Bucky was pacing back and forth across the width of their tiny tenement when Steve got back from the Sentinel-Guide Center. He'd heard the laborious thumps of Steve's faulty ticker from a couple blocks away, already figured it'd be bad news from how slow Steve was walking, even though his lungs were mostly clear for once.
Bucky was pacing 'cause he was hoping to hell he was wrong, but one look at his friend's face when Steve opened the door and Bucky knew he wasn't. "No dice, huh?" he asked, shoulders slumping.
Steve's sad little headshake told Bucky everything he needed to know. "Not even a Potential."
"Damn." Bucky rubbed the back of his neck, then pulled his head up, putting on his best smile. "Well, we knew it was a longshot anyway, right?" He tried to sound bright and unconcerned even though his heart was breaking, because Steve looked devastated and Bucky would do anything to keep that kind of defeat off his face. "You told me there've never been Sentinels or Guides in your family. Just artists."
Steve shrugged, then sat heavily at the kitchen table and put his head in his hands. "Army's not looking for artists, Buck."
Bucky pulled the second chair over and sat next to him, then put his arm across his shoulders. "Well, they might." God, he hoped not, but it cheered Steve up a little. "But you know, it's not like it'd be so terrible, you stayin' outta the fight."
"How can you say that?" Steve pulled away from him, turning to glare. "People are dying, Bucky! I can't just stay here and do nothing!"
"You won't be doing nothing and we both know it," Bucky said. "You saw the newsreels same as me. They're gonna need people to do all kinds of stuff back in the States. Hell, they probably will need artists, for posters and such. You—"
"You really want me to paint fucking posters while you're out there with some Guide the army assigned you, getting shot at?"
"Yes!" Bucky snapped. "Yes I do! Damn it, Stevie, you think I want you out there with me, in the middle of that shit? You belong here!"
Steve actually flinched. For a second he looked gutted, and then he shoved his chair back and stood. "You don't want me? You think I'm not good enough to fight with you? Well, fine. Fuck you." He stalked to the door, snatching his jacket off the coatrack.
"No! I didn't mean that! Stevie, wait!" Bucky leapt up and lunged for the door, managing to reach over Steve's head to push it shut. "I didn't mean it like that," he repeated, still holding the door closed. "Of course I think you're good enough to fight with me! We've been fighting together our whole lives!"
Steve backed up a couple steps then crossed his arms. He still looked hopping mad. "So, you think I'm good enough to get into brawls in back alleys, but not to go to war."
"That's not true!"
"You just said you didn't!"
"I never said that!" Bucky stood as well, then shoved his fingers through his hair, exhaling loudly in exasperation. "Stevie, I don't want you to die, okay? Jesus Christ, of course you can fight! You're the bravest, most fearless guy I know. You got the spirit of ten men twice your size. But you also got asthma and a bad ticker, and a crooked spine that hurts you all the damn time, and you get sick with fucking pneumonia every time someone even sneezes near you! How long do you really think you'll last out there, with so much working against you?"
"I don't care!"
"Yeah? Well I do!" Bucky shouted. "God damn It! You're like my brother, Stevie! I love you! You think I want you gettin' shot at? Or getting sick in the middle of nowhere so all I can do is watch you die?"
Steve didn't look particularly moved by Bucky's heartfelt declaration. "Then why the hell did you encourage me to get tested, then? What if they'd said I was a Guide, huh? You said you wanted to bond with me. Was that a lie?"
"No! No, Steve. God, no. It wasn't a lie." Bucky put his hands on Steve's tense, bony shoulders, looking him in the eyes. "I've wished you could be my Guide since I knew I was a Sentinel. There's not one person on the whole damn planet I'd be happier with as my Guide than you. You gotta know that."
Steve blinked at him, but at least now he looked more confused than angry. "But, if I was your Guide, we'd go into battle together. And you said you don't want me to."
"Damn right, I don't." Bucky nodded. "Last thing I want is for you to be in danger. But at least if you were my Guide, you'd be with me. We'd be a team, lookin' out for each other. Same as always."
"Oh," Steve said. He still looked mad, but only a little bit. Bucky breathed an internal sigh of relief. "But, if we were bonded and I died, you'd go nuts."
Bucky shrugged. Though, yeah. He'd thought about that. Of course he had; it was every Sentinel's worst nightmare. "Well, figure I'm gonna go nuts anyway, worrying about you getting your ticket punched in some alley and me never even knowing about it. That'd just be different." He grinned, though he knew his heart wasn't in it. "It doesn't matter anyhow, right? You ain't a Guide, and you can't come with me. So, I guess I'll be worrying about you no matter what."
Steve stopped being angry. He let his head hang, scrubbing his face. "And I'll be worrying about you, without a fucking thing either of us can do about it. God, I hate this."
"Me too." Bucky dropped a quick kiss on the crown of Steve's head before pulling him into his arms. "You mean everything to me, Stevie," he said seriously. "I couldn't take it if anything happened to you."
"Yeah, well, same here," Steve huffed, hugging him back. "Still ain't interested in marrying you, though. Guide or not."
Steve said it like a joke, though there was still an apologetic edge to the words, just like always. Steve had never quite understood that Bucky had never expected—or wanted—Steve to go against his nature. Plenty of Sentinel-Guide bonds were platonic; plenty of regular people only ever fell in love with one gender too. Just because their relationship would never be romantic didn't mean Bucky loved Steve any less, or ever thought Steve did.
So he said: "Aw, why'd I wanna marry you? I can barely fucking stand you as it is." Then he kissed Steve on the head again before he let him go, laughing when Steve squawked and batted at him.
Tony lay on his bed, curled up with his fist jammed in his mouth, so his parents wouldn't hear him sobbing.
Maria and Howard were fighting downstairs. They were always fighting, but most of the time they kept their voices low so Tony just heard a lot of hissing but not what they were upset about. This time, though, they were so angry he guessed they'd forgotten to care. Tony could hear everything.
"No, Howard, I don't know. You tell me what's so terrible about being a Guide that you're not going to register our son!"
"Nothing. If you're a woman," Howard spat at her. Tony could hear ice cubes clinking and the glugglugglug noise of his dad pouring himself a large drink. It was his fifth; Tony had been counting. "You think I want my son to be some goddamned empathic pussy? Checking his Sentinels' levels and polishing their mental shields like a fucking housewife?" His words were slurring a little bit. He wasn't usually this mean unless he'd been drinking.
"There are just as many Sentinels who are women as there are men," Maria said coldly. "And there are certainly just as many male Guides. Almost all the children in my family were born Guides, boys and girls. You knew that when you married me."
"And who wanted children, huh? Not me. That was you," Howard sneered. "Only you. And look what that got you: a smarmy little sycophant Guide who starts blubbering anytime anyone looks at him cross-eyed."
Tony stifled another sob, sternly telling himself that he wasn't going to start blubbering. He already knew his dad had never wanted him. Howard had said it himself often enough. He imagined his father chugging the glass he'd just poured. He wished he would choke on it, then Tony wished he could be the one dying instead. But maybe his mom would miss him.
"Tony's empathy is a virtue, Howard. Being emotionally attuned to others is a skill, and one you sorely lack." Maria ignored Howard's contemptuous snort. "When he's old enough for his abilities to activate we'll get him trained—"
"Oh we are not fucking training him!" Howard snarled. "No. No way. You really think anyone's going to know about this? I'd never live it down."
"How could you say that?" Maria demanded, shocked. "Being a Guide is an honor!"
"It's a fucking disgrace. Just like you and that whiny brat you raised. And I am not bringing disgrace onto my household, do you hear me? Bad enough the people at the Center know. At least the rest of the fucking world doesn't have to find out about it!"
There was a second of silence, where Tony could easily imagine his mom staring at her husband with wide, pained eyes, putting her palm to the base of her throat. "And how do you propose to stop it?"
