Chapter 1: Dreams Fall Away
There was a Man once, who lived and grew and suffered beneath the press of the fate that the Stars laid under his feet.
The Soulmark he carried on his chest was easy to mistake for something simple; the form was simple. Many people carried a star on their chests, calling back to the earliest gift, and it was considered a great blessing in his village to carry one.
But the man was not gifted with great luck.
The star on his chest, formed of seven points extending narrow and thin only looked like a common Marks at first inspection.
He spent hours and hours laying in the sun when his mother told him to watch the herd, fingers tracing over it where the lines were drawn a shade paler than the deep brown of his skin. It wasn’t a simple Mark. It wasn’t common. A common star was filled evenly. His was filled, yes, but the interior was detailed with curling leaves and vines, branches and flowers and life all twining around each other.
It was Unique, and he loved it more than he could explain.
Each night before returning to his home, he offered his thanks to the Stars shining overhead for the gift of such perfection. One day he would find his Match, and perhaps one day he would even be a feature in a story told to his children’s children.
His village carried traditions like the sacred relics they were. Tales and stories were repeated until they may well have been carved in the bones of the children that sat at their elders’ feet. It was their legacy and their greatest joy.
The village he came from was blessed, and few had ever lived out their days without finding their Match. Some had short years with their love, but they found them all the same, and bore proudly the colored Mark on their chest. Blue flecked greens bloomed over one couple’s flower-formed Mark. Iridescent silver and gold shone on the chests of a pair with a simple four point star. The simplicity of their Mark was made beautiful by the revelation of the colors.
So it was no surprise to the village elders or to the village youth when the young Man grew troubled. All those near his age had found their Match long past. All those that visited the village had found theirs as well. The years passed, and the Man kept the hidden treasure of his star’s details to himself, awaiting the chance to show it to them only once it was drawn over with a rainbow’s full array, and his Soulmate was at his side.
He dreamt of it most nights, that quiet hope, kept hidden beneath his clothes.
He dreamed that his Match would come to the village and find him.
A war came instead.
The Man with a seven point star wrought in nature’s beauty woke on the field after the battle faded. Screams surrounded him while he lost himself in his pain, but on waking, he heard only weak cries and whimpers. Daylight was well past, and the air was chilled. It took long moments for him to note the pain in his chest as he lay in muck and filth. Once he did, he knew why no one had brought him from the battle to the care of a healer’s hands.
The Stars never forgave those that let their Marks be damaged.
They damned those that let their Marks be lost.
He lay on dirt and watched the emerging stars, whispering apologies as his hand sat over the wound on the center of his chest. The skin was stripped raw -- deep enough that he knew the scar it would cause -- and slowly seeped blood.
It would not kill him quickly. No, his fate now was the slow tortured agony of a wound turned putrid and foul.
It would be a mirror to the crime he must have committed to earn this change of his fate. He always wanted to find his Soulmate, but had never dared to wander the world alone and seek them out. He wanted, but he had never tried.
Perhaps that was the sin he had committed.
He laid there, watching the sky, and he waited, praying with every breath that they take mercy on him. That they end him, or offer him another chance. He laid there, whispering words of fealty and faith amid the dying pleas of the others on the field.
But death did not come.
Before the sky turned from grey to the blush of dawn, before the man would have been forced to accept that the Stars had no care for him, he saw it.
A slow streak of blinding light moved across the sky.
A star fell.
He followed the arc of it in shock, then sat up, abandoning his almost-death to see where it might come to land.
It was far.
But it was his.
The Stars had watched him and offered him a chance, another path, another fate to replace the one that he had lost. The other injured warriors that had fallen on the field around him never saw it. The last of them had shuddered out a final breath just moments before the Man without a Mark saw the gift falling for him.
The man returned to the village, crusted with blood but shining with the knowledge of this gift.
He was shunned by all but his family, as was only right. No one wanted to stand near anyone so defiled and broken.
The greatest testament to the merit of his soul had been torn from his chest, leaving naught but the slow healing ripples of memory. He was less than the man he had been. He was a broken promise, and all those near him knew it. No one with sense would stay near him, and he did not blame them. He healed, and he remembered the arc of the star as it fell, and built a new promise: that he would find it.
No one could help him. Nor should they.
And when he succeeded, it would replace the Mark that had been stolen from him, and he could turn his dreams once more to his Match. Until he found that shard of fallen sky, and held it close and let it replace what he so dearly missed, he spent his nights dreaming of the vast expanse, of the maw of the sky opened wide to swallow him whole and leave him forever alone in the loveless dark.
It was only right.
Until he reclaimed it, there would be no welcoming embrace of the Stars above, only nothingness, and his own echoing fear.
Jarvis knew, but Jarvis was programmed to delete the knowledge if ever queried about it by anyone but Tony.
Pepper and Tony -- that was the list that mattered. Not even Rhodey knew, because he was a traditionalist and kept his own mark so fiercely a secret that Tony took it as a preference and didn’t ever offer to share his own. There were some members of the Ten Rings who knew for a time, and Yinsen, but no one that saw him during that nightmarish surgery lived another six months.
Pepper and Tony.
They were the only people on the planet that knew what Tony’s Soulmark had been.
About two dozen shapes were considered common and had personalities and stories attached to them: different stars, circles, and geometric blocks. Variations of stars alone made up two-thirds of the common forms. Anybody carrying one had an easy time finding a Soulmate. They even had the luxury of choice. The bond wouldn’t be especially deep, but it was basically a guarantee. They could find someone they would love forever, and they could make it permanent by allowing their Marks to bloom into color.
Another thousand forms were rarer, but not unheard of. There were flowers and whorls and flourishes and detailed forms. It was likely that those would find a match, and they’d be ecstatic when they did, bound together with someone that would always be there for them, knowing that their bond was truly special.
There were ideas about what each shape implied. And of course, there were prejudices in both directions. Common Marks got tied into the idea that the bearer wasn’t capable of a deeper love. Rare Marks got tied to the accusation that a person was too difficult.
Marks were a global fascination, and always had been. Wars erupted and ended over Soulmarks. It made for great stories.
The largest archive of marks, in Stockholm, held the images and sketches of more than a hundred thousand, but they had been collecting since the Dark Ages. In the nineties, they digitized the whole collection, and made it keyword searchable.
It was the first international website that wasn’t porn.
Humans had their priorities after all.
Tony’s Mark resembled nothing he recognized.
It didn’t show up until he was nearly fourteen--gawky and awkward and mesmerized by the symbol that appeared. Fourteen was a little old, but not outside the norm. Whatever events needed to happen to ensure he and his Soulmate were right for each other had settled; the universe had made up its mind.
It was a banded circle with bent lines extending beyond it, and something geometric - not quite a star, not quite a sun - at the center. It wasn’t a standard form, but it seemed right to him. A little bit of the universe drawn on his chest, a distant star, a distant promise. It was appropriate for him. A poster with Carl Sagan’s quote about Star Stuff hung on his wall. Childish inspiration about reaching for the impossible, and settling for nothing less than the extraordinary rattled through his head when he traced the shape.
A truly unique symbol was a curse and a blessing. The match would be something to write poems about - a fact most cultures took as instruction - but there was no other choice. Tony hacked access to the Stockholm archive three days after it appeared to avoid registering his Mark, and found nothing.
It was a singular match; there was only one person out there who would ever purely, wholly, love Tony Stark.
Well, persons. Two. He was fairly sure that it was a triad symbol, not that he had anything to compare it to, he had no way of knowing, but… he thought so with a certainty that never wavered.
Marks were a half step off from a person’s skintone, visible, but only barely. They didn’t turn to colors until a person found their Match, and both set their fingertips to the other’s Mark, causing them to cascade into a confirmation. There were plenty of fairytales about the wonders that came from finding a match; telepathy, empathy, shared sensation, ability to locate each other in a crowd, ability to see angels and demons, you’d never misplace your keys again, your skin would be clear, your crops would be bountiful and your heart would be light.
Science couldn’t prove any claim except for the change in appearance. No matter how many fantasy stories were written about magical connections,and divine gifts, no one could prove it true. There wasn’t even a physical sensation. According to science, the headrush, the lightness, and the warm internal glow all came from endorphins. It was just love and excitement.
Science was great at taking the lustre off of the supernatural.
The most that had ever been found was a faint correlation of what could be interpreted as a chemically induced psychological tether between rare and unique pairs. But it didn’t happen often enough to be proven, and most of the world dismissed it out of hand.
By the later years of the twentieth century, most of humanity - the West at least - had abandoned all pretense of hiding their Marks. Where proprietary once kept necklines high, or, at the most scandalous level, showing off the traditional sashes that covered a mark, the early 2000s saw a glut of high-fashion peekaboo shirts so any and everyone could see a mark, and find their other half.
Tony partied, danced, drank, and made a lot of bad decisions, but he never took off the old fashioned silk band that covered the symbol and promise etched in the center of his chest.
He wasn’t ready to settle down, he told photographers. He’d find his soulmate when he’d had his fill of models, he told reporters. He’d worry about that later, he told himself.
Then came Afghanistan.
Tony knew it hurt. He knew he was injured, through the suit he wore, through the body armor and the kevlar, he knew he’d been hit, but all he could think of was the location. There was blood wicking along the fabric of his sash, both hot and cold at once, fixating his thoughts.
He’d been hit in the chest.
He’d been hit in the center of the chest.
Clawing at the flak jacket, flinching as the movement wrenched at the shrapnel, he dug toward his own skin. The sand beneath him held no warmth, and the sky above was blinding, but the only thought he could find in the pain was the need to confirm his Mark was whole.
Rhodey had vanished during the firefight and the second explosion. The others in the convoy were dead or dying or fighting for their lives.
Tony was alone, desperate to preserve something he’d never pursued, frantically reaching toward the promise of love on his skin.
“I would have saved it if I could. There was no other way.” Yinsen said softly from the other side of the cave.
“Most of it was already damaged before you decided I should be part Borg.”
They did this. Nightly it seemed. Tony would work and Yinsen would talk. Tony couldn’t bring himself to ramble; all the words that used to tumble out of his mouth had abandoned him when he realized where he was.
The banal, aching sting of an injury, but also an existential pain he didn’t like to touch. Thinking about what was lost left him nauseous. It was only because Yinsen had been the one to do it that he didn’t behave as if Tony was anathema. The Ten Rings certainly didn’t like getting close to him. They taunted him about it when they tortured him, demanding he comply and shouting threats Tony didn’t understand. He didn’t need to.
They prodded at the center of his chest as they did.
No Soulmark meant no soul. Tony didn't need to hear them to know that was what they said.
Nor did he need to hear what came next. If he had no soul, why was he trying to be good?
“Yes,” Yinsen answered after a long wait, “but I still tried to find another choice. I’m sorry this will be the only way you can carry it now.”
Tony didn’t look up from soldering components together, and cursed the pattern it created. He spent a day and a night trying to find an alternative assembly that could house the reactor, but there was nothing. Maybe with Jarvis helping… but no, Tony was alone, and try as he might, the design worked best in that shape. He knew it did. Genius or not, he tried to talk himself out of it, and into using a less reliable design.
It was almost a star, and almost a sun, with ten lines pointing out from the center circle. Once he gave up the fight to redesign it, he modified it just slightly, letting five of them extend, mimicking his lost Soulmark even more.
It had always been a long shot at finding them. A true unique? At his age?
It was never going to happen.
He was never supposed to have that. Maybe that was why the Mark had been unique. Maybe there never was any one else that carried it. Maybe he was always meant to be alone. That was fine. Tony had been alone for most of his life. He survived and thrived like that. He learned to make his own friends, programming and building them from nothing.
If the universe was cruel enough to take away the symbol of his hopes, he would build a new one.
He would craft a promise to himself, and he would continue forward.
The reactor burned bright in the chest of his suit, screaming vengeance and joy, glowing in the dark of the cave as he fought his way free.
Rhodey learned about the reactor because he was the first person to reach Tony.
Tony trudged through the desert with the remains of the suit scattered across the sand, motivated by furious outrage more than the will to live. It wasn’t that he wanted to be alive, it was that he was damn well determined to keep going to spite the universe.
The helicopters overhead were the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
That was a title that rapidly shifted to Rhodey.
Tony struggled to get the shirt he’d wrapped over his head against the heat onto his chest to try to hide the reactor. Rhodey was always a traditionalist. He was while in school, and it never went away. He wouldn’t want to see -- wouldn’t want to know -- that Tony had a hunk of metal instead of a soul. Losing Rhodey would be worse than the cave. So Tony tried, but failed to get it covered in time.
Rhodey’s eyes were wet when he pulled Tony into a hug, helping to get the reactor hidden from the other soldiers.
It wasn’t until hours later, when they teamed up to shoo away the medic, that he asked about it.
“That nightlight in your chest.”
“Do you mean this industry revolutionizing technology I developed in a cave with a box of garbage in between being tortured?” Tony quipped. He was uncomfortable, and the snark felt foreign in his mouth, but some habits were hard to beat.
“What’s under it?”
Tony rolled his head to stare down his friend. They were alone, lying on cots, and it was too loud in the bay for anyone to listen in and hear what they said. “Ask what you really mean, Rhodey.”
“Yeah. Shrapnel. Surgery. Car battery. Electromagnet. Nothing left. It’s gone.”
“You planning on telling anyone about that? You know how it freaks people out when someone doesn’t have one. Not to mention your new fancy, infomercial, touch-light.”
“You wound me, gummybear. It’s a clapper, obviously.”
“Clap on, Clap off. Pinnacle of technology.” They grinned at the old joke, habit more than humor keeping them going, “But seriously, you telling anyone about that thing?”
“Not yet. Patents. Copyrights. And the tabloids’ll have a blitz about me having no soul. Buy stock in them now, it’s about to skyrocket. Choose one and I’ll leak them the photos myself.”
Rhodey got the same look he had before he punched Jason Melkam in the face during Tony’s second week of college. This time, instead of violence, it, inexplicably, resulted in arts and crafts. Or, it made no sense until Rhodey tossed a modified chest band to him, with blackout material over the cross to hide the glow, and keep his secret. The style was normally used for widows, but it would do.
Rhodey didn’t pull away from Tony’s hands, he didn't retreat like Tony was unclean, and he didn’t stare like he was a freak. He found a way to help keep the secret, and he gave Tony the right phrases to use to keep the medics from prodding at him too much. He sat beside him throughout the flight, and only once edged close to how upset he was.
“What is your Mark?”
“Was. Doesn’t exist anymore.”
“What was your Mark?”
Tony considered it, considered bringing the count up to three, and explaining how the arc reactor seemed to echo it. He considered talking to Rhodey -- with all of his proper manners, about the subject -- about the whisper of fear in his chest that this was the thing he had been fated for, not a lover, not the pair he thought he’d find, not even a friend, just this punishment.
But it would probably make his honeybear cry. So.
“Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not growing back.”
Rhodey didn’t ask again.
Pepper found out, and was so preoccupied with his request that she stick her hand into his chest cavity that it was an hour later before she sprinted back into the lab, and gently set her hand against the metal. The question in her eyes made his stomach flop. They knew they weren’t a match. Pepper had a single floral bloom between her breasts, and had been a victim of fashion trends in the 2000s. It was a pretty mark, fine-lined and delicate, but not a Match. Not even a match.
That eased things for them in a lot of ways, let them be comfortable with each other.
Pepper called him out on the men and women he slept with, usually some light question about whether she needed to contact PR about the upcoming gossip, and knew him well enough not to ask something deeper. She kept a spare sash on her at all times for the rare chance that someone might try to find out what the billionaire had beneath his shirt. It only happened once, but Pepper never forgot.
Pepper never forgot anything about him.
Tony spent three months in the cave, creating the suit, salvaging an echo of his soulmark, and accepting that his chance was gone. He didn’t mourn it with tears and anger. He was too busy surviving, too busy looking forward, but he knew that building the reactor in that exact shape had been his form of grief. He knew that destroying the camp was his form of recovery. He knew that his march through the desert was how he accepted it.
Pepper spent most of that night on the couch in his lab, as brokenhearted as he had been, tracing the shapes of the reactor, and never said a word.
She cried though.
In the morning, in discreet packaging, he found two presents sitting on the table in front of Pepper, beside the cup of coffee he came seeking.
First a glass case, holding the reactor he built in the cave, inscribed with a message from Pepper: Proof that Tony Stark has a Heart.
In the other, a set of proper widow bands. They were opaque and heavy, and on the off chance they were noticed, it was beyond inappropriate to ask about them. If a tabloid paparazzo ever did, Tony would have the united blessing of the media, the country, and the church to break their nose.
Not that he would need to.
She made it clear as she sipped at her coffee that if someone ever came after him about it, she was going to tear apart their life and salt the earth beneath them.
Pepper kissed him on the cheek, and went back to running relay between Tony and Stark Industries, especially Obie’s regular check-ins.
Everyone said finding your soulmate made your heart turn light and the world turn to wonders. Every fairytale said that the skies opened and angels sang. Every myth said that when a person found their other half, something inside them settled with what would be the source of their joy for the rest of their life.
They said that you could feel fate for the first time and there was a certainty to it that nothing could shake.
Most people found someone at a work mixer, at a bar, or walking through the park.
Most people had a spouse and a house and a dog.
Tony had the arc reactor
He had the suit.
It was no exaggeration to say that his heart sang when he flew.
The first time, in the desert, with weapons exploding and death licking at his heels, he’d been triumphant, but not joyful. There was too much happening. Besides, that wasn’t the full potential yet. It was the precursor, the inspiration, the first draft. It was the first meeting between two that were meant to be together.
When he suited up for real, and it worked, he knew.
Bone deep, something settled inside him. It was right the way nothing in the world ever had been. Jarvis warned him against it, but even if Tony wasn’t a risk taker, he’d couldn’t have stopped. That first flight, the first true flight in the suit, was exultant. His heart went light, his head went giddy. He soared on an upswell of joy so fierce it didn’t seem natural.
No person, no Soulmate, could ever outdo it. Nothing could ever be better than that joy.
And it was like that every time.
Whenever he flew, he was practically effervescent. Even when it was calamity he flew towards, and he was reading weapons briefings on the HUD, beneath the adrenaline, everything felt right, and he couldn’t stop the bliss. He entered battles and skirmishes with something righteous and mighty in his veins. He was happier than he had ever been before. Happier than he had dared to hope.
He carried a shard of the sun in his chest, and he would be a beacon for the whole damn world.
He flew. He fought. He helped.
It was the despair of his world mended and polished to a brilliant shine. It was enough for him. It had to be, because there was no other choice. So long as he had the reactor, he would survive. It didn’t occur to him, since no one but Pepper and Rhodey and Jarvis knew, that anyone would try to take it from him.
Somehow Obie found out.
Everyone knew that people flew into a rage when their Soulmate was threatened.
Tony didn’t have a Soulmate to leap to his defense.
And he couldn’t move to defend his other half.
But the rage was certainly true as Obie towered above him and ripped the arc reactor from his chest. The rage was greater than the fear. The rage was bigger than the loss, or the potential risks.
He had to lay on his couch as he waited for the paralysis to fade, too aware of the gaping hollow in his torso, that screamed too loudly what he no longer had.
That was a new form of torment. He didn’t even have the echo of a star’s form crammed in his sternum to console him as his heart spasmed and he waited. It was an all consuming emptiness. It was the vastness of space open wide around him, isolating him and condemning him. The universe gave him no help. He laid prone on the couch waiting to see if there was mercy enough in the world to let him survive, or if he’d have to watch the slow approach of death, helpless to avert it. He gasped at air as the most basal movements returned to him.
Too slow, the effect faded as Tony waited, facing off with death.
It wanted him to surrender, to die now that his soulmark had been finally, fully stolen away.
But Tony crawled.
And Iron Man survived.
Chapter 2: Echoing through Time
Steve and Bucky.
Minor warning for canon-typical violence.
Sometimes, the Stars found a way to bring joy to the world simply by bringing together two souls, and letting the rest bask in the perfection of the union.
Some people were meant to be together in a way that outshone the Markings on their chests -- that would outglow the stars in the sky. Some people had a certainty to their love that ensured that they would find their way to each other, regardless of the pain and grief of the world around them.
The Stars adored of those matches. They watched, pleased and encouraged by the way that they orbited each other, comforted by the way that they completed each other.
Once, when the world had come to know what Soulmarks were, but before the darkness of life had brought out humanity’s cynicism, there was such a pair.
They grew up together, living only a few houses separated, and long before Marks bloomed on their chests, they had wrapped themselves into one being. It was instant between them; the way that children could see the truth of someone’s soul in single smile, and decide upon a friendship.
He was the elder of the pair by a year and some days, physically strong enough to be the envy of many in their small town, but she was mightier.
Where he would bend his neck in the face of the town leader’s ire, even as a child, she rose up taller, fought back louder, and with every word she spoke, she earned his loyalty again.
When his Mark appeared in the early morning hours when he was barely more than ten, it revealed a four point star. There was a moment when he ached at the sight, thinking of the contempt many held for such a simple thing, thinking it meant that he could never love as deeply as someone carrying a rare Mark. But the young man trusted, slipped into his clothes, and stole down the road to her home.
Ever the bolder of them, she wasted no time, announcing as soon as the door closed that she had gained a Mark in the night.
A four point star.
The Stars liked to watch stories like theirs.
Both carried a common Mark -- they could have chosen any of a hundred people they would meet in their lifetime and find happiness, but for those two, wound about each other from the time she could walk, it was never considered.
Why would they need anyone else?
They set fingers to each other’s Marks without the uncertainty or fear that age would have lent them, and gasped at the sensation.
A simmering, glittering swell rose through them both, dancing under their skin and singing symphonies in their blood. Beneath their fingers, their Marks transformed. The skin seared hot for a moment, and as the heat faded, left behind was a color like a peacock’s feathers. Cobalt blues and emerald greens flecked through with gold and copper filled the Marks, and neither could look away.
Had they been older, the village would have seen a marriage arranged within a month.
Since they weren’t, it was accepted, and smiled at as an absolute truth of the world.
In time, when years had passed and the last neighbors that scoffed at such a young pairing had worn down into adoration, they married, officially.
It had never been needed.
They were in each other’s bones, and always had been.
The Stars liked to watch stories like theirs.
The Stars liked to see when humanity took delight in true joy and love.
The pair never became something extraordinary. They were not destined to great adventure or to ruinous demise. Their lives were as common as the shape of their Mark, growing together, working together, raising a family together. Through it all, he remained the strength of the field, and she remained the strength of the battle.
Stories were told about the pair to travellers amidst wistful sighs. They were the perfect bond and the perfect Match.
Travellers repeated what they heard in the next town.
And the next.
Children grew to know about the pair; this perfect couple that the Stars had favored and bound so tightly that there was no space between their souls.
The glory of old poems evincing the travails of the Rare-Marked would never be forgotten, but simple stories were of more comfort. Most of humanity didn’t want to be the feature of a great and tragic tale; they wanted peace, comfort, and a loving partner.
So the story spread.
The Stars liked to see that their gift had done some good.
It made it easier when they had to ask more of the Matches they forged.
They got their Marks at nine, three days after Steve’s birthday. Not that they knew they were a match then.
They got their Marks and showed each other as soon as they could, knowing that it was something you only shared with your family and dearest friends. That was them. Either descriptor. They knew there was no one more important than each other.
Marks always appeared while the stars were at their brightest, always at night, and everyone knew it was because the Stars were giving a gift.
If either thought at first glimpse that they carried something common, the thought was discarded when they saw each other. The shape was detailed but loose, like a sketch of something grander. Concentric circles intersected a ten point star with jagged variations on the exterior. Small enough it fit beneath their palms, both of them grinned in delight.
“Do you think that you and me…”
“Nah, Stevie. Ain’t like that.”
“Is just cause we’re such good pals. Whoever we’re gonna match with is gonna be just as much trouble as we are.”
“If we got em early, think that means we’re gonna meet ‘em soon?”
“You’re just hoping you get some of the perks, aintcha?”
Steve colored, and wrapped skinny arms around himself, knuckles rubbing against his chest. “Well if we’re gonna find these girls, we oughta tell folks, right? Paper’s always got stories about young Marks. It helps make sure they find their pairs.”
He squirmed, “I don’t… can we wait? My Ma’s gonna cry if we tell her, and she’ll start trying to find me this girl right away and I know we’re growing up fast -- We’re nine now! But I kinda…”
“Sure, Bucky. I sorta like having a secret we can share.”
They didn’t tell their families.
Platonic Matches were how the majority of America reconciled a same sex match. It was frowned on in rare Marks, outright reviled in common Marks. In a Unique, it was begrudgingly forgiven as undeniable, but everyone pretended that it wasn’t love, just friendship. No one dared to fight Fate to separate them, but that didn't mean they liked it.
Bucky had heard more than enough stories about the couples that lived in the rougher parts of town to know that he didn’t want his best friend living like that. Most of those stories he heard from his father’s friends, told in a cruel and gloating tone.
They were young enough that they could pretend they hadn’t gotten Marks yet at all. Steve made comments here and there, little questions that had more truth beneath the surface than either would admit. Bucky spent four years deflecting them.
With all their classmates babbling about their new Marks, they admitted they had theirs, and Bucky finally went to the library to check the records.
It took a couple hours, and cost twenty cents to see the Mark library, but Bucky went, and paged through book after book, looking for the one he and Steve carried. The library closed, and two days later, Bucky went back to continue. He started with the lower range of Rare Marks, knowing already that he didn’t carry a Common one. It took six visits and two months before he reached the end of the records.
