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Not the Only Living Boy in New York

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The thing is, Steve has always believed the names belonged to soulmates.

“It’s silly though. Most people have at least one name on them they never even meet!" Bucky tells him once, with an easy indulgent smile and eye roll “And even sayin’ you do know them, plenty are just random acquaintances or family members. It’s all meaningless.”

It’s true that there isn’t always a pattern to the names people have written on their bodies from birth. Some people don’t have any and some are covered in names. Some people have the names of their spouses and some have the names of their estranged brothers, while others have a seemingly random coworker. It’s even possible to have the names of people you’ll kill.

Aaron Burr famously had Alexander Hamilton written in flowing script along his back from shoulder to shoulder.

But that’s exactly the point, Steve thinks, if the names were random then there wouldn’t be so many people with the names of loved ones. Steve wouldn’t have Bucky’s. He wouldn’t be able to reach behind his neck and drag his fingers across the “James Barnes” written there in Bucky’s own hand.

The names matter. The people on your skin are bound to you in ways greater than just marks and lines. Steve knows this as surely as he knows that James Barnes is his soulmate. This is the soul my soul loves they said in church and Steve’s soul loves Bucky’s. They’re a part of each other.

Steve reaches up and puts a hand over Bucky’s right deltoid where he knows his own name lies. “So this means nothing huh,” he challenges, “it doesn’t matter.”

Bucky’s eyes soften “Steve you big dummy,” he shakes his head a little “You matter. This is just an ugly scratch on my arm. I don’t need a birth mark of fate to tell me who I ought to love.”

“So you really don’t want to know who they are?” Steve can’t believe Bucky isn’t even slightly curious. He’s been wondering about his other two soulmates for as long as he can remember. “The person on your side?”

Bucky shrugs. He scratches at his left side where Steve knows Cyrillic letters stretch down Bucky’s ribs and waist, as if talking about the mark is making it itch. “Like I said, it don’t mean nothin.”

 

But it does mean something. It means something that Steve has Bucky’s name on his neck and it means something when Steve meets Margaret Carter, or Peggy as she likes to be called. Agent Carter, Christian name Margaret. Just like the Margaret Carter on his wrist. Exactly the Margaret Carter on his wrist, Steve is certain of it.

 

Peggy’s wrist matches Steve’s, his own name reflected there, and its rare to have the marks in exactly the same place. She loves him too, which is a miracle all its own because god she’s incredible. Brave and tough and beautiful. Steve is determined; he’s going to marry this woman if he has to dance a hundred USO shows to do it. His best friend and the woman he loves, soul mates both. Steve has never really considered himself a lucky guy, but with the success of Erskine’s serum and two soulmates he loves, Steve knows he has it better than most.

 

Steve is on his knees in front of her when he asks. “Marry me,” he whispers into her knee. Peggy gasps as he kisses her there and then lets out a breathless sigh.

“Oh Steve, you know I want to.” He runs his hand up her thigh along the thin fabric of her stocking and she shudders against him.

“But?” he raises an eyebrow, fingers toying with the top of her garter.

“But we have a war to win, and jobs to do.” She leans down, capturing his lips in a kiss “When this is over-” she gasps as he begins peeling her stocking down, fingers dragging against her soft sensitive skin. “When this is over ask me again – Steve!”

Steve smiles against the inside of her thigh where he’s just laid a kiss. His hand cradles her ankle where he knows “Angela Martinelli” circles in flowing script, a star dotting the ‘i.’

He hums and rucks her skirt up. God, the way she smells. He leans in to press his lips against her panties and she shudders and cries out. Steve pauses as his eyes catch on something. There in the crease of her thigh is another name. He had almost missed it given their position but he can make it out easily at this distance.

“Steve?” Peggy asks, with no small amount of impatience. That was his girl, wanting everything the way she wanted it, wanting it all right now. Steve smiles his heart so full of love he doesn’t know how it’s still beating in his chest.

“When this is over,” he promises “I will.”

Then there’s no more talking as he slips her underwear aside and buries himself in the taste and feel of her pleasure, right beside Gabriel Jones’ neatly made signature.

 

 

Of course he knows there’s a third name on his body, but after meeting Peggy he doesn’t really think about finding his last soulmate. Most people don’t meet every person marked out on their body, and Steve already has two wonderful soulmates. He doesn’t need a third; Steve isn’t that greedy. Anthony Stark can stay messily scrawled just under Steve’s left collarbone, an odd but oddly attractive birthmark and nothing more.

 

 

Anthony Stark is Howard’s son.

Steve had asked Howard once if he was related to any Anthonys and Howard had just shook his head. “Sorry Cap, not a family name. Can’t help you out with that one.” Anthony must have come from his mother’s side then, or Tony as the SHIELD file says he prefers to be called.

Tony Stark is, by all evidence, a spoiled rich kid and arms dealer who has given up his family business to play superhero. Play is the operative word here, since he doesn’t appear to be doing anything even remotely heroic, just getting drunk while operating advanced weaponry and throwing wild parties. He is also frequently sighted flying around Manhattan in his flashy suit like he owns the place (which according to the file in Steve’s hand he sort of does).

Some part of Steve’s mind recognizes that he’s being unfair. He’s never met this man; he doesn’t know Tony Stark in the slightest. It isn’t exactly fair to judge him based on a couple pieces of paper that Natasha Romanoff submitted to SHIELD. But Steve doesn’t feel like being fair. Bucky is dead. Peggy is gone. And there Tony Stark is flying around the world with a tumbler of scotch like he’s entitled to it. Steve doesn’t want to get to know him. He doesn’t want Tony’s name on his skin, taking up space with “Margaret Carter” and “James Barnes.” He doesn’t want Tony replacing them.

 

 

Of course Tony Stark is just as unpleasant, obnoxious, reckless and self-absorbed in person as his file suggests. After about ten minutes in Tony’s presence, Steve begins to wonder if maybe this is an Aaron Burr situation. Maybe he’s going to kill Tony.

When Loki uses that animosity against them and almost blows the helicarrier out of the sky in the process, Steve is forced to confront the fact that he might be letting his personal feelings get in the way of what needs to get done. He needs to put aside the fact that Tony’s name is written above his heart and treat him like just any other soldier and ally.

As soon as he does, things start falling into place. He and Tony finally find some common ground, and with the two of them working together everything else clicks into place: the rest of the team, the battle plan. It’s a horrible situation but horrible situations are Steve’s home field, and he feels like himself for the first time since he woke up in that SHIELD isolation room. He feels like he belongs.

Then Tony flies a nuclear warhead through a wormhole and Steve is forced to reexamine every judgement he’s ever made about the man.

 

“If you ever need a place to stay that’s not a SHIELD safehouse, I’ve got plenty of room” Tony offers with a smile and a handshake after the battle, and Steve can almost feel himself freeze up in terror. It’s too soon. I’m not ready. He doesn’t want to get to know his new soulmate. He knows Tony’s a hero now; he knows Tony’s smart and kind and charming. Tony’s someone he likes and Steve isn’t ready to like him more. He doesn’t want to move on.

Steve gives a stiff smile and his tone sounds harsh even to his own ears. “Thank you but no thank you.” Tony’s smile stutters and his eyes go guarded. It’s just for a moment and then Tony’s grinning and dripping charm again.

“Well the offer stands if you need it.” He shrugs as if he doesn’t care either way, but Steve has the uncomfortable sensation that he just hurt the man’s feelings. He feels like a complete heel. He’s been so wrapped up in not wanting to get to know his last soulmate that it’s never occurred to him to wonder how Tony might feel about meeting him. All the prayers in church from when he was a kid come back to him, and he realizes he can’t just let one of his soulmates walk away, no matter whether he’s ready for another soulmate or not.

“But if you want to keep in touch,” Steve tries, aware that he’s coming across unbearably awkward, “I can give you the number for my telephone. Fury gave me one.”

Tony smiles. It’s real this time, and Steve gets the not uncommon feeling that he’s being laughed at. “Sure,” Tony says “I would love the number of your telephone.”

 

Tony Stark sends him a text message that evening.

Hey, it’s your favorite handsome daring world-saving superhero. This is my number.

Steve knows it has to be Tony since he hasn’t given his phone number to anyone else, and no one else he knows would talk like that. He doesn’t feel like playing into Stark’s ego that easily though, so he texts back:

Sorry who? That describes almost everyone I know.

He gets an answer from Tony almost immediately.

Haha very funny. It’s Tony Stark. You know the guy who flew a nuclear warhead through a wormhole hours ago and saved the world? Iron Man?

Steve rolls his eyes with a smile, and then feels silly about it, since Tony can’t see him through the telephone.

Oh right. I vaguely remember that. Sorry my memory’s getting dotty in my old age.

His phone pings as soon as he sends the text.

You’re hilarious. No really, I didn’t know you had a sense of humor under all that scowling.

Steve types out: There’s a lot you don’t know about me.

Care to share? Is Tony’s quick response but Steve doesn’t answer. He puts his phone down and goes back to using his computer to catch up on 20th century history. He’s already wasted enough time on this conversation.

 

Steve’s on a covert SHIELD operation a week later when his phone vibrates in his pocket. He glances at it quickly to see if it’s important. Almost everyone who has his number works for SHIELD.

This meeting is sooo boring. How have you been? What are you up to?

Steve shoots off a quick reply: Fine. It’s classified.  Then he turns off his phone. He has a mission to focus on.

 

After that, Tony apparently decides that texting Steve is not worth the effort for awkward one-sided conversation because he doesn’t text again. Steve understands. He hasn’t been particularly good company since he woke up, and even before he was never the best at social interactions. It doesn’t bother him.

 

Steve finally goes to see Peggy and it’s even more painful than he expected. She’s as beautiful as she ever was but she’s sick and her memory comes and goes. Sometimes she looks at him as if he just crashed that plane yesterday, and Steve cries because Peggy’s mind was always one of her best qualities - sharp as a tack. Other times she’s all there and she looks at him from a lifetime away, and Steve can feel the gaping wound of almost a century of life lived apart stretch between them. He doesn’t know which Peggy he prefers.

He goes home and draws her young like he remembers. He draws her in stockings and garters like the pinup girls painted on the side of tanks in the war. He draws her in fatigues with a rifle in her hands ready to shoot at the next enemy solider that entered her field of view. Peggy always did love powerful weaponry.

He goes to the gym and destroys a line of punching bags.

He goes to work and does covert operations for SHIELD that feel more real than anything else in his life but only barely.

He comes home and fills entire sketchbooks with Bucky’s face and hands and eyes.

He sits down in front of his television and catches up on almost a hundred years of movies and television. They’re all right there for him to watch whenever he feels like it. Steve feels like he should be more amazed.

He goes running for hours in the morning. He lifts weights at night. He orders food from around the world and they bring it right to his front door. Italian, Chinese, Indian. He doesn’t even have to leave his couch.

It’s a long weekend and SHIELD has no missions for him and Steve realizes the only person he’s spoken to in three days is the delivery man who doesn’t even speak English.

Steve knows he needs to make friends but he doesn’t know how. How does anyone make friends? He doesn’t remember how he made friends with Bucky, and the Howling Commandos had been assigned to him.

The people assigned to him now aren’t particularly friendly. Steve privately thinks most of the Strike team are dicks. Natasha might be his friend but she’s cold and secretive, and despite saving the world with her Steve doesn’t entirely trust her.

She did buy him a new wardrobe, but Steve’s not entirely sure it wasn’t some form of practical joke. All the shirts she bought for him are too small. They ride up uncomfortably under his arms, but Steve doesn’t care enough to replace them. And besides, in his most secret thoughts he actually likes the way they show off his lab created body. He likes how men and women on the street look at him appreciatively. Steve never thought of himself as vain, but there it is. He likes the attention.

Steve sits at home eating his calzone watching Star Wars and tries not to think about how crushingly lonely he is.

This movie’s very good - he can see why it’s a classic. He wishes he could talk to Bucky about it. Bucky would have loved it. There’s something about it that’s nagging at him though.

Steve takes out his phone and sends a text to one of his only contacts.

 

Why didn’t they just use the death star to blow up the planet? Then they wouldn’t have to wait for the moon with the rebel base to be in range. I just finished A New Hope.

He feels like an idiot as soon as he hits send. Tony probably doesn’t want him texting out of the blue. He’s probably busy running his company and building things. The phone buzzes with Tony’s response cutting through Steve’s self-recriminations.

You’re watching Star Wars! Oh my god are you in for a treat. DON’T LET ANYONE SPOIL YOU! And yeah it’s a plothole. My favorite retcon is that it takes a long time for the Death Star to recharge and it would take longer to discharge the weapon and wait for it to recharge than just to wait for the Base to be in range. Are you planning to watch in machete order?

Steve has to look up “retcon,” “spoil” and “machete order” on the internet before he can answer.

That’s a good theory. I like it. And no I was going to watch these movies 456123. I was told that’s how they were released and not to watch them chronologically.

Yeah release order is an ok way to watch but it’s not the best. Absolutely under no circumstances watch chronologically the first time. Machete order is 451236 and it is without a doubt the best way to watch for reasons I cannot disclose at this time. ;)

Okay. Thank you.

No problemo iced cappuccino! Are you going to keep watching tonight? Livetext me your reactions!

Steve is able to parse the meaning of “livetext” from the context and he was planning to continue watching but it’s rather late.

Are you sure? I don’t want to keep you up. I might be watching through the night.

Yeah I’m sure. I haven’t really been sleeping great since the whole wormhole thing so it at least gives me something to do.

Steve wasn’t prepared for that, but it reminds him starkly that he and Tony have something in common, and that despite Tony’s business and flippant attitude he’s a soldier too. Steve’s heart constricts with sympathy and he unconsciously moves his hand to touch the left side of his chest were Tony’s name sits under his shirt. Before Steve can formulate a reply Tony sends another text.

Sorry was that TMI? I don’t mean to just dump my messed up psych issues on you.

Steve replies as fast as he can because he doesn’t want a soldier to think he’s a burden on anyone for having nightmares.

No of course it’s not a problem. I’m slow at typing. I have trouble sleeping too, so you’re not alone. I would be happy to tell you my thoughts about Star Wars as I watch it.

Sorry I didn’t mean that you wouldn’t understand, I know you’ve been through a lot more than me. It’s just that I know I’m a lot and even Pepper gets frustrated by the sleep/nightmare/jumpiness stuff. If you ever want to talk about it I’m here. But um yeah Star Wars!

Steve’s not exactly sure why Tony feels the need to keep apologizing, but it makes him think that the whole cocky debonair billionaire thing might just be a front.

I don’t think it’s a contest of how much you’ve been through. That battle was difficult and you have every right to be shaken up. I’m sorry your girl isn’t taking it well.

