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Treasure Hunt Mixtapes

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1A

Tony could never be the Alpha heir Howard Stark wanted. If he could have, he no doubt would have disowned his son.

After all, he had sold Tony to Obadiah right after he was born and his blood test showed he was an Omega. Unfortunately for Howard though, by law, an Omega had to stay in his parents' house until at least the age of 14.

Jarvis had tried his best to prepare Tony for what was coming, but he also wanted Tony to have some resemblance of childhood. He was the only one who said goodbye to him when Tony was sent over to Obadiah, scared, but still unaware of what was coming.

Obadiah didn’t bond him - he already had a bondmate. He did something worse. If there was a business client he wanted to please, they could spend a night with Tony, where nothing was forbidden - except biting him.

Obadiah would stay in the room to make sure Tony would never be marked. Only partaking in the action by watching Tony’s humiliation, enjoying breaking him far more.

In turn, though, Tony had some free time on his hands, when he wasn’t part of “hospitality”. He started creating small trinkets and building crude robots earlier than he could talk (although, given Howard Stark’s household management style, it was smarter to shut up most of the time).

At first, Howard hit him for it. It wasn’t a proper Omega behavior to invent things (Omega children weren’t supposed to think for themselves when their Alphas would do it for them later anyway). But Jarvis helped Tony hide his creations, and the next time Howard had found them, they were more advanced, so he started to sell them.

He himself couldn’t create, most of the tech he was selling came from the alien technology the government had, but couldn’t just disclose where it came from - so they sold it to Howard for a price.

In the past, Howard at least was good for figuring clever applications for the newest tech and sell it, but his glory days were way past now, being a drunk (blaming Tony for ruining his life with his status).

But after Tony showed some talent in the area, he started selling the boy’s inventions on the market, and after that took off, he even had an arrangement to do the same still after Tony was Obadiah’s property, making both Howard and Obi filthy rich.

While Tony was still trying to better the world: at least the very tiny piece of it that he could influence. His inventions often were meant to help Omegas.

He had devised an electronic Nest (a metal shell) that would act as a substitute to a real one, in case the Omega’s Alpha was dead or too far to help, easing at least some of the Omega’s distress by keeping them "safe".

He also invented a collar that didn’t choke Omegas so badly, but still wouldn’t allow any Alpha to bond with them while wearing it.

And he designed a healing machine for himself that he had never told Obi about, but could heal all the physical wounds faster that Tony at a given day had on his body.

Also, he implemented a new phone that was capable to connect to the internet, hoping Omegas could remain anonymous with Tony’s tech easily in the future with it maybe, and form a community like they weren’t allowed to have in real life.

Little did he know that the Nest, collar, and his healing machine were bought by Alphas who badly mistreated their Omegas, and in fear of the OSP (Omega Society Protectors) persecuting them, quickly wanted to make their Omega’s condition look better (at the first glance at least).

And Tony’s anonymous network was used between these Alphas to warn each other if a bigger team of OSP workers were coming to a specific city.

In the meanwhile, Tony wasn’t 14 anymore and knew more about tech than Howard and Obadiah combined, so of course, he had found out and confronted Obi.

Not that it did any good. Obadiah’s punishment was never so bad before, and all that changed was that Tony couldn’t move for weeks after the incident. He was resolved not to build anything ever again, but then he didn’t get any food for a month.

And it was the only thing that kept his mind from turning on itself. So he designed small things now - useless stuff, really, and ever careful that it should have no possible application in connection to Omegas, but he always feared he missed something and it gave him nightmares.

OSP hadn’t visited Obadiah for more than a decade, he was untouchable. He had pad off the head of OSP with Tony himself and made a recording of the night, so if anyone ever suggested that Obi was mistreating him, the OSP would going down along with Obi - but nobody ever even tried.

That’s why it was so strange when Obadiah came to Tony’s workshop, and relocated him to a much nicer room, made his other "spare" Omega called Pepper dress Tony in a fancy suit, and threatened Tony.

“If you tell the OSP officer anything, I’ll make it go away, just as I always do, but once that’s done, I’ll chain you in a dark hole. No computers, trinkets, and digital companions for you anymore, Tony, for the rest of your life. Or maybe you thought I didn’t know you made yourself an AI boyfriend?”

Tony felt humiliated because Jarvis - as his name indicated - was just something like the memory he had of the real-life Jarvis, meant as a tool to tell him he wasn’t as broken, useless, and disgusting as Obi would always tell him he was, not meant to be “his boyfriend” in any sense. But he couldn’t even correct that assumption because then Obi would destroy Jarvis even for that, he knew.

Also, he could not tell the OSP person anything. Not that he would have. He didn’t really know anything else but this (first under Howard’s care, then Obadiah taking over), and he had no illusions that no matter what he did, he’ll never escape it.

When things changed, they’d always turned only to worse for him. And he was just an Omega, completely powerless anyway.

But then, he saw the blond Alpha, telling Obi that no, he would not take a drink before taking Tony for a walk (it was OSP procedure that Omegas were always taken away from their Alphas for a short talk where they could tell “freely” if they were harmed in any way), and when he turned to Tony, Tony felt his crappy heart almost beat out of his chest.

(For any Omega who didn’t have a bondmate by the age of 20, the Omega hormones were detrimental, and Tony had been living with that reality, so he had a heart condition, and the illegal contraceptive drugs Obi made him take only worsened it.)

Time almost stopped, and Tony was caught staring - he couldn’t take his eyes away.