It took another month before he went back to ask to see the record of known Uniques.
The librarian gave him an indulgent smile and reminded him to be careful with it.
He was. Bucky was always careful about anything to do with his Mark. With Steve’s Mark.
Something twisty and raw curled up in his gut as he opened the book of Uniques. They were different from what he’d seen before. Commons were easy. They were simple. Everyone knew that. Rares were detailed versions of the common Marks but still recognizable as something. Uniques were something else altogether.
They were something new, each and every time. There were forms in them, echoes of some of the common Marks, but they were more than that. They were elevated, the way that hearing the preacher read something out made the words seem like there were important, even though he’d heard the same words before on the street. They were something plain, made into something that mattered because Fate, or the Stars, or God, or whoever, decided so.
By the time Bucky turned the last page of the book, he knew he’d been right from the first minute he saw it.
By the time he got home, he’d gone through a dozen emotions trying to find his way to a decision.
By the time he saw Steve, he’d made his choice.
“Hey pal, bet ya can’t guess where I’ve been all day?”
“Mary Ellen’s Da’s store, trying to impress her?”
“Nah, ya punk. I was down at the library.”
“Why? You see Josephine go inside? Or did ya just get lost?”
Bucky shoved his best friend and laughed when Steve puffed up, looking for a fight. “I was at the library in Manhattan, Stevie.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Steve’s face lit up in anticipation.
“But I guess you don’t wanna know what I found since you’re looking to start trouble.”
“Oh come on, Buck! Ya gotta tell me! Ma won’t let up about it, always asking me what I’ve got, and I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t wanna go saying it’s something it ain’t and get her hopes up.”
There was still a smudge of a bruise beneath Steve’s left eye where he’d gotten himself punched by Jane’s older brother, Johnny, last week. Nothing on Steve ever healed as fast as it should. He always got sicker than he had any right to. He caught every bug in the fall and winter, and wheezed his way through spring.
Soulmates weren’t a cureall, but they both knew his Ma hoped a soulmate might keep her boy from getting so sick. A Match -- a realized one -- might give Steve the strength to dodge some of the sickness that was always nipping at his ankles.
A Soulmate might make Steve better.
Bucky as his Soulmate would get Steve killed.
“Ya can tell her it’s rare, Stevie. Found it in the book, way at the back. Took me ages. The biddys say its a sign of strength and courage.” Steve snorted around a smile. “Hey, just cause ya only pay attention to half of that, don’t make it less true. Your soulmate’s the one that’s got the strength, I bet ya anything. Bet you can’t wait to meet the girl that’ll Match with ya.” He said with a grin. If Steve flinched, they both ignored it. “She’ll be a knockout, guaranteed, gotta be at least as great as you are, pal.”
“Yeah...I guess so.”
The door to the Roger’s apartment swung open and Steve jumped up. “Ma! Buck went to Manhattan to the library and looked up my Mark for me! Ma! I’ve got a rare Mark!”
Sarah’s smile was radiant as she embraced him, and Bucky watched from the table.
“So you’ll finally tell me what this Mark of yours looks like?”
“Circles, with a star that’s got ten points on it. Buck says that it’s about courage.”
“And strength , Stevie, can’t leave that part outta it.”
“Yeah, yeah, and strength, but that part ain’t me.”
“It sounds wonderful, dear,” she answered with a soft kiss to his head.
Sarah stopped Bucky on the stairwell when he left for home. “James,” she asked, voice as soft as feathers, and hands cupping his cheek, “How did you know what my boy’s Mark looked like?”
“Showed me first thing, ma’am.”
“And when was that?”
“He told ya when his --”
“James.” She didn’t leave room to fight the question.
“Right after he turned nine, ma’am.”
“And you remembered what it looked like all this time?” Bucky froze, unsure how to keep his friend out of trouble. She went on, sympathetic and warm, “If anyone asks you, James, you tell them that he drew you a picture, and you tore it up after. And if you ever want to tell me something different, you go right ahead.”
“Ma’am, Mrs. Rogers, I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t mean to be rude, but, I…. don’t.”
“Steve gets sick rather a lot, and I’ve had to strip him down before. He was too sick to remember that afterwards.”
“Ma’am. I don’t…”
“James, I know what his Mark looks like, and I’ve been over to Manhattan myself. So I know what you woulda found over there. And I’m telling you, if you ever want to tell me something different about how you know what my son’s Mark looks like so well, you’re always welcome to, and I’ll be glad to hear it. So would he.”
The look she gave him made it all too clear.
“Ma’am.” His voice broke and she pulled him into a hug.
“You take your time, James. Shhh. Take your time. I won’t say a thing to him. I know, shhh, shhh.”
She held him while he cried, and she kept her promise. She didn’t say a word about it again.
She made the same promise to Steve when he sobbed a confession that Bucky had his Mark and didn’t love him.
Two more years saw the Star Coalition rise to prominence, and Bucky added a prayer of appreciation every Sunday. The group had risen from an organization of women in the Civil War who pushed back against the sense of ownership that came from Matched pairs. It started as something good. It split in two, half becoming the Suffragettes. The other half became the Coalition.
They marched through the streets with torches and rounded up anyone that had bonded to a same sex partner.
They hated the women more than the men, but that didn’t mean much.
Every time there was another story in the paper about a killing, Bucky had a reminder why he’d lied to Steve.
Then Steve got sick.
Steve was always getting sick. He was sixteen years old and catching everything the little kids got, and everything the grannies got. Steve was too skinny, too small. He shivered all winter, and nothing Bucky did could stop that. So, Bucky worked an extra job at night after helping his father, and slipped the money to Sarah.
He didn’t have to explain; she already knew why.
But come February, the wind whipped up something fierce, and Steve got influenza.
Bucky visited every day, fetched what Sarah asked him to, brought anything he thought might make Steve smile.
On day six, Sarah opened the door with a hollow look in her eyes, and wouldn’t let him enter.
“James. Run down to the church and you bring back Father McKennay, you hear me? You run, James, and don’t you come back without him.”
Used to doing what she said, he ran, and only caught up to the why of it when Father McKennay picked up his stole. Bucky followed in a daze, stepped into the apartment unaware of where he was, listened to the eucharist with tears in his eyes. He stared at the table in the Roger’s tiny kitchen, hand clutched tight around his scarf over his Mark, and waited, too petrified to admit that it could happen.
Too shaken to admit that he could lose Steve.
That he could lose his Soulmate.
The priest asked if he would like to say goodbye, and kept a steady hand on Bucky’s elbow as they walked.
Steve was trembling beneath every blanket in the house, ashen, eyes barely open, with a reek of disease hanging in the air beneath the bitter scent of incense. His head tipped to the side as Bucky approached, and some flicker of a smile ghosted over his cheeks.
He hadn’t lied about what the shape of their Mark meant, but it was Unique, and it only came down to them how to define it. What he told Steve was how Bucky defined his best friend. Steve had all the strength and courage in the world, and Bucky had none. He knew that. It was why he needed Stevie at his side. Small or not, Steve was the one that held all the bravery between them. Bucky spent years lying to his best friend and Soulmate, too scared of what might happen to take a risk.
Not wanting the Coalition to hurt Steve, he’d pretended.
That didn’t matter anymore, and if he was going to lose Steve Rogers, he wanted to suffer the consequences. All of them.
The moment he decided, he sat on the bed, stroking hands over Steve’s scalding face, a gentle counterpoint to his harsh confession. “I lied to ya, Stevie. It ain’t a rare Mark. It ain’t. Stevie, ya punk, you’re my-- Stevie, it ain’t rare. I just didn’t want ya getting hurt.”
The sound he made was an effort to say Bucky’s name, but there wasn’t enough air behind it. Hand resting against his Soulmate’s neck, Bucky felt how fluttery and weak his pulse was.
“You’re it for me, pal. You’re the only one. You’re my Soulmate. We got a Unique, and I don’t know what it means, I don’t know why, but Stevie, ya can’t, ya can’t go leavin’ me like this.” He knew, abstractly, that there was an audience to his plea. He was aware that they were listening, and that the Catholics were more welcoming of such things. He also knew not all priests felt that way.
He knew that the room was cold, and getting colder as he stripped off his layers.
He knew he didn’t care.
“Stevie, I can’t, ya gotta forgive me for this, pal, cause I ain’t gonna lose you without trying.”
A hand twitched beneath the blankets, and Bucky smiled, “Blink at me or something if this is what ya want, pal.”
Steve’s hesitation almost killed him. It wasn’t a lack of love, or wanting, Bucky knew that in his bones. It was fear. Bonded rares and Uniques rarely survived each other’s deaths, and Steve thought he was still going to die. Bucky couldn’t stop his grief from escaping with his tears.
Then Steve was blinking as fast as he could, and Bucky moved for both of them.
Sliding his hand under the blankets to find skin, he caught a bony wrist and pulled Steve’s hand to his chest.
The room was freezing, and Steve was dying, and Bucky was risking everything.
Warmth, and a sweet tingling spread out from the tips of Steve’s fingers on his chest, growing and expanding until it consumed him. Focused on his Soulmate’s face, Bucky lost track of the world, and savored the sensation. If this was all he would ever have of Steve, then he wanted every fraction of it. If cowardice meant this was all he could give to Steve, then he wanted to give him everything in his soul.
He’d give anything for Steve. He’d give everything.
A real smile spread across Steve’s face as his eyes closed, and his hand went slack. Glancing between the now deep navy blue of the Mark on his chest, and the beads of sweat appearing on his Soulmate’s forehead, Bucky didn’t know what was happening. He slumped forward, crawling on instinct beneath the quilts, following the promise under his fingers, where Steve was still breathing, where his heartbeat was growing stronger, where he was going to be alright.
Buck fell asleep, curled around Steve, protecting his Match.
Steve didn’t understand why he was so scared when he woke.
He hadn’t thought he’d wake at all, and had resigned himself to that. His Ma hadn’t been able to stop the fever or vomiting, and he knew Father McKennay had come. He’d made his confession, and expected to pass into the next life.
Instead he woke up, too warm, with an ache like a canyon in his chest, that had nothing to do with influenza.
Once he got his eyes open and found Bucky wrapped over him, he prodded at the fear, and saw his best friend twitch. Doing it again woke him. Like something out of a fairytale.
Knowing his expression was one of exasperation and anger, he pinned his best friend with a glare the moment he was conscious. Confoundingly, the well of fear began to dissipate. The more furiously Steve glared, the happier Bucky got, until there was nothing left but a star-bright glow behind his ribs. His best friend was an idiot, but there wasn’t anyone else in the world that Steve would want at his side.
“Damnit Stevie, don’t you ever do that to me again.”
“Ya think I got influenza just to bother you?” His voice was a croak. Bucky sat up far enough that the blankets shifted, and dark blue lines dragged Steve’s attention from sassing his friend. It wasn’t a clear memory, but the sensation was enough.
The lightness in his chest was enough.
The gentle press of lips was more than enough.
Finding a Match wasn’t a cureall.
But it saved Steve’s life that day, and kept him going through the years after.
He was still scrawny, all whipcord and bone and spoiling for a fight.
He still got sick, but it was never so bad again. Anyone who noticed that Bucky always got a bit of a cold when Steve was laid up in bed thought they’d passed a bug between them, good friends that they were.
They never told anyone about their Match or how deep their bond ran.
The priest assured Steve in the privacy of the confessional that such matters were left to God, Stars, and Fate, and men that had no business standing in the way of such a beautiful thing. His Ma sat them both down and offered her home as refuge against the rising influence of the Coalition. She’d always known they were meant for each other, and never stopped loving them for it.
His Soulmate was how he survived his mother’s death, how he kept a roof over his head, and food on the table.
Bucky was his entire world.
They couldn’t tell anyone. Not with the Coalition so prevalent. Sarah brought them Widow bands, and neither left the house without them.
Sometimes, according to the stories and fairy tales, Rare Mark pairs could feel an echo of each other through their bond. Nothing as fanciful as words or messages, nothing precise, but they knew what the other felt if it was strong enough.
No one knew much about Uniques. They didn’t happen often enough.
Steve read everything there was anyway.
What he had with Bucky went beyond what he found in books. He knew what Bucky was feeling almost always, and it only grew clearer when the emotion was strong. They’d never discussed it, but Steve was sure that Bucky had told the truth about courage and strength, and that they loaned it back and forth as needed. When Steve was sick, Bucky took some of the load. When Bucky watched his dad put on a hood and attend a parade with the Coalition, Steve braced him upright, inside and out.
What they had was special, something to be revered and written about. They were meant for something. They had a purpose.
The comfort of knowing there was something he was meant to do kept Steve from drowning in the fear that he’d grow to sick and kill them both.
They went together to enlist. They told the Army they wore widow bands because their Match died during the Depression. It meant they no one questioned them about it. And it meant they didn’t have to list their Mark’s description anywhere.
Steve tried to hide his shame at being tagged with a 4F stamp.
It didn’t matter, Bucky would have known no matter what.
They pretended it wasn’t happening.
Bucky got them dates with dames to keep attention off their living situation. Those dates usually ended with screaming matches between the pair, frustrated by circumstance and the insults the girls tossed at Steve. They bickered constantly over money, jobs, medicine, food, clean up, and Steve’s need to step into any fight he saw starting.
But every night they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Pretending didn’t stop the war.
Bucky got his orders.
Steve met Dr. Erskine.
The Doctor didn’t take no for an answer, and insisted on seeing Steve’s Mark after explaining the potential risks to a Soulmate during the procedure.
Steve admitted the truth.
He was a bonded Unique.
“I already had my preference for you, Steven, but this is a comfort to me. I…. worried, how you would fare in the procedure. Have you told your Soulmate of what you are doing here?”
Shame rose in his throat, and knowing that Bucky could feel it -- just like Steve could feel Bucky’s muted fear and stress -- didn’t help.
“No. I’ve not told them. They… wouldn’t like this.”
“But you plan to despite that.”
“You know that this procedure may kill you, and that considering you are Uniques, your Soulmate—“
“They’ve always been stronger than me. They’ll be okay, even if I’m not. They’re in Europe, and you know what they say about distance.”
“You are willing to risk them with this?”
“I think this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Bucky got used to the feeling of Steve in his chest over the years. He grew so accustomed to it that he stopped noticing the dull ache that seemed to represent all of his Soulmate’s various health problems. Even from Europe, muted by distance, it didn't go away entirely, just lost its sharper edges.
So, he damn sure noticed when the dull throb roared into an agony and put him on his knees in the mud.
Troops told him later that he spent a few minutes curled in a ball and groaning.
They had to tell him, because when it stopped, it cut off so finally, so sharply, that his only thought as he fainted was that Steve had finally gotten himself killed.
Steve stepped out of the tube, free from pain for the first time in his life, stunned, and feeling as strong as Bucky swore he would be.
The agent killed himself with a capsule of cyanide.
And somewhere in Europe, Bucky must have woken up.
Bucky’s panic was overwhelming, and for a horrible moment, Steve thought that it was an attack or a capture. The fury behind the fear clarified it, and Steve tried to send confidence in return.
The panic ebbed.
The panic came back.
The fear got worse.
Steve travelled to Europe with the USO.
The sensation in his chest that meant Bucky was a permanent, tense knot. Bucky was scared and hurting, and obviously doing everything he could to keep that from carrying across. Sometimes, maybe while he slept, it bled through louder.
He didn’t listen when Phillips said Bucky was dead.
It wasn’t true.
Captured wasn’t much better, but it wasn’t death. There was still hope.
Peggy didn’t believe him at first, so he pulled the bands out of the way to show her his Mark. They were in the air a few minutes later.
Sometimes Bucky thought what they injected him with was making his blood into acid so it would burn through from the inside. He was turning into a husk. He was turning into a shell. Sometimes they blazed light in his eyes to keep him from sleeping. Sometimes they beat him and measured the bruises they caused.
Bucky tried not to think about the pain.
If he did it would echo, and Stevie would know and have to suffer too. Steve suffered enough.
It didn’t take more than a day in Zola’s hands before Bucky was praying for death like a lover. If he died, Steve wouldn’t hurt anymore. Steve was strong. Bucky was on the other side of the world. Steve would survive. Whatever reason it was that gave them a Unique Mark, Bucky prayed it would keep Stevie safe.
No one was coming to save him, so it was better to end it fast before the suffering leaked over and made his Soulmate worry.
He prayed. He focused on love with all he had. He repeated his serial number.
He had to die soon. He wanted to. It was too much.
The scorching heat of Steve’s righteous anger was as nice a thing as he could think of to feel as he died. The punk was probably snapping at a draft dodger on the train.
Bucky gave in, willing his body to abandon it’s mortal coil.
His eyes closed while his mouth kept repeating his serial number.
Steve found him.
It had never been a question. Steve was going to find him.
But he found him broken, murmuring numbers and unaware of Steve’s arrival.
He set a hand on Bucky’s chest, shoved below the straps and shirt and band, and blindly reached with all his love.
They found each other in the middle, and Bucky smiled, baffled and injured, but smiled all the same.
After Steve survived that ridiculous jump, when they had a moment as they marched, Bucky kissed him against a tree, and a twinkling glow of light flooded their chests, with relief made manifest along their bond.
If as they were together, if they had each other, there was nothing they couldn’t withstand.
And she knew what needed to be done.
She was Britain’s number one lady-agent for a reason after all.
She sat them down, announced her complicity, and handed a photo to Steve of herself with a wink and a quip about the press, then kissed them each on the cheek and started lecturing on how to maintain a secret.
The Howlies knew.
Even if they hadn’t planned to tell anyone, it was obvious the first time Bucky got hit and Steve knew before it was radioed to the rest. It was useful.
The Howlies didn’t mind.
They never asked, but it was obvious they weren’t a common Match. Dugan got drunk in Lille and asked if their Marks were how Steve saved them all. Steve grinned, and didn’t answer.
They bickered. They argued.
Every time they had more than a minute to sit and breathe, it seemed like Steve and Bucky turned snippy and petty. They argued louder each time, but the minute they got the call, the minute they were under fire, they were flawless. They became perfect complements to the other. They were perfectly balanced in a fight, and they were unstoppable.
In a warzone, they were perfect for each other.
Bucky confessed in the dark that he thought maybe the war was why they had their Marks. That maybe it was just for them to be together, to have each other’s backs in a fight, and take Hydra down. That maybe that was why they argued. That maybe it was how it was supposed to be. They were platonic, or blood brothers, or meant to fight and win the war, but nothing else. With a hitch in his voice, he confessed that he thought Steve was meant to go off and love Peggy once they were done with Hydra.
Steve walked away to find the words.
“You know my Ma would twist your ear if she heard you say something like that, Buck. You’ve been saving my skin since I was a kid. You grew up hearing all the same fairytales that I did. All the same stories. We’ve got a Unique, can’t pretend that fate didn’t want us together. If they did it so we’d be here, and we’d burn the squids to the ground, then that’s what we’ll do. But they don’t ask for all that and offer nothing in return, Buck. You drive me crazy sometimes, and I do the same to you. We’re stuck out here in a war, and the food is shit and the weather is worse, but you and me, Bucky? I’m never gonna love anyone as much as I love you. Stars made sure of that when they gave us these. They knew that when we were snot-nosed kids. They knew that the only way I was gonna be happy in this world was if I had you wrapped around my heart to take care of me.”
“So you can stop worrying about Pegs, and you can stop worrying about the war. I don’t care if we fight every day for the rest of forever. I’ve got your Mark and you’ve got mine. And that’s because you’re my Soulmate, and you’re all I’ll ever need.”
A few days later, they boarded the train, fought like they were one soul, and Steve failed his Soulmate when Bucky fell.
He woke in agony, shaking beneath the straps over his chest. His arm was burning. His throat was raw. The doctors laughed.
They came every few hours with injections of something like liquid fire that stripped him of himself, and clawed at his mind. They gave him something that made every delicate touch or caress into a torture, then slowly hacked the remains of his arm away. When he blacked out from pain, they waited, drugged him, and forced him to watch.
He was right when he was captured before.
They wanted a vessel, that was the word they used, a vessel for their needs.
He clung to the blaze of his Soulmate in his chest as his mind fell apart. He held onto Steve, and the sensation of his fury. The outrage-like an inferno that kept his heart warm while his body fractured. That anger meant that nothing stop Stevie from saving him, and Bucky knew he had to hold until until then.
Steve came for him before.
Steve would find him.
Steve would save him.
Steve was their strength and their courage.
He was their Captain.
He was his Soulmate.
He was his everything.
Bucky couldn’t stop his screams.
And Hydra couldn’t stop his hope.
“I gotta put her in the water.” Steve announced flatly.
Peggy didn't answer.
She knew there wasn’t a point in talking him around.
His Soulmate was gone.
Ever since Bucky fell, the echoes of feelings from him had grown worse.
Before, the bond to his Soulmate had let him survive the agony of the serum. Now the Serum let him survive the loss of his Soulmate.
Steve had done what he promised; Schmidt, the tesseract, Hydra, they were defeated, broken, gone. Two months of raw hatred, fueled by the still-present agony of Bucky’s shadow in his chest, had been enough to wipe Hydra from the map.
He hoped sometimes that he was wrong, that Bucky had survived, that their Mark had preserved him. He hoped that the pain came in waves because Bucky was still out there somewhere.
Then he thought of how much it hurt, and prayed that his Soulmate was at peace.
As he turned the plane to the ice, and accepted that the end was coming, he wanted so badly, wished so fiercely, that he thought he felt Bucky one last time.
Love and grief made him a fool.
Not once had there been any answering frisson of love on the bond. It was only pain, a dull throb that never lessened, or let him go. It was loss, a memory of something that had once been, not something new.
Bucky was gone.
Steve didn’t mind that the Valkyrie’s controls were destroyed.
He welcomed it when the crash knocked him on his back.
He breathed deep when water rose around him.
He didn’t fight.
They kept Bucky drugged for months. They kept him weak, confused, trembling in shocky pain.
They kept him alive.
They made him hollow.
They wanted to use him for something, and Bucky fought the only way he could; making his love for Steve impenetrable and hiding inside it. He made that ball of fire into his core, and knew that it would keep him sane for when his Soulmate found him in this hell.
He couldn’t let Steve down.
He couldn’t fail.
Steve needed him.
He clung to his Soulmate’s fire.
Until the fire failed.
The heat of it quenched in a blink, like Steve had given up. It burned like a wildfire until it stopped with a lurch. Terrified, Bucky reached, straining from beneath the drugs, and found an empty sorrow that ate away at Steve, cancerous and unstoppable. Whatever it was, it sent tendrils of bitter cold through his veins, decimating the passion and drive that was Steve Rogers.
He didn’t have to think, there was only one choice.
Bucky poured all his energy into his Soulmate as he felt the light of his love fading beneath ice.
All of it.
He gave his Soulmate everything.
Down to the last dregs he’d preserved to keep himself sane.
The next time his captors came for him, he didn’t fight.
Chapter 3: The Shards of Stars
In the the time before the Stars first fell, mankind raged and fought, loved and lost, and knew nothing of their greater fates. They could not see the paths laid out beneath them, and wandered from them in idle fascination with distant possibilities. Without a guide, few kept to the goals the Stars wished for them. They meandered, grew fascinated with transient sparkling potentials on the horizon and turned their backs on the surety of what was meant to be.
Before the world dawned and mankind rose from among the beasts; before their curiosity and persistence gained them the favor of the Stars that watched over them; before they became the precious chosen children of divinity, they had no path to walk.
The Stars saw them, admired them, encouraged them, and helped them find words and wonder and glory. The watchers dropped gifts to Earth, borne in the form of shooting stars, and let the echoes of revelation change the shape of mankind.
First came the knowledge of Tomorrow, and it changed humanity forever.
They were delighted; striving toward an imagined future instead of merely surviving as they had for so long.
Mankind took the discovery as an edict. Forever more, they worked for the day to come, preparing and expanding and learning.
The Stars watched, and were warmed by it.
Generations passed. Those that lived when they learned of Tomorrow were long dead and forgotten when a new gift streaked above them.
Family made mankind something new again. It was broader than the knowledge of sons and daughters and fathers and mothers that they had known. It was the sensation of it rather than the bonds of blood. It was a promise in many ways, but a burden in others.
Mankind found their fresh loyalty as sharp as any weapon, and used it in their own protection. They grew fierce while guarding each other.
But the love they felt for their kin blinded them in many ways. They could not see past it to the goodness of a person standing opposite them. They lost themselves in their dedication to Family.
Humanity discovered War on their own.
They learned how to hurt each other for nothing but vengeance, and the Stars that watched could not stop them.
There was no way to undo a gift once given.
So they gave another; Compassion.
The Stars helped mankind to see that they were all one people. They hoped that it would stem the tide of war to help humanity find sympathy for their enemies.
But it wasn’t enough. Their love for their families was too deep -- too fervant -- to be dissuaded. Wars grew worse. Revenge cascaded into grander battles. Lives burned away before they knew joy.
So the Stars sent a gift arcing through the sky over them, leaving trails of another attempt. They gave humanity Guilt, knowing it would cause them pain, and thinking only that it might stem the tide of rising war.
Humanity continued to act from love and tear each other apart. They cared too fiercely to set War aside. The Stars nearly turned their backs on the children they loved so much, thinking goodness could not be salvaged from such wreckage. They feared there was nothing to be done to draw them back to the paths the Stars wished they’d walk.
