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there and back again (to find you)

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"Kneel."

"Go fuck yourself," Tony says. He's anticipating the blow when it comes, but that makes it no less painful; his knees fold without his permission and he hits the ground, his head ringing. The guard standing behind him snorts with laughter and tucks his gun back into the holster at his waist. Tony grits his teeth and suffers through the pain, eyes locked on the scene in front of him.

"You have your orders," Strucker says. "You are to eliminate Steve Rogers before returning. If you do not succeed, do not return."

"Yes sir," the Hydra agent says, meekly bowing his head. Unusual for an alpha to show such submission, but then again Strucker is clearly trying to compensate for something considering the size of the gun he’s holding.

And besides, from across the room Tony can see the way the chosen agent’s hands are trembling. Not with fear, but with excitement – Tony can smell it. The chance to kill Captain America long before he ever becomes Captain America is apparently considered to be an honor amongst these sick freaks. The bitter smell of anticipation is enough to make Tony’s stomach clench.

"Remember," says one of the scientists, "it's been set to bring you back in exactly two hours. If you are not holding the machine at that time, you will be left behind." The rest of his sentence goes unspoken, but is obvious nonetheless: Hydra won't be sending anyone to get you.

Tony tenses a little, readying himself. There's no way he can let this happen, especially because he played an (unwilling) part in it. Strucker is using reverse engineered arc reactor technology to power the time machine. Hydra's version is much shittier, of course, because even with the finished product to study whenever they felt like ripping it out of Tony's chest, they're still a bunch of dumbasses. But that doesn't make the time machine any less operational, or any less dangerous to Steve's past.

"A turning point for Hydra's future. Soon Captain America will no longer be a problem for any of us," Strucker announces to the room. He's smirking as he strides over to the controls. The Hydra agent takes hold of the machine, which is actually a modified Stark Industries tablet. It’s disgusting to see what’s been done to Tony’s tech, but he bites his tongue: he can’t afford to draw attention to himself at the moment.

One of the guards shuffles in anticipation, shifting their weight. It's just enough. Tony snaps into action, throwing his shoulder into the guard's knees. The guy goes down with a startled yelp, drawing plenty of attention. Tony gets a hand on the fallen guard’s gun and lurches upright, bodily throwing himself across the room. He's not aiming for Strucker or anyone else, but for the agent with the tablet. And it's not until he's mere inches away that he hears a high-pitched whine, and he sees the way the agent's eyes have gone very wide, and a shock of pain opens up along the back of his calf -

White light swallows them up and it feels like the world turns inside out. Eyes smarting from the brightness of the light, Tony completes his fall, slamming hard into the agent. They both go down onto a wooden floor, which is the exact opposite of the concrete floor Tony was kneeling on approximately twenty seconds ago. The agent yells a string of curse words, fumbling to get his hands on his weapon; Tony's way ahead of him, bringing his bound hands and his hard-won gun up. He aims and fires in the span of time it takes the Hydra agent to even draw his gun.

The gunshot is surprisingly loud for all that Tony's heard them dozens of times over the past three days. The Hydra agent collapses, a neat hole in his forehead. Tony drops down onto the ground beside him, shaking. His hands feel numb and he's lightheaded with giddiness, but he only allows himself a few seconds to feel triumphant.

In less than two hours, he'll be taken back to a warehouse full of Hydra agents. They'll kill him on sight – or worse - and then send someone else back to do the job. He's only delayed the inevitable.

Maybe he should destroy the tablet. Tony casts a skeptical look down at the machine, not keen on the idea of stranding himself in the past forever. Especially since there's nothing stopping Hydra from creating another tablet. He could stick around, maybe. Protect Steve from anyone else who comes along until Steve becomes Captain America, and then figure out some way to return to the future.

The thought isn't appealing, though. Tony’s got important work waiting for him. He’s an Avenger, and the head of R&D for Stark Industries. He has a lot of people who are depending on him. He can't just disappear for god knows how many years.

"You fuckers cause a lot of trouble," he growls at the dead man. Of course, there's no response.