Nah Pepper’s great! I’m the problem. I’m a complete mess and it’s hard on her. She deserves a medal for putting up with me.

Steve doesn’t know Pepper Potts at all and he really doesn’t want to butt in to someone else’s relationship, but something about a soldier being made to feel bad about his night terrors rubs Steve the wrong way.

I’m sure she’s great. I only meant it must be difficult for you as well, to be dealing with the nightmares alone.

He hopes that doesn’t sound too harsh. Steve knows he can be judgmental and that it tends to drive people away.

Maybe. Tony texts back. Why don’t you tell me what you think about Empire Strikes Back while I reconfigure this suit.

Steve knows a change of subject when he sees one so he selects the next movie and settles in to watch. They make it through Attack of the Clones before Steve falls asleep.

 

After that Tony doesn’t seem to have any compunction about texting Steve at all hours of the day about whatever happens to be on his mind. Steve kind of likes that he has someone to talk to now who doesn’t work for SHIELD and isn’t a food service employee.

They finish Star Wars and Steve starts in on Gone with the Wind because he’s making his way through the biggest box office releases of all time. Tony treats him to a ten paragraph long text lecture on Why This Movie Is Racist, complete with links to articles about the depiction of black people in cinema and the Mammy stereotype. This leads Steve to extensive Wikipedia research about the Civil Rights Movement all the while thinking and wow these people were incredible. Steve asks Tony if he knows any good movies about the Civil Rights Movement, and Tony confesses that the only “movies that focus on black people” he knows are “12 Years a Slave,” “Roots” and “Tyler Perry Movies,” something he admits to feeling ashamed about.

Steve lets it go and vows to do his own research on the subject.

They make their way through Disney’s animated movies and Tony seems to be impressed with Steve’s speed of media consumption. Steve confesses that he has nothing else to do with his time but sit at home and watch movies. Tony remarks that that’s “kind of sad” but assures Steve that it’s a fairly normal pastime in the modern age.

Steve’s research on Civil Rights leads to a Wikipedia page about Stonewall and he stares at the screen in shock. It never even occurred to him that something like that could happen. Steve remembers those clubs. There were plenty around where he used to live in Brooklyn. He never went to them, though he always wondered what they were like inside. He used to wonder what the people in those clubs were like and what they did behind closed doors. Now he has his answer: they were unaccountably brave.

With shaking hands Steve clicks to a related link about the LGBTQA community and then he’s up all night reading about the queer rights movement and gay marriage. There are all these new terms he’s never heard of and Steve reads about trans* people and asexuality. He takes about six online tests to place himself on the Kinsey Scale and none of them agree. Most come down around 2 or 3 and one of them gives him a 1 but they all seem to be very interested in the fact that he’s never had sexual contact with a man. If he does have sex with a man will that make him suddenly bisexual? Will he be more bisexual than he was before? More gay?

Steve doesn’t think making love to Peggy made him like ladies more than he did before. It certainly made him feel closer to Peggy but it didn’t change what he thought about other women. It didn’t change what he thought about men for that matter either. Steve doesn’t know what to think so he picks up his phone and texts Tony. He doesn’t particularly want to ask Tony about what constitutes a person’s sexual orientation because it feels uncomfortably like, what did the internet call it, coming out. Steve’s only just learned about all these terms, and he’s not ready to start talking to other people about his own feelings. Instead he sends Do you know any good movies about Queer History or The Queer Community? He hopes he got that right. He tried to use the language they were using on those websites.

Tony texts him back quickly, as usual. Tony’s good at keeping up at text correspondence.

No. There is literally no good queer cinema. It’s all horrible and depressing. And don’t trust anything Hollywood recommends you! I mean look at Boys Don’t Cry, who wants to watch a transman get brutally raped!?

Steve’s glad he did his research; he’s a tiny bit proud of himself for understanding Tony’s entire text.

That does sound horrible. Are you’re sure there’s nothing good? I don’t mind sad movies.

The typing dots last on Steve’s phone longer than usual but when the text comes through it’s not as long as Steve expected.

Well there are a few good indie films about lesbians and Brokeback Mountain is kinda a staple of modern cinema, but again beautiful scenery, beautiful actors, depressing as FUCK. I mean why even do that to yourself? There are also some shows that have Happy Gays. But if you’re looking for a bisexual man or a trans character actually played by trans actor you’re shit outta luck.

Steve doesn’t have time to answer before Tony’s sent him another text.

I mean I suppose there is Rocky Horror but that’s more part of Queer History and the Queer Community than it is about it. And anyways you don’t sit down and watch Rocky Horror in your living room. You go to Rocky Horror. OH MY GOD PLEASE LET ME TAKE YOU TO ROCKY HORROR.

Steve doesn’t know what Rocky Horror is but he writes it on his list regardless. He texts back.

Awesome! When are you in NYC next? That’s the best place to go. Or I can just swing by in a jet or the suit and pick you up. When are you free?

The prospect of actually interacting with Tony face to face makes him unaccountably nervous and he doesn’t know why because they’ve already met. But that was before they started texting and it’s in the back of his mind that Tony’s his final soulmate. Somehow talking to Tony in person would make this a reality, but he’s not ready to face it yet.

I’m not sure. SHIELD keeps me busy. It’s a flimsy excuse and Tony knows it. Steve has nothing but free time; Tony’s the busy one.

That’s alright. Just let me know if anything changes. Steve breathes a sigh of relief and he knows that Tony’s let him off easy. He can’t help but feel grateful.

 

Despite Tony’s warnings he watches The Normal Heart and cries huge ugly wracking sobs at the end. Perhaps a movie about a man that loses all his friends and his soulmate was not a good one for him to watch, especially since the main actor looks like someone he knows. Still part of Steve thinks it was oddly satisfying. His mandated SHIELD psychologist might call it cathartic.

You were right Queer Cinema is depressing. I just finished The Normal Heart.

I TOLD YOU. The end of that movie has the most upsetting song choice of all time.

Song choice? Steve asks because he thought the subject and plot was the upsetting part of the movie.

At the end when he goes to the gala alone they play “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel. Have you not heard Simon and Garfunkel? Go listen to Simon and Garfunkel.

He and Tony don’t have the same taste in music, something Tony teases him for endlessly. He’s not sure what’s so funny about liking Taylor Swift. She’s one of the most popular artists in this decade. As far as Steve can tell, everyone who isn’t Tony likes her.

They’re already on my list. How accurate is that movie? Did that really happen?

Fairly accurate. If you’re interested in learning about the subject there’s a really good well-researched non-fiction book about it. You should definitely read it. And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts.

Thanks. I’ll read it.

Anytime!

There’s a pause in the texting and Steve assumes that means the conversation is over but his phone beeps once more.

And yes that was exactly what it was like.

Steve stares at the words for a long time. He turns over the implications of that text in his head. Is Tony trying to tell him something? Not that it matters if he is: Tony is with Pepper, and god why is Steve even thinking about this anyway. He has to answer; he can’t just leave a text like that. He isn’t that much of a dick. But he has no idea what to say. His answer when he sends it feels clunky and awkward like it’s not nearly enough, but there’s no taking it back now.

Thanks for telling me.

Tony’s answer comes back slowly and Steve isn’t surprised, they’ve gotten into delicate territory. Words need to be chosen carefully.

Anything for you Cap.

Steve puts his phone away. He doesn’t know what to do with that.

 

The problem with the modern world is that men aren’t allowed to touch anyone unless it’s sexually or in a fight. Or maybe it’s just a problem with all your friends being dead, Steve isn’t entirely sure. Steve has never been a particularly touch hungry guy but even he’s getting touch-starved after months on his own. He realizes that the only people he ever touches now are criminals as he punches them in the face.

Maybe that’s why he asks Natasha to spar with him.

“Finally!” Natasha looks happier than he’s ever seen her. Her mouth quirks up infinitesimally at one end. “I’ve been wanting to show you a trick or two and correct your form since we met.”

Steve bristles “Peggy taught me how to fight.”

“Well you must not be a very good student,” Natasha says, “because Agent Carter’s form was always excellent.”

Steve can’t argue with that, so he follows Natasha to the gym.

She has him flat on the mats in one round. Steve always knew she was good but maybe he’d never realized how good.

“You’ve got the speed and the strength - and you’re smart and adaptable,” she says helping him to his feet, “but you don’t actually know how to fight.”

Steve can’t exactly argue his case so instead he raises an eyebrow at her. “Care to show me how it’s done?”

Natasha is on him almost before he finishes his sentence.

 

Steve likes sparring with Natasha. She’s efficient, graceful and deadly. He’s never met anyone who fights like her and he’s learning a lot from her and fast. Once Natasha realizes that Steve has almost no plans that aren’t mission related and that he’s always ready to spar and study fighting technique, she finds him and drags him down to the gym with regularity.

“So Cap, seeing anyone that makes your ancient heart go pitter patter?” The jokes about his age are par for the course but asking about his love life is new. Steve doesn’t even try to block her as she sweeps his legs out from under him.

“It’s not really any of your business.” He says stiffly as he flips himself back onto his feet landing in a crouch.

“Aw c’mon, I’m just making conversation.” She takes a swing at him but it’s just a friendly swipe and he dodges easily. “Man can’t live on four meals a day alone.” She gives him a suggestive wink and Steve finds himself flat on his back once more.

That is when it occurs to him that she’s doing it on purpose. Of course she is, that’s Natasha’s most famous MO, to destabilize her target with her words. She finds a chink in a person’s armor and pries with manipulation. Her deadly fighting style is only a backup to her most effective weapon: words.

Right. Natasha is testing him, training him. He can’t let her trash talk get under his skin. As long as he’s vulnerable about this with her, he’s vulnerable about this with enemies too.

“I’m not really ready to start dating again,” he says, and Natasha gets her hands on him, twisting his arm around efficiently and he only just barely manages to throw her off. She lands deftly on her feet.

“You don’t have to get marrie.,” He swings at her and she blocks. “Just take a pretty girl out. See how it goes.”

He gets the distinct feeling she’s mocking him with her wording but he can’t figure out how.

“I’m not exactly the most charming of guys.” He kicks and she blocks. “It can be kinda hard to find a date when you’re 90.”

Natasha gets a good grip on him and flips him down to the mat.

“Why didn’t you say?” Her eyes sparkle at him and Steve gets the distinct impression he that he’s in trouble. “Just call me your matchmaker. That’s something from your day right?”

 

I think Natasha is trying to kill me. Steve texts Tony as he pulls his bike up outside his apartment building.

If Natasha was trying to kill you, you’d be dead. What did she do? Tony texts back.

She’s trying to set me up.

The horror. Anyone cute?

I don’t know. I told her I was busy. Steve drops his keys in his dish and wanders into his kitchen to inspect the contents of his fridge.

Damn right you’re busy. We still have Mulan through Elsa to get through. Steve has mustard, one beer, wilting lettuce and left over lo mein. He takes out the lo mein and sniffs it. His phone buzzes again. Seriously though if you want to go out with someone you should. You never know it might be fun. You don’t even have to tell Natasha about it.

He throws out the lo mein and texts Tony back. I’m not ready to date. He stares at the words glowing dimly on his screen and then adds, I’m still hung up on Peggy.

Tony’s response when it comes does not make Steve feel glad he shared. The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. Steve scowls at the text and something uncomfortable twists in his gut. He exits out of the texting widow and calls the pizza place down the street.

When he’s done ordering himself a large meatlovers and a greek salad he sees he has another text. I’m sorry. That was incredibly tasteless and wildly insensitive. I tend to react to sad and terrible things with humor. I laughed at my parent’s funeral.

Steve isn’t sure saying that you’re an insensitive person is really an excuse for saying insensitive things, but that last part about his parent’s funeral gives Steve pause. It’s clearly something personal about himself and his past that Tony doesn’t often share. He’s offering his own emotional truth in exchange for Steve’s that he’d treated so poorly.

It was insensitive. Thank you for apologizing. I’m sorry for your loss.

It was a long time ago. Are you ready for Mulan? I can tell you you are not ready for Mulan. Mulan is awesome and the movie’s good too.

 

Mulan was awesome.

Hey I did that trick with the arrow, except in my case it was a flag. She stole that from me.

Mulan was around long before you so actually you stole that from Mulan.

Fine. Disney stole that from me.

Yeah probably. Your trick with the flagpole is pretty much American legend.

 

Tony is one of the most infuriating people Steve has ever met. He wonders how he managed to forget that.

Giving your home address out to a terrorist was a bad idea. You’ve given him the advantage and put your people at risk.

I don’t need a lecture Cap. I need the Mandarin taken down. He hurt Happy.

I understand the need to hurt those who hurt your loved ones. After Bucky died I crashed a plane into the arctic to destroy HYDRA. But you need to be smart about it.

Well it’s done now. I don’t know what you expect me to do.

Get your people to a safe location. Put on the suit and wait for backup. Fury’s called me in. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

 

“I’m sorry sir but I’m not sure I understand your orders correctly.” Steve was wrong Tony is not the most infuriating person he’s ever met. That honor goes to one Nicholas J Fury. “You want me to leave the country when a terrorist is setting off bombs on domestic soil and a high profile civilian has just made himself a target.”

“Yes,” Fury says sliding a manila folder across his desk towards Steve. “This is higher priority.”

“Higher priority than the lives of the American people?” Steve bites out crisply.

Fury is not cowed in the slightest “Yes.” He flips the folder open and Steve sees that it is an army file. “Four days ago Emil Blonsky escaped from a highly secure military prison. That alone would be cause enough for concern but at the same time four experimental gamma bombs disappeared from a classified army weapons development facility in the Nevada dessert. This was not a coincidence. Blonsky has a very dangerous accomplice who was able to infiltrate both facilities. Blonsky along with his accomplice and the gamma weapons have been tracked to Blonsky’s hometown of St. Petersburg. Sources say that they have a highly secure facility there with heavy military fortiments and that they intend to deploy the weapons on civilian targets. I’ve called in Dr Banner. You Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton will deploy with him and the Strike Team to St Petersburg with haste.”

Steve knows what gamma radiation did to Dr Banner, and even if the bombs don’t kill all the civilian targets he doesn’t want to think about how the world will fare with cities worth of Hulks running around. Still something about this doesn’t sit right with Steve. The timing was too conspicuous.

“And you think it’s a coincidence?” Steve challenges “That this is happening at the same time as the Mandarin?”

“I don’t believe in coincidences, Captain.” Director Fury replies, “But Stark has a tendency of getting into trouble while I have other matters on my plate. We’re lucky no Asgardians have dropped out of the sky and started destroying things yet. I can’t do anything about the fact that the timing sucks. I can only send the resources I have.”

