"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
➳ Carl Sagan
In some far distant future where Tony was, on most days, almost one-hundred percent at peace and much happier than he thought he would ever be, he'll look back at the beginning and end of it all and realize:
"We're that cheesy couple everyone hates to love, aren't we?"
"No—Barnes, stop channel-surfing and listen to me—it was all a cliche!"
"Tony, nothing about you is predictable."
"You're right, sweetheart, so it was probably your fault."
"Oh, for fuck's sake..."
It was mostly Bucky's fault.
"This is so far below my pay grade, it's ridiculous. I can't believe you're dragging me out of retirement for Doom Bots!" Tony throws his hands up in the air, shaking them at the video hologram in front of him. On screen, Natasha looks suitably unimpressed, strapping on one Widow's Bite and then the other with a single eyebrow raised.
"Guess we should have pulled you out for the slime monsters two weeks ago then, Stark. Our bad."
Tony's eye roll is unfortunately covered by the Iron Man faceplate slamming down before the video connection is redirected to the helmet. "Retirement, Natasha! It is a thing. A relaxing thing where I'm supposed to be chilling with cabana boys waiting on me, not getting called out to fight third-rate robots I could have built when I was twenty."
"Oh yeah, it definitely looked like you were poolside in the Caribbean, Tony—"
"—I'll have you know that DUM-E is a fabulous cabana boy, fuck you very much."
"But half of the team, including Wilson and Vision, is off on a training trip in Canada and we need eyes up high," Natasha continues saying, ignoring Tony's muttering. "And no, Clint doesn't count, we need someone that can fly."
"Clint's retired, too."
Natasha's reply is a dry: "Don't worry, once he gets his ass out of whichever dumpster he's been hiding in for the night, you two can bitch together."
The New York skyline is heavy with clouds, misty rain already forming up high where Tony has launched himself. He barely even notices the condensation alert on screen, his breath caught somewhere between his chest and his throat as the world falls away from beneath him. The city is starting to light up, sunset coloring everything in a halo of dark pinks and oranges, the low clouds making it feel more like morning than evening, and good god has Tony missed this.
"You know where to go right, Tony?" Natasha's voice is uncharacteristically soft down the line.
Tony has to blink twice before he realizes she's still on video, about to get on her bike with the smallest of smiles on her face, Maria Hill yelling at someone in the background. She saw that, didn't she? She totally did. He clears his throat awkwardly, tearing his gaze away from the cityscape and towards the smoke he can see in the distance.
"Yep," he replies. "Big, old smoke column out west. Hard to miss. The Fantastic Four really need to stay stateside and clean up their chimney sweep because Santa Doom is making an awful mess."
Natasha looks at him for a moment longer, just long enough that the edge of discomfort starts to creep along his shoulder—reaches out for his neck. Tony can't help tensing. He shouldn't; it's just Natasha. But then again, it is Natasha, and they've never been all that different, have they?
She seems to see whatever she wants to see though because that knowing softness slips away from her face, and she snorts. "Not your best joke there, but—" And here, she pulls her helmet on, hiding the competitive gleam in her eyes. "First one to the coal wins, Stark."
He smirks, grateful, says, "You're on, Romanoff," before giving her a small, discerning nod and cutting the call. The last sweeping look he gives to the view around him is a lingering one, eyes touching on the lights all around that are merging with the colors of the sky above, the earth below. It's beautiful, still. Tony closes his eyes and grins, taking in a deep, fortifying breath.
"FRIDAY, increase the speed, Daddy's got some crime fighting to do," he says.
"You got it, Boss."
Turns out that even third-rate robots can be a real pain in the ass when there are hundreds of them swarming around and enough civilians still out on the streets trying to get Snapstories and photos to be serious liabilities. Tony loved tech and was as young at heart as the best of them, but could these people put down their phones for one, goddamned second?!
Some kid sticks his head past the hood of car to take a picture of Iron Man blasting a bot to smithereens, nearly getting hit with shrapnel for his idiocy, and Tony's had enough.
He directs FRIDAY to sync his external speakers and then says:
"Hey, I know I'm literally the 'Old Man Yelling At the Sky'—in the sky; whatever—right now, but. GET OFF THE ROADS, PEOPLE!" The same idiot kid stares at Tony, unmoving, in shock.
Tony yells, "NOW!"
