off to high hell, Tony floating alongside him, humming absently. “Like you couldn’t really focus.”

Bucky sighed, long and slow, and kind of wished he were dying a little bit as he tried to let go of his anger. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”

Tony snorted. “That’s what you get for falling asleep on your couch. I told you not to do that.”

Romanoff made a noncommittal noise as she approached the door to the interrogation room for her turn. “I just made Barton start a fresh pot of coffee in the breakroom. I bet if you run, there’ll still be some left.”

“Thanks.” Bucky didn’t have it in him to run, he barely had it in him to keep acting normally, but he did sludge over to the elevator at a speed slightly faster than sloth, the thought of coffee the only thing sustaining him and keeping him from actively trying to strangle a non-corporeal annoyance.

“No, don’t get coffee! That’s so mean, I love coffee and it’s like you’re taunting me!” Tony flopped in midair like he was a marionette whose strings had just been cut, and he whined pathetically.

Bucky, however, had exactly one nerve left and the ghost was all but doing a Hungarian two-step all over it. He was so very one with trying to be nice about this. “The only thing preventing me from killing you in the middle of the CIA building with my bare hands is the fact that you’re already dead. I am totally prepared to watch you suffer.”


It was shocking how exhausting a week of paperwork and being haunted could be. By the time the workday drew to a close, Bucky was more than ready to faceplant into his couch and not move until Monday morning.

“Do we have to go straight home tonight?” Tony complained as they went out to the car. “We always go straight home, but it’s the weekend, can’t we do something fun?”

“Going home is fun,” Bucky grunted, thinking longingly of the way his couch had kind of sunk in the middle, so that if he laid on it just right, it would cradle his butt perfectly.

“No it’s not, it’s boring and I’m really, really sick of TV. If you’re not gonna be willing to turn the pages of a book for me so I can read, we’re going out.”

“No, we’re really not. I wanna go home.”

“I will literally scream like a two year old to get what I want if I have to. If I have to set foot in your house and stay there again all weekend, I’m going to go crazy, and you better bet I’m dragging you with me.”

Clenching his hands on the steering wheel, Bucky summoned up every last bit of patience he had left, and spoke through gritted teeth. "There is a very slim chance I might be willing to entertain the idea of going somewhere tomorrow or Sunday. Right now, however? I am going home, and unless you plan on spending the rest of your eternities in a death match with a righteously infuriated fellow ghost, you're gonna let me do so. Quietly."

After muttering for a moment about grumpiness and party poopers, Tony did eventually fall quiet. He clearly had a sense of self-preservation after all.

Chapter Text

It took nearly the entire ride home for the ghost and the spy to settle on an activity that they could agree on, no matter how begrudgingly. Tony turned down a movie, insisting it was the same thing as watching TV at home except the good theater popcorn that he wouldn't be able to smell would be taunting him. Bucky flatly refused to go to a club, not willing to subject himself to that level of noise and people. Tony turned down a bar, saying he’d just be hanging around watching depressed people drink and play pool, and nobody liked to do that except drunk people and he couldn’t get drunk. Bucky turned down any kind of live theater for the same reasons as clubbing, and Tony said that going to the park and feeding the ducks in the dark was kind of a crazy person thing to do and he thought Bucky was trying to avoid that whole thing. (Bucky was secretly glad Tony turned that idea down, he’d been grasping at straws and running out of ideas.)

“What about a spa?” Tony suggested, leaning back in the passenger seat of the car and propping his translucent feet up on the dashboard, watching the evening rush hour traffic out the window.

“A spa?”

“Yeah. You can get a facial, a mani/pedi, sit in the nice massage chair for a while. It’s great, you just go and they spoil you and feed you snacks while they exfoliate you.”

“That sounds like a plot to a bad horror movie. Or maybe a porno.”

Tony shrugged, “I dunno, depends on the casting. Some people can play anything. By the way, don’t think changing the subject is gonna get me off this, we’re going to the spa tomorrow, pal.”

Bucky sighed, but he was too tired to argue about it right now. All he wanted was to get rid of his work clothes, collapse on his couch, and drift off into oblivion. “Don’t let me fall asleep before we get home.”

“You realize my babysitting you so you don’t drive into oncoming traffic counts as a helpful thing, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, you can ask me morbid or classified questions once we get home without dying on the way.”

Contrary to Bucky’s hopeful thinking that Tony would forget about any and all attempts to make him leave the house that weekend, the ghost was barely inside the apartment before he was demanding that Bucky get on the laptop and find out which spas were nearby.

“Seriously? You’re not dropping this?”

“I am not spending another forty-eight hours watching you lie comatose on the couch. It’s boring. Now c’mon! Spa me!”

“What exactly are you gonna get out of this anyway?” Bucky grumped as he dumped his keys, wallet, work bag, IDs, gun, and shoes on the floor in front of the door. “It’s not like you’ll be the one benefiting from all this nonsense.”

Tony waved a translucent hand nonchalantly. “I don’t even care if I can’t actually participate, there’s just this… aura around a spa. Just going in those doors, it makes your shoulders relax.”

“…so I’ll find you a diffuser and a CD with rain sounds.”

“Nope. Spa. Now. And I find it adorable that, A) you know what a diffuser is, and B) you’re still using CDs. Move with the times, man. It’s all in the cloud now.”


“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” Bucky announced as he stared at the doors of the spa closest to his aparment the next afternoon.

Tony snorted. “Not yet it’s not, you haven’t even gone in yet, you’re just standing at the door being an idiot.”

Bucky wasn’t sure exactly how he was supposed to find this a relaxing experience when he had a ghost mocking his every move. Gathering himself (and also preparing to run away if the occasion called for it) Bucky finally took a deep breath and went inside.

Tony sighed deeply as they entered the building. “Ahhhh. See what I mean? The scent of lavender and eucalyptus, the sound of the water feature, soothing music. It’s perfect.”

“I though you couldn’t smell anything,” Bucky muttered under his breath as he approached the counter where a woman sat at a computer, ignoring the way Tony started bitching about him being insensitive.

“Hi, welcome to the Lotus Touch. Have you been here before?”

“Hell no,” Bucky blurted out before he could think better of it, feeling himself flush as the woman’s eyes widened. “Sorry, no. I haven’t.”

“Okay, just got ahead and sign in on the tablet there, and I’ll get you set up.”

The sign in process involved a whole bunch of nonsense, like if he had any health issues (they didn’t have an option for bio-mechanical prosthetics), and required a signature voiding them from any blame if he gave himself skin cancer from baking too long in a tanning bed.

“Sheesh,” He muttered under his breath, clicking through the third warning about tanning beds and UV rays and cancer.

Tony was ignoring him, looking at one of the laminated sheets that listed the spa’s services. “Ooh, you should do the mani/pedi, we can have the nail tech do your nails all pretty.”

Bucky finished signing in, glanced at the sheet of services Tony was looking at, the little pictures of people in various stages of undress and questionable relaxation, and mentally put his foot down.

Yeah, no. “You know what, how much am I gonna have to pay you to just let me sit in a massage chair for an hour?” He asked the receptionist.

“Party pooper.” Tony accused.

The woman at the counter looked a little startled, but clicked around on her computer. “Yeah, I think we can do that. It’ll register as three sessions, though, since the standard slot for the massage chairs are twenty minutes. And you’ll be in the couples room, that’s the only one open.”

“How much?”

“Sixty, then tax.”

Ouch, geez, he was going to be paying a dollar a minute to be uncomfortable so the ghost haunting him would shut up. With a stifled sigh, he handed over his card. “Okay, fine.”

The receptionist finished doing whatever it was on the computer, then led Bucky to a rack that held robes, towels, and fuzzy socks. She paused, reaching for a robe, “What size would you say you are?”

“The size that isn’t going to strip naked in public and wander around in a robe.”

Tony rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. “You are such a buzzkill, Buckster, seriously.”

“That might be for the best, I don’t think we have one your size.” She gestured vaguely at Bucky’s shoulders, then moved to a cabinet next to the rack. “Would you like a face mask while you’re in there? We have several different kinds to choose from, soothing, invigorating, gently exfoliating, moisturizing.”

Tony visibly perked up and immediately floated over to peruse the selection. “Ooooh, see if they have a cooling one, those feel nice.”

“Um—”

“Take the mask, Machine, do it.”

“Uh—”

“DO IT.”

Damn it.

Bucky tried, and failed, to hear how defeated his voice sounded. “Do you have a cooling one?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Cucumber mint, and it smells really good.” The woman handed over the packet containing the mask, then showed Bucky into one of the tiny rooms that held two massage chairs, a small table, and nothing else. “Let’s just get you set up, make sure it doesn’t squeeze your shoulders too tight, and we’ll get you going. Your left arm is a prosthetic, right? If you'd like, you can detach it or we can turn off that section of the chair, it's up to you."

Bucky didn't say that detaching his arm was literally not an option, deciding instead to just leave his left arm free. The receptionist didn't seem fazed at all, which was a nice change, and she altered the controls accordingly. "Go ahead and take off your shoes and jacket too. Would you like some cucumber lime water or some snacks?”

Tony was nearly vibrating in midair, doing a fist pump. “Yes! Yes to the snacks!”

For some dumb reason, Bucky nearly smiled. “Yeah, sure.”

The receptionist played with the settings on the massage chair for another minute, telling Bucky to sit and “give it a good wiggle” before going to get the snacks. Tony was sitting in his own massage chair, head back and looking utterly at ease as Bucky’s chair turned on, and the entirely creepy sensation of hand-like things inside the chair began probing at his back.

“Oh, that’s weird, I don’t think I like this.”

“Just pretend it’s a gorgeous woman doing scandalous things to your shoulder blades.” Tony all but slurred.

Bucky shifted uncomfortably, not sure if he was trying to get away from or redirect the massage chair's attempts. “I’d rather not.”

“A gorgeous man, then, whatever floats your boat.”

Bucky gave the ghost a flat glare (which was entirely useless as his eyes were closed in contentment), then slapped the fiddly, delicate mask in the packet on his face and tried to just relax and attempt to enjoy this. He was paying for it, he might as well give it a shot.

When the woman came back five minutes later, bearing a thick paper plate of fruit, nuts, and squares of dark chocolate and a little plastic cup of slightly cloudy water, Bucky took them gratefully with his left hand, setting the plate on his lap. The whole disembodied hand thing going on in the massage chair was still weirding him out, especially when it started squeezing his legs and right arm too. But... he had to admit, it didn't feel horrible.

“I’ll be just up front, let me know if you need anything!” The receptionist said cheerfully, reaching out to adjust the mask on his face before leaving the room and closing the door behind her. Tony looked halfway to bliss, which made exactly no sense, and Bucky rolled his eyes as he took a sip of the water.

He immediately made a face, nearly gagging at the slightly sour, bitter taste of the water. “Oh, geez, how can you drink this stuff?”

Tony batted a hand at him, still not opening his eyes. “Sssshhh, you’re harshing my buzz.”

Rolling his eyes, Bucky popped a grape into his mouth to get rid of the gross water taste, set the plate aside on the little table between them, and closed his eyes.

It took a while, but he was actually quite close to feeling relaxed (turned out the massage chair did a really good job on the tight spots in his lower back), when Tony spoke up.

“Are you allowed toilet breaks during a stakeout or do they make you go in a bottle?”

Bucky glanced sideways at Tony as the massage chair did something kind of amazing to the small of his back. “I worry about you sometimes, I really do.”

Tony stretched and groaned in midair over his chair, scratching his fingers through his dark brown hair and making the locks stick out at odd angles. “Awww, sunshine, I’m touched.”

