Remix # 394 – Chapters One-Four

Title: Remix #394
Author: Saydria Wolfe
Series: The BAST Chronicles
Series Order: 1
Fandom: MCU
Genre: Fix-It, Time Travel
Relationships: Tony Stark/Bucky Barnes, Howard Stark/Maria Stark
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Canon-level Violence, Canon-level Science, Discussion – Torture, Discussion – Rape
Word Count: 52,966
Summary: After being murdered in a Siberian bunker by the Defective Soldiers that he had trained, Bucky Barnes had a choice. His choice could end the world, or save it.

 

Banner by Sunryder

 

 

Chapter One

 

“До свидания, солдат.”

-*-

Bucky jerked awake, hit his head hard, and promptly fell backwards only to pant confusedly up at the bulkhead. What in the—

“Well, that ain’t no good.”

He turned his head to see a girl sitting to the side popping bubblegum. She was cute, cheerleader-ish, with brown hair and eyes. She wore a bright, happy, multi-colored shirt under brown overalls. Coveralls, sort of? But sleeveless? He didn’t even know what anyone would even call…that.

“My dream?” he asked hesitantly.

“Oh, that weren’t no dream. That were real. But that ain’t what I wanted to happen.”

He couldn’t say he felt any differently. Dying had definitely not been on his to do list for the day. “What was supposed to happen?”

“Well, Zemo was supposed to shoot the baby Winter Soldiers in their cryostasis, not wake ‘em up. But, I mean, ideal, this woulda been headed off years ago. Cause ol’ Stevie woulda acted like a gorram grown up and told his strongest ally what he suspected ‘bout his parents’ deaths. It ain’t like he had solid proof or nothing, just rumors and a theory. No matter how mad he was Tony woulda never killed someone without no proof. And in lookin’ for that proof they woulda found Hydra and you. And the twins. And some other allies that they desperate needed. The Avengers woulda been ready for what’s comin’ next.”

“But now they’re all dead,” he said as he tried to follow the theoretical ripples of the Stevie Being A Grown-up Plan. No Ultron. No Sokovia. No UN Bombing. King T’Chaka alive. Reinforced Avengers. SHIELD dead or salvaged? With a Stark involved? Transformed, probably. Then he frowned. “And what was coming next?”

She huffed and shook her head. “Don’t matter no more. Not for you.”

“Then why am I here?”

“You thinkin’ you can do better than ole Stevie?” She tilted her head to one side.

“I don’t want to be Captain America.” The objection was automatic. He didn’t even have to think about it.

She waved a hand at him. “Oh, no. Stevie’s the Captain, that’s all set. But you could make the Winter Soldier something a might bit different.”

“How?”

“I fiddle with you, give ya a might bit-a help, and drop ya into your old body. How far back ya wanna go?”

“As far back as I can.” Because, seriously? How many lives would be saved just because he wasn’t there to kill them? How many alternate solutions would Hydra have to find because they couldn’t just wind him up and send him off? How much would his absence slow them down?

“Well, the Kennedy Assassination is a fixed point but other than that…” She trailed off, giving a delicate shrug.

“The Stark Assassination.” If how that event was handled was what led him here, then he’d just have to handle it better. By not doing it.

The girl rocked back on her heels, considering. Slowly a smile spread across her face until she was full on grinning. “Shiny.”

He blinked and when he opened his eyes, his metal fist was inside the door handle of a crashed car. There was a core of solid steal in his stomach, a furiously-centered kind of determination he had never really managed to achieve on his own.

But he had never associated it with the Soldier before, either. He just knew that he lost it at some point.

His body pulled the door open without any orders from his mind and suddenly he was staring down the barrel straight into the face of Howard Stark. He was older than the Asset remembered him but that was undeniably him. The mustache, the eyes. There was a tiredness in him but that was probably from his increased age. Or, perhaps , the wreck of a car that was burning all around him.

“Bucky?” his old friend gasped in almost the exact tone Steve used once upon a time.

The Asset blinked.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” his voice asked for him—and okay, that was enough of that. He clamped down on the Soldier and forced the gun down. He stepped back slightly as he asked, “Howie?” The surprised tone wasn’t entirely intentional but he wasn’t mad that it happened.

“Bucky. You’re alive but—?”

“You’re Howard Stark,” he said, mostly for himself as he struggled against the Soldier, struggled against the programming.

“Yes. Yes, I am. And you’re James Buchanan Barnes. All your friends call you Bucky.”

“You’re…my friend?”

“Yes. Always, Bucky. Always.”

The struggle was real as the gun came back up. “You’re my mission.” Dammit. Didn’t that dame promise to fix this?

“Bucky.” Howard called his attention suddenly, sharply and he looked up. “Til the end of the line.”

His hand opened and the gun hit the ground.

Just like that, his mind was clear. The Soldier was gone. He could actually breathe.

And god damn he forgot how much this arm hurt.

Howard started to get out of the car and the Asset immediately moved to stop him. “No, my handlers are two minutes behind. Stay in the car and play dead. If you don’t, they’ll kill us all.”

Howard stared at him for a moment. “Who’s had you? All this time.”

“Hydra.”

Howard paled. He must have thought Hydra died with the war, poor bastard. “Alright, we’ll stay still and quiet. Do what you must and then we’ll all go home.”

The Asset nodded, scooped up the gun, and shot the surveillance camera all in one movement. Then he moved to Howard’s trunk, punched his hand through the lock and pulled it open. He could feel Howard wince as the metal screamed and fought a grin as he fished the case with the serum out from under Howard and Maria’s luggage.

A black car pulled up with its headlights off not even a minute later. “Soldat,” Colonel Karpov barked as he stepped out of the vehicle. “Mission report.”

“Primary objective secure.” He didn’t wiggle the case in his hand. It was tempting and Bucky Barnes probably would have done it, but the Winter Soldier would never waste that much movement or energy.

“Secondary objective complete.” His orders had been to make it look like a car wreck, pulling them out of the car would not look like a car wreck. How had he even gotten away with that last time?

“Secure yourself.” Karpov ordered and the Asset put the nine mil on his back harness. He then took his mask off of the harness and put it on. Once he was muzzled, the Colonel moved in and took the case from him while his still-silent passenger held a machine gun on the Asset.

He didn’t fight them. He needed to wait for a distraction so he could kill them both without any collateral damage.

“Retrieve your final objective.”

Silently, he turned and went for the surveillance cam, all of his attention was behind him, looking for his opening.

The camera was twelve feet up—which was nothing, really, not for a super soldier with his training. Stevie had managed twice that horizontally when he was little more than a performing monkey. So, the Asset just got to the base of the post and jumped. His left hand crunched the camera’s little leg and the whole thing came down with him, the wires snapping almost eagerly on the way.

Karpov had the case open on his own car’s bonnet by the time the Asset got back to them. Both of his handlers were staring at the five little bags of blue serum in greedy awe. He offered the camera to the silent sidekick. The guy took it without thought, not removing his eyes from the prize for even a moment.

Close, it was almost enough but not quite—

He could hear a shift in the breathing in the Stark’s car. Mrs. Stark called a distressed, “Howard?” and his handlers looked up, eyes wide. The Asset had them both shot before their mouths could do more than fall open in shock.

Howard was comforting his wife before the bodies even hit the gravel. “It’s alright, Maria. We’re okay. We’re going home. It’ll all be alright.”

Without waiting for instructions, the Asset went to his handlers’ vehicle and checked the interior for locator beacons and listening devices. The locator beacon was in the center console. There were three bugs as well. One in the back of the driver’s seat, one in the glove box, and one in the center seat in the back. He crushed the microphones but otherwise left the devices intact in the hope Howard could learn something advantageous from them later.

The locator beacon he set on the gravel two feet away from the car. Not far enough to alert Hydra that it had been found but clear of the car so they wouldn’t take it with them.

The entire time he listened to Howard calm his wife and make a single phone call.

“Carter,” a vaguely familiar voice said on the other side.

“Peg,” Howard greeted, “I need scene cleanup. Two and a half miles south of—”

“Howard,” Peg cut him off. “I don’t do that anymore. You know that.”

“I do, but I also know you still have contacts and I don’t know who I can trust. Peg, ple—”

“No, Howard. I am retired.”

“Yeah, well, I have a very Lernaean reason for you to reconsider.”

There was a moment of hard silence before the woman audibly gasped. “Howard—”

“This is not a secure line, Peg.”

“Right,” she sounded resolute and the Asset started moving baggage between cars. After making sure Howard had the serum case and would not let go of it, of course. “Where are you, exactly?”

“Crashed into one of the trees lining the back entrance to Seymour Farms,” Stark said with relief. “The security camera has been taken care of. There will be two bodies and a car for your people.”

“Very well, you have five minutes. Be gone before they get there.”

“You’re a doll, Peg.”

“I’m meeting you at your house, is what I am. And you better have answers for me, or so help me, Howard—”

“I will,” he promised with a rough laugh. “With visual aids, even.”

The Asset was standing outside the other man’s door when he hung up.

“Don’t forget the license plates,” Howie reminded jauntily.

The Asset almost rolled his eyes and tore the back one off of Howard’s car to take with them. “Can she walk?”

Howard walked around the car to converse with the woman in question and the Asset tore both license plates off the Handler’s car.

“Can you carry her?” Howard asked when he headed back over. “She’s not sure she can make it, and I don’t want her to see this, so she’s agreed to keep her eyes closed.”

The Asset nodded and Howard kept at his elbow as he got the tiny blonde woman out of his car. As they walked across the gravel, Howard pulled out his cellphone again and made a second call.

“Stark residence,” a man with a clean British accent answered. Must have been the butler.

“Yeah, Jarvis?” Definitely the butler. “I need the house under full lockdown. Make sure Tony’s safe and sweep the place for bugs, the whole nine yards.”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis agreed.

“And, Jarvis? My wife has had quite a trying evening. If Ana is willing to spend time with her until she goes to sleep? And a doctor might not go amiss. Dr. Jenkins, please.”

“I will discuss it with Ana and call Dr. Jenkins, sir.”

“Swell, Jarvis. Home in twenty.”

Once he set Mrs. Stark in the car, Howard helped her buckle up. “You know the way?”

He nodded. Then he shrugged. He could just take off the mask and talk but that felt unaccountably dangerous right now.

“Alright.” Howard nodded gruffly and slammed his car door. “Well, keep up.”

The Asset kicked his bike on, threw his own locator beacon to the side, and followed the Starks.

The mansion was just like he remembered from his subject observation both this time around and the last. Only, the lights were on. All of them, which was seriously out of character for this household at any time, much less at this time of night.

The Asset went through the gate first, because it was stupidly overgrown and the perfect spot for an ambush. They were going to have to trim a great deal of the property. Move several whole trees, too. Probably. There was way too much ground cover for any kind of real security to be kept on the property. Hydra had had him observe Stark for two weeks, and he got right up to the back porch on several occasions without ever being seen.

Granted, he was a cut above the standard Hydra goons. He’d received training and had combat experience on six different continents to get where he was. Not many people could claim such a thing but he’d still trained too many Hydra operatives to be remotely comfortable with trusting solely in his superiority for Stark Family security. He needed backup.

Or something.

When they pulled to a stop in front of the house there was already a car parked and waiting. A red sedan that was not on Hydra’s list of Stark possessions. Peg’s car, presumably.

The door burst open and Tony Stark rushed out of the house, young, clean shaven, and shockingly skinny. Wide-eyed with panic, he shouted, “Mom!” He evaded reaching hands to open his mother’s car door before she even released her safety belt.

“Tony.” She smiled gently at him, cupping his cheek. “Is everything okay? Did you have a bad dream?”

Tony tried to stifle a sob, “Mom, I—” and that’s when he clocked him. Something dark and furious passed over the man’s—the boy’s?—face. Something not that dissimilar to the last time the Asset saw him, when he was blowing off his metal arm while they were surrounded by the five defective Winter Soldiers. “What’s with the Russian Murderbot?”

“Russian?” Mrs. Stark asked faintly confused. The Cold War wasn’t that long dead yet, after all.

Howard raised an incredulous eyebrow at his son but the Asset only had focus enough for Tony. That woman, whoever she was, the one that sent him back. She’d said she was going to give him help. He’d assumed that help would be with his programming, but…what if it wasn’t?

Looking for orders, the Asset turned to Howard who jerked his chin toward the man still standing at the front door. “Cover Jarvis while he brings in our bags. Everyone else, inside.”

The Asset went to the motorcycle for a weapon. His hands shook as he reached into the saddlebags for a weapon. This was a definite violation of his standard operating procedure. Handlers chose and provided weaponry. Even if he was allowed to carry emergency caches and extra clips on his body, he was never allowed to touch them without express permission or else.

The kind of or else that was enough to make even the Winter Soldier’s hands shake.

Nonetheless, he pulled his favorite mini-Uzi out and kept watch.

Because those were his orders.

Jarvis loaded himself down enough to make him a liability in a fight but he got everything into the house in a single go which the Asset could appreciate. The less they were outside, the better. For all of them.

Tony was holding the door as the older man slid inside.

One look at his face and the Asset knew he was torn between slamming the door and locking him out or letting him in and demanding answers.

As soon as he was through the door, Tony slammed it and pushed him into an alcove.

What happened?” he hissed in Persian, which was a good bet to keep things private. Based on his career so far, Howard had no doubt focused on Russian, German, and other Northern European languages. The Middle East was a younger man’s game.

The Asset rolled his eyes at himself. Obviously, if Howard made Tony learn those local languages, he’d delegated those areas of business to his son.

“We died,” he pulled the mask off and answered in the same language. “Zemo divided us and then unleashed the copies. The Defective Soldiers.”

“I know that. I was there. How are we here?”

Oh. Right. “A woman offered to let me go back, I accepted.”

“She picked when or you picked when?” Tony glared at him as he thought, connections were sparking in his mind so bright that the Asset could see them flicker in his eyes.

“I picked when.”

That made the glare soften and slide sideways into confusion. “You could have picked anytime.”

“When my body was alive, yeah,” he interjected but Tony didn’t seem to hear him.

“You could have saved yourself. You could have saved Steve.”

That rocked him back on his heels. He hadn’t even thought of that. Jeeze, Steve threw away everything for him and he hadn’t even thought of Steve until Tony mentioned him.

Damn, he was a terrible friend.

“You could have saved so many people but you saved my mom. Why?”

“She said—” he huffed. “That’s what caused all this, your parents’ deaths. I can’t change how Steve handled it or how he theoretically would have handled it? Because time travel? But—”

“But you could stop it from happening,” Tony nodded. “You fucked up the timeline so much.”

“Life is about new experiences,” he tried. His smile felt both flat and foreign. “Isn’t it?”

Tony snorted. “If only Cap had trusted me—”

“Hey,” he interrupted. None of them needed to go down that road. “It was an asshole move, there’s no denying it, but you’ve never been a man out of time. Our circumstances were legitimately, utterly insane. It would be more surprising if we hadn’t gotten anything wrong.

“I don’t blame you for how you reacted. Losing my arm again sucked and dying wasn’t any better. But she’s your mom.”

Tony either didn’t hear him, or he heard way too much in what he said because he touched the Asset’s wrist, soft, glancing, and on the metal arm. Like he was trying to comfort him. Like they were friends or something.

For a moment, he swayed in, called by the warmth that was Tony Stark, but Stark leaned back against the wall behind him.

“Okay,” Tony clapped once and rubbed his hands together. “What’s the plan?”

“The plan?”

“You know, the plan! We’re a team now, Buckaroo, I need to know the plan.” Tony blinked, looked up directly, met his eyes, and blinked some more. “Did you…did you time travel without a fucking plan?”

“It’s not like I planned to time travel!” he hissed. “The plan was to save your parents. That was the plan.”

“Okay, well, you just lost Time Travel Team Planner privileges.”

“Thank Christ.”

Tony just snorted at him.

“We got problems, Shellhead.”

“Right. Hydra. I need JARVIS. I’m going to have to invent whole areas of technology. Media storage, telecom, robotics. Programing. Computing. Our world is about to get a rude awakening.”

“I don’t mean that.” Stark focused on him, must have been something in his tone. “This isn’t my final arm, the vibranium one. This one’s adamantium.”

The younger man looked suitably horrified. “Adamantium is even more toxic than palladium.”