Instead they found a way.
The gifts given to humankind were Stars themselves, each was a member of the pantheon, sacrificing their light to ensure their precious children would grow.
The Stars needed a way to direct their children, to keep them where they ought to be. Humanity needed something to prevent their self-immolation. It was a broader challenge than what came before. It required a grander sacrifice.
One of the Greats -- a Star from the dawn of everything -- flared bright, and fell.
Trailing dust in the sky behind it -- leaving traces of itself in the very air that humanity breathed -- the Star burned itself into nothing as it gave it’s gift, and once more, the world changed.
The Star fell, and in its wake, Soulmarks appeared.
Smaller than a person’s palm, and a greater risk than when the Stars gave mankind Guilt, Soulmarks were to be Humanity’s eternal guides. The gift gave the Stars a way to direct their children. The Stars would watch, and wait to see what a person needed in their life. They could wait to see what would bring them the greatest joy. Then they could give them a token to find that path and keep them true.
A rare few were born with a Mark, others were nearly full-grown before one appeared.
Most were Marked with nothing more than a chance at a great love.
Others were Marked with something that was not simply their own joy. It was there for the betterment of all. It was there to ensure that a person would do what was needed to protect the world. It was not always a pleasant fate they guided a person to follow -- at times it was a tragedy -- but when it was necessary, the Stars did not hesitate to use the tool at their disposal.
Where they could, they left humanity with choices, knowing how their children prized such things. Common Marks allowed them to choose from amongst a vast array of happy lives.
Where they couldn’t allow such options, they rewarded humanity with greater gifts.
When there was only one choice for a person, they watched, intent and dedicated to their fate; cheering with their successes and mourning their failures. The suffering of those Marked with a single course was repaid with ecstatic delight, but it was a paltry offering to offset the torments they would have to bear.
The path would not be smooth for all of their children, but it was necessary. It would at times run counter to a person’s surface desires. It would make them be something they despised for a time. The Stars could not force humanity to do anything -- willful and stubborn as they could often be -- but they could give them a light in the darkness, a tether to their fate, a shard of the Star that was their greatest gift, and allow it to lead them through.
He was Iron Man.
He yelled it to the world in a Senate committee hearing and laughed when they didn’t understand. Of course he wasn’t going to hand over the suit. He was Iron Man. He was the suit. Iron Man and Tony Stark were inextricable.
Obie tearing his heart from his chest didn’t stop him; the US Senate stood no chance.
He never filed the patents, so no one else could duplicate it. It was safer if he never explained what it was or how it worked. Like WD-40. Secrecy kept it safe. No one knew what was hidden beneath the bands he wore.
There was even some symbolism to it. He and the suit, the two halves of himself, both carried the same symbol in the center of their chests, a shimmering, beautiful thing. Soulmates got closer the longer they were together. They wrapped around each other tighter. Tony Stark and Iron Man were doing the same. More and more of the fears from his youth fell to nothing, and he stood up prouder each day.
Soulmates did that for each other. They improved each other. The suit made Tony Stark aspire to be something greater, something pure. So, Tony built better tech for Iron Man, and every mission he flew healed his sins a bit.
They grew together.
He was wrong as a kid about his Mark. He had to be. It wasn’t a triad. It was Iron Man.Tony stopped pretending it was anything less.
The Mark IV had subtle design changes around the reactor, bent lines and an extra circular surround. No one who hadn’t seen the Mark would recognize it. He made it oversized, and everyone knew that Marks fit within a palm. No one would recognize it or make the connection.
But Tony knew.
Pepper knew too, and she smiled, genuinely smiled, when he showed it to her. She understood the meaning, and understood what it meant for him to care that much. It was as much she could wish for him. Without his Mark, he was never going to have a bond. He was never going to find a Soulmate and have a happily ever after. That wasn’t for him. Not after Afghanistan. He had the suit, and he had purpose.
He was happy, so she was happy for him.
Of course, few soulmates outlived each other.
His little fantasy had that covered too. Palladium poisoning would kill the man and the hero in one stroke. The lines that spread out further with each rapturous flight, with each battle, were a too visible measure of it. The echo of his Soulmark, the reminder of a star he had crammed in his chest and clung to in the darkness, was killing him. Man wasn’t meant to keep that much power lodged in their flesh.
Which he told no one.
Rhodey probably had guessed it. And Pepper would understand as soon as it happened why Tony had behaved so strangely. There was a part of him that wanted them to know, to forgive him, to sit beside him as the last trace of his Mark killed him, but that would only hurt them more. Tony Stark was meant to be alone. That was fact. That was fate. His Soulmark destined him for Iron Man, nothing else.
It hurt, but he couldn’t disprove it.
He was going to die.
Ugly, brutal, and alone.
Until he did, he and Iron Man would do as much good as they could.
Nick Fury had other plans.
Tony wasn’t sure how he he liked Fury’s interference. He did, at first. He was thrilled to keep living. Tony surviving meant Iron Man surviving, and anything that threatened Iron Man got his hackles up. Iron Man did good in the world; he helped to make things right.
He couldn’t let his Soulmate down by dying.
But still, as the research continued, and the structure for the new element was discovered, as Tony got closer to saving his own life, he wanted it less and less. The reason was petty, but didn’t stop the way he felt.
“Come on J, we’re running it again. What if I… uh,” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “Dammit. What if I increase the lower level subdivisions to recapture the energy at a more diffused rate? Or went to a, what would it be… a… to a… a 5-2-3, no wait, a 5-2-6 alloy for the posts?”
“Unfortunately, sir, all current tests indicate that the ten strand form used with the palladium core is incompatible with the new element.”
Tony rubbed at his face and goatee, trying to glare the design into submission. It was still round, but it was no longer a star. He tapped his nails against the metal plating of the reactor that was killing him and stalled longer. Eventually he had to start the manufacturing of the final pieces. He’d demo’d half his shop, said goodbye to Agent, and confirmed the process. It was going to work, and he’d get to stay Iron Man a while longer. He’d get to stay alive.
He just had to abandon the last trace of his soulmark to do it.
His fingers tapped against it again.
It was an astonishingly binary choice. Either change the reactor, use the element, and abandon his pathetic excuse for a Soulmark, or... die.
Put like that, it was also astonishingly simple.
“Dumb. It’s dumb, Jarvis. It’s very dumb. I’m a futurist. I don’t get bogged down like this. This is the past. Future’ll be even better. Move on.”
“It wasn’t real. I was making it up from the start. Doesn’t count. Already dealt with this once, not gonna lose it again. Wow. Ok. I’m quoting Disney movies. Definitely done. All done. Jarvis, start in on the manufacturing for the last components.”
The sun was setting outside, and Tony watched it through some of the broken windows while Jarvis worked. He blinked away the blind spots from staring too long. They faded, and his chest still glowed blue, building him a little pool of light in the twilight. Shelling the reactor in something star shaped wasn’t the same. That would be artifice. The similarity was integral before. It was built into the necessity of the form. The first reactor didn’t function unless it echoed his Soulmark. And it would kill him. The last remnant of his Soulmark was killing him.
His nails tapped at it again. He could have Natalie drop by to stab him in the neck every couple days and pretend that was enough. He could follow Pepper’s lead, and have this one engraved. They could sit next to each other in his lab.
Proof that Tony Stark has a Heart.
Proof that Tony Stark had a Soulmate.
Apparently Iron Man wasn’t his Match. Which meant he had one. There was someone out there for him.
Tony would never confirm it, but somewhere out there, there were people who were perfect for him. It was no longer a greedy or compensating thought that his Mark was a triad. He needed it to be a triad.
If it was, the other two would be able to have a bond, and be none the wiser to his absence.
Maybe one day if he met them, he could show them the Mark II, and they’d understand.
He winced at the sentimentality, and quietly added a note to Jarvis to have the bots engrave it.
He’d have that at least.
Whatever shadow of a true Match Iron Man was for him, he’d have that. He’d have Iron Man.
His Soulmates would have each other, filled with happiness and joy and all the exultant relief Tony felt while flying. They’d have more than that, because it would be the truth, not a substitute. It was a true Unique. They’d have a bond that fit them into the tier of gods and legends.
Tony Stark would have a suit of armor, and a purpose, and a job to do. Even if he found them, one or two or a whole damn town carrying his Mark, he’d never tell them.
The next day, the sample blazed with light, he forged his own salvation, and blinked away bright spots in the aftermath. Tony beamed, thrilled at his success, and savored the metaphor’s unexpected continuation.
He didn’t want to consider it before when he knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but he had kept the shape of a star hidden beneath a sash for years. Then he built himself a star, and huddled around that potential like it could replace his Mark because of a similarity in appearance.
Now, he saw the way it stayed true.
It wasn’t perfect.
It didn’t Match.
But the new reactor core was like a shard of starlight dropped to Earth, held captive in a bit of technology. It was a call back to what had been lost.
It was still a piece of a star, a piece of the sun, a gift and an apology to replace what he would never know, and it was still there for him. It was still shared between himself and Iron Man, tying him to the hero the world adored. He would soar on the bond, and he would do everything he could to preserve his Match.
He wasn’t alone.
Iron Man was still there for him.
Maybe when he was kid, he was meant to find and love the Soulmate he had been promised, but Tony stopped needing that in the desert. He already had a Soulmate, and a Mark that he had created for himself.
Life went on. Fury called him out to a warehouse to deliver his verdict.
Iron Man, yes.
Tony Stark, no.
It wasn’t surprising.
No one trusted a guy without a Soulmark. He couldn’t confirm that Natalie knew his was missing, but Fury certainly did. Her report read with all the deliberation of an inquisitor in the Dark Ages. Tony heard the underlying thread of distrust and revulsion about the reactor in every word of the report. She might not have known his Mark was wholly gone, but she knew what was under his sash.
“To be fair, I was dying at the time.”
“Romanov knows that. She’s always been good at seeing more than people think.”
“So I don’t get a second chance? When I’m not facing mortality?”
“Her objection to you isn’t going to change, Stark.” He gave Tony a long look. Tony returned it, as much of a challenge as he could muster in the face of what expected to hear. “It’s not something you can fix. Just something we’re looking for that you’re... missing.”
Tony knew that was coming.
Still hurt to hear it. Even if Fury didn’t say the words.
No one trusted a guy without a Soulmark. Not even terrifying Russian super agents for international intelligence and research agencies.
Then he flew home to California, tossed a message to Pepper, and started designing.
The Avengers Initiative was meant to be the very best, those that the world could look up to, those that everyone could admire and revere. That was never going to be Tony. That wasn’t for him.
Fury wanted a group of heroes to protect the world. Not getting invited to the clubhouse didn’t change that he’d been doing it alone. He privatized world peace. He reshaped the globe. The Avengers Initiative and little Miss Terrifying didn’t get to dictate that to him. He’d build better armor to go with his new reactor. And once again, Iron Man would lift him up when he was at his lowest.
It was the closest thing to a Match he’d ever have. So he had to make the best of it.
He saved people.
He stopped evil.
He developed revolutionary technology and handed patents to Pepper like they were loose change. He designed a new class of armor for soldiers that could withstand his very best bombs. Then he designed better bombs, and made sure the armor could withstand those too before deleting the plans for the weapons. He developed GPS trackers and health monitors so no one would get left behind. He expanded the robotics department and the personal technology department until he owned the Market on phones and tablets thanks to transparent frames. Then he founded a prosthetics department after attending a VA charity gala.
He was Tony Stark, he was Iron Man, he was going to save the world.
He and Pepper decided to take Green Technology further, and he focused on the Tower they’d begun. If he was going to do it, he’d do it right. Not just save the world today, but save it from itself tomorrow.
Rhodey came by with manly but tearful thanks after the gifted suit and Tony’s last round of GPS devices saved an entire squad whose plane was shot down over the Black Sea. He stayed for a week, helping Tony parse through details for a few additions to the Tower.
His life was good: filled with so much activity he didn’t pay attention to might-have-beens or maybes. Tony got Pepper and Rhodey drunk one night, drunk enough that Pepper got maudlin, rambling about her Mark and how it wasn’t fair that she’d spent a year wandering around with it out in the open and still never found them.
She babbled. Rhodey looked uncomfortable, like he always did when Marks were discussed. Tipsy, Tony cued Jarvis to bring up one of the better pictures of her on the screen.
Tony went to find a new bottle, and came back to them on the couch, heads pressed close, and the change was obvious.
He was happy for them.
So happy he spent two weeks refusing to answer their calls as he did construction on the Tower.
Loki spiced things up.
Not that Tony's life needed spice.
It had been the perfect balance of reliable excellence, market domination, industry revolution, and occasional terrorist ass-whoopings. It was awesome. Tony did not need an alien showing up, causing trouble, and ruining his night. He was finally able to be around Pepper again, genuinely happy, planning the future of the world, and drinking expensive champagne. Fate had nothing to do with it, but he felt better after time with her.
Loki had to start trouble.
That was fine. Tony and Iron Man would end it.
It’s what they did.
It was a sensation Tony recognized from the lab. Usually it preceded an explosion. It was a tingle on the back of his neck, a concern without direction or reason. He knew there was something, but he couldn’t put his finger on the specific source.
It wasn’t Loki’s staff.
Tony bristled, challenged Captain America, and held his ground.
“You’re not a hero.”
He spent his childhood hearing about the Captain, comparing himself to Steve Rogers. Captain America became a hero because the greatest scientific minds in the world banded together with military funding behind them and transformed him from a whelp to a tank. They built him into what he needed to be then gave him a team and a clear enemy.
Tony dragged himself through the desert to make amends for his sins, then stood up and faced the world alone.
Captain America was made.
Tony Stark made himself.
“Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”
“Put on the suit.”
With more time, he would have noticed what it was that was making him so vitriolic.
Instead the world shook, the helicarrier was attacked, and he got to see the man that lead armies and inspired troops leap into heroic action. There wasn’t time to explore it, but something like affection started while they fought off Loki’s troops that first time.
Conceited, argumentative, and bull-stubborn didn’t cover half of what Steve Rogers was.
Somehow, that didn’t matter once the fighting started.
Iron Man’s reckless repair method for the helicarrier should have gotten him killed, but Captain America pulled it off and saved his life.
They bristled until they had a target, then fell into action in a single movement.
Stalling Loki until backup could arrive, acting while trusting the other was already in place, using their strengths to balance for their weaknesses; it was flawless. When Tony fought at Rhodey’s side he had to yell instructions and warnings, and they’d known each other for decades. They were best friends.
With Steve… Captain America and Iron Man didn’t need words.
Later, Tony chalked it up to adrenaline, necessity, and damn good luck. He called it a question of watching everything there was to see about the Captain, and Captain America being a tactical genius with a briefing packet of his own to memorize.
Later, he justified it.
During the fight, he was nothing but euphoric.
Commons survived the death of their Soulmate, but never recovered.
Rare Marks sometimes did.
Unique Soulmates always died together.
When he turned toward the missile, it was already done. He’d been on borrowed time since Afghanistan. It was decided long before that. Soulmarks matched, they always matched. He’d carried the functional layout for a palladium-powered mini arc reactor over his sternum for two decades and not known. Something happened when he was thirteen that set him on the course towards Iron Man. He never met a person with his Mark, or even a person he’d have considered asking to check.
No. He was meant for Iron Man. Fate never destined someone to be alone.
Something happened when he was thirteen that took it from chance, to Fated.
Tony had to believe that. He had to believe that the hero he created in a cave was the endpoint on the road of his life. He had to.
He barely made the turn, skimming up the face of the Tower, grateful he’d gotten the designs completed for a few dozen technological advances. Jarvis would transfer all of the information to Pepper. She’d handle it from there. She would follow through on their plans, and she’d change the world. Thank god she was never tied to him as more than a friend. Rhodey would take care of her. She would take care of Rhodey. They’d inherit the bots and the company and the money. The Avengers could take over the World Peace business.
Tony barely breathed as he flew.
“That’s a one way trip.” Steve sounded apologetic, but wasn’t trying to talk him out of it. They knew it needed to be done.
Tony’s brain helpfully filled in the rest, and didn't answer.
“Shall I call Miss Potts?”
“May as well.” While the phone rang through, Tony kept talking, “Burn the Soulmark files, J. Right now. You know the rest of the protocols. Pep’ll take care of you. Ask her to drop some cash on the rest of the Avengers. Enough to annoy them. Give it a few days before the data transfer to Honeybear. Make sure Dum-E doesn’t get into the flammables cabinet.”
He rattled off meaningless instructions as he rose, body aching, and clinging to the silly thought of a Carl Sagan quote from his childhood.
Star Stuff. That’s what he was made of, the stuff of stars. With another lodged in his chest. He’d always wanted to touch them.
Jarvis’ voice fizzled out while the nuke travelled on without him. He turned his head, mesmerized by the beauty and the awful greatness of the expanse around him. The arc flickered and the HUD screen died. Tony closed his eyes, certain of what would come.
Whatever metaphor he had grasped at to justify the reactor, to explain that the suit had been his Soulmate, to keep himself together, he hoped he was right. He hoped he wasn’t leaving someone behind.
There was no peace among the Stars. They were beautiful. They were some foreign rhapsodic symphony he couldn’t comprehend, but there was no peace. The space between them was filled with naught but power and obligation.
The scattered pinpricks of light surrounding the enemy armada could do nothing but watch. He drifted among them, vibrating with a cacophony of pleading outrage that drowned him. The Stars watched him, revealing flickering glimpses of some great plan, and leaving scars where their message carried through.
Whatever grand comfort he’d thought he’d find from them -- burning in the cosmos or adrift amongst the universe -- it was absent.
There was nothing but pressure and need and regret.
He’d die there, unwelcome and unwanted, even by the oldest watchers of humanity. He would die amongst the Stars, privy to no mysteries, alone, broken, defiled by what he had lost.
The Stars didn’t want him, not even in Death.
Then he woke up.
Soulmates died together.
The world needed Iron Man, so Tony Stark had to keep going.
Chapter 4: A Mercy to have Nothing
There was a Man once, who knew he had to leave.
The Stars had given him a glimpse of the reward that they would bestow if he dared reach for it. All that remained was for him to find the courage. But he loved his family, and he feared the world’s response to a Man without a Mark chasing after hope.
As the wound across his chest healed from bloody red to scabs, from rough flesh to fresh scars, it too was an incessant reminder -- he had to leave .
And he did.
He bid farewell to his kin, looked one last time on the village he had loved, and walked toward the point beyond the horizon where the path of the fallen star was etched in his mind with destiny.
He had never travelled more than a day’s journey from his home. Weeks and months fell away as the season shifted, as the landscape around him changed. The farther he went, the more the shift of the land and spoken tongue was jarring. Still, he walked.
The star was his . It was his gift; a recompense for his faith and for what had been taken from him.
He learned to speak to those he met, melding his native tongue with the scraps he learned, until it became something else. He learned it in pieces, telling those he met of his quest and reveling in the pride that overtook their fear when they learned what he sought.
It was universal.
They all looked on him in horror when he admitted that his Mark had been destroyed.
Horror faded into awe with the knowledge that he was more. When they knew that he was gifted so remarkably by the Stars to have something glorious in his life, they could not contain their joy. They aided him. They fed him, housed him, feasted and celebrated him. A young leader gave him weapons and a widowed shepherd gave him a warmer coat for the trek over the mountains.
It was never doubted -- never questioned -- that the star was his. No one thought they could outrace him to it. No one implied he did not deserve it.
The Stars did not offer such things lightly, and to stand in the way of such a thing was anathema to all of mankind.
Often, he reached a town that had no contact with others, and he brought them rumors and news along with his own story. Sometimes, he stepped into a town, and was met with smiles and cheers when his story had travelled faster than his feet.
His appearance was nothing extraordinary in his home, but the further he walked, the more obvious he became.
The Man knew with every step, that this was the path the Stars wanted him to follow, and he could not stop his ever-widening smile.
It took nearly a year, but he found it.
Without searching, without wondering where next to turn, he found the fallen star laying like an offering on a jut of stone in a forest.
There had been no reason he knew to turn from the path at that moment, save for the guiding hand of Fate.
It sparkled -- shimmery and bright -- a faint golden color, edged with flecks of rainbows.
There was no distinct shape to it.
It was not a match to the seven point star that had been limned in his skin.
But it was his, and when he followed the natural instinct to press it over the mottled scars on his chest, the warmth that flooded him was both a homecoming, and a promise.
The man stayed in that corner of quiet wilderness, watching as the light in his chest pulsed with his heart, and whispered prayers of gratitude to the sky through the night.
Then he turned, and he walked home.
He stopped to find each village he had seen--to again see each person he had met--and shared with them the sight of the gift . They outdid their initial joy with revelry, and begged him to oversee the bondings of new matches in their midst. A reputation grew around him, brilliant and revered, and he loved the way it comforted him.
People who were unmatched asked him to brush his fingers against their chests; seeking some remnant of the blessing the Stars had bestowed. He never declined, wanting to share the rapture he felt.
He walked, and he smiled in pride as he left a trail of reverent hope in his wake.
His story reached his home before he did, and the villagers met him with cheering and exaltation.
They were waiting for him, no longer afraid, no longer shunning his presence, bragging of his gift, and extolling the greatness that followed him.
With them stood a woman, saved from a nearby village.
Her family was lost, and she was taken in by the town in sympathy for her plight. Kind, but shy, she waited weeks before asking for his blessing.
Baring the Mark on her chest with a tentative smile, the Man was met with a Match to what he had lost.
Pretending it was customary, he asked her to set her fingers against the fallen star he bore, and touched her Mark, hoping it would succeed, kept silent by the fear that it would not.
The Star pulsed and fluttered beneath her fingers, but no change overtook the leaves and vines woven into the Mark she bore.
What had been a comfort turned to torture. He woke in the morning with bloody scratches on his chest, like he had tried to claw beneath the reactor’s casing. Jarvis woke him in the night when he got too close to removing it. The lingering kiss of stars was not a balm but a poison, worse than the palladium had ever been. Palladium had only been killing his body, in this new world, the remnants of starlight was killing his hope; killing his courage; killing his very mind.
Tony wanted it gone as badly as he wanted his Soulmark back, and neither was an option.
Knowing that did nothing to stop him.
Something echoed in his mind whenever he recalled what he saw beyond the portal. It was never clear, never understood, but he had nightmares that felt more important than he could recall. Something was coming, and it drove him into a spiral as he struggled to find what it was, and why he couldn’t stop thinking of it.
The team that had been the Avengers for a brief shining moment went their individual ways, vanishing to where the government wouldn’t bother them. Or, back into the government’s employ.
Tony poured money into the rebuilding efforts, pretending his mind wasn’t betraying him. He offered most of the Tower as temporary housing, and returned to Malibu. Pepper stayed in New York with Rhodey keeping her safe, and oversaw his company, his legacy, and his charities. She called every other day and asked Jarvis about Tony’s eating and sleeping habits before delivering the appropriate level of fond yelling.
Tony built suits.
And he built, time and again, versions of the reactor that matched his soulmark but didn’t function. He kept trying. He kept failing. The metaphor grew heavy on his shoulders, but he couldn’t reclaim that small trace of his lost soulmark.
He tried to explain it, justify it. Whoever he had been while palladium leeched into his body had been the man that deserved to be Iron Man. Or whoever he was with the first reactor had been worthy of someone else’s love. If he could force the new design to match the old, he’d get to find them. He’d stop waking up from nightmares terrified of putting on the suit. If he could get his Soulmark back, he could fix the rest.
None of it helped.
He was hollow. The Stars had scorned him in the cave, and scorned him again while he was amongst them.
The two reactors, encased in glass and etched like prophecy, sat beside his bed.
They helped him fall asleep, but they couldn’t stop the dreams.
Jarvis feigned a programming error to persuade Tony to look at data from several terrorist attacks.
Tony met the Mandarin three days later.
Two days after that, he and Rhodey arrived unannounced at Killian’s base. The man fought them with decent success until the Iron Legion arrived. That was that.
Tony stared at the screen in his lab, where a few lines of data, extrapolated from the notes that survived the Legion’s enthusiastic defeat of the villain-du-jour, gave him an opportunity he’d never thought to have.
If he was right, and he always was -- drunk off his ass he was still smarter than anyone else in any given room -- he had a way to remove the reactor and survive.
He could take deep breaths again.
He could sleep in the dark.
He could live without the constant threat of the shrapnel moving. He could fight without losing part of his focus to thinking about whether this would be the day that an opponent worked out how to pry out the star he’d crammed into his chest.
And he’d lose the last pathetic, ridiculous, inadequate, trace of his Soulmark.
Marks didn’t come back. He could remove the reactor, and all that would ever replace it would be scar tissue.
Maybe it would be better to have nothing.
Jarvis reminded him intermittently to drink a glass of water while Tony drained the best bottle of scotch in the house.
As the bottle emptied, he mourned, compressing it all down to one blurry thirty hour stretch.
When the hangover faded, he started researching surgeons.
Tony was hooked into IVs, reviewing the last of the procedural details when a coded message pinged through on his work screen.
It took Jarvis more than five minutes to break the code, every second ticking by like torment. The list of minds capable of getting past his normal firewalls to deliver the message wasn’t long. The list that could do it with something that well encrypted was shorter. The list that fit the first two parameters that meant him good-will was non-existent. He thought so. Assuming it was a threat or an attack, like always, he shut off the pre-surgery med drips with one hand, and tentatively touched his fingers to the arc reactor in his chest.
