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Nowhere To Go But Home

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Pepper presented him with the charity gala invitation over their ritual Monday morning coffee at Café Claritas. They sat together at a table next to a second story window overlooking the New York streets below. It was a security detail’s worst nightmare, but it was also the best place for a dark roast and a view. Well, short of the tower itself; but Pepper had insisted they meet somewhere out.  So here they were.

Weekly coffee dates were their thing now. Well, it was their thing now that they weren’t a thing anymore. Pepper had initiated the first meeting after the messy aftermath of Ultron and their ensuing break-up. Not that Ultron had anything to do with her leaving him. It didn’t. Really it didn’t. It was just bad timing. And despite his attempts to put on a brave face, she knew him too well to let him get away with sulking in his lab for weeks at a time. Coffee had been a calculated move to make sure Tony didn’t isolate himself, and it had worked. What could he say? He’d take whatever affection she had left to give him. 

Hell, he’d take whatever affection anyone had left to give him, really. Right now he was in short supply.  

But the gala. Right. 

“It’s to benefit businesses and families still struggling due to the destruction in Manhattan,” Pepper explained. Government grants and dedicated funds from Stark Industries had only gone so far and there were still people trying to get back on their feet after the alien invasion. The collapse of SHIELD in DC and the devastation in Sokovia had since stolen the public eye. It was all tactfully-worded, of course, and it would be an asshole move not to show up. Sure, Tony was an asshole, but not that kind of asshole. 

“It says ‘plus one,’” he noted, twirling the embossed card in his fingers before slapping it down on the table between them. 

“Tony,” Pepper warned, a note of guilt in her voice.

There was a reason for the guilt, although Tony wasn’t upset about it anymore. Well, maybe a little. Just a sliver. A microscopic amount. For the most part, he was happy for her. After all, soulmates were a big deal. More than a big deal. Sure, it would have been nice to have had a heads up. Maybe just a text on her way out the door would have been the right side of polite. “Off to meet soulmate. Back for dinner. Pep.” You know, something like that. 

The thing was, the writing hadn’t given her much warning, either. Thirty minutes, to be precise. She’d acted on impulse. She’d never had the chance to meet a potential soulmate before. Like Tony, she thought she was one of the ones who simply wouldn’t get one. Or maybe one of those poor saps who’d missed their chance because the writing had popped up on the back of their neck, or while they were asleep. Anyway, she hadn’t wanted to worry him if it turned out to be nothing.

It hadn’t been nothing. 

She’d come to him afterwards crying—makeup smudged, nose running, and eyes red. The last time she’d been so distressed, some nut job with a god complex had shot her full of Extremis. “I made a mistake,” she’d sobbed. It was an hour and a half before he was actually able to coax the information out of her, and by that point he was sure she was dying. In between soothing her tears and petting her hair, he’d been running frantic calculations and tallying up any favors he had left to call in, anything he could do to make whatever was wrong right. So when she said she was actually happy, he couldn’t quite wrap his brain around what she was trying to tell him.  

She said she’d found… well. Happy. 

The gears spun as he’d puzzled over that simple statement. 

Then she showed him her shoulder, where a time, date, and location was now permanently etched against her skin. It was well past the rendezvous time. If she hadn’t made it, the mark would have faded.

…Oh.

Understanding worked its way into his skull like blunt force trauma, and then a cold, vast, unforgiving emptiness opened beneath him. He was plummeting like a lead weight through the stratosphere, which he’d literally done before, but this time it had been so much worse. No one was there to catch him.  

Pepper’s voice snapped him back to the present. “You know I would go with you, Tony—”  

“I want you to invite the rest of the Avengers,” he interrupted, mouth on autopilot. He leaned back and took a sip of his coffee. Rich and just slightly bitter. He honestly wasn’t trying to be symbolic, sometimes life just worked out that way. “That’s plus one, right? Tony plus,” he drew out the plus, for emphasis, “the Avengers.” His lips quirked and his eyebrows waggled coyly. “I don’t know if I mentioned it. The team and I are kind of an item now. All of us. Good for PR, right?” 

Pepper rolled her eyes and scoffed affectionately. “Really now.” 

“It’s a long-distance thing, but we make it work.”

Pepper laughed softly and pulled the invitation back. “All right, Tony, I’ll see what I can do.” She shook her head, her perfectly straight ponytail whisking across her shoulders. 

In another time, another place, he would have smoothed her shoulders and pulled her close; just to press his cheek to hers and smell the shower-fresh scent of her hair. He never had figured out what that scent was, had never thought to find out. Something sweet—fruity, maybe—but classy. Like… pomegranate.

Typical. He always wondered about those things after it was too late for it to mean anything. Hindsight. “You don’t know what you got” and all that. 

“I miss you, you know,” his mouth betrayed him. The desperate edge to his voice made him wince, and he did his best to turn it into a self-deprecating grin. “Sorry.” He wanted to add something quick and clever to lighten the mood, but words failed him. 

Pepper reached out and squeezed his hand. “I miss you, too.” 

 

+

 

Just because Pepper missed him didn’t mean she wanted to ditch her soulmate, though. A soulmate bond was a supernova of cosmic bliss and suckers like Tony couldn’t hope to hold a candle to it. Not that he’d gone out of his way to ask her to describe it to him—he’d already had a hole or two carved in his heart, thank you very much. No, every child grew up with the soulmate mythos. Howard used to go on at length about cultural indoctrination and the triteness of soulmates as a concept—probably because he was so obsessed with finding a certain Capscicle that he’d never made it to his own rendezvous. But Tony had seen the way Jarvis and Anna orbited one another. Their love for each other was so simple and so profound that it left his heart aching. 

He wanted it. 

He used to stay up nights wondering what it would feel like when he finally found the writing on his skin. Where would he have to go? How much warning would he get? Would they find each other somewhere exotic or perfectly mundane? He’d always thought it would be kind of hilarious to find his soulmate in a bathroom or somewhere equally bizarre. Everyone else had daydreams of sunsets and beaches, but he didn’t mind a bit of perverse humor coloring his romance. He wanted something unique. Sure, and maybe just a bit dirty.

Over the years, he spent his time studying people. Enthusiastically. Intimately. Any of them could be a match. There had been plenty of formal research, but science wasn’t any closer to defining the nature of soulmate potential and how it manifested. Was it purely physical? If so, where did the chemical interaction start? Was it metaphysical, some energy that couldn’t be quantified? What was it that drew two people together? There were no satisfactory answers to any of these lines of inquiry, but for a long time that didn’t stop Tony from searching faces in the crowd and checking his skin for marks. 

He stopped looking when the reactor core leeched poison into his system. He’d scraped his way out of that mess by the skin of his teeth, and he’d almost died before knowing real love of any kind, let alone soulmate-level love. Maybe he couldn’t have a supernova, but did that mean he couldn’t at least try for a spark? He was willing to give it a shot. So. Pepper. Of course it had been Pepper. And, despite his laundry list of character defects, it had been pretty good. Perfect, actually, if you asked him.

Only now, not so much. 

Tony extracted himself from a group of chattering socialites and wound his way around the crowded ballroom. He had a drink in hand, but it was some kind of sparkling, non-alcoholic beverage that would do little more than tingle on the way down. That was Pepper’s doing. She’d made sure the entire staff knew not to serve him anything else. Not that he wanted them to. Not tonight. He was actually having fun. And he was doing some good for the world, all in one night. God, how he’d needed that. He’d spent far too much time moping recently. 

It was a lot harder to mope when he was with a team of superheroes dressed to the nines crashing a swanky Saturday evening gala in New York. 

Sure, there were a few small things he hadn’t factored into the equation.

Thor had always come and gone. He was presently gone, and Bruce wasn’t there, either. Tony missed the larger-than-life presence of the Asgardian, but more than that he missed his science bro. It would have been nice to have someone to talk shop with in between the tedium of politics and gossip. The absence ached. 

It was also just a bit like insult to injury to hear JARVIS’ voice come out of Vision’s mouth after Tony had just started to get used to Friday’s ever-present Irish lilt. Logically, he knew the only one he had to blame for that was himself. Still, it didn’t help. 

Wanda was, well, she wasn’t friendly, per se; but at least she wasn’t glaring at him like she wanted to rip out his soul. That was a definite improvement over their first introduction to one another. 

Natasha had come dressed in blue. There was nothing wrong with that, of course. There wasn’t. She was terrifyingly attractive, as always. It’s just that it reminded Tony of a different redhead in a backless blue dress who had forgotten to wear deodorant the first time her boss had asked her to dance. 

Natasha, seeing everything as usual, had kissed his cheek and told him it would be all right. 

Rhodey was there, and that was a lifeline. They’d been doing the friend thing long enough that they fell into each other’s space effortlessly. Tony needed that, and Rhodey knew it. He wasn’t a mother hen, but he was never far away while Tony was working the room and rubbing elbows with the city elite. Whenever Tony was trapped by well-meaning but nosy people who offered their condolences over his break-up—pity and a hint of desire glimmering in their eyes as they got a little too close, grasping for him—Rhodey would clap him on the back, squeeze his shoulder firmly, and steer him away to safety. 

Nice to know someone still had his back. 

And then there was Steve Rogers in an honest-to-god tux. Nothing to cry about there, except for tears of joy. The captain was sinful enough in a regular tee and jeans, but those broad shoulders and trim waist in a slick black suit... Tony had to rein in a few particularly unwholesome thoughts.

He caught up with the superhero team after the latest round of schmoozing. The team had claimed an open lounge with soft lighting just off the pillared ballroom. Rhodey gave Tony a pat on the arm and broke off, joining the others amid a circle of couches and ridiculously ornate floral arrangements. Sam and Clint welcomed him with a shout and offered up a tray heaping with cheese and fruit. Natasha had kicked off her shoes and drawn her knees up on the cushions next to Sam and Clint. Vision and Wanda had claimed seats adjacent to one another and their heads were together, sharing a soft conversation underneath the louder banter of the others. 

Steve stood off to the side, studying a floor-to-ceiling oil painting, one hand in his pocket as he nursed a drink that was no doubt doing nothing more for him than Tony’s would have. 

It was a perfect picture and Tony’s heart swelled dangerously. Yeah, this was his family. This was the way it should always be. He missed this, he needed this. Maybe even more than he needed Pepper. 

That there. That was an idea he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for. 

He took a deep breath and forcibly dragged his thoughts into safer, shallower territory. He came up to Steve’s elbow. 

“You’re looking good enough to eat tonight, Captain.” 

Oops. Tony tilted his glass and glared at the contents, yearning for the days when he could blame his drink for his faulty brain-mouth filter. He’d meant to comment on the painting—a composition with Victorian era lovers on a knoll above a river. They had a heaping picnic basket beside their rumpled blanket, and a white bird in a cage above that. Who on earth thought it was a good idea to bring a pet bird on a date, let alone arrange the food underneath it? 

Steve arched an eyebrow and smiled, mercifully letting the comment slide. “Hey, Tony.” He pulled at his tie, trying to loosen it. From the wrinkles creased into the fabric, Tony guessed it wasn’t the first time that night. 

“Got a problem there?” Tony gestured to the offending garment.

“It’s a little tight,” Steve said and mumbled something about “short notice” and “used to have the opposite problem.” 

Tony ran his tongue over his teeth to keep himself from agreeing too readily about the snugness of his friend’s attire. “You should come by the tower on one of your off days,” Tony said. “I’ll take you to my tailor, get you fitted for some new suits. My treat.”  

And if Tony happened to have a front row seat for the fitting, what would be the harm? 

“Thanks, but, no offense, I hate this formal stuff.” Steve shook his head. “Doesn’t make sense to get more suits if I’m not going to wear them.” 

“You can't avoid every formal occasion," Tony argued. "And the leader of the Avengers should have a suit that fits or you'll put the team to shame. How about this? We’ll only make one.” It was a lie. Tony’d make ten and Steve wouldn’t be able to turn them down because it would be a waste. “Being formal doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable, Cap. You might enjoy these events more if you were getting a little extra circulation to your limbs.” 

Steve chuckled. “Well, you might have a point there.” 

"I'm full of good ideas." Tony took a sip of his drink and cocked his head to the side, swallowing thoughtfully. “I mean, far be it from me to deprive the world of that ass in those pants, but—” 

Wait. Was there really no alcohol in his glass? Because wow. 

Steve cleared his throat. There was something knowing and apologetic and unexpectedly patient in his expression. Shit, it was pity. Tony was so pathetic that even the righteous Steve Rogers wasn’t going to call him on acting like a self-centered prick. 

Tony swore softly and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Sorry, Cap. Steve,” he corrected himself. His fingers on the glass were trembling. Traitors. “I shouldn't have said that." He ran a hand through his hair. "Things have just been weird lately, after Pepper, and I'm not drinking, I swear, but my mouth still seems to think I am.” 

Steve reached out to steady his hand and said, “It’s all right, Tony. I get it.” 

The thing was? Cap wasn't lying. It’d been almost two years since Steve had found out his best friend James Buchanan Barnes was still alive. Two years since he'd last seen him. Two years since he’d discovered the lifetime of tortures Hydra had put his friend through. If anyone knew what separation and heartache felt like—not to mention the ensuing desperation, the need to hide behind a facade just to keep going—it was Steve. Except Steve usually coped in a more austere, private, and dignified way. Tony fell back on brazenly self-destructive (and flirtatious) tendencies.

Steve turned back to the painting. “It’s not a bad party,” he said. “Good to be here. Good to know we’re getting more help to people who need it.”

“I’m really glad you came,” Tony agreed. “I’m glad everyone came.” 

“Me too,” Steve said, light and sincere.

Tony gestured to the artwork. “So, I’m no dummy about art, but can you explain this mess to me?” he said. “We’ve got some problematic bird placement going on here if you ask me.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah, honestly? I was kind of wondering about that myself.”   

 

+

 

Rhodey, Clint, and Sam had everyone laughing by the time the row of sleek black cars pulled up to take everyone back to the tower. Natasha was still barefoot, carrying her shoes, and Steve had finally undone his tie completely, thrown his jacket over an arm, and rolled up his sleeves. Wanda had her arm threaded through Vision's, and Tony felt inexplicably proud. Like he was watching two of his kids starting to figure things out. Hopefully better than he had.

Another bonus Pepper had arranged: formal gala followed by informal movie night and an honest-to-god sleepover with the team. She probably hadn’t gone so far as to order sleeping bags or anything like that—there were still plenty of vacant rooms in the tower for people to claim—but the point was the party wasn’t over and the Avengers would all be there in the morning, just like old times. 

Yeah, tonight was a good night. 

One of the drivers ushered Tony away from the group, hurrying him to the front vehicle. 

“Pepper threaten your bonus if you get us there after curfew?” Tony snapped his fingers to get Rhodey’s attention. “Hey, Honeybear, you’re with me,” he called. 

“I think I’m safer riding with Sam,” Rhodey called back. “Sorry, Tony, I hate to break it to you, but I’ve found a new wingman.”

Tony groaned and rolled his eyes. “Platonic life partners is a forever deal,” he insisted, pointing at his friend. “That means sharing car rides.”

Rhodey laughed and gestured that he’d follow along in a second.  

The engine was already running and Tony slid behind the wheel, much to the driver’s consternation. She was new. Had to be. The new ones always threw a fit when he tried to drive himself. 

“Look, I haven’t been drinking, if that’s why you’re worried,” Tony said, trying to shoo her away so he could close the door. 

A figure shifted in the backseat, movement caught in the rearview mirror. Tony swiveled. A bear of a man sat behind the passenger seat with his hands folded politely in his lap. 

“Mr. Stark.” The man inclined his head. 

Tony’s brow furrowed. Pepper hadn’t told him anything about hiring additional security. And for the end of the night? Who exactly did she think he was going to bring home with him?

There was a commotion outside, scuffling, and a sickening thud as a body hit the pavement. Natasha shouted something indistinguishable, urgent. Tony’s focus snapped to the rear window. A group of armed assailants were bearing down on the team from all sides. A split second too late, Tony lunged for the door. The thug pulled back on the driver’s seat with a crack, and Tony lost his balance. The thug pulled him into the backseat as the driver squeezed in and they pealed off. 

The driver swore as they swerved into traffic. “You broke the fuckin’ seat, you lummox!” 

Tony writhed, knees knocking against the seats and elbows flailing. He fumbled for the door handle without success. 

“JAR—Friday!” Tony shouted. The AI’s reply was muffled, coming from the phone in his pocket. “I need the su—”

The thug clapped a hand over Tony’s mouth.

“Calm down, Mr. Stark,” the driver snapped, and it was sharp enough to startle Tony into stillness. “Unless you want to cause an accident. There are plenty of civilians out on the streets tonight. You don't want my concentration to slip.” She jerked the wheel once to emphasize her point and Tony's stomach lurched.

Shit. 

The thug rifled through Tony’s pockets and threw his phone out the window. Then he pulled out a syringe filled with something blue-white and glowing. Of course. Tony bit back a protest as the needle pierced his skin and his assailant’s thumb depressed the plunger. There was an electric jolt and his limbs were suffused with sudden warmth and his thoughts turned fuzzy. 

That was probably about when they expected him to give up, and that would have been a reasonable assumption if he’d been anyone else. 

 

 

It was almost depressing how easily he slipped through their fingers. Escaping kidnappers had kind of become his specialty. Most of their endgames were sadly alike. Villains these days shared an aesthetic affinity for dank, cement bunkers operating with outdated tech and weapons, usually in the middle of nowhere, and staffed by lackeys who made the best faces when they realized Tony’d gotten the better of them. 

In this case, he managed to give the lackeys the slip before they even reached the secret hideout. Before they were out of Manhattan, in fact. 

For some reason, people still had a hard time equating Tony-Stark-the-man with Iron-Man-the-Avenger. As if the metal suit by itself was Iron Man and without it he was, well, just “Man.” 

What an awful superhero name. But he could probably make it work given the right marketing. He was Tony Stark, after all. 

All it took, really, was pretending the little cocktail they’d given him had hit him harder than it had. Thinking he was out like a light, his kidnappers pulled over to try to fix the driver’s seat. He’d slipped out, just like that, while the driver was berating the hired goon for not listening to her instructions. 

Now there were just a few small problems Tony needed to work out. Whatever they had injected him with had left him legitimately unsteady on his feet. He was having trouble seeing straight. The goo had also shorted out the homing implants the Iron Man suit used to track him. Without his phone or access to a network, he was flying blind. On top of it all, they’d cuffed his hands behind him with a plastic zip tie. A zip tie. That was it, but it was enough. He’d used his mouth on the door handle during his escape, but he’d most definitely need his hands back sooner rather than later.

For now, he settled for running as fast as his shaky limbs and blurred vision allowed. 

He eventually skidded out on damp grass underneath a tree, falling hard on his tailbone. He yelped and knocked his head back against the trunk and bit his lip to stifle another shout. There were infinitely better ways to get that kind of hurt, and falling on his ass was definitely not on the list.  

He tried to make sense of his surroundings. There were an awful lot of trees. On the one hand that made it easier to hide, but on the other hand it made it nearly impossible for him to get his bearings. “Okay, it’s got to be Central Park,” Tony muttered to himself, “but central to what?” He had no idea what part of the park he was in, and he briefly regretted not spending more time outside as a kid.  “Can’t see the tower for the trees.”

Or for the injection. 

Tony sagged back against the bark and squeezed his eyes shut as another wave of dizziness made the world vibrate around him. He hoped whatever they'd shot into him didn't act as a tracer. He didn’t know what had happened to the other Avengers, but he had to assume he was on his own for now. If he had to fight his way out, chances were good he wouldn’t be able to. And, honestly, it would be nothing short of embarrassing to get caught again by those two knuckleheads. 

Tony resolutely ignored the small voice in the back of his head that worried the other Avengers might not come for him at all. Logically, he knew they would. Someone would. He just had to hold on until that happened.

There was movement in his periphery and distant lamplight sparked off metal. Tony swore. He didn’t think anyone would find him that quick. He braced his shoulder against the tree, got his feet under him, and righted himself clumsily. If he was in for a fight, he wasn’t going to get caught sitting down. 

A silhouette parted from the nearby trees—a man with long, lanky hair pulled back into a loose bun. He was wearing a hoodie and jeans and a backpack slung over his shoulders. So, it wasn't one of his erstwhile kidnappers. Someone else. Tony would have guessed from his scruff alone that he was homeless, but the stranger had a focused intensity that left tingling pinpricks in his skin. This guy recognized him, was targeting him.

Tony scanned for anything he could use to defend himself. Anything that didn’t require the use of hands. 

Yeah, he was fucked. 

Unless those lessons Natasha’d given him on her signature move had magically sunk in. 

But his attacker didn’t seem to be all that interested in attack. His thumbs were hooked into the pockets of his jeans and when his features resolved in the dark, he looked mostly tired and irritated. 

Light flashed again off metal. The man’s left hand. Silver fingers poked out of a fingerless leather glove. Sleeves covered both of his arms up to his wrists, but Tony was pretty sure the entire left one had to be metal. He had an ear for mechanics and the whirring adjustments as the man moved were a dead giveaway. 

There was only one person with an arm like that. 

Tony honestly didn't know what to do. He sucked in a breath and held it.

Barnes dropped his left hand and shifted so the arm was mostly out of sight behind him. “You got something to say, say it.” 

“James,” Tony said, his eyes darting up. He had to be careful. He didn’t want the other man to run. Steve needed to know where Barnes was, that he was okay, and Tony would never forgive himself if he let Barnes slip through his fingers. Sure, Tony’s hands were currently tied behind his back, but the metaphor was still solid. 

Barnes scowled. “Don't call me that. You don’t know me, Stark.”

“You don’t know yourself, either, last I heard,” Tony said carefully.  

“You don’t know what I know.” 

Tony tried for a deliberately cheeky reply and hoped it wouldn’t get him killed. “You don’t know I don’t know, though.”  

Barnes' gaze narrowed.

Tony sighed. So much for witty repartee, then. “Listen, I’m in kind of a predicament.”

I know.” There was a smirk in the reply. 

“Was that sass, Barnes?” Tony arched an eyebrow. “Because I like it.” He paused for a moment to properly process the other man's reply.  "Wait. You know know?”

“Yeah.” 

“You mean you’re here to get me?” Tony clarified. “Specifically to get me?”

“Yeah.”

“But how? Who…?” The answer was so obvious it seemed impossible. “Steve,” Tony guessed. “He sent you.”

Barnes shrugged. 

“He’s been telling the whole world he can’t find you,” Tony said. 

“Yeah.”

“I swear to god, if you say that you know.

The side of Barnes’ mouth quirked. 

“You’ve been in contact with each other this whole time?”

“More or less,” Barnes agreed, as if it wasn’t a big deal. As if all they’d done was friend each other on Facebook after losing touch after high school. 

But it was a big deal. Huge, actually.

“Holy shit.” Tony’s thoughts raced. That meant Steve had been successfully misleading an active government manhunt for the Winter Soldier, if not deliberately sabotaging it, for almost two years. And no one in the intelligence community had been the wiser. A cold certainty prickled through Tony’s veins: both super soldiers would be in serious trouble if anyone found out. Steve had risked a lot sending Barnes after him. 

It also meant Steve hadn’t been in a position to come after Tony himself. 

Tony tried very hard not to use that information to jump to the worst possible conclusion.

“The rest of the team? Are they all right?”

“Still fighting when I left,” Barnes said, one shoulder rolling in a half-shrug. “Steve called me when your car took off. Didn’t want to risk them getting too far with you. Found the car abandoned. Wasn't hard to track you from there."

His kidnappers had probably turned tail the moment they realized he was missing. If they were ultimately the cowards Tony thought they were, they might not try to find him at all. "But everyone else is all right? Steve? Rhodey?"

"Should be. There were a lot, but from what I saw, they were pushovers.”

“They kind of caught us with our thumbs up our asses,” Tony agreed. He shook himself. “Speaking of which, I could use a hand here.” He bent awkwardly to indicate his bound hands. 

“Luckily I got one to spare.” Barnes ducked his head and circled behind Tony. He grabbed the zip tie with his right hand and snapped it easily with his left. 

Okay, that was a lot hotter than it should have been. For once that night, Tony was able to refrain from saying the first thing that popped into his head. He settled on the second. “Thank you.” He rubbed his raw wrists.

Another bout of dizziness tilted the ground underneath him and Barnes caught the back of his arm and steadied him. Fuck, he really was strong. 

“You all right?” Barnes asked suspiciously. 

“They, ah, injected me with something,” Tony admitted, slightly dazed. “It’s interfering a bit with motor control. Nothing serious. Should be all right. I can get it sorted out back at the tower.” He braced himself for the inevitable lecture on hospitals and the need for professional medical care; but Barnes simply nodded, pulled one of Tony’s arms around his waist, and secured an arm over Tony’s shoulders to steady him. 

“Uh,” Tony said, heat creeping up the back of his neck, “so this is the plan? You're just gonna walk me home? Like this?"

"Yep."

"Aren't we a little conspicuous?”

“Conspicuous is good,” Barnes said. He leaned in. “Your kidnappers are looking for a frantic billionaire trying to hide in the shrubs. Not two fellas out enjoying a stroll through the park.”

“I’m in black tie and you’re dressed like a hobo,” Tony pointed out. “No one would mistake us for a couple.”

“You sayin’ you want out of those clothes?”

Tony’s pulse lurched. “Low blow, Barnes,” he muttered. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a damn tease?”

Barnes pulled back a little, deadpanning innocence. That was a yes. But then he was all business, focus back on the task at hand. He tipped his chin up as he scanned the sidewalk and shadows for potential threats as they passed between pools of lamplight.

He seemed to know where he was going, so Tony shut up let him lead. Well, he shut up for a little while. There was only so much he could take when the brainwashed former assassin best friend of Captain America was literally plastered to his side.  

“All right, I gotta ask,” Tony said. “What is it with you and Cap?”

Barnes didn't look at him, but answered easily, like he'd been waiting for the question all along. “Depends on what you mean.”

“I don’t care how in touch you claim the be, the guy obviously still misses you. He’s basically Eeyore in army boots,” Tony said.

"Your point being?"

Tony felt heat rising again, but this time it was irritation. His heart was a little too close to subjects revolving around loneliness and abandonment. He had to live with his, but maybe Steve didn't. “Why not come in? There’d be some red tape to get through, but eventually you’d be back in the world with the rest of us.”

“It’s not that simple.” 

“If you’d let it, it would be,” Tony insisted. 

Barnes’ expression soured. “I told you, you don’t know me, Stark.”

“Yeah, well, you’re wrong about that,” Tony fired back. “I went through everything they leaked when SHIELD collapsed. If I had a stitch of tech left on me, I'd show you.”

“Then you should know better,” Barnes argued, voice hard. “Besides I’ve seen them. Hate to break it to you, but the Winter Soldier files are nowhere near complete.”

Tony huffed in frustration. “Listen, I get it. I get guilt. I’m no wide-eyed innocent by any means. There’ve been a lot of horrible things in this world that are, directly or indirectly, my fault. Even when I’m trying my goddamned hardest to do the right thing I've got a way of fucking things up. I’ve gotta live with that every day.”

“This isn’t about you, Stark.”

“I didn’t say it was,” Tony snapped. “But it is about Steve.” 

Barnes’ brows had drawn low, his expression pinched and unhappy.

“He’s on his own in a future he was never supposed to be in,” Tony said. “So are you. Isn’t it worth wading through the bullshit if you get to be in each other’s lives again? For real?”

Barnes’ jaw worked and he tipped his head back. “I don’t remember everything, Stark. Not the way Steve does. And there are things Hydra did…” His nostrils flared and he shook his head once, sharply. “Anyway, I ain’t sayin’ it’s not hard on him and me both. It is. A lot harder than you’d think.”

There was a truth squirming beneath his words, something Barnes didn’t want to come right out and say. 

Tony made a calculated leap. “You’re not just friends, are you? Or you weren’t, back in the day.”  

Barnes grunted noncommittally. 

There was something more Tony was missing. Something that had drawn these two along parallel courses, through death, and brought them back together across a seventy-year gap in time. 

Tony stopped dead in his tracks. “Holy shit, you’re soulmates.”

Barnes rolled his eyes, but he didn’t deny it. He urged Tony to keep moving.

“Why would you want to hide that?” Tony hissed. “If anything, that would work in your favor if you wanted to come in.”

Again no answer.

Tony chewed at the problem. 

There had been a brief time when same-sex pairings were frowned upon in general society, and that time more or less lined up with the era Steve and Bucky grew up in. Problem was, a soul bond was instant relationship validation, the universe giving its seal of approval. Homophobic attitudes simply weren’t sustainable in the long run. Most people, then or now, wouldn’t question or contest an official bond even if they didn’t like it. 

So it had to be something else. 

True, it would be hard at first for the public to reconcile the Winter Soldier and Captain America as a pair; but that was nothing a little marketing couldn’t fix. Expand the Smithsonian exhibit to other museums across the nation. Throw some footage of the Howling Commandos up on YouTube. Arrange for some respectful media coverage detailing the torture Barnes had been subjected to. Once everyone saw how much Cap needed and missed his old friend, no one would be able to deny they were meant for each other. 

Hell, Tony couldn’t deny it and he’d just found out it was a thing.

Speaking of which, why was everyone around Tony basking in the light of predestined romance while he was left with Monday morning coffee dates and the scraps of an ordinary—and totally failed—love life? It really wasn’t fair.

“Saw the way you looked at him,” Barnes said softly, apropos of nothing. 

Tony jolted out of his thoughts. “What? Who?”

Barnes raised his eyebrows and Tony blanched.

You were at the gala?” 

“Outside, technically. Place had pretty big windows. How d’you think I got here so fast?” Barnes said.

There it was. The icing on the cake. Tony had been caught red-handed, leering after someone else’s soulmate. Perfect. In his defense, he’d thought Steve was free for the looking at the time. The best he could do now was own it. “Steve… he’s, uh, not hard to look at, I’ll give you that,” Tony admitted. And because he was feeling just a teensy bit self-destructive, he added, “Neither are you, for that matter. I can think of about twenty applications for that metal arm that have nothing to do with its intended purpose.”

“That so?”

“I’m a genius. Trust me.” 

“You might not like being on the wrong end of this arm as much as you think.”

“Only one way to find out,” Tony pressed. The responding frown was definitely his cue to quit while he was ahead. “Anyway,” he said, “there are worse ways to end a kidnapping than being walked home by a super soldier.” 

 

+

 

They paused in the shadow of an alley a discreet distance across from Stark Tower. There was a traffic circle between them and their destination, but the road was practically empty. Tony’s steps were surer than they had been before. Maybe he wasn’t at a hundred percent yet, but he could make it across the intervening space without any trouble.

Barnes kept a firm grip on his elbow. “The team just got back. Steve’s going to come out and get you in a minute.”

Tony gave the former assassin a quick once-over. If there was a communication device hidden somewhere on Barnes, he couldn’t spot it. It was possible there was one built into the arm, but the guy hadn’t even said anything. “You know what? I’m not even going to ask how you know that.” 

That little secretive quirk at the side of Barnes’ mouth. Tony was starting to like it. 

“So, I guess this is—” 

He didn’t have the chance to finish. One moment the streets were empty, the next a swarm of armed operatives in black where closing in on them from every side, weapons aimed to kill. What was it Tony’d said about worse ways to end a kidnapping? Being surrounded by a strike team with sights trained on his fugitive escort was definitely one of the worse ways. 

"Stop!" Tony shouted and put his hands in the air. White light flashed across his face, and he winced away from it. 

“Is that you, Mr. Stark?” a voice called. "Are you all right?"

“I’d be better if I could actually see who I’m talking to.” 

The light clicked off and Tony craned his neck to survey the agents crowding into the alley, both in front and behind them. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried or relieved when he saw they wore SHIELD insignias. There were—holy shit—there had to be more than fifty, with snipers along the rooftops. They really weren’t kidding around. Then again, if they had learned anything about confronting super soldiers from their encounters with Steve Rogers, the numbers weren't completely unreasonable.

Barnes had gone dangerously still beside him, pent up energy rolling off him in waves. He was ready to fight his way out.

“So what’s the end game here, fellas?” Tony asked cautiously, one eye on Barnes.  

“Our orders are to apprehend the Winter Soldier," the agent said. "According to our sources, he arranged the attack in Manhattan tonight, along with your kidnapping.”

What? And then he walked me home? It was so absurd Tony laughed. “Um, no,” he said. “He really didn’t. I promise he didn't.” 

"Orders are orders, sir," the agent replied firmly. “If you would please cooperate and step toward us. We’d like to get you to safety, Mr. Stark.” 

Oh. So it was going to be like that. 

“You know what?” Tony said. “I don’t think I will.” He stepped in front of Barnes so the scattered red dots were hovering over his chest instead. It wouldn’t do anything to stop the sights trained on them from behind and above, but at least his point was made. 

The operatives dropped the tips of their weapons and there were a few hurried whispers. For a split second, Tony almost believed they were going to be reasonable. 

Barnes knew better. He grabbed Tony and jerked him to the side just before the snipers on the roof could take their shots; but there was nowhere for them to flee except into a sea of uniforms. Tony tried the implants, smacking his forearms hard with the heel of his hand to get them to reboot. If he had the suit, this would be over in seconds. But whatever the hell his captors had shot him up with, it had done its work well. The implants weren’t just shorted out, they were dead. (That was going to be fun to fix later, by the way.) And somehow he doubted his self-defense lessons would do much good with the gunk still in his system. Sure, he could land a few hits, but it’d make little difference against the odds. 

To his credit, Barnes tried to keep Tony covered as the agents circled in and landed blows; but Tony wasn't their target. He was just keeping them from taking a clean shot at Barnes. And even that was over far too quickly.

While Barnes was occupied, an operative ducked in and grabbed Tony, shoved him face first against a brick wall, and pinned his arms firmly behind him. “Just stay still and keep quiet. This doesn’t involve you,” he rasped in Tony’s ear. 

“I kind of feel like it does,” Tony shot back as he struggled. The stone digging into his cheek felt especially personal. 

Barnes twisted an agent’s arm sharply behind his back, dislocating it with a sickening pop. The man screamed and Barnes shoved him into the crowd, bodies tumbling like bowling pins. 

“Don’t you have a gun, anything?” Tony shouted.

“I don’t do that anymore!” Barnes snarled.

If the fight had been strength against strength, Barnes would have won, easily. But there were too many and there was no room to maneuver in the alley. One of them jabbed Barnes’ left hand with an electric baton, shorting out the metal arm. The mechanics locked and he staggered, off balance. Agents swooped into the opening, piled onto his shoulders, and forced him to his knees. Barnes’ chest heaved with the effort to keep himself upright, sweat beading on his brow.

Tony thought that would be the end of it. They’d caught him. He didn’t want to be caught, but it was far from the end of the world. Tony had plenty of high-priced lawyers he was willing to enlist on Barnes’ behalf. He’d be locked up for a while, have to endure tests and psych eval, but they’d get him home and back to Steve. It would be all right. 

One of the agents pressed the barrel of her gun to Barnes’ temple, finger on the trigger, ready to pull. “We have the order?” She touched her earpiece, waiting for confirmation.

Tony’s pulse roared in his ears. 

Barnes’ head snapped up, his expression naked with fear. He suddenly looked so young, and his grey-blue eyes had gone glassy. Steve, he mouthed. 

It wasn’t an idle plea. Across the way, the blond had exploded out of the tower doors at a run, still wearing the singed and torn remnants of his tux. He sprinted for them like he already knew what was about to happen. Super soldiers were fast, but he wasn’t faster than the trigger. He wouldn’t get there in time. 

“Don’t!” Tony bellowed, fighting against the man behind him, grasping at straws for anything that would buy them the few seconds they needed, anything that would stop the worst from happening in front of him. In front of Steve. “Don’t you dare touch him,” he warned, false bravado coming easily and loudly, like he’d been thrust in front of a camera instead of an execution. “James Buchanan Barnes is my soulmate.” 

Yeah, about that filter. He really needed to get it checked. 

Chapter Text

The late summer sun baked the pavement as Bucky passed old Karl’s repair shop on the way to run an errand for his ma. Raised voices and scuffling echoed out of the nearby alley, where the neighborhood bullies had cornered another pipsqueak, demanding his change. It wasn’t anything Bucky hadn’t witnessed a hundred times before. He’d slip past, head tucked down, and try not to think too hard about what it might feel like to be in the other guy’s shoes. 

It wasn't that he was scared he'd get beat up. The opposite, actually. The bullies would holler at him to join in and he was running out of excuses to say no. The thing was? They liked him. Bucky never had a problem making friends, even when those friends were an unsavory sort. He figured it didn’t pay to be picky if being likable meant the bad guys would leave him alone.

And today was not the day to get caught up in a back alley brawl. The boys were on edge, more so than usual. They were spitting language that made Bucky’s skin crawl, and when their fists came out, they hit hard and they hit to hurt. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe they’d gotten the belt the night before. Whatever the reason, they wanted blood and a few coins were their excuse to take it. 

The kid they were after was nothing but skin and bones. His clothes were shabby and several sizes too big. He was a runt if Bucky’d ever seen one, but the idiot was literally asking for it. He heckled the bullies like he was twice their size and had six guys for backup. 

“Is that all you got?” the kid challenged. “I could do this in my sleep.”

One of the big kids hit him hard enough to send him sprawling and then they all crowded in, kicking for everything they were worth. 

Bucky winced. It was about time for him to beat a hasty retreat.

Except something nagged at him. A flicker of envy. Bucky'd won the bullies over with a quick smile and a dollop of charm; but every day he had to keep smiling, keep pretending he didn’t see the things they were doing. In hindsight, he wished he’d had the resolve to stand up to them. This kid was less than half Bucky’s size, but he had twice the courage. 

Against his better judgment, Bucky turned down the alleyway. 

When the other kids spotted him, they pulled back and cheered him on. They urged him to boot the curled up figure on the ground.

Instead Bucky hoisted him to his feet by one knobby elbow. By some miracle, the kid was still conscious.

“Take a swing, jerk,” the boy challenged. Pretty ballsy considering he was halfway doubled over, one hand braced on his knee as he wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. He rattled and wheezed when he breathed.   

“Listen, punk,” Bucky grabbed the kid by the collar of his shirt and shook him once, firmly, hoping it would jar some sense into him, “this ain’t a fight you can win.” 

“So?” The kid set his jaw, blue eyes defiant.  

Was this guy thick or something? “So you’re gonna get beaten,” Bucky said. The other boys barked their approval and goaded him on with cries of, “Come on!” and “Hit him already!”

“I can take anything you can dish out.” The boy brushed him off, tottered back a step, and brought up his fists, face determined. 

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Bucky said. This puny kid didn’t have a chance, but he wasn’t backing down. “You really wanna do this."

“You bet.”

Bucky wanted to ask him why—what difference would it make?—but now wasn’t the time or place. Bucky tipped his head to the sky and prayed for strength. Because he was about to do something really, really stupid.  “All right, pal. You and me, then. Let’s do this.” 

The kid wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Come on.”

Bucky clenched his fist, turned, and decked the bully nearest to him. 

So much for being likable. 

They were a mess by the time the bullies ran off. Bucky's knuckles were bloodied and he sported a split lip. His nerves were humming. He was sore everywhere and one of his eyes was swelling shut. His ma would have a heart attack when she saw him (and he’d get a lecture about neglecting his chores, for sure); but he felt fantastic.  

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” he confessed. 

The kid had his hands braced on his knees again, arms trembling, a grin on his bruised face. He nodded, but he didn’t answer. 

His chest heaved, once, twice, and the smile disappeared. There was no wheezing or rattling anymore. Air wasn’t getting in. One second he was standing, the next his eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground before Bucky could catch him. 

Bucky dropped to his knees next to the prone form. He shouted for help and pressed an ear to the boy’s chest, but he couldn’t hear anything over his own thudding heartbeat. The kid was out cold. No, no, no, no, no. He had no idea what to do. 

He screamed for help again. 

It was the heat and the exertion. The kid had been in bad shape to start with and the fight had made it worse. 

Bucky’s hands were useless, searching aimlessly, touching the kid’s face and shoulders and chest like he could find a switch to get him started again. Panic flooded Bucky’s limbs and his skin prickled with energy. He was shaking. He felt fuzzy and distant, pressure building inside him as the seconds ticked by and the small form still lay there, unmoving. 

"Breathe, breathe, breathe," Bucky begged. "Please.

For a few glorious minutes that afternoon, Bucky’d been brave and he’d stood up for someone. He’d done the right thing. Or he thought he had.

Now he was helpless again, floundering. 

“Don’t give up now, you punk. We just got ‘em beat.” Bucky gathered the kid into his arms and hugged him to his chest. He gave another hoarse shout for help, but no one was coming. Of course they weren't. They'd ignored the ruckus of an all-out brawl, so why would they come for one crying kid? It wasn't their business, and the horrible thing was Bucky knew exactly how they felt. It was easier not to get involved.

He tucked his face into the other boy’s neck, rocking him slightly. “Come on, come on, kid.” He desperately wanted to cry, but no tears came. Grief was a knot of energy clenching tighter and tighter around his ribs until sparks swam behind his eyelids and he felt like he couldn’t breathe either. 

Please, kid. I don't even know your name, but I need you to breathe so I can breathe, too.

Something snapped. The painful ribbon of energy binding his chest came undone. It was unspooling and unspooling inside him, filaments bursting into skeins of light that pulled taught and anchored him to some invisible place inside the other boy. 

The kid’s eyes shot open, and he reflexively grabbed for Bucky’s shoulders. His lungs expanded, protesting, and he dragged in a breath of air. 

So did Bucky.

Something had happened, something had changed. Bucky's head was swimming with halos of color and light. Distant emotions echoed and responded to his with mirrored confusion. Impressions of thought all muffled in cotton. He could feel the other boy inside his head. Not quite a direct connection, but enough to get the murmuring suggestion of the other boy’s mind.

Bucky knew about soulmates, of course. Everyone did. That had to be what it was. But no one had told him it could happen when he was so young. No one had told him he could accidentally run into his soulmate in a back alley instead of actively seeking out a rendezvous. And no one had ever, ever said anything about feeling the other person inside their head. Everyone talked about a sense of completion. Fulfillment and warmth and love. He was getting reverberations of that, yes; but so much more than that. It was euphoria tempered by dread, because none of it was quite right. 

It was because the other boy had almost died. Bucky guessed it instinctively. Something had gone wrong with the bonding, they’d been put together backwards or inside out. If anyone found out, they’d want to know the why and the how. They'd want to test them. Maybe they’d push Bucky's new soulmate back to the brink of death just to see what else would happen. He couldn’t let them do that. 

“Don’t tell no one,” he said.

The blond nodded, dazed just like him. He reached up thin, tentative fingers to touch his heart, like he didn’t quite believe it was still inside his own chest. Bucky grabbed his hand. 

“Just stay still for a bit,” he murmured, and the other boy did what he was told. 

Later they sat together on the steps of old man Karl’s shop, Bucky using a borrowed rag to clean up the kid’s cuts and scrapes. They traded names. Steven Rogers and James Barnes.  

When he got home, Bucky was sent straight to his room and he went without complaint. He shut the door and stripped off all his clothes. It took some searching, but sure enough he found the mark etched on his lower back, next to his right hip. 

 

+

 

The gravity of Steve’s presence pulled Bucky underwater as the sky burned and SHIELD crumbled around them. It wasn’t the first time he’d followed this man into death, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. 

Later, when he was alone in a ratty motel with curtains drawn and hot water cascading over his skin, he ran his thumb over the scar on his lower back, just above his right hip. It was innocuous compared to the bullet wounds and lacerations, but it ached even more deeply than the ridges and seams of his left shoulder where metal met flesh. The small scar was important in ways no one else could understand. 

It took a little time, but he remembered. September 9, 1930, 4:28 p.m., Gunsmith Alley. That’s what it used to say. Hydra may not have known with any certainty who the rendezvous belonged to, but to secure Bucky’s loyalty they were willing to cut his soulmate out of him in more ways than one. The joke was on them, though. Cutting out the mark might break the bond between a different pair of soulmates—Bucky didn’t know—but Steve wasn’t just his mate, he was a fundamental part of his being. If Hydra wanted to rip them apart—if anyone wanted to rip them apart—they would have to kill them both.

 

+

 

Memory wasn’t a gift, for a lot of reasons. Some of those reasons involved blood and screaming and a visceral, bone-deep cold Bucky could never quite shake. The other part of it was missing Steve. Once the memories started filtering back, it was a constant ache, a hole in his chest that never quite healed. The farther apart they were, the harder it was to sense each other. In some ways that was good, in others it was torture. The more Bucky remembered about their bond, the more it tried to wrestle him back to Steve’s side. 

Bucky had to find ways to live around it, adapt, just like he’d had to relearn how to do ordinary things with a metal arm designed for killing. Hold a glass gently, don't shatter it. Remember and write, but don't use his name. Open cupboards with his right hand, never his left. Keep photos and articles of Steve tucked safely away. Don't look at them too often. 

It wasn’t that Bucky didn’t want to be with Steve—he did—he just didn’t want Steve on the raw end of the tumult inside his head. He didn't want to share his nightmares. And he didn't want to sense the things Steve could remember about their past that he couldn't. There were already too many shadows between them and he didn't want to make more. Keeping his distance was the only thing Bucky could do to protect him. That's what he told himself.

But it was hard to heal alone. 

When the ache inevitably got too much to bear, Bucky would give in and go looking for him. 

That particular night he settled on a rooftop opposite the hall where the charity gala was being held. He didn’t have to do anything. Steve knew he was there. And, sure enough, the blond found his way to a window and lingered near the glass. He stayed there under the pretense of admiring a frankly ridiculous piece of artwork. 

It was water in the desert. Bucky hadn’t seen Steve since... well, it was before the disaster with Ultron. Bucky should have come back to check on him once the dust had settled; but Bucky’d been in the middle of dredging up a particularly nasty set of memories. Now he felt like a heel for letting it consume him. 

“Missed you,” Bucky mumbled. 

Green and placid blues came in response. Steve missed him too, was glad he was here. That was it. Simple. 

Bucky closed his eyes, relieved. He relaxed and let himself drift in the pleasant white noise of Steve at the back of his mind. They wouldn't get to see each other tonight, there were far too many people around; but Bucky let himself fantasize about slipping away with his soulmate and losing themselves together, even if just for a night. Even if just for an hour.