“I know. I got damaged on my next mission—one that I’m obviously not going to do anymore—and I couldn’t heal right. My body couldn’t fight the adamantium poisoning and heal the damage at the same time. After they retrieved me, they had to replace the arm. Cut me up to the shoulder to do it.”

“You have more of your own flesh with this arm,” Tony realized. “I noticed it was bulkier. The pseudo-musculature shaped differently. This star has a little bit of gold around it and the other one didn’t.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how to get my hands on vibranium in this time. How did Hydra do it?”

“Pretty sure they bought it from Klaue.”

“Who won’t steal from them until, when? February? 1992, right?”

“End of January, I think? I read about Klaue’s bullshit in some files I stole back when I was running from, you know, everybody, but I’ve died since then.”

Tony snorted and shook his head but didn’t bother to look scandalized by him. “I can’t imagine the power source is worth a damn. What kind of functions you want on it?”

“I just need it to work. Like a hand. Preferably with the extra strength. I’m not like Stevie, I need the edge to keep up.”

“EMP-resistant would be best, yeah? Nat said her Widow’s Bites didn’t touch the other one which is frustrating and brilliant. What about a repulsor? Or magnets? I did a thing for Cap so he could call his shield, I could—?”

“Well, you two look cozy, don’t you?” a warm feminine voice teased. That was when the Asset realized how close they were standing. He was practically between Tony’s legs, hunched down like he was going in for a kiss. He stepped back and looked up to see Margaret “Peggy” Carter and Stark the Elder standing at the foot of the stairs watching them.

Howard looked like he was about to blow his top but Peggy gasped, “Bucky? You’re alive?”

“That would be my visual aide,” Howard drawled, stepping forward, his eyes still sharp. “In the study, both of you. Jarvis, if you would come as well?”

Howard stood behind his desk in his front, public office. Tony plopped down in one of the chairs, playing sullen and bored to the hilt, while Peg alit on the other, all business even as they edged in on midnight. The Asset propped up a wall so he could stare out the windows and keep watch. Jarvis leaned on the wall beside him, just out of arm’s reach, and helped him with this duty.

“Do you two know each other?” Howard hissed at his son.

Tony raised a bratty eyebrow. “I was trying to get details. It’s not like you to bring home strays, not even hot ones.”

“Hot ones? A Stark—!” Howard immediately raised his voice.

Tony flinched and the Asset couldn’t—physically could not—allow Howard to go any further. He grabbed the asshole by the neck and slammed him bodily into the wall beside the fireplace.

“Buck. What?” Howard choked.

“I don’t like bullies,” he snarled. “I don’t care who they are.”

Howard made a sound like he’d been stabbed, obviously recognizing the words, but they were the Asset’s long before Stevie adopted them.

“Can we stick to the point?” Peg asked, her voice shaking a little. Maybe she’d recognized the words, too. “Howard, earlier. You implied Hydra was back. Personally, I find that a more pressing concern than any interpersonal drama.”

The Asset continued to hold Howard against the wall until the other man nodded ever so slightly. Once he accepted the rebuke, the Asset set his ass down.

Howard straightened his suit. Then, on second thought, removed the jacket and took his seat. “Hydra sent Bucky to kill me and take the project I’ve been working on. They’ve apparently had him since he fell.”

“Is that right, Bucky?” she asked, pretty brown eyes wide.

“I don’t know when they found me. There are blanks. Lots of ‘em. But I remember being dragged through the snow. By a Soviet? I think. And a surgery to remove bits of my stump.” He waved the left hand for emphasis. “And I remember Dr. Zola? Did—Did we not catch him?”

“We did,” Peg confirmed, leaning forward. “Right after you fell.”

“Off the train?” he asked for confirmation.

She nodded. “Zola was a prisoner until the end of the war, then he came to work for SHIELD. The post-War SSR. He worked for us until he died.”

“He called me the new Fist of Hydra. When I woke up, with the—” He made a silver fist and Peggy frowned furiously.

“He was working for Hydra from inside SHIELD.” Howard leaned back, clearly thinking it through. “And the infection has spread. Only two men know what I’ve been working on. Alexander Pierce, who happens to be my first choice for the new Director of SHIELD when I officially retire, and my business partner, Obadiah Stane.”

The Asset would honestly prefer to just kill them both, for many reasons, but he could verbalize exactly none of that to anyone but Tony. Instead he asked, “Pictures?”

Howard turned and grabbed a picture frame off the mantle and handed him a picture of him and Obadiah looking young and happy. A smarmy asshole was probably a good thirty years younger than Stark.

The Asset shrugged. “He looks familiar but I don’t know him.”

“Like that’s reliable,” Tony muttered and Peg glared at him for it but he had a point.

Howard pulled out a personnel file and flipped it open. There was a full color photo paperclipped inside.

“Captain,” the Asset said fondly as he reached out to run a finger over the photo. “He asked me to help Karpov with this mission. But. Then. I don’t remember.”

“That is not your Captain, Bucky. That’s not Steve Rogers,” Peg said tightly and the Asset frowned at her. “That’s Alexander Pierce.”

“But—”

Howard interrupted them by pulling some pages out of the back of the file and revealing a candid of a younger Pierce, in an olive drab shirt with dog tags around his neck.

The resemblance to beefy Steve was mind boggling.

“Oh, god.” Peg sat back with a hand over her mouth. “How long has he been your handler?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Howard demanded.

“I don’t know,” he snapped back. “They— There’s— The Chair— And it—” And he couldn’t breathe.

The Chair. The fucking Chair. If they put him in it again, everything would be lost if—

“Hey. Hey hey hey.” When he looked up Tony was crouching above him. He— He was in the corner, on the floor. His back was to the wall. The others— “Nonono. Come on, big guy, focus on me. Just breathe, okay? No ch— The floor is fine for sitting, you know? Or beds. You can sit on beds. Lots of people sit on beds. Couches are easier to get out of in a hurry though. But not really, because squish,” and Tony kept babbling at him. Distracting but grounding. Light hearted, almost teasing. Undemanding.

Over the Tony babble, he could faintly hear Peg say, “I’ve seen that symbol, the one on his arm.” Pause. “When Dum Dum and I infiltrated the Red Room. It was the mark of a hero, they said. The Winter Soldier.”

“That’s a myth, Peg.”

“Eighteen confirmed assassinations,” she informed him. “A dozen possible family annihilations. ‘Nations fall before him,’ they said. None of the necessary skills are unbelievable of the Sergeant Barnes we both worked with. He was trained for several months by the SAS, you know. Before he hit the front lines. He survived a dozen things that should have killed him before he ever got captured. He was the ‘best damn sniper’ his instructor had even seen.”

“You know quite a bit about him,” Jarvis offered tentatively.

“The Howling Commandos served with my unit for almost two years,” she explained softly. “And I intended to marry his best friend.”

“You back with me, bud?” Tony asked, warm and close.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, I’m here.”

Tony grinned, bright and relieved, and popped to his feet. He held out a hand to help the Asset stand and for once in his damn life—that he was sure of, at least—he took it. He allowed someone help him rather than doing all the helping.

It felt…different.

“I’m going to need the Robotics Lab for a few days, dad. And I’m going to have some new prototypes for my production line.”

“You want to start a business?” Howard asked, eyebrows raised skeptically. “Now?”

“I was going to do it after I graduated in May anyway,” Tony dismissed with a handwave.  “What I have could help us track down Hydra but, mostly, I need the lab to make sure the arm isn’t booby trapped.”

“Booby trapped?” Peg asked cautiously.

“Well, yeah. I didn’t recognize him before with, ya know, the whole muzzle thing going on but there’s no possible way James Buchanan Barnes cooperated with Hydra. The ch—” Tony cut himself off with an apologetic glance the Asset’s way. “That thing that triggered him is probably some sort of control method. Mind control or a mind wipe. He’s probably been brainwashed and programmed. Or all of it. We should assume all of it, it’d be too dangerous not to.

“And if he’s enhanced—which he must be since he obviously survived falling off a train. In 1945, no less, but somehow doesn’t look that much older than me—they couldn’t count on his healing factor not fixing his brain or pushing chemicals out of his system.

“That leaves the arm for secondary control methods because his healing factor can’t affect the arm,” Tony shrugged.

“If it was me, I’d start with a remote detonator in it. A tracker, too. Maybe something to incapacitate him, electric shock or something.”

Howard was actually pale by the time Tony stopped extrapolating. After a moment’s thought, the man started nodding. “Very logical. Bucky, do you mind going with him now? I’ll finish briefing Peg and Jarvis and we can reconvene tomorrow.”

The Asset nodded and wordlessly moved to stand behind Tony.

“Tony, the access code is your mother’s birthday in eight digits, the title of the last book she read you, the second five Fibonacci numbers, the author of that book. All with no spaces and appropriate capitals.”

Tony nodded to his father and moved for the door.

“And Tony,” Howard called out and waited for him to look back. “Good thinking, son.”

 

Chapter Two

 

“Ugh,” Tony complained intelligently as he flopped into the same chair he had used the previous night. It was almost noon and he’d gotten a solid six hours but he still felt like he hadn’t slept in a lifetime.

Apparently, dying really took it out of you.

Or maybe that was the time travel.

Of course, because that was how life worked with super soldiers involved, he could see James outside on the front lawn kicking three guys’ asses with his metal arm quite literally tied to his chest. He was wearing his muzzle again but, as Tony watched, he pulled it off to instruct the other guys.

Tony couldn’t really articulate how, but he was sure the act of being able to choose to wear the muzzle or take it off was helping James heal.

Especially when the asshole somehow found enough of himself to smirk at Tony through the window before putting the damn thing back on.

“Long night?” his father asked, sounding cautiously amused.

“The arm is beautiful and brutal. Strangely eloquent, sheer genius. I hate admiring something made by Hydra. Even now it’s fifty years ahead of our current medical prosthesis. That they had it fifty years ago and chose to weaponize it, makes me hate them more.”

“So, take what you’ve learned and make something beautiful, for everyone.”

“That’s the plan.” Tony nodded his thanks as Jarvis appeared, dropped a plate heaping with breakfast food in front of him, and disappeared again.

“Got a name for your business?”

“Stark Solutions.”

Howard nodded. “I had Amy start the paperwork last night. That’s the last bit she needed.”

“Look, I’m just going to be honest, you’re being really supportive right now and it’s freaking me out.” Tony threw down the fork he had just barely picked up. “Are you dying?”

“No, no. I’m not dying.” Howard’s laugh sounded like it hurt. “After you two left last night, Peg and Jarvis told me exactly what they thought of my parenting technique. Between them and Bucky…” He sighed and ran a hand over his face.

“It’s nice having someone around that’s not afraid to stand up for me.”

Howard took the blow almost stoically. It didn’t actually make Tony feel any better. “What I had planned for you, Tony—It was selfish. Heartless. You’re not my accomplishment, you’re my son. And I’m sorry. I’m officially backing off. I don’t expect to be a perfect father but I’d like to learn to do better. You can even have Bucky punch me when I mess up.”

“I’ll have him use his flesh hand,” Tony conceded grudgingly. Not that that meant much when the guy could punch through cinder blocks even with the supposedly-weaker flesh hand but, whatever. “You are my father after all.”

“I appreciate it,” Howard quirked his lips into something that was almost a smile. “Talking about hands, was his arm booby trapped after all?”

“Oh, yeah. Detonator attached to the arm’s power source. I removed as much of the blasting cap as I could without damaging the integrity of the arm. Locator beacon. too. Simple one. No log, so I couldn’t see if it’s already been accessed. Couldn’t unplug it because it was all connected through the pseudo-nerves that run the arm.” Tony huffed. “His ring finger was the antenna, though, so I removed that completely.

“I need to make him a new finger so he’s not impeded by the loss—but, real talk, we need to get that arm off him. As soon as possible. It’s Adamantium, which I’m fairly sure is poisoning him. Can’t find any solid research on the matter, but from what I can see his skin around and under it is wrong. What does long term poisoning do to a super soldier? Is his healing compromised? His strength? His speed? Is it adding to his brain damage? It’s tied directly into his nervous system, for fuck’s sake.”

“I’m not a doctor,” Howard frowned, thinking furiously.

“Neither am I, but we need one. Quick. Maybe a dozen, I don’t know. I do know I want to put together a biochemistry team for Stark Solutions anyway. He’s agreed to let us look into what was done to him and see if we can use it to find cures for a bunch of stuff. He also said his mission was to retrieve super soldier serum, you figured out Erskine’s formula?”

His father nodded reluctantly. “All signs point to it being the same.”

“I need some. Or do you have some of Rogers’ blood left? I don’t think James has quite the same thing and we owe him the best life we can get him. For saving mom. And saving you.”

“You’ll get it because you’re right, we owe him. I can’t promise you the blood. Pretty sure Peg has a sample but she’s never confirmed or denied it for me.”

“I’ll talk to her,” he said, because Aunt Peg would want to help her Steve’s Bucky, he was sure of it.

“You got anyone in mind for this think tank of yours?”

“I’ve been reading theses for a few months now, but it’s more complicated than I expected.” He shook his head. “The most qualified person to run my bio lab is Betty Ross out of Culver U, but she’s the daughter of old Colonel Thunderbolt. His politics are a nightmare and they’re supposed to be really close. I can’t put her in charge of one of my labs.”

“What about her research partner? Can they ride herd on her?”

“I don’t know, I can look into it.” The idea of Bruce ‘riding herd’ on someone was as hilarious as it was horrible. His Bruce wouldn’t have stayed in a lab with more than one other person it in much less actually run a large think tank-type operation.

But this wasn’t his Bruce. Hulk wasn’t a thing and if he played his cards right, Hulk would never be a thing.

If Hulk never happened, this Bruce would never become Tony’s Bruce again but maybe he’d have a shot at traditional happiness. Marry Betty Ross. Have 2.5 children, buy a house, a dog, the whole nine yards. Bruce wanted that once upon a time and he deserved it in all timelines.

“What’s happening around here?” he finally asked.

“Bucky spent all night drawing up changes to our landscaping.” Howard flashed him a piece of paper. It looked like a map of the property in three different colors with x’s and arrows all around. “Peg confirmed his changes are good for security, so we’ll get it done.

“Jarvis is putting together a medical facility in the north wing. I’ve been talking to lawyers and doctors all morning.

“Peg’s recruiting men for our security team and sending them to Buck to go through the wringer. She brought six in three hours ago. One failed to meet Bucky’s standard and was sent off to a cushy job at SI HQ. One had a break with reality; we think he might have had an encounter with the Winter Soldier at some point but Bucky couldn’t remember. He’s been committed, we’ll take care of him for life. The third snarled at Buck in some language I didn’t recognize and swallowed a cyanide pill.”

“Hydra? A Hydra agent got this close?”

“Yeah, not thrilled. So now Peg is sticking to the minorities Hydra generally wants to kill. Gays, lesbians, people of color, mutants.”

“Lesbians?”

“Your mom needs guards too. It’s either that or I do something horrible, then send her away. Pretty sure someone in this house would stab me for even entertaining the thought of embarrassing her with a divorce. Possibly your mom.”

“I’m getting a guard?”

“You think Buck’s going to let anyone else do it?” There was something weird in his dad’s smile. Tony couldn’t really place it, but it made him edgy nonetheless.

“I think he’s decided I’m his mission leader,” he informed the man. “He had another panic attack last night when I tried to ask what all they did to him. You know, with the arm. My Russian isn’t good enough for out-of-your-mind babbling though, so I’m not sure.”

His dad sighed and put his head in his hands. “I know I’ve been an asshole in the past but it’s okay that you like men, you know? If he’s what you want—”

“Wow, you’re going all in on the good dad thing, aren’t you?”

“I’m a Stark,” Howard sniffed… playfully? Yeah, playfully. “We are the definition of ‘go big or go home.'”

“Go big, then go home,” he countered and smiled when his dad laughed.

“Alright, so. Security upgrades are first on our list. I need to brief the President that Hydra is back but I don’t want to do that until we’re more secure. Which, I hate to say it, includes securing Bucky so I’ve reached out to Charles. You know him, Charles Xavier?”

“The guy whose school you wanted to throw me away to?”