Half an hour later, Bucky was not quite in heaven, but he was pretty close. Knots and sore spots and tense muscles he hadn’t even known he had were being thoroughly obliterated by the massage chair, and he hadn’t realized until today just how tense he always was. He was just getting to the point that his light doze might settle into real sleep when the woman from the front desk poked her head in to his little room.

“Mr. Barnes? How are you doing in here?”

He tried to reply, mumbling something unintelligible, then blinked himself a little more awake. “Yep, good.”

“You’ve got another twenty minutes left, okay?”

“Mm hmm.”

He didn’t bother to look at Tony, but if he had, he would have seen an entirely smug grin on the ghost’s face.

It was almost heartbreaking when Bucky’s time was up, and his legs felt like noodles when he tried to stand up, which led to him nearly toppling over and braining himself on the little table. Tony snickered like a butthead, but Bucky ignored him, putting on his shoes and grabbing his jacket and his snacks. He made his way to the front desk, peeling the mask off his face and shifting his shoulders to feel the way they were all loose and relaxed. Huh. Imagine that.

“How was it?” The woman asked, smiling and holding up a small garbage can for him to throw the face mask into.

“Good, thanks,” Bucky said, taking a few wet wipes from the container on the counter and scrubbing off the remains of the gooey whatever-it-was on the mask. “Thanks.”

“Come back anytime!”

Tony was beaming smugly as they made their way outside and into the parking lot. “Soooo, how was your first trip to the spa?”

Bucky shrugged and got out his keys. “They have no idea what they’re doing with their water.”

The ghost threw his arms up in exasperation. “Oh, come on, prickle puss, what did you think?”

Bucky had to bite back a slight smile. “The massage chair wasn’t bad.”

“Wasn’t bad? I’m sorry, was I just seeing things in there, or were you not wobbling on your legs because you were so relaxed you forgot how to walk?”

Bucky pursed his lips, but didn’t deny it, which made Tony grin. “The face mask was weird.”

“But it felt nice, didn’t it? All soothing and soft.”

He just grunted, but that also wasn’t a denial, and Tony clearly looked like he had decided that the outing was categorically a win. “Next time we’ll have to try a foot soak or a facial or something, now that you’ve dipped your toes in.”

“There’s not gonna be a next time, Tony.”

“You sure? Because I saw that look you gave the massage chair when we were leaving. You’re in love, Machine. And neither your back nor I is ever gonna let you forget it.”

Bucky sighed, but the corner of his mouth tugged up in a half-smile as he did so. "You relaxed enough that you won't give me a hard time if I get pizza on the way home?"

Tony tucked his hands in his pockets, looking satisfied with himself as approached the car. "I just might be."

Chapter Text

Monday rolled around again, and while Bucky still woke up tired and morning-grumpy and not all that enthusiastic to begin the weekly slog again… he didn’t mind it so much. He didn’t know if it was because the whole spa thing really worked, or if it was because he went out into the living room to see Tony hanging upside down from the ceiling and spinning around in place so fast he looked like a top.

“What are you doing?”

With a squawk, Tony stopped on a dime, and somehow ghost physics decided that ghosts could get dizzy enough to fall off ceilings, and he barely caught himself before falling either onto or through the floor. “Oh, wow, that was weird.”

Bucky was sniggering and snorting. “What the hell, Ghostbuster, seriously?”

“I was seeing if regular old physics had any kind of effect on me whatsoever, since walls and people and gravity apparently don’t. And I wanted to see how fast I could spin for how long.”

“And?”

“Well, it’s not like I can clock my speed, but that time I was going for—” Tony checked the clock on the wall, “seven minutes.”

“You hung upside down from the ceiling and spun around as fast as you could for seven minutes?”

The ghost just shrugged. “I finished all the pages at like two a.m. and it seemed really mean to wake you up, so what was I supposed to do with myself for the next four hours?”

Bucky glanced down at the books he’d laid out on the floor, every single book he owned, opened up to the first page. They covered most of the living room and kitchen floor, with a skinny path winding to the door, sink, and fridge. It had been Bucky’s idea, when he’d seen Tony browsing his bookcase the night before, looking sad and wistful. He’d felt bad that all the ghost had to look forward to until morning was whatever happened to be on one channel of TV. It had taken him over an hour, painstakingly setting out all the books and making sure they stayed open so Tony could read them. The ghost had been voracious, too, reading the backs of one stack while Bucky got the next stack set out, and he’d been floating from one book to another, reading the open pages as Bucky had gotten ready for bed.

“Well, at least we can turn all the pages and give you something to do for a bit tonight.”

“And I do appreciate it, I really mean that. You don’t happen to have a Kindle or a Nook, do you? I bet we could hack into it and set it to turn the page at a set rate so I can read one book at a time. And you could have your floor back.”

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t have a Kindle or anything, no, but I could probably borrow one from someone. Maybe Steve’s got one in storage.”

After turning the pages of a bunch of books, Bucky got ready for work, and by the time Tony finished his reading, it was time to go.

“What’s on the agenda for today? More paperwork?” Tony asked as they got into the car.

“Probably, but I bet Romanoff and Barton have been up to no good this weekend. Once they get their teeth set into something, they don’t let go, so I’m sure they’ll have something for me to do.”

“Goodie, I’m up for some fun.”

Romanoff did indeed have another person waiting in interrogation when Bucky arrived, and once he had a chance to read up on the new suspect, he headed down to the interrogation room with Tony in his wake. He muttered quietly, barely moving his lips as the elevator doors closed.

“This didn’t go so well last time, so can we try again? Just give me some space and quiet while I grill this guy, and then we can talk it all out after, okay?”

Tony grinned at him. “Aw, check you out, asking nicely. Yes, I can work with that.”

Bucky cocked his head, considering, then decided to press his luck. “Could I persuade you to stay in the control room?”

“That’s far more iffy.”

Tony did end up floating through the one-way glass midway through the interrogation, but Bucky didn’t mind. The ghost stayed quiet, just wandering around the room and through a few of the walls. Bucky was used to that (should he be weirded out that he was used to that?), so he had no problem probing the suspect until he found the weak spot he needed, and pressed at that pressure point until the guy broke.

“You got your groove back,” Barton commented in the control room as Bucky left the box. “Nat said you had a hard time last week.”

“Got better sleep this time,” Bucky said offhandedly, looking for Tony out of habit. The ghost was leaning over an agent’s shoulder, reading whatever it was she was scrolling through on one of the computers.

He chatted with Barton for another minute, ironing out a few details pertaining to the case, then realized that Tony was still distracted. Watching to make sure the ghost was sufficiently absorbed that he might not notice him leaving, Bucky moved silently to the door and out into the hallway. He needed to pick up some stuff from the armory on the next floor down, which he was pretty sure the elevator was close enough to that he could get there and back without pulling on the edge of Tony’s bubble. It would be a good idea for him to keep some things secret, if he could, and the CIA weapons stash was a good secret to keep.

He only made it into the elevator, however, before Tony was bobbing along after him. “Hey, where we going?”

Bucky was suddenly grateful that he’d been practicing so much at talking without moving his lips, seeing as how there were cameras all over the place on this level. “Why do you have to follow me everywhere, I’m just going to the bathroom. Stay in the damn control room! Go watch the sphincter or something.”

“It’s boring there, the sphincter has lost its appeal, and I wanna see what’s on the other side of the bathroom, since you’re up and the bubble is moving. Also, do you have promotional hats? The CIA, I mean, not you, you definitely do not have promotional hats, you don’t even have a good catchphrase. And do spies use regular vending machines, or are they like… armed with facial recognition and lasers?”

They approached the armory, protected with higher security and more advanced monitoring tech, with a red emergency button next to the door. Tony’s eyes about bugged out of his head. “What does that button do?!”

“No, you can’t touch it.”

Tony threw him a bitter glower. “Of course I can’t. Way to make me feel awesome with my ghost fingers. Wow, you’re a dick.”

Bucky was torn between wanting to fling himself out a window and bursting out laughing. He hesitated at the armory out of instinct. He didn’t like arming up with an audience, but… yeah. He didn’t have much of a choice. With a sigh, he flashed his card, scanned his thumbprint, and put in the code, pulling the heavy door open.

“This isn’t the bathroom, what is—THIS IS MY NEW FAVORITE ROOM, OMG. LOOK AT ALL THE PRETTIES!”

Tony was doing that thing with his hands that meant he was just dying to touch everything, and Bucky was slightly disturbed that he was familiar enough with the ghost to recognize a familiar behavior. “It’s the CIA, they keep us well-stocked with the best stuff.”

“I could have so much fun in here, you have no idea.”

“Let’s keep it that way, I don’t need to know what you’d do with enough firepower to wipe out the Czech Republic.”

“Just the Czech Republic? You’re seriously underestimating something in that equation. I could take over the world with the contents of this room if I wanted to, I’m sort of a genius like that.”

Bucky leveled a very flat look at Tony over the barrel of the rifle he had picked up. “You just called an armory full of weapons ‘pretties’.”

Tony was looking lovingly at a grenade launcher, translucent hand moving like he was trying to pet it. “They like to be flattered, Barnes, who raised you.”

Rolling his eyes and settling on the type of rifle he usually preferred, Bucky moved further back in the armory where the body armor, knives, and other weapons were. He was picking out a bulletproof vest, trying to find one that would go over his shoulders, when he saw Tony moving out of the corner of his eye.

Tony grinned when he saw Bucky watching, and went through the motions of throwing a knife again. “Hey, check it, I can throw a knife!”

Bucky snorted. “You’re not even holding a knife.”

“BUT MY STANCE IS AMAZING, LOOK!”

Despite himself, Bucky smirked. “Yeah, okay, your stance is good. You’re still not holding a knife, though.”

“Let me dream, Bucky bear, don’t be mean.”

Signing out the gun, ammo, vest, and knife that Tony had begged him “pretty please” to get, Bucky made sure the door closed and locked securely behind him, hearing Tony sigh longingly as the weapons were closed out of sight.

“My darlings, I’ll miss you. Hey, what are you arming up for, anyway? Is the interrogation about to ramp up in a super messy way, or is this just like, a Monday thing you do.”

Making sure to keep his lips still, Bucky replied, “Romanoff’s pretty sure she’s close to finding out where one of the terrorists hides out when they’re in the country, just want to be ready. And I was down here anyway.”

“Cool. Feel free to come back here anytime, I could spend eternities in that room feeling no boredom whatsoever.”

Bucky shook his head a little as he hit the button for the elevator, the corner of his mouth tipping up in a half-smile. “You know, somehow I really, really doubt that.”

Chapter Text

Another night, another dinner spent with a ghost hovering mournfully over him, and another night on the couch. Bucky was changing things up this time, reading one of his books that he’d remembered he wanted to read while he’d been setting all of them out earlier in the week. Tony was likewise reading, sitting on the coffee table that had been pushed over within Bucky's reach, gesturing for Bucky to turn the page in his book every minute or two.

“I won’t lie, I’m really hoping you have to go on a mission soon.” The ghost commented after a while, breaking into Bucky's thoughts. “Or op. Whatever you call it.”

“Either one.” Bucky replied, turning a page for both of them. “They’re probably different, but I’ve never cared enough to find out. I just use whichever feels right in my mouth at the moment.”

Tony’s silence had Bucky glancing around, and he rolled his eyes when he saw Tony nearly going a translucent purple trying not to laugh. “Yeah, alright, it sounded dirty taken out of context, shut up.”

By the time Tony finished chortling, Bucky had reached the end of his chapter, and he checked the time. “You want TV or books tonight?”

