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You Got the Heart of a Phoenix (So Let Them See You Rise)

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Tony Stark is born with a soulmark.

This, in and of itself, is not unusual. Everyone is born with a soulmark- unless, of course, their soulmate is already dead. What’s more unusual is how sometimes Tony has a soulmark and sometimes he doesn’t.

And, well, no one quite knows what to do with that. After all, soulmarks only disappear when a person’s soulmate is dead. But one day, Tony had a soulmark and then the next he didn’t. Tony had barely had enough time to realize that something was wrong before it was back.

Tony had been two. He’d immediately known that something was wrong and toddled off to show Jarvis (even at that age, he’d known better than to bring a problem to his parents). Jarvis had frowned as Tony’s mark flickered again and then he’d taken Tony to see Howard anyway.

Howard hadn’t much liked Tony’s soulmark. When he was younger, Tony thought it was because Howard didn’t like soulmarks- and, by extension soulmates- in general (Howard’s mark- a slate grey mushroom cloud- didn’t match Maria’s- a green leaf shot through with veins of gold). It takes nearly forty years for Tony to realize that it was really just Tony’s mark that Howard had a problem with, that Tony’s mark was something bitterly familiar, a reminder of Howard’s greatest failure.

But that comes later.

For now, Tony is seven and sprawled across the library floor because he’d dared to suggest that he could improve on one of Howard’s designs. He knows as soon as the words leave his mouth that he’s made a mistake and he tries to take them back but Howard’s already heard him. He barely has enough time to brace himself for the backhanded slap but he’s only a child and he lands hard on his left arm.

There’s a sharp crack and then a blinding pain in his wrist. Tony whimpers, a low sound that becomes a cry when Howard grabs the injured wrist to drag him up. His feet scrabble at the ground, barely able to find purchase when Howard lifts him higher.

“Think I’m wrong, do you, boy?” Howard hisses. “Think I’ve made a mistake?” He hums mockingly, waiting for an answer.

Tony doesn’t quite yet know what answer Howard wants at times like this (that knowledge comes later, with experience and age) so he stutters out, “I- I just thought that- that you might have- have missed something.”

Howard’s face goes apoplectic with rage and Tony winces. “Missed something?” he shouts. He brings his face close to Tony so that he can smell the alcohol on his breath. At this point, Tony does know not to flinch- because “Stark men are made of iron, boy”- so he stands his ground as best as he can when he’s dangling a few inches off the ground.

“You think you know better than me, is that it?” Howard snaps. “You think you’re so smart? Let me tell you something about the only mistake I see here. This-” He shakes Tony’s wrist and Tony cries out as the bones grind against each other. As they watch, the mark flickers before disappearing. “This means you’re defective. You know what that means? You’re a mistake. The universe itself said you don’t deserve this soulmate.”

“That’s not true,” Tony says as bravely as he can through the waves of pain.

“No?” Howard laughs harshly. “Then you tell me. What does it mean?”

And Tony doesn’t know what to say to that. How could he? All the money and all the best doctors Maria could find hadn’t been able to tell them why Tony’s mark flickered like that. But he stubbornly repeats, “That’s not true.”

Howard sneers and throws him back down before stalking off. Tony slowly gets back up cradling his probably broken wrist to his chest and goes to find Jarvis.

It’s the first time Tony’s ever been told that his mark makes him worthless but it’s not the last. Howard certainly makes sure to remind him of that every chance he gets but it isn’t just Howard.

It happens when Tony is ten and the Fujikawa heir (with a pretty red rose on her wrist) innocently asks him what’s wrong with his mark when she happens to see it disappear. Tony starts wearing a band around his wrist so that people can’t see his mark.

It happens when Tony is thirteen and one of the boys at boarding school rips off his band and calls him a freak.

It happens when Tony is seventeen and walking out on Ty for the last time and Ty screams after him that no one else could ever want him, that there’s something wrong with him (Rhodey sits with him in their room after that and tucks Tony’s head under his chin and tells him fiercely that there is absolutely nothing wrong with him but the damage has already been done).

It happens when Tony is twenty-one and his parents are being laid in their graves and Obie suggests to him that the company would be more stable if Tony settled down with a wife and had the two kids and house with a picket fence. His eyes briefly glance down at Tony’s soulmark but he doesn’t suggest that Tony find his soulmate, just a wife.

It happens when Tony is twenty-three and yet another reporter- the fifth that day- asks if Tony’s found his soulmate yet. While it’s not exactly unusual for celebrities to hide their marks, it’s far more common for celebrities to go around with uncovered marks, whether it’s because they want the free press or because they’re hoping their soulmate will see it. But Tony has long since come to accept that there’s no soulmate out there for him and so he locks himself in his workshop and emerges four days later with a brand-new AI and a synthetic hyper-realistic graft (he calls it a SKIN- Synthetic Kinesthetic INhibitor) over his now-bare wrist.

The reporters stop asking about his soulmate.

He’s thirty when Rhodey’s soulmate comes to meet him for lunch. Rhodey’s in Tony’s office, spinning aimlessly on a chair and complaining about the new contract the DOD opened up with Hammer Industries. Tony is filing paperwork (contrary to popular belief, he does actually get paperwork done, it’s not like he can run a Fortune 500 company without it) when the door opens and a slender, red-haired woman steps inside.

“Security breach!” Tony exclaims. “Julia, you’re fired!”

“You can’t fire me!” Julia, his latest assistant, yells back. “Mr. Stane hired me.”

“Damn,” Tony mutters. He’d really looked forward to being able to fire Julia. She was utterly incompetent. Tony had slept with her a few weeks ago, hoping that she’d quit afterwards (because they always did) and instead she just turned completely clingy.

“Actually,” the red-haired woman says, “Julia let me in. I’m looking for Jim.”

Rhodey stops his complaining, spins to face her, and delightedly says, “Virginia!”

Before Tony can stop himself, he makes a face and goes, “Virginia? God, that’s awful.”

Rhodey looks horrified but Virginia just looks at him. “It’s the only name I’ve got. Get over it.”

A slow smile spreads across Tony’s face. Deliberately, he reaches forward with his left hand to shake her hand. “Tony Stark,” he says.

Virginia doesn’t even look at his wrist as she shakes his hand though Tony glances down to see a set of salt and pepper shakers on hers- a perfect match to Rhodey’s. “Virginia Potts.”

Three weeks later, Julia’s been fired. He hires Virginia in her place. A month after that, he calls her Pepper for the first time. He means for it to be because of her mark but she thinks it’s because of her hair and freckles. She slaps him and quits on the spot. It takes three days of groveling, an explanation from Tony about how he meant her mark, and an explanation from Rhodey about how Tony gives nicknames to people he likes for her to come back.

Even so, it’s another few months before he hesitantly calls her Pepper again. This time, Pepper gives him a beautiful smile and thanks him for the nickname.

It lingers in the back of his mind though that Pepper’s first thought is to assume that he was making fun of her. He doesn’t blame her for thinking it. Tony doesn’t exactly make himself likeable and he knows he makes her life difficult. He’s an alcoholic and he sleeps around and one time, he accidentally lets a corporate spy into his workshop (he later puts Baintronics out of business but it still hurts that Sunset had done that to him).

So, no, he doesn’t blame her for thinking the worst of him.

It keeps him from telling her about his soulmark though. Even though she hasn’t said anything about his blank wrist, he stays quiet. He doesn’t want her to judge him for his dysfunctional mark. It isn’t until after Afghanistan, after Tony puts on the suit for the first time, after he saves Gulmira, that Pepper finally sees his mark.

“Let’s face it. This is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing,” he says.

Pepper replies, “Are those bullet holes?” Her gaze catches on something a little lower than his face and she stills. “Tony- is that- do you have a mark?”

Tony follows her gaze to see that the disassembly machine managed to rip the SKIN off his wrist. His mark disappears before their eyes and Pepper gasps.

“Tony, I’m so sorry,” she begins but Tony holds up a hand to stop her.

“It’ll be back,” he says.

Pepper stills. “It- what?”

Tony shrugs as best he can while in the suit and repeats, “It’ll be back. It always is.” As he speaks, the mark reappears. Pepper can’t seem to tear her eyes away from it and Tony braces himself for the condemnation in her next words.

But all Pepper does is move closer. She reaches up to run her thumb over his mark, over the gold in the phoenix’s wings and the bright blue of the flames, and murmurs, “You shouldn’t have to hide this. It’s beautiful.”

It wasn’t what Tony was expecting and so his next words are harsher than they should be. “It’s defective,” he snaps.

Pepper doesn’t flinch though. Instead she presses a soft kiss to his wrist and says, “No. It’s not defective. You just don’t understand it yet.”

“What’s there to understand? It’s a magic symbol that can’t decide if my soulmate is alive or dead. Obviously, that means there’s something wrong with me. There’s nothing else to understand!”

He’s shouting by the end and he hates that. He hates that this is just another way that he’s like Howard. But Pepper doesn’t run away from him, she doesn’t wince, she doesn’t yell back at him. She’s just looking at him with something soft in her eyes (pity he thinks and then amends it to sympathy) and when the machine finally works and Tony falls forward from the armor, she catches him in a tight hug.

“There is nothing wrong with you,” she says fiercely. “Don’t you keep telling me that magic is just science we don’t understand yet? So, understand this.” She taps his mark firmly and then smooths the SKIN back over it.

She leaves him with that to think about it- and Tony does. He thinks hard about what Pepper said, about figuring out how to understand his mark. He tries. God, does he try but it’s not exactly easy. No one else out there has a mark quite like his. There’re a few people out there who’ve had a mark that disappeared and reappeared but only ever once and only ever when their soulmate had a near-death experience. Tony’s never even met his soulmate and, frankly, he’d be concerned if his soulmate was having near-death experiences that often.

It stops being important though when he first spots black lines racing away from the arc reactor. Then he hears the words “palladium poisoning” and the idea of understanding his soulmark is completely driven from his mind.

There’s something off about Natalie Rushman.

Tony takes one look at her- first, at the way she’s carrying herself so that her breasts and ass are her most noticeable features and then at how she’s the only one legal sent down to supervise Tony signing over his company (and Tony remembers how the board insisted on at least three senior members of the legal department present when he took over from Howard)- and knows immediately that something is wrong.

He pulls her up on his tablet and is instantly presented with a picture-perfect view of Natalie Rushman- high school valedictorian, graduated with honors from Stanford, underwear model in Japan. This woman seems absolutely perfect. It’s setting off warning bells in his head.

She reminds him of Sunset Bain.

He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like that at all. Sunset was a mistake best never to be repeated. He doesn’t want that to happen to Pepper right after she’s taken over the company. Natalie Rushman doesn’t need to be anywhere near Pepper and she certainly doesn’t need to be near legal who handles patents and public relations and all the other sensitive stuff.

Then she slams Happy to the ground and, even through his shock, Tony is discarding the thought of her being a corporate spy and putting the word “kidnapper” in its place.

It becomes even more important to make sure she’s far away from Pepper. Tony’s replaceable and dying anyway but Pepper- Pepper is indispensable.

It’s the work of a single phone call to move Natalie from legal into the open position of his assistant. Tony doesn’t really need an assistant anymore, now that he’s retired from his position as CEO, but if making Natalie his new assistant and forcing her to run petty errands for him keeps her from Pepper then Tony will gladly ask her to pick up his dry cleaning and take out the trash.

Of course, then it turns out that Natalie is neither a kidnapper nor a corporate spy, just a normal spy working for SHIELD. It’s infuriating that Fury moved someone into his company just to spy on him. He supposes that, in a twisted sort of way, it makes sense. Tony signed over his company. He let Rhodey steal a suit. From an outside perspective, he probably would have thought that there was something fishy going on too. But that doesn’t make it right. Fury had no right to put a spy in Tony’s company, especially not when corporate espionage is such a problem in tech fields.

But he swallows his words, lets her stay while he solves the problem of the arc reactor, and then bites back a smile when Pepper discovers Natasha Romanoff’s true identity and rains down fire on both her and Fury. She’s incandescently furious that Fury just assumed he had the right to place Romanoff at SI, even more so when it turns out that she hadn’t actually been hired by HR but had instead hacked into SI’s systems and hired herself (Tony fixes that gap in their security systems real quick). Pepper threatens to sue for corporate espionage, citing that she doesn’t know how many SI secrets Romanoff was able to walk off with, even though SHIELD is a shady government organization that only sort of exists and therefore probably can’t be sued.

Tony thinks it’s a shame that Pepper is Rhodey’s soulmate and not his because her rant is a thing of beauty and he falls a little in love with her.

Fury has to have the last laugh though and Tony can’t deny how much his heart aches when he reads the words Iron Man, yes; Tony Stark, not recommended. It’s just another reminder of how he’s not good enough, how he’s a mistake. He says something flippant back at Fury and leaves with a promise to have Senator Stern presenting the medals he and Rhodey are receiving.

He goes to Pepper and Rhodey’s home afterwards, shows them Fury’s file. They let him lay down on their couch, head in Pepper’s lap and feet in Rhodey’s, as they watch some stupid 80’s film. Pepper’s fingers card through his hair as a wordless comfort. Tony’s more comforted by the knowledge that even if they aren’t his soulmates, these two amazing and wonderful people love him.

It’s a year and a half before Tony hears from SHIELD again. In that time, he’s managed to track down the last of the illegal weapons caches and helped Pepper build Stark Tower, turning SI into one of the foremost companies championing clean energy.

Actually, Pepper has heard more from SHIELD than he has. Romanoff, he knows, has visited SI a couple of times. Pepper tells him that she’s trying to see her because they’d apparently become friends during Romanoff’s employment. Pepper keeps turning her away though.

“Anyone who looks at you that shallowly is no friend of mine,” she tells Tony when he asks why she won’t see Romanoff.

Tony doesn’t tell her how much that means to him but he suspects she knows anyway from the way she smiles at him after he hugs her.

Three months later, Agent Coulson hands him a file about a missing energy source and the Avengers Initiative. Tony takes a look at Captain America’s file and notes when they’d found him in the ice.

“So that’s what we found,” he murmurs. He’d known that SI had found something last year but SHIELD had swooped in before the word had spread. Tony had been trying to hack into SHIELD’s files to figure out just what SI had discovered but they’d known better than to keep an electronic copy of that file.

He gives himself a refresher course on thermonuclear astrophysics and then suits up, flying out that night. 

Tony wants to like Captain America, he really does. But it’s clear from the start that Captain America doesn’t like him and, well, Tony has never reacted well to people not liking him and he’s always been good at needling and pushing people’s buttons. It isn’t really a surprise that things escalate between them the way they do.

The explosion rocks the helicarrier and Rogers orders him to put on the suit. Tony hurries off in the opposite direction from Rogers. The moment he’s out of sight, he stops and leans against a wall, taking a moment to mourn the loss of a potential friendship. Aunt Peggy had always told him such wonderful things about Steve Rogers and, while those stories had been offset with Howard’s own hero worship of Captain America, Tony had long thought that he would have liked to be friends with Rogers.

But it’s clear from their argument in the lab that that’s never going to happen. Rogers had made it obvious that he had a very low opinion of Tony. For his part, Tony, despite all of his self-destructive tendencies, isn’t willing to be friends with someone who thinks as little of him as Rogers does.

“No sense in crying over spilled milk,” he mutters and pushes off the wall.

After- after the battle, after Loki’s imprisonment, after the Avengers splinter into their little groups- Rogers comes by the tower.

Tony’s in the penthouse, pouring a drink and surveying the damage Loki had wrought upon his brand-new tower. Bruce is somewhere around, probably down in one of the labs, but he’s not in the penthouse which is why Tony feels perfectly justified in his shriek when he turns and sees Captain America standing in his living room.

“Jesus, don’t do that!” he exclaims.

Rogers looks a little sheepish but more amused by the noise Tony had made. “Sorry,” he says. “Your…voice let me in.”

“That’s JARVIS. He runs the tower.”

He takes a sip of his drink, gratified to find that only a little bit had spilled when he’d jumped, and eyes Rogers over the rim of his glass. “Thought you were supposed to be going on the Great American Road Trip,” he comments.

Rogers shrugs. “I am but I realized I needed to do something first.”

“And what’s that?”


Tony spits out what he’d just drunk. “What?”

Rogers can’t seem to hide his smirk this time. Tony has the feeling that he’d timed his words specifically for that moment. Then his smirk fades and he says, “About what I said on the helicarrier-”

“Don’t worry about it-”

“No, what I said was wrong-”

“I said some pretty hurtful things too-”

“And I misjudged you-”

“You don’t need to worry about saying what’s really the truth-”

“Dammit, Tony, will you just let me apologize?!”

Tony freezes. Then- “You swore!” he says gleefully. “Dad said you never swore.”

“I guess you just bring out that quality in me,” Rogers says dryly. “Now will you let me talk?” Tony motions for him to continue. “Look, I let what was in your file and Loki’s scepter influence how I saw you and I shouldn’t have. You are a hero, Tony. I’d like to ask you to join the Avengers.”

Tony fidgets. “Not as a consultant?” he asks. It comes out more vulnerable than he means it to.

Rogers- Steve, he supposes, since he called Tony by his name first- shakes his head. “Not as a consultant. A full team member.”

Tony’s mouth twists. “I don’t have a brain-to-mouth filter. I’ll say hurtful things again.”

“So will I probably.”

“And I’m a terrible team player.”

“I think we worked pretty well today.”

“And I’ll probably take more stupid risks.”

“We’ll work on that.”

“You’re sure you want me to be an Avenger?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Steve holds out his hand. Tony hesitates a moment more- he still remembers telling the world that he wasn’t the hero type- and then slowly reaches out to shake it. It feels almost momentous.

There’s a moment where Steve looks at Tony like he had when Tony had woken up, full of relief and delight, and his mouth parts like he wants to say something but all that comes out is, “I’ll let you get back to-”

“Planning,” Tony interrupts as Steve moves away. “I’ll have to rebuild. Guess I’m just envisioning what I’ll improve…” He trails off as an idea strikes him. “Hey, Cap?”

Steve stops from where he was waiting for the elevator.

“We’ll need a headquarters, right?” Before Steve can say anything, he barrels on. “I’m going to have to renovate the tower anyway. And the tower’s already lost most of the letters in Stark. All that’s left is the A. I could- maybe- build our headquarters here.”

He waits anxiously to see what Steve will say. He’s never lived with anyone before. Well, there was Rhodey but Rhodey doesn’t count. He knows he isn’t the easiest person to get along with but he really wants this team to work now that he’s been invited to join. A team headquarters would be a great idea, in his opinion, but he really doesn’t want it to be at SHIELD. Fury’s organization makes him more than a little wary.

To his relief, Steve smiles broadly. “I think that’d be great. That’s- that’s really great of you, Tony.”

Tony can’t stop himself from flushing at the praise but he hides it by taking another sip. “You just go on your road trip, Cap. I’ll have the tower ready for you when you get back.” 

Steve ends up cancelling his road trip. Tony finds him at the tower again the next day, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt two sizes too small for him. He gives him a very puzzled look.

“Not that I’m not delighted to see you, Cap, because I am. But what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to help,” Steve says determinedly.

“…With what?”