Howard had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah, him. He’s coming. He doesn’t know the full details of what I want, just that we have a brainwashed POW than needs his help, but he’s the most powerful telepath I’ve ever heard of. Pretty sure if anyone can find any programing Hydra hid in him and pull it out without, I don’t know, killing him, it’s Charles.”

“James agreed to that?”

“Not exactly,” Howard hedged.

Tony gave his dad the look that deserved.

“I get the feeling he doesn’t like or trust me,” Howard admitted. “I am not the person to discuss things that might upset him with him.”

Tony sighed heavily. “I’m so fucking tempted to tell you to grow a pair.”

“And you would have every right to, but this is your show. I saw you pull him out of a panic attack, looked to me like he handed you his leash. And you just said he sees you as his mission leader. If he’s really been who we think he is, he’s the best asset we have in the war on Hydra and he’s yours. That makes this mission yours.”

“I can’t clean up SHIELD and develop all the gear he’ll need and run Stark Solutions by myself,” Tony grumped. “Even I need to sleep.”

“We’ll all help you. Peg will work the SHIELD angle. I mean, technically I’m still Director because the President and I weren’t going to appoint my successor until the New Year. But I’ve made her Deputy Director in case something happens to me, so she’s your contact in SHIELD. I’ll play the politics and fill in where you need me.” His dad gave him something more closely related to a smile this time. “And I’m a pretty dab hand making gear too, you know.”

“Where did you get the Vibranium for Cap’s shield?” Tony asked suddenly. “I think it would be the best choice for James’ new arm, if you have any more. Or if we can get it—”

Howard sat back and was silent long enough to make Tony nervous. “It’s complicated. We might be able to get more, but—Let me get you what I have on Wakanda. Your eyes only Tony, I mean it. And I can’t do this with you. They’re very secretive, for very good reasons, so you’ll have to find something that will draw them out to treat with you and you’ll have to do it right. You’ll only get one shot at building a relationship with them. I can’t stress that enough.”

“Alright,” Tony shrugged. “What kind of timeline are we looking at for securing this place?”

“Two weeks, at least. Hydra has to know something’s wrong by now with Buck and his handlers never coming back. And they’ll figure out I’m alive soon enough. We need to get enough defense in place to make them pause before they come up with a counter move.”

“And Pierce?”

“Peg’s going to have Pierce arrested. Probably tonight. But, like I said, it’s her show. He’s going to be held on a black site assuming he doesn’t pop a cyanide pill. We’ll question him, learn what we can, then execute him for treason.”

“And Obie?”

“Obie,” Howard sighed. “He’s been my business partner for years, Tony, and Chief Operations Officer of Stark Industries almost as long as you’ve been alive. He can’t be involved with this, I trust him.”

“I don’t,” he said flatly, feeling cold down to his toes. “I never have. He’s an asshole and I feel dirty just being in the same room with him. I’d bet my right hand he’s dirty dealing under the table. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was with Hydra, either.”

Howard blinked at him for several moments. “Then I’ll have him audited. If he’s dirty, we’ll put him in jail. The media circus might actually help your mission. But if he’s not—”

“Then I don’t care, just keep him the hell away from me.” Maybe the man hadn’t—technically—betrayed him yet, but the wound still stung. And if he’d been invested in his own gain enough to have Tony killed, who’s to say he hadn’t practiced that maneuver on Howard first?

“I’ll do that.”

“I’ll see what James is up to and how I can help,” Tony stood.

“Why do you keep calling him James?” Howard finally asked, looking frustrated.

“He’s not Bucky anymore. He’s not the man you remember, there’s too much Winter Soldier in him for that to be true, but he’s not really the Winter Soldier anymore. And he doesn’t want to be just the Winter Soldier, either. Legally speaking, his name is James. Beyond that, he has the right to figure out what nickname he wants for himself, doesn’t he?”

“Take your plate,” his dad ordered rather than responding, “so Jarvis knows you ate.”

With a nod, he picked it up and headed for the kitchen. When he got there, James was standing with the three guys from before around Jarvis’s big butcher block, eating sandwiches heaped with vegetables.

“Hey, Tony,” James greeted him with something like a smile on his face. “Wanna meet the first three of the Security Team?”

When Tony nodded, James gestured to the man on his right. “Duke, my second, for now,” was a big rough-looking man, who sort of looked like a cowboy without a hat; “Jamil or Jamz,” was a man with long dreads and what Tony was pretty confident were gun calluses on both of his hands; “And Morales,” was a man shorter than Tony and prettier but even broader in the shoulders than James.

“Guys, this is Tony, our primary objective.”

Tony shot James a look. James just looked back, apologetic but resolute. “Primary objective?”

“Maintain security of Tony, Maria, then Howard Stark,” Duke answered. Then, before he could respond, the man asked, “Hey, you made Sarge’s arm?”

“Not this one, but I’m making the next one,” Tony ground out because, asshole or not, he had made the man a promise.

“Can you do legs? I got a friend. Best damn fighter I ever seen but he’s missing a leg.”

“We could add him to the Team,” James offered in a tone that sounded like he was about to start bargaining.

“I’m not going to indenture a man to me for a leg,” Tony scoffed. “He’ll test a prototype for me and he’ll be paid for it.”

“Once the prototype passes?” James asked.

Tony shrugged. “What he does with his life is his business. But it’s going to be a bit before we get to legs. I haven’t even put my team together. My business needs off the ground and human experimentation requires all kinds of legal paperwork. Licenses and stuff. So, it won’t be soon. Maybe a year? Maybe less. My assistant will get his information from you. When, you know, I have an assistant.”

“What else are you thinking besides legs?” Morales asked, actually looking interested.

“Once we figure out the nerve interface in, uh, Sarge’s arm, the sky’s the limit. Arms and legs. Hands and feet, obviously. Eyes. Lungs. Spinal cords. Maybe one day hearts and kidneys.”

“That’s really cool,” the man grinned, looking like a little boy.

“Yeah, my dad’s business is all about weapons and war but I don’t want to be that. I’m more concerned about what happens after the war, to veterans. To the injured ones, the traumatized ones. Health care, employment, housing, all that jazz.

“I’m worried about the infrastructure of home. The people out there fighting deserve something worth fighting for. Clean air, beautiful cities, futures for their children.”

All three of the men were looking at him in a way Tony couldn’t really describe. Maybe it was awe? Or gratitude? He didn’t know, but it made him feel like a total shit for not thinking like this before. For not thinking of this for real rather than primarily as a cover. As something to drastically separate himself from his father’s legacy and SHIELD.

James cleared his throat and all three immediately turned back to their sandwiches. “Can we talk alone, Tony?”

“Yeah, sure.” He stood and allowed James to lead him into the mud room between the kitchen and the out of doors.

“Look, I know you want your mom first on the list but I can’t do that.”

He took a deep breath and forced himself to take a step back emotionally and think. “Because you need me to take down Hydra.”

“Yeah, and I’m sorry but it’s not just about what we want. There’s something coming, Tones. She wouldn’t tell me what it was but the Avengers as they were even when they were all together was not enough to take it down. She made that clear. We need the world to be ready. For whatever it is.”

“So, there’s a longer game in play,” Tony nodded. “Hydra’s the short game, that makes sense. But they’re still a problem. You up for a mission?”

James just raised an eyebrow and nodded.

“Can you sneak into Camp Lehigh without Hydra or anyone else knowing?”

“Of course. Whatcha thinkin’?”

“Dad had a point. Hydra has to know something’s up since you didn’t come home. Aunt Peg is supposed to arrest Peirce tonight so that’s the most visible head of Hydra gone. But Zola would have more information. Information we can access without risk of him offing himself, if we do it right.”

“And that takes out another head,” James nodded.

“Right. If they have more than two on the East Coast, I’ll be shocked—”

“Three. But Karpov’s dead and Siberia was his territory anyway.”

“That’s a third of the usual nine heads gone in two days, if we do this right. If I can get what you’ll need finished by tonight.”

James clasped his shoulder all comradely and shit. “Sounds like you need to go to the lab. I’ll bring you food in three hours?”

It was tempting to argue, but, “Make it four, that breakfast was huge.”

James laughed and shook his head, “Get outta here.”

-*-

The next time he saw James it was after the door of his misappropriated lab hissed open. The man was holding a tray with two large bowls of Jarvis’s Creamy Beef and Gnocchi with an entire loaf of the bread that Ana baked—normally on weekends, only—balanced between them on the rims. It was pure comfort food; the kind Tony hadn’t had in over twenty years.

“What’s up, buttercup?”

“I’m late,” James admitted, looking faintly chagrined as he set the tray down. “Didn’t think you’d mind waiting fifteen minutes for fresh bread though.”

“Are you kidding? Ana’s bread is the best! I’ve never been able to get a whole loaf out of her.”

“Well, it’s for both of us so don’t go too crazy, thinkin’ in that big brain of yours.”

“I’ll try to refrain,” he agreed as he pulled a bowl off the tray.

“Jarvis said root beer’s your favorite.” James pulled two glass bottles each of cream soda and root beer from his pockets. Tony had never seen the point of cargo pants before but suddenly he was seeing the light.

“For non-alcoholic stuff, yeah. Right up there with coffee,” he agreed as he studied the man indirectly. There was something weird here. “Seriously, what’s going on?”

“Duke and Morales are down for six before night shift starts. Carter brought in another six guys. None of ’em smell like Hydra this time. Jamz and the Jarvises are putting them through their paces out on the lawn right now.”

Tony grinned at James’s incredulity. “I forgot about that. They both picked up a lot of skills when Jarvis—Edwin, I mean—started going on missions with Aunt Peg.”

“They looked like they needed something to take the edge off,” James shrugged. “I guess the tense atmosphere isn’t just me.”

Tony shook his head wordlessly and dragged some bread through the cream sauce. It was messy and amazing and he hadn’t ever been able to get it right himself. He sighed in contentment and James smirked at him before copying his maneuver.

He was halfway through the bowl of pure concentrated perfection when James finally asked, “My mission?”

“Stuff’s ready,” Tony said around a mouthful. “You’ll need to be careful with it. I had to hand fabricate it all, so it’s more delicate that I would like for mission gear. Bigger too.” He gestured to his right. “The thing that looks like a suitcase handle on steroids is the GNAW. You’ll need to get as close as you can to Zola’s bunker, find the communication lines. Phone lines. He’ll have them because he’s pretty useless to Hydra without them but they may be underground or hidden. Even if they are, there will be maintenance access so they can fix or eventually upgrade him. Place GNAW on the line and wait a good five seconds.

“After five seconds, you’ll attach RAIDEN, he’s the big one with the lights. I designed him after Steve told me about Zola because there was no way that asshole let himself get blown up—not even for a shot at Captain America—and I wanted to be ready when he came back.

“The red light will come on and stay on while he’s working. When the light goes yellow, attach the Nautilus. That’s the other one, obviously. She’s a frankly gross iteration of what I used to hack SHIELD way back when Loki was our biggest problem and she deserves better than her current form but she’ll harvest everything Zola has to offer, on every level, and serve it up to us on a silver platter.”

James picked up GNAW and turned it over in his hands. “Does it matter which prong I connect which device to?”

“Nope. Though I would recommend taking your surroundings into account and placing it all somewhere you don’t have to hold it the entire time. You’re going to have to guard them and make it out with at least RAIDEN and the Nautilus in something close to their current condition. Though I would greatly prefer Hydra not get their hands on GNAW either.”

“Where’s JARVIS in all this?” he asked as he opened his second Cream Soda.

Cream Soda. Tony wasn’t sure he could take a supposed master assassin that chose Cream Soda over Root Beer very seriously.

“Thanks to dad, Stark Industries is running physical fabrication for me. His first servers should be ready in seventy-two hours. I’m writing the code. If it takes me less than a week, I’ll be shocked.”

“You have to come up with that much?”

Tony scoffed. “I have J’s code memorized, he’s just complicated. Lots of code. And I can’t let anyone else do it.”

“Why not?”

“J’s written in a unique programming language that was never used again. I’m the only one that knows it. It’s a security feature.”

“What about the other one? You had a girl one in the bunker, right?”

“Yup. Unique. FRIDAY had a similar base to the language I used for my bots but was wildly different from J.”

“Where are the bots?”

“You know about them?” Tony blinked in surprise.

James shrugged. “I read about you. In a magazine, while I was running. I wanted to know Stevie’s allies.”

“DUM-E is in the corner, charging,” he said, trying and failing to process that confession. “I’ll need to upgrade the charging station soon so he doesn’t have to shut down to do it but I don’t have the tech or the time right now. U didn’t want to come home for Christmas, stayed with my suite mate. I think she’s got a crush on my neighbor.”

James nodded and Tony couldn’t help but wonder why he was asking. There was no way he was legitimately interested in Tony’s AIs and bots.

“Will they be safe from Zola?” James finally asked. “Once we bring him here?”

Ah, security concerns. “Zola won’t be a threat to anyone once RAIDEN is through with him.”

“You see, they said that about us capturing him on the train, too.” James’s smile was so wry it was actually painful.

“Right, well, with GNAW connected the only place for Zola to possibly escape to is into RAIDEN and RAIDEN was made to destroy him. But I can come up with additional security measures for the Avengers Network just for you, if you want. An AI to patrol and keep Zola or anyone else out. A guard dog. I’ll name it SPOT or something.”

“Always wanted a dog,” James agreed easily. He looked up at Tony, eyed him for a second and asked, “If you could remake JARVIS all this time, why did you switch to the girl one?”

Tony blew out a breath. That was actually a rather personal question but James didn’t know that.

“At first, there wasn’t any time,” he told him. “We had to roll out to Sokovia. Save the Widow, save the world kind of deal. Then, I didn’t understand what Vision was. By the time I realized he was less JARVIS in a body and more JARVIS and Ultron’s son, we were blowing the shit out of a German airport. By then, it felt like this weird betrayal of FRIDAY and JARVIS and Vision to remake him and I…” Tony shook his head.

“But none of them exist yet. If I want them around, I have to bring them all back so I might as well start with JARVIS.”

James, for his part, didn’t push. “What’s the third light for?” he nodded to RAIDEN.

“Green means he’s done and it’s time to go. Grab it all and take off.”

“How long should it take?”

Tony shook his head. “Steve couldn’t give me an estimate of his size and with current data transfer rates? I hope it doesn’t take an hour but I wouldn’t be surprised. If it takes less than that, something probably went wrong and you need to bail hard.”

“Even if I have to leave these guys behind?”

“That’s what the little ripcords on their backs are for. Nothing’s worth you being back in Hydra’s hands again. Just pull the cords and run. Or you can use them as IEDs. Fuse is short as I could make it though, so be careful.”

“I can do this, Tony.”

“I know you can. No one else, in fact, can, though. So, it’s not like we have much choice.”

“Morales could probably do it,” James said. “But I’d have to spend at least a good two months getting him ready.”

“And we don’t have that kind of time ” Tony agreed.

James stood and started collecting their dishes. “Get your laptop and come back up with me. You can program in the kitchen, can’t you? Jarvis said something about Apple Turnovers if I could get you out of the lab.”

Tony whined and groaned about it because why had this super soldier bastard let him eat so much if there were Apple Turnovers on the line? But still. Tony grabbed his laptop and its power cable and followed him up.

The kitchen was fuller than he’d ever seen it, even on a holiday. Ana and Jarvis were doing their Merry Kitchen Dance as they prepared food for everyone. His dad was at the informal dining table with his own bowl of Gnocchi and only a third of a loaf at his elbow. Tony tried not to gloat about his father’s lack of high-carb luck like the petty asshole he could be. Jamz and six guys Tony had never met surrounded him.

“How many guys you think we’re going to need?” he asked James once he’d been introduced.

“For twenty-four-hour coverage of a property this size? And a travel team for each Stark? The forty we were planning for might not be enough.”

Tony gaped. “How are we going to house that many?”

“I was thinking about buying the Stone Property next door,” his dad announced and then focused on James. “We can pull out the dividing fence, extend our perimeter. It’ll double the amount of land but could house a hundred, if they double up. The bottom two levels are all garage and there’s one hell of a driving course which might be useful for training.”

Interest sparked in James’s eyes. “We’d still need to house the property team over here but it would be better to do that on a rotational basis so that sounds good. Is there room for secondary Medical? What about a gym or an obstacle course? On site mechanics for all the cars? Can we tour it?”