“Probably both. I can read during the commercials and the stupid shows.”

Bucky nodded, scrolling through channels so Tony could pick one, then making sure the books still spread all over the floor were turned to the correct page. He got ready for bed, also secretly hoping that he’d have an op when he got into work the next morning, then went out and turned a couple more pages.

Tony was hovering over a spy novel (one of Bucky’s guilty pleasures), and he pointed at the page he was on.

“You don’t really use code names like that, do you?”

Bucky tried to keep his face expressionless, but figured he hadn’t done a very good job when Tony’s face lit up and he started cackling gleefully.

“OMG, YOU DO?! WHAT'S YOURS?!”

He shook his head. “I am not answering that.”

“I will literally guess until you tell me.”

“I’m not telling you.”

Tony scoffed, “It can’t possibly be as bad as what I’m about to suggest.”

“I don’t care.”

“Brace yourself.”

“Blow it out your ass.”

“That’s rude, you know I don’t have any bodily functions right now, geez. Okay, first guess—”

Bucky wasn't proud of it, but he broke before the ghost even got one suggestion off. “No, shut up, I give, just… don’t.”

Tony looked surprised. “I didn’t even say one yet.”

“I really don’t need you to.” He sighed and dragged his hands through his hair. “Most of the time, I’m either the Winter Soldier or the Asset.”

Tony cocked his head to the side, considering. “That’s not bad. If I had a code name, I’d be Iron Man.”

Bucky squinted at the ghost. “Dare I ask why?”

Tony just shrugged. “No idea, it just feels right.”

Bucky huffed out a chuckle and headed for his room. “Alright, Iron Man. See you in the morning.”

“G’night, Winter Soldier.”


Luck was with both of them when they got to work the next morning, an order and a new file on Bucky’s desk containing information for a residence search he needed to do.

Tony was, of course, excited about it. “Hey, cool, I’ve never seen anyone toss a house before.”

“Apartment, actually," Bucky corrected as he sat down at his desk, "and we’re not tossing, we’re searching. Don’t want anyone to know we were there.”

The ghost shrugged. “Not as fun, but I’m still here for it.”

Romanoff stopped by, leaning against the door frame. “Oh good, you got my file.”

“Yep. Late tonight works, yeah?”

“Mm hmm, that’s when it’s reported to be empty most often.”

Bucky nodded, scanning through the file. “No problem.”

“Thanks. Hey, Barnes,”

Romanoff looked at him, something in her gaze soft and concerned and it kind of made Bucky feel straight-up terrified.

“You’ve been… talking to yourself a lot lately. Should I be concerned?”

Bucky sighed, and opened his mouth to reply, when Tony floated up behind Romanoff, whistling innocently, and winked while he held up bunny ears over her red hair.

Shaking his head, Bucky tried to keep his voice from cracking (from laughing or crying, he didn’t know). “No, why do you ask?”

She narrowed her eyes at him slightly, then shifted her weight off the door frame. “If you’re sure.”

Bucky watched her leave, then turned a glower on Tony. “Thanks a lot for that.”

“Eh, you’re fine, this is the CIA, everyone’s a little crazy anyway.”


Bucky had thought that he’d have at least half a chance of getting Tony to just follow along silently when he had to go out that night to search the apartment.

He was very, very wrong.

He was straight-up begging the ghost as he walked out to his car. “Come on, please, after all I’ve done for you—”

Tony snorted in offense, “All what you’ve done for me, you’ve been wildly unhelpful! You only just started actually answering my questions like five minutes ago!”

That made Bucky feel like he was going to pop a blood vessel, so he put in earbuds and listened to the music on his phone as loud as it would go until he got to the apartment building he was checking out.

Tony, it seemed, had not stopped talking. “—because your car will be seen, won’t it? I mean, that’s just dumb. You should at least switch your license plates or something. You’ve even got this big Death Star sticker on the window, anyone could pick this car in a lineup from across a parking lot.”

“Are you going to talk the whole time?”

“I don’t know what exactly makes you think I’m gonna do anything else.”

Breaking into the apartment was easy, it was an old building in a not-nice part of town with not very many tenants by the looks of it, and it was late enough at night that there wasn’t anyone else around in the halls. Tony did indeed talk the whole time, spinning tales about what the neighbors would think, if the neighbors were even still alive, what did dead bodies smell like anyway, and if there was a dead body, what would Bucky do about it?

Bucky figured it was best to just let him go, and he made quick work of finding and searching the apartment room by room, leaving everything exactly where he found it. Until one question got his attention.

“Do you get to take home what you find during raids and searches?”

Bucky gave the ghost a hairy eyeball kind of look over his shoulder as he looked through the entertainment center in the living room. “Like what?!”

“I don’t know, pocket change, porny magazines, five kilos of heroin, spare children or pets, that kind of thing? Omg, that’s how you recruit new agents, isn’t it?!”

“How are you even a thing that exists?”

Tony looked through his translucent hand. “Ectoplasm?”

“No, not the ghost part. Just… the you part.”

He grinned maniacally, making Bucky want to take several steps back. “Because I’m a gem.”

“Yeah, okay sparkly, I need you to just stay put and be quiet for like… just give me five minutes to get this done, and then you can natter the whole way home, okay? I’ll even leave the earbuds out.”

With a shrug, Tony floated over to the side table that had a haphazard stack of books and magazines on it, and busied himself by levitating his entire body sideways and reading all the titles.

Shaking his head, Bucky sighed and got back to work, searching the rest of the room and making sure that everything was put back exactly in its place as he went. He was just finishing up and texting in his update to Romanoff when Tony pointed over Bucky’s shoulder, commenting casually, “There’s another guy with a gun, is that important?”

Bucky spun, unholstered his gun, and shot before his brain even processed it, shocked that he hadn’t heard a thing. The body dropped to the floor, gun clattering on the tile, and Bucky’s heart pounded with the panic. One more second, and he’d have been…

Tony was gaping, looking between Bucky and the body on the floor. “Um, did I just save your life?!”

He was not going to answer that.

“Whooooooa, is that much blood normal?! That’s a lot of blood, my lord! Look at this, he’s like a spigot!”

Bucky ignored him and cleared the rest of the room before coming back to where Tony was being… really creepy and examining the dead guy at an uncomfortably close distance.

“Could you stop that?”

“What?”

“…everything?”

Tony shot a dirty glare over his shoulder. “For a guy that literally owes me his life, you’re not being very grateful.” He leaned even closer to the body, and Bucky was pretty sure that if the ghost had been solid, his nose might have been touching it.

“Does shooting someone in the head like that kill them instantly? Or do they have a couple seconds of awareness?”

“If it ever happens to me, I’ll let you know.”

“Because when you’re decapitated, you can maintain consciousness for up to ten seconds, did you know that? And when you get shot in the chest, or anywhere really from the face down, you could be alive for up to fifteen minutes with a fatal wound. Have you ever had to just kinda wait around while someone bled to death? How long does that take?”

Bucky sent in an update to Fury about the turn of events, feeling all kinds of jumpy as his eyes kept darting around the room. “I wouldn’t know, that’s not where I aim.”

Tony finally straightened up, and regarded him with his hand on his hips, expression shrewd. “I just saved your life, how many questions does that get me?”

“Two?”

“Saving your life is worth two questions?! Are you kidding me?”

Bucky shrugged, leaning down to check the dead guy’s pockets. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think it’ll happen that often.”

Tony looked disgusted with him. “Ten, or no deal and I swear I’ll walk around naked for the rest of my afterlife.”

Now Bucky was looking disgusted, and he rolled his eyes. “Ugh, fine.”

“Excellent! I love it when we reach compromises like this, such good teamwork. You still have to answer my dead body questions, BTW. Oh, speaking of which, what happens to the bodies?!” Tony’s eyes were wide with morbid curiosity. “They can’t just stay here, can they?”

Bucky couldn’t stop himself. He honestly couldn't. Maintaining a completely casual expression, he tinted his voice with the slightest hint of intrigue as he said, “You ever wondered what they feed the animals at the zoo?”

That ghostly jaw dropped, and Tony’s voice was hushed with awe, horror, and disbelief. “Noooooooo!”

Bucky tried to keep a straight face, but he couldn’t manage it, a grin spreading against his will. “No, but now I wish they did, because that look on your face was priceless.”

Tony snorted at him, looking like he'd happily smack him, but he was grinning too behind that goatee.

Chapter Text

A debriefing was necessary after something like surprise dead bodies, and Bucky didn’t get home and get to bed until after three in the morning. Even Tony, who didn’t have a body, looked tired when they finally all but fell through the door.

“You don’t have to go to work in four hours, do you?” Tony asked, looking thoroughly relieved as he somehow settled his ghostly self on the couch.

Bucky went to the fridge on autopilot, not really hungry, but making himself a sandwich anyway. “Eh, not sure. I’ll have Romanoff call me if she needs me, otherwise I’ll just do a half day.”

“Oh, good. No, wait, don’t go back to bed, turn on the TV.” Tony stopped him on his way to the bedroom.

“You don’t want books?” Bucky dug in the couch cushions to find the remote (Tony's torso was in the way but apparently wasn't bothered with Bucky reaching through him) and clicked the TV on.

Tony shook his head and got comfortable. “Nah, gonna just sit on the couch like a lump and pretend I’m you for a bit.”

Bucky probably should have taken offense to that, but he was too tired. “Come scream at me if I’m not up by noon.”

“Mm hmm.”

Bucky was asleep, half-eaten sandwich in his hand, seconds after his head hit the pillow.


Sadly, Romanoff called him at seven on the dot.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty, I need you in here.”

Bucky felt approximately like day-old roadkill, and he made some kind of unintelligible whining noise.

“Yeah, I know, late night, but c’mon. We’re onto something here and I need to know more about the apartment.”

Bucky was essentially mute for most of the morning, communicating in grunts and gestures, and he really wasn’t all that sure how he’d gotten to work when he felt like he couldn’t open his eyes more than halfway. He went over the layout and contents of the apartment with Romanoff and Barton, mocking up a rough sketch of the interior, and was just about ready to head home early when Fury pulled him in again for more questions. He managed to keep his whine to himself, but given the way Tony was trying to smother a laugh, his reluctance was obvious.

Talking with Fury always felt like you were being examined under an extremely judgmental microscope, and it was even worse while completely exhausted. It took far more brain power than he felt like he possessed for Bucky to act normal, but at least Tony stuck to quietly examining Fury's office while they talked.

“Make sure you make an appointment with one of the psychologists before you leave,” Fury barked as Bucky left, and that just made him sigh tiredly. The last time he'd been to see one of the shrinks he'd been put on a week-long no action hold until they were satisfied he was "processing" things, which continued to make no sense to him to this day. Process what? He was not an online payment. He was an assassin that had a mediocre office, the only thing he processed was paperwork in between wet work missions and lots of fast food.

“Oh dear, they’re gonna find out you’re crazy,” Tony said lightly, something teasing in his voice. He’d been quiet a lot of the day, either because he was feeling sorry for Bucky or because he’d been busy poking around in whatever new areas he could access with Bucky being on the other end of the office floor with Barton and Romanoff earlier. It had been nice of him regardless, and Bucky wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Eh, they can suck it.” Bucky muttered. He considered just going to medical and chatting with the psychologist on call and getting it over with, but he was so tired he figured that might be a pretty dumb move. “Please tell me it’s almost six.”

“Three thirty, but I’m pretty sure you can duck out early.”

