The youngest soulmating Steve had ever heard of was Joey McDermott and Mary Catherine Riley, who'd been steadies since kindergarten and sealed their bond when they were nine. And it wasn't a gag; he'd seen it happen with his own eyes.
Most Saturdays, all the kids on Steve's street would beg a nickel from their folks and go down to the theater to see the feature. Bucky was always there, which meant Steve was welcome, too, when he was well enough.
That week, it was been some sappy romance, and Steve and Bucky had both been more interested in hearing about Kevin Kinnon's new pet lizard than what was happening on the screen, but on the walk back to the neighborhood, someone started in teasing Joey and Mary Catherine how they should kiss like at the end of the movie, with a big dip and everything. And the more the others teased, the redder Joey's neck got and the more Mary Catherine giggled, and the more the others teased.
Steve thought about stepping in to say something in their defense (he could practically feel Bucky getting ready to grab his arm and haul him back), but before Steve could make up his mind, Joey snapped out, "Fine!" He grabbed Mary Catherine and dipped her (it wasn't near as smooth as the guy in the movie, with Mary Catherine was squeaking and flailing in surprise instead of swooning gracefully) and kissed her, an awkward mash of his lips against her still-laughing mouth.
And right there in the street, both Joey and Mary Catherine... lit up. Like a matchhead suddenly caught, a flare of light so bright they probably could'a seen it on the Moon, shining from right under their skin. All the kids froze, staring in disbelief. They didn't even test for a soulbond until you were sixteen, but everyone knew what it looked like, anyway.
The flare died down after just a second or two, and then another second or two later, Joey stood Mary Catherine back up on her feet and they stared at each other while all the other kids kept staring at them. Finally, Mary Catherine touched her lips and said, "It sparkles," and that set off everyone whooping home yelling, Guess guess guess what just happened!
When they were thirteen, Mary Catherine Riley died of the flu.
Kevin Kinnon said something under his breath at the funeral about how if anyone was gonna die of the flu, he'd'a thought it would've been Steve, and Bucky would've beat Kevin to a pulp right behind the church if Steve hadn't put a stop to it.
Normally, if it'd been anyone else that Kevin had been talking about, Steve would've jumped right in to help Bucky whale on Kevin for a crack like that. But privately, Steve thought Kevin was right -- Steve was sick and small and hardly worth anything, and Mary Catherine had been beautiful and happy and healthy, and it sure didn't seem right for her to be laying up there in the church while Steve was down here in the tiny graveyard trying to pull Bucky off Kevin Kinnon's back.
Bucky let Steve pull him off, but they both cut Kevin at school from then on, and for a month or two the schoolyard was sharply divided in its loyalty between Kevin and Bucky, until most of the kids forgot about the spat and moved on to more interesting things.
Mary Catherine was buried in the Riley plot, of course, but there was a line added to her marker about her having been betrothed to McDermott, which Steve thought was a nice touch.
Joey McDermott stopped growing. At twelve, Joey had been the tallest boy in his class by half a hand; at fifteen and a half, just months shy of when everyone else was going to be tested, Joey still looked thirteen, only a couple of inches taller than Steve and not a single hint of hair on his face or chest.
"It's the grief," Bucky's Ma said, trying to chivvy Steve into taking seconds even as she smacked Bucky's knuckles with her spoon for reaching across the table. "Can't grow properly with only half a soul, everyone knows that." She clucked her tongue. "That poor boy, so young... Lord knows I pray none of mine will end up with a bond, nor you either, Steven. It's a blessing, of course, but it's a heavy burden as well." She crossed herself with a pious sigh and then returned to her previous refrain. "But if you don't eat a little more, Steven, you're not even going to catch up with poor Joey, and then where will you be?" She pointed her spoon at Bucky without even looking at him. "Mister, you had best be reaching for that bread basket so you can offer some to your friend and not because you intend to eat a fourth roll on your own."
Only three kids of the two hundred or so in their class at school tested positive, which was about average -- two years ago, there had been six, and that had been the most anyone had ever heard of for at least a decade before that.
The three of them -- Steve and Betty Davenport and Esther Gilden -- sat alone in a quiet classroom, waiting for the Soulbond Orientation Instructor to show up, not looking at each other.
"My brother," Esther finally whispered into the silence, "he said in his year, they had four, and they all kind of... tested it out before the instructor showed up." She paused, carefully not looking up from her hands in her lap. "On each other," she clarified, as if Betty and Steve hadn't already figured out exactly what she meant.
"I feel sorry for whoever's stuck with Steve," Betty sniffed, and Steve had never, would never hit a girl, 'cause his Ma had raised him to be a gentleman, but damn if Betty didn't make him want to.
He felt the back of his neck grow hot and he made himself uncurl his fists where they'd bunched up at his sides, and carefully didn't look to see if Esther was smirking or covering a giggle or looking at him at all.
The door opened before any of them could say anything else, but it was the doctor and not the instructor. He beckoned to Steve, and took him to another empty classroom, and Steve wondered briefly if they separated the boys and girls for Soulbond Orientation like they'd done for Hygiene. It seemed silly, for such a small group. But then the doctor was talking and Steve's head was spinning with confusion.
"Wait," he finally had to say, and sank down into a chair, his hands shaking worse than they had the time he'd got pneumonia. "Wait. What do you mean, my bond isn't fully formed?"