“Yeah, whatever we need,” Dad nodded. “You could probably sneak over now but I’ll put in a call. We’ll officially tour it tomorrow.”

-*-

It was just before midnight when he boarded a train from New Jersey to Tennessee. He took a car, a bus, and hiked to make sure there was no trail connecting him to the Starks.

Now, the train to Tennessee was supposed to give any of his so-far-theoretical watchers the impression he was headed to Rendezvous Sigma but less than ten minutes after the conductor punched his ticket, he was off the train. By his figuring, he was about a fifteen-minute march from Camp Lehigh.

Finding Zola’s building wasn’t hard, even in the dark. First, because it stood out like a sore thumb to anyone that knew a damn thing about Army regs.

Second, because he’d been there before.

Not in this time but he was sent from here for… something. A while ago.

Regardless.

He circled the building twice before he found a hatch labeled “Utilities – Communication” and down he went. The tunnel was dusty with half the amount of lighting it should really have for safety purposes but it was empty save for a metric ton of wires and smaller pipes.

At the end just before the foundation of Zola’s building, there was a set of wires labeled with Zola’s building number but there was no way Hydra would make it that easy. Two bunches of wires and a pipe away from there, he found a pipe labeled ‘water’ with a cleverly hidden side panel that was by no stretch of the imagination water tight.

With a snort, James checked the panel for sensors or traps and when he found none, he opened it. Inside was a cluster of three wires.

He pulled the GNAW from his pocket and let it grip the bundle. He counted out five seconds, as instructed, and attached RAIDEN. The thing hummed and then settled in to work.

James kept half an eye on it as he turned to focus back the way he came.

The damn tunnel was too quiet, there wasn’t even a breeze. It was making the hairs on the back of his neck stand at full attention.

Of course, part of that could be the haircut Mrs. Stark had given him. He’d worn it long for so many years that taking back The Bucky Barnes Look™ was legitimately foreign to him, even if it did make sense for the long-term strategy the Starks were discussing.

Still, he wouldn’t have done it if Tony hadn’t agreed with his mom’s suggestion.

God, he had become such a sucker for that kid. And it had barely been two goddamn days.

After what felt like a year, but both his internal sense and the watch on his wrist claimed to be just an hour and a half, RAIDEN’s yellow light came on and he attached the Nautilus. Another half hour and he got the green light. He put his knife away to gather up Tony’s three little friends but kept his gun in hand.

He made it out of the base without having to kill anyone, or even hit anyone, and he was very confused.

This was not how his plans had ever gone. This was not how Stevie’s plans had ever gone. Hell, he’d seen firsthand that this was not how two generations of Stark plans had ever gone. Either he’d missed Zola in his entirety or his little mechanic-goddess-girl was still helping him out.

He honestly couldn’t say which one he preferred.

He made his way to Trenton, New Jersey, where he found the YMCA Tony told him to look for. In the back, he found a shower stall with a three-piece suit waiting for him on the hook, as promised. There was a hat, too—a fedora—and James had to roll his eyes.

He showered, changed, and let himself disappear into morning rush hour.

When his second taxi pulled up to the Stark Estate, Jamz and one of the guys from the second wave, Bogart, were standing armed on either side of where the construction guys were putting up the small guard houses he’d asked for and Howard had designed.

“You clean up nice, Sarge,” Jamz crooned as he stepped forward to pay the driver. He threw too much money at the man and told him to scram.

Once the taxi was gone, he and Jamz stepped around and to one side of the construction workers. Bogart moved up to take Jamz position without having to be told, proving Carter did, in fact, know how to pick ‘em.

He tilted his hat back on his head and asked, “Status?”

“Carter showed up with two more sets of six. One at dawn, one an hour ago. Morales and Rooster are running them through the paces now. None of ‘em allowed in the house, as ordered. None of ‘em got the bubble mouth yet but they haven’t met you neither.” Jamz shrugged. “Stark Senior has an opening to view the Beta Site between 1400 and 1600. He’s waiting on word from you.

“Stark Junior is back in his lab. We made sure he had breakfast before going and Duke took him lunch before he went down for six, but he said to get him up if you need him.”

“Young’ns, you don’t understand the value of sleep,” he sighed and shook his head ruefully, making Jamz grin. “Alright. I’ll talk to Senior and stomp some new mudholes. You good here?”

Jamz nodded, “Got another three, then I’ll come help.”

They fist bumped and he took off for the house, nodding at Bogart—and his damn fedora—on the way. Bogart just grinned and tipped the stupid thing at him. To rub it in that they matched, probably.

He found Tony first.

“Well, look at you!” Tony grinned when he opened the lab door. “Lose the overcoat and give us a spin.”

He was just sleep deprived enough to not feel weird about playing along. And he was glad he did once he got a good look at the flush on Tony’s face and the shine in his eyes that said he could have whatever he wanted from Tony for at least one night.

He wanted more than one night, though, so he just winked and set down his overly large suitcase.

“All three of your friends—” he said as he popped open the case and turned it to Tony with a bit of a flourish, “—are present and accounted for.”

“Yay!” Tony raised the roof. “Any resistance?”

“Didn’t see a single soul.”

Tony tilted his head like a confused little puppy, complete with big brown eyes. “Well, I guess that makes sense. The facility is officially abandoned and Zola’s greatest defense was remaining secret.”

“There was a bit of misdirection going on too,” he told the other man. “But I think I got it all.”

“Alright.” He frowned down at the Nautilus. He must have been really tired because he actually said out loud, “I think I need an assistant.”

“Got anyone in mind?”

“I said that out loud,” Tony realized but continued before he could comment. “Two, actually. But I’m not sure how to get Phil Coulson or Pepper Potts on my payroll without answering a lot of questions I rather want to avoid.”

“Potts was your CEO.”

“Right. She was my PA first, though, so I know she could do it. And Coulson was a SHIELD Agent that got killed by Loki. Great guy. Dependable. Bit OCD but that’s probably a good thing, really. Scary, not ruffled by anything. Huge Cap fanboy so, definitely not Hydra.”

“Carter should still be up with Howard. I’ll see if I can pitch it her way?”

“Uh,” Tony squinted at him. “If you wanna give it a go, I promise I won’t be mad.”

“You gonna come check out the Beta Site with us?”

“Beta—The Stone Estate? Do I have to?”

“Are you going to want to trick it out with gadgets and gizmos?” James asked, both eyebrows raised.

“Probably.”

“Then, yes. You have to.”

“Fine,” Tony sighed gustily, but James could see the tiny smile the guy was hiding.

“I’ll come get you at 1430,” he slid out before Tony could object and made his way up the stairs to Howard’s private office.

He knocked and entered when he heard Howard’s, “Come in.”

Carter blinked at him a few times before she smiled. “So that’s what Tony wanted an emergency suit for. Looking good, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Thanks,” he gave her the same little spin he gave Tony, making her laugh. “Hey, do you think you can get Tony an assistant? He was starting to look a little overwhelmed when I left him.”

Carter and Howard both watched him silently for several heartbeats. Howard cleared his throat. The two exchanged a look and very carefully didn’t ask.

“Requirements?” she asked.

“Well, if he—or she, don’t care—is going to be working close with Tony we need to be sure they’re not Hydra. Like super dedicated Captain America fan level, not Hydra. Gotta be good with computers, obviously. Or at least trainable. And he’s gotta be able to take crazy, because that’s going to be Tony’s life for the foreseeable future. Hand-to-hand combat experience would be great. That way I can sneak another guard close to Tony without him knowing.”

“I think I know just the man, actually,” Carter said, amused. “I’ll have to see if I can steal him from SHIELD.” Then she tilted her head. “SHIELD was handling long range security for the Starks. Would you like me to see if any of that team would like to join us permanently?”

He shook his head. “Can’t say I do. I never encountered them once. Not even when I was basically stalking Howard for two weeks with intent to murder. Not when I drove the Starks off the road, either. I’m not impressed.”

Carter frowned but nodded, obviously filing that away for later. He would have said she was mentally preparing another line of investigation since he had to guess.

“You think you can stick around until after lunch?” he asked her. “In case any of the dozen you brought need to go back with you.”

“Of course,” she raised an eyebrow at him. “I do love having lunch with Jarvis.”

He smirked and nodded and stood to leave.

“What time did you want to go see the Stone House?” Howard asked before he got very far.

“1500? I told Tony I’d retrieve him at 1430.”

“I’ll make it happen,” Howard agreed and James scampered to his room to change.

He really didn’t want to think about why there was a bedroom full of beefy Steve-sized clothing in a house Howard hadn’t even owned until well after the end of the War but, well. The clothes fit him too, which had saved all of them quite a bit of pain so far.

Still. Stevie’s pants didn’t have enough thigh room for him, he was going to need some of his own.

Tony would probably be willing to help.

If he had the time. James rolled his eyes at himself as he slid into some oversized workout pants and an undersized t-shirt.

By the time he made it back down to his guys, they were all sitting on the lawn eating sandwiches. He snatched his own off the tray and sat in a chair on the porch rather than in their midst. He was the boss now rather than everyone’s favorite Sergeant and he had to act like it.

“Men,” Morales stood to address them and waved toward him. “This is Sarge. He’s Head of Stark Family Security. You don’t get into the house without his approval so play nice and introduce yourselves.”

Before they even started talking there were two that he mentally marked as trouble. Not Hydra trouble but something. Maybe industrial espionage? When dealing with the Starks not everything is good guys versus Nazis, he reminded himself. They had huge personal wealth, a multi-billion-dollar business that focused largely on advanced weapons manufacture, and intimate connections with governments around the world. Any of that was fit to draw both ire and envy.

Nothing in their introductions made him wonder if he was wrong. He took the less obvious one as his first sparring partner and the more obvious one as his fourth.

There was a dame that was part of the day’s first group, something no one had mentioned, but she was the biggest threat of the lot. Really fun to fight, too. Some sort of Kung Fu master or something with great instincts and a poker face that might as well be carved from stone. Melinda May was her name and she was his new favorite.

Duke’s going to be heartbroken, he thought with a grin.

By the time he’d evaluated them all individually and was giving them a break before team drills against him, Carter stepped out on the back porch. He made his way up to her and leaned in, the picture of easy familiarity. She leaned in to him as well, helping with the projected image of intimate friends.

“Rico and Jackson,” he said softly.

She laughed lightly and placed a hand on his arm. “Emerson, as well.”

“He’s not a spy,” he countered.

“No but he refused to engage properly and something about his style screams unreliable to me. That’s a man that will sell out the Starks for a pancake.”

“How do you wanna play this?”

“I’m an old woman, you know,” she said at a more normal volume, “I can’t carry all those things myself.”

“I’ll get you some help,” he promised and turned to the group. “Rico, Emerson, Jackson,” all three pop up to attention. “Help a kind old lady cross the street.”

 

Chapter Three

 

“When is the last time James slept?”

Tony barely managed to keep his coffee behind his teeth as Aunt Peg slammed into the kitchen.

“What are you doing here?” He asked intelligently and got a judgety eyebrow in return.

“I brought your personal assistant by for James to interview, of course.”

“Why is James interviewing my personal assistant?”

“Because no one gets in this house until he’s kicked their arse at least twice,” Jarvis informed him breezily as he dropped a plate with fresh cinnamon rolls in front of him. A second one was placed in what was quickly becoming Aunt Peg’s spot. “I must say, he’s holding his own better than some of the Security Personnel.”

With a frown, Tony leaned to look out the backdoor, and sure enough, there he was. Agent Coulson was going hand to hand with the Winter Soldier. He was young, easily under thirty, and the suit he was in was cheaper than the Agent he knew would have tolerated, but that was undeniably him. Holy shit.

“Where’d you dig him up?”

“He interviewed for a position in the SHIELD Academy’s next training class, but was rejected for his prosthesis. He’s missing his left leg to just short of the knee.”

“You’d never know it, looking at him,” Tony mused, and wondered if his Coulson had somehow gotten into SHIELD even with the prosthesis or if time really was wibbly wobbly and this was an unexpected result of the changes he and James had made so far.

He could see how Coulson getting into SHIELD with a prosthesis could have worked out in their timeline, though. The January 1992 class had been the largest in SHIELD Academy’s history. Likely, now that he thought about it, in response to the perceived crisis caused by his father’s unexpected death. A veritable wave of Hydra had gotten in the door in that class, including Garrett, Ward, and Sitwell. It would not have been a surprise if a technically-disqualified amputee had made it in as well.

Then, by the time they realized their mistake, Coulson would have already proven himself as an Agent and they’d have had no real choice but to give him an exception.

James saving his dad had probably ruined Coulson’s career.

But it had also saved his mom and stymied Hydra to an as-yet untold degree, so Tony couldn’t find it in himself to be upset about it.

“He was Army Special Forces before he lost the leg,” she explained, tugging on one of her rolls to unwrap it a bit. “Unflappable, takes initiative, and smart. He might not be as technologically advanced as you would prefer but he’s a fast learner and has a history of performing well in crisis.”

“Not a Nazi?”

“Not a Nazi,” she promised. They watched together through the back door and James took Coulson down. While he was down, Coulson used his prosthesis to take James down too. “I’m serious, though. Xavier will be here at two and I’m not bringing any new men ’round today. Make James sleep. Before your boyfriend gets himself killed.”

This time, the coffee made it past his teeth.

-*-

“Sir,” Coulson’s voice broke him out of his programming fugue state. “If you are attending Sergeant Barnes’ two o’clock, you’ll need to head up soon.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” He glanced over to where Coulson was sitting at a non-networked desktop, working his way through the Nautilus’s goodies. “Find anything?”

The ever-so-slightly older man—technically—turned to face him directly, and after a pause said, “Sergeant Barnes is undoubtedly the strongest man I’ve ever met.”

“Say, what?” Because hello, non-sequitur.

“They kept him on ice for five years while Dr. Zola created his first arm. They shipped him to the US for implantation and further experimentation on his enhancement. Then they shipped him back to Russia for conditioning. It took them almost another five years to break and train him. And that’s with regular mind wipes in the last two.”

Tony could feel his jaw hanging open and couldn’t do anything about it. “That’s all there?”

“Yes, sir. Zola took a very intense personal interest in the progress of Hydra’s New Fist. He wanted ‘it’ to be perfect and was quite unhinged about the entire thing. Saw Sergeant Barnes’ survival as providence. That he was fated to be the new Red Skull.”

“James would never—” He couldn’t even say it, the very thought was disgusting.

“I agree, sir.” And that was a look Tony had never seen on Agent’s face before. If he had to name it, he would say it was something between heartbreak, disgust, and determination to finish. “Am I allowed to remain in the lab while you’re gone?”

“Uh, no, actually,” Tony shrugged but didn’t bother to look apologetic. “Maybe later when we know each other better, but right now it’s above your clearance. Go get some food, then go back mom up. She’s going to be in the southern library with Vincenzo and the first five security guys. She’ll be glad to have you.”

“Vincenzo?”

“Tailor. Not everything is Tactical Gear Chic, you know. Especially not for mom’s security team with all the balls and the charities and stuff.”

“Of course, sir,” Coulson agreed as he led the way out the door.

“Stop calling me ‘sir’. Sir’s my dad! I’m not that old.”

“Of course, sir.” Phil repeated and looked over his shoulder just enough for Tony to see the amused twinkle in his eye.

Tony shook a finger at him and moved between him and the keypad to lockdown the secure area so James wouldn’t kick a fuss.

By the time they made it to the kitchen, James was there scarfing down one of the super soldier-sized sandwiches Jarvis had taken to making for lunch. Tuna fish salad this time, based on what Tony could see as he snatched a cheesy poof off the other man’s plate.

James growled at him playfully around his mouthful but there was a smile barely distinguishable between his squirrel cheeks so Tony wasn’t worried.

“Concerns?” Coulson asked as he pulled up a bit of butcher block next to Tony and waited for his sandwich.

James shook his head and swallowed, “Our visitors have arrived. They agreed to submit to security protocols and car’s being scanned now. Professor brought two guests.”

“Names?” Tony asked curiously.

“Erik Lehnsherr and Logan, not sure if that’s a first name or last name.”

Ah, the Wolverine. That would be fun for the metal detectors, Tony couldn’t help but smirk. Still, he could see the Professor’s logic behind the picks, a Holocaust survivor and another amnesiac—who was probably also a World War II veteran. Similar enough to hopefully put James at ease or possibly even help with the job they were here for while still being fully capable of maintaining Xavier’s security.