If the world was ending, elective surgery was going to drop rapidly down his priority list.
When it opened, the terse message -- text only, no evidence, no proof, and signed Natasha -- wrenched at longstanding pain. He coded what she needed on the spot, Jarvis spot checked it as he worked, encrypted it, and sent it on the same backdoor channels the super spy had put to use.
Normally he would have then turned to fixing the hole in his security.
Considering where he was, he should have turned to the surgery plan and restarted the drips that would help him survive extremis and open heart surgery.
He couldn’t get the thought out of his head.
The danger echoed in his mind and made the surgery unimportant.
They were facing something bigger than they could handle alone.
Tony planned to quite literally cut the bond between himself and Iron Man out of his chest, but he couldn’t if it stopped him going to the rest of the team. Not if they needed him. If they needed him, he would be Iron Man, every day and forever, and he’d keep going until it stopped hurting. Or he stopped caring that it hurt.
They had to need him badly; Natasha wouldn’t contact him for anything less.
The new variant of extremis sang a little beneath his skin as the second compound stopped flowing from the IV. Pain turned from a distant sensation to a familiar companion as he returned to the lab, heading for the suit he had modified. It only took a few hours to re-install the old chest plate that accommodated the reactor’s place in his chest.
There wasn’t time for ten hours of surgery and a week of recovery.
Maybe one day. Maybe not.
Something told him that this had been the only chance, and that he would never try again.
He flew off as the sun rose, and arrived in DC while Captain America was in a surgery of his own.
Tony was too late to help.
If Natasha noticed the variance in the suit’s design, if she noticed what it implied he had been doing, she didn’t mention it.
Natasha noticed everything.
Tony didn’t mean to see.
It wasn’t polite. Actually, it was past that. It was an invasion of privacy on par with stealing nudes.
Rogers didn’t know he was there as he changed into civilian clothes to escape the hospital. Tony’s arrival made enough of a sound that the Captain turned, shirtless, and Tony saw it.
A circle, with bent lines extending beyond it, and a shape in the center like the first arc reactor. Shaded deep blue. Fully realized, recognized, and Tony was enough of an historian to make an educated guess. Peggy married after Steve went in the ice. There was only one other person it could be. He could have screamed. Years and years of hoping finally paid off and it was too late to do anything about it.
His eyes flicked away after the half a moment of whirling, painful thought, and he made an awkward sound.
Scrambling to pull on a sash, Rogers covered up, muttering about how his Ma would’ve chewed his ear off for it, and how sorry he was since Tony was so proper about his Mark. It hit Tony then, eyes stuck looking at a pen on the table, that the team never knew about the Arc Reactor. Natasha did, thanks to her stint as Natalie, but the team was as ignorant as the rest of the world.
Rogers didn’t know that Tony had an electromagnet in his sternum. He made the more reasonable assumption, that Tony was private about his Mark, which research would have supported. Tony had always been adamant about wearing a band. That predilection to privacy was what was listed in his file, not that something was missing beneath it.
Suddenly Tony couldn’t breathe, standing in the hospital room.
“I really am sorry about that, I didn’t think you’d be that quick honestly, or I’d have been sure to change faster. Really, Tony, my Ma would never let me forget this. I know it’s not appropriate, even if some folks today think it is. I didn’t mean to -- I wasn’t trying to be a hussy, Tony.”
“It’s fine. Totally fine. Entirely fine, Capsicle.” He beamed his best media smile, and started talking, “Just caught me off guard. Nothing to worry about. Also, hussy? No. Remind me to introduce you to Urban Dictionary. Actually, on second thought, that’s a terrible idea. We’re never doing that. I’ll have Jarvis compile something for you. And…. yeah. Brought you a sandwich, three actually, and a venti breve latte. Should help with the super-soldier sized caloric needs.”
“Four shots of Espresso and seventeen ounces of steamed half and half. Plus an ounce of foam. That’s all volume ounces not weight ounces by the way. And it’s three different sandwiches. Two on bagels, because hello, obviously, and one on a croissant in case you’re a godless heathen and can’t see that bagels are superior.”
Steve Rogers was smart enough to see that something was off, but not to see what it was.
After all, how could he guess that Tony had finally found a Match to his Mark, already bright with color, drawn on Steve’s chest, too late for it to matter.
“Tony,” Pepper sighed, “if you’ve done something to endanger this acquisition, I’m going to need you to keep it under wraps for another eight hours. Then the paperwork will be signed and they won’t be able to get out of it.”
“I found them.” He announced, clearer than he expected his voice to be. “I found…” His hand gestured vaguely to his chest, where Tony thought he could feel a hum, like an echo of the magnet, or a song ringing from a distant star.
“Them?” Pepper could wrap a lot into a single word. She said one syllable and told him that she understood what this was, that she was there to support him, that he didn’t have to tell her who.
“I saw my Mark. On someone. Someone else. It was so gorgeous.”
“Why aren’t you…”
“Pep, it was blue.”
“So it’s three after all?”
“I think so.”
“You always said you were sure about that.”
“Are you going to tell them?”
Steve was a stubborn bastard. He was brilliant in a battle. They’d decided to let slide the insults they’d thrown in their first meeting. They respected each other. The worked together more smoothly than should have been possible. The day spent getting Steve out of the hospital had been wonderful and not once during it had Tony gotten lost in thoughts of stars and war.
They could be something great, but Tony didn’t want to see the disgust on his Soulmate’s face when he admitted what he lacked.
Tony smiled at Pepper’s mussed hair in the video feed.
“No, I’m not.”
“I have to go find him.”
“You’ve only been in the tower a week, you tore down Shield less than a month ago, you’re allowed to exhale, Cap. Take a break, spend my money, luxuriate in something. We aren’t in the Depression, you know. We did the Recession thing and everyone wanted to call it the Depression but we chickened out and went with Recession instead. Not the point. You should take some time, take a few deep breaths.”
“Tony, I appreciate you coming to DC, and getting us set up in your home, but this is something I have to do.”
Tony rolled back from the workbench, seeing how Steve determinedly kept his hands anywhere but his chest as he spoke. It was too stiff to be unintentional. So Tony, who was already certain he was right, and polite enough to pretend he didn’t know, asked, “Soulmate?”
That was enough to crack Steve’s walls.
“Barnes.” It wasn’t a question.
“I… Yes. It’s not -- When we were growing up the Star Coalition was everywhere, especially in New York. Even Buck’s Da. They thought they were saving souls, but mostly they were just killing good people.”
“I’m familiar with them. Thanks to my dad.”
“No, he never joined, but they always wanted him. In the fifties they started getting called StarCo, they figured Howard Stark would be the coup de grace. But you two aren’t, uh, I thought StarCo only had a problem with queer pairs if they were common Marks.”
“Officially, yeah.” Steve snorted, “Unofficially, you’d still wake up bloody in a back alley if anyone found out. Buck took care of me, not like he could guess that Rebirth would do this to me, so we figured I was less likely to get myself killed if no one knew about us. We never said.”
“How is that even possible, you’re the most famous medical case in American history.”
“Uh, Dr. Erskine knew.” Steve admitted, then gave Tony a brief breakdown.
Steve went into the tube for the serum with a band in place. Even Hydra hadn’t cut Bucky’s off while they held him in Italy. Chiseling the band off the deicing war hero hadn’t been a priority. There was a note in one of the Winter Soldier files about the band being worn constantly to avoid outbursts when the asset saw the Mark.
No one knew.
There was a screaming in his head, and a pounding thump like every beat of his heart was trying to batter through the walls of a cage. He’d spent the last month learning not to let that show. How to build a facade that even Natasha couldn’t read him through. He learned how to keep it hidden when it felt like something tore asunder every time he closed his eyes and remembered what was on Steve’s chest.
“I shoulda told everyone. From the minute I saw his Mark that day when we were kids. We were nine, Tony. Nine. And I never wanted anyone but him. He saved my life the day we Matched. That’s not... I’m not exaggerating that. They gave me last rites. I was dying and Bucky loved me enough to pull me back from it. I shoulda never let him convince me not to tell the world.
“The Howlies knew, and Peggy knows -- or knew -- but they never said a word to anyone about it. They thought they were doing what he and I wanted. It wasn’t.
“Shoulda held a parade when we Matched. Bucky’s not perfect, but he was perfect for me. He was everything that I needed and he saved me so many times. I never -- we let folk think that me and Pegs, but that never, I never even noticed anyone else. It’s why he had the reputation he did, and I couldn’t hold a date’s attention for five minutes. I could never pretend that they were one tenth as interesting as he was.
“I thought I lost him, and I scorched the earth in vengeance, and then I -- you’re the genius Tony, you know I shouldn’t have survived that crash. I didn’t expect to, and I woke up and I didn’t understand what I had done that Fate wouldn’t let me die. I thought it was the Chitauri. Or I thought it was some new fight. The Avengers. I thought Fate kept me alive for something, but it wasn’t. Tony, Shield didn’t understand how I lived, but I know now. It was Buck. He felt me dying again and he -- he told me from the start that he couldn’t lose me. I don’t know how, but he kept me alive in the ice.
“Hydra tortured him and broke him and turned him into a weapon, and he still loved me enough to keep me alive even underneath that. He’s my Soulmate, but… I don’t think that word means enough for what he is to me. He’s my whole damn world. I gotta go find him, Tony. I gotta go help him. If I can just get my hands on him, if I can touch his Mark, if he touches mine, I know he’s going to wake up, he’s gonna get better. What we have is… it’s more . If I can find him, I can save him, I know I can. I have to.”
The shattering didn’t show on Tony’s face as he listened to Steve talk so fiercely about his Soulmate.
It was sweet. Naive and reckless and exactly what Tony would have done pre-Afghanistan. Fuck. Pre-Afghanistan, Tony would have already stripped off his bands, declared his love, and insisted on going along. He swallowed down the pain, kept twiddling the stylus, and let Steve babble, all inspirational and glorious.
That was when Steve was most beautiful.
Before he lost his Mark, Tony would have pulled out all the stops for the opportunity to help his Soulmate. As much as it would hurt, he couldn’t do otherwise now. When Steve ran out of steam, trailing into awkward silence with his chin raised, Tony clapped his hands together.
“Well, if you’re going globetrotting solo, I have just the thing.”
“I’m not! I mean… Sam’s coming with me.”
Tony unlocked a biometric panel, and pulled a slim case off a shelf, waving off the comment. “Don’t worry, this’ll cover both of you. And you still need it.” Ever dramatic, he undid the latches, opened it and spun it to face the Captain. “One Run For It case: Half a dozen burner phones. Black level credit cards, put anything on it, don’t worry. Unless you buy a country I’ve got it covered. Even then, if you buy some place modest, you might still be covered. Pile of the smallest trackers I have. And a crack key that should get you into any system you plug into. Oh, and few other bits and bobs you might find useful. And condoms. Because you never know. They’re great if you need to waterproof an engine. Or you know, their original purpose. Whichever comes up first.”
Blush creeping up his cheeks, Steve mumbled, “I thought you didn’t know I was leaving.”
“I didn’t, Cap. We work with super spies and superheroes. Someone needing to drop off the radar on three minutes notice wasn’t beyond the range of potential life events for any of us. And I like to plan for things.”
He locked the case, pushing it to Steve’s side of the table. “Go find him, Cap. You’ve had enough dumped on you since we you pulled out of the ice. You deserve to have him back.”
“Tony,” Steve’s confidence wilted, “Bucky isn’t… he didn’t even remember who I was.”
“Hey, you just said it. If you can find him, if you can touch him? You’re home free. So. Find him first. Get your hands on him. Politely. Or the way I’m sure you want to. Wake him up from this mess like Sleeping Beauty. Get him back here. Then we’ll solve the rest.”
“Hey.” Tony skipped past proper, and set his hand on Steve’s chest, fingers spread wide, surrounding Steve’s Mark. It worked to throw Steve off his track of self doubt. It ripped a hole in Tony’s heart. “That’s your proof it’s gonna be fine, Steve. Go get your happy ending.”
Tony started drinking when the quinjet engines engaged the next day.
He redesigned the suit while he did, reshaping the surround on the suit’s chest to be a triangle. Simple, clean, and nothing to do with what he’d lost.
He gave the order to start the manufacturing process, and passed out on the table.
“Tony, I found him.”
His grin faltered, knowing that in another life that could have meant something else. It didn’t. It wasn’t. It never would be. Dwelling on it wouldn’t help.
“Told you. Don’t you doubt me Steven I’m a genius, remember?”
“What -- what do I --”
There was scruff on the Captain’s chin, and tired lines etched in his face that revealed more about the stress of the search than the reports and surveillance that Tony had read through in the last months.
“You have a jet en route. The jet will arrive. Get on the jet. Bring him here. Give Jarvis a list of what you need. It’ll be waiting for you.”
“Yeah, I… okay. Thank you, Tony.”
James Buchanan Barnes was shy when he stepped off the quinjet at the Tower.
Beneath that, it was obvious he was a trained and deadly weapon, but he ducked his head, and clutched at Steve’s arm like a lifeline. He made himself small, let himself be protected.
Even without the Mark making it a certainty, Tony wanted to help the guy.
Three months of torture at the hands of bargain-bin-evil had been traumatizing. Decades of it under Hydra was unthinkable.
“Welcome back Cap. Frosty, welcome to the Tower. Jarvis has everything you asked for in your rooms already. A couple small exceptions, but those are arriving -- What, tonight, J?”
“Indeed, sir, delivery is estimated at 7:45.”
Tony didn’t think about the effect a disembodied voice would have.
Sweet, timid James Barnes was gone instantly, and the Winter Soldier replaced him. Two guns appeared from what had to be an alternate dimension, and the Soldier had Steve tucked behind him and the weapons aimed at Tony’s chest faster than Tony could curse. Locked in place with his hands raised, Tony had a great view as Steve stepped against Barnes’ back, brushing lips against his neck, sliding his hand under the hoodie and talking quietly while contact drew Barnes out of it again.
The guns drooped, then lowered entirely. His face transformed from ice to uncertainty.
“M’sorry. Wasn’t…. Stevie warned me about it, but I wasn’t thinking.”
“No harm, no foul, don’t worry about it.”
“Are you sure that you--”
“I don’t mind you staying here.”
“--can protect yourself?”
Tony and Steve looked at each other for a moment, and at the nod of agreement, Tony gestured. Parts of the suit flew into place from their stations on this floor, slotting together to form one arm of the suit.
“I have a suit of armor with the most advanced weapons on the planet. I think I’m fine.” Tony winked as the repulsor on his palm whirred.
Barnes gaped, blinked, and then smirked. “Impressive, but I coulda shot you a couple dozen times before it got here.”
“Bucky.” Steve reprimanded fondly.
“What? I’m a world class assassin and terrorist, what’s the point of risking having me around people if I’m not gonna help you figure out your weak spots?”
The smile that bloomed between them, sass and snark and love would have thawed the blackest heart. Tony waved them toward the elevator with Steve’s assurance that he knew where he was going, and Barnes’ assurance he wouldn’t try to shoot the ceiling.
There was nothing to do but watch them go.
God, they were gorgeous together. Perfect together. Light and Dark. Courage and Strength. They balanced each other, brightened each other. Still broken, still healing, still lost in their brave new world, they could turn to the other, and trust they would be at their side.
Fate got it right when it made them a Match.
There would never be a place for Tony in between them.
All he had was Iron Man.
The nightmares got worse while Steve was out looking for Bucky. Some corner of his subconscious worrying about the hand of Fate, probably.
When he met Bucky, they changed.
It was still chaos and suffering and confusion, but there was a thread of hope when he woke.
As he recovered, Barnes tended to panic when he couldn’t see either the Soulmark on his chest or the one on Steve’s.
Panic, in his case, meant that in the throes of an episode, he tore holes in the wall, put Natasha on the ground, and demolished a sixteen thousand dollar custom entertainment system.
Tony read all the files--he saw the notation about not letting the Soldier see his Mark after a wipe. Tony expected there to be anxieties about it; he expected to accommodate them. He didn’t, however, expect the man to forgo shirts for the better part of a month.
It was summer, and it made a certain amount of sense lounging by the pool while Steve grinned at him like a sap.
It made more sense in the lab, where the lack of shirt gave Tony better access to the arm, and the mangled juncture between prosthetic and flesh. That meant they spent hours working, Tony’s face a few inches away from the Mark, tense and uncomfortable. It didn’t take long for him to understand the shape entirely.
No wonder it wasn’t in any of the books. It was the shield and the reactor and the facets of the arm, all laid over one another. It wasn’t clear enough that a layperson would see it. There was an abstract quality about it, like an unfinished sketch, but now that he had seen it, it could never be forgotten.
It was a special brand of tragic.
The Mark had destined them to three terrible fates when they were kids.
They were nine when they got their Marks. Nine years old, and the universe had decided that there was no way to stop one from picking up a shield, and the other from falling off a train. Nine years old and fated to that. Considering Tony’s piece of it, they were fated to live into the future. Three things none of them should have survived, laid one over the other, nested together to turn into a symbol of love.
Fate hadn’t offered any choice except for pain laid on their combined shoulders. They didn’t need to take on any more.
Since it caused newest addition so much heartache to be unable to see his Mark, no one in the tower was going to complain about propriety.
So Barnes, who slowly became Bucky as they washed away the traumas, didn’t wear a shirt for most of two months.
Tony withdrew as much as he could, and stared at the old reactor in its glass case each night.
Proof that Tony Stark has a Soulmate.
When Bucky remembered how to wear shirts, three months after arriving, Tony boxed up his token, and shipped it to a storage unit.
During a fight, it was hard to not see what they were supposed to have.
The three of them were a force of nature.
He had that at least. He had the times on the field, when they moved as one. He had those times when a star burned in his chest, and he could pretend. He had the times when the ache settled and the world felt right, and they moved like they shared one mind.
It made up for the times when they couldn’t be in a room together without arguing.
Mostly, they had too much fun together.
“You haven’t ever told him? Steve, come on, you can’t shield him from it forever. He’s an adult. He’s gonna find out.”
“Find out what?”
“No, Bucky, trust me, it’s better not to know. Tony, don’t do that to him. If you tell him I’m going to escort the Winter Soldier to your lab and let him smash things like he’s the Hulk. You tell him and you’ll set him off. He’s delicate.”
“I’m gonna tell him!”
“Tony, yes! Jarvis lock down my lab and record this!”
“Tell me what?”
“The Dodgers moved to LA!”
“ They did what!? ”
Bucky threw a hissy fit, listed a few dozen curses in multiple languages, declared Steve a horrible friend for keeping it from him, and curled up with his head in Tony’s lap until Jarvis pulled up highlight reels for them to cheer.
Before the couple went to bed, Bucky stopped to thank Tony.
“For telling you about the Dodgers?”
“For everything, Tony. You don’t have to after what I’ve done.”
“Pretty hypocritical if I held that against you.”
“It… Just. Thank you, Tony. Don’t know how Steve and I’d do this without you.”
They were still finding themselves in a new century. Neither was the man they’d been during the war. They meant enough to each other that they kept trying, but it was a messy thing. Steve would fixate on keeping Bucky safe, wishing they could go back to their flat in Brooklyn before the war. Bucky tried to push away any reminder of the past that hurt so much.
They fought more than most Soulmate pairs.
A lot more.
Knock down, drag out brawls that broke quite a bit of furniture, and prompted them to shout things they didn’t mean.
Sometimes one of them went to Natasha to talk and eat junk food curled up with fuzzy blankets on her couch.
Sometimes one of them went to Tony’s lab, and asked for a few hours of calm.
He never said no to them. It was pathetic, and he knew it was never going to become anything, but he kept taking care of them.
Calm he could give them. Silent wasn’t an option. He talked at them about projects, and got them out of their heads, or got their heads out of their asses -- whichever was needed.
It got bad after four months, and Steve showed up with cuts healing around his Mark where his own nails had scratched too deep. Tony took care of him. The cuts didn’t need antibiotics. They didn’t even need to be cleaned because the super soldier serum was a wonder, but Tony used it as an excuse.
“Have you not noticed yet, Steve?”
“That my soulmate is a jerk? Yeah, I caught on to that.”
“Thought you were supposed to be an artist.”
“I -- what?”
Tony leaned back, and pointed, “It’s a Unique, right? Uniques tend to be associated with something about the bearer. We know that. Do you know what yours is?”
“Buck never found anything close to it in any of the books, he made something up about Courage and Strength back when he told me it was a Rare, but it’s not there. He was just saying it to make me feel better. I checked again when I woke up. It’s Unique; it doesn’t have a meaning except that it’s for us.”
Tony blinked for a moment, astounded and reluctant. “You never noticed. I thought you just didn’t like what it was, not that you hadn’t-- Cap. Oh, Steve. My poor, precious, sweet Captain America, don’t worry, I’ll help you out. Come. Over here. Come on. Walk. Move. Come learn.”
He typed for a moment, bringing up a schematic of the shield. The line art glowed blue above the table. Then he brought up the schematics of Bucky’s arm, right around the star, flipped it sideways, and laid one on top of the other. Then Jarvis applied a filter to match the rough, sketched quality of the Mark. Doing it in front of Steve meant it couldn’t be brushed aside, and just like Tony realized months earlier, once it was seen, there was no going back.
It wasn’t perfect.
Tony didn’t bring up the last piece that would have made it a dead-on match. There was a missing circle, and the ten points of their stars weren’t lined with the ten bands of his first reactor, but it was enough for Steve to understand.
“You always had the Mark for the Winter Soldier, Steve. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You can’t undo what he went through. You’ve got it lined on your chest that the man upstairs, with all that trauma, the man who gets triggered and throws tables across rooms? The man who has watched every Disney feature film with you while trying every ice cream this city has to offer? The man who mastered the highest difficulty setting in the training sim on his first go? The man who killed hundreds or thousands for Hydra? That man upstairs? He’s the one you’re supposed to love. The one you knew before was prelude. The man that was strong enough to overcome everything they put him through, the one that was strong enough to keep you alive in the ice while they tortured him, that’s who your Soulmate is... He got the easier end of this. You’ve been carrying that shield for years. He got to see you grow into the man that felt right carrying it.
“Just because he’s had this one him since you were kids doesn’t change that it’s Bucky today, with that arm, and that history, that Fate expects you to take care of, that Fate knows you need . It’s why I never offered to take that arm off of him. Or give him a new one. It’s important. I’ll fix it up, I’ll do maintenance and try to improve it, but he’s supposed to have it. And Steven Grant Rogers, If you keep acting like you don’t want him as he is now, just who he used to be? Then he’s gonna run. And I gotta tell you, Capsicle, you do that to him and I won’t help you chase him down again. I’ll make sure you never find him.”
Steve touched the projected shape lightly, mouth slack and eyes hidden from Tony’s.
“Have you ever shown this to Bucky?”
“What do ya want, Steve?”
“You need to see this. Tony needs to show you this.”
Tony stayed behind the table, watching the super soldiers keep an unhealthy distance as Bucky traded places with Steve.
Tony didn’t talk, just brought up the same images, laid them together, and forced Bucky to see what path Fate insisted he walk. He saw when Bucky realized the implication of it all, how young they’d been, and the simple fact that he’d carried the Winter Soldier longer than he thought.
He saw when he understood that Fate had declared that there was no separating Bucky from the Soldier. He saw when Bucky realized that the Winter Soldier had a Soulmate, which meant that the Winter Soldier, for all the blood on his hands, deserved to be loved.
When Bucky started crying, Tony reached out, but Steve got there first, pulling his Soulmate close, and whispering apologies for not understanding sooner.
Tony fled from the lab, from the building, and then from the State.
He got a lot of work done for Stark Industries in the week he spent in Malibu. It wasn’t hiding . It was work .
“I haven’t gotten a safety alert on you in two months, Bucky,” Tony announced, flopping onto the ledge of the landing pad beside the man in question.
“Knew it’d get you to leave your lab. You haven’t left lockdown since you got back.”
“Aw, you miss me, Bucky? What would Steve say if he heard?”
“He’d say he missed you too,” Bucky deadpanned. “Then he’d trip over his mouth trying to apologize to you. Which is why I’m out here and he ain’t.”
“What? No. Why would he apologize to me? What did he break? Do I have to fund another hospital? Oh God, he still has the credit cards. What’d he buy? Did he buy Moldova? Please say he didn’t buy Moldova. I don’t want to own Moldova. I was gone for one week. One. Week. Barnes. What’d your dumbass Soulmate do?”
Bucky chuckled, and Tony counted it as a win.
“He was raised with better manners than me. Sarah Rogers was always the best at keeping us in line. Figures we dragged you into our mess by showing up in your lab and rattling on about each other. Think he’s still fussing over showing you his Mark in the hospital. And he’s fussing because of how I was when he first dragged me here. And he knows you’re prim and proper about your Mark.”
“So Steve wants to apologize for making you uncomfortable.”
“I’m not uncomfortable. Why would I be uncomfortable?”
That earned him a look.
“If you say so, Tony. But we both know you’re lying.”
Tony glanced up at the handful of stars bright enough to outshine New York’s glow at three am, and winced. Bucky was fine, and sitting on the edge of the ninety-third floor was a ploy to get him to visit. That meant Tony could retreat to the next item on the eternal checklist of Avengers’ upgrades.