The doctor pulled out the teacher's chair and sat across from Steve, his hands folded and his face solemn and kindly. "It happens once in a while," he said. His voice was soft and gentle, and irrationally, it made Steve angry. Such ugly news ought to be delivered in a more fitting tone. "The most likely cause is that your intended mate died before you were born or shortly after they were born, before the bond had time to fully form. It's called a Type C or a Type--"
Steve wasn't interested in the terminology. "Is that why I'm... like this?" He gestured down at his frail, sickly body.
"Probably," the doctor said. "There are some further tests we can give you, down at the hospital, to determine--"
"Why bother?" Steve growled, slumping back in his chair and crossing his arms. "My mate is dead and no one else is going to want me, not like this." Tears stung his eyes and he blinked them back furiously.
"It's also possible, though less likely, that you're a Type A -- firstborn of the pairing -- but that your mate has simply not yet been born," the doctor said.
"Is there a way to test for that?"
The doctor's shoulders rippled in a complicated shrug. "We can perform the soulbond test again," he said, "at a later date. If your mate has appeared in the meantime, the results should then come back as a fully formed bond, open and ready to complete the connection."
"But there's no way to find out now, for sure, whether they're dead or just not born yet?" Steve pressed.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Then forget it," Steve snapped. "Not much point to any of it, is there?" He grabbed up his jacket and books and stamped out of the classroom, heading straight home, for once not even wanting to see Bucky.
"Lotsa folks with bonds never even find their other halves," Bucky pointed out relentlessly, as he had probably hundreds of times over the last decade. "Doesn't mean you can't have any fun. Come on, I've got it all set up."
"Bucky," Steve groaned, "not tonight, okay? No one is gonna want--"
"If you finish that," Bucky said, lifting a ham-like fist, "I'm gonna pop you right in the kisser."
"Closest to a kiss I'll have gotten since Ma passed," Steve sniped back.
"C'mon," Bucky wheedled, shifting his approach. "Daisy's a tiny thing herself, maybe she won't be so stuck-up about you bein' short as that other girl, whats-her-name--"
"Ginny," Steve supplied, though it made his blood run hot even just thinking of the way she'd turned up her nose before Steve had even managed to say good evening.
"Yeah, she was a piece'a work," Bucky rattled on, throwing his arm around Steve's shoulders and more or less manhandling him up the stairs. "Swear ta God, Stevie, if I'd known she was gonna be such a bitch--"
Bucky snorted. "Yeah, yeah. Anyway, Daisy's a sweetheart, a real doll, I promise." He pushed open the door to their flat. "Go wash your face. I've got three days left before I have to leave for Basic; hell if I'm spending 'em all sitting around here watching your mopey sad eyes."
Daisy did turn out to be tiny -- even shorter than Steve -- and she was very nice, but while Bucky and his date were dancing, she patted Steve's hand with a wistful smile and said, "I'm sorry, Steve, but I don't want to lead you on. I'm not just some good-time gal, and, well, you seem like a stand-up fella, but I just couldn't get involved with a man who's got a soulmate waiting out there. What if you actually met her one day? Where would that leave me?"
But I wouldn't know, Steve wanted to protest. I wouldn't know it was them unless I kissed them, and I wouldn't ever be unfaithful to you if you were mine. But he couldn't quite promise that, could he? He remembered Joey and Mary Catherine, inseparable from the first moment they had met, no matter how their friends teased or parents scolded. They'd known, somehow, even though it was another four years before that fateful kiss had revealed the bond and opened its full potential for them. Steve knew better than to trust movies, of course, but even the medical literature talked about the way soulmates seemed to be drawn together from the moment of their first meeting.
So he just nodded his understanding and offered to fetch Daisy another drink, which gave him an excuse to walk away for a few minutes and recover his composure -- when was he gonna learn to stop hoping? He walked her home at the end of the night, because his Ma had raised him to be a gentleman, but when they reached her door, Steve shook her hand and wished her luck and didn't try to even kiss her cheek.
Steve sat, hunched against the chill of the air, on the examining table. The doctor and his assistant were bustling around him, measuring and taking samples and poking and proding. He responded to their brusque instructions, but otherwise couldn't quite force himself to care.
Erskine was dead.
So was the man who'd shot him, but that was cold comfort, because he'd killed himself, some kinda poison tooth or something, like something right out of a spy novel.
And Erskine was still dead.
His formula was gone with him, and Colonel Phillips was probably still ranting about the useless waste of time and money, but Steve had been with the scientists and doctors for hours now, letting them poke and prod and measure and sample. He wondered if any of them were even talking to each other, because they'd measured his height at least six times, now.
It looked like this was going to be his life for the next several months, so he might as well get used to it. The scientists weren't going to let him go until they'd figured out how to replicate Erskine's serum. He was back to being useless, and with even less of an excuse than before. Steve balled up his fist and nearly punched the table beside him out of sheer anger and frustration -- but then he recalled the mess he'd made an hour or so earlier when they'd been testing his strength. He forced himself to relax his hand and rest it on his thigh again, and looked around for something to distract himself with.
The doctor was talking to a couple of the scientists out in the hallway. His voice wasn't raised, and yesterday Steve would barely have been able to make out a murmur through the door, but now he could hear every word.
"...peak of human abilities, even exceeding it in some cases, such as strength and healing. The serum seems to be still working, in fact. It didn't make changes and then fall inert, but continues to be an active factor in Private Rogers' system. It seems to be trying to force him to grow to meet his genetic potential for height and skeletal structure, but the degenerative effects of the incomplete soulbond seem to be preventing the serum from completing that task. If Rogers turns out to be a Type A after all, he may well find himself shooting up in height and breadth over a matter of mere weeks when his bondmate is finally born."
