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For better or for worse, the 21st century was a different place. The food was different, the clothes were different, the buildings were different. Everything had changed.

Except this.

Steve let his shirt drop back into place with a sigh.

Every single day, he tugged his shirt up and stared at the letters carved at the bottom of his sternum. And every single day, they remained the same. No matter how much time passed, the skin maintained the pink of freshly healed skin and the bumps never flattened down.

He didn’t know why he did the same thing day after day, hoping for a different result. Insanity, probably. All he knew was that each time he lifted his shirt and found the same two letters staring back at him, something inside him splintered a little more.

“You’re a class A fool, Steve Rogers,” he whispered to his reflection. The pathetic mess just stared right back at him.

He brushed a hand roughly through his hair and spun away from the mirror, grabbing his jacket from his bed on the way out the door.

“Morning, Cap.” Steve was eminently proud of the way he contained his surprised flinch.

“Nat,” he said with a nod as Natasha fell into step beside him.

“Early meeting?”

Steve nodded. “Tony’s got an update.”

Nat’s hand landed on his elbow, pausing his long strides. “Steve,” she said. She hesitated then, the words seemingly caught in her throat.

“No,” Steve said before she could articulate what was on her mind. “No, Natasha, I’m not giving-- I can’t just leave him out there. He’s-- it’s Bucky.

“Is it?” Natasha shot back and Steve felt a flash of anger in his gut. It was there all the time, this unease and frustration and disappointment and constant, unwavering, ire and it shocked him how the wrong words could still somehow spark it up even hotter.

He hated feeling like this.

Natasha let her hand drop from his elbow and Steve felt a momentary twinge for making her feel like that. Then she moved the hand to his hair instead, stroking gently. “Look, Steve. I get what this is about.” Her other hand rose to her collarbone, touching it absently before dropping again. “But it isn’t fair to anyone to keep doing this. Not to him. Not to you. You need to give him the space to come back on his own.”

Steve swallowed hard. Swallowed down the words and sadness and ever-present anger that all seemed to be congealing into a lump in his throat. “And what if he doesn’t?”

Natasha’s hand dropped to the back of his neck and scratched gently at the short hairs there. “Then it’ll be his choice not to.” She took her hand back from his neck and touched her collarbone again. “And you’ll go on. You both will.”

There was a curve to her lips that could be called a smile if there wasn’t sorrow in every line it drew in her face. “I’ll see you later,” she said. She tiptoed up and he bent obligingly so she could kiss his cheek, and then she padded off to the kitchen.

Steve glanced after her, then turned left towards the elevator instead. He didn’t have much of an appetite anymore.

--

Steve had been on enough missions with Natasha to know that she always kept a small bandage over her letters. For all that he’d seen of her (their line of work didn’t always accommodate for modesty, after all, and neither of them were particularly shy), there had never even been an instant where the little inscription over her collarbone had been within sight.

He didn’t ask and she returned the favor. Everyone, after all, had their own way of dealing with it. But she assumed. They all did. Assumed that this fervent, almost feverish, search for Bucky had to be driven by something more. He didn’t bother to correct them. If it got him that much more help, then why not?

And he didn’t need the inevitable pity in their eyes if they learned what his letters really said.

The elevator spat him out onto his desired floor and Steve dropped his hand. It always ended up there whenever he thought about the letters, rubbing and rubbing at the spot. Maybe to trace it away. Maybe to make all his wishes come true. He didn’t really know.

The music in the workshop was, of course, blaring as always, though as soon as Steve entered in his keycode, he could feel the vibrations lessen somewhat. Steve felt a little tightening in his chest. Once Tony had learned just how much the serum had enhanced Steve’s hearing, he’d made it a point to make sure the levels never got over a certain decibel whenever Steve was around.

For as fruitless as the search had been, Tony had still been invaluable in the process. After Steve and Sam had spent a few weeks driving around, somewhat aimlessly trying spots that Steve hoped Bucky might come back to, he’d decided enough was enough. He’d shown up to the tower, bags and Sam in tow, and somehow hadn’t been surprised to find Clint and Bruce already living there.