He glanced over at James to find him tense and eating more slowly than normal. James always ate like it was a race, whether that was the Army, Hydra, or growing up in the Great Depression, Tony didn’t know but the change of pace was a definite sign of nerves. Since he couldn’t exactly tell James what he knew in their current company, he reached over and put a hand on the man’s arm to put him at ease.

“Relax. Dad and Xavier have been friends for years. If there’s anyone that can break your conditioning, it’s him.”

James gave him a wry smile. “Not really looking forward to someone messing around in my head again. Don’t matter who they are. But it’s his company that I’m more concerned about. Even Hydra knew about Professor X and his merry band of mutant heroes.

“Erik Lehnsherr is the mutant they call Magneto. Because he controls metal,” James pointedly looked down at his metal arm and then back up at Tony. “The other one, I’m pretty sure they call him Wolverine but my memories are all jumbled. If I’m right, he might actually be a better fighter than I am and he’s got surgically implanted knives up his sleeves.”

Oh, well. When put that way. “Then it’s a good thing you have a scarily pretty army just a shout away.”

“They aren’t an army,” James scoffed. Then he grinned, all shy and quicksilver. “We’re a strike force, at best. But we could absolutely topple a few nations, if you need us to.”

Tony choked on a laugh and swallowed it back but then Jarvis, of all people, started snickering. Coulson joined in pretty quickly and by that point it was a lost cause. They all laughed until Tony and James were leaning on each other for support and Phil was holding himself up with a death grip on Jarvis’s butcher block.

That was, of course, how his mother found them.

She just shook her head at them and cupped his jaw as he wiped away tears. “Your father wants you in the front study as soon as possible.”

“Okay, yeah,” he hiccupped. “We can do that.”

She nodded and stepped back with her usual poise. “I understand, Mr. Coulson, that you are with me this afternoon?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He glanced at Tony and only left his post once he got a permissive nod.

“Don’t forget your sandwich, dear. You can eat in my library, and Vincenzo will need to get through at least Mr. Duke before he gets to you.”

“Before he gets to me, ma’am?” he asked even as he returned for his food.

“Well, of course! One of you needs to look like a professional, and I promise you it won’t be my son.” His mother shook her head, playfully mourning. “This is your burden to bear, I’m afraid. Being the personal assistant of an eccentric genius.”

The door swung closed behind them, and Tony started giggling again. “God, I love that woman.”

“She’s something else,” James agreed. “I’m glad I didn’t—” and he stopped there for which Tony was unspeakable grateful.

When he looked up, James’s eyes were right there and—

Jarvis cleared his throat.

“We should go,” James said hastily as he stepped back, quickly but not far enough that he made Tony fall. “We don’t want to keep our guests waiting.”

“Right. Right. Psychic. Public study. Let’s go.”

They made it to the study to find only Aunt Peg and Dad there.

Moments later, there was a knock on the door and Bogart held it as three men walked in. Well, two were actually walking. Charles Xavier rolled along in an actual wheelchair, not the hoverchair Tony remembered him having. He wasn’t bald like Tony remembered him being, either. He had cute floppy hair that was just going gray at his temples. It was obviously him, the resemblance to the Xavier he knew was strong and the weight of his mind was exactly the same but, well, it was over twenty years earlier in the timeline than the last time Tony saw the man.

There were bound to be differences in the people he knew just because of the events that hadn’t happened yet.

Magneto walked to one side of Xavier, looking content. His gait was slinky and his attention continually returned to Xavier in a way that confirmed—to Tony’s mind, at least—all the rumors he’d heard about the two men being long time lovers.

Behind them was a man even shorter than he was with a disgruntled look on his face and an unlit cigar in his mouth. Logan AKA the Wolverine.

Logan froze when he saw James.

A glance at James showed the same wide-eyed surprise on his face.

“I know you,” Wolverine pointed with his cigar.

“Jimmy. Lucky Jimmy Howlett. You used to run night raids with Cap back in the war.” James swallowed hard and glanced at Tony. “They wouldn’t let us have him full time.”

“Cap gave Colonel Phillips ulcers enough on his own,” Howard broke in with a nostalgic smile. “He didn’t need back up.” He came around the desk to offer Wolverine his hand. “I saw your picture when you joined Xavier’s school, I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you.”

“We are discussing World War II, correct?” Magneto asked, sliding gracefully onto a couch without waiting for any sort of invitation. Tony knew he liked the man for a reason. “Why would you logically assume your contemporary would appear any younger than you?”

“The man has a point,” Tony agreed, taking a seat on the love seat opposite him.

“Perhaps if you would explain why we are here,” Xavier redirected before things could devolve.

“Three days ago, Sergeant Barnes was sent to assassinate my wife and I,” Howard ripped off the bandage like a goddamn professional. “In the middle of his mission, he was able to overcome nearly fifty years of Hydra’s mental programing and saved us instead. We already have plans to deal with the returned—or, perhaps more realistically, continued—threat of Hydra. But James has the right to any peace of mind we can give him regarding his conditioning. We would like you to assist us with that.”

“There are words,” James shivered hard enough Tony felt it on the opposite end of the love seat they were sharing. “All they have to do is say the goddamn words and I—”

“Become a murder puppet,” Tony finished for him.

James just nodded and put his hands over the lower half of his face in a gesture Tony knew he’d been trained to find comforting. Like that goddamn muzzle. Probably unintentionally trained because, real talk, the last thing Hydra wanted their Asset to have was comfort but Tony knew well the safety masks could bring.

They spoke for several moments around James but Tony’s attention was all for the man himself as he slowly leaned into him for comfort.

Okay, so some of his focus was for Wolverine whose focus was also on James. It was intense in a way that made Tony wonder if, well—It wasn’t like it was any of his business anyway. And he couldn’t really throw stones at any of James’s former lovers when he had too many to count. And he didn’t have any right to be territorial, besides.

It was still infuriating though.

“What I wanna know is how you survived,” Wolverine finally growled. “If you’re really him, if you’re really Bucky Barnes, how did that fall not kill you? Cause I remember maps of that ravine and it should have.”

“He was enhanced,” Tony answered for him when it became clear James couldn’t yet.

“No, he wasn’t. His smell never changed the entire time we served together. I’d have known if our side changed him.”

Now James laughed and it sounded like it hurt. “It wasn’t our side that did it.”

“I imagine it was before you met him, while he was held prisoner by Hydra the first time,” Tony expanded again. “He was captured in Azzano, Italy. Held by Hydra somewhere in Austria.”

“Cap’s first mission,” Logan nodded. “He went off to rescue Barnes behind enemy lines.”

“Yeah. And he found me, still strapped to Zola’s table.”

Wolverine watched James closely for a few moments, his nose was semi-permanently flared. “It doesn’t smell the same as Cap’s.”

“Knock offs never smell the same as the original,” Tony informed him faux chipperly.

“I think I should speak to James and Anthony,” Xavier announced sharply to the group, “Alone.”

Lehnsherr and Xavier exchanged a fairly heavy look. Lehnsherr clearly didn’t want to go but eventually he rose to lead the other three out of the study.

As the herd moseyed out, Tony heard Aunt Peg ask, softly but clearly, “Are you quite alright?”

“Not remotely,” Erik Lehnsherr answered with something that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle. “Growing up, Bucky Barnes was everything I wanted to be. Strong, handsome, smart, and so very brave. Selfless. The little Jewish boy that gave his life so Captain America could save the world from Nazis.

“He was my hero.” The man took a shaky breath, “And he still is.

“He still is.”

Tony looked to James to gauge his reaction and wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing there. Wide-eyed surprise was some of it. And there were the beginnings of tears at the edge of his eyes. A bare slice of hope. Then the crushing guilt found him and James’s face shut down.

They’d have to work on it. James deserved to see himself the way the rest of the world did. As a hero.

One glance at Xavier told him that Charles felt the same.

“Time travel is a tricky thing,” he said to Tony and James once they three of them were alone, and both of them froze. “But I am not unfamiliar with desperate plans. In fact, I’ve come to the same conclusion you did—or, more accurately, someone else did for you—at least once before myself.”

“You—” Tony squeaked. “You’ve time traveled? Is that why so many things are kind of different?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. I can’t give you the details because I don’t know them. I just know the time-traveler, and I know that they did not lie to me.”

“How does that even work?” James asked.

“I’m a geneticist, not a theoretical physicist. How would I know?” Xavier smiled almost playfully at them. “But I do know you’ve done it, and can promise you every advantage I can provide to help you save the world.”

“Such as?” James prodded.

“I can pull the trigger code straight out of your head. You’ll likely have a headache for a few days but they are unnatural to you so when your physical brain heals, they won’t return—”

“Please,” James broke in. “Yes, do it.”

Xavier just nodded and kept going. “Someone has already added an emotional distance—a buffer, if you will—between you and the crimes Hydra used you to commit. And between you, Mr. Stark, and the various traumas and betrayals you experienced in your other life. I believe your little mechanic friend did this, James, to keep you functioning and moving toward your goal but I can remove it, if you like.

“Keep in mind that it’s not impeding your physical brain’s natural healing or abilities in any way for either of you nor is it causing you any other distress that I can detect. As far as I can tell, it will fade naturally.”

James looked at him for that one and Tony flailed about mentally for just a moment. “Let’s leave them but keep an eye on them, will you?”

“Of course,” Xavier agreed.

“In addition, I have a machine, as Mr. Stark knows about her, called Cerebro. I usually use her to search for mutants in distress but I believe I can use her to search for Hydra. Whatever I find would not be physical evidence, and would likely not be admissible in the Court of Law, but it could help you find information and evidence that is. I would be willing to aid your hunt for Hydra in this way.”

Tony took this one without being asked. “We need an in to Wakanda. Ulysses Klaue will attack them sometime in the next two months. We want to prevent it and hopefully earn enough good will to get the Vibranium to replace James’s arm.”

“What’s wrong with his arm? I can tell from here it’s—” Xavier froze mid-sentence. “Adamantium is toxic.” He brought a hand up to cover his mouth. “Logan’s entire skeleton is grafted with Adamantium.”

“Get him to join our team and we’ll see if we can get enough for him, too.” Tony promised. “His healing factor is natural for him though, so I’m assuming it’s better than James’s aftermarket add-on. That should put him overall in less danger.”

“I don’t think he’s going to give any of us a choice in the matter of him joining your team.” Xavier sounded inappropriately amused. “I’ll be surprised if he even leaves long enough to pack a bag.”

“Make him pack a bag,” James sighed. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“I’ll do my best,” Xavier promised. “The last thing I can offer is a bit of perspective.”

Tony sighed. “Meaning?”

“There is more to life than vengeance. Or justice. Make time for each other. Make friends, reach out to your families.”

“I don’t have any family,” James scoffed. “They’re all—” And then he froze.

“Your sisters are alive,” Xavier corrected him gently. “Your oldest nephew is a man I trust beyond all others save Erik. He’s all but married to a man with the most beautiful mutation I’ve ever seen, and the two of them foster mutant children too young to attend my school. Your youngest niece is a concert pianist that makes the world weep at the beauty she creates.

“Your legacy, Sergeant Barnes, is beautiful and vast. And it is not dictated by Hydra.”

James sat there frozen and after several minutes, Xavier turned to look at Tony. “There is also the issue of the Captain. You and I both know you can find him and you and I both know you are reluctant to do so because of how everything ended between you, but I encourage you to bring him home. It is a proud part of the legacy of this country to never leave a man behind. And more than that, it’s not his fault that his entire introduction to the future was handled by Hydra. They influenced him in ways none of us—save perhaps Sergeant Barnes, once he heals—can tell.

“This time he will be influenced by love and friendship. Deputy Director Carter, Sergeant Barnes, your father, and yourself. Your mother, though she’s not met him yet, could prove an immeasurable difference in the man he will become once he awakens.”

“Not. Soon,” Tony croaked, his mind and his heart were racing in opposite directions.

“No, of course not. You have a great deal to do with a great deal of urgency but you also have a great deal of help, this time.” The man smiled at him. “If you need more help, or perhaps an investor, you can count on me. I think I would rather enjoy one of those StarkPhones I can see floating around in your head.”

Tony cracked up, and the weight of Xavier’s mind felt pleased against his. “I can probably work on a proper hoverchair for you, too. Limited flight capability and a tighter turn radius to increase your mobility.”

“My school does have a rather incredible number of stairs,” Xavier agreed with a nod.

“Easily manageable. We can also—”

“Alpha Base, this is Main Gate. Come in, over,” a radio squawked, and James was up and digging in dad’s desk before Tony could really register what was happening.

“Main Gate, this is Alpha Base. Read you, over,” James called back.

“There’s a man here, name: Stane. His driver’s license and Stark Industries ID check out,” the guard replied. He was a man. One that Tony should recognize but couldn’t because Stane. Obie. Good ole Obie. Of fucking course, he wouldn’t stay away if he had any idea Howard was up to something like he was currently doing. The guard continued, “He won’t submit to security protocols. Demands to see Mr. Stark now or he’s calling the police and reporting a hostage situation.”

James shot him a furious glare, and Tony couldn’t help but echo it. The last fucking thing they needed right now was the police coming in and drawing more attention down on them.

“He let you search the car?”

“Negative, sir.”

“Then put ‘im in a jeep and drive him up here yourself. I’ll send Duke down to take over.”

“Sir,” a slightly different voice put in. “There’s two of them.”

“The second?” James snarled.

“Female, five foot three, red hair, green eyes. Claims to be his assistant. Stark Industries ID checks out.” Which implied that her driver’s license didn’t. This guy was sharp. He might not have James’s finely-honed spy detector nose but he was good. Tony wholeheartedly approved of him, they needed more like that guy.

But. Red hair and green eyes, playing an assistant? Tony closed his eyes, knowing full well what was coming even as James asked, “Name?”

“Natania Richmond.”

Yeah, that was pretty much what he expected.

What he did not expect was James’s, “Send ’em both.”

“What are you doing?” he hissed furiously. “You’re letting her in here?”

“Cognitive recalibration only works if I get my hands on her,” James smirked, looking for once like that old Bucky Barnes from the propaganda reels, a little wild and a lot out for a good time. It was a distressingly attractive look on him. “And once I do, Xavier can rip out her trigger phrase too. You can run an unofficial Russian Spy Recovery Service.”

“I hate you,” Tony announced with absolutely no heat. “This is a horrible idea, and when we all die, I’m picking where we restart this time.”

“You think the Black Widow can beat the Winter Soldier?” James snorted. “Who do you think taught her all her moves? And deep in her conditioning like she is right now, she can’t even remember that I wrote her playbook.”

Tony didn’t really have a good counter for that, though it probably did explain why Nat betrayed the team and let Cap—let Bucky—go back at that airport. “You ruin that shirt and I’m taking you clothes shopping. A full wardrobe, and I don’t wanna hear a peep out of you the entire time, mister.”

“Yessir.” James had the audacity to throw him a salute him as he took off for the door.

“Shopping is a punishment now?” Xavier asked, amused.

“To him? Yes. If it’s not an open-air farmers market, it’s a fate worse than death and ranks right up there with Hydra-hosted slumber parties.”

“Very well, should we get somewhere advantageous in order to assist?”

“Nah, he’s right, he’s got this.” Tony took a deep breath and reminded himself that James could do this. James would do this. “We can definitely watch from the window though, if you want to catch the floor show.”

From the angle of the study window they could see Dad, Aunt Peg, Wolverine, and Mr. Lehnsherr follow James onto the front porch.

“Can you tell Wolverine not to engage?” he asked urgently. “If she’s too pressed, it’ll make taking her alive impossible and we don’t like killing brainwash victims around here.”

Wordlessly, Xavier pressed two fingers to his temple. As Tony watched, Lehnsherr turned to Logan and gave him an order that obviously made the man unhappy but he looked over his shoulder and nodded his acceptance to them regardless.

Obie climbed out of the jeep, already bitching and trying to throw the Security Team under the bus like they weren’t doing their damn jobs or something. James let him by, which was a surprise, but when Nat moved to follow him up the stairs James was there, leading with a knee that sent her sliding back across the pavement.