He was at the door when Bucky kept talking.
“I hear you wear widow bands.”
And Tony could have told him off for asking, stormed away, and known that every member of the team would support that choice. Instead, his voice cracked as he confirmed it.
“Yeah. Couple years now.”
Hands settled on his shoulders while his eyes were closed, and Tony didn't push him away.
“I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have asked. Just didn't understand how you could see it when we couldn’t. It’s damn obvious now. Stupid. I’m sorry.”
Tony waited on the roof, with Bucky’s hands grounding him, until he’d banished the tears. Then he walked back to the shop.
Bucky got grabbed by a group of Hydra operatives during a mission nine days later.
When they couldn’t get him to revert to the docility of the Winter Soldier thanks to months of intensive therapy and the pulsing love of his bond, they changed their plan and set up to livestream his execution. On Periscope, because they were modern agents of evil and recognized the benefits of utilizing social media.
They cut him out of his tac suit while the world watched and he hung, limp with pain, between their grip. Angry and stupid, they set a knife over Bucky’s Soulmark while they monologued.
Then the world watched on live feed as the Winter Soldier took down six men.
He left one alive long enough to learn his location, then sat down on the corpse to wait.
Bucky recovered, but the damage was done.
The secret was out.
“Pepper, I’m not talking about this, now, or ever.”
“Tony, why haven’t you told them?”
“It’s Steve, isn’t it? That’s how you knew before. That’s how you found out and you haven’t told them. It’s Steve and Bucky, they’re your teammates. They’re your best friends. I think you like them more than Rhodey, not that we’re ever going to tell him that. Tony, they’d want to know!”
“Yeah, they would. I know they would. But it wouldn’t do any good.”
“Just because your Mark is --”
“What, Pep?” He interrupted, raging, “Gone? Destroyed? Ripped out of my chest and replaced with a damn battery? Just because I don’t have a Soulmark anymore? Because I’ll never have that? Because I traded my Soulmark for my life? Because I traded my Soulmates for Iron Man?” He deflated, “I already made my choice, Pep. We’re all friends. I definitely don’t like them more than you and my Honeybear, by the way, how dare you imply that? And. They have each other. I have the suit. There’s no version of this where telling them makes things better.”
“You deserve more than that.”
“If that was true, Pep, I wouldn’t have been in Afghanistan.”
“You want to know why I don’t wear widow bands? Yeah I was born in the forties, yeah I have a Soulmate. You wanna know why it matters that much to me? Cause my Soulmate has saved my life more times than I can count. He’s been saving me since I was a scrap with nothing in Brooklyn, and he’s the only damn reason I haven’t eaten a bullet. My Soulmate, the love of my goddamn life, is goddamn Steven Grant Rogers and I ain’t ever gonna lie about that just to make you fuckers feel more comfortable!”
“Captain America! Why do you think the public should trust you if your Soulmate is someone as depraved as the Winter Soldier?”
Steve punched the reporter.
Tony dealt with the aftermath.
They had enough to deal with.
Eventually they talked to a different reporter. One who was not from FoxNews.
The photos of the pair of them broke the internet for a solid week.
The solid color wasn’t usual, and there was something indecent about photos of them with their Marks so prominent, but it worked. The photographer was brilliant and shot in high contrast. The article was excellent and pointed out what the pair had survived thanks to their Marks. It pointed out what it meant that they were a Unique pair.
So the color was unusual, but the press plan worked, mostly because of the quote that Steve gave.
“I know most unique Marks are at least a couple colors, but I never minded. When we Confirmed, blue was one of the only colors I could even see properly. He saved my life when we Confirmed even though we were living in the wrong part of New York, and could have been killed for admitting it. He did it anyway. That shade of blue… I always thought of it as something pure. I never needed more. I don’t need any extra trappings to know how much he means to me. How special he is. He’s everything. He’s the only one for me.”
Tony did a bit of research after it published. Triads were rare to begin with, rarer still were studied cases. One of the few things that was known was that triads that didn’t Confirm all at once often started as a single color.
Steve’s answer kept anyone from asking about that possibility.
They were too busy writing poetry about the wonder of the Unique pair.
A lot of it.
Most of it terrible.
All of it about how they wished they had what Steve and Bucky shared.
Tony took to working himself beyond his limit so when he fell asleep he wouldn’t dream.
Months of the same itch on the edge of his dreams was turning into a picture. It was the constant ache of knowing they were supposed to be beside him, and knowing they never would be.
His only hope at easing the pain was destroyed in the desert, but every night, his mind wished, and Tony had another nightmare.
They were cut off from the rest of the team when the console exploded.
Stupidly, recklessly, cockily, Tony was out of the suit. It was easier to type without the gauntlets, and the system had been ancient enough that he couldn’t drop Jarvis into it like he normally would. The gauntlets could retreat but it was clunky. He wanted to move faster. They needed to pull the data from the system, and fight back through to the others. They needed the data. It was why they’d fought into the bunker in the first place.
Super serum must have given them a bit of prescience. Both soldiers shouted and lunged. Neither got there fast enough.
Tony wore kevlar under the suit, but it wasn’t like Afghanistan.
It wasn’t a distant, abstract pain.
Tony crashed into the wall behind, gashes torn open in his chest, and each one shrieking in his head. They were the only thing in the world. The only thing he could think about. It was memory and echo and a new dimension of agony at once. The flash of emergency lights caught on the bits of debris floating in the air and winked at him like they wanted to give him a familiar vision to go with his horror. The Stars were watching him, uncaring as he died. Just like before.
He didn’t realize the boys were over top of him until their efforts jostled the shrapnel that had been a computer monitor.
“Tony, Tony, ya need to keep looking at us. That’s good, sweetheart.” Bucky’s voice was tight beneath the accent, “That’s good -- Stevie, Knife. Take my knife, just get that off him. We gotta get pressure on it, without making it worse. We gotta check the shrapnel.”
There were hands on his chest. He shoved at them, not wanting them to make the pain grow.
“I’m sorry, I know, I’m sorry. Ain’t right, but we ain’t got -- Hey, you look at me Tony, and talk to us about something, you hear me? Stay with us. Tell me all about how you’re gonna fix the tensile strength on Nat’s garrotte, yeah? Can’t have that breaking again.”
They were touching his stomach, touching his chest. They needed to stop. They weren’t supposed to touch his chest. They weren’t supposed to. And each time they did, it blared an alarm in his mind.
“Fucking hell, Buck, keep him-- dammit, I gotta -- Tony, please let us, I’m sorry, don’t have another choice. I’m sorry.”
“I got him, Stevie. He can be mad at us after he lives. You hear that, sweetheart? We can spar and I’ll even let ya win. Steve, I’ll keep his hands out of the way. Do it.”
Something caught his wrists, locking in place and pinching hard enough to dimly register against the cacophony. It didn’t matter. When he closed his eyes, he was washed in a glow of nearby stars, warm and kind, and so much more welcome than the world. The voices grew more frantic, but Tony liked the gentle starlight more.
He had been out of the hospital for three weeks, off bed rest and finally allowed to start, tentatively, training again for two days, when they finally asked.
Of course it was Bucky.
The man had so much trauma tied up around his own Mark, it had to have gnawed at him every day. Maybe his handlers used to threaten something similar. Maybe they tried once or twice. Maybe it was the first and last nightmare he could remember having -- losing his Mark, and losing Steve forever. He already proved how he reacted to that threat.
Whatever the reason, it was Bucky that finally asked.
They were in the lab, doing some much needed maintenance on the arm. Steve was entertaining the bots with a box of random objects from the tower, letting them coo and click at each in turn. Tony was typing on a holographic screen hanging over Bucky’s shoulder, trying to figure out why the readings were within parameters but the ring finger kept twitching. He’d lost track of everything but the task, buried in solving the problem, and hoping the answer wasn’t that Hydra didn’t employ the sharpest minds, and the real solution was that Bucky needed a new arm. Tony was confident he could do it, but he’d have to learn a new field first, and it would mean weeks or months of limited function, and cutting off the true source of his Soulmark.
Then Bucky’s metal fingers brushed across the center of Tony’s chest, the click of metal on metal muted by the bands Tony wore.
Tony sucked in a gasp, inadvertently pushing into those fingers.
Wounded, furious, and protective, Bucky’s eyes were damp and gloriously beautiful. He was hurting, but he wasn’t slipping into the Soldier.
Tony froze, still stretched up to reach the screen, unable to break eye contact, and absolutely unwilling to speak.
“It’s fine, Buck.” He whispered.
“No, it ain’t.”
“Nothing you can do. Put your arm back down so I can find what’s broken.”
“It ain’t right.”
“It’s what it is.”
Maybe Steve was pretending not to hear them, but while they spoke, they weren’t interrupted.
“Jarvis won’t tell me what happened.”
“Doesn’t matter now.”
“Why do you wear widow bands?”
“I choose to.”
“D’you ever actually find them?”
“Uh. Yeah, I did.”
“Did you and them…?”
“No. It… it was… Found them after. Nothing for it. It’s okay. It, uh. It’s a triad I guess. They uh, have someone else, so they're doing okay.”
“You never told them did you?”
“What is your Mark Tony?”
“Was. It’s gone.”
“ Is . What is it?”
Locked into Bucky’s too-fierce gaze, Tony couldn’t retreat. He couldn’t lie. He’d have to dodge, because no good would come out of telling this perfect pair that they weren’t, that they needed him too. No good would come of telling them that he needed them . Tony made his choice long ago. Iron Man was his Soulmate in every way that mattered.
Bucky’s eyes glittered with unshed tears as the silence made it clear Tony wouldn’t answer.
They were both brought back to reality by the sound of a blender, and Steve’s laughter.
It took another two hours, but Tony found the problem with Bucky’s arm. Then he fixed it.
The nightmares were bad that night.
They were curled up on the couch, Bucky’s feet tucked beneath Steve’s thighs, curled into each other, and smiling with boyish mischief. They got like that whenever Thor brought them liquor. Even though they got a tiny bit handsy, and forgot about common decency with PDAs, Tony never missed it when they got to drink.
Watching them with their hair down was as close as he could ever be to seeing them before the war. They were younger, smiling and happy and deeply in love.
They were idiots, drunk on each other’s dumb jokes as much as they were drunk on alcohol.
Tony sat nearby, and prodded at them when they got maudlin.
Jarvis lowered the lights at Tony’s gesture, and the pair of them were movie-perfect.
There was a fight against a pair of teens that nearly undid everything.
The girl could reach into a person’s mind, climbing in through their Mark and following it to their darkest secrets. She triggered Bucky’s programming, and gave him new orders. The Avengers scrambled to keep apace of her and her brother, falling victim to visions and confusion. Tony -- soulless, loveless, Markless -- kept his head on straight, and knocked her unconscious. Thor wandered off, bewildered. Bruce begged for Tony’s help in shielding the world. Tony’s nightmares made it tempting. He wanted to help. He wanted to keep the world safe, and with Bruce, they could manage it.
But the Winter Soldier was burning a swathe through Europe with several armies hunting his blood.
Tony needed Steve with him to get through the programming. They worked together, chasing the trail of bodies he left.
They caught up in Sokovia, in a public square, in a bloodbath. Bucky broke Loki’s infamous record. He killed eighty three people in two days. More. There wasn’t a count on the dead around them now.
Bucky ran. They followed, and cornered him in an alley. Steve kept the military from killing him on sight, putting his body between the guns and his Soulmate. Steve was an icon, the whole world listened when he spoke. Tony couldn’t take that role. So, he walked closer to the blood spattered assassin, with dead eyes and enough weapons to carve a path to freedom. Protected by the armor, Tony talked non-stop, until a bit of red haze filtered out of Bucky’s eyes.
A bullet ricocheted down the alley, and Steve’s outraged voice grew louder.
Bucky started shivering, face twisting as more of the orders fell away, and he remembered himself.
No one would have trusted Steve would be a safe guardian for his Soulmate, so it was Tony that took him into custody.
They didn’t need to know that custody meant Tony held onto him while he cried on the jet, while they waited for Steve to finish giving statements to the press and politicians involved.
Two months later, the Sokovian Summit for Enhanced Individual Accountability convened.
Three months after that, acting on information Wanda gave them as part of a plea deal, the Avengers started striking every Hydra base, offshoot and safe house on the continent. After they were done with Europe, they would expand to the rest of the world.
As they burned things to ash, they heard rumors about a man named Zemo, but never saw any trace.
Tony, Steve and Bucky were one team, Clint, Natasha, Sam and Thor, were the other. Unless they were all deploying together, the Hulk stayed at the tower.
It worked. Bucky stopped blaming himself so much. The furor in the press abated. He stayed out of sight as much as possible.
Some days, they could forget it happened.
Some days he was frozen inside, and sat on the edge of the ninety-third floor, kept in place by the knowledge that he couldn’t reach the ground faster than a suit would save him. Tony reminded him of that whenever Bucky headed for the roof.
They still worked well together. The three of them more than any pair. No one commented on it. It was rolled into battle plans like there wasn’t another option. Of course the three of them were a unit. If the mission was going to be a success, they had to be a unit. Missions ran smoothly, to the point they were usually done ahead of schedule.
Then they would sit and chat and tease and laugh, high off the adrenaline rush of a battle.
It was bright, and it was cheerful, and it was as close as Tony would ever be to having them, so he let himself love the way it made his chest warm when they were together.
It was a comfort, because they didn’t touch the subjects that were still raw like fresh wounds.
Of course, eventually, that line was crossed.
“It was a star,” Tony answered, long minutes after the question was raised, tentatively, by Steve, while the three of them sat on the roof of a Hydra bunker and waited for Clint to show up with the jet for exfiltration. Steve said it with a tremor in his voice, and Bucky watched too intently.
He could have told them the truth. He could have given them what they were asking for, what he knew they were really asking. They worked together constantly. They patched the holes the others forgot to cover. They loaned their support when needed. They kept each other smiling. They completed each other.
In the past months, Tony had seen them start to wonder, seen them start to consider it.
The odds were beyond consideration, but the pair was too stubborn to let that stop what they wanted. They’d started to doubt, to question what Tony told them. They’d allowed themselves to think it might be possible.
Tony could have confessed when they asked what his Mark had been.
“Just a star. On the common end of rare. Nothing special.”
He promised himself years earlier he never would. Iron Man was his Soulmate. That was more than he deserved.
There was a moment of hesitation in both soldiers when he spoke, the way a candle resisted blowing out. The way hope resisted blowing out.
The first draft of the Sokovian Accords was announced a week later.
The Stars couldn’t do as much as they wished to aid the children they watched.
Their impacts came in broad strokes across the whole of humanity, save for the paths they drew with the Marks they placed on flesh.
There, they could work on the smaller details. At first, only for a single soul at a time, but they could change things. They could help.
As they learned better how to direct their children, they found what impact a single soul could have upon the world. They only had to draw one Mark to cast ripples into the lives around them.
One Mark could turn the tide of a war, or bring about a new age, or start a revolution.
One Mark could save the world.
Sometimes, once a Mark was placed, the soul in question fought against their fate, despising the obvious course they had to walk, and dragging themself instead into danger and despair. But still, the child the Stars had chosen had a purpose they must to complete. The Stars offered what boons they could to ease the way, but it was not always enough.
For those the Stars plucked from amidst the masses and drew a heavy future into their skin, failure was not an option.
The choices of life were precious to humanity, and it pained the Stars to deprive them of that joy, but when necessary, they didn’t balk.
The most stubborn children were the most likely to be chosen because they were the most likely to prevail.
When they fell from their course, when they risked the failure of the mission the Stars required of them, they suffered, but they did not die.
They could not.
The Stars could not allow it.
When a Mark bespoke greatness and a change echoing across the whole of the world, the Stars could not let them die.
The first were saved from simple problems. A young man slipped on a cliff’s edge, and caught himself on a branch rather than tumble to the rocks below. He raised a daughter that saved a village.
A woman fell ill, and her Match expected she would fade, but the wind shifted in the night, and she recovered. They pushed the boundaries of the known map.
A Match that would bear the child who would reunite a people were separated in a storm as their ship was dashed against the rocks, and they swam to shore following the pulsing love that guided them.
Epics and Eddas were written about such Matches. Songs were sung about the glorious love that must exist between a pair to keep them alive through so much. Humanity saw the beauty in the Matches and persuaded themselves that it was love that preserved a life in danger. It was better that they believed that. Better that they think the survival was of their own making, not a necessity imposed by the Stars above them.
Stories exaggerated as they spread, but at their core remained a whisper of truth; sometimes, the Mark they carried was too important.
The Stars could not do much when someone was simply in danger or lost except loan them confidence. They could do more when their life was at risk. When they thought they’d fallen, and were sure to die -- when they drifted, leaving behind their body and their fate -- when they were caught between the world they knew and the place where the Stars would welcome them after -- when they were dying…. there the Stars could intercede.
Not if the moment went too quickly, but when a man lingered on the brink of death, the Stars could speak to them. As their soul began to waver and dissipate into the cosmos, they could speak, they could touch, they could guide and show them what must be. No one ignored the memories they awoke with when they survived. No one forgot what what they saw.
Rarely, there was a path Marked on a soul that carried the destiny of the entire world.
Those could not be allowed to die before their task was done.
No matter how the Stars wept as they forced their children once again into their struggle, they could not change what was needed.
Captain America would have died in the ice. Should have. Or the plane. Or any of a thousand times in the field. Or in the Vita Ray tube. Or as a kid when he was sick. Or as as kid when he got into fights.
The Winter Soldier should have died being forged from the husk of James Barnes. When they scraped him hollow, or when they made him a weapon. When they burned away his humanity, he should have died. The man who fell from a train should have died when his fall ended.
They shouldn’t have survived.
Neither of them.
Science and Doctors called it a miracle of the serum. Steve and Bucky remembered the day they Bonded, and believed otherwise. It was a comfort, when they were their most broken, to think that they shared a love so great that it protected them, preserved them.
They knew that it was their love that saved their lives.
The Avengers loved movie night.
“Now that just ain’t right. Why would he hold the knife like that? That’s just bad form.”
“For the last time, space is a vacuum! Sound travels only as far as the air and shock wave!”
“What kind of tactic is that? That’s your plan? They settled their entire plan on a chance? Why are they following this guy? Get a better leader!”
Movie night in the Tower had very little to do with the movies they watched.
“Your ‘Super Computer’ has less processing power than a pager in the early 2000s!”
“Blood doesn’t behave like that. I don’t care if it’s alien blood, it’s got to look recognizable, and blood doesn’t spatter like that from a leg wound. It’s more directional.”
Movie night was a chance for them all to ignore the rest of the world.
“You talk like that to your CO you’re gonna get your ass beat.”
“Was that supposed to be impressive? That wasn’t an impressive shot. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
The whole team piled into one room, flopped over each other in a lump, ate too much take out, drank too much beer, and shouted at the screen.
“Sure. Yeah. Go ahead and break your own internal logic system. Why not?”
“Is that supposed to be sexy? She can’t fight in that. She needs armor. Wear armor! Armor is sexy!”
“Now see this guy is sexy.”
“Damn. Tony, can you make me that armor?”
“Only if I can bedazzle it, Spangles.”
Two nights a week, the Avengers pretended they weren’t superheroes.
No one ever missed it.
The Winter Soldier didn’t know he had a Soulmark. The body had one, but Hydra managed to burn away any sensation from it. They made it a null entity. They surrounded him with ice. So long as the Soldier never saw the dark blue lines on his skin, the programming held, and he obeyed.
When he saw it, the programming started to unravel.
Never all at once, but enough to kill a few handlers.
When Steve found him in a shack in the Czech Republic, the degradation of the programming had turned the Soldier nearly rabid. He jumped from violent to timid to raving to shaking.
When Steve got close enough to touch the Soldier’s skin, the world melted away to that singular point of contact.
It saved him.
When they touched each other’s Marks, after being separated for decades, but bound as tightly as any pair ever had been, sunlight started to clean the ice and dust from around Bucky’s heart.
When the world cleared, and he felt his Soulmate again -- properly felt him, not an echo of a memory -- Bucky remembered what it was to breathe. Then he felt the doubt and pain in Steve’s heart, and his relief drowned in guilt.
The Avengers found out about Tony’s Mark because they found out about the Reactor.
Bucky didn’t mean to let that secret go, but it never occurred to him that Natasha had never told the others. It never even crossed his mind that she hadn’t found that secret while spying on the man. He mentioned it like she already knew, and it was enough for Natasha to fill in the holes of a theory.
His memories of his time under Hydra were spotty, but he knew why he was so afraid of someone hurting his Soulmark: it was the final test for Black Widows. They did it to themselves in front of their Masters. With the Soldier watching.
They made him watch every time, even when he was wounded, even when the chair fried him too long and he didn’t understand what he saw. They made him watch so many that the threat was etched into his bones as an absolute truth.
After he got away, he thought that final test had something to do with him, with his reaction to his Mark. They made him watch as a preemptive punishment, but they enforced it on the Widows to make sure none of them had the same kind of weakness he did. It was easier for the girls that hadn’t Bonded.
Natasha had told him the story after Bucky was taken, talking about how the fear was eternal, and how she had wore Widow Bands to avoid any questions. Bucky didn’t think, just asked if she had spoken to Tony about what it was like. He asked if she’d been able to make Tony feel any better.
So Natasha learned that it wasn’t just damage to Tony’s Mark.
The others learned not long after when one too many bizarre comments caught their attention. They were too smart to miss it forever, and after the Witch, they’d begun to wonder.
They didn’t turn on Tony, no matter how much it unsettled them. Tony caught on fast that they’d realized, and even though none of them said a word, or would ever say anything to the press and public, he pulled away. He didn’t let anyone hug him, avoided anyone that tried to touch him. He was so sure that they’d hate him eventually that he was trying to protect himself.
He still came to movie nights, but he sat away from the rest, and slipped away as soon as no one was looking.
Steve and Bucky showed up in Tony’s lab, lured him with snacks, offered to let him choose the movies, offered to watch the entirety of every series of Star Trek, offered to watch with just the three of them, and tried to bribe Jarvis to lock down the lab during movies.
None of it worked.
The team griped when Tony was reclusive.
Steve and Bucky pouted.
Since the first time he saw the Mark on Bucky’s chest when they were kids, Steve had known that the center of his universe was Bucky Barnes’ heart. They’d been to hell and back. They’d crossed decades and faced down death more times than he could count. From the time they bonded, one thing had never wavered; nothing could destroy what they had.
“Sam just lectured me for an hour on the nature of Soulmarks and my ‘antiquated ideas about love’.”
“Only an hour, Stevie? Natasha and Clint got me for three the day before last.”
Steve slid onto the couch, one hand tracing the pattern beneath Bucky’s shirt, the other tracing the star on his arm.
“They think we’re leading Tony on, and won’t do anything about it because of our Mark.”
“They accused me of not doing anything because he lost his.”
“That’s not why we haven’t.”
“I know, Stevie.”
Steve smooshed his face into Bucky’s neck, letting himself feel small for a moment.
“He doesn’t want us.”
Bucky took a deep breath beneath him, long and slow enough to remind Steve of sniper training.
“I know, Stevie.”
Tony got back to normal after a month or fretting and hiding.
Better than normal. The Team were careful not to blunder into an insensitive comment, and Tony seemed to have accepted that they didn’t think he was disgusting, or soulless, or unclean or whatever the Bible-thumpers claimed being Markless meant.
Tony laughed louder than the rest, genuinely giddy as he explained a piece of tech, beamed his brightest smile at them, and blew Steve away with how alive he was. Not because he thought Tony should be shivering and crying in a corner, but because he couldn’t imagine a life without his Soulmate.
They kept their heartbreak to themselves. It was awkward enough to ask someone about their Mark, normally. Considering their weird situation, Steve had wanted to melt into a puddle of embarrassment after they’d pushed Tony to tell them about his Mark. So Steve and Bucky took care of each other as always, pined after Tony, and tried to understand when he would noticeably keep them at arm’s length.
It would have sounded over dramatic if he’d said it aloud, but Bucky thought part of him died with every innocent person he killed when the Witch had unleashed the Winter Soldier. Most of his victims under Hydra were clouded by the drugs and the pain and the ice in his chest so he couldn’t remember them without prompting, but the feeling echoed. These people -- a hundred and seven was the final count -- were seared into his mind, and no matter what Steve and Tony and the Avengers and the WSC said, it was still him that did the killing. It was still his hands that held the guns, that set the bombs, that snuffed out those lives.
With each one that he killed, something tried to surrender inside him. He took a life, and every fiber of his being wanted to follow them into the dark and be done. Finally done.
He wasn’t allowed that relief. Love saved him.
His Soulmark saved him. And his Soulmate.
Knowing that the Mark he carried was Unique would have helped. Knowing that his Soulmate needed him would have helped. But knowing that in spite of the blood soaking his history, it was the Winter Soldier that was drawn in the Mark that was what let him survive.
Captain America needed the Winter Soldier.
Bucky needed Steve.
That hadn’t changed since they were sneaking into Dodger Stadium and snitching hotdogs when the vendor wasn’t looking.
The Witch dragged the Soldier to the fore, and even though six months earlier, Steve would have recoiled from the sight, he didn’t. Steve chased him down while the Winter Soldier was still shaking from the last murder he’d committed, and trusted him enough, loved him enough, to vouch for him.
His Soulmate had saved him, just like always.