Since the fall of SHIELD, communications had been difficult but Natasha kept him well enough informed on the occasions she resurfaced. Somewhere along the weeks of his road trip, Tony had been established as a reliable ally and support system. Steve trusted Natasha at her word and he was sure that was what had led Clint there too.

Clint and Natasha were sporadic guests at best, popping up now and then between whatever work they were doing in the wake of the Hydra mess and the loss of their cover stories. The others though, him and Bruce and Sam, they’d made Stark Tower their primary place of residence.

“Avengers Tower,” Tony had said. “It’s not just mine anymore.”

It had taken Steve awhile to use the new name. The time it took, he realized, for the tower to go from a place of residence to something more.

To become a home.

“Tony?” Steve called over the still significant music. The workshop was cavernous, filling out the entire floor that upstairs housed a full team of super-powered people.

He found Tony in the far corner, his bare feet sticking out from under his Tesla. The little bit of legs that were visible above them was clad in fraying, grease-stained jeans.

Steve bent and wrapped a hand around one skinny ankle and gave a gentle tug.

The board under Tony rolled easily enough and soon Steve was face-to-face with one confused genius, blinking in the light. There was a smudge of oil on his face and his hair was sticking up in greasy spikes. He was wearing an old t-shirt representing a band that Steve recognized from one of Tony’s ‘music catch-up sessions’ a few weeks ago. (Sam was not happy about those. He claimed that Tony was ‘polluting Steve’s virgin ears with all his crap’. Steve had left them to their heated debate about the virtues of rock over funk and went to grab a snack.)

Steve smiled to himself. Somehow the familiar sight of the man in front of him managed to cool the fiery churning in his gut in a way that nothing else seemed to.

“Steven!” Tony exclaimed, once he’d blinked himself back to the real world.

“Anthony!” Steve exclaimed back in the same tone.

Tony wrinkled his nose. “Ugh, yeah, no, let’s not do that ever again.”

Steve laughed. He nodded at the car behind Tony. He’d been reading about these electric cars the other day and marveled at the innovative design. “What are you doing?”

Tony planted his hands on his hips, one hand still clutching a wrench. “You know, Elon Musk is a great guy and I don’t doubt he’s trying to do some amazing things but his execution leaves more than a little to be desired.”

Steve snorted. “Sure, Tony. It’s got nothing to do with your obsessive need to tinker with everything that you come into contact with.”

Tony waved his wrench in Steve’s direction. “You have been hanging out with JARVIS again. I swear, between the two of you I have no idea how my ego still exists.”

“I think your ego could be spotted from the International Space Station.”

“Alright, that’s it, no more internet for you. Complete lack of access. You are cut off. Cold turkey.”

“Whatever you say, Tony,” Steve said as he turned back towards the middle of the workshop.

Tony followed after him, bumping his shoulder with his own. “Hey, speaking of the Space Station, my buddy said he could Skype with us next week. You still want to talk to a real live astronaut in space?”

Steve’s eyes grew wide. “Your buddy. Wants to Skype with me. From space.”

“Well, buddy might be a bit of a strong word. He’s more a friend of Rhodey’s. Astronauts are like half MIT, half Air Force and between the two, he usually can find his six degrees pretty easily. Or I guess, his one degree in this case. But--”

“His what?”

“--you know what I mean. Oh, you don’t. Six degrees? It’s like a theory that you can connect any two people through six relationships or less. Or rather, you can connect anyone to Kevin Bacon if you try hard enough.” Tony grinned. “You should try it, it’s pretty fun. And actually kind of a cool way to learn about people in the world.”

The next thing Steve knew, he was sitting in front of a picture of some guy named Kevin Bacon.

This was sort of how it always went. At the beginning, his modern day education had been pretty prescriptive. SHIELD had a list of things they thought he should learn about, and he learned. Then, when he’d felt comfortable enough to begin exploring in earnest, he’d started taking notes on things that struck him and that he wanted to learn more about.

Once people knew what he was doing, they were always enthusiastic about sharing their suggestions and he and Sam regularly sat down to movie viewing parties and music listening sessions.

But with Tony, Steve had found that the easiest thing to do was just to blurt out his question. Often enough, that was the only way to get a word in, to just talk over the guy, but Tony was always more than happy to stop what he was doing and give Steve a little catch-up. His mind went in a million different ways anyway and he was more than happy for one of these ways to be Steve’s ever-important education.