“So that’s it?” Steve asks, “You’re not sending anyone to deal with the Mandarin? You’re just going to let him wreak havoc on the nation.”

“Of course I have someone handling The Mandarin,” Fury leans back in his chair “An Avenger is taking him on.”

“Tony,” Steve says duly “You’re leaving him to fight The Mandarin alone.”

Fury sighs. “I know Stark’s a loose cannon and that you don’t particularly trust his reliability in the field, Captain. But Iron Man has been taking down terrorists since before we defrosted you. I assure you he is more than equipped to handle the threat.”

Fury thinks Steve’s objection is due to not trusting Tony’s abilities, not being concerned for his safety. Is that true? Is Steve being unfair to Tony? Did he need to have more faith in the man?

It doesn’t matter either way. What Fury says is true. This Blonsky situation is the bigger threat and it needs the Avengers on it. It could even use Iron Man. But Iron Man is busy.

“Understood sir.” Steve says.

“Good.” Fury replies. “Now I believe you have a plane to catch, Captain.”

We can’t send backup, I’m sorry. Me and the rest of the big hitters are being called in on another large threat. I wish I could be there to help you but I know that you will be able to handle the situation well. I trust you. Good luck and stay safe.

 

Widow is able to disable all the gamma bombs while Hulk engages Blonsky. Steve and Hawkeye take on Blonsky’s associate, a highly skilled martial artist with green hair, and her teams of lackeys. She ultimately escapes in the chaos with Blonsky and Steve doesn’t think they’ve seen the last of her, but with the facility in ruins, all the gamma bombs neutralized and Blonsky frozen in a vat of liquid nitrogen they’re able to call the mission a success.

As soon as they step onto the jet home Steve pulls out his phone and checks it. One unread text message.

Looks like I’m moving to NY.

Steve frowns at the text. It seems to assume a level of context that Steve doesn’t have so he pulls up the news. Good god. Tony’s home had been destroyed. The president’s plane had been attacked.

I’m sorry for leaving you to deal with that alone. Are you alright? Is anyone hurt?

Tony doesn’t text him back immediately and Steve can’t stop his mind from going through all the worst case scenarios. By the time Tony answers him hours later after he’s debriefed and gone home he’s worked himself into a worried mess.

That’s alright. Just a bad scientist with tech he didn’t understand and inferiority complex. Another Tuesday afternoon. Everyone is alive and mostly unharmed. Sorry I can’t text much I need to work on something for Pepper. She’ll be fine but I need to finish this.

I’m glad to hear that you’re safe and unharmed. Good luck with Pepper, I hope she does well.

Tony doesn’t text him again and Steve doesn’t expect him to. He wonders what’s wrong with Pepper Potts. He hopes she’ll be alright. He wishes there was something he could do to help, but it’s very likely to be scientific and way over his head. Steve feels useless. He doesn’t like that Tony’s facing something alone, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. He hates that Tony has had to face danger without him.

Steve recognizes the feeling. He used to feel this way near constantly after Bucky was drafted by the army and before he’d made it to the front lines. It was the feeling that had motivated him to sign up for the super soldier program in the first place.

Steve throws his gym bag over his shoulder and leaves to eliminate a few unlucky punching bags. With prejudice.

 

Steve flips Natasha onto the mat and pins her. She flashes him what he calls a smile with her eyes. “Good job,” she says, “you’ve improved significantly.”

“Thank you,” he says and lets her up. “I’ve had a good teacher.”

Natasha’s shirt has ridden up and he can see a JA poking out from the hem. She quickly readjusts it and he averts his eyes. Natasha goes out of her way to cover her soulmarks, just like she goes out of her way to hide any piece of information that might be used to get to know her as a person. Steve wishes she wouldn’t, but he has no right to demand it of her.

 

Pepper found a Doctor who says he can do a surgery to safely remove the shrapnel in my chest and the arc reactor. I’m thinking about it.

Steve hasn’t heard from Tony since the stuff with the Mandarin and he’s so relieved to hear from him again he almost forgets to be concerned about the subject matter. A tight knot that’s been living in Steve’s chest unravels, and he feels like he can breathe for the first time in weeks.

What are the arguments for or against? He hopes that sounds appropriately supportive.

Well if it works like it’s supposed to, I won’t be dependent on a large piece of dangerous machinery stuck in the middle of my chest to keep me alive. It would mean no more chronic pain, no more worrying that something’s going to happen to the arc reactor and that my heart will fail. No more being a sick man and a cyborg to boot.

That sounds amazing, Tony. What’s the downside?

It’s a very risky surgery and it’s never been done before. He’s going to have to remove the shrapnel very carefully and there’s a not insignificant risk of major bleeding and cardiac arrest. Even if that goes well, he’s still going to have to reconstruct my entire sternum and sections of my ribs. I’ll still have a large metal hunk in my chest.

That does sound dangerous. It sounds too dangerous in fact, but Steve knows he has no ground to stand on when it comes to advising against risky medical procedures.

That’s a big downside. Is it worth the risk?

Maybe? I don’t know I’m on the fence. I mean the pain hasn’t been bothering me too much recently, and since I replaced the plutonium with the badassium the power drain issues have mostly resolved and there’s no risk of poisoning.

Badassium?

The element I discovered. Legally it’s known as something dumb and boring because the guys at the patent office have no sense of awesome. I’m tempted to just leave things the way they are and go for the surgery only if and when another problem occurs.

That sounds reasonable.

Tony doesn’t text add anything so Steve figures the conversation is over and Tony’s made up his mind, but a few minutes later his phone buzzes again.

The thing is I get the sense that for Pepper this means something more.

Something more than your health?

Yes. No.  I mean I don’t think it’s an accident that she mentioned this Doctor just weeks after all my suits were destroyed in a fiery wreckage.

I’m sorry, I don’t see the connection.

Tony types for a long pause.

When I first made the suit to escape the Ten Rings in Afghanistan we had limited materials so I had to run the Mark I on the arc reactor that was also implanted in my chest. I did the same thing when I first built the Mark II. It wasn’t until later models that I started building the suits their own power sources for safety reasons, so that if the suit drained a surplus of power it wouldn’t put my heart in danger. But even to this day all the Iron Man suits I’ve built have had the ability to switch to power from my arc reactor in an emergency.

You shouldn’t be powering your armor off your own arc reactor ever. Steve doesn’t think Tony reads this text because he continues typing and the next text when it arrives is a continuation of the first.

I was able to run that first suit because it was part of me in a very literal way. Having the arc reactor allowed me to become Iron Man. That’s why when SHIELD and Defense committees ask me to turn over my weapon I tell them I can’t. It’s not a weapon, or not only a weapon. It’s more like a prosthetic. It’s part of me and I am Iron Man.

Steve stares at that text and it’s like he’s learning Tony over, learning what was underneath his exterior the entire time. Tony keeps typing.

Pepper knows that. She knows me better than almost anyone else alive so when she comes to me weeks after all my suits are destroyed and asks me to see a Doctor about removing the arc reactor I get the feeling it’s about something else. I get the feeling she’s asking me to give up being Iron Man.

Steve knows any advice he has to give about Tony’s relationship will be unwanted and he tries to bite back his judgement, but he’s never been good at that so he texts back: You shouldn’t get dangerous complicated heart surgery just because it will make your girlfriend happy. You should do it or not do it for your own health. I’m sure anyone who loves you would understand that.

I’m not explaining this well. Pepper is being wonderful really! And she loves me far more than I deserve. This entire situation only came about because of how much Pepper cares for my health and safety. It’s her number one priority, which is weird because I would prefer that her number one priority be my company that she’s running. She wants me to have a healthy heart and to not be in danger all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that!

Apparently Steve did not do such a good job of hiding his judgement. He could have done without a paragraph-long text defending Pepper Potts. By all accounts she’s a lovely woman, but he just can’t help disliking her a little bit. It’s only that he cares for Tony and it doesn’t sound like they have the healthiest relationship. Tony’s always blaming himself for her unhappiness, and Steve thinks that maybe Pepper Potts could put a little more effort into making Tony happy.

 It sounds like you have two separate decisions to make. Steve texts back. 1. Do you get the surgery for your heart now or wait and 2. Do you stop being Iron Man? The two aren’t related in any way. You can be Iron Man without the arc reactor just as easily as you are with it. Your arc reactor isn’t the hero Tony, you are.

When Tony texts him back Steve feels like he’s missed an entire section of the conversation. He wonders if his phone is eating text messages again.

When do you think they’re coming back next? When do you think they’ll stop?

Who?

The Chitauri, Loki, The Red Skull’s great grandnephew HulkMan. All those threats that need people like us. That need Iron Man.

They never left. They’ll never stop.

When I first built the Iron Man armor I intended for it to be opposite of a weapon. I wanted to use it to end wars not fight in them forever. There has to be a better way than indefinite fighting. I can’t believe that all humanity amounts to at its core is one long contest to see which of us can kill the other ones faster and more efficiently.

Not all of humanity Tony but there will always be those few people that want to make the world hell for the rest of us and someone will always have to be there to stop them. You don’t have to be one of those people on the front line, you’ve already done more than your fair share. If you want to hand in your gauntlets and spend the rest of your days living in a fancy beach house with your girl you can. Nobody will think any less of you.

I learned long ago not to give a flying hippopotamus’s ass what people think of me.

But the bad guys are gonna come. If not Loki than some other mad alien or evil scientist. The question is are you going to be ok letting us handle it?

No. You know the answer’s no. I can’t.

I didn’t know that actually.

Even if I got the surgery and destroyed every armor spec I ever made the second one of those big guys came down threatening my friends and my home or god even people in Korea that I don’t know, I would build myself an arsenal of suits and fly right out to meet them.

You have your answer then.

I guess I do. When did you realize it would never end?

When I woke up after what I thought was a suicide run in 1945 to destroy HYDRA and was told I had to stop aliens from invading the earth almost 80 years later.

I guess that was a pretty obvious one in retrospect. Thanks for helping me talk through this. I really value our conversations and your opinion.

Any time. I value our conversations too. What are you going to do about the surgery?

Eh I think I’ll hold off. There’s gonna be a ton of scarring to my chest and I’ve always been a vain son of a bitch.

I’m sure you’d still be incredibly handsome with scars on your chest.

Aw shucks Cap I’m blushing. You can me I’m pretty anytime. ;)

Steve rolls his eyes and plugs his phone in to charge.

 

 

Steve does end up going on a date.

Bernie works at the café he goes to on his morning jog. She’s studying to be a lawyer and she’s sharp as a tack. He’s seen her smack down the occasional rude customer, and he likes the way she handles herself. He isn’t sure what made him say yes when she asked, it’s just that he didn’t want to let her down or maybe he was just too surprised to say no. She said she’d caught him staring, and there’s no response to that because he had been staring. She’s a very attractive woman, dark curly hair and pleasant curves, the name ‘Rachel’ curling up her slender neck almost artistically, like a snake coiling around its prey. He hadn’t meant to be rude.

In any case he takes her out for dinner and she’s charming, clever and beautiful.

Steve on the other hand is terse and awkward. He’s sure he must make unpleasant company.

When he walks her to her door, he’s not expecting her to reach out and pull him in by the collar. Their lips meet and it feels good. Really good. It’s been a long time since Steve has touched anyone outside of combat or sparring, longer still since he’s touched someone in desire, and Bernie is beautiful and warm. She tastes like the wine they had with dinner and she moans against him. Steve doesn’t realize he’s made a conscious decision to do it, but he’s got her pressed up against the door one hand twisting into her thick dark hair the other at her waist. Her tongue is in his mouth and now it’s his turn to moan. God she feels good.

Steve’s phone buzzes in his pocket and Steve pulls back. Bernie’s hair is a mess and her lips are red and spit-slick. She’s flushed and Steve almost ignores his phone to go back to her, but it could be SHIELD. Aliens could be attacking the Earth. That was the sort of thing that happened nowadays.

It’s not SHIELD. It’s Tony. He wants to know if Steve would rather have a pet T-Rex or a pack of Velociraptors. They watched the Jurassic Park movies last week.

Steve looks back at Bernie and his mind finally catches up to the situation. He wonders what the hell he’s doing. He doesn’t even know this woman. They both had a terrible time at dinner, and he’s going to go to bed with her because she’s attractive and here?  That doesn’t seem particularly nice. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s the one that made all the moves on him and she does seem more than willing. But Steve knows himself better than that. If he does this, in the morning he’ll just feel lonely and horrible. He already feels lonely and horrible. His body may want this but his mind and heart aren’t in it.

“I’m sorry,” he says “I have to go. I had a lovely evening.”

“Oh, yeah of course,” Bernie says and he knows she assumes he’s just received an important text. He lets her believe that; it seems more kind. “I’ll see you again though?” she asks hopefully. Maybe she did have a nice time at dinner. Steve can’t imagine how.

“Sure,” Steve smiles back “I’ll be around.” He doesn’t know how to extract himself from this situation.

“Ok well text me!” She says as he leaves. Oh god, he’s going to have to find another running route. It’s a shame, he really liked that café.

It’s not the most comfortable bike ride home he’s ever had but he can’t risk standing about outside her building thinking sad thoughts.

He texts Tony once he’s home. Pet T-Rex without a doubt. Thanks for texting. I almost went too far with a lady but you stopped me.

Tony texts back quickly like always. Steve wonders how he types that fast. Wait is that your old person way of saying you almost got laid but didn’t because my texting interrupted you!!?? I am SO SORRY. Seriously if you’re getting busy you can just ignore me. I completely understand.

No it’s alright. I needed to cool down.

Tony Stark Killer of Erections Everywhere! That’s me! But really if you were that into her just call her back and tell her you’re sorry. I’m sure she’ll take you back. I promise not to text all night!

You don’t understand. I don’t want to. Steve looks at that text and it feels like a lie so he adds: I mean my body really wants to but my heart and mind don’t.

Tony doesn’t text back immediately so Steve sends another Sorry was that more information than you wanted? And then he just needs to stop and sit on his hands because Tony will text when he’s able.

It’s probably only ten minutes before Tony answers him but it feels like longer.

Sorry, I had to deal with something in the lab or risk setting the whole building on fire. And no not at all! Don’t apologize! There’s no such thing as too much information with me! I promise I’m almost impossible to shock. Tell me anything!

That’s a lot of exclamation points but Steve kindly doesn’t mention it. Besides, Tony’s still typing.

And if you don’t want to then you don’t want to. That’s completely fine. I’m happy to provide excuses anytime you need to get out of a hard situation.

Steve rolls his eyes at the innuendo but doesn’t comment. He knows he and Tony are alright.

Will do. So what would you rather have a pet T-Rex or a pack of velociraptors?