Howard smirked, and Tony loathed him so much in that moment it felt like the rage had turned his guts to acid. "I already did, sweetheart. Where do you think Jarvis was going, before? Or was it too much for that pretty little Guide head of yours to think about?"
Maria gasped. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything," Howard said. "I had Jarvis go over there and tell them if they didn't lose Anthony's test results I'd raze 'em to the fucking ground."
"You bastard!" She slapped him—Tony heard the nose like a gunshot all the way into his room—and then the louder, sledgehammer sound of Howard backhanding her.
"Don't you dare disrespect me like that in my own house, you bitch!" Howard shouted. Tony cringed on his bed, wondering if his dad would hit his mom again. But a moment later he heard him stalking away, leaving Maria crying quietly on the floor.
Tony waited until he couldn't hear his dad, then crept downstairs.
His mom was sitting on the couch, staring at nothing. Her fingers rested lightly on her cheek where Howard had hit her. The skin was red and swollen, already beginning to bruise.
Tony went closer, frightened of the empty despair in her eyes, but not wanting to leave her alone. "Mom?"
He hadn't been all that quiet but she startled anyway. Then she turned to him with a big warm smile. She didn't drop her hand, like she was trying to hide the injury. "Hello, darling. Could you ask Ana to bring me an ice pack, please? I'm afraid I walked into a door." Her laughter sounded almost genuine. "I'm so terribly clumsy."
"I know what happened, Mom," Tony said softly. "I heard it."
Maria's face crumpled. "Oh, dear." She opened her arms, then embraced Tony tightly when he all but ran into them. "I'm sorry, Tony, darling. I'm so, terribly sorry."
Tony tried hard not to start blubbering, but he was angry and scared and sad; guilty that he was too afraid of Howard to even try to protect his mother, and certain being a Guide was somehow his fault. Another way he'd failed to live up to Howard Stark's expectations. He began to sob in his mother's arms. "What did I do wrong?" He forced the words out between the hitches in his breathing. "Why can't I be a Sentinel?"
"No, no, darling. You didn't do anything wrong," Maria said, stroking his hair. "You couldn't control how you were born. None of us can. You're a Guide because almost everyone in my family are Guides, that's all."
"Then why does dad hate me?"
His mom made a small, pained noise that instantly made Tony feel even worse for upsetting her. But she just hugged him a little more tightly. "He doesn't hate you. He just…he wants you to be strong. Guides are strong. They're extremely strong. They have to be, because they have to help their Sentinels with their shields and keep them safe. And Guides also can feel other peoples' emotions sometimes, and that can be very hard. So Guides are strong. Unfortunately, not everyone understands that. But it doesn't make it less true."
"What's gonna happen to me, if I can't be trained as a Guide?" Tony sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve, then grimaced in apology when his mom quietly handed him a tissue from the box on the coffee table. "Am I going to go crazy?"
"You are certainly not." Maria took his face in her hands. "You will be trained, Anthony. I can train you. So can Ana. And Edwin and your aunt Peggy can help you practice with proper Sentinels. I promise you, you are going to be an excellent Guide, even if we're the only ones who know it."
She hugged Tony again, and kissed the side of his face. He felt a little better.
Ana, Peggy and his mom were the strongest people he knew, aside from his father. He hoped they could make him strong, too.
"Can't I tell people, though?" he asked quietly. "What if someone wants to bond with me?"
He knew what the answer would be from the sorrow in Maria's smile. "I think it would be better to keep it our secret. At least for a while." She touched her cheek again, then realized what she'd done unthinkingly and quickly pulled her hand away. But Tony understood.
"It's okay, mom. It can be our secret for a while," Tony said.
There were ways a Guide could keep that part of themselves hidden, and Tony learned all of them. By the time he was fourteen, he could stand next to any Guide or Sentinel, no matter how powerful, and they would never guess he was anything but ordinary. Even his mom couldn't sense his abilities unless he wanted her to. It made Tony feel proud and sad at the same time.
He told himself he'd get officially retested and registered when his Guide abilities manifested, consequences be damned. He activated as a Guide two days after his sixteenth birthday, but when he told Maria he wanted to retest her face went white.
Then Tony decided to wait until he was eighteen. But by then he was working on his second PhD and designing weapons for Stark Industries. No matter what Tony made, or how hard he worked, Howard never seemed happy with him. But Obie kept telling Tony how proud he was.
Obie was a Guide too, something that didn't seem to bother Howard at all. Tony tried not to be jealous of that. After all, it'd be impossible to think of Obie as anything less than strong or appropriately masculine. He had a physical presence as imposing as any Sentinel, and he wielded his mild pleasantness like a weapon. Tony had seen people practically gibber in terror when Obie smiled with all his teeth.
Tony decided it was better to wait a couple more years, rather than have to explain to Obie why he'd kept something that important from him. Especially from a Guide he respected and admired so much.
Then Tony turned twenty, and in December his parents died. After that it was hard to give a shit if anyone knew he was a Guide or not. He'd given up on the possibility of bonding decades ago, anyway. After all, who in their right mind would want to bond with him?
Tony stopped giving a shit about much of anything for the next eighteen years. Most of the time he was too drunk, high or exhausted to remember he was a Guide at all.
The Winter Soldier had never had a Guide.
He knew what they were: sops for weak Sentinels who couldn't control their senses on their own. He didn't need that. He knew how to alter the strength of his senses, how to push through sensory spikes just like any other kind of pain. He was only pushed into a fugue—no, a zone, that was what he was instructed to call it now—when his handlers wanted some peace and quiet. And they always pulled him out of it eventually anyway. He didn't need a Guide for that. He knew he'd never suffered a sensory overload because that was what his handlers told him.
Sometimes, though, he had a vague, fleeting sense that this wasn't true. He remembered lying curled in agony in a cell, all his senses spiking at once. He couldn't remember why, only that the newspaper they'd given him had suddenly felt like glass shards in his shaking hand. Something he'd read. Something in the headline about somebody who was gone.
Or huddled on a dirt road with his eyes clenched shut and his hands clamped over his ears, with the wreck of a burning car behind him….
But neither of those could be right. The Winter Soldier had no past, and his truth was whatever his handlers said it was. He'd never fallen into sensory overload.
He'd never had a Guide either. But sometimes he thought maybe that also wasn't true. Sometimes, there was this…image in his head: of a gangly, wickedly smart kid with black hair, blue eyes, and a slow, lazy smile. And the Soldier had a…had a memory of someone saying, We're gonna bond for real, right? After the war? and him answering, Yes. God, yes. Like it was the only thing he'd ever wanted.
Sometimes he also remembered running, holding the kid—his Guide—by the hand, trying to pull him to safety. And then there was a flash of blue light, and then mist where a person had been. He was still holding his Guide's hand, but it was attached to nothing.
After that the memory was just a dark, incomprehensible morass of grief, rage and blood. It was easier not to think about it.
None of that could be true. He'd never lost a Guide, because he'd never had one.
They told him that he must not approach or engage a Guide. They didn't explain why, but he knew better than to ask. He was the Winter Soldier, Sentinel and weapon. The only things he needed to know were what they told him.
And two days ago, they'd told him to kill Tony Stark.
"I'm sorry, Tony. I love you. I always will. You're one of my dearest friends," Pepper said. She'd been crying. Her face was all blotchy-pink and puffy around her eyes. Tony ruthlessly crushed the urge to say something that might make her feel better. "But Happy's my Guide, and we're going to bond, and it's not going to be platonic. I'm sorry. I never meant to do that to you. But I've known since I met him that he was going to be mine." Pepper sniffled, wiping her eyes. "My mistake was in staying with you so long. But I was in love with you, Tony. I really was. It's just…things changed. I changed. So did you. And, Happy's my Guide."