“Hi,” he wasn’t used to Alpha’s addressing him either if it wasn’t another degrading order during sex. “My name is Omega Society Protector Captain Steve Rogers, but please just call me Steve. I’m an OSP officer, and I got the task to check on you this year. I’m an Alpha, but don’t be scared, I’ll probably only take you away from your Alpha for half an hour tops, and won’t let any others get close to you while the interview. I hope you don’t find me intimidating, but if you do, this is an Alpha-spray, you can carry that until we get back. Do you have any questions before we go?”

Tony only looked at the spray in his hands. It incapacitated Alphas for a couple of minutes, and he never saw one in real life. It was probably just a bottle of water to lull him into a false sense of security, but he still would have loved to test that theory on Obi.

But even if it was the real thing, he could probably run only a couple of steps, and he’d be caught and bought back again, facing a provoked Obi.

“I’m fine,” Tony muttered.

It was also a procedure for OSP officers to keep their temporary wards very close while questioning, but also taking them to a public place, but Tony still flinched when Steve’s hand brushed to his elbow - just indicating him to follow to a park.

Nobody touched Tony without malicious intent, and… what? There was something about this Steve that was so unusual.

Still, Tony shouldn’t have flinched. Another careless mistake like that, if he left his mind wander, and Jarvis would be only memory. Tony was quite sure he’d die without him.

“So, tell me how Obadiah is. How he treats you. Did he ever do anything you didn’t like? I was told he has an official bondmate, but you’re still listed as a first replacement.”

“Ah, you know how it is,” Tony tried to force a smile, but when Steve only looked at him with concern, he gave up on that idea fast. “I mean, you don’t, but he’s the best. I’m very lucky to be serving someone like him.”

“Tony, you have no reason to lie to me.”

“Well, no, I don’t!” Tony felt his fingers tighten around the spray now. “So why are you even suggesting that I am? Obi gives me everything. Money. Freedom. Attention. Much more than I’d deserve, and I find the… what?”

“Omegas deserve to be loved, Tony. There’s no such thing as spoiling them. Whoever gave you the idea that you were undeserving of attention?”

“You’re turning my words inside out. I thought you were supposed to be on my side!” it wasn’t how Tony ever addressed an Alpha. “Obi provides for me just perfectly…”

“Yet, you’ve just said something I’ve only heard from abused Omegas. You’re full of scars that didn’t heal properly, and you keep adjusting your tie as if you aren’t used to wearing these clothes. Not to mention the fact that you aren’t infertile, but you never had any pups. How does your Alpha take care of you during your Heats?”

“How dare you, that’s private,” Tony huffed.

“So if I take a blood sample right here and right now, wouldn’t I find some illegal substances in your blood?” Steve asked him with a sad expression, then he stepped closer, and lowered his voice. “I’m on your side, Tony. This isn’t a trap. If you give me a good enough reason, I’ll make sure to get you out from under Obadiah’s care. But you gotta tell me at least some part of the truth. Even if he isn’t the one who hurt you, he’s still guilty of negligence at least. I wanna help you. I’ve helped many others like you already. But you have to trust me.”

As far as Tony knew, Steve was the only OSP officer who didn’t seem corrupt. He not only scheduled a real visit (not just falsifying the paperwork), but also wouldn’t take Tony’s lies at face value, and that was… admirably naive.

“If you truly want to help, take me back right now, and write a report up that everything’s fine.”

“Did Obadiah threaten you in some way? In some emergency cases, I have the jurisdiction to take you to the closest OSP facility, if he’s abusive or a threat to your mental or physical well-being. That means you’d never have to go back, not even until the investigation is concluded.”

And, the most annoying thing was that Steve, a stranger who Tony met 5 minutes ago was way more understanding than any Alpha around Tony, ever. He offered everything Tony could want, but it was impossible for someone like him. Even if Steve believed he could rescue Tony, his higher-ups would never let that happen.

Yet, Tony was not only not allowed to tell him the truth, but now had to fend off an Alpha who wouldn’t take the easy answer, when he only wished he could just simply give it.

“I find your speculations rude, and that’s all they are. Speculations. The scars on my body came from me being clumsy, the clothes simply were never my style despite what the etiquette dictates, and I don’t have pups because my health isn’t so good. I’m too small to have them, probably.”

“Omegas supposed to be small,” Steve told him.

“You're seeing things. I don't know why you can't just let this go...”

“I’ll tell you why,” Steve told him in a soft voice. “I was bonded to a Beta named Bucky, and he was kidnapped by a German Alpha, and he died. I’ve spent the last 50 years in a medically induced coma, in a cryo-chamber, because I couldn’t take the loss, and the doctors thought it could save me. They woke me when my hormone levels resembled an unbonded Alpha's again, but sometimes I still wish they didn’t.”

“I’m sorry that has happened to you, but-“

“I became an OSP member because I dropped the ball with Bucky. I should have taken better care of him, and I’ll carry that mistake with me all my life. But at least I’m prepared to do whatever it takes so nobody would go through the same pain as Bucky did then.”

“As I’ve said, I’m good. I’m sorry about him, and I hope you’ll find Omegas who need help and you’d get to save them, Mr. Rogers,” Tony told him. “But I’m not who you’re looking for. And I don’t want to upset my perfect Alpha with staying away for too long.”

Steve was about to say something, but then, his phone went off. Tony couldn’t believe anyone would carry such ancient-looking and dated tech, but then Steve’s face went dark upon answering it. He cut it short, but Tony didn’t even have to guess what instructions he got from the other side.

“So, we can go back now, right?”

“The boss of the boss of my boss called me, and told me to drop your case.”

“It’s for the best,” Tony assured him, now feeling as if a pressure was lifted from his shoulders. He didn’t need an OSP officer, he didn’t need any disruption to the fragile status quo - all he wanted was just to go home.