Bucky’s eyes felt like he was blinking sand, he was yawning almost constantly, and it was only thanks to Tony that he made it home in one piece. The ghost kept him alert by, go figure, asking questions, but it worked, and he muttered out his thanks as he fell face-first into bed and zonked out.


“Pssssst.”

This was déjà vu.

“Psssssst.”

He’d definitely lived through this before.

“C’mon, Machine, I just need your attention for like thirty seconds.”

Bucky blinked one eye open, and saw Tony’s translucent face hovering in front of his. “Mmf?”

“Just come turn on the TV, the lady upstairs went to bed and I need something to do.”

It took some more coaxing (and tantalizing mentions of cold leftovers in the fridge) but Bucky finally got up and turned on the TV for the ghost, noting that it was past midnight.

“Ugh, I hope I can go back to sleep.”

“Just shove some food in your gullet and go back to bed. You were snoring loud enough to wake the dead, I’m sure you can get back to sleep.”

Tony was right, it turned out, and after Bucky slurped down some cold linguine and chugged some orange juice, he shucked his clothes and after a little while of listening to the white noise of the TV turned on low, he was able to fall back asleep. He had weird dreams, nothing he could remember when he woke up, but it left him feeling off-balance in the morning.

He checked his texts as he made scrambled eggs and fixed his coffee, noting that Rumlow had come back from his mission and there would be a staff meeting with all the at-home agents at work.

“Yay for you, you get to see what a business meeting is like at the CIA,” He called out to Tony, who was doing some reading before they left.

“Are they better than business meetings not at the CIA?”

“Not really, there’s just generally more talk about the kinds of things that could get you thrown in jail.”

“Eh, it’s good for research.”

"Glad you're finding the silver lining."


It might have been good for research, but the meeting with Fury and the other agents certainly wasn’t good for Bucky’s blood pressure.

“Okay, seriously, you cannot follow me into any more meetings,” Bucky announced once he was back in his office, feeling ready to tear his hair out from the stress.

Tony looked utterly unconcerned as he bobbed past Bucky and lowered himself into a chair. “Why?”

“Because you spent the entire time wandering around, peeking at other people’s notes, and every time you said something like ‘Oooooh, that looks important,’ I had to hide my reaction! I don’t have the clearance for half that crap!”

“Clearance for what?! All Barton was doing was doodling Coulson with giant boobs in the margins.”

Bucky picked a bad time to take a sip of his coffee, and nearly choked on it. “He did not.”

“Yes he did. And that annoying guy, the one I hate that looks like he was king of his fraternity?”

“Rumlow?” Bucky guessed.

“Yeah, him, he really doesn’t like you. He was doodling you as a voodoo doll with needles sticking out of your eyes.”

imgbox

Well, that was probably fair, Bucky had nailed the guy more than once for breaking procedure and would not hesitate to do so again. “Still. Stop distracting me when I’m around other people that are gonna notice that I’m acting weird.”

“Oh please, nobody’s gonna notice, you’re weird anyway.”

Bucky barely stopped himself from throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “They’re spies, Tony, they’ll notice! I already have Romanoff breathing down my neck about this, and I have to go see a psychologist and hope I don’t slip up and confess I’m being personally haunted by a ghost, I do not need any more help! Especially not when you start reading notes aloud for things that I don’t have clearance for!” Bucky settled into his chair with a huff, glaring at said ghost.

“To be fair, neither do I, but being a ghost grants certain privileges.” With a grin, Tony faded backwards through the wall, and Bucky was left gripping his mug so tightly with repressed frustration he heard the handle crack under his fingers.


Bucky maintained a stony silence for the rest of the day, pointedly ignoring Tony when he floated in and out of the room, but the ghost didn’t seem bothered one way or another by it, which was extremely irritating. The one-sided silence endured the entire way home, through dinner, up until Bucky flopped on the couch and turned on the TV.

“What are we watching?” Tony floated into position on the couch next to him, kicking his feet up on the coffee table.

“Ghostbusters.” Bucky replied shortly.

Tony tried to smother a grin. “Still mad at me, huh?”

He was mostly coaxed out of his snit by the end of the movie, a combination of iconic cinema and Tony’s actually really funny reenactment of a few scenes lifting Bucky’s dark mood.

“Sorry I was a jerk earlier.” He said quietly once the credits finished rolling, glancing over at the ghost.

Tony just shrugged. “It’s alright. Pretty sure I was a bigger jerk, actually. I’m sorry I’m not taking things seriously. It’s hard, kinda. There’s a distinct consequences disconnect on my side, and I’m not very good at considering other people’s feelings and such if I’m not doing it intentionally. I was the same before, I think." Tony's gaze turned fuzzy and distant for a moment before focusing back in on Bucky. "I’ll work on it. I don’t really want anyone thinking you’re crazy because of me.”

Bucky managed a half-smile. “Thanks.”

Tony leaned back and kicked his translucent feet up on the coffee table. “Besides, I really don’t think either of us would have fun in a mental hospital.”

Bucky found himself mimicking Tony's position, crossing his ankles and tucking his hands behind his head. “Right? Psych wards are scary.”

“All those padded walls. And I don’t care how much they like to hype those jackets that make you hug yourself, that would make me go banana-balls crazy and I’m not down for that nonsense.”

Bucky cracked up at that, which set Tony off, and if it might have been a little weird for a ghost and a spy to be sitting there at eleven at night laughing their heads off, nobody would know it but them.

Chapter Text

Tony, looking extremely magnanimous at the time, said that Bucky could pick the activity for their weekend since he picked the spa last weekend.

“How generous of you,” Bucky murmured, a humored tilt to his lips, and Tony stuck his tongue out at him.

“Come on, you know we’ve gotta do something, so pick something you’ll enjoy. Even if it’s dumb, I’ll still go.”

Bucky hemmed and hawed over it, not really in the mood to do much of anything, before deciding that he’d go for a run. It had been awhile, his job didn’t exactly leave him a lot of time to work out, and this had been the longest stretch of time that he’d not been on a mission for months.

“It’s a good thing I don’t literally have to run with you, or this would put me in a very bad mood.” Tony commented as he watched Bucky lace up his running shoes very early on Saturday morning.

“You don’t run?”

“Nope. I box and do mixed martial arts. If I’m running, it’s because I’m trying to escape something.”

“Poor life decisions?” Bucky guessed, and he laughed when Tony mimed throwing a book at him. “C’mon, at least it’ll get you out of the house. I’ll pick the scenic route so you’ve got something to do.”

“Can I sing inspirational songs really loud to keep you motivated? I do a great ‘Eye of the Tiger’.”

Bucky waggled his earbuds at the ghost. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Ugh, boring.”

Bucky was capable of running up to twelve miles, but he kept it easy, doing a three mile loop around a park, and another three miles to go get breakfast from a really good mom and pop diner before heading home.

“The irony of you jogging home while holding a fast food bag of pancakes and bacon is high-quality amusement, I’ll have you know,” Tony informed him when Bucky took out his earbuds at the apartment, panting and sweating but feeling the good kind of tired.

“Happy to amuse. How was your outing?”

“It was kinda fun, I let you run on ahead and let the bubble drag me forward, it was almost like actually feeling the movement.”

“Funner than spinning around upside down like a top?”

“Possibly, and the view was better. Although watching you chug literally an entire bottle of water and then run immediately after nearly made me vomit and I didn't even know that was a thing I could do."

Bucky tilted his head to the side, considering. "Ghost vomit?"

Tony made a face. "Just imagining all the sloshing going on in your stomach after that. Yeugh." The ghost shuddered and shook his head. "Eat your pancakes so you can go take a shower, I know I can’t smell anything, but I don’t need to smell to know you’re all kinds of gross right now.”

Huffing in mock offense, Bucky took his sweet time polishing off his pancakes, hashbrowns, and double side of bacon, snickering every time Tony sighed exaggeratedly and looked pointedly at the clock.

“C’mon, Machine, I have at least four questions from yesterday that we never got around to.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, were you thinking those questions rolled over? How silly of you.” Bucky made his voice sugary sweet as he headed to the bathroom, pitching his damp shirt in the direction of his hamper.

Tony snorted, “Shoulda put that in the terms and conditions earlier, my dude.”

Tony’s questions, once Bucky had finished in the bathroom, were an interesting mix of thought-provoking and weird, kind of like him:

“Do you guys do team bonding things with the FBI or are they like the jocks to your goths?”

“When you shoot a guy in the head a point blank range is it a clean shot or does is make the back of the head explode? Like, I know I kind of already got a demonstration of that when I saved your life, but I'm talking like really close range.”

“Can you in fact use a potato as a silencer or was that just Hollywood lying to me?”

“Do you actually need to put your finger on your earpiece when talking/listening to people or is that just to make you look cool?”

Bucky had spent at least fifteen minutes after that having an existential crisis about earpiece behavior after that last one, and was glad it was the last question.

He flicked on the TV, pulling his laptop over and opening up a report he’d emailed to himself. He’d misplaced it two months ago when he’d first finished the mission it detailed, and had promised Director Fury that he’d have the finished report on his desk first thing Monday morning. He was about to ask Tony for some quiet so he could finish up when he accidentally discovered a great way to distract the ghost long enough that he’d be able to actually think.

“OMG, NCIS, GO BACK!”

Bucky startled and dropped the remote that he’d been clicking absentmindedly until Tony found something he wanted to watch. “Really? A crime drama?”

“Drama is the key word there, Buckaroo. And this show is funny, and it’s got excellent actors.”

“Alright, knock yourself out.”

The volume was low enough that it wasn’t distracting, and Bucky actually managed a good hour of work before he finally finished and leaned forward to set his laptop on the table. NCIS was still playing (a marathon was on apparently) and Tony was utterly absorbed, watching the screen raptly.

Bucky yawned and scrubbed at his face, checking the time through bleary eyes. Noonish. Sounded like the perfect time for a nap, if he was into that sort of thing.

“I’m tired, spellcheck this for me.” He scooted the laptop across the coffee table towards Tony, the report still pulled up on the screen.

Tony looked at Bucky like he had just suggested Tony stick a candy bar up his nostril. “But NCIS is on!”

Leaning back against the couch cushions, which he knew was a very bad idea, Bucky sighed deeply and closed his eyes. “You know I have the remote, right?”

“I could just ignore you next time you go search a house that bad guys like to visit and let you twist in the wind without your special new ghost powers, you know that right? You could die.”

Bucky opened his eyes long enough to half-heartedly glower at him, and Tony just stuck out his tongue.

“Don’t you threaten my TV time, I’ve finally found something good to watch! It's been two and a half weeks of B movies and infomercials!”

Bucky threw his hands up in frustration. “It’s my TV!”

“You’re not even watching! Just wait until the next commercial break, then I’ll proofread your thing. Ugh, you are so demanding, what did I do to deserve you?”

Bucky shook his head and closed his eyes again, huffing a chuckle as the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on him. He was just thinking about settling into a doze when Tony interrupted him.

“You know computers do this fancy new thing where they spellcheck for you, right?”

“Shut up, I hate you.”

Too bad he was smiling as he spoke, Tony was never gonna believe it.


Sunday was half over when Bucky’s phone started ringing, and he was smiling before he answered it, because that was a programmed ringtone.

“Hey, Becca Boo. How’s it going?”

Tony hung around for a minute, but when the conversation seemed like it was going to go on for a while, he made himself scarce to give Bucky privacy. The call lasted over an hour, then Bucky called out to him after he hung up.

“Hey, sorry, you can come back, I forgot Becca was gonna call today.”

“Who’s Becca?” Tony asked as he came back into the room, looking curious in a different sort of way than he usually was.