Steve falters. “The- the renovations. You were serious about those, right?”

Tony blinks at him, silent long enough that Steve sighs. “I misunderstood. I’ll just go. Sorry to bother you, Mr. Stark.”

He hates that, hates that Steve is calling him Mr. Stark again. Steve turns to leave just as it suddenly clicks in Tony’s mind. He throws up a hand to stop Steve. “Wait!” he blurts out. “You know I can hire people to do the repairs?”

Steve nods, a little defeated, and says, “I know. I just wanted to help.”

Tony eyes him curiously. “Why?”

“I didn’t want you to think that we’re using you.”

Tony cocks his head. He honestly hasn’t even thought of it like that. He won’t deny that the help will be welcome. One of the perks of being a billionaire is that he can pay people to work faster but a supersoldier like Steve would be even better.

“You can help,” he begins. Steve starts to smile and Tony finishes, “On one condition: you can’t call me Mr. Stark ever again.”

Steve laughs. “Deal.”

That first day, it’s just Tony, Steve, and the construction workers. It’s nice is the thing. Tony runs through the plans with everyone- the range, the gym, the common areas, each individual suite. Tony’s already got guest suites for any of his associates and it’s easy enough to draw up plans to remodel those for the Avengers. Steve asks about a Hulk-proof room and Tony admits that he hadn’t been planning on making a specific room, that he’d actually been planning on making all of the Avengers floors Hulk-proof.

“I just don’t want him to feel like we don’t trust him,” Tony says and Steve gives him a big smile.

“I think Bruce will really like that.”

Originally, Tony had been planning on personalizing the rooms for each Avenger but Steve stops him from doing that- “It’s a little creepy, Tony. Who wants to walk into a room and find proof that you read their personal files?” -so instead he has Steve draw up very generic plans to send off to an interior decorator.

They order pizza for lunch, take about an hour-long break, and then they’re deep into hardware mode. It’s cathartic, Tony thinks, as he knocks down a wall, imagining Loki’s face every time he swings the hammer. He can’t break Loki’s face but he can do this instead.

By the time they break for the day, Tony’s sweaty and Steve isn’t much better. He’s grinning broadly as they flop down on the couch. He passes Steve a beer to wash down the rest of the pizza.

“You know I can’t get drunk,” Steve says as he flips the cap off. Tony squirms, suddenly feeling a little hot, because that definitely hadn’t been a twist-off.

He does know that actually. It had been in Howard’s notes about Steve. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he waves an airy hand and says, “Not the point. Even you must have heard about social drinking.”

Steve frowns slightly and starts picking at the bottle label. “Guess so,” he says. “The Howlies never cared if I drank with ‘em and the dames never wanted me to before the serum.”

Shit, that hadn’t been Tony’s point at all. “You must really miss them,” he says softly.

Steve nods, more morose than he had been. “I keep thinking that I should have been there to see Dum Dum’s first wedding or the birth of Jim’s grandkid. I should have grown old with them.”

Tony smiles sympathetically. Steve had definitely been given a bad lot. He can’t help but think that it’s a little weird that if Steve hadn’t gone into the ice, he probably would have been his Uncle Steve, along with Aunt Peggy and the rest of the Commandos…

He’s standing now, excitedly saying, “Wait right here.”

Steve looks after him bewilderedly as Tony runs back to his bedroom. In his closet, there’s a box of some of his mother’s things that Tony had moved from the New York mansion when he moved into the tower. He rifles through it quickly, setting aside the two thick books, and then marches proudly back to the living room, his prizes in his arms.

“Here,” he says, dumping them on Steve’s lap.

“Tony, what-” But Steve stops as he opens the book and sees the first picture. It’s from Howard and Maria’s wedding. Obie’s in the picture too, one of the groomsmen, but Tony refuses to look at him and instead focuses on the other groomsmen.

“Aunt Peggy insisted that she be Howard’s best man,” Tony says. “Obadiah, my dad’s business partner- that’s him right there- wanted to be best man too so Aunt Peggy said she’d fight him for it. I’ll give you one guess who won.”

Steve chuckles and Tony ignores the fact that it sounds a little watery. “Uncle Dum Dum said he should get to be the best man but I think he just wanted to irritate Aunt Peggy,” he continues. “He settled for being the runner up best man, like that’s a real position.”

“Obadiah didn’t fight him for that position?”

Tony gives him an aghast look. “Have you seen Uncle Dum Dum?” he asks. “He wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Steve looks closer at the last groomsman. “That’s Jarvis, isn’t it? Howard’s butler?” he asks. Tony nods silently, a small lump in his throat now. “I met him a few times. He seemed nice. Did you-”

“Name my AI after him? Yeah, I did,” Tony says casually. “He raised me more than Howard ever did. It seemed fitting.”

Steve doesn’t say anything about Howard’s lack of parenting, just turns the page. Tony doesn’t actually know the story behind these photos- a few pictures of the Commandos, Howard, and Maria at some sort of barbeque- but Steve doesn’t seem to mind. He just keeps flipping the pages. Falsworth stops showing up a few pages in and, when Steve asks, Tony tells him that he and Howard had some sort of falling out.

“I met him only once,” he says, “at Howard’s funeral. He stayed in touch with the rest of the Commandos.”

Another few pages and someone new starts showing up with Aunt Peggy. “That’s Uncle Danny,” Tony comments as casually as he can. The history books have always speculated that Peggy had been Steve’s soulmate and he doesn’t know what Steve knows about her life after Steve went into the ice.

“Sousa?” Steve asks and that answers Tony’s question. “Were they soulmates?”

Tony frowns. “I don’t know. Aunt Peggy never wanted to talk about it. You and her weren’t…?”

Steve laughs, a little bitterly. “No, Peggy wasn’t mine.”

It’s the way he says it that makes Tony think that Steve has already met- and lost- his soulmate. But he doesn’t want to ask. Not tonight when their friendship is so new and definitely not when they’re pouring over old memories.

The next pages go quickly- Peggy’s wedding, Gabe’s first kid- and then Steve pauses. He runs his fingers over Peggy’s face before trailing down to the baby in her arms. There’s a look of absolute adoration on Peggy’s face as she gazes down at the baby.

“Is this,” Steve begins hesitantly, “is this you?”

“Yeah,” Tony says quietly. “That’s my first picture.”

“Who took the picture?”

“Jarvis. I think I was two days old in that photo. Mom was recovering- it wasn’t an easy birth- and Howard was probably off drinking somewhere.”

Steve doesn’t take the bait, doesn’t ask why Howard was drinking instead of holding his son. It warms something in Tony’s heart.

They spend most of the rest of the night going through the two albums. When they’re finished, sometime around midnight, Steve goes to leave but Tony stops him. “You’re coming back anyway. Might as well stay. I’ve got a guest room up here.”

“That’s really nice of you but I can go. SHIELD’s got a room for me.”

“What?” Tony asks, incredulous. “No- what? You can’t be serious. You’re staying with SHIELD?”

Steve gives a small, embarrassed shrug. “I had an apartment in Brooklyn but it’s a pile of rubble now.”

“You can’t stay with SHIELD,” Tony says decisively. He sets off in the direction of the guest room. Steve makes another protesting sound but Tony keeps walking. Without further protest, Steve follows.

It’s like that for nearly a week. They wake up in the morning, work on the tower until lunch, break with the construction workers, and then work again until they stop sometime around dinner. Tony sends Happy out to the mansion to collect the rest of the photo albums. They spend two days going through those, even after Tony starts getting older and the albums start featuring him more as opposed to the Commandos. On the third day, Tony asks Steve what he’s caught up on. When Steve admits that he hasn’t actually caught up on anything, Tony sits him down in front of the TV and starts Star Trek.

It’s nice. When he’s not a walking pillar of judgment and self-righteousness, Steve is as wonderful as Aunt Peggy said he was. He’s got a sense of humor as dry as the Sahara and he can’t back down from a fight and he’s kind. God, he’s so kind. He offers to buy the meals for the construction workers because “Tony, it shouldn’t always be you” and he tips the baristas downstairs with everything in his pocket and, the one time they go out for a walk after dinner, he literally helps a little boy rescue his kitten from a tree.

And it scares Tony because he can feel himself falling hard and fast. They’ve only known each other for a few days but Tony has always loved too easily (he only needs to look at Ty and Obie for examples). It’s not like there’s any soulmate waiting for him out there, so what’s the harm?

But Steve is new to this century and he’s still grieving the loss of everything he’d ever known. Only a week ago, he’d hated Tony. They’re just barely becoming friends and Tony doesn’t want to mess this up. He can’t mess this up because he can already tell that the Avengers are going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to him and he knows that if he messes this up with Steve, he’ll lose the Avengers. So he shoves his feelings way down and focuses on making Steve laugh.

Five days into their new routine, Bruce finally emerges from his lab in the middle of their Star Trek marathon. Tony knows he’s been eating and sleeping (he’d told JARVIS to keep an eye on him) but he’s been busy with some project. Tony hasn’t seen him since before Steve arrived and Steve hasn’t seen him at all.

Bruce takes one look at Steve and Tony eating burgers on the couch and remarks, “You two look… friendly.”

“Brucie-bear!” Tony exclaims, vaulting over the couch. He throws an arm around Bruce’s shoulders and leads him to one of the armchairs. “You’re just in time for Amok Time.”

“Tony won’t give me a straight answer,” Steve says. “Were Spock and Jim going steady?”

Bruce considers that for a moment. “Well…” he says thoughtfully.

“Shush,” Tony says. “You’ll spoil Amok Time.”

Bruce leans over and steals one of Tony’s fries. While he’s there, he whispers, “’Tony?’ Last time I saw you two, it was ‘Stark’ and ‘Rogers.’”

“You’ve missed a lot,” Tony whispers back.

The next morning, Bruce joins them for repairs. He doesn’t really make the work go any faster- Bruce’s talents definitely lie more towards academia- but the company is welcome. At one point, Steve asks him how much control he has over the Hulk, clearly wondering if they could use the Hulk for the renovations. When Bruce admits that he has very little control, Steve hums considering.

“We’ll have to work on that,” he says.

“You think you can?” Bruce asks incredulously.

“He took directions during the battle.”

“But those were simple instructions! The Hulk’s practically a mindless animal. You can’t command him like you would Tony-”

“Hey! I resent that,” Tony interrupts as he helps a couple of the workers lift a steel beam. “I refuse to take directions from Spangles here.”

The workers snicker at Tony’s new nickname for Steve. Over the last couple of days, Tony’s called Steve by his name exactly twice. Otherwise, it’s been a combination of “Cap,” “Capsicle,” and his latest: “Spangles.” Personally, Tony likes “Winghead” best because Steve tosses it right back at him with “Shellhead” which makes Tony feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

“Besides,” Tony continues, voice more serious, “I’ve seen the videos from Virginia and Harlem. I think the Hulk’s got a lot more control than you’re giving him credit for.”

One of the workers is nodding and Tony points at him. “You there. What’s your story?”

The man- Tony thinks his name is Daniel- looks a little surprised to be called out but he recovers quickly enough and says, “My wife, sir. One of the aliens flew into a billboard, brought it down on top of her. She’s claustrophobic but we couldn’t get to her. There were five of us trying to lift it, guess we just weren’t strong enough. The Hulk shows up out of nowhere, attacking a group of them aliens. Hears the screams, comes over, and we’re all thinking we’re gonna die. I mean, great big creature like that, who wouldn’t? But he just lifts the billboard up off my wife and goes back to beating up aliens.”

Bruce looks like he’s gonna cry. Hoping to divert attention from him, Tony asks, “Your wife okay?”

“She’s got a couple broken bones but she’s alive. We were lucky.”

“Where is she being treated?”


“And her name is?”

Daniel frowns, clearly confused. “Nora Jenkins.”

Tony nods. “JARVIS? You up?”

“Always, sir,” JARVIS says. At this point, the workers aren’t startled by the AI but there’s still a look of awe on their faces. Tony can’t blame them. JARVIS is lightyears ahead of Siri.

“Can you make sure that the billing for Nora Jenkins at Bellevue gets sent to SI? Actually, do any of you guys have hospitals bills? Great. Tell J your names and we’ll take care of them.”

There’s a stunned silence when he finishes and he fidgets. “Unless… you want to pay the bills?” he asks, realizing that he might have overstepped. “I just thought, since hospital bills are a racket, I could offer-”

Daniel throws his arms around him, hugging him tightly. “Thank you, Mr. Stark,” he breathes, voice sounding a little wet. Daniel seems to have broken the dam and now everyone wants to shake his hand and thank him. Slightly uncomfortable, Tony steps away and directs them all to talk to JARVIS.

He ends up standing next to Steve. “That’s really nice of you, Tony,” Steve says quietly. There’s an odd look on his face and Tony fidgets again. He didn’t do it to get attention- or, well, he did but only because Bruce was looking even more uncomfortable with the attention on him.

“What’s the good of being a billionaire if I can’t give the money to people who actually need it?” he grumbles.

Steve is still looking at him with that weird smile on his face. Tony can’t help but want to escape to his workshop but he can’t do that because he promised that he’d help with the renovations. He does, however, make sure that every job he takes that day is on the opposite side of the tower from Steve. It means that he has to deal with the gratitude from the workmen but he’d rather deal with that than the soft look in Steve’s eyes.

Steve gets called to a meeting at SHIELD the next day, for which Tony is immensely grateful. Steve’s expression hasn’t changed and now Tony can’t stop squirming. He likes doing nice things but he’d prefer to do them anonymously; keeps up his reputation that way. But when he’d seen how Daniel’s story had affected Bruce and heard about Nora Jenkins… he couldn’t stop himself.

But that doesn’t mean he’s a good person. He’s done some pretty shitty things in his lifetime and flying a nuke through a wormhole and paying off a couple of hospital bills has only started to make a dent in the decades of warmongering. He’s got a long way to go to redemption.

Steve comes back spitting mad and trailing two superspies. The workmen have already left for the night and it’s just Tony and Bruce watching a movie on the couch. Barton and Romanoff sit down a little uneasily on one of the couches as Steve stalks into the kitchen. Tony gets up to follow him.

“Sorry, Tony,” Steve says as he throws a bag of popcorn in the microwave, his accent slipping into something more 1940’s Brooklyn. “I know I shouldda asked but you didn’t see how they were treatin’ Clint.”

“So tell me,” Tony replies, noting how Steve’s hands are shaking.

“Like he’s some kinda animal. They had him locked up and goin’ to face charges for what happened to the helicarrier when they know that wasn’t his fault.”

Tony’s quiet for a long moment, long enough that Steve looks at him worriedly. “You’re not gonna send him back, are ya?” he asks.

Tony shakes his head. “Barton doesn’t deserve that. I’ll see what Pepper can do about the charges,” he promises. “And I’ll figure out where to stick Romanoff and Barton until we’re done with the renovations.”

It takes two weeks and a promise from Tony to weigh in on the designs for the new helicarrier but SI’s lawyers are indeed able to get Barton out of his court martial. Barton spends those two weeks moping around the tower with a haunted look in his eyes, jumping at shadows and flinching if anyone so much as speaks to him.

Tony can see why Steve wanted him out of SHIELD headquarters. SHIELD would have had too many loud noises and flashing lights. The first time one of the workmen drops a beam, it startles Barton so bad, he goes into a panic attack. Tony tells them all to go home while Romanoff works on calming Barton down.

For the rest of the two weeks, he gives the workmen paid leave until Fury shows up in person to tell Barton that he’s free to leave the state. Tony immediately suggests a team retreat to his Malibu home while the construction work is completed on the tower.

Steve thanks him and tells him that it’s a great idea. Romanoff snorts and mutters, “Of course you think that’s a great idea,” which bewilders both Steve and Tony but it gets the first laugh out of Barton in two weeks so they leave it.

They’re in Malibu by that evening.

The team spends a month in California. Romanoff had visited back during the Vanko disaster but she seems to appreciate it a lot more now that she’s not there for a job. Most days, she drags Barton down to the beach though there’s quite a few days where it seems like neither of them are anywhere around. Not that Tony would know. He doesn’t ask JARVIS for their whereabouts.

Instead, he amuses himself by taking Steve to Disneyland (which Steve loves) and Knott’s Berry Farm (which he hates). Bruce is happy enough to putter around in one of SI’s labs in the city. Tony had offered him the use of the mansion’s workshop but Bruce had taken one look at the organized chaos that made up Tony’s workshop and firmly turned down the offer.

In the evenings, whoever’s at the mansion meets up for board games or a movie or sometimes just to talk. There’s rarely a night where everyone goes their separate ways. Barton seems to be on the mend and the team is bonding and things are going great. It works a lot better than Tony had expected when he’d made the offer.

They’ve been there for almost a month when Tony staggers up from a late-night workshop binge to find Romanoff in the kitchen, sipping on a cup of coffee. Tony checks the clock on the microwave- 2 am- and then hesitates. To be completely honest, he’s not sure he trusts her yet even though she certainly had his back during the Battle of New York (or so the news is calling it- with those capital letters too). But he recognizes that look in her eyes and, though he’s certainly no paragon of mental health, he doesn’t think that someone so young deserves to stare blankly into space at this hour.

He plops down in the chair across from her and asks, “Wanna talk about it?”

She startles (and doesn’t that say something, that he could actually manage to startle her?). She looks at him for a long moment and then says, “No.”

“Good,” Tony says flippantly. “’Cause I didn’t want to listen.”

That earns him a small smile.

“I’ll just talk at you instead,” he continues. “Nightmares, right?” Her head jerks and he takes that as an affirmative answer. “I don’t know what you see but I used to see the desert. I’m sure you’ve read my file. You know what happened there.” He doesn’t wait for her to respond though she seems to be listening now. “I still see the desert, I guess. But then about six weeks ago, I woke up because I was dreaming of the stars. You can’t imagine how lonely they are. Definitely not a great way to die. And Steve- the one night we fell asleep on the couch after Star Trek, I woke up because he was screaming about the ice. Bruce told me that he dreams about Culver University sometimes, when he can’t sleep either. It scares him what he might have done to a bunch of kids.”

Romanoff doesn’t say anything for a long time and Tony nods to himself before standing. He carefully places a hand on her shoulder. “Just wanted you to know you’re not alone, Natasha,” he says quietly.

He’s almost to the door when she says hoarsely, “Faces. I see faces.”

Tony gets that, he does. He bets that if he actually knew all the people his weapons have killed, he’d probably see their faces too. As it is, most nights Yinsen shows up in his dreams and on particularly bad nights, he sees the young soldiers killed in the ambush in Afghanistan.

“I don’t always know their names,” she says. “It scares me.”

Tony walks back and sits back down. Gently, he tugs the mug out of her hands so that he can take them between his. “You’re not a monster. No more than the rest of us are.”

She laughs hollowly. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”

“And you don’t know how many villages my weapons destroyed, how many families they tore apart. Or how many children Steve killed who were just following orders. Or the homes Bruce smashed in Harlem. We’re all done terrible things; we’re just trying to make up for it.”

“Is that the best we can do? Try to make up for it?”

Tony shrugs. “That’s the best anyone can do.” He stands again. “Try to get some sleep.”