"So, it was a mistake?" There were tears in his eyes, born of anger and a hurt so deep it was like she'd yanked out his reactor and took his heart with it, left nothing behind but an empty, aching hole. He was still waiting for it to hit bottom. "Nearly five years of my life and you call that a mistake? Well, maybe….maybe it didn't mean anything to you, since you've got Happy now,"—he'd meant to sound caustic and sneering, not pathetically uncertain, which was how the words came out—"but it meant a hell of a lot to me, Pepper. It meant…." He cut himself off, swallowing. "It meant everything to me," he rasped. "You meant everything."
"Oh, Tony." Pepper reached for him, but Tony took a step back. It put him nearer to the window; the view of the Pacific was just as gorgeous as always, dappled in the light of the California sun. The beauty of the day was so incongruous with his world ending. "It did mean something," she whispered. He was viciously pleased that she was trying not to cry again. "I loved you. I still love you. I just can't love you the way you want me to. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Tony. I never wanted to hurt you."
"Yeah, well, you did." Tony raked his fingers of both hands through his hair. He started pacing, back and forth in front of the beautiful view like an animal in a cage. He stopped, whirling. "What if I said I was a Guide?" he blurted. "What then?"
He had no idea why he'd said that. It wasn't like his suddenly owning up to being a Guide would change anything at this point. Somehow he couldn't stop talking about it now, though. "What if I was a Guide too?"
Pepper stared at him for a moment, blinking tears onto her cheeks. She pulled a tissue from the box on the table and dabbed at her eyes. "Then I'd tell you that, even if you weren't making it up to be an asshole, it's too late. Maybe I could have bonded with you, if you were a Guide. But you're not. And even if you somehow actually are and just kept it from me…you had five years to tell me, and you didn't."
Tony rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the floor. He could thin his shields right now, let Pepper know he was telling her the absolute truth. He kept them as strong as always, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. "Yeah," he said. "You're right. I'm just being an asshole. Sorry." He lifted his head. "Well, I wish you all the best, you and Happy. Happy and Pepper Potts-Hogan. It's got a nice ring to it." He hoped the brightness in his voice didn't sound as brittle and false to her as it did to him. "I hope you'll invite me to the bonding." He gave her his best public smile, because he had nothing else.
"Of course," Pepper said. Her returning smile was just as fake. "We were hoping you'd stand with us."
"Sure," Tony said cheerfully. "Just send me the deets. I'm all over it." He took a breath, kept his smile stuck to his face. "So, if that's what you came here to tell me…."
Pepper nodded, swallowing again. "Yes. That was everything." Her smile turned genuine, and so sad he couldn't stand it. "You're a good man, Tony. I'm honored to call you my friend. I just wish things could've been different."
"Me too," Tony said, meaning it. He quietly sidestepped her when she leaned in to kiss his cheek. "You know the way out."
She hesitated, and Tony figured he'd hurt her feelings. He felt badly about that, but not badly enough to apologize. "Take care, Pep," he said softly. He meant that, too.
"You too, Tony."
He turned back to the window, staring out at the empty horizon while she walked down the stairs and out the door.
It was difficult but not impossible to break into the target's home in Malibu. The security was formidable: an advanced artificial intelligence that existed as part of the house. But there was a weakness in everything, if you looked hard enough. The Soldier's handlers found the one here and exploited it, unleashing a virus into the A.I.'s system. It was too occupied to notice when the Soldier slipped in.
It was a beautiful home, something he noted in passing as he walked carefully through the main foyer. He wished he didn't have to burn it down, but that would be the easiest way to hide the evidence. His handlers had told him explicitly that the death needed to look like an accident. Above all, no one could know he stole the reactor from Stark's chest.
He wished he didn't have to kill Stark either, but the Winter Soldier never had a choice about who he killed. The only choice he ever had was how, sometimes when. For this mission, he had chosen to eliminate the target at night. Partially for the cover of darkness, and partially in the hope the target would be sleeping. He always tried to make his kills as quick and as painless as he could.
He paused at the foot of the stairs that led to the upper level bedrooms, stretching out his hearing. The upstairs was empty, but there was movement in the basement.
It was useful that the target was in his workshop, since it would be easier there to make his death look like an accident. It was also a plausible place for the fire to start. But the target would probably see him. The Soldier hated it when his targets died afraid.
He hated having to kill. He never wanted to hurt anyone.
The Soldier crept silently down the stairs and into the target's workshop. His handlers had disabled the security system, wi-fi and telephone, but not the electricity. Stark's heartbeat was agitated, but his actions showed he was upset, not suspicious. Good.
He also smelled really, really good. Under the grease and the target's sweat and stress, the man's own scent was…. He smelled like something warm and restful that the Soldier thought he knew the name of, once. He wanted more of it. He wanted to stand next to Stark and just breathe.
He wanted to protect him, but he couldn't. Hesitation would be punished and the target had to die.
Stark was sitting at a long workbench, muttering to himself as he worked on what looked like a boot from one of his powered suits. "I love you Tony, but not like you want me to," he said, as if another person were speaking. "Yeah, well, no one's ever fucking loved me like I fucking want them to. Can't seem to…." He paused, grunting a bit in effort as he used his tool to adjust something. "That's better. See? This is what you're fucking good at, Tony. You build shit and you fix it. You just can't do a God damned thing for yourself…." He stopped again, struggling with something else in the boot, then he suddenly cried out in frustration and swept everything to the floor. "Fuck!" The Soldier could hear tears in Stark's voice. The target put his face in his hands.
The Soldier stayed behind him, unseen in the shadows near the door, waiting in uncertainty and…longing? Longing to breathe in more of Stark's scent. Longing to touch, and to somehow make his stress and sadness go away. Longing to keep him safe, instead of hurting him.
Longing was dangerous. Longing would lead to punishment. The Soldier needed to carry out his mission. He should have done it already, he'd already wasted far too much time. But he didn't want to hurt the target. That wasn't unusual; he never wanted to hurt his targets. But what he wanted was to cross the space between them and pull the target into his arms….
For far too long the Soldier couldn't move, caught between his instincts and the requirements of the mission. He was trembling, terrified and overwhelmed. He couldn't understand this. He didn't know what was happening. The target had to die. But the Soldier wanted…he wanted….
Then Stark finally lifted his head. "Okay," he said softly. He took a breath, then clapped his hands. "All right, J.A.R.V.I.S., break's over. Let's get the blueprints up for this fucking thing—"
Adrenaline snapped the Soldier out of the inexplicable stalemate and he was moving just as the target realized his A.I. had been compromised. He reached Stark before the man could do more than turn half way on his stool, grabbed him by the throat and slammed him to the floor. The plan was to break his neck, remove the reactor, then rig an explosion to destroy the body. The remains of the house would burn. Ideally, there would be nothing left of Stark to find.
He had his right hand around Stark's throat, not his left, but that was immaterial. The Soldier didn't need his left hand to kill. Except, he was looking into Stark's eyes, touching him skin to skin with the intimacy of predator and prey. And he felt….
Bone-deep recognition, like he'd known this man forever. Warmth, spreading out from a place in his mind he'd never known was empty, let alone so cold he ached at the memory of it. Peace and safety, like the moment right before the ice, when he knew no one could hurt him and he couldn't hurt anyone else.
Belonging, like he couldn't remember ever feeling at all. But he knew to the depths of his soul that this was his place. He belonged with this man.
It felt like coming home. Like finally coming home.
The protectiveness that had made the Soldier hesitate before was suddenly overwhelming, followed by a surge of affection that—what the hell was he doing?
Tony Stark was a Guide. He was hurting a Guide. He was hurting his Guide.
The Soldier let go of Tony and scrambled away. He lurched to his feet, desperate to flee before he did anything worse. But if he ran, he wouldn't be able to protect Tony, and what would his Guide do when the Soldier's handlers came for their weapon?
But, Tony Stark was his mission. The Soldier was supposed to kill him. If he didn't, they would punish him. He didn't want to be punished. He wanted to not be in pain. He was always in pain, but if he failed it would be so much worse. Except Tony was his Guide. The Soldier would rather die than hurt him. But if he ran Tony would have no protector. The Soldier's handlers would find him and kill him—
The world exploded into excruciating pain.