“Howard!” Obie protested before he was silenced by one of Wolverine’s blades to the jugular.

James’s knee disappeared into a spin and became a high kick. Nat, proving that she too was a super soldier serum-ed showoff, fell back onto her hands to avoid it. She kicked herself over into a back handspring that just barely missed James’s chin and came up fighting.

From there it got fast and vicious to the point where Tony really needed slow-mo just to keep up.

Or rewind. Watching on rewind might work.

He was sure she tried her favorite shoulder maneuver only to get thrown like an overgrown discus into a tree. Twice. She tried it twice, but she didn’t try a third time so at least she was learning.

He was also sure she pulled a gun. She only got one shot off—into James’s side, goddammit—before he managed to pull the slide off mid-shot and stab her with it. In the shoulder. Which. How? The slide on that model didn’t even have sharp edges!

Christ, he thought to himself. He was never going to be able to watch them in the field. This was, just—This was terrible.

Then James sank his metal hand into her hair and forcibly introduced her face to the fender of the jeep. More than once!

“Wake!” Crash!

“Up!” Crash! 

“Natasha!” Crash!

When she staggered away, he let her go. He watched intently even as he sagged against the jeep.

“Yasha?” She asked faintly and then, well, fainted.

Or passed out, maybe, for a ridiculous Russian Super Spy that couldn’t handle honest labeling impugning their inherent toughness.

“Jamz?” James slurred and the man was there in a heartbeat.

“Couch.” He pointed toward the window where Tony was standing.

“I gotcha, Sarge,” Jamz said as he followed the line of James’s finger. Tony held up two fingers, indicating he should bring them both. Jamz just nodded and pulled one of James’s arms around his shoulders.

Less than five minutes later, Jamz and Morales had James and Nat draped over the couch and loveseat of one the room’s conversation nooks while the rest of them reconvened in the other.

Dad rounded on Obie the moment Wolverine forced him into an armchair. “You wanna tell me what you think you were doing, bringing a goddamn Russian Spy into my house? Into my home!? Where my wife and son are?”

“She’s not a spy!” Obie scoffed. “She’s my temporary assistant! I told you about it in my email, Jane’s on a leave—”

“That she will never come back from,” Xavier interrupted. “It seems like Mr. Stane has many secrets. For example, he knows you’re supposed to be dead right now, leaving the business in his total control—at least until your son graduates school. Though, it should be noted that he is confident he can get around the terms of your Will and maintain control of the company indefinitely by manipulating your son.

“He does not know—but does suspect and isn’t at all bothered by the fact—that it was Hydra that was going to kill you. He’s been leaking them information and weapons out of your company since he became your COO.”

“Fifteen years,” his dad breathed, betrayal writ large on his face. “You’ve been a goddamn traitor for fifteen years?”

“Hydra is not the only one he’s been selling weapons and information to,” Xavier twisted the knife just that little bit deeper. “And that doesn’t count the straight-out embezzlement that he’s been doing all on his own.

“Did you know he has a third of the Board in his pocket? If he can’t murder you, he’s going to stage a coup.”

Dad crashed into a chair and stared at Obie for a moment. “I could murder you right now,” he ran a hand over his face, “but I think I’m going to make a spectacle of you instead. Use this to drag you and all of your co-conspirators to light. In Stark Industries, in the government, abroad.”

“The world will know Hydra is back,” Tony reminded his dad softly.

“They need to know,” the man asserted. “Hiding this in the dark benefits them, not us.”

“Shine a light on the issue and it makes it harder for them to get around, true.” Aunt Peg agreed. “Do you have a room that can hold him? I’d rather he didn’t mysteriously disappear like Alexander Pierce did.”

“The old robotics lab,” Howard immediately offered. “Underground with one door and no windows. It’s empty but we can drag a mattress or something in there.”

“You’ll have to feed him and allow him out to go to the bathroom three times a day.”

“We can do that.”

Aunt Peg stood. “Then, as the current Director of SHIELD, you should declare this an official black site. Security level 9.” Howard immediately moved to his desk to grab some paperwork and Aunt Peg turned on Old Obie. “You, Obadiah Stane, are hereby under arrest for industrial espionage, conspiracy, and suspected treason.” She nodded to Wolverine who nodded right back and pulled Obie out of his chair by his armpits. “If you would lead the way, Howard. I’ll review and approve of his accommodations. I will return with an interrogator within the hour.”

“Of course, Peg, right this way. We can set the door with different lock sequences. One for you, one for me, one for the guards. It’ll keep track of who is—” and his voice cut off as the door closed.

“Well this has been fun,” Tony said awkwardly. Lehnsherr pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head while Xavier looked at them in amusement.

“Professor,” James slurred, getting all of their attention.

They all got up and walked cautiously over to the possibly punch-drunk super soldier. “Yes, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Do the trigger word thing,” he ordered as he pushed up to a more upright but still reclining position. “Rip ‘em out.”

“You want me to rip them out or work them slowly? Slower would be less painful.”

“How slow is slow?”

“A few weeks?” Xavier offered even as James started shaking his head. “We could do sessions every day, set aside a time we agree to meditate together where I slowly nudge them out of your mind. We won’t even need to be in the same physical location as, once we’ve established a link, I can reach you anywhere on the planet.”

“Rip ‘em. I don’t want them, they’re too dangerous. Hers too.”

“You cannot give consent on her behalf,” Xavier objected, even as Tony slid onto the couch to help support James’s torso.

“No, Yasha is correct.” Nat turned her head to look at them, her eyes were vaguely glassy but there was definitely someone home. “The words are weakness; weakness is not permissible.”

“Yasha?” James asked. “Why do you call me Yasha?”

“I,” Nat blinked at him, “I don’t know.”

“If I may?” Lehnsherr interjected and they both nodded. “Yasha is the Russian diminutive—or perhaps nickname?—for James. It also works for Jacob.”

“Yasha,” he repeated. Then he turned to Tony with a half-bloody smile, “I’m Yasha.”

Tony laughed and extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Yasha. I’m Tony.”

Yasha laughed like the sun coming out and shook Tony’s hand.

Xavier took a deep breath like he was praying for guidance while Lehnsherr deliberately failed to hide the fact that he was laughing at his lover.

“This will hurt,” Xavier promised, making eye contact with first Yasha then Natasha.

When they both nodded firmly, he placed the tips of two fingers from each hand at his temples. There was no noise, no sound, but suddenly Yasha shuddered, groaned under his breath, and leaned a little harder into Tony. When it was her turn, Nat let out a bitten off whine and sort of collapsed in on herself.

“If they’re smart, they’ll sleep for the next three days,” Xavier told Tony with a put-upon frown.

Tony sighed and shook his head. “Which means they’ll be up by midnight.”

Magneto, predictably, laughed at them all.

 

Chapter Four

 

“So, what I miss last night?” Yasha asked as he entered what was now officially Tony’s Lab bearing lunch.

A glance from Tony had Coulson rising to his feet and beating a hasty—without actually looking hasty—exit.

“Well, Coulson agreed to the live-in part of the PA arrangement and Duke sent three guys home with him to pack up and move it all last night. Even his furniture, guy’s particular. Had to clean out a suite of his choice before he agreed to even pack. Pretty sure he’s the friend without a leg Duke mentioned that first night, ‘cause they’re way too close to have just met yesterday. They were really chummy at dinner.”

Yasha just looked amused as he started to set out their lunch. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, aww yeah! And the sandwiches were cut into triangles like he preferred. Further proof that Jarvis loved him most.

“And. Seeing Aunt Peg bring Nick Fury to dinner last night and referring to him only as ‘The Interrogator’ was hilarious. I’m surprised he didn’t bust a vein when I promised to see ya later.” Tony snickered. “Would Nick Fury be a good super soldier? I don’t think so. He gets a little too focused, you know? Too intense. Not that I have any room to throw stones but— We also don’t know the full circumstances that make it work. Personality is obviously a big part but there’s got to be more than that. Otherwise, why did Schmidt get the scratch off face and the Defective Soldiers didn’t?

“I’m thinking it might be related to mutation. Several of your grandnephews are active mutants which means you probably at least carry the gene-potential. Does that mean active mutants can’t be given the serum? What are the consequences if they are?

“Oh, active mutants,” Tony snapped his fingers, thinking. “Wolverine decided he’s officially joining the Avengers—though we technically still don’t have a name yet—and was following me around like it was his job last night. Talking about last night, I have to say watching him fail at steak knife when I know exactly what is up his actual sleeve will probably never not be funny. But then Aunt Peg showed up with her first group of imports for the security team about two hours ago and he went off to beat them up in your stead.

“Did you know they’ve started calling that little ass kicking/welcome aboard thing you do ‘popping the cherry’? Apparently, Aunt Peg has been doing a lot of cherry picking for us and, also, they think they’re clever.”

Yasha nodded as he led by example, picking up one of his sandwich quarters. He dipped it in his soup then crunched on it with a frown. “Of course, I knew. About the cherry picking, I mean. It takes more than your average combatant to go toe-to-toe with me, especially to get back up and do it again. But none of that is what has you upset.”

“Found information on Ulysses Klaue, this morning,” Tony offered, dragging his spoon through his soup. “Confirmation that he tried to assassinate King T’Chaka this last May at the Bilderberg Conference, and that he’s being influenced by Hydra into trying to steal Vibranium. His hate-on for Wakanda is epic so it didn’t really take that much. As we know, they want to expose the truth about Wakanda. Apparently, they think it will give them some advantage or something.”

“Points for distraction tactics,” Yasha pointed some sandwich quarter at him. “Vibranium, good choice, but that’s still not what has you upset.”

Tony took a deep breath. When was the last time someone called him on his shit like this? Was it Pepper? Or Rhodey? Did they ever bother to push past the distraction? He couldn’t remember.

“My mom’s pregnant,” he finally blurted to his bowl of soup and he could hear Yasha’s spoon hit the worktop. “Twins, according to Logan’s nose.

“I always thought dad just hated me, you know, to destroy my plans for the holiday with mom. My last holiday with my mom. That the whole ’emergency business trip’ thing—without me—was a snub or an insult or something, but they were going on the trip so she could get it taken care of. Which was fine. Her body, her choice, and all that. But with everything that’s happened she’s decided she wants to keep them.”

“Oh,” Yasha said softly after what Tony knew to be too long, but what could he do?

If his mom was pregnant now, then she was pregnant then, when the Winter Soldier had killed her. That meant that the Soldier had killed four Starks, rather than two everyone knew of that night. Add in the mutual attraction situation or whatever this was developing between them and—

“Thank you,” was what Tony finally decided upon. Because honesty was the best policy, right? “Thank you so much for saving her. For saving them. I’m not sure if I said it before, but I could probably say it every day for the rest of my life and it would never be enough. Not with what you’ve given me, not with what it could have cost you. What it could still cost you. Just— thank you.”

Yasha seemed to struggle for a bit, then he focused down on his soup. “You’re welcome.” It was barely above a whisper but Tony still decided to count it as progress.

Especially when Yasha looked up, looked him directly in the eye, and asked, “How do you feel about that? Becoming a big brother?”

“Like that moment during the first big flight test of the Mark II, when the suit froze up because I went too high. All upward momentum was gone and for a moment I was just hanging there—not really on Earth but not really in space either. My stomach had no idea what it wanted to do and even my brain stalled out.

“I was,” he ran a hand through his hair, “terrified. Exhilarated. I need to fix it but I don’t know what the problem is, exactly.

“I mean, I know I want them to have more than I had. More love, more attention. Dad’s trying now but supportive and emotionally accessible aren’t exactly things that come easily to him. We haven’t gotten to the emotional bits of having a relationship at all, actually.” Thank god.

“I don’t know,” Yasha drawled after an extended pause. “He’s at least a better husband than I expected, to drop everything to take care of a problem on her behalf. To see his wife’s needs met, regardless of the cost to him or what he might have wanted personally.”

“Point. But being a dad is a lot different than being a husband.”

Yasha nodded and offered. “Books? There’s like, child-care books now, right?”

“Yeah, Phil offered to bring me his favorites and get recommendations from his sister. She has three spawn, apparently.”

“I had three sisters,” Yasha frowned. “I have three sisters. Duke has two sons that he adores even though his ex won’t let him close after he came out. Jamz is an only kid, but Morales has siblings. We can all help you. And we all will, you know that?”

Tony nodded hastily. “Kids means more security, though, right? More men? Is that house big enough?”

“Should be fine but if it’s not, there’s enough land between the two properties for a Charlie Site, if we need it. We’d have to figure something out though because I’d want a solid wall between here and a construction site. Maybe JARVIS and a bunch of your toys can secure the property? Reduce the number of men we’d need?”

“I can work on that once I have JARVIS up. He’ll have ideas, he always does.

“What’s on your plate for this afternoon?”

“Popping some cherries,” Yasha answered with a grin. “Though we’re going to have to cut it short. I think the President is visiting today?”

“Say what?” Tony blurted in confusion.

“Well, there’s a team of Secret Service here that Howard wants me to avoid. Why else would Secret Service be here unless the President was coming?”

“I need Phil,” Tony demanded. “Get Phil down here, right now.”

Yasha shook his head and pulled a walkie talkie out of a pocket. A store-bought walkie talkie. Tony’s soul cried out in pain even as Yasha used it to do his bidding.

“You should eat up,” Tony warned his… well, his Yasha as he put his walkie talkie away. “You have never met a mom friend until you’ve met Phil Coulson. He doesn’t nag or even frown. I don’t know how to describe it. He stands there in his boring little suit and exudes disappointment at you until you start apologizing for all your life choices. It’s a super power, I swear. Gotta be.”

“He an empath?” Yasha asked between slurps the soup, like a heathen.

Tony snapped and pointed at him. “Good point. Very good point. We should test him.”

“Or we could just ask him,” Yasha countered as the lab door opened.

“Ask him what?” Phil asked as he ducked past Duke.

“If you’re an empath. Tony wants to test you, thinks you have super powers.” The vile betrayer threw him under the bus.

“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Phil answered in his best Agent voice, making Duke snort even as he closed the door behind him.

“Is the President going to be here today?” Tony transitioned smoothly. Very smoothly, thank you.

“That’s what I gather from Agent Johnston of the Secret Service. Marine One should be here sometime between 1600 and 1700, possibly staying for dinner.”

“You got a Secret Service Agent to tell you the President’s schedule?” Tony felt his left eye twitching. Mutation or magic, this was some kind of super powered bullsh—

Coulson smirked. “Not exactly. He perhaps didn’t realize I was there. But, to be fair, cell phone communication is hardly secure so there’s no telling how confidential that information actually is.”

“Wow. Second day on the job and already getting a Secret Service Agent fired. Vicious, Coulson. I am so proud.”

Three hours later, Tony was less proud. Partially because the time was wrong and partially because he was now stuck in a private meeting with the President and his dad.

To make matters worse, he was stuck sharing a loveseat and practically cuddling with his dad while the First Asshole lorded an entire couch over them.

And a TV on a cart had been wheeled in to his dad’s private office, so show time was going to happen. Tony could hardly wait to see the Winter Soldier try to kill his parents again. This was exactly what he needed right now.

“You’re telling me Bucky Barnes, Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, is alive?” First Asshole demanded. Again.

“Yes, sir, I am,” his dad nodded with more patience than Tony has ever known him to possess. Apparently, sitting world leaders got special treatment, who knew? “We have had facial recognition, genetic match, and a telepath that all confirm his identity. He is Bucky Barnes. He’s been held prisoner by Hydra since the end of the war. They tortured him, sir. Broke him, made him into a wind-up toy. Just reading about the process would give anyone nightmares, and they didn’t spare the pictures.”

The President frowned. “Wind-up toy?”

“An assassin. They turned his skills from the war to their advantage.”

“That’s how you found him?”

“He was sent to kill my wife and I. If you watch this, you can actually see the moment he broke through his conditioning.”

His dad held up the remote and hit a few buttons. The scene was familiar, a grainy black and white view of a tree-lined road. The video started earlier than Tony actually saw in their original timeline.

It started with the car crashing and the Winter Soldier parking his bike. The heartless bastard sauntered up to his dad’s car, pulling and readying a nine-millimeter with almost insulting ease. Then he slammed his left fist into the door and peeled it open even though there was a perfectly good handle right there.

His dad turned, shocked, and there was a gun in his face.