A hot blush came rushing in and jolted Bucky back to full alert. For a second, he thought Steve had caught on to his daydreaming; but Steve clamped down on the flood of heat and their connection went silent. That was a trick they’d learned as teenagers, like flexing a muscle. They couldn’t hold each other out indefinitely, but they could give themselves a bit of privacy when they needed a moment.

Apparently Steve needed a moment. 

Another man had joined him in front of the painting and he was giving Bucky's soulmate an obvious once-over. Steve was just as awkward as he had been back when Bucky used to set him up with pretty girls. Shoulders slightly hunched, expression needlessly apologetic as he tried to oh-so-casually hide behind his drink. Except this time there was an actual flare of interest. When it was the shorter man's turn to look embarrassed, Steve reached out and steadied his hand on the glass.

That was interesting. 

The other man was the spitting image of his father Howard. Tony Stark. Iron Man. Creator of Ultron. Destroyer of Ultron. He'd leveled a city trying to get the Hulk under control. There were a handful of other stories Bucky knew off the top of his head, few of them pleasant. But Steve was trading conversation with the man easily, openly. Steve liked him. 

Bucky let that sink in. He wasn’t entirely angry. Not really. A little jealous, maybe; but, hell, back in the day he’d tossed around the idea of bringing someone else into their relationship to help keep their bond a secret. At the time, Steve wasn’t very keen on the idea. He wanted them to fake a rendezvous sometime in their twenties so they could make it official. That had led to a lot of awkward double dates. Before they could reach an agreement, the war happened and everything went to shit.

What if Steve had softened to the idea of adding someone else to the equation somewhere along the way? 

Bucky couldn't deny he'd left Steve hanging. Pining for one another from opposites sides of a street wasn't exactly a fulfilling relationship. Maybe that meant Bucky had to allow his soulmate to find comfort with someone else for a while. If Steve needed that, Bucky could make peace with it. ...Probably. The harder part would be convincing his soulmate.  

When the attack closed in, Steve’s plea for help was layered with self-conscious embarrassment. He felt like he'd done something wrong, had no right to ask Bucky to go after Tony. Beneath all that, there was sincere worry, concern for pain Tony had already suffered. Steve didn't want him to get hurt again.

Bucky sighed. Of course he was going to help. At the very least he needed to meet this Tony Stark before he gave Steve his blessing. Here was his big chance. Like ripping off a bandaid, he just had to get it done. 

So Bucky went after Tony, and damn if the bastard didn't turn out to be charming. 

 

+

 

Charm had a very short shelf life.

Why the word soulmate popped out of Tony Stark’s goddamned mouth at that particular moment, Bucky couldn’t even begin to guess. He didn’t particularly care that it had saved his life. The confused anguish on Steve’s face when he heard it was enough to kill Bucky ten times over again. 

 

+

 

“Obviously I said it to keep your time-traveling boyfriend in one piece, Cap,” Tony protested, rubbing his forehead as he sagged down into a chair. It couldn't have been more than an hour since the alley. If his behavior in the park was any indication, Bucky guessed Tony was still fighting the aftereffects of the injection. “I don’t think he’s my actual soulmate.”

“You’re goddamned right he’s not.” Steve paced like a caged animal, fingers flexing. Always ready for a fight, just like old times, except there wasn’t anyone for him to go up against. Tony had saved Bucky’s life. Treating him like the enemy wasn’t going to help. 

Technically, it was Bucky who was the one who was caged. He slouched on a cot inside a glass holding cell, audio from the meeting room outside filtering in through the speakers. The team of superheroes had gathered around a table, all of them still dressed in their Saturday best—except for Vision, who had forgone the illusion of his suit in favor of the android skin he’d been born in. They were all a little the worse for wear. Rhodey had an ice pack pressed to his shoulder and Wanda was wrapping a sprained wrist. Clint sported a nasty bruise on his cheekbone and was nursing a lacerated arm. He’d been limping when he joined them. 

There were SHIELD operatives just outside the room, guarding the door, and there were more in the elevators and on the ground floor of the tower. They'd agreed to let Tony take Bucky into custody, but they weren’t taking any chances the Winter Soldier might escape. 

Not that he was much of a threat right now, even if he wanted to be. Bucky’s left arm was out of commission and wrapped against his body in a sling Tony had fashioned out of his own jacket. He was weaponless and, frankly, he was tired as hell. At some point during the fight, he’d lost his hair tie and loose strands were falling into his eyes. He didn’t even bother to brush them away.   

“Okay, you both are gonna have to back up,” Sam said. “This shit is out of left field.”

“It’s not that complicated,” Natasha said. "Barnes and Rogers are soulmates." 

“Yeah, it’s kind of obvious if you think about it.” Clint pulled out one of his hearing aids and fiddled with the dial. He added, a little bit louder than necessary, “And Tony said Bucky was his soulmate to cover Cap’s ass. Keep it a secret.” He shrugged. 

The meeting room was soundproof and the cameras were off, Tony had assured them, but it still set Bucky’s teeth on edge to hear it said so loud, plain as day. 

“Sam, I’m sorry,” Steve said. “I couldn’t tell anyone. Not even you.”

“You could have,” Sam argued. “I wouldn’t have given you away.”

“That wasn’t the issue.” Steve ran a hand through his hair, casting a distressed look into Bucky's cell. A jumble of emotions, impressions, nothing Bucky could sort out. 

“We can work this to our advantage,” Natasha said. “Soulmated pairs have a certain amount of societal privilege. Barnes has already received unprecedented immunity because they think he’s Tony Stark’s soulmate. They could have shot him, they could have kept him. Instead they remanded him into Avengers custody. There’s no way we could have bargained for that under different circumstances.”

Vision made a thoughtful noise. “Humans believe interference with a newly formed bond will keep them from receiving their own rendezvous,” he said. “They say it tampers with the universal energy. This has been a highlight in some of my recent reading.”

“And exactly what kind of books are you reading? Romances?” Sam asked archly. 

Vision nodded, serious. "Yes."  

“It’s bad luck,” Clint agreed, fitting his hearing aid back in place. “People are scared of that karma shit. No one wants to risk losing their chance. Not unless they’ve already had it or don't want it. And let's be honest, everybody wants it.” 

“SHIELD is going to come back with reinforcements once they’ve got their heads together,” Rhodey said. “You can bet on it. And it's going to be soon.” 

“They’ll want to see the marks,” Wanda warned. Her eyes were unfocused and her head was tilted as though listening to distant voices. “They should have demanded to see them on the street, but they were caught off guard. Now they’re worrying they’ll be punished when their superiors arrive.” She refocused and looked at Bucky through her lashes, her lips pressed tightly together. A chill crept up his spine. 

“I've got it covered,” Tony said, waving it off. “Ten steps ahead of you there.” 

“I gotta ask,” Sam said. “Does any of this seem the least bit strange to you? A half-assed attack by a bunch of nobodies, followed by a SHIELD strike team lurking outside Stark Tower for the Winter Soldier? I mean come on.” 

That part had been bugging Bucky, too. Like SHIELD had been behind the whole thing. An elaborate set-up. 

Except that didn’t explain why Tony’s kidnappers had shot him full of something. That had been an targeted assault and it didn’t fit with SHIELD's overarching objective.  

“How did they know Bucky would be in Manhattan tonight, though?” Steve asked. “Even I didn’t know.” 

“They could have been watching you for months, Rogers," Natasha said. "My guess is they had an op waiting to be put into play the moment he surfaced.” 

“Regardless, we need a plan,” Rhodey said. “Tony? We’ve got agents outside the door, swarming the halls, and at some point they’re going to come in here expecting some definitive proof you and Barnes are star-crossed lovers.” 

“We can work with that,” Tony said, spreading his hands on the table. “Listen, right now it’s the only leverage we’ve got. It's the only thing keeping Barnes here with us. Anything else we try, they're going to take him and I guarantee he won't last long if that happens.” 

"It's feasible." Natasha considered. “On the heels of Pepper leaving you for her soulmate, Tony—”

“Ow, Romanov,” Tony muttered.

“—the public is more likely to feel sympathy for you,” she continued. “And you need that. It makes you and Barnes both more relatable.” She sized them up with a gleam in her eye. “Like a couple of cuddly teddy bears.”  

“Right. Just what we were going for,” Tony said. 

Clint leaned over the table. “Question is, can you two pretend to be in love?” 

“Mr. Stark is well known for his ability to play to a crowd,” Vision said. 

All eyes swiveled to Bucky behind the glass. Steve stopped pacing and his jaw worked. “Why is it better for him to be bonded to Tony than to me?” Steve asked, voice tight. 

“You mean besides the obvious?” Tony straightened in his seat, eyebrows raised. “I don't want to step on your toes here, Cap, but how are we going to explain the switch? Besides, maybe I’ve got this wrong, but I was under the distinct impression you two didn’t want to come out as a pair.” He turned an incredulous look on Bucky, which the former assassin staunchly ignored.  

There was a pained, longing surge of energy at the back of Bucky’s mind, saturated with the gold and orange tones that meant Steve was feeling defiant. There were tinges of blue and grey—doubt—and he was looking for some sign from Bucky that it was all right to finally let go of the secrecy they’d hidden their bond beneath. Surely the worries they had when they were kids didn't apply anymore. He wanted to let go so he could finally hold on to Bucky with both hands. 

Bucky snorted. The punk never did have a good sense of self-preservation. Even if the nightmares and blank spaces lurking in Bucky's mind weren't an issue—and they were—the Winter Soldier could only tarnish Captain America’s image in ways they'd never be able to polish. Steve wouldn’t want to hear that, but it was the truth. Iron Man’s reputation, though. It was built on tarnish. Somehow Tony made it look good. Bucky didn't necessarily like it, but he had to admit the pairing made sense. 

Bucky shook his head. Earlier that night he'd intended to set Steve up with Tony. How had things gotten this far away from him? 

“The bottom line is leverage,” Tony argued. “To be blunt, I have more influence than you do, Rogers. The government?  Businesses? Individuals? Whoever is after our boy here, no matter who they are, doesn’t matter. They’ll have to play ball with me. You, on the other hand, you’d have to start an all-out war to keep him safe.” 

“I’m willing to do that,” Steve said.

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” Tony growled. “We can get this taken care of with minimal fuss if you two will just play along.”

“For how long?” It was the first thing Bucky had said, and Tony visibly jumped when Bucky’s voice rasped through the speakers.

Tony pushed away from the table and approached the glass. “Maybe a month or two,” he said. “Just until public interest dies down, or gets diverted by the latest scandal or alien invasion.”

“This isn’t like a celebrity wedding, though, Tones,” Rhodey said. “You can’t just divorce your soulmate. No one will buy it. You’re never going to be low profile, and SHIELD is going to be watching him like a hawk. People are going to notice every time one of you so much as breathes. How are you going to explain it when Barnes cuts you loose?” 

“First of all,” Tony said, “why do you automatically assume I’m the one who’s going to get dumped?” Rhodey opened his mouth to answer and Tony hurried to cut him off. “Second of all, we have to work with what we’ve got, all right? Like it or not, the damage is done. They already think Barnes and I are soulmates, so either we can run with it and use it to our advantage, or we can pull the rug out from under our own feet.” 

Bucky sucked on his lower lip. Steve?  Tentative, asking for permission. 

He got black and steel grey in return. Cobalt blue. Cold white. The colors of Bucky’s fall. Separation.

You’re not losing me, you punk. Bucky glowered. This might be the only way you actually get to keep me.  

Unaware of their silent exchange, Tony prodded, “Look, the worst we’d have to do is hold hands in public, maybe a kiss or two for the cameras. A few dates. Tell everyone you’re undergoing treatment, or training, or whatever you want, and we have a built in excuse for any appearances you don’t want to make. Hell, Steve can be with you every step of the way. People will expect it, he’s your best friend. As long as you’re in the tower, away from prying eyes, you both can cuddle up as much as you want.” 

There it was. That was the selling point. Suddenly presented with the possibility that he could have Bucky safely within arm’s reach, Steve’s resolve melted. He stepped up to the glass beside Tony. “All right. If he’s in, I’m in. But we’ll need to set some ground rules.” 

“Of course.” Tony held up his hands. “I wouldn’t presume.”

“You already did,” Steve pointed out, “but let’s move past that.”

Bucky steeled himself and got to his feet. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

 

+

 

They didn’t have much time and Bucky and Tony needed their soulmate marks. Wanda look care of the guards outside the conference room with an unsettling slither of red energy. She promised they were just dazed and would come back to themselves in a few minutes, none the wiser about what had happened. Tony, Steve, and Bucky snuck past and Tony led them to a private elevator he'd accidentally forgotten to tell SHIELD about. It took them directly to Stark's lab. 

“Please tell me you’ve got the super soldier healing thing going on for you,” Tony said. The lab came alive with lights and screens as he entered. 

“Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” Bucky said.

“Good, we’re going to need it.” 

Tony yanked at his collar, popping the first few buttons, and rolled up his sleeves. He spared a glance at Steve. The Captain's shirt had split at the seams in more than one place and had outright torn open at the shoulders. There were singes where electric batons had dug into his flesh. 

“Definitely going to have to get you that new suit, Cap,” he said.

“Really? That’s what you wanna talk about right now?” Red. Irritation and an echo of that blush from the gala. 

“Nope. Just saying.” Tony pointed Bucky to a chair and told him to sit. It was situated with holographic screens on one side and within easy reach of several mechanical arms attached to tracks on the ceiling. Tony was already prying at one of the arms, switching out parts.

Bucky balked and clamped down on the bond reflexively, shoving back memories he didn't want Steve to see. “Not there,” Bucky said. “Just.” He gestured to a cluttered metal coffee table next to an old, worn out sectional sofa. “Can I sit there?”

Tony took a beat to process the request. If he guessed the reason why Bucky didn’t want to be sitting in a chair underneath heavy machinery, he didn’t say. Steve didn't, either. Instead Tony surveyed the runners, gauging the distance the mechanism could be shifted. “Yeah, I can make it work if we move the table this way a bit,” he said. “Get to it, Barnes.”

Steve cleared the surface and, while he was shifting a pile of magazines onto the couch, a pair of curious robots rolled up to poke and prod, ostensibly helping. Bucky grabbed the edge of the table with his right hand and together he and Steve shuffled the table forward. One or the other of them could have done it by themselves, but working as a team came back like a bad habit. It was natural. Bucky set down his end of the table and one of the bots plucked gently at Bucky's left arm. Whether it was because Bucky was using its master's jacket as a sling, or because he was concerned about Bucky's malfunctioning appendage, he didn't know. Curious thing. 

"That's rude, DUM-E," Tony said without turning from his screens. He was working quickly to input the programming they needed. "Leave him alone."

The bot swiveled its head, or what Bucky guessed was its head, bumped one more time at his arm, and then trundled off. Bizarrely, it started assembling smoothie ingredients at a small kitchen station.

"He'll be back, and he'll have totally forgotten what I just told him. I guarantee it," Tony said with the exhausted affection of a parent. "Also, don't drink anything he gives you." He finished his keystrokes. "There. Done. Now, where do you want your mark, Barnes?” 

Bucky turned to Steve, tentatively reopening the connection.

“As long as it’s not on your forehead.” Steve shrugged, mouth tugging up at the corner. It wasn't quite a smile.

“Right arm, I guess?” Bucky said.

“Fine. We’re gonna need those layers off,” Tony said. “Cap, can you help him?”

Steve hovered on the other side of the table. Tinges of grey and white. An unspoken question. They'd been apart a long time. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to come that close yet. Bucky huffed and grabbed his hand, guiding it to his left shoulder. That was all the encouragement he needed. Steve untied the sling, and helped Bucky shrug out of his jackets and the shirts beneath. He was close enough for Bucky to feel his breath on his neck. He tried not to look at Steve, to stay focused as the cold air of the lab hit his skin.  

Steve stepped back and Bucky tested the edge of the table to be sure it could bear his weight. Stark hadn't skimped on flimsy furniture. The table was solid. Bucky settled, and deliberately slowed and deepened his breathing.

This wasn’t what soul bonding was supposed to be. It was clinical, calculated, and he tried to remind himself it wasn’t real. It was just pretend. It was something they had to do, nothing more. Still, now that he was here, getting ready to receive Tony Stark's mark, it felt a bit like betrayal. 

“Buck.” Steve settled next to him and a warm hand slid into his, fingers interlocking. “It’ll be all right. I promise.” 

Bucky's mouth worked. There was something he had to say, but he'd been trying to keep it in for far too long. “They cut your mark outta me, Steve,” he confessed in a whisper. I ain't trying to replace you, I'm not, but it feels like I am. “I’m sorry.”

The hand in his loosened and then tightened again fiercely. “That’s not your fault,” Steve said. 

Bucky couldn't remember exactly how it had happened. So maybe it was, maybe it wasn't.  “I shoulda fought harder for it.” Of that much he was certain. 

Steve gripped the back of his neck and pressed their foreheads together. “I don’t need a mark to tell me you’re mine,” he said, voice rough. “We can talk about it later, okay? For now we gotta get this done. If you’re still willing.”

Bucky nodded, swallowing thickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. Okay.”

Tony was standing back a respectful distance, pretending not to hear, his fingertips curled around the mechanical arm he'd modified to suit their needs. The end of it was equipped with a needle and ink—god knows the reason he had that in supply—and he was making fidgeting, last minute adjustments to the hardware. His expression was uncharacteristically sober. 

Steve beckoned Tony in. "This isn't going to hurt him, is it?"

"It shouldn't. Not too much," Tony said. "If his pain tolerance is similar to yours, Cap, he'll be fine." He worried at his lower lip with his teeth, like there was something else he wanted to say. "This needs to be precise. I'm no tattoo artist, otherwise I wouldn't have the machine do it." It sounded strangely like an apology. “I also don’t want to strap your arm down if we don’t have to,” Tony murmured, kneeling in front of him. He pulled the device down with him. “Can you hold still for this?” 

If ordered, Bucky could stay still as a stone on a hill, rifle poised and ready for a target to appear minutes or days away. No pain could move him. “Yeah, I can do it.” He held his arm out, resting against his knee, his hand balled in a fist. 

Tony angled the mechanical arm and made a few adjustments. "Relax. Just relax a bit. Good." He hopped up, washed his hands, and slipped on a pair of latex gloves. He grabbed a damp cloth and wiped down Bucky's inner forearm, too, and patted the skin dry. "All right," he said. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

Steve gave his shoulder a squeeze and Tony set the machine to work.

Bucky barely felt the mechanism skimming over his skin, but it took a concerted effort to keep himself from shaking anyway as the bulky contraption moved back and forth in front of him. He turned his eyes to the ceiling, but he could still see the machine's jerky movements in his periphery. He closed his eyes.

Tony's voice came through the dark, warm and steady. “Okay, Barnes, listen. Here’s what your story’s going to be: the mark brought you to Central Park. That’s how you found me. Tonight is the first time you and Steve have made contact since DC.”

“What about you?” Bucky asked, strained. “Your mark?”

“Mr. Stark, sir," a woman interrupted and Bucky's eyes flew open. There was no one there. "There are four SHIELD agents headed up from the lobby,” the disembodied voice warned. 

“Friday, stall them,” Tony replied. “Ah, about that mark, Barnes. Looks like we don't have enough time for mine. I’ll think of something."

“They’re going to want to see it, Tony,” Steve said. 

“Then I’ll tell them it’s on my ass.” Tony huffed. “There was zero chance I was going heal as fast as Barnes, anyway. They’ll know mine's a tattoo. Trust me, I can talk my way around it.”

The machine finished and Tony pulled it away. He disassembled the needle and ink, tossed them into a scrap bin, and shoved the mechanism as far from them as he could. He swabbed at Bucky’s arm with a clean cloth and smeared a vitamin-rich ointment over the tattoo with slick fingers. Bucky's skin soaked it in and Tony reapplied more.

"How's it feel?" Tony asked.

"Doesn't hurt, if that's what you're asking," Bucky said. His nerves were just about shot, but that was beside the point. He'd live, assuming their ruse actually worked. 

“I’m afraid the lift has experienced an unexpected malfunction, sir," Friday chimed in again over the intercom. Was that an actual person or was it another of Stark's machines? She sounded real. "Your guests have exited three floors down. I’m directing them to the stairwell and the conference room where the Avengers are gathered.”

“Good girl.” Tony jumped up to fetch a small tool kit and rolled back to Bucky's side on his stool. “While were waiting for that to heal, will you let me look at your arm? The other one?”

“Just bonded and you’re already trying to get inside me, Stark?” Bucky joked weakly.   

“Hey, no,” Tony said seriously, eyes darting over to Steve. “We need an excuse for being down here. Fixing your arm is our best bet.”  

Bucky considered him through lowered lids. “Haven’t forgotten what you said about my arm, Stark.”

“That, uh,” Tony said, a blush creeping up his neck, “was under different circumstances, Barnes.”

“You hit on him?” Steve asked, arching an eyebrow.

Tony sighed and scrubbed both hands through his hair, leaving pieces sticking up at odd angles. “No more than I hit on you,” he admitted unhappily. “You guys know I’m a mess, right? Honestly. Can we just get that out in the open? I’ve said some things that were wildly inappropriate tonight and chances are pretty good I’m going to do it again. One of my supreme talents is digging myself into holes mouth first, so I—”

“Tony. Tony,” Steve put out a hand to placate him. “I don't think you realize you’re not the only flirt in the room right now.” Steve sent Bucky a gentle admonishment across the bond.

Tony’s mouth dropped open just a fraction, like he wanted to protest, and then it widened in dismay. “You were messing with me,” he said to Bucky.

For the first time in a long time, Bucky felt the warm, bubbling sensation just below his ribs that meant he wanted to laugh. He didn’t, but he savored the feeling, which was soft and unexpected and welcome. He smirked. 

“You really are a damn tease, Barnes,” Tony muttered. “You’re lucky I don’t like seeing gorgeous tech left to malfunction.” 

"Do your worst, Stark," Bucky gave him permission. He took a shaky breath as Tony pulled out a set of delicate tools and set to work prying open the slotted silver panels of the arm. Bucky rolled his head onto Steve’s shoulder and Steve buried his nose in Bucky’s hair. 

“Haven’t showered in a while,” Bucky warned, face muffled against Steve’s ruined shirt. 

“I don’t care,” Steve said. “Feels nice having you this close.” 

“Mm,” he agreed. It wouldn’t be so nice when the bad memories came ghosting up out of the dark and Bucky wasn't able to keep them in check; but, yeah. For now it was nice. For now he was too tired to protest. 

DUM-E rolled up to them, offering a tall glass brimming with a black sludge smoothie. Steve accepted it with two fingers and Bucky warned him not to drink it. As if that much wasn't already obvious. Steve set it out of the way.

Tony had already lost himself deep in the mechanics when Friday announced the SHIELD agents approach to the lab. Bucky shifted away, and to his credit Steve resisted only a little before standing off to the side, arms folded.  

"Here we go," Tony mused. "Lights, camera, action."

A woman in a black uniform came striding in, followed by three operatives, hands at the ready over their weapons. "Mr. Stark, you were told to keep him contained."

Tony swiveled in his chair with feigned surprise. "Oh. Nice to meet you, too, Agent...?"

"Hoffman," she said. 

“Does he look like he’s going anywhere, Agent Hoffman?” Tony surveyed the expanse of the lab with a critical eye.  

“A lab isn’t containment. The Winter Soldier is a dangerous fugitive and you’re treating him like—“

“Like what?” Tony interrupted. “Like he’s my soulmate? Because, guess what, agent? I’ve got some shocking headline news for you.”

“Your sarcasm isn’t necessary or appreciated, Mr. Stark,” she said stiffly. “This is a serious matter.”

“You think I don’t know that? Honestly, I’m just trying to cover your asses here,” Tony said. “Or did you want the world to know that not only did your operatives attack the world’s longest-serving POW without provocation, they left him without the use of his prosthetic?” He tapped one of the open panels on Bucky's arm. “At the press conference tomorrow, this shiny silver beauty is going to attract some attention. I guarantee you the media is going to notice if it isn’t working, and they’re going to ask questions you won’t want me to answer.”

“I'm sorry." Hoffman shook her head. "Press conference?”

“Obviously there’s going to be a press conference,” Tony said, turning back to his work and leaning in close to Bucky’s arm. He winked. “I don’t understand it, but for some reason the media gets off on publicizing every gritty detail of my love life.”

“Mr. Stark, that arm is a weapon.”

“Right now it’s a dead weight,” Tony countered. “One that’s causing James considerable discomfort. I’m not going to ignore it.”

"I don't want it to come to this, but we're prepared to use force to ensure your compliance."

Steve shifted minutely closer, lowering his arms to his sides. Tony grimaced. He bit his lower lip and shook his head. “About that, agent," he turned back to her, smiling humorlessly. "Did I forget to mention that SHIELD staged a military op on civilian soil with the express intention of, um, oh, what was it?” Tony drummed his fingers against his lower lip. “Oh, right,” his expression darkened, “you were going to murder my soulmate right in front of me.

Bucky's skin prickled at the vehemence in the accusation. It wasn't an act. Tony was actually angry.   

“You saw it all.” Tony looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at Steve. “Right, Cap?”

“I did.” Steve’s expression was carefully controlled, a cold mirror of Tony’s.   

The agents shifted uneasily and took their hands away from their weapons. “Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark, that’s not entirely—“

“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Tony said. “We’re all smart people here, so let’s not play games. Your agents never intended to bring James in alive. You know how I know that? They had him immobilized and I heard them request the kill order. One tidy shot in a back alley and that would have saved you a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?”

He got up and started pacing, tapping his palm anxiously with one of this tools. “I’ve been asking myself why and here’s what I’ve come up with. Tell me what you think. SHIELD shares liability in the creation of the Winter Soldier. It was your agreement to work with enemy scientists after World War II that led to SHIELD’s infiltration by Hydra. It was your technology and your resources that made the Winter Soldier project feasible in the first place. The people who tortured and used James Barnes for their own purposes used to be the very same people who were your colleagues and superior officers. Maybe some of them still are. Who knows? 

“Bottom line is: any blood on his hands is also blood on yours. Guilt by association. In fact, the lion’s share of the blame belongs to you, considering James was your prisoner and your people brainwashed him to force his compliance. If the public happened to be reminded of how closely you two are connected, the foundation you’ve painstakingly rebuilt for your organization would crumble under your feet. You needed a clean slate, and the fastest way to get that was to put a bullet in his head.” He paused for a breath. “Now tell me I’m wrong.”

The silence was thick. Agent Hoffman cleared her throat. “We’re not in a position to confirm or deny specific allegations.”

“But I think we understand each other.” Tony was frighteningly calm. “Considering the circumstances, I think I’m perfectly within my rights to offer repairs tantamount to medical care." He swung his seat back into place and bent back to his work. "Now if you’ll excuse us.” 

Bucky's head was spinning. Had Tony come up with all that on the fly? The agents were at a loss, completely disarmed. If there was one thing to be said about Tony Stark, he knew how to put on a show. Frankly, Bucky was impressed.

“We’re,” one of the agents said, his voice failing, “we’re going to need to see the marks, Mr. Stark.” 

“Right,” Tony said. "Of course." So much for distracting them completely. "Sweetheart, if you’d be so kind?”

Bucky’s nose scrunched up. Sweetheart? he mouthed.

“We can work on the pet names,” Tony mumbled and jerked his head back at the agents.  

Bucky turned on a flinty glare and stretched out his arm. He sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to get up and go to them.  

May 14, 2016, 10:41 p.m., Central Park. It was written in a single line along his inner forearm. The skin had healed over nicely, without a trace of puffiness. It looked just like any other soul mark. Only there was no warmth in the back of Bucky's mind, no sense of completion, no murmur of Tony's thoughts to tell him the mark was real.

“When did you first see it?” one of the agents asked. He had a pad out and was taking notes. 

Bucky shrugged his right shoulder. “This morning. Saturday morning,” he clarified. He had no idea what time it was, but they had to be well into the first hours of Sunday by now. 

“That’s why you were in the park?”

 "Yes." 

"Central Park is pretty big," Hoffman noted. "How'd you locate him?" 

"Wasn't that hard," Bucky said. He closed his mouth, making it clear that was all he was going to give her. Truly, it hadn't been that hard to find Tony. He was no super spy. 

Hoffman scowled and turned to Tony. "You were trying to escape from your kidnappers," she said. "You weren't looking for a rendezvous."

"I don't see why it can't be both," Tony said easily. "I'm excellent at multitasking."

She frowned. “Your mark?” 

"Not in a visually accessible area, I'm afraid." 

“We’re under orders to confirm the legitimacy of this bond, Mr. Stark,” she said. “SHIELD has made some considerable concessions based on your claims.”

“All right, then.” Tony tossed the tool he'd been holding onto the coffee table. “If you’d like me to add sexual harassment to the list of offenses I’ll be presenting to my lawyers first thing tomorrow, you’re welcome to take a peek.” Tony came in close and started to unbutton his shirt, one button at a time, until his fingers reached the top of his slacks. 

One of Hoffman’s hands jerked up in an uncertain stopping motion. Another agent whispered something in her ear and she nodded. She retreated a step, cheeks flushed. “I think we can arrange for a doctor to confirm.” 

“How generous,” Tony said drily. 

“We’ll permit you to finish your work under supervision, Mr. Stark," she said. "We’ll be assigning ‘round-the-clock security to the tower and living quarters, and you and your people are not to tamper with our operatives. You're to ensure the Winter Soldier—“

“James.”

She sighed. “You're to ensure Mr. Barnes stays in the tower, under watch. You will provide us with the necessary floor access and privileges to monitor surveillance systems. Until that time, Mr. Barnes will be kept securely locked in his cell.”

“Sounds fair,” Tony said, and Hoffman looked genuinely relieved. “With one exception.” Her face pinched again. “James and I are going to need some privacy.” He arched an eyebrow. “Floor second from the top. It has a dedicated elevator and no roof access so it’ll be easy to guard. Your people can inspect the quarters before we move in, if they want, but afterwards I want that floor accessible only to me, my soulmate, and select members of the Avengers team.”

“I’ll have to get authorization before agreeing to those terms.”

“Do what you need to do," Tony said. "So will I."

Hoffman nodded curtly and gestured for two agents to stay behind. 

"Pleasure. Let's do this again sometime," Tony called as she exited. Cheeky.

He pulled his seat back up to Bucky, taking a moment to refocus. He closed his eyes, trembling minutely, and Bucky reached out instinctively to steady him.   

"You did good," Bucky murmured. 

Steve crouched down beside them. “Tony, that was amazing,” he agreed softly.   

“A compliment from Captain America.” Tony grinned shakily. "My weekend is complete."

Chapter Text

Steve spent the early Sunday hours pacing the halls of Stark Tower, restless. He had too much energy and too many thoughts, and nowhere to direct either of them. He kept finding his way back to the glass of the holding cell. Over and over again.

His soulmate was stretched out on the cot, his right arm draped over his eyes. He flexed the metal fingers of his left hand in lazy, repeated motions, testing and retesting his repairs. The metal plates moved smooth as silk and Bucky had all the appearance of a cat luxuriating in a sunbeam; but the low level hum of anxiety in the back of Steve’s mind gave away Bucky’s strained emotional state. He was keeping it together, but it wouldn’t take much to shatter the calm. The cage was getting to him. 

It was getting to Steve, too. Even without Bucky’s anxiety ticking away inside his skull, seeing him locked up was enough to make Steve want to rip out the wall. Only a tenuous thread of common sense was keeping him from doing exactly that. 

He stood outside the cell, trapped in a spinning circle of questions with no answers. Why did the two of them keep coming back to this scenario? Why was Steve locked outside while fate kept Bucky just out of his reach? Worse, why did the universe seem to take sadistic delight in making Bucky suffer in ways Steve was powerless to stop?

Steve had been through his fair share of pain over the years, he wouldn’t deny it; but he wasn’t fooling himself. Compared to his soulmate, he’d gotten a cakewalk. The files detailing the Winter Soldier experiments were nothing short of horrific. As incredible as it was Bucky had survived the fall from the train, it was nothing short of a miracle he’d made it through what Hydra had done to him.

And that was all academic, information Steve had gleaned from old, second-hand reports.

When Bucky fell, their bond had gone dark. Steve had well and truly believed Bucky was dead, lost to him forever. In any other circumstance, no matter how far away he had been, Steve had to believe he would have felt what they were doing to his soulmate. Even buried under the Arctic shelf, he would have found a way to claw himself out of the ice to stop it. 

Hindsight and wishful thinking. The reality was harder, less forgiving. 

The bond had torn open again as they were crashing over the Potomac, the Winter Soldier pinned beneath collapsed supports. Fear. That was what had done it. Fear blasted its way into his head and Steve found himself on the receiving end of a mind full of static and scraping metal. The Soldier's thoughts were nothing but terror, mission, focus, and discordant noise threaded by a thin, childlike wail. There’d been nothing of the man Steve loved except the haggard ghost of a face that once belonged to James Buchanan Barnes. 

Most people would have given up at that point, but Steve never did know his limits. Even then he couldn't let go. And when it really mattered, Bucky hadn’t let him down. Like always, Bucky waded in and dragged him out when he was in over his head. 

Not to say they'd fallen into their "happily ever after" after that. They hadn't. It was nearly three months before Bucky came back the first time. And then he was still just as afraid and just as lost as the Winter Soldier had been. Slowly, steadily, he regained more of himself with each visit. But he never stayed long. He used distance to wedge them apart through some misguided attempt to protect Steve from his jagged edges. And, sure, Steve wasn't qualified to treat the trauma Bucky had endured—was anyone?—; but it didn't take an expert to know it hurt to be apart, and so it would have to hurt less to be together. The empty ache when Bucky was gone was a whole new kind of torture. Not just because Steve missed him, but because he never knew for sure if Bucky was going to come back. He needed to believe one day his soulmate would trust him again, but the longer the empty days stretched out, the farther away that dream seemed to be. 

And then SHIELD had almost taken that sliver of hope away from him entirely.

Tony was doing everything in his power to protect them, but if this ruse didn’t work? Then all bets were off. Steve really would tear open the wall and he and Bucky would fight their way out. Bucky had paid the price for Steve’s mistakes one too many times. He wasn't going to let it happen again.

Steve clenched a fist and pressed his knuckles to the glass, testing its strength. Just testing.

The SHIELD operatives standing guard just outside the cell shifted their hands to their weapons. They'd been instructed to keep Steve, Tony, and Bucky under direct supervision. Anything suspicious was to be reported to Agent Hoffman, and, for all Steve knew, they were still authorized to use lethal force.

Bucky stopped flexing his metal wrist and moved his arm away from his face. He caught sight of Steve—tensed and with his fist to the glass—and raised his eyebrows as if to ask, You really gonna be that stupid? 

Steve had the decency to look chastised. Subtlety had never been his strong suit. And if anyone knew his capacity for recklessness, it was Bucky. 

There was a flash of strained humor through the bond. Bucky'd come out there and kick Steve's ass himself if he had to. 

Steve bit back a weary laugh and, with a concerted effort, forced himself to relax. He reluctantly turned away, his arms feeling purposeless and awkward in a way he hadn’t revisited since his pre-serum days. He needed to do something, to take action, but right now his job was to wait. It was maddening. 

He shoved his hands into his pockets. 

He'd lost track of the hour. His last pass through the halls had afforded a hazy view of a red-streaked sky over New York. Lights were switching off as the sun rose and the city woke up. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since then.

The rest of the team had retreated to the upper floors of the tower and they were getting some much needed shut-eye. Steve had managed to take five minutes to dress down into something more comfortable (and less likely to fall off) than his mangled tux; but convincing Tony to take a minute for himself had been harder than pulling teeth. Steve had argued for sleep, a change of clothes, a shower, food, something; but the man was a force to be reckoned with when he was in the middle of a project. Tony was contacting lawyers and assistants and calling in favors from personal connections. It was nonstop. Quite a few of his contacts weren't pleased by the early morning wake up call, but Tony happily charmed or bullied his way to exactly what he wanted, and he didn't care if it ruffled a few feathers in the process. 

Case in point, Tony was at the conference table, arms braced against the flat surface, bathed in the glow of a holographic screen. He was in mid-conversation with Ms. Potts, and he rubbed the back of his neck as he pleaded with her to listen. 

“Tony, you know I don’t like it when you call press conferences without telling me why,” Pepper said. She was dressed in a robe, her hair down, and steam curled up from a hot drink just offscreen. “The shareholders don’t like it, either.” 

“Ah, well, it’s a fairly recent development, Pep,” Tony hedged. “Honestly, I’m as surprised by all this as you are.” 

“I’m not surprised,” Pepper said. “I don’t even know what’s going on.”

“Hence the press conference,” Tony evaded. “To tell everyone about it. You see how it all ties together?”

“I’m coming over there.”

“Don’t.” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat hastily. “Don't. Please, Pep. I mean it. I need some space on this one. I’m not trying to alter the company mission, or announce some radical new invention. All of this? Strictly personal, I swear.”

Pepper regarded him with practiced skepticism. “Does it involve the attack at the gala?”

“Not exactly.”

“Are you all right? Did you get hurt?” She scrutinized him like their digital connection could offer diagnostics—and maybe it did. Steve wouldn't have been surprised.

Tony sucked his bottom lip. “I’m fine, I promise,” he said. “Nothing I can’t shake off.”

“You know I hate it when you say that,” she said. "What you think you can shake off would incapacitate most people."

“Look.” Tony pushed away from the table, held out his arms, and did a slow turn. “See? All in one piece. Everything is where it’s supposed to be.”

"I suppose," Pepper said. She wasn't convinced. "But before you get out there, you really need to change and take a shower, Tony. Whatever else you've been through, it's obvious you've been tinkering."

Tony took note of the grease stains on his shirt and hands for the first time. He picked at his hair and found more there. Looking photo-op ready hadn't exactly been his top priority when he was trying to get Bucky's arm functional again.

"You've got some on the back of your shirt, too." 

"I'll take care of it," he promised. "It's all on the list. Just been kinda busy here."

Steve fought back a surge of irritation. A word from Pepper and Tony jumped to do the exact same things Steve had been begging him to do for hours? Pepper and Tony may have had a trusting connection long before Steve had woken up from the ice; but it wasn't like he'd suggested anything outrageous or absurdly personal. Why were the same words coming out of Pepper's mouth somehow more palatable? 

“Just promise me this won’t involve the company," Pepper said. "I’m serious, Tony.”

“Scout’s honor," Tony swore.  

“You weren't a Boy Scout,” Pepper pointed out. Tony made to defend himself, but she shook her head. “I’m going to trust you, Tony; but I’m also going to be watching.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said, visibly relieved. “And... still on for Monday coffee?” He traced a line on the table. 

Pepper softened. “Yes, of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss it. Besides, if you think you're getting out of seeing me after waking me up this early on a Sunday, you're dead wrong.”

Tony did his best to look innocent. "My watch is broken?" 

"Nice try." Pepper smiled.

They signed off and Tony sagged back into his chair. He spun around slowly and dragged his hands down his face, swearing softly.

Steve lived day to day with longing and loneliness gripping at his heart, he could spot the symptoms a mile away. Tony had it just as bad as he did. Pepper had invited the Avengers to the gala because she was worried about how isolated Tony had been; but isolation was just the tip of the iceberg. Tony hadn't come to terms with Pepper moving on. Not at all. He still had feelings for her. 

 

+

 

A team of lawyers and assistants descended on the tower before the press conference and they herded Bucky out of his cell. When they brought him back, his face had been scrubbed, his scruff had been tidied, and his hair had been combed. He was wearing a clean shirt and jeans and he smelled of mint toothpaste and cologne. They tugged his sleeves up high enough to show the soul mark on the inside of his right arm, and a stylist was fussing over him, trying to cover his scowl lines with makeup. While the beauticians worked, lawyers rattled off instructions on what to say and how to handle the cameras. They maintained the utmost professionalism, like they were tending to an errant school boy instead of the infamous assassin known as the Winter Soldier. 

Steve marveled at the controlled chaos. “Is all this really necessary?” he asked as a young woman struggled to apply chapstick to Bucky's frown.

Another assistant holding a clipboard dashed around Steve and brought Tony a steaming cup of coffee. He gave them the five minute warning and dashed away.

Tony sipped his drink reverently and pulled Steve aside. As if to spite him, Tony'd had the nerve to follow through on his promise to Pepper. He'd grabbed a quick shower and changed his clothes. Now he was wearing what Steve called his “expensive casual” wearjeans, shirt, and blazer, effortlessly combined, and all of it costing a sum that would probably make Steve blush. 

“I know it's hard on him, Cap,” Tony said. “That much is obvious from the murder face he's got going on right now. And that's the problem. Our boy looks every inch the serial killer the media has already made him out to be. If we have a shot at this, we need to change public perception right off the bat. The best way to do that is to clean him up and make him look as much like a regular guy as we can.” 

“And that's going to fix everything?” 

“Not everything," Tony said, "but it's a start." He winced and pressed a knuckle to his temple. “We're, ah, also working on creating sympathy. Telling the story no one’s heard. The man behind the assassin. Had to call in some favors, but I think you'll approve when you see it.” He paused and his eyelids fluttered.

Steve took a step closer. “Tony? Everything all right?”

Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose, eyes pinched shut. “Yep," he managed. "Just peachy.”

His grip on his drink slackened and Steve swooped in and took the cup from him. He braced Tony as he swayed on his feet.  Across the room, Bucky jerked to attention, only to be sharply admonished by the swarm of suits and stylists. 

Tony leaned into Steve's support and a distressed shadow flew into Steve’s thoughts, a hurried message from Bucky. Something had been wrong with Tony since the park. And, par for the course, the invincible Iron Man hadn’t bothered to say anything to the rest of the team. Typical.

Any idea what happened to him? Steve sent back quickly.

Confusion, a jumbled no. Steve got a flash, a sharp sensation. A needle, an injection. Then warmth like someone was pressed to his side. Tony hadn’t been able to keep his feet. Bucky had walked him home. That’s all he knew. 

Still, it didn't sound good. 

“Tony.” Steve shook the other man gently. "What's wrong?"

“Fine, Cap, I’m fine.” Tony steadied himself and, once he was sure of his equilibrium, he waved Steve off with a half-hearted laugh. “It’s just the night catching up with me." He pressed the heel of his hand to his eye.  "Caffeine doesn’t work its way through my system like it used to.” He grabbed his cup of coffee back and took a drink, as if that was all it took to prove he was running at one hundred percent capacity. 

“Tell me what happened,” Steve insisted. He kept his voice low, but there was no mistaking a command from Captain America. 

Tony huffed defiantly. "I said I'm fine." He was confident enough that Steve might have second guessed himself if Bucky hadn't already confirmed the problem.

"You're not." There was no sense dancing around the subject. "What happened in the car, Tony?"

Tony squared his shoulders, mouth drawing into a thin line. “Do you want to have a heart to heart, Captain, or do you want me to save tall, dark, and brooding over there? Because," he checked his watch, "look at that, it's time to go and you can’t have it both ways.” He brushed past, not bothering to wait for an answer, and signaled to the others.

Bucky shot Steve a disapproving glare, and Steve shook his head firmly in reply. Technically, Tony wasn’t part of the team anymore. Like it or not, he couldn’t order him to seek out medical attention. The guy wouldn't even listen when Steve asked him to get something to eat, for god's sake.

There was a blunt, resonating reply. Bucky was calling bullshit. 

“If you can do better, be my guest,” Steve muttered. 

The throng of handlers hurried Bucky out of the room before he had a chance to answer. They followed in Tony' s wake and Steve trailed behind. The team gathered for last minute preparations just inside the lobby and the clipboard assistant resurfaced to usher Steve outside. A platform had been set up just beyond the main entrance to the tower. The streets were blocked off to make room for milling reporters and their crews, and Stark Industries security was standing watch over the proceedings. The assistant led Steve behind a reserved privacy screen within full view of the stage. Sam and Rhodey were already there waiting.

A display behind the podium was cycling footage and audio from the Smithsonian exhibit, along with select war reels from the Howling Commando operations across Europe. The film had been hastily recut to feature Bucky front and center. The audio switched over to patriotic brass while the war reels played and the ghost of Steve's second in command looked out from the grainy projections. Steve knew it all by heart. Bucky fielded battlefield interviews and casually leaned against a Jeep while the team surveyed maps and plotted their next moves. And there was the rare, relaxed moment where the camera had caught Bucky laughing. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say Steve had spent hours watching that clip, even after he found out Bucky was still alive. Not for the first time, Steve wished he could grab his naive, blond-haired, meathead self out of the past, shake him hard, and tell him to pay better attention. Forget the thrill and gloss of being a hero and remember the loyal friend beside him. "Whatever happens, don't let him fall." That's what he'd say. "Don't let him fall."

Steve cleared his throat. "The rest of the team?"

"Vision and Wanda are avoiding the circus," Rhodey said. "But they're ready to be called in if needed."

Sam leaned in. "Hawkeye opted for a higher vantage in case anything goes south." He indicated Agent Hoffman, who stood a discreet distance away with her operatives. Steve exchanged curt nods with her. No doubt there were more agents positioned around the event where they would draw the least amount of attention. "Widow's somewhere on the ground. Hell if I know where."  

"I didn't give orders for an op," Steve said. "We're on shaky ground as it is." 

"Think of it as voluntary event security," Sam replied easily. "We just want to make sure everything goes off without a hitch." 

Steve assessed the two men. "You guys armed?" 

"The suit's on standby," Rhodey said. "Only as a last resort." 

"Sam?"

Sam deliberately flexed and folded his arms across his chest. "Yeah, I got some guns on me." He grinned.

Steve wasn't particularly amused.

Sam sighed. "Relax, man. We've got this. The chances SHIELD will pull anything with this many reporters around is slim to nil. We just want our bases covered."

Rhodey shook his head. “Covered or not, I really don’t know how Tony’s going to pull this one off. This whole thing is insane.” 

"It's the best chance we've got," Steve said. "And if Tony can't make it work, I don't think anyone can." 

“The museum footage is a nice touch,” Sam agreed. "Wouldn't have thought of that myself. Hell, it might even be selling me a little." The screen flashed to a shot of Bucky cautiously leading the Commandos through a foggy winter forest. "You and him. What you got," he lowered his voice, mindful of the nearby cameras, "explains a lot. If Riley showed up out of the blue..." He left the rest unsaid, but Steve knew what he meant. 