He and Tony spend the rest of night discussing the comparative tactical advantages of having various dinosaurs at your command in battle.

 

 

 

Steve has to admit his new running route is incredibly scenic. It’s out of his way but the path leading down to the mall past the Lincoln Memorial is beautiful at sunrise. There’s another jogger out, and Steve throws a friendly taunt at him every time he runs past.

By the end of his run he has the man’s name and an offer to stop by his place of work.

I met someone running. He texts Tony.

That’s great! Are they cute? Steve understands enough about modern slang by now catch the meaning and he realizes he wasn’t entirely clear.

Yes but that isn’t what I meant. I meant I might have made a new friend.

Still great! Good job! Steve doesn’t know if he’s being patronized but he’s in a good mood and decides to take it at face value.

Thanks, I’m not very good at making friends and I don’t really have any since all of my old ones died before I woke up from the ice.

You have me. Tony texts back, and Steve really should have expected that but for some reason he didn’t.

Yes I do. Thank you.

“Who are you texting?” Natasha asks from the driver’s seat. “A hottie?” She’s teasing him again. It seems to be her favorite subject.

“Tony Stark,” Steve answers deadpan. It’s the truth, but Steve’s not sure she’ll believe him.

She wrinkles her nose. “So that’s a no then.”

It’s the last time Steve texts Tony before he wakes up in a DC hospital with Marvin Gaye playing in the background.

 

Bucky is alive. It’s the first thought in Steve’s head when he wakes up closely followed by: where is Bucky, I need to find Bucky and Bucky saved me. He can almost feel Bucky’s name on the back of his neck burn and itch.

“Hey,” Sam says, and Steve turns to find the man sitting patiently at his bedside listening to an album he has plugged in on the table. Steve is grateful but gets the conflictingly sick feeling that he absolutely does not deserve a friend like Sam. “How are you holding up?”

“Better than I was,” Steve replies “How long have I been out?”

“Three days,” Sam answers. “Stark was pretty adamant that I call him the second you wake up. It’s up to you though, I don’t have to let him know.”

“No, it’s fine,” and then, because he does know Tony and he was worried about him when he found out he was at the top of HYDRA’s hit list, “Where is he?”

“With Natasha I don’t know where running search and rescue for SHIELD operatives whose covers were blown when she dropped the hard drive.”

Steve frowns and struggles to sit up a little “They’re still in the field?”

“They’re doing fine.”

“Natasha was shot four days ago.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees “I guess she’s made of stronger stuff than you.”

Steve looks over at Sam who’s grinning at his own poor joke, and Steve can’t help it but laugh. He immediately regrets it. Laughing hurts.

“Woah easy there,” Sam hands him a cup. “Water. Drink a little of this. It’ll make your mouth feel less dry.”

Steve takes a sip and it does feel good, cool water sliding down his throat even if it tastes a little funny still. When he’s done he says “Its ok, you can call them and tell them I’m fine,” he rolls his eyes as if they’re a pain. “They’ll just keep worrying if you don’t.”

“Sure thing,” Sam says “Let me get a nurse in here first.”

A nurse comes in and checks him over, then she leaves and comes back with a fleet of doctors all of whom check him over and ask him a lot of questions. Steve gets the feeling that they’re only here because they’re curious about seeing the medical marvel. He can’t really blame them.

They tell him he that he’s doing remarkably well but that he needs to stay for a few more days of recovery and observation. Steve tells them he’s fine and that he would like to leave now. Once they go to draft up his discharge papers, Sam pulls out his phone and calls Tony.

“Hey man…yeah he’s awake, Docs say he’s doin good…” he puts his hand over the receiver and turns to Steve. “He wants to talk to you.” It’s a question as much as a statement and Steve reaches out his hand.

“Hello Tony.” Steve says into Sam’s phone. On the other end of the line he can hear the sounds of active combat, gunshots and explosions. Steve thinks this was a poor time to call.

When Tony’s voice reaches his ear it sounds breathless. “Steve?” There are more gunshots in the background and Tony swears: “Hey watch the paint job! Steve are you alright? Sam said you were doing better but I was so worried. What the hell were you thinking? Never do that again!”

“What? Take down HYDRA?” Steve answers “Kinda my MO.”

“No you idiot, get shot and dropped into the Potomac when I’m not there to catch you!” Tony sounds on the hairy edge of frantic and angry. Steve would not like to be the HYDRA agents he’s engaging right now.

Steve smiles a little as he replies, “I’ll do my best.”

“Good. Oh for- Really? That’s what you’re gonna go with. I’m embarrassed for you, I really am.” Steve patiently waits for Tony to finish trash talking Hydra goons. “Sorry, multitasking here. When are you getting discharged? Because you’re HYDRA’s target numero uno and I think right now the safest place for you is Avengers Tower. I’ll send Happy with the jet to pick you up and fly you there.”

His mind catches on the phrase ‘Avengers Tower,’ and he chafes against the implication that he needs to be kept safe in a tower, but he knows Tony’s right. HYDRA is going to come for him, and more importantly with SHIELD gone, they are going to need a safe place to regroup and discuss the threat. Tony’s Manhattan skyscraper is as good a place as any.

“They’re drawing up the discharge paperwork now,” Steve says.

“What? But you just woke up. What am I saying-” more shooting sounds. “Of course you’re signing yourself out AMA. Ok I’ll send Happy down. Widow and I will meet you back at the Tower once we’re clear here. Take care of yourself.”

“You too Tony.” He hears the click of Tony hanging up.

There’s a large part of Steve that just wants to leave before Happy gets here. To get up out of the Hospital bed and go on a tear across the world to find Bucky. He wants to forget about HYDRA and The Avengers because Bucky is out there alone and Bucky needs him. But he can’t do that. Maybe a year ago he could, but he has responsibilities now and people who care about him. Steve has spent this entire year isolating himself and clinging to everything he’s lost. He never intended to or even imagined that he would make more friends and still somehow in spite of everything he’s made three. Steve’s not entirely sure how it happened.

What he does know is that he can’t drop everything in favor of Bucky, and he can’t leave Bucky alone out there to fend for himself. He turns his head sideways to look Sam in the eyes. “I need to ask you for another favor.”

 

Avengers Tower is aptly named. There’s an A on the top for one thing, and it’s got its own landing pad, which will come in very useful - tactically speaking. It also has plenty of room for anyone who needs to stay. Steve wonders if Tony plans to use this place as a base of operations. It’s well designed for it, and Steve’s already started drawing up operations in his head when Tony and Natasha arrive with Agent Barton in tow. Natasha’s the first to step out and she walks right up to him and gives him a hug. Steve is so surprised he doesn’t know what to do. He just stands there stiffly with his hands awkwardly hanging at his sides.

Barton follows quickly behind her, exiting the jet and offering his hand for Steve to shake. “Good to see you up and well, Cap.”

“Same to you Hawkeye.”

Clint flashes him a smile and then Steve’s attention turns back to the landing pad because Iron Man has just touched down, his red and gold armor covered in grime and blood but somehow still glinting in the setting sun. As Iron Man walks towards him, large mechanical hands reach for pieces of his suit, stripping him gracefully until Tony Stark emerges sweaty and bright eyed. Tony strides towards him in a tight black and white flight suit.

Something in Steve’s chest stutters and Steve can’t believe he’s really looking at Tony. He can’t believe that he ever thought seeing Tony again would be difficult or make things real. Things are already very real, and Tony has already nestled his way somewhere deep into his affections and there’s no getting him out. Steve should have known this already. Their souls are bound and there’s no avoiding it. None of the marks on Steve’s skin have ever lied. The only say he has in the matter is what to do about it.

Looking at Tony now it hits Steve that Tony is really quite an attractive man. Handsome face, strong arms, thick beautiful hair and narrow hips. It’s exactly at the moment that Steve is contemplating Tony’ hips that Tony grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him into a hug. Steve can’t remember a time in his life when he was ever hugged this much. Tony’s hair brushes against Steve’s nose and god he even smells good, and Steve brings his arms up to encircle Tony’s body.

“I’m glad you’re alright, Steve,” Tony says against his ear and Steve’s eyes flutter closed. He feels safe for the first time in over a year.

“Me too.” Tony pulls back and sweeps into the main hallway, leaving Steve feeling cold. “So we’ve got to catch you up on the adventures of HYDRA that you’ve missed. Really darling, you need to stop sleeping through all the good bits.”

Steve rolls his eyes but for some reason he can’t stop smiling.

Steve, Tony, Natasha and Clint reconvene in the large open living area upstairs. Bruce even comes up from his lab and they start going over their situation.

Most of the agents that were in trouble have either been extracted or rescued by this point. Their biggest concern is that the large number of strange and dangerous artifacts that SHIELD had been in possession of are now presumably in HYDRA’s control. Of course there’s also the matter that those of them who had covers don’t anymore. And those of them that worked for SHIELD are happily unemployed.

“You’re all welcome to stay here until the HYDRA threat becomes less immediate, in fact you’re welcome to stay here indefinitely.” Tony says “Bruce has already moved in and he loves it. Tell them Bruce what a paradise it is in Casa Stark.”

“It’s very nice here,” Bruce says dutifully. It’s obvious despite the dull tone and the gentle teasing nature that Bruce has a great deal of affection for Tony. It’s good to see.

“I’m probably going to be taking you up on that,” Natasha says.

“Thanks but I have a safe house that’s good for me-” Barton says. “But I’ll help you take down as many HYDRA cells as we can find.”

They all turn to him.

“I haven’t got any better offers.” Steve deadpans and it’s decided. As he looks around he can see that Tony, Natasha and Clint are at the end of their tethers. They’re all holding themselves carefully and their eyes are drooping shut. “We can discuss this further in the morning. You three need to clean up and rest. We won’t get anything done with half the team asleep on the job.”

“Yes mom,” Barton rolls his eyes.

Tony throws him a mocking salute and Natasha carefully levers herself out of her chair.

Lightning crackles outside and they all turn to the large bay windows where Thor is hovering. He is holding Mjolnir high above his head with one hand. Bruce graciously opens the window to let him in.

“Check it out,” Tony says “The gang’s all here.”

“Friends,” Thor begins, “I bring urgent news from Heimdall.”

Of course he does.

“No rest for the wicked,” Barton mutters.

“When Loki was apprehended after the Battle with the Chitauri,” Thor begins “His scepter, an object of great and terrible power, was kept by your SHIELD.” Steve does not like where this has headed. “Heimdall tells me that with the fall of SHIELD, this scepter has passed into the hands of the cruel and foolish. If it is not recovered, great harm may befall this world and others to follow.”

“Do we know where the scepter is?” Steve asks.

“The magic that lies in the scepter is too powerful even for Heimdall’s magic to breach,” Thor answers. “He could not tell me of its location.”

“So we start tearing down HYDRA bases and ask the goons real nicely if they know anything.” Tony says. It is Steve’s kind of plan.

“We need information first,” Natasha says.

Tony snaps his fingers. “This sounds like a job for my new head of security.” Steve didn’t know until this moment that Tony had hired anyone new. “JARVIS call Chief of Security.”

Maria Hill’s voice flows out of the speakers around the room: “What can I do for you Mr. Stark.”

“You’re needed in the penthouse. Time to start earning your exorbitant pay Hill.”

“Right away, sir” she says and the line cuts out. Steve should have known.

They are preparing to launch a full frontal assault on HYDRA and this is something Steve knows. They need to be smart about this.

“We can read Maria in tonight, but then you three need rest.” Steve says. “The kind of mission you’re talking about is not a simple hit and run. This is going to be a long campaign and we’re not going to accomplish it tonight. In the morning we can discuss team logistics and battle strategy.”

“Whatever you think is best Cap,” Tony says. “This is your rodeo.” Steve’s touched by Tony’s faith in him. He thinks back to when they first met and Tony chafed against everything he said. They’ve come a long way since then. “While we’re waiting I’m going to call the girlfriend and let her know we’ve got house guests.”

Steve’s stomach drops. Girlfriend. Right. Tony has a girlfriend, the lovely Pepper Potts. Steve knows this; this is not new information. He shouldn’t be reacting like this. Shit, this is going to be complicated.

 

Taking down HYDRA with The Avengers feel exhilarating and right in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time. It also feels strange and leaves him a little off-balance because his life has changed so much but now he’s come full circle and he’s doing exactly what he was doing in 1943. Only now he’s not the only one on his team with superhuman fighting abilities. Steve doesn’t think he really appreciated before how good of a fighter and asset Iron Man is. He knew Tony was smart and that the armor was advanced, but he hadn’t really fully integrated it until he started fighting with him.

The thing about Iron Man is that he’s so incredibly versatile. He considers that strengths of the rest of the team. Thor and Steve (and theoretically Hulk though they haven’t used him yet) can hit with superhuman strength, smashing through tanks and walls. Steve and Widow can handle hand to hand and close range engagement. Thor can fly and offer aerial reconnaissance and cover. Hawkeye can attack long range. Banner can offer technical support for scientific problems.

But Iron Man can do all of it. A lot of it he can do simultaneously. Steve almost wonders how he ever thought he was good in a fight before he fought with Iron Man. Did he really just throw himself off of buildings without the certain knowledge that Iron Man would catch him? Did he smash at well shielded facilities with fists and a shield without any knowledge or plan for how to disable their forcefields and defense systems?

Knowing how good Iron Man is in a fight does not help Steve when it comes to his feelings about Tony. To find himself suddenly living with the person that has been his best friend in this century, and to become painfully acutely aware of just how attractive that man was was overwhelming enough. But then to leave Avengers Tower, to go work into the field with that man and to be treated to demonstration after demonstration of just how smart and effective and incredible he really was, well it’s amazing in all honesty. But it isn’t healthy and Steve knows it.

He knows he can’t get over Tony if he spends all his time around Tony. If anything he’s just getting more and more infatuated with him. But he lives with Tony and he needs to work with Tony to get Loki’s scepter away from HYDRA and all of that is just an excuse because Steve wants to be around Tony.

Even if he had no reason to spend time with Tony, he would find an excuse so he could. Being around Tony feels good, it makes him happy. Tony makes him happy. And if happy was the only thing Tony made him feel, Steve wouldn’t have a problem.

Steve can’t stop looking at Tony, when he’s in his shirtsleeves or his skintight flightsuit with his hair a mess from the Iron Man helmet and his face flushed, or Steve’s favorite, jeans and a t-shirt, arms bare and smeared of grease and oil after long hours in his workshop. And Tony is always touching Steve, slinging an arm over Steve’s shoulders or patting him on the back, crowding in close to Steve while they talk about the best way to go about assaulting a HYDRA base. Steve’s been going out of his mind with sexual frustration. He even considered calling Bernie, but summarily dismissed that idea, because for one Bernie still lives in DC as far as he knew, and more importantly he’s been a dick to Bernie. He would be the lowest of low creatures to call her now only to use her as a distraction from the person he really wants.