It was drawn in navy across his sternum that he deserved to be loved, and he traced it daily in the mirror. Over the pattern of his star, and the facets of his arm. Over the pattern of Steve’s star, and the circles of his shield. Over the extra lines that matched neither. He deserved to be loved. The Winter Soldier had a purpose.
Pulling on his shirt at the end of his morning ritual, he picked up the tablet and his coffee, and continued reading the newest draft of the Sokovian Accords.
Steve knew that he should be enough for his Soulmate.
Most days, he was.
Then he’d come back from the gym or from chatting with Natasha, and would find Bucky dead to the world, watching newsreels of his rampage in Europe with talking heads rambling on about the Summit.
Bucky read every word of the Accords, and if he’d had any objections, he never mentioned them to Steve. For his part, Steve read the thing and flagged what felt like every other sentence as a problem that needed to be amended. There were too many ways for the Accords to be used to put his Soulmate in prison.
It was too easy for the Accords to be twisted into something terrifying rather than the good intent that everyone swore was the origination of them.
Steve was pretty sure that Bucky knew that.
And it broke Steve’s heart that some days, he wasn’t enough to break through the stillness surrounding Bucky, and bring him out of his guilt.
Bucky knew that his Soulmate should be enough for him.
Some days, he wasn’t.
Some days when he was wrapped warm under a blanket beside his Soulmate, cozy inside and out with love bundled around his heart, Bucky still felt empty.
Steve was like oxygen. Losing him was a certain death.
They hadn’t made up stories for the PR team that helped them after Bucky’s capture. They hadn’t ever needed anyone else. They hadn’t ever wanted anyone else. Their Bond was the sort of thing that showed up in tales and poems and romance novels, not real life.
They didn’t need anything else.
Wanting was harder to ignore.
Tony laughed as he got on the elevator to go to some gala, stylish and stunning, with his secret hidden beneath thick bands. Bucky and Steve, lounging and watching How It’s Made, watched him go.
“Is he happy, do you think?”
“Tony tells more jokes than anyone I know.”
“And you know that doesn’t mean a thing since Barton and I take second place on that, Steve.”
Steve fidgeted, mumbling his reply, “He’s never… had a Bond… so maybe it’s easier…. Isn’t that what Natasha said?”
“Widows choose to do it though. They’re brainwashed by crazy nazi boot camp for girls, but they’re making the choice. Tony’s was taken. It’s not the same.”
“But he seems happy. He seems like he found a way to make peace with it.”
Buck sat up, pulling away from Steve to level him with his most judgemental glare.
“Don’t be an idiot Stevie.”
“You just asked me if --”
“Because we both know he ain’t!”
“So what do we do about it then Buck? I can’t order him to be happy, and it’s not like I can run out to the store and bring him back a new damn Soulmark!”
“You’re supposed to be the tactician Captain! All of my super soldier skills only help if I’m trying to kill the guy!”
“Tony doesn’t need tactical planning, Buck, he needs his Soulmates. There’s not a damned thing we can do about that.” From Steve, all Bucky could feel was heartbreak. In return, all Bucky had was stubborn frustration.
Since Tony wasn’t in the building, Bucky retreated to Nat to complain about his Soulmate. Third time that week they’d gotten under each other’s skin.
Soulmates were supposed to be enough.
When the world was awful, a Soulmate would be there, and would make things better. Everyone deserved to have that, but Bucky thought that Tony deserved it more. It didn’t change what was, but the man worked harder than anyone, poured his life into helping others after seeing what he had wrought.
If the Winter Soldier deserved love, than he didn’t understand why Fate thought Tony didn’t.
Not that they discussed it, but both of them decided that if his Soulmates weren’t there, then Steve and Bucky would fill the hole.
Listening to advertisers and movie writers and myth and legend, Soulmates never fought. Bonded Matches didn’t even argue.
They were perfect complements to each other.
Why would then need to argue when they had love?
Either Fate messed up with Steve and Bucky, or history had done a lot of editing on the stories they told.
The first thing that Bucky had said to Steve when he came in from the cold was that he’d try to make himself useful. Decades as a flawless killing machine limited how he could do that.
Wet work. It limited him to wet work.
The general that was pushing the eradication of a people in Myanmar needed to be eliminated in a way that made it clear that the Rohingya weren’t involved with his death. The de facto leader needed to be scared into compliance with the UN’s investigation requests.
The head of a Russian Bank had been funding counter-intelligence operations online that undermined fledgling democracies. He needed to experience a change of heart.
One of the high ranked members of ISIL was given a trio of teens as a reward for his latest attack. The girls needed to be rescued. The captors needed to be eliminated.
The Winter Soldier knew how to do those things.
Whenever the WSC needed something done, he was the one they turned to. Quietly of course, since during the day they were negotiating the Accords that spelled out his eventual arrest, trial, and execution, but they always contacted him if they needed a job done.
Bucky took every job they brought him.
Each time, he flared with guilt at what he was agreeing to do, and each time, that sensation on their bond was how Steve learned of it.
The team found out when he cancelled his standing appointments and sessions with them.
Tony found out with the gear request.
The team left him alone to avoid bothering him.
Steve kissed him sweetly before he departed, tracing the star on his arm, as a mute promise that he loved every bit of who Bucky was, even if they’d been screaming about Bucky’s choice to go ten minutes earlier.
Tony didn’t make an appearance, or come up to say good luck, but Bucky’s tablet would ping with a new download as he boarded the transport. Each time it was Tony giving him proof that what he was about to do was on the side of the angels.
Political tensions were high, and the Accords cast a long shadow across the world.
The Avengers deployed for emergencies, but there was a pall in the air.
Everyone was waiting.
The longer it took, the worse the tension got, and the more Steve and Bucky fought.
Steve tossed the ball and let Dum-E chase it around the room as it ricocheted.
“Planning to mope until he comes back, Cap?”
“I’m not moping.”
“Sulking? Fretting? Languishing? Staring mournfully at the screen with the emergency beacon? Yeah, you are. You always do.”
Steve scowled, “Fine. Yes. They send him out to -- he won’t talk about what they send him to do, but you can see it on him when he comes back. They’re sending him out as the Winter Soldier, as a tool, just like Hydra did, they’re using him. And when the Accords pass, they’re going to kill him for it.”
The last of that wasn’t supposed to be said out loud, but something about Tony made it easy to admit his fears. Something about Tony made it easier to handle having Bucky gone. If he trusted them a little more, they would have pulled him into a triad, Marks be damned.
His response to Steve’s outburst was a reminder of that.
“Woah, hey. No. Not gonna happen.” Tools still running, Tony jerked up from what he was doing. His hair was splayed up above the strap of a pair of goggles, there was grease smeared across his face, and one arm of his shirt was soaked from Dum-E helpfully trying to bring over a mug of coffee and motor oil. He looked like a mad inventor, but his tone was firm. “That -- no. That is not going to happen. We are not letting that happen.”
“You’ve read the Accords, you attended the last session. Section fourteen, subsection three, paragraph four.”
“On the necessity of terminating uncontainable threats arising from existing Accords signatories. I know. Yes, but Steve, that isn’t going to happen.”
Tony shut off the tools and pushed back the goggles.
“We’re sitting around and letting them write the laws that are going to get him executed, and they’re making sure they get all the work out of him in advance that they can.” Steve plowed over Tony’s objection, “One day the Accords will be done, and you and him made me promise I’d sign the thing, so I’m going to have to put my name the paper that says they get to kill my goddamn Soulmate!”
He knew he got maudlin without Bucky around. When Bucky was on one of his missions, the tension bled over, and Steve’s temper ran short. Wishing they could have Tony wasn’t enough to keep him grounded. Jaw working, he lifted his eyes to find Tony, tense and frozen.
“Steve, we are never going to--”
“The Accords aren’t all that different from Insight. It looks like safety, it looks like freedom, but it isn’t. The Witch is the reason anyone died, but Bucky is going to be labelled uncontainable, and they’re gonna kill him. I’m not like you, I won’t just learn to not care if I have to live without--”
He cut off when he heard the aborted gasp. Tony’s eyes were closed, one hand clutching the glove he was working on, the other was white knuckled over the device in his chest. Unmoving, barely breathing, jaw so tight it looked painful, he stared at the ground. Somewhere behind Steve was the line he’d blundered across.
It was worse since the three of them had gotten closer. Much worse since the explosion and the shrapnel and the discovery. Tony didn't talk about it. Wouldn’t acknowledge it. Claimed he was fine while his press smile and a blase tone made it increasingly obvious he wasn’t. Steve and Bucky knew they couldn’t have him, they knew he wasn’t theirs, but they’d made a silent vow to fill that void. They wanted to be there for him, and protect him. They never wanted to make him uncomfortable because of what he lost.
Steve had just crossed the line in the worst way possible.
He stood up, lunging to hug the man, to apologize, but was stopped by the hand with the glove raising in a clear order.
“Tony. You know that wasn’t--”
Flicking through the data Tony had compiled as the jet zipped over the ocean, Bucky’s flight back to New York turned from post-mission exhausted to concerning when he felt his idiot Soulmate suddenly turn into a knot of guilt and pain. Idiot, because no one felt as guilty about anything as Steve Rogers did about his own mistakes. All he could do was focus on how much he loved his idiot, and let that echo through their bond. It wasn’t accompanied by pain, so it wasn’t guilt from the field.
Which left interpersonal fuck ups as the most likely contender.
That bore out when Bucky stepped into the apartment, and found himself half tackled into the wall.
“What’d ya do, Stevie?”
“Yeah? Hey, welcome back Buckling. Jarvis, why didn’t you tell me he was back? Or walking into my shop? I could have been doing something dangerous. There could have been gamma rays. Dum-E might have gotten the whipped cream can again.”
“My apologies, sir. As you had responded affirmatively to all three of my notifications, I believed you were aware of his arrival.”
Tony frowned, but threw a look to Bucky that screamed proud parent.
“What can I do for you?”
“M’arms doing the thing to my finger again. ‘Cept it’s the pinky this time.”
“On the stool then.” Tony pointed with the welding torch and started stripping off his protective gear.
“You just got back?”
“Few hours ago.” Bucky replied, tugging his shirt up and over his head. Tony startled, his eyes caught on the navy-traced Mark, and he swayed as if he’d been struck. That confirmed it at least.
Steve fucked up, and Tony was hurting.
“After you get my pinky to stop twitching, we’re getting dinner. And a drink or two dozen.”
“Why’s that? Mission go bad?”
“Mission went perfect, and I’m insulted you thought it mighta gone otherwise. We’re gonna drink until you’ll listen, and until Steve can get through an apology without stopping to try and take notes..”
“You don’t have to do that, Buck.”
“Gonna do it anyway.”
“You could let the pair of us take care of you sometimes, you know?” Bucky drawled, faintly buzzed by the half bottle of vodka he’d downed.
“Think the pair of you have enough problems of your own to take care of.” Tony slurred in response, laughing like it was an inside joke.
“But you don’t-- you won’t let your Soulmates help you, Tony.” Steve added, pink-cheeked from his own nearly empty bottle of cognac. “You won’t tell them you need them, so they don’t know, so you should let us .”
“I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. Besides, I have a Soulmate, and he is awesome .”
Bucky’s dopey smile faltered, “Thought you said you didn’t. Thought you said it was a triad.”
“Supposed to. But that was a mistake, Buckaroo. Fate messed up. Wasn’t supposed to have them.”
“Of course you’re supposed to have someone, Tony.” Steve sounded too earnest and eager, “Why won’t you let us--”
“No. Don’t. I don’t need you to help.”
“So, who’s this Soulmate then?” Bucky tried to placate.
Tony grinned. He probably meant it to look reassuring, confident, suave. It was bitter instead.
“It’s true. No. Think about it. Think about what Soulmates are. Think about me and Iron Man. We share a Mark. He protects me. I protect him. We save each other. We’ll die together. Iron Man made me a better man, and I make Iron Man better all the time. He’s my Soulmate. The one I should have.”
Tony’s voice dropped from arrogance to honest certainty. “Fate took mine away, so I made my own. They stole mine, so I’ll never have my Soulmates. So I built my own. And no one can take this away from me. Iron Man and I can face whatever’s coming together.”
Bucky’s gut lurched, and a moment later, he felt the same from Steve. The pride on Tony’s face was unbearable. He was so confident he needed no one. He was so proud of what he’d survived.
The times Bucky thought he was losing his Match were the worst he’d known. Hollow and groundless, he couldn’t imagine finding peace with it. But there was Tony, not only at peace, but proud.
Permission or not, Fate or not, he was going to take care of Tony, and he knew his Soulmate agreed.
Steve had a history of putting his foot in his mouth, as one of a long list of flaws that didn't seem to be cured by the serum. More often than not, when he tried to be there for Tony, he insulted him, hurt him, or offended him.
That resulted in him sneaking up on Tony to hand off careful, pre-written apologies.
Which was how Steve found out how bad Tony’s nightmares were. He didn’t want to know what Tony sounded like, begging through tears, too deeply asleep to wake himself with the noise he made. He didn’t want to know that after waking, Tony clung to anyone nearby until he realized he was conscious when he would make jokes with tears still wet on his face.
Steve pushed the issue; he tried to talk his friend into getting a therapist or medication, or at least letting Steve or Bucky stay in the room so they could wake him before it got bad. Bucky talked obliquely about how helpful his therapy sessions were. It didn’t help. It drove Tony away.
Since it was Tony and he wouldn’t admit he was hurting, he claimed that as a CEO he was the best choice to present their amendments, and that it was time to have the Avengers more directly involved with the Accords negotiations. That way he could pretend he wasn’t fleeing the men trying to help him.
Negotiations weren’t going well.
The mood in the tower deteriorated the longer Tony spent in Sokovia, and took precipitous drops with each new draft that was released..
Steve’s temper was hair-triggered.
Bucky kept reading the updates that were sent, and he knew what was coming, same as everyone else. Unlike the others, he wasn’t fighting it.
“Hey Tony, what can I do for ya?” Bucky answered as his friend showed up on the screen.
“Hey Buck, Cap around?”
“Sure thing. Steve! Get in here!” Bucky spun to yell then turned back and toasted with his mug. “How’s Europe treating you? This draft going any better than the last?”
Tony had spent the last two straight weeks with the Accords Committee, arguing the changes that the Avengers had compiled for presentation.
“Testimony going well?”
“Tony?” Bucky asked, prodding at the standoffish responses.
“Where’s Captain America?” The clipped answer sent a chill up Bucky’s spine.
“You looking to talk to me or to the Captain?” Steve said by way of greeting as he dropped onto the couch.
Uncomfortable, Tony admitted, “Need the leader of the Avengers for a minute.” The terse nod from Steve acknowledged it.
Tony fiddled with something outside of the frame. “Take me off the active register for a while.”
“Tony, what happened?”
“M’not gonna be based in the Tower for the rest of the month. Maybe more.”
“Because I think I need to stay here at the Summit for a while.”
“Because there’s a lot of work to do.”
“Because international political negotiations are hard, Steve.”
“Why?” Steve’s voice grew sharper with each repetition.
Bucky interrupted it when he deciphered the panicked grief.
“They rejected the changed amendment, didn’t they.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” Tony sighed, “By a super majority.”
Steve started yelling. Tony yelled back.
Bucky set the cup of coffee on the table and waited for them to lull down to a pause before he made his request. He had spent months planning for this moment, ever since the first draft had been released. He knew where he stood on the issue, and he knew what he wanted.
“Come home, Tony.”
“Buck, it’s fine, I can fix this. I’ll talk to the Swedish again, or the Saudis, the Saudis owe me from 2009, I never called them on that favor. They owe me. The Saudis can get most of the Arab States on board. And I can have SI open a new center in whatever country can bring us the other votes we need. I’ll fix this.”
“Buck, you should let him--”
“No. Can’t be fixed, shouldn’t be fixed. They’re right, and we’re wrong. We all know what this means, and I’m asking ya… Just come home, Tony.”
Bucky waited until Steve had passed out from anger and fear before slipping from their apartment and climbing to the roof.
He waved to the sensor that triggered safety alerts, then sat on the ledge, looking at the traffic like ants in the grass while he waited for his inevitable visitor to join him on the roof. It was half an hour before he heard the repulsors whine.
“I was over the Atlantic when I got that alert, Buck, are you trying to give me a heart attack in my old age? But, hey, I set a new sustained flight record getting here, so thanks for the motivation.”
“I like it up here.”
“I need a favor.”
“Is that favor changing the Accords to eliminate the provision that allows them to prosecute you for your actions as the Winter Soldier? Because that would be easier to fix if I was still in Sokovia, you know, at the Summit, where I could talk to people, and make that happen, instead of flying back here like you asked me to. Why did you ask me to come h-- To come back to the Tower?”
“I gotta talk to you, that’s why.”
“We were literally on the phone, Bucky.”
“It’s the kinda conversation you gotta have in person.”
“Are you okay?”
“Why do you ask?
“Your Brooklyn gets louder when you’re upset.”
Bucky ignored that, and jumped feet first into what needed to be said. “Stevie… What he and I -- he ain’t gonna like that I’m telling you this -- and you ain’t gonna like hearing it -- our Marks, our Bond, it’s like something out of a story. It’s not like I’m getting letters back and forth from him in my head, but I know what he’s feeling. He knows what I’m feeling. I think... the both of us think the only reason either of us lived to be here is cause we were too mule stubborn to stop protecting each other. Cause we love each other too much to let the other one die. I know how you feel about Science, Tony, but, it’s been like this since the start, m’not making it up. You need to know that first.”
Tony settled with a huff on the ledge beside him. “Well what the fuck am I supposed to do with that knowledge? I’m assuming you aren’t bullshitting me because you know I’d throw you off the roof and disable the suits if you insulted science like that. So. You want me to, what? Prove that fairy tales are real using the pair of you? Is this a PR favor? Because really, you should go to Pepper for those. Or Nat. People only think I’m great at PR because I listened to Pepper. But this might work. We’re gonna need Oprah, all the morning shows too. And then the nightly guys. But maybe. If you two are magical special snowflakes we might be able to swing the Accords committee about you.”
“Not what I’m asking for, and it wouldn’t work. No one thinks that all that’s even real. Just fairy tales. Tony. I’m sorry. I am. But. Need you to take care of him, Tony.” Bucky said, tone flat to keep himself from breaking down. “He’s gonna need you. And you already need him. Don’t you dare say that’s a lie, I know you do. So. After the Accords… After they... I need you to take care of him.”
“You aren’t asking me for this. You can’t ask that. You can’t ask me to keep your Soulmate going after you die.” Tony’s eyes were wide, hurt, and Bucky kept talking.
“Still might not be enough. Uniques rarely… but with the serum, he might have a chance. I think he will. But you gotta to keep him from following me if this goes the way we think it will. I know that it’s a terrible thing to ask, but Tony, you know what it’s like to… lose… your Match. He ain’t gonna be like you. He ain’t gonna be okay, and I can’t… can’t let him… promise me, Tony.”
“You have to fix this. We have to fix this. We can’t let them stand up and claim that this is justice. It isn’t. It never was. If they leave that language in, then Bucky, and Clint, and all of the victims of forced action will be in danger of arrest and persecution. What they did to survive shouldn’t be held against them. This? It isn’t only about Bucky. This is for Natasha and Clint and Bruce. We can’t let them pass this.”
“We’re working on it, and even if it does pass--”
“That’s not good enough.”
“--my lawyers can do--”
“ Tony , promise me you’ll fix this.”
Steve curled tighter into Bucky’s side, chuckling at the way he and Tony bantered about acceptable pancake toppings. They diverted into an argument about whether bacon between two pancakes counted as a sandwich, which turned into a debate about whether a taco was just a sandwich turned ninety degrees, which turned into a recitation of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.
It was a soft rainy day, and the drizzle against the tower’s glass windows made the world small around them. It was private and sweet.
Running gentle strokes down his back, Bucky kept him grounded. Steve didn’t know what Tony had planned, but he trusted him. Tony made a promise.
They wouldn’t let the Accords take Bucky.
In a few more hours, the Summit would be over, the Accords would be formalized, and Bucky’s assignment as security for the event would be over. That was someone’s sick sense of humor coming into play. They wanted the Winter Soldier to guard the council that was going to order his arrest. Tony could claim he had the best lawyers in the world until the sky turned green, facts didn’t change.
Section fourteen was still in place. The way it was written, there was no way Bucky wouldn’t be found guilty. When it passed, and became law, he already was guilty, it would just be a question of formalizing it.
A few more hours.
Bucky’d sign the Accords, board the jet, go home with Steve one last time, and wait for them to come. It wouldn’t take long. The Winter Soldier would make a good demonstration that the Sokovian Accords were to be taken seriously. How much more serious could it get than executing Captain America’s Soulmate?
Tony would take care of Steve. If the serum kept Steve alive, Tony would be enough to keep him going. He’d do a better job of it than Bucky ever had. Tony had been their unofficial third for months. They needed him, and he needed them. Bucky knew that clear down to his toes.
Steve would survive as long as Tony kept his word.
And Tony always did.
A high ringing interrupted his lachrymose thoughts, and that was all the warning he got before his body locked in place.
“Zhelaniye. Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat'.”
Bucky choked, straining against an invisible force, trying to move his hand to activate the beacon on his wrist, but it was pointless. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t stop the voice that recited the trigger phrase that would lock him in his mind. Lock away his Soulmark, lock away himself, and leave the weapon in his place.
“Rassvet. Pech'. Devyat'.”
He panicked, chest tight, clawing toward Steve in his heart while his body hung lax. He couldn’t go back to Hydra. He couldn’t do it again. He couldn’t be their weapon. He wasn’t strong enough. He’d never survive that icy barren abandonment again. He needed Steve. He needed the strength and courage that sustained him.
There was a faint hum of concerned love from Steve, growing sharp and hot as Bucky’s panicked stretching intensified.
“Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu.”
The love fell away.
A sensation like a distant shout replaced it. Irrelevant. Trifling. Easily ignored.
The paralysis continued while the man stepped into view, carrying a red manual and a small device. Not a typical technician. Handler then. Orders therefore were absolute.
When the paralysis faded, and he could obey, the man sneered, “You’re going to be very useful to me, Soldier. Come.”
The Winter Soldier followed his handler.
The Summit building exploded.
Steve collapsed when it happened, scaring the hell out of the team members nearby, too distraught to explain or help.
When the explosion blew out the cameras covering the event a few minutes later, they leapt into motion, leaving him on the ground. They were the Avengers, they supported the Accords, they needed to move, and couldn’t delay. Except Steve couldn’t breathe.
A layer of ice obscured the bright glow that had been Bucky’s love.
He hadn’t felt that since the Helicarriers. Not even the Witch managed to dull it.
Bucky was gone, and the ice of the Winter Soldier offered no comfort.
They couldn’t send Captain America, despite his rank and prominence. Despite him being the obvious choice from a tactical perspective.
The couldn’t send a Soulmate to fight and kill their Match.
No one could give that order. No one wanted to see it happen.
They sent the second in command.
They sent Tony.
Steve watched the suit’s security feeds from a room in the WSC building. Tony had patched him in with an override for the suits external speakers so that Steve could try to talk Bucky back to them once Tony caught him.
Bucky was in Berlin. Barely more than a few miles from where the Council had ordered Steve to stay under observation.
It wasn’t Bucky that Tony found.
The Winter Soldier hadn’t been so brutally lethal since Steve first knocked the mask clear on the overpass. That hit had been the start of the collapse of his programming. Then, the presence of his Soulmate started eating away at Hydra’s control. Tony’s mask and armor couldn’t do that, and the triangular glow of the reactor incensed the Soldier. Every strike was an effort at a fatality.
Before a solid hit from the metal arm broke the suit’s cameras, TV crews arrived.
It made Tony’s job harder by miles. He couldn’t let Bucky past, and he wouldn’t kill him. The Winter Soldier held nothing back, tossing the suit out of his way to make a break for the civilians.
In the cracked view of the suit, Steve saw Bucky’s hollow gaze, and choked as his chest went tight.
Tony was a marvel in a fight. He was indestructible, faster than an unenhanced human had any right to be, brilliant, backed up by an AI, armed to the teeth, capable of taking down entire army battalions, and, against Bucky, not willing to carry though. There were half a dozen attacks that Steve watched Iron Man ignore.
Any one of them would have ended the fight. Fatally.
Iron Man caught the Soldier in the side and crashed them both into a wall that crumbled into dust and debris.
The Winter Soldier used Iron Man as a shield against a rain of bullets, then took advantage of Tony’s shout for a ceasefire to lever Tony’s arm between his and drop his weight. Something snapped, and one of the lit panels flickered. The Winter Soldier pressed the advantage, striking harder, faster, giving no quarter. Iron Man got away for a moment, but something had shifted.
The Winter Soldier had the advantage.
Iron Man wasn’t containing the Soldier with a cautious plan any more. He was recklessly struggling to keep the man from escaping. Each of the Soldier’s hits were full force, enough to get through the suit’s protections. More than enough to rip away panels of armor.
Iron Man deflected what he could, but didn’t unleash his full arsenal. There were micro-shells on Iron Man’s shoulders, flares on his forearms, a taser feature that could put down an elephant, the repulsors, and the unibeam.
Technology couldn’t help when Tony wasn’t willing to use it.
The Winter Soldier was going to kill Iron Man.
Bucky was going to kill Tony.
As cameras rolled, and the world watched.