“She's my twin sister. We text most of the time, but we try to talk on the phone once or twice a month.”

“A twin? That’s cool. She live far away?”

“Yeah, she moved to Indiana when she got married, been living there… probably twelve years now, I think. Yeah, twelve years, my nephew Thomas just turned ten last month.”

“You’ve got a nephew?”

“Two of them, and a niece. Thomas, Andrew, and Lydia.”

Tony was smiling, “That’s really nice, that you’ve got family.”

“Yeah. Wish I could see them more, but with my job being unpredictable, this is probably better. I still see them once or twice a year, around the holidays and in the summer.”

Silence fell again, and Bucky was just refocusing on the book he'd been reading when something occurred to him.

“Hey, Tony?”

“Hmm?”

“Why haven’t you ever asked me to get ahold of your family?”

Tony’s eyes went… odd. Somehow flat, like he’d suddenly pulled a mask over his face. “What makes you think I have any?”

“Well… you’ve gotta have someone. Even I have people that would notice if I’d suddenly… gone ghost.”

Tony smiled faintly at the pun as he looked away. “I guess I do, somewhere. I… I think I have at least two people.”

“You think?”

Tony sighed, and spoke as if he were admitting something he’d tried to keep to himself. “I don’t… really know who I am." Something in is face went tight and pinched. "I have no idea who I am. Nothing.”

Bucky’s jaw dropped as the implications of that started twisting around in his head. “Wait, wait, if you have no idea who you are, how do you know your name?!”

Tony rucked up his translucent sleeve and flashed the inside of his forearm. In slightly smeared pen ink, the words “Tony, call Rhodey. And turn in your damn manuscript. - Pepper” were written on his skin.

“I could be wrong, but based on this… I’m just guessing.”

Bucky looked at the note, then at Tony’s face. “Are you sure you’re dead?”

“Dude, we’re not even sure I’m real!

Yeah, point there, but it was a sore spot for both of them. “So… you know you’re a genius.” Tony had been very confident about that, commenting on it off-handedly like he didn't doubt or question it.

The ghost nodded. “Yep.”

“What kind of genius?”

Something… weird came over Tony’s face, a kind of spark and fire that Bucky hadn’t seen before. “The kind of genius that can mentally disassemble and reassemble an entire car, top to bottom. And can also do the same thing with a nuclear guidance missile, and your average firearm. I saw that armory last week and I could mentally break down the specs for every single one of them.”

Bucky’s eyebrows rose, but Tony wasn’t done.

“I am extremely proficient in advanced calculus, trigonometry, geometry, algebra, and differential equations, with a focus in physics, and I can break down the molecular makeup and structure of most metals. I know six languages, including binary. I know how to play the piano at a professional level, I prefer Rachmaninoff but I can also bang out a pretty good Beethoven. My brain literally runs differently than the average human, I can run the numbers on that for you if you want, and it is taking everything in my power to stop myself from possessing your body and turning your toaster into an AI robot using components from your microwave and computer.” Tony heaved a breath. “I also know a lot about filing patents and running a business, so I’m guessing I’m some sort of inventor or something. I dunno. And based on this,” He gestured at his arm again, “and the fact that I can’t stop thinking about words and phrases and how to describe people and places I see and that specific turns of phrase make me feel excited, I’m a writer too. Not sure which one is my day job.”

Bucky's chest felt tight, like he couldn’t breathe as he processed Tony's words.

A brain like that, stuck in a body that wasn’t even real? He couldn’t even fathom it. “What do you even do at night?”

Tony smiled faintly, but it was completely without mirth. “Mostly, I try not to go very quietly insane until you wake up and I feel like I exist again. It’s super fun. 0/10, do not recommend.”

Well, shit. That… sucked. For the first time, Bucky really, actually considered what it must be like for Tony. The ghost had no idea who he was, no really meaningful memories of his life, but his mind was certainly intact. All he could do was follow Bucky around, not able to touch anything or anyone, talk to anybody but him, invisible to the world except when Bucky deigned to look at him.

“I’m… really sorry.”

Tony looked surprised. “What? What for?”

“I hadn’t thought about how much this has gotta suck for you. I’m sorry.”

“Oh." He blinked a few times. "Thanks.”

The silence that fell between them was awkward and heavy, and Bucky couldn’t stand to let it go on for too long.

“You… you remember some stuff, don’t you?”

Tony quirked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“You told me you remembered throwing up after you did research in a hospital, and you got thrown out of Starbucks.”

“Oh, yeah. I get… flashes? Little glimpses of moments, where I know where I was, how I felt, what I was doing, but… I have nothing that tells me who I am. Just snapshots of a life I don’t remember living.”

“Oh, geez… Tony…”

The ghost waved a hand, brushing off Bucky’s concern. “It’s fine. How can I miss something I don’t remember, right?”

That move was so familiar to Bucky. Waving away the worry pointed at you, not wanting to open up that Pandora’s Box any further than it already was. When he’d first gotten back, after he’d been captured and held as a POW for over a year, he’d been like that. Still was, in a few ways, but nowhere near what he had been. He’d had Steve then, Steve who had been utterly guilt-ridden that Bucky had been captured and he hadn’t, Steve that hadn’t stopped until he’d gotten Bucky back home again. Both of them had been a little broken after the whole ordeal, but it had been Steve that had been Bucky’s pillar throughout the recovery process.

Tony, who they had no idea if he was alive or dead or even real, just that he was a ghost… had nobody.

Just Bucky.

What a crappy hand of cards the guy had been dealt.

The silence had closed in again around the two of them, sitting there and thinking their own thoughts, when Bucky spoke up again.

“If there’s anything you want me to do, just let me know.”

“Hmm?” Tony turned to look at him.

“If you want to find out who you are, or if you have family, or to find out what happened to you… I’ve got connections to possibly the most in-depth and complete information in the world, remember. If you want me to find you, I’ll find you, and we’ll figure this out.”

Tony smiled a little, sad but sincere. “Thanks, Bucky. I’ll think about it. I don’t know… I’m not sure if I want to know, just yet. I don’t know if I’m brave enough for that.”

Not for the first time, Bucky wished he could touch the ghost. Not to throw him out a window, though, or strangle him, or anything like that. He just kind of wanted to put his hand on the guy’s shoulder. Some small show of solidarity, maybe. A sign that he was there, that things would be okay.

“You just let me know, alright? Whatever you decide.”

Tony’s smile was a little bigger then, the sadness fading away. “Okay. Thanks, Machine.”

“Anytime, Ghostbuster.”

Chapter Text

Tony came practically bouncing down the hall at six on the dot that Thursday, fresh from eavesdropping on a phone call in Sitwell’s office, beaming. “Happy anniversary, Bucky Boo Bear! NCIS marathon again tonight! We’re gonna find out whodunnit!”

“I thought you said you’d seen all of it before?” Bucky muttered absently, double-checking the notes he was transcribing into the computer. Then his head popped up. “Wait, anniversary?”

“Yes, this begins week four of the hostage situation, we’ve gotta celebrate somehow. So, you get a nice cake or something for yourself, and I’ll watch NCIS, because even though I’ve seen it all before, that doesn’t take away the thrill of suspense when you put your mind to it.”

“Well, I’m sorry to tell you but you’re gonna have to put your mind to something else, pal. Gotta stay late.”

Tony deflated so dramatically it was like he was sharing his soul with a balloon. “Noooo, I’m bored! I’ve spent all day looking forward to this!”

“You’ve been wandering around a highly secure, extremely classified building all day long, how are you bored?”

“Hey, my eight meter bubble is not the entire building. Besides, nobody was bleeding, and there was a disturbing lack of torture going on all over the place. Nobody was even in interrogation today, it was such a waste.”

Shaking his head, Bucky decided not to dwell on the morbid creature he’d been saddled with, and grabbed a file off his desk. “Lab work. I’ll try to make it quick so we can go celebrate our hostage anniversary.”

“Ooh, lab work? Labs can be fun. Do you get to play with scalpels and human organs?”

Bucky sighed, long and low and with moderate exhaustion. “Guess you’ll find out, won’t you?”

He didn’t have to do anything too complex, not even any real lab work, there were a few reports from several missions ago that had conflicting information in the lab results and he wanted to doublecheck the paperwork and a few DNA slides from the lab personally before he sent them up for approval.

Tony lingered over his shoulder the entire time, muttering a constant stream of questions that he didn’t seem to require answers to for the most part. It was going rather well, Bucky thought, and he was on his last set of DNA comparisons for the night. If he hurried, he could probably get to the Thai place before it closed, and maybe he’d hide in the bathroom and take a nice long soak in the tub and read for a bit while Tony watched TV. The bathroom was strictly off-limits, for privacy purposes (“And like I need to see your junk swinging around anyway, Machine, ew.”) so he’d actually have a fair chance at relaxing. Maybe he’d pretend he was in that stupid-fancy massage chair again, not that he would ever, ever tell Tony.

Moving carefully, Bucky slid the first of the last two glass slides off the microscope and held it out. “Here, hold this. Be careful with it.”

He saw Tony move with his peripheral vision, holding his hand out to take the slide as he said, “Yup.”

A fraction of a second too late, Bucky remembered.

But by then, the slide had slipped through his fingers, gone straight through Tony’s waiting hand, and had shattered on the floor.

They both looked down at it, then at each other, and Tony blinked.

“Oh yeah. Forgot.”

Bucky stared at the broken shards, and sighed. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

(Luckily, there were duplicates of the samples in the other lab fridge, so after a brief but unpleasant conversation with Fury the next day about what the hell he was doing, Bucky was able to pretend to forget about it.)


“Clint.”

“Nat.” The archer responded, in the same question-without-being-a-question tone of voice, sitting on her desk with his feet up on the chair on the other side.

His favorite redhead was looking out the glass that made up the inner walls of the offices on the floor. “You noticed that Barnes has been acting weird lately.”

Clint snorted indelicately, twirling a pen between his fingers. “Weird how? The guy’s a spy in the CIA and he’s got a prosthetic arm that’s probably smarter than me.”

“Getting distracted during interrogation. Deviating from is usual behavior. Talking to himself.”

“Oh come on, I talk to myself.”

“Not like that.” Natasha nodded towards Barnes office, where he was indeed talking, but there was no one in his office but him.

“Well, to be fair, I talked to myself like that once.”

Natasha glance up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Yeah, when you were undercover as a patient in a mental disorder facility.”

Clint just shrugged. “Hey, after three weeks of pretending I had voices in my head, I’m really not sure I didn’t have voices in my head. Psych wards are a trip and a half.” He looked at Natasha again, noting the way her eyes were narrowed slightly as she watched Barnes, and the tight set of her shoulders.

Nudging her with his elbow, he waited until she looked at him again. “Hey. Has he hurt anyone? Endangered anyone?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. If he’s lost it, become compromised in some way…”

He heard what she didn’t want to say out loud. That it might be better to circumvent any harm he might cause, before he had a chance to cause it. And Clint understood why she thought that, and why she was afraid to say it.

“Let’s just leave it, for now. We’ll keep an eye on him, alright? It’s been a rough year, this is the first time he’s actually been in the office longer than a few days at a time between ops, give him a break. Maybe he’s just used to talking to himself on the job anyway, you know he’s always alone. Lives alone too, it would make anyone want for some kind of conversation, even with themselves.”

Natasha kept staring at Barnes for another moment, then nodded. “Alright. On your head be it.”

Rubbing his hand over her back in a quick, affectionate gesture, Clint got to his feet with a groan and tossed the pen neatly into the cut crystal glass across the desk that Natasha kept her writing implements and scissors in. “I’m getting coffee, you want?”