Or so he said anyway.

It was a couple of hours of sitting there at the workstation Tony had made for him down here, Tony’s head hovering over his shoulder as he gave a running commentary on the people Steve was clicking on, before Steve remembered what he’d come down there before.

The endless game of six degrees had somehow led him to Buster Keaton - Bucky’s favorite actor. He fawned over the guy, to an almost dangerous degree sometimes when he tried to emulate some of Buster’s more famous stunts.

A wave of guilt instantly swept over him.

Sitting here with Tony, laughing as Tony threw in little insights about those he’d met and ridiculous speculations about those he hadn’t, the warmth of Tony’s body hovering just behind him, it was easy to let the rest of the world fall away. To pretend that nothing existed beyond the workshop, that his best friend wasn’t out there somewhere with no idea who he was, tortured beyond recognition. To forget that no matter what he did, the evils never seemed to be put to rest and that the world was spinning madly on and people were dying no matter how much he tried. And to forget the stupidly significant letters printed on his chest.

He was so tired.

“Hey,” Tony said quietly as Steve’s head drooped. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see Tony sit down on the stool next to him and a moment later, Tony’s hand landed on his shoulder.

Steve just buried his face in his hands instead. He didn’t want Tony to see him like this, was afraid of what Tony might find if he looked into his eyes right then.

Tony didn’t say anything more, just swiped his thumb back and forth over Steve’s shoulder.

Eventually, Steve lifted his head. He stared straight ahead, at the screen that had now been wiped clean of any images, his eyes unfocused. Tony’s thumb stopped moving and Steve could feel the stiffness in his grip, as if Tony was holding his breath.

“I’m a terrible person,” Steve murmured, and whatever he’d been expecting his mouth to say, it wasn’t that.

Apparently Tony hadn’t been either, if the sharp intake of breath was anything to go by.

“What, no, are you serious, you are like the least terrible person in the world,” Tony rushed to say. He stopped talking abruptly and then the hand on Steve’s shoulder was gone.

Tony reappeared in the corner of his vision as he perched delicately on the desk next to the keyboard. “Steve,” he said softly. “Steve,” he said again, and Steve slid his eyes over to him. “It’s not--“ He bit off the rest of that thought with a frustrated look. “You can’t…” he tried again, the words more gentle this time. “You can’t save the world. That’s too much for any one man to carry. Trust me, I learned that the hard way.”

“I’m not-- it was my fault this happened! I should have known, I should have seen something!”

“Steve--“

“There was something wrong, after we found him. He wasn’t the same. They did something and I should have known--”

“Steve, it wasn’t your fault. You can’t keep punishing yourself forever. You need to--” Tony leaned down and dropped his hands onto Steve’s shoulders. “You have to let yourself be happy. You deserve to.”

“And he doesn’t?” Steve snapped, shoving Tony’s hands away. “You know, everyone thinks I’m so desperate to get him back because he’s my- my soulmate.” He spat out the last word, the taste of it dirty in his mouth. “But he’s not! He’s not my soulmate! He’s just…He’s Bucky. He’s my Bucky.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “And I failed him.” He dropped his elbows to his knees and buried his face in his hands again.

There was silence from above him. Silence long enough for Steve’s racing heart to slow and his breathing to even out. And only when he felt his shoulders stop shaking did Tony speak again.

“You know,” Tony started quietly, “when I was in college, I used to hope that Rhodey had a different name. That somehow the VP on my shoulder had to be wrong.” Steve felt a jolt. So there it was. Tony’s letters. “Because if this man, this man who shaped me and saved me and was everything to me, if this guy wasn’t my soulmate…what more could there be, you know? And it’s different, of course. It’s different with Pepper. But it doesn’t make it any less, you know?”

He knew Tony was still speaking, had been for awhile, but he couldn’t hear anything through the roaring in his ears. Pepper. That was it.

Because Tony had a soulmate that wasn’t Steve. One that was here, in his life, every single day. In every sense of the word.

He was an idiot. A complete and utter sociopathic delirious mess. Because what kind of man fell for someone who wasn’t…

He rubbed at his sternum again.