“And you knew this was going to happen,” Steve told him. “You knew because I’m guessing it happened many times before. How old are you, Tony?”

“Old enough to know better. But it’s not a lie. I’m good. I have certain… privileges. I’m allowed to do them, so I’m also capable of… losing them, if you know what I mean,” Omega Gods, even marginally mentioning the truth to an Alpha when Tony knew there won’t be any repercussions felt extreme. Despite how he only dared to do it because he knew nothing would change. “So please, I’m begging you. Take me back. Now.”

“Alright, we better take a taxi to get you home fast then,” Steve only forfeited with an unreadable expression, but Tony didn’t mind. Only when they passed the intersection where they were supposed to be going did Tony turn to him.

“Where the hell are we going?”

“I’m sorry Tony, but I’ve decided to take you to a location not even the OSP knows about.”

“WHAT?!” Tony couldn’t believe it, so he turned to the taxi driver. “Stop the car! Right now!”

But the driver only asked Steve.

“Do you wish me to stop, sir?”

“No, just drive on,” Steve said. Using it as an advantage that Steve wasn’t looking at him for just a second, Tony used the Alpha-spray on him and was pleasantly surprised that it worked.

“STOP THE FUCKING CAR!” next he threatened the driver. “You might be a Beta, but you can’t drive if I spray this in your eyes either!”

Steve was disorientated and could not see, sure, but still could use his Alpha voice on him. Commanding Tony to fall asleep. And then, darkness took him.

===

He woke up in a real bed - inhaling an Alpha’s scent that was way too pleasant, so he thought he was still dreaming. Only when he blinked open his eyes and saw Steve’s regretful face close did he remember, and part of him wished he didn’t.

“What have you done?”

“What I needed to, Tony.”

“Is this what you tell yourself? You’ve kidnapped me. You aren’t any better than the Alpha who took your bondmate,” it was a low blow. But maybe it wasn’t too late yet. If Tony could return to Obi, and explain, maybe he’d only get punished accordingly. If he let Steve continue with this mad obsession for the truth, however, Obadiah may never forgive him.

“I can’t… I won’t let you go back there, Tony. Even if I lose my job, I could really care less. If I’d let this slide once, what’s the guarantee that I won’t do it again?”

“You can still help Omegas who desperately need you,” it’s not like Tony didn’t admire Steve’s determination. “But as I’d told you, I’m not like that.”

“I think you’re worse. But I can help-”

“I’M FUCKING FINE! I DON’T NEED AN ALPHA WITH A HERO-COMPLEX BECAUSE I DON’T NEED A RESCUE! WHY IS IT SO HARD TO BELIEVE?!”

“Because you’re crying, for one,” Steve told him, and Tony wouldn’t have believed him, but when he checked, it was true. “And because I was a small, helpless kid once - before my first rut. When my dad died, it was just me and my mom without an Alpha provider. And while she always protected me no matter what, I’ve seen her scars. And I still remember the look in her eyes when she told me she was just tired but otherwise completely okay, not unlike you, Tony.”

It was too much. Tony had never felt so helpless in his entire life, even though he was pretty much without control all along. Even though he knew better, there seemed no possible way to convince the blond Alpha.

Then, the edges of his vision started to blur, and he couldn’t breathe.

“You’re having a panic attack. Let me help you,” he heard Steve’s voice, but he could no longer make out the Alpha clearly. He wanted to get away from him because that was the problem right from the start. Tony didn’t need help, he only needed his workshop to survive.

But he passed out. And when he woke up, he wasn’t only in a Nest that was made from real pillows and blankets (unlike his creation of metal), but the Alpha was in it with him, and his Heat and scent penetrated everything.

“It’s alright. I have you. You’re safe,” Steve tried to soothe him by scenting him, while only holding him close still.

Tony wanted to tell him it was illegal for Steve to do any of that, but his brain turned into mush. When Steve pulled back, Tony found himself only scenting him back. Then - as if it was the most natural thing - he kissed the Alpha, never letting go.

“Tony, when was your last Heat?” it was funny how panicked Steve sounded.

Tony felt quite alright, the first time since they’ve met. Steve clearly just needed a new partner after losing a bondmate, and Tony could be that. At that moment, he desperately wanted to be.

So much so that he might have flushed his body even closer to Steve’s.

“For the love of Alphas, stop it, Tony. You’re in Heat, you don’t want this,” Steve managed to peal Tony’s arm off, and stumbled out of the bed.

“Funny, because I’ve always wanted to share a Heat with an Alpha, but never got a chance,” it was the Heat talking. It was inhuman for an Omega not to take suppressants but not have an Alpha either then, and therefore, also punishable by the law. In theory.

If Tony had his mental capacities, he’d even deny it ever happening - not always!

But now all he could sense that the news shocked Steve so badly he forgot he was about to put some distance between them, so Tony could get to him again, continuing where he left off: kissing Steve.

“And that’s horrible, Tony,” Steve pushed him away gently. “But I need to get to the store and buy you some suppressants.”

“There’s no need…”

“STAY,” Steve directly ordered, and basically ran out of the room. Got back with the medication, gave it to the whimpering Tony. Making Tony’s Heat-filled mind think he was going to leave him as Obi - locked up.

But Steve stayed - holding Tony in a tight hug through the whole thing. And that was all. He only left when he got Tony some food, yet he didn’t touch Tony even once in a suggestive way. Tony didn’t know about any Alpha who could stay in the same room with an Omega in Heat - even on suppressants. It was a recipe for disaster.

Yet, Steve did it. Even smiled at Tony when he was coming out of it.

“Are you feeling better?”

“Go away.”

“I’d take that as a yes. Do you want something to eat?”