The next night, he wakes up thinking that he’s drowning again. He rolls to his side, worried that he might start retching- it’s not like it’s uncommon after one of these nightmares. It takes him a moment to realize that the knocking he’s hearing isn’t in his imagination.

“Come in,” he calls tightly.

The door opens and someone pads across the floor. Tony catches a glimpse of red hair in the light from the moon, then Romanoff- no, Natasha- lays down beside him, pressing her back against his. He starts to mumble out a sleepy question but she says, “Shh, Antoshka.” He’s not entirely certain why it works to comfort him but it does. He falls back asleep easily, his rest remaining dreamless.

It becomes a thing, even after the team moves back to New York. If one of them can’t sleep, they go and find the other one’s bed. It’s not sexual. Tony, for all his past conquests, has never wanted to fuck Natasha. It’s just comfort. Tony starts calling her Nat, the same way Barton does, thinking that he can’t exactly share a bed with someone and not trust them. They start doing more things together. It’s not the same as his friendship with Steve (nothing could be the same as his friendship with Steve) but it’s still nice.

They go shopping because, given her druthers, Nat would just as soon walk around in a holey t-shirt and ripped sweatpants as she would a ballgown and Tony, who grew up in three-piece suits, can’t stand that. Sometimes they go out to the movies. Barton joins them then, which leads to Tony discovering that Barton has a wicked sense of humor as he makes inappropriate jokes through even the most serious of dramas. He calls him Clint after that.

Steve catches Tony leaving Nat’s room a few days after they return to the tower. It’s early- a lot earlier than Tony had thought anyone would be up. They freeze, Tony in the doorway, Steve a little further down the hall. Steve doesn’t look disapproving exactly but there’s a twist to his mouth that Tony doesn’t like. He opens his mouth, intending on reassuring Steve that he’s not dating Nat though he doesn’t know why it matters that Steve knows that. Steve, however, just nods shortly and disappears into the kitchen.

They don’t talk for two days after that incident, the longest they’ve ever gone without talking since Steve moved into the tower. Tony’s sure that it has to do with Steve seeing him leaving Nat’s room but when he tries to talk to Steve about it, Steve just says, “Why would I be upset?” and then punches a punching bag so hard it flies across the room so Tony doesn’t quite believe him.

Nat calls him an idiot when he goes to her to complain but so do Bruce and Pepper so Tony thinks she’s probably right. He lets the stand-off between them sit for another day before deciding that Steve won’t make the next move and tracks him down.

He corners Steve in the kitchen and waves the tickets in his face. “We’re going to a Mets game and you’re going to like it,” Tony announces.

“Wouldn’t you rather take Natasha?” Steve blurts out.

Tony’s hand falls to his side. “Why would I take Nat? She hates baseball.”

“You two are… you know,” Steve says, waving his hands in a way that doesn’t clear things up at all.

“No, I don’t know,” Tony says, completely nonplussed.

“Dating,” Steve mumbles.

Tony stares at him for a long moment and then, before he can stop himself, bursts out laughing. “Me and Natasha? You actually think she’d give me the time of day?”

Steve crosses his arms defensively. “You don’t need to laugh. I saw you.”

“We’re not sleeping together,” Tony says. “It’s because we both have nightmares. Sometimes Clint joins us too.” That’s not wholly true. Clint’s only joined them once but Steve doesn’t need to know that.


“Yeah but if you don’t believe me- J, call Nat for me?”

Nat picks up after a minute. “This had better be good,” she says waspishly. “You’re interrupting Parks and Rec.”

“I didn’t know you liked sitcoms- not the point. Did you know Steve thought we were dating?”

“What? No,” Nat drawled in a way that sounds like she definitely knew.

“Tell me, Nat darling, my favorite assassin, are we dating?”

“I’d rather date Fury.”

Tony winces. “No need to be so harsh.”

Nat hangs up rather than dignifying that with a response. Tony turns back to Steve with a self-satisfied smile, pleased that Nat had backed him up rather than teased Steve, to find him practically beaming.

“Tony, I’d love to go watch the Mets with you.”

It’s not long before Tony comes to the abrupt realization that he’s in love with Steve. He’s known for a while that he was falling for his captain but at some point, he’d gone from falling to fallen quite without realizing it.

Admittedly, it’s not some grand realization that comes when Steve saves his life from flying giraffe people (and Tony would love to see the world that those aliens came from) or when they’re at a ball game and the kiss cam lands on them and Steve laughs good-naturedly before leaning over and kissing Tony’s cheek. Rather, it comes quietly when Tony looks up from his work to see Steve dozing on the workshop couch, sketchbook and pencil neatly placed off to the side, and he thinks to himself, God I love you.

And then he panics.

It’s not that Tony thinks that Steve is perfection incarnate and that he can do so much better than Tony. Steve can definitely do better than Tony but he’s not perfect. He drinks the last of the coffee and doesn’t make a new pot. He swears like a sailor (or perhaps like a soldier). He can’t sing and he wakes up at absurd hours to go running and then tries to wake everyone else up too to go running with him.

No, Steve’s definitely not perfect.

But Tony’s got a defective soulmark and Steve still wears a band around his wrist to hide his mark from the world. Maybe his soulmate is dead and his mark is gone and Steve wears the band so that it’s not a reminder that he’s out of his time but maybe he’s still got a mark. Maybe he’s looking for his soulmate in this new century and it’s not Tony. It can’t be Tony because Tony is defective.

And so he sits there with this realization that he’s in love with Steve and the knowledge that he can’t say anything because Tony might be a dick but he’s not the kind of dick who would keep someone from their soulmate. He thinks about trying to pull away from the friendship (or codependency as Bruce calls it) but he’s done that before when Steve has pissed him off and all Steve has to do is give him puppy dog eyes and Tony caves like a sinkhole.

He’ll say nothing, he decides. He’ll say nothing and he’ll do nothing and, if he’s lucky, those feelings will go away.

The team, as much as it can be called a team when they’re missing a member, works surprisingly well.

They save the world once and then again. Tony flies another missile through another portal to save Miami from aliens- though this time the missile was planned and, frankly, Tony thinks that Miami is such a shithole anyway that it wouldn’t have mattered if the city had been destroyed.

He makes it back through the portal with plenty of time to spare but it doesn’t stop him from having nightmares for a week. They’re so bad Nat has to call first Clint and then Steve into the room to help hold him down so he doesn’t hurt himself.

Clint recovers from Loki’s mind control. It’s a slow process over the course of several months but he does recover- right up until a mutant calling himself Mesmero attempts to control Tony into turning on the team. It doesn’t work- the arc reactor stops it easily the same way it did Loki’s scepter and then Steve punches Mesmero hard enough to lose consciousness- but Clint spirals. It takes the combined efforts of several SHIELD agents, Nat, and Steve to pull him out of the ensuing panic attack. Clint comes to the team the next day to request time off.

“I can’t trust myself,” he says simply. “And I can’t learn to trust myself again when I’m running the risk of a setback every couple of weeks.”

Tony’s not sure but he thinks that Clint’s leave of absence is when the team starts to fall apart. Clint’s an asshole, sure, but he’s the loveable kind of asshole, the kind who goes out drinking with Tony but while Tony ends up back at the tower, Clint ends up in a dumpster somewhere. He pulls too many pranks sometimes but he’s also surprisingly good at pulling Tony out of his nightmares when Nat can’t. He goes to basketball games with Tony (since Steve hates everything about the sport) and always has some new pop culture reference that Steve just has to watch to understand the last seventy years and he’s always willing to try whatever new recipe Bruce tried when the rest of the team wouldn’t go near it with a twenty-foot pole and, of course, there’s whatever he has going on with Nat.

The team feels lonelier without Clint there. They still have their movie nights and game nights and outings to whatever event Tony wants them at but it’s obviously not the same. Bruce starts doing humanitarian stuff again in the far corners of the globe. At first, it’s short trips that only last a few days but then they start lengthening into weeks until Bruce is more likely to be found out of the tower than in it.

With only three Avengers out of six, missions start going worse. They’re still successful but the missions take longer, the casualties rise, and the damage gets worse. The press starts coming down on them harder, which pushes Bruce further away, and the fissures between them all start compounding.

Tony starts taking stupid risks to end battles faster, which are effective but have the side effect of landing him in Medical more often than not. Steve starts yelling at him to stop being so damn stupid, which makes Tony resentful, and Nat clearly agrees with Steve though she says nothing, which makes Tony even more resentful. The end result is that Tony’s already thinking about moving back to Malibu by the time the Avengers come to a screeching halt.

They’ve spent six long hours battling acid-spewing snails attacking Brooklyn. Bruce, the only one who probably could have gone up against the snails with minimal damage, is, as usual, out of reach in Brazil and Clint is still on vacation so it’s just Tony, Nat, and Steve. The body armor that Nat and Steve wear and Tony’s own Iron Man armor is great but it’s not designed to withstand prolonged contact with acid. By the time they finally make it back to the tower and Steve herds them into the decontamination showers, the acid’s managed to mostly eat its way through the armor and is starting on their skin.

For months, Tony’s been meaning to make separate decontamination showers for men and women (and maybe one for people who identify as neither) but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. This isn’t really a problem. Tony’s not interested in Nat like that and Steve’s too much of a gentleman to say anything but it does mean that she’s there when Steve takes off his band to scrub at the skin on his wrist.

“That your mark?” she asks curiously. Nat’s unmarked. Tony’s never asked if her soulmate is actually dead or if she has something similar to his own SKIN.

Reflexively, Tony glances over at Steve’s mark. He starts to glance away- soulmarks can be intensely private things after all and there has to be a reason Steve was hiding his- but then he freezes. He knows that mark. He knows it intimately well. His eyes trace over the red and gold phoenix rising from the bright blue flames on Steve’s wrist.

It’s Tony’s mark.

He doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Steve’s his soulmate. He’s spent this entire time worrying about whether any romantic gestures he made would be keeping Steve from his soulmate and it doesn’t matter because Steve is already his.

“Have you found them yet?” she asks, her voice just a little too casual. Tony looks up from where he’s tapping at his wrist, absently wondering if he should tell Steve now or wait until they’re alone. Yep, she’s looking directly at him. He’s not sure how she found out about his mark but she is a master spy. He’s not terribly surprised that she knows.

She jerks her head at Steve. Tony can read her nonverbal message, clear as day. She wants him to tell Steve. No one ignores a direct order from Nat so he opens his mouth, still not sure what he’s going to say but then-

“Yes,” Steve says, looking down at his mark. He runs his thumb over it slowly.

Nat and Tony both freeze this time.

“Who?” Tony asks. He thinks he can be forgiven for his voice sounding a little strangled. He thought he’d been careful but to find out that at least two people (and probably also Fury if he’s being honest) other than Rhodey and Pepper know his secret is a disconcerting. Then Steve swallows thickly and his eyes start glistening. Tony has the sudden feeling that he’s not going to like what Steve has to say.

“Um, Bucky was,” Steve says quietly.


Tony’s sitting alone in his room. He’s been there for the last four hours, eyes glued to his mark to see if it disappears. Every time he blinks, he immediately asks JARVIS if it flickered while he was blinking. Each time, JARVIS tells him that it hasn’t.

It’s the longest it’s gone without disappearing since Tony was a toddler.

He doesn’t know for certain when it stopped flickering since he hasn’t taken the SKIN off for longer than a few minutes in years but he strongly suspects that it’s around the time that Steve was found in the ice.

Not that it matters. Steve Rogers might be Tony’s soulmate but Tony isn’t Steve’s.

Tony knows about Bucky. Bucky Barnes, just like Steve, had appeared in Aunt Peggy’s stories and in the history books and the Smithsonian exhibit. Tony had already known all about Bucky and then, of course, Steve had shared his own stories about his best friend. He’d never once said that Bucky had been his soulmate but then, Tony supposed that that sort of grief was extremely private.

He doesn’t know why Steve’s soulmark was still visible on his wrist when, by all accounts, marks are supposed to disappear when a person’s mate dies. But then again, Tony has spent more than forty years with a defective mark. He wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that Steve also has a defective mark. For that matter, Steve’s mark might not be a mark at all. It isn’t uncommon for people whose soulmate has died to get a tattoo of their mark in remembrance of their partner.

Tony puts the SKIN back on his wrist and smooths it down. He doesn’t know why he’s still thinking about this. He can stare at his wrist all day long and it won’t change the fact that he’s not Steve’s soulmate.

He flops backward onto the bed. “I don’t think I can do this, J,” he admits. “I don’t think I can be around him and not tell him.”

JARVIS is quiet for a moment. “Sir,” he says finally. “Miss Potts would like to know if you’ll be in Malibu for the board meeting tomorrow afternoon.”

Tony’s usual answer is a flat refusal but this time, he listens to what JARVIS isn’t saying instead of what he is. He stands and pulls his shirt cuffs down over his wrists. “Tell her I’ll be there by tomorrow morning.”

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers is born with a soulmark.

This, of course, isn’t unusual in the slightest. Everyone is born with a soulmark. Steve’s mother has a bluebird on her wrist and his father had a broken compass, or so he’s been told.

What is unusual is that, when Steve is injected with the serum, his soulmark changes. Soulmarks aren’t supposed to change. They’re supposed to remain static, as static as the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

But Steve’s mark does change. He was born with one mark and when he finally gets the chance to look at himself after the serum, after Erskine’s death, after Phillips’ rejection, he notices that his mark has changed. He’s probably supposed to log the change- everything else had been recorded- but Steve has always been intensely private. The band around his wrist has been worn since the day he was born. He’s not going to change that now.

But that comes later.

Steve is born with a robin in flight on his wrist.

His mother calls it pretty. Steve doesn’t know what his dad thinks about it because his dad is long gone by the time Steve is born. Like his mother, Steve thinks his mark is pretty too. That doesn’t stop him from wearing a band around his wrist though. To him, soulmarks are meant to be private, something to be shown to one’s lover to determine if they truly are deeply compatible. He knows that maybe he’ll pass his soulmate by and they won’t know because his mark is covered but Steve has a feeling that it won’t be a problem.

When he’s six and can scarcely breathe through the coughing, he asks his mother, “What’ll happen to my soulmate if I die before they can meet me?”

She smiles sadly and strokes his hair. “You will, sweetheart. Everyone is destined to meet their soulmate.”

He’s leaning up against her chest because it helps with the breathing a little. Twisting his head up to look at her, he asks, “Have you?”

Her smile turns brittle around the edges and she eases out from behind him. “I’ll make you some soup,” she promises before leaving.

That night, Steve’s coughing fits get so bad they wake him up. Usually, his mother rushes in to wake him up herself before the coughs get to this stage but she’s nowhere to be seen tonight. As Steve sits himself up and lets his coughing settle on its own, he can hear the reason why.

She’s crying. Steve has never heard his mother cry before. She’s always been strong and unflappable. He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to comfort her. Instinctively, he knows that her tears have something to do with his question about her soulmate but without knowing what it was exactly that upset her, he can’t do anything about it.

He resolves to ask her in the morning so that he knows never to do it again and falls back asleep.

In the morning, his fever has spiked and he’s delirious with pain. His resolve to talk to her slips away with the memory of the night. His mother changes out the cool washcloth on his forehead and murmurs again about how he’s going to live to meet his soulmate.

When he’s a little older, he realizes that there’s no scientific basis behind her words. It’s an old wives’ tale, this idea that everyone is destined to meet their soulmate. Everyone has a soulmate but not everyone meets theirs.

Not that it matters for Steve because when Steve is eight, he meets Bucky.

It’s almost a fluke that Bucky (who is still going by James at the time and will be for another year until there are three other James in their class) even sees his mark. It’s not the first time they’ve met but all the other times, James has shown up at whatever fight Steve’s gotten himself into and then disappeared right after. The first time, Steve has to yell after him to tell him his name. James introduces himself the next time as he’s running back down the alley but he’s still running away.

This time though Steve takes a hard tumble to the ground as the bullies are running off and James hesitates just long enough for him to yell, “Wait!” James stops though he’s eying Steve like he’s some sort of venomous snake.

“Just wanted to thank you,” he mutters. “Even if I did have ‘em on the ropes.”

James laughs. “Sure ya did.” He reaches down to help pull Steve up from the ground. It’s fine at first until Steve is trying to get his feet under him and then all of his weight is on his wrist and James is pulling on it and it hurts. Steve yells and falls back, cradling his wrist.

“Let me see,” James demands as he kneels beside him.

Steve wants to tell him no, wants to say that his mother’s a nurse and she can look at it, but he doesn’t. He lets James pull his band off, biting back another pained yelp, and check over his wrist. James looks at the back first, twists it around to make sure it’s not broken. Steve tells him that it hurts but it does bend so it’s probably just bruised. Even so, he still doesn’t complain as James turns it over to check the inner part of his wrist.

Except James doesn’t check anything.

He turns his wrist over, chattering about science class probably to distract Steve, and then falls silent. Steve looks down at where James is staring to see the robin in flight. It looks a little swollen and he absently notes that that’s probably from a bruise forming.

Then James says, “You’re my soulmate.” He sounds so awed that Steve can’t help but snap his attention back to him. No one’s ever sounded like that around him. Steve didn’t even think that they could.

“Huh?” he asks intelligently.

“You’ve got my mark,” James says impatiently and scrambles for his own band. He yanks it off, then shows Steve his bare wrist. Sure enough, his mark is the spitting image of Steve’s own, all the way down to the tiniest feather.

Steve swallows hard, looking back up at James. “You’re my soulmate,” he says dumbfoundedly.

James grins and though he’s only eight, Steve thinks it’s the most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen. “I already said that,” he points out.

“Yeah but-” Steve stammers out. “You’re my soulmate.”

Their conversation dissolves into chaos after that. They’re laughing and maybe even crying a little because it’s so rare to find a soulmate this early in life and Steve can’t quite believe that he’s going to be allowed to have this. Over the last year, he had grown to believe that he was probably going to die before he met his soulmate but instead, he’s got James, his perfect match.

Steve wants to take James home to meet his mother. James wants to take Steve home to meet his parents. Their laughter devolves into a near-argument as they talk over each other for why their family should be the first to meet their soulmate. Steve thinks wryly that James is definitely his soulmate. Who else would be able to keep up with his arguing?

James throws him a sly smile. “Tell you what. We’ll arm wrestle for it.”

Steve’s jaw drops. “That’s not fair,” he protests. Just because he hates admitting it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know that he’s weaker than the other boys (and most of the girls) in his grade.

“Not my problem,” James retorts with a casual shrug. “You forfeit then?”

Steve sighs. “You don’t leave me much of a choice.” He trudges after James, consoling himself with the thought that they’ll probably end up having dinner with his mother and not James’ family since they’re meeting her last.

As it turns out, they live in the same apartment building. They compromise by inviting the entire Barnes family to dinner at Steve’s.

Steve is twenty and Bucky (who’s been going by Bucky for over ten years now) invites him over for dinner. This isn’t unusual for them. Since the boys turned eleven, they’ve spent most nights at each other’s home, only heading back to their own home when it was time for bed. Even after the Barnes family moved to a different building a few streets over, they kept it up.