“I want one of those doughnuts HR had delivered.”

“But you already had one.”

“HR doesn’t know that.”

Clint tried to sound exasperated, but instead just sounded impossibly fond. “Alright, Black Widow. I’ll get you your doughnut.”


“You like Star Trek more than Star Wars, what kind of a heathen are you,” Bucky said with disbelief, trying and failing to ignore the way Tony was walking around in a circle in midair. And not in a "round and round parallel to the floor" circle. An "up and down like a hamster wheel" circle.

His feet were disappearing through the ceiling as he spoke, and then reappearing as he went around on his way to the floor. “Hey, I’m more about adventure and exploring these days. I’m not saying I don’t love Star Wars, I’m just saying I love Star Trek more. There are few things in this world better than William Shatner overacting literally everything he ever does.”

“Did you or did you not just say five minutes ago that Chris Pine was a god amongst men and you would die on that hill?”

“Now, see, I can ALSO like Chris Pine Jim Kirk and William Shatner Jim Kirk at the same time, what is with you and your this-or-that-ing today, Machine? Is it going to shock your little socks off if I tell you I also love TNG because Patrick Stewart is not only a Sir, but he's also another one of those gods amongst men?”

“Maybe I’m just shocked and offended that Han Solo isn’t the spaceman of your fanboy heart.” Bucky muttered to himself, trying to gather his scattered focus so he could finish up a report. “It’s not right.”

You’re not right.”

The juvenile retort startled a laugh out of him, and Bucky hid behind his computer monitor so nobody outside the office would see him. “You’re being distracting, why did you come in here anyway? I thought I was boring?”

“Oh, you are, but Sitwell promised both his wife and his barely-legal lover that he’d call them after lunch and I don’t wanna miss it. If I hang out here, I’ll see him coming back.”

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for you to be this obsessed with the gross love life of my coworker.”

“I’m not sure it’s healthy for you to eat fast food for nearly every meal, but you don’t see me over here judging you.”

“Oh, you lying little shit, you haven’t let me have one single meal in peace for at least three days, and you insisted on reading the nutritional facts sticker on the box of doughnuts in the lunchroom so I could at least make an informed bad decision!”

Tony was snickering as he continued his circular walking, then made an excited noise a minute later when Sitwell finally made his appearance.

“This is gonna be good, see ya!”

Bucky rolled his eyes as the ghost poofed through the wall, not realizing that he was grinning as he went back to work.

Chapter Text

Tony spent the entire ride home that night catching Bucky up on the latest with the Sitwell drama (his wife had found a thong that was not hers and not for women in his car, and the guy had spent the entire afternoon trying to convince her that it was his), and while it was waaaaay more than Bucky ever wanted to know about a guy he had to work with, he was also laughing so hard at one point that he missed his exit on the freeway and had to circle back around to head home.

Bucky sat down at the kitchen table to eat dinner and dink around on his laptop, trying to thin out the junk in his personal email. He was going through a long list of promotional emails he’d been meaning to unsubscribe from, and idly thinking about how he and his resident ghost had sort of settled into some “normal” kind of routine, when he noticed a whole list of sent emails to an address he didn’t recognize.

“What… what the hell are all these?”

Bucky put his plate in the sink and moved into the front room, eyebrows furrowed as he scrolled down the list of sent mail. He clicked on one, and as he read the contents and the recipient email address (ghostbuster-at-large@gmail.com), he gaped in shock.

“TONY, WHAT ARE ALL THESE EMAILS?!”

The ghost’s head popped out through the middle of the wall, where he was in the second bedroom reading the forty-seventh page of a bunch of books. “You bellowed?”

“How the hell have you been writing and sending emails?! You are a fricking ghost!”

Tony flushed a little bit, looking slightly guilty. “Oh, that. Well, interesting thing, turns out I can possess your body."

Bucky’s brain just up and did a bluescreen. “You what.”

“Yeah, I guess when you hit this specific phase of sleep, your body gets all… weird and like… malleable, in a way? I found out on accident, I can just slide right in and take over. Only for a little while, maybe half an hour at most, but I’ve been jotting down notes and sending them to myself over the past few nights so I don’t forget anything.”

“Just slide right in.” Bucky repeated flatly.

“Yep. Sorta like a weird flesh suit.”

“TONY, SOMETIMES I SLEEP NAKED.”

The ghost nodded. “I noticed. And let me tell you, pal, your personal trainer has been doing you good, because your thighs are just ridiculous. I’ve never even seen you do squats or lunges, how did you do that?!”

Bucky’s brain felt like it was having a seizure. “YOU CAN’T JUST POSSESS MY BODY WHEN I’M SLEEPING!”

Tony looked zero amounts of concerned, still hanging halfway through the wall as if he was expecting to get back to his reading any moment. “Honestly, you’ve got a ghost haunting you, what did you expect?”

“PRIVACY! BOUNDARIES!”

“You have those?” He ducked the remote that Bucky threw at him, ghostliness regardless. “Be nice, that remote is on its last legs.”

“What else have you been doing while in my body?!”

Tony shrugged. “I sometimes eat the leftovers in the fridge, when you’re feeling peckish. It’s nice to actually taste stuff again, but it feels weird to eat. Not my mouth, and all that.

Oh, this was just… this was just too damn weird. Did this explain the bizarre dreams he’d been having?

“Have you been drinking coffee while you’re in my body?!”

“Only decaf. You’re almost out, by the way.”

Well, that explained why he’d had to pee so bad every morning. “Tony, you can’t keep doing that!”

Tony looked utterly perplexed. “Why not?”

Bucky was having another one of those urges to strangle a ghost. “My body! Not yours!”

“Oh, come on! I was only borrowing it when you weren’t using it!” There was a petulant note creeping into Tony’s voice now, as if Bucky was taking away one of his toys on the playground.

“No, this is my hard line! You stay out of my body!”

Tony sighed, hugely, and pouted. “Fine. I’ll stay out of your body.”

“No more emails, no more coffee, no more stealing my leftovers, no more whatever else you’re doing.”

“To be fair, those leftovers are going into your body.”

Bucky literally shook his fist. “NO MORE POSSESSING MY BODY.”

Tony held his hands up in surrender. “Geez, fine, alright! I promise, no more body possessing.”

They glared at each other for a minute, the silence between them tense.

Until Tony opened his mouth again.

“If I dictate my notes to you, will you send them to my email? I really don’t wanna lose all this research.”

Bucky moaned and let his head fall into his hands. He couldn’t even summon up the energy to argue, because he had a feeling he’d just lose anyway. He’d have to remember to buy more vodka after work tomorrow…


Later the next night, Tony rested his chin on his hand as he read over the notes Bucky had typed up for him. “You realize that if I never figure out a way out of this ghost thing, you’re gonna have to publish this and take the credit for it.”

Bucky choked and spit his mouthful of vodka clear across the room. “What?!”

“Yep. This is too good to waste, and obviously I can’t claim it if I’m see-through. You’re gonna have to do it. For both of us.”

Coughing and spluttering, Bucky wiped his eyes on the back of his wrist as they watered. “I can’t write a book! Especially not about that stuff, they’d kill me for treason!”

You’re not writing it, I am! And it’s fiction, Bucky, honestly. They can’t kill you for that.”

“I think you’ll find that they’re the CIA, and they can do anything they want.”

Tony’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, wow, that was like… really casually ominous, quick, write that down, I wanna save that.”

By the time Tony was finished dictating his notes, Bucky was probably two shots past drunk, and he had the feeling that he was really, really going to regret that in the morning.

But that was a problem for tomorrow Bucky to deal with.

“Hey, Machine, are you aware that you’re talking out loud right now?”

Swaying slightly on his way to the bathroom, Bucky just waved his hand over his head. He’d spent most of the last month haunted by a ghost, that had apparently been possessing his body while he slept, and now he was being party to a potentially treasonous novel. Talking to himself out loud was at the bottom of his list of worries.


“Kill me.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

“I’m really not. Kill me.”

“Maybe you should have skipped those last four chugs of vodka last night…”

“Maybe I should have skipped the vodka entirely last night.”

“Well, we all cope in our own ways.”

Bucky groaned as he pressed his face into his pillow, definitely wanting to die more than he wanted to get up. “It tastes like something died in my mouth.”

Tony, who was hovering next to the bed and trying to coax the spy out of it, sounded somewhat amused when he said, “I’m suddenly feeling quite appreciative that I can’t smell anything.”

The lure of coffee and ibuprofen finally got Bucky upright, and Tony took over the role of pestering him until he got in the shower, calling quite loudly through the door that he was on his own in there so he’d better figure it out himself.

The drive into work was miserable and far too bright, and Bucky found himself wishing he could wear two pairs of sunglasses as he sipped miserably between his coffee and a water bottle Tony had forced him to bring along.

“You’ll feel better once you’re hydrated again. Food would be good too.”

The thought of trying to eat anything turned his stomach, and Bucky burped ominously. Tony’s eyes went huge, and he looked ready to exit the car entirely if he had to. “If you throw up, I’m leaving.”

“Just don’t talk about food and we’ll be fine.”

They made it to the office with no further incident, though Bucky refused to take off his sunglasses inside. His head was pounding, and he wasn’t about to make it worse if he could manage it.

Clint Barton, however, seemed to have different ideas.

“Goooood morning, Machine, how are you this fine Wednesday morning?”

Bucky groaned and waved a hand at him to shut him up, ignoring the way Tony chuckled. “So hungover my hair hurts, go away.”

“Gladly, I just came to deliver a message from our fearless leader. Gear up, Winter Soldier. We’re on for tonight.”

Bucky squinted up at Barton, trying not to open his eyes too much as Tony gasped and literally squealed with excitement and curiosity. “Yeah? Romanoff find the hideout?”

“Actually, I did, but go ahead and keep your surprise to yourself. It’s beneficial to have a reputation of vague uselessness. Fury wants a meeting to go over planning and logistics, twenty minutes.”

“Thanks, I’ll be there.”

“You’ve had water and meds, right?"

“Yeah, but I probably should have more.”

“Hey, I told you to bring more water!” Tony protested, slightly louder than was comfortable, and Bucky risked a whine that he hope the ghost would know was meant for him.

Barton snickered, probably appreciating Bucky’s suffering. “Tell you what, I’ll take pity on you and bring you some water, you take more meds with whatever concoction you’ve got in your thermos there. Fury won’t be happy if you show up at the meeting looking trashed.”

“Fury’s never happy,” Bucky grumped back, but Barton just laughed as he left.

Tony, it seemed, couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm anymore. “Wait, so is this an op going live, is that what we’re doing? A planning meeting certainly seems to imply that!”

Bucky was digging through his desk drawer, pretty sure he’d stuck a bottle of Tylenol in there somewhere. “Sounds like it. Told you Barton and Romanoff were like bulldogs once they got onto something.”

Barton came back with a bottle of water a few minutes later (his aim was fine, as usual, but Bucky flubbed the catch and whimpered when the bottle rolled under his desk), and Bucky spent the rest of the time before the meeting trying to make himself presentable.

“Do I still look hungover?” He muttered as he finger-combed his hair and straightened his button-down shirt.

“Lose the shades and it’ll be more convincing.”

Tossing his sunglasses on the desk, Bucky winced and squinted at the ghost. “Better?”

“You’ve got bags under your eyes big enough to pack a lunch in, but that’s not unusual.”

Bucky paused, unsure how to take that, then just shook his head and took a fortifying gulp of coffee. “Okay. Let’s go. And please, keep the chatter to a minimum, I really need to pay attention in there, and my attention is not very impressive right now.”