The Soldier cried out and fell to his knees, the reverberation of the impact juddered like earthquakes through his bones. His clothing had turned to glass shards, gouging him everywhere it touched. The background thrum of machinery screamed like a jet engine; the lights were searing his eyes. His own gasping breath roared like a hurricane in and out of his lungs. Someone was talking, but the words were like rifle blasts, incomprehensible except as pain. The stench of old exhaust, oil and grease, heated metal and stressed bodies made him gag.
And his left arm. Oh, God. His arm—
Sensory overload. But that didn't happen to him. His handlers said. So he didn't…he didn't….
Something wrapped around his chest, hot as a brand and agonizingly tight. He screamed with the shock of new pain, felt like the sound ripped his throat out. He tried to get away, but moving at all was agony, and he was clumsy and uncoordinated, drowning….
And then it stopped.
"Shh. I got you. I got you. You're okay. It's all gone now, see? It's over. You're all right."
Tony. That was Tony. He could understand what he was saying, now the words weren't like bullets in the back of his skull. Tony was kneeling behind him, with his arms wrapped around the Soldier's body. Tony touching him didn't hurt anymore. Nothing hurt beyond his normal, constant pain.
"T-Tony?" He was shivering. Tony sent him warmth, sliding like water from his Guide's mind to his. It felt like a blanket being wrapped around him. He was safe and warm, and being held by the one he belonged with. He was all right.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt all right.
"Yeah. I'm right here. I got you. You're safe. Can you feel the shields I remade for you? Can you take them over from me?"
"Sh-shields?" But, yes. Yes, he knew what Tony was talking about now. He could feel it: as if Tony had built a missile silo around his mind. Only this was a place of rest and safety, not cold and aching fear. The Soldier concentrated and took control of the shields. He was worried his touch would ruin them, taint them somehow. But they still felt warm and good.
Tony hadn't let go of him, which was perfect, because the Soldier didn't want him to. He turned carefully in Tony's arms instead, fiercely promising himself he wouldn't hurt him. He ended up sitting cross-legged on the floor with Tony in his lap and his legs bracketing the Soldier's hips, and their arms wrapped around each other. The Solder tucked his nose against Tony's neck, so every breath brought him his Guide's lush, rich scent. He smelled so good, the Soldier knew he would recognize it anywhere. He closed his eyes, filling his hearing with Tony's heartbeat, and the hum of the reactor in his chest. He didn't want to stop hugging his Guide long enough to touch his face, so he nuzzled him instead, memorizing the curve of Tony's cheekbone and jaw, and the warmth of his skin. The Soldier wanted to taste him, too. He didn't understand why he wanted to—he didn't understand any of this—but he dabbed his tongue carefully to the skin at the hinge of Tony's jaw. His Guide tasted wonderful, as good as he smelled.
"Are you imprinting on me?" Tony asked him.
"I don't know," the Soldier murmured. He licked the corner of Tony's lips, and that tasted even better, but Tony sucked in a tiny breath, like it hurt.
The Soldier froze, pulled his head back. "Are you all right? Did I—"
"I'm fine!" Tony said immediately. "You didn't hurt me. Everything's fine. I just wasn't expecting it. It's okay." He caressed the back of the Soldier's neck. "It's okay. Go ahead and finish imprinting. I don't mind."
"Okay." The Soldier wasn't sure Tony really didn't mind, since he was feeling too many things for the Soldier to track. None of them were pain, though. And when the Soldier leaned in again Tony didn't pull away.
The Soldier tasted the seam of Tony's lips, and then when Tony parted them, the inside of his mouth. That was the best of all. It sent a wave of delicious heat rolling down his spine, comforting and exciting all at once. It felt like something he'd done before, something good, like the opposite of hurting. He never wanted to forget it again.
Tony pulled back first, but he rested his forehead against the Soldier's. He was breathing hard, but smiling. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," the Soldier returned automatically. He put his hand on the side of Tony's face, then slid it into his hair. "What…is this? What's happening?"
Tony lifted his head. The Soldier let him go instantly, ready to scramble away again. But Tony didn't let go. He ran his hands up and down the Soldier's arms, calming him. "We bonded. Spontaneously." Tony's surprise and quiet elation flowed into the Soldier's mind. "I didn't know that could really happen."
The Soldier knew those words, but that didn't mean he understood what Tony was talking about. Bonding took…it took time. And, and a ceremony. Like marriage.
We're gonna bond for real, right? After the war?
Yes. God, yes.
Once, the Soldier had wanted that more than anything. But he didn't need a Guide. That was why his handlers had never let him have one.
"I don't understand."
"That's okay," Tony said. "This is pretty new for me too." His voice was so gentle, just like everything the Soldier could feel from his mind. "It means that you're my Sentinel, and I'm your Guide." Tony touched the Soldier's face the way he'd touched Tony. "I can't believe this. I never thought I'd bond with anyone, let alone someone who was probably supposed to kill me." His expression was strange, like he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. "Story of my life, right? My would-be assassin is actually my Sentinel. Not to mention you're also the only person in the world who even knows I'm a Guide."
"I'm sorry," the Soldier said. "I was sent to kill you." He didn't want Tony to feel his remorse and guilt. His Guide didn't deserve any of the dark, terrible things inside him. But he didn't know how to stop it. "I almost did kill you. I didn't want to, but I would have." He'd had his hand around a Guide's throat. His Guide's throat. How could he have done that? Just thinking of hurting a Guide made him want to vomit, but he hurt Tony. He'd had his hand around Tony's throat. "I'm sorry!" he said again, reeling with it. "Oh, God, I'm sorry!" He tried to let go and flee again, but Tony wouldn't allow it.
Tony swallowed. "I know. I know you didn't. I believe you. It's okay."
The Soldier let out a breath that sounded too much like a sob (he wasn't allowed to cry) and hugged Tony more tightly, putting his head on his shoulder. "I feel like I'm yours," he said softly. "Am I yours, now? Are you my new owner?"
His Guide inhaled sharply, like he had when the Soldier touched his lips. He was afraid he'd said something wrong, but all he could feel from Tony was sadness. Sad for him? He didn't understand.
"Yeah, you're mine," Tony said, a little rough. He stroked his fingers through the Soldier's hair. That felt so good. "But, I don't own you. I'm yours, too. We belong to each other. Do you understand? We belong to each other. I don't own you and you don't own me."
"Oh," the Soldier said. He liked that, not being owned. "I can feel what you're feeling."
"That's 'cause of the bond," Tony said. "We can feel each other's emotions. We'll be able to find each other if we're not together, too."
"Good," the Soldier said. "I don't want to lose you." Except, he realized, it wasn't good. Tony had to leave, and it would be terrible if the Soldier could find him again. He lifted his head. "You can't stay here. I almost killed you. You have to leave. They'll make me hurt you. I don't want to hurt you!"
"Whoa! Slow your roll, gauntlet. Nobody's getting hurt here. Unless you mean my legs, which are cramping a little. But it's fine!" Tony added quickly. "It's fine. This is good. This is great. I'm perfectly fine with my legs cramping because I'm hugging my Sentinel. This is awesome."
That was what Tony felt, too. There was some discomfort, but it was just a tiny, barely-noticeable thing next to his joy, amazement, and sense of welcome. Tony was also afraid, but it was for the Soldier, which his didn't understand. And sadness, which was for him too. But the forgiveness confused the Soldier the most, because he didn't deserve it.
"Of course you deserve it," Tony said. "You didn't ask for any of this, did you?" He didn't wait for an answer, just pushed the Soldier's messy hair away from his face. "You're so beautiful. I keep thinking I know you from somewhere. Not because of this, but like, I've actually seen you before. I just can't remember."