The scientist snorted, and Steve heard footsteps as they moved further down the hall. "That'd be something to see, but the kid's twenty-five, even if he still looks fifteen. The chances of his bondmate appearing now are slim to none. Tell me more about these agility results, though..."
Bucky was gone.
Steve threw back another slug of the whiskey, barely tasting it, and feeling its burn only for a second at the back of his throat. He was halfway through the bottle, now, and had yet to feel even a hint of dizziness, much less the oblivion he craved.
He could still see the terror in Bucky's eyes as he fell. Could still smell the heavy smoke of the train overlaying the clean scent of the snow and pine forest below.
Could still feel that instant's brush of Bucky's fingers against his own. If Steve's arm had been a couple of inches longer, he might've been able to grab Bucky's wrist, and hold.
Steve lifted the bottle directly to his lips, gulping the stuff like water, desperate. He heard footsteps behind him, and knew without looking who it was.
Peggy hadn't seemed to care about his unformed bond, and Steve had actually begun to hope again. But right now, he doubted even his soulmate could move him.
In fact, Steve hated his soulmate in that moment -- for dying too young, or for being born too late, whichever it was. He knew it was irrational, and didn't care. A fully-formed bond would have given him those few extra inches... Steve wiped his face on his sleeve, took another slug out of the bottle, and tried to pretend he hadn't noticed Peggy standing behind him.
He wasn't cold.
He was lying on a bed or a cot, and there was a radio broadcasting what sounded like a baseball game. There was an open window nearby, the breeze occasionally eddying across his skin. The sounds drifting in from outside were city sounds.
From the radio came the crack of a bat. The announcer, voice tight with excitement, called the play.
Steve remembered that play. He frowned.
He and Bucky had gone to that game, hadn't they, a few years back? Steve opened his eyes.
The room was bright and white and would have seemed cold and sterile without the radio and the vase of flowers.
Steve had been in a lot of hospitals. None of them had looked like this.
The announcer went on calling a game that Steve had already seen.
He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His feet thumped the floor long before he expected them to, and looked down in surprise to look at his legs, and then his hands and his arms.
He'd been muscular, since the serum, but now the length of his arms seemed proportionate to his bulging biceps. His legs were longer, long enough that his knees were bent at a much sharper angle than he would have expected for the height of the narrow bed. He was big. Bigger than Bucky. Maybe even bigger than Dum-Dum.
He had grown. Had his soulmate finally arrived?
Didn't matter right now. Even if it was true, his soulmate would still be an infant. Steve had plenty of time to find them. Right now, he needed to know where he was, and why. He remembered the plane, he remembered pushing the plane down... and then nothing. Cold and black.
Had someone found him? Who?
The door opened to admit a pretty young lady in a nurse's uniform. "You're awake," she said cheerfully. She looked... wrong. The cut of her dress, the shape of her torso, the style of her hair, the shine of her lipstick. Whoever had dressed her had come close, but not close enough.
"Where am I?"
Steve punched the bag again, dodged left. His reflexes were adjusting quickly to the new reach and stride, but it still looked odd to his eyes. It worked best if he stopped thinking about it and just moved.
The doctors had confirmed that Steve's soulmate bond had finished forming while he'd been in the ice, finally allowing the serum do what it had been trying to do since it was first injected and make him grow. ("Be grateful you were under for that, Cap," one particularly dense idiot had said. "It probably hurt like a bitch." Steve had managed to refrain from punching him, but he'd told Fury to find another doctor.)
His soulmate had finally been born.
But it had been seventy years. Steve's soulmate might well be a wizened ancient already, wondering sadly why they'd never met him. Or they might even have already lived their whole life and died.
Steve shifted his feet, punching and jabbing, letting the brief sting of impact sink into his knuckles and jolt down his forearms, feeling it, trying not to think.
There were two stacks of files on Steve's desk, on the other side of the room. He was adamantly ignoring both of them.
The first stack had been given to him his third day out of the ice as a courtesy from Fury: answers to the only questions Steve had cared to ask in those first few days. Steve had read and re-read them so many times over the intervening months that he had them memorized. The Howling Commandos were all dead. Dernier, the last to go, had slipped away peacefully in his sleep only a year before Steve had been recovered. Howard was decades gone, killed in a car accident. Peggy was still alive, but in a nursing home, her memories beginning to fray around the edges. Steve was grateful to Fury for those answers, but they hadn't provided Steve much peace of mind, and they couldn't help him now.
The second stack contained Fury's file on Hydra's cube and the promised information packet, sealed dossiers of what Fury had called the Avengers Initiative. Steve's new team, if he agreed to join. Like the Howling Commandos, the Avengers Initiative was a specialized response team made up of highly skilled individuals. Steve had gotten as far as the precis describing the team members and their capabilities before he'd been driven back to the punching bag in desperation.
He'd been skimming quickly over the list -- Black Widow, name classified; Hawkeye, name classified; Hulk, aka Bannner, Robert Bruce; Iron Man, aka Stark, Anthony Edward -- and his eye had stuttered over that final name.