"Thank you, Sam," Steve said. "And I'm sorry, again, for not telling you." 

“Let’s call it water under the bridge and leave it at that,” Sam said. “You got enough on your shoulders.”

And that was one of the reasons Steve trusted Sam implicitly. Sam didn't always agree with himhe sure as hell didn't like being left out of the loopbut he never failed to have Steve's back. 

The footage shut off and the display screen rolled up. Tony strode up to the podium with practiced ease, still clutching his coffee, and tapped the microphone for attention. 

“So, this is the first cup of coffee I’ve had since yesterday,” Tony said by way of introduction, “and it’s almost empty, so we’re gonna make this short and sweet.” The news crews rippled with laughter and Tony warmed, leaning his elbows on the podium. “Last night you might have heard about a little altercation downtown involving myself and the Avengers,” Tony said. “By now, those of you who are smart should have guessed I didn’t bring you here to talk about that.”

There was an incredulous murmur, but Tony plowed on. “Let’s not be shy. Here’s the elephant: most of you have been banking on my recent breakup with Ms. Potts. Celebrity heartbreak sells ad space. Everyone loves soulmates. So on and so forth. I get it. It isn’t personal.” The last word had just a tang of bitterness. “I've let you have your fun, and some of you have been having a lot of it. The secret Chitauri love children conspiracy is a favorite, by the way. Points for creativity, but I promise I've never been pregnant a day in my life."

Another round of indulgent laughter.

"Anyway, all of that's beside the point," Tony said. "Here's what you really want to hear. So far, I haven’t breathed a word against Ms. Potts.” He paused. The silence swelled and shutters beeped and clacked. “And I won’t." There was a collective mutter of disappointment and a few shouts baiting him to break his promise. "I don’t have anything to add to that conversation," he said. "Except for this.” 

Tony turned and beckoned for his dramatic reveal. The glass doors of the tower opened with a shimmer and Bucky was hustled outside. He'd gone pale and looked very much like he wanted to bolt. No amount of coaching or primping could have prepared him for the sea of glittering lenses focused in his direction. He'd been living in secrecy for the better part of seventy years, and this was the most exposed he'd been since the '40s. Why hadn't Steve thought of that? 

Steve schooled his reaction. It was already too late. Now wasn't the time to get overprotective. Bucky had been through worse, and Steve had to believe he could handle this as well as any covert mission. 

Bucky flinched away from the flashing lights as security escorted him up onto the stage. Tony reached for him and twined fingers with Bucky's metal hand, squeezing reassuringly. Bucky tucked his face down and focused on breathing. He kept himself halfway behind Tony, who warmed to the media scrutiny and absorbed it like a shield. The cameras would eat that up. Tony as Bucky's knight in shining red and gold armor. Fairytale-themed headlines would pop up within the hour.

Funny thing was, the heat Steve sensed itching in his mind meant Bucky wasn’t the wilting flower he seemed. He was much closer to grabbing the next camera that got in his face and mangling it; but that was undoubtedly on the list of things Tony’s lawyers had warned him not to do. Weirdly, Steve was encouraged. Bucky was uncomfortable, but he wasn't defeated. He was handling it. 

“You might recognize this gentleman from our little slide show earlier,” Tony said. “James Buchanan Barnes? You know him better by a different alias, but that's number two on the list of things I’m not here to talk about today.” Tony glanced at Bucky. "Should we do this like a bandaid?"

A flutter of nerves and uncertainty welled up. Bucky reached out for Steve invisibly, and Steve's breath caught. 

S'okay. I'm here. He did his best to project steady assurance, support. I'm not going anywhere. 

Relief washed back, tinged with an apology.

Bucky bit the bullet. He hiked up his sleeve and turned his wrist out for everyone to see. 

“I can’t show you mine without getting into trouble with the censors," Tony commented obliquely, "but suffice it to say I have one to match.” 

There was a beat while the crowd digested the information. Understanding dawned and clamor took over.

“There it is,” Tony said. A grin crinkled around his eyes. “You got it.”

Questions crashed like waves, one on top of the other.

"Mr. Stark, when did your mark first appear?"

"How much time did you have to make the rendezvous?"

"Where exactly did the meeting take place? Can you give us the details?"

"Did the attack at the gala interfere with your rendezvous?"

"How surprised were you to find out the Winter Soldier was your soulmate?" 

“Will you and Mr. Barnes be getting married?"

"Will Pepper and Happy be invited to the wedding?”

"Do you think having a soulmate absolves Mr. Barnes of his crimes?"

“Mr. Stark, Mr. Barnes!" a gossip rag reporter bellowed above the rest. "Can we have a kiss?” 

Steve grimaced. 

Of course they wanted a kiss. From a pair of genuine soulmates that was like asking for a handshake. Most bonded pairs were thoroughly unashamed to be affectionate in front of other people. Steve and Bucky had been an exception in a lot of ways—they’d had to work hard to hide their connection for a long time, and in hindsight Steve was pretty sure they’d failed spectacularly on several fronts—but given half the chance Steve would have hopped on board the cliche train and happily snogged his man in public. Hell, he’d cut off his own left arm to be the one up on that platform right now. He’d give the press what they asked for, and probably some they hadn’t, squeaky clean Captain America persona be damned. 

He’d gotten Bucky back after the helicarriers fell in DC, but he hadn’t exactly gotten Bucky back. Now, ironically, what it took to get close to his soulmate was throwing him into the arms of another man. 

The three of them still hadn’t gone over the ground rules, but a kiss was well within what Tony had told them to expect. Steve just had to keep reminding himself why they were doing this. Grin and bear it. Or, in his case, grit teeth and bear it. 

To his surprise, though, Tony played coy. “Listen, I know this is new and exciting for you kids,” Tony leaned into the microphone, “but our circumstances are a little different than your typical soul bonding. James has been through a lot and I didn’t bring him out here to put him on the spot.” 

Steve wondered if Tony had intuited his discomfort. Or maybe Steve was flat out glaring, he couldn’t really tell. 

There were disappointed protests and Tony shrugged an apology. “You can hardly blame me for wanting to keep him to myself.” He tilted his head toward Bucky as if to say, Have you seen him, by the way? “My lawyers will take it from here. They’re rockstars.” He winked and blew kisses to the nearest camera, and motioned to Bucky to make their way back inside. 

There was an uneasy shift in the group of uniforms near Agent Hoffman. She had her head bent, conferring with her team in hushed tones. Tony’s refusal to show off had raised a red flag. The fact that SHIELD hadn’t confirmed Tony's soul mark was another strike against them. These were the same people who were willing to put a bullet in Bucky’s brain less than twenty-four hours ago. A worldwide spotlight was on them now, but that didn’t mean SHIELD wasn’t still looking for an opportunity to eliminate the Winter Soldier. Tony and Bucky had to make this look as real as possible. They couldn’t afford to raise questions. There were too many already.

Common sense tipped jealousy straight out of Steve’s head.  

Kiss him. Steve threw the thought at his soulmate for all he was worth, willing him to understand. 

Bucky stopped in his tracks. He was about to follow Tony down the steps and he pulled the other man to a halt. He half turned to search the mass of reporters, eyes unfocused and brow furrowed. He didn’t look for Steve specifically, that would have been a dead giveaway, but Steve urged him on in response to the wordless question eddying up into his mind. 

Go on. Do it. It’s all right. We need to sell this. If there was any sentiment Bucky would recognize instantly, it was Steve goading him on.

The corner of Bucky’s mouth twitched. He ducked his head and tugged a puzzled Tony back onto the stage. Tony asked him something, concerned, and Bucky shook his head. He took a few steps backwards, leading Tony by the fingertips, like they were getting ready to dance. For a split second, it was as if they were back in one of Bucky’s favorite dive bars before the war and Bucky was about to romance the prettiest dame on the block. Steve could see it clear as day, and the reporters must have caught its echo because an anticipated hush fell over the crowd. 

Bucky reeled Tony in and slipped a hand onto the curve of his lower back, drawing their bodies flush together. Dumbstruck, Tony’s lips parted the barest fraction and Bucky took the opening to press their mouths together, slow and sweet. His metal hand came up to caress Tony’s jaw and hungrily pull him closer.

Steve looked away and waited for the bond to shut, expecting Bucky would want some internal privacy for his stolen kiss. With girls, Bucky had always closed him out. This time, Steve caught threads of determination and desperation winding together through Bucky’s thoughts. Steve’s attention snapped back to the stage. 

What—?

Bucky wasn't going to close the bond. Instead, he strained to open every last sensation and it hit Steve like a riptide. It was all he could do to keep his legs underneath him. 

Pain wasn't the only thing Steve could pick up through their connection. He'd forgotten that, mostly because pain had been the only thing to define the two of them for a long, long time. Bucky focused and Steve felt a frantic shifting through fractured memories, Bucky searching for a time when a kiss had belonged to just the two of them. 

Steve's heart lurched. The barracks after Azzano, he sent back. After the doctors had released the sergeant, he'd ambushed Steve in his quarters, trying to figure out what the hell this tall, musclebound punk had done with his skinny, asthmatic soulmate. Bucky had straddled Steve on the bed and held him down with one hand pressed to his chest. It wasn't nearly enough to keep Steve there if he hadn't wanted to be there; but, oh, Steve had wanted to be there. Bucky had claimed a kiss then just as naturally as he was doing now. Heated, demanding, confident. 

The bond faded out for a moment, followed by a pang of sadness, hurt. Bucky didn't remember.

But he didn't retreat, either. He redoubled his efforts and drew Steve into the present moment, the rasp of stubble along Tony's jaw, the weight of him supported by Bucky's strength. Tony leaned into the embrace and Steve felt that, too—Tony's hands resting briefly, tentatively on Bucky's hips and then sliding up Bucky's back, growing bolder. Bucky's fingers curled along Tony's lower back, encouraging, skimming just under the waistband of his jeans.

Steve's pulse was hammering for an entirely different reason now. 

Bucky knew. This wasn't a tease or a taunt. Bucky'd caught on to Steve's slip up at the gala, the blush of attraction Steve had for Tony Stark. Steve hadn't been sure until now, and he wanted to deny it; but there was no trace of anger or judgement in his soulmate's thoughts. Just wistfulness, regret. Bucky was broken, and he might never be fixed. If Steve needed someone else, it was okay. Bucky wanted him to want Tony. Here he was.

Steve could taste coffee and the sharp mint of toothpaste. Both of them. Together. He covered his mouth, lashes fluttering as he tried not to make a sound. 

Sam, misreading him, squeezed his shoulder in sympathy. “Keep it together, man.”  

Steve nodded, breathing in sharply through his nose.  

Bucky was nothing if not thorough, and he left Tony flushed and breathless. When he pulled away, Bucky cupped Tony’s face in both hands and dragged a thumb across his cheek. He murmured something in Tony’s ear, then pressed one more chaste kiss just below his eye. For once Tony was entirely stuck for words. If anything, that was the iconic image the media would latch onto for the days and weeks to come: Tony Stark, so drunk on a kiss that the celebrities’ celebrity was visibly starstruck. 

Steve couldn’t blame him. His own head was swimming and there was a visceral energy humming through his body. He didn’t entirely understand what had just happened. He needed to talk to his soulmate—which wasn't likely to happen any time soon—or he really needed a run. Or a cold shower. Or all of the above. 

Bucky waved to the reporters before leading a boneless and compliant Tony Stark back into the tower. 

  

+

 

“You need to put a warning on that man,” Tony said as he unbuckled his belt and kicked off his jeans. 

“I wasn’t exactly prepared for it, either,” Steve mumbled as he pulled the mechanical arm down from the lab ceiling and shifted it along its track. 

DUM-E and U prodded at the jeans on the floor and Tony snapped his fingers at them. "Hey, leave those alone. Work in progress here, fellas. Give us some space." The bots whirred and rolled away, DUM-E heading for the kitchenette. "No smoothies!" Tony called, and the dejected bot trundled over to a corner to sulk.

Bucky had been delivered back to his cell, and Sam and Rhodey were keeping watch over him. The lawyers were negotiating terms with SHIELD, and Tony had supplied them with a laundry list of demands. They had a small window before the agents caught on to their absence—longer, if the rest of the superhero team kept running interference—and by then they'd have Tony's soul mark in place.  

"You seem a little fidgety, Captain. Everything all right?"

"I'm fine," Steve said. 

Tony slipped out of his blazer and hooked his thumbs into his boxer briefs, preparing to shed them along with the rest.

Steve grabbed his wrist. "Wait. What are you doing?" 

“Uh." Tony blinked owlishly. "They think it’s somewhere scandalous, so it has to go somewhere scandalous, right?" Tony shrugged as if to say, I don't make the rules

"But where—?"

"Well, I'm not tattooing my balls, if that's what you're worried about," Tony said, exasperated. "I thought I'd go for the inner thigh. Close enough to the naughty bits, but far enough away to spare what's left of my meager dignity." There weren't many other options they'd be able to get away with.

"All right, just—" Steve scanned the lab and picked out a clean towel from a nearby rack. "Here, cover up with this." 

"Are you serious right now?" Tony accepted the towel dubiously. "Is this you trying to be a gentleman or are you really that shy? Because I honestly can't tell."

Steve had been in the army, he'd seen his fair share of locker rooms. Shy wasn't his problem at all, although Tony never seemed to get past that misconception. No, it had something more to do with the sensations still ricocheting around Steve's brain, echoes of a kiss and his soulmate's blessing for Steve to move on. With Tony, if that's what Steve wanted. Frankly, he was a wreck of emotions and his stomach was in knots. Faced with conflict as a kid, the same thing used to happen and that was one of the few things the serum hadn't altered. The only relief for the sour feeling in his gut was throwing himself in or fighting his way out. Neither of those was an option at the moment.  "Just humor me, Stark." 

The other man complied with a shrug. "Your wish is my command." He wrapped the towel around his waist and stripped off the underwear underneath, leaving him in his shirt and socks.

Steve replaced the needle and ink in the machine while Tony prepped and situated himself on the coffee table. Tony modestly draped the towel over his lap and tucked it away from his thigh. "That work for your delicate sensibilities?" Tony arched an eyebrow.

"It's fine," Steve acknowledged without looking.

"Unlike your friend," Tony added, pulling up a holo-screen, "I'm going to need some help holding still for this. You up for that, Cap, or do I need to figure out restraints?"

Their time was too limited for Steve to dance around Tony indefinitely. "No, I've got it," Steve relented. 

"Glad to hear it," Tony deadpanned. He lay back on the table and Steve positioned the machine at its starting point. Steve washed his hands, put on gloves, and took a seat beside the table, one hand on Tony's left shoulder and the other bracing his left knee. 

"That work?" Steve asked.

"Well, it's not exactly how I imagined you'd get your hands on me for the first time," Tony said, "but I can work with it." 

Steve worried at his bottom lip with a frown. He nodded curtly.

Tony puzzled at him and then resigned himself with a sigh. "All right. Now or never." He tapped a command on the holo-screen and the machine set to work.

He strained instinctively against the first movements of the needle, but Steve held him firm. Tony bit his lower lip and then breathed out in a rush. "Holy shit, what was I thinking?" Tony blinked back tears. "Barnes didn't even flinch for this!"

"There's a reason for that." 

"If you're about to make a joke about my age, just don't," Tony griped.

"You know Bucky and I are both older than you, right?"

"Only technically." The needle hit a particularly sensitive spot and Tony swore darkly. He tensed again and Steve held him down. 

"Relax, Tony," Steve coaxed. "We don't get a do-over on this."

"What the hell, Rogers?" Tony gasped. "Why would you even suggest something like that right now?" 

Steve counted to ten, reining in his desire to argue. "You can do this. Just breathe."

Tony giggled.

"What?" Steve asked sharply.

"Think about it," Tony replied, breathless. "What this looks like? I bet the alien baby tabloids would pay a pretty penny to see this." 

"You've got to be kidding me."

"Should we sell the movie rights?"

Steve had no idea where to begin addressing that particular conversational rabbit, so he changed topics entirely. "Can your lawyers hold SHIELD off until this heals?”

“Yep. Part of the bargaining process," Tony said, wincing. "I might be able to whip up something to speed the healing. Shorten it to days instead of weeks. Shit.” He squeezed his eyes shut. 

"Hang on," Steve said. "You're almost done." 

"Seriously, whose dumb idea was this?" Tony gritted out, tears slipping down. "Oh, right." He laughed desperately. "I guess that would be me." 

The machine finished and Steve pushed it away. He slipped an arm under Tony's shoulders, helping him sit up stiffly.

Tony reeled, catching himself on the edge of the table. "Okay, ow."

"Take it easy," Steve cautioned. "Just stay still for a second. Where's that stuff you used on Bucky?" Tony gestured and Steve went to gather supplies.

The two bots were fussing over Tony when Steve came back with a bowl of water and an armful of salve, tape, and coverings. DUM-E was carrying Tony's jeans, trying to convince him to take them, and U was nudging his shoulder over and over. 

"It'll be easier if you let me do it," Steve suggested, chasing the bots away. Tony wasn't stellar at self care even under the best of circumstances. And right now he was having trouble staying upright. How much of that was the tattoo and how much of it was the injection his kidnappers had given him, Steve didn't know—and tried not to worry about just yet. Either way, left to patch the tattoo by himself, Tony'd probably wind up losing his leg.

Tony didn't protest. He didn't even have the wherewithal to tease when Steve settled between his knees and went to work cleaning the mark. For his part, Steve politely narrowed his focus. He patted the irritated skin dry and gave Tony a moment to rest before applying the salve and coverings. 

"Anyone ever tell you you're kinda good at that?" Tony mused. 

"My mom was a nurse," Steve said, smoothing the tape into place. "It's been a while since I've had to do any first aid. Not sure if it's exactly right, but it's better than nothing." He shrugged. "How does it feel?"

"Like I had a really bad date with a vampire," Tony said, smiling weakly. "Or a really good one. Not sure. I'm gonna need a few minutes before the pants go back on." 

Steve helped Tony limp over to the sofa, where he collapsed and curled into a blanket like a burrito. Steve busied himself with clean up and dismantled the needle and ink attached to the mechanical arm. Tony called up various stations on the lab monitors and their press conference was dominating the feed. Every conceivable angle of the infamous soulmate kiss was plastered across the screens, commentators offering analysis and playing back the scene in slow motion. Strangely, it didn't bother Steve to see it like this. It was like watching actors at the climax of a syrupy rom-com. It didn't look real. The physicality and emotion had been far more overwhelming first hand, inside his own head. 

"Hey. I'm, uh, I'm sorry about all that," Tony offered meekly, his voice half-muffled by the blanket. "We should have gone over it before the press conference. Someone was bound to ask for a kiss and we didn't have a game plan. I wasn't going to follow through, but Barnes kinda took lead and—"

"I'm not mad at you, Tony," Steve interrupted. There were precisely zero ways for Steve to explain that the kiss was actually his idea. The best he could do was downplay it. "This is what we agreed to, and if it'll keep SHIELD off the scent, it's fine." 

"Okay." Tony was doubtful. "I just thought, well, you seemed a little upset."

"I'm not."

Tony made a disbelieving sound. "You said you wanted ground rules."

"I do," Steve said, "but I want Bucky to be there to talk about it with us." 

"Fair enough," Tony said. "How long has it been since you and Barnes—?" he cut himself off. "Never mind," he backpedaled. "Uh, don't answer that. It's none of my business." 

Steve frowned—damn right it wasn't any of Tony's business—but he let it go without comment. He shoved the mechanical arm along its track and pushed it back to the ceiling. "What did he say to you?"

“What did who say when?” Tony asked.

Steve searched the screens and found a clip zoomed in on Bucky planting a loving kiss on Tony's cheek. “Just before that. Bucky said something to you.” 

“Oh." The back of Tony's neck reddened and he fidgeted with his blanket. “He, um, he said, 'Stop being a stubborn asshole and take care of yourself'? Or something like that. Very romantic.” 

So that was it. Bucky had risen to Steve's challenge to get Tony to see reason; but Steve had a sinking feeling it was more complicated than that. Bucky needed Tony to get better so Tony could be there for Steve. Because Bucky thought he wasn't good enough for his soulmate anymore. The knot in Steve's stomach ached. "Are you gonna listen to him?"

"I was thinking about running a few tests after we were done here," Tony admitted, uncharacteristically shy. "I mean, I was going to anyway. I think I can get it sorted out." 

Was that really all it took? A kiss from Bucky? A smile from Pepper? Would Tony pay out for the least sign of affection? The thought rankled. Although, if Steve considered all the things he'd do in return for a kiss from Bucky Barnes, maybe it wasn't so crazy after all.

"Excuse me, sir," Friday chimed in overhead, "Ms. Potts is approaching the private elevator for the lab." 

Tony swore and bolted upright on the couch, which he instantly regretted. He gaped and squeezed his eyes shut, sinking back to the cushions. "Steve?" he squeaked.

"I'm on it." 

Tony's jeans were still hooked on DUM-E's claw, but at some point the bot had calculated Steve as a credible threat to his creator's denim. Steve approached and DUM-E took off across the lab like his electronics depended on it.

"Are you kidding me right now?" Tony hollered as he unwrapped himself from his blanket and re-secured his towel. "DUM-E, give him my pants! Friday, next time a little more warning?" 

"She only just walked in the door, sir," Friday defended herself cooly. "I recall you're the one who gave her unrestricted access." 

Steve backed the bot into a corner, wrestled the jeans from DUM-E, and threw them across the lab to Tony. Tony turned his back and gingerly slipped into them, throwing his towel over his discarded boxer briefs just as the private elevator doors opened and Pepper stepped out. 

“I can’t believe you were going to make me wait until Monday morning after dropping a bomb like that," she said, heading straight for Tony. 

Steve was at a loss. Pepper didn't seem to see him and she'd launched into a conversation he wasn't keen to interrupt.

“The last twenty-four hours have been kind of a blur,” Tony said, falling into their usual repartee without batting an eye. “You know me. I haven’t slept and these guys have forgotten how to bring me the right kind of coffee. Did you know it comes in decaf? Why would they do that? I’m running on empty here.”

Pepper pulled him into a fierce hug and buried her face in his shoulder. Tony stood stiff and stunned before remembering he could respond. With a jolt, he wrapped his arms around her and tucked his cheek in next to hers, eyes wide.

“I can’t believe you found each other,” she whispered. "You have a soulmate." 

“Uh, yeah,” Tony replied, dazed. “Yep. Sure looks that way, doesn’t it?”

“Tony, I can’t tell you how relieved and happy I am,” Pepper said. “After everything that’s happened, I’ve been raking myself over the coals for letting myself get swept up. I’ve been feeling so guilty. And now it’s like everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

“Oh, yeah, hey. Definitely.” Tony crooked a finger under her chin and gave her one of his patented, camera-winning smiles. “It's all right. Cross my heart.”

“Well, I can believe that now.” She quickly dabbed at the corner of her eyelashes. “You’ve always had a way of putting me through the wringer, Tony Stark. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Tony teased gently. “I keep telling you I’m Iron Man. Very resilient.”

“I don’t know about that.” She tapped his chest where the arc reactor used to be. “But at least you know what the soul bond feels like now. You don't know how much I've been wishing I could just talk to you about it.” 

“It’s okay, Pep. Really,” he insisted, brow creased. 

She pulled back slightly and soothed his worried forehead with her fingertips. “I hate that I hurt you, Tony,” she said. “Even for a little while. I hate that my happiness came at the expense of yours. Please tell me this helps. Tell me you can understand how it feels. You understand why I couldn’t just walk away from it, don’t you?” She ran her palms down Tony’s shoulders and then took both his hands in hers and squeezed. She pressed her lips together in a hopeful smile.

Tony’s mouth worked. “Absolutely. One hundred percent. Yes.”

Steve didn’t know if he had the stomach for much more. Tony was a pro at posing for the media blitz, but Pepper was an entirely different story. She'd break him.

“I mean, it’s complicated because of who he is,” Pepper said, “but we’ll figure that part out. No one’s going to take James from you if I have anything to say about it.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Look, I know you're busy and I won't take any more of your time. Still want to do coffee tomorrow? I'll understand if you need to cancel. You’ve got a lot on your plate and I’d like it if you got some actual sleep between now and then.” 

Tony looked like a deer caught in headlights. Like he wanted to say yes to their usual outing, but knew yet another heartbreak was lurking around the corner. If the preceding conversation was any indication, Pepper would want to open up to him about the bonding and what it felt like and how wonderful it was to share that kind of intimacy and connection with another person. 

It probably wasn’t any of Steve’s business, but he couldn’t stand by and let Tony blunder headfirst into that trap. “Might be best to postpone it for now, Tony,” Steve cautioned.  

Pepper’s hand jumped to her mouth. “Captain Rogers,” she turned to him, mortified. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize you were there." She put her hands to her cheeks. "I can't believe I just said all that in front of you." She glared at Tony and hissed, "Why didn't you say something?"

"It's my fault," Steve stepped in. “Tony was taking a breather from the lawyers. I just came back to get him." Did that sound plausible? Was it relevant? Should he say more? He had no idea. Like Natasha was fond of telling him, he was a terrible liar. "We’ve got a lot to set up and Bucky’s going to need the extra support for a while. We really need Tony here.”

“Honestly?” Pepper said. “Nothing would make me happier. As far as I'm concerned, you should just tuck them in bed and let them sleep for a week. That's all I wanted to do after my rendezvous.” She tweaked Tony’s cheek. “Though somehow I doubt sleep is all Tony will have in mind.” 

“Ah, you’re a few steps ahead of me there,” Tony said quickly. “Right now I’m just trying to keep James in one piece.”

“Oh, I know. But he is handsome in a rugged kind of way,” Pepper approved. “I can’t imagine you keeping your hands to yourself for very long.”

“You’re killing me here, Pep." Tony tried to keep his response light, but the strain was seeping through.

“Okay, I’m done. I promise,” she said, thankfully misreading his discomfort. “I just want you to know how happy I am for you, Tony. Really. Take as much time as you need, okay? Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” She gave him another tight hug and excused herself with a polite goodbye.

The elevator doors had barely skimmed shut and Tony's facade crumbled. He started pulling up screens. "Friday, blackout mode. I don't want anymore unexpected guests." 

"Sir, I would caution you: blackout protocols may be interpreted as suspicious or hostile given the current situation."

"Did I ask for an editorial?" Tony snapped. 

“Tony.” Steve came up beside him. "You need to get some rest. You need time to heal."

“There are a lot of things I thought I needed, Steve, and—surprise—so far I've managed without them," Tony said. "Can you just—?” He motioned to the door. “I’d like to be alone now, if you don’t mind.” 

"What about Bucky?"

"What about him?"

"If you go into blackout mode, you're going to be in here for days," Steve said. "Don't even try to pretend that's not true. They're not going to believe a newly bonded pair could be away from each other that long." 

Tony ran his hands through his hair. He held in a breath and let it out in a rush. "Do you think I have a solution for everything? A magic ball swimming with answers?" Tony growled. "Well, I don't!" He picked up a nearby wrench and flung it across the lab. It clattered harmlessly to the floor and U prodded at it. Tony wilted. "What exactly do you expect me to do, Steve?" he said helplessly. 

There was only one thing Steve could think of, the one thing he would have wanted if he'd been allowed to ask for it. "How well can you walk? Come with me."

 

+

 

Surprisingly, it didn't take much convincing to get SHIELD to let Tony inside Bucky's cell. Tony's lawyers had already worn down the agency's best arguments and crews were being organized to prep the upper floors for the new soulmates. Tony stumbled inside the glass enclosure, all his fight deflating the moment they'd left the lab. Without hesitation, Bucky pulled him down onto the cot beside him and wrapped him in secure arms. Tony took a few shuddering breaths and calmed into the embrace.

Steve touched the glass and Bucky looked out at him with unreadable blue-grey eyes. 

Just let him rest for a bit? Steve sent the tentative request. He's tired and he did a lot for us today.

Bucky closed his eyes and his reply was a soft affirmative. 

And I still love you, you jerk. 

The side of Bucky's mouth quirked. A wisp of a memory came up through the bond. Two teenage boys curled on a ratty sofa, one wheezing with a cold and the other wrapped around him like a cat, offering strength and wellness by sheer force of will. It was hazy, but it was something Bucky remembered. And that was love, too. 

 

 

Chapter Text

At some point during the night someone had dimmed the primary lights. The only illumination in the glass cell came from pin light LEDs fixed like stars in tidy rows along tracks in the ceiling. It was barely enough to give Tony a hint at where he was, because, yeah, after the lab things got kinda blurry and he was still trying to blink away the fog of sleep.

Someone was holding him, chest to chest.

He let his eyes adjust—step one, prior to panicking—and shapes emerged out of the darkness. The soft lights outlined long hair tucked behind the shell of an ear, a sharp cheekbone, and a stubbled jaw. Barnes. Right, of course it was Barnes. Tony exhaled softly. He remembered now. Those hands had pulled him down and slid around him the instant he’d entered the cell, like Barnes didn’t even have to think twice about offering support and affection. Of course it was all part of the soulmate act, but right about then Tony hadn’t cared if it was fake. The promise of someone, anyone, who’d hold on to him—even if it was just for five minutes, and even if it was a lie—was more than Tony had the strength to refuse. He’d fallen into Barnes willingly, collapsing beneath the pressure of the preceding days and weeks and months. He was tired.

Just for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, he’d told himself. He’d let himself pretend, just for a little bit, that he was loved. 

He’d promptly fallen asleep. 

So maybe Cap had been right about that whole ‘needing rest’ concept. Whatever. At the moment, all Tony knew was that being next to Barnes wasn’t a half-bad way to wake up. In fact, from where he was lying, it was pretty damn good. 

Tony was close enough to see the steady ticking of Barnes’ heartbeat just above the hollow of his collar bone. He had one leg hooked over the back of Tony’s knees, securing him on the narrow padding of the cot. Barnes’ head was pillowed on his right arm, and his left was curled around Tony’s shoulders, the weight of the mechanics pinning them together. (Tony had a thing for metal, so that was okay by him.) The air in the cell was cool, but warmth rolled off Barnes in waves, better than any blanket. It was like waking up on a snowy morning cocooned in a nest of covers. Weird how that sort of thing could make a guy feel almost invincible. 

Well, mostly invincible. Tony’d been too exhausted, too heartsick, to care about much of anything when Steve had herded him in here. Now a list of complaints were filtering into his awareness, one by one. His stomach was grumbling. And his throat was dry. He really wanted to brush his teeth. And was there a bathroom in this cell? Because he needed a bathroom. Also his inner thigh was throbbing in time with his pulse. That normally meant he was about to have a really good time, but in this instance it meant his jeans were chafing his new tattoo. Which, fun? Not so much.

He shifted slightly to ease the pressure on his leg, trying his best not to disturb Barnes. 

When it came right down to it, Tony wasn’t comfortable; but he wasn’t sure he wanted comfort more than he wanted to stay exactly where he was. He hadn’t woken up with someone since Pepper had gone home with her very own soulmate, and Tony didn’t know the next time he’d get to enjoy this kind of closeness. 

Here was the thing. Tony was a notoriously tactile being and everybody knew it. He had a reputation for getting naked and enjoying himself. He liked people and he understood them better after he got them skin to skin. Touch was scientific, measurable. It meant something. Plus it was fun. Nothing wrong with it. Some people liked to demonize him for it; but the truth was, more than sex, it was the proximity he missed. Human contact grounded him and steadied him when his nerves were otherwise busy trying to tie his mind in knots. (One of the downsides of being a genius? It was really hard to shut the calculations off.) 

Pepper had known exactly how to soothe Tony's racing thoughts by carding her fingers through his hair and pulling him close so he could hear her heartbeat. That was it. That was all she had to do and Tony could breathe again. Sometimes it was nothing more than a chance to reboot before he threw himself back at a problem, but it was enough. She’d always been more than enough for him.

Tony tried not to dwell on their exchange in the lab. He had his very own soul mark now—just like he'd always wanted—but damn if it didn’t hurt like a goddamned son of a bitch. In more ways than one. Pepper thought he was happy. From here on out, every time he saw her he’d have to pretend he was right there with her, skimming the jet streams higher than cloud nine. If his meltdown in the lab was any indication, he wasn’t going to be able to sell it, not with her. But the alternative? Cutting her out of his life? Fuck. He couldn’t do that, either. 

A small exhale teased Tony’s hair and sent goosebumps down the back of his neck. And that right there was an excellent distraction. Just what Tony needed. He packed away thoughts of lost love and refocused on the column of Barnes’ throat. He followed the line up to Barnes' parted lips and the faint quirk that lingered on his mouth even while he slept. 

God, that mouth. It really wasn't fair. 

Tony ran the edge of his thumb along his own lower lip. Barnes kissed with his whole body—tracing, tasting, memorizing—like he was making a detailed map, learning his partner’s every physical cue. Tony couldn’t even begin to guess where a nonagenarian had learned to kiss like that; but it hit all of his buttons. Honestly, Tony was pretty sure he’d shorted out a few neurons in the process. 

Here was the problem, though: the kiss wasn’t real. Objectively, Tony knew that. Barnes had been playing a part to save his life, and it just so happened he turned out to be a really damn good actor. Tony couldn’t let himself get swept up in it, no matter how toe-curling the experience had been.

Tony hadn’t been with another man for at least a decade. Maybe two. Which, wow, yeah, that made him feel old. Not to mention all kinds of nostalgic for the days when he was a lot more bendy. He’d forgotten how nice it could be. 

If all of this hadn’t been an elaborate game, and if Barnes had been a willing participant? Providing Steve wouldn’t murder him—maybe even if Steve wanted to join in?—Tony would have rucked up Barnes’ shirt and traced slow circles over his skin with his thumbs, waking him by drawing slow kisses up his throat. Tony’d murmur encouragement and pay back that press conference kiss with dedicated interest. You know, just as his way of saying thank you.

With a pang, Tony wished he knew whether or not that was something Barnes would actually like. Would it be entirely inappropriate to ask? Would it be suicide to bring it up when the three of them talked ground rules? If they were trapped in this mess together, at the very least they should try to help each other enjoy it, right? For his part, Tony wouldn’t protest if a super soldier or two wanted to roll him over in the sheets and—

“Go back to sleep.” Barnes’ voice was low and scratchy. 

And, yep, Tony’s heart was in his throat now. Barnes was awake. Because he was a sneaky assassin type and sneaky assassin types never let anyone get away with anything. Even if the only thing Tony was doing was silently indulging in a perfectly harmless fantasy.

“I was just—”

“Sleep,” Barnes insisted. His arm tightened around Tony with a whirring of mechanics. And was it so wrong that Tony’s pulse jumped again in response? It was hot, all right? It was definitely hot. But, pressed flush to Barnes as he was, he was already dangerously close to getting himself in trouble. 

So sleep it was.

Tony tucked his head into the hollow of Barnes’ shoulder and closed his eyes, breathing in the remnants of cologne and savoring the steady rhythm of Barnes' heartbeat. Tony might as well indulge as much as he could before the inevitable reality check showed up to ruin his morning.

 

 

Reality checks were the worst kind alarm clock, by the way. Clint’s face hovering in front of his nose was absolutely not the way Tony wanted to wake up. Ever. Especially after spending the night next to Barnes. Nothing against the bird man, but, yeah. Too close. Way too close. 

“Rise and shine, cupcake,” Clint sing-songed at him. 

“Cupcakes don’t shine.” Tony swatted groggily at him. “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be off having a secret family and not telling us about it?”

Clint sat back on his heels and grinned. “Still sore about that, huh?”

“Everybody's sore about that," Tony grumbled. "But I'm more sore about that ugly mug of yours.”

“Aw."  Clint framed his face with his hands and fluttered his eyelashes. "Admit it. You love my mug.”

Tony groaned and rolled away. His hand hit the other side of the cot, only to find it empty. He sat up halfway, instantly alert. “Barnes?”

“Relax. We’ve got him,” Clint said. “Lawyers needed him to go over some stuff. You weren’t waking up and Cap said to let you rest. They need you now. They got some nitty gritty bullshit to go over. A contract for you and Barnes to sign, then you and the kid will be free to make out to your heart’s content.”

Tony sat up fully, dragging a hand over his face. “Why does everyone keep jumping to that?” 

“Because we know you so well?”

“You realize he’s not actually my soulmate, right?” Although, yes, if it was allowed he would definitely hop on board that train. But he wasn’t going to admit that to Clint Barton, of all people. “Besides, if you knew me that well, you would have brought coffee.” 

“Nat banned me from the kitchen except for mealtimes,” Clint said. “Says I break stuff. And eat things that aren’t mine. But if you want to test her limits, just give the order. I got a back way in even she won’t guess. The coffee might get some bugs in it, but a little extra protein never hurt anyone. ’Cept maybe the bug.” 

Tony scrunched up his nose. “I’ll pass on the giant cup of regret, thank you.” He shook his head. “What's this about mealtimes? Isn’t the team headed back upstate once this is all settled?” 

“Nah,” Clint said, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “Rejoice! You’re stuck with us, Stark. Indefinitely. Cap wants the team here so he can keep training the newbies while Barnes gets settled. Guy won’t take a vacation for shit, even when he just got back the long lost love of his life. Can you believe that?”

“I’m starting to.” Tony filed away that tidbit of information as another incomprehensible data point in the Rogers-Barnes equation. The two danced around each other like lovesick teenagers who wanted to be together but were too terrified to take the leap. What was Tony going to have to do? Lock them in a closet together? They were soulmates, for god’s sake. It shouldn’t have to be that hard.

“The crews got the Avengers quarters set up and fully stocked. Your private floor’s all set, too,” Clint rattled on. “Gotta hand it to you. Pepper gets things done. I guess the media’s itching for some at-home shots of ‘brand new soulmates Stark and Barnes,’ but Pepper's threatened pain of death on anyone who doesn't let you guys get settled. She's pretty serious, too. She put a full media blackout on the tower for the next two weeks. They've got fences and security around the street level perimeter and she set the tower glass from top to bottom so it does, uh, that thing where you can see out, but no one can see in?” 

"Mirror shielding," Tony supplied absently. Was Pepper genuinely expecting him to spend a full two weeks in bed with Barnes? Was that how it worked? If so, Pep would want some early morning, sleep tousled selfies of the happy couple, too. He'd have to remember that. “What about public backlash?”

“Nothing huge.” Clint shrugged. “But I only know what they tell me.” 

Tony was tempted to pull up the newsfeed to see if the kiss was still being broadcast, but there’d be time for analytics later. Right now, he wanted SHIELD out of his hair and a chance to actually sit down and talk with his partners in crime. 

Tony stood up and his head swam. The glass walls of the cell undulated and vibrated in a decidedly unnatural fashion and he pitched forward, unable to find his center of gravity. 

“Whoa, hey there.” Clint held out a hand, ready to assist.

Tony caught himself on the second step and shook his head to clear it. Oh, right. The injection. That was still a thing.

“Head rush?” Clint asked. 

“Yeah.” Tony winced. “Something like that.” Not only was his head ringing, the jarring step had set his tattoo to throbbing again. “Tell you what. You head on up. Tell the others I’ll be there in a jiffy,” Tony said. “I need to make a pit stop.” 

 

+

 

Fifteen minutes, in and out of the lab. Tony could do this, easy peasy. He just had to go slow and take things one at a time. 

He stripped off his jeans to do minor clean-up on his tattoo. That meant taking off the coverings Steve had put in place for him, even though it seemed a shame to lose them so soon. Ever since the whole pulling-a-magnet-out-of-his-chest-and-giving-him-a-heart-attack incident, one of Pepper's hard limits had been playing nurse for Tony. She refused. So when Steve offered to bandage him up without batting an eye? That had been unexpected and sweet. 

Tony sighed. Well, it couldn't be helped. He discarded the bandages and dug up a concoction Banner had developed to speed healing. It had a numbing agent—bless that sweet, sexy brain of Bruce’s—which made it a hell of a lot easier for Tony to walk. It wasn’t an instant cure, but it helped ease the discomfort. 

Tony kept a spare set of clothes in a lab locker and he pulled on a new pair of underwear. His discarded set had disappeared and Tony was ninety-seven percent certain DUM-E had hidden them in a misguided attempt to protect them from Steve. (Chances were also good the underwear would reappear at an inopportune moment in the future. Hopefully not in someone’s smoothie.) The jeans weren’t going to cut it, so Tony changed into loose black sweatpants and hot-rod red socks. He layered his favorite short-sleeved AC/DC tee over a long-sleeved undershirt. And fuck it if anyone thought it wasn't professional. Today? This was the best they were getting. 

“Friday, where are our boys at?” Tony asked.

A holo-screen popped up beside him with a feed into one of the tower meeting halls. The Avengers were there, scattered strategically. Natasha was leaning against a small kitchenette counter and Clint was pretending to be asleep in a lounge area off to the side. Wanda and Vision were perched together on two of the lounge chairs, and Sam and Rhodey had taken up positions pacing the perimeter. Meanwhile, Barnes sat at the room's massive conference table surrounded by a team of lawyers and SHIELD representatives. Steve hovered just behind his shoulder, glaring down any agents who happened to stray too close. 

“Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are debating the final points of the agreement with SHIELD’s negotiation team,” Friday supplied. “They’ve reached a stalemate on the last issue and they’re awaiting your input.”

“Let me guess. Agent Hoffman causing some trouble?” Tony washed his hands and put on gloves. He swung into a rolling seat and propelled himself across the lab to gather up the materials for a blood sample. Actually, that was a bad idea and the momentum made his head spin. He slowed down. 

“The same.”

“What are we looking at?”

“SHIELD has agreed to the majority of your demands,” Friday said. “A floor to yourself for you and Sergeant Barnes, with access privileges for select members of the Avengers team. No outside cameras. No access to the floor’s current surveillance systems except in case of emergency. No guards on your floor, in your lab, or in the Avengers’ quarters or communal areas. Guards will be stationed outside elevators and stairwells below the housing level. SHIELD will be surveilling all entrances and exits to the tower, including helipads and launch sites for the Iron Man suit. Barnes will be allowed outside privileges after demonstrating he isn’t a threat to the general public—guidelines for which are outlined at length in the agreement.”

"No tracking devices?"

"None, boss."

“Sounds like a win.” Tony tied a rubber cord around his upper arm and flexed to find a vein. “So what’s the problem?”

“As part of their agreement to remand Barnes into your custody, SHIELD wants him to undergo psychological evaluation,” Friday said. 

“We knew they’d ask for that. We're willing to compromise.” He picked up the needle—he was really starting to get sick of needles—and took a deep breath as he pierced his skin to collect the sample. 

“They want to take him offsite,” she said. “Today.” 

Tony considered. “All right.” He removed the needle, capped the vial, and set it off to the side. He pressed a swab of cotton to his vein. “We can work with that.” He’d have to put on real pants again, damn it, but fine. “Where do they want to go? I can be ready in thirty.” 

“Sorry, but you’ve got it wrong, boss,” Friday said. “Agent Hoffman wants to take him in solo. She doesn’t want you or Captain Rogers coaching his responses.” 

Oh. No wonder Cap looked like he was ready to throw the nearest SHIELD agent out the window.

Tony gave a tired huff of a laugh. He would have been angry if Hoffman’s maneuvering wasn’t so downright transparent. SHIELD’s methods had always been a bit slippery and underhanded, but this was nothing short of desperate. After today, they’d have no legal recourse to lay a finger on Barnes. Getting him away from the tower for psych eval was a shoddy, last-ditch effort to regain the upper hand. The Winter Soldier had slipped through their fingers. 

Not that Barnes didn't need counseling. He did, and that was no joke; but if this was the best SHIELD had to offer, then Tony would arrange for a private consult. Strictly no government ties. He sure as hell wasn’t sending Barnes off alone into an obvious trap.

“Friday? Under no circumstances are you to let SHIELD out of this building with Barnes, not without dual consent from myself and Rogers,” Tony said. “They want him? They can’t have him. Sooner or later they’ll have to accept it.”

“Got it, boss.”

“And just for good measure, set up an alert for the team,” Tony added. “If Barnes ends up alone with any SHIELD personnel they station here, I want the whole team notified. I don’t want him within spitting distance of someone with a potential kill order.” 

“Yes, boss.” 

Tony pressed a bandaid over his bruised inner arm and delivered the blood sample to one of Bruce’s machines. He set the vial to be processed and peeled off his gloves. “When can we expect those results, Fri?”

“Starting analysis now,” Friday said. “Estimated four hours, give or take.” 

“Ping me when it’s ready.” Tony tugged his sleeve down and curled his hand over the inside of his elbow, stretching his arm. “And have a new phone sent up. The old one got kind of… tossed into traffic.”

"I'll have it sent directly to your quarters." 

Tony zoomed in on the security feed. Barnes had his arms folded over his chest as he leaned back in his chair, head bent and glowering at the table. Steve hadn’t budged from his side. Audio was muted, but the Capsicle was clearly engaged in a righteous argument (and damn if he wasn't handsome when he was angry). In the midst of the exchange, Steve's hand came up, hovering just over Barnes’ shoulder. He seemed to think better of it and turned the motion into an emphatic gesture. Barnes gave his soulmate the barest glance, like he knew Steve wanted to touch him, but was holding back.

Tony chewed on his bottom lip and shut off the feed with a flick of his wrist. “Friday, tell the team I’m on my way up.” 

She acknowledged.

This was it. No more stalling. Press conferences, publicity stunts, galas, and high class dates? All that he could handle. It was a stage and a show. He did his song and dance and it was over. No biggie. But he was about to sign his way into domestic bliss with someone who already had a soulmate. The relationship wasn't real, but they were going to be together all the time. Barnes and Rogers were on shaky ground as it was, and the domestic stuff was where Tony always fucked up. Adding himself to the equation, even if it was just pretend? It felt momentous and foolish and terrifying in a way posing for the cameras never did. One signature and they'd all be stuck together indefinitely.  

Tony was in way over his head.

Friday chimed in. “I've got a message from Agent Hoffman. She's conceded the psych eval,” she reported, “but she requests you come prepared to show your soul mark. She’s refusing to sign the final contract until your bond with Sergeant Barnes has been officially recognized.”

Tony’s heart clenched. “The lawyers were supposed to handle that.”