The Winter Soldier leaned forward, preparing to pull dad out of the car by his hair and punch him dead just like he did in the video Tony saw once upon a time but his dad said something and the Soldier froze. The gun jerked in tiny, spastic movements. Up, down. Up, down. Barely even inches at a time.

Then, the Soldier’s body language changed. It was obvious. In a heartbeat, his back went from the confident and powerful line of the Soldier to the terrified and confused hunch of a recovering Yasha.

Yasha took two steps back from the car. The Winter Soldier took one forward again.

The Winter Soldier brought the gun up decisively but his dad said something and Yasha opened his hand. The gun hit the ground even though the Soldier could totally have caught it on the way down.

Yasha and Dad spoke briefly and Dad looked murderous before Yasha scooped up the gun, spun, and the screen went black.

“Can he be programed again?” The President asked. “Activated?”

“No, the telepath we used to confirm his identity removed the trigger sequence. They would have to capture him again and torture him—probably for another five years—to break him again to put them back.”

Five years?” The President ran a hand across his mouth. Then he frowned. “What do you need from me, Howard? We both know you didn’t ask me over for story time.”

Dad nodded. “For one, we’re going after Hydra. We have reason to believe they’ve infiltrated SHIELD, so I want to handle it a little closer to the vest than usual. Technically, I’m still Director since we weren’t going to name my successor until the end of January.”

“Are you too compromised for this?” The President raised a single eyebrow. “They tried to kill your wife.”

“They’ve killed a lot more than that and they’ve been fostering human/mutant tensions for years, so they obviously intend to kill more. I trust me. I trust the people around me. I know we’ll get it done on a global scale. But officially, on the SHIELD side of things, I want to turn cleaning house over to Peg, reinstate her as Deputy Director with special privileges. To begin a six-month transition into her full Directorship.”

“You’re still retiring?” The President asked. “With all this going on?”

“I still have twins on the way, Mike,” his dad reiterated. “I’m not as young as I used to be. I have to choose, and this time I’m picking my family over my second career. I’ve earned it, haven’t I?”

“And it will throw Hydra off,” Tony added when the President didn’t look convinced. “If he keeps going, business as usual, but officially placing the blame for his almost-assassination on Obie. Make it sensational, make it distracting. Aunt Peg will get more done while they’re focused elsewhere. When that’s played out, we’ll come up with another story to drive the world crazy. I can think of three just off the top of my head.”

“Alright,” the President agreed slowly. “I’ll get you the right paperwork but you keep me in the loop, Howard. Cliff Notes weekly and prepare me for surprises, you know the drill.”

“Yes, sir.

“Also, we’re going to need to tell the world Barnes is back,” his dad pressed. “Bucky was a hero to boys everywhere, and the Jewish Community in particular. Still is. We’re going to have to be open about what happened to him and honest about what he’s done, but that none of that is his fault. We need to make that clear. He wasn’t in the driver’s seat. All those crimes are Hydra’s, and someone trying to prosecute him for it will tear this country apart.”

“True.” The President nodded and thought for a few moments. “He up to a press conference?”

Dad looked at him and Tony couldn’t hide his momentary surprise. “A small one, maybe. Indoors, controlled crowd, no more than six reporters but preferably less. And he’ll need to meet them and their crews beforehand.”

“Three reporters and their crews, the Joint Chiefs, him, and your party,” The President offered.

Tony thought about it but nodded. “No individual interviews, yet. Just introductions.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, while we’ve got you here,” Tony leaned forward and focused on the man. “I want you to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT and mutated persons. Equal rights for everyone, all the way. Marriage, adoption, property ownership, all of it. Civilian and military.”

“That would be political suicide!” First Asshole objected.

“You can’t run for a third term anyway.”

President Ellison sputtered and dad cleared his throat. “Maybe if you explained why, Tony?”

“Oh, I skipped that part? Well, first of all, it’s the right thing to do. Canada is ahead of us on equal rights and that’s just embarrassing.

“Second, I have plans for over a hundred weapons and vehicles that I’m more than willing to let my father’s company develop for the US military. However, I feel it would be stupidly reckless to put my Jericho Missile or the Quinjet in the hands of men that get irrational and even murderously violent about who other people love or don’t love. These assholes already have access to nuclear weapons, it would be irresponsible of me to add to their burden. You gotta bring the standard up. Sharply. Or I’m keeping my toys at home.”

The President blinked. “I’ve never heard of the Jericho Missile or the Quinjet.”

“I’d hope not, I haven’t submitted the patents yet. But I can tell you biblical trumpets ain’t got nothing on my missile; the destructive capabilities will level mountain ranges.

“The Quinjet is a flexible VTOL vehicle that can do Mach five on a whim. Virtually invisible on radar, makes the so-called ‘stealth bomber’ look like a float in the New Year’s Day Parade. And by flexible, I mean flexible. It can be an air-to-air fighter, a long-range bomber, can carry a strike team up to twelve with enough ammunition to win a war.

“It floats, too. Pretty sure with a bit more tweaking, I can get it to function as a submersible.”

Ellison and Dad looked at him with surprisingly identical expressions, both shocked to the core. They looked at each other, the President cleared his throat, and they looked away.

“If that’s what you’re willing to do for your father’s company, what are you doing for yours?”

“You told him about Solutions?” Tony frowned.

His dad shrugged. “I might have bragged a bit. Not every kid in your position turns down a startup loan from their old man.”

Tony shook his head even as something warm and sort of pleased curled up in his chest. “We’re going to drag computing in the country probably a good thirty years ahead of the rest of the world. Then we’re going to do the same for personal communication. Cell phones, I got plans for them. Those two lines of business will fund us doing the same for medical prosthesis and green energy. We’re going to make the lives of people in this country better, richer, and easier.

“Dad saves the world his way, I’m going to save it mine.”

“And you’re not going to be involved in the Hydra issue?” President Ellison pressed.

“Well, I am still his heir. If something happens to him—as almost did, not even a week ago—I’ll make them regret it for however long they manage to evade us. Not that anyone would expect that from what the media will no doubt dub Howard Stark’s Hippie Son.”

Ellison chuckled. “Alright. I’ll have the UCMJ overhauled but Congress makes laws for civilians. I can’t do everything through executive orders.”

“When the UCMJ is updated to this century, I’ll turn the Quinjet over to dad.”

“And the Jericho?”

“I’m a civilian,” Tony countered. “I live under civilian laws.”

It was a gamble because he really didn’t want to hand over the Jericho, even if his father would have full discretion over its use and sale. Obie was gone so the chances of backdoor deals and terrorists getting it were minimal but, well. Still.

Ninety-Two was an election year. They had a Democratic congress to counter their Republican President. The Dems would theoretically be pleased by the President asking for LGBT protections but it would no doubt alienate the Republican base, especially after he ordered the same changes to the UCMJ. So, all in all, it was a pretty safe gamble for him to make in order to get what he wanted.

“But—”

“Do you have any idea how many individual devices he had to invent to make such a jet, Ellison?” Tony’s dad asked softly.

“No,” First Asshole trailed off leadingly.

“Everything from the com gear and the engines to the outer skin and payload,” Tony supplied.

Howard nodded, looking flat-out impressed. “I can’t wait to see it.”

“Alright,” President Ellison leaned back, obviously thinking. “Barnes is here?”

“Yup,” Tony nodded. “Somehow he’s become the Head of our Family Security Team, though I don’t remember any of us actually hiring him.”

“He kind of just decided it needed done and started doing it,” Howard agreed, looking painfully amused. “I’ll get Amy to draw up a contract and make it official.”

Ellison chuckled at them. “I want to talk to him.”

Tony was afraid of that. “Alright but there are things you need to know. He seems stable—fifty years a spy and all that—but if you trigger a panic attack and he gets violent, no one here can actually stop him. He’ll go through your security detail like they’re wet tissue paper, so don’t. Don’t use the word ‘chair’ in any way shape or form, and don’t mention wiping anything. Those are the two big triggers we’ve found in him so far.”

“I thought you had a psychic here to get rid of his triggers.”

“Ah, well, no.” Tony scratched the back of his head while he decided how to explain it. “The brainwashing he went through had trigger words so they could make him murder people. Those we had removed. But he’s still traumatized by the abuse they heaped on him in order to make the brainwashing take. Only time and a heaping load of therapy can heal that.”

“Alright,” the First Asshole nodded and, rather than backing down, leaned forward. “No chair, no wiping. Bring him in.”

Keeping his sigh strictly internal, Tony nodded and stood. When he opened the door to the hall, Yasha, May, and Bogart were propping up one side of the hall while three of the beefiest Secret Service Agents Tony had ever seen lined the other side.

He’d be impressed with the display, if he didn’t already know that Bogart alone could take all three Secret Service in less than a minute. May and Yasha were sheer overkill.

Yasha straightened at his look.

The man had clearly shaved since lunch, going for the clean-shaven Vintage Bucky Barnes look. He looked both formal but not nearly formal enough for meeting the President. Black slacks, dress shoes, and a white button up. He had an extra button or two undone than was strictly necessary and his sleeves were rolled up, making it clear that one was flesh and the other was metallic. He was once again rocking one of dad’s driving gloves so that he could grip things with his slick metal hand, but the missing finger had been tucked in such a way that it wasn’t flapping around everywhere anymore.

He looked gorgeous, date ready, and Tony kind of hated both the President for their current situation and Aunt Peg for putting those thoughts in his head.

Yasha entered the room behind him, walked into their little seating area, and immediately popped a salute. The President smiled, obviously charmed, and stood to return the salute. “Have a seat, son.” The asshole gestured to the loveseat.

Tony’s dad slid nonchalantly over to a chair so as not to crowd him, which Tony appreciated.

“You are definitely Sergeant Barnes,” Ellison shook his head. “I have to admit, for a moment I was sure Howard was fucking with me.”

Yasha opened his mouth but nothing came out and he looked to Tony for help.

There was no question there though, so Tony didn’t really have anything to offer. He shrugged and Yasha nodded and turned back to the President.

The President did not miss their exchange. Probably read more into it than there was to be read, based on how his eyebrows attempted find sanctuary in his hair. “I feel I must apologize that we left you there. That no one ever went back for your body. Howard said Hydra tortured you for five years.”

Yasha gave the president a sad little smile. “Five years implied they stopped at some point, sir.”

“Right,” Ellison nodded. “You seem to be in remarkably good shape. Physically, I mean.”

“Cryo.”

Ellison just kept nodding. “Thank you, for what you did. Howard might be a pain in the ass, but he’s an American pain in the ass and our world would be poorer without him.”

When Yasha said nothing, he continued almost desperately, “Is there anything I can get you, son?”

This time Yasha opened his mouth, closed it, and shifted uncomfortably.

“Yasha,” Tony interrupted his thoughts before Yasha could get lost in them. “Whatever it is. Just say it.”

Yasha gave him wide, vulnerable eyes and brought his left hand up to grip the open neck of his shirt. “My dog tags. I want my dog tags.”

“We can do that, son,” Ellison promised, looking relieved. “Have you reached out to your family yet?”

Yasha shook his head and this time Dad stepped in. “Maria was talking about throwing a Christmas Party here, to bring all of the Barnes Clan back together. We hadn’t mentioned it to Yasha yet, though.”

“I think that’s a fine idea. We’ll want them all to come to your reinstatement ceremony. Are you okay with a public ceremony, Sergeant Barnes?”

“I understand the necessity, sir,” he admitted softly. He was anything but enthusiastic about it. “I don’t think a big crowd would be a good idea but I’m sure Tony has advocated on my behalf.”

“He has,” Ellison assured him. “Starks have a reputation as stubborn, vicious advocates, but I don’t think the world is ready for young Tony here.”

“That would be the definition of impossible, sir,” Yasha said with real warmth in his voice.

The President laughed, looking pleased, and Tony tried not to blush.

Seriously, he was forty-six years old. Or sixty-seven, depending on how you looked at it. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. He had three PhDs! Well, technically two, currently, but he’d officially have the third again in May!

The point! The point was that blushing like a school boy was not a thing that should be happening to him. Nope, no way.

“I want you to consider doing an interview,” the President just threw it out there and Tony barely managed not to groan. Didn’t they already talk about this? “I understand you have limitations, both real and imagined, but we need something to humanize you. You’re a big damn hero, son, and once I get through draping you with all the medals you deserve, that’s only going to get worse.”

“I—” Yasha looked at him, and Tony couldn’t help himself.

“We can pick the reporter together,” Tony found himself offering. “We’ll handle the editing. You can even approve it before it airs.”

Yasha thought about it and slowly nodded.

Ellison clearly wasn’t thrilled but he nodded in return. “Alright. I want it ready to go the week before we do the ceremony. So, get it done before New Year’s.”

“Yes, sir,” Yasha agreed.

-*-

Another week, another awkward meeting. This time, at least, the scenery was much more agreeable.

“I don’t think you’ve formally met my sisters, Mr. Stark,” Gina—Regina—Sheppard née Barnes, the youngest of Bucky’s three sisters, said. “This is Dorothee Roth née Barnes, she’s the oldest of us. And Elizabeth de la Fontaine née Barnes, she’s the sister between us.”

“The senator and the ballerina,” Howard confirmed, shaking each of their hands. “I did actually read your letters.”

“Letters?” Senator Roth raised an eyebrow as he gestured them over to one of the seating areas.

“Gina and I have exchanged letters since the end of the War,” he explained.

“You remember the kind letter he sent us on Bucky’s birthday, after,” Regina offered and when her sisters nodded, she continued. “Well, I wrote him back that Christmas and it became a tradition.”

“That’s lovely,” Mrs. de la Fontaine smiled at them. “I suppose that means you don’t want to look through the photo albums we brought along, then?”

“I would be honored, if that ends up being something you’re still interested in. Our letters never included pictures.”

“Do you have something terrible to tell us?” she asked astutely enough that he had to wonder just how cut throat the life of a prima ballerina actually was for her to pick up on minor cues so quickly. “If you’re cutting off your payments to the family trust, we fully understand.”

My payments?” he could feel his face go pale.

“Of course,” Senator Roth scoffed. “We all know MIA payments don’t continue for almost fifty years after the war, Mr. Stark. Not even when the missing soldiers are Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers.”

“It was very sweet of you, to make sure we were taken care of,” Elizabeth de la Fontaine agreed. “You put us all through school, paid for our weddings, buried our parents. Bucky would be so proud to call you his friend.”

He hoped, he really hoped Yasha was proud to call him his friend. “I actually called you here to let you know that, among other things, the payments are going to be increasing.”

“Howard, no,” Gina protested.

“Howard, yes,” he smiled at them. “You see, we found him. We found Bucky and he’s working for me now. He wants his whole paycheck to go into the Family Trust, but maybe the three of you can convince him to start his own checking account.”

The Barnes sisters all blinked at him with surprisingly identical cases of shock.

“Found him?” Mrs. de la Fontaine asked tremulously. “You— You— What?”

Right as the Senator demanded, “What kind of job, exactly, do you have for a seventy-year-old man that would pay that much?”

“Ah, well, you were probably never told this—mostly because no one knew—but Sergeant Barnes was given a form of the Super Soldier Serum when he was captured the first time. The Nazi’s used him as an unwilling test subject, and it worked.”

“Bucky’s a Super Soldier?” Senator Roth asked to clarify. “Like Stevie?”

“Not quite. He got the German Knock-off Formula, not Erskine’s actual work, but it was close enough that between it and the cryogenic stasis he was kept him in periodically over the last forty-plus years, that he’s physically aged perhaps a year.”

“Can we see him?” Mrs. de la Fontaine asked. “Does he want to see us? Is it safe?”

“You can see him, and we’ve made it as safe as we can. He’s…willing to meet you, but I think he’s afraid.”

Bucky?” Gina asked, eyes wide. “Afraid?”

“He’s been through a lot,” Howard explained. “I’ve read the files and I don’t think I have a full grasp of it all yet. The only person he’s been truly able to connect with is my son, Tony.  I think he’s afraid of failing to connect with the three of you like he used to.”

“Let me guess, your son is short, dark, and has an attitude problem,” Gina asked, badly suppressing a smile.

“Sounds about right,” he agreed.

“Bucky’s type to a ‘T,’” Gina exchanged fondly exasperated looks with her sisters. “I hope you can be okay with that. Once Bucky finds what he likes, he tends to dig in and not be budged.”