He'd taken a breath -- Stark wasn't the most common surname in the country, but it was hardly unique -- and backed up, read the paragraph on Iron Man:
Iron Man, aka Stark, Anthony Edward: Son of Howard Anthony Stark. Inventor and industrialist. Majority shareholder, former CEO (1995-2011), and current CTO (since 2011) of Stark Industries. Inventor and pilot of the Iron Man battle armor (2008). Inventor of the War Machine battle armor (2011). Consultant to SHIELD regarding Avengers Initiative (since 2008); current crisis required promotion to full membership in Avengers Initiative.
It was Howard's son, after all. His past had tripped and fallen face-first into his future. That was when Steve had sworn and retreated to the punching bag to think.
Could he do this? Pick back up with a whole new team, a whole new chain of command? Get back into the fight after only a few months (from Steve's point of view) of recovery?
Steve danced around the punching bag, trying for precision rather than force, because he'd left all his spare bags at the gym.
He had to do it, though, didn't he? It was Hydra's cube again. Still. Steve hadn't managed to destroy it the first time around, so it was his duty to take care of it this time. Like he'd told Bucky before the war -- what right had he to do any less?
What else was he going to do? Go on a quest to find his soulmate, elderly or dead? He should probably just accept that he would never find them, that no matter what the mysterious forces of soulmating said, it was never meant to be.
Could he work with Howard's son, though?
Steve and Howard had been friends, albeit not particularly close, friendly in the way that men thrown together by terrible circumstance could be. Howard had been the one to fish the cube out of the ocean, Fury had said. Did that make it Steve's job to clean up his friend's mistake?
Maybe Steve could work with Howard's son. Maybe he could even be friends with Howard's son.
Anthony. If they were going to work together, let alone become friends, Steve was going to have to think of him as his own man, not simply Howard's son. Anthony might be a tie to Steve's past, but what Steve needed more was an anchor to the future.
Steve dropped his fists and stepped back from the bag, turning to eye the stacks of files on his desk. Slowly, he sorted through them, fishing out the sealed dossier labelled IRON MAN. The precis had been unclassified, but if he broke the seal on this dossier, he was agreeing to join the Avengers Initiative.
Steve looked at the photograph glued to the front of what looked like a science fiction robot in brilliant red and gold. Its eyes seemed to be staring straight into Steve's. Steve gritted his teeth and tightened his jaw, and broke the seal.
Steve finished strapping Loki into the Quinjet's passenger seat, then pulled his cowl off with a sigh as he made his way back toward the cockpit to confer with Agent Romanov and, he supposed, Tony Stark.
Steve wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that. He still couldn't quite believe Howard was dead; the man had seemed even more invincible than Steve himself. He was -- had been -- brilliant and brash and cocky and charming, an inveterate flirter, only a few years older than Steve and full of promise and life.
But Howard was dead, and now Steve was going to be working with Tony -- a decade older now than Howard had been the last time Steve had seen him.
It was hard to wrap his head around, and even harder to stop thinking of Tony as Howard's son, despite his intentions. And from what Steve had seen in Iron Man's dossier, Tony had taken all of Howard's most standout characteristics and doubled them -- good and bad, both.
Tony was exchanging quips with Natasha when Steve joined them; she was pressing her lips together as if trying not to smile. Maybe that was a good sign. Steve had trouble trusting Natasha's easy smile after reading her dossier, but that amusement looked genuine.
Tony lifted the helmet from his head and set it aside, and when he turned back to respond to something Natasha had said about the PA system, Steve felt his stomach drop to somewhere around the level of his knees. Tony was beautiful.
Steve had seen photographs of him in the SHIELD files, of course, and even some movies, but they had utterly failed to convey whatever ineffable quality it was that was currently rendering Steve speechless.
And now Tony had noticed Steve staring, and was staring back, one eyebrow raised sardonically. Which made sense, of course, because Steve was staring. Steve forced himself to look away, clenching a fist and concentrating on feeling the seams of the leather glove pressing against his skin. He should say something, probably, to put Tony at ease, but he couldn't for the life of himself think of any meaningful words.
After another long moment, Tony turned away to make sure Loki's scepter was secure, and Steve felt the loss of his gaze like the cutting of a puppet's strings.
Idiot, he told himself. Focus on the mission. Moon about on your own time.
Tony wasn't breathing. Steve scrabbled at his chestplate, but couldn't find a way through to check his heartbeat. Steve looked at Tony's face again, willing him to gasp for breath, to open his eyes. Damn it, Tony. Steve wanted to scream, to weep. Christ, had Tony done this because of the angry words that the scepter had pried from them that morning? Was he trying to prove himself? To Steve?
No, Steve chided himself. Steve wasn't that important, and Tony had heard and ignored a lot of angry words in his time. Tony was doing this because Tony was, after all, a hero. The kind of man who would sacrifice himself to save others if there wasn't any other way out.
The Hulk shifted restlessly, unsettled and unhappy. Thor's mouth was set in a grim line. Steve wondered distantly if his own expression properly conveyed his own utter terror and grief.
He was overcome by a sudden, wild urge to kiss Tony's slack mouth, and had to bite his own lip to keep from laughing out loud, because the others would see it as hysteria, not simple amusement -- but it was too funny, that Tony, who had referred to Steve as "Sleeping Beauty" at least half a dozen times, was the one lying in enchanted sleep, waiting on true love's kiss--
The Hulk roared, and Tony jerked awake with a startled, "Gaaaah!" He slumped as much as the suit would allow, panting. "What happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me."
Steve swallowed inexplicable disappointment even as relief and joy stretched his mouth into a smile. "We won."