It’s not even unusual that Bucky meets him outside his building, wraps his pinky around Steve’s- neither of them are particularly public in their affections- and leads him away. Bucky’s family can be loud at the best of times and deafening at the worst. Sometimes, Steve doesn’t mind that but sometimes, he just wants quiet. He wouldn’t have minded the noise tonight what with his own apartment seeming far too quiet these days but it seems as though Bucky wants some quiet instead.

What’s more unusual is how Bucky doesn’t lead them to one of their diners or to the park for a picnic. Instead he leads them a few blocks over and stops in front of an apartment building Steve has never seen before.

“Buck, where are we?” he asks.

“You’ll see,” he says cryptically. Steve kind of hates it when Bucky gets like this, all mysterious and the like. There’s always a surprise waiting for him at the end of it and it’s always a surprise that Steve will like (with the notable exception of that time with the goat) but it’s the part where Bucky lords his secret over him that Steve hates.

Bucky isn’t trying to look superior this time though. He looks- nervous, almost. He leads Steve inside and up two flights of stairs before stopping in front of an unmarked door.

For a heart-stopping moment, Steve wonders if this is it. If this will be the moment where Bucky tells him that he’s sorry but Steve and his myriad of illnesses are too much for him to handle and he’s gone off and found someone else. It’s uncommon but not unheard of for soulmates to reject each other and Steve is sure that if anyone were to be rejected by their soulmate, it would be him.

But then Bucky doesn’t actually knock. Instead, he pulls out a key and unlocks the door, ushering Steve inside first. The place is already well-lit so Steve can see the familiar grandfather clock in the entry hall- the one that Bucky’s uncle gave him for his birthday last year- and the afghan that Steve’s mother had knitted for Bucky three years ago draped across the couch.

“I moved in yesterday,” Bucky says.

Steve nods absently. “I can see that,” he murmurs as he walks around. It’s a nice place, open and airy. Steve bets that the morning light would be just perfect and it overlooks a busy street, the kind that gets Steve itching for his sketchbook.

But it’s missing some things, things that are kind of necessary. Like there’s a dining table but no chairs and a sofa in the living room but no lamps. Steve can’t help but think that the standing lamp he’s got in his own living room would go perfect in the far corner. But it’s the bedroom that’s the oddest.

He walks back out of the room. Bucky’s laying out plates on the table and Steve wonders if Bucky had already cooked before going to meet him.

“Where are you sleeping?” he asks.

Bucky shrugs. “Couch for now.”

“Uh huh,” Steve agrees dubiously. “And what’s wrong with your bed? Why didn’t it come with you?”

Bucky keeps his eyes trained on the table as he says, “Yours is bigger.”

Steve freezes. Bucky looks up at him and gives him what’s probably supposed to be a cocky smirk but comes off as terrified. “Come on, Stevie. Don’t ya think it’s time we moved in together?”

Steve’s answer is to drop to his knees and open Bucky's pants.

Dr. Erskine lets him keep the band on his wrist during the procedure. It, of course, doesn’t grow with the rest of his body but Steve doesn’t realize that it’s cutting off circulation to his wrist until after the adrenaline rush wears off.

He’s in an SSR medical examination room. The nurse is finishing up taking his pulse. These tests have always made his fingers tingle so Steve isn’t surprised when he can’t feel them during the test but then feeling doesn’t return. He glances down at his wrist to see the band digging into the skin around his wrist.

“Huh,” he says and attempts to work it down over his hand. He can’t. He’s grown too much to just slide the band off.

Peggy enters the room with a stack of clothes. “You got a knife?” he asks distractedly, still trying to slide the band off.

“Of course,” she replies and hands him her pocket knife.

Steve sighs a little mournfully. Bucky had given him this band the night he’d shipped out. It’ll be a shame to ruin it. But the band has to come off so he starts cutting. He slips a few times and cuts himself but the serum in his veins heals him within seconds. He finally manages to cut through the band. It slithers off his wrist and falls to the floor unnoticed as he stares, in horror, at his mark.

It’s changed.

Gone is the robin in flight that matches Bucky’s so perfectly. In its place is a red and gold phoenix rising from a flame so blue it nearly makes his eyes hurt. It’s visually stunning; honestly, it might be the most beautiful mark he’s has ever seen.

He hates it.

He hates that he hadn’t taken his band off to look at his mark one last time before the procedure. He hates that the robin is gone, that that wonderful trace of Bucky is gone.

“What’s wrong?” Peggy asks gently.

Peggy’s never seen his mark. Steve and Bucky have always been very private about their marks, only removing their bands when they were alone together. Part of him wants to tell her. They’ve become friends- or not quite friends but certainly something- over the course of Steve’s basic training, ever since the day with the flagpole. He thinks she’d understand. But another part, a much larger part, thinks that she’d urge him to report it if she knew that it had changed or even report it herself. He’s supposed to share all major changes with them but this thing going on with his mark- he can’t share that. He’s never heard of anyone’s mark changing before. He’s a little afraid of ending up in a lab, never to see the light of day again, if he tells her.

“Guess I kind of miss the little guy from Brooklyn,” he quips instead.

At first, Steve tries to avoid showing him but Bucky’s always known Steve better than he knows himself. He clearly knows that something is wrong, especially after Steve refuses to take his band off when they’re in private.

The first night they’re in London after they return from Azzano, Steve finally takes his band off and shows him. Bucky stares at it for a long time before reaching out a shaky finger to trace over the lines of the mark.

“I thought the war couldn’t take anything else from me,” he whispers.

Steve is sure that he isn’t meant to hear that, positive that if it had been before the serum he wouldn’t have, but it’s so heartbreaking that he can’t stop himself from saying, “You’re still my soulmate.”

“Course I am,” Bucky says and gives him that old cocky smirk but there’s something missing in his eyes.

There’s something hesitant in their interactions after that, something that’s never been there before. Bucky tries to pretend that Steve’s new mark doesn’t bother him but Steve knows him. He knows that it’s bothering him. Bucky isn’t sure of Steve anymore and, what’s worse, is Steve isn’t entirely sure of Bucky.

The night that he puts together his team, the night that Peggy comes to the bar in a gorgeous red dress and flirts with him and Bucky stares her down with hard eyes until she leaves, Steve presses Bucky down into the mattress and holds him there while he presses kisses over his body. He fucks into him with slow, sure strokes, whispering over and over, “You’ll always be my soulmate. You're mine, Bucky Barnes.”

He doesn’t tell him the rest of it- that, while Bucky is still his soulmate, Steve’s pretty sure that someone else belongs to him now too.

Steve wants to say that things get better but they don’t. Bucky’s eyes keep lingering on his mark, even though it’s covered up by a new band (one that Bucky didn’t choose), and he’s pulling away from Steve and there’s nothing Steve can do about it because there’s a war going on. He can’t give Bucky the attention, the devotion, that he deserves right now.

He promises himself that after the war is over, after they’ve gone home, he’ll convince Bucky again of how much he loves him. If it takes him the rest of their lives, he’ll convince Bucky that he’s enough for him.

And then Bucky falls.

And then Steve falls.

As the plane crashes and the water starts rushing in, he thinks of what his mother had told him- that everyone is destined to meet their soulmate. He knows by now that it's an old wives’ tale. Still, he can't help thinking that maybe there's some truth to it.

It doesn't matter that his mark has changed. He met his soulmate and he was wonderful and they had eighteen perfect years together.

He's met his soulmate. Nothing else matters.

Steve has badly, badly misjudged Tony Stark.

Admittedly, he'd known the moment Tony had let himself get run over by a giant fan when Steve couldn't reach the lever during Loki's attack that he'd misjudged him. And then Tony flew a missile into a wormhole. And then he offered the Avengers a place to live. And then he told Steve stories about the Commandos. And then he sent his own lawyers to fight against Clint's court martial. And then-

Yeah, he'd misjudged him.

They've been back in New York from their vacation in California for two days when a reporter corners Steve and Tony outside an Einstein Bros. Bagels, picking up breakfast for the team. Tony's exhausted; at this point, Steve's pretty sure he's been up for over a day working on stretchy pants for Bruce. He's wearing sweatpants and a tank top and his hair is fluffy, long since freed from the gel that normally keeps it flat. All told, he's a far cry from the usual picture-perfect image he presents for the press.

So Steve feels perfectly justified in glaring at the pretty blonde reporter who steps in front of the door to block them from entering.

"Hello, Christine," Tony says wearily.

She smiles and there's something almost wolfish about it. Steve doesn't like her. "Hi, Tony," she replies. "I just have a couple quick questions."

The Avengers haven't really done any press yet. There'd been a couple statements released right after the Battle of New York but no interviews, nothing like the USO tours Steve had done, and certainly no press conferences. With Thor off world, Bruce's anger issues, and Nat and Clint's constant hypervigilance, Steve and Tony had both decided that press was probably a bad idea.

That being said, he does know that someone is handling their press. Tony's got something called a social media team taking care of their image and SI's legal department takes care of the press after their battles (they haven't had very many of those- just Loki and then a few small villains).

This is the first time they've actually come up against a reporter and clearly one who has a personal history with Tony if the way she's looking at him is any indication. Her mouth twists like Tony is something distasteful she has to deal with.

Steve doesn't like that. Tony's great. He gave the Avengers a home and he fights side by side with them and he's funny and so damn brilliant it scares Steve sometimes.

He moves slightly so that he's half blocking Tony from her view. "Anything you have to ask, you can ask me," he says firmly.

Tony opens his mouth, probably to protest, but Christine whirls on him so fast that Steve can't help but wonder if that was her plan all along.

"It was a shock to see you fighting in the Battle of New York," she says. "People are saying that you somehow survived your time in the ice. How did that happen?"

Steve wonders who those people are. He knows perfectly well that the released press statement acknowledged that he was indeed the original Captain America and that the serum was what allowed him to survive. He has a sneaking suspicion that she's fishing for the formula to the serum.

His eyes narrow. "There's already been a released statement about that, ma'am," he says evenly.

"How long had you been awake by the time Loki attacked?"

"Ten months."

"And you never thought to announce your survival before then?"


"Why not?"

"I'd just awoken to find that I'd lost seventy years, that nearly everyone I knew was dead, that the world had changed. You don't think I deserved some time to find where I fit in to this new century?"

"Don't you think that the people of this century deserved to know that a great hero was protecting their country?"

Steve gestures at Tony. "They already had a great hero protecting this country."

Tony makes a small noise as Christine scoffs. "Tony Stark?" she asks incredulously but there's a victorious gleam in her eyes like this is exactly the topic she wanted to land on. "Do you even know the things he's done?"

"I think I know a lot more than you do about the things Tony's done. He's made mistakes, yes, but so have I."

"I doubt you've done anything along the lines of what-"

Steve has tried very hard to be patient with her but she's being cruel for the sake of being cruel. There's no reason for her to be pointing out the things that Tony's trying to make up for, has already made up for. He's never stood for anyone insulting his team and he's not going to start allowing it now.

"Ma'am, my closest friend is dead because of things that I've done," he says. It hurts a little to call Bucky a friend when he'd been so much more than that but Steve knows what's being said about him and Bucky these days. The world doesn't have any idea what Bucky meant to him and Steve isn't about to tell them now when he knows that they'll focus on that instead of what he wants them to focus on.

"Tony's never done anything like that," he continues. She starts to say something but Steve pushes on. "You want a statement? Here's a statement for you: I've been in this century for over a year and the best thing about it is Tony Stark. Everything good about this century can be found in Tony- the innovation, the creativity, the curiosity pushing discovery. He's more than made up for his past mistakes. I'm proud to call him my friend and an integral part of my team.

"Excuse me," he finishes and pushes past her. He opens the door and ushers Tony inside. Tony's gaping at him and Steve can't help but congratulate himself for rendering him speechless.

"Steve, what did you do?" Tony finally squeaks. He pulls out his phone and begins furiously typing. "Oh god, I've got to warn Pepper. You can't just say things like that. People will think you mean them."

Steve frowns. "Tony," he says and gently lifts Tony's chin so he can look him in the eyes. "I did mean them."

"I- but why?"

"You gave me a home, Shellhead. You befriended Natasha after she spied on you. You helped Clint when you didn't even know him. Why wouldn't I?"

Tony glances away almost desperately. "You know what they'll be saying about us, right? They'll say that we're soulmates. At the very least, we'll be dating. Do you really want to be mixed up in that?"

"I don't care," Steve insists. "I meant every word I said. You're my best friend. No one, least of all you, deserves to feel the way she was trying to make you feel."

Steve knows that the media storm about this is going to be a mess (and god he hates the way the press has been allowed to invade every part of people's lives). He knows that their teammates are going to tease them endlessly for this. He knows that people are going to be speculating about his words for months to come. But he can't bring himself to care because Tony's giving him this tiny, delighted smile and he thinks that he'd do anything to keep Tony smiling at him like that.

And then he thinks, Fuck.

It's not love. Not yet, anyway. But Steve can already see it going that way. Tony's all of the things that he's already mentioned and gorgeous as well. Yes, he can be a little bit narcissistic sometimes and so damn reckless that Steve wants to shake him until he develops a sense of self-preservation but it's always because he sees a way to save more lives- and who can fault him for doing that? It wouldn't be hard to fall in love with him at all.

Steve thinks about his changed soulmark. It's still on his arm and he's not entirely certain what that means, whether his other soulmate was alive back in the 40s and is now old or if they've belonged to this century all along and the universe knew somehow that he'd end up here. He thinks that if they were alive in the 40s then they deserve to be left alone. He hopes that they lived a fulfilling life. It would just be cruel of him to barge in now at the end of it.

If they belong to the new century though...

Steve's looked into how people find their soulmates now. Back in the 40s, people just sort of hoped for the best and went around with their arms uncovered. People like Steve, who wore a band on their wrist, were few. But the internet changed all that. Now there's a registry where people can post pictures of their mark and list distinguishing features if they want. Celebrities do interviews where they show off their mark in the hopes of their soulmate seeing it and contacting them. A lot of the very high-profile celebrities- like Tony used to- wear bands specifically to stop people from trying to fake a match with a tattoo. If Steve wants to, he can easily find his soulmate.

But he doesn't really want to.

He had Bucky and it was everything he'd ever hoped for. To ask for anything else seems selfish to him, especially when he suspects that the life of a superhero's soulmate would be exceedingly dangerous. There's no doubt in his mind that his soulmate would be a target for any villain out there. He refuses to put someone through that kind of danger.

Tony, though- Tony's markless. It's awful that Tony's soulmate is dead but Steve can't help but feel a little grateful. He doesn't want to take anyone away from their soulmate- everyone deserves to feel as loved as he once did.

He's not ready to make a move yet though. Not until he's sure of both his own feelings towards Tony and Tony's feelings towards him. If he makes a move and it turns out that Tony doesn't feel any sort of attraction toward him- well, that's the kind of thing that could tear their team apart.

The predicted media storm doesn't hit at all. Tony goes looking to find out why and reports back that Pepper threatened to sue Vanity Fair for all they're worth if Christine's interview got out. Tony's perfectly happy with that answer. Steve, on the other hand, digs a little deeper than that- because simply backing down doesn't match what he's learned about the press in this century at all- and learns that Christine wasn't even supposed to be talking to them in the first place, that Fury had called in a considerable amount of favors to ensure that the Avengers were protected from that sort of impromptu media attention.

Steve sends a gift basket to Fury's desk.

Supposedly, Fury thought it was a bomb and threw it out a window which is just about the funniest thing Steve's ever heard.

Life goes on.

The Avengers save the world a few times over the next year, stop a few minor villains. Clint steps away from the team, then Bruce, and then it's just Nat, Tony, and Steve. It's clear that the team is starting to fall apart but Steve's still doing everything he can to hold them together.

It doesn't help that Tony keeps taking unnecessary risks during battles. Once, his risks had a point to them- to save lives- but now it just seems like he's doing them to end their fights quicker. Steve wouldn't mind this except Tony's taking these risks without any regard to his own personal safety, which has him ending up in medical more often than not.

By now, Steve can admit that he's well on way to falling in love with Tony and maybe that's what makes him react more harshly when Tony gets hurt. He shouldn't yell, he knows that, but every time he tries to calm himself down, he sees Tony dropping from the sky again and he can't help it.

He remembers what he told Tony when he invited him to join the Avengers- that they would work together on his risk-taking. He still wants to but how can he be expected to help when Tony won't make the effort?

The anniversary of Steve going into the ice begins with acid-spewing snails attacking Brooklyn at six in the morning, which means it's already not a good morning but then Tony accidentally throws a truck at him and sends him flying into the East River. It's October so the water isn't as cold as it could be but the association is still not great. He climbs out of the river, gives himself a few minutes to calm down his impending flashback, and then runs back into the fight.

The anniversary of Steve going into the ice continues with Natasha asking him about his mark. Maybe on any other day, he would have told them the whole story, about growing up with Bucky and his changed soulmark and how he's decided not to try and find his new soulmate. Maybe he would have finished by asking Tony out. Instead, he tells them that he's already found his soulmate and, when Tony asks who it is, Steve tells them it was Bucky. They're reacting oddly- Natasha's voice is too casual and Tony looks devastated- but it's already been a long day so Steve thinks he can be forgiven for ignoring their reactions and leaving.

The anniversary of Steve going into the ice ends with Tony finding him in the kitchen and saying, "I'm going back to Malibu."

He doesn't look up from the soup he's stirring. Tony goes on business trips every once in a while, all part and parcel of his job as the head of SI's R&D department. "When will you be back?" he asks absently, already wondering if he can somehow contact Bruce to come back so they don't have to call Tony back from his trip for an assemble.

"I'm not coming back."

Steve looks up then. "What?"

"I'm resigning from the Avengers."


Tony looks uncomfortable though there's still that quiet devastation lurking beneath the discomfort. "I'm quitting," he repeats.

"You can't quit. Tony, the team needs you," he implores. I need you, he thinks.

Tony openly scoffs at his words. "What team? Thor's been off world for over a year. Bruce is out of contact. Clint is on indefinite vacation."

"Clint's coming back-"

"When?" Tony demands. "Steve, he's been gone for nine months. I don't think he's coming back. Face it, we don't have a team. We haven't had one in months."

Steve feels like the rug's been ripped out from under him. Tony's never mentioned these doubts before. This whole time, Steve's been thinking that he was happy- that they were happy. To find out that Tony, his best friend, is planning on leaving is crushing.

"We can recruit," he says desperately, trying to find a reason to keep Tony here with him.

"Recruit who? There’re no news stories about mysterious vigilantes or aliens in Kansas. We're it. We're the only superheroes in the world," Tony says and there's a cruel note to his words.

Steve can feel the anger swelling inside him but he fights to keep his voice steady as he asks, "Can I at least know why you're leaving?"

Tony shrugs insolently. "SI's not putting out enough products. Can't focus on that and the Avengers. Figured I'd jump ship before it sinks."

He's lying. Steve knows he's lying but Tony's got his public mask on and Steve can't see through that so he doesn't know what he's hiding. The fury gets stronger and he's trying to fight it down though it's threatening to break free.

"The world needs us," he says through gritted teeth.

"The world didn't used to," Tony retorts. "They'll get used to not having us around again."