“I need to go,” Steve said abruptly, standing up so suddenly the stool he’d been sitting on fell backward with a loud clatter.

“Oh, uh, okay.” Steve didn’t stay long enough to try and figure out what that tone was in Tony’s words. He had somewhere he had to be.

--

It never got any easier. He’d been to the nursing home time after time and he knew, by now, what would happen. He knew that everything he said would just disappear into thin air after a time.

He still kept trying.

“Hey, Peggy,” he said, taking the thin hand in his own. He swiped a thumb over the papery skin. “How’s my best girl?”

“Steve?” she said, a slight croak to her voice. Steve reached for the cup of water on her bedside table with his free hand. “Is that you?”

“Yeah, Pegs, it’s me.” He extended the drink to her, pointing the straw towards her lips. “Here, have some water.”

She sipped obediently until it was gone and he took the empty cup away as she settled back onto the pillows. The smile she gave him was positively beatific.

“I knew you’d come back,” she said into the silence as he struggled to think of a new way to take the conversation.

She tightened her fingers around his and tugged, taking his hand with him to the spot right below her chest. “I felt it,” she said, letting their hands rest there. “Right here.”

Steve swallowed past the lump in his throat, the lump that never seemed to go away nowadays, and smiled shakily at her. He reached up slowly, his arm feeling a bit like it was moving through molasses, and touched the back of his hand against her cheek. Peggy turned her head slightly, leaning into the touch. Her eyes fluttered close.

“Shh, I’m here now, Peggy. I’m here.”

--

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve stopped just inside the building at the call. He swiped quickly at his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned around.

“Yes?”

The portly woman, a nurse by the look of her outfit, came forward, a bright smile on her face. She stuck out her hand and Steve took it obediently, shaking briefly. “My name’s Matilda, I’m the nurse in charge of Mrs. Jones’s care.”

He blinked, thrown for a moment before he remembered that that was Peggy’s name now.

“Oh, right, nice to meet you,” Steve replied.

“I’m sorry to approach you like this, we usually try to give space to make visitors as comfortable as possible but I just had to come and say thank you.”

Steve frowned.

“Your visits have done wonders for Mrs. Jones. Ever since her husband passed away, and what with her kids all living so far away, she’d been having fewer and fewer lucid moments and seemed to be falling into a depression. You being here…you’ve given her some of her spirit back. I know it can’t be easy for you,” she said, sympathy in her face, “but I just wanted to let you know that it makes a difference. So thank you.”

Steve opened his mouth, but then just closed it again and nodded wordlessly. The nurse gave him one last kind smile before turning back to her duties, leaving Steve just staring after her in befuddlement and slight wonder.

--

“Thought you can’t get drunk.”

He should have known Tony would find him. The man seemed to have a sixth sense for Steve’s moods.

“Yeah,” Steve said, taking another swig from the bottle. “Doesn’t stop me from trying sometimes."

“Fair enough,” Tony said with a shrug. He plopped down onto the couch next to Steve. “But don’t you know you’re not supposed to drink alone?” He reached a hand out and Steve rolled his eyes at the hypocrisy of that statement but obediently passed the bottle over anyway.

“I want to show you something,” Steve said once Tony had taken a healthy swig or two. He stood up, untucking his shirt as he went.

“Woah, Steve, I’ve seen those abs and trust me, I think they’re as spectacular as the next person. Actually, probably even more than the next person, seriously those things are a work of--“

“Tony,” Steve said. “Shut up.”

“--art. Okay, yeah, shutting up now.” Tony threw his hands up in a defensive gesture. “I’m ready for the abs.”

Steve bit back a smile and lifted his shirt. And kept lifting, until the fabric moved up past the point he’d always been so careful of keeping covered.

He stood there for a moment, holding his shirt up to his neck and just watching as Tony’s expression went from teasing to shock to wonder to quiet contemplation. Once it settled into that stage, Steve dropped his shirt back down again.

“Huh,” Tony said and Steve could discern absolutely nothing from that one sound. “Peggy, huh?”

Steve blinked, surprised and then resigned. If anyone could figure it out that quickly, it would be Tony. He’d known her, after all, and his brain was always two steps ahead of everyone else’s. “Yeah,” Steve said, sitting down again. Tony remained silent and Steve didn’t even have it in him to marvel at the fact.