Steve was waiting in the garage when Tony pulled in.
Tony looked like hell, but not much worse than after the whole Chitauri mess, and one painful knot of terror began to relax in Steve's chest.
Still, when Tony turned off the car, Steve strode over to it so that when Tony opened the door, Steve was close enough to snatch Tony up by a fistful of his shirt and haul him bodily out of the vehicle. Steve pulled Tony's face up close to his and snarled, "Don't you ever do that to me again."
Tony looked surprised. And then irritable. And then he settled on resigned. "There wasn't time for--"
"There wasn't time to tell me you were planning to take on the Mandarin?" Steve demanded. "We would have backed you up, Tony!" He waved an arm at the ceiling, knowing Tony would understand that it encompassed the rest of the team, still living here in the Tower while Tony and Pepper had gone out to Malibu for the last quarter of the year to supervise operations on the West Coast.
"Any one of us -- all of us -- would have come out to help you," Steve continued, though he lowered Tony until his feet were back on the floor, aware that he'd overreacted, even though the anger was still singing in his veins. "Hell, since the action turned out to be in Miami, we could have just met you there. Do you have any idea how worried we were?"
Tony didn't quite roll his eyes at that, but Steve saw the twitch that meant he wanted to. "Steve, really, I think you're exaggerating."
"I'm not," Steve growled, and he shook Tony, trying to get him to pay attention for once. "We were terrified. I was terrified." Looking into Tony's confused eyes, all the anger bled out of Steve. He released the shirt and swept Tony up into a hug that only just avoided cracking Tony's ribs, and pressed his face into Tony's wild, messy hair. "God, Tony, I've never been so frightened. And that's only after I thought I'd lost you. Thank God Pepper thought to call and fill us in after she heard you were alive. Before that, I was..." Steve clenched his teeth together and swallowed hard. He didn't want to cry. Again. He'd been forced to confront some hard and painful truths during those terrible hours, and he never wanted to live through anything like that again.
Marginally back in control of himself, Steve continued, "And then Pepper went off the grid too, and none of us had the first idea where to look for either of you, not until the news hit about Tennessee, but then you were already gone and..." Steve's throat closed again, and he squeezed his eyes shut. No more crying, he reminded himself.
Tony froze for a few breaths, then gingerly put his arms around Steve's back, patting awkwardly. "Hey, Cap, you don't have to worry about me, I'm fine, see?"
Steve shuddered. "I'm always going to worry about you, Tony." Tony obviously didn't want to be hugged, so Steve released him. "I'd have come if you'd called. Please, don't do that to me again."
Tony gripped Steve's arm and squeezed a little. "I'm okay," he said again, gently.
A car door closed, and Steve half-guiltily realized that Pepper had been in the car with Tony, and she was only now getting out. He schooled his features into a smile for her. "I'm glad to see you're okay," he told her.
She returned his smile, her expression oddly sympathetic. "Well, mostly," she agreed, "and Tony thinks he's got an idea of how to fix the rest once we get back out to California."
Steve did not reach out reflexively to grab Tony's arm possessively, but he twitched pretty violently before he managed to control the reaction. "You're... going back?" he asked dumbly. "Wasn't the house destroyed?"
"I need the SI medical research facility that's in San Diego," Tony said. "It's the only one advanced enough for the task I've got in front of me." He patted Steve's arm as if he could tell how much Steve disliked the idea. "And Happy's still in the hospital in LA. I'll tell you all about it over dinner, if you want; we're going to stay at least the night before we head out again. Right, Pep? You're feeling stable for now, yeah?"
"I'm fine," Pepper said in the soothing tone she used when Tony was being unreasonable. She walked around the car to kiss Tony, and Steve looked away, not wanting to acknowledge the hot curl under his sternum. He had no grounds for jealousy; even if they'd never said so aloud, Steve was pretty certain they were soulmates -- Tony's soulbond status had been part of his file, and Tony and Pepper worked together like a well-oiled, if slightly dysfunctional, machine.
"I'm going to go upstairs and order a lot of pizzas and air out our room," Pepper told Tony when she'd pulled away again. "You get Steve to help you unload the baggage."
Steve and Tony both watched Pepper until she'd left the garage and the door had closed behind her, and then Tony opened the trunk of the car and began pulling out bags.
Steve picked up the three largest pieces. "I missed you," he said, then hastily added, "We all did. It was too quiet. Bruce tried blowing some stuff up, but it just wasn't the same without your touch."
Tony smiled wanly at the joke, but just grabbed the last bag from the car and slung its strap around his neck.
"Do you really have to go back?" Steve asked, aware that he sounded like a petulant child. "Does it have to be right away?"
Tony sighed as he slammed the trunk closed. "Yeah, it does," he said. His eyes, when they met Steve's, were dark and haunted. "Killian did something to Pepper that... I have to fix it. I'm the only one who can, and I need to do it fast, before it causes permanent damage. I have to be in California to do that." He looked around the garage, then up at the ceiling, as if he could see through all the floors between them and the top few that were reserved for Avenger use. "I wouldn't leave -- I'd stay at least a few days -- if it wasn't her life at stake."
Well, Steve knew intimately that kind of responsibility and the urgency of duty. He certainly didn't want Pepper to come to any harm -- any more harm, at least. "I understand," he said.
Tony gave Steve a sad smile. "Maybe," he said. "Pepper and I... I owe her everything, Steve. She's saved my life at least half a dozen times. She saves my sanity -- what little of it I have left -- on a daily basis. For her to stay with me, even though I have an open bond? It's priceless."