"So- what? You're just gonna hang up the Iron Man suits, run back to your company? Tell Miss Potts she's done playing at being CEO, take it over again?" he snaps and he needs to stop before he says something he regrets.

"Don't you dare say anything about Pepper," Tony threatens but Steve's not done.

"Maybe you'll even start making weapons again since being a superhero isn't fun anymore." And this is the moment, Steve can feel it, where he throws their entire friendship away but the words are coming faster than he can even think to stop them. "You're nothing but a cowardly businessman, pretending to care about the world. God, I can't believe I ever thought you were a hero."

Tony rears back like Steve had slapped him. His eyes are bright and shining. There's a tremble in his lower lip, so slight that Steve nearly misses it. His anger drains away, leaving shock and horror at the awful, terrible things he's just said.

"I guess that's that then," Tony says softly.

"Tony, wait!" Steve blurts out but Tony's already gone. He should go after him- he has to apologize- but he can't bring himself to move.

He's still standing there when Natasha finds him thirty minutes later. She slaps him across the face. Steve takes that to mean that she already saw Tony. "How dare you?" she hisses.

Steve could ask her the same thing. He's seen the file she put together about Tony; he's sure that it at least some of Tony's issues about being a superhero stem from that file. He doesn't say any of that though. His mouth has done enough damage for one night. Instead-

"He left me," he says helplessly.

Natasha's anger seems to melt away. Slowly, she reaches up to pull him down into a hug. "Yeah, he did," she murmurs. She doesn't sound surprised. He kind of wants to ask her about that but he doesn't think now's the time.

Over the next week, Steve tries nearly a hundred times to reach Tony but he never picks up. Eventually, he thinks to try flying out to Malibu and apologizing in person. After all, if he were in Tony's place, he'd want an in-person apology.

He gets as far as the front door of Tony's mansion. It swings open before Steve can knock, revealing War Machine leveling a repulsor at him. Steve had met Tony's best friend, Jim Rhodes, this past Christmas. At the time, they'd gotten along just fine but he remembers thinking that Rhodes would be a man he'd never want to cross. He looks at him now and knows that he's crossed him.

"Turn around, Captain," Rhodes threatens. He hears the familiar whine of the repulsor powering up.

He turns around.

"Fury wants us in D.C."

Steve glances up at Natasha's words. It's the beginning of December. Tony hasn't spoken to him in over a month. Natasha, he knows, has flown out to Malibu a couple of times. She tells him that Tony's doing okay, that he asks if Bruce has emerged from wherever he's hiding now, if Clint has come back from leave. He doesn't ask if Tony's asked after him.

"What for?" he asks.

"Mission debrief," she says flatly. "Couple of Chitauri weapons emerged in the hands of a group of drug dealers in Quebec. He wants us to go in undercover, find the weapons, get them back."

Christmas Eve finds them in a dive bar in Quebec. Their original debrief had stated that the weapons had fallen into the hands of a few petty drug dealers but these men aren't petty in the slightest. These are hardened criminals, all on SHIELD's watchlist and many multiple offenders. It makes Steve's skin crawl to look around and realize that all of these men have innocent blood on their hands.

It's a far cry from last Christmas when the team had still been together and celebrated at the tower.

Natasha's at the bar, interrogating the bartender. Steve himself is chatting up a group of men playing pool, letting them fleece him out of a few dollars. He's got a large bag at his feet. The men think it's full of cocaine; it's actually hiding the shield. The television in the corner is playing some sort of breaking news story but Steve isn't really paying attention. He lines up his next shot, letting the noises of the bar go in one ear and out the other.

"-gone missing, presumed dead. Stark's mansion was attacked by the Mandarin earlier this afternoon-"

Steve's cue rips a hole in the tablecloth. He stands and whips around, all focus now on the TV. The room's gone silent. Everyone's staring at the news report as footage of Tony's Malibu mansion sliding into the ocean plays.

Oh god, Tony. Steve can't move, can hardly manage to breathe. He'd done this. He'd pushed Tony away, let him run to Malibu instead of keeping him in New York where he was safe.

"Eyewitness reports are saying that Stark was still trapped inside when the mansion was destroyed."

He'd called him a coward, said he wasn't a hero.

"Authorities are still calling him missing but inside sources say that it's unlikely he survived the fall."

He lets out a sob but it's drowned out by the man next to him saying, "And good riddance to him." There's a general murmur of agreement. At the bar, Natasha winces.

Steve sees red.

He has very little memory of what happens next. Natasha tells him later that he'd gone for his shield, taken out every man in the bar, except for the bartender. He'd left him alive to tell them where the missing Chitauri weapons were. Steve hadn't even bothered to find the weapons himself, leaving that for Natasha to do, while he attempted to hijack the Quinjet. Natasha had stopped him though. Steve isn't sure what she'd done, if she'd actually physically stopped him or simply reminded him that he was incapable of flying the Quinjet.

He's not even entirely certain when he was told that Tony was still alive (and saved the president and stopped the Mandarin and destroyed all his armors).

The next thing he does remember is standing in the doorway of a hospital room in Miami. Tony's laying in the bed, sniping at Pepper and Rhodes who are both fussing over him.

"Pep, Pep," Tony's pleading, "I'm not even the one who should be in this bed. You should be in this bed. You're the one with the unstable, experimental virus in your blood."

"Thanks for the reminder," Pepper says dryly. "I'm also not the one who almost drowned two days ago."

Natasha pushes past him into the room. "Antoshka," she says. Tony's face lights up as he sees her. She shoves Rhodes aside and pulls Tony into a fierce hug. "Don't you ever do something like that again."

"Yeah, Tones," Rhodes chimes in, not looking at all put out that Natasha had pushed him out of the way. "There are better ways to get attention."

Steve can't stop himself from letting out a small chuckle. Tony looks up past Natasha, sees him, and freezes. "Steve," Tony breathes out.

"Hi, Tony," he says quietly.

There's a long moment and then Natasha says, "Well, this is sufficiently awkward." She hooks her arms through Pepper and Rhodes'. "Come on. You can show me the cafeteria."

Rhodes looks like he wants to protest but Natasha steers him toward the door. Steve steps aside to let them out and then moves back into the doorway.

"You don't have to hover there," Tony points out. He gestures to the chair next to the bed. "Sit down."

Steve does. There's another long moment of silence, broken by Tony saying, "So-"

"I'm so sorry," Steve interrupts.

Tony's jaw clicks shut.

He hurries to say, "I don't know that you'll ever believe me but I'm so sorry. I didn't mean anything I said and I shouldn't have said it and if you never forgive me, I'll understand because I was a horrible friend. I hurt you. I accepted Clint's resignation and I let Bruce go and I didn't do either of those for you. I yelled at you and made you feel like you're less than you are."

He closes his mouth and waits for Tony to say something, anything. He's not even sure what he wants Tony to say.

"I know you're sorry but- I need time," Tony says slowly like he's thinking about it. "Before I'm ready to see you again."

Steve nods and turns to go. Tony reaches out a hand to hold onto his. "I'll text you," he says. "Text me back?"

A smile spreads across his face and he nods again. "I'd like that."

He settles in D.C.

Tony hasn't explicitly asked him to leave the tower but the Malibu mansion is destroyed and, while Steve knows that Tony has other houses, he suspects that the tower is home in a way the others aren't. So he goes to Fury and asks for assignment in D.C. Fury assigns him to one of the strike teams. He ships out often enough that he finds an apartment near the Triskelion.

He's not sure where Natasha ends up- if she stays in New York or goes wherever Clint is or finds her own home. They do a lot of missions together but not all of them.

He doesn't really like the strike team. Rumlow's kind of a dick and the others take their cue from him so when he makes misogynistic comments about one of the female agent's chest, they do too. They're not the Howlies and they're certainly not the Avengers.

He misses Tony.

From TS 01/01/14 04:11 a.m.: Thinking about removing the arc reactor. Thoughts?

From SR 01/01/14 06:22 a.m.: Do you want to?

From TS 01/01/14 06:23 a.m.: Don't know. Kind of feels like it represents the changes I've made. Symbolic, you know?

From TS 01/01/14 06:23 a.m.: But it hurts.

From TS 01/01/14 10:58 a.m.: Can't remove the reactor. Diminished lung capacity. Can't fix it.

From SR 01/01/14 10:58 a.m.: I'm sorry, Tony.

From TS 01/11/14 01:20 p.m.: Thor's in London.

From SR 01/11/14 01:21 p.m.: Yeah, damn near destroyed the city too. Helped with the cleanup.

From SR 01/11/14 01:21 p.m.: You contact him?

From TS 01/11/14 01:22 p.m.: Tried. Got ahold of Dr. Foster instead. She said Thor wasn't ready to come back to the Avengers.

From SR 01/11/14 01:23 p.m.: Got it.

From TS 01/28/14 03:42 p.m.: Brucie's back! He says hi.

From SR 02/03/14 09:38 p.m.: Hi, Bruce!

From TS 02/03/14 09:39 p.m.: How was your mission? Siberia, right?

From SR 02/03/14 09:40 p.m.: Stop hacking into SHIELD files.

From TS 02/04/14 01:14 a.m.: I wanted to know why you hadn't said anything.

From SR 02/04/14 01:14 a.m.: Go to bed, Tony.

From TS 02/04/14 01:14 a.m.: Wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

From SR 02/04/14 01:14 a.m.: Tony?

From SR 02/04/14 01:18 a.m.: Sweet dreams.

From SR 02/18/14 11:17 p.m.: How are the bots?

From TS 02/18/14 11:18 p.m.: Just got DUM-E running again last week. He has happily used the fire extinguisher on everything in the new lab twice so far so he's in time out.

From TS 02/18/14 11:18 p.m.: I'm working on Butterfingers. Should have him working again in a few weeks.

From TS 02/18/14 11:18 p.m.: U was destroyed in the Mandarin attack but his code is all backed up to one of the servers here in New York so I'll be able to rebuild him.

From SR 02/18/14 11:21 p.m.: Tell them I said hi.

From SR 02/24/14 11:15 a.m.: Saw a cat on my run today. Reminded me of you.

From SR 02/24/14 11:15 a.m.: [033845.jpg]

From TS 02/24/14 12:56 p.m.: Are you saying I'm fat?

From TS 02/24/14 12:56 p.m.: This meeting's boring.

From SR 02/24/14 12:57 p.m.: I'm saying you're lazy. Pay attention to your meeting.

From TS 02/24/14 12:57 p.m.: Why? I'm smarter than they are.

From TS 02/24/14 12:57 p.m.: Except Pepper.

From TS 02/24/14 12:58 p.m.: I'm not smarter than Pepper.

From TS 03/05/14 03:45 p.m.: I'll be in D.C. tomorrow. You wanna go see a movie?

From SR 03/05/14 03:45 p.m.: Sure! :)

From SR 03/10/14 05:30 p.m.: Going on a mission. Radio silence for a week.

From TS 03/10/14 06:01 p.m.: Be safe.

From SR 03/17/14 10:09 a.m.: Just got back. No casualties. Heading in for debrief now.

From TS 03/17/14 01:37 p.m.: :)

From SR 03/28/14 04:07 a.m.: Keep passing this guy on my morning runs.

From SR 03/28/14 04:07 a.m.: [07827364.jpg]

From TS 03/28/14 04:08 a.m.: Aww, have you made a friend?

From SR 03/28/14 04:08 a.m.: Think I can irritate him into talking to me?

From TS 03/28/14 04:08 a.m.: ...What the fuck, Steve? Nobody makes friends like that.

From SR 03/28/14 04:08 a.m.: You irritated me into talking to you.

From SR 03/28/14 04:08 a.m.: I bet I can irritate him into talking to me.

From TS 03/28/14 04:09 a.m.: Fine, but when I win, we're going to a Yankees game and you're going to cheer for the Yankees.

From SR 03/28/14 04:09 a.m.: Why would you say that when you know it hurts me?

From TS 03/28/14 04:09 a.m.: If you're scared you'll lose, we don't have to bet on it.

From SR 03/28/14 04:10 a.m.: I didn't say that.

From SR 03/28/14 04:10 a.m.: When I win, you have to go with me to the Met Gala this year. I know they invited you.

From TS 03/28/14 04:10 a.m.: Ew, art.

From SR 03/28/14 04:11 a.m.: If you're scared you'll lose, we don't have to bet on it.

From TS 03/28/14 04:11 a.m.: Stop throwing my words back at me.

From TS 03/28/14 04:11 a.m.: You have a week and you have to prove he talked to you by Facetiming me. Got it?

From TS 04/01/14 09:19 a.m.: The Dodgers lost the game last night.

From TS 04/01/14 09:19 a.m.: How are your efforts with Air Force Runner?

From SR 04/01/14 11:28 a.m.: I hate you.

From TS 04/01/14 11:29 a.m.: No you don't :)

From SR 04/02/14 05:56 a.m.: He glared at me today. Does that count?

From TS 04/02/14 03:42 p.m.: No.

From SR 04/02/14 03:58 p.m.: Fuck you.

From TS 04/02/14 03:59 p.m.: Promises, promises.

From TS 04/04/14 02:08 a.m.: Hey, Steve? I really miss you. When are you coming home?

From TS 04/04/14 05:15 a.m.: Yikes. You can ignore that. I was kind of drunk.

From TS 04/04/14 05:20 a.m.: Hey! Last day to get Air Force Runner to talk to you. I've already got your Yankees hat picked out :)

From TS 04/05/14 10:58 a.m.: Steve? Is it something I said?

From TS 04/05/14 04:17 p.m.: We don't have to go to the Yankees game if you don't want to.

From TS 04/06/14 03:22 p.m.: Steve?

From TS 04/07/14 08:10 a.m.: What's going on? The news is showing assassins in the street and I can't get ahold of you. Are we assembling?

From TS 04/08/14 09:39 p.m.: Steve???

From TS 04/09/14 11:30 a.m.: STEVE!

The first time Steve awakes after the crash of the helicarriers, Sam is sitting beside him, playing some sort of jazzy music. The second time he awakens, Sam is still sitting beside him but next to him is Tony.

Tony notices he's awake first and he glares fiercely. "You're a fucking idiot, Rogers," he snaps.

Steve winces. He should have expected that.

"You should have called me," he continues, voice getting louder. "You think I didn't build a fail-safe in case the helicarriers were hacked?"

"Isn't that what we used to take them down?" Steve argues. "Your fail-safe?" That's what Hill had said- that Tony had originally designed them.

It's the wrong thing to say. Tony shouts, "Those were meant for use before the helicarriers even got off the ground so that they don't crash into the Potomac! God, Steve, what were you thinking?"

"What would you have done?" Sam butts in. Steve and Tony both turn to glare at him. He holds up his hands. "I'm serious, man. What do you think would have been better?"

"I would have hacked them," Tony says simply. "I designed those systems. I left myself a backdoor. Could've done it from the ground." He glances away and his voice quiets, "Didn't trust what Fury wanted to use them for."

"They still would have crashed," Steve points out.

Tony can't hide a small smile as he admits, "They were designed to explode."

Steve can't stop himself. He laughs because that's just so Tony. "You always did like your explosions," he says fondly.

Tony grins back at him and Steve thinks that, maybe, he's been forgiven.

The next time he awakens, Sam and Tony are still there, but now they're joined by Natasha. For a moment, Steve simply watches them. They're playing some sort of card game. From his bed, he can't tell what it is but Natasha's got a stack of one hundred-dollar bills nearly three inches high sitting beside her and Tony's is only a little smaller (Sam barely has any) so he thinks they're probably playing poker or something.

Then, completely seriously, Tony asks, "Sam, do you have any twos?"

Just as deadpan, Sam says, "Go fish."

"Shit," Tony mutters and draws a card out of the stack in the middle.

Steve bursts out laughing. Tony looks up at the noise, his face splitting in a broad smile. "You're awake again!" he exclaims.

"Looks like it," Steve agrees. "Hey Sam, Natasha. Where you been?"

"Congress," Natasha says. "Congressional hearing about what happened to SHIELD. They're looking for a scapegoat."

"But we're not gonna give them one, are we, Nat?" Tony says pointedly. Steve wonders if that had been Natasha's original plan.

"Called in a few favors," she says, ignoring Tony to reach under her seat and pull out a folder. "This is all the information available on the Winter Soldier."

"Any news on where Bucky might be?" he asks absently. He flips through the folder, noting where Bucky's been sighted more than once. He doubts it's anything more coincidental as multiple jobs happening in the same place but maybe he'll have a bolt hole there.

Sam and Natasha both shake their heads. Tony, on the other hand, casually says, "He's been visiting your exhibit at the Smithsonian every day for the past week."

All heads turn to Tony. "Bad cards," he mutters at his deck. When the silence continues, he looks up, as though surprised that they're surprised he knows where Bucky is. "What? Most of their stuff is from Howard's collection and I think he might actually rise from the grave to murder me if anything goes missing- thanks for that, Winghead- so I put JARVIS in their systems. He pinged Barnes at the museum eight days ago." He raises an eyebrow. "And just where do you think you're going?"

Steve pauses from where he's swung his legs out of bed. "To go find Bucky."

"Yeah, no. Bad idea, Cap." Tony stands and gently pushes Steve back onto the bed with only one hand. Steve doesn't much care for that. He would have thought that the serum would have completely healed him by now.

"You don't get it," Steve protests. "I have to find him before he's gone again."

"I'm not saying we shouldn't talk to him. I'm saying you shouldn't." There's a long pause. "Look, Spangles, for all that he's as much a victim here as the rest of us are, Barnes spent seventy years as a brainwashed assassin with a nearly perfect success rate. You're a failed mission and, if it's all the same to you, I'd like to avoid destroying the Air and Space Museum."

Steve scoffed lightly. "Bucky's not going to kill me."

"You don't know that," Sam points out.

"He broke his programming-"

"For a few minutes," Tony interrupts impatiently. "And he nearly killed you in the process. It's obvious that he's trying to figure out what you mean to him but-" He cuts off and runs a frustrated hand through his hair.

"But," Sam continues gently, "pushing the issue isn't the direction we should take. You're more likely to spook him. We'll never find him if he disappears again."

"He's my soulmate," Steve says plaintively like that's a reason to push. Tony flinches, something that Steve thinks is a little weird, but ignores it to glance over at Natasha. "Are you gonna gang up on me too?" he asks.

Natasha smiles wryly. "They're right and you know it or you wouldn't be asking me. I think we should send in Clint. He talked me out of my brainwashing, brought me in when a whole lot of people would have rather seen me dead."

Steve looks back at Tony and Sam. To his surprise, they're both nodding like they agree with her. Steve throws his hands up. "Why do they even call me team leader?" he complains to the ceiling. "You three are obviously running the show."

Natasha leaves to put the call in to Clint. Sam and Tony go back to their high stakes Go Fish game. They invite Steve to join and he does for a few minutes but he keeps dozing off. At one point, he blinks and opens his eyes to find that Tony has stolen his cards to make pairs out of what he can and Sam has stolen his winnings.

He gives up playing with them after that.

He blinks again and now Sam is gone and Tony is tapping away on his tablet. It's quiet in the hospital. The window is dark. Steve must have fallen asleep again. He stretches and then winces as he pulls at one of the wounds in his side. Without looking, Tony reaches over and fiddles with his pain meds.