The left gauntlet was crushed, and half the plates on his chest were torn aside. Tony’s skin was visible in strips beneath the armor, stained red with blood against the black of the widow bands. The Winter Soldier was digging, looking for a vulnerability, seeking a fatal opening, while Iron Man left the unibeam uncharged, and the stronger missiles unlaunched. Nothing came through the Bond to Steve except for ice and compulsion.
The Soldier would kill Iron Man without recognizing him.
Iron Man was going to let it happen.
All the Soldier needed was to dig a little deeper, find enough of the vulnerability that divided Tony from Iron Man, and it would be over.
Later, he didn't remember knocking the guards unconscious.
He didn't remember the crowd he cut through, or the gasps as he was recognized.
What he remembered was the look in his Soulmate’s eyes as a flash of recognition gave him his humanity for a moment.
The Winter Soldier bolted.
Tony would understand why Steve didn’t stay.
Tony always understood them.
But Bucky was his Soulmate.
Without the cowl hiding Steve’s face, it didn’t take long before Bucky started to crack through the Winter Soldier.
A moment’s hesitation let Steve slam him into the ground.
The Soldier rarely fought an opponent that was a challenge, and did not move fast enough to block the blow that knocked him to the concrete. A line of pain, minor, inconsequential, bloomed over his chest as his own blade sliced through his protective gear.
It was important, but the Soldier didn’t know why.
Warmth spread from under the fingertips shoved inside his torn shirt.
Then a flood.
The same way the cold of Cryo fell away in waves of stinging pain, the warmth banished the ice that had overtaken his mind. It burned as he came up for air, as he rose above the swell of compliance and commands.
He heaved the body above him to the side, hearing it crash through a wall, knowing the man could handle it.
Tucking himself into the corner nearest him, Bucky scrubbed at his hands, rewatching everything that they had done as the ice melted and his mind returned.
The Accords passed that night. The explosion didn’t stop it. The final count was fifteen votes higher than they expected.
Steve watched it on the news in the safehouse while Bucky slept.
The final changed votes came in response to the footage of the fight that had run non-stop since it was filmed. Iron Man forced himself to his feet, wobbling as the suit failed, looking at the road the Winter Soldier used to flee. He shook for a moment, then flicked up the helmet, turned and started answering questions from the press. Damage control. Injured, bleeding, alone, and Tony Stark started directly into damage control for the team.
Steve watched the whole thing, seeing how Tony’s answers were getting shorter as he got paler. When the jet arrived, he limped onto it, and reporters claimed he was now in a hospital bed with anything from a bruised ego to swelling in the brain.
The full text of the Accords was available online within minutes of the vote. That was one of the few things Steve advocated for that was included. He wanted everyone to see them, and know what they were.
His stomach flopped when the footage ran again while CNN talked.
They were commenting on the damage to the helmet; Steve was staring at how Tony favored his arm.
Hours later, when Bucky woke, Steve was still in front of the tiny tv set, fussing with the handle of a fancy briefcase, and a solid black burner phone. Bucky joined him, both consciously keeping separate, not wanting the comfort of the other’s touch. There were no updates, no consoling words, no promises they wouldn’t keep. They couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. They couldn’t lie and say they hadn’t hurt Tony, abandoned him. The couldn’t act as if they hadn’t broken the vow they’d made.
They sat in a safe house, sick to their stomachs, hating that being together wasn’t enough, hating what they’d done, and wishing the WSC had sent anyone but Tony.
one more chapter.
I swear this isn't a tragedy. Also your comments have been making my day, every single time, and I'm very proud of your strength in reading this.
There was a Man once, who grew bitter.
With each Match he saw, with each pair he blessed, more and more his childish hope turned black and sickly. He saw his Match daily, knowing he would never have her, knowing he could never tell her, and too hurt to push her away.
Even without the Mark to Bond them, they grew close, but were always separated by his knowledge they could never be more.
He offered her his blessing a dozen times over, praying with each repetition of the action that this would be the time the Stars allowed him to have what he had always dreamed of. It never worked. He was alone, and the gift that the Stars bestowed was no replacement for what was lost.
He came to hate the Stars, and cursed them as he sat in the temple the village had built to honor him.
The people loved the Stars all the more for what they had given him. His village became a site of pilgrimages and vows. The Man became an feature of respect. The initial awe shown while he was on his quest blossomed into worship.
He was beloved.
The world was still young while the Man lived. It was not yet packed full with life and overcrowded. Humanity lived in but small corner of it.
So when a great War arose, it affected them all.
Perhaps the War would have ended in days, or years. Perhaps no great harm would have come from the Man allowing it to follow its own course. But he saw his Match join the others, and take up arms with others from the village. Only two of them returned. She did not.
The Man could have mourned, and let the world struggle onwards.
He knelt in the temple, watching the Stars above him, and mourned as he considered the next steps he would take..
When the sun rose, the Man began to walk.
The bitterness of his heart kept him calm as he travelled, kept him unafraid as he crossed through battles and sieges, kept him silent as he moved, spectre-like towards the crux of the War.
The Man was known .
He was beloved.
The gift he had claimed made him a mouthpiece for the will of Fate.
The Man walked into the crux of a War, bare chested and glimmering with purpose. He walked past the dead and the dying, and stood in the center of a struggle that might have blotted humanity from the Earth.
He stood, and he waited for the leaders to join him.
The War ended that day.
The Man lived out his days as an Icon and a Sage. He shaped the course of life for all Mankind, never revealing the hatred he bore for the Stars that he encouraged them to worship. When he passed, quietly in the night, at an age that left many thinking him immortal, the world wept. The Star he carried was buried with him with dignity and sorrow.
The Man died, and passed beyond the world, into the Stars beyond.
He was given a final gift then.
He would never know the love of a Soulmate, or the warmth of a Bond, but they showed him, as he left the Earth, what he had done, and what he had saved. They showed him the Fate they had given him, and they showed him that by following it, he would never be forgotten.
They gave it to the Man as a gift, but he died with the burden of understanding his Mark had never been a promise of love, only an obligation.
Tony rolled the fingers of his left hand to ease the pinching spasms, and said in a voice that was overly genial, “I am going to wait a minute, and give you an opportunity to try that sentence over, General, because I’m sure you didn’t just imply what I think you did. I must have misheard you, isn’t that right?”
General Ross kept staring.
“Nothing to say? Nothing you want to add, General?”
“Right. So. You’re standing by the order for the Avengers to bring in the Winter Soldier for violations of the Controllability Clause, and to bring in Captain America for aiding and abetting a fugitive of the Accords. Even though neither of them have formally signed. Even though you know that Bu-- that the Soldier wasn’t responsible for that bomb. Even though this would be the biggest press debacle in the history of the world.
“Barnes. Maybe. Maybe you could sway public opinion on him. But Rogers? Captain America isn’t a mask he puts on, that’s who he is. That’s why he keeps fighting the Committee. If you try to stand in front of the world and tell them that they should hate a man who defended his Soulmate? His Unique Bonded Soulmate , mind you. His Match that reads like something out of a storybook? If you try to tell the world to hate him for protecting his Soulmate they are going to burn you in effigy on every continent. Antarctica will get in the game out of principle.”
“The Captain helped a threat to evade capture. A threat, you might recall, that was trying to rip into your armor and kill you when the Captain arrived. The world was watching Mr. Stark. That fight was seen live by half the planet.” He paused, “Iron Man has always been a favorite superhero.“
“And Captain America was the first superhero.”
“If you would rather we send a platoon of marines or deploy a drone strike after we locate them --”
Tony gestured to cut him off, scowling when his fingers twitched. The nerve damage from what Bucky had done would need surgery as soon as possible to keep it from being permanent. Not that he had time for that. It was his left hand. It had to wait.
“Take the Avengers.”
“Thanks, but I’m going alone.”
“You can take the rest of the Avengers, or you can take a battalion.”
“Give me thirty six hours.”
“Why should I trust you can do this?” Ross pushed, “They’re a Unique, and you know what we’re asking for.”
The internet was already simmering with claims that due to the Mark they should be forgiven for any mistakes they’d made. The world was in love with the pair of them, had been since it became public. The look Ross gave him, glaring and mistrustful, sparked an idea in Tony’s head.
One he hated, but knew would work.
If he didn’t, if he allowed Ross to send anyone else, there was little chance that either Steve or Bucky would survive. Besides, killing one of them would be tantamount to killing the other. Tony knew that, and Ross was right to be concerned -- Tony wouldn’t let that happen, he’d promised -- not that he could let Ross know that.
So Tony went with his impromptu plan. His terrible, terrible, thoughtless plan.
Sliding out of his suit jacket, he flicked open the top few buttons of his shirt. Ross’s eyes narrowed. Tony’s left hand shook as he forced himself to pull the band from his chest and reveal the arc reactor where his Mark should have been.
“Afghanistan.” Tony explained.
“Markless.” Ross labelled.
Tony swallowed to keep from saying anything else.
Everyone knew that you couldn’t trust someone without a Mark, not when it came to matters of love. They didn’t understand. Couldn’t. They never would. Everyone knew that the Markless didn’t have hearts that would be swayed by sentiment and sympathy.
Ross nodded, “Done. But if you don’t have them in a WSC holding cell when the clock runs out…”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Battalions. Air strikes. Tiny nukes. Robot swarms. Flocks of geese. Whatever you go with as a threat this time.”
“I think I have a better incentive for you than that.”
Tony paused in the door, turning back to find Ross flick something from his phone to the screen on the wall. A security feed showed the glow of the reactor as Tony revealed it, face clearly visible, and secret revealed.
“Thirty-six hours, Stark.”
Tony let the suit close surround him. The backup had deployed hours earlier, and the moment the helmet slid over his face, he started rattling instructions to Jarvis.
“Pull up the trackers that we put in everyone’s gear, see if you get a signal off anything. Get me Natasha.”
“Right away, sir.”
“Stark? What’s happening?”
“Ross plans to prosecute the full scope of Article Fourteen violations against our Brooklyn boys. Probably against Bruce as well. There’s a loophole in the phrasing that would make it possible to prosecute all of the Avengers. You and Clint for sure. Probably Sam too if he can figure out how. Jarvis is going to unlock the run kits in the lab. He’ll show you the one that’s keyed to your prints. You, Clint and Bruce are going off grid. Take Sam with you.”
“We would be of better use if we--” She started.
“Scratch that actually, if you’re off grid you’ll just lose your patience when you don’t know what’s happening. J, choose one of the houses that we own under one of the shell corporations, something we haven’t touched in a while. Natasha, he’ll direct you there. Jarvis. Don’t tell the cleaners, and disable the alarm remotely. Keep their heads down until this blows over.”
“You don’t have the authority to tell--”
“You can go willingly or I’ll have a suit scoop you off the couch and fly you there anyway, Widow. End call.”
Tony heard the start of her protest as the call cut off.
“Yes, that is certain to placate her concerns entirely.”
“Backtalk later, J. Put me through to my Honeybear.”
“Colonel Rhodes is currently in the presence of half a dozen high level US Intelligence operatives.”
“And how do we know that?”
“The War Machine suit is standing sentry.”
Tony smiled for a moment. “Then you know what to do, J.”
“Tony what the hell?” Rhodey yelled. “The suit just activated and closed around me before taking me out of the room. We under attack?”
“Yeah, I just needed to talk to you without the CIA guys listening in on it.”
“Is this about Barnes?”
“This is about General Ross.”
“And how he deserves exactly what’s coming?”
“That’s the one.”
His best friend’s grin was a feral thing.
“Okay, Tones. What do you need?”
Landing on the pad, knowing there was no one inside the tower was chilling. Even if it wasn’t true. There were hundreds of employees in the tower, even late at night, but the Avengers were gone.
The Iron Man suit peeled away, and Tony headed for the lab. Ross had the title, but Rhodey had the respect. After the Mandarin, the President would take any meeting Rhodey requested.
Rhodey would talk the President onto their side, explain the PR disaster that would be activating Article fourteen protocols on either Barnes or Rogers, then explain that the world would be better served by having the pair protecting it. Rhodey would handle the political side of it.
Tony would find their errant super-soldiers and handle the other side of the mess.
Once he handled his personal mess.
“Tony, are you okay?”
“Did you call just to progressively abbreviate my name?”
“You saw the news.”
“Barnes and Rogers.”
“What do you need?”
“I need you to bring me something. Bring it yourself. No one else can see it. Then Rhodey’s going to need your help.”
Pepper set the box on the kitchen island and accepted the mug of coffee.
“You’re going to tell them.”
“It’s the back up plan.”
“Can’t just bring a picture?”
“Protocol. Destroyed them during New York. The portal. Didn’t want that making the rounds the day of my funeral.”
“I have four on my laptop at home.”
“No you don’t. Jarvis got those.”
“One printed -- “
“In the copy of Dune you stole from me. Nope. Got that one too.”
“Thorough. So what’s the primary plan?”
“I talk Steve Rogers into trusting that between you, me, Rhodey, and our army of lawyers that everything will be fine, and he has no reason to worry about his Soulmate being executed for things that aren’t his fault. My primary plan is that Steve Rogers willingly backs down from a fight for his Soulmate.”
Pepper’s lips twitched as she tried not to smile. “So… you’re going to show them the reactor.”
Tony sat in the dark on the roof of the Stark Industries factory in Bern and waited for the search results.
The stars were overhead, bright and sparkling.
The first arc reactor was in his hands.
Still in their cases, still engraved with the promise Pepper put there, he clung to the Proof of what he once had.
It was obvious. So obvious.
He wouldn’t have to say a word.
If they saw it, they’d know. If they saw the shape that had been his survival, they would see how it slotted into theirs and filled the missing holes of the design.
They would know.
They’d understand why they fought so fluidly. They’d realize why he always protected them. They’d see why they kept holding out their hands in invitation to him.
And it wouldn’t matter.
Tony could never be with them.
But with luck, it would be enough for them to trust him.
“That is unknown.”
“Do they have their comms?”
“They do not, sir.”
“Do they have the emergency beacons?”
“Are any of the trackers active?”
“Do they have a Run kit with them?”
“You’re being particularly helpful today, J.”
“Get the suit.”
“Mute, Jarvis. Suit. Now.”
Bucky spun with his gun raised, and Tony sighed in relief behind the helmet as he realized it was Bucky, not the Winter Soldier. It didn’t stop his flinch at seeing the man who had tried to kill him the day before. Steve spun with the shield up, sliding in front of his Soulmate, “The WSC sent you for us?”
There was no point lying. Tony dropped the case he carried and let the helmet fold out of the way.
“Yes. Ross gave me thirty six hours, we have... uh... nineteen left. Why are you here? I know why I’m here, it’s because you’re here. So why are we here?”
“You came to bring us in?”
“They sent me to.”
“Are you here to bring Bucky to them?” Steve half-snarled, stepping forwards.
“Don’t be an ass, Stevie.” He dragged his Soulmate to the side, gun dropped low, and his voice turned vulnerable, a reminder of the timidity he’d shown when first arriving in the tower, “How bad did I hurt you, Tony?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. Why are we here?”
Neither of them believed it, but neither pressed the issue, “A man named Zemo had the trigger words for the Winter Soldier and a device that paralyzed me. While I was…”
Bucky smirked for a moment. “Sure thing. He knew where the rest of the Winter Soldiers were being stored.”
“Not loving the use of the word ‘stored’ or the revelation that Hydra made spares.”
“I figured. What’s the play then, Cap?”
“Why are you here, Tony?”
“I’m here to help you two. I need to -- actually, you know, that dropped down the priority list, because I’m not a fan of the idea of more Winter Soldiers. No offense, Buckaroo, but I’ve met your frostier half, and I’d rather not have to fight that in stereo. After we deal with them, we can -- you know, the talking, all that stuff. Accords things. WSC things. Other things. I brought a thing -- doesn’t matter. Terrifying Hydra soldiers first.”
Captain America nodded, slipped easily into the trust and camaraderie that the three always found during a fight. It was when they were at their best.
The Soldiers were dead.
Zemo was alive.
Zemo was an asshole.
But he wasn’t wrong.
It all changed.
It only took a few seconds.
The tape played.
They watched the Winter Soldier murder the Starks.
For a moment, Tony was back among the Stars, too small and too large all at once, crushed by the press of a destiny too big to withstand. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, could only watch the shape his life had been forced to take. The men he was forced to orbit. The cruelty of his fate.
He woke in a cave with his Mark carved out of his skin.
He rebuilt his Mark to embed a star in his chest.
He flew through a portal into the stars, expecting to meet his end.
He thought the path he walked was his punishment, and the Soulmates he would never have were his reward.
Tony watched the video, and wondered if Iron Man was the reward, or if it was all a punishment.
He was tied to the man that killed his mother, and the man that kept the secret.
“Did you know?”
Barnes couldn’t remember details of his time under Hyrdra without being prompted. He watched the video with a gutted expression. Steve took it too well for it to be a revelation.
“Did. You. Know.”
It wasn’t fair.
It ached deep in his gut.
His chest hurt.
The arc reactor weighed on him, echoing the pain of his missing Bond.
The world trembled beneath him, a road that Tony knew he had to walk, a loyalty he was supposed to follow, a fate he was destined to need, and he couldn’t. Not again. He couldn’t let himself. He’d done everything because of a Mark that he’d lost. He’d become Iron Man, let that fate guide him. He trusted it. Let that faith remake him as a better man. He’d thrown himself into protecting Steve, protecting Bucky, protecting Soulmates that could never be his. He spent most of his life fearfully dreaming of finding them, and every minute since he did trying to keep them safe.
Because of a Mark that could never be realized.
Because the closest thing he’d ever have to love was a murderer and a liar.
Because fate was crueller than he’d ever guessed.
The visor snapped shut as Tony threw a punch that clipped the edge of the Soldier’s jaw. Stumbling backwards, gun slung at his side, the Soldier’s hands were raised in supplication and his eyes were more petrified than deadly.
It wasn’t the Winter Soldier, but that was all Tony could see. The Soldier. The man that strangled his mother, that beat his father. That took them from him.
The Soldier’s hands, pleading and vulnerable and outstretched, were drenched in his parent’s blood.
The Soldier had to pay for that.
Captain America slammed into his side, trying to distract him. Tony threw the Captain hard enough to crack the wall, and launched forward into the Soldier.
He had to pay.
Horror made them feral, and after the first hits landed, and the first tracks of blood dripped, the Soldier began to fight.
It was a game.
It could have been easy. A single hit, a single blast, and Tony could have ended him. His screen showed a dozen ways to do it. Could have ended both of them. He could have put a bullet through the Soldier’s chest, and another through the Captains, piercing through the lie that was etched on their flesh. He could have taken that from them. Tony could have ended it quickly.
He didn’t want quick.
Steve’s shield deflected the shot that would have knocked the Soldier from his climb. He hit the suit’s helmet hard enough to break it.
Nothing ever stopped a Soulmate from defending their Match.
Tony felt the Soldier’s ribs break beneath the punch he threw. Without the analytics in the HUD, he couldn’t confirm, but he felt bone slip. It didn’t stop the Soldier.
As long as the Soldier was moving, Tony wouldn’t stop either.
The shield shot toward his exposed face, and Tony couldn’t move fast enough to dodge. On that angle, it would be an instant kill.
Tony’s arm moved, too slowly.
The Soldier got there in time.
The Soldier pitched sideways to close the distance and caught the shield with a clang.
From the corner of his eye, Tony saw the Captain’s weapon crack beneath a metal hand. Both the Soldier and the Captain paused at the sight.
The next hit put the Soldier on his knees.
Steve slammed forward, shield marred but unbroken.
Tony blasted him clear, and as the repulsor struck the metal, it split further. The line like a wound stretching through the bands of color. With his other hand, he fired at the Soldier. Seeing his Soulmate slam into the wall, the Soldier dodged low and got his hand on the reactor, squeezing to find the traction needed to rip it free.
What little sanity Tony had left evaporated.
He charged the unibeam. He knew would be enough.
He wasn’t holding back anymore. He wasn’t restraining what he could do.
They deserved the full scope of his fury.
They deserved it.
Tony still didn’t fire at the Soldier’s chest.
Slicing through metal, through his arm, the unibeam cut through the star.
Tony destroyed the icon, not the Mark.
Bucky collapsed, pain-blind and desperate as the improved sensors in the arm fried and melted.
The Captain’s rage boiled over, and he finally unleashed his full strength.
A few sharp blows disabled the suit, then he struck the arm that already tingled from the Soldier’s attacks, and beat Tony until he hit the ground. Each strike with the shield damaged the weapon further. Tony lunged up to stop him, and defend himself.
The crack in the shield spread as Tony’s gauntlets deflected the blows. They were fractured, failing, and wouldn’t last another half dozen hits. Not much could stand against vibranium. That they had damaged it at all coiled something poisonous in Tony’s throat.
The world slowed down for Tony as he lay on icy concrete.
The pain fell away.
The rage ebbed, replaced by a whisper from his nightmares.
The crack on the shield was visible, but the crack in Steve’s heart was tangible. Something had broken in Steve. Tony glanced to the side, and saw Bucky on the ground, flesh-hand clutching the molten edge of his arm’s star but watching them fight with his heartbreak visible. They were damaged. They were unfinished. The pair of them had lost everything that mattered and they stood by each other in spite of their suffering.
They were everything a Match was supposed to be. Tony had no right to damage their perfection.
Pinned beneath him in a half-dead suit, Tony saw Steve raise the shield one last time, aware of what was coming.
He didn’t block the hit.
He chose not to.
Sometimes it was too easy to see the drawn lines between the three.
The shield snapped fully apart as it hit, and for a moment, the shard wedged vertically in the reactor.
Pain soared as the reactor split in its casing, the power field surged and flashed, and Tony’s world went bright with the spike of energy.
Pinprick glimmers that hovered in his sight, as the star lodged over his heart flickered into darkness while it failed.
His own screams echoed, in his mind or aloud, he didn’t know. The agony was too great to discern anything else.
There were hands on his face, on his neck.
“—please, sweetheart, please. Jarvis, Jarvis what did I do, why isn’t it working? What—“
“No, please no, sweetheart.”
“--scared of losing--”
“--us what to do!”
“—can’t leave us—“
The pressure of metal ripped open.
Frantic voices, hysterical and begging.
Jarvis, tinny through the damage of the speakers, giving instructions.
“—come on! I didn’t, we didn't — never knew—“
Hands shaking as they pulled at the reactor.
Feet pounding as they ran and returned.
“--didn’t you say? Tony--”
“--God No. What did--”
“—love you, always Tony—“
He drifted, somewhere between life and death, somewhere between the Earth and Stars.
Tony was nowhere and everywhere.
He didn’t breathe, he didn’t move. He didn’t need to any longer, and the world’s mysteries unfurled around him, writ plain for him to read. A thousand intertwined ropes kept the universe in place. A million more bound one story to another. Billions of faint glimmering lines tied each soul to its Match. In each he heard the echo of the purpose behind it. He heard the beating of hearts that cared for nothing but their Match. He felt the love that thrummed along them like a promise.
He saw the way one Match could distort the web around them, changing the world.
He saw how they worked and where they came from, saw the stardust woven into them. Saw the fragments of the cosmos glinting on the edges of their souls.
He saw what the Stars needed him to see.
The bonds tied to his chest were brilliant gold. They hummed constantly, a symphony too grand for him to comprehend more than a sliver. They ensnared him, tangling into his blood before seeking out his Matches. Their own ties were deep blue, unfaltering, undeniable, and rooted into the essence of their being.
He saw it all: the way the three were tied to each other, even without the full Bond.
His perception expanded, leaving the metaphysical and dragging sideways to show him the whole of the passage of time.
What he had vaguely grasped before came into focus. Amidst the stars he saw a fleet, an army, virulent and foul, gathering in the shadows and eying a rich prize. Between the enemies he could hear the agony of the Stars that were powerless to intervene. He glanced forward and saw War on the horizon. He saw the battles that were coming and the deaths that would follow. He glanced behind and saw the Stars pluck two kids from their innocence in Brooklyn, chosen for a dark fate, and he saw the Stars offer an unbalanced and brief joy as recompense.
He glanced down and saw the path beneath his feet, flecked with destiny and import, guiding him to where he had to be.
The War that was coming would destroy everything. Not just Earth, but the whole of the universe would be brought low if the Titan was not stopped.
Knowledge flooded him, and Tony understood.
The Stars had found a way to save the world.
And they had to be sure those necessary would not abandon each other.
They had to be sure that they three would stand together.
“Sweetheart, please we need you. I need you. Please, sweet thing, you can’t do this to us, not now. Not now. We didn't know. We wanted. We didn't know. Please.”
Bucky’s voice broke every few words, pain and fear making it hard to listen to him.
Tony was held, cradled, by— it had to be Steve. He could feel two arms, so it had to be Steve. Because Bucky only had one now. Because Tony took his other arm. Because Bucky killed his mother. Because Steve lied. Because Bucky was his Soulmate. Because Tony meant nothing.
The air was bitter cold and the wind stung. They were outside. His chest burned, with the throb of an injury, and a lower, steadier sting that reminded him of Palladium.
There was a thread of something more hovering in the back of his mind. There was some compulsion that forced him to open his eyes. He heard them gasp sharply, but didn’t look. His eyes were caught on the streak of brilliant light travelling over the sky. The color was deep orange, unnatural but telling. It called out for him like a beacon, like it had been sent for him and him alone.