"Wait." Steve stared at Tony. "I thought Pepper was your mate."
Tony grimaced and shook his head. "No. Pep doesn't have a soulbond. I've never found my mate. At this rate, I'm pretty sure I never will. And no one wants to date someone with an open bond, not over the long term, anyway."
Steve thought of Daisy, seventy-five years ago. "Yeah," he said softly, then a smile tugged at his lips. "Thus the playboy reputation, huh?"
Tony shrugged. "I figured, I couldn't have love, so I might as well take what I could get. And then Pepper came along, and she... She didn't care. She may not be my mate, but she's... I love her. I have to protect her, to take care of her. I have to, Steve."
Steve thought about the way he'd charged into almost certain death to rescue an almost certainly already-dead Bucky, and it wasn't the same, of course, but maybe it was close enough. He swallowed his own selfish wishes and nodded. "Of course," he said, and made himself nudge Tony's side with an elbow, teasing. "But maybe stay in touch a little better this time, huh?"
Steve stood outside Fury's office door, hesitating. He didn't want to do this. He didn't have to do this. He could turn around and walk away. Go back to the Tower and its comforts, to the communal kitchen and recreational areas, to the training and exercise room designed to test even Steve's exceptional strength and agility, to the comfortable -- even luxurious -- room that Tony had given him. Had given all of them.
He wanted to go back, badly. He wanted to go back to easy camaraderie, flicking cereal across the table at breakfast when Tony shuffled in for the first coffee of the day, or taking a sandwich and an apple down to the workshop when Tony was working so hard that he forgot about lunch. He wanted to go back to sitting in a corner of Bruce's lab, trying to capture in a sketch the careful, patient way Bruce moved. He wanted to go back to laughing as he watched Pepper effortlessly outmaneuvering Tony to get him to attend to Stark Industries business.
But Steve couldn't go back.
Tony and Pepper had split up six months ago. Pepper had gone back to California, and Tony had locked himself in his workshop for two weeks straight, and even Steve couldn't get in. When he'd finally emerged, his smile had been brittle and pained, but he'd refused to talk about it to Steve.
That had hurt, but Steve knew everyone dealt with heartbreak differently, and he'd been patient. When Pepper had come back to New York two months later, she and Tony had settled easily into what felt like an old and established pattern of treating each other like beloved but annoying siblings. That made Steve feel a little better, that they were still friends and Tony hadn't lost her entirely.
But then... Every time Steve turned around, Tony seemed to be there -- offering movie or reading suggestions, making improvements to Steve's gear, dragging Steve out to try some new restaurant that had opened, joking and teasing. Or they would find each other in the dark of the night, one or both of them jittery and restless from nightmares or worse, and sit in silence, watching movies or playing video games until the adrenaline had bled away and they were breathing slow and easy again. And Steve genuinely enjoyed their friendship, reveled in every minute of their time together.
But Steve's nerves crackled whenever Tony walked into the room. He was grateful for Tony's friendship -- but he wanted more. He wanted so much more. And now that Tony and Pepper weren't together any more, Steve was finding it increasingly difficult to deny that longing. He'd realized the previous week that he was finding more and more excuses to touch Tony -- putting a hand on Tony's shoulder as they talked, a joking nudge of the elbow, a playful ruffle of Tony's hair.
Tony didn't seem to mind -- Tony had been handsy from their first meeting and probably didn't even notice that Steve was returning it now, with interest -- but Steve noticed, and it was troubling. And then there had been a movie night and Steve had drifted off and then woken up still on the couch, his head nestled into the crook of Tony's shoulder.
Steve blushed, just thinking about it. He'd wanted to stay there. He'd wanted to wrap his arm around Tony to pull them closer together. He'd wanted to nuzzle into Tony's neck, already so close, and taste that skin, to lick and nibble his way up to Tony's mouth...
Startled by the urgency of his desire, Steve had fled. He had hidden in his room for the whole day, agonizing over his options and emerging only to come straight to Fury's office. No, however much he wanted it, Steve absolutely could not go back to the Tower, not like this. Not until he had this crush, this obsession, under control. Otherwise, he was going to do something stupid and completely ruin their friendship.
Steve gritted his teeth and knocked on Fury's door. It wasn't what he wanted, but it was what he needed. He needed not to go back to Avengers Tower. He needed to be transferred to another location for a while.
Steve seethed the whole ride back to his apartment. He should have realized Fury was playing a deeper game, but this was entirely out of control. Neutralize threats before they become a problem? It was infuriating and terrifying. Who got to decide who was a threat? Anyone could be a threat in the right circumstances -- just look at Steve himself. Or any of the Avengers, for that matter.
A moment stood out in crystal clarity from his memory, back aboard the helicarrier, Loki's staff pushing at their emotions:
"Are you really that naive? SHIELD monitors potential threats!"
"Captain America is on threat watch?"
"We all are!"
Tony certainly would be on threat watch, because he was a power that SHIELD had no control over. Would he, too, be "neutralized"? Steve's blood ran cold.
He was going to have to do something about this. He just wasn't sure what. Or how. Or who he could trust to help him. He'd thought he could trust Natasha, but she'd been playing Fury's game all along. I could call Tony, he thought, then quickly shook it off. There was no way he was bringing Tony into this, not when it would put Tony's life at risk even more than his own. No, he'd just have to figure it out on his own.