Tony shook his head. He felt sick, not hungry. Just when his Heat was over - his condition got worse and worse. He didn’t know, but he was slowly dying.

===

“I have to take you to a clinic, I’m afraid you’ll go into shock if I don’t,” Steve told him, carrying Tony bridal style to the car. “Could it be that you’ve never taken suppressants, Tony? I assumed you did because of what you told me, but… I think you’re having a very strong reaction to it.”

Except, Tony wasn’t.

The doctor was a capable and kind Beta, explaining it very politely to him - even sending Steve out of the room since he couldn’t provide any official documentation Tony was his.

“You have a destined soulmate. Not all Omegas have them. It’s quite rare nowadays. But it’s an even stronger bond than arranged bonding. Only, if an Alpha rejects his destined Omega, or they are somehow forced apart, the Omega’s body turns against them. You’re dying, Tony. I can treat you for the pain, but otherwise, there’s only one thing you could do. If you could go back to him. The Alpha outside isn't your lawful Alpha, is he? Give me the name of yours, and we shall call him here. Keep you alive until then...”

Tony couldn’t believe Obi was his mate. But he never was separated from the Alpha for such a long time, not since he presented. And it was just Tony’s luck. Finally getting away from him just for a while, only to find out he can’t even do that because it was literary killing him.

“I’d like to just go home.”

“I’d advise against that-“

“STEVE!” Tony yelled, and the Alpha burst into the room, despite how he was told he wasn’t allowed. “We’re leaving.”

“Without treatment?” Steve looked at him, but when Tony tried to stand on his own and collapsed, he jumped to help him up and then carried him out of the hospital. Only to ask Tony in the car. “What did she say?”

“That you either take me back to Obi or I die. He’s my destined soulmate.”

“I thought that was only a legend,” Steve stared at him. “Tony, I’m so sorry. If you want to go back-“

“No. I just want to go back to your place.”

“But if you don’t-“

“I know. But finally, for the first time in my life that I have a real choice to make. And I’m not gonna waste it on going back.”

“Then you won’t. I’ll… try to help you the best I can. My mom was a nurse, so I’ve picked up a couple of things watching her,” Steve told him, and Tony could only give him a shaky smile. For some reason he thought Steve would not listen to him just as he didn’t before, saying that it was for Tony’s sake.

Tony was so weak physically he couldn’t have argued with Steve at this state anyway. But it was so much easier if he didn’t have to.

Steve took them back to the safehouse, leaving again only to pick up the strongest pain meds he could get. He tried to give it to Tony with food, but Tony could barely manage to drink a little bit of water.

Once he wasn’t kidnapping Tony against his will, Steve turned out to be quite charming. When Tony felt a bit better - usually after a small nap, though he couldn’t sleep more than half an hour now because of the pain - they would play guessing games. When he was worse, Steve told him stories about his past and all the Omegas he rescued, and it was a comfort.

Except, after a week, the emotional toll must have got to Steve, because he broke down.

“I feel as if I’m dying,” he told Tony, looking at him with anguish in his eyes. “Just like when I lost Bucky. I couldn’t save him, and now I can’t save you.”

“Oh but that’s where you’re wrong, Rogers,” Tony told him firmly, taking his hand. “You’d actually saved me. It just doesn’t look like as you imagined it would, that’s all. But I’m good with that.”

And it wasn’t a lie. Spending time with Steve, he was happier than ever before, and Tony had already seen so much. Letting go was something he could do without regret.

But hearing that, Steve only shook his head and looked more miserable.

“But you don’t get it, I’m the worst. You think working for an organization like OSP, I’d know when to listen to an Omega when they tell me not to take them away from their Alpha. Their destined mate!”

“I didn’t know, how could you?” Tony told him.

“And that’s not… even now that I know that you and he are connected in a grand way, all I can think about is how I want to…”

“To?”

“To hold you. Kiss you. Knot you.”

Tony didn’t expect the raw desire in Steve’s blackening eyes as he said that, but… he could only smile.

“In another life, Steve, I don’t think I’d mind. And you’ve made it through my Heat without touching me, which is only…”

“I wanted you. Every second of it. Badly. I’m supposed to take care of you finding another Alpha, safe reintegration into the society, not trying to keep you for myself, but I just… Even now, I know I should return you, but I can’t bear the thought. To hand you over to Obi, or anyone else. I’m a failure.”

Tony decided that was just enough to hear, didn’t want Steve to think about that, so he kissed the Alpha. It was sweet, but as Steve pulled him closer, it was quickly over when he saw how Tony was hurting.

“I’m so sorry… I-“

“The pain isn't so bad now,” Tony told him. “Just don’t stop. You want to take my mind off things? It was working.”

“But-“

“Shut up, and that’s an order. Just let me have this. I’ve never been with an Alpha who cared about me."

Steve gave him a look of disbelief and might have questioned him about that, but Tony didn’t let him. Kissing him once again.

And, as surprising as it was, Tony felt up for this when he didn’t for even standing. Not that he minded the fact.

He wasn’t in Heat so it was unhurried and quite nice, actually. Steve held him like he was a valuable and fragile thing, and Tony guessed only half of that was how Steve didn’t want to hurt him any worse than he was already hurting.

Except, Tony barely felt any pain or nausea then, and after… he not only slept but when he woke up in the morning, he felt warm and rested. Not just not horrid as the week before, but perhaps better than ever.

“Are you okay? Do you need something?” Steve immediately became alert when Tony shot up in bed, the realization hitting him.

Oh no, it couldn’t…

“I’m completely fine,” he told Steve.

Who just flashed an annoyingly bright smile at him.