Luckily, that last order gets everyone scurrying off towards safe hideaways. Unluckily, Tony's fit of temper also brings the attention of several Doom Bots in the general vicinity and suddenly he's ducking to avoid three different laser beams, only to get hit with an explosive disk.
Oh right, did he forget to mention that the newest Doom Bots go an upgrade. An unpleasant, explosive upgrade.
"Iron Man, how bad are you hit?" Clint sounds distracted across the comms.
"Not too bad," Tony grits out, ignoring the flashing warning on his screen. "I'm going to get some air closer to the river, give us room go blast them to kingdom come."
"Alright, on my mark, Iron Man. Three, two—"
Tony doesn't get a chance to hear the last of Clint's countdown as two Doom Bots manage to blindside him at the same time, flying up and exploding so close to the suit that he's sent careening out of the sky. He sends the repulsor blasts anyways, FRIDAY having triangulated the target positions prior, and trusts that Clint got the job done.
Because Tony? Tony wasn't doing so hot.
It's at that moment that Tony feels a familiar, gentle burn on his right arm. His soul mark. Tony doesn't try to think about it too much because it's burned on and off again, without compulsion, so often that there really isn't any point. Especially since he still hasn't managed to get the suit systems operating at minimum capacity again. But, the mark's gentle burn stays steady, seems to be growing even stronger the closer Tony gets to the world below, and—
You've got to be kidding me.
Tony's plummeting five hundred feet down towards the Hudson and a new "Drowned By Doom Bot" placard, FRIDAY's voice fritzing spectacularly in his ears, when he sees him for the first time—an impression of dark hair, drab clothes, and two hands clutching a half-eaten burger; one of which had let go and automatically swung up to point at Tony like some B-roll cliche.
"You—!" is all his suit's speakers manage to spit out before the river water surrounds him, and his, "Motherfucker!" is swallowed down in favor of figuring out how to not die.
It doesn't go away.
Tony's right arm remains outstretched in front him, fingers splayed towards the water, towards the sky, the air; him. If Tony were to close his eyes, he knows he could imagine the way the soul compass stamped on his wrist would be pointing.
There is a new, fainter, heartbeat thrumming against his own, and it is slower, more steady. The pace of it is increasing though, and Tony feels anxiety along with his panic. This wasn't how things were supposed to go.
Out. I need to get out, Tony thinks haltingly and starts engaging the emergency underwater escape protocol. Above him, something breaches the surface of the river, and Tony sees an arm reaching towards him, a hand seeking his.
"You," Tony repeats.
His soulmate tenses.
"You pulled me out of the river!"
"No shit," is the reply Tony gets to that and it revs him up even further.
"You ripped my suit apart as I was trying to get out! I could have gotten out just fine, look at me now!"
"Is that your only problem, right now?"
This sass was the universe's punishment for all of his sins, Tony thought. He works his mouth and finally yells the words that have been building up behind his teeth: "We're soulmates?! You're my soulmate, my romantic soulmate? I have Rhodey as my platonic so what the fuck—"
"I knew that already," James Buchanan Barnes says.
"And just—wait, what?" Tony pauses, startled out of the start of his rant and turns around to look him in the eye. "What do you mean 'I knew that?!'"
Bucky Fucking Barnes doesn't have the grace to look unsettled or even sheepish. He just stands there and crinkles his nose a little as Tony furiously tries to wring water out of his socks, and repeats: "I knew that."
"About us? Or Rhodey?" Tony clarifies.
Bucky shrugs, seemingly nonchalant, but his mouth is drawn tight in a downturn and his eyes stray to Tony's right wrist all the same. "Just you," he says.
Tony is so astounded he can't even say anything. His mouth flaps open a bit but the only thing going through his head is: he knew of me but he didn't want to know me. And then Bucky Fucking Barnes stiffens, points at the quinjet that's apparently coming to pick Tony up and chews on his lip, staring at Tony for a short, almost hesitant moment.
There is a part of Tony, an almost child-like, hopeful part of Tony, that thinks that he will stay. As if their world was only the two of them and this new, fledgling bond; as if their pasts and their futures and all the problems that encompass both eras of time—nevermind the people in them—mean nothing in the face of the present. It was just here. Just now.
This was a chance.
Bucky stared at his own covered, right wrist and sprints off into the city.
As a breeze blows past Tony, he hears a soft: "I'm sorry."
Wasn't that lovely?