“This is the first time she's made the request.” 

Tony swore. Yeah, he was definitely in over his head.

 

+

 

“Like hell I’m lettin’ any one of you assholes look down Tony’s pants,” Barnes growled. 

Strangely enough, that wasn’t the first time Tony’d heard that particular phrase and, bless him, Barnes delivered the lines like he meant them. 

“My ears are burning,” he said, his voice echoing as he stepped into the meeting room. Luckily, bravado came easily for him, even when he didn’t feel it. 

The angry tension melted from Barnes' face when he caught sight of Tony. 

“Tony,” Steve echoed Barnes' visible relief. You okay? he mouthed, brows drawn together. 

Tony nodded and discreetly tapped his inner elbow to reassure their fearless leader that it was all taken care of. A few tests and, like usual, he’d be fine. 

He popped over to the kitchenette to pour himself some coffee and made his way to the table. “Sorry I overslept, darling. Didn’t know how tired I was.” He leaned over and gave Barnes a quick peck on the mouth. “And I had to brush my teeth.” He winked, hoping every SHIELD agent present was decidedly uncomfortable with that statement. They were making his life hell and they deserved it. 

Barnes curled a hand into Tony’s shirt, holding him close and murmuring, “They wanna see the soul mark.”  

“Yeah, I got the memo.” 

Barnes raised his eyebrows, silently asking what they were going to do.

Tony set his cup aside, braced one arm on the back of the chair, and slid his other hand over Barnes’ and squeezed. He shook his head faintly. The plan had been to let the lawyers work their magic; but apparently Hoffman had some tricks up her sleeve, too. The psych eval had been a misdirect, that much was obvious now. In comparison, asking to see Tony's soul mark sounded perfectly reasonable. If Tony refused now, SHIELD would have grounds to scrap the entire contract.

And if he agreed? Even with the help of Bruce's wonder drug, all any idiot would have to do was poke his tattoo hard enough and the jig was up.

Basically, they were screwed.

Agent Hoffman cleared her throat. “Mr. Stark, we need to see the mark before finalizing the paperwork.” This time her jaw was set, her eyes steely. “This whole contract is predicated on the assumption that you share a legitimate and binding connection to Mr. Barnes. Without confirmation, the document is null and void.”

“The agreement was you’d get a doctor,” Steve argued. 

Hoffman’s lips curled into a smile. "Did I forget to mention? It just so happens I brought a doctor with me.” She gestured and one of her operatives stepped forward. He produced credentials and slid them across the table for Tony's lawyers. 

Tony seriously considered having Friday pull the fire alarm; but it would only delay the inevitable and heap extra suspicion on their case. Not to mention waste city resources. He could play sick—and technically he was—but, for the majority of the population, that would be an added reason to see a doctor, not an excuse. 

“Everything here is in order,” one of the lawyers confirmed. “Would you like to take a moment to confer, Mr. Stark?”

Tony rubbed his forehead. At this rate, excuses from legal counsel wouldn't sound any better than his own. “No, it’s all right." He grimaced. "Might as well get this over with.”

Barnes’ mouth dropped open. “No,” he blurted out. There was sudden, raw energy in the controlled tension of his limbs, and Tony felt like they'd been thrust back into the alley at gunpoint. Barnes was ready to fight. 

"I'm sorry, James," Tony tried to placate him. "We knew this was coming. It isn't ideal, but there's nothing else we can do."

"Like hell there isn't." Barnes surged to his feet, kicked his chair away, and swept Tony behind him in one smooth movement. “You wanna take look at him?” Barnes leveled an icy glare at Hoffman. “I ain’t movin’.” The panels of his left arm clicked and shifted as Barnes clenched a fist. 

Okay. Well. At least Barnes was playing defense, not offense. Also the Brooklyn really came through when he was upset. That was good to know. 

“Tony has a reasonable right to privacy." And that was the voice of Captain America, if Tony'd ever heard it. There was warmth at his back as Steve stepped in to add his support. 

Tony floundered. As euphoric as it was to be in the middle of a super soldier sandwich, they had no grounds to refuse SHIELD's request. Their principled stand was going to end in an unmitigated disaster.

“This isn’t a typical bonding, Captain Rogers,” Hoffman said, assessing the room. The team had moved into defensive positions, ready to lend a hand if things went from bad to worse. And worse certainly seemed to be on the horizon. “Your friend here is dangerous, which he's aptly demonstrating to us at this very moment. This soul bond is our only assurance that Barnes can be controlled and that he will stay where we put him." Steve made to protest, but Hoffman continued over him. "Not only that, a legitimate bond is our only indication he can be rehabilitated to live peacefully in society.” She met Barnes’ glare with one of her own. “Mr. Barnes, I’m sure you’re aware your future with your soulmate is at stake here.”

Barnes reached back for Tony’s hand and interlaced their fingers. “I know what I'm doing,” he said, “and I ain’t backing down.” 

"Care to talk some sense into him, Stark?" Hoffman said. "Your soulmate might not care about the consequences, but I think you do. We have grounds to take him into custody here and now if you don't comply."

Okay, this was bad. Think, Tony, think. Come on. What was the point of being a genius if he couldn’t use it to outwit SHIELD's underhanded tactics? 

“James, light of my life.” Tony touched the back of Barnes’ shoulder tentatively. “Can I have a word?" Tony pursed his lips and traded strained glances with Steve as he pulled Barnes off to the side of the room. It wasn't exactly private or soundproof, but they could make do. 

"I appreciate your willingness to protect my honor, I really do," Tony said in a hushed tone. "Believe me, I don't get that a lot. But we don't have a lot of options here. Let's just roll with it."

Stubborn uncertainty flickered behind Barnes' eyes. "They're trying to humiliate you, Tony," he said quietly. 

"Maybe," Tony agreed, "but does it matter? We either do this or we let them have you. And, I'm sorry, the second one's not even up for discussion."  

"It does matter," Barnes said firmly. "This is my fault. You shouldn't have to do this for me."

You shouldn't have to do this for me. Not if we're going to get caught no matter what we do. Barnes hadn't said it, but he might as well have. Layered beneath that was the added implication: I'm not worth it. And goddammit if that didn't piss Tony off. Barnes was worried about Tony's dignity? When Tony's ass was never more than three clicks away on the internet? Fuck that.

"James, listen to me." Tony grabbed his shoulders. "This is not the worst thing I've had to do in my life, not by a long shot. No one is forcing me. It’s just a hurdle we have to jump over and after this we can head upstairs, together." Here he squeezed Barnes' arms meaningfully. He couldn't say Steve's name, not with everyone listening in, but he hoped Barnes understood Steve was included in that together. "We can forget it ever happened. I promise.”

Barnes chewed at his lower lip with a frown, forehead creased.

"I'm doing it, James," Tony said with finality. Their only other recourse was to fight their way out, and Tony still hadn't gotten the suit back online. There was very little help he could offer above and beyond taking his pants off for SHIELD. Which, let's be honest, he'd taken his pants off for far less noble reasons. What did he have to lose?

On impulse, Tony pushed up on his toes and pressed a kiss to Barnes' cheek. It was pathetic, but if the jig was up then it was the last time he'd have the chance to do that. 

And Barnes surprised him by turning his head and holding Tony's jaw so he could bring their mouths together. Firm and simple and sweet. 

"You're an idiot," Barnes muttered against Tony's lips and then let him go.

Tony rocked back on his heels, trying very hard not to let his thoughts explode. "Yeah, yep," he agreed, just a tad high pitched. Because where the hell had that come from?

Barnes went back to the table and leaned next to Steve, his body still taught, the frustrated urge to fight lingering in his movements. Steve stepped closer under the pretense of keeping his friend calm, his face a carefully neutral mask.

Tony couldn't quite bring himself to look at either of them as the doctor ushered him out of the meeting hall and into a private room adjacent. It wasn't that Tony felt guilty, per se, but he couldn't figure out—did that kiss count as part of the act? It made sense for soulmates to comfort each other when they were upset, but Barnes could have left it at Tony's token peck on the cheek. There was no reason for more, unless Barnes had wanted to kiss him. And that didn't make a lick of sense, because that would imply things like genuine affection and attraction. Could someone in a soul bond have feelings for a person who wasn't their mate? Was that possible? And if it was—? No. There was no way. It had to be an anomaly.

The doctor asked Tony to disrobe and Tony barely batted an eye. He was going through the motions when a spark of red flared in his periphery. A fluxing spiral of energy came through the wall and engulfed the doctor's head. The energy seeped into his skin and his eyes briefly churned with light. He stood a little straighter and his face went blank.

And Tony nearly passed out. Because why hadn't he thought of that? Bless Wanda Maximoff all the way from her leather boots to the tips of her winged eyeliner. She'd saved them, just like that. 

When the doc checked the tattoo, he saw a real soul mark without any telltale signs of puffiness or irritation. And if Tony flinched when the doc prodded the rendezvous writing, well, he didn’t report it. 

Tony and Barnes signed the contract and Agent Hoffman went away disappointed. The lawyers excused themselves with a promise to follow up with Tony soon, and together the team breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tony braced himself on the table, letting his head go limp between his shoulders. A faint tremor went through his body. That might have been nerves or it might have been the injection. He didn't know. Soon enough he'd have it figured out.

Steve put a reassuring hand on his back. "Good job, Tony," he said.

"I wish I could take credit," Tony said wanly, "but we have our resident witch to thank." Wanda was pacing the perimeter, dragging her hand casually along the outside wall. “I suspect I'm going to regret asking this," he said to her, "but I can't not know. Could you have made SHIELD see soul marks on us without either one of us having to get a tattoo?”

Wanda cocked her head to the side, a small smile playing across her lips. “The illusion is always more effective with physical reality to use as a base,” she said, “but, yes, of course.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and whimpered faintly. "Why didn’t you say anything?”

She spread her hands innocently. “You said you were ten steps ahead.”  

 

 +

 

Ten steps ahead. In over his head. Running to catch up. Up a creek without his armor. Tony didn't know where he fit into the scheme of things anymore, but lost seemed to sum up his experience nicely. They'd gotten SHIELD off their backs, at least for the time being, but now he and Rogers and Barnes had to figure out how they were going to deal with the media spotlight. That and living together. 

Tony ushered Rogers and Barnes out of the elevator and into their spacious new living quarters high atop Stark Tower. "Here we are," he said. "Home sweet home, such as it is." Luxury furniture was arranged on an open floor with wide windows looking out on a cerulean sky. They had a bird's eye view over Manhattan, and the glass had the barest silver tint, indicating the tower's mirror shielding was in full effect. Anyone trying to spy would be out of luck.

Barnes kept close to the walls, slinking around the wide open space with subdued, cat-like caution and curiosity. He hadn't said much since the meeting. 

Steve stayed near the elevator doors, ostensibly admiring a houseplant while he let his soulmate explore. Smooth, Rogers.

"As far as I'm concerned, the main bedroom belongs to you guys," Tony said. Steve had an apartment below, next to the rest of the Avengers, but that was largely for appearances. As long as they were careful, there was no reason the two soulmates couldn't shack up.

"I don't want to draw any undue attention," Steve said. "If SHIELD decides to surprise us, it needs to look like you and Bucky are living together." 

Well, yes, there was that. But the idea that Rogers wouldn't even entertain the possibility of moving in with his soulmate? Not even for a minute? Tony hadn't bared his thighs for Steve to get cold feet. And because Tony was tired and he had zero sense of self-preservation, he decided to poke the bear. "I gotta warn you, Rogers," he said, "I've got a weakness for metal arms and tight abs."

Steve rolled his eyes. 

"What? You're not even the teensiest bit concerned?" Tony pressed. "I'm a dirty old man and it's a well known fact I can't keep my hands to myself. If you put me in the same room as Barnes, who knows what might happen?"

"Don't be an ass," Steve said, his gaze flicking over to Barnes. 

"You're the one who wants me to live with your soulmate," Tony said. "Barnes, are you hearing this? Steve doesn't want you anymore and I—"

Barnes flinched like he'd been stung and Steve's face darkened like a storm cloud. "That isn't true, Tony," he said fiercely. "Would you back off?"  

Right, so apparently he'd struck a nerve. That was interesting. Initiating back off procedures. 

"Just pointing out the irony, is all," Tony said, holding up his hands. 

"Well, it wasn't funny," Steve said. "This is hard enough as it is."

"Kind of why I was trying to lighten the mood, Cap," Tony said. "For your edification, I'm sleeping in the spare room and Barnes gets the master bedroom. That was always the plan. Whether or not you want to sneak in, Rogers, that's between you two. Go at it like rabbits or apply for the priesthood, whatever tickles your fancy. I won't get in the way. That work for you?"

Barnes looked up from under dark eyelashes and Steve shifted from one foot to another. "Yeah, that works," he said gruffly.

"All right. So," Tony took a shot in the dark, "is this where we should talk about ground rules?"

"Yes and no. Let's take five," Steve suggested. "We just got here and it's been a stressful few days. Let's just take a step back for a minute."

"Sure, fine," Tony said. "Look around, get the lay of the land, open drawers, jump on the beds. Meet back here whenever you're ready." 

Steve ran a hand through his hair and nodded, but he seemed at a loss for what to do next.

Tony searched for a distraction and spotted his new phone lying on the coffee table. He scooped it up and poked at the screen, about a thousand times more at ease with the technology back in his hand. 

“This place got a shower?” Barnes asked. 

“Uh, yeah, a couple of them,” Tony said. "The master bedroom has a full spa ensuite. Bath and shower with a steam room."

"Isn't that a little much?" Steve asked. 

Tony shrugged. "We are talking about a place I’m supposed to be living in.” 

Barnes disappeared into the main bedroom without a backward glance. A minute later the water was running. 

"Is he really going to take a shower right now?" Tony asked, looking up from his screen. 

"Looks that way," Steve said. 

Fair enough. “I won't tattle if you want to join him, Cap.”

Steve made a noncommittal noise. “What about food? You hungry?”

Tony couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten, so that was a definite yes. “The fridge should be stocked. Or I can have Friday order in.”

“Actually, I think I’d like to get out and stretch my legs,” Steve said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Why don’t you put your feet up? I’ll bring us back something.” 

 

+

 

True to his word—as if Captain America could be anything else—Steve got back less than an hour later, carrying an armful of pizza boxes and several bags of take out. Tony was lying on his back on the sofa, scrolling through his phone, and he had to do a double take when he saw the amount of food Steve had brought.  

Steve set the pizza boxes on the counter and unpacked breadsticks, sauces, and cartons of Chinese food. There was an extra sack stacked with six-inch subs, just for good measure, and a handful of plastic-wrapped fortune cookies clattered into the mix.

Tony pocketed his phone and pulled up a seat at the island, grabbing a pair of bamboo chopsticks. “You know, you’d think this wouldn’t surprise me since I’m the one who pays the Avengers’ grocery bill.” 

Steve chuckled, noticeably happier than he'd been before he'd left. “Got some crab rangoon and teriyaki chicken, if you still like that,” he said, nudging the cartons Tony's way. He grabbed several bottles of water from the fridge and offered one to Tony. 

Barnes was still in the shower. The steady patter of water hitting tile hadn’t abated while Steve was gone. 

“Think he’s all right in there?” Tony asked, popping the cap.

Steve pulled up a seat beside him and took a bite of pizza. “Hm.” His gaze strayed into the middle distance, and Tony wasn’t sure if he was supposed to take that for an answer or if that was the way Steve reacted to really good pizza. Tony was about to repeat the question when Steve came back to himself, suppressing a fond smile.  

“He’s fine,” Steve said. And then, realizing he was acting vague as hell, he explained, “When we were growing up, Buck kind of had a thing for showers. Couldn’t always get ’em because he’d let his sisters go first; but when he did he stayed in till the hot water ran out. He hasn’t really been able to enjoy one since he enlisted back in '41.” 

“That long?”

“Not many other chances," Steve said. "He’s been on the run since DC and seedy tenement bathrooms don’t exactly hold a candle to all this.” He gestured with his pizza. “The last few years, whenever we were together, he was too worried about getting caught. Even when I convinced him to clean up, he was never able to relax. And with Hydra—”

“Yeah, no,” Tony said hastily. “I doubt they cared much about making him comfortable.”

“They didn’t,” Steve agreed grimly. “Anyway, I wouldn’t expect him out for at least another half hour, assuming the hot water holds.”

“He’s welcome to it,” Tony said. “As much as he wants, day or night. Just as long as he’s not drowning himself in there.”  

"He's not." Steve pulled out another slice of pizza. “But he is, ah," Steve cleared his throat, "I think Buck wants to give us a chance to talk. Just the two of us, now that things have settled down.” 

“Oh?” Tony asked. And then, “Oh. Am I about to get a shovel talk? If it's about me being an ass earlier, I didn't mean it. That was just, well, me being an ass.”

“That's not it, Tony,” Steve said gently, but he was choosing his words carefully, and that was never a good sign. 

Damn it. And Tony’d thought things had taken an upturn. He stuffed a bite of teriyaki chicken into his mouth and tried to keep his internal freakout from building into a full blown panic.

“Look, I didn’t like this at first. You know that,” Steve said. 

This was off to a bad start. Tony made a noise of acknowledgement and choked a little on his food.

Steve patted him on the back. “Tony, I’m just trying to say thank you,” he said. “Would you relax?”

“I’m relaxed,” Tony lied. “I’m the picture of calm.” And he promptly downed half of his bottled water. 

Steve sighed. “Okay, just listen. Because this needs to be said. You’ve done a lot for us in the last few days and you didn’t have to do any of it. It might have been better for you if you hadn’t. But without you stepping in—” Steve’s throat worked around words he didn’t want to say. He leaned heavily on his elbows and shook his head. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is: if you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be about to enjoy a peaceful meal with my soulmate for the first time since 1944. We don't have to rush, we don't have to worry about getting caught. This is a big deal for us, Tony. It’s everything. I owe you. Bucky and I both owe you.”  

A blush creeped up the back of Tony’s neck. Praise wasn’t something he processed very well, and the heartfelt thank you was almost worse than the rebuke he’d been expecting. “Forget it,” Tony said awkwardly, aimlessly digging into his carton of chicken. “I’m just," he gestured vaguely, "trying not to screw up.” 

Thankfully Steve didn’t press the issue. He went back to his pizza and Tony hid for a few minutes behind shoveling food into his mouth. The silence stretched. Tony shifted in his seat, and then shifted again. He couldn't take it. 

“So, I don’t know, maybe this is a rude question, but I’m gonna ask it anyway.” Tony tried for a casual, devil-may-care delivery. “Where’s your soul mark? I'm thinking it would be common knowledge you had a soulmate if it was anywhere SHIELD could have seen it during the dethawing. Coulson would have known about it for sure.” Now there was a mental image. 

“Thanks for that,” Steve said drily.  

“Seriously, though,” Tony said. “Captain America separated from his WWII era soulmate? It would have been a page one tragedy. No way the media could resist.” 

Steve drummed his fingers on the countertop and then wiped his mouth with a napkin. “All right. Here.” He shuffled his seat closer to Tony’s and brushed back the hair over his left ear. It was hard to see, but the skin underneath was discolored. Unless someone already knew what they were looking at, it would be nearly impossible to tell what the mark was. 

Ever the impulsive, hands-on scientist, Tony threaded his fingers into Steve’s hair and brushed back the strands with his thumb, squinting to read what was written there. September 9, 1930, 4:28 p.m., Gunsmith Alley. There was the barest rasp of a callous against Steve’s scalp as Tony traced the lettering.

Steve shivered.  

“Sorry,” Tony said. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah, it's fine.” Steve grabbed a breadstick and nibbled on a corner, looking off across the room.

“How'd you manage to find it in time?” Tony asked, pulling back. “That right there is the nightmare scenario: the writing pops up exactly where you can’t see it and you'd never know you had it. You lose your chance at cosmic bliss on a technicality.” The idea that something similar could have happened to Tony at any point in his life—it still bothered him. 

Steve scratched his scalp and flattened his hair back into place. “Funny story. I didn’t find it, actually,” Steve said. “My mom found it for me, which is kind of embarrassing."

Tony cracked a grin. "What, so she was brushing your hair for you?"

"Not quite." Steve took a drink and licked his bottom lip, considering. He went on cautiously, "I’d been searching all night and I couldn’t track it down. I was in tears and she wouldn't leave me alone until I told her why. She thought I was sick or I'd gotten really hurt in the alley." He smoothed his hands across the counter top. "Anyway, Bucky was furious I told her, but at the time I didn’t know what else to do. Took me weeks to convince him my mom wasn’t going to rat us out.”

Tony paused. “Wait. Back up.” He pointed the tip of his chopsticks at Steve. “I must have missed something, because it sounds like you're saying you didn’t find your soul mark until after you bonded."

Steve fidgeted with his napkin. "No, you heard right." 

Tony frowned. "But how would that even work? You can’t go to a rendezvous if you don’t have the destination.” 

“Buck and I found each other anyway," Steve said. 

Tony’s mouth hardened into a cynical line. “That’s impossible. Soulmates don’t just stumble onto each other by accident. That's not how it works.”

"Tony, I'm not trying to upset you," Steve said. "I'm telling you this because you deserve to know. You saved our lives and you signed away yours for the foreseeable future, just to help us. The reason we tried to keep it secret for so long is because Buck and I—we're different." 

Tony assessed him through narrowed eyes, trying to figure out if Steve was pulling a fast one on him. As always, Rogers was the picture sincerity, and there was quite literally nothing to be gained by lying. Tony chewed on the information. He'd done the research, read all the papers. Nothing he'd come across indicated that soulmates could meet outside of a predetermined rendezvous. It was unheard of. If science knew, it could be the key to unlocking soulmate potential for anyone who’d missed their chance.

…Or anyone who hadn’t had a chance to begin with. 

Tony set his food aside. The ramifications of Steve's confession hit home, and they hit home hard. “Haircuts must be a pain." 

Steve had to know that wasn’t what Tony was thinking, but he answered him at face value. “Most barbers don't cut close enough to question it,” Steve said.

"Right. Of course." 

“Not that it makes much difference now," Steve added. "No one can match my mark to Bucky even if they wanted to. Not anymore.”

And that was a jarring drop back to reality. Hydra had destroyed Barnes' mark without remorse, and it was a painful reminder not even soulmates had it easy. Steve and Barnes? Their bond hadn't protected them from years of suffering and loneliness. That was something the three of them had in common. Even if Tony had found a soulmate, there were no guarantees it would have been perfect. 

“I’m sorry, Steve," Tony said. "What Hydra did was cruel.”  

"I don't even know the half of it," Steve admitted, hushed. "I keep thinking I should have known. I should have found a way to stop it. I thought he was dead. I was buried under ten tons of ice and snow. Still I should have found a way." 

Tony didn't have an answer for that, but he didn't need one. The shower shut off abruptly and Steve sat up straight, like he'd been caught. A minute later, Barnes padded into the kitchen wrapped in a towel. Steam curled off damp skin and his expression was schooled and calm. He tucked wet hair behind his ear and casually reached over the counter to grab a slice of pizza.

“I need clothes,” Barnes said around a mouthful, eyebrow arched.  

Tony was ninety percent certain that meant Barnes and Rogers needed a minute to themselves, so he hopped out of his seat like it had burned him and went to fetch something for Barnes to wear. He took a little longer than was strictly necessary to dig out a comfortable outfit for the super soldier. He made a mental note to ask Barnes what kinds of things he liked to wear, because the current selection left a lot to be desired. In particular, Tony'd need to order some custom shirts to accommodate the metal arm; but for now he figured a tank top and sweats would do. 

He paused just inside the doorway to gauge events in the kitchen. Tony wasn't eager to walk into the middle of a lover's spat, if that's what was happening; but Rogers and Barnes were relatively calm. Barnes was resting on his elbows as he talked to Steve over the counter. His tone was quiet, serious, the words too soft for Tony to hear. When he finished, he pushed up on his hands, frowning.

Steve, who looked every inch chastised, asked a tentative question.

After a brief hesitation, Barnes sighed and nodded with a small smile.  

Steve leaned in over the counter and Barnes twisted his right hand into Steve's shirt to pull him closer. Barnes held him there, their noses almost touching, a playful challenge. Steve had never been one to back down from a challenge and he closed the gap. Barnes' eyes fluttered as their lips met. Steve drew him in deeper with a guiding hand on the back of his neck and Barnes made a faint, urgent sound that shot through Tony like a bolt of lightning. 

He shouldn't be watching this, it didn't belong to him. Tony pulled back inside the room, his heart lurching.  

"I love you." The endearment drifted in a moment later, breathless and rough. That was Steve.

"Love you too, you idiot." And that was Barnes.

Tony's phone pinged. Numbly, he slid the device out of his pocket and tapped the screen. Friday was done analyzing the blood sample.  

 

+

 

“So what’s the damage?” Tony slid wearily into the chair in front of the lab monitors. U trundled over to say hello and Tony absently patted the bot. DUM-E was off in a corner fiddling with something. Normally that would worry him, but Tony was preoccupied.

“From what I can gather, the injection is acting like synthetic bacteria,” Friday reported. She pulled up a hologram of Tony's blood sample, zooming in on the pathogen invading his system. Microbes with luminescent outer membranes swirled through the mix, deceptively benign. “They're crudely made, but I believe the fabricated organisms were meant to target and destroy the suit implants before dying off and exiting your system.”

“Well, they did the first job,” Tony rubbed his neck, “but they’re slacking off on the second.”  

“The good news is the majority of the organisms are no longer in your system," Friday said. "Otherwise you would be as impeded as when you first received the injection. However, a significant number remain and those are the ones causing the issue. Due to their programming, they're attracted to electrical impulses."

"Meaning the nervous system," Tony said. He sat back in his seat and ran his hands through his hair.

"Yes, boss."

“If we leave them alone, will the ones leftover get around to kicking the bucket?” 

“Perhaps, but there’s no telling how much damage will be done before that happens. With the implants eliminated, the bacteria have no primary target. They’re sporadically attacking motor control systems, causing bouts of dizziness, disorientation, and extreme fatigue.” 

"Got that. Living it," Tony said. “Worst case scenario?”

“Worst case the bacteria remains in your system. Trauma begins with deteriorating motor function and cognitive ability, leading to eventual paralysis and—”

“Okay, stop talking.” Tony’s knee jiggled as he fought to keep calm. “Hoooookay, lemme think,” he said. He pushed U away as the bot head-butted his arm. “I’m going to guess a course of antibiotics isn’t going to do the trick here.” 

“Perceptive as always, boss,” Friday said. “I’m afraid the bacteria won’t respond to typical treatment. There’s an electromagnetic shell acting as a protective barrier around each organism. It will be difficult to breach.”

“Any chance of tracking down whoever who made these little guys? You said they're crude. What are the odds on Hammertech?” 

“Hard to say, boss. I’d need more time for analysis.”

Where was Banner when Tony really needed him? Tony was the resident god of mechanics and equations, but Bruce was the brains when it came to biology. And Helen Cho wasn’t exactly keen to return Tony's calls after the whole Ultron thing. “All right. Check Hammer out. See what you can find,” Tony said. “In the mean time, what are our other options?” 

“We’ve got one alternative, but it’s risky,” Friday said. "I would advise against it."

"Take off the kid gloves," Tony said. "This is me you're talking to."

“Stark Industries retained samples of Extremis after Ms. Potts’ procedure," Friday reported. "All information indicates it would be effective in removing the pathogen from your system.” 

Tony took a beat to digest that information. “It would be," he agreed, "providing it doesn’t blow me up in the process."

"That is one of the potential side effects."

"Little bit more than a side effect, don't you think?" There were a few things Tony could try to stabilize the formula before administering it, but there would still be plenty of risks if his already weakened system didn’t accept the initial dosage of the serum. “This is our best bet?”

“Until we get more data to work with—yes, it is, boss."

“All right. Keep working," Tony said. "In the mean time, get the samples of Extremis transferred to the lab. Don't tell the team. This is our little secret, understand? Message me when everything’s ready.”  

 

+

 

Tony made the executive decision to sleep in the lab that night. Barnes and Rogers had more than earned a night alone together and, whatever they did with it, they didn't need to worry they were disturbing him. It was for their comfort and privacy. Really. It was. Tony'd only set blackout protocols to keep the lovebirds from feeling like they had to convince him to come back up.

Before he settled in, Tony had Friday do a quick scan. He knew he shouldn’t, but—what the hell—he was a glutton for punishment. 

When he was a kid, he'd had a routine. He had to be careful Howard never saw him doing it; but like clockwork he’d hop out of bed every morning, give himself a once-over in the mirror to check for soul marks, and repeat before bed. Not to mention spot checks at regular intervals during the day, just to be safe.

There had never been anything there, and this time wasn’t any different. Not that Tony had expected anything else. The dull ache pulsing behind the knotted scar tissue in the center of his chest was probably just residual nerve damage. Or a side effect of the injection. It wasn’t that his hopes were recklessly careening down a dead end road. 

It was just that—Steve had said his bond with Barnes was different. If Tony could take that statement at face value, he couldn't help but wonder how different it was. If there was a force strong enough to bind Rogers and Barnes together before they'd been marked, then maybe Tony wasn't a completely lost cause.

And Barnes had kissed him. Why? If the working hypothesis was that soulmates could feel things for someone outside of their soul bond, then maybe it was possible—

Fuck. What was he thinking? All of his speculation was nothing but trouble and heartache waiting to happen. 

Tony groaned and wrapped a blanket around himself. He flopped onto the sofa and rolled over to stare up at the pin-light LEDs in the ceiling.

What the hell was he going to do? 

  

Chapter Text

Bucky slipped into the sweats and tank top Tony had given him, savoring the feel of soft cotton against clean skin. He’d ducked behind the door of the main bedroom to change, even though he wasn’t particularly shy and Steve had certainly seen him naked before. That had been more than seven decades ago, but still—the problem had less to do with self-consciousness and more to do with necessity. 

It was getting late and the sky outside was shifting colors from a clear blue to the hazy yellows of late afternoon. Bucky let his head fall back against the wall and he exhaled slowly, waiting for the dizzy euphoria of being this close to Steve to settle. After so long apart, the soul bond set him to craving affection from his soulmate like a man starved. The oscillating wheel of warm, bright colors coming through the bond meant Steve was feeling it, too; remarkably similar to the white glow Steve used to give off when he was rail thin and they used to go out drinking. 

Steve wanted him, but between the two of them Bucky had always been the one weak for physical connection. Steve could hold out if he put his mind to it, but Bucky got swept up in the luxury of nearness—the steady pressure of fingers twined into the hair at the back of his neck or the tickle of breath against his cheek as Steve kissed him. Steve. His Steve. 

Bucky smoothed the inside of his metal palm with the pad of his thumb and flexed the mechanical fingers. Losing himself in the moment was dangerous now in ways it had never been before. The consequences of him letting down his guard could be devastating. If Bucky slipped up and lost control, or if Steve got caught up in one of the Winter Soldier’s memories—Bucky would never be able to live with it. He was still remembering, and with each new face that surfaced, the screams and pleas and struggling hands pushed forgiveness further and further away. 

There were some things Steve shouldn’t have to know.  

Or maybe Bucky should show him everything he’d dredged out of the void. Then Steve could finally recognize the monster for what he was—a soulless killing machine hiding behind the mask of Bucky Barnes. Maybe then Steve would see reason and have courage enough to let him go.  

Maybe. 

Bucky's hair was already drying in loose waves, but he toweled it off for good measure and padded back into the kitchen, subdued. He took Tony’s vacant seat at the counter and grabbed for one of the subs. Steve slid the bag of sandwiches closer for him to reach. Bucky hadn’t bothered to block out his internal conflict, and Steve had undoubtedly picked up on it. He rubbed reassuring circles on Bucky’s back and, against his better judgment, Bucky leaned into the touch. 

“How’re you feeling?” Steve asked. 

“Tired.” Of everything. Of fighting. Of having to push Steve away when all he wanted was to be close. 

Steve nudged the food closer. “Go on, dig in. There’s plenty here.” 

It’d been too long since Bucky’d had a proper meal, and he barely bothered to unwrap the sandwich before wolfing it down and reaching for another. Steve went back to his pizza and slid a box Bucky’s way. Just in case. 

Tony had gone to "check in at the lab" and Bucky took that for the thinly veiled excuse it was. Bucky couldn’t blame him for not wanting to be the third wheel at a soulmate reunion. Not to mention a pair of soulmates who were walking on eggshells around each other. Better to come back after the worst of it had settled than wait out the awkwardness.

“I don’t understand why he’s helping us,” Bucky said. “There’s nothin’ in it for him.” 

Steve took a moment to catch up with Bucky’s train of thought. “Tony is—” he faltered, searching for the right words. “He has his moments. He can be thoughtless and self-absorbed sometimes, but he does care. More than he gets credit for. Sometimes he cares too much in the wrong direction; but when push comes to shove he’s trying to do his best, no different from the rest of us.” 

“Is that why you like him?” Bucky took another bite of his sandwich. 

Steve sighed and leaned his elbows on the counter, rubbing his forehead. “Buck.”

“What?” Bucky said around a mouthful. “Are we not going to talk about it? Your response to him at the gala came through loud and clear.” 

Steve winced. “It’s not like that.” 

Bucky reached for an unopened bottle of water and cracked the lid. “Yeah, it is.” He took a drink and swallowed. “If it helps, I ain’t jealous. Or if I am, it can’t be any worse than what I put you through when I was seeing those gals back in Brooklyn.” 

“You remember that?”  

“Some of it,” Bucky hedged. It was hard to tell without comparing notes and he wasn’t about to dig into that wound. Not here and now. “That’s not the point. I’m not askin’ to be an ass, Steve. I really wanna know.” 

Steve studied the counter top and gave in with a shake of his head. “Fine. But it’s stupid, Buck.”

“We all have our moments,” Bucky prodded. 

“I’ve been,” Steve fumbled, color rising to his cheeks. “Lonely,” he admitted with a flash of guilt. “I didn't want to push you. Knowing you were still out there alive and breathing—that’s more than I could have asked for. If that’s all you wanted, I wanted that to be enough for us both.” Steve’s throat worked, and his voice came softer. “But it gets hard waiting when you don’t know if it’s ever gonna end, one way or another. And Tony was right there, and he was interested and it was hard not to be interested back.”

“That’s fair.” Bucky was well aware of the consequences for leaving his partner hanging. Sometimes a soul bond simply wasn't enough. It wasn’t Steve’s fault. “Why Tony? Why not someone else?” he asked. “I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’d want to land a date with Steve Rogers.”

Steve laughed, dry and skeptical. “Yeah, I’m about as good at dates now as I was in the old days.” He thought about his answer. “I don’t know what it is. To be honest, Tony and I didn’t get along at first. He’s equal parts deliberately infuriating and stupidly reckless.”

“Sounds familiar,” Bucky mused. “You’ve always had a thing for people who don’t take your shit and can give as good as they get. Carter was like that. And reminds me of a certain skinny pain in the ass I met in an alley a few decades back.”  

Steve ducked his head with a grin. “You might be right. Tony’s brilliant at what he does and he knows it. You’ve seen the lab. When he gets it right, Buck, he gets it right." A shadow flickered through the bond and a frown tugged at the corner of Steve's mouth. "He flew a nuke into a hole in space, no hesitation, knowing it would be a one-way trip. He was ready to die to save millions of innocent people, and I’d told him he wasn’t the kind of guy to make the sacrifice play. He came falling back to Earth like a stone in that suit, and there was nothing I could do.” 

Grey, black, and cobalt tones of cloud and iron and sheer cliff walls came whipping through his mind like blistering winter winds. Steve had gone right back to the blasted out hull of the train. Another comrade falling who he couldn’t catch. 

Bucky got up from his seat and turned Steve so he could slide between his knees and wrap his arms around his shoulders. “Hey,” he said. “What did I tell you about blaming yourself?” 

Steve rested his hands lightly on Bucky’s hips. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about things I could have done differently,” he said. “It just seems like—if getting the serum was going to be worth anything, it should help me save the people who matter most.”   

“You did what you could,” Bucky said. “World can’t ask for anything more than that.” 

“I guess.” 

“If it does, you can tell ’em they can come talk to me,” Bucky said firmly. He held Steve’s face in his hands, running his thumbs over Steve’s cheekbones. “So, I’m not tryin’ to beat a dead horse here, but I need to know: is Tony one of those ‘matter most’ people now?”

The face that looked back at him was pale, scared—that little kid who never wanted to admit he was in over his head. “I’d never want to replace you,” Steve said, tightening his grip on Bucky’s sides like Bucky might run and he had to keep him there just long enough to hear him out. He couldn’t meet Bucky’s eyes. “You know that, right?”

“I know,” Bucky said. “This ain’t about that.”

“Then I don’t know what you want me to say, Buck.” Steve bristled. “Up until recently Tony was with Pepper and being with him was just a stupid fantasy to get me from one day to the next. After I found out you were alive of course I wasn’t going to leave you for him. I still won’t, no matter how much you push. I care about him, I’m not going to lie about that, but you’re my soulmate. I love you. To the end.”

“I love you, too,” Bucky echoed. “To the end.” He worried at his lip. “And I get it. I just—”

“What?” Steve asked with growing distress. “Tell me. Whatever it is, just tell me.”

Fuck. He didn’t know how to say it. Bucky put his forehead to Steve’s and closed his eyes, concentrating on sending his thoughts through the bond as clearly and openly as he could. He slipped into the memory of holding Tony on that tiny cot, keeping every muscle still to let him sleep. Tony had worked himself into utter exhaustion, with no reason to help Bucky except Bucky’d let Tony lean on him during a stroll through Central Park. As a favor, Steve had asked Bucky to let Tony rest. What Steve didn’t know was that Bucky would have done it anyway. Fake soulmate or not, Tony had stumbled into that cell—face broken and red rimmed eyes pleading for whatever comfort a virtual stranger, a wanted assassin, had to offer—and Bucky was a goner. 

Bucky peered at Steve. His expression flickered as he sorted through the sensations and layered meanings Bucky was trying to get through to him. He sat back a little, a jumble of muddied colors coming through, fading into a hazy, hopeful yellow. For all they’d talked about the idea of adding a third to their relationship, this was the first time they’d both shown interest in the same person at the same time. “You like him too,” Steve said, dumbfounded.

“Shit, Steve,” Bucky said, running a hand through his hair. “I’ve only known him… what? Two days? I don’t know what I think.” 

“You and I knew each other about five minutes before we decided we were in it for life.”

“We didn’t decide a damn thing,” Bucky said. “But you stood up to those punks and I wished I’d been that brave from the beginning. If it’d been anyone else down that alley, I might have kept walking. ‘Cause it was you, I went in.” Bucky licked his lower lip. “Stark put his whole life on the line for us—for me—Steve. Stood up to the bullies every time they tried to take a shot at us. Guess I got a weakness for that.”  

Steve’s mouth quirked. “Yeah, me too.” He wrapped his arms around Bucky’s waist and pulled him close. “So what do you want to do?” he asked. “You saying you want to try it for real?”

“That’s jumping the gun, don’t you think?”

Steve shrugged. “You two are already acting the part. Might be easier on everyone if you could drop the charade. One less thing to worry about.”

“And you’d be okay with that?” Bucky said doubtfully. 

Steve considered. “I think so,” he said. “As long as I’m not left out when we’re behind closed doors, I can be flexible.”

“You think he’d be interested?” 

Steve looked over his shoulder, cautious, like Tony might come walking back in at any moment. “That’s the question, I guess,” he said, lowering his voice. “Tony’s got a lot on his shoulders right now. I don’t know if you saw the fallout with Ultron, but Tony was right at the center of it. His relationship with Pepper ended not long after. She found her own soulmate and it hit him hard. He hasn’t dealt with it. That’s just the latest in a long line of bad endings for him, Buck. Not to mention everything that happened this weekend.” Pale blues washed through the bond—compassion, calm. Steve was talking about Tony, but he was also thinking about Bucky. The need to move slow, to be careful, to be sure. “He’s attracted to us, he’s not shy about that much, but that doesn’t mean he’ll want to trust us with his heart. He’s got good reason to be cynical about anything we have to offer.” 

“He’s hurt and we’re a mess.” Steve had a point. Was it fair to bring another person into a relationship that was already on shaky ground? Bucky was scattered at the best of times, still climbing shifting sands as he tried to get back to himself. Did he trust himself not to pull everyone down with him if he fell? The answer to that was a resolute no

“So do we tell him?” Bucky asked. 

Steve frowned faintly. “We don’t have to do anything right away,” he said. “Maybe wait. See how things play out?”

Bucky nodded. “Okay.”

Steve brushed back Bucky’s hair and tilted his chin. Bucky leaned in to kiss him. It was an impulse as natural as breathing. The heat of Steve’s mouth drew him in and the bond took over, energy sweeping over him in pleasant, tingling waves.

He shouldn’t give in, he shouldn’t give in, he shouldn’t give in. But touching his soulmate felt good and so few things in recent memory felt good. Bucky tipped his head to the side as Steve trailed kisses down his throat, teeth grazing his pulse and tongue dipping into the hollow above his breastbone. 

Bucky whimpered and pulled Steve’s mouth back to his, where his tongue could be put to better use. With a muffled chuckle, Steve slipped his fingers under the hem of Bucky’s shirt, old habits leading his fingers to search out the spot where Bucky’s soul mark used to be. 

Bucky went rigid and grabbed Steve’s wrists, breaking away from the kiss. 

Confusion shot across Steve’s face before he grimaced, realizing his mistake. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I wasn’t thinking.” 

Heart hammering, Bucky made a conscious effort to unclasp his metal fingers before he caused any lasting damage. “No,” Bucky mumbled. “It’s my fault.” He took a step back to get some air, head spinning. He leaned heavily against the counter, gripping it for balance. 

Shit.

Steve pushed his seat away and, at a loss, began gathering food and tossing leftovers into the fridge.

“It’s not just the mark, Steve,” Bucky said, needing to explain. “There are so many things in my head I don't want you to see. The moment we hit the mattress, I don’t know what’ll come out. I can’t have Hydra mixed in with something that should be me and you. I can’t.” 

“I appreciate that,” Steve said, “but it’s part of you now, Buck. I’m not going to cut you into pieces and pick the ones I like. You can’t protect me from it forever. If you’ll trust me, I’m willing to go through whatever you can throw at me.” 

Bucky would have laughed if he wasn’t positive it would destroy the already sour mood. It was easy to make promises when Steve didn’t know what he was promising himself to. “Sorry,” Bucky husked, “I am. Really, I am.” Add that to the list of ways he’d managed to fail his soulmate. “I just… can’t.” 

Steve scrubbed his hand down his face and Bucky could feel the question brimming over before he asked it. “Does ‘I can’t’ mean ‘right now,’ or does it mean ‘ever’?” There was no judgement, just the sincere need to know the boundary his partner was drawing. 

Bucky chewed the inside of his cheek, folding his arms and looking out the windows where the sunset had turned the skyline gold and the jet streams into streaks of light. “I don’t know,” Bucky said. “If there was a way to make sure you were safe from what I got inside my head, Rogers, I’d have you on the floor in a heartbeat.”

Steve choked and he turned his back long enough to gather himself. “Always did have a way with words, Barnes,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“Hm?” Bucky shot him a skeptical look.

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Never mind.” He wiped down the counter and tossed the rag in the sink. “Okay, I can work with that, I think. But for now, can we—?” Steve nodded to the couch, where a plush blanket and throw pillows beckoned—a perfect spot to curl up as the night came in. “Nothing else. Just—I’d like to be able to hold on to you for a little while if I can.” He came up beside Bucky and added softly, “Please?”

Bucky uncrossed his arms. “Yes,” he said, snagging Steve’s hand. “God, of course, yes.”

 

+

 

Bucky didn’t sleep. Steve’s arms were around him and his breath was teasing Bucky’s hair, peaceful and perfect. Bucky lay against Steve’s chest, head tucked onto his shoulder, while Steve drifted, his thoughts coming and going inside Bucky’s mind in misty gradations of color. Nothing absolute—just quiet contentment. 

Now and then Steve would run his fingers lightly over Bucky’s cheek, or comb back his hair, or reverently trace the edges of his arm’s metal plates. Bucky couldn’t feel that, per se. Automatic feedback signaled contact, but it didn’t come through as sensation. Only information. Still, it was pleasant without slipping too far into intimacy. 

Occasionally Steve would fall asleep and then jerk awake, seeking out Bucky to make sure he hadn’t gone. 

Bucky would stroke a hand down his stomach and reassure him, “I’m right here.”

They didn’t bother to turn up the lights, so when night fell it draped over them like a curtain. There was a fine haze over the windows from low-flying clouds underlit by the city lights.The shielding on the glass was set to block out most of the ambient glow at night, leaving the room bathed in diffuse shadows. 

Around midnight Steve detangled himself with a murmured, “You need to sleep.” 

Bucky grumbled in protest. “I can handle it.”

“You and Tony both, I swear to god.” Steve sighed. “What have you got against sleep?” 

“Pot, kettle, frying pan,” Bucky said. Steve had foregone sleep on plenty of occasions, Bucky was certain of it. And Bucky was just being careful. He could lose himself in sleep and bad dreams just as easily as losing himself in Steve's embrace. If the bond was open when it happened, it all spelled disaster.   

“Rest,” Steve insisted. “Come downstairs for breakfast in the morning. You should meet the team when they’re not in the middle of a crisis.” 

Bucky frowned, rubbing at an eye. “Tried to kill a few of them, didn’t I?” 

“They wouldn’t be here if they wanted to hold a grudge,” Steve said.  

Or this is exactly where they’d want to be if getting even was on their to-do list. Not for the first time, Bucky thought Steve’s estimation of other people’s goodness was overly optimistic.

Steve pressed a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head. “Eight o’clock.” 

Bucky grunted. He stayed motionless until he heard the elevator doors open and the lift descend, then buried his face in a pillow and pulled the blanket over his head for good measure. Several floors’ difference still might not be far enough to protect Steve from the nightmares, if they came. 

Bucky couldn’t stay awake indefinitely, though. He’d been trained to last seventy-two hours at a stretch without degradation of essential functions, but he was already hitting that limit. He hadn’t slept the night of the gala and he hadn’t gotten more than a few minutes in the cell the night after. He’d been trying to stay still for Tony. The man had saved Bucky’s life—the least he could do was keep Tony comfortable in close quarters.  