He had no idea what possessed him to do that. All he knew is that he’d suddenly been overwhelmed with the desire to show Tony, to make him understand. To let Tony have that part of him as much as he had everything else.

Because that’s what it felt like. Like each time they spent time together, Tony was gathering pieces of him, whatever Steve would give him, and Steve was doing the same. And the more time went on, the more Steve wanted to give and give until he was just there, completely open and laid bare and it scared him, it terrified him, and he couldn’t understand it and he couldn’t stop it.

And now he’d gone and given one piece too many.

“Thank you for showing me,” Tony said, finally, when Steve felt like he would combust if he sat there for one moment more waiting. There was still that bit of wonder in his face. Steve could hear it in his voice too.

He could maybe understand where it came from. Showing your letters to someone who wasn’t the subject of them, that was rare. But Tony had revealed his. And didn’t he understand how much Steve trusted him? Couldn’t he see how Steve felt about him?

Maybe that was the problem. Tony didn’t understand what Steve was doing, didn’t get how wrong this whole thing was.

“She’s…not well,” Steve said.

“I know,” Tony replied quietly, too much, far too much sympathy in his eyes. Steve wanted to throw up, wanted to tear his gaze away, wanted anything but this.

He’d never know what made him do it. Maybe the alcohol had had some effect after all, at the speed he’d been drinking. All he knew was that one moment he was sitting there, staring at Tony from a respectful distance, and the next he was lunging forward, his lips not meeting Tony’s so much as crashing into them hard. He pulled back just as quickly, completely mortified, and the familiar self-loathing punched him hard in the gut as he realized what he’d done.

“Shit, Tony, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t--“ He struggled to his feet, his limbs feeling like they didn’t belong on his body anymore, like he’d just got the serum all over again. He couldn’t bear to look at Tony, couldn’t face what he was sure to see there.

He ran.

--

It was a week before Sam appeared on his doorstep. A week he was surprised to have, if he was being honest.

“Look man, I have no idea what happened between you and Stark but you need to get your ass back to New York,” Sam said as soon as Steve opened the door. “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for you here?” His gaze roved over the small apartment behind Steve, the one Steve’d found fully furnished on Craigslist and paid cash for. He still wasn’t surprised they found him. “You can’t just take off like that.”

“I’ll be fine,” Steve said. “I had to-- I can’t stay there. Not where Tony just--”

“What about Barnes?” Sam interjected. “You just giving up on him too?”

“I’m not giving up on anybody,” Steve said through gritted teeth. “I’m trying my best, Sam, I’m trying okay, but I can’t-- I can’t go back there, you don’t understand what I did--“

Sam stared at him shrewdly. “You know, Stark didn’t tell me exactly what went down between you two. He just told me to tell you that if you want, he can pretend it never happened, no big deal.”

Steve opened his mouth but Sam kept going.

“I can damn well guess what happened though. And my guess is that you’re being an idiot. Look, whatever is going on between you two, that’s for you to figure out. If you really want to pretend it doesn’t exist, that’s your choice. But you can’t run away from it. You can’t just hide here.”

Steve sighed. “I know. I just…I needed to…”

“To get some space, I get it. Everybody needs space to figure shit out. But I would think you, of all people, would get how it feels to be on the other side of that space.”

Steve clenched his jaw. “It’s not the same. Bucky isn’t safe, he’s--“

Sam threw his hands up. “Hey, I know, I saw him too, remember? I get it. I’m just saying. Whatever else, you and Tony, you’re important to each other. Both of you. To each other.” Sam shrugged. “Just think you should remember that.”

Steve bit his lip. “How is he?” he asked, his voice softer.

“Worried, mostly. As are some other people.”

Steve swiped a hand over his face. “Okay,” he said, barely a whisper. “I…just give me a couple of days.”

Sam nodded. “Friday. I expect you back in the tower by then.”

Steve fought back the urge to salute and nodded.

--

“Look, Tony, I’m sorry. I never meant anything by it, I was just sad and lonely and stupid, oh god, so stupid, Rogers, you are the world’s biggest idiot--“

“I think these things work better if you’re actually facing the person you’re saying them to.”