“Then let me see what I can do about breakfast. But you should be resting.”

“No, you don’t get it,” Tony jumped out of bed, to his feet. “Look! I’m good as if nothing happened! The doctor told me I’m missing an Alpha or I’ve been rejected by one, but I thought it was Obi.”

“I don't get it.”

“You rejected me when even in Heat you wouldn't take me,” Tony spelled it out for him, upset. “So I got sick. But then last night happened and I’m magically healed! It’s you. It was all along.”

If there was an etiquette to tell destined mate the news about your fated connection it surely wasn’t while yelling. But this was worse than dying. Tony could hardly think what kind of a future they’d have. Steve made a fugitive of both them, and safehouse or not, they’d be sooner or later discovered, and Tony was still Obi’s property.

“Tony, I wanted you since I first time saw you. It took everything to not knot you when you were in Heat, but I couldn’t because it wouldn’t have been… right.”

“The law says otherwise. Especially if you’re my destined.”

“And I couldn't care less about the regulation if your thinking isn’t clear. I won’t-“ Steve now looked at him, alarmed. “I’d be the happiest Alpha to assist you in all your Heats before you think otherwise. But I want you to tell me that before it hits.”

“I’d never not want you. Obviously,” Tony said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Noted,” Steve looked at him as if he was about to take Tony to bed right then and there again after hearing that.

“But that doesn’t mean the police and the OSP isn’t after us, and maybe even mercenaries that Obi hired. We can’t run forever… and…” And destined mates was such a scary concept when they barely knew each other. Just when Tony was free of Obi’s control, now he was dependant on Steve?

And Steve has been acting way too perfect. In Tony's dictionary that could only mean he was hiding something.

“I have friends who could probably forge us two passports, and if not, they’ll know a person who can.”

“So that’s your solution? Running for the rest of our lives?”

“No, once we’re bonded, we can come back.”

“Like you’d want that,” Tony huffed because it was one thing for Steve to take pity on him while he was dying, but bonding was serious. Omegas and Alphas could live five times longer than Betas when bonded. “I’m just a useless Omega who-“

“Don’t ever say that,” Steve’s expression quickly changed. “You’re intelligent, strong, and funny. Not to mention, incredibly hot.”

Tony completely forgot what he was about to say when Steve was looking at him like that.

“I am all of these and much more. But you can’t even know that!” Tony told him.

“You’re right,” Steve at least didn’t deny it. “But I’d like to if you’d let me.”

“If I let you?” Tony was confused. What?

“I mean I can only imagine what it was for like you with Obadiah,” Steve looked at him. “So if you’re with me, we decide everything together.”

“We can’t decide destiny.”

“So, finally, you’re rejecting me now that you know how badly I want you?”

“No, of course not, I just-“

“Then give me a couple of months and I’ll show you we can make it work. I promise,” Steve kissed Tony's knuckles lightly. And the Omega knew there was no way he could deny the Alpha anything when he was smiling… In a way, that bright gesture held more power than any of Obi’s threats before.

It was dangerous. But also… Tony began to hope that the future maybe not as glum as before. Maybe?

===

Three years later Steve and Tony returned to the States and not even the best lawyers could save Obidiah Stane from lifelong prison. Making Steve (as Tony’s bonded mate) the official heir of Howard Stark, owner of Stark Industries.

“I want to nominate you and the new CEO,” Steve found Tony in his workshop, almost too busy to appreciate when Steve kissed his neck.

“As shocking as that would be, it’s not what I want. Especially with the pups on the way. But there’s something I’ve managed to salvage from the data.”

“And what is that?”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Rogers, Sir,” Tony’s computer seemed to speak up.

“Is that…?”

“Jarvis. They’ve tried to get rid of him, but he was hiding from them all these years. It took me 20 minutes to get him back.”

“I hope the pups will take after you. You’re extraordinary - as always,” Steve told him, as often as he could, hoping that if Tony heard it enough from him, one day he’ll believe it.

It wasn’t always so simple. Tony’s past wasn’t making anything easy on either of them. But slowly ever so slowly, they were making progress.

Time was on Steve’s side, making Tony trust him more and more, and Steve used this trust to show him that what Tony went through never was supposed to happen - and won’t happen ever again.

Somedays, he felt understood, sometimes even emotionally getting to Tony. On other days, there was nothing he could do but accept that Tony was still dealing with everything, and wait him out on the other side.

He loved Tony so much he would have waited for him forever.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to though. He was shocked when Tony told him he wanted to keep the pups, thinking Tony wasn’t ready for such a big step so soon. But Tony told him that with Steve always on his side, he felt stronger, braver, and how he always wanted a family, just never thought he would be ever allowed to have a real one.

“But if you’re finished with Jarvis, what are you doing now?” Steve asked.

“Just reprogramming Jarvis a bit. I’ve also set up a foundation. I’m planning on establishing a safe haven for Omegas who need it in the Tower. I’ve already hired Pepper, but I also want to hire Miss Romanoff, who is a kick-ass lawyer, Dr. Wilson, who is the best counselor in town, and Dr. Banner who is the leading scientist in the field of safe suppressant research - if you agree,” there was still some hesitation in Tony’s voice, but also a bit of cockiness that only recently emerged.

“Yes, absolutely,” Steve couldn’t help but kiss him. The Tower was Obi’s and while he didn’t want to move in with Tony even after that monster was gone, Tony said he wanted to do it. For him, it was like rewriting the past with the new memories of the same place - although, Steve insisted on remodeling it before moving in. He himself couldn’t stomach the memories of the place. “Is there anything I can do?”

“You could help me pick more people. And speaking of picking… I’ve narrowed down our list of names for the pups as well, you wanna hear?”