Where was he, anyway?  

Bucky rolled onto his back and held up his right arm, the letters of the soul mark tattoo dimly visible. He traced the rendezvous with metal fingers still warm from Steve. It was strange, but as much as the mark was a lie, there was a part of Bucky glad to have a tangible reminder that he was someone’s soulmate. Tony might not have been the partner the universe had chosen, but he could be the partner Steve and Bucky chose for themselves. Assuming Tony was interested in the job. 

Bucky got up and padded across the floor barefoot. Maybe Tony would be back soon. The space felt twice as large and empty without anyone else in it and there was no way Bucky would be able to relax enough by himself to sleep.

He paced, tracing paths and counting steps through the dark, mapping every item and its location. Counting helped. It put his mind at ease to know the number of steps from the kitchen counter to the sofa, from the sofa to the window, the window to the elevator, and every other iteration in every order, backwards and forwards. He made the rounds until he knew it all by heart. And then he opened every drawer and cupboard, cataloguing contents and capacity.

On his last sweep through the kitchen, he nabbed a protein bar and chewed on it thoughtfully. Rain was ticking lightly against the windows now.

The door to the guest bedroom was closed. It had been since they’d first arrived. Bucky was sure he hadn’t heard Tony come back from the lab, but he wouldn’t put it past Stark to have a back way in or some kind of super secret tech to mask his entry.

Bucky leaned close to the door and listened for any telltale signs of movement or breathing. He knocked and there was no answer. He checked for signs of tripwires or alarms and then tested the knob. Open. Hinges oiled. He stepped back, letting the door swing open. Nothing. The bed was made and the room was otherwise empty and untouched.

Tony had been gone more than twelve hours. 

Worry nagged at the back of Bucky’s mind and a feeble image swam to the surface of his memories. An echo. Steve. In the cold months of 1934 he got hit with pneumonia and had refused to stay in bed. The images were soft and warped, but Bucky had been helping Steve’s ma with the groceries and a sense of shadowy wrongness had hurried them home. Sarah had always been good about listening to the boys’ instincts about each other. She never asked questions. She never drew attention. And they came back to find Steve collapsed, feverish. 

And fuck if that wasn’t the exact same thing Tony was doing. Before the press conference, Tony had struggled to stay upright, pushing Steve away and insisting he was okay even as his balance tilted and his eyelids drooped, mind fogging. He said he’d take care of it, but what if something happened with no one there to catch him?

Bucky turned on his heel and went for the elevator. He paused with his finger hovering just over the call button. He’d signed the agreement with SHIELD, but truthfully he’d only read about half of the legalese. It wasn’t like he’d had much choice except to sign, and it wasn’t like a contract was going to hold him if he decided to leave. He’d trusted Steve and Tony when they said it was mostly to Bucky’s benefit. But that still left him hazy on the particulars. Would he be raising alarms if he moved off this floor? Would SHIELD be waiting for him when he stepped off the elevator?

“Pardon me, Sergeant Barnes, but can I be of assistance?”

Bucky jerked away from the wall, ducking and trying to pinpoint the intruder. He’d heard that voice once before, in the lab, but there was no one there. “Friday?” That’s what Tony had called her, right? 

“At your service, Sergeant,” she said. “Apologies for disturbing you.” 

He scoured the walls and lines of the ceiling for obvious cameras. If there were any, they were well hidden. “Where are you?”

“I’m afraid that's an existential question without an answer,” she said lightly, amused. “Among other things, I work as an interface for the tower. I was designed by Mr. Stark.”

“You’re a computer.” 

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she agreed. “I’m here to assist you with whatever you may require.”

“Do you know where Tony is?”

“I’m afraid the boss is currently indisposed.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Bucky asked. “Is he hurt?”

“I’m not at liberty to divulge such information at this time.”

“You said you were here to help.”

“Within assigned parameters, yes.”

There was always a catch. “Do you know where I’m allowed to go in the tower? Are they tracking me?” 

“You’re free to move about the Avengers’ living quarters, Sergeant Barnes,” Friday said. “SHIELD personnel are surveilling all areas below housing and all building exits. You are not to leave the premises without authorization.”

“What about the lab?” 

“The lab is currently off limits to all persons.”

“But Tony’s in there, right?” 

“I’m not at liberty to divulge such information at this time.”

“So that’s a yes.” Bucky hit the call button. 

Technically the lab was below the housing level, but if no one was allowed in then SHIELD wouldn’t be there, either. Bucky could find a way in.

There was just one problem. Several floors down and a switch of elevators later, the doors to Tony’s private elevator wouldn’t budge. No manner of coaxing or cajoling would convince Friday to let him in, either. There had to be other ways to get to the lab, but Bucky didn’t know them and they were more likely to be patrolled. 

“If you tell me he’s all right, then I’ll go back upstairs and mind my own damn business,” Bucky said.

“I wish I could help, Sergeant Barnes,” Friday said, “but current parameters forbid me from offering commentary of any kind on Mr. Stark’s status.”

Bucky flexed his metal fingers and curled them into a fist. “Then I’m gonna need visual confirmation.” 

He really hoped there wasn’t an alarm set to go off if the elevator was breached, but he thought again about the possibility of Tony collapsed in the lab, trapped and unable to call for help, and resolved to take the chance. He was reasonably sure he could explain away his behavior as some kind of overprotective, newly-bonded soulmate instinct if SHIELD came asking questions. 

One well placed hit and the doors would fold, Stark tech or not. Bucky grounded his feet and drew his fist back. 

At the last second, the mechanism jarred to life, as if startled, and the doors slid open with a ding and a smooth whoosh

Bucky unclenched his fist. “What the hell?”

“Mr. Stark requests you leave the facilities in one piece if you can manage it,” Friday said cheerfully. 

“You said all communications were blocked,” Bucky said. 

“Imminent security breach is grounds for overriding blackout protocols.” 

Bucky tilted his head, feeling suddenly quite certain that a computer had strategically manipulated him. “You’re a little bit sneaky, aren’t you?” 

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Friday said. “I was programmed by the best. Now if you’d be so kind as to step inside.”

Bucky got out of the elevator and Tony greeted him with a dry, “It’s awfully late to be up destroying other people’s property.” 

He was perched in front of a steel table with his sleeve rolled up and a sensor pressed to his arm. A holographic projection of his musculoskeletal system was hovering in the air in front of him. The screens behind were displaying an analysis of a simple organism, running equations and compiling data—though Bucky couldn’t tell what for. 

“Couldn’t sleep,” Bucky said. 

Tony turned and the dark circles under his eyes and the weary lines of his forehead seemed to sympathize. "Same here," he said. “Actually tried for once, but no dice.” 

A rumpled blanket was trailing off the couch and onto the lab floor. Several empty cups of coffee were abandoned on the coffee table. If Tony had tried to sleep, he’d given up in spectacular fashion. And DUM-E was rolling around the mess and shifting things from one place to another without making any real headway toward cleanup. 

U was powered down in the corner, snoozing. 

“You okay?” Bucky asked. “You’ve been down here a long time.” 

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Wow, you are new around here,” he said. “For future reference, the rest of the team doesn't worry until we’re on about hour one hundred. Disappearing into the shop to tinker for days at a time is kind of my thing, Barnes.”   

“You’ve been sick. You could have been hurt down here and no one would have known.”

Tony batted his eyelashes. “Worried about little ol’ me?” he teased.

Bucky scowled. “Yeah, I was.” 

That clearly wasn’t the answer Tony had been expecting. His eyes widened and he sat up straighter. “Well, uh,” he turned away, shoulders slouching, “Friday’s actually set to call out in emergency situations. Probably should have told you that.”

“Yeah, probably should have told me about Friday. Period.”

“Oh.” Tony looked flustered. “Did I not? Uh, she’s—” He gestured around the room, indicating her omnipresence in the tower.

"She told me."

"That's my girl," Tony said. “Right now she’s helping me figure out that, um, whole being sick thing.” He indicated the display as Bucky came up beside him.  

Bucky braced one hand on the back of Tony’s chair and looked closer. “Infection?”

“Mm,” Tony said. “Manufactured bugs and pretty nasty. The good news is they’re not at full strength. The bad news is I can’t get rid of them through the usual means. Friday outsourced a possible treatment. Just waiting for the supply to arrive.”

“How long until it gets here?”

“A few days, maybe.” Tony looked off across the lab and then back at the hologram, uneasy. “I might have to do some tweaking on it, but all signs point to full recovery once I can get it into my system.” 

Bucky had the distinct impression Tony was talking around something he didn’t want Bucky to know, and he filed away the information to run by Steve later. “You’ll be okay until the medicine gets here?” 

“Me?” Tony said. “Yeah, I’m always fine.” He fidgeted, zooming in on the 3D hologram of his arm where a series of disks were inserted just beneath the surface of his skin

“What are those?” Bucky reached up to touch the patterns of light.

“Ah, careful with that.” Tony moved the sensor away from his arm and the projection blipped out with the click of a button. “Sorry. It’s interactive.” With a gesture, Tony shut off the screens as well. 

Bucky took a step back, searching the lab as if he might be able to find the hologram secretly stashed in a corner. “That was inside your arm, though, right?” For all he’d spent the last seventy-some years as a hardened killer, what slipped through was the voice of an awed kid.

Tony ducked his head with a small smile, absently fussing with the settings on the sensor. “Yep. One hundred percent Tony Stark.”

“What were those things?”

“Well,” Tony said, “I hate to break it to you, but it turns out you’re not the only metal marvel in the tower.” He grabbed a nearby chair and wheeled it around for Bucky. Tony held out his arm. “Here. Feel.” 

Cautious, Bucky straddled the chair and rolled closer. 

Tony guided the fingers of Bucky’s right hand over the inside of his forearm, pausing at several hard knots. “They’re implants. Homing devices for the suit, so it can find me wherever I am. Of course, that only works when they’re working. Right now they’re just expensive body modification.”

Bucky traced the edge of one of the circles, and Tony’s gaze strayed to the false soul mark etched on Bucky’s inner arm. “You have more of these inside you?” Bucky asked.

Tony cleared his throat, refocusing. “Just the arms,” he said. “The suit extrapolates positioning from there.” He brought the sensor to his skin again and the schematic glowed back to life, zooming in to one of the nodes. Tony pointed with his pinky finger. “If they were functioning at all, we’d get an energy signature on this readout. There’s nothing.”

“So you’re going to have to replace them.” 

“Bingo.” Tony let out a sigh. “I’ve used wrist bands before and that’ll have to be the temporary fix until I can reboot these or replace them. But there are some complications I have to work out first.”

“That have anything to do with the infection?”

Tony poked the inside of his cheek with his tongue. “Nothing much.” 

Bucky was quickly picking up on the not-so-subtle nuances of Stark-speak—particularly Tony’s tendency to downplay threats to his own wellbeing. In other words, the complications had everything to do with the infection. And the chances Tony was going to admit to it were zero to nil.

Right on cue came the change of subject. “You and Steve have a chance to catch up?” Tony asked, overly casual. He set the sensor aside and the holo-display disappeared.

“A little,” Bucky said. 

Tony took a beat. “A little?” He rolled his head. “Come on, Barnes. Don’t tell me you two didn’t actually do anything. I was trying to give you some privacy.”

There was something to be said for brazen dissociation as a diversionary tactic. Now Bucky was supposed to believe the lab blackout had been nothing but an act of altruism? It was a ballsy move. 

“Maybe it’s not my business,” Tony said, “but we’re stuck together, the three of us, for the foreseeable future. You two might as well make the best of it, right?”

“It’s complicated,” Bucky said. 

“You’ve mentioned that.” And now Tony was genuinely irritated. “So what if you’re a mess? Join the club. Not all of us get the chance to be with someone who’s willing to stick it out no matter how bad things get. Shit, Barnes. Don’t take it for granted. Let him love you anyway.”

Bucky pressed his face into his shoulder, hiding a smirk. He couldn’t help it.

“What’s so funny?” Tony huffed. “I’m being serious here.”

“I know,” Bucky said. “Just, that little speech was worthy of Steve Rogers. I’m really startin’ to see why he likes you.”

Tony frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Bucky rested his chin briefly on the back of the chair and raised his eyebrows. “Nothing,” he said, and abruptly pushed up from the chair and rolled it away. “So, are you comin’ upstairs tonight or what?” 

“Uh.” Tony’s thought process visibly stalled and restarted with a jolt. “Um, sorry. What?”

“It’s the middle of the night,” Bucky said. “I asked you if you were comin’ upstairs.”

“To—with you?” Tony stuttered. “What about Steve?”

Well, that was an interesting leap. Bucky hadn’t necessarily meant to suggest they go upstairs to the same bed, but Tony had taken it as an invitation. “Steve’s in his own quarters tonight if you're looking for someone to cuddle up with.”

Tony’s mouth dropped open. “That’s—okay, wow—that’s not…”

“But you’ve thought about it.”

Tony’s mouth snapped shut. “Can I back out of this conversation? Because I’m not sure where this is going and I think I’m about to get myself into a whole lot of trouble.”

That settled it. 

“Look, Steve and I are takin' it slow. We've got our reasons. But I don't know the place well enough yet and I sleep easier when I know somebody's got my back." Bucky wandered over to the sofa and flopped. "If you’re gonna stay down here, could I just take this spot? I won't bother you.” DUM-E beeped, head whirring, and Bucky held out his left hand for the bot to examine. 

“You're saying you want to stay down here with me?” Tony asked, bewildered. “There’s a top-of-the line, king-sized mattress in your room and you want to crash on my ratty lab couch because I'm down here?” 

“That’s the long and the short of it," Bucky said, pushing up on his elbows. "That okay?”

After a pause, Tony said, “Yeah, no. That's okay. It's definitely okay.”

 

+

 

Sleep was thankfully dreamless, if turbulent and dark around the edges. At some point Tony’s voice came through, watery and far away.

“Scootch over, Skywalker. I’m not sleeping on the floor of my own lab.”

Bucky shifted blearily, lifting his arm. A weight settled beside him and Bucky pulled him close, a familiar motion after their night in the cell.

Tony’s heart was beating fast against his ribcage and Bucky buried his nose in Tony’s hair. “S’okay, Tony,” he mumbled, still half asleep. “Don't worry. We’re not gonna hurt you.”

 

+

 

In hindsight, Bucky might have said too much. 

Tony was uncharacteristically silent in the morning, and the dark circles under his eyes were more pronounced than ever. He started up the coffee maker in the communal kitchen and leaned the counter in a daze.

Vision and Wanda were already at the kitchen table, and Vision offered a friendly, “Good morning. I trust you all slept well?” 

Bucky nodded gruffly and Tony made a noise that could have been a yes or a no. 

Wanda sent a tendril of red energy to pick out an apple from the fruit bowl next to Bucky’s elbow. She caught the fruit and seemed to puzzle over him while she ate. He kept his chin down and moved out of the kitchen, into the open expanse of the living room, where it was easier to pretend he wasn't being sized up. Outside the sky was grey with rain and rivulets streamed down the windows. 

Clint stumbled in still wearing his pajamas, hair mussed and eyes half-lidded. Without a word, he started pulling a random assortment of food out of the fridge. Sam came in a moment later and asked for the orange juice, but Clint didn’t hear him and nearly dropped a carton of eggs when he turned around to find Sam standing right behind him.

Clint switched on one of his hearing aids. “Dude, do you need something?”

Sam gave a long-suffering sigh. “Come on, man,” he said. “You got them in, I think they’re on. Work with me here. I just want the orange juice.”

Clint shrugged and pulled out the jug and Sam retreated a safe distance to pour himself a glass. He caught sight of Bucky and tipped his head in greeting. "Hey, man." He held up the jug. "Want some?"

Bucky shook his head. He had a very clear memory of kicking Sam off the side of a helicarrier. It wasn't that Bucky wasn't grateful for the olive branch, but he wasn't quite ready to be chummy with someone he'd tried to kill. 

"Suit yourself." 

Steve and Rhodey, both freshly showered after the gym, joined them and Rhodey pulled up a seat at the table with Wanda and Vision. Friday displayed the day’s newsfeed at his request. Meanwhile Sam tried to convince Clint not to dump baking powder into a batch of blueberry pancake mix. Tony was staunchly ignoring everyone in favor of watching the coffee percolate, and Bucky folded himself onto the sectional sofa in an attempt to stay out of the way.

Steve lingered just beside the island, picking up on the unexpected tension. A grey and black tendril came through the bond—Steve wondering if everything was okay.

Bucky shook his head faintly. I think I made a mistake, he sent back. 

Sam took a moment from coaching Clint to elbow Steve. “You might as well go say good morning, Casanova." 

Steve blushed. He'd never been one for public displays of affection, and that was just about the only part of hiding their relationship that had ever agreed with him. At Sam's continued heckling, he came over and planted a stiff kiss on Bucky’s forehead.

Rhodey whistled low. “So the Winter Soldier likes forehead kisses.”   

“Better alert the press,” Sam joked. “They’re gonna want to see that.” 

“Hey, Tones,” Rhodey called, “think you can oblige the adoring public?”

Tony cracked an eye. “Coffee first, adoring public later,” he grumbled.

Steve bent close. “What happened?” he asked Bucky, voice low.

Bucky swallowed down the sour lump in his throat. “Might have accidentally come on a little strong.” 

Thankfully Steve thought better of asking questions. He squeezed Bucky’s shoulder. “Okay, we’ll deal with it after breakfast.” 

Natasha arrived, greeting both Sam and Clint with a kiss on the cheek. She carded her fingers through Tony’s hair by way of hello and his shoulders sagged with relief. “I’ll give you about a million years to stop that.” 

“Headache?” she asked, sizing up the room. 

Tony grunted in response.  

“You need to sit down.” Nat steered him away from the counter and urged him over to the sofa. She directed Tony to sit on the floor and climbed onto the cushions behind him. She sank her hands into his hair, slowly and methodically wringing out the tension.  

“But—coffee?” Tony’s plea was halfhearted at best. His chin was already lolling on his chest as he let Natasha have her way with him.

“Clint can bring you your coffee when it’s ready.” She caught Clint’s eye and signed to him as he poked at a pan filled with a runny mixture somewhere between raw and fried eggs. 

“Not like I have my hands full here or anything,” Clint said. He tapped his ear to let her know the hearing aid was on. The toaster behind him was smoking. 

“This is your punishment for eating Sam’s breakfast yesterday,” Natasha reminded him.

“I think the punishment is landing more on us than on him,” Sam said. He slipped in behind Clint, popped the toast, and fanned the smoke away from the blackened slices. “Anyone like well done?”

“I’ll take them,” Natasha said. “With jam?” She fluttered her eyelashes.

“Damn with those eyes.” Sam shook his head and reached for the jar already on the counter. “I know you’re playing, but it works. Every time.”

“I never promised I’d play fair.” Natasha smirked and turned back to kneading Tony’s neck and shoulders. 

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know where you learned to do that,” he said, “and I’m half terrified you’re going to snap my neck, but—and please don’t quote me on this—don’t stop?”

Natasha hummed and leaned close to his ear. “Careful what you wish for, Stark. You might just get it.”

Bucky frowned and Steve’s hand tightened on his shoulder.  

Natasha noticed. “Something wrong, boys?” she asked sweetly.

“Not at all,” Steve said. But the unsettled, anxious feeling prickling through the bond said yes. 

Sam came over with Natasha's toast and she gratefully took the plate. “Take over for me while I eat, Barnes,” she said, slipping out from her spot and tugging Bucky away from Steve. “You don’t mind, do you, Steve? He and Tony have to practice getting cozy anyway.” She didn't wait for a response. She arranged them—Tony’s shoulders wedged neatly between Bucky’s knees—and took her food to the table without so much as a backward glance. 

“Um.” Bucky was at a loss. He looked to Steve, who was just as nonplussed. Steve waved him on and went to give Sam some much needed help with Clint, who was on a one-man mission to destroy the kitchen.

Bucky placed cool metal fingers on the nape of Tony’s neck, causing goosebumps to rise. “Is this all right?” he asked quietly. 

Tony coughed into his fist. “Uh, yeah,” he said, surprising him. “Yep. I mean, if you want to, it’s more than all right.” He shifted back, inviting the touch. “Any excuse to get that hand on me,” he teased weakly. 

Bucky slid his thumbs down the back of Tony’s neck and worked circles in the hollow between his shoulders and spine. He slid his fingers back up, lightly behind his ears, running through Tony’s tousled hair, and then back down and across his shoulders. He paused at knots of tension to knead them out and then smooth the abused skin. And then over again.

Tony covered his eyes. “Holy shit, you’re better than Natasha.” 

“Probably don’t want to say that too loud,” Bucky said, easing into a rhythm. He cast a glance over his shoulder, but Nat had her back to them and was chatting amicably with Vision. Something about human taste buds and the reasons a person might select to eat blackened toast, with or without jam. Bucky didn’t entirely trust she wasn’t listening—a spy was always listening—but he focused on the task at hand. 

The process was familiar and comforting, though Bucky couldn’t put his finger on why. Maybe he used to give massages to Steve, or maybe it was that this was the first time since 1944 anyone had trusted him to use his hands to heal and not to hurt. He used to be good at taking care of people, he knew that much. With a handful of younger sisters and Steve and Steve’s ma Sarah, Bucky’d grown up a natural at looking after others. 

He circled each notch of Tony’s vertebrae with the tip of his thumb and then dragged his metal thumb and forefinger down the indent on either side of Tony’s spine, down and back up, applying steady pressure. Tony made a contented sound at the back of his throat, so Bucky slipped his right hand around to Tony’s chest, holding him steady while he drew his fingers along Tony’s spine again, harder.

Tony inhaled sharply. “I’m—” His voice cracked and he tried again. “I need you to stop.” 

Bucky let go. Shit. He’d pushed too hard. “Sorry.”

Tony laughed shakily. “Yeah. No, that was good. Really good. I think you have a career in the industry if you want one. But. Just, uh.” He looked to the ceiling for help, breathing in deeply through his nose. “Just gonna need a minute here.” 

“Did I hurt you?”

Tony licked his lips. “Nope, not hurt. Not even a bit.” 

Then what had he done? 

Bucky glanced down and Tony’s hands were folded tightly over his lap.

Oh. 

Oh.

That wasn't what Bucky had expected. 

He was even less prepared for his own visceral response—the sudden, overwhelming desire to turn Tony around to face him, push him to the floor—company be damned—and help him with something even better than getting rid of a headache. 

Bucky’s pulse surged in his ears. He’d never felt that way about anyone except—

Steve! 

Steve jerked around, nearly spilling the bowl of pancake mix, assessing the room for a threat. With none detected, he zeroed in on Bucky and Tony, testing the shade and timbre of Bucky’s panic. Steve’s eyes widened and Bucky felt his own desire echoing back through the pull of the bond, affecting Steve in steady, equal measures. Steve set the bowl down. 

“Everyone out.” 

It was an order, and to the team’s credit they didn’t question it. Natasha kicked her chair back and steered Vision and Wanda down the hall, continuing their conversation like nothing was amiss. Sam backtracked to move the eggs off the burner when Clint abandoned them wholesale, then ducked out with a nod to Steve. Rhodey stopped long enough to ask Tony if he was all right, and Tony assured him with a defeated kind of dread that he’d tell him all about it later. 

Steve came over to them, face unreadable. 

“Whatever you’re going to say, Rogers, just don’t,” Tony said, miserable. He grabbed a nearby pillow and held it securely over his lap. “I’ve got enough on my plate and I think I made it perfectly clear from the start that I’m medically weak for time traveling icemen and high tech prosthetics, so you can take the overprotective boyfriend act down from eleven. If you’d just give me a minute I’ll get out of your hair and you two can reaffirm your epic and undying cosmic love for each other.”

“Tony, would you shut up for just a second?” Steve said.

Tony’s nostrils flared. “You know what? No, I’m not going to shut up.” He got to his feet and held the pillow firmly in place, ridiculous but defiant nonetheless. “My house, my rules, Captain. I’m only fucking human, Rogers, and guess what? I make mistakes, so you can lay off the perfect patriot guilt trip and save it for your doe-eyed groupie over there.”

Groupie? Steve mouthed.

“Tony, breathe,” Bucky said. “We're not—” 

“Jesus, Barnes, how fucked up are things between you two?” Tony demanded. “You kissed me yesterday when you didn’t have to, and then you break into my lab and tell me to go sleep with your soulmate?"

Steve turned an incredulous look on Bucky, and Bucky shrugged helplessly. It wasn’t like that. Not exactly.

"You didn’t think that’d fuck with my head?" Tony went on. "And then you talk to me last night like you and Steve might actually be interested? That’s a joke.” 

“Tony, stop,” Steve said. 

“Don’t even start with me, Rogers—”

“Tony,” Bucky said.

“What?” Tony snapped. 

Bucky and Steve traded glances. “Tony, we are interested,” Steve said. “Buck and I talked about it yesterday.”

Tony blinked at him like he’d spoken an alien language. “What the fuck?”

“Look, we know the timing’s not great and there are a lot of things to consider. SHIELD is breathing down our necks, waiting for us to slip up, and you and Pepper—”

“Don’t bring her into this,” Tony warned, expression darkening. 

“We don’t expect you to say yes,” Steve rushed to say, uncomfortable. “Or anything at all. Just, you should know that’s how we feel.”

Tony looked between the two of them, brow furrowed. He stepped back a pace. “Friday,” he called, “check brain functions. Is it the infection?”

“All brain functions are normal at this time, boss,” Friday replied.

“But I’m hallucinating,” Tony hissed under his breath.

“If I may,” Friday volunteered, “I think Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are trying to ask you to be their boyfriend.”

Tony reeled. “But they’re soulmates,” he protested loudly. “Soulmates don’t need boyfriends.

“Tony,” Steve said.

“Would you stop saying my name?” Tony growled. “I know what my goddamned name is!”

Steve’s mouth snapped shut.

"Real sweet, Stark." Bucky scowled. "Steve's trying to tell you we like you and that's all you got to say? No one told me you were a first class dick, otherwise we might not be having this conversation."

Tony was visibly chastised. “Okay, all right." He paced in front the couch, pillow held tightly in place. “Let’s take a step back here and deal with this like rational adults."

Bucky rolled his eyes. "Great idea."

"If you guys are just fucking with me, I’d appreciate it if you’d say something now so I can scrape whatever dignity I have left off the floor and go into hiding forever.”  

“We're not—” Steve cut himself short, that familiar blush coming back through the bond. We're not fucking with you. 

“We ain’t new to this kind of thing," Bucky finished for him. 

Tony stopped in his tracks. “Okay, that—I will definitely need details on that.”

“Let's start with: are you even interested?” Steve said.

“Yes, hell yes," Tony blurted. "Interested doesn’t even begin to cover it.” He looked them over like he was seeing them for the first time, the possibilities flickering across his face in rapid progression. He was calculating and compiling data and Bucky was starting to think Stark really did have at least twenty ideas for his arm that had nothing to do with its intended purpose. Tony shifted the pillow self consciously. “You two are not helping my situation here, by the way.”

Bucky bit down on his cheek to keep from smiling.

Steve's eyebrows raised. "So, you—want to try it?" 

“I would," Tony said slowly, but his expression quickly sobered, "but there are logistics to consider."

"Pepper?" Steve asked gently. 

"For one." Tony flexed his wrist and forearm, where he'd shown Bucky the dead implants the night before. He rubbed his fingertips together, a slight tremor there, and then he hardened his jaw. "I can't believe I'm going to say this," he muttered, shaking his head. "I never ran a single scenario where I turned you down." He rubbed the back of his neck, squeezing his eyes shut. “But no. The answer has to be no. As much as it would be a literal wet dream—I'm..." He looked like he desperately wanted to ask Friday for the right way to finish. "The thing is," he said flatly, "I'm not ready to have my heart broken again.”

Steve stuffed his hands into his pockets, shoulders slouching like they always had with every rejection he had ever gotten. At least the ones Bucky could remember. 

"Bullshit," Bucky said.

Tony flushed. "Excuse me?" 

Potential heartbreak wasn't Tony's reason for turning them down. It may have been one reason, but it wasn't the reason. Bucky was sure of it. 

"Bucky," Steve warned. 

"What? This ain't right. There's something he's not telling us," Bucky said. 

"He doesn't owe us an explanation."

"It's not that hard if you think about it," Tony said, defensive. "You two are soul bonded and I'm a free agent. The odds aren't exactly in my favor. If you'd caught me about a decade ago, Barnes, we could have had a spectacular one night stand, no strings attached." He was being deliberately flippant, trying to misdirect. "Too little, too late." 

Bucky narrowed his eyes. "A decade ago? I don't think you'd want me to have caught you."

"Lay off, Buck," Steve said. He turned to Tony. "You're sure this is what you want?"

Tony's mouth stretched in a parody of a smile. "It's the way it has to be."

Bucky tried to say something, but Steve cut him off. “Okay then. So what do we do about our arrangement here?” Steve asked. “Do Buck and I need to find the back way out of here?”

The facade slipped, just for a moment. “I’m not going to play house with you, Rogers," Tony said, "but I'm not going to kick you out. Holy shit. What kind of narcissistic asshole do you think I am?—Don't answer that.—You're staying put.” 

"You'll still have to pretend Bucky is your soulmate," Steve said. "Are you sure you want to do that?" 

"Look, fine. Here's the deal," Tony said. "We're going to keep on with everything exactly the way we planned. I didn't get this tattoo on the inside of my thigh for shits and giggles. For all intents and purposes, Bucky is my soulmate and we're disgustingly in love. In about a week we'll start making public appearances, doing photo shoots, and we're going to make the masses love James Buchanan Barnes more than you do. Away from the spotlight, it's all you two. You stick to each other and you let me do my own thing." Here Tony turned a pointed look at Bucky. "I'll be adding coding to the lab blackout protocols to close the loophole you exploited last night, so don't try it again. Nothing hands-on outside of what's strictly necessary for the press. As you can see," he gestured to his modesty pillow, "I don't need the temptation." 

"That's fair," Steve said. 

"Fine," Bucky agreed, curt. 

"All right, then." Tony scuffed his foot on the floor. "So, what about you guys? What do you want? Barnes, you wanted to talk about pet names.”

"You can call me James," Bucky said mulishly.

"Bucky, come on," Steve said.

Bucky scrunched up his nose. "'Darling' is all right, too. Nothing cutesy."

"I can work with that," Tony said. "What about hard limits? Touching?"

Bucky licked his lips. "What we’ve done so far is fine." More than fine. But he wasn't sure what could be a potential trigger for the programming, so he added, "Nothin' too rough, I guess." 

Tony nodded. "Okay, we can keep it sweet. Shouldn't have much reason for anything else." He raised an eyebrow at Steve. "What about you? Anything you don't want to see me doing to him?"

Steve went red. 

Bucky gave Tony a bemused glare. "Thought you said you weren't interested. You're gonna rile him up if you keep up with questions like that.”   

“Turnabout, fair play and all that,” Tony said, just a shade chagrined. 

Steve answered roughly, "I trust you not to take it too far, Tony." 

"Okay, but how about this?" Tony proposed. "If either of you need to call a halt and we're in mixed company, just say something like 'apple pie' and we'll stop whatever we're doing. Sound good?"

"Can we agree to talk to each other if the rules need to change?" Steve asked. 

"Goes without saying," Tony said. 

"Well, I'm saying it."

"Great," Tony said. "Is that settled then? This has been absolutely mortifying and I need to go take care of a problem or two now." He made for the elevator, surveying the kitchen as he passed. "I'll have Friday order in some breakfast for the team." He gestured to Clint's cold pan of eggs and the bowl of pancake batter, which had turned gelatinous. "That was bound to be a disaster." 

Steve called after Tony, “If you change your mind, tell us."  

"Sorry, Cap." Tony pressed the button. "I'm not going to change my mind."

  

+

 

The elevator doors had closed and icy black defeat came crashing in. And that was Steve trying to hold it in, trying to stay strong and not let the feelings overwhelm him. 

"Shit, Stevie. Come here." Bucky pulled Steve close, rubbing his arms up and down and planting kisses along his cheeks.

It hadn't been a simple crush. Whatever Steve had said, his feelings for Tony had gone deeper than that. They might have been his only lifeline when Steve found himself stranded in a strange and unforgiving future. Whatever hope Steve had stashed away in the corner of his mind, something to save for a rainy day, was gone. 

"Shh, Stevie," he said gently. "Listen. I love you. We'll work it out. I promise."

"It's okay, Buck." Steve's eyes were red-rimmed, but he managed a watery smile. "Like I said. It was just a stupid fantasy."

 

+

 

In true Steve Rogers fashion, Steve didn't wallow. He bottled it up and went for training with the team just as the sun broke through the cloud cover that afternoon. Tony was well and truly holed up in the lab, and Friday informed Bucky the parameters had been updated just as Tony had warned they would be. There was no getting in unless Bucky actually destroyed something, and he doubted that approach would make him welcome. So that left Bucky to wander. Friday gave him a virtual tour of the tower’s facilities and directed him to the gym, where he spent his considerable frustration hitting bags before returning to their private floor. He ate more protein bars and finished off the cold pizza leftovers while Friday gave him a tutorial on how to order out if he wanted something different. 

When he stepped out of the shower, he found his backpack waiting for him on the bed.  

“Mr. Stark had your belongings taken out of holding and sent up for you,” Friday said. 

Bucky brushed the canvas lightly, as though the bag might disappear at the faintest touch. 

The night SHIELD had taken him into custody, Stark had claimed the backpack as his own—blurting out an obvious lie about Bucky carrying it for him. He'd had sent it off with SI security to be stored in a vault before the agents could marshal their senses enough to claim it. 

"What is this?" Bucky asked Friday. "Is this supposed to be a consolation prize or something?"

"Mr. Stark didn't specify."

"Of course not."

Bucky finished drying off and pulled on a tee and sweats—having something clean and soft and new to wear two days in a row felt like unprecedented luxury and he didn't entirely trust it. He sat on the bed with the bag nearby and had Friday bring up the entertainment archive. A vast digital library of music, books, and movies was at his fingertips and he spent several hours scrolling audiobooks, rock music, classical symphonies, TV comedies, and space documentaries before he switched over to a simple ambient noise soundtrack. A forest with the trilling and chirping of frogs and the rumble of distant storms. Sounds that were timeless and old and grounded. Nothing too complex. Just enough to take him out of his head, out of his surroundings. 

Bucky pulled the bag onto his lap and upended it onto the bedspread. Out tumbled an array of pens and a pile of old journals—pages filled with the scratched and halting record of his shredded memories. He picked out one of the books and thumbed through the worn and stained pages. Some of the entries felt like nothing more than dreams or wishful thinking. Others were more like waking nightmares.  

If SHIELD had gotten their hands on any one of these books, they would have had everything they needed to justify killing him on sight. 

If Bucky wanted to play it smart, he’d destroy them.

By all accounts he'd been a smart kid in school. But he also liked to play the odds. And Bucky was sick of cutting up his life for other people. Steve was right. Bucky couldn't pick and choose his past. Like it or not, what Hydra had done to him was part of him now. He'd have to come to terms with that sooner or later.  

Bucky gathered up the pens and the journals and piled them into the backpack again—all except for one ballpoint pen and a blank notebook he put on the bedside table. He stashed the bag inside a duct and set a tripwire. Friday promised to alert him if his hiding place was compromised.

"Don't tell Steve," Bucky said. "Not yet."

"Confidentiality is key to my programming, Sergeant."  

"He's had a bad enough day as it is." 

 

+

 

He should have known better than to look at the journals. The dreams always came after he did. 

It had to be a dream because Bucky's body was too lanky, too gangly. He was in that awkward teenage phase he’d long since left behind, and his surface mind was blissfully unaware of the torments waiting to be plumbed beneath the surface. Well, he knew, but he didn’t know, the way it could only happen in a dream. 

The Brooklyn streets were empty and the sun was going down. It was summer, but the gnats flitting and twirling in the glow of the street lamps became snowflakes and the growing shadows turned bitter cold. His breath steamed. The darkness sliced after him and he hurried without knowing where he was going. 

His family didn’t live in this neighborhood anymore, did they? 

No, they can’t be here, he struggled to remind himself. This wasn’t real and his family had to be long gone. Dead or almost. Don’t be fooled. 

Sleep was deep and seamless, sealed shut the same way Hydra had done with his memories, over and over, burying him ever deeper inside his own skull. No way out, no matter where he turned. Suffocating.

His feet were dragging, slowing. The air was heavy. He was tired. Unease tugged at him, insistent. He needed to keep moving, but it was getting harder and harder to remember why. 

His ma had sent him on an errand, hadn’t she? Mrs. Kelley two blocks over had promised them a head of cabbage and some carrots for their stew that night. She had extra and she liked the Barneses well enough to share. She also had a daughter just about Bucky’s age and it hadn’t escaped her attention that he was a nice young man getting to that age where soul bonding could happen at any time. 

She didn’t know he already had his mark. 

Or that when he was too weak from blood loss and swimming in painkillers they’d take it away. 

They’d taken it away. 

And afterward they’d asked him to do things he shouldn’t have done; but the orders slipped under his skin and into his bones like honey—warm, sweet, reassuring. What choice did he have but to obey? 

Where was Steve? Was he out here on the streets alone? Bucky was shivering. He had to find him before it got too dark. Steve would get sick in this weather. He’d freeze. Or the bullies would find him. Either way, Bucky had to stop it. He’d been taking boxing lessons and he was stronger than he used to be.

Except—the bullies had asked Bucky to join them. He remembered with a wash of nausea that he’d agreed to help them. Why? It didn’t make sense. They wanted him to hurt Steve and the liquid numbness would take away whatever ability he had left to say no. It wouldn’t matter how strong he was. 

He had to get away from here, but he was too heavy and the ground was like sand. His shoulders sagged.

The sun was gone. The streets were quiet. The snow was coming down in earnest.

The other him—he was static and magnets and live wire electricity, not a person, but a void opening inside his mind. Bolts of pain sparked and jumped and flashed through Bucky’s limbs and soon enough he’d have to give in and let him take over.

The Soldier was waking up and with him he brought new memories. 

 

+

 

"Do you think his soulmate’s looking for him?" The voice was nervous, bouncing off the cement walls of the lab. "Maybe we shouldn’t do this."

"This guy hasn’t got two brain cells to rub together," another voice answered. "He’s not gonna miss his soul mark. He keeps running off and they need him focused on his training." 

"This is the kind of thing that could lose us the chance at our own rendezvous."

"That's an old wives' tale," the second voice argued. "Fairytale nonsense isn't going to build us a better world. Get your head together."

"He'll be angry when he finds out." 

"He's drugged into the next century. It's on his back. He's not going to know, not unless you plan on telling him."

"I wasn't going to tell him." 

"Then get the scalpel." 

 

+

 

He knew, though. 

The lab technician had been right. He'd woken up fit to kill.

Afterward the lab floor was slick with ichor. The steady drip, drip, drip of blood was running down the grooves of his metal arm and off his fingertips. His breath came deep and ragged and he fought through the fog, trying to understand what had been taken from him and why it hurt so much to lose it. Some part of himself, muffled beneath the static, was screaming—screaming—and wouldn't stop. 

Guards had swarmed in, weapons ready, and surrounded him, barking orders. They were going to kill him him and he didn't care. Anything to stop the noise in his head.  

Bucky hunched on the edge of the giant, empty king-size bed with the notebook in his lap and wrote it all down, every detail. As bad as it was, the memory was his.

A faint blue light shone through the bond and Bucky flinched away from it. He thought he'd shut the connection in time—that maybe he'd gotten lucky and Steve hadn't felt the nightmare surface.

"I told you, Steve," he rasped, closing his eyes. "I told you I didn't want you to see this. Get out of my head." 

There was a pale and distant muttering, like words spoken underwater, and for one terrified moment Bucky didn't know who it was. It definitely wasn't his soulmate.

He dropped the journal and got to his feet, casting about like he could track down the stranger in his thoughts. "Who—?"

Geometric patterns cut through the light, impressions of sequencing and curiosity and order. It was far away, diluted, tenuous, but it was there. It flared brightly and then it blipped out.

Bucky stood stunned. He couldn't quite wrap his mind around it, but there was only one person it could have been. 

"Tony?"

Chapter Text

It was just a stupid fantasy. 

“Falcon, keep your formation tight with War Machine up there,” Steve directed over the com. 

The sky was clear and the air cool after the rain. The two aviators circled the open field, Rhodey taking lead. The rest of the team had taken up positions on the ground to either support or attack as the two flew patterns and assessed the situation on the ground. 

Steve paced behind Natasha, his arms folded. They were observing the team’s maneuvers from a viewing deck just outside the Avengers’ compound in upstate New York. In addition to an optimal vantage over the field, holo-displays showed a live feed of the team’s movements, allowing them to zero in on specific recruits and critique their performance. The feed would be saved and archived, allowing them to come back and reassess as needed.

Stark Industries facilities closer to Manhattan could have provided similar resources; but Steve had other reasons for returning to the compound. The distance was just enough to stretch the bond to its maximum, leaving it effectively muted. After their disastrous conversation with Tony at breakfast, Steve had, for once, needed the distance just as much as his soulmate—to be far enough out of range they didn’t have to guard themselves from each other. It was a stolen bit of privacy, and it gave Steve a chance to lose himself in practice and routine until his emotions settled. 

The team hadn’t called him on it, although they would have been well within their rights if they had. He’d taken them pretty far out of their way. 

It was just a stupid fantasy. 

“We’re flying a dual mission here,” Steve said. “The goal is to stay together. Hawkeye has orders to separate you two in the air. You can’t let his arrows throw you off course.”

“Do you two have a plan if you get grounded?” Natasha cut in.

“Pray for our asses?” Sam replied. 

“No jokes, Falcon,” Steve said. “We need everyone on the same page, and we can’t be sure what that page is if you’re not being serious.”

Natasha shot Steve a quizzical look over her shoulder as Sam replied, “Yes, Captain.”

“Our plan is to reverse our air tactics,” Rhodey said. “Falcon takes lead in hand-to-hand combat on the ground. I keep him covered unless abandoning the suit is necessary.”

“Good. Watch each other’s backs,” Steve said. “Trust each other.”

It was just—

Natasha muted her com and put a hand on his arm, halting his agitated pacing. “I’ve got this, Steve,” she said. “Why don’t you take five?”

Was it that obvious his head wasn’t in the game? Nat had always been damn good at reading him, but she wouldn’t have asked him to bow out unless he was unnecessarily distracted. In an emergency, distraction compromised the team. If this had been anything except a training exercise, he’d be a liability. Someone could get hurt, and all because he’d let himself get carried away. 

He deferred to her with a nod and Nat unmuted her com and took over directing the drill, snapping instructions at their recruits as Clint attempted to thwart them.

Steve leaned back against a railing and rubbed his forehead, trying to collect himself. 

The worst part was he’d done it to himself. 

A relationship with Tony had never been in the cards. It had been a simple daydream to take the bitter edge off the emptiness and confusion of modern day life. It had been a harmless, innocuous crush. A spark fanned by the intense circumstances that had drawn the Avengers together. That was all. Just a sliver of something for himself that wasn’t SHIELD or Hydra or service to country. 

Steve didn’t love Tony.

He just—he used to imagine coming home to the tower and coaxing Tony out of the lab so they could go get something to eat. Or waking with a groggy, sleep-deprived Tony collapsed on his shoulder. Or standing together under the shower spray after a hard battle, rivulets cascading down as they checked each other for injuries, washed away the grime, and soothed the hurts. 

It didn’t have to be anything more than that. Well, it could be, but what Steve wanted most was just—the taking care of each other. The being together. 

Was that such a bad thing?

He didn’t want to replace Bucky. No one ever could. But the idea of another partner had been a life preserver when Steve was drowning in the fear his soulmate would forever be out of reach. 

And maybe Tony had flaws—plenty of them, including a tendency to fly full tilt into mistakes—but he cared. He genuinely cared. And Steve couldn’t help but admire Tony’s stubborn determination to do what he thought was right.

Steve had always known where the line was, though. Tony had been in love with Pepper long before Steve had met him. From the beginning, he’d been so careful not to get his hopes up. 

So he didn’t understand why Tony’s rejection had left him feeling like the rug had been swept out from under his feet. Tony had said there was never a circumstance in which he’d imagined turning Steve down. Well, there had never been a circumstance where Steve had realistically imagined Tony saying yes. The disappointment shouldn’t have been such a crushing weight. 

But it was.

And despite Bucky’s shared disappointment and attempts to comfort him, it felt like Steve had betrayed his soulmate in the process. Bucky wouldn’t have entertained the idea of being with Tony if Steve hadn’t had feelings for Tony first. It was Steve’s fault for being careless with all of their hearts. 

Steve shook himself and took a deep breath. Moping on the sidelines wasn’t going to help, and it certainly wasn’t going to change the situation.

He secured his helmet and swung the shield onto his back. He signaled to Nat and he ran out to join Clint as part of the faux assault team. As long as Steve’s body was moving, he could let the rest of the world recede until the task was complete—and with Natasha in charge he could be sure it would take a long time for their training session to be over.

 

+

 

Nat didn’t let them break ranks until the sun was behind the trees and the team was making sloppy mistakes. She surveyed them critically while they limped back to the compound. “You think aliens are going to let you break for dinner?” she said. “Or wait ten minutes so you can wash the slime off? They’re not, trust me. Count yourselves lucky I’m nicer than they are.” 

Steve paused beside her and pulled off his helmet, still trying to catch his breath. “Is that what passes for motivation?”

Nat gave a half shrug. “Reality is harsh,” she said. “We’re training them to fight. I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by sugarcoating the truth.”  

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and waited for the others to move out of range. “Thank you,” he said softly.

Nat gave an enigmatic smile. “Just doing my job, Rogers.”

After washing up and treating minor injuries, the team ordered dinner and put on a movie in the compound common room—something for background noise while they chatted and recovered their energy. Steve slipped away to sort through his room and box up personal items to take back to the tower—mostly old photos, books, and personal letters returned to him from the Smithsonian. 

The rest of the team would be gathering their own things before they headed back to the city the next morning. The layover was unplanned, but after Nat’s training session, the team had earned a chance to sleep in their own beds. 

Steve sent a message to Friday and she acknowledged all was quiet at the tower. Tony was in the lab and Bucky was exploring the digital entertainment archives. It wasn’t likely anything major would happen before sunrise. 