Steve jumped and whirled around. Tony was leaning against the doorframe, an unreadable look on his face. He had a glass of something amber in his hand.

“Oh, I-- hey.”

“You’re not an idiot,” Tony said, stepping into the room. Though he was walking perfectly straight, Steve could see in his face that this wasn’t his first drink of the night.

“Well, not the world’s biggest, at least,” he continued as he came to a stop in front of Steve, leaving barely a foot between them. “That seems more than a little unlikely.”

Steve took a step back and the teasing grin fell off Tony’s face.

“Tony, look, about what happened.” Steve rubbed at the back of his head. “I’m so so sorry, I know you and Pepper are-- Well, I never should have--”

“No.”

Steve stopped, blinked. “No, what? Yeah, I shouldn’t have done it, I--”

“No, Steve, just--” Tony sighed. “I’m not with Pepper. And you complain about me not listening. Did you not hear anything I said in the workshop? Yes, I love Pepper, of course I do. But me and her, we don’t work like that. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely gave it a try. Soulmates, right? That’s what’s supposed to happen, you kiss and there’s explosions in the sky. We kissed. There were explosions. The two were unrelated. No causation. The explosions were, well, Rhodey and I might have gotten a little overenthusiastic in taking down Vanko but--”

Tony cut himself off, probably realizing he had completely lost the thread of the conversation.

“Look, the point is, the soulmates thing? It’s crap. Well, I don’t know if it always was, I think there’s still something that happens there, in that connection, but I think the meaning of it, somewhere along the line it got lost. Who says the only way for someone to be your soulmate is to fuck them? And who wants to be told who they’re supposed to fuck? Not that I’m just interested in the fucking but-- Oh god, I’m not explaining this at all.”

Tony took a deep breath and stepped forward to close the gap between them again, leaving Steve pressed against the window with no more space to give. “It’s like this. I’m not interested in-- I don’t want it to just happen. Whatever this is,” he said, gesturing between them. “I earned it. I earned that weird fluttering in my stomach that I get whenever you’re drawing in the workshop and I look over and you’re patting DUM-E’s strut and not even realizing it, when you’ve got your tongue sticking out the corner of your lips ‘cos you’re so focused on your beautiful work in front of you. I earned that insane thumping in my chest that cannot be healthy for someone in my condition, that irregular bump that happens whenever you give me that little smile, not that stupid sad one that you always hide behind, that one that appears more and more as each day without a trace of Barnes goes by, you cannot believe how much I loathe that smile. No, I’m talking about the other one, the one that happens when some new discovery delights you or I’ve said something you don’t want to admit amuses you or when everyone’s here and we’re all just eating together and hanging out and everybody’s relaxed and-- and happy. I earned it, Steve, I earned the joy I get when I see you happy.

“So no. It wasn’t predetermined. I didn’t feel like a part of my soul was adrift until our eyes first met. Actually, I’m pretty sure I hated you when our eyes first met. But I chose to, we chose to get to know each other better. We chose to become this, whatever this is.

“Pepper is, in a lot of ways, she saved me. And I’ll always be grateful. I’ll always love her. But you. You’re-- you’re my person. You’re my Steve. And I choose that. I choose to--”

Tony’s mouth snapped shut and he glanced away suddenly, as if he thought he’d said too much. He stepped back and Steve clenched his fist so that he wouldn’t reach out and stop him. “I can’t make you-- I don’t want to--” He shook his head hard, looked up at Steve.

“I just hope you choose me too.”

Steve stared at him, his mind racing a million miles a minute, his mouth wanting to say a thousand different things and he couldn’t figure out which.

“I need- I need some time,” Steve said.

Tony nodded. There was absolute defeat written into every line on his face but he nodded. Then he turned on his heel and walked out.

--

A few hours later, Steve found Tony sitting up on the roof, his legs bent and his arms folded over them with his chin resting on top. He was staring straight out in front of him, at the stars that glittered in front of him, the stubborn ones that refused to be fought down by New York’s intense light pollution. He suddenly looked about thirty years younger.

He didn’t move a muscle, even as Steve walked over and took a seat next to him. He did speak, after a long quiet moment, not turning his head.