Tony watched it streak, slower than a meteor would be, faster than anything man-made.
He watched a star fall to Earth, and only when it landed with a flash did he notice the two men huddled over him.
They’d watched it too.
The star was his, and he knew, no matter how little sense it made, that nothing could change that.
He was even colder once they were on the jet, and he realized why he’d thought about Palladium.
Proof that Tony Stark has a Soulmate.
They’d put it there.
They replaced the one that they destroyed, the false one. They found the case he’d brought, and saved his life. Jarvis must have helped.
They put back back the only fragment of a Soulmark he had, the one that would kill him if he kept it.
He was right. Once they saw the original reactor, they couldn’t unsee it.
They didn't start the jet. They didn't leave Siberia.
“How long have you known?” Tony said into the frigid silence, voice heavy enough to make his meaning clear.
Steve frowned. “Three months after Insight. I hadn’t seen the video, but I knew.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I thought you’d react like you did.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill him -- you. I wasn’t trying to kill you, Bucky.”
“I know. If you were, I’d be dead. Same’s true the other way. But you still look sick when you look at me.”
“You killed her.”
“Yes. I did.”
“I don’t think I can forgive that.”
“I don’t think you should.”
“Is this why you didn’t fight the Accords?”
Bucky didn’t answer.
“What happened to Zemo?”
“What happened to him?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“That’s what you’re going to say to me right now, Steve?”
Bucky interrupted, “Captain America killed him.”
“Was it -- did they -- did -- was it an accident?” Bucky choked as he asked.
“Bit of both. Shrapnel, then the rest didn’t survive the surgery.
“Why didn’t you tell us, Tony?” Steve blurted.
“Because it doesn’t matter.” Tony answered coldly, “It’s gone. It’s not coming back. You two are Soulmates, you’re everything the other one needs. You said so yourself in half a dozen interviews. Saying something wouldn’t help.”
“You deserve your Soulmates, Tony. We’ve told you that.”
Tony smiled sharply. “And I’ve told you. I have a Soulmate: Iron Man.”
Steve’s face locked down into rigid anger. Bucky’s crumpled. “That isn’t--”
“Yes it is. Call our Marks rare, not Unique. There’s your answer. You two have each other. I have Iron Man. He and I have a shared Mark. We live together, uplift each other. One day we’ll die together. I’ve told you this.”
“You know that isn’t true, Tony. You know it’s a Unique. You know you’re supposed to be with us. You’ve fought with us, and I know you noticed. And when we three are together, it’s better. It’s everything. You know it’s true. You know you’re our Soulmate.”
The Stars had shown him so, only a few hours earlier. They had painted out a tapestry detailing what had to be. What was needed from all three.
Tony knew the truth.
They were tied together, nothing could change that. It didn’t matter that Tony had no Bond to them. He was tied to them by the very fabric of reality. He had to be beside them. They were meant to be, not to share a great love, but to face a war.
Fate didn’t care what their hearts wanted. Fate didn’t care the pain it caused by forcing Tony’s world to orbit these two men. Fate didn’t care that Steve and Bucky fought and bickered and snarled at each other. Fate didn’t care that they were so desperate to keep the other safe and alive that they would willingly walk into hell and hate themselves for it.
Fate didn’t care that the three of them were all clinging to broken shards of the symbols of their Mark. As long as they were together, as long as they faced the War as one, Fate didn’t care what it cost.
The crack that split the shield had sheared off a third, cutting through the tip of two points of the star.
Bucky’s arm ended in molten slag and raw wires midway through the star.
Tony’s was a poisoned spark of light, lodged in the place of what was lost, and glinting like a star.
All ruined, one way or another.
Steve wanted, needed, a promise of love to keep going.
Tony wouldn’t give it to him.
“I have a fresh suit inbound. Half an hour out. Two of you should get a move on. Take the jet. I can arrange a drop with a run kit once I’m back at the tower if you need a new one. Stay out of sight until Rhodey talks the President into removing Ross. He’s the one pushing the implementation of the Controllability clause. A few weeks of good PR and no one will dare to come after either of you. Pep and Rhodey are already getting started. Barnes is a world class player of hide-and-seek, I’m sure you can manage a few weeks. If you can’t, it’s a nice reason for my lawyers to get paid their exorbitant fees.”
“Ross sent you to bring us in.”
“He’s not going to be happy if you don’t.”
“Gee, thanks, I wouldn’t have guessed that. I’m just a international political player and a genius, it never occurred to me he wouldn’t be happy. Thanks so much, Steven.”
“Drop it, Cap.”
“You too, Barnes.”
They stayed until the new suit arrived. The shipper unit closed around the broken pieces of the suit he’d worn when he arrived. The fresh suit opened, and Tony stepped into it, relieved he could finally let his tears fall.
The jet hummed and rose.
They flew in opposite directions.
Echoes of nightmares floated to the front of his mind.
Ten hours after he returned to New York, arm in a brace that was barely a nod to the damage it had taken, bruises hidden behind holographic skin, Tony strolled into the UN’s meeting with the WSC.
Ross intercepted him.
“Where are they, Stark? Your time’s up.”
“I’m reasonably certain they’re still on the planet. Ninety-nine percent certain. Maybe ninety-nine five. Can’t be sure, though. There’s always the possibility that they fell into a portal or were sucked up by aliens or that Thor lightninged into the area and took them off on an adventure to Asgard, but mostly, yeah, pretty sure. Earth.”
“You let them go?” Ross’s voice dripped with venom.
Tony beamed, press smile inducing a round of camera flashes.
“Yes, I did.”
The American contingent took their cue from Ross, snarling insults about all three, confident in their power. With the Avengers hidden away, all of them but Tony hidden from the public and the government, they were safe. There was no one to attack except for him, and Tony was braced for what was coming.
Ross published the video.
News travelled fast. Pepper travelled faster.
By the time reporters had reached the Tower for Tony’s return, Pepper Potts was standing like a valkyrie in a crisp suit and stiletto heels, implacable, and fielding their questions with a tone of barely repressed disgust.
“How can we trust the morality or work of a man without a Mark?”
“You’re asking me that while holding the newest Starkphone in my face?”
“Was his Mark destroyed entirely? Had he met his Match? Is that why he wears Widow Bands?”
“Mr. Stark’s choices regarding his Mark and the wearing of Widow Bands is entirely personal, and Stark Industries will not comment on it.”
“When will you release pictures of it? Why haven’t you already?”
“Voyeuristic sadism will not be tolerated and anyone attempting to obtain any form of documentation will be met with the full force of SI’s legal team, as well as that of the international community, Shield, and the Avengers.”
They exploded when they saw Tony. A few thousand flashes went off during his walk from the car to her side.
Pepper kissed his cheek and whispered, “I’ve got this.”
“Mr. Stark! Will you be stepping down from SI now that it’s known you’re Markless? Campaigns have already begun to have people burn their devices, claiming that you’re unclean or untrustworthy. Do you have any response?”
Tony grinned, “Sure. Smash your phones, don’t burn them. It’s safer, no fumes. And, we’ll see about releasing the next model early, maybe in a few weeks, when everyone regrets it.” He kissed Pepper’s cheek, then, “I’ll leave you to it, Ms. Potts.”
“I’ll come up when I done, Mr. Stark.”
Every picture the press took showed the glow of the reactor.
He threw out the opaque bands and made sure his shirts didn’t diffuse the light too much when he was in public.
If the secret was out, he was going to own it.
The media had a field day.
The Fox News Commentary team was so excited Tony was worried they’d have an aneurism live on air.
His enemies grumbled about trusting the Markless. His allies called them out as bigoted, insensitive assholes.
The rest of the Avengers were hidden away, following orders for once.
Tony was the only formal signatory of the Accords. So he was the only choice to call when a terrorist took four hundred kids hostage at a school in Lille.
The media shut up after that.
“Tony, did you know Ross was going to release that?”
“So, you do already have a run kit with you. Again, I have to ask that you please not buy any countries unless you absolutely have no other choice.” Tony deflected the emotion in Steve’s voice with jokes.
“Yes, I knew.”
“We’re coming to New York.”
“No, you aren’t.”
“I am not going to let them say that about my Soulm--”
“No. For once, just once , Cap, trust me when we aren’t under fire, would you? Trust me. Stay out of sight. Let us fix this first. Let me fix this. Just trust me. Also where are you and what the hell did Barnes do to my tech that I can’t find your signal?”
“Didn’t I tell you that you should listen to the world class assassin about how to improve things?” Bucky interjected, pointedly ignoring Tony’s reference to him by his last name.
“Fine. Whatever. I’ll design better. You two. Stay hidden. Don’t come in until Rhodey has done his thing.”
“Tony, when we were in Siberia, there was --”
“We can’t stop thinking about what we saw--”
“You too, Barnes.”
“We think we’re meant to--”
“We think you’re supposed to--”
Tony ended the call, hand rubbing circles over the reactor, wishing that their voices weren’t such a comfort.
Natasha reappeared despite orders not to, told him a story about the Red Room, pulled aside the bands she wore, and offered to show her bare chest in solidarity.
Tony declined, but had her sign the Accords. Clint and Sam showed up the next day. A dozen more enhanced and mutants came in from the cold in the next weeks.
Bruce had to stay hidden until the situation with Ross was concluded, but he sent messages every morning.
Steve was never good at following orders.
Bucky was never good at saying no to Steve.
They showed up in New York two weeks after their phone call.
“We found this.”
“You aren’t supposed to be here. Again, Jarvis, why don’t you tell me they’re in my shop.”
“We know.” Bucky apologized, “But we found this. You didn’t let us explain, so, we went looking, and we found it. You’re supposed to have this. I don’t know why I know that, but I do. Tony. I know you’ll never forgive me. You shouldn’t after what I did. But this is yours, and I’ve been having nightmares since Siberia, worse ones I guess, but it stopped once we decided to go looking for this, and I don’t know what that means, but it’s true. You’re supposed to have this.”
“Tony, we didn’t have to search for it.” Steve added softly, “We flew and knew where to go and when we landed and started walking… We didn’t have to search Tony, we just went to it, and brought it back.”
Tony took the box gingerly. It hummed, and even with his eyes closed, Tony thought he could still see a bit of light leaking from the seams of the container.
“What is it?”
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s… we found that fallen star. Your fallen star.”
“The both of you have a standing arrest order, are international fugitives, and you snuck into the country, into New York, a couple miles from the UN so you could bring me a meteorite. Are you idiots. Don’t answer that. I already know the answer. You are.”
“Tony.” Bucky tried to keep himself small. “D’you remember when I told you about me and Stevie’s Mark? Our bond? That I know what he’s feeling? Remember I told you that it didn’t sound real, but it was? We didn't bring you a hunk of metal that fell from outer space. Least I don’t think it’s metal. Doesn’t look like any metal I’ve ever seen.
“And I know you remember what you told me about your Mark. You told me it was a star. D’you know that’s the same lie me and Stevie used to tell? We used to say this thing we’ve got was a star. I think the universe took us all a bit literal. Cause, Tony, you’ve got a piece of starlight in your chest already, but this thing we brought you… please open it, Tony. Please try.”
It was anticlimactic in the end.
He opened the box and found a lump of orange material, vibrating with power and visibly pulsing with energy.
Habit meant he had Jarvis scan it.
Memory meant he saw what the material would do. Could do.
The plans already existed. It was one of the versions he’d done while trying to reclaim his Mark with his dad’s element.
Tony ordered the boys to stay put, and started the manufacture of a new arc reactor.
If the palladium tasted like a bitter sting, and his dad’s element tasted like coconut, the stone was some kind of electric ambrosia.
No one in the room, Jarvis and the bots included, wanted him to jam the thing into his chest without tests, but it was a compulsion and a confidence he couldn’t deny. From the minute he set the stone in place in the center of the reactor, surrounded by ten strands that more perfectly than ever matched the Mark he’d lost, he needed it.
Slotting it into place was coming home.
It was the world spread open and wrapped about him.
It was the sensation of the universe around him, whispering its secrets, magnified tenfold.
An electric current tingled down his veins, alighting every vessel with new life. Stars sparkled each time he blinked, as if they were painted on his eyelids, and he laughed.
Beneath him was the path, above him were the Stars. Around him were the thousand threads that he would move, the million threads that he would impact, the trillion threads that he would save. What he felt when the reactor was shattered in Siberia had been slippery. What he had seen through the portal in New York had been vague.
This was crystal clear.
Ever curious, he poked and prodded at the bonds he saw, finding Pepper in the building below, and seeing the genuine, unrelenting love that she and Rhodey shared. It was dazzling: a warm light like a fireplace in winter, generous and kind.
It was nothing like the bonds between himself, Steve, and Bucky.
His own he dismissed after a glance, never expecting to find love there. But between the soldiers, it had to be. He had to find it. They loved each other more than anyone, more than anything. Their love kept them alive against all odds. They sustained each other, protected each other. Surely, Fate had a hand it what they felt. Surely Fate had given them some compensation for the tasks they’d been set.
There was nothing.
There was no trace of love woven into the stardust tied between them. Tony kept looking, but there was no love promised.
Their bond blazed bright, sharp and staccatoed in its pulse. It was blindingly strong. But, it was a drumbeat of war, not love. It was battle and victory and death. Steve was steadfast and ardent, determination wound with the courage to always rise but too rash without support. Bucky was a dark blur of guilt, pain, and skill, lending himself to Steve as needed, glorious with Steve at his side, but reluctant on his own.
They functioned as one, loaning strength to each other as needed, but only divinely mandated for the fight.
There was no assurance of love there.
Not between any of them.
There was war, and need, and destiny.
Tony came to curled in Bucky’s lap.
Fingers drew slow lines over Tony’s chest, and as soon as his eyes opened, Tony looked down.
It wasn’t a Mark. That was instantly clear.
Marks fit beneath a palm.
This expanded over his torso, the edges curving to his sides and the base of his throat, wrapping toward his shoulders, and the whole thing centered over the reactor. It was their Mark, blown wide, grown, and painted with the same shimmering golden orange of the star.
Hope was painful.
Hope meant that the absolute truth, which Tony accepted in a cave in Afghanistan, might be wrong.
Hope meant that he could have his Soulmates.
Hope meant that he could have everything.
Hope meant he could lose everything again.
Bucky trembled as he asked Tony to try, to confirm, to try to prove the bond was a triad.
“You should know what it is. You have to know what I feel. What we feel. We keep telling you that you deserve your Soulmates, you deserve to be loved, you deserve to know. It shouldn’t be me, not after what I did, but me’s all I have to offer. Please. Try.”
It didn’t work.
It wasn’t a Mark.
Tony saw that whenever he let the star take over his vision.
It was a promise and a guide, but it wasn’t a Mark, not like the rest of the world carried.
The nightmares that had plagued his mind since the Chitauri made sense after he gained the Star reactor.
They were back. They were worse than before. It was debilitating. The only change was that Tony understood now.
What had been senseless was made clear.
Horrifying, but clear.
Two days after the boys arrived with a gift from the universe, Tony started building a new arm in exactly the way he knew it had to be.
Three days after that, he walked into their shared room, took the two pieces of the shield without a word of explanation, and melted it down to remake it.
Another week saw General Ross removed from office, and the Accords suddenly had far more signatories.
The nightmares got worse.
He woke up with one or both of them at the side of his bed every time, reminding him to breathe while he shivered.
The day that Tony realized what Thanos hunted was the same day Steve and Bucky broached a subject they’d ignored for months.
“You’re our Soulmate, Tony. You are. Everything is better when you’re with us. We didn’t notice what we were missing when we were kids; It was too new. During the war, we fought and we blamed it on the war. Something’s been wrong between us our whole damn lives. We’ve needed you.”
“Nice of you to say, Steve, but it doesn’t matter, I don’t have a Mark.”
“No, that doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you have our Mark. We wanted you when we thought you had someone else’s Mark. We’ve been trying to take care of you since we found out you lost yours -- dammit, Tony, we need you.”
Tony never told them what had changed when he inserted the Star Reactor. He never told them what he’d seen when he’d been dying in their arms. For months, he had kept that secret.
“No, you don’t. We’ve tried this. I let you -- all this sparkly gold isn’t a Mark. It’s a reaction to the new reactor. It’s science, and yes, we are calling it science, thank you. I don’t understand it yet, but if either of you call this thing magic I’m throwing you off the Burj Khalifa and I haven’t decided if I’ll bother to catch you. It’s science I don’t understand yet.”
“Just because it didn’t give you a bond with us doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to love you.”
“No, but this,” he gestured toward the golden glow, “showed me things. A lot of things. It’s why... look, touch each other. Your Marks -- not... you know what I meant. Do it.” When they complied, he continued, “You do that, and I can see it. I can see the way you’re tied together. There’s this flare that grows and I can see it. I can see that you two are supposed to be right here, wrapped around each other. And I can see what’s between us, and it isn’t the same. Look, just-- touch mine.”
He yanked the buttons open on his shirt so they could obey.
“Nothing happens. There’s no reaction. Nothing you can see, nothing this thing lets me see.”
“You’re supposed to be with us.”
Tony sighed, and decided to try a partial truth. “Yeah, but not because of love.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know why I have your Mark. They… when I was… Turns out the Stars do communicate when you’re dying. They showed me, and I can see it now. It’s not about Love. I’m not supposed to love you. You’re not supposed to love me. There’s something coming, and it needs us. It needs me. That’s why I had that Mark, to make sure that we three would be there to face it. The crazy-advanced Star Science made it pretty clear that this is why. I had to have this Stone Star thing for what’s coming. That meant you two had to have my Mark so you’d go get it for me. I had to lose mine. I had to be in that cave in Afghanistan.
“I’m not supposed to love you. This Mark, the Mark I had before, it isn’t about love. This fight is what I’m supposed to be doing. I was right all along, Iron Man is my Soulmate in every way that matters.”
“What about after, Tony?”
“After the fight. After we win.”
Tony broke eye contact, fidgeting with the shell of the reactor. “I don’t think there is an after for me.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Bucky hissed.
“It means , It’s good that we don’t have a Bond because I wouldn’t want the two of your hurt by what I think is going to happen. Uniques rarely survive when, you know. This way it’s just me and Iron Man.”
The plans continued to form. Alliances were made. He made sure the plan involved Steve and Bucky at his side during the fight, and they trained together. Other than tactical sessions, they didn't speak.
In the end, between Thor, Bruce, Strange, Tony, Jane and Shuri -- mostly the last two -- they knew when the portal would open. They were ready. Thanks to Shuri, they were armed. The others were armed. Tony trusted the bit of stone buried in his sternum that told him that he didn’t need a weapon.
He was the weapon.
Yes, he had gauntlets and a modified suit on, but the threat was the Star, the Stone, not the repulsors. The threat was the vessel the Stars made him into, not the person he had been before.
Earth’s mightiest heroes, drawn from every corner of the globe, stood waiting for the arrival of their enemy. Bucky had some fancy gun hanging from the hand that didn’t have a repulsor in the palm. Steve had the new shield and the tools Shuri made specially for him. The pair had managed to isolate the trio without the rest within hearing range. More impressively, they did it without Tony noticing it was happening.
“Not long left.” Steve said to the sky.
“You changed your mind about what you think is going to happen today?”
Tony looked away from the gorgeous Wakandan sky, finally noticing the bravery on both of them. Bucky nodded his agreement to some previous plan, and started talking.
“You told us that you know what’s supposed to be between us. That you got to see what all was tied between us because I guess we brought you a magical science rock and it told you the future. And I gotta tell you Tony, it doesn’t make a damn difference to me. Neither of us care what that shiny rock has to say about it. Because this isn’t about what Fate wants, or what destiny decided we’d have. This is about us. And what we want. And who we love.
“So I don’t care, Tony.” Bucky continued, “We don’t care. If the Stars or if God, or if all the other Gods I’ve met lately, or if the universe itself has a problem with it, they’re going to have to show up here and stop me. It doesn’t matter what Fate wrote about the three of us. We’ll fight this guy because I think we’re all agreed that letting the world end wouldn’t be much fun, but it doesn’t matter if you’re right, and this Mark wasn’t them promising us love. I love you, and if you want me to walk away, then I will.
“We both know what’s coming, we both know that you think that there isn’t anything for you after today, and I’ll be at your side for that either way, if you’ll let me. But, Tony, just once, just in case this all goes to hell, I wanted to tell you that I love you.”
“We love you.” Steve picked up the thread when Bucky’s voice wavered after his long pronouncement. “Not because of our Marks, but because you’re what we’ve always needed. You’ve taken care of me since before you knew about the Marks. You could have run away from the world after what happened in Afghanistan, or after the Chitauri, but you didn’t. Tony, you took everything the world threw at you, and you found a way to be stronger than it. You did it alone, and it kills me that we weren’t there for you then. And I shouldn’t have kept that from you, I should have trusted you. But you kept pushing us away so we didn’t press it. But we’re here now. And we know we love you. We hope you might love us too.
“If you don’t, that’s fine.” Steve hesitated, obviously hating saying that, “That doesn’t change how we feel. It doesn’t matter if we’re supposed to love you, we do . We love you. That won’t stop. We’re here for you.”
Bucky continued, “You lost your Mark, and you kept going. You made a new one, and you kept going. It poisoned you, and you didn’t let that stop you. Tony, you made your own Fate in so many ways. You’re incredible. You built it yourself. And if you’ll let us, we want that. We want to build a love with you. Yes, there’s work to do there. Stevie an’ me, we gotta make some things right. But we want this. Not because our Marks say so, but because we say so. Because we choose you. Because we three are more when we’re together, and if you’ll let us, we want to take care of you. You said you think your Mark was just to be sure you’d be standing here. I don’t know. Universe might think that this is it for you, but if you can do everything you’ve done, then we can do this. For you. Fate or not, Marks or not, we’ll be at your side, we’ll cover your back. You take care of destiny, and we’ll take care of you .”
Blinking didn’t banish the tears, and they slipped down Tony’s cheeks.
“If you’ll let us, Tony.” Steve added.
“Please let us, sweetheart.”
“Well, we’re gonna have to deal with the Mad Titan first,” Tony joked. “But, you know, if we don’t drop the ball, and the world, you know, exists tomorrow... If we pull this off. And don’t all die, that… it sounds….”
There weren’t words for the enormous mess of anxiety and hope he was trying to explain, so he reached forwards and pushed his hands against their chests, palms flat, over their Marks, getting no echo of a Bond, no reverberation laced with love. It was symbolic. Bucky’s metal hand clapped over Tony’s on his chest, holding him in place.
“If there’s an after, but… yeah. I think so. We could try.” Tony finished softly.
Bucky kissed him, gentler than someone that dangerous had a right to be, fingers tracing the lines of Tony’s Mark, leaning back so Steve could take his place. Steve was barely restrained, frantic joy leaking through the edges of what wanted to be tender.
Shuri interrupted loudly to announce the final countdown.
There wasn’t time for anything more.
The orange-gold glow of the reactor was shimmering, and pinpricks of light were shining in the linework of the expanded Mark. Power welled in his veins, and beaded over the repulsors as he rolled his fingers. Like sweat, the power of the reactor built up and dripped down his limbs, waiting for its purpose.
It started when the portal opened.
A lot started when the portal opened.
Mostly, the star in the reactor woke up like it never had before. Clear as the landscape around him, he could see the ties woven in the air. There were Bonded pairs on the field that pulsed vividly with love. There were more ephemeral links between the Avengers and the Army they stood beside - friendship and camaraderie visible in a softer focus than what Marks described.
Something clicked into place as Tony saw the Titan’s army. He had started to understand when they brought him the Star, but this was the completion of a puzzle. Their team of extraordinary people had always felt as if they were waiting for their real target. Something that had only ever been an approximation, and a practice round, found its apex when the Titan’s army arrived.
This was their purpose. This was why Steve survived his childhood, and why Bucky survived the War. Why Steve was chosen for Rebirth, and why Bucky fell from the train. It was why Tony was tortured and why he lost his Mark. Why they all survived. This was what the Stars required of them.
Tony smiled, settled in his bones, confident watching the patch of stars bleeding open in a sunny sky.
There wasn’t any requirement after this. Tony couldn’t see the next steps in his fate, because this was the last of what was needed from him. The Stars needed him alive for this moment in time. They needed him to do this. There wasn’t a path beyond it, because after this, he would be free.
Steve and Bucky stepped closer, falling into place, ready to face the unstoppable, unafraid so long as they were all together.
First, they would survive the day.
And when they were done, the happiness they found would be of their own making, because they wanted each other. Because they were willing to try, and willing to risk.
It wouldn’t be Fate. It wouldn’t be mandated. It wouldn’t be promised.
They would choose to love each other, and that made it more precious.
Thanos landed in the field before them, gauntlet nearly finished, and pointed it at Tony in a blatant challenge.
They weren’t scripted to a subtle destiny.
Steve and Bucky growled, ready to meet the fight.
Tony grinned, ready to meet his Fate.
There was a Man once, who lived and died and fought along the Path the Stars wrought for him. He was asked to do more, go further, and be better than anyone he knew.
He battled, he warred, and he won.
The Stars did not choose him as a kindness, or to bring him any joy.
They chose him because they could choose no other.
There was a Man once.
He saved the world.
I love you guys, and I will absolutely answer questions if you have them.
However, I do not plan to write more in this world. The point is the open ending. The point is that they are on a path they're forging now, rather than one that was drawn for them. The point is that they are choosing to love each other, not obeying the edicts of fate.