"You're still here," Steve says softly. There's something weird about that, he knows, something about soulmates being the only ones allowed to stay after visiting hours but the upped morphine dosage is making him a little loopy and the thought barely flits across his mind before he forgets it.

Tony hums. "Do you want me to leave?"

"I never want you to leave," Steve says honestly. "Had enough of leaving."

Tony smiles but it's somewhat sad. Steve doesn't like it. There's something he's supposed to tell Tony, something important, but it's just out of reach.

"You can come back to the tower," Tony says. "You and Barnes."

Steve remembers. "Wait," he says, resting a hand on top of Tony's. "Before you let me come back, I have to tell you something."

He reaches for the folder Natasha gave him and flips to the back page before passing it to Tony. Tony glances at him, brow furrowing, and then down at the folder. "Mission report: December 16, 1991," he says softly. He looks back up. "Steve, what is this?"

Steve can't make himself say it. He swallows hard, watches as Tony's eyes track the movement. Tony returns to the folder, running a thumb over the picture. "I know that road," he whispers. "That car... Steve, did the Winter Soldier-?"

"Yes," Steve chokes out. He can't stop the tears from sliding down his face. Howard had been his friend but Bucky was his soulmate and it hurt to know that his soulmate had been forced to kill his friend. Worse than all of that is that he never wanted to hurt Tony like this- Tony whose expression is shattered and yanking his hand away from Steve's.

"He killed my mom," Tony says and now he's crying too. Steve wants to pull him into his arms but he doesn't have that right. Tony isn't his.

"I'm sorry," he murmurs instead. "I'm so sorry." He keeps repeating it as Tony continues to sob, eventually deciding that he really doesn't care whether it's seemly or not. He reaches over to pull Tony out of his chair. Even in his weakened state, Tony's easy to lift onto the bed, weighing practically nothing to Steve.

To his surprise, Tony curls into him, letting Steve hold him close. Steve strokes his hair, listening quietly as Tony's sobs turn into softly hitching cries and then slowly settle into deep even breathing that tells him he's fallen asleep.

There's a small part of him that loathes himself right now because holding Tony feels right. It feels perfect like something has clicked into place. Steve hasn't felt like that in a long time, probably since before he became Captain America. And he doesn't deserve any of it because Tony isn't his and Steve keeps hurting him and then there's Bucky, who's actually alive. He should let go, should let his feelings for Tony fade away, but he doesn't.

He's not sure how long they lay there. For the most part, the serum has burned off the morphine but there's still a haze over his mind and time slips by.

At some point, Natasha shows up. Steve doesn't bother asking her how she got in. He's sure she isn't supposed to be here but nothing stops Natasha from being where she wants to be. She looks down at Tony, asleep on the bed, and then at where Steve's hand is gently carding through his hair. Her face is unreadable, almost forcefully blank. He gets the impression that she's doing some very quick thinking. He wonders, not for the first time, what's going on inside her head.

"Did you tell him?" she asks. He nods. "How did it go?"

Steve shrugs as best he can in a bed. "Well as can be expected," he replies.

She's changed clothes, he notices, out of the suit she was wearing at the hearing and into a pair of sweats.

"You get some sleep?" he asks.

"Some," she says. She sits down in the seat that Tony's vacated and nods at him sleeping on Steve's chest. "Glad he is. I don't think he's slept since SHIELD fell. He's been very worried about you and then SHIELD falling made him very busy."

Steve frowns and she sighs. "Look, SHIELD needed to be taken down. We did the right thing but- HYDRA's files weren't the only ones released. Tony's spent the last week getting our agents out of bad situations, creating new identities for the ones with families... it's been a mess."

Steve leans his head back and breathes out heavily. He hadn't even thought about the agents. He'd been so focused on the bad- HYDRA, the Winter Soldier, Project Insight- that he'd forgotten all about the good.

"Shit," he mutters. His grip on Tony tightens until Tony lets out a small whimper. Steve's grip loosens immediately.

"You can't do that, Steve," Natasha warns. "You can't blame yourself like this."

"It's my fault," he argues.

"It's not. HYDRA had to go and SHIELD was too tangled up with it."

"People could have died."

Natasha doesn't say anything and Steve knows what's behind that silence. People did die. His mouth twists and he looks down.

"Fuck," he swears.

"I didn't come here to tell you about SHIELD," Natasha says quietly. "Clint called. He's got a location on Barnes's hotel. He'll talk to him tomorrow. Best case scenario: we can bring Barnes in as early as tomorrow afternoon. Worst case, Barnes disappears and we have to track him down. But if Barnes is anything like I was, Clint will have to talk to him for a few weeks before we can bring him in. He wanted to know where to take him if we get best case."

Steve's silent for a long time. "Tony said we could bring him to the tower but that was before," he says finally.

"I won't go back on my promise," Tony says drowsily. Steve startles, unaware that Tony's been awake. He glances down to see an unhappy tightness around his eyes.

"I'm not going to do that," he replies.

"Why not?" And now Tony looks even more upset. "Don't you want him to come home?"

"Of course I do," Steve says. "But not if it's gonna hurt you."

"But he's your soulmate," Tony says and there's something almost anguished in his voice but now isn't the time to worry about that.

"Yeah and you're my best friend, Shellhead."

He doesn't mean to make him cry again but that's exactly what happens. It's just a few tears but Steve still doesn't know what to really do. He thinks Natasha sees his discomfort because she leans forward to give Tony a hug.

"Thank you," he mouths at her. She gives him a reassuring nod.

"Antoshka," she whispers so softly Steve can barely hear her. "Where do you want him to go?"

"I know he's just a victim," Tony begins hesitantly. "But he's still my mom's killer and I'm scared I'll try to hurt him if I see him."

He looks up at Natasha and whispers, "I don't want to hurt him."

Natasha smiles understandingly. "I'll tell Clint to take him back with him."

Tony looks over at Steve then with this worried look in his eyes like he's afraid he's going to yell at him for changing his mind. It breaks Steve's heart because, for Tony to have this instinctual reaction, someone (or many someones) must have done that in the past. So he just smiles and hugs Tony closer.

Bucky, as it turns out, isn't like Natasha at all.

He takes one look at Clint, hears what he has to tell him, and agrees to go with him. Steve thinks that it might have been Clint saying he'll take him down if Bucky goes Winter Soldier again that has him agreeing. The two leave together only ten minutes after Clint arrived.

Steve watches all of this from the museum's security feed on a tablet Tony passes him. He desperately wants to be there but he's not cleared to leave yet and Tony, infamous-for-checking-out-of-medical-AMA-Tony, threatens to use the armor to keep him there until the doctors say he can go.

He has visitors (Natasha visits twice, in between her trips to Capitol Hill, and Sam is there most days) during the remainder of his two-week stay so he's never bored but it's Tony who keeps him from wanting to jump out of bed and run all the way to Missouri, where Bucky is apparently settling in nicely according to Natasha.

Tony almost never leaves his room. He doesn't always pay attention to Steve but Steve doesn't always want the attention. They talk a lot and they laugh almost as much. Tony runs ideas for new tech by him and Steve offers as much feedback as he can. Sometimes, they watch movies together or play games. Sometimes, they sit in silence as Tony works on his tablet and Steve reads or sketches. For the first few nights, Tony had had another bed brought in and slept on that. The second bed disappears the first time Tony has a nightmare and Steve rips out his IV to get to him. Tony starts sleeping in Steve's bed.

It's wonderful and terrible all at the same time.

Steve can feel himself falling further in love with Tony. It's wonderful to have Tony there beside him and to wake up next to him, so tangled together that he doesn't know where he ends and Tony begins. It's perfect actually- except there's Bucky.

He still thinks that there might be another soulmate out there for him but his feelings for Tony didn't bother him when he thought that was the only soulmate out there. After all, plenty of people never find their soulmate and are perfectly happy with the person they settle down with. But with Bucky back, his feelings start to feel a little more like cheating and he feels guilty about it.

He knows that Bucky isn't the same person anymore and that he might never remember that he's Steve's soulmate. He knows that he's been cuddling Tony all while he's got another soulmate out there and Tony's got none but he can't help how he feels. Mostly, he just thinks that it isn't fair- not to him, not to Bucky, and certainly not to Tony.

It's why he doesn't stop Tony when, the day before Steve's meant to be released, Tony tells him that he's going back to New York.

"You're welcome back in the tower if you want to come," Tony says, hands shoved deep in his pockets. "But I don't want you to feel like you have to so I'm flying back today."

Steve almost feels like this is a test, like Tony's trying to figure out how much he means to Steve. But, if this is a test, then it's one that he'll fail no matter how he chooses. He's damned if he goes to Missouri, he's damned if he goes to New York, and he's doubly damned if he stays in D.C.

He goes to Missouri.

Chapter Text

The Asset doesn't know if he was born with a soulmark or not.

If he were to think about it, he would probably say that he was born with one because everyone seems to have one but, if it's not important to his mission, then he doesn't know. Soulmarks aren't important to his mission. He doesn't even know what it means.

He does have one though- a red and gold firebird rising from a bright blue flame. It appears immediately on his metal arm the first time they attach it to his shoulder. It both bewilders and infuriates his handlers and the Asset figures that he's probably not supposed to have it. There's nothing he can do about it though. The soulmark just appears, no matter how many times the technicians replace the wrist panel it sits on or the entire arm.

And they do replace it.

They design new panels and new arms, each one gleaming and blank save for the red star on the shoulder. The new piece remains blank right up until it gets attached to the Asset. Then there's always a searing heat in his wrist that he thinks shouldn't happen- he shouldn't be able to feel anything- and when it fades, there's a firebird on his wrist.

Eventually, some years after the Asset is first activated, they give up on trying to replace the mark and start painting over it.

The Asset doesn't have many memories from before his wipes and what he does remember are flashes.

A shock of blond hair bent over a notebook.

A girl singing along to the radio in the kitchen.

The whistle of a bomb somewhere nearby.

Green liquid in a vial and the overwhelming sense of pain.

Blood blossoming over the front of a uniform.

A robin on someone’s wrist.

Strong hands pressing him down into a mattress.

The sense of full.

A whisper. "You're mine, Bucky Barnes."

He doesn't know who Bucky Barnes is but he's jealous of him.

Most of the time, he doesn't dream but sometimes, when he's on a long enough mission that he does start to dream again, he dreams of a young man, no older than twenty, asleep in a bed. The Asset doesn't know if it's a memory or a fantasy but he always lets it play out as it wants. He always moves closer to the bed, gaze trailing over the dark hair and the long eyelashes. He's there for a bad reason, he knows and the voice that sometimes shows up in the back of his mind screams for him to stop but he can't. He starts to raise the pistol in his hand and then the boy shifts, his left hand uncurling from under his cheek.

The Asset catches a glimpse of his bare wrist and the firebird printed on it. He freezes. The Asset doesn't quite know what it means that their marks match but something inside him is snarling, "Mine."

In some of the dreams, the ones that are both better and more frustrating, the Asset straddles him and wakes him up. But he doesn't know what color the man's eyes are and he can't imagine them and the frustration mounts until he wakes himself up. Most of the time, he just leaves the way he did the first time he dreamed about him. 

Sometimes, the Asset looks down at where the mark on his wrist is hidden under the paint and thinks, Wrong. He doesn't really know what's wrong about it, just that it is. He thinks that maybe it's that voice in the back of his head that's telling him it's wrong.

Sometimes, the mark feels like it belongs to someone else, that it shouldn't be sitting on his wrist. When it feels like that, he always has a flash of long fingers and blond hair. But he can't picture a face so he doesn't worry about it.

He's supposed to tell his handlers when he has flashes like that. They distract from his missions. They're supposed to be wiped clean from his mind.

But sometimes, when he has those flashes, he feels- not quite happy but not quite anything else either- safe, maybe. He likes feeling that way.

He isn't stupid.

He's been deployed as a ghost for seventy years. He's assassinated presidents and scientists and kings. He's toppled governments and he's done it all from the shadows. The most anyone has ever said about it has been in hushed whispers, all just rumors drifting on the wind.

For his handler to demand that he kill Nick Fury in as public a manner as possible and then to go after a couple of superheroes in broad daylight... The Asset knows that he's not supposed to return from this mission. Whether he's supposed to get caught or killed, he's not sure but HYDRA has clearly decided that he's no longer needed.

And when things aren't needed in HYDRA, they're disposed of.

But the Asset isn't the world's best assassin for nothing. He lets his handler give him his mission and then he goes to the apartment they have for him during D.C. missions and thinks.

HYDRA plans to have him die during this mission so his first option is the easiest: to die. The Asset, designed for long-term use, mostly shies away from this option but, at the same time, he's been an assassin for seventy years. He's...tired, almost. Seventy years is a lifetime and he's spent all of it killing. Surely it's his turn now.

But there's still something in him that wants to live so he sets the option aside as something to come back to and considers the next one: completing the mission quietly and returning to HYDRA. He doesn't much like that one, if only because he's sure that HYDRA would just kill him when he returns and that seems counterproductive.

He completely discards that option and thinks that he could maybe do exactly what HYDRA wants- several loud, public assassinations- and then escape in the ensuing chaos. The Asset has contemplated escape before but only attempted it once. He doesn't even remember the attempt itself, only the pain that had come afterwards. Sometimes, his handlers remind him of his failure and he shudders just as he does now. But back then, HYDRA had wanted him back. They don't want him back now. Maybe- just maybe- he can escape now.

That voice is reminding him now that he doesn't have to just escape, that he knows why he's being disposed of. He's been awake for over a month, the longest he's been out of cryosleep in years, all so he can help protect Project Insight. He knows that they're going to replace him with the helicarriers because who needs an assassin when they've got the destructive capabilities of Project Insight? He knows that people- good, innocent people- are going to die at the hands of the helicarriers and the voice, growing stronger the longer he's awake, tells him that it doesn't have to be like that.

He could team up with the superheroes HYDRA is sending them after. The Asset knows more about the helicarriers than anyone, save their inventor. He's got lists of their weaknesses, including some that he, for reasons he hasn't examined too closely, hasn't told anyone about.

He pushes those thoughts aside. The Asset is not a hero, he's a weapon.

It all falls apart when the man on the bridge recognizes him.

The Asset knows him.

More importantly, the man knows him.

Pierce shoves him into a chair, jams a bit between his teeth, and tells the technicians to wipe his mind. He knows that it's coming, knows that in a few minutes, he won't remember anything else. He'll be a clean slate, ready to comply. But for a few shining, glorious seconds-

Bucky remembers.

He doesn't quite know what to do with himself.

The man on the helicarrier- Captain America (Steve?)- had called him Bucky but that doesn't feel like him. Bucky is a name that belongs to someone else ("You're mine, Bucky Barnes."). But he's not the Asset either. He doesn't know who he is.

He just is.

The first few days after HYDRA falls, he doesn't leave his hotel room, sure that someone is coming for him. But his room remains undisturbed. He doesn't see anyone watching when he peeks out the windows. There are no surprise visits from room service or the maid. He is alone.

In the past, it had taken nearly a month to start experiencing the memory flashes or the dreams. Now though- maybe because of Captain America- they begin only a few days after the crash into the Potomac. He dreams of a dark-haired man with long eyelashes and a firebird on his wrist. He has flashes of a skinny blond with a wet cough and a robin on his. He doesn't know which is real- or if neither is.

He ventures downstairs for breakfast and passes a display case of things to do in D.C. He stops.

There's a picture of Captain America on one of the brochures. He picks up the brochure- The First Avenger: Steve Rogers. He looks at the picture of Captain America in tights, tiny shorts, and red heeled boots. His mouth twitches, almost a smile if he remembered how to smile. He flips the brochure over- Now on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum!

It might still be dangerous. There might still be people watching his hotel. He probably should have left the city days ago.

He goes anyway.

He wanders slowly through the exhibit, hoping to trigger more of the flashbacks. It doesn't really work. There's too much of Captain America here and not enough of Steve Rogers. He doesn't know why but he gets the feeling that it was Steve Rogers who was important to him, not Captain America.

There's almost nothing about Bucky Barnes, except for a uniform and a small display board. He glances at the display board but it's nothing that couldn't be found on the internet, just a birth date, a death date, and a few facts. Apparently, Bucky Barnes' favorite color was blue, his favorite food was the spaghetti the Italian family upstairs had made, and he liked the Dodgers.

He doesn't know what the Dodgers are.

He turns his attention to the video playing beside it. Captain America and Bucky Barnes are standing together, laughing about something. There's narration accompanying the video but it fades into the background.

They'd been told that the photographer is going to use the pictures for promotional material so they try to stand tall and straight, frowning seriously into the distance.

"No!" the photographer- Bucky thinks his name is Stan- shouts. "You're not heroes! You're human!"

He exchanges an amused glance with Steve. "And here I thought we were dogs," he quips.

From behind Stan, Dum Dum howls mockingly. Steve shoots him the patented Captain America Glare of Disappointment. They try smiling next but Stan tells them they look stilted so then they try to pose but Stan just gets more upset.

"Don't you two like each other?" he asks.

"Yeah," Gabe shouts, leaving his conversation with Stan's pretty assistant. "Pretend you're friends."

Bucky replies, "But we are friends." Steve dissolves into laughter. It's the picture of the two of them laughing together that shows up on the cover of Time Magazine two weeks later. Stan sends them a copy with the inscription, "Thanks for being human," on the inside cover.

He stumbles back and glares at the video, now showing footage of the two of them planning a mission. He hates it, hates that it gave him this memory, because he's not human. He's been twisted and ruined into something monstrous and certainly not human.

It doesn't stop him from coming back the next day.

They're boys, just beginning to discover their libidos, stretched out in bed together. Steve's release is co-mingled with Bucky's drying on his stomach. He thinks that he should probably find a towel or a washcloth but Steve's holding his hand, running his thumb over Bucky's mark.

"You're mine, Bucky Barnes," Steve whispers. The words sound familiar like he's said it before. But the next part, the part where Steve says, "'Til the end of the line," that part's new and Bucky shivers.

"'Til the end of the line, huh?" he asks. He rolls over to face Steve. "Sounds pretty special."

Steve blushes, his cheeks glowing rosy red. It's the healthiest he's looked since before he had the flu last month. Bucky luxuriates in the fact that he made Stevie look like that. No one else did. Just him.

"You're a pretty special guy," Steve says.

"How special?"

"The most special." Steve pushes him back onto his back and climbs over him to straddle his hips. Bucky's hands automatically fly to his waist. Steve rolls his hips forward and he keens. "You're my soulmate."

He listens as the narrator says, "Best friends since childhood, Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers were inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield."

"That's not right," he says.

He doesn't realize that the nearby docent hears him until she asks, "I'm sorry?"

He freezes, suddenly hoping that his long hair and beard is enough to keep him from being recognized. No one's realized yet that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes and he'd like to keep it that way.

For a moment, he considers not replying to her but she's leading a tour group and they all seem interested in what he has to say. He looks down at the floor and says, "I just thought they were soulmates, is all."