“You know,” he said, the words strangely hushed, as if he was trying to keep them small and contained somehow, “even when I was little, there was something about the sky that always drew me in. Whenever my dad was being, well, my dad, and it all got to be a bit too much, I’d crawl out the window of my bedroom and just sit on the roof. Hours at a time, sometimes. It drove Jarvis nuts.  ‘specially when I came down with pneumonia after a particularly bad night in the middle of winter.

“But I didn’t care. Sitting out there, flying in the Iron Man suit, whatever. Somehow the sky always seems to make things better.”

He turned his head, resting his cheek on his arms and peering at Steve in the dim moonlight. “I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re going to turn me down, reject this, whatever this is, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t do it here.”

Steve stared down at Tony, at the red tingeing the edges of his puffy eyes, at the resigned sorrow on his face, and felt something seize inside of him.

“This was the first place I looked for you.”

Tony blinked, clearly not expecting that response. His brow furrowed.

“I knew that…well I didn’t know the full extent until now, I guess, but I knew that about you. That your workshop is your hiding place but nothing can make you feel safe the way the sky can. That you take the Iron Man suit out for spins sometimes when everything seems like too much and you just fly and fly. But you can’t do that right now because you’ve been drinking and after what happened last time, you’ve written a failsafe that stops you from doing that.

“I know all that not because,” He tapped at his sternum. “Not because some letters I was born with told me. But because I know you. You’re right. I earned that knowledge, through days spent in the workshop and nights eating out together and three am nonsensical chats because one of us can’t sleep and the sound of another person’s voice is all we need in that moment. I earned it and I chose to earn it and…it means something. And I want to keep learning Tony, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of you and it’s not enough. I want more, I want all of it. All of you.”

Tony lifted his head from his arms, leaving it cocked slightly to one side as he just gazed at Steve.

“You talked to Pepper didn’t you?” he said eventually.

Steve bit his lip but nodded.

“Of course you did, you wouldn’t be Steve if you hadn’t.”

“I just wanted to make sure-- this is so new and-- I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. But I also don’t…” Steve scratched at his head, frustrated at the words that didn’t seem to be coming out right.

“I talked to her. But after what you said, I’m not sure it would have mattered. Because if you feel even a fraction of what I’m feeling for you, if you--” He swallowed. “Well, I’m not sure I can give that up.”

Tony stared at him. And then slowly, tentatively, leaned forward, keeping his eyes locked on Steve’s. When Steve followed suit, Tony reached a hand up to rest on the back of Steve’s head, pulling him down gently, pausing one more time to run his eyes over Steve’s face, and then finally, finally, bringing their mouths together.

Steve tasted whiskey under his lips and rough beard scratched at his chin and the hair tangled in his fingers was sticky with grease but he didn’t care. These were all just reminders that this was Tony he was kissing.

Not his soulmate. Not The One. Just Tony.

And Steve wouldn’t trade him for anyone.

--

He went back to see Peggy regularly. And when the next good day came around, he filled her in on everything.

“Oh, I could have told you that,” Peggy said after he’d caught her up, a feeling of ‘pish-posh’ coming through her words. “All that soulmate nonsense. I’ll never understand why people think there’s one universal definition for what that means. It’s just like any relationship. It means different things to different people."

“I think…” Steve started slowly, thinking aloud. “I think we were meant to help each other through. I think you, you pulled me through the ice somehow.”

“And you,” Peggy said with a small curve to her lips, lines crinkling around her eyes, “you pull me through everyday.”

He smiled back. He wouldn’t have wished for things to turn out this way. There’s no world on which he would wish this on anybody, this slow loss of self as your mind turned against you. But if, through those stupid letters, he could be her anchor, if those carvings and his words were what kept her here, kept her fighting, well, that was something.

“Now, enough stalling. Where is the illustrious Anthony Stark? It’s been years since I’ve seen the boy, I’m anxious to see how he’s turned out.” She grinned. “Must have been spectacular to put that look in your eye.”

“You would know,” Steve replied with a snort. “You were the first to put it there.”

“So I was,” she murmured. “But not the last. So let’s meet him. This ‘last’.”

Steve smiled. He stood and patted her hand gently before heading for the door.