It wouldn't be the first time.
Steve's face had been all but smashed to a pulp. He had three bullet holes in his body, two of which included major organ damage. Several bones had been cracked or broken and a couple of tendons torn in the fight. He'd gotten water in his lungs from his fall into the river -- which under other circumstances might have been funny, because he hadn't been at risk for pneumonia since Project Rebirth. And everything else felt like one huge bruise.
The doctor in charge of his case hadn't had any of Steve's background medical files to work from -- Steve had been relying on SHIELD for medical care, and obviously accessing those records was out of the question now -- so it had taken him a while to understand how quickly Steve metabolized painkillers. Luckily, Steve's pain tolerance was pretty high.
Less luckily, Steve was largely distracted from his physical pain by mental and emotional trauma. The Winter Soldier was Bucky. Steve had been forced to fight his best friend, and worse, forced to face that Hydra had somehow twisted Bucky into that... thing.
He didn't want to think about how they'd accomplished that, but it was hard to keep his thoughts from turning in that direction, even with Sam and Natasha sitting by his bed hour by hour, trying to keep him distracted with music and stories and nonsense.
The only glimmer of hope in the mess was that the real Bucky was still somewhere in there. Parts of him, at least. He'd recognized Steve enough to stop trying to kill him. Enough to have rescued him from the river. Maybe there was more in there. And even if there wasn't, it was clear that Bucky had been acting against his own wishes, had been brainwashed and tortured--
He was doing it again. Steve dragged in a breath and made himself start over again: Even if he couldn't get Bucky back, there was no way Steve couldn't at least offer the Winter Soldier his help, whatever that meant. But he had no idea where to start looking. Maybe Natasha could--
The door to Steve's room opened and Steve looked up in surprise. The nurses and doctors usually knocked first. But this wasn't a nurse or a doctor.
Tony was framed in the doorway, ignoring the protesting nurse and orderly in the hall behind him. He looked pale, his lips were pressed into a thin line, and his pale sunglasses did little to hide the dark circles under his eyes.
Tony ignored Natasha, who had straightened from her half-doze on the visitor's chair at the sudden intrusion. Tony's eyes were locked on Steve, gaze ticking from Steve's face to the sling on his arm to the blanket over his legs and back to his face.
"Steve," he said, and his voice was cracked and rough. "You look..." He closed his eyes for a couple of seconds in what looked like relief, and then looked at Steve again. "You look like hell." It was a pale shadow of Tony's usual bantering tone, but something in Steve had relaxed at Tony's appearance, something that had been tight and unhappy for longer than he had realized, and he could only smile, despite everything.
"Kinda feel like it," Steve returned, the broken bones in his face making his words come out slurred and mushy.
Natasha rolled to her feet. "I'll go smooth things over with the hospital," she said, "and get Tony added to the approved visitor's list." She paused at Tony's side and leaned in to kiss his cheek. "And yes, I'll bring you a coffee."
Tony didn't take his eyes off Steve, but he said, "Thank you," and it felt bigger than mere coffee deserved. Natasha glanced over her shoulder at Steve, smiled, and closed the door behind her.
Tony came across the room as if pulled, stopping only when he bumped into the side of Steve's bed. Mesmerized, he reached down and almost touched Steve's fractured cheekbone, then checked himself and drew back. It would have hurt if he'd made the contact, but Steve felt disappointed anyway.
"Tony," he said. "You didn't have to--"
"What is this that we're listening to?" Tony interrupted, looking at Sam's iPod, propped on the heartrate monitor. "This isn't Natasha's music; is this your new recruit?"
"Sam," Steve supplied. "Yeah, it's his. He thought I needed to catch up on some R&B and soul."
"Not bad," Tony allowed. His eyes turned back toward Steve and he drew a deep breath, his forehead furrowing somewhere between worry and irritation. "I guess I know now how you felt after the Mandarin mess." He reached to touch again, curling his fingers into a fist to stop himself at the last second.
Steve caught Tony's hand in his own. Gently, he unfolded Tony's fist and twined their fingers together. "I'm okay," he said.
Tony snorted. "You are not okay. You are not nearly okay. Look at this--"
"Tony. It'll heal. It's already a lot better than it was when I woke up yesterday."
"That is not comforting," Tony told him sharply. "Now I'm imagining how much worse it was yesterday."
"Sorry," Steve said, swallowing something sarcastic about pots and kettles. He did some math in his head and took a guess. "Natasha called you last night, I guess?"
"Yeah," Tony said. "Said she wanted to give me some tips on the best places to start digging into all that data she dumped on the 'net, but she wound up giving me the summary while she was at it." His thumb was rubbing absently over the pulse of Steve's wrist, and Steve felt himself melting into the touch, too comforted by it to withdraw.
"And you headed down straight away. Wouldn't it have been faster to fly?"
Tony shrugged. "All air traffic is grounded in a three hundred mile radius around DC. Something about giant helicarriers raining down fire and destruction. It was faster to drive. Though the traffic around the city leaves something to be desired, too."
"I can only imagine. You really didn't have to come down, you know. I'm--"
"You didn't get this badly injured fighting an entire army of Chitauri, Steve. Of course I came. You're going to need all the help you can get with finding your friend."
Steve blinked in surprise. "Nat told you about that?"
"Of course she did. I've already got JARVIS working on the tracking algorithms; we should have promising leads by the time you're well enough to walk out of here -- and yes, I'm taking your accelerated healing into account." Tony frowned. "You should have called me right at the beginning," he scolded. "Did you think I would turn you away?"