Steve only got a handful of files to browse and waited for Tony to tell him.

“There’s Peter, Harley, Grant…”

Steve was sure Tony was teasing him with his middle name now, but he couldn't help but imagine their pups with any of these names and was already beaming, and way too over the moon to concentrate on the files he was supposed to be reading.

“Go on.”

Tony did, and he started talking about girl names then, so immersed in the topic that he didn’t notice when he lost Steve, who was secretly not listening, but just enjoying seeing Tony talk this animatedly about something - anything.

“You aren’t listening, are you?” Tony stopped after a while.

“I’m sorry, sometimes I wonder how I got so lucky to have you.”

“Aaand, now you’re only saying that because you know I can’t complain if you say something like that,” Tony told him, but then he also kissed Steve on the cheek.

“And I was also thinking what would happen if we wouldn't let the doctors take the blood of the pups when they were born,” Steve added.

“What do you mean? They need to be checked if they are healthy...”

“Yes, but maybe we can pay other people to do that. Except for the test for secondary gender.”

“Wait you mean like we wouldn’t know either? Until when?”

“We could raise them all as simply our kids. Nothing less or more,” Steve said. “And we wouldn’t know either, not until they would present.”

Tony was so abruptly silent Steve feared he suggested something offensive, so he was ready to take it back.

“I mean it was only an idea, so never mind if you don't like it.”

“I would love that. Now I can’t think of raising them any other way. And Steve?”

“Are you crying?” Steve was worried and wanted to take a look at Tony, but his Omega buried himself into his arms now, hugging him so tightly that Steve understood the best he could do was to hug him back and keep him close for a bit.

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Tony.”

Chapter Text

1B

The first time it happened before New York. Steve barely knew Tony then, and they got off on the wrong foot right from the start.

One minute they were arguing (the effect of the Mind Stone, but it didn't take a lot to push them, nor did they know that then), and the next the Helicarrier was attacked by the people Loki's mind-washed men.

Once on the corridor, probably full of adrenalin if not Alpha instincts, Tony then took a second to plaster Steve on the closest wall and kissed him like there was no tomorrow. Then he left to suit up like nothing happened.

Steve was born an Omega but from two long lines of Betas. So not only his health was shaky, but he was never raised to follow traditional Omega etiquette.

Usually, that only gave him grief, but not when Erskine told him on no uncertain terms that he didn't want an Alpha to take the Serum - not again. Then it was a source of hope.

Just as Peggy was. The first Alpha woman Steve ever knew, and immediately not just liked, but thought of as a role model.

Steve was supposed to take the Serum, and - once it wouldn't affect his personality for the Serum to amplify - he was supposed to go through also a long and possibly painful series of treatments to also become an Alpha.

Except, Erskine was killed, the war wasn't waiting for Steve, and once it wasn't a condition for Steve to take the Serum, Steve told the government that he won't do it.

For better or worse, it was a part of his identity. It was a very closely guarded secret only a few government officials knew. And Steve wasn't judged based on his secondary gender anymore, everyone assuming he was an Alpha, so he was free to act like one if he wanted.

Little did he know, that in the 21st century, everyone was masquerading as an Alpha.

By that time, people were wearing filters in their noses. There was not only a limitless range of safe contraceptives for Omegas, but the same was available for Betas and (perhaps most shocking) but also for Alphas.

Literary everyone took some kind of daily medication to decrease their secondary sex hormone production. The buildings were full of air filters, but people still used scent-blocking cosmetics. It became a universal taboo to mention secondary gender even in passing.

Humankind defeated biology. But not bigotry. Alphas (or the people who could trick people to think they were Alphas) were still considered superior, got better jobs, and walked into any room like they owned everything and everyone in it.

But now Betas and Omegas had a chance to pretend they were Alphas too if they were willing to spend decent fortunes in all the new meds and techniques that could hide their true nature - and could handle themselves as an Alpha would.

Steve didn't wear the filters but took the medication so he wouldn't go in Heat. Sometimes he still felt surreal. He would walk into a room that was full of people and expect to find nobody there because there weren't any scents.

Then there was the issue of Tony Stark. Notoriously only dating Alphas - so much so that rumor had it he was born an Omega, but Howard paid people to turn him into an Alpha - suddenly kissing Steve.

Also breaking up with Pepper after New York, over a simple disagreement when she told him she wanted for Tony to stay safe, and Tony told her she had no right to "order him around like a common Omega", yelling (even Steve could hear in another room, trying hard not to listen in).

Disappearing with Bruce next, maybe even dating him for years before they faced the whole Ultron fallout. Only to unexpectedly manifest in Steve's quarters right after they won in Sokovia - manhandling Steve back to his bed.

Steve was shocked when Tony began to undress him, and then too turned on to do anything about it. So when Tony impatiently undressed too and started to rub them together just the right way, Steve only encouraged it by taking them both in his hand, enjoying it when it made Tony growl in appreciation, giving Steve a look full of lust and desire.

Tony must have noticed that Steve didn't knot, or maybe all he wanted right from the start was to get off quickly with someone that night, but he left only telling Steve an "I'll see you around, Captain" from the door.

Steve would have loved to say he wasn't at least somewhat offended by that, and it didn't change how he treated Tony. But every time they talked after that night, and Tony was giving him shit, as usual, Steve was wondering how much of that was just Tony's way of talking, or was it because now he knew firsthand how Steve stayed an Omega and just couldn't accept that.

Then Tony locked an Omega (Wanda) up like they were living in the Middle Ages where Alphas had a right to do that, but also didn’t seem to care if Bucky (a Beta) was innocent or not, and Steve was convinced that it was a pattern with Tony, not just a coincidence.