So Steve does nothing. He hunts down HYDRA and he lives in Avengers Tower and he suffers silently.

 

Tony’s fitting Steve for his new uniform when he gets the text from Sam. Tony’s been designing state of the art body armor and accessories for the entire team. This is the third uniform Tony’s made for Steve personally. Tony’s never satisfied with a design, always driven to change them, make them better and stronger. Steve’s enjoying Tony’s proximity and attention. He’s thinking that with all the avenging they’ve been doing he and Tony haven’t had time to watch any movies together. He’s debating the wisdom of suggesting they watch something when his phone vibrates on the table.

It’s from Sam, another lead to find Bucky has come up empty. This had been a promising one too, Steve had really believed this would be the one, that they would find Bucky this time. His stomach roils and he can feel his shoulders drop as the mixture of shame, disappointment and failure take up residence somewhere above his navel. He reaches a hand up to run his fingers over the back of his neck, where Bucky’s mark has been since the day Steve was born.

“Everything alright, Cap?” Tony asks behind him.

“Just another dead end,” Steve says. “I feel like I’m failing him every day.”

Steve and Tony haven’t talked about Bucky much. Steve knows The Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parent’s, but some small selfish irrational part of him just wants to keep them both to himself. He thinks that if he doesn’t talk to Tony about Bucky, they will stay in their own separate worlds and they’ll both be Steve’s.

Tony lays a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “You’re doing everything you can. He’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

That makes Steve laugh low and broken. “No,” the word scrapes over his throat, a confession “I’m the lucky one. I always have been. Bucky was smart and healthy and charming and handsome, and I was a skinny nobody that kept getting into fights. The amount of trouble I got Bucky into even back then. Do you know how many fights he pulled me out of? How many times he saved me? And even after we went to war Bucky was always there next to me, even though he didn’t want to be, you know? Bucky was a good soldier and an excellent shot but he hated war. He stayed because he wanted to have my back. When he fell from that train I was down and he gave up his cover. He picked up the shield and stood in front of me, covering me from the HYDRA guns. He got blown out the side of a moving train for it, and I just watched him fall,” the words were running fast out of him now, tripping over themselves and here he choked “I watched him fall and I did nothing. I could have jumped. I would have survived the fall but I didn’t.” He swallows around the lump in his throat. He thinks he might be crying “Everything he’s suffered is because of me, for me. And you know what? When it was me falling, even at his worst, even with all the winter soldier programming, he jumped. He jumped Tony, and he saved me. I’m the lucky one.”

Tony is looking at him with sad sympathetic eyes “Steve, it’s not your fault.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve says. “Bucky’s one of my soulmates. He’s a part of me, and everything that HYDRA does to him they do to me. I have to find him.”

“Soulmate?” Tony says. “You mean the name thing? Oh tell me you don’t believe in that crap.”

Steve’s brain stutters and switches gears. What?

“Yeah. You mean you don’t?” Steve doesn’t know what to make of this. The only reason he gave Tony his number over a year ago now was because he thought it might matter to Tony that they were soulmates. Apparently Tony didn’t care about soulmates at all.

“Of course I don’t believe it,” Tony says dismissively “not only am I a certified atheist but I am a scientist. I believe in facts and observable phenomena. The names are certainly an observable phenomena, but there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that they’re supernaturally connecting peoples’ auras.”

Steve supposes that this makes sense with everything he’s known about Tony. If he had thought about it at all rationally he might have guessed that Tony would feel this way.

“But what about…” Steve doesn’t know why he’s fighting about this. Tony’s already told him how he feels, it’s not Steve’s right to believe he can change his mind. “…Pepper or any of your other soulmates? Don’t you love them, aren’t they important to you?”

Tony looks at Steve like he’s said something very strange. “Pepper’s name isn’t anywhere on my body. Where did you hear that?”

And Steve can’t remember where he heard that. He had heard it somewhere hadn’t he? Or had he just assumed? “I don’t remember,” he admits. “I’m sorry if I got it wrong.”

“It’s fine,” Tony waves his hand dismissively, “But she’s not on my skin, and neither is Rhodey since we’re sharing. And if I were ever going to have soulmates they would be them, so there you go. More evidence against the soulmate hypothesis.”

There’s nothing Steve can say to that so he keeps silent.

Tony continues as if Steve has said something anyways. It’s one of the things about Tony that Steve likes, how he can carry on a conversation almost entirely by himself. Steve can barely carry a conversation with another person and help from the fire brigade. “I do have some woman named Rumiko on my hip,” he says contemplatively “I mean I assume it’s a woman. It’s a woman’s name. Japanese. But I’ve never met her in any case, so it’s really just a sexy little tattoo.”

Some woman named Rumiko on my hip. Tony’s words replay in a loop in Steve’s head. He hasn’t mentioned Steve at all, and if Steve’s name was on Tony’s body he would have said something about it. The truth was rapidly coming together in Steve’s mind.

“Steve,” Tony said gently “I didn’t mean to imply that Bucky doesn’t matter to you. I do believe you when you say you have and bond. I believe that you love him. But what’s happened to him is not your fault. None of this is your fault.”

Tony thinks that Steve is still upset about Bucky which reminds Steve that he is in fact still upset about Bucky.

“Thanks, Tony,” he says mechanically. “I think I’m just gonna go to bed early tonight.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “Whatever you want. I’ll have JARVIS sing you a lullaby”

Steve makes an effort to smile at that but he knows it probably doesn’t come across very convincing.

 

When he gets to his room he goes straight to his laptop and does something he never thought he would do, he searches for naked pictures of Tony Stark. He knows they exist, because Tony had brought them up in one of their earliest conversations, assuming Steve had already seen them. Steve had never thought he’d be searching for them. He knows what he’s doing is wrong but he needs to know.

And there they are - incredibly easy to find. A spread in some artistic magazine from almost twenty years ago. They’re well shot and framed. Tony is posed in ways that do interesting things with the light, but every inch of him is on display. He looks so much younger in these, still handsome but barefaced and sad. There’s the name on his hip ‘Rumiko Fujikawa’ in perfectly legible looping writing, a heart over the ‘i,’ but Steve can’t find his own name. He clicks through them, looking at Tony’s body from every angle, back, front, side. Nothing. Steve’s name is not on Tony’s skin. It’s not there. Tony is Steve’s soulmate but Steve isn’t his.

 

Clint has a name running up his arm in neat cursive script. It’s visible almost all the time, since Clint doesn’t wear sleeves on most of his outfits.

“Who is she?” Steve asks him the next time he sees it.

“Katherine Bishop?” Clint glances at the mark on his arm. “No idea.” He shrugs.

Steve’s heart drops and he doesn’t know why; it doesn’t affect him. He doesn’t know what he was expecting.

“Nat’s on my on my lower back,” Clint continues “like a tramp stamp.”

Steve smiles and he doesn’t know why he thinks it’s funny, but it’s such a Clint thing to say.

“You’ve got Agent Carter on your wrist right?” Clint asks.

Steve nods “And Bucky on the back of my neck.” He doesn’t mention Tony.

“Nice luck,” Clint says “People and placement. Knew a guy once who had a name stamped across his face. Sucked to be him.”

“Does Natasha have your name on her?” Steve asks. He knows it’s intrusive and that Natasha doesn’t want anyone to know about her marks.

“Yu-huh,” Clint says around a mouthful of cold pizza he’s dug out of the fridge “On her right shoulder blade. She won’t actually kill you for knowing.”

 

Steve decides it doesn’t matter. Bucky hadn’t believed the marks meant you were soulmates and Steve had believed enough for the both of them.

He can’t put his name on Tony’s skin and he can’t believe for Tony but he can believe in him. He can still be Tony’s friend, still be someone that’s important in his life. It occurs to Steve that since this whole physical attraction crush thing started he’s been a pretty shitty friend. They haven’t done anything together just for fun since SHIELD fell. They’ve been busy but Steve decides it’s time. Everyone needs a break sometimes. Even geniuses and soldiers.

Tony looks surprised when Steve asks him to watch a movie with him.

“We could use the break Tony,” Steve wheedles, “and we still need to watch UP.”

Tony looks pained “I can’t Steve,” he says “I have to work on this. Since we started avenging full time I’ve been ignoring SI and if I don’t do something for the company soon Pepper’s going to kill me. She’s angry at me enough as it is.”

Steve isn’t trying to make trouble for Tony, but anyone with eyes can see that Tony’s overstretched and exhausted. Steve’s a little ashamed that he’s been so distracted by his own desire that he hasn’t seen it before now.

“When was the last time you had a break?” Steve asks.

Tony rolls his eyes “Breaks are for quitters.”

“Tony, no one can work all day every day. You get tired. You make mistakes.” Steve says “An hour and a half away isn’t going to kill you.”

Tony snorts “Pot meet kettle.”

Steve frowns “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that when you look up workaholic in the dictionary there’s a picture of you.” He glances up from his work to shoot Steve a piercing look “All you do is work.”

“That’s not true,” Steve says “You of all people should know I also kill punching bags and watch movies from my couch.”

“Physical conditioning doesn’t count,” Tony replies. “It’s part of your job. And I don’t remember the last time you watched a movie.”

“So watch one with me,” Steve argues, and he can see in Tony’s face that he’s almost got him.

“How about this,” Tony offers, “You put the movie on in here. We can watch it while I work on this.”

“Deal,” Steve agrees quickly, because that would be no different from what they’ve done in the past.

Tony smiles at him, “And I do feel I have to warn you, the first ten minutes of this movie are going to make you sob like a baby.”

Steve does in fact cry at the beginning of the movie but Tony is kind and tactfully doesn’t mention it. Unhappy beginnings aside Steve does enjoy the movie and at some point Tony puts down his soldering iron, picks up his tablet and comes to sit next to Steve on the couch, tapping away at something Steve can’t even hope to comprehend.

“This movie has the best depiction of a dog I’ve ever seen,” Tony comments as Dug expresses his love and gets distracted by a squirrel.

Steve glances over at Tony and smiles. “Yeah.”

“You know,” Tony says as the credits begin to roll, “Sometimes I wonder how the other half lives. Get up in the morning, go to work and then just go home. No emergency alien attacks, no constant shareholder pressure, no walking out of their living room and into their workshop in the middle of the night. Just..” he spreads his hands expansively and his next words are wondering as if he’s trying to wrap his mind around a concept completely alien to him “…go home.”

Steve thinks about it for a moment, watching the blue fight from the screen flickering across Tony’s face, before answering “I don’t know,” he says “but I am home.”

Tony turns to look at him and his face is full of such wonder and affection that Steve can feel his heart closing up his throat. “Have I ever told you,” Tony says, low and sincere “how lucky I am to have you? How absolutely phenomenally wonderful you are and how happy I am to be your friend?”

Steve can barely breathe, and he can’t look away from Tony’s face. His eyes are deep and kind and filled with what Steve is almost certain is love. He opens his mouth and croaks out “No.”

Tony smiles with his eyes and a faint quirk of his lips and his expression is still so tender, so kind when he says, “Well I am. And you are.”

Steve can’t help it his face splits in a grin ad he can feel his heart beating double time so full that he doesn’t know what to do with it. “Me too,” he says.

Tony grins, light and playful “Well good,” he says “that’s good.”

 

Steve can’t believe Tony is being so cold about this, so amoral. How could Tony think that was the right thing to do?

They’re standing in the living room face to face. Steve’s jaw is clenched and he has his hands balled into fists at his side. “So the ends justify the means then?” he spits.

“Not all the time,” Tony yells back his hands gesturing wildly, “But sometimes there are no better options and you have to choose between a shitty choice and an even shittier one, and you just pick the one that causes the least damage.”

“The least damage,” Steve roars “try the easiest course of action. You think you can do whatever you want just because things are hard!”

Tony throws his hands up in exasperation. “I can’t believe you,” he says. “You would just leave people in danger to keep your own conscience squeaky clean. That’s not morality, it’s cowardice!”

“What are you guys yelling about?” Bruce’s soft voice asks from the doorway. Steve doesn’t tear his eyes away from Tony’s face; he’s so angry he’s shaking.

Tony bites out “In the zombie apocalypse, if a member of your party gets bitten, do you shoot them in the head immediately or wait until they turn into a zombie and start trying to kill people.” The last words come out more frustrated and faster than the rest, and that’s just like Tony, to frame everything in his own terms.

Bruce is silent in the doorway for a moment. When he speaks his voice is puzzled and more than a little judgmental. “You two have been arguing about this for an hour and a half?”

Steve and Tony say nothing. There’s no way to respond to that that doesn’t make them sound like children and they both know it.

Finally Bruce asks tentatively, “Is there a cure for zombieism?”

Steve grunts in anger and frustration “It doesn’t matter.”

 

Steve throws and it, like all the ones before bounce off his opponent as if they’re not even connecting. Madame Hydra, as her Hydra operatives addressed her reaches out for Steve but Natasha swipes her hand launches herself at Madame HYDRA pushing her off balance. Natasha gets thrown to the floor for her efforts and then it’s just Steve and the green-haired neo-natzi again.

“She’s gained an edge since the last time we fought her,” Natasha says over the comm “It’s like none of our hits are affecting her. She just stands there and takes it. It’s as if she’s wearing armor.”

“On my way to you,” Iron Man says over the comms.

“No Iron Man, stay where you are,” Steve orders “We need access to those databanks. It’s the mission objective.”

“Fuck the mission objective,” Iron Man says “I’m not gonna let two of my teammates get dead.”

“Thor?” Steve asks, because if he can find someone else to provide backup here Tony can work on locating the scepter using Hydra’s computer terminals.

“I am battling multiple foes, Captain.” Thor’s voice rings over the comms “I cannot assist you without leaving Hawkeye to their mercy.”

“Damnit!” Steve swears and Madame Hydra uses his moment of distraction to punch him in the face laying him flat on his back.

“Having trouble Captain?” She smiles at him. “Surely the mighty Captain America couldn’t be taken down by little old me.”

It is a very good thing they were able to disarm her at the beginning of this fight. She may be immune to their attacks, but her weapons were not.

“Don’t worry,” Steve flips to his feet “I’m not.”

He can see Natasha levering herself up gently in the corner. She’s injured but she’s still coming up on Madame Hydra from behind.

They can keep attacking her but unless they find some way to touch her they’re not going to win this fight. He can see in Natasha’s face that she knows it too.

“So Thor,” Steve hears Hawkeye’s voice over the comms, “In the zombie apocalypse, if a member of your party gets bitten by a zombie, do you shoot them in the head immediately or wait until they turn into a zombie.”