The Soldier had never been called 'beautiful.' He thought his work had, maybe, but he couldn't remember. He didn't think killing people was beautiful. "I don't know," he said. He knew he'd never seen Tony before tonight. He gently moved Tony off his lap, despite his protests, then helped him to his feet as they both stood. "You have to leave," he said again. "The people who sent me, they'll come here. They can't find you."
"Who sent you? Why do they want me dead?"
"Hydra. And they want you and the CEO dead, so people they control can take over your company." The Soldier winced, wishing he didn't have to tell Tony any of this. "Virginia Potts was my next target."
"Hydra? HYDRA wants Pepper dead?" Tony gaped at him, "Oh my God. Is she all right?"
The Soldier nodded. "It…I wasn't supposed to…go after her for a while. A year, I think. My handlers were discussing it. I wasn't supposed to hear them, but I did." He looked away, his guts still churning with what he'd almost done. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to kill her. I didn't want to kill either of you."
"I know," Tony said, and the Soldier could feel his belief, his utter faith in him. It was breathtaking. "You don't have to do that anymore."
The Soldier wanted to believe that very, very badly. It was difficult; he wasn't familiar with hope. "I'll have to, after Hydra finds me."
"They won't find you," Tony said fervently. He frowned. "Fuck, they're not even supposed to exist anymore. The Howling Commandos got rid of them."
The words Howling Commandos felt familiar, almost like Tony did, but the Soldier didn't know why. He shook his head. "Hydra sent me. And they'll come soon, to find out why I haven't gone back."
Tony grimaced, then put his hand over his mouth, thinking. The Soldier could feel his concentration over the bond, the flare of inspiration before Tony snapped his fingers. "S.H.I.E.L.D.! Of course. We'll go to S.H.I.E.L.D.—"
"No!" The Soldier startled himself with his vehemence. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is Hydra! If you go to them they'll kill you." He shook his head frantically, holding Tony's shoulders. "No, no, no. Don't go to them. Please. Please, they'll kill you!"
"Shh, it's okay." Tony sent him warmth and comfort until the Soldier was able to relax a little. "I believe you," he said, as if the Soldier had thought he wouldn't. "But…holy fuck. S.H.I.E.L.D. is Hydra? Like, all of them?" He grimaced at the Soldier's shaky nod, then ran his fingers through his hair, leaving his hand on the back of his head. "Fuck me," he murmured. "Fucking hell, I designed things for them! And they're fucking Hydra? What the hell are we supposed to do now?"
"I don't know," the Soldier said. "There's nothing we can do. We can't stop them." They would kill Tony, then take their Winter Soldier back. He'd never see him again. "We can't go to S.H.I.E.L.D.. You need to leave. I'll stay here, give you as much time as I can." He nodded to himself. He wouldn't see Tony again that way either, but it was the best option. Tony would be alive, and that was everything.
"What?" Tony demanded, gaping. "No! No, I am not leaving you! I am not going to fucking leave my bond partner to be killed by Hydra!" He grabbed the Soldier's wrist, as if he was scared the Soldier was about to bolt. Tony's horror slid along their bond like ice. "Are you fucking nuts?"
"No," the Soldier said. "I just can't remember anything."
Tony blinked. "You're serious? You really can't remember anything? No, of course you're serious. I can feel that you're serious. Oh, my God." He looked really sad again. "That's terrible." He cupped the Soldier's cheek. "Not anything at all? What about your name?"
The Soldier shook his head. "They call me 'Soldier'. Or, 'the Asset', sometimes. I'm a weapon. I don't need a name."
"Oh, my God," Tony repeated softly. Then he hugged the Soldier, gripping so tightly it almost hurt. "We're going to fix this, okay? You've got me, now. I'm going to help you. You don't have to be Hydra's weapon anymore." The sense of his conviction was like a light. He held the Soldier a little tighter for a moment, then let go and stepped back. "I have an idea, but we're gonna need help. We're going to have to go to D.C."
"Well," Tony said, "I'm pretty sure I know one guy who isn't Hydra. And that's where he lives."
Tony wanted to take a couple suits, since time was very clearly of the fucking essence. But even though Collin (there was no way in hell he was calling his bond partner 'Soldier', or 'Asset' like he was a goddamn NPC in a video game. His mother's middle name had been 'Collins' so it would do) didn't say anything or, hell, do more than twitch a little when the suits showed up, he was so very much quietly freaking the fuck out over their bond that Tony changed his mind immediately.
It wasn't that Collin was claustrophobic. Or at least he didn't mind climbing into Tony's Saleen S7, other than being disappointed he wasn't the one driving. Tony would've preferred his Audi, but the Saleen was faster and they were on a deadline: Get out of dodge before Hydra came to find out what was taking their murder slave so long.
So, Collin didn't have problems with enclosed spaces. Just really confining enclosed spaces. And it wasn't the least bit horrible to wonder what the fuck might've given him that particular phobia. Not horrible at all. Nope.
Feeling Collin's exhilaration at the Saleen's speed and maneuverability on the highway was pretty awesome, though. Tony kept sneaking grins at him, instead of strictly keeping his eyes on the road. He couldn't help it; his soulmate was happy. He was still just as anxious, sad and scared underneath it, of course, plus the constant remorse and guilt like a wound that wouldn't heal. But there was happiness there, too. And when Collin carefully, uncertainly, put his hand on Tony's leg, well. Fuck Hydra and their assassination deadlines that meant Tony couldn't pull over and give Collin some other things to be happy about.
Of course, if it hadn't been for Hydra, Tony might never have met Collin at all. He wasn't sure what to feel about that.
His Quinjet was waiting for him at the L.A. Airport. This time he let Collin pilot, while Tony and J.A.R.V.I.S. hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. with a more sophisticated version of the virus he'd used on Fury's helicarrier back in 2011. In the halcyon days when life was simple and all they had to do was repel alien invasions. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, exactly, since he doubted Hydra would be arrogant—or stupid—enough to mark their files. Even if they were Nazis. He figured he'd know it when he saw it. Or, rather, J.A.R.V.I.S. would tag everything even remotely suspicious and Tony would sort through the data later.
Tony also put in a flight plan for Siberia, on Collin's recommendation. It would make sense that the Winter Soldier would flee back to his first owners, and the American cell (neck? Head?) of Hydra who had him now would hesitate before they charged into another cell's territory.
Having J.A.R.V.I.S. hack air traffic control to show them taking a nice, linear route to Tolmachevo Airport while they cloaked the jet and flew to Washington was so easy it was actually sad. Tony made a mental note to get Stark Industries into airport upgrades.
The rest of the time, Tony had J.A.R.V.I.S. run diagnostics on the portable suitcase suit he'd grabbed before they left. He wanted to make absolutely certain he'd be able to protect his Sentinel, if those Hydra fuckers found him before Tony could reduce them to atoms.
He'd thought he'd hated his father with every fiber of his being; turned out that was a lie. Tony hadn't known this depth of hatred could even exist, or that he could feel it on behalf of another person.
He did his best to keep his rage and loathing locked away, in case Collin felt it over the bond. Tony tended to feel things very strongly at the best of times. The last thing he wanted was to scare Collin with the wildness of his emotions. Even worse was if Collin somehow decided that Tony hatred him, when that couldn't have been further from the truth. What Tony felt for Collin was the complete opposite of hatred. Kind of terrifyingly so.
Tony had been, very carefully, calling it 'fondness', even though he knew that wasn't close to accurate. Fond wasn't powerful enough. Nowhere near powerful enough.
Except, they'd just met, for fuck's sake. Pepper had just broken up with him, though Tony was feeling a lot less hurt and a lot more sympathetic about it now. Collin didn't even have a real name. For all Tony knew, they'd grown the poor bastard in a jar. Like sea monkeys. Maybe his left arm hadn't come out right, so they'd made him a new one. Tony would have loved to get a closer look at it. Maybe Collin would let him, once they'd made sure he was safe.
But, yeah. Just met. And sure, Tony had fallen into bed with people right after he'd met them, but not into…not into fondness. After all, there was 'love at first sight', and then there was I will do anything for him mere hours after almost being murdered.