Setting aside that problem for the time being, he searches the agent's body. There's no identification beyond the name on the man's right arm - Cynthia Crawford, whoever the hell that is - but he does find a knife and another gun. He uses the knife to cut his hands free and picks up the tablet, stuffing it down his shirt. He leaves the body behind; with no identifying features, hopefully the police will just chalk it up to a homeless drunk who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At any rate, no one will be claiming the body.

It's while he's walking out of the warehouse that Tony registers the pain in his lower right leg and realizes that he's bleeding. "They shot me!" he exclaims in outrage to a couple of nearby pigeons; the windows overhead are cracked and broken, and chances are he's disturbing the pigeon's roost.

One pigeon blinks at him and then coos.

"Yes, it hurts, thanks for your concern," Tony says, rolling his eyes. He backtracks into the warehouse and cuts up the agent's shirt until he has enough cloth to tie around his shin in a makeshift bandage. The bullet only clipped him, but he was leaving a blood trail without realizing it. Thank god that D.N.A. isn't a thing yet or Howard would be answering some very uncomfortable questions from the authorities.

For the second time, he leaves the warehouse. He finds himself standing on the docks, surrounded by a bunch of men who stare at the ground and ignore each other. The air is thick with the stench of fish, sweat, sewage and something else that Tony can't identify. His stomach rolls and he swallows hard, refusing to throw up. The last thing he needed is people taking an interest in the fact that his clothing is completely foreign, or that he looks like he was in a fight recently, or noticing that he's an unescorted omega.

So he starts to walk. This time he gets a couple of blocks away before he stops to rest. His leg aches with every step, but honestly it's no worse than any of the other injuries he's collected after the last three days under Hydra's "tender" care. He takes a seat on a stack of boxes and hunches over, sneaking a surreptitious peek at the machine. There's no internet access in the 1940's, but the screen has a timer and -

Huh.

Tony sits up, ignoring the pain in his ribs. The screen has two dots. One dot is red and the other is white. There's nothing to suggest what the two dots represent, but Tony has a sneaking suspicion he knows. He didn't stop to think about it before, but that agent would've needed some way to find Steve Rogers. Very slowly, he pushes himself to his feet and starts to walk again, keeping an eye on the tablet as he gets closer to the white dot. In less than ten minutes, he starts hearing the sounds of a scuffle and looks up.

There's an alley about ten feet away. What do you wanna bet -

"Hey!" Tony's yelling approximately two minutes later. He fires a bullet into the air. The three men in the alley scatter, hotfooting it in the opposite direction and leaving the body they were punching and kicking behind. Said body groans and uncurls slowly, sitting up to reveal a swollen nose, two black eyes, and a bloody lip. In spite of that, and the obvious weight and height difference, Tony recognizes Steve immediately.

"Who are you?" Steve says, zeroing in on him immediately.

"I could ask you the same question," Tony says, swallowing hard. Because this isn't Cap and he knows that, but seeing that familiar face makes him ache for the Cap that he does know. If that Cap could see him now, he'd be in full alpha mode, nosing around and clucking over Tony’s injuries. Normally Tony hates that behavior – he’s an omega, not a delicate flower - but right now he would relish it.

Steve sets his jaw, looking mulish. "I didn't do anything wrong. Those men were bothering a girl. I told them to leave her alone."

"Of course you did." Tony tucks the gun back into the waistband of his pants. "I'm... no one. I was just passing by when I heard the fighting."

"Oh." Steve still looks a little suspicious, but his shoulders visibly unwind. He gets to his feet slowly, wincing as he rubs a thumb across his lower lip. "Thanks, I guess. They would've got tired sooner or later, or - "

"Steve!"

"Or that," Steve says, sighing.

Tony stares at him, confused.

"Steve!"

"Over here, Buck!" Steve yells, shoulders slumped in resignation.

Buck. Bucky. Holy shit. Tony just about swallows his tongue as Bucky Barnes rounds the corner and plows past him, shoving Tony into the wall in his haste to get to Steve. Tony doesn’t care, but he can't help staring as Bucky grabs Steve's chin, jerking his head left and right to better see his injuries while Steve swats ineffectively at him and whines.