“That depends” Thor answers over the sounds of fighting. “Is there a cure for being a zombie in this scenario?”

“No chatter on the comms,” Steve reminds them.

The sound of repulsors rumbles in the doorway and Iron Man lands beside him.

“You know it’s an octopus right,” Iron Man says, and Madame Hydra looks at him like he’s crazy. Iron Man continues talking as if they’re having a perfectly normal conversation “The skull emblem with multiple tentacles. It’s an octopus not a Hydra. A hydra has one tail and many heads. Completely different thing.”

“Didn’t know you were such a classics scholar,” Madame Hydra swings around towards Natasha and grabs a handful of her hair wrenching Natasha backwards.

“Ok,” Iron Man raises his hand palm up at Madame Hydra and Natasha dives away. Steve can hear her hair rip. “Let’s try something fun.”

Madame Hydra takes a repulsor blast straight to the chest and goes flying into the wall behind her, cracking the concrete with her body.

A dusty cloud plumes up around her and she stands up a cocky smile on her face “Is that your idea of fun, Stark?” She smirks “Kinky.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Iron Man says “inappropriate flirting in combat is my thing.”

“I’m sorry,” she says and charges at Steve. “Did I step on your toes?”

She wraps herself around Steve’s body and clings. Her arms go around Steve’s throat trying to choke him but he gets a hand up. They wrestle, neither one able to fully win.

“It’s a force field of some kind.” Iron Man says over the comm. “The transmitter’s on her somewhere. JARVIS can’t pinpoint the locations through the field but you need to get it away from her.”

“Received,” Natasha says and swipes at Madame Hydra. Steve doesn’t see where she’s reached for but he feels Madame Hydra give as his grip starts grinding her bones together. He throws her off of him and she rolls.

“Well this has been a ball,” she says and presses something on her wrist. She disappears in a pop, and Steve, Natasha and Tony stare at each other. Tony flips up his face mask.

“Hail Octopus,” He says and Steve shoots him a look.

“Get back to the computer terminal and see if you can recover anything useful,” Steve says but Tony’s shaking his head as Steve’s talking.

“Sorry Cap, the data’s already been corrupted. I can’t get anything out of it now.” He reaches out a hand towards Natasha and she hands over Madame Hydra’s combat utility belt “This on the other hand...” he trails off turning a device over in his hands “is not from around here.”

Excellent. More alien technology. Just what they need.

“Thor, Hawkeye,” Steve says into his comm “How you guys doin?”

“We are defeating our enemies gloriously, Captain,” Thor responds.

“Good,” Steve says, “We’re heading your way to regroup.”

 

Thor frowns at the device Madame Hydra was using. The engines of the quinjet purr gently under their feet. Bruce is in the pilot’s seat. He’s the best person for the job, since he wasn’t needed in the fight.

“This is Kree technology,” Thor says gravely, and Steve gets the sense that he’s not going to like this explanation.

“What’s a Kree?” Tony asks.

“The Kree are an ancient and advanced warrior race. Their presence on your planet would not bode well.” Thor says.

“Yeah,” Steve says “I’ve hit my limit for advanced warrior races.”

“Are we sure they were here,” Tony says “HYDRA has an impressive collection of things from the Chitauri attack. Couldn’t they have brought some Kree tech with them?”

“The Kree and the Chitauri do not use similar technology. It is unlikely that they would chose to use each other’s shields,” Thor says before conceding “Although, the Kree Empire is vast and their kind are everywhere. It is not impossible that a soldier of the Chitauri encountered one of the Kree.”

“So hopefully someone brought home a trophy from that battle” Tony says “and we don’t have to worry about the Kree stopping down to trash the planet.”

“Yes,” Thor says “We can hope.”

 

When they get back to the tower Tony and Bruce head straight to the lab to study the Kree forceshield and Steve checks in with Maria before heading up to take a much needed shower. Steve doesn’t see Tony the next day, or the day after that. By the time day three rolls around Steve’s a little concerned so he goes to the lab to find him.

“Hey, Cap,” Tony’s working on something complicated and doesn’t look up when he comes in “What can I do for you?”

“I actually came to see how you were,” Steve says “I haven’t seen you in a few days. Is everything alright?”

Tony sighs and his shoulders slump; he puts a hand over his face and shrinks in on himself. He looks, suddenly, unbearably tired. “Pepper and I broke up,” he confesses.

Steve hates himself but his first thought is now I have a shot and his heart soars at the prospect. He does his best to tamp that part of himself down tight, to be a good person and a sympathetic friend. “I’m sorry.”

Tony laughs “It’s been a long time coming, I just..” he trails off and the look on his face is so lost that Steve wants to find the person who made Tony look like that and beat them to a bloody pulp, wants to hold Tony and make sure nobody harms him ever again.

“It doesn’t matter how far away you see it coming,” Steve says instead “losing someone always hurts.”

“You know what the worst part is?” Tony spits out the next words as if he’s saying an offensive word “When she told me it was over I was relieved.”

“That’s a good sign that you did the right thing,” Steve says gently but Tony ignores him and keeps going.

“Pepper is the best thing that has ever happened to me. She’s way too good for me and I love her more than-” He cuts himself off “God, I was relieved.”

He laughs again. It rings loudly in the hollow room echoing hauntingly; Tony looks almost manic. “It’s not funny.” He gasps out, “Is it? Is it funny? I never deserved Pepper. It was a miracle she ever agreed to date me. And I was so tired of fighting and making her unhappy that I was relieved we broke up.”

Steve doesn’t see the humor, but he supposes this is just one of those strange ways people react to horrible situations. He remembers how Tony told him that he’d laughed at his parents’ funeral. “Tony,” he says “It’s ok to feel relieved. If neither one of you were happy in the relationship, it’s ok to feel relieved that it’s over.”

Tony calms down a little; he still has a manic empty grin on his face but he’s stopped laughing, “Yeah,” he says “yeah thanks Steve.”

“How long have you been in here,” Steve asks, “When was the last time you ate? When was the last time you slept?”

Tony waves a hand at Steve “Unimportant. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“That could be literal if you have to go up against HYDRA like this,” Steve says. “Come on, you’re having dinner then we can watch one very short movie while you digest and then you’re going to bed.”

“But mom,” Tony whines.

“Be good or no friends for a week.” Steve deadpans.

“What friends,” Tony mutters and Steve can’t help it that hurts. It must show on his face because Tony immediately backpedals “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I’m just being asshole. Of course you’re my friend. And you’re a great friend. Ignore me really. What did you have in mind for dinner?”

They eat sandwiches with lunch meats and watch Young Frankenstein. Tony falls asleep before the Monster comes to life.

 

The problem with HYDRA is that they’re poor at fighting but excellent at running away. The Avengers have a 100 percent success rate of destroying HYDRA bases they find, but they’ve been doing this for months and they’re no closer to finding Loki’s scepter than they were when they started. HYDRA is very good at wiping their computer systems, and every agent they’ve managed to capture has crunched one of those suicide pills before they’ve been able to question them. Some things never change.

The good news is they haven’t run across any more Kree technology and Thor concedes that the forceshield might have come from the Chitauri. They all certainly want to believe it’s true.

Tony continues building them gadgets for their uniforms and Steve can now recall his shield with magnets, which is cool and very useful, but Steve is so tired of their lack of progress that he doesn’t even get properly excited about it.

“Well we suck,” Clint says as they tumble out of the quinjet, after another technical victory with nothing to show for it “Well HYDRA sucks, but they’ve got us running in circles.”

“We need information,” Steve says as Maria greets them at the door “Just knowing where the bases are isn’t enough. We have to know where the computers are and how to get into them before we go.”

“I have friends working on it,” Maria says ominously “I’m sorry they can’t work any faster.”

Steve suspects that some faction of SHIELD survived its collapse and it makes him uncomfortable but he has bigger problems and if Maria trusts them and they can help, Steve’s willing to let it lie.

“I haven’t been able to do as much undercover work, since my covers were blown, and my face became a household sight,” Natasha says, and if you didn’t know her you’d think she was just stating a fact but Steve does know her and he knows she hates it. “But I can try. See what I can dig up.”

“What way do you think Madame Hydra swings?” Clint muses “one of us can write her name on our body and pretend it’s a birth mark. Spy games 101.”

“We’d need to know her name first,” Bruce reminds them.

“Ophelia Sarkissian,” Maria offers, and they all turn to look at her “Also known as Viper to the Bulgarian mafia. She was inducted into HYDRA by Daniel Whitehall about ten years ago after making a name for herself in the business of organized crime.” She raises an eyebrow at their shocked looks “I told you I have friends.”

“Nice work, Hill.” Steve says in his most brusque commander voice because he knows that’s how Maria likes her praise.

“With this I can find her,” Natasha says “I can track her down and lure her out with the prospect of a mark. We might be able to capture her.”

“But she won’t have your mark,” Steve muses “won’t she be suspicious?”

“Not every mark has a matching one on a partner,” Natasha speaks as if explaining something very basic to a child and Steve knows this, oh does he know this “my having her mark when she doesn’t have mine will make her feel like she has control in the situation.”

“We still don’t know if she’s into men or women,” Clint argues “Or maybe she’s bi. She seems like the greedy type.”

“I’m bisexual” Steve challenges, and he wasn’t even sure that was a true statement until he said it, but it feels right and something in Steve that had been coiled tight relaxes “And I like to think I’m a fairly generous person.”

Tony’s head whips around and he’s staring at Steve with big shocked eyes that make Steve uncomfortable. Tony isn’t going to be weird about this is he? Hadn’t he confessed to being interested in men himself when they talked about the AIDS crisis?

“On Asgard there are no such divisions of romance,” Thor volunteers “We engage in relationships with people of all genders. I myself am not a stranger to the pleasures of men, women and other gendered beings. It has no bearing on a person’s greed.”

Tony shakes his head and seems to snap out of his shock momentarily “And I’m pan,” he adds, “Although to be fair I have been called greedy in my time. Bad crowd for it huh?” Clint looks hunted.

“Most marks don’t lead to a sexual or romantic relationship,” Natasha’s voice is tinged with irritation as she directs the conversation back on track.

“I know” Clint says defensively but Natasha keeps talking.

“It doesn’t matter if she’s sexually attracted to me or not. We have similar backgrounds. Both orphans from the same part of the world, inducted into criminal organizations for spy work and combat training at young ages. She’s more likely to be intrigued by me, more likely to believe it.”

Steve wonders how Natasha knows all this about Madame Hydra since they only just learned her real name but he knows better than to ask. Natasha would consider it an insult.

“Alright,” Steve says “Natasha, track down Ms. Sarkissian but don’t make contact. Check in once you find her and we’ll set up an OP.”

“Yes, Captain,” She says and Steve is warmed by the loyalty and respect in her words.

 

Tony keeps giving Steve strange looks and acting weird around him. It’s making Steve freak out a little. Was it something he did or said? Is Tony sick of being his friend? Has Tony been replaced by a HYDRA operative? It’s sad that he lives a life where that last one is a serious concern. Steve goes so far as to ask Natasha and she rolls her eyes at him and makes a joke about his vision going in his advanced years. But she reassures him that Tony is himself and his behavior has nothing to do with HYDRA.

When she finds Madame Hydra he and Natasha fight about the wisdom of her going in alone and setting the trap. Steve thinks it’s an unnecessary risk and Natasha doesn’t think it will work any other way. They eventually come to a compromise. Natasha will go in with one Avenger who will hang back and allow Natasha to engage Madame Hydra. She will also be wearing a wire and the rest of the team will watch from nearby able charge in should anything go wrong.

Steve, Clint, Tony and Bruce huddle around a monitor watching an empty warehouse where Natasha is waiting, Thor behind her. The door opens and a group of heavily armed Hydra agents in black storm in, Madame Hydra strides in behind them.

“Oh what have we here,” Madame Hydra says “A little spider and her bodyguard. I thought you said you wanted to speak to me alone.”

“I knew you’d bring protection,” Natasha says “so I brought my own.”

Madame Hydra raises an eyebrow “And what was so important that you requested this little meet and greet? Come to offer an alliance?” She says the last part as if it’s funny, and Steve feels a chill run up his spine. He can feel the tension from the others in the room.

“Don’t do anything stupid Nat,” Clint mutters.

“Hardly,” Natasha says and she takes a step forward, towards the center of the room and away from Thor. She’s put herself in a vulnerable position, completely open to any attack.

“Natasha,” Thor intones in warning.

“I’ll be fine, Thor,” Natasha says “I know what I’m doing.”

Then Natasha raises her chin and says something in a language Steve doesn’t know. “What is she saying?” Steve asks.

“I don’t know,” Clint says, “My Bulgarian’s a little rusty.”

Natasha rolls up her sleeve and brandishes her arm where she’s written Ms. Sarkissian’s name. Madame Hydra throws her head back and laughs.

“Did you really think you would trick me with such a simple ruse,” She says in English.

She strides towards Natasha breaking away from her guards, leading them from the front. She says something deep and low in what Steve assumes is Bulgarian and he knows a threat when he sees one.

“If you ignore the whole neo-natzi thing,” Clint says “She’s actually kinda hot.” Steve shoots him a disapproving look and Clint looks like he can’t believe he said that out loud. “You know what,” he says “I’m just going to never talk again.”

“Good plan,” Bruce says.

On screen Madame Hydra has reached Natasha. She grabs her by the outstretched hand and spins her around, locking her arm over her throat and pinning her.

She barks an order to her soldiers and they fan out, guns aimed at Thor. She looks at Thor, using Natasha as a shield.

“Put down the hammer and come with us quietly or she dies.” Madame Hydra says to him.

“That will not be the case,” Thor says and raises his hammer.

Lightning arcs through the air running through the Hydra agents in the room while Natasha smiles and taps something against Madame Hydra. She shrieks in fury but doesn’t move. Natasha ducks out from under her arm and Madame Hydra remains frozen.

“Stark modified the foreshield you were using,” Natasha says sweetly “Now instead of keeping us out, it’s keeping you in.” She reaches into Madame Hydra’s mouth and pulls out a pill which she crushes under her boot “Iron Man you can mobilize her face.”

Iron Man doesn’t move but Madame Hydra’s face does and she screams something in Bulgarian that Steve assumes is rude.

“And that’s our cue,” Steve says swinging his shield over his shoulder. “Move out.”

“Did that seem too easy to anyone?” Iron Man asks.

“Far too easy.” Hawkeye says.

“Yes,” Steve agrees.

He looks over at Bruce who offers a sad smile “I know the drill Cap,” he says “I stay here and monitor.”