God, Maria had hated that kind of thinking.
So, there was no such thing as choosing a soulmate. They just were. Even with triads and polyamoric bonds, everyone was meant to be together. From the platonic bonds, to the romantic ones, a match on one person meant a mirror match on another; all bonds were full circle. There was no Other. No such thing as more than one, perfect possibility.
Maria Collins Carbonell and Howard Anthony Walter Stark were soulmates. When Tony is fifteen, Maria successfully files for a divorce with Howard.
It was a point of both great pride and great shame for Maria, Tony knew. They should have been able to make it work. They were soulmates. But just not the best ones for each other. It's a secret they literally took to their graves—that they both had more than one mark, and that those other marks were not the same, were not part of a triad bond; a single possibility. Somewhere out there, there was another person that they each were suited for. That they might be better with. Howard and Maria didn't talk about it.
But late one night, about a year before everything, when they were both tired at heart and Maria's defenses had been weakened enough, she had told Tony. She had whispered it into the top of Tony's head, had admitted for a wish that things had been far, far different. That she had said no, instead of yes. For Tony, the choice, the possibility, was a revelation.
Then, long after the divorce, in '91, Maria went for a talk with Howard. She didn't come back.
The press was aflutter for weeks after that horrific crash. There had already been pieces floating around about the possibility of a rekindled relationship between Maria and Howard; that love would triumph all. That the two of them were meeting because they just couldn't let things end the way it did between them. And oh, Tony still remembered all of the tittering horror and awed shock that spewed out across the media upon their deaths: words proclaiming of cruel fate, and love torn apart before it could fly again; of the consequence for Howard's warmongering and their attempts to deny a soul bond, and those speaking of just plain stupidity, the two of them driving fast on a snow storming night. And in the midst of it all, Tony had cried on Jarvis's shoulder and wondered if Maria could have done more than just live if she had taken a chance on her Other; if she could have just told Howard Anthony Walter Stark: no.
But. Well; soulmates.
Anthony Edward Stark has two soul marks. One of them—a pair wings, red and gold—belongs to Rhodey. It is platonic.
The other is a golden compass. It is romantic. It belongs to James Buchanan Barnes.
According to Steve, back in the '30s, it was never the existence of the bond itself that meant everything to them, but the strength of it, the weight and surety of all of that love between Bucky and him. Steve had said that he hadn't cared that it was platonic. That it was just a relief then to know that Bucky had him, and he had Bucky; that his soul would know this just as much as his head and his heart did, that the whole goddamn universe would give him this despite the Depression and the War and the hard times all around. It was enough.
Anthony Edward Stark and James Buchanan Barnes both had pre-existing soulmate bonds. Those should be all that mattered. They shouldn't have different second marks. There wasn't supposed to be more than one, perfect possibility.
But there was. And that meant something new; a probabilty of more. Of chance. Of choice.
Of another person to learn to love.
But that decision was something they would both have to agree on. It was as much Bucky's decision to jump on as it was Tony's.
Tony knew that. What he didn't know was if either of them wanted to say yes, or no.
A note arrives for Tony through the SI in-house mailing system the next day. It reads: "Don't tell Steve."
"Don't tell Steve!" Tony says, waving the sheet of paper aggressively in the air at the nearest camera in the workshop. "I get my first letter from my soulmate and it's about Steve Rogers. Un-fucking-believable! Are you seeing this shit, FRIDAY?"
"Well, Boss, I would if you'd hold that note still for one second," FRIDAY replies.
Tony pauses, mouth open mid-rant, and stares at the camera, betrayed. "You're not supposed to be this sassy yet."
There is a pause from FRIDAY, possibly contemplative though Tony realizes later that it was most definitely amused. She says, "Sorry, Boss. I'm still learning. Should I have waited for a few more sentences, then?"
"I—" Tony stops, not knowing what he was going to even say, and smothers the fond smile that wants to stretch across his face. His girl was growing up; even if that meant she was probably becoming a bit of an asshole just like everyone else around Tony—including himself. He tells her as much.
The lights around the lab flash gently, once, like FRIDAY's preening a little.
Tony stares back down at the paper in his hand and bites back the illogical, disappointed sigh. Barnes owed him nothing. "FRIDAY, log this on my private server for the record. No names. Just the date and message. A reference note, too, I guess. Keepsakes for this kind of thing are important."