There was a knock on Steve’s doorframe and Wanda leaned inside, a bag of her own belongings slung over her shoulder. “I’m sorry. Are you busy, Captain?” 

“Come in.” He waved her inside. “You doing all right? Nat put you through your paces today.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said awkwardly. “A few bruises, but nothing I can’t handle.” 

“What can I do for you?”

“I thought, perhaps,” she wrung her pinkie finger, “you might need to talk to someone.”

Steve paused midway into rolling up a pair of jeans. He hadn’t told any of the team what had happened at breakfast, and Wanda was usually discreet about using her telepathic ability. He couldn’t imagine her coming to talk to him without some prodding. “Did Nat send you?” He finished rolling the pants and fit them neatly into his pack and started on the next item.

“No,” Wanda said, drawing out the word uncertainly. 

“Sam?” Although Sam was more likely to come directly to Steve if he had something to say.

“We drew straws,” Wanda admitted. “We thought it better not to overwhelm you.”

Oh. So it was the whole team, then. And Wanda’d gotten the short stick. “Am I that transparent?” How much did they know?

“You wear your heart on your sleeve, Captain.”

Steve shook his head. “I’m just a little preoccupied. You can tell the team there’s nothing to worry about. I know I’m asking a lot of you right now and none of it is what you signed up for. This situation is a little—no, it’s a lot—more personal than I’d like it to be.”

“Seems to me SHIELD is forcing your hand,” she said. 

Steve added a small stack of paperback books, including a well-worn copy of the Iliad, to his box of letters. “Have you picked up any intel from the agents stationed in the tower?” Really, they were lucky SHIELD didn’t fully understand the range of Wanda’s abilities.

“Unease over the Winter Soldier,” Wanda said. “They’re familiar with the stories behind the name. He’s a legend to them, it seems. They’re afraid of him and what he can do, but I haven’t got much more than that. Just noise.” 

“What about the higher ups?”

“Agent Hoffman is intent on bringing Barnes in,” Wanda said. “That much was clear at the contract signing. She doesn’t believe he and Stark are soulmates. It was too convenient an excuse for her liking, but she can’t disprove it. Not with the public keeping such a close eye on the tower.”

“Chances are good she’s still going to try to find a way to expose their relationship.”

“She is watching, yes.”

Not for the first time Steve wondered who had given the order to have the Winter Soldier killed. Had it been Hoffman? Or was she acting on someone else’s orders? Tony had surmised it had to do with SHIELD cleaning the slate, trying to start new without Hydra skeletons in their closet. But all they were succeeding at doing was making new skeletons. Hunting down a prisoner of war, a man who’d been tortured and brainwashed, was never going to look good in the public eye, even if that man was the world’s most notorious assassin. 

Of course, that’s why they’d wanted to make the kill quick, clean, and quiet. A bullet in a back alley and they’d look like heroes. Tony had put it center stage, full spotlight, and the attention made it difficult for SHIELD to maneuver. 

“Barnes—he’s one of us,” Wanda said, concern wrinkling her brow. “Hydra experimented on me, too. It was my choice, but… If SHIELD were to come for me, I would like to know someone was on my side. I think, for me and the rest of the team, we all feel the same. We want to help, however we can.”

“Thank you, Wanda.”

“Besides, Captain,” she said, “some of us are hoping you’ll go easier on us if you’re distracted by your soulmate.”

“Is that so?” he said wryly. “We talking about Sam or Clint here?” 

“I’m not naming names.”

“You can tell me.”

“Oh no.” She laughed. “Nice try, but I have to live with these people.” She ducked her head and made to excuse herself. 

“Wanda, wait.” He beckoned her back into the room and checked to make sure the rest of the team was well out of earshot, the movie still running in the common room. Wanda had to know about the connection he shared with Bucky. After the events of the week, if she hadn’t picked up on it, he’d be surprised. 

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, seeming to know what he was about to ask. 

“Is there anything you can do for him?” 

“I wish I could, Captain,” she said quietly, tucking her hair behind her ear. “My powers are strong, but I’m no healer. I have more experience breaking minds than fixing them. At best I would be ineffective, at worst I would cause more damage. Barnes has suffered enough. Forgive me, but I don’t want that on my conscience.” 

Steve sighed. “It’s all right. I just thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

“You two have an enviable connection,” she offered, as if in apology. “There’s damage between you, yes, but the energies that surround you both are quite beautiful. Other soulmate pairs don’t look like you.”

Steve cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

“A typical soulmate pair—they glow with a kind of hazy, magnetic field when they’re near to each other,” she replied. “You and Barnes are more like… ribbons. A reciprocal spiral of energy that stretches and flexes and feeds into each other. Other soulmates naturally gravitate towards one another, but you two are directly connected. You’re tied together. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“Have you ever seen anyone else like us?”  

Wanda shook her head. “I wish I could offer more insight. I can sense the energy, maybe even understand a little of it, but the how or the why are beyond me.”

“If there was someone out there who did have the answers, I’d be surprised,” he said. “Thank you, Wanda.” Before she left—presumably to fulfill her mission and report back to the group—he asked, “How are things between you and Vision?” 

She smiled. “It’s new, and he’s very young. He has a lot yet to learn.”

Steve was about to sound too much like a concerned parent, but he couldn’t help himself. “You know you don’t have to humor him if you’re not interested.”  

Wanda laughed. “Thank you, Captain. I know.” 

 

+

 

Flickering fireflies were rising from the grass. The sky was dark and the stars had come out to listen to the late-night chorus of insects. Steve, Vision, and Sam worked together under floodlights to load crates onto the Quinjet in preparation for their morning flight back to the city. The rest of the team had surrendered their belongings for loading and had called it quits for the night. 

As they worked, Sam joked with Steve like nothing in the world was amiss, which was exactly what Steve needed—although they frequently had to explain their mutual barbs to Vision, who hadn’t fully mastered the art of good-natured ribbing. By the time they were loading the last crate, Steve had worn himself down enough that bed was starting to sound appealing.  

The desire was fleeting. 

As they sealed up the craft, Steve’s tiredness and peace of mind was bothered by an itch—nothing more than a twinge between his shoulder blades—but Steve couldn’t ditch the nagging certainty something was wrong. He tried, he really did. Or, rather, he tried for the better part of thirty seconds before he gave the order to wake the team and return to the tower. Immediately. 

Sam gave him a look like he was out of his damn mind; but within twenty minutes everyone was up, dressed, and they had secured the facility. None of it was fast enough for Steve’s liking, even though a check in with Friday confirmed everything was still quiet at the tower. He was overreacting, probably. Worrying over nothing. He did that. They’d get back to base and there was a good chance he’d find Bucky sprawled gracelessly across a couch or a bed, sound asleep. 

The closer they got, though, the more the itch turned into a twinge and then an ache. Steve’s soul mark felt like a brand above his left ear. He had Clint radio ahead. SI security and SHIELD operatives reported status quo, but Friday cut into the transmission and requested to speak with the captain privately. 

“Did something happen?” he asked the AI. He held his earpiece and did his level best to keep his voice low and controlled. 

“Unconfirmed,” Friday answered. “Sergeant Barnes has awoken and he’s displaying signs of acute distress and anxiety, with possible flashbacks and auditory hallucinations. My attempts to engage him have gone largely unheeded.” 

Steve swore under his breath, his concern sharpening into splinters of fear. He reached out with the bond, pushing to make the connection despite the distance, trying to get a read on what was wrong. What came back was scratchy and hollow and jumbled and full of static—too much like the Winter Soldier’s mind for Steve’s comfort. He was still too far away to be sure, but it didn’t bode well.

“Friday, don’t let him out of your sight,” Steve ordered. “If he shows signs of aggression, I want him locked in. Do whatever you have to to keep him away from anyone else in that tower.”

“Yes, Captain.” 

“Is Tony aware of the situation?” 

“Mr. Stark is still under blackout in the lab.”

“If this goes south, we might need him.”

“Mr. Stark has rewritten my protocols,” Friday said, “but I can apprise him of the situation in the event of a genuine emergency.” 

For fuck’s sake. “That’ll have to be good enough for now.” 

Steve briefed the team, preparing them for the worst case scenario, and by the time Natasha brought the Quinjet in for a landing, Steve had worked himself into the focused, mission-calm of Captain America. There were too many variables, too many unknowns. Right now was not the time for a full-blown panic. 

Bucky wasn’t on his private floor, and Friday smartly directed the team to the sergeant’s location before Steve could even think about tearing apart the building level by level to find him. Steve led the way to the door of his own quarters on the Avenger’s level. Sam and Natasha had his back while Vision, Clint, and Wanda took backup positions. Rhodes was holding a flight pattern outside, keeping an eye on the perimeter, just in case Bucky planned to bolt and managed to fight his way past the rest of the team. 

Steve paused by the door, reaching out with the bond to get a read on his soulmate before he entered; but Bucky’d closed him out shortly before landing and he was holding the bond shut with everything he had. Steve wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Either way, it meant they were going in blind, in more ways than one. 

The lights were off in Steve’s quarters and he entered cautiously. Bucky was slouched in the shadows at the end of the bed, elbows braced on his knees and head bowed. He was shaking minutely from head to toe, every tendon tensed. 

Primed for a fight, adrenaline coursing through his system, it took every ounce of control Steve had to keep still and wait. “Buck, you’re scaring the hell out of me right now,” he said. 

A breathy, caustic laugh came back. “Yeah?” Bucky muttered. “Me, too.” He looked up with glassy eyes and the light from the hallway deepened the lines of pain on Bucky’s face. He spotted Sam and Natasha and his expression faded into dull resignation. “Brought the whole team for me?”

“Depends. You planning on making this a fight?” 

Bucky shook his head almost imperceptibly. 

Steve signaled to Sam and Nat. They withdrew far enough to give them privacy; but close enough to be ready if matters took an ugly turn.

“What is this, Buck?” Steve approached the bed, wary. Bucky still wasn’t letting him get a read on his thoughts. In any other situation, Steve would leave it alone and let him have his privacy; but he still wasn’t sure how much he was talking to Bucky and how much he was talking to the Winter Soldier. “What’s going on?” 

“I felt him,” Bucky whispered, hoarse and scratchy. “I don’t know how, but it was him. An’ I’m not going crazy, Steve. I’m not. I thought it was you at first. But it wasn’t. It was him. It was just a split second, but it had to be him. And I don’t know how the hell it could have happened. It can’t happen, can it? I don’t know what it means and I’m scared as hell, Stevie. Things in my head are bad enough, I don’t know what to do with this.”

“You’re going to have to slow down,” Steve said. “I didn’t follow a word of that.” 

“It was Tony,” Bucky said. “He came through on the bond, Steve. I felt him.”

That was a punch to the gut Steve hadn’t been expecting. Suddenly there wasn’t quite enough air in the room. “What?” he choked out.

“You heard me.” 

“Show me.” And that was as close as he’d gotten to giving his soulmate an order since their army days. 

“Yeah. Knew you’d want to see it,” Bucky mumbled. His jaw worked and he ducked his head, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his right hand. He was shaking again. “I’ll show you. I need you to see it.” He took a steadying breath. “Thing is, to show you, you’re going to have to see somethin’ bad, Steve. Really bad. I can’t separate them out. It all happened too close together.” 

Steve knelt down beside him. “It’s okay, Buck. Just show me.” 

Bucky smiled thinly. “No, it’s not okay,” he said, steeling himself. “It’s about as far from okay as you can get. But you’ll know that in a minute.”

Steve gave the team orders to stand by, but not to stand down. He wasn’t sure where this was going and he wasn’t willing to risk anyone else’s life if he was making a colossal mistake by letting his guard down. 

At the same time, if Bucky had felt Tony in the bond—really felt him—Steve needed to know. 

He took off his helmet and set the shield aside, settling to face Bucky on the bed. Bucky shuffled closer, reluctant, and held Steve’s face in his hands, his metal hand cool against Steve’s cheek. Bucky was still trembling as he pressed his forehead to Steve’s.

The plunge into memory was fast, but erratic, twisting and knotted, with Bucky slamming doors left and right as they sped through a convoluted network of stimuli and emotions to get to the images he wanted to show Steve. There was a current of panic, a sense of dread—don’t look, don’t look, don’t look—pervading their connection until they landed abruptly in darkness.

The lab was cold, clammy, and the cement walls were sweating. The air stank of mildew, antiseptic, alcohol, and blood. His blood. His handlers had tracked him through the snow—found him even after he’d waded into the frigid waters of a swiftly-moving stream in an attempt to cover his tracks. He had already been half-frozen, joints locked up and energy flagging, when they’d gunned him down. They’d shot him enough times to kill a regular man five times over. 

Steve shuddered as the memory washed over him, just as real as if he’d been there himself, in Bucky’s place. He tried to remind himself that this was the past. The worst was already over and Bucky was safe now. They were in the tower with the Avengers and Steve was merely looking through a window, a one-way mirror. As much as he might want to help, there was nothing for him to do except observe. 

He had proven impossible to sway to Hydra’s side by argument or coercion. Zola’s experiments were still fresh in his mind and he wasn’t about to forgive what had been done to him, let alone sign up for the cause. He’d tried to escape, more than once, but the outpost where they were keeping him was remote. He either had to waste time trying to radio out—hoping a friendly ear would hear him and be able to find him—or he had to make a break for it.

The odds were on running, so he’d run. He’d run as fast and as far as his limbs would carry him through the blistering winter, the wind and the frost howling after him.

He hadn’t been fast enough.

He was Hydra’s key to a new world order and he was the only specimen to survive the initial phases of testing. They’d have to start over from scratch if they lost him. Who knew when they’d find another viable candidate? 

So when they caught him and dragged him back to base, they salvaged what they could. They burned away his memories. For good measure, they were going to cut out his soul mark in the hopes it would make his scrambled mind more docile, more… suggestible. 

Steve’s blood ran cold. 

“Bucky,” he whispered. No. Not this. Anything but this. 

He’d said he could handle it. He’d promised Bucky he’d be fine; but being here—confronting the harsh reality—he wasn’t fine. He wasn’t ready. 

The procedure itself was mercifully fuzzy. He didn’t remember most of it. He’d lost too much blood and he was floating in the haze of painkillers and sedatives they’d pumped into him. There were voices, flashes, and then nothing. 

But when he woke it was to a pit of agony. Emptiness. His nerves were on fire. Something was missing. He didn’t know what. But it hurt. It hurt worse than losing the arm. Like they’d carved out something integral to his being. He couldn’t breathe. And deep inside his mind was screaming.  

Steve knew that sound. The thin, childlike wail was the first thing that had come piercing through the bond after decades of silence. He would never forget it. 

He reacted to the pain with blind, instinctual ferocity. That was what Hydra had made him for, after all, and the result was carnage. 

Steve couldn’t blot out the pleading and the sensation of viscera and cracking bones—not without shutting himself out of the memory entirely. This was the first time Bucky had trusted him enough to see, really see, what he’d gone through, what he’d done, and Steve couldn’t turn away, no matter how much it hurt.

Hydra had taken his soulmate, someone who had been full of such cocky sweetness and laughter, and they’d hollowed him out. They wanted a murderer with the reserved, methodical efficiency of a machine. And that’s what they got.

And they had cut away the only reminder the machine had once been a person and that person had been loved.

If Steve had been in that underground bunker for real, he might well have taken up a spot beside his soulmate and joined him in his pain.

The swarm of guards who responded were armed and ready to put him down. With the lab technicians dead at his feet, he was ready to accept punishment. He even welcomed it, hoping the discordant noise scraping through his skull would stop. He closed his eyes. 

“No, no! Are you out of your minds? We need him,” a reedy voice wheezed, panicked. “Detain him. Put him on ice.”

But even ice couldn’t stop the sound. 

The shrieking static reverberated through the bond and Steve drowned in the noise. He barely registered the flash of images Bucky had actually wanted him to see: Bucky jarring into wakefulness, diligently scratching the recovered memory down on paper, and the blip of an intrusion into his thoughts. 

Yes, the scattered, energetic patterns had to be Tony; but the tendrils of memory from the Hydra lab were snaking around Steve’s mind and dragging him down. He was being pulled too far and too fast into the void to appreciate the significance of Tony’s flicker of light. 

Steve knew he should pull away while he still could; but the fall wasn’t entirely unpleasant. The lull of the programming was warm and welcome, a kind of intoxication he hadn’t felt since Bucky had given him his first drink of hard liquor—watered down whiskey from the dregs of Mr. Barnes’ stash. 

Wait. What was happening? 

It had been Steve’s eighteenth birthday and they couldn’t afford anything better. 

This wasn’t the memory he was supposed to be in.

Come to think of it, Bucky had probably added the water himself, the dirty sneak. He was worried Steve wouldn’t be able to take it straight. Not that it had mattered in the long run. One drink had left Steve flushed and floating. Two and he was gulping around hiccups. Three and he was slumped against his soulmate, who wrapped him in his arms and giggled into his hair.  

“Your ma’s gonna kill me.” 

“I’m old enough now,” Steve slurred. 

Bucky smoothed Steve’s hair back and kissed the top of his head. “Yeah, Stevie. Just enjoy it. Happy birthday.” 

If Steve just let go, he would be safe here. 

If he just let go.

 

+

 

“Steve?” The voice was familiar. “Stevie? Shit. Steve, answer me.” 

 

+

 

The noise was hissing and scratching. Metal was grating against his better judgement. Warmth and comfort settled into cold, dispassionate calculation. Priority one was to avoid detection and evade capture once the mission was complete. He had no data input on a mission, but he knew there were agents waiting downstairs who wanted to apprehend him. He had to get out of the tower and make contact with his handler to make a report. 

He didn’t know who his handler was. Did he have a handler?

He scooped up the shield, set it on his back, and headed for the door before he fully registered his body was moving. 

A metal hand shot out and grabbed him by the elbow, jerking him to a halt. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” 

How long had the other man been there? He was half in shadow, body tense. The interlocking plates of his arm shifted as he adjusted his grip and forced him to come closer. “Look at me, Steve. Why aren’t you letting me in?”

Steve. That name was his name. He remembered it now; but he shouldn’t have a name and he didn’t know why. It was… it was wrong and this wasn’t his handler. Something about him was familiar, but the stinging buzz in his ears kept him from thinking clearly. He had to evade capture. He had to get away. Avoid capture at all costs.

Steve twisted out of the mechanical grip, tearing his uniform, and made a break for it. The man tackled him and Steve flipped them both over. He grabbed his attacker by the throat and slammed him into the wall, cracking the plaster. 

“This ain’t you,” the man choked. His metal hand closed warningly around Steve’s wrist. One squeeze and his bones would break. For some reason he hesitated. “Steve, the programming’s got into your head.” He gasped and coughed. “You gotta let it go. Please.” 

Steve let him fall to the floor and he deftly sidestepped as two others—a man and a redheaded woman, both armed—came barging into the room at the sound of the commotion. They rushed past him to subdue the man on the floor, who struggled against them. 

It’s not me,” he shouted.

Steve ducked into the hallway, keeping his stride steady and focused. For some reason the guards hadn’t pegged him as a threat. No sense in wasting time engaging targets who were going to let him walk by untouched.

His thoughts splintered and cracked open—this wasn’t him, he wasn’t acting under his own will, this was his team and they cared about him, they’d drawn straws because they wanted to make sure he was okay but they didn’t want to overwhelm him, and they’d come back with him to the tower in the middle of the night and, oh god, he’d just hurt his soulmate back there—and then sealed shut again, driving him on to the nearest escape route.

A young woman and an android were waiting at the end of the hallway leading into the common area.

“Is everything all right, Captain?” the android asked. He hovered just above the floor, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.  

Steve shouldered his way around the two, not slowing. The elevator was just across the room. There was a hangar deck and a Quinjet ready for immediate use.

“Captain?” The young woman’s gaze narrowed. Whatever she saw when he looked back at her sent her white as a sheet, her mouth dropping open in a silent exclamation. 

The door burst open down the hall. “Get out of the way,” the redhead shouted to the young couple as she came running into the room. “Clint!” She ducked Steve’s blow and smoothly stepped into his space. She grabbed his arm and the world spun. The next thing he knew, he was laying flat out in the floor, his head ringing from smacking against the ground.

What was he doing? Nat was his friend. They’d been through the bunker at Camp Leigh and the fall of SHIELD together and—she was a threat.

“Friday, block all elevators,” the woman barked into her com. She pressed her knee into his neck, cutting off air and circulation. “Lock escape routes. The captain is compromised. Sam, let Barnes go. I need you both out here. Now.”   

Steve grabbed her knee and wrestled her off just as an archer came around the corner, arrow ready. Steve got to his feet, ears still ringing, the shrieking deep inside his mind redoubling. He had to get out of here, but he couldn’t remember why anymore. What was so important? Where was he going? He reached over his shoulder for the shield. 

“I’d advise against that, Cap,” the archer warned, drawing back on his bow. “I don’t miss and these bad boys sting something fierce.” 

Steve ducked and flung the shield. The archer swore as he weaved out of the way of the attack, the shield clipping him and lodging itself solidly in the wall beyond. 

The android swooped in and his cybernetic arms constricted around Steve’s shoulders, pinning him, and he lifted Steve off the ground.

“Please don’t struggle, Captain,” the android said calmly. “None of us want to hurt you.” 

The man with the metal arm came running into the room, scowling over his shoulder at the man who’d tried to apprehend him. The expression was returned in kind. 

“Barnes, what the hell happened to him?” the archer demanded.

“Wanda, can you shut him down?” The redhead had regained her feet. 

The young woman covered her mouth, visibly upset. “I might make him worse.”

“I need you to try,” the woman ordered. “Right now he’s a threat to everyone outside this room.” 

“I can’t,” she shook her head vehemently. “You know what I’m capable of. In this state, my power could destroy his mind entirely.”

The man—Barnes—approached Steve like he knew precisely what was ticking through his brain. The static in Steve’s mind hissed and scratched as he got closer, and Steve jerked away from him. 

He was inside Steve’s mind. He wasn’t his handler, he was—

“Don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”

“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

“You’re a punk.” Bucky glared, but his fond smirk gave him away. 

If they hadn’t been in public with two lovely young dates waiting just a few paces away, it would have been a kiss instead of a hug.

“Jerk. Be careful.”

No. He wasn’t allowed. Love wasn’t allowed, not in any form. It was punished. It compromised the mission. 

Steve’s chest constricted.

Deep down he knew this wasn’t his directive, this was his soulmate’s directive. They’d punished Bucky for having a soulmate, not Steve. They’d taken the mark away from Bucky, not Steve. 

Steve didn’t have a mission. He didn’t know why he was here or why these people were acting like they knew him. None of it was right. The arms around him were too tight, too tight, he couldn’t think anymore, it hurt.

“Vision, let him go, you’re hurting him!” the young woman said, distressed.

The android startled and loosened his grip, just a little, but it was enough. Steve twisted out of his grasp, dropped to the ground, and ran blindly. The woman had sealed off the elevators, but the noise was still driving him to escape, to find a way out—any way out. 

The wide windows stretched out before him with the night sky lit up from the city lights far below. He’d jumped before. He’d fallen before. And right now it was the only way.

He vaulted over the couch and his feet had barely hit the floor when Barnes slammed him to the ground and locked his metal arm around Steve’s throat. He wrapped his right arm under Steve’s, grasping his metal wrist and trapping Steve’s legs with his own.

A flicker. 

He was on the lab table in a dank room, technicians prepping him for the procedure.

No. That had been someone else. Not him, but someone he cared about. Someone he should have protected. 

Bucky.

“Don’t do this,” Bucky said roughly. “Please don’t. You weren’t ready and I shouldn’t have showed you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Just wake up, Steve. Please just wake up from it.”

Steve wrestled against the hold, trying to regain leverage. He shouldn’t fight. He knew he shouldn’t. Bucky wasn’t going to hurt him; but Steve’s body was straining of its own accord, the code in his mind driving him despite his will. 

Outside there was a streaking flare of light against the night sky. A gold and red armored suit came soaring into view, followed closely by one silver and grey. The metal men hovered in midair together and a disembodied voice with an accent gave warning as the two suits trained their repulsors on the glass. 

The team took cover and the glass blew inward. Bucky jerked Steve around, pointing the two of them away from the flying shards and pinning Steve beneath him. His metal hand came up to cover Steve’s eyes, and he tucked his own face into the back of Steve’s neck as glass rained down around them and cold air came blasting into the room.

Steve grabbed the metal wrist, fighting to pry it off him. Bucky snarled and redoubled his efforts to hold him, trying to regain leverage. 

There was a thump and whirring of mechanics as the armored men landed inside.  

“Okay, so, I’m not a hundred percent on which one of you is causing the trouble,” the wry voice was distorted and echoing, “but I don’t really have time to sort out sides here.” Steve fought free just enough to catch a glimpse of the suit’s red metal shin guards coming to a stop in front of him. “Sorry, boys, but Simon says you have to play nice. House rules.” 

Bucky made a distressed sound. “Tony, wait—” There was a flash of light and a concussion of air and Bucky went limp.

Steve rolled the extra weight off him, crawling to escape. 

“Where do you think you’re going, cowboy?” 

Steve looked up.

The red and gold mask glared at him, glowing palm raised. “Sorry, but this is going to hurt me more than you, Cap.”  

Another flash and everything went dark. 

 

+

 

Steve’s head was swimming and his body felt too heavy. There were words. People were talking in the background. Names floated into his awareness and fixed themselves to their respective voices. 

“I’ve had a brain-melting migraine for the better part of the last twelve hours, so the explanation for this better be damn good,” Tony said. 

“No one told you to blow a hole in your own damn building.” That was Clint.

“From the looks of things in here, that was well on its way to happening even without our help.” Rhodes. His voice was tinny, distorted. 

“Tony,” Sam cut in, “SHIELD has, uh, taken note of our situation up here.”

“Are they sending up agents?” 

“No,” Sam said, confused. “Right now they just want confirmation we have everything under control.” 

“Give it to them,” Tony said. “Tell them whatever you want. It was a training exercise. I don’t care. If they’re not sending someone up now, they’ve got orders to play an angle or they’ve already got what they need to screw us. We’ll deal with that later. How’s that energy shield for the window coming, Nat?”

“Vision and Friday have the equations nearly worked out.”

“The strips are almost in place,” Wanda added. 

“Need you to hurry up,” Tony urged. “I guarantee you we’ve got reporters and helicopters scrambling to get a look inside, and none of this looks good.” 

Steve opened his eyes slowly, every nerve sparking and tingling. Air currents were blustering through the room and the noise of the city was coming up from below, mixing with the wind across the open maw where the window used to be.

Tony was standing over him—wincing away from the common room lights and shading his eyes with his left hand—and still wearing the gauntlet on his right. The Iron Man suit was standing sentry nearby, with Rhodes just beyond in the War Machine armor. 

Steve groaned as he pushed himself up on his elbows. 

Tony brought the gauntlet back up, his mouth twisted grimly. “Are we in our right minds now, kids?” 

“What the hell did you hit me with?” Steve asked. He was sore all over, and from the neck up he felt… spongy. 

“Concentrated pulse. Basically a sonic hit to the head, just enough to put you out.”

“Cognitive recalibration,” Clint muttered from his perch on the couch. He was holding his bow loosely with an arrow casually knocked into place. 

Sam had retreated into the kitchen area and was speaking calmly and directly into his com—presumably to smooth things over with SHIELD.

Steve rolled over, shards of glass shifting around him as he did.  

Bucky was nearby, just starting to stir. 

“Look, Cap,” Tony was stricken, “you two didn’t give me many choices. The situation needed to be neutralized.”

“It wasn’t him,” Steve said. “It was me.” Thankfully the sound and the static had gone from his mind, but the silence left him hollow. Steve had told Bucky he was willing to risk whatever was locked inside his mind, and Steve had failed his first test of trust.

He touched Bucky’s shoulder. 

As consciousness drifted back, Bucky’s thoughts came pouring through, raw and rife with self-loathing. He’d done this, it was his fault. Steve had gotten caught in the programming and—Bucky hadn’t known that could happen, but—it was exactly the kind of thing he’d been terrified would happen if he let Steve too close. All he’d wanted was to show Steve Tony. Bucky didn’t know what it meant to have someone else show up on the bond, and he’d needed Steve to see—and instead he’d hurt him, he’d really hurt him, and he could have lost him. The worst had happened just like Bucky’d always known it would—

“No. No, don’t. Buck.” Steve grabbed him and pulled him up into a fierce hug and Bucky buried his face in the crook of Steve’s neck. Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve and hot tears slid down Steve’s skin and under his collar. Steve held Bucky tight as his body shook with silent sobs. 

“Sorry,” Bucky said, muffled by Steve’s uniform. And then again he blurted, “Sorry,” like there was more he wanted to say, but it was the only word he could manage. 

“It’s not your fault,” Steve said. “It’s not. I’m okay, Buck. It’s okay.” 

Tony lowered the gauntlet, his face unreadable. 

“We’ve got aircraft incoming,” Rhodey said. 

“Do we know who?” Tony turned away. 

“Civilian units. Most likely news helicopters.”

“At least it’s not the military.”

“I made a few calls,” Rhodey said. 

“Training exercise?”

“You know it.”

“Have I told you lately that I love you?”

“You could stand to a little more often.”

“Remind me and I’ll get you your very own giant bunny. Pepper loved hers.” 

“No, she didn’t.” 

“You’re right. She didn’t. Nat, the energy shield?”

“Ten more seconds,” she said. 

“Actually,” Vision said, “we’re online now.”

Wanda had fitted the frame of the window with connected strips that surged to life at Vision’s word. A sheer wall of energy, rippling and shimmering, shot across the space. The hum of the city and the distant thud of helicopter blades dulled. The air stabilized. Tony had Friday complete a few modulations and the transparent filaments of light shifted and turned opaque. 

Privacy, such as it was. 

As the team regrouped, Bucky took a shuddering breath and put a hand on Steve’s chest, pushing away. His eyes were red-rimmed and mouth set unhappily. “Told you there was a damn good reason for not letting you in, Steve,” he murmured. 

There was a warning undercurrent to his words. Steve hadn’t experienced the worst of it, not by far. Steve had barely gotten a taste and that much had just about eaten him alive. 

Steve had read the file Nat had given him, and he’d dug up as much information as he could find from the leaked SHIELD archives; but reading and experiencing were two different things. The first had been bad enough, the second was nothing short of a nightmare. 

How his soulmate kept it from eating him alive, Steve honestly didn’t know. Steve’d thought he’d fly apart with the programming barely skimming through his head—and frankly he didn’t know how he’d be able to sleep, wondering if it could take over again. 

What mattered was: Bucky lived with that fear every day. If Steve had to live with it, too, so be it. 

Steve took hold of Bucky’s hand. “End of the line, right?”

Bucky looked down, but he nodded and squeezed Steve’s hand in return.

“Friday, dim the lights,” Tony said. “Sorry, everyone, but my head’s still killing.” Tony took off the gauntlet and it flew back to reattach to the suit. 

Rhodey stepped out of his own suit and joined the rest of the team as they gathered around the sofa. 

Through the energy shield came the muted thrum of a helicopter and a moving bright spot as a light searched the side of the building. 

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Tony said. “Unless they’re planning on propelling someone bodily through the opening, we’re pretty well safe for now.” 

Tony sank onto the couch and he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his thumbs rubbing circles on his temples. “Were you two going to enlighten us on how we got into this mess?”

Steve posed a wordless question to his soulmate.

“No way around it,” Bucky relented, eyes sliding shut. “They need to know.” Bucky didn’t seem interested in moving, so Steve offered him a shoulder to lean on.

“There’s a reason Bucky and I kept things quiet when we became soulmates,” Steve said. “Our rendezvous wasn’t typical.” 

“Because we didn’t have one,” Bucky added bluntly.

“We got our marks after. Or, if we had them before, we didn’t see them,” Steve said. “We don’t know.”

“You’re shitting me,” Clint said and Nat elbowed him. “What?” He rubbed his side. “That’s a big deal, right? Accidental soulmates aren’t a thing.”

“Let them talk,” Nat said. 

Tony was twisting one of his old homing bracelets around his wrist, his hands giving off the slightest tremor. Steve had told him about the not-quite-rendezvous already. 

“That’s not all,” Steve said. “What happened tonight—” He faltered, at a loss for how to explain, and wondering just how much they needed to know. He’d never had to describe the details of his bond with Bucky to anyone before, not even his mom. She’d accepted they were different without them having to go into specifics even they didn’t fully understand. 

Tony’s face slackened with apprehension and disbelief as he made the connection. “You two are in each others’ heads.”

Steve nodded mutely.

“After the gala, Barnes knew you were coming out to get me without so much as a signal. You knew he was in trouble before you were out of the building.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes like he was seeing the two of them for the first time. “Holy shit.”

“I take it this isn’t the standard?” Vision asked.

“No. No, it’s not,” Sam said, brow furrowed. 

Steve’s conscience twisted. After this, he would have a lot of trust to repair in his friendship with Sam—especially since Steve was pretty sure Sam had never kept a damn thing from him. Nothing that mattered as much as this, anyway.

“Soulmate connection deals with affection and feelings of perceived wholeness,” Tony said. “Basically it’s the ultimate feeling of warm fuzzies when you’re around each other. Reliable scientific studies report contact with a soulmate helps mitigate stress and depression and speed healing. What it doesn’t do is allow access to your partner’s mind.” Tony paused. “It is just your partner’s mind, isn’t it?”

“We can’t read anyone else, if that’s what you mean.” Steve swallowed thickly. This was it, the moment he and Bucky had been dreading since the two of them sat together on hot pavement, beaten to within an inch of their lives, dizzy and overwhelmed by their first seconds together as soulmates. If Tony or the rest of the team told anyone, anyone, and it got out to the public? Steve had spent years wanting to come out; but now that it was actually happening, it was hard to quell the innate lifetime of worry that someone would force them into a lab and sort them out with tests and shots and scalpels and electrodes. 

As much as Bucky had wanted to protect a scrawny Steve from that kind of medical torture, this time around it was Steve who couldn’t take the thought of Bucky being taken by a pack of faceless lab coats who wanted to pull him apart, insides out, just to see how he ticked. He’d been through that with Hydra, and once was one time too many. Not to mention Bucky wasn’t likely to make it out of testing alive. SHIELD would see to that.

Bucky laced his fingers with Steve’s, his jaw tightly clenched. He had either picked up on Steve’s concern or he had already been thinking about it himself.

“These are our friends, Buck,” Steve said. “They’re not going to hurt us.” It was a challenge as much as a reassurance. Steve and Bucky had just finished demonstrating they could pose a threat if things went wrong.

“Hey, no. Of course not,” Tony said, sitting up straighter. “Shit. Listen, this is out of left field, but we’re going to handle it. None of this leaves this room. Believe it or not, I can keep my mouth shut when it’s important.”

“We’re not sacrificing either of you,” Natasha agreed. “Everyone in this room is a potential threat given the right circumstances. We just have to know how to handle those circumstances.” 

“So the question is: now that we know the Winter Soldier programming can affect you, Captain, what do we do if it happens again?” Rhodey asked. “We’ve got a hell of a lot to cover for already.”

“It’s not going to happen again,” Bucky said stiffly. “I made a mistake. I was trying to show Steve something and,” his voice failed, and the rest came out as a whisper, “I’m not going to do it again.” 

“No offense,” Sam said, “you can make all the promises you want, but what about accidental triggers? What if something you don’t mean to send sets him off again? Or vice versa?” 

Bucky glared. 

“He didn’t do this on purpose, Sam,” Steve said. 

“Then what makes him think he can control it?” 

“I didn’t say I could control it,” Bucky snapped. 

Tony had gone pale and his attention turned inward as he chewed on the problem silently. 

“Boys, can we keep it civil?” Natasha said. “We’re going to have to come up with a strategy regardless. We need to be prepared. With all due respect, Captain, I don’t think either you or Barnes should know what that strategy is.” 

“Agreed,” Steve said. 

“That settles it then,” Natasha said. “That’s enough for tonight. Everyone get a few solid hours and then I want the team to meet me back here at 0900.” 

“Do we need to lock them in for the rest of the night, or what? How are we handling that?” Rhodey asked.

Tony’s head snapped up. “No. I’ve got it covered. Give me a few minutes with them.” He waved the rest of the team away and got up, swaying slightly before finding his balance, and then he herded Steve and Bucky over to the side of the room. He checked over his shoulder to make sure the others had retreated out of hearing distance. 

“Holy fuck,” Tony said, grabbing fistfuls of his hair, “no wonder you two haven’t—How were you expecting the three of us to—if the two of you can’t even—? I—my brain is going about a thousand miles a minute. There has to be a way to fix this. There has to be. I mean, you want it to be fixed, right?”

“Tony, what—?” Steve said.

Bucky kept his eyes firmly on the floor, his arms folded. 

“Barnes said it was complicated, but I didn’t think it was that complicated,” Tony muttered. 

“What are you talking about, Tony?” Steve asked. 

“It’s not my business,” Tony said. “I turned you down, I know I did, but—shit—you two want to be together and you can’t.” Tony swore again. Several times. “Wait for me upstairs. I’m gonna grab something from the lab, okay? Might take me a bit to get through SHIELD’s watchdogs.” 

 

+

 

“I don’t think he felt it,” Bucky said. 

The sky outside was showing the first signs of brightening and the news helicopters were still circling. Bucky had curled up on the sofa next to Steve while they waited for Tony to come back from the lab. 

“With Tony it’s hard to know,” Steve said. “He’s going in so many directions at once. He might have felt the connection and just… not recognized it for what it was.”

Bucky made a noncommittal noise. 

“What happened wasn’t your fault,” Steve said. “I was the one who pushed you to show me.” 

“Yeah, and I could have said no.”

Steve didn’t have the energy to argue. When Bucky dug in his heels, no amount of common sense would persuade him to budge. “Do you think any of it’s left inside me?” 

After some thought, Bucky said, “The problem was we were too closely linked. As long as we don’t blur the line between you an’ me like that again—I don’t think it’ll happen again. Hydra tailored their commands. There was a whole process to make sure their orders would work with the way I think. The programming’s got nothing to permanently latch onto in your head. You might have broken your way out of it by yourself if Tony hadn’t knocked you out first.”

“Wish you could have told him that.”

Bucky smiled sympathetically, but he quickly sobered. “Steve, about the memory—”

“We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I want to.” Bucky rested the palm of his hand on Steve’s ribs. Steve had changed out of his uniform and into a soft tank top and sweats, and he could feel the tentative touch through the fabric. “Of all the things Hydra took—the mark is the one thing I’m never going to get back.” 

Steve leaned his head on the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. 

“It still hurts sometimes,” Bucky said. “Like they’re cuttin’ into it fresh.”

Steve’s throat worked. “If it would help,” he said, “I could ask Tony t-to remove mine.”

Bucky sat up and pinned him with a furious glare. “Don’t be a fuckin’ idiot,” he said. “What the hell would you think I want that for? You get rid of that mark and I’ll fuckin’ end you, Steve Rogers.” 

Steve gave a self-conscious laugh, his chest expanding with relief. “I won’t, I swear.” He pulled Bucky back to him, his soulmate coming reluctantly, and he buried his nose in Bucky’s hair. “I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t want to lose my soul mark. I’d be devastated. I just—I hate that you had to go through that alone. It’s not fair I still have my mark but you don’t have yours.” 

Bucky relaxed, wrapping his arms back around Steve. “I didn’t go through it alone. You were there with me. You saw it all.”

“Yeah.” 

“And you saw what happened after.” The gore and the rage. 

“Yeah.”

“I’m not sorry I did it.”  

Killing wasn’t something Steve took lightly. As a general rule, he didn’t want to kill anybody, not even his enemies. But casualties happened, and in this case Steve couldn’t find it in himself to mourn for the people who had treated his soulmate as their personal science experiment.

Steve squeezed Bucky’s shoulder. 

“It’s hard for me to put the pieces together,” Bucky said, “but we lost the connection before Hydra took my mark, didn’t we?” 

Steve nodded. “Yeah, Buck. We’d been having trouble since Azzano. Maybe even before then, but I was in New York and you were overseas. The bond went silent after you fell.” 

“You’ve been alone since then.” 

“You, too,” Steve said. 

“Would you let me worry about you a little bit?” Bucky said gruffly. “Just ’cause I got hurt doesn’t mean you didn’t go through shit, too.” 

Steve smiled. “Still looking after me after all these years?”

“Someone’s got to.” 

Steve smoothed his hand down the side of Bucky’s arm. 

“Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“What if it was never meant to be just the two of us?”

Steve’s heart clenched. 

The elevator pinged, the doors slid open, and Tony stumbled into the room with an armful of supplies. Steve gave Bucky a mute apology, a quick kiss on the lips, and detangled himself to go help. 

Tony’s skin was pale and sweaty, and the bruises under his eyes were more pronounced in the morning light, but his focus was sharp. He had Friday adjust the light coming through the windows and he directed Steve to help him arrange the haul from the lab—pills and syringes and a wire device with electrodes attached—on the coffee table. 

Bucky leaned forward for a better look. 

“Okay, so, none of these are anything more than a temporary fix,” Tony said, crouching down beside the table and sizing up Bucky and Steve like he was going to fit them for a suit. “Half-measures, really, based on some sketchy guesses about how you two are hooked together. I’m guessing physical proximity plays a role?” 

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “How do you—?”  

“You’d be sleeping in the same bed by now if it didn’t make a difference,” Tony said. “You got a range on that?” 

“I’d have to be out of the city not to sense him,” Steve said.

“Not very precise, but, okay, that helps,” Tony said. “James, I don’t know how you feel about taking medicine, but if you and loverboy here want to get some real sleep, I’m guessing the only way to stop thought transference is if one or the other of you is too far down for conscious or subconscious thought to slip through.” He pointed out a bottle of pills. “These will knock you out for a solid few hours. No dreaming. One or the other of you takes it and you can both get some sleep without having to worry. It’ll burn out quicker with your metabolisms, but we can improve that down the road.

“And these,” he pointed to the syringes, “are for emergency situations, assuming one of you is still in your right mind. They’ll work like a tranquilizer. Again, won’t last long, but long enough to get you contained.” 

Steve motioned to the jumble of wires. “And that?”

Tony pinched his lip between his thumb and forefinger. “This—I need to work on it,” he said. “It’s not finished, but, James, I promise it won’t feel like anything Hydra did.”

Bucky sat back, his shoulders rigid. “What is it?”

“No one’s going to force you to use it,” Tony said, holding out a hand. “It’s a device I made for myself, to help process memories and trauma. This is the prototype. Once it’s finished, we might be able deprogram the malware Hydra put inside your head. Or at least train you and Steve to keep out whatever you don’t want shared. That way you two can do whatever you want to together. Or not,” he hurried to add. “Either way. Your choice.”

Steve flushed. As much as he wanted to share his soulmate’s bed again—and he most certainly wanted to—that shouldn’t be their top concern right now. 

“Like I said, it’s not my business.” Tony shrugged helplessly. “You don’t have to use any of it, but I’m a firm believer in having options. So,” he gestured to the table, “options.”

Bucky picked up the bottle of pills, giving them a tentative examination. “So if I take one of these, there won’t be any dreams?”

“That’s the idea,” Tony said. “It’s not a long-term solution, since I assume at one point or another you’ll want to do more than literally sleep together. You’ll have to give me feedback after you take it. It might work slightly different for super soldiers than it does for handsome, tech-savvy billionaires.”

“You used these, too?” Steve asked.

Tony ran a hand over his mouth. “Yeah, yep. For a while after Sokovia. When Pepper was still around.” 

“You been having bad dreams?” Bucky asked pointedly. “Recently?”

Tony gave a dry laugh. “Most of the time, actually.”

“What about last night?” Steve asked.

Tony peered at him. “What about last night?”

“How’s your headache?” Bucky tried.

“Splinters straight through my brain, like all headaches.” Tony’s brow furrowed and he paused for a moment, lost in an obscure thought. “Yeah, um,” he got to his feet. “Just… that’s about all I have to offer right now. I hate to admit weakness, but I need to hit the sack.” 

“Tony.” Bucky got up and snagged his shirt. 

Steve took a worried step forward, but Bucky sent a pulse of reassurance.

“Thank you. For helpin’ us,” Bucky said. “And for doing what you had to back there when things were out of control. I’m glad you didn’t hesitate.”  

Tony ran a hand through his hair. “Not quite sure I agree with your sentiment there.”

“But you did what you had to do. And I need your help with somethin’ else. If you want us to take these,” Bucky held up the pills, “I need you to stay up here in the guest room like you said you would when I got here.”

Tony startled. “What?” 

“We might need your help if this goes wrong,” Bucky said, dead serious. 

Steve hid his bemusement. Back in the day, Bucky could have been a snake oil salesman, and he hadn’t entirely lost the knack or the charm that went with it. Bucky didn’t think anything was going to go wrong with the medication; but if he convinced Tony to stay, Tony wouldn’t have the lab to distract him from some much-needed rest. 

Tony begrudgingly agreed.

 

+

 

Steve and Bucky each took one of the pills for good measure and Friday turned the windows to full darkness in the main bedroom. Steve coaxed Bucky under the covers and slipped in behind him, wrapping an arm around his waist. Bucky threaded their fingers together. 

To sleep so close was a risky indulgence, one Steve hoped wouldn’t backfire on them. 

“If it does, it’d be one way to get him in here with us,” Bucky mumbled, picking up the impression of Steve’s thought. Bucky yawned and shifted back, making himself more comfortable. “Didn’t I used to be the big spoon?” 

Steve nuzzled the back of his neck. “That was a long time ago.” 

 

+

 

Tony was in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee when Steve emerged later that day. 

“Natasha didn’t want me at her super secret Avengers meeting,” Tony said by way of greeting. “Something about me being technically retired or generally unreliable?” He shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance. “Probably both.” 

Steve pulled a seat up to the island and leaned on his elbows, trying to shake the fog of dreamless sleep. He could barely process what Tony was telling him. “You always come through when it matters.” Steve dragged his hands down his face. 

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment, Rogers.” Tony pulled out another mug. “Want some? Those meds pack a punch.” As he poured, his elbow jerked and coffee sloshed over the rim. 

Steve grabbed a handful of napkins to sop up the mess. “You all right?”