 

When they arrive at the warehouse, Madame Hydra is tied up, seated on the floor and Natasha is interrogating her in Bulgarian and English. Madame Hydra is smirking and looking bored.

As Steve steps into her line of view Madame Hydra’s eyes snap to him. Her face lights up in a sickly grin, “Captain,” she says “It’s so good to see you. I’m such a fan.”

“Really,” Tony says, “even Madame Hydra.”

Steve ignores him. “Sorry,” he says “I’m all out of autographs.”

Madame Hydra’s smile becomes more subdued but doesn’t disappear. Steve can see the madness behind her eyes. “You think I’m taunting,” She says “But you were the second.” She speaks as if everyone can understand her, as if her words are the natural flow of a conversation they’ve been having. It’s the mark of geniuses and madwomen.

“The second what?” Steve ask carefully.

“The second of the new race,” Madame Hydra says in a breathless voice, as if it is obvious and exciting. Unfortunately Steve thinks he does know what she’s talking about now. “Herr Schmidt was the first,” she continues “but you were the second. Like Eve made from his rib you sinned and we have suffered for it. But without you none of us would be here.”

“The supersoldier serum died with Dr Erskine,” Steve says “there were no more after me.”

Madame Hydra lets out a long laugh “Oh Captain,” she croons “Look around you. How many simple humans do you see? Banner, watching from the other room, the incredible monster created by your legacy, a God” she nods towards Thor “a prince from a greater race. Even Stark here with his cyborg heart is more than human. The widow,” she looks at Natasha and snorts “And even the simplest member of your team is an expert marksman with near inhuman eyesight. The new race is here, Captain. And it doesn’t end at these walls. You think your friends are the only ones? I can name almost a hundred in midtown Manhattan alone.”

“So what about you,” Steve challenges “I’ve fought you. You’re good in combat but you’re baseline human aren’t you. Why fight for the master race?”

“I was once lost, adrift among the rabble and the muck,” Her eyes are bright and wild “Until Hydra lifted me up and I understood. Hydra is pure.”

“Well you certainly drank the Kool-Aid,” Tony quips

Madame Hydra clenches her jaw “Hydra rewards the loyal.” She looks Tony in the eye “I will ascend like the Red Skull once did.”

“How?” Steve demands.

She smirks at him “There’s no need to be rude. I was always planning to tell you. I want you to see the glorious work we’ve accomplished. The work you’ve helped inspire.”

“What work?” Steve says warily. He doesn’t like where this is going.

“In the arctic there’s a hospital.” She says nonsensically.

“A Hospital?” Clint repeats.

“A building where Hydra gives birth.” She elaborates and Steve’s stomach turns over.

“Well that sounds gross,” Tony comments.

“A facility where you illegally experiment on people, you mean.” Steve says.

“Call it whatever you like,” Madame Hydra says “but one day soon the world will burn.” As she speaks she tilts her head to the side and the digital mask she’s wearing flickers. Steve can see that one half of her face is covered in scars. Old burn marks snake like a spider web from her jaw to her forehead. “The unwashed masses will burn and Hydra will rise from the ashes, a new and better class of humanity.” She spits at him and Steve wipes the saliva off his face with his hand.

“That’s a phoenix.” Tony says “A phoenix rises from its ashes. And it’s also not a Hydra. Don’t you people read?”

“Tony,” Steve admonishes turning his back on Madame Hydra “A lot of very nice people are illiterate or don’t have access to books. There are plenty of other things to yell at Hydra agents about.”

Tony smirks at him, his eyes dancing “Sorry Cap,” he says “Won’t happen again.”

Steve pulls out his phone and calls Maria. “Hill,” he barks down the line “I want a law enforcement team to my location. We’ve apprehended the international terrorist Ophelia Sarkissian. She’s extremely dangerous so be sure they send appropriate personnel.”

“Steve,” Natasha say disapprovingly as he hangs up “She’s too dangerous. They won’t be able to hold her.”

“What exactly are you suggesting Natasha,” Steve narrows his eyes at her “We don’t execute prisoners.”

Natasha huffs and she rolls her eyes skyward but doesn’t refute him. “Fine,” She says “Just know I think this is a bad idea.”

“Noted,” Steve says.

When a team of CIA agents arrive to take Madame Hydra into custody Steve is not surprised to find Agent 13 leading it.

 

“You can’t go after the Arctic base, Captain” Maria says as soon as he walks through the door at Avengers Tower and he wheels on her.

“Excuse me,” Steve says “What exactly do you mean by that? Because they are holding prisoners for experimentation at that base. And we are not leaving them there.”

“I know,” Maria says “I’m not suggesting that we do, but there’s already a team launching a rescue mission on that base and any action The Avengers take is going to interfere with that.”

“A team?” Steve raises an eyebrow “So you knew about this and didn’t think it was appropriate to inform us?”

Everyone in the room is looking at Maria now with distrust, but Maria isn’t cowed; she doesn’t react to the tension in the room and continues speaking directly to Steve.

“I didn’t know about this base until recently, no.” Maria says “Not until a friend of mine discovered it when one of their people was taken prisoner there.” Her face relaxes and her tone turns imploring “Captain, every time The Avengers have run an assault on a Hydra facility, Hydra has destroyed everything they have before we could reach it. Your team is very good at wreaking destruction, but has a poor success rate when it comes to recovery. We can’t afford for that to happen this time. These people are good, Captain. I trust their abilities.”

“The first mission I ever ran against Hydra was a prisoner rescue,” Steve points out “I know how to shift mission focus from annihilate to rescue.”

“You are not the only person who has ever been hurt by Hydra. You are not the only person who has a reason to want them stopped for good,” Maria says and Steve is not used to being given lessons on morality from other people. Despite himself he feels a wave of respect for Maria Hill. “It’s their people in there.”

Steve hesitates. She has a point. Finally he says “Well I don’t trust people who keep secrets from me.  Who exactly are these friends of yours?”

“Good people, Captain.” She says, and then pauses, thinks for a moment “And friends of yours too. It’s not my place to tell you their secrets and blow their covers, but please believe me Captain that if I did you would trust them too.”

Steve can’t think of anyone in this century that Maria Hill would refer to as his friend that’s not in this room. Sam and Bucky? But why would Sam and Bucky be reporting in to Maria Hill? Maybe just Bucky? Maybe he doesn’t want to see Steve and he’s taking out Hydra on his own with Maria’s help, with Fury’s help even. He doesn’t know if the thought makes him proud or sad.

“Fine,” Steve relents “But make sure your friends know that this is a rescue mission, first. Taking out Hydra and the location of Loki’s scepter are secondary only to the safe extraction of the prisoners.”

“Of course, Captain,” She says with a nod and Steve hopes he made the right call.

 

The lights are off in Avengers Tower, the light from the city streams through the large windows in his room and Steve wakes with a start, unsure of what awoke him. There are no sounds in the stillness around him and for once he was not having a nightmare.

Steve throws his legs over the side of the bed and it’s strange because he doesn’t remember making the conscious decision to get up. He walks to the elevator in a fog and punches the button for the main floor. Maybe he’s still asleep. Maybe he’s dreaming. Maybe he’s sleepwalking.

Steve can feel himself approach the main computer terminal and it’s as if he’s watching from far away, and all his thoughts are moving slowly. It’s like trying to stir peanut butter.

He watches himself input his override codes locking JARVIS out of the system, and then he’s locking down each floor, sealing each Avenger in. Next are the armors and the Iron Legion and he inputs the emergency override shut down code for those too. The armors go dark, offline.

Something about this isn’t right but Steve can’t think of what; it’s just a niggling in the back of his brain, like when you leave the headlights on.

He goes to the kitchen and retrieves a knife, then he’s walking down the hallway toward the only other person on this floor. Tony’s room is three doors down, close to the lab with the main computer. Without the armor he’s the weakest member of the team.

The door squeaks as he pushes it open and there’s Tony snoring gently, fast asleep in a black t-shirt and soft pants. Steve creeps towards him, lowers the knife to his throat and stops. This isn’t right. What is he doing?

Tony’s eyes snap open and for a moment he looks confused, sleep still clearing from his eyes “Steve?” He says, and then he takes in situation and dives away, ducking over the other side of the bed. Tony’s move jars whatever thought process Steve was able to have and he lunges for Tony with the knife. Tony dodges and makes a break for the door, running full out. Steve follows at a sedate pace. There’s nowhere for Tony to run.

When Steve enters the main room, Tony’s at the main computer swearing as it tells him he’s locked out of the system. Steve ascends the stairs and Tony dashes around to the other side of the room, putting the lab table between them and grabbing something out of a drawer.

“Come on Steve, this isn’t you,” he says “You don’t want to do this. Something or someone is doing this to you, and not even someone smart enough to use your combat abilities. They’ve got you in zombie mode, swiping at things like Frankenstein’s Monster. Steve you’re stronger than them.”

Tony’s words hit a chord in Steve’s memories and he’s able to hold together a single thought. “Zombie,” he croaks out and Tony’s face goes horrified and heartbroken, as if he knows exactly what Steve means.

Steve dives for Tony with the knife and Tony puts up an arm to block. In his hand is a single repulsor, unattached to a suit it’s not hooked up to the systems that were subject to Steve’s override codes. He stands there holding a repulsor aimed straight at Steve’s face, his face a picture of misery.

Steve feels his face stretch into a smile and when he speaks the words that tumble from his mouth are not his own “Go on then,” he taunts “do it. Kill the brave little Captain.” Steve’s words are sing-song and cruel a tone he’s never heard in his own voice “I know you have it in you, Merchant of Death.”

Tony’s hand shakes and Steve thinks his lip might be quivering. His eye are deep and wretched. Tony drops the repulsor and it clangs loudly ringing out as it hits the floor.

Steve growls and launches himself on Tony sending them both sprawling to the floor landing on a tangle of messy wires. He’s got Tony pinned beneath him the knife once again at his throat. “You’re too weak,” Steve sneers at Tony “And the weak will be consumed in the cleansing flame, while the strong rise up and Hydra is victorious.”

“For the last time,” Tony snarls, hands scrabbling at the wires, tangled “A phoenix rises from the ashes. When a Hydra burns,” he brings his hand up, each one is holding a cable with an exposed end and he brings them down on either side of Steve’s torso as he snarls, teeth bared “it dies.”

 

Steve wakes slowly to find himself lying in some kind of strange machine on a lab table. He blinks and looks around. Tony and Bruce are in the lab and so is a small Asian woman in a lab coat whom he’s never met.

“Steve,” Tony says as he notices that Steve’s awake “How are you feeling? How are your sides? What about your head? Any murderous impulses?”

“Just the usual ones,” Steve remarks with a small smile and Tony huffs.

“This is Dr. Cho,” Tony introduces “She’s an expert in the fields of medicine and biology. We were lucky she agreed to use the facilities here at SI to further her research. With her help we were able to deactivate the nanovirus in your system and heal the electrocution burns to your sides,” He winces “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve says, and then asks “Nanovirus?”

“It was pretty clever actually,” Tony says as if it pains him “A nanovirus this sophisticated is by necessity too big to cross the blood brain barrier so Madame Hydra introduced it to your Central Nervous System directly by way of the optic nerve.”

“When she spit in my eye,” Steve pieces together and Tony nods. Steve makes a face of disgust “Gross,” he says.

Tony laughs and it’s more than the comment warranted but Tony seems strung out, relieved and exhausted

“Am I all set to go, Doc?” Steve asks Dr. Cho and she takes his vitals and runs a scan before declaring him fit to return to active duty.

 

Steve finds Tony in his workshop as soon as he has a moment.

“Hey,” Tony says as Steve walks in. He doesn’t seem particularly surprised to see him.

“Hey,” Steve replies “I wanted to talk about what happened with Madame Hydra and the nanovirus.”

Tony sighs, puts down his work and turns to face Steve, as if he’s expecting a fight. “Sure thing. What do you want to know?”

“In the lab, you had her. Why did you drop the repulsor?” Steve says and Tony is clearly expecting the question because he doesn’t react with even a modicum of surprise. He just seems resigned.

“Look, if you’re going to yell at me or punish me then get it over with,” Tony says and Steve has no idea what he’s talking about “I know it was the wrong decision tactically. I know that Madame Hydra was a terrible threat with control of your body and the Tower. I know that I should have taken her out when I had the chance and that what I did was dangerous and stupid.”

Steve frowns “I’m not here to yell at you Tony,” he says “I don’t think you made the wrong call.”

Tony looks puzzled, “Then why are you here?”

“Because you think you made the wrong call,” Steve says “You’ve always lead me to believe that were something like that to happen you would pull the trigger and make the cold choice, so I want to know why you didn’t”

Tony looks away as if suddenly uncomfortable. “She called me the merchant of death,” he says lightly and Steve gets the sense that this is not the answer to his question but a clumsy effort to redirect the conversation “They used to call me that back when I built weapons. It was practically my legal name.”

“I know,” Steve says dumbly, because he doesn’t know how to respond to that, doesn’t know where Tony is going with this.

“I guess that’s all I’ve ever really been,” Tony continues “An instrument of death. When I first built the Iron Man suit is was supposed to be a step away from weapons, something that was just the opposite. But instead I built the greatest man-made weapon humanity’s seen since the atomic bomb.” He snorts a laugh “Even Hill pointed it out. All I do is kill and destroy things. I can’t even run rescue Ops. I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

“Well now you’re just being dramatic,” Steve rolls his eyes “You’re not death Tony. For one thing you’re not living in an allegory, and for another Maria was talking to me when she said that. I destroy things. I was created to be an effective weapon and I am. I’m very good at it, at killing. Fighting, killing, is the only thing I’m good at. The only thing I know how to do.” Tony opens his mouth as if to interrupt him but Steve doesn’t let him “But you,” and there’s wonder in his voice when he says the word ‘you,’ “You build things. You create. If you were part of an allegory you would have to be the opposite of death and destruction. You would be,” Steve pauses and searches for a word. He wants Tony to see himself the way Steve sees him. “Birth.”

Tony lets out a laugh and this time it’s genuinely amused. “Am I the girl in this relationship?” Tony quips and Steve is thrown by the change in tone and subject. He just stands there dumbly. He wishes he were better at witty conversation.

Tony quiets and his face becomes serious. He looks at Steve and Steve can’t read what he’s thinking. “It wasn’t the right call,” Tony says and there’s shame in his voice “But something you should know about me is that I’m not actually very good at doing the right thing.” He reaches out a hand towards Steve, and then hesitates as if unsure of where to put it. He settles on the join of Steve’s shoulder and neck and Steve feels it like a brand, hot and shocky, little frizzles running down his spine and pooling in heat deep in his belly. Tony looks him in the eye and says low and sincere “Especially not when it comes to people I love.”