Honestly, it's like looking into some weird mirror. Tony's seen this exact scene at least twice before – granted, last time both of the participants were several pounds heavier and at least a foot taller – but the Steve and Bucky he knows are weighed down with the shadows of the pasts. It's only in the past year that Bucky has started to smile and express opinions; just recently, he's actually started snarking with Tony and Clint.

Seeing this unconcerned, free boy is hands down the weirdest part of this whole experience.

“You got into another fight, didn’t you?” Bucky snaps, finally releasing Steve’s jaw. “You punk. The hell’s the matter with you?”

“I couldn’t just –”

“Yeah, I know. You couldn’t just stand by and let it happen.” Bucky rolls his eyes. “Lucky you didn’t give yourself an attack. Your ma’s not gonna be happy.”

“It’ll be fine. Most of the damage is under my clothes.”

Bucky narrows his eyes, like he wants nothing more than to yank Steve’s shirt and investigate the damage more thoroughly, and that’s when Tony clears his throat to remind them both of his presence. He actually wouldn’t mind seeing Steve half-naked - purely for comparison purposes, of course - but this probably isn’t the place to do it.

“Who are you?” Bucky demands, puffing up. Not quite posturing, but damn close to it.

“He helped me,” Steve says, laying a hand on Bucky’s arm. “Fired a gun to scare them off. Not that I needed the help,” he adds to Tony.

“Of course not,” Tony says, straight-faced. “Consider me a helpful stranger and nothing more.”

Bucky eyes him and takes a step closer, nostrils flaring. He’s so obviously scenting Tony, and Tony tries to cover the prickle of unease with a forced smile. Even though the world – well, the modern well anyway – knows he’s an omega, sometimes he’ll still wear a cologne that blocks scents. It’s just easier that way. But after three days with Hydra his cologne has long since worn off, and Bucky can clearly smell the sugar-sweet scent of an omega because the tension drains out of his shoulders.

It’s tempting to demonstrate exactly why Bucky should not be relaxing just because Tony is an omega, but he refrains. Barely.

“Never heard of an omega with a gun,” Bucky says suspiciously.

Tony shrugs. “First time for everything,” he says, trying hard to keep his body language open and relaxed. Because guns won’t be available to omegas for another forty or so years, but he’s not about to share that.

“Thanks for your help.” Steve steps forward, hand outstretched, and Tony can’t see a way to brush him off without being an asshole, so he takes it. He catches a whiff of Steve’s scent from the closer proximity, and it makes his chest ache. Because while the underlying scent is the same and is so Steve, at the same time it’s foreign.

“Yeah, thanks,” Bucky grumbles finally, but only because Steve elbows him in the side. He thrusts out his left hand for a shake. Tony grabs his hand automatically, and that’s when he sees it. On Bucky’s lower arm, midway between wrist and elbow, in an unmistakable scrawl.

Tony Stark

His lungs constrict, preventing him from speaking. He stares in shock, unable to respond. Bucky gives him a weird look and lets go, beckoning to Steve. They edge around Tony, giving him a wide berth, and leave the alley while Tony is still standing there like a dumbstruck idiot.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, but when he finally comes to his senses he has a hand over his chest. Over the place where the words “James Barnes” used to be before the surgery for the arc reactor demolished them. Since he was a child and those words had first appeared, Tony’s told himself that it has to be another James Barnes. The name wasn’t uncommon after Captain America crashed, after all.

He had… hope, if that’s what you want to call it, after Bucky finally came in from the cold. After he and Tony started spending more time together. After Tony fell in love. But that’s all it ever was. Bucky’s left arm was lost a long time ago and he couldn’t remember his mother’s face much less a name written on his arm, and Steve had never said anything, so Tony assumed…

Assumed wrongly, apparently.

On shaky legs, he staggers towards the mouth of the alley. Past Steve and Bucky are long gone, so he must’ve been there for a while. He could probably track them down on the tablet, but he feels no desire to. The helpful stranger ploy usually works once, but a second time is pushing your luck. Instead he finds a bench to sit on not too far away, which is good because his whole body, but especially his leg, is really starting to hurt.