She smiles kindly. "It's an interesting theory," she says. "Certainly a popular one if you read the forums. There's no record of either Barnes or Rogers' marks and Rogers must have deeply cared about Barnes to go after him in Azzano. But Commando Gabriel Jones said their marks didn't match."

He wants to snarl, "What does Gabe know about it?" He doesn't, too startled by the realization that it wasn't his thought to say the words aloud. That thought belongs to Bucky, who he's long thought to be lost.

He looks down at his left wrist. He's been hiding the metal arm with long sleeves and gloves but, under the glove, he knows that the paint HYDRA had used to cover his mark is starting to chip off. He thinks of the man from his flashes, the one with the robin on his wrist. It doesn't match the firebird on his but he still has that sense that they were soulmates.

He's missing something.

Steve's sitting at the table when Bucky comes home from work. There's an open letter in front of him. His eyes are bright and Bucky knows immediately that something is wrong. He's opening his mouth to ask about it when Steve says, "You were drafted." He pushes the letter toward Bucky.

He sits down heavily. "Oh." He doesn't bother reading over the letter, already knowing what it says. "Where do they want me?"

"Wisconsin. Next week," Steve says dully.

Bucky likes to think that the inflection in Steve's voice is because he doesn't want him to go to the front but he knows better. Steve sounds this way because he too wants to fight. Bucky's argued with him about it- over and over and over again- until they were both tired of fighting so he says nothing now.

He knows that Steve hates bullies, that he wants to protect those more helpless than he, but even after all the years he's known him, it still bothers him that Steve doesn't see himself as one of those helpless. It's both admirable and frustrating that Steve refuses to admit his own limitations. Bucky's afraid that it's going to get him killed one of these days and now Bucky won't be there to fight by his side.

This war is claiming people and now it's taking Bucky. He doesn't want it to take Steve too.

"Who writes this shit?" he mutters.

"I know, right?" the person beside him asks. He tenses. He hadn't even heard the man walk up. He always hears people approaching but, somehow, he'd missed this one.

The man doesn't seem to notice his tenseness and blithely continues, "I mean, Pearl Harbor was in ‘41 and Steve says you shipped out in ‘43 so there's no way you could have had winter training for a few weeks and then flown out to Italy. Their timeline doesn't make any sense. Fucking historians, right?"

He stiffens more. This man knows who he is. They've finally come for him. He glances over the man, noting the military haircut, the keen eyes, the practiced looseness of his body, the canvas bag at his feet that's probably hiding a gun. It's SHIELD then. He nods to himself and readies himself to fight. He prefers to run but he doesn't think that this man will let him.

"At ease, Soldier. Steve sent me," the man says. "Or, well, actually Natasha sent me but it's because Steve wanted her to."

"Who are you?" he demands.

"Clint Barton," the man says easily. "You might know me as Hawkeye."

He recognizes the name. He's one of the Avengers and a persistent thorn in HYDRA's side, always recruiting the people HYDRA wants before they can get to them. He's never gone up against Barton before but he doesn't think it'll be too difficult. HYDRA had kept an extensive dossier on how to take down all of SHIELD's best agents. Hawkeye, he remembers, has hearing problems. It would be easy enough to capitalize on that. He shifts himself further to the right, towards Barton's bad ear.

"And what about you?" Barton asks abruptly. "Are you the Winter Soldier? Bucky Barnes? Both? Neither?"

He takes a step back, surprised. Barton isn't attacking. His body language is open, nonthreatening. It could be a trap but he's trained to know traps. This doesn't feel like one.

"Neither," he replies. "I think."

"What do you call yourself then?"

He doesn't call himself anything. For years, he's been the Asset but he's not anymore. "I- I don't-" He falters and stops.

Barton nods understandingly. "Nat was the same way. How about James? Can I call you James?"

He looks again for any sense of wrongness and finds nothing but kindness in Barton's eyes. He nods slowly.

"I'll be honest with you, James. Cap's real excited to see you again."

"I'm not ready to see him," James admits.

Barton shrugs. "Yeah, we figured. That's why I'm here and not him."

"And... why are you here?"

"Cap wants us to bring you in," Barton says readily. "But I don't think you're ready for that and, truth be told, Tony isn't ready either."

James knows who Tony is too: Tony Stark, only child of Howard and Maria Stark, both of whom were murdered on December 16, 1991 by the Winter Soldier. "He blames me?" he asks.

"Nah. But he doesn't want to hurt you and he's scared he might."

James doesn't argue with him. Tony Stark's threat level was assessed by HYDRA as a "Do Not Engage" long before he ever became Iron Man. He thinks he might have been sent to kill him once, before his threat level had reached that point. He doesn't remember it but if he had, he had clearly failed.


“I know a little something about brainwashing myself. Best way to get your head screwed back on is to go off on your own for a bit. Figured I’d offer you a place to stay while you get your memories back. I’ve got a farm out in Missouri, nice porch, soft bed, great view.”

“Did that work for you?”

“Sure did.”

Barton sticks his thumbs in his belt loops. James is sure that, if he wanted to, Barton would have no problems getting his bow before he could even reach for a gun but it still helps to put him at ease.

“And what if it doesn’t for me?” James asks.

“You asking if we’ll let you leave?”

 He wasn’t but- “Let’s go with that.”

“You’re not a prisoner, James.”

“What about-”

Barton doesn’t wait for him to finish before he says firmly, “I could put you down before you took a step closer.”

James has met many people who have claimed to be able to kill him and very few who might have actually been able to follow through but the way Barton says it, like there’s no doubt in his mind that he could kill James where he stood, is what gets to him.

He nods shortly.

Barton hadn’t told him there would be children at his farm.

He freezes on the ramp of the jet and stares at the two kids running across the field toward Barton. He can’t do this. There are kids. What if he hurts one of them? He can’t run the risk of hurting them.

“You coming?” Barton calls from the bottom of the ramp. He’s got one child perched on his hip, the other one clinging to his hand. They’re both looking at James curiously.

Frantically, he shakes his head. Barton puts the kid down. “Why don’t you go tell your mom we’re here?” he murmurs. The kids run back off toward the house.

“I- I can’t-” James croaks. Barton smiles sympathetically.

“You can,” he promises. “You think I would have brought you here if I thought you would hurt them?” He shakes his head. “You gotta have some faith in me, James.”

James doesn’t know how to tell him that he has plenty of faith in Barton but absolutely none in himself. He thinks that Barton might already know that though from the way he’s watching him.

“We’ve been watching you,” Barton continues. “Tony’s systems found you the moment you stepped foot in the museum. I spent hours going over every ounce of footage we had on you, wanted to make sure I wasn’t walking into a trap or inviting a crazy person back to my family’s home. You’ve been through a lot this week but you haven’t lashed out at anyone. No one’s been hurt. I think you’re a lot safer than you think you are.”

“The hotel room-”

“So you trashed a hotel room, big deal,” Barton says with a shrug. “Plenty of people have done that. Fuck, Tony’s got an entire Wikipedia article listing how many rooms he’s destroyed.”

James gapes at him, not entirely certain how to respond. The audacity of this man assuming that a world-renowned assassin isn’t going to kill his entire family is astounding. He thinks he should keep protesting but what comes out is, “People really care about that?”

Barton smiles smugly, like he knows he’s won. “People care about a lot of things Tony does that they shouldn’t.” He jerks his head toward the house. “Come inside and I’ll tell you more of them.”

And, well, James doesn’t really want to learn about Tony Stark but he doesn’t know how to fly this kind of jet and he suspects that Barton’s going inside whether he follows or not. So he follows.

“Eggs?” Laura asks.

He’s been at Barton’s- Clint’s- home for nine days now. Every morning, Laura makes breakfast (Clint keeps offering to give her a break and do it instead but Laura says, “If I wanted the kitchen burned down, I’d just ask.”). It’s usually eggs from their chickens and something else.

James doesn’t really like eggs but, when he’d been working for HYDRA- Clint calls it captured by- he’d learned that refusing food he doesn’t like only means that it gets taken away and he goes hungry.

He says, “Yes, ma’am.”

“So polite,” Laura says with a smile. “If only Cooper would take a page out of your book.”

The child in question, currently shoveling food into his mouth like this is his last meal, offers a sheepish grin. The effect is ruined by the half-chewed eggs in his mouth. “Sorry Mom,” he says, spraying food across the table.

“Gross,” Clint says mildly and reaches for a napkin.

It’s all so- so nice. James hasn’t been around people who like him in decades and it’s more than a little surreal. Clint takes him out shooting in the afternoon, claims it’s because he doesn’t want James to lose his marksmanship, and laughs instead of snarling when James, without thinking, quips, “I don’t think it’s my aim you need to worry about.” Laura thanks him every time he helps out around the farm, which seems to be her domain more than Clint’s. The kids both seem to enjoy playing with him. They teach him the rules of basketball and don’t complain when his metal hand accidentally grips the ball harder than he’s meaning to and crushes it. Lila offers to let him pick what they watch on TV. When James admits that he doesn’t know anything about TV or movies, she takes over teaching him the pop culture of the last seventy years. Cooper tries to teach him baseball, only to get immensely excited when it turns out that James apparently already knows how to play baseball.

The game gets put on hold when James experiences a flashback.

He’s starting to get those more often now too. He doesn’t really know how HYDRA had wiped his memories, whether it was the cryogenics or the electrotherapy he was subjected to, but it seems that the longer he goes without the treatment, the more his memories start to return. Sometimes, they’re just flashes and sometimes, they’re scenes. But sometimes, they’re a whole group of memories- like when he tries to play baseball with Cooper and ends up curled in a ball on the ground, clutching his aching head, while his brain is assaulted with dozens of memories of him playing ball.

Those kinds of flashbacks don’t happen often thankfully. They’re mostly painless and far less dramatic.

Slowly, he’s learning to relax into his new life. He’s still looking over his shoulder for HYDRA but at least he’s stopped reaching for weapons when someone startles him. Although it’s gratifying that both Clint and Laura (who apparently is an ex-SHIELD agent) have also reached for the butter knife when Cooper whooped loudly at the baseball game on TV.

Lila leans over to him. “Why do you say ‘yes’ to the eggs when you don’t like them?” she whispers.

He looks at her, startled out of his reverie. He knows that Lila, out of the two kids, is mostly likely to take after her father but he hadn’t realized she was so eagle-eyed. “I like the eggs just fine,” he mutters, not wanting to insult Laura’s cooking and certainly not wanting to risk his food being taken away.

She looks unimpressed. “Hey, Mom?” she asks, raising her voice. James tries to shush her but, short of slapping his hand over her mouth, there’s nothing he can do to stop her from saying, “James doesn’t really like eggs.”

Laura looks as horrified as James feels. “You don’t?” she asks. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He suspects that telling her that disliking food under HYDRA’s rule meant he went hungry is probably a bad idea. Instead, he shrugs and says, “The Depression,” which, as it turns out, is a good excuse for why he does anything.

Laura looks thoughtful for a moment. “Food shortages,” she agrees. “Probably reminds you of powdered eggs. I don’t much care for powdered eggs myself.”

James, who hasn’t known why he dislikes eggs for seventy years, knows in his soul that that’s exactly why he doesn’t like them. Nasty, watery things that they are. He nods fervently, glad that she’s latched on to that as a reason. Clint looks too discerning for his comfort but he doesn’t say anything to his wife’s statement.

He’s just starting to relax, daring to hope that his food won’t be taken away from him, when Laura picks up the plate. He tenses for a second but then slumps. He should have expected this. Disliking food is an insult to the cook as his ma used to tell him- or he thinks his ma used to say that. It might have been Steve’s ma.

But to his surprise, Laura doesn’t take the plate any farther than the counter. “Is it eggs in general that you don’t like or can I make you a quiche?” she asks as she scrapes the eggs into the sink.

James doesn’t know what a quiche is- though he has an odd memory of eating one in 1940’s France- and he tells her so. She explains it and he tries to remember if he liked that quiche or hated it. He thinks he liked it so he nods.

“In the meantime, here’s more bacon,” she says and puts his plate back in front of him.

James nearly cries at the simple kindness. When it turns out that he doesn’t actually like quiches and Laura doesn’t complain, just swaps it out for pancakes, he does cry.

Clint finds him fiddling with the tractor two days later. Laura had been complaining at breakfast that it wasn’t working. James had thought that he remembered being a pretty decent mechanic before the war so he had offered to take a look at it. This though might be beyond his expertise. The engines he remembers were a lot simpler.

He wipes his hands on a towel, ridding them of most of the grease and oil, and straightens up. “Clint,” he says evenly.

“Steve called,” Clint says bluntly. That’s one of those things James likes about Clint. He doesn’t beat around the bush, just straight up honesty. “He’s being released in a week, wants to know if coming out here is an option for him.”

James goes very still. “What did you tell him?” he asked, desperately trying to sound casual, hoping that he’s hiding how nervous he is.

“Told him that was up to you. Steve doesn’t have to be welcome if you don’t want him here.”

James isn’t sure if he’s ready to see Steve again or even if he’ll ever be ready to see him again. He may not remember much but he does remember that even though Steve had been a punk when they were younger, he’d also been fiercely loyal and protective and so very kind towards those who needed it. He thinks that Bucky might have been able to stand proudly by Steve’s side but James, no matter how unwillingly, spent the last seventy years as an assassin. He doesn’t deserve to call himself Steve’s friend.

But there’s paint steadily chipping away from the firebird on his wrist and he now knows that the skinny blond with the robin from his memories is Steve. What he doesn’t know is why that’s important. Clearly, their marks don’t match so they can’t be soulmates but he doesn’t remember the marks of anyone else from his past.

Why does he remember Steve’s?

It’s late when Steve arrives.

James hadn’t been asleep though it’s well into the small hours of the morning. For most of his stay at Clint’s, his sleep has been marked with dreams of his past. But the last few days, the nightmares had come.

They mostly feature the torture he’d gone through but sometimes, he sees faces. He remembers the people he’s murdered. He remembers the feel of Maria Stark’s neck under his hand, the smell of the gun as he pulled the trigger on the American President, the look on the Black Widow’s face when he shot her.

He hasn’t slept much the past few days.

He hears the rumble of a car coming up the dirt driveway. Silently, he reaches for the gun under his mattress and creeps to the window. Carefully, he moves the curtain aside just enough that he can look out the window without anyone being able to look in on him. He knows that Steve’s coming to the house today but there’s still the possibility that it’s a HYDRA agent instead. He refuses to take the chance that anything bad will happen to this family.

The car is a bright yellow taxi that stops just in front of the door. A moment later, Steve gets out and goes around the back to pull a suitcase and a large, canvas bag out of the trunk. The taxi drives off.

James can’t hear anything but he assumes by the way Steve’s head jerks up toward the porch that either Clint or Laura has opened the door. He creeps out of his room and heads for the stairs.

“We’ve put you on the couch,” Clint is saying softly. “James has the guestroom.”

“That’s what he’s going by?”

“Not going to be a problem for you, is it?” Clint asks sharply. James, moving on silent feet down the stairs, takes a moment to be grateful this family has his back.

From his position on the stairs, he can’t see what Steve’s reaction is but the way Steve casually says, “I’ve called him James before. Think I can get used to it again,” makes him think that he probably shrugged.

He hadn’t known that he went by James at one point. In his mind, there’s only now- James- and then- Bucky. He wants to know who this other James was. He wants to know the things that only Steve knows about him.

“How’s Tony doing?” Clint asks.

James has moved enough that he can see the fond smile on Steve’s face when Clint mentions Stark’s name. His eyes narrow. He doesn’t like that smile. He thinks that that smile used to belong to only him.

“He’s doing better,” Steve admits. “The news really hit him hard. But I think he’ll be okay.”

“He went back to New York?”

The smile drops from Steve’s face. “Yeah,” he says quietly.

“Nat said she and the new guy are going with him.”

“Did they?” Steve sounds surprised. “Good for them.”

“Yeah, she said something about Tony convincing them to start up the Avengers again.”

Steve looks at him sharply. “He is? He didn’t say anything about that to me.”

He almost sounds plaintive about it. James can’t help but wonder why Steve thinks he has the right to know what Stark’s doing, what exactly Stark means to him.

James can’t see Clint’s face but he knows that his stance says that he’s exasperated. He wants to know why. He’s missing some of the information and he doesn’t like that. There are things going on here and he thinks that maybe Bucky could have figured them out but he certainly can’t.

“Get some sleep, Cap,” Clint says after a moment, handing him a pile of blankets.

He leaves before James can scramble out of the way but he doesn’t say anything about his eavesdropping, just briefly clasps his shoulder and then climbs the stairs. James risks peeking into the room again.

Steve has dropped onto the couch and is now staring at his phone. “Why didn’t he tell me?” he mutters. He seems to deliberate about it for a second and then raises the phone to his ear. With his enhanced hearing, James can hear the phone ringing even through Steve’s repeated, “Pick up, pick up, pick up.”

The phone goes to voicemail. Steve’s shoulders slump. He hangs up without leaving a message and tosses it aside. “Probably just working,” he says but it’s clear that he doesn’t believe his own words.

The phone vibrates. Steve all but dives for the phone. “Tony?” he asks. James wonders if he knows how breathless he sounds.

He hears a tinny voice warmly say, “Hey Winghead. Sorry I missed your call. You figure out where you’re going yet?”

“I- uh- I’m in Missouri.”

There’s a pause, long enough that Steve pulls the phone away from his ear to check if it’s been dropped. “Hey, I wanted to ask-” he starts

“Is it important?” Stark asks. The warm tone from a few seconds ago is gone, replaced by something flat and terse. “I’m kind of busy.”

Steve’s face crumples. Even though James doesn’t really know Steve right now, he still feels a protective surge rising in him. Stark doesn’t have the right to make him feel like that. “Oh,” he says quietly. “No, it’s not important.”

“Great,” Stark says impatiently. “So, we’ll talk later, yeah?” Before Steve can say anything, he chirps, “Bye!” and hangs up.

Steve looks devastated. James creeps away, thinking that he shouldn’t intrude any longer.

Living with Steve is…weird.

James knows him and yet he doesn’t. He wakes up early in the morning, earlier still than Steve who rises with the dawn, and makes two cups of coffee, one dark as night with two sugars for himself and one more cream than coffee with five sugars for Steve, and doesn’t know how he knew to make it like that. He sees the Dodgers playing on TV and he knows that Steve has strong feelings about them but he doesn’t know if they’re positive or negative. Laura shows him a blue shirt she bought Steve and he casually says, “Nah, Stevie doesn’t like that shade of blue,” and then spends twenty minutes shaking, partially because it was like someone else was talking and partially because he doesn’t remember what shade of blue Steve does like.

They have a history but James only remembers half of it.

He sort of wants to go to Steve to ask about it but Steve keeps looking at him like he’s seeing someone else. He thinks better about asking him.

Slowly, he starts getting more of his memories. The third time he automatically makes Steve’s cup of coffee, he remembers the thirty-two times he had to ask him how he liked it before he finally learned it. He walks past Steve swearing at the Miami Marlins for scoring a run against the Dodgers and remembers the one time he’d gotten tickets to a Dodgers game back in 1941 and how Steve had been so excited he’d- well, he doesn’t actually remember what Steve had done but he catches sight of himself blushing in the hall mirror and he thinks he can probably figure it out. He sees Steve rubbing at his mark and gets a glimpse of bright blue and knows immediately that that is his favorite shade of blue.