Tony was so screwed.
"Are you okay, Tony?" Collin was looking over his shoulder at him, concern in those incredible grey-blue eyes. "Your mind is…" He made a face, trying to come up with the right adverb. "Loud."
"Everything's fine, sweetheart. My mind is just loud a lot of the time," Tony said, grinning. It was only when he felt the flash of surprise from Collin's mind, followed by a surge of contentment, that he realized he'd called Collin 'sweetheart' without thinking about it. Like they'd been love—like they'd been fond of each other for years.
Was there something worse than being screwed? Because clearly Tony was already there.
Since they were in a Quinjet, the flight from L.A. to S.I.'s D.C. branch took less than three hours instead of around five. That was great, because expediency. It was less great because it meant it was still O'Dark Whatever by the time they'd landed, still cloaked, in a nearby parking lot and got to the building Tony had dubbed Steve's Government-Sponsored Misery Apartment. It was still so early that Steve wasn't even awake for his masochistic pre-dawn run.
Tony had a key to Steve's place, which naturally was still in Malibu. At least he'd possessed the wherewithal to put Collin in the spare Stark Industries hoodie he kept in the jet. It was sized for Bruce, which meant even after Collin took off the fetish gear armor it was tight on him. But at least with the hood up and his left hand in the pouch he didn't look quite so much like an antihero in a cyberpunk novel.
"Hey! Hey, Pastyfreeze! Wakey-wakey! I need to talk to you!" Tony said loudly, pounding on Steve's apartment door. It occurred to him a moment later that the neighbors might not appreciate that, but by then Steve was already hauling the door open. He'd definitely just woken up: he was wearing dorm pants and a tee-shirt that actually fit him, with his shield on his arm.
"Tony, what are you doing here? Are you all right?" he asked, impressively alert.
"Hi, Cap," Tony said brightly. "I'm fine, but me and my friend here flew all the way from Malibu and our arms are kind of tired. So could you let us in?"
"What friend?" Steve asked, and Tony had a moment of panic, simultaneously thinking Oh my God he left me already and, Oh my God Hydra got him. And then he realized that—duh—Collin was right fucking next to him, with his back to the wall just a couple feet away from Steve's door. Keeping guard, like a Sentinel.
Jesus Christ, Tony loved him. He was so fucked.
"This friend," Tony said. He gently took Collin's nearer hand and tugged him closer. "C'mon, honeysuckle."
Collin let Tony pull him into Steve's foyer as Steve closed and locked his door. Collin kept his head down and his metal hand in the hoodie pouch, hunching his shoulders as if he were trying to look as small and unthreatening as possible. Tony didn't know if he should appreciate that on Steve's behalf, or just find it sad.
Steve put his shield next to the door, then turned around and held out his hand, because he was a gentleman. "Hi, I'm Steve Rogers. Any friend of Tony's is—"
He stopped dead, going completely still the second Collin glanced up, as if Collin's luminescent eyes had turned Steve to stone. Then Steve's face drained of blood so fast Tony let go of Collin's hand and reached for Steve instead, scared he might keel over.
Steve's lips moved like he was trying to remember how to speak. Then, "…Bucky?" His voice was hushed with awe.
"Bucky?" Tony parroted dumbly, but Collin—Bucky?—was staring back at Steve, his eyes like stunned dinnerplates. His bond with Tony was practically writhing with confusion and fear.
"Who's Bucky?" Collin said. He backed up a step, looking from Steve to the door just behind him, exactly like he was about to make a run for it.
Tony took Collin's wrist. "It's okay. No one's going to hurt you." He scooped up as much calm, security and safety as he could and shoved it along the bond to him, trying to get Collin to stop freaking out. "Everything's fine. Steve just…" Tony glanced helplessly at Steve, but Steve was still poleaxed and unable to offer any help. "Steve thinks you look like someone he knows," Tony said. Then blinked. "Knew." He looked at Collin again, studying his face.
Collin really was beautiful. More importantly, Tony realized where he knew him from. That was the same gloriously sharp jawline and cleft chin Tony had traced longingly in every history textbook since grade four. And those were the same luminescent eyes he'd seen in Steve's sketchbooks and framed on his walls, rendered in love and grief. "Holy fuck. Are you Bucky Barnes?"
"I don't know," Bucky—maybe Bucky. Probably Bucky—said. He backed up again, nearly dragging Tony with him. His breath sped up, their bond vibrating with his ratcheting anxiety. Steve was still in front of the door, so Bucky's focus snapped to the window. It wasn't one with a fire escape. Tony hoped to hell Bucky wasn't actually thinking of defenestrating himself six stories up. "I don't know," he repeated, panting in fear. "I don't know!"
"Shh. Shh, it's okay. It's just fine. You don't have to know. It's all right." Tony kept sending calm, but it was a little difficult with his own heart hammering. "We'll figure this out, okay? You're safe here. Nobody's going to hurt you."
"Tony's right," Steve said. "You're safe here. I swear it. You're my best friend. I would never hurt you."
Bucky swallowed, but he looked at Steve's earnest expression, and then back at Tony and gave him a tiny, jerky nod. "Am I…Am I Bucky?" he asked Steve.
"Yeah." Steve looked like he was trying not to cry. "Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. You've known me your whole life. We're best friends. I called you Bucky."
Bucky frowned, studying Steve's face. "I know you," he said uncertainly. "Don't I?"
"Yeah, Buck." Steve nodded vehemently. "You do. I swear, you do." He came a step closer, then another, reaching out as if he couldn't help himself. "Use your senses. You imprinted on me, twice. Once when we were kids, and then again during the war. Use your senses, Bucky. It'll be the same. It's gotta be the same."
Tony could tell that Bucky had no idea what war Steve meant. But his Sentinel was brave, and Bucky trusted Tony and Tony trusted Steve. So Bucky let Steve come close enough to touch, then closer still, until all Bucky had to do was bend his head to scent the skin at Steve's neck.
Tony didn't remember he still had his hand around Bucky's wrist until he realized his arm was stretched out, moving with Bucky when the rest of Tony hadn't. He let go, trying to quash the sudden flare of jealousy. He wasn't enough of an asshole to begrudge Steve getting Bucky Barnes, his BFF of BFFs, back.
Bucky took shallow, open-mouth breaths like a cat, scenting Steve's skin, then listened to his lungs and heart, then ran his fingers over Steve's face. Bucky hesitated, then tentatively licked Steve's cheek too.
Steve's nose wrinkled cutely, but his smile was achingly hopeful when Bucky pulled back. "Do you know me, Buck?"
Bucky didn't answer. He licked his lips, studying Steve's face. "Steve," he said softly. "Steve." He blinked. "You were…smaller, before? And…." He frowned. "Sick. You smelled sick a lot. I'd sit up all night, sometimes, listening to your heartbeat. I wasn't…. Mom said I couldn't see you, in case I got sick too. So I stayed awake, listening to make sure you were still alive." He blinked again, looking startled at the memory. "Steve," he said, and now his voice was tinged with reverence. "You're Steve."
"Yeah," Steve rasped. There were tears on his face, but he was smiling. "Hi, Bucky. I really missed you."
"Me too," Bucky whispered. And he all but threw himself into Steve Rogers' arms.
"I can't believe it," Steve said. "All of this…Hydra still existing, infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., Bucky being alive, after all this time…." He took a long, slow breath in and out, then screwed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I thought he was dead. I was sure he was dead. That fall…no one could've survived it. Not even me."
"That's what my dad said, too. He went to find Bucky's body after the war, in between searching for you," Tony said. He was sitting at one end of Steve's couch. Bucky was spread out along the rest of it, fast asleep with his head on Tony's thigh and his right hand tucked underneath it. Tony was stroking his fingers through Bucky's hair. The coffee table was littered with empty nutrition drink bottles and wrappers for protein bars, the best Steve could do to feed Bucky on short notice.