"I needed you to stay safe," Steve said, his heart thumping hard just at the memory. "I needed to know you weren't going to be..." His throat closed, and he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the tears and cursing his exhausted body for letting him fall so easily into distress, because Tony was safe, at least for now. Tony was safe and Tony was going to help Steve find Bucky and there was no reason to cry now, but somehow he couldn't stop it.
"Hey," Tony said softly, "hey, it's okay." The bed dipped as Tony sat, and then Tony's arms were wrapped around Steve's shoulders, pulling him into a cautious hug, Steve's forehead resting against Tony's jaw.
Steve dragged in a shuddery breath and curled his good arm around Tony, holding him close. "It's not," he whispered, helpless to halt the tears that were leaking from his eyes, or the flow of words from his mouth. "It's not okay. I have to find him, Tony, I have to, and I don't know how, and I want to come home, I want to come back to the Tower but I can't and I've missed you so much but I can't come home until I find him and it's not okay."
Tony held him a little tighter, and Tony's fingers were lightly combing through Steve's hair. "I know," he murmured soothingly, apparently not put off by either the tears or the verbal diarrhea. "We'll find him, honey, we will. We'll do everything we can to find him and help him." He pulled back and put a finger under Steve's chin, urging Steve to meet Tony's gaze. "You're right, it's not okay. But you're not alone, Steve, I promise. I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere."
Tony's eyes were wet and earnest and beautiful, and his touch was gentle and didn't hurt at all, and Steve's hand was still resting against Tony's side and he could feel the heat of Tony's skin through his shirt. Maybe it was the stress or the pain, or maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was Sam's damn music, but Steve couldn't hold back his feelings any longer.
He lifted his head from the pillow, and it hurt to move but Steve didn't care because Tony hadn't moved, wasn't pulling away, was just watching Steve with those eyes.
Steve drew closer, and Tony still didn't move, though he dropped his hand from Steve's chin to rest on his shoulder.
Steve licked his lips. "Tony?"
"Not going anywhere," Tony repeated. He didn't look away.
His breath was warm against Steve's face, and the look in his eyes had become something like hope, and so Steve closed the last few inches between them and pressed his lips to Tony's.
The light was wasn't hot, but it was blinding. It drowned out the world and everything in it except for Steve and Tony, and their kiss. Tony's hand was curling around Steve's neck and Steve was wrapping his fingers with Tony's hair. Steve's blood sizzled from his head to his toes, and it should have been unpleasant like pins and needles but instead it just felt like Steve was lighting up.
And then the light was fading, but Tony was still there and Steve's veins were still crackling with energy and they were still kissing, sweet and slow.
Tony pulled away, and a whimper escaped Steve's throat at the loss. Tony laughed breathlessly and came back for another soft, quick kiss, then rested his forehead against Steve's. "Did that just happen?" he asked, his lips brushing Steve's. "Or am I imagining things?"
"I'm the one with the morphine drip," Steve pointed out. "If anyone should be hallucinating, it would be me." The buzzing in Steve's veins was fading, leaving just his lips tingling now. It sparkles, he thought, suppressing a laugh. "But I'm pretty sure that actually happened."
"Oh. Good," Tony said. He kissed Steve again, and this time his tongue flickered out to tease at Steve's lips until Steve opened his mouth to let him in. With a groan, Tony pressed closer, licking into Steve's mouth hungrily. He tasted of coffee and berries, and his hand was clenching wonderfully at Steve's neck, and--
"Ow! Shit!" Steve cursed, flinching involuntarily as the broken bones in his face shifted.
Tony leaped back, his eyes wide and startled. "Fuck, sorry, sorry, I got carried away and-- Sorry."
Steve caught one of Tony's flailing hands. "Stop apologizing," he said. "I forgot, too." He managed a smile, ignoring the way it made his face ache. "Worth it."
Tony rested his hands gingerly on Steve's chest and closed his eyes for the duration of one long breath. When he opened them again, he smiled. "So."
"So," Steve echoed.
"Soulmates," Tony said thoughtfully.
"Apparently so." Steve spoke solemnly, but he could feel laughter bubbling up from his core.
"This is terribly inconvenient timing," Tony said. "In that you are practically falling apart, here, and all I can think about is getting you somewhere with a proper bed and fucking until we both pass out."
Steve felt heat climbing his neck, but it was the best thing he'd heard in... ever, and suddenly it was all he could think about, too. "I heal fast," he reminded Tony.
"Mm," Tony grunted, unimpressed. His expression stern, he commanded, "Heal faster," and then captured Steve's lips in another kiss, more careful this time but no less thorough.
When Steve opened his eyes again, he saw Natasha standing in the doorway, a tray of coffees in her hand, her head cocked just slightly. "Um," he coughed.
Tony sat up again, not rushing, and looked around. He grinned widely at Natasha and held out his hand imperiously for his coffee. "So it turns out that Steve and I are soulmates."
Natasha blinked. "Are you kidding?" She looked at Steve.
Steve smiled bashfully, feeling his blush climbing up his cheeks. "Not kidding," he said. "It just, um."
"That," she said slowly, "explains a lot. Excuse me for a minute, will you? The doctor probably should be informed, and then I really need to be the first one to tell Sam. And Clint and Bruce." She set the tray of coffees on a table, then dashed for the door, grinning delightedly. Guess guess guess what just happened!