At first, he and Steve don’t talk much. James is too busy trying to gain his memories back, which are happening too slowly for his taste (Clint asks if maybe Bucky had been impatient and James laughs because it hadn’t just been Bucky- the Asset had hated long stakeouts). Steve seems to be too busy remembering the person he’d lost.

But then there’s a night, about a week after Steve arrives, when he can’t sleep because every time he closes his eyes, he sees the Asset’s victims. He rolls over to check the time. It’s just after one in the morning. He stuffs a pillow over his head to muffle his groan. James is all for waking up early but this is definitely too early. He gets up with the intention of going downstairs to make a cup of warm milk, something he remembers Steve’s mother doing for him.

Steve’s already awake. He’s leaning against the counter, head in his hands. His phone’s resting on the counter. Steve’s glaring at it like it’ll magically start ringing if he wishes hard enough.

He’s been doing that a lot the last few days.

“Is the kitchen taken?” he asks roughly.

Steve startles, a feat in and of itself. He’s got the same enhanced hearing that James does so he must have been deep inside his head to miss him walking in. Surreptitiously, he swipes at his eyes. James glances away to give him some privacy.

“Come on in,” Steve says hoarsely, which James also ignores.

He gets out two mugs and a pot and turns the burner to low. Wordlessly, Steve passes him the milk. James pours it into the pot and then begins stirring, something that Sarah had told them to do lest the milk burn. Steve gets out crackers and cheese and begins plating them. James doesn’t remember why he’s doing it but it feels right.

Steve must feel his eyes on him because he murmurs, “Crackers and milk- Ma’s remedy for sleepless nights.”

James smiles crookedly as the memories come back to him. “I know.”

They work together on their snack, moving around each other as naturally as breathing. James, who’s never had partners but has had handlers that he worked with for years, knows that this kind of ease takes a lot of time and trust.

“Were we soulmates?” he asks as he pours the milk into the mugs. He passes one to Steve.

Steve accepts it and is quiet for a long time. He doesn’t sip from the mug, just cradles it in his hands. James thinks he remembers that too- that Steve hadn’t liked the taste or the texture of warm milk but the heat had been comforting.

“Yes,” Steve says finally.

James has been expecting that answer, has been since the moment he saw the video at the Smithsonian and felt the sense of wrong. But his expectation isn’t the same as hearing the confirmation from Steve’s lips and he jerks in surprise.

“Really?” he asks.

Steve laughs a little. “Sorry,” he says. “You just- you sounded like him.” James finds that he doesn’t mind the thought. “Yeah, we were.”

“Then why wasn’t that in the museum?”

Steve knows immediately what he’s thinking of and the smile drops from his face. James is sorry to see it go. “Because we weren’t by the time I found you at Azzano,” he explains quietly.

James has done a bit of research on soulmates over the last month, trying to figure out the mark on his metal arm but he hasn’t heard of anyone being and then not being soulmates. Steve must see the confusion on his face because he explains- about them being born with the robin on their wrists, about finding each other, about Steve’s mark changing with the serum but Bucky’s staying the same, even about the distance growing between them by the time Bucky fell. Then he rolls up his sleeve and shows it to James and James can’t help but stare open-mouthed at Steve’s mark.

Because- because they’re still the same.

Frantically, he tugs at his own sleeve. Steve reaches out to stop him, worry making him say, “Bucky-” but James moves out of his reach. Finally, he yanks his sleeve up, rending a large tear in the material as he does. He scratches at his wrist, flaking off the last of the paint, and then holds it out to show him.

“Stevie, you punk,” he says, the words coming easier than they have in seventy years, “we’re still soulmates.”

Steve breathes out hard through his nose, wide-eyed gaze fixed on the phoenix mark on James’ metal wrist. He reaches out as though to touch it and then yanks his hand back. James appreciates the concern, the consideration, but right now he wants to be held. He wants to be loved like he hasn’t been in decades.

He moves into Steve’s space and pulls him into a hug. Immediately, Steve’s arms encircle him, clutching him as tightly as he can. James thinks he’s lucky he’s enhanced or else this would definitely hurt. But he can’t complain because, for the first time in seventy years, he feels right.

“James,” Steve sobs out.

He buries his head in the crook of Steve’s neck and says, “Call me Bucky.”

His problems don’t immediately go away. His memories don’t instantly come back. But they do start returning faster, evidently having just waited for the return of his soulmate. He remembers getting hot dogs at Coney Island and he buys six hot dogs- three for himself and three for Steve- at the Missouri State Fair. He remembers countless nights spent sharing Steve’s bed (because his was bigger) and he asks Steve to sleep with him again. He remembers soft, early morning kisses and finds himself absentmindedly dropping a kiss on Steve’s forehead during breakfast.

It’s different, of course it is. When they’d lived in the little apartment in Brooklyn, they’d had to keep waking up in the middle of the night from Steve’s coughs or sniffles. Now, it’s Bucky’s nightmares. Back then, it had been Bucky who asked Steve to dance to the radio in their kitchen. Now, it’s Steve who asks. Once, it had been Bucky who looked out for Steve. Now, it’s Steve looking out for Bucky.

But they find themselves settling into their new normal easily like it had never been any different.

Their second first kiss happens on the porch at sunrise, almost three months after Bucky arrived. They go running every morning before dawn and then sit on the front porch swing to watch the sunrise. This morning is like every other morning, except for how Steve had quickly gone upstairs to grab his sketchbook. He’s sitting beside Bucky now, tracing the dawning morning with quick, sure lines. Bucky finds himself more arrested by the sight of Steve than he does by the sun.

“Hey, Stevie,” he begins and then stops. Steve glances up at him, back down at his sketchbook, and then up again, clearly seeing something serious in his eyes.

Bucky doesn’t quite know how to continue but he knows that it has to be him to make the first move. He reaches forward, cupping Steve’s cheeks in his palms, and softly kisses him. It’s like opening the first gift at Christmas. It’s like coming home. It’s like- it’s like finding your soulmate.

It’s perfect.

The kiss is gentle and chaste for all of about two seconds. Then Steve’s lips part on a gasp. Bucky takes the opportunity to slide his tongue into Steve’s mouth, deepening the kiss, taking the time to relearn Steve all over again. Steve moans as their tongues touch. Then he’s tossing the sketchbook aside. One arm slides around Bucky’s waist, the other moves to cradle his head, and then he’s pushing Bucky back against the side of the swing. The swing creaks but it’s peripheral in his mind as Steve moves to cover him.

For a moment, he tenses, every instinct screaming not to allow anyone to cover him. But then Steve pulls back slightly and turns his head slightly to press a sweet kiss to Bucky’s mark and he just- melts.

“That’s it, Buck,” Steve murmurs and moves forward to kiss him again. This too is both familiar and new. Steve has always been the one to seize control in their relationship but back then, it had been tinged with an edge of desperation like he had to prove himself; now, he’s nothing but confident as he reduces Bucky to a shaking mess.

They kiss until the sun has risen, until they hear noises coming from the kitchen inside. Only then does Steve pull back. His eyes are so dilated they’re more black than blue and his lips are bruised and swollen. Bucky smiles.

This is what he’s been missing.

Laura needs groceries so Bucky offers to take the truck into town to pick them up. Steve offers to go with him. As it turns out, only about half of the items they need are in town. The rest are only available at one of those fancy specialty stores in the closest city. They call Laura to ask how urgent the groceries are and when she tells them not at all, they tell her they’re going to make a day trip out of the grocery shopping and plan to be back late. She tells them to have fun, suggests a few activities for them to do, and then hangs up.

It’s well past moonrise when they get back. Usually, by this time, the house would be dark and silent but it’s not. Most of the lights are still on and there’s shouting coming from the house.

Bucky’s still for only a moment and then he jolts into action. He reaches into the glove compartment for the loaded pistol Clint keeps in the truck. Beside him, Steve is pulling his shield out of the canvas bag in the back seat. Then they’re moving as one toward the house.

It’s only once they’re on the porch that they see the empty Iron Man suit standing sentry in the corner.

Steve relaxes immediately, lowering the shield to his side. Bucky does not do the same. He still hears yelling inside the house. He can feel the Asset clambering to be let out, telling him that there’s a threat they can take care of, but Steve clearly thinks it’s not a threat so he shoves the Asset back down for now.

Even so, he doesn’t drop the gun as he pushes the door open. He could mostly hear the words outside but now they’re perfectly clear.

“-can’t ask them to come back!” Clint is shouting.

“I’m not asking them to!” the other person, presumably Stark, yells back. “I wouldn’t do that to Barnes.”

“What, so you’re here to ask Steve to go then, to just leave-”

“No! God, Clint, would you just listen? I know that Rogers-” Stark cuts off. Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky sees Steve wince. In a quieter tone, Stark continues, “I know that Steve made his choice. I don’t fault him for that.”

“I don’t get it, Tony. You come here babbling about HYDRA weapons-” Both Bucky and Steve tense at the words.

“-because I’m asking if you will come back.”

There’s silence in the living room.


“You, birdbrain.”

“What do you think I can tell you about a bunch of missing weapons?”

“I don’t care about the missing weapons. What’s left of SHIELD can track those down. We’ve got bigger things on our plate.” Stark lowers his voice further like he’s trying to keep anyone else from listening in. “Thor came back from London yesterday. Asked us where Loki’s scepter is.”

Beside Bucky, Steve goes very still.

Clint starts to ask, “It didn’t go with- SHIELD took it.”

“Yeah, and now it’s missing.” There’s a pause. “Clint, I wouldn’t ask if we had any other choice but you know more about the scepter than any of us. Bruce and I can track it all day long but if we don’t know what it does…”

Clint sighs. “Damn you saving the world types.”

Stark snorts. “Soon as we’re done, you can come back out here to your farm and your lovely family. I’m highly offended you didn’t tell me about them by the way. I thought you loved me, Legolas.”

Clint laughs. “You keep thinking that, Stark. Yeah, I’ll come back. Just gotta grab my bow, say bye to the kids. You know how it is.”

“I don’t actually,” Stark says. “Because I refuse to have little gremlins.”

Clint laughs again. Bucky’s mind is racing. HYDRA has weapons. HYDRA has high-powered, unique weapons. The Avengers are going after HYDRA, who stole him and tortured him and used him.

Bucky barges in. “If you’re going after HYDRA, I want in.”

Stark yelps, hands going up in the classic Iron Man pose, which would be a lot more threatening if he were actually wearing the suit. Clint pulls the handgun from his waistband. Bucky is phased by neither of them and repeats, staring at Clint, “I want in.”

Clint narrows his eyes, searching Bucky’s expression. Bucky matches him, knowing that he’s looking for any sign that he’s not ready for this. But he is. He wants to strike back at the people who stole seventy years from him any way he can.

“Okay,” Clint says eventually.

“No, not okay,” Stark says immediately. For the first time, Bucky turns his full attention on him.

His first, somewhat foolish, thought is that Tony Stark is tiny.

His second thought is that, tiny or not, Stark’s fury is quelling.

“You’re not coming,” Stark continues. “You’re a recovering, ex-brainwashed assassin and it’s probably bad for your mental health if you come with us.”

“Is that what your therapist says?” Clint asks, clearly amused.

Stark turns his glare on him. “Maybe,” he allows. “But the point still stands and since Rogers isn’t coming, that makes me team leader and I say- Steve.”

The last word comes out as little more than a breath. Stark is staring past Bucky with this heartbreakingly sad look on his face. He’s a little afraid to turn to see Steve’s expression but he does anyway. Steve is looking back at him with an expression almost as devastated.

What has Stevie been up to since he fell?

But Steve pulls himself together, face set in that mulishly stubborn expression Bucky knows so well, and says, “We’re both coming.” Then he grins slyly, even if seems to be a front for the pain Bucky can still see in his eyes. “And, as I recall, the Avengers charter names Captain America as-”

“Hey!” Stark exclaims, pointing at him. “Unfair! You can’t use the charter against me.”

“As the leader,” Steve finishes ruthlessly, “and I say that if Bucky thinks he’s ready to come back, then he can. Now, Shellhead, would I ever lead you astray?”

He blinks innocently at Stark who glares at him. “Those missions in Istanbul and Rome say ‘yes.’”

Steve gasps. “Those weren’t my fault!”

“I was a girl, Rogers! For a week!”

“If it’s any consolation,” Bucky pipes up, sensing that the bantering could probably go on for a while, “I’m sure you were a very pretty girl.”

Stark gapes at him. Then, as Steve breaks into a broad grin, he starts to giggle. Before long, he’s all out howling with laughter and the tension in the room shatters.

“You didn’t tell me he was funny,” he tells Steve. He looks back at Bucky. “Are you sure you want to do this? Could be a lot of bad memories down this road.”

Bucky nods stubbornly. “Got a lotta bad memories anyway. Can’t be any worse than what I’m already seeing.”

Stark eyes him curiously and he wonders if he knows that the Winter Soldier killed his parents. But he eventually nods. “If you’re sure,” he says. He glances back at Clint and Steve. “You’ve still got the jet, right? Just wanted to make sure I don’t have to send one for you.”

“You flying back now?” Clint asks.

Stark shrugs. “Got a morning meeting with R&D. Could skip it but they almost blew up the lab last week and I want to yell at them about it.”

“You blow up your lab all the time,” Steve points out.

“Yeah but I’m blowing up just me, not a bunch of interns who don’t deserve to get blown up in their second week,” Stark replies with a sharp smile. “Take as much time as you need- or don’t, actually. I’d like to see you back at the tower within a week.”

And then he pushes past Steve and is gone.

Avengers Tower is everything Bucky had dreamed the future would be.

It’s got automated doors and a display of a hovering car in the lobby and a robot butler (“Artificial Intelligence butler,” Steve says. “That’s even better!” Bucky tells him, who remembers reading about AI during a long stakeout in Bucharest in 1973.) who talks to them in the elevator and tells them to stand still so he can scan their eyes.

“You know, eye scans can be hacked,” Bucky informs them.

“Yeah, we know,” Clint says with a grimace. There’s probably a story behind that. “That’s why it’s the only scan he tells you about. Not even Nat knows all the verifications JARVIS runs on us.”

Bucky is dutifully impressed.

“Sir would like to know if you need him to show you around or if you can do it yourselves,” JARVIS says. Bucky assumes he’s talking about Stark.

“Is he working on a project?” Steve asks.

“He is upgrading the Iron Man armor and has requested not to be disturbed.”

“Sounds like a workshop binge,” Steve mutters. “JARVIS, when’s the last time he ate?”

“Miss Romanoff brought him lunch two hours ago and glared at him until he ate it.”

Clint laughs. “Common room it is then.”

“Very well.”

For a moment, Bucky thinks the elevator is broken. Then he leans back against the wall and realizes he can feel the minute vibrations of the elevator rising. It’s just such a smooth ride that he didn’t even notice they were moving.

The future is great.

Clint splits off from them the moment they enter the common room and he sees the Black Widow sitting on one of the couches, watching some trashy reality show. “Ooh, Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” Clint says and vaults over the couch to join her. She wraps an arm around his shoulders.

“You were gone too long,” she says. She glances over her shoulder and sees Bucky. “Barnes.”

“Romanoff,” he replies flatly, remembering how hard she tried to kill him in D.C. She’s probably remembering the time he shot her.

“Play nice, guys,” Steve sighs. “Where’s Sam?”

“At the VA,” Romanoff says. “He wanted to get a job. Said he didn’t like freeloading off of Tony.”

“What does that make you then?” Clint teases.

“Hey, I had a job. Not my fault it crashed into the Potomac.” But she’s smiling fondly as she says it. Bucky misses that kind of camaraderie.

“You hungry?” Steve asks softly. “Or do you want to keep going?”

Bucky tears his attention away from the pair on the couch and says, “Keep going.”

They start with the common room floors (and yes, there’s multiple) with the state-of-the-art kitchens and the multiple TV rooms (Thor is in one of them, playing something on the Wii- he waves cheerfully at them) and the training rooms and gyms. There’s two ranges and a few rooms that Bucky doesn’t know the purpose of.

“Group bonding,” Steve explains. “We used to go out for bonding exercises but we caused too much damage so Tony built us facilities here.” He points inside the darkened room they’re standing outside of. “That one’s for laser tag.”

They continue the tour through the personal floors.

“Each Avenger has a floor?” Bucky asks.

Steve shrugs like that’s not weird. “Tony wanted to make it suites, keep us all together on one floor, you know? But there’s a lotta strong personalities on this team. I thought we needed a way to have a private space. Actually- JARVIS, does Bucky have a floor as well?”

“Sir thought you would want to share a floor though there are, of course, two bedrooms,” JARVIS says from a speaker that Bucky thinks might be in the ceiling. He’s proud that he doesn’t flinch.

They drop their bags off in their room (though it looks more like Steve’s room at the moment) and keep going. Their floor has a kitchen and living room like the common floor but then it also has a small library and an art studio. Bucky suspects those are personal touches that the others might not have.

They trail back down through the building, this time stopping at the labs. Steve apparently wants to introduce him to Banner but he’s not in the labs. They ask JARVIS where he is and, upon finding out he’s in Stark’s basement workshop, head for the elevator.

Only, when they get there, they both stop dead coming out of the elevator. Bucky’s arrested by the sight of the workshop. He knows that Stark is a genius but no one’s bothered to tell him that his workshop is magic in all but name.

Blue light dances over every surface, illuminating projects and plans. There’s a mockup of some sort of scepter on a table- presumably the missing one- with a series of spectra next to it and a map that has glowing blue pins stuck in it. There are robots and a wall displaying the Iron Man armors and a set of classic cars that Bucky kind of wants to drool over.

“So this is the future,” he murmurs.

Next to him, Steve makes a strangled sort of noise. Bucky faces him, wondering what’s got his attention because it can’t be the workshop. Steve’s seen that before. He follows his gaze to- oh.

Stark is indeed working on the armor but Bucky suspects Steve’s not staring at that. No, he thinks Steve is staring at what Stark is wearing- or rather, not wearing- because Stark is half-dressed in the armor and half-dressed in a tank top and the tiniest shorts known to mankind. He’s got one hip cocked at an angle so he can reach at one of the armor’s joints with a screwdriver and see what he’s doing. He looks- well, he looks a lot like one of those pictures the pilots used to paint on their airplanes during the war.

Bucky looks back at Steve, whose eyes are a little dilated and mouth a little open, and everything clicks in his mind- the way Steve had smiled when he said Stark’s name, the late-night phone call, the look in Stark’s eyes when he saw them. He tells himself he’s not jealous. He’s not. It would be terrible of him to be jealous for Steve moving on when he had thought Bucky was dead.

He reaches for Steve’s arm and pulls him back into the elevator before Stark can see them. Steve sort of collapses against the back wall after the doors close, huffing out a sigh. There are two possibilities here. Bucky thinks that either one is equally likely.

“How long were you together?” Bucky asks quietly.

“We weren’t,” Steve says, sounding tired.

It’s the second possibility then. “But you wanted to.”

“But I wanted to.”