"Did you know? Did you know, and chose not to tell me, because he was your fuckbuddy in the past?" Tony asked Steve after Zemo showed them the recording.

"Don’t call him that. If you have a problem with me, deal with me not him..." Steve felt horrible for not telling Tony everything when he had a chance, but also not happy with the words Tony so carelessly used.

"Don't bullshit me, Rogers, did you know?!"

Once Tony attacked Bucky, Steve had no illusion how they'll probably never talk again. But if Steve knew he couldn't win if he used brute force, he always had a way to figure a way around it. And fighting Tony twice in one day was no way a victory even if Steve could somehow overpower him, and that was a big if.

All he needed to do was distract Tony until Bucky could leave, and then Steve could get Bucky somewhere safe later.

Maybe Tony hated him for omitting something so huge, and how Steve was just an Omega, but he didn't seem to be able to shake the pull Steve had on him, so Steve used that.

He all but dragged Tony to an abandoned chamber, and he pushed Tony down to the closest surface not unlike how Tony did with him the last time, kissing him.

Tony shoved him away pretty hard at first, but when Steve thought it was because they were done, Tony's suit opened up and he stepped out of it, pulling Steve back close, getting rid of Steve's belt with one move, working on his pants next.

It turned out to be almost as a repeat of the night before, except this time Tony let Steve do this, but still was giving him acerbic looks. While Steve ignored the fact that grinding together was primarily a male Alpha couple tendency, and it was nowhere as satisfying for him as if Tony took him for real.

But, they didn't do that the last time and Steve wasn't about to let Tony fuck him in a freezing HYDRA facility in Siberia either, knowing pretty well that it would be just angry sex.

Next, Steve was on the run, then back fighting, and when he saw Tony again it was when Tony all but stumbled into his arms. From. A. Frickin'. Spaceship.

Just when Steve was half-convinced Tony was also gone, and it was like an absolute miracle to have him back.

Of course, Tony was blaming himself for the kid and everything, but Steve was having none of it. He was the leader of their team. Being able to do that despite his status also meant that he was the one who took the blame if he fucked up. And he did.

“We both lost, Tony. And I’m sorry. Maybe if I had tried to contact you after Siberia, not just sending you a phone waiting for you to contact me, we’d-“

“I hate when you do this,” Tony shifted his weight so Steve had to help him because he couldn’t even stand.

“Apologize?”

“Act like you’re the one and only true Alpha on the team.”

“I’m not-“

“Well, good of you to notice,” Tony said. “Because it always makes me wanna punch you, but I don’t think I’m able to do that at the moment, and I’ve also missed your sorry face.”

Steve was about to say something when Tony kissed him right there and then, paying no mind to who saw.

But that was a terrible, terrible idea, because Tony had just returned from space, and he wasn’t taking any hormone adjusting medication or could bother with the usual scent-masking routine, and as he closed the last of the distance between them just for a kiss, Steve suddenly felt flushed and very needy.

He was reacting to Tony’s scent. Even though he was fully aware that nothing would happen, he felt like he melting into Tony’s arms. A very bad idea for an Omega with his size on any day, but especially when he was holding Tony up, so he had to quickly pull back.

“Let’s get you some food and a bed.” And a shower before I completely lose my mind.

But just when he thought Tony would be ignoring him again, he wasn’t.

“I’ve heard how Thanos destroyed them,” he appeared in Steve’s door. “How are you holding up?”

“Me?! You shouldn’t be out of bed...”

“The elixir Marvel got me did wonders, and you should know by now, if you want me in bed, all you have to do is drag me into yours.”

“Tony...” Steve could only sigh. At least Tony seemed to be back to himself, even if maybe a little too much.

The others had already seen the kiss, now the last thing Steve needed was Tony making jokes like this just to annoy him, and the Avengers mistaking it for something it wasn’t. And by the Avengers, he meant mostly Nat, teasing him about his non-existent love life more than enough already...

“But really, what would it take for you to directly answer any question I ask? Are you okay, Steve?”

And this once there was no crude remark, or sarcasm, or even a hint of annoyance in his tone.

“No,” Steve admitted. “But I imagine nobody is, right now. Are you going to be? Okay?”

Tony sat down next to him, breaking his own rule about answering questions because he didn’t.

“You know, the threat isn’t gone. Maybe Thanos set back the process with a notch, but the truth is that evolved extraterrestrials exist, and any number of them could come trying to invade Earth.”

“If this is supposed to be a pep talk I don’t see the silver lining just yet,” Steve said.

“My point is that we have to stay sharp and strong and keep whatever we were doing and maybe even more. And this time I won’t take any slacking from you Mr, no matter what happens, even if we kill each other, we don’t break up the team, deal?" Tony was even holding out a hand for him to shake.

"Deal." This was one of the reasons he couldn't stay mad at Tony for long. And if Tony could forgive him, Steve could also put up with some of his antics, right? "What are you going to do?"

"I'll stay here," Tony told him. "Pep told me we're one of the few companies who could help people now, so I expect I'll be busy soon enough. You?"

Steve shook his head.

"The people I've been training with are gone. Except for Nat, but she doesn't need anyone telling her what to do.”

"You could always train me," Tony offered with a shrug. "I get the feeling that this miracle space-drug also made me stronger, so we could test that..."

"Yes, right after Pepper takes my head for it."

"Alright, then we'll do it only later," Tony gave him a disapproving smile. "When both Pep and you don't have your panties on a twist regarding my oh-so-fragile health."

"How awful it is, when people care about you," Steve said in a similar manner.

"Indeed, not all people realize what a burden it can be until they already have made a few friends and there's no turning back," Tony told him as if completely serious, making Steve laugh.