“Just the joys of getting old,” Tony said lightly. He pressed his lips together and pushed the coffee cup across the counter to Steve. “Did James give it a try? The meds, I mean.” 

“He’s still out like a light.”

“Better than I thought.” Tony took a sip, pausing to savor the mouthful of coffee before swallowing. “Please tell me you didn’t leave him alone in bed and sleep on the floor like a gentleman.”

Steve raised an eyebrow.

Tony considered him. “First time in the same bed since 1945?”

“Nothing happened, Tony.” But Steve couldn’t help a lopsided grin. Getting to sleep next to his soulmate was still an achievement.

Tony smirked. “See? Options.”

Steve chuckled.

“Excuse me, boss,” Friday said. “I have Ms. Potts on the line and she’s requesting to see you.” 

 

+

 

Pepper showing up at the door was bound to happen, considering Stark Tower was plastered all over the news, accompanied by wild speculation ranging from a terrorist attack, to a lab experiment gone wrong, to an escape attempt by the Winter Soldier. Stocks were plunging, and the only good news was that no one had managed to catch much more than Iron Man and War Machine destroying the window itself. 

Steve and Tony made themselves presentable and met Pepper in the Avengers’ common room. 

“What is this, Tony?” Pepper gasped at the piles of glass and the hole where the window used to be. The War Machine and Iron Man armors were still standing watch over the destruction. “You can’t have people up here! You have to be breaking about a thousand codes. This isn’t even remotely safe.”

And she had a point. There was only so much the shimmering energy shield could do. As high winds whipped by, there was a disconcerting push and pull on the atmosphere, like waves undulating in the deep, and it made the back of Steve’s teeth ache and periodically plugged up his ears. The barrier certainly wouldn’t keep anyone from falling.

Tony topped off his coffee from the pot in the communal kitchen. “The only people up here are superheroes, Pepper,” Tony said, chastised but petulant. “None of the Avengers are going to bite it by falling out a window.” 

“I’m up here, aren’t I, Tony?” she chided.

“I’d catch you.”

Pepper pursed her lips, visibly holding back a response. She didn’t say a word, but Tony suddenly had a look of devastated failure—like she’d already fallen and slipped through his fingers. 

“Look, okay,” her attention flicked to Steve and she pulled out her tablet and a stylus, “I know you won’t tell me what happened. That’s fine. But you have got to get this fixed. Do you have any idea what that’s going to take?

“This isn’t regular glass. Manufacturing alone is going to take at least two weeks, and in the mean time the tower is vulnerable to attack—and more importantly escape. SHIELD isn’t going to stand for it. They’ve asked for access to surveillance on this floor because this—this giant hole poses a security threat. They want agents up here, too, at least until it’s properly fixed, and they’ve got grounds to request permanent access. They’ve already put in the request with your lawyers.

“Not to mention people saw you, Tony. Every news outlet in the tri-state area is outside the tower.” 

“All press is good press,” Tony hazarded, his voice flat.

“No,” Pepper said. “You’re in a very dangerous spot here.”

“It was training exercise. No big deal.” 

“Tony, are you even listening to me? SHIELD is going to use whatever leverage they have to take your soulmate away from you, and last night you literally gave them the opening they need. I think you’re being very blasé about all this.”

“I’m not being blasé,” Tony said, irritated. “You’re overreacting. This was a non-event.” 

“You blew a million dollar hole in the tower. That’s not nothing. I don’t understand why you’re being willfully obtuse when you know exactly what SHIELD is going to do to James once they get him,” Pepper said. “They may not execute him outright, but they’re going to bury him, Tony. They’ll put him somewhere you’ll never be able reach him.”

Tony slammed his mug down on the counter. “They’re not going to take James away from me.”  

“Hey,” Steve said, “she’s just trying to help. Ease off.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Pepper said, clipped, “but I know how to handle a Stark tantrum.” She stepped into his space and Tony averted his eyes.

Steve braced himself for a yelling match, which he had on good authority had been a regular feature of their former relationship. 

Instead, Pepper put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and gave them both a moment to cool down. As the tension eased, she asked softly, “Where is he, Tony? You two should be laying low and spending time together, just the two of you. No training, no Iron Man. The first days of bonding are so important. You can’t just set him aside like one of your science projects until you’re ready to come back to him.” 

“I didn’t set him aside.” 

“Friday tells me you’ve been locked in the lab. Alone.”

Tony went pale. “What level security clearance did I give you?”

“Tony, this is serious.” 

“I just needed some space, Pep.” He brushed her hand aside and backed away from her. “It’s not a big deal. Can you relax about it for just a minute?” 

She bristled again. “I’m not the one acting like I’ve got something to hide. Something’s not right about this situation,” Pepper said. “Window aside, I wish you’d tell me what’s going on here and get it over with. You have a sad history of trying to keep things from me, Tony Stark, and when has that ever worked out in your favor?”

“Never,” Tony admitted, deliberately flippant, “but you can’t blame a guy for trying.” 

“Honestly, Tony, where is he? I need to talk to you both.”

“Friday, is James up yet?”

“Sergeant Barnes is still resting, boss.”

Tony gestured vaguely to Steve. “You wanna go grab the Dark Knight from his cave?”

Steve hesitated to leave the two of them alone, but Tony waved him on and Steve retreated to the sound of Friday commenting, “Actually, boss, a more apt comparison would equate you with Mr. Wayne and Sergeant Barnes with—”

“Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say,” Tony cut her off.  

Bucky had woken since Steve had left and Steve found him curled in a corner of the room, drowsing, wrapped in blankets pulled off the obscenely large bed. 

“Didn’t want to be alone in there,” Bucky explained blearily. 

Once his soulmate was more properly awake, Steve apprised him of the situation and Bucky groggily changed into clean jeans and a t-shirt, pulling his hair back into an untidy bun.  

At least the meeting with Pepper was going to be private. 

Bucky stepped out of the elevator behind Steve and Pepper greeted them with her shoulders back, head up, and her hand held out for a firm shake. “Sergeant Barnes,” she said. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.” 

Bucky chewed on the inside of his cheek and took her hand.  

Tony paced in the background, holding the back of his neck, his expression openly anxious. 

“Are you okay? Is there anything you need?” Pepper asked. She lowered her voice. “I know Tony can get a little caught up in things. It’s not malicious, but he forgets the people around him are only human and human problems can’t always be fixed like machines.” Her eyes strayed to Bucky’s left arm and she flushed. “I mean,” she faltered, “I hope you understand what I mean.”

“Yeah, ’s fine,” Bucky said. 

“If it’s not too forward of me to ask,” Pepper said hesitantly, “do you mind if could I see the soul mark?” 

Tony gripped his cup and nearly choked on his drink.

Bucky turned his right arm to show her the words etched onto the inside of his forearm. May 14, 2016, 10:41 p.m., Central Park. She rested her fingers lightly on the lettering, as though afraid a touch would brush them away.

Pepper put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, gosh, this is ridiculous,” she said, wiping at the corner of her eyes. “I thought I’d gotten over the worst of it. I’m so sorry.” She quickly collected herself. “Soulmates are so wonderful, James,” she said, “but we’re all only human. If you need to talk to someone, please call me any time. Day or night.” She handed him her card. “I can tell you some stories.” 

Bucky warmed marginally to her kind confidence and a hint of a smile was curling at the corners of his mouth. He tucked the card into his pocket and went to sling an arm around Tony’s shoulders, pulling him in and planting a kiss on his temple. The gesture was easy and casual, but Tony stiffened with surprise. It had been days since they’d had to play to an audience and Tony was clearly having a hard time processing the idea of Bucky and Pepper trading gossip. 

“The world isn’t going to end if they talk to each other, Tony,” Steve said, amused.

“You don’t know that,” Tony replied absently. “Statistically, the odds are against, sure. But they’re not zero.”

“All right, boys, settle down.” Pepper set her tablet on the counter and pulled up information. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m setting up damage control because we’re going to need it. Since the initial press conference, we’ve had a number of media outlets asking to do an at-home photoshoot and interview with Tony Stark and his new soulmate. I was trying to hold them off for you, but it looks like we’re going to need to call them in. I’m setting up an appointment for tomorrow. The more we control the spotlight on us, the better.

“The problem is, we can’t bring a crew onto these floors until the repairs are dealt with. Even if it was safe, walking a reporter past this mess is begging them to ask questions we don’t want to answer,” Pepper said. 

“So what’s our next best bet?” Steve asked.

“Well, we have a suitable option; but, Tony, you’re not going to like it.”

Tony’s brow furrowed.

Pepper tapped her stylus on the edge of the tablet, expectant.

Tony gaped. “No. Have you lost your mind?” 

“No, I haven’t,” Pepper said reasonably. “What I have is a team standing by, ready to remove and secure any sensitive material from the lab before tomorrow.”

“Absolutely not. One hundred percent out of the question,” Tony said. 

“Tony, I know how you feel about your workspace. I wouldn’t ask, but we need an at-home piece,” Pepper said, “and we need it right away. James can’t leave the building and the public doesn’t want photos of you two sitting next to each other in a board room or lounging in the lobby.” Her expression hardened. “It’s the lab or it’s nothing. And so help me, if you choose to protect your lab over your soulmate, I’m literally going to scream.”

 

 

The blender whirred and guttered unhealthily and Steve tried to shoo DUM-E away from the kitchenette, where the bot was making questionable refreshments for the gathered news crew.

Bucky offered the bot his left arm as a distraction and DUM-E latched onto his wrist, his claws happily opening and closing around the metal plates. U was trailing after Bucky like a shy kitten, using him to hide from the influx of people and new equipment into the lab.

“They seem to like you,” Steve noted. 

Bucky rolled his eyes. As usual, Tony’s stylists had cleaned him up, dressed him nicely, but comfortably, and doused him in cologne. They’d even managed an artful and attractively messy bun. 

Tony was across the lab, chatting amicably with reporters and photographers he’d known from years in the media circuit. His performance was sincere, but strained—his smiles a tad anxious and his movements slightly pained. 

“He’s hurting today, Steve, and I don’t think it’s because he’s upset about the lab,” Bucky murmured. 

Bucky had filled Steve in on what he’d seen in the lab the other night—Tony’s malfunctioning implants and the bacteria eating away at his system. Tony still insisted he had the situation under control; but if things got much worse, they’d have to intervene. Steve was at a loss, though. If they intervened, how exactly were they supposed to help? Short of tracking down Bruce—which wasn’t likely to happen—was there another doctor who’d be able to diagnose and treat the infection?

“Stay with him as much as you can,” Steve said. “I’ll be right here if you need me. Don’t break any cameras or hit any reporters.”

“If they behave, I won’t have to.”

Bucky made his way across the lab and the bots hurried after him, DUM-E grasping to keep hold of his arm. Tony caught sight of Bucky stumbling around the overexcited bots and he met him halfway, directing the bots to give them some space. He slipped up close to Bucky and they shared a kiss for the sake of the cameras.

Steve looked away. 

The interviewer seated them on the couch and he started out with predictable questions about the lab—what kind of work did Tony do here? What was this or that piece of equipment? Did Bucky join him while he was working? Had Tony worked on Bucky’s arm? What were his current projects? Anything exciting in development for Stark Industries or the Avengers?

Tony fielded the questions like a pro, while Bucky held him close and gave his input when Tony led him.

Steve paced along the sidelines, grateful the coffee table couldn’t tell anyone what it had gone through just a few days prior when Bucky and Tony had gotten their marks tattooed. The mechanical arm that had done the work was pushed up and out of the way, and hopefully no one could guess that it had been an accomplice. 

The questions graduated to the recent excitement at the tower—to which Tony answered the expected “training exercise accident,” delivered with the utmost seriousness. When the interviewer couldn’t wheedle out any further details, they moved on to gossip. How were the two new soulmates settling in together and what was it like living with the threat of SHIELD on their doorstep? Did they have time to be alone? How did they spend their days? 

“You alluded to your mark being in a scandalous place, Mr. Stark. Any chance you’ll give our readers a clue as to where that might be?” 

DUM-E’s head swiveled and the bot went off to rummage in the cupboard under the sink near Steve. Steve didn’t pay him any mind until he was trundling past again, a small article of clothing dangling from one of his hooks.

By the time Steve realized what it was, DUM-E was already on camera, craning over the back of the couch with the underwear in plain view. It was the pair Tony had discarded after getting his tattoo, and DUM-E placed them gingerly, reverently on Tony’s thigh—just in case his inventor needed something else to cover up with. 

The room came to a complete standstill. 

Bucky stared at the underwear, wide eyed. 

“Uh, those are—” Tony cleared his throat. 

“So your lab really is a home away from home,” the reporter commented slyly. “Can I confirm for our readers that you and your soulmate have had a bit of fun in here?”

Bucky hid his grin behind Tony’s ear.

 

+

 

Tony fell asleep on Bucky’s shoulder before the camera crews started packing up. One minute he was awake and chatting, and the next he’d swayed and dozed off and Bucky fumbled through excuses—“It was a long week.” “He pushes himself too hard.” “He’s been sick.”—most of which were growled out in a way that sounded more like threats than reassurance. One of the visiting interns went pale and Steve stepped in to field any extra questions. Bucky pulled Tony close and buried his nose in his hair until the lab was cleared and they were alone again. 

“Well, I guess it could have been worse.” Steve came up behind the sofa. 

“Should I move or let him sleep?” Bucky wondered.

“Give him a little bit, if you want,” Steve said. “He doesn’t sleep enough and I’m starting to think you’re his new favorite pillow.” 

“He doesn’t like us that way, remember?” Bucky said with heavy sarcasm.

“He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

“Yeah, well, it’s stupid. He needs us.”

“Have you sensed him at all again?” Steve asked softly.

Bucky shook his head. “Not since the other night.”

Steve nodded and took a deep breath, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.   

“He’s ours, Steve.”

Steve’s stomach clenched. “Not if he doesn’t say so, Buck.” 

Bucky glowered, pulling Tony closer to his chest. “What the hell else could it mean?” 

Steve sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe it was all a fluke?”

“It wasn’t a fluke.”

Steve tried to quell a pang of jealousy. He’d had to share Bucky in the past, yes, but never with someone he’d wanted, too. It’d been all right when Tony and Bucky’s relationship was just an elaborate farce for the media. And it would have been all right if Tony had agreed to something more serious between the three of them. But as it stood, Steve felt like the outsider looking in. Their arrangement had never promised to be easy; but Steve hadn’t realized it would be quite this hard. 

Steve rested his hand on Bucky’s head and his soulmate leaned into the touch. Steve absently stroked his fingers over Bucky’s hair and Bucky turned to press a kiss to the inside of Steve’s palm. 

“Wish we could find a way to make it work,” Bucky mumbled into his skin, wistful. 

“Me, too.” 

“Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes,” Friday said. “Excuse the interruption. A priority delivery has just been made for Mr. Stark. He asked to be notified as soon as it arrived.”

“Can it wait?” Steve asked.

“I’m afraid it’s of a time sensitive nature.”

“Might be the medicine he ordered,” Bucky offered. 

And—at the moment?—Tony needed that medicine even more than he needed sleep. 

Steve touched Tony’s shoulder. “Tony. Hey,” he said. “We need you to wake up.” 

Tony inhaled sharply and was halfway upright before his eyes were properly open. He reeled and then flopped back into Bucky’s arms with a groan. “Too early,” he protested.

“Pretty sure it’s almost evening,” Steve said.  

“You gotta get up,” Bucky agreed.

Tony’s eyes flew open and he tilted his head up at Bucky, cheeks warming ever so slightly. “Oh. Hi.” 

“Hi, yourself.” Bucky smirked. 

“I thought the couch had gotten awfully muscular,” Tony said under his breath. He pushed himself up and wiped at the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “Uh, I drooled on you.”

“If that’s the worst thing that happens to me today, I think I’ll be all right.”

“They didn’t get my slack-jawed slobbering on camera, did they?”

“You’re worried about that when DUM-E showed them your underwear?” Bucky’s eyes crinkled with mirth. 

Tony shrugged. “The whole world has already seen my ass.”

“Friday said you have a delivery,” Steve said.  

Tony jerked around sharply. “She didn’t say what?” It wasn’t truly a question, but an assertion. Like he’d been expecting a mysterious, unmarked delivery all along. 

“No, she didn’t.”

Tony scrambled over Bucky, but in his half-awake haste his legs failed before he could get them under him. Bucky grabbed him around the waist and held him steady until he found his footing and center of gravity. Tony winced and swore softly; he doubled over and braced his palms on his thighs, eyes squeezed shut. “Okay, that was too fast.”

Bucky got up, resting a hand lightly on Tony’s shoulder. “You should let Steve help you.”

Tony rubbed his forehead. “Normally I would protest the mother-henning,” he said, “but, yeah, I—that might not be a bad idea.” 

“You going somewhere, Buck?” Steve asked.

“I put in my work for today. It’s your turn with him now,” Bucky said, deliberately casual. He stretched, fist in the small of his back. “There’s a bath upstairs with my name on it.” 

Tony’s lips parted ever so slightly. Bucky shot him a knowing look and Tony quickly clammed up. “Get a move on, Rogers,” Tony said. “The faster I get that package, the faster this swooning around is over and done with.”

 

+

 

The delivery was nothing more than one thin, steel-reinforced case. Steve brought it up to the lab and set it on a cart with rollers, so Tony could move it around the lab as needed. Tony was already sitting lost in front of his screens, running equations and having Friday cycle through information on chemical reactions. 

“If you want, I can stay and help?” Steve offered. 

Tony shook his head. “Sorry, Rogers, this is classified stuff. I’d have to get a legal waiver to have anyone in here with me while I’m working on it.”

Well, that sounded like complete bullshit. “But it’s going to help?”

Tony kept his eyes firmly forward. “If I can get the formula right.” 

Right. Of course. And Steve’s choice was to—what? Stand by and do nothing? He wasn’t good at that. “Is there anything else you need, Tony?”

“Kiss for good luck?” Tony blurted.

Steve froze. 

Tony grimaced. “No, sorry, I’m not thinking straight,” he fumbled. “Remember what I said about being a dirty old man? Hard habit to break.” 

Steve came up beside him, his heart in his throat. He rested a hand on the lab table in front of Tony. “If you’ve changed your mind, Tony, all you have to do is say so.”

Tony swallowed thickly, looking up. “Fuck it.” He grabbed Steve by the collar and pulled him down roughly, crushing their mouths together in a hurried, desperate kiss—like it was something to steal, something to hide.

He pushed away, terrified, before Steve could properly react.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Tony said.

“Don’t say that,” Steve gasped, head spinning. “Please don’t say you’re sorry for that,” he reached back for Tony, “because I’m not sorry.” 

Steve pulled Tony up and out of his chair. He ran his thumb along Tony’s jaw, fingers curling around his neck. Whether this was Steve’s first chance or his only chance, Steve leaned in a gave Tony the kiss he’d wanted to give him for years. Soft at first, with building heat, tracing Tony’s bottom lip with his tongue as he savored the scratch of Tony’s beard.

Tony parted his lips and Steve pushed into his mouth, tasting coffee. Steve turned his head and delved deeper, until Tony made a muffled whimper, his whole body shaking.

Steve pulled back and smoothed Tony’s hair. “Tony, easy. It’s okay.” He gave him another peck on his mouth. 

“Oh, fuck.” Tony rested his forehead on Steve’s shoulder, breathless. “I was afraid you’d be good at that.” His tone was joking, but his eyes were red-rimmed. 

Was he actually scared? Steve suddenly had a sick feeling the kiss wasn’t quite what he thought. Suddenly it felt frighteningly like a goodbye.

“Tony, tell me what’s going on.”

“I wish I could,” Tony said shakily. 

“You can,” Steve insisted. “Whatever it is, you can tell me.” 

Tony let him go and took a few stumbling steps backwards. “Just give me another day or two. Please, Steve. Just let me figure this out and I’ll be better than new, I promise. I promise you and James both.” 

 

+

 

Steve didn’t sleep that night, and neither did Bucky; but they stayed together in the dark, offering each other silent support.

Sometime when the late hours shifted to early morning, Steve felt a sharp tug at the back of his awareness—and then he was drowning, water closing over his head. It might have been the murky depths of the Potomac as debris came raining down from the helicarriers. Or it might have been the cool dark of a stone cave, where he was being forced into and a filthy tub of water again and again.

This wasn’t the end. He wasn’t going to give up. There was only one thing he could do to fix it. It was a long shot, and he’d probably end up blowing himself up, but sometimes the only option was to go big or, well, kick the bucket. 

There were hands on him, holding him down, trying to keep him from thrashing. 

“It’s me,” Bucky said. “Steve, it’s me. You’re all right. Breathe. Just breathe.”

Steve slammed back to himself, gasping for air. He coughed, his lungs trying to expel water that wasn’t there. Bucky helped him onto his side, rubbing circles on his back as he regained his senses.

“Friday, where’s Tony?” Steve rasped.

“Mr. Stark is currently in the lab working.”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s operating at full capacity—factoring in his current condition.”

“Steve, did you feel him?” Bucky asked.

“I felt him.” 

I told you,” Bucky crowed. “He’s ours, Stevie. He’s ours, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, Buck. I believe you.” Steve closed his eyes and pressed their foreheads together. “He’s ours. And whatever’s wrong, we’re going to fix it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

You’re not hurt. 

That was Tony's father talking. Howard.

The words swam around inside Tony’s head as he struggled out of layers of sleep. The lab was dark. He was slumped over one of his tables, cheek pressed hard against the metal. He’d been drooling.  

Tony winced and pushed himself up, wiping the corner of his mouth on his sleeve. A grease-stained blanket fell off his shoulders and onto the floor, which was strange because he was pretty sure he hadn't had a blanket prior to falling unconscious. The workshop blankets had a tendency to go missing and, ten times out of ten, DUM-E was the culprit (he was surprisingly sneaky for such a clumsy lab assistant.) Tony must have been in pretty sad shape if the bot had decided to share from his secret stash.

Tony groaned and put a hand to his face, taking stock. He ached. His body was thrumming with prickling waves of energy and his skin was over-sensitized. His nerves were ropes of fire running down his back, constricting at the base of his skull and wrapping around his ribcage like clamps.

Bits of pre-programmed bacteria blasting away at the electro-chemical signals of his nervous system would have that effect. 

But sure. Yeah. Like Howard said. You’re not hurt. 

Tony couldn’t remember when his father had delivered that particular piece of sage advice. Probably when Tony’d done something stupid like falling and skinning a knee. You know, the kind of thing all kids do but somehow Tony was expected to be above. 

Stark men were made of iron, after all.

Another kid might have buckled under the reprimand, but Tony had taken it to heart. He’d always been quick on his feet, intellectually speaking, and a little too eager to please. His father wanted him to be tough, so he was tough. Tony could ignore pain, take the worst the world had to throw at him, and repurpose it into something he could use. Pain was fuel for the machine. 

So, really, the fact he was hurting, actually, quite a lot right now—well. It was fine. Given the right tools and a problem-solving mindset, pain was motivation. Tony would put it to use.

That was healthy, right? 

Tony put his hand over the bruised and tender skin at the back of his neck and twisted his head carefully from side to side. He took a few deep, measured breaths. 

He hadn’t meant to sleep, and honestly that troubled him more than any physical discomfort. In the last twenty-four hours, he’d caught himself more than once staring off at nothing in particular, not sure how long he’d been drifting. If he was straight-up blacking out now, he was in trouble. Big trouble.

Tony gestured and the screens came to life around him. Too bright. He grumbled out a command and Friday modulated the intensity of the displays. The sharp, blue-spectrum light filtered into warm red tones and gave his already-dark lab the aura of a photo darkroom straight out of a horror flick; but at least he could see without his head throbbing. 

Where had he left off? 

Friday flashed through the most recent Extremis test results, but Tony could barely follow the information. He squeezed his eyes shut. He’d been closer to stabilizing the formula when he was fall-down-drunk at a New Year’s Eve party more than a decade ago. Hell, with the help of Bruce, he’d managed to temporarily neutralize the formula long enough to extract it from Pepper and bottle it up for safekeeping. 

But that was the problem. Kept bottled up and inert, Extremis was under control. Tony could throw it in some tupperware in the back of the fridge and it’d keep forever. It wouldn’t even grow mold. (Poke some holes in the lid and it’d keep the rest of the fridge fresher than a box of baking soda.) Once Extremis was back in living, breathing human tissue, it was unstable. Mixing it with the processes of a human body left too many variables and chemical interactions to predict—at least too many for him to address in the limited time frame he had left. 

And there was no Bruce to help him. 

And.

He couldn’t focus. 

Fog was setting in big time. 

And, to top it all off, there was one more straw for the camel’s back: Prior to his narcoleptic episode, Tony’d been having a string of compulsive daydreams—Or. Visions? Hallucinations? He didn’t know for sure. Whatever. They were about Steve and James, so. Extra distracting. Tony would set his mind on work and then his thoughts would go all warm and hazy and drifty. 

“Drifty” was one-hundred percent a scientific term, okay? 

Anyway, as nice as the dreams were, they were a nightmare on his productivity. 

Tony sucked his lower lip into his mouth, biting down and trying to ignore the flush rising to his face. Catnaps with visions of Captain America pinning him naked to the coffee table weren’t going to help him focus (Tony had always wanted to see how sturdy that table was), but they sure were a nice distraction from the seconds ticking down on his life clock. Who could blame him if he wanted to lose himself in a few small indulgences?

The thing was, Tony wasn’t entirely convinced the dreams were an indulgence. Because, first of all, okay, in that coffee table dream? Steve had been downright shy. Tony had a lifetime membership to the explicit fantasies club and he knew his own tastes pretty damn well. Most of his private fantasies weren’t rated for consumption by the general public. Shy might be what Tony would realistically expect from Captain Innocence—especially if he’d never been with anyone but his soulmate. But, on his own time, Tony didn’t have any problems satisfying himself with fictional scenarios involving Steve mercilessly and enthusiastically pounding him into the mattress. 

Or coffee table. 

To-may-to, to-mah-to.

And, well, sure, the dream had been working its way up to that point, but then it had all crumbled and faded like ash and picked up with something else altogether: steamy condensation on travertine tile and the steady patter of water from a frankly ridiculously expensive shower head (Tony's, of course. It was his bathroom). Oh, and Steve and James. The two soulmates lost in each other under a cascade of water. Lost, yes, but wanting him all the same. Tony didn’t know how he knew that, but he had. At the time it had felt—real. Vivid. Like he had been there with them, or close enough to know he wanted to be there with them. 

Was that what it felt like to be connected by a soul bond? Willingly pulled into the intoxication and warmth of another person’s presence? Wanting nothing more than to be with them? Was that what Steve and James experienced together? Now that it was fading, like all dreams did, Tony was having a hard time separating wishful thinking from reality. Maybe he just wanted the reassurance of human touch.

…The reassurance of that metal hand sliding up his side and James’ mouth hovering over his…

Tony shook himself.

Focus. 

He really needed to focus.

He pushed the useless speculation away. He could worry about soulmates when he knew he still had a life to share with them. (He had Friday run another soul mark scan just to be sure.)

As Tony tapped away at the screens and wearily trashed failed simulations, the lab expanded around him, stretching out emptier and emptier. He was lonely. Bone deep. The kind of lonely that left his chest heavy, like the arc reactor was still there, embedded—cold and unnatural, making it hard to breathe.

Why did the rest of the team feel so far away? Not just Steve and James. Everyone. It wasn’t like they were upstate anymore. They were all in the same goddamned building. All Tony had to do was hop on the elevator if he wanted to joke with Clint or shoot the breeze with Nat. Vision, Sam, Wanda—they were all there. Rhodey’d probably take pity on him and let him crash in his room if Tony wanted to, just like late nights in college. Sure, there were about ten tiers of security he had to get through now that SHIELD was on full alert; but there was nothing genuinely keeping him apart from the team. 

Except for himself.

Rhodey’d come by to check on Tony once, at least. That was something. But now Tony had to get this stupid bio-explosive formula sorted out, and soon.

DUM-E trundled out of the shadows and over to the lab table, opening and closing his claws. The bot grasped at the blanket puddled on the floor and tried to put it back over Tony’s shoulders. 

Tony’s lips quirked. “Next time how about one that wasn’t used to wipe up an oil spill?”  

DUM-E spun his gears and tried readjusting the blanket again. 

Tony rolled his eyes. “Perfect, thank you. I’m warm. Now go find your sibling.” U was powered down, snoozing somewhere in the depths of the lab. “Go get U a blanket. I’m busy.” 

DUM-E worked his claws and then whirred away. Tony was ninety-five percent certain the bot was about to do the opposite of what Tony had instructed—whatever the opposite might be—but at least the bot was occupied.

“Mr. Stark,” Friday came on over the comm, “pardon the interruption.”

“Why do I have the distinct impression you’re about to tell me something I don’t want to hear?” 

“Ms. Potts is requesting to see you.” 

Tony jerked upright in his chair. Which was a mistake, because it set his head to throbbing and his vision swimming. He bent over the lab table and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, breathing slowly in and out to steady himself. Okay, yes, he was lonely; but he wasn't even remotely ready to deal with Pepper Potts right now. “Friday, no visitors means no visitors. Rhodey got away with it because—” Rhodey was Rhodey, “—this I can’t handle right now.”

“She is quite insistent, boss.” 

Of course she was. She was Pepper Potts. She’d woven her way in and out of his heart over the course of years and she knew all of Tony’s weaknesses better than he knew himself. He’d spent most of his life letting her into all the spaces he never let anyone else. Figuratively or literally. Whether he’d intended to let her in or not. All she had to do was find the right button and push. 

Which, now that Tony thought about it, might be more literal than figurative, because Tony couldn’t remember now whether he’d updated security protocols to keep Pepper locked out. 

Shit. 

“Friday, review security permissions ASAP—”

“If you’ll pardon my saying so, boss,” Friday interjected, “if things go badly with Extremis, this might be your last chance to connect with Ms. Potts.”

Oh. 

Yes, well.

There was that. 

Tony hadn’t been able to reach Pepper when he was flying into an inter-dimensional wormhole with an armed nuke. And that moment, suspended alone in space, signal lost, had been worse than Afghanistan. Now seemed like a pretty good time to seize the opportunity while he had it. 

“Let her in.” He gestured for Friday to readjust the lights. He raked shaking fingers through his hair and tossed DUM-E’s blanket aside. He took a deep breath, trying hard not to squint against the brightness. He swiveled his seat to face the door and hoped the Stark charm would distract from the rest of his haggard appearance. 

Extremis, Tony?” Pepper launched in the moment she stepped into the lab, her strides purposeful. “Are you serious?”

Okay. So, Rhodey had let her in on that little detail. Traitor.

Before Tony could articulate a defense, Pepper tossed her handbag onto the lab table, took his head in her hands, and pulled him close. All resistance melted out of him. He let his forehead fall against her chest, pressed to the reassurance of her heartbeat. Jesus, but she knew how to manipulate him. If she ever wanted to hurt him, he’d be in so much trouble. 

“I told Rhodey not to tell,” Tony mumbled half-heartedly.

“Well, I’m glad he has more sense than you do,” Pepper said, her fingernails raking gently through his hair.

"I don't have many options here."

“If you’re determined to use Extremis,” Pepper's tone was disapproving, “you’re going to do it with a medical doctor supervising. You’re going to do it with people you love close by. You’re not going to do it alone.” She cupped his cheeks and tilted his head so she could look at him. “No one should ever have to go through Extremis alone.” 

A frown tugged at Tony’s mouth. “You did.” 

Pepper sighed. “Tony, if this is some kind of twisted way of punishing yourself—”

“No, Pep, I promise.” He circled his arms loosely around her waist and closed his eyes. It was easier to talk without the lights glaring at him and making his head ache. “I’ve run the calculations. I’m too far gone for anything else to help. Friday can confirm.” 

Pepper wrapped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. The pressure hurt, but he was tired and starved for contact and he didn’t want her to let go. She buried her nose in his hair and was silent for a time.  

“I wasn’t alone at the end, you know,” she said. “You were fighting for me. You figured out how to get that stuff out of me without it killing me. And it scares me that you want to turn around and put it in yourself.” 

Tony ran his hands up and down her sides, an old habit. Reassurance for them both. 

He braced himself against the light as he cracked his eyes open again. His head instantly set to throbbing; but the familiar concern on Pepper’s face was worth the pain. It was the same expression she always had for him—a mix of exasperation and concern. Maybe a little more concern than exasperation this time around. 

“I talked to Dr. Cho.” She took his hands in hers, rubbing the backs of his hands with her thumbs. “She promised she would help.” 

Tony sat back. Dr. Cho had graciously agreed to continue working with the Avengers after the whole Ultron thing, but Tony had been so sure that was because he’d bowed out of the team. At least that’s what he’d told himself. He wasn’t a stranger to people hating his guts and still happily taking his funds. He wouldn't have expected Cho to freely volunteer to help save his life, not in a million years.

“I don’t want any arguments, Tony,” Pepper said. “Dr. Cho is already on her way to the tower with her team. I briefed her on the situation, but I need you to give her access to the lab and your research. Everything.” 

Tony shook his head. And here was Pepper surprising him, too. She still cared enough about him to reach for a lifeline he couldn’t grab for himself. 

Tony had spent months mourning his relationship with Pepper, but she was still here, now. They weren’t soulmates. They weren’t lovers. They didn’t even live together anymore. Their dynamic had absolutely changed, but he hadn’t lost her. Not like he thought he had when Killian had given her Extremis. Not like he thought he had when she’d fallen into flames on the freighter. 

It dawned on Tony that maybe he didn’t need her to be with him like she used to be. There were two men upstairs who Tony was starting to think he could love even more than he’d loved Pepper—two men who had made it perfectly clear they were ready to accept him, whether or not they were his soulmates, if Tony’d stop shutting them out. 

Oh.

He laughed a startled, manic bark of a laugh. He looked down at his hands and rubbed his shaking palms together. “What the hell is wrong with me?” 

Pepper’s brow furrowed. “Tony, did you even hear what I said?”

He laughed again and nodded, not sure if he was about to have a hysterical fit or dissolve into tears. He was leaning a little more toward tears. How was it he always managed to make such a mess of everything?

Misunderstanding, Pepper touched his shoulder. “I wish you would have told me this is why things have been strained between you and James,” she said. “He should be down here with you, Tony. You should be making the most of every minute you have together.” 

Tony shook himself out of his bemusement. Rhodey had spilled the beans about Extremis, but he'd neglected to tell Pepper the soul bond was a sham.  

Tony took a long, steadying breath. The words burned strangely in his throat, but he forced himself to spit them out. “James isn’t my soulmate.” His chest constricted and his eyes fluttered closed as a tremor shuddered through him. Why did it hurt so much to say that? 

“He’s—what?” Pepper leaned back to get a better look at him, like she was waiting for the punchline.  

“We aren’t soulmates.” Tony felt sick. 

Pepper looked a little queasy herself as she tried to puzzle her way through Tony’s sometimes bizarre and inappropriate sense of humor. “But the marks—”

“Tattoos.” 

Pepper’s hand came up to cover her mouth. There it was. She was getting it. 

Tony waited a beat to let the truth sink in. “Mine’s not fully healed yet. I can show you.”

Pepper held out a hand to stop him. “No, Tony, I don’t need to see. I—Why didn’t you tell me?” Her face was pinched. 

“The fewer people who knew, the safer the secret.” That was at least marginally true.  

“Then I don’t understand,” she said, her expression clouding over and the heat rising in her tone. “You’re risking everything,” she gestured emphatically, the arc of her hand taking in the lab, the building, the company, the two of them, “for… for what?” Her face flushed and then paled as the potential ramifications sank in and took root. The building was crawling with government agents and thronged by mass media. If anyone found out, they were well and truly screwed. “Do you have any idea how serious this is?”

There was a beeping whirr from a distant corner as U was startled out of a sleep cycle by Pepper’s shout.

Pepper was pacing now, a shaky hand to her forehead. Tony couldn’t tell if she was angry or frightened. Probably both. Tony kind of had a knack for pushing her to new levels of anxiety.

“Pep, James may not be my soulmate,” there was that scratching, burning in Tony’s throat again, “but he is Steve’s.”

Pepper stopped in her tracks and she swiveled to face him. Her lips parted in surprise, and then her jaw snapped shut. She closed her eyes and breathed out slowly, nodding. It was obvious to anyone who gave it more than a few minutes’ thought. “That still doesn’t explain why you organized a worldwide media event to announce James Barnes as your soulmate.”

“I didn't mean to. Not exactly. They were going to kill him,” Tony said. “The night of the gala. SHIELD agents had a gun to his head in a back alley, and they were asking for the kill order. I just… said the first thing that sprang to mind, to buy some time. Once we were in the clear, I needed SHIELD to know the world was watching, to keep them from trying it again. I didn’t mean for it to go this far.” 

That was a big, fat lie. Wasn’t he the one who had convinced the team to play along with the ruse? Wasn’t he the one who was having fantasies about Steve and James pulling him close, pinning him between them, and—

Tony.” Usually his name fell from other people’s mouths like a reprimand. Especially in situations where he admitted to fucking up spectacularly. This time, however, Pepper said his name softly and full of heartbreak. Probably because the reasons he’d made such a colossally foolish decision were obvious. She knew how much he’d missed her, and how much Tony had always wanted a soulmate of his own.

There was more he wanted to tell her, but for once he was tongue tied. He wanted to tell her that, yes, the soul marks were fake; but deep down he was sure the bond was real. As crazy as it sounded, he was connected not just to James, but to Steve, too. They both were his. He couldn’t prove it, and, sure, yes, the odds were pretty good he was losing his mind as his body fell apart, but he needed her to believe him. 

Tony’s mouth twitched. His head was throbbing and it was getting worse the longer he sat under the lab lights. Soon it’d be a full out migraine.  

Pepper squinted at him in that unnerving way she had—like she was looking through darkened glass to find the truth Tony so loved to obscure. 

“Maybe you ought to see this.” She dug into her purse and pulled out a magazine, handing it to him like a test. Her head canted to the side, shrewdly gauging his reaction.

And, well. Tony’d kinda lost his grip on subtlety a while back. The glossy paper rattled in Tony’s unsteady grip. He would have liked to blame that on the infection, but there was no denying the ache in his chest when he saw what the magazine had cobbled together in the all-too-brief time since the interview.

The cover was a tasteful shot of Tony’s arm intertwined with James’, their fingers loosely interlocked. James’ forearm was turned so just the barest glimpse of the soul mark was visible. The center spread was the two of them relaxing in the lab. James had his face tucked close, arms wrapped around Tony. Cap was in the distance, arms folded and looking just as handsome and brooding as ever. The caption beneath read: New soulmates Tony Stark and James Buchanan Barnes steal a moment together while Avenger Captain America (Steve Rogers) watches over.

That was as far as Tony got before his vision went fuzzy grey—and then black—as pain constricted his body sharply, sending branches of fire through his head. He swam back to consciousness less than a second later, but Pepper was holding him in his seat to keep him from falling face first onto the lab floor—and from her tight, frightened expression, he must have looked like death warmed over. 

Watching Tony kill himself was one of Pepper’s least favorite things, a point she’d never failed to make.

Only this time it wasn’t Tony’s fault. At least he was pretty sure he hadn’t done anything to warrant a pair of thugs shooting him up with this neon doom-goo that was eating him alive. He didn’t want this. He wanted—

The magazine fell from his slackened grip and dropped to the floor, falling open to a page featuring the infamous press conference kiss. And, yeah. That. He wanted fullness and warmth and reciprocated affection. He wanted to be in love, and he wanted to be able to let himself be in love.

Pepper’s hand was splayed on his chest, over where the arc reactor used to be. “Tony, if these are your last hours on Earth—which I don’t believe for a minute—do you really want to spend them alone in a lab?”  

He closed his eyes. She was right. Doing this by himself wasn’t working. And if he really was about to die, he didn’t want to do it without seeing Steve or James again. All he could hope was that it wasn’t too late to take them up on their offer. 

“Friday,” he gasped hoarsely, “we need to redefine security clearances. Unlock our progress on the Extremis formula for Dr. Cho. Give her access to everything she needs.” 

“Yes, boss.”

Tony covered Pepper’s hand with his own and squeezed. “Love you, Pep,” he said. “Was always kind of a hot mess without you.” 

Her smile wavered, but it was still a smile. “I love you, too, Tony.” She kissed his cheek. “And you’re a hot mess, period.” 

“But I’m still hot.”

“Yes, you’re still hot,” she said. “Now come on. Let’s get you upstairs.”

 

+

 

SHIELD security didn’t give them any trouble; but then, one look from Pepper could clear a path for fifty paces. 

As the elevator started up to the Avenger’s common room, Tony’s head swam and he felt the strangest flicker of—something. Like a system booting up. Or like he had an internal HUD that was on the blink. But for a split second there was—input? Data? He wasn’t sure what to call it; but it was uniquely Steve and James. Like they were standing right beside him having a muffled conversation he couldn’t quite make out. 

And then the spark fizzled out. 

Even so, and even before the elevator doors parted, Tony knew Steve and James would be there waiting for him. And they were—both of them—though it was the blue-grey of James’ eyes Tony saw first and then it was James’ hands reaching to pull Tony into a fierce and protective embrace.

 

+

 

James didn’t waste any time bundling Tony up to the suite and herding him into the bedroom while Steve and Pepper followed behind and lingered in the living room. Between fervent kisses and James berating him for cutting off contact, Tony didn’t even have a chance to tell them that Pepper was in the know about the whole fake soul bonding thing. One second he was stepping into the Avengers common room, and the next he was several floors up and the bedroom door was shut and the two of them were alone.

Tony had to give James some credit. Newly bonded soulmates hated being separated—hated it like oil hated water. And Tony had buried himself under fathoms of water. …Well. That was a weak comparison. (Tony was tired and his head hurt, all right?) Anyway, James had committed himself to the part. That was the point. 

James urged him into the ensuite bathroom. And that was fair, too. Tony hadn’t showered in… he couldn’t remember how long. So he was probably overdue for at least a casual rinse. DUM-E’s blanket had left some residue, no doubt making matters worse in the cleanliness department. 

Pepper would fill Steve in. And, while Tony cleaned up, Steve could work out the details of Dr. Cho’s arrival with Pepper. Cap and Pep were both tacticians in their own ways and, with Friday’s help, they’d handle the arrangements far better than Tony could anyway. 

Tony briefly wished he’d had the opportunity to make eye contact with Steve. Just a split second to give Tony some idea whether or not the connections he’d felt in the lab were real. Had Steve shared the same vivid daydreams as Tony? Was Tony totally crazy to think, maybe, possibly, there was something more between them? Or was he tricking himself? 

Tony couldn’t get a read off of James. Not one he could trust, anyway. James was eyeball-deep in his Oscar-winning performance as World’s Most Worried Soulmate. Honestly, once the bedroom door was shut, he should have felt free to drop the act; but even without cameras tracking their every move, James was being as careful and possessive of Tony as he’d ever been for the sake of the press. 

Before letting him go, James made sure Tony was steady on his feet, leaning with a hand braced on the bathroom counter for support. The day had gotten away from Tony, as most days did. Outside the mirror-shielded, plate glass windows, the sky was shifting into the rusted golds of late afternoon.

James rummaged in the mini fridge—of course there was a mini fridge, this was Tony’s bathroom—and pulled out a small bottle of water. He cracked the lid and pressed the bottle into Tony’s hand, telling him to drink slowly. Tony did. Then James started up the shower and went about gathering towels and picking out fresh soap and shampoo from the supply shelves. He stacked them within easy reach around the open stall so Tony wouldn’t have to go hunting for them. 

Tony could have done it all for himself, really. Maybe not as easily as he used to, but with a little tenacity he could have managed. Even though thinking about moving made him achingly weary. And his head was throbbing. And the longer he was on his feet, the dizzier and shakier he got. Other than that? Totally fine. 

He wanted to tell James he needed the lights lower, but had a moment of muddled panic over how to get his attention. Somewhere along the line Tony’d stopped calling him “Barnes” in his head and had no idea when the name switch had happened. Did James actually want Tony to call him “James” outside of press events?

Tony stumbled over a stiff and strangely formal, “B-Barnes—?” Ugh. That left a bad taste in his mouth.

James raised an eyebrow at him. 

Suddenly the lights didn’t matter so much anymore. Instead, he felt a surging need to confess. “I told Pepper,” his mouth went dry, but it didn’t stop the babble. “I told her we weren’t real. I mean we’re real. We’re real people. Living people. But the bond. I told her about us.”  

James quietly digested the information. “Yeah?” He tested the water temperature with his right hand and then dried his fingers on his jeans. “How’d she take it?”

“Not great?” Tony hazarded. At least Bucky didn’t seem to be as angry as she had been, which was a relief. “But she wants to help. She called Dr. Cho to, uh, sort out this hot mess.” He indicated himself with a sheepish grin. 

“Good.” James came over and took the water bottle out of Tony’s hand and set it aside.

Good? Just good? Was that all he had to say?

James tugged at Tony’s shirt. “Let’s get you out of these clothes, okay?” 

Tony’s heart thudded against his ribcage. Huh. Well. All right then. James didn’t seem to understand that Tony was giving him an out. James was free and clear to drop the act if he wanted to. He could leave Tony to his own devices. He join Steve and Pepper out in the living room and kick his feet up. No one would cry foul. Friday could alert them if Tony needed help.

But James didn’t waver. He peered at Tony intently, like Tony should know exactly why he was still there. 

And. Tony knew. He did. But standing face to face with too much hope felt dangerous. If Steve had been in here with them, and Tony had two pairs of soulful super soldier eyes staring into him, Tony would’ve had to flee back down to the lab. Or else fall apart entirely. 

Fleeing from potential soulmates had never been Tony’s modus operandi, but none of this was what he’d spent years researching and preparing for. It was one thing to believe, in his own mind, Steve and James might somehow be his soulmates. It was something else for Tony to quietly whisper that belief to his best friend Rhodes. And yet again quite another thing to be confronted with the reality while Tony stood vulnerable, dirty, and half-dead in his bathroom, of all places. 

And reality was asking him to take off his clothes, too. So. 

James waited for Tony’s nod of permission before slipping his fingers under the hem of Tony’s shirt and pulling it softly over his head. James’ hands smoothed over Tony’s skin, making sure Tony was still alive, breathing, and in one piece. James was treating Tony like… like one soulmate ought to treat another. Reverent. Respectful. Attentive. Like Tony was worthy of care. 