Steve can’t process Tony’s words; it’s too much. It’s everything he’s been wanting and Steve is certain the shock and wonder and fragile hope are all written on his face for Tony to read.

Tony leans in and brings their mouths together and Steve can’t think. Tony’s mouth is warm and soft and Steve feels like his entire body’s been lit up. He gasps into the kiss and pulls Tony flush against him. Tony’s body is a line of hard muscle and heat and it feels so good against his own he can barely think past the sensations, Tony deepens the kiss and he moans into it tasting Tony’s mouth because, god Tony even tastes hot.

Steve breaks the kiss panting “I didn’t think,” he manages and his eyes catch on Tony’s lips, swollen kiss-red and slick “you felt the same way. Not with the marks and…” Steve trails off kissing Tony again because god his mouth is right there.

Tony pushes him away gently “Marks?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.

“I have your name on me,” Steve explains, pulling down the collar of his t-shirt and baring the name Anthony Stark that is printed just under his collarbone to Tony’s gaze. Tony’s eyes catch on the exposed skin and he leans in to press a hot open-mouthed kiss to the spot. Steve moans. Good god that feels good.

Tony pulls back and quirks an eyebrow in question and Steve searches for the last remaining shreds of rational thought scattered about his lust fogged brain. “But you don’t have my name on you,” he explains.

Tony frowns perplexed. Steve realizes why and oh god he’s going to have to confess to looking at naked pictures of Tony on the internet. Well time to face the music as they say. “On the internet,” Steve confesses “There were pictures of you, and my name wasn’t on your body.”

Tony’s expression clears but he doesn’t look angry, just amused “Right the spread in Rolling Stone.” He smiles and now he’s definitely amused “You know you can love someone even if their name isn’t on your body right?” And Steve knows this so he has no defense. He has nothing to say “But let me assuage your worries.” Tony says and steps back, reaching behind himself he pulls his shirt off over his head in one smooth movement.

At first Steve doesn’t know what Tony’s trying to show him, he’s too distracted by the gorgeous expanse of skin that’s been revealed to him, but then his eyes drift to Tony’s chest and there curved in a perfect semi-circle on top of the arc reactor in Steve’s handwriting are the words ‘Steven Rogers.’

Steve reaches out and runs his fingertips lightly along the words, tracing the letters and Tony gasps.

“It wasn’t in the pictures. Why..” Steve asks and trails off. Tony answers anyways.

“I didn’t have it back then,” and that’s strange. Steve’s never heard of a mark showing up later in life. “It only appeared about two years ago. When you came out of the ice.”

There’s something interesting about soulmarks there and Steve will have to look into it later, but right now he has more important questions.

“Why didn’t you tell me,” Steve asks softly.

“I didn’t think it was important,” Tony says and Steve gives him a look because that is clearly a lie “And also, I didn’t want to make things more complicated. I was afraid.” He confesses and Steve’s heart constricts in his chest.

“Tony,” he murmurs and then they’re kissing again hard and long and frantically. Steve is running his hands up and down Tony’s bare back, enjoying the feel of soft skin stretched over hard planes of shifting muscle. Then Tony gets his hands under the hem of Steve’s shirt and Steve feels like he’s on fire, every place Tony’s touching lighting up like kindling in the hearth. Steve wrenches his own shirt over his head and they both groan as skin meets skin, back in each other’s arms.

“Bedroom,” Tony gasps into Steve’s mouth “We should- bedroom.”

“Yeah,” Steve mumbles kissing his way down Tony’s neck, where the skin is so soft and sensitive. The noises Tony makes as he swipes his tongue against salty skin are unholy.

“Ok ok,” Tony pants pushing him away. His pupils are blown, and his face is flushed. His lips are dark and swollen, there’s a line of shiny spit down his neck and Steve’s eyes drop to where an erection is obviously tenting the front of his jeans. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen a more arousing sight. “Hold that thought,” Tony says and pulls him into the elevator.

They tumble into Tony’s room still kissing and Steve drops his hand to the front of Tony’s jeans to work at the zipper but he gets distracted just pressing his hand against to the hard line of Tony’s cock through his jeans. He moans at the feel of it, Tony feels so goddamn good in his hand.

“Fuck,” Tony swears, “You’re so fucking hot, you know that? You feel so good baby. Tell me what you want. I’ll do anything you just gotta tell me what you want.”

Steve’s pretty sure his brain has dribbled out of his ears and he doesn’t think it’s fair for Tony to ask him to come up with coherent words at this point. What does he want? He wants for his hand to never leave Tony’s cock. “I want to come with your cock in my hand,” he says and he can feel said cock jump at his words “And then I want you to fuck me until I can’t remember the words to Star Spangled Man.”

Tony’s eyes go dark and he says “You got it” in a voice much deeper than his usual speaking register. He kicks off his shoes and then lays himself back on the bed shimmying out of his jeans and underwear. He throws a look at Steve “What are you doing just standing there. Lose the clothes.”

Steve scrambles to obey ad he doesn’t think he’s ever undressed faster in his life, even in basic or backstage at a USO show when these things were literally timed. He crawls onto the bed next to Tony and Tony turns to face him positioning them face to face on their sides. And God Tony is so beautiful, laid out in the dim light of his room, his skin glowing a deep olive, and Steve forgets to breathe he’s so entranced. Steve moans long and low when Tony’s hand touches his cock because there are no words for how incredible that feels.

He reaches out and wraps his own hand around Tony’s erection and it feels even better than through the jeans, hard and hot and soft all at once. As Tony begins to stroke him Steve knows he isn’t going to last; it’s too much sensation after being touch starved for so long. “I’m gonna,” Steve warns and Tony speeds up his strokes. Steve runs his hand up the length of Tony’s cock and runs his thumb across the tip where precome has beaded along the slit. Tony gasps and his eyes flutter shut in pleasure; he looks so beautiful and so hot and Steve comes hard spilling long pulsing stripes along Tony’s stomach and onto the sheets between them.

Tony looks at Steve with wide aroused eyes and says “Wow. That was incredible.”

Steve mind is moving slowly as he comes down from his orgasm but he quirks a half smile and says “Isn’t that my line?”

Tony huffs a laugh and brings his hand up to his mouth where he – oh god – starts licking Steve’s come from his fingertips.

“I will completely understand,” Tony says casually, as if he is wholly unaware of what his actions are doing to Steve “If you are too sensitive or tired or whatever and want to save the fucking for another time.”

“Oh,” Steve says dumbly “Um no, I’m not done. The serum it ah-” he trails off unsure of how to complete that sentence and both of their gazes drop down to where Steve’s erection has not wilted since his orgasm.

Tony frowns “Huh,” he says “Doesn’t that get to be a problem?” He sounds concerned and Steve smiles.

“Well it was when I first got the serum, but it’s fine now.” He says “One orgasm is usually enough, it’s just that it’s been a while, and you’re, well, incredibly attractive.”

Tony grins at him, and it’s genuine, not the fake one he uses for the press “You’re too sweet.” He glances back down at Steve’s erection and Steve is starting to feel a little self-conscious about it. “I’m still gonna make your uniform pants a little roomier. Those tight pants can’t be comfortable.”

“They’re fine,” Steve says “I used to have to wear tights in front of large crowds all over the country.”

Tony looks intrigued “And how did that work?” He throws a speculative look at Steve’s erection which despite the embarrassing topic of conversation has not drooped in the slightest.

“There was this sleeve they made me wear,” Steve explains and god how did they get on this topic “and it” he makes a gesture unsure of how to explain from here.

But Tony’s eyes light up with understanding because apparently he wasn’t lying about being a genius “Like the ones they make actors wear for sex scenes in Hollywood,” he says and Steve nods because he’s relieved to not have to explain this garment further.

Tony hums and he looks at Steve with fond dark eyes. “We’ve gotten off coarse,” he says “I believe you asked me to fuck you through the bed.” Those were not Steve’s exact words, but he appreciates the sentiment nonetheless.

Tony pushes Steve gently onto his back and spreads his body along Steve’s to kiss him deeply. It feels good so much skin pressed against his, the length of Tony’s body along his own, warm and a little heavy. Steve languishes in it, hot and slow and satisfying. And then Tony parts Steve’s legs, runs a hand up Steve’s thigh and suddenly it’s not enough. “Oh god,” he gasps even though Tony isn’t touching him anywhere higher yet, but he’s so close to where Steve’s wants him it almost feels like he is.

Tony pulls back, and disappears into his nightstand leaving Steve a shaking panting mess on the bed, legs spread and cock dripping.

He reappears with a bottle of lube and then Steve feels one wet finger flick over his hole. He drops his head back against the pillows and moans. “Tony, come on come on. I need you.”

“Patience young padawan,” Tony smirks and Steve could kill him if he didn’t need him for very important things. Steve feels Tony press one finger into him gently and it doesn’t hurt, it just feels strange. But it’s Tony and part of Tony is inside of him and the knowledge sends a hot thrill of arousal through him. Tony carefully works one finger in and out of him letting Steve adjust to the feel before adding a second and then Steve loses all count of fingers as Tony brushes against his prostate. It is the most intense feeling Steve has ever experienced, almost too intense and Steve’s vision whites out in pleasure. His throat is sore, and he hadn’t intended to yell quite that loud. “Bingo,” Tony says but Steve isn’t paying attention because all he can think is ‘yes,’ and ‘this,’ and ‘more’ as he moves hips rhythmically, fucking himself down onto Tony’s hand.

Steve whines as Tony withdraws his fingers. He feels so empty and he can feel himself clench around nothing. “Are you ready?” Tony asks as he rolls a condom on and slicks himself up.

“So ready,” Steve growls because he was ready approximately a million years ago. And then Tony’s pushing into him in one long thrust and they both groan. Tony stills, all the way seated inside Steve’s body and it hits Steve that he’s really doing this that Tony’s really here and inside him. That Tony’s his soulmate, and that they’re here together. They’ve found each other. His heart swells in his chest and he thinks he might actually die of happiness. “Tony,” he gasps as Tony begins to move inside him “Tony, I love you. I love you so much.” Tony kisses him gently and smiles against his lips.

“I love you too,” he says and speeds up his thrusts. Steve has no more room to think about emotions then because his body his so overwhelmed by the sensations moving through him as Tony hits his prostate on every thrust.

Steve’s head is thrashing against the pillow and his hands are scrabbling for purchase in the bedsheets, against Tony’s back, anywhere. Tony drops a hand down between them and as soon as it touches Steve’s cock he comes hard, riding the waves of pleasure out and over until he’s breathing hard and shaking in Tony’s arms his cock twitching out the last few drops of come and every part of Steve’s body goes boneless as he sinks down into the mattress in a haze of post-orgasm endorphins.

Tony thrusts harder and Steve wraps his arms around him, runs his hands through Tony’s thick Mediterranean hair, urging him to follow. And Tony does, his body stills, he tips his head forward and Steve can feel him pulsing deep inside Steve’s body until he collapses on top of Steve in a heap, as though he’s a puppet whose strings have been cut.

In the afterglow Tony curls around him like a vine, and Steve’s never been a particularly big cuddler but this is nice.

“The best explanation for the names I’ve heard,” Tony says out of nowhere and Steve drags himself back up from the beginnings of sleep. “was a paper written by this astrophysicist. He was working on multiversal theory. Do you know what that is?”

Steve shakes his head no and Tony continues “Well it’s the theory that there are many other universes running alongside our own, parallel universes and splinter universes and pocket universes and in all or most of these other versions of reality there’s a different version of you and a different version of me and of everyone else who’s ever lived.”

Steve frowns “You think the names are about these other universes?”

Tony shakes his head against Steve’s chest “No,” Tony says “He thought the names were the same in every universe.”

Steve doesn’t quite follow but he keeps his mouth shut because Tony, if he knows Tony, and he does, isn’t done talking.

“See,” Tony says “In order for there to be parallel universes there have to be points of divergence, people, places, events that happen in one universe and not another. This doctor theorized that the names reflect these points of divergence. He tracked names across history and nations and found that enough name pairs led to important points in history or in peoples’ lives, even if those two people didn’t have any sort of loving relationship. He came to the conclusion that the names are the people that your timeline is linked to, whose lives will have an impact on yours, and on your shared timeline throughout the multiverse.”

Steve is quiet, trying to pick apart all the physics talk and untangle the actual meaning of Tony’s words.

“It’s not about mystical spirits that magically know each other,” Tony continues derisively “It’s a set of intersecting data points.”

Steve’s face stretches into a smile and his heart feels light. Intersecting data points. That is such a Tony way to see things, he thinks fondly. “Sounds like soulmates to me.”

Tony just laughs and Steve silences the sound with a kiss.

 

 

Epilogue

Steve walks up the stairs to the lab where Tony is watching Loki’s Scepter. It’s suspended on some sort of device that Steve doesn’t understand.

Meanwhilw Bruce is at a computer terminal going over scans and Steve turns to him and asks, “Can you give us a moment? I need to speak to Tony alone.”

Bruce looks around as if he’s being hunted and then scurries out of the room like it’s caught on fire.

Steve places a hand on Tony’s shoulder and says gently, “What did you see back there that has you so shaken up?”

“It’s nothing,” Tony says, but he won’t look at Steve.

“Tony please don’t lie to me,” Steve says, “I know you well enough to know when you’re scared and something back there terrified you. What is it? - Tony please don’t hide from me.”

Tony is silent for a moment and then he looks at Steve and confesses “Maximoff, she must have messed with my head somehow but she showed me something, the future. And in it I saw the avengers dead. I was there and you were all,” he chokes and looks away as he speaks his words laced with anguish “Steve you were dead.”

Steve puts his hands on Tony’s face and gently raises his head. Their gazes lock. “I’m right here,” He says. “I’m fine. Nothing is going to happen to me. It was just a trick Tony. She was trying to scare you, to mess with your head. That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to let it.”

“But what if it does,” Tony argues. “What if it wasn’t a trick. Steve if something happened to you I don’t think I could-” he breaks off and Steve gathers him in his arms.

“I’m right here,” he repeats. “Tony, we are stronger than this. We are stronger than fear. Don’t let one woman with magic powers defeat us. The future is not going to be like that and do you know how I know that?”

“How?” Tony huffs against his chest and then pulls back to look at him.

“Because we’re going to face it together.” Steve says, and he can see Tony start to believe him. “I need you to believe in us, Tony, believe in me. Can you do that for me?”

He can read the indecision in Tony’s eyes, Maximoff’s vision must have really been something. Then his eyes shift and he says, “Yeah, I can do that for you.”

Steve breathes a sigh of relief and kisses Tony, who kisses back before shutting down the computers and all the lights in the lab.

They head downstairs to get dressed for the party, together.