They were going to have to leave, and soon. Even with J.A.R.V.I.S. as his copilot, Hydra wouldn't likely buy the Siberia ruse for long. If Hydra were smart—and they had to be, if they'd infiltrated fucking S.H.I.E.L.D.—they'd figure out PDQ that Tony would have gone to his closest, most easily accessible ally. J.A.R.V.I.S. was keeping guard both from the nearby cloaked jet, and in the suit from the roof of the building. So far he hadn't reported any unusual movement.
Of course, they needed to know where the hell they were going, first. Tony had suggested the Tower in Manhattan, but Steve didn't want to leave D.C.. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters were here, as well as a three-ship fleet of helicarriers that were suddenly seeming a lot less nobly-intentioned.
Tony had built the engines for those carriers. He was pretty pissed, which so far he'd managed to keep Bucky from feeling.
He and Steve were both speaking softly, trying not to wake Bucky up. Tony kept channeling safety, peace and comfort through their bond, doing his best to stave off the nightmares he could feel lurking in the shadows of Bucky's poor, beleaguered psyche. "Howard just assumed Bucky had been smashed to bits, and animals got the rest. So there was nothing left to find."
"I should've looked for him," Steve said. "I should've insisted when Phillips said there wasn't time."
"There wasn't time," Tony said. "I mean, it was what? A week after he fell that you guys were storming Schmidt's base? Less? If you'd stayed there to look for his body, New York would be a crater now."
"I know. My head knows that," Steve said. "But the rest of me still feels like I just…left him behind. Abandoned him. My best friend." He swallowed. "God, I missed him so much." He and Bucky had been practically plastered together since Bucky had remembered him, until Tony had sat on the couch. But Steve was still watching Bucky hungrily, like all he wanted to do was pull him back into his arms.
Tony stomped down ridiculous possessiveness that made him want to hide Bucky behind he couch and challenge Steve to a duel or something. He knew it was because of the newness of their bond, but that didn't make it any less stupid.
"You didn't abandon him, Steve," Tony said. "You left what you—what everyone—thought was a corpse behind, so you could finish your mission and save the world."
"Doesn't make it any easier to forgive myself. And if that wasn't bad enough, I've been working for the people we fought a war trying to stop. People who were torturing my best friend the entire time." Steve looked exhausted, weary in a way Tony didn't like thinking about.
"He's safe now, Steve. You have to remember that. Hydra can't hurt him anymore," Tony said. "J.A.R.V.I.S. is pulling everything Hydra related out of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s files even as we speak. And when Bucky wakes up, he can tell us everything he knows that'll help bring these assholes down. We'll cut off all the heads and burn the fucking stumps and make sure they can't hurt anyone again."
Steve nodded. He didn't look determined so much as like there was no other conceivable outcome. Tony was totally down with that. "We'll need allies. I know a guy. He's former pararescue. We can trust him."
Well, that was one. Unless he was a Hydra plant. But if Tony started thinking like that he'd end up in a fetal position on the floor. "Clint's on assignment somewhere, but what about Natasha? Or Fury and Hill?"
"They're all S.H.I.E.L.D., which means they could be Hydra, from what you've just been telling me," Steve said. He scrubbed his face. "But, I don't know how much of a choice we have right now. If we have to take down S.H.I.E.L.D., I don't think we can do it alone."
"Yeah," Tony said, wincing. "Nat's fought with us. I know she's wily, but she defected from the Red Room, which was buddy-buddy with Hydra back in the day. I can't imagine her wanting anything to do with them. Other than, you know, destroying them utterly. And Fury's a son of a bitch, but there's no way in hell he'd be Hydra. I mean, they're Nazis. How would that even work?"
Steve winced as well, then nodded. "Yeah, I really can't imagine that either. Hill's the real unknown, here."
"Not really," Tony said, shrugging. "She's a Guide bonded to the goddamn Cavalry. I can't exactly imagine Agent May being a Nazi, can you?"
"I guess you'd know about that, since you're a Guide?" Tony was almost sure Steve wasn't trying to be sarcastic, but he cringed inwardly anyway. "I still don't understand why you never told anyone," Steve went on, sounding upset. Tony cringed a little more. "I mean, I'm glad you didn't, since you'd probably be dead now and Bucky would still be a prisoner. I can't even tell you how grateful I am that didn't happen. But, it's not like you knew Hydra would send him after you. So, I can't think of a reason why you'd keep a secret like that, especially from your team." He meant from your friends. Tony didn't need any Guide abilities to know that. It was obvious from the hurt on Steve's face.
Tony hated hurting Steve. It was like hurting kittens. "It wasn't intentional. Well, okay, it was, but not how you think," he amended at Steve's look. Tony shrugged, affecting a nonchalance he didn't come close to actually feeling. "My dad hated that I was a Guide. I mean, really fucking loathed it. He'd wanted a Sentinel, even though he married a woman who came from a long line of, like, 99% Guides. I think he blamed her for giving birth to a Guide kid, somehow, as if she could control her genes. Well, he blamed her for lots of stuff about me, none of it deserved. But he definitely blamed her for that."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "Your father sounds like a brute. But, he was completely different when Bucky and I knew him. Howard was always arrogant, and he could be selfish and cavalier with other people, especially women. But he was fundamentally a good, decent man who I was proud to call my friend. The man you describe is nothing like the one I remember."
"Yeah, well." Tony gave a head tilt and grimace combination that he hoped conveyed his appreciation of Steve's sympathy, his understanding that Howard had changed after the war, and how none of it made any fucking difference. "The Howard Stark I remember hated Guides. Well, female Guides were okay. And male Guides who were sufficiently manly, or whatever. But I wasn't female, and apparently not manly enough when I got tested at twelve. So he had Edwin threaten the Sentinel-Guide center with the full wrath of Stark Industries, if they didn't immediately lose my test results." He smiled down at Bucky, because it was a lot easier than having to look at the horrified shock on Steve's face. "So from that moment on, I wasn't a Guide."
"My God," Steve said quietly. "Tony, I…." He trailed off. "I don't know what to say. Other than how sorry I am that he did that to you."
"Thanks," Tony said. "It was a lot harder to take at the time, believe me. Luckily my mom was a Guide, and a damn good one. She trained me in secret, along with Aunt Peggy, Edwin and his wife Ana. That's why I didn't go nuts when my abilities manifested at sixteen."
"I was wondering about that," Steve said. "I'd always been told that untrained Guides would eventually lose their minds because of empathic overload. But since you seem fine, I was thinking maybe that wasn't true."
"Oh, it's true all right," Tony said darkly. "I don't know if Howard just thought it was bullshit, or if he thought that saying I wasn't a Guide meant I actually wouldn't be one. But as far as I know, my dad never even mentioned it." He shrugged, grinning with nothing approaching mirth. "Who knows? It's not like I ever asked him. Maybe he was hoping I'd go insane."
Steve winced. "I hope not."
Tony managed a lopsided smile that wasn't too bitter. "Me too. But hey, it didn't happen. So it's all good, right?" He took a breath then deliberately relaxed, making sure none of his negative emotions reached Bucky. "But anyway. I promised myself I'd get retested at sixteen and just, fuck 'em, you know? But my mom was too scared of dad finding out, so I put it off. And then I just…kept putting it off. And then it got to the point where it was just easier to keep pretending I was normal. It honestly never even occurred to me to tell you. It wasn't personal at all. Just habit."
"That makes sense," Steve said, nodding. "I just wish you hadn't been forced to do that in the first place."
"Thanks," Tony said. "But like you said, I met Bucky because of it." He smirked. "Hell, if my dad were still alive, I'd thank him."
Steve smiled in return. "Well, you did one hell of a job of hiding it. I would've never guessed, if it wasn't…." He gestured at Bucky, his expression a complicated mix of sadness, fondness—actual fondness—relief and wistful joy. "I didn't know spontaneous bonds could actually happen. Even Bucky thought it was a myth, they were so rare."