"In that case, I'll log this in with: 'Dear diary, my soulmate is an asshole.'"
FRIDAY sounds completely, sincerely genuine and Tony can't help the bark of laughter that escapes him.
The next time Tony sees Bucky, he's somehow found his way down into Tony's workshop in the Tower. Tony would freak out more at the intrusion except he has the suspicion that FRIDAY had never really let go of the disappointment Tony had shown about the note those days earlier. She was in so much trouble.
"You're spoiling him," Tony says lightly, covering his surprise as he walks forward, sliding his hands habitually into the pockets of his sweatpants. Behind him, the workshop doors slide close silently, the glass frosting back over automatically.
Bucky doesn't bother acting startling at Tony's presence as he hands DUM-E half of a carrot to dump into the blender sitting on the floor. It plunks on top of a bed of spinach, kale, apple slices, and what looks like heaping tablespoons of spirulina; DUM-E chirps enthusiastically, clicking his claw at Tony before holding it out towards Bucky. Solemn-faced, Bucky taps his left, metal fist against DUM-E's claw.
"We're just spending quality time together," Bucky says.
There are six glasses of green-brown liquid scattered across the floor of the lab, splotches of smoothie all over the blender, and food items everywhere. Tony tries not to think about how close most of it was to the lab equipment and the motor oil.
"As opposed to spending quality time with the rest of us, upstairs?"
Here, Bucky idly traces a finger through a spot of liquid, eyes averted. "Well," he says, "you know..." As if that was explanation enough.
And, yeah, it kind of was in its own way. Tony can feel the restlessness sitting underneath his breastbone, the impression of unease and something that Tony might call melancholy warming its way down the soul bond. It's a feeling that has been growing steadily over the past several days ever since that meeting on the riverside, distracting and worrying and making Tony space out in conversations with other people more than a few times. Pepper had not been amused.
"You have a place here," Tony says, quietly. "But you don't have to stay." The last words feel like sand scraping across his tongue; sweat burning against cracked, bleeding lips.
Bucky hesitates before saying, "I didn't mean to leave you hanging, Stark. I do want to come in. Soon. I'm just—" Bucky makes as if to push back his hair in frustration, but pauses, staring at his cybernetic hand. "Not all here yet," he whispers. "You learn to lose things so much that you don't really expect to keep anything anymore, you know?"
And Bucky stares at him then, eyes uncertain and lips pressed into a thin line after he finishes speaking. He seems to be searching for something in Tony's face. Some sort of understanding. Resonance.
Tony thinks about what Bucky said; of loss.
Loss was—It was that feeling of getting back up again after the whole rug, and floor and the very earth has been taken out from under you, Tony supposed. When you're falling and floating and drifting and so lost that you feel almost like you've ceased to exist at all—and then, after an indeterminate period of time you come back. Slowly, in fits and spurts. Like an old engine coughing back to life, like someone warming up their first slow steps into a morning run, like the peaks of sunshine and drizzled wet of petering rain as the clouds break apart.
And you learn to laugh, maybe even genuinely, filled with a sort of dangerous merriment, surprised that you still know how. Because you weren't supposed to come back. Not from this; not from the kind of hell that people like them end up in. The absolute lightness of it all—the relief, the joy, it makes you momentarily breathless. And terrified, full of the overwhelming, aching, near-irrational fear that you'll lose it all over again. That you can't stop yourself from sliding, that things won't change. That it won't matter what you do to move on.
That you just can't have this.
Yes, Tony thinks; says aloud. He did know, and that recognition—mirrored in his heart and the right hand he extends to Bucky, his compass pointed north and true—warms along the bond, thaws something achingly cold and alone in the both of them. Suddenly, the choice, the decision seems a little easier.
"You have me," Tony says. "For what it's worth—because we both know what promises are like around here—you have me if that's something you're interested in. And I'm not afraid to fight a damn good fight if someone tries to change that." He grins at Bucky's answering snort. "So, take your time; I get it." After a pause, he adds, "I'm scared too."
Bucky swallows and reaches out carefully to hold Tony's hand, his compass swinging into alignment as well. "Okay," he says, voice rasping. "Thank you. I do...I want....I'll come home."
"Here," Tony says in an almost-question. To me, to us, he doesn't say.
"It's where all my favorite people are," Bucky answers. There is a lightness in his eyes now, a tentative hope, and he smiles.
Tony can't help but return it.