He sits there, staring blankly at the water, until the tablet activates.

The landing is just as much fun as the last one; his feet slam into the ground and he staggers, dropping the tablet on the floor. He’s half-expecting to be shot on sight, or at least be attacked, but instead familiar hands grip his shoulders and as an equally familiar voice shouts his name.

“Cap?” Tony says, disbelieving, slowly lifting his head.

“Tony, thank god,” Steve says fervently. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Steve’s eyebrows draw together. He gently cups Tony’s cheek. “I know that’s a lie. For one thing, you’re a mess.”

“I am?”

“Yeah, you are. You’re covered in blood.”

Tony looks down automatically. Oh. Steve’s right. No wonder past Bucky and past Steve were so apprehensive. “I saw you,” he says. “Past you.”

Steve stills. “You did?”

“You were hot,” Tony says, and Steve rolls his eyes.

“Okay, if you’re making fun of me, at least we know that your brain is fine,” he says, taking a step back. He holds a hand out to Tony, who takes it, and effortlessly pulls Tony to his feet.

Shit, that hurts. Standing is painful. Yet Tony doesn’t care. He searches the room until he spots Bucky. Judging by the way everyone is giving Bucky a wide berth, the Winter Soldier must’ve made an appearance. At least that accounts for all the dead bodies. Tony doesn’t feel sorry for them in the slightest, particularly when he spots the alpha who was always threatening to “show him a good time”.

Slowly, limping heavily, Tony makes his way over to Bucky, bypassing Natasha and Clint - both of whom give him curious, concerned looks - but Tony ignores them. He doesn't know what he's going to say or do until he's standing in front of Bucky, and Bucky is openly looking him over (exactly like he did to Steve not an hour ago, at least to Tony) and the words spill out without Tony's permission.

"I had your name. On my chest."

Steve makes a choking sound somewhere behind him. Bucky's eyes go wide.

"I... I always told myself that it had to be someone else, because I wasn't good enough to be your soulmate," Tony admits. "Your name isn't there anymore, but I swear I'm not lying. I just didn't realize it was you until I saw your past self and... you had my name." He touches his own left arm unconsciously.

"Tony..." Bucky stares at him. "I - Steve?"

"It's true," Steve confirms.

"Why the hell didn't you say anything before?" Bucky demands.

Steve winces. "I'm sorry. I didn't know if Tony had your name. I thought that maybe you'd had his, but Tony had someone else." He rubs the back of his head. "And you never asked, so..."

"I didn't want to know," Bucky says, and Tony's heart sinks, until Bucky looks back at him and adds, "if it was someone other than you, I mean. People seem to take this soulmate shit pretty seriously. I liked you anyway."

"You liked me?"

"Like," Bucky corrects immediately. "I like you."

"I like you too," Tony says, and it's all so embarrassingly grade school, but Bucky's smiling at him and he can't help smiling back. Little tingles rush up his arm when Bucky takes his hand - and then it turns out to be a really good thing Bucky did, because Tony's knees give out and he almost face plants into the floor. Bucky grabs him at the last second.

"Tony! Nat, get Bruce in here right now," Steve shouts. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony sees a shock of red hair go flying towards the exit.

He doesn't care, though. Not when Bucky's arms are snug around his waist and he's close enough to be able to scent Bucky. The smell is just right this time, alpha musk with a hint of something that's purely Bucky, and Tony knows he's home. He's happy enough that he doesn't even protest when Bucky picks him up in a bridal carry and they walk out, leaving the Hydra base behind.

(Later, Tony will hack into SHIELD's mainframe and remove every single mention of the time machine. Bucky and Natasha will infiltrate the SHIELD helicarrier and return with whatever SHIELD pilfered from the base before the building was destroyed. Bruce and Clint will store the items in a secure location deep within Tony's workshop. Fury will call to scream a lot. Tony will just smile from where he's cocooned in Bucky's arms, freshly doped up on pain medication, and wave.)