“Sir, yes sir." Tony flipped him a salute that managed to have an attitude. "I’ll just be reading all the classified notes and tittering to myself.”

With a sigh, Bucky followed in Tony’s wake and tried not to cry.

Chapter Text

“I’m excited.” Tony announced as they left the building at lunchtime, Bucky insisting he wanted to eat outside so they’d have space to talk.

“I can tell.” He replied, glancing around for a good spot to have this talk.

“No, I’m really excited for this! How often does this happen, someone getting to actually see a squad like yours in action, it’s going to be awesome!

Tony had been like this ever since the planning meeting had ended an hour ago, all but vibrating with anticipation of getting to actually watch an op happen, live and in color. Bucky hadn’t been sure how to say what he needed to, still wasn’t, but he had to give it a shot.

Once they found a secluded spot and Bucky got out the lunch that he wasn’t interested in eating, he rubbed his hands together, feeling awkward. “Hey, Tony, listen… about the op.”

Tony could obviously tell something was up, and he looked at Bucky with some concern. “What? You’re not excited?”

“Not like you are, but that figures, I’ve done this before. Or, well, the basic idea of it, but not this specific thing, and that’s what I need to talk to you about."

His seriousness got Tony’s attention, the ghost watching him carefully, perhaps warily. “Okay, shoot.”

Bucky took a deep breath, taking care with his words. “I’m gonna need you to do something for me during this op. I don’t think you’re gonna like it.”

“Hey, I’ve already seen my first murder, I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m resilient like that.” He grinned a little.

Bucky shook his head. “Tony, this is really important. I can’t be distracted like I was last time, people could get killed.”

“If I remember correctly, I literally saved your life last time.” Tony raised an eyebrow, and it was the most judgmental eyebrow Bucky had ever seen.

“Yeah, okay, you did, but I’m serious right now. I need you to not… do your usual thing during this op. Please.”

“By my usual thing, do you mean being annoying and talking too much?” Tony was upset, obviously, bordering on angry, but Bucky could also see the hint of hurt in his eyes. And that was exactly what he was trying (not very well) to avoid.

“Yes, but not in the way you’re saying it. Yes, you’re annoying, and yes you talk too much, but… I don’t mind, okay. I’m used to it now. And we’re… we’re kind of friends now, a
aren’t we? In a weird way?”

Tony’s brows furrowed a little bit, considering, but Bucky could see the way his translucent shoulders loosened. “Yeah. I guess. Weird ghost hostage friends. Two-way Stockholm Syndrome buddies.”

Bucky smiled a little bit at that. “Yeah, so you being you, it’s… it’s okay. I promise, and I’m not just saying that, I really mean it. I've got my own irritating habits and behaviors, I know that, and you've had to deal with those as well."

Tony muttered under his breath, "Ugh, I sure have."

"So yes, you can be annoying and talk too much, and I never knew a human being could possibly ask so many questions, but I really don’t mind it anymore. It’s actually pretty amusing, sometimes, and most of the time you can do it whenever you want. Just not during an op when we will be actively infiltrating a place where lots of people with big guns will take offense to that.”

Tony sighed, looked away and chewing on the inside of his lip as he thought it over, and finally he nodded. “Alright.”

Bucky blew out a breath of relief. “Thank you.”

“You know I’m gonna be there anyway, right? I don’t have a choice.”

“I know. But just for this op, so I’ll be able to fully concentrate and won’t endanger my teammates, be invisible. And after, when we’re all out safe, I’ll answer any questions you want and we can even go over the whole thing play-by-play, alright?”

A faint smile tipped up one corner of Tony’s mouth, and he nodded. “Alright. For you, Machine. Because you asked nice.”

Shaking his head but grinning nonetheless, Bucky unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “Thanks, Iron Man.”


Bucky watched as Tony went invisible, minutes before he, Barton, Romanoff, and a few other agents were set to infiltrate the multi-level warehouse. He gave the ghost a tiny nod, just before he faded entirely, then took a deep breath and focused himself, mind and body, on the task at hand

The warehouse was suspiciously empty. Nobody should have known they were coming, shouldn’t have had any warning at all until they were coming through the doors. But the place was dark, quiet, and had plenty of places to hide in.

Barton and Romanoff split off into two directions in front of him, each with a slightly junior agent of their own, but Bucky headed for the third floor alone, climbing the catwalk as silent and swift as a shadow, a gun in one hand, knife in the other.

He was in that headspace that always kicked in during the live part of an op, every bit of him laser-focused on his surroundings. His eyes peered through the darkness, tugging at every shadow, piercing into the unknown, his heartbeat slow and steady as a metronome.

He was more than halfway through clearing the third floor, still silently moving along the metal walkways, when it happened, the voice cutting through the silence like a gunshot.

“Knife, behind you!”

Bucky didn’t think, didn’t even take a second to process it, he just whipped around and sliced. The knife that had been on its way into his back sliced through the sleeve of his tac shirt, was knocked aside, and the commando in a harness that had dropped silently from the high ceiling on a rope was on the floor, his throat cut wide open.

Bucky glanced around, knowing that Tony had just warned him, and the ghost made himself visible for a quick second, saluting.

Taking a deep breath, Bucky nodded to him, then whispered into his comm as he checked over his bleeding arm. “They’re overhead, on ropes. Keep an eye out.”

Barton and Romanoff didn’t even have a chance to respond, because at that very moment, all hell broke loose.

In a flawlessly synchronized move, at least a dozen masked and heavily armed commandos dropped from the ceiling, and that was just what Bucky could see. They were audible this time, their cover of steal and element of surprise clearly foiled (Bucky was going to have to thank Tony for that later), and Bucky heard the telltale sounds of the other agents in the warehouse fighting back as commandos landed all over the place. He could easily distinguish the fwip! sounds of Barton using his compound bow, and the heavy body blows that were Romanoff's acrobatic specialty.

Three of the commandos landed close by, unclipped their ropes, and headed straight for Bucky. His knife went into his belt in the same movement as he brought his rifle up to firing position, and the first commando was down in an instant. The other two weren’t so easy, moving immediately to flank him, and rather than stay on the narrow catwalk for this fight, Bucky took a flying leap over the metal railing.

He caught one of the rappelling ropes with his left arm (he still had his gun in his right), grateful for the grip in the metal fingers even as the prosthetic jerked painfully at his entire torso as it registered his weight. He slid right down the black length, adding another tick in the pros column of having a biomechanical arm when he managed it without getting any kind of rope burn.

Of course, there was a bit of a downside to it, and that was stopping when his palm was as slick and frictionless as glass. And when he noticed one of the enemy commandos, standing on a second-floor catwalk with his gun aimed up right between Bucky’s eyes, he realized he was out of options.

He wasn’t sure if he panicked or just made a split-second decision of questionable intelligence. But either way, he loosened his grip to let go of the rope.

And fell the remaining two stories onto the concrete floor.

Chapter Text

Normally, Bucky would come awake all at once, his awareness immediate as he transitioned from sleep to waking. He wasn’t sure if it was left over from his army days, or if he’d always been that way. He hadn’t really paid attention before then.

Now, though, making his way into consciousness was rather like raising a sunken ship from the bottom of the ocean, a huge ordeal that felt like far too much effort and took a really long time.

When he finally came to, still feeling fuzzy and heavy, he listened for a bit before trying to open his eyes. Hospital, he was pretty sure, given the smell of antiseptic and the murmur of voices in the hall, and the distant announcement over the intercom requesting some doctor’s presence in the OR. It took him a few minutes, but after a while he was able to open his eyes, and it was around then that he remembered what had led to him ending up here.

Still feeling like his body was somehow dealing with a lot of extra gravity, he carefully reached up with his flesh hand and felt his head. He had quite an impressive goose egg up there, and even a few stitches along his hairline. It would just figure that he fell two stories, landed on his head, and still survived to tell the tale. At least he hadn’t woken up with a prosthetic head…

Giggling a little loopily (he had clearly been drugged up a bit), Bucky glanced around the room, feeling like he was looking for… something. Or someone. He wasn’t sure. He just felt like something was missing, and it was starting to bother him. It felt too quiet, the room too empty, and he shifted on the bed, trying to sit up. That was when he noticed the bandage.

He picked at the sterile tape holding down the gauze on his arm, wincing at the way it pulled on his arm hairs before revealing the neat row of stitches.

It came back to him in a flash, both how he’d gotten the slash on his arm, and what it was he was missing.

“Tony?” He sat up straighter, ignoring the way his head was beginning to pound, looking around the room. “Tony? You there?”

No response.

Something leaden seemed to form in Bucky’s stomach, but he tried to ignore it. Tony couldn’t be gone, he’d spent the last month hoping every day that the ghost would be gone, but he was always there. Always, with his mouth constantly running. It was… impossible that he was gone.

Too bad reality seemed to be disagreeing with him.

As his heart rate accelerated, making a machine next to him start beeping, a panic sweat broke out. Bucky knew, in a coldly logical side of his brain, that he was panicking over nothing. A hallucination that had been driving him halfway insane had finally gone, that wasn’t something to get upset over. However, the emotional and human part of him, the part that didn’t usually get a whole lot of airtime given what he did for a living, was violently disagreeing. His friend was missing, and he didn’t know why, or have the first idea how to find him.

At first he didn’t hear it, the ringing panic in his ears making everything else sound muted, but then it finally broke through. A familiar patter of talking, in a very particular, nosy tone of voice…

“—because that can’t actually be healthy, there’s no way that’s really a thing. I’m sure you’d agree with me if you could see me, medical school notwithstanding. Move your hand, I can’t read what you’re writing. Actually, never mind, your writing looks like chicken scratch, nobody can read what you’re writing, how many people have you killed this way?”

Tears actually came to Bucky’s eyes as he slumped backwards onto the thin, not very comfortable mattress with an explosive sigh of relief.

There he was. He was still here.

“Good penmanship does not get near the recognition and respect it deserves, honestly, you should look into—”

“Tony,” Bucky called, not caring if anyone else heard, smiling a little when the chatter immediately stopped.

Tony came all but flying into the room, managing to look pale even though his face was translucent, and he actually yelped when he saw Bucky’s eyes open.

“Holy crap, you’re finally awake!” The ghost rushed forward, make a movement like he was reaching for Bucky before he remembered he couldn’t actually touch him, then scrambled towards the door. “Nurse, he’s awake! He’s awake!”

Bucky started laughing, more of a weak chuckle as he watched the ghost’s antics, but nonetheless grinning when Tony came rushing back in, waving his arms.

“What am I doing, they can’t hear me, why aren’t you pushing the call button, you idiot?!”

A nurse came hurrying into Bucky’s room just then, obviously summoned by the machine that was still beeping at his side, and Tony started snapping at her immediately.

“It took you long enough, the ghost got here before you did, what are you even doing with your time?!”

“Mr. Barnes, it’s good to see you’re awake,” She said, completely oblivious to the nervous wreck of a ghost chewing her out.

Bucky huffed out a laugh, shaking his head a bit as Tony slumped against the wall, looking harried. “Yeah, I’m… I’m up.”

The nurse silenced the machine (a heart monitor, as it turned out), then had the blood pressure cuff on Bucky’s right arm do its thing, telling him what was going on and what had happened, explaining his stitches and treatments. Bucky didn’t hear a word, partly because he was still feeling all kinds of woozy with relief, but mostly because Tony had jumped back up and was talking a mile a minute at the same time, pacing around the room and gesturing wildly.