Tony tilted his head up to the ceiling. And if his eyes were burning and watering, it was just because he was oversensitive to the lights. That was all. 

“Jesus, Tony,” James breathed.

Tony hissed as James’ fingers ghosted over a particularly tender bruise. There were far too many, and more blossoming all the time. “I get that a lot when I take off my clothes,” Tony joked weakly. “On account of the,” he gestured vaguely, “irresistible physique?”

James didn’t laugh. In fact, the joke had the opposite of its intended effect and a frown on James' face was truly an unhappy thing. 

“I'm kidding.”

James made a noncommittal noise. He stopped as his hands reached the waistband of Tony’s pants. He pulled away, seeming to think better of himself. “Do you…? I can give you some privacy.”

Just as things were getting interesting. Tony could still stand on his own two feet long enough to duck under the spray (probably), but where was the fun in that? Besides, Tony really needed to know for sure, one way or the other, whether or not all this soulmate nonsense was in his own head. And now that he was here, where he was pretty sure Steve and James had enjoyed themselves earlier in the day, he'd just figured out a way to test.

He sagged, feigning greater weakness than he actually felt.

James caught him, as expected, his brow creasing. 

“Sorry,” Tony said, shaking himself a little. “Just a little dizzy.” 

“Okay.” James thought for a moment. Then, “Hang on.” He started to shrug out of his own shirt. “You’ll need to hold on to me.” 

“No, I can manage,” Tony said. 

“You’ll slip and brain yourself on the tile.”

“You’ve already showered. You don’t need two showers in one day,” Tony protested.  

James laughed, tossing his shirt aside. “You’ve met me, right?” 

Tony cocked his head, just slightly, waiting for James to make the connection. “I have, yes.” 

James puzzled over Tony’s odd expression. Then he stiffened and stepped back, face full of the same frightened hope Tony had been bursting with moments before. “Did Friday tell you that?” he asked, reaching for an explanation. "That I'd already—?"

Tony licked his bottom lip. “Nope.” Friday had privacy protocols, after all. There were plenty of things that happened behind closed doors in the tower that Tony had no business knowing. That was the lowest bar for common decency, really.  

“You felt us,” James said. It was almost a whisper. “Stevie said you felt us.” 

“Yeah,” he said. “I, uh… I didn’t give you and Steve permission to defile my shower like that, by the way.” Tony tsked

“You did, actually.” The corner of James’ mouth quirked. “‘Go at it like rabbits’? ‘Whatever tickles your fancy’? I think you said that.” 

“Did I?” Tony raised his eyebrows. “I meant not without me.” 

James laughed, bright and unexpectedly happy. Happy. God, but that sound made Tony's heart ache.

“We woulda invited you,” James stepped in close again, “but you turned us down the first time we offered. Didn’t think you’d want an invite, seein’ as you locked yourself in the lab.” 

“Yeah, that’s my bad.” Tony hooked a finger through one of James’ belt loops and tugged him closer. “A guy can change his mind, right?” 

James circled his arms around Tony’s shoulders. “We were kinda hopin’ you would.” He pressed his forehead to Tony’s and closed his eyes, letting out a soft sigh.

Tony took a breath of his own and ran his palm absently over the smooth metal plates of James’ left arm. Okay then. This was real. One-hundred percent real. Whatever damage the infection was causing, at least Tony wasn’t hallucinating. “I don’t know what any of this means,” he said. “According to every convention and study done in the last fifty years, none of this is possible. Do you… do either of you have any new rendezvous marks?” 

James shook his head. 

“Me neither,” Tony said. “And believe me, I’ve checked.” A lot. 

There was no mark, and no rendezvous to cement a legitimate soul bond; but somehow there was a connection between them. It was fluctuating, weak, and unpredictable. But it was real—a psychic link between himself and an established, soul bonded pair. That made the three of them soulmates in everything but name, right?  

James seemed to think so, if his behavior was any indication. And Tony would hazard a guess that Steve agreed with that sentiment. 

The problem was, SHIELD would never accept a bonding without marks. Hell, if SHIELD found out they lied about the initial bonding, they probably wouldn’t accept one with marks, either. And whatever psychic link the three of them shared, it was too unpredictable to prove. Plus it meant precisely nothing towards validating the three of them as soulmates, not as far as science was concerned. Psychic links weren’t typical in soulmated pairs. Anything outside the normal soul bonding parameters would be viewed with heavy skepticism by officials and the public alike. And skepticism was a matter of life or death for a certain former assassin. 

Right about now Tony was pretty deeply invested in making sure nothing happened to said former assassin. And that wasn’t just because he was (finally) helping Tony out of his pants. 

James put a steadying hand on Tony’s hip and helped him step out of his pant legs. “This is just a shower,” James said. He tipped Tony’s chin and raised his eyebrows, making sure he was getting his point across. 

“I’m on my deathbed and you want to deny me my last remaining pleasure?” 

“If you want to fool around, I’ll call Steve in,” James said.  

Oh. 

Tony should have known James would call his bluff. “Honestly, I think that’s more than my body can handle right now.” Tony laughed hollowly. But, yeah, what a way to go. 

James neatly folded away the rest of their clothing and tugged Tony under the stream with him. 

“Friday,” Tony called. “Lights.” 

The overheads dimmed and soft yellow lights around the base of the bathroom walls came on. Mood lighting. Ambiance. Whatever. The windows shifted and filtered out all but the suggestion of the sky and cityscape beyond. That was much better. 

Tony rested his forehead against James’ chest and closed his eyes, letting the warm water sluice over his skin and melt them together. If he’d been in better shape, there were so many things he would have wanted to do. (Tony’s younger self was screaming at him for not taking advantage of having Bucky Fucking Barnes naked in the shower with him.)

But Tony was tired. 

And he was sore.

All he really wanted right now was exactly this. James crowding close; James soaping up Tony’s skin and lathering shampoo into his hair; James rinsing him clean, making sure none of Tony’s bruises needed extra attention. Every touch was deliberate and careful and good.

How the hell had Hydra made this guy into their coldest, most efficient killer? 

Tony looked up, but James’ face was mostly in shadow. His thumbs brushed droplets from Tony’s cheeks. 

“Kiss me?” Tony asked.

James leaned in and Tony closed the gap without hesitation. The kiss was soft and wet and quick; but James tipped his head and came back more than once, like he was searching for just the right way to bring their lips together. As far as Tony was concerned, it was all okay.  

And there was that now-familiar flare of something energized inside his mind. That feeling of a conduit flashing open. 

Steve. 

If Tony willfully forgot that Steve hadn’t followed them into the suite, he could almost imagine Steve was there with them. And instead of just one mouth moving against his own, there were two taking turns—Steve and James kissing him like it was the only way they could find air to breathe. 

Jesus, that was overwhelming. If Tony lived through this, having two love-sick super soldiers inside his head was going to take some getting used to. But that was a problem he was eager to have. 

Thankfully, for now, the experience was intense but brief. The bond collapsed just as quickly as it had opened, leaving Tony buzzing with energetic aftershocks. 

James brushed noses with Tony. “Did you feel him?”

"Steve?" Tony nodded. “Yeah. Like he was in here with us.” He touched his fingers to his lips. "Like I could feel him."

“I don’t get Steve that clear,” James said. “To me he’s colors and feelings, mostly. Impressions. I can translate those, but it’s not the same as havin’ him right next to me, speaking words or touchin’ me.” 

Tony wondered what the difference was. Why did the same person come across differently to different people? Was it a matter of brain chemistry? Subtle nuances in the mind transmitting and the one receiving? Both? Probably both. Tony mumbled something to Friday—he wanted to remember the questions for later study. When—if—he was back on his feet, there was a lot he needed to figure out. 

James shut off the shower and kissed Tony again. He dried him softly with the towel and by the time he was done, Tony was flushed all over and too tired to stand much longer. 

“Steve wants to see you.” James ran his fingers through Tony’s hair. “Just for a minute before you go to sleep.” 

Tony made a noise. When had they decided he was going to sleep? He was exhausted, sure, but he didn’t want to sleep. Dr. Cho was on her way and he’d have to be available for tests, and he needed to spend as much time with Steve and James as he could before that. Just in case something went wrong. “I don’t want to go to sleep.” 

James pursed his lips. There was that frown again.

Tony glowered. He could sleep when he was dead, and if being dead was sooner than later, then he’d rather stay awake. 

“You need rest,” James said. 

Tony changed the subject. “Did Pepper tell Steve she knows?” His words were slightly slurred, so, okay, maybe he needed a little sleep. Then something occurred to him. “Did you tell him?” Tony was still getting used to the idea that Steve and James were permanently linked. The bond between them was open more often than not and it was good for more than sharing phantom kisses, though that was a very nice bonus.

“He knows.” 

Interesting. When, in between taking off Tony’s clothes and helping him shower, had the two been in contact? James hadn't given any outward sign.

Tony's thoughts were going fuzzy again, wandering.

If there was a way to connect the entire Avengers team with some kind of pseudo-psychic link that could be turned off and on at will, it could come in handy during combat—cut down communication errors and eliminate problems when traditional tech malfunctioned. Something that advanced would be difficult to realistically conceptualize and implement, but it didn’t mean the idea wasn’t worth exploring. 

James helped Tony sink onto the edge of the bed while Tony rattled off another half-coherent memo for Friday. No matter how tired he was, Tony couldn’t get himself to stop stretching his mind too far in every direction. 

Tony had a towel wrapped around his waist and James flopped another one over his head and shoulders to keep him warm while he waited. For some reason, Tony could imagine vintage 1940s James doing the same thing for a sick, grumpy, pre-serum Steve. Tony and Steve were both terrible at knowing their limits, and Tony figured the treatment for them both would be the same—equal parts no-nonsense, tough love and lots of physical affection.

Or maybe that’s just what Tony wanted for himself. He didn’t know.  

Could he ask for that now? If they belonged to each other, would James and Steve be there if Tony asked them to be?

James turned up the lights just enough to dig out some clothes and Tony hid under the plush, comforting shade of the towel, turning thoughts over in his head. His headache had eased up some, but the lights might bring it right back again and he didn’t want to tempt fate. 

Well. 

No.

Check that.

Tony did want to tempt fate because he hadn’t properly appreciated his view of James in the shower and he might not get another chance. So he took a peek. Just a little one. 

James’ back was turned and the sliding joints of the metal arm drew Tony’s attention first. For all the cruelty that had been built into that weapon, it was still a beautiful piece of tech. Although the scarring where metal met flesh looked particularly uncomfortable, Tony was sure he could find a way to make it all better.   

James had a handful of other scars, too. Wounds across his back and shoulders that had healed quick, but had left ghostlike marks over his skin. There was a long, puckered, indented scar on James’ lower back, barely above the loose towel wrapped around his waist. Tony had studied the scar for far too long before he realized it wasn’t another combat memento. He swallowed thickly and looked away. He hadn’t meant to see that. He shouldn't have seen that. 

James pulled on a black tank top and sweats and brought over a folded pile of clothes for Tony to choose from. Subdued, Tony picked out a pair of boxers and slipped them over his hips, and James helped him pull the t-shirt over his head. 

Before James could back away, Tony clasped his wrist in a loose grip. He didn't know what to say.

James puzzled at him.

Tony turned James’ forearm and brushed his thumb over the healed tattoo. Their false mark.

Maybe matching tattoos were all he and James were going to get. Maybe Steve would be forever left with a soul mark without a match. Tony’s lifelong obsession with having a soul mark of his own suddenly seemed rather trite in comparison. So what if no one else believed them? If James and Steve still wanted him, Tony could make peace with never having a rendezvous. He’d spent most of his life coming at all of his problems the wrong way anyway, so it was appropriate that he’d do soul bonding all backwards and upside down, too. 

“How’s yours?” James settled beside Tony on the edge of the bed.

“Bruce’s miracle salve is working its magic,” Tony said with an offhand shrug. “It’s not quite healed, I don’t think, but I don’t really feel it anymore.” That was pretty much true. But the fact that he didn’t feel the tattoo probably had more to do with his body prioritizing more serious pain signals. So, yay. 

James gave him an unreadable look. 

“Something on your mind,” Tony stumbled again over his name, “uh—?” Calling James “Barnes” seemed ridiculous now that they’d basically agreed they were an item (and had been together in the shower, wet and naked and everything). 

“James,” the other man offered. “Bucky, I guess, if you want.”

Tony sagged a little, the tension melting out of him at the renewed sign of trust. “Something on your mind, James?” 

“I’ve been thinkin’ about the night of the gala,” James said, running his thumb along the inside of his metal palm. 

“Yeah?”

“What if we were supposed to have a real rendezvous that night, all three of us, but the injection fucked everything up?” 

Tony closed his eyes and swallowed back a raw surge of grief. Okay, that—that he hadn’t been prepared for. “Jesus,” he whispered. 

Here Tony was, trying to quietly make peace with unfulfilled dreams, and James just—said it all, right out loud. 

Tony didn’t have an answer for him. The truth was—scientifically speaking—no one could know what the universe meant to happen between soulmates. No one knew what triggered a rendezvous or if the process, once set in motion, could be subverted or sabotaged or turned inside out. Chance and bad luck and willful avoidance got in the way of rendezvous all the time. Tony’d always been terrified he’d lose out on a soulmate on a technicality, but this wasn’t at all how he’d pictured it happening.

Apparently he wasn't the only one thinking he could have had two legitimate soulmates. The thought that a couple of idiots with a syringe had taken that from him, from all of them? It was almost too much to bear.

The idea that Tony might still be able to have his soulmates, rendezvous or not, but his body would give out before he had any real chance to enjoy them—was even worse.

There had to be a way to fix it. There had to be. 

His breath caught on a sob. 

“Shh,” James said, pulling Tony over and tilting Tony’s head up and kissing his cheeks. “I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have said anythin’.”

Tony rested his head on James’ shoulder and James held him, one hand stroking down his back.

“Okay, Stevie. It’s okay,” James murmured in a distracted, offhand way.

The bedroom door opened and Steve came in. Had he overheard all that?

He settled on Tony’s other side and James loosened his grip. Tony shifted and sank into Steve's embrace. Yeah, okay. That was nice.

“Sorry,” Tony mumbled. He wasn’t quite sure what he was apologizing for, but he figured the chances were good he owed someone an apology for something. He usually did. So, better safe than sorry. 

Steve kissed Tony’s forehead and said, “You need to get some rest.”  

Between the two of them, they were intent on making Tony sleep away the rest of his life. 

Steve looked to James. “It should be you, Buck. Stay with him.” 

Actually, Tony kind of wanted them both to stay so he could be the middle of a super soldier sandwich. “I’m not going to sleep,” Tony said firmly. Or at least with as much resolve as he could muster through the gathering fuzziness in his head. “If either of you leave, I’m going back down to the lab. I came up here so I wouldn’t have to face my existential crisis alone, you idiots.” 

It wasn’t poetry, but it was how he felt. 

They were at an impasse.

"I need to finish talking with Pepper," Steve said.  

"All right." James grabbed a blanket and threw it over Tony’s shoulders. Steve laced their fingers together and tugged Tony out into the living room where Pepper was still waiting. James followed them close behind. 

Tony wondered what it was Pepper saw when they emerged, because she covered her mouth and her eyes sprang with tears—an expression so much like the one she'd had when she'd first heard Tony and James had bonded. Tony hoped she saw that Steve and James were his, and maybe that Tony was finally allowing himself to believe it. He hoped she saw something that had a chance of lasting. At least for a little while. 

 

+

 

What wasn’t going to last was Tony’s bravado. Despite his best intentions to stay upright and awake, somehow he ended up on the living room couch curled up beside James, who pulled up blankets and wrapped his arms securely around Tony.

Okay, and Tony had to admit he liked those arms wrapped around him. He was getting far too used to being curled up with a certain former assassin; but as Tony saw it, he was already well beyond the point of being dangerously attached, so he might as well enjoy it. He held on to James’ shirt and pulled him close, breathing in the clean smell of his skin. 

Tony was aching from head to toe—just a fraction of an inch past tolerable levels. It was hard to breathe in ways that reminded him too much of Afghanistan, too much of that disconnected space before he fell out of the wormhole.

His focus was slipping again.

Tony drifted, not quite asleep, listening to the murmurs of conversation from the kitchen. Pepper had set up camp and she and Steve were brainstorming together. 

“Hammer Industries has been trying to keep it quiet,” Pepper said as she tapped a fingernail against a cup of coffee, “but Happy’s gotten reports of a security breach at one of their lab facilities. SI has already been on unprecedented lockdown due to this situation, so we haven’t had the time or resources to investigate further.”

“When was the Hammer Industries breach?” Steve’s voice was low and serious. 

“A few days prior to the gala,” Pepper answered.

“So Hammer could be behind Tony’s infection.” 

“All I can say is it’s likely,” Pepper hedged. “Whether or not it’s deliberate corporate sabotage—I don’t know. I have a hard time believing Hammer would be that direct about eliminating the competition, especially since SI has already been struggling since Sokovia. Either way, we need access to Hammer’s research.” 

“Do you think he’ll comply?”

“No, but if we find sufficient proof his illegal bio-weaponry has been leaked onto the market,” Pepper said, cold, “his company’s finished.” 

“An investigation will be a lot of red tape.” 

“Legally? Yes, it would be,” Pepper said. 

Steve was silent for half a beat. “I take it you have a suggestion.” 

“If the situation was different, I would absolutely advocate going through proper channels,” Pepper was steady and assured as always, “but red tape is time Tony doesn’t have right now. We’ve got a team of people trained to infiltrate secure locations, and I suggest we use them.” 

 

+

 

Tony drifted; but he never quite stopped being aware of the measured rise and fall of James’ breathing or the minute sounds of the mechanical arm shifting. Occasionally the sensations seemed far away, veiled by layers and layers of darkness—like lying next to James on the couch was the dream and what was real was Steve relaying clear, concise commands, just as if they were in the field together and Tony had a comm stuck in his ear. 

None of the commands were for Tony, but the sense of urgency behind them was just as immediate as if they were. The team was trying to save someone. One of them had been injured and they had to do everything in their power to keep him breathing. Things weren’t looking good. Tony didn’t know how to help, but he wanted to do everything he could—

It didn’t occur to him that they were fighting for him

He swam up out of the haze, wondering how many hours he’d lost this time. 

It was the middle of the night and the lights inside were dark and there was fog laying low over the city. Steve was pacing in front of one of the windows, which had an expanded holo-screen stretched over it. Stats and data scrolled alongside a video feed of a secure facility—Hammer Industries, according to the logo on an unconscious security guard’s uniform. 

A quick, bleary look around the tower living room confirmed that Pepper was gone, and that was good. She was already deeper into this mess than Tony wanted her to be. If anyone found out the CEO of SI was in the room while while the Avengers infiltrated a rival company, she’d be responsible. And, yes, it had been her idea to begin with, but at least now she had plausible deniability. If they got caught, the Avengers could claim they acted independently. 

James shifted and pulled Tony’s head back down to rest on his shoulder. “Relax,” he murmured. “Steve’s got it handled.” 

“Why isn’t he with the team?” Tony asked drowsily, peering at the screen. The camera feed bobbed down a long, white corridor and another two guards fell underneath the electric snap of Natasha’s widow bites. 

“Too risky,” James said, keeping his voice soft. “SHIELD would have been tipped off if he left in the middle of the night with the rest of them. They’re monitoring our movements too closely now.”

“Who went?”  

“Found the lab, Cap,” Clint came over the comms. Cheerful as ever.

The terrifying ease with which guards went down on the feed suggested Nat was the one carrying the camera. 

“Super spy duo for the win?” Tony guessed.  

“Vision’s with them,” James confirmed. “Sam, Wanda, and Rhodes are still here; standing by in case the team needs an extraction Vision can’t handle.” 

Tony was hard pressed to think of a situation Vision wasn’t equipped to handle; but Steve wouldn’t be Captain America if he didn’t have a backup plan for his backup plan. 

Vision floated into view on the screen as the team came to a secure door. He phased through the wall and reset the system, unlocking the mechanism so Nat and Clint could slip inside. 

“We need definitive proof,” Steve said, head down and finger pressed to his ear. “Anything and everything you can find. How long will those guards be out?” 

“We’ve got it handled,” Nat assured him.

The team set to work, Clint and Nat moving efficiently through the lab while Vision tapped into the computer systems and downloaded data. The camera followed Nat as she flipped through handwritten notes and examined supply cabinets. Clint called her over to a locked fridge he’d jimmied open. Inside were glowing liquid samples sealed in glass tubes. 

Tony pushed himself up on his hands. “That’s it. That’s what they injected me with.” 

Steve looked back at him and then relayed the information.

Natasha confirmed and she and Clint deftly prepped a handful of the samples for transport back to the tower. 

“From everything I’ve scanned,” Vision supplied, “Mr. Stark’s infection was adapted from a Chitauri virus. In its original state, the virus was too destructive and too easily spread. It appears they were attempting to bioengineer bacteria to carry the lethal effects of the virus in a manner they could harness and control. Their work was still in the rudimentary stages of testing.” 

“What purpose would something like that have?” Steve asked, his eye still on the clock. 

“There are lots of enhanced individuals using advanced tech these days,” Clint said. “You could turn this stuff loose on someone like Tony, who’s got bio-implants and a regular human immune system, and severely cripple their effectiveness in the field.”

“Add in an antidote and a line of ultra-expensive tech that’s designed to be impervious to these attacks,” Natasha said, “and you have a tidy business model.” 

“But there’s no sign the bacteria was meant to directly target Iron Man?” Steve asked.  

“Not as far as I can see,” Vision said. 

“Any sign of who broke in and stole the formula?” Steve pressed.

“One moment.”

On Vision’s cue, Natasha pressed a button and the feed switched over to the grainy, black and white security logs. It was after hours and two masked figures forced their way through the lab door. Sloppy work. The theives' faces weren’t hidden and they were very clearly Tony’s young chauffeur and her hulking brute of a partner from the night of the gala. Granted, it would be hard to disguise a pair like that, even with masks; but they could have at least tried. While the big thug checked data logs and rummaged through drawers, the small one located the cameras and smashed the lenses. 

“It appears these are our culprits,” Vision said.

“Yeah, that’s them all right,” Tony confirmed. They were as hamfisted as ever and he was offended all over again that two numbskulls like that had gotten the better of him. Using Hammertech, for fuck’s sake. Tony firmed his jaw. 

“Here’s another interesting bit of intel,” Natasha said. The screen flipped again, cutting to official security photos of the duo logged in the Hammer Industries security clearance archives. “They’ve been here before, on official business, and—surprise, surprise—” 

Tony swore as he caught their company affiliation. “They’re employed by SHIELD."

James stiffened beside him at that. 

"Low-level grunts," Clint said, "but, yeah, still SHIELD.” 

Tony’d already been at least ninety percent certain SHIELD had orchestrated the attack at the gala anyway. So that much wasn’t news to him. He figured their game plan had looked something like a sinister checklist:  

Step One: Hire mercenaries to attack the Avengers and lure out the Winter Soldier.
Step Two: Frame the Winter Soldier for the attack. 
Step Three: Send in their own SHIELD agents to neutralize (read: kill) the threat.

End result? SHIELD rebuilds their reputation in one night and they rid themselves of the bloody legacy of the Winter Soldier in one fell swoop. 

But why had SHIELD had sent two of their own into the initial fray to target Tony directly? Payback for Ultron? Maybe SHIELD thought the world was safer without Tony Stark in it.

There had been just a teensy flaw in their plan. They’d meant for James to dive into the fray after his old war buddy Steve, just like old times, and James might have done just that, except Steve had asked him to go after Tony’s car. They hadn’t counted on James running away from the fight and rushing to Tony’s aid.

“We’ve got what we need,” Steve said. “Get out of there and get back here now.” 

Steve waited for the team to confirm they were out of immediate danger and en route back to the tower. He collapsed the holo-screen, sending the living room back into darkness.

The fog beyond the windows was ebbing, and the city lights were just a little bit brighter. 

Tony leaned back into James and closed his eyes. Steve sank onto the cushions beside them, resting his head against the back of the couch. 

“Natasha left a trail of guards,” James said. “Sure that’s not going to come back to haunt us?”

“At this point, I’d almost like to see Hammer try to accuse us of breaking into their illegal biological weapons research,” Steve mused. Hammer was a belly-crawler and he cut corners at every turn, but even he wasn’t that dumb. There was a reason his company had been trying to keep the initial breach quiet.

Tony held out his hand and Steve threaded their fingers together. 

Silence hung heavy, and James and Steve were unusually still. After a few minutes, it dawned on Tony they were talking to each other, or the psychic equivalent thereof. He couldn’t feel either of them this time, but—

“Bucky needs to get some sleep,” Steve said. “You should, too.”

Was that an attempt to trick Tony into bed? He wasn’t falling for it. “What about you?” 

“I’m staying awake until the team gets back.” 

Well, yes, that was the responsible thing to do. 

“I want time with you both,” Tony said. “All three of us.” And if he didn’t ask for it now,  when would he get it? 

Another one of those extended, weighty pauses. 

Steve relented and lifted Tony's hand to kiss his knuckles. “All right.” 

That… was a lot easier than Tony had expected it to be. He turned a curious look on James, who shrugged his right shoulder easily. 

Steve took a few minutes to change and bring out water and snacks and James’ sleeping pills just in case he really did want to sleep. Then he settled back down with them and they rearranged themselves so Tony was tucked securely between them. 

Super soldier sandwich—just like Tony wanted. 

They still needed to confirm with each other, in real words, exactly what was happening between them; but for now they were safe and secure with each other. That was a conversation that could wait for another time. 

 

 

By first light the team had returned; but bad news came chasing on their heels. Agent Hoffman showed up with signed court documents in hand. A judge was permitting SHIELD to break contract and expand security measures into the Avengers’ living quarters—including Tony’s private suite—until such time as the hole in the tower was sufficiently repaired. 

They were going to have agents breathing down their necks 24/7. 

Tony put in a call to his lawyers, who were already contesting the decision. For now, though, they’d have to live with it. Assuming living was an option for everyone involved.

The news on that font was a little sunnier for Tony, since Dr. Cho arrived not long after Hoffman’s court order. The good doctor brought a full complement of lab assistants with her, all of them ready and eager to get to work. 

Within a matter of hours, she was able to use the pilfered samples and intel from Hammer Industries to work up a treatment to help temporarily stabilize Tony’s collapsing system. It wasn’t a cure by any means, but it bought them some time.

Tony was at his best working on borrowed time. 

 

+

 

“Mr. Stark, it would be helpful if you would allow me to turn off your robots,” Dr. Cho said. DUM-E was craning over the shoulder of one of Cho’s lab assistants, reaching for the test tube the poor, harassed man was holding. The assistant held the tube out of range, and when the bot moved to get at it from a different angle, he shifted again so DUM-E couldn’t quite snatch it away. “That one in particular is being a nuisance to my aides.” 

“He’s very outgoing. He likes to make friends,” Tony explained. The lights in the lab were painfully bright and he slipped on a pair of sunglasses to ease the persistent throbbing in his head. “Also don’t drink anything he gives you.”

“Yes, we know that,” the doctor replied archly. “We wouldn’t have to worry if you’d let me shut him off.”

There were a handful of reasons Tony might shut the bots off—most of those being the equivalent of sending the kids to their room for bad behavior. But letting someone else discipline his metal children? “I don’t think so.” 

Dr. Cho sighed. “Could you at least move them to a different facility?” 

“I’ll think about it.” 

Although, really, Tony had every faith Dr. Cho would adapt. Once she’d set up shop in the tower, it had barely taken her any time to get up to speed. Her grasp of Extremis and what Tony needed it to do to save his life was, frankly, better than Tony would have hoped for from Bruce. At first she’d given him pushback on his plan to use the unstable formula, uncertain whether such a dangerous treatment was the right way to go; but after a few hours of conferring with Friday, researching the progression of Tony's illness, and observing Tony’s vitals, she was on board—and primed for the challenge.

Tony's nervous system was already showing signs of irreparable damage. Even with the treatment she’d concocted to slow the infection down, his body no longer had the resources to repair itself fast enough. He was constantly pained and tired. His sense of balance and photo-sensitivity was getting worse. And the enhanced bacteria was still chewing and sparking its way through his system. Even if it was moving at a slower rate, sooner or later it’d fry something that would shut him down completely. 

The team did their best to keep that information under wraps. If SHIELD was behind the gala attack, then they already knew what the injection had done to Tony. They didn’t need to know how extensive the damage was, or Hoffman might try to tip her advantage. 

As far as SHIELD was concerned, Dr. Cho was here as the Avengers’ primary medical consultant and she was helping Tony with his malfunctioning implants. That had shades of truth to it—enough to be believed.

Thankfully SHIELD kept clear of the lab. Complications of doctor-patient confidentiality made it harder for them to throw their weight around. And every time agents did come inside, DUM-E offered them toxic sludge smoothies—and dumped the pitcher when they refused to drink. After a handful of repeat performances and several splattered black suits, it wasn’t deemed worth the trouble.

Dr. Cho waved Tony to a seat and ticked through a laundry list of the usual questions, asking Tony about what hurt when and where. Had he experienced any new symptoms? Blackouts? Difficulty moving or speaking? What about cognitive processes?  

Steve paced nearby as Tony answered each question with practiced detachment. Or at least as much detachment as Tony could muster while taking a hit off the persistent, low-level anxiety rolling off his unofficial soulmate. The bond between them was still a frayed thread, raveling and unraveling at unpredictable intervals, and right now the rough ends were scratching at the inside of Tony's skull. 

Frankly, Tony's nerves couldn't handle it.

Dr. Cho handed him off to one of her assistants and Tony hissed, “Relax, Steve.”  

Steve stopped in his tracks. “I’m relaxed.” 

“You're about as relaxed as a first year college student on Red Bull.”

“I don’t know what—”

You’re not relaxed,” Tony said. He flopped back in his seat and held his arm out for the assistant to draw blood. “You spent seventy years in the Arctic, Ice Cap. You’d think you’d know by now how to play it cool.” 

Steve folded his arms, stony-faced. 

“Ice Cap? Get it?" Tony huffed. Look, he was grumpy, but as least he was trying to lighten the mood. "I swear, you and James both lost your sense of humor back in 1943.”

"What? While fighting World War II?" Steve asked dryly. 

“Okay. Touché," Tony said. "But in my defense my body’s being systematically destroyed by microscopic organisms. You could at least try to humor the bad jokes of the walking dead.”

“Tony.”

"You're driving me crazy."

"I'm allowed to be worried about you." 

The assistant bandaged Tony’s arm, casting a dubious glance between Tony and Steve.

"You're scaring the locals," Tony muttered as the assistant moved to another table with the sample. 

Not that Tony wasn't grateful for Steve's presence. He was. James was effectively locked onto their private floor now that SHIELD had expanded their security measures. That left Steve to come with Tony on lab visits. In theory, it was nice. And it would be a hell of a lot nicer if Steve could be worried inside his own damn head for a change. Tony didn't need ghostly visions of Steve's wounded, dying, World War II war buddies to know Captain America was concerned Tony didn't have much time left. 

Tony gestured and the TVs around the lab came to life. He needed a distraction while they waited for results. 

"Mr. Stark," Friday piped in, "Agents Romanov and Barton are outside the lab and would like to come in for a visit."

"Please. Yes. Thank god." Tony needed someone sane to talk to for five minutes, preferably someone who still knew how to laugh. Between the two of them, Clint and Natasha could be that person. 

The doors opened and SHIELD agents just outside cleared Natasha to come in, with Barton following close behind. Tony's hopes for a friendly visit sank, however, when he saw Nat was smiling. Which meant trouble. Damn it. 

“Cap," Natasha said conversationally. She grasped Steve by the arms and gave him an air kiss, cheek-to-cheek, and looked to make sure the lab door was closed behind them. "We have to extract Barnes. Now.” 

Steve sobered quickly. “What happened?” 

“We were just tipped off by an old contact,” Clint said over Natasha's shoulder. “We’ve got about five minutes before SHIELD is all over us and we’re sent off to some super secure prison in the middle of nowhere." 

“They know the bond is a fake,” Natasha said.

Tony’s chest tightened and his heartbeat stuttered, every tendon in his body constricting. Suddenly James felt extraordinarily far away and Tony wanted to be out of the lab and back in the suite right now. “I don’t understand,” he said, leveraging himself out of the chair and wobbling on his feet. Steve automatically reached to steady him. “How do they know?”  

Clint had Friday turn the channel. "I think we're about to find out." The newsfeed blinked and, sure enough, breaking-news graphics started scrolling. 

Natasha gestured to Clint and he engaged Friday to secure the door while Nat tapped into the comms and relayed emergency information to the rest of the team. 

Tony was finding it difficult to get enough air—like his head had been thrust under water and vice-like hands were holding him down. If he breathed in, if he moved the wrong way, he would die. What the hell was going on? 

"Tony." Steve’s grip on his arm tightened and Tony looked back at the report. There was a news anchor and bold headlines about a Stark Tower scandal and then there was Steve, on screen, pulling Tony into his arms and kissing him. Oh, and Tony rather enthusiastically kissing him back. Which, yeah, a newly-bonded soulmate definitely wouldn't do. Not with someone who wasn't their soulmate.

“Where… Where is that?” Tony asked dumbly, dread sinking heavily into his gut. The number of times Steve had kissed Tony like that—while Tony was actually present in the room—were very few. Once, actually. One time. 

Here. 

In the lab.

Tony didn’t think his chest could seize any tighter, but it was certainly trying. 

"This is about to turn into a war zone," Clint said.  

Natasha hurried Dr. Cho and her aides to the private elevator. "You need to evacuate." 

"I'm staying," Dr. Cho responded evenly. "My research is here and you may need me." 

Natasha didn't flinch. She sent the assistants away and instructed Friday not to let anyone back up through the lift. The AI acknowledged and the lab shuttered down into full blackout-defensive mode. 

Steve was mission-focused, but his face had gone pale. “Bucky?”

“The team’s working on a way to get him out," Clint said. "Sam is with him.”

They'd been extra careful to make sure James wasn't left by himself after SHIELD had expanded their reach. Steve had every confidence in the abilities of his team, but Steve's fear still pounded at the back of Tony mind. A highly skilled team hadn't stopped Steve from losing James before. He was terrified he was about to lose his life-long soulmate, again, if they didn’t act fast.

Good thing chaos boosted Tony's ability to perform. No one was going to get their hands on James, not if Tony had anything to say about it.

First things first, though. 

Tony called up a holographic display and zoomed in on the news report. He singled out the footage of the kiss and rubbed at his eyes under his sunglasses, trying to clear his vision. He studied the lighting and angle of the shot to pinpoint where the camera had been hidden. If the bug was still there, recording, they needed to get rid of it. They had no idea who was watching. ( Jesus, if the Extremis research had been leaked, that would be a disaster.)

The camera wasn’t steady and Tony had to fight back a surge of dizzy nausea. The image was shaking and then moving, swinging around like the lens was attached to a rig of some sort. Like it was…

Fucking hell. 

Rage boiled up. Someone had tapped into the built-in opticals on one of the bots. The recorded clip caught a split second of DUM-E moving in the background. So.

“U.” Tony gripped Steve's arm for balance. “Where is U? DUM-E, where’s your sibling?”

DUM-E looked up from the kitchenette with a long spoon in his grip. He flexed his claws and dropped the spoon, which was less than helpful. 

Steve scanned the lab and found the other bot tucked into a corner, arm bent almost to the floor, powered down. Tony made his way over with Steve's help to keep him balanced and he tapped the bot awake. U powered up and beeped a hello. 

The bots had been programmed to shut off when they experienced circuitry issues or when they needed recharging. Had U been snoozing more than usual lately? Tony hadn’t really noticed, but then he'd had a few other things on his mind. 

Tony cupped the bot’s camera in trembling hands. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked, voice rough, fingers feeling along the casing for any external hacking device or added wire tapped into U’s system. 

The bot’s mechanics whirred thoughtfully. 

“You knew something was off, didn’t you?” It had been a mistake to have the magazine interview here. There had been so many people in and out of his lab, it could have been any one of them. “Didn’t I warn you not to talk to strangers?”

DUM-E trundled over and peered under Tony’s arm. 

“If you want to help,” Tony said to DUM-E, “go get that spoon and throw it at SHIELD.”

"Do you think it was them?" Steve asked. 

"Not a doubt in my mind," Tony replied darkly. It would explain why they handn't been worried about getting their people inside the lab. 

Tony found a wire connecting the camera feed to a simple transmitter. The electronics weren't much more advanced than a typical cell phone. No remote controls, just access to the camera and something to send the video feed. Tony swore and tugged at the device, pulling it free.

At least nothing would have transmitted while U was powered down. That could mean Dr. Cho's research was safe. 

But the damage was done and SHIELD had covered their tracks pretty damn well. The footage had been leaked to the media. The media had broken the story, and therefore the media took the blame. The tech itself was too simple to trace back to SHIELD in any definitive way. Not that that would stop Tony from trying.  

“Friday, review security footage from the interview. I want to know exactly who did this.” 

Steve touched Tony's shoulder.

Right. He couldn't get distracted. They were trapped in the lab and they had to find a way to get James out of building. Think, Tony, think. Easier said than done. Tony's head was throbbing and the back of his neck felt like splinters of fire.

"Boss, I'm afraid your stress response is reaching a dangerous level,” Friday reported. 

Yeah, Tony could feel that, thanks.

“Tony, we'll handle it,” Steve said. "You need to calm down." 

“I’m calm."

"You're not calm."  

"Are you really arguing with me right now?"

“SHIELD is evacuating the tower of all non-essential personnel and amassing a response team," Clint called. "They're requesting cooperation with SI security and local law enforcement."

The news report had switched over to live coverage outside the tower. Reporters were being pushed back from the immediate perimeter, and heavily armed units were moving in. That wasn't good.

"They're not just preparing to arrest the Winter Soldier," Natasha said. "They're preparing to fight the Avengers." 

Shit. Fuck. Shit.

"Tony, you have to breathe," Steve said.

He shrugged Steve off. “Where’s James, Friday?” 

“He's been detained on your private floor along with Staff Sergeant Wilson.”

SHIELD was moving fast. 

“Visuals. Now.” 

A holo-screen popped up with a view onto Tony's private floor. Playing cards were haphazardly scattered across a folding table and chairs were tipped over. James was on his knees with his hands behind his head and agents had their weapons trained on him. 

Sam was standing next to him, his hand held out, visibly arguing with the agents. 

Sam took a hit to the back of the knee and both he and James were forced flat onto their stomachs. 

Tony's stress ramped up to eleven. 

"Boss, your vital systems—"

"Mute," Tony snapped. 

This couldn't happen.

This was too much like the alley, and James wasn't the only one in danger now. It was the whole team. 

“Friday, patch me through to Vision,” Steve said tersely, his eyes hard as he took in the security feed. 

“I’m here, Captain.” 

They all jumped. The android emerged through the ceiling like some kind of deus ex machina. 

Well. That. Yes. That made sense.  

“I deduced that my assistance might be needed.”

“Vision," Steve said, "can you phase anyone else out of the tower besides yourself?”

“Inanimate objects,” Vision offered with regret. “I’m afraid I’ve never taken another living creature through solid matter. Now is not the time to try.” 

Tony slipped the homing bracelet off his wrist. “Can you get this to James?"

“Mr. Stark, I don’t believe the Iron Man suit is calibrated to be used by persons other than yourself,” Vision replied, taking the bracelet nonetheless. 

Tony pulled up another screen. “It will be in a moment.” 

"Vision," Steve said, "get Sam's wings to him if you can. We're stuck, but the rest of the team needs to evacuate the tower immediately.” 

"Agreed, Captain." Vision turned to Tony. “Are you certain?”

Go,” Tony said. 

Vision inclined his head and flew back through the ceiling. 

Tony took a shaky breath. His heart was pounding and his vision was going blotchy. His knees were jelly, his chest was too tight. 

Steve slipped an arm around his back just in time to keep Tony from falling to the floor. The haze and darkness was getting thick and his head was too heavy. Tony's body was... far away. 

The next thing Tony knew, he was stretched out on the floor and Dr. Cho was kneeling beside him, checking vitals.

"Don't move," she said. "You're very weak."  

Yeah, he got that. 

Steve was hovering nearby, blurry and strangely haloed—Tony must've lost his sunglasses somewhere—and he looked like he was teetering on the verge of a panic attack of his own. Thankfully the scratching of Steve's worry had gone silent in Tony's mind. Tony didn't think he could handle a super soldier crisis piled on top of his own internal collapse.

Right now Tony just wanted to shut his eyes. 

"Tony, please stay awake," Steve said. 

Grudgingly, Tony opened his eyelids just a fraction. 

"How's the progress with the formula?" Natasha asked. 

"I've made significant improvements," Dr. Cho answered, "but it’s still inadvisable for him to take it in its current state."

"It's your call," Natasha said. "But I'd like to remind everyone that, if SHIELD arrests us, we won't have anything to treat him with, period."

Tony groaned. His foreseeable future wouldn't be very long at this rate. Without the formula he was dead. If he took the formula now, his prognosis was marginally better than one-hundred percent death, but with an elevated likelihood of spontaneous combustion. 

“Friday," Tony asked blearily, throat working, "what’s the damage if I take it and things go south?” 

“The lab would be destroyed.” 

And that would include everyone in it. 

The lab was built to contain explosions; but Tony’s original intent had been to take the formula in a lab devoid of anyone he cared about. Right now there were four people here he really didn’t want to harm.

“What about the casket for the suit?” The space below the lab—where Tony’s suits were fabricated, stored, and repaired—was isolated and reinforced for safety. It should be strong enough to contain the aftermath if Extremis went sideways. 

“That is a viable option.” 

Done, then. "I'm willing to risk it," Tony said.

"Tony, we can negotiate with SHIELD," Steve said. "They can't refuse you medical treatment."

"They can if the treatment is an incendiary device," Tony pointed out. "Don't worry, Steve. It'll be fun," he reassured him, keeping his tone light as possible. "It'll be like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. What could possibly go wrong?"

Steve bit back an angry retort. 

"That was a joke," Tony informed him.

"I lost my sense of humor back in 1945."

Tony frowned. "I thought I said 1943?"

"You said '43," Steve agreed, "but it was actually '45."

"Whatever you guys are going to do, you better do it fast," Clint said. He had the tower security feed up and running, tracking SHIELD and the movements of the scattered Avengers team. Outside the lab, agents were preparing to force their way in. The door wouldn't crack easily, but they had little time to waste.

"I need to do this, Steve." Tony forced himself up on his hands, wincing. The entire building tilted dizzily around him, and the world threatened to go black all over again.

Steve's jaw set unhappily, but he helped Tony to his feet.

U bumped Tony’s arm.

“It's okay.” Tony patted U. “This isn't your fault, hear me?” 

U beeped.

"Take care of your big brother." 

Dr. Cho grabbed a tube of the latest iteration of the Extremis formula, along with a specially designed injection gun. Steve lifted Tony off his feet and Tony directed them to an access panel in the floor. Natasha helped them each into the narrow walkway below. 

The space was packed with machinery, and the Iron Man casket was an upright metal storage compartment propped among the jumble of wires and working parts. The casket protected the suit from particles and contaminates created by the fabrication processes that went on beneath the lab. It was currently empty because the Iron Man and War Machine suits were standing sentinel over the massive hole Tony had made in the building.

Also? Tony was trying not to think too hard about the casket being called a casket, because that seemed like a really bad omen now that he was standing in front of the hollow compartment.  

Steve helped him inside, his hand lingering on Tony's as Tony settled into the chamber. Raw emotion flared briefly across the bond. Tony pushed back against the intrusion and it faded. “It's okay, Steve.” 

"No, it's not." Steve leaned in, caging his arms around Tony. "What am I going to tell Bucky?"

"Tell him—" Tony's throat closed. "Tell him I'm sorry?"

Steve growled. "Damn it, Tony." 

"What do you want me to say?" If Steve wanted Tony to say goodbye, well, that wasn't going to happen. He wasn’t going to say goodbye because this wasn’t going to be goodbye. It wasn't.   

Steve dipped his head and kissed him and Tony opened to it without thinking. Steve's mouth was soft and possessive. Steve pressed in close and Tony wrapped his arms around him, tugging them tighter together. (Not that Tony was complaining, but this was exactly what had gotten them into trouble in the first place.)

"I love you," Steve said against Tony's mouth. 

Tony stopped breathing. 

Steve pulled back just a little, searching Tony's face. "That's what we want you to say."

"Oh," Tony said. His lashes were suddenly, suspiciously wet. "I love you," he said. "Both of you." 

Steve smiled sadly. "We love you, too." He kissed Tony again, quickly, and moved away from the casket while Dr. Cho prepped the formula.

Tony's nerves were buzzing with fear and adrenaline and nothing more than the high of knowing Steve Rogers and James Barnes loved him. "Once it's done, both of you need to go back up to the lab," Tony said. "Make sure the access panel is sealed."

Steve nodded. 

Here went nothing. And maybe everything. 

Pepper had been right, by the way. If Tony had to do this, he was glad he hadn't been alone. 

Dr. Cho firmed the injector to his skin and pressed the button. 

 

+

 

Pepper had been right, but Howard had been wrong.

You’re not hurt.

Howard had been wrong when Tony was a kid and he was wrong now. 

Tony was hurt.

Every synapse and cell was searing with such intensity that he felt—cold. Frozen to the core, except he was sweating. He was shaking. His skin was crawling and peeling and itching. His bones were molten—pushing, stretching, strengthening. Extremis was burning through him, atom by atom, cell by cell, inch by inch, purging everything, deconstructing each coil of DNA and rebuilding the parts into impossible patterns, one layer at a time.

It had been bad enough to watch Pepper go through this. Human bodies weren’t meant to contain so much heat and light—it was like mud and stone trying to birth a star. 

Then again. Human bodies also weren’t meant to be powered by arc reactors, but Tony’d done that for a while, too.

Whatever was necessary to keep him alive, he’d do it. He needed to keep breathing, so he could protect the people he loved. 

Tony was hurt, yes. 

Badly hurt. 

And he would hurt a lot more before this process was all over.

But he was going to get better.