"I think it's been more widely documented since you were flash frozen," Tony said. "But, yeah. Still rare. All I know about it is that you have to be really fucking compatible." His smile turned rueful. "I feel like I should apologize to him."
"No, Tony. Don't say that." Steve shook his head. "You saved his life. Please, don't ever apologize for that. Not even as a joke." He reached over and stroked Bucky's head. "I wish we could just let him sleep, but we don't have time."
"Yeah." Tony nodded grimly. "We're going to have to find your pararescue friend soon, before Hydra storms this place looking for me and their lost Sentinel."
Steve glanced outside were dawn was glowing on the horizon. "I'll get into my running gear. It's almost six, and that's when I normally go out. It might keep anyone from getting suspicious if I stick to my normal routine. You and Bucky should leave while it's still early enough that you won't be seen." He stood up, but just stayed where he was, smiling down at his friend. "I never thought I'd see him again. I can't believe you gave me that chance." Tony had never seen Steve look so happy, even with tears in his eyes. "I can't ever repay you, for what you've given me. And him. I can't think of anyone I'd want more as his Guide than you."
For a long moment all Tony could do was stare at him. "Oh," he breathed. "I…. Wow. Thank you. But, I really didn't do anything. I was just lucky."
"Not as lucky as I am," Steve said.
They were right about their allies being, well, actually allies as opposed to Nazi scumbags. Poor Nat nearly threw up when Tony showed her the evidence J.A.R.V.I.S. had found.
Bucky hadn't known about Project Insight. He hadn't been thawed for that (and Tony really, really wanted to stick Alexander Pierce in a freezer for a few hours and see how much he liked it). But Bucky knew who his handlers were, and the location of Hydra's safehouses and secret lairs, and especially the weapons caches, which were especially helpful.
One of the secret lairs he led them to was the vault where Hydra 'maintained' their Asset by ripping his mind to shreds. The Hydra guards who'd watched it happen and the techs who'd done it were still there, waiting for the Winter Soldier to be brought back. They were very, very lucky that Bucky killed them before Tony saw the chair.
Steve stole his vintage Commando uniform from the Smithsonian. Bucky chose the gear Hydra had put him in. He liked the idea of wearing their uniform when he took them down.
And they did take them down. Their Excellent Eight, led by Captain Heart-Stirring Speeches, routed Hydra out of S.H.I.E.L.D., dumped their secret Nazi files on the web, and kept Project Kill Everyone on the ground.
Fury killed Pierce. Tony was just sorry he didn't get to do it. Or, rather, that he wasn't able to let his Sentinel at the man first. Tony had never thought of himself as vindictive, vengeful or cruel. But that was before he knew what Hydra had done to Bucky.
The only thing that kept him from going full Rambo on their asses was the steady, constant purr of Bucky's grim satisfaction over their bond. He felt good, dismantling the evil that had stolen his humanity for decades. When Tony apologized about Bucky not getting a crack at Pierce, he said he didn't care as long as the man was dead. Bucky wasn't interested in hurting anyone; he never had been. He just wanted this over with so he could go home.
"Home. Sure. I'll take you wherever you want to go, sweetheart," Tony said. He used the endearment on purpose, just to feel the little burst of Bucky's contentment. The fight was pretty much over now. He was just helping Bucky round up the more stubborn of Hydra's remnants. There was plenty of time to chat over the comms. "I've got a tower in Manhattan, but I can get a place in Brooklyn, if you want. Unless you want to stay with Steve in D.C.? I'm sure he'd be thrilled to have his bestie splitting the rent again." It would break Tony's heart, but if Bucky wanted to be with Steve instead of him, he'd live with it. He'd do anything his Sentinel asked him to, including staying out of his way. "Or there's Malibu, or the Avengers' Facility in Upstate New York. Or anywhere, basically. I will take you anywhere you want to go, Bucky. If it'll make you happy, I'll do it."
"I am happy," Bucky said, and Tony could feel the truth of it in his mind. "And I don't care where we go. I'll go anywhere, as long as it's with you."
Well, Tony could absolutely work with that.
In the end they moved into Avengers Tower. That way Bucky could be nearer to his beloved Brooklyn, and neighbors with his even more beloved Steve, who'd finally accepted Tony's offer of his own floor. Apparently, proximity to Bucky was the perfect incentive.
Tony could understand that.
Bucky had been exonerated of all the crimes Hydra forced him to commit, thanks to J.A.R.V.I.S. and Natasha, who found all the terrible proof anyone needed that Bucky was as much a victim as everyone Hydra had him kill. The main Sentinel-Guide Center at The Hague exonerated him too, after having one of their Guides confirm how badly Hydra had fucked with his mind. Sergeant Barnes was officially reinstated as the hero he'd always been.
And he got better. He wasn't the Winter Solider anymore. He was James Buchanan Barnes, bond partner and adored Sentinel of Tony Stark. Their bond accelerated healing, and Bucky was a Super Soldier too. Which meant that less than six months after their accidental bonding, Bucky had reclaimed his identity, his memories, and his life.
None of which changed how Tony was currently pacing in his workshop, too restless and anxious to concentrate.
"Bucky Barnes has returned to the Tower, and is on his way to the workshop, Sir. I believe I have warned you in ample time to compose yourself."
"Thanks, J," Tony muttered. He stopped pacing, then tried to scrape his hair back into order after running his fingers through it for God only knew how long. He could feel Bucky getting closer through their bond, but he was holding his emotions back. He seemed…okay. But Tony couldn't get enough of a read on him to know for sure.
It probably meant he didn't want Tony to feel his frustration and disappointment. Fuck.
Tony took a deep breath, pulled up a smile and turned around just as Bucky came into the workshop. "Hey, sweetheart! How'd it go?"
Bucky shrugged. He was mostly looking at the floor. His hair made a perfect curtain to hide his eyes.
Tony's heart sank. He put his hands on Bucky's shoulders, sending as much comfort through their bond as he could. "Well, fuck 'em, then. Fuck 'em all. They don't want you? Then they can't have me either. If they think I'm going to do anything without…. Are you laughing?"
Bucky's shoulders were shaking, just a bit. And then he lifted his head and he was grinning, the asshole, right before he let his emotions into their bond. Tony got every last bit of Bucky's pride, satisfaction, relief and absolute elation. "Sentinel Agent James Barnes of S.H.I.E.L.D., cleared for duty," he said.
"Yes!" Tony hugged him, then laughed when Bucky lifted him effortlessly and spun him around. "You did it! You fucking did it. I knew it! They'd be idiots not to take you." Bucky lowered him back to the floor, but kept his grip so they were standing chest to chest. "Congratulations, Sentinel Agent Barnes," Tony said.
Bucky beamed at him. "Now I don't have to stay behind when you fight with the Avengers anymore."
Tony was not actually looking forward to that part. But he knew how hard it'd been on Bucky, having to ignore his Sentinel instincts to protect his Guide. Tony would never refuse him this, or anything that brought him the happiness currently flowing between them. "Do you want a suit?" he asked, then went on before Bucky could answer. "Yeah. Black and gold, right? Or would you prefer gold and navy blue, like your Commando Jacket? And hey, I could put the gold wing on your left arm—"
"I love you," Bucky said. "And I don't want a suit." He leaned in and kissed his Guide.
Tony happily stopped talking and kissed Bucky back. And he sent him all his love and pride, his joy, admiration, and desire. His emotions tumbled with Bucky's like playful kittens, until he scarcely knew where he ended and Bucky began.
Tony broke away first, out of breath and a little overwhelmed. "I love you too, Sentinel Agent Barnes."
Bucky rolled his eyes, but he too happy to even pretend to be irritated. "I love you too, Guide Iron Man."
"Iron Guide Man."
"That's ridiculous," Tony said.
Tony laughed. "That's why you love me."
Bucky shook his head, still smiling. "I can't even count all the reasons I love you," he said.
But when they kissed again, Tony could feel every one.