“So, you knew your brother was gay?” He couldn’t be bothered to hide his surprise.

“We grew up in Brooklyn,” de la Fontaine frowned at him. “Stevie studied Art.”

And, okay, that was a good point. “But, during the War, he had all those stories about going out dancing with dames!”

“That’s right. Two at a time,” de la Fontaine frowned at him like he might actually be stupid. “Back then it wasn’t any more accepted for dames to step out together than it was for fellas. He was, what do you call it now? Bearding them. The only reason he ever—”

Gina cleared her throat, hard, and glared at her older sister. “That’s a story for Buck first, don’t you think?”

“You didn’t tell him in your—”

“I did not.” The answer was firm in a way that piqued Howard’s interest. What in the world had Gina not told him?

“Right,” de la Fontaine nodded. “Is Bucky here? Can we see him?”

Howard looked them over suspiciously but stood regardless. “If you’re sure.”

“We’re sure,” Doro confirmed even as Liz reached out a hand to each of her sisters.

The man that had done so much for their family nodded again and left without looking back. There was a moment of silence in which Gina looked at her sisters and they all exchanged nods, wordlessly sharing strength and comfort between them.

Then there was a knock at the door that sounded like Bucky’s knock and the door opened slowly.

The man that stepped through the door was young, painfully so, but those were Bucky’s eyes, bluer than the sky and wiser than they’d ever had any right to be. Bucky’s face, with more stubble than their mother would have tolerated. His hair was darker than she remembered, like he’d been kept somewhere dark for a long time.

That, of all of it, was what made her ache for him. Bucky loved being outdoors. Loved being in the sun and someone took that from him. For a very long time, by the sound of it.

And, strangely, he moved like one side of his body was heavier than the other. It almost looked like a strut, but Gina grew up with a ballerina, she knew the meaning of movement. The tell-tale gleam of metal between the end of his left sleeve and the start of the four fingered glove he was wearing was a pretty good clue too.

He stopped in front of Doro, whether it was because she was the oldest or because she was the closest to the door, Gina couldn’t tell. She couldn’t help but hold her breath, though. Did he remember them? Could he recognize them?

His right hand came up to her face, cupping it just like he used to. “Doro,” he identified. “Just as beautiful as ever.”

“You jerk.” She took a shaky breath. “We all know Gina’s the pretty one.”

He smiled softly and kissed her forehead before pulling her into a careful hug. “You’re all pretty ones,” he sassed back, sounding like he was just remembering his line. “You look like me, after all.”

Liz gave a watery laugh and Bucky turned to her. “Hey there, Rockette.”

She scoffed at him and, even though it was a weak attempt, none of them called her on it. “I’m a ballerina, not some jumped up show girl.”

“My mistake,” he smiled and he hugged her too. Finally, he turned to her, “Well, if it isn’t Trouble.”

Gina maybe sobbed a bit as he pulled her into his arms but she wasn’t ashamed.

He was so gentle, like he always had been, but it just served to show her how much stronger he had become. Physically even stronger than she could remember him being when he was just a boxing champion. The sound of pistons and machinery from his left arm only served to highlight that as it slid past her head to wrap around behind her.

He stepped back from them and took a deep breath. “Now, what was this I heard about pictures?”

“Oh, me first!” Doro cried, sounding like a nine-year-old little girl rather than the veteran United States Senator she was as she all but darted over to her purse. In short order they had him seated on the couch with Doro on one side, Gina on the other, and Liz, the show off, curled at his feet.

“This is my first son, Abraham,” Doro pointed at the picture. “He prefers Bram. He’s running for Mayor of New York City—I hope we can count on your vote—and that’s his fiancé, Rajiv Bachchan. They’re going to be the first to marry once we get same sex marriage legalized. They foster kids too young for Charles Xavier’s school. They’ve raised eight so far but only three are still at home full time.

“This is my daughter Esther—she’s a professor of Women’s Studies at NYU—and her life partner Rebekka Undine—she’s a professor of Math at Columbia. I don’t think they’re going to get married when we get the law passed, but they are very committed to each other. They have five cats.

“This is my youngest Isaac. He just left the Army, retired after a full twenty years. He’s a pediatrician. I don’t think he’s interested in anyone, to be honest, but he has a small army worth of dogs.”

“How many is an army?” Bucky asked amused.

“Six. A Newfoundland, a German Shepherd, a Corgi, a Saint Bernard, a toy Schnauzer, and a Standard Poodle.”

“Those are some big dogs.”

“And two really tiny ones,” Doro agreed with a nod.

Then Liz showed off her one daughter, Catherine the Pianist, and it was Gina’s turn to show off her one son and three grandsons.

“My Patrick did twenty-five years in the Navy. A SEAL, like his papa. Davey is following in his footsteps, but Patrick’s oldest son, John, went Air Force. He’s a stubborn young thing, has to make his own way. But young Petey—he looks just like you, doesn’t he? —he wants to be a Marine. He’s smart as a whip, too. Doing a year at Princeton before he goes to Annapolis next year.”

“Wow,” Bucky croaked. “The likeness is—”

“Yeah,” Gina agreed with a sigh. “You can’t really tell in the photo, but he has his mother’s green eyes, rather than your blue, but otherwise he could be your double.”

“They all look amazing,” he blinked up at them. “I—”

“That’s,” Gina hesitated, biting her lip like a little girl. “Not all.”

“What?” Bucky asked, a snicker was hovering at the edge of his lips. “Did mom and dad have another kid or something?”

“No, but you did.”

“What?” he asked again, this time more sharply.

Gina glanced to Doro who cleared her throat and pulled out a small Army Green album. “Do you remember Connie Lewis?” she asked gently.

“Yeah, I think so,” he nodded. “I took her and her girl out the night before I shipped out to England. Uh, Bonnie. Bonnie and Connie, right? Why?”

“She came to Ima and Aba about a month after you left. She was—” Liz swallowed and looked to Doro.

“She was pregnant,” Doro gave it to him straight but not without sympathy. “Of course, we were all ever so surprised by it, but she explained how Stevie was being a little asshole about joining up, and then she and Bonnie fought, and it made a certain kind of sense.”

Another flick of the eye passed the baton from Doro to Gina.

She took the book from Doro and opened it to a picture of a young officer in Army Green. “His name was James Buchanan Lewis; he went by Cannon. He was a Colonel when he died.”

Bucky stared at the picture; eyes wide. He looked absolutely gutted. His own face stared back at him with Connie’s big brown eyes and his own teasing edge to the young man’s smile.

“He married a girl named Lisa, six years go.” Gina turned the page to show a wedding photo. “She was young. A lot younger than him, a scientist on the project he ran for the Army. She died from cancer about two years ago but not before she gave us Darcy.” She turned the page again to show him the five-year-old they all loved so much. “She’s been reading since she was two, loves whales, and has capital-O Opinions on just about everything. She’s so smart, Buck. The smartest of any of us, I’m sure.”

He touched her picture with a shaking finger, like he wasn’t quite sure it was real. “Can I meet her?” he asked, his voice was cracking but he didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Of course, you can. I’ll have my Patrick bring her along when he comes.”

Bucky just nodded and nodded and kept on nodding.

The door to the study opened without any sort of a knock or announcement. First in came a young man Gina only knew from the papers, Howard’s son Tony. Concern was written in bold dark lines on his face as he made his way right over to Buck. He pulled her brother off the couch and out of the crowd of them before any of them could even think to protest.

Howard came in a step or two behind his son, looking surprised by something—likely their reveal—but covering it as he worked to smooth the imaginary feathers his son’s extraction of their brother hadn’t actually ruffled.

“I’m sorry, Howard,” Gina found herself saying softly.

“For what?”

“For not telling you. About him. Little Jimmy was— And Connie, being a single mom at that time—”

“Was hard,” he cut her off. “Harder than it ever should have been. Did—” he cut the question off and ran a hand over his face, not even sure what he was feeling.

“The Family Trust took good care of them, Howard,” she assured him. “Little Jimmy never wanted for anything but he wasn’t spoiled either. He was a good kid, we all made sure. And, when he was older, Connie went to school, became a writer. Technical writing and a bunch of those cheap old science fiction novels like Buck used to love so much.”

“C.L. Barnes?” he guessed. “She was C.L. Barnes.”

Gina smiled at him. Howard always had been too smart for their own good. “That was her nom de plume, yes.”

“I shoulda known,” he shook his head ruefully. “I always thought Barnes’s Roger sounded a lot like Buck. And his mouthy little sidekick, Grant, that was Steve. Shoulda known. I mean, that it was someone in your family wrote it. Not that I—even I couldn’t have guessed—”

“Is Buck going to be okay?” Liz asked worriedly. “He looked—”

“Devastated,” Doro finished. “He looked devastated.”

“More family’s a good thing,” Howard reassured her. “He wasn’t prepared for this but he’s in the right hands.”

-*-

Tony didn’t stop dragging Yasha through the house until they reached his lab. His isolated, safe, utterly secure lab. Then he double locked the door behind them, just to be thorough.

“Yasha?” he prodded as gently as he could.

The oversized asshole made a sound like a wounded bear and pulled him close. He folded down, hid his face in Tony’s neck, and just breathed for a bit.

“It’s okay,” he ran his hands cautiously up and down Yasha’s back. “It’s alright. You’re alright. It’s December 23, 1991. You are James Buchanan Barnes, known as Bucky to some. Yasha to me. I’m Tony Stark. We time traveled twenty-five years in the past to save the world. You and me, and we’re right on schedule, bud.”

That got him a watery laugh. “Will we be on schedule if we add a five-year-old little girl?”

That set Tony back a moment. “You want to take in your, uh, Darcy?” Because the word granddaughter was just too weird. Even for him.

Yasha pulled back to look at him. “Should I not? I— I’m all she’s got.”

Tony strangled the impulse to scoff. “Pretty sure I just heard an hour explanation of how you’re really not but if that’s what you want…?” he trailed off leadingly.

“I always wanted a family. Just didn’t want a dame to go with it.”

“Then, you and Connie?”

“I…” Yasha tipped his head thinking. “She wanted to try it once, with a fella. And I was so mad at Steve being all fired up to go to war when I woulda done just about anything to stay home. I just didn’t wanna think for a while.”

“Steve can be pretty stubborn,” Tony agreed.

“Stupid, for all he can be brilliant.” Yasha sighed so incredibly put upon. “Short sighted.”

Tony nodded. “You want to bring Darcy here?”

“I need to know she’s safe,” Yasha huffed and leaned into him again. “But I need to know they’re all safe.”

“Well, I can promise you the Sheppards have never been slackers on the security front, nothing like my family, honestly. Patrick’s a good man. And I know the Senator has security. I heard a rumor she’s considering the Democratic nod for President. She’ll have to start campaigning soon, if she wants it though. It’s either her or the governor from Arkansas.”

“Imagine my coming back from the dead would help her out,” Yasha said sardonically.

Tony nodded, “Pretty good bet. And with her in the White House, no one in the military would dare look at you and wonder what they could get away with.”

“And Darcy?”

“I don’t think being the grandniece of the President would up her threat profile.”

“No, I mean—” Yasha huffed and rolled his eyes at himself.

“You mean bringing her here? Well, you know the Security guys. They’d cut off their own hands before they let something happen to her. Between mom, Aunt Peg, and May, she’ll have an amazing compliment of strong female role models. Though I doubt your sisters are just going to let her disappear into our family.”

Yasha bit his bottom lip, “Should we bring her in to the house while Hydra’s still a threat?”

“Realistically, they’re probably always going to be a threat,” Tony said gently. “Or if it’s not them, it’ll be someone else, but we can’t not have lives.”

Tony set his forehead down on Yasha’s collar bone, copying his earlier move and seeking comfort.

“Why don’t we meet her?” he offered after about ten minutes of letting his mind spin and getting exactly nowhere. “See what she’s like, see if she likes us, and then talk to mom. And dad. And your sisters. I can’t see them telling us no and we’re going to have my siblings here in a few months anyway. Even if she’s only here part time, it’ll be like a trial run.”

When Yasha pulled him up, he was smiling. A bit of devilry lit up his eyes and he leaned forward and kissed Tony. Not on the lips, no. He kissed him in that gray area that wasn’t really cheek but wasn’t really mouth, either.

Tony huffed at him and he laughed.

The second time Yasha kissed him properly. On the mouth, with a teasing bit of tongue but no entry.

Tony huffed again and pulled him closer by that ugly red sweater that looked so good on him. “What?”

“We. Us. I like it when you make us a unit.”

“Well, that’s what we are now, asshole, and don’t you forget it.”

“Is that because it’s what you want, though?” Yasha asked, squinting a little like he expected the answer to hurt and he was bracing for it. “Or because you feel like you have to? Like you don’t have any other choice?”

“I can’t imagine being here with anyone else.” Tony admitted, maybe too honestly. “And I don’t want to. Maybe we’ll find out that we don’t work as anything more than a…pair of guys fighting Hydra and saving the world, but I think we can be a lot more. If we both want.”

“We both want,” Yasha assured him and then he picked him up and set him on one of the lab tables.

“Okay, that was hot.” Tony pulled him in between his legs and wrapped them ’round his thighs. “Think you can hold me up while you fuck me?”

Yasha hummed as he dropped a quick peck on his mouth, then nibbled his way down Tony’s jaw. He started working his way down Tony’s throat, alternating nibbles and kisses. “I’d love to try.”

“But not now,” Tony guessed based on his tone.

“When my family is set to descend on us and Duke would love nothing better than to interrupt us halfway through?”

“Okay, point. And—it pains me to say this because you are absolutely mind-blowingly gorgeous—but I’m probably not ready. And I don’t think you’re really ready either.”

“Probably not,” Yasha agreed and took a step back, breaking contact cold turkey.

“Dinner?” Tony asked. “After the big interview thing but before things go crazy with your whole coming back to life thing?”

“Interview, dinner, reinstatement, Wakanda,” Yasha confirmed. Then he smiled. “It’s a date.”

-*-

“So.” Tony turned to see John Sheppard stepping out on the balcony behind him. The oldest son of Patrick Sheppard was about six weeks younger than him, physically speaking. They’d actually had classes together at MIT, unless his memory was completely vodka-drenched. “You’re dating my great uncle.”

And Tony winced.

“My dad’s uncle. That’s, uh—”

“Weird?” Tony offered.

“Little bit.” John squinted and did the slinky little leaning thing he was always so famous for in their social group at school.

“Well, have you seen him?”

“Yeah,” John drawled. “He looks just like my brother, just a little older.”

“And a lot more legal. Your brother’s, what? Fourteen?”

“Seventeen,” John corrected with a roll of his eyes. “Like you can talk though, you look twelve.”

“Don’t be jealous because I look good. In fact, you should be respectful. I’m going to be your Uncle in-law one day.”

Grand Uncle in-law,” John stressed. “So, you’re serious about him?”

“You serious about joining the Air Force?”

“Already did. Start Officer Training School in the New Year.”

“Wow,” Tony said in his best unimpressed tone. “How do you feel about test piloting? I designed something for dad. It’ll be the ride of your life, I swear. I’m sure he can get you in—”

“I joined the Air Force to escape that kind of favoritism, Stark,” Sheppard rolled his eyes.

Tony snapped and pointed, “You know Rhodes went Air Force, too.”

And John blushed. John Sheppard. Blushing. “I am aware of Captain Rhodes, uh, career choices.”

“Oh, my god. You have a crush! That’s amazing!”

“That’s a career killer,” John corrected, biting a lip and looking wary.

“Eh, maybe,” Tony waved that away. “Before I blackmailed the President into changing the UCMJ.”

John sputtered, “Before you what?”

“Well, blackmail might be a little strong of a term. I just made it clear why improving the social standards the military is held to would be a good idea and he agreed. Keep your head down for a few months and then I’ll set you two up. It’ll be great. He’s bi, though, is that a problem?”

John’s jaw worked for several moments before he jerked his thumb back the way he came. “They want you inside. Something to do with Darcy, I think.”

“Oh, right. Good. I was waiting for this.”

“You know what this is about?” John asked, surprised.

“Well, if my future husband wants a girl child, then my future husband is getting a girl child. The only question left in my mind is, how?

“Oh. My. God.”

 

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