“You just let go of that rope, you absolute doofus, what were you thinking? I mean, on the one hand it might have been fun, because I ended up getting dragged down with you, and it was a little bit Tower of Terror, but you had me worried, you dick. You got all bloody and everything, it was all down your arm and the side of your head, I think Barton might have gotten a little bit grossed out, which is funny. What kind of an assassin gets all icked out at the sight of blood? Romanoff, now she was a pro, she didn’t even blink, once reinforcements came in and got everything handled, she totally waded right through your pool of blood and got you bandaged up, it was very heroic. Barton wouldn’t touch her after, and we both know there’s a little somethin’-somethin’ going on between those two. Something freaky in the sheets, if you know what I mean. Fury even came, when you didn’t wake up, and Hill and Coulson, they were pretty worried. Oh! This will entertain you, I think that Rumlow and Sitwell have been operating as double agents this whole time! Hill and Romanoff were talking, I eavesdropped a bit while they were getting you loaded into the ambulance, you had me scared by the way, and they were saying something about how they’d found a leak. Rumlow was on the run but they’d gotten to Sitwell in time. It was actually scary as hell, Hill was being all freaky with her eyes and Romanoff was standing there with blood on her hands and smeared across her face, I’m pretty sure that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.”

Tony took the briefest pause for breath (or something, did ghosts breathe?), and looked at Bucky. His face still looked slightly tight with worry, despite his supposedly nonchalant update. “You doing okay there, Machine? You’re looking at me weird.”

The nurse picked that moment to leave, gently patting Bucky’s shoulder and telling him she’d let the doctor know he was awake, leaving him and the ghost alone.

Bucky was a little stunned, no lie, that was a heck of a lot to unpack. But he decided it would wait, because he’d realized something important and he couldn’t help but smile. “You wanna know something?”

Tony fixed him with a Look. “Do you really, honestly think you have to ask that question?”

Bucky chuckled, settling back against his pillows that the nurse had fluffed with a slight grimace. “When I first woke up, and I didn’t see you… I was worried you were gone.”

Tony scoffed and waved his hand. “Of course I wasn’t, I haven’t left ever since we got here, was just peeking in the room next door, there’s something pretty gruesome going on under the bandages in there.”

Bucky shook his head carefully. “No, Tony, I mean I was really worried.”

The ghost’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

He’d have to spell it out, but that was alright. This was the kind of thing that deserved to be spelled out anyway. “I was worried that I’d lost… my best friend.”

Tony blinked, then shook his head. “No, but… Steve is your best friend.”

Bucky nodded, wincing when his head throbbed. “He is, yeah. We grew up together, went to war together, he’s always gonna be like a brother to me. But he’s been gone a long time, which I’m glad for, don’t get me wrong, he’s having an amazing time and learning so much and I'm honestly so happy about that.”

Bucky paused, knowing he was wandering off-topic, and regathered his thoughts. “The thing is, while Steve’s been gone, I’ve been… really damn lonely, only I didn’t realize it. He was really all I had, what with Becca living so far away, and me not really having any other friends.” He smiled a little, looking up at Tony. “But you, in your utterly obnoxious way, have made it better. I sleep better when you’re around, even though you’re not even in the room. Just knowing you’re there, it helps, even though I don’t know how or why. And I like talking to you on the way to and from work. I like hearing what barrage of questions comes out of your mouth next. And I hate this, I truly do, but I like hearing about the gossip you pick up when I’m working.”

Tony was smiling, in a shaky kind of way, but it was a smile nonetheless. “I feel like I really should make you pick up a book on Stockholm Syndrome or something, because you’re kind of worrying me. Maybe you got hit harder than they thought.”

Bucky grinned. “Nah. It just took me until now to realize that I had a better friend than I thought. I’d notice if you were gone, Tony. I’d miss you. And I know this whole situation with you being my personal ghost sucks, for both of us and for a whole lot of reasons, but you know what? It also doesn’t suck for just as many reasons.”

Tony blinked hard a couple times, then made a noise suspiciously like a sniffle. “If you profess your undying love to me right now, I’m going to sing the entirety of the Sound of Music, the entire musical, at the top of my lungs, just to watch you suffer.”

Bucky burst out laughing, he couldn’t help it even though it made his head hurt, and just shook his head at the way Tony looked pleased with himself. “You’re such a jerk.”

“Yeah, but you know what?”

“What?”

You like it. You like it, and you said so, and I can’t believe you really just handed me that ammo! I am going to torture you with that for years, maybe decades, you’re never going to know a peaceful moment again!”

Bucky groaned, carefully scrubbing at his face with his hands, but he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. “What have I done?”

“Hell if I know, that was some pretty stupid stunt you pulled, my gosh, you might as well have just proposed and suggested we elope.”

“I’m going to take it back, every word.”

“Nope, no chance of that, it’s out there, everybody knows about your man crush on me. It’s over now, Barnes.”

“Everybody meaning you?”

“Hey, you just basically told me I’m your whole world, don’t even go there.”

Laughing helplessly, even though it made his head hurt, Bucky was tempted to try and throw something at the relentless apparition.

“Hey, Machine?” Tony’s voice was suddenly soft, the teasing edge to it gone.

“What, Ghostbuster?”

“You’re my best friend too, you know. And not just because you’re the only one that can see me. It’s because you’re fun to annoy, too.”

Closing his eyes and still smiling, Bucky felt for the TV remote and clicked it on. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, motor mouth.”

“That rudeness, you know, you really should think about fixing that—OH MY GOSH, THEY HAVE CABLE, SEE IF NCIS IS STILL ON!”

Rolling his eyes, but still not able to stop smiling, Bucky did as the ghost demanded, watching TV through that translucent head as Tony settled himself at the foot of the hospital bed.

Chapter Text

Bucky spent several days in the hospital, getting scans done to make sure his concussion was getting better, and he didn’t have any brain damage (Tony had a field day with that). He finally got the all clear, with orders (bordering on threats) to be careful and take it easy. He was relieved about that, because even though the ER was on the floor below them, and you’d think Tony would have more than enough to keep him entertained, it apparently was not.

“It’s not near as exciting as the TV shows would lead you to believe. Most of the time there’s just a bunch of people all stressed out and in pain, waiting for the results of tests. It’s sad and boring. The only fun thing that happened today was stumbling upon a couple of the doctors getting it on in the staff bathroom.”

Bucky got himself signed out, feeling relieved to be on his feet and in his own clothes, and even argued himself out of being wheeled down to the lobby in a wheelchair. And to his surprise, Barton and Romanoff were there when he got released, waiting in the lobby when the nurse escorted him down.

“We heard you were getting out today,” Barton said as Bucky approached, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “How’s your head?”

“Same size as before, thanks.”

Romanoff smirked, then surprised the heck out of him and moved in for a quick hug. It was done before he even had a chance to return it, and he felt kind of like an idiot about that. “Good to see you back on your feet. We’re your Uber home.”

“Oh.” Well, that was unexpected. Bucky shot a quick, furtive look at Tony, who was shrugging. “Okay. You know where I live?”

Romanoff leveled him a flat look, and Bucky chuckled, trying not to feel vaguely creeped out. “Right. Spy. Duh.”

Tony guffawed as the three spies left the hospital.


“You have got to be kidding me. How do you still have paperwork, you’ve been gone on medical leave for two weeks!”

Bucky snorted as he thumped down in his chair at work, looking at the pile of folders that had appeared during his two weeks leave while he was recovering (see also: laying on the couch in his apartment and eating absurd amounts of whatever food would deliver to his apartment while Tony whined at him). “Guess Fury takes no shit and gives no pity.”

Sighing in an extremely long-suffering fashion, Tony likewise sprawled in the chair across Bucky’s desk, looking grumpy. “You weren’t even having fun, you were on legitimate medical leave to make sure your head didn’t explode or something.”

Smirking a little bit, Bucky adjusted the little black earpiece in his ear. It was a new thing he was trying out, a way for him to be able to talk to Tony without looking like a crazy person. He could just say he was dictating notes for himself onto his phone if anyone asked. It had been Tony’s idea, actually, during one of the nights they’d been camped out on the couch at home, watching a marathon of spy movies that got increasingly more terrible.

“I don’t even have Sitwell’s drama to listen in on anymore,” Tony lamented, gazing sadly at the wall. “What am I going to do with myself?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Bucky muttered, dragging the first file off the stack and flipping it open. “Keep yourself busy for a couple hours, then we’ll work on some more of the book after I go get a coffee.”

“Hey, no, you promised!”

“Yes, I know, I’ll drink it while you’re off out through a wall or something,” Bucky replied in exasperation, rolling his eyes. In addition to watching every spy movie known to man, and coming up with the earpiece thing, the ghost and the spy had spent quite a bit of time working out a better system of living with each other. And one of those things was Bucky keeping his coffee drinking out of Tony’s sight, since the ghost still tended to whine and want to cry when he couldn’t have any.

Nodding to show his approval, Tony floated up and spun in a slow circle, giving the office a critical look. “You know, you need to brighten this office up a bit. Some pictures, maybe a plant. Barton’s got so many pictures of his dog in there it’s just ridiculous, and I overheard Coulson arguing with him about the purple couch.”

Bucky chuckled as he worked. “Coulson’s just mad he can’t figure out how Barton got it in there.”

“Very true. And even Romanoff’s got stuff in her office. To be fair, nearly all of them can be used as weapons, but that samurai sword she’s got on the wall is very pretty.”

“Romanoff could use anything as a weapon if she wanted to, I’m fairly certain.”

With an amused nod, Tony headed upwards. “Gonna go check out the supply closet. I keep hoping I’ll drift in on some clandestine making out someday, but no luck so far.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.” Bucky watched the ghost go with a slight smile, then got back to work.

It was bizarre, still, this whole thing with his ghostie buddy, but… he could live with this. It was gonna be alright.


Bucky sighed in frustration as he sat back down at his desk at the usual end of the work day, dragging a stack of files towards himself. “Gotta work late, found more backlogged reports, find something to amuse yourself.”

Tony, looking very dramatic about it, sighed in a long-suffering way. “Fine. At least it’s not NCIS day. And if you work late, you can't get dinner from that Thai place I really like, and I don't have to pout about it.”

“I find it reeeeally interesting how you don’t know who you are, but you know everything about yourself that doesn’t actually identify you.”

The ghost just snorted as he leaned backwards in midair (ghost physics were still trippy, no matter that it had been well over a month), stretching and groaning. “I know, right? Ghost rules are bizarre.” With a sigh he gave himself a shake and headed for the elevator, floating right through desks and cubicles. “Can you do your work out here somewhere, I wanna go to the armory and say hi to all the shiny things. You CIA people don’t love your weapons enough, how are they ever gonna know they’re doing a good job if you don’t coo at them occasionally?”

Shaking his head and smiling, Bucky pulled the top folder in his to-do pile over and flipped it open. “Sorry, need my computer. Why don’t you try the interrogation room, I think Romanoff had someone down there slow roasting. She likes to get them all nice and irritable and tired before she breaks out her skills.”

“Yeah, she’s scary. It’s kinda hot.”

Bucky chuckled. “Whatever you say, Ghostbuster.”

Tony replied as he started sinking through the floor and into the interrogation room underneath. “Still not sure I’m fine with that nickname. Just saying.”

"Uh huh."

Bucky worked steadily over the next hour, updating reports and doing the kind of repetitive paperwork that he hated doing, which always resulted in him pulling a late night to catch up on all his suffering at once. It was after his coffee break (it was either take a break or put the entire office through the shredder) that he flipped open his next file and went utterly still.

Tony’s face was staring up at him from a photograph inside the file.