“Tony?” he said, sticking his head out into the hall. Tony was just where Steve left him, which was surprising in and of itself. More surprising was that he had no gadget in his hand distracting him. He was just leaning against the wall across from the door, his fingers tapping an irregular rhythm against the surface behind him.

At Steve’s call, he shouldered off the wall and came over. “She ready for me?”

“As ready as any person can ever be,” Steve replied with a smirk.

Steve expected some kind of quip back or at least a roll of the eyes but instead Tony just nodded sharply, swiping at his hair.

“Are you nervous?” Steve asked, slightly incredulous.

“Me? Noooo, of course not.” And there was the fiery, spitting, Tony Steve knew. “Why would I be nervous? I’m just meeting the woman whose initials you have carved into your chest. Why would that make me nervous?”

Steve smiled. “You’ll be fine. She only bites sometimes.”

“I may be bloody old but I’m not deaf,” Peggy called from behind him. “Let’s get this show on the road while I’m still ticking, shall we?

Tony winced as Steve’s smile broadened into a grin. He pulled open the door further to let Tony in.

Door shut, Steve turned back around to find that Tony had barely stepped into the room. Steve rolled his eyes and gave him a gentle shove forward, then leant back against the door to give them space.

“Hello Tony, it’s good to see you again.”

“You too,” Tony said after a moment. He stepped forward further and sank into the chair by Peggy’s bedside. “It’s nice, really nice, to see you too.”

Steve tipped his head back against the door and for the first time in what felt like a long time, let the feelings in his gut fill him up completely and felt his lips curve up in response.

--

It was only when they finally fell into bed, a couple of weeks after this whole thing started (‘Steve, no, we’re supposed to be taking it slow. Steee-hergh-mmm, oh god, why’) that Steve finally got to see it.

Tony was curled up on his side faced away, half-asleep already and waiting for Steve’s arm to come around his waist. Instead, Steve was tracing the tattoo on his right shoulder blade, the pad of his finger following the shape of the letters.

“J, R,” he murmured. “James Rhodes.”

He moved his hand to Tony’s left shoulder blade, smiling slightly at the goosebumps that appeared on the skin under his finger.

“V, P.” These letters were in the color he was so familiar with, the light pink of freshly healed skin. “Virginia Potts.”

He leaned back a little, looking at the two different sets of initials, one in deep black ink and the other carved right into the skin but still both, he knew, with the same meaning to Tony.

“One on each shoulder blade,” Steve said, tilting forward again to speak right into Tony’s ear so as not to break the peaceful atmosphere in the room. “Because they always have your back?”

Tony started to turn and Steve pulled his head back, readjusting until they were lying face to face on their pillows.

“No,” Tony said, matching his volume to Steve’s. His hand slid down to capture Steve’s and he brought their entwined fingers to rest between their bodies. “They’re my wings. Without them, I couldn’t fly.”

Steve smiled at the simple admission. He thought about Peggy, back before the ice, back when it had mostly been fear that had been leading him blindly to Bucky’s side. Fear of loss, fear of pain.

He brought their hands towards his sternum and looked down. “I used to think she was my guts, you know? Kept me putting one foot after the other, even after.

“But now…Now I think she’s my air. When I was under the ice, she kept me breathing. And when everything is falling apart…” He looked up at Tony again, meeting the solemn gaze that seemed to be boring right into him. “She’s my deep breath. She’s my deep, steadying, breath.”

“And what are we?” Tony asked, not saying the words as much as exhaling them.

Steve shuffled closer until they were almost chest-to-chest, with nothing but their tangled hands between them. “We-- You.” He took a deep breath. “You’re my heart.”

Tony stared at him and Steve stared right back, their faces pressed close together and their breaths becoming one.

Then Tony tilted his head until their foreheads were touching, opened his mouth and whispered, “That was the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Steve blinked. Then he laughed, a quick snort that he tried to bite back so he wouldn’t give Tony the satisfaction. Tony grinned anyway and Steve couldn’t have that, no, definitely not. He tugged his hand out of Tony’s grip and threw it over his waist, then rolled them both so that he was hovering over Tony.

“Yes?” Tony said through his smirk.

Steve’s brain was refusing to cooperate and supply him with a witty rejoinder so instead he chose the only surefire way of shutting Tony up.

Keeping his mouth occupied with something else.