Which, given the disastrous last couple of days, was just as much of a miracle as Tony's return.

And Tony's advice worked. Steve needed his daily exercise routine to get his head back on straight, but after he was done, he knew what to do. He registered on a site that was looking for volunteers.

He helped out some elderly people who had lost their only relatives with small chores, worked at a hospital part-time, and took over the group Sam used to lead.

But that effort paled in comparison to what Tony had been doing. SI was one of the major coordinating forces when all the world could have just collapsed into complete disorder.

Pepper hired people as fast as she could, while Tony wrote an extremely complex algorithm that found everyone a relevant job, organized relocation, and provided training. Some posts couldn't be abandoned no matter what, and people wanted to have something to do (and also get paid), but those two didn't magically meet in the middle on their own.

All the while Tony now was working on everything but weapons it seemed. "Just" the logistics of how to get water, food, electricity, and the basic healthcare to everyone was about twice as difficult to maneuver if not more.

"But if we can't manage something simple as that, there'll be worse chaos than we've ever known before. If riots were to start in one country, they can spread like wildfire. And no army can stop the people who are so desperate that they have nothing to lose. Not on the long run. We either manage to weave a safety net all around the world, providing for everyone, or we might as well just give up now," he explained it to Nat when they all were having dinner one night. "So my next Iron Legion isn't a bunch of walking weapons, but some highly specialized units that can drop off packages, evacuate people, or help spread crucial information that could save lives..."

"You know I didn't accuse you of slacking, right?" Nat could only say when Tony finally stopped for just a second to catch his breath. "I was just curious what have you been up to lately, because we haven't seen much of you, that's all. No need to get all worked up."

"I think he just wanted to do his usual I’m-such-a-hero routine, no matter what the question was, Nat," Rhodey gave Tony a teasing smile.

"Oh? If that's a thing, that's Steve's jam, not mine. Helping elderly ladies to cross the street, rescuing kittens from burning buildings, waking up coma patients with a single kiss..."

Everyone was snickering, so instead of noting that Steve did none of these things, he went with it.

"Yeah, yeah, and they are always so grateful that they barely want to let me go." Steve clearly meant the supposedly cured patients.

"The elderly? I imagine you have a lot in common, it's only natural," Tony misunderstood on purpose, maybe already setting up this joke since he mentioned them, but that would have only worked if Steve didn't have an answer prepared the same.

"I was talking about the kittens," he said, unfazed. "With their tiny little claws."

"Mic drop!" Rhodey was only happy to give Tony shit, no matter the context. "Maybe I'll just have to be best friends with Steve now. Sorry, Tony. It seems you've just passed your prime. I’m sure Steve could introduce you to the said ladies. They might be still from an age where you would have been considered funny."

Steve only laughed inwardly while trying to not look smug that this once Tony fell into his own trap.

But, nobody called Tony out like that without some kind of response, so the next morning Tony found Steve with a giant poster and sharpie.

"This was the largest print I could get without wasting more time and resource on it," he told Steve with the largest smile ever. "I want you to sign it before I put it up as Rhodey's new wallpaper that won't come off."

Steve could only groan when he saw himself photoshopped into a picture where he was indeed holding a kitten.

"Why am I standing on a sandy beach with palm trees? I thought we've made it clear the kittens came from burning buildings."

"It's called artistic freedom Steve, now chop-chop, before Rhodey sees, or I'll also print you one - just on a mug. Or on a 100 T-shirts. Maybe you’d prefer a life-size pillow?"

"You need to sometimes get away from your screens, Tony," Steve remarked, only half convinced Tony meant it as a prank, and haven't completely lost his mind working too hard.

"It's going to be only too funny and you know it."

Famous last words. Rhodey - when he indeed couldn't remove the "art"- made Tony switch quarters with him. Only, Tony couldn't remove his monstrous creation either, so had to paint over it.

Asking for Steve's help so nicely that Steve had no way to refuse (grabbing Steve on his way to the gym saying "this is all your fault, now help me fix it before Pep lectures me for disappearing for too long", giving Steve a brush but no clue as to what he was talking about before it was too late to back out).

"Damn, the white won't cover it up," Tony noticed. The extreme colors of the palm trees and the sunset on the water were indeed showing still. "And I'm not sure how many layers of paint can a wallpaper absorb before the paint will just start to break up. Maybe it’s best to put another poster on top?”

And, Pepper was already calling him about some emergency.

"I'll deal with this," Steve took pity on him. "It's as much in my best interest that nobody else ever sees this as yours, after all."

"Do that and I manufacture you a whole set of mugs in return. Did you also want a webpage featuring it?"

"Or, I'll can just stop working now," Steve pointed out.

"I'll cut back on the teasing. For a week."

"Try a year. For your own sake, or Rhodey will retaliate and you'll end up worse than just a ruined wall."

"A month, and that's my final offer," Tony said from the door.

Finally, Steve all but had to do a whole mural to fix it, but it wasn't so bad. It had been way too long since he drew anything, and even if in this case it had to be something to reflect Tony's style, it was more of a fun challenge than an annoying restriction.

Then he had a double shift at the hospital, and when he got back, only stepping into a relaxing shower for two minutes, Tony was there in his room, ignoring the fact that he was only wearing a towel.

"Did you call somebody to do my wall, or was it you?"

"I know some lines are shaky, but I thought you'd like it," Steve frowned. He didn't think he did such a bad job depicting Iron Man with a guitar, given that he had only a limited range of colors. Or at least not such a horrible job that Tony would have to storm into his room the first chance he got to demand an explanation.

"So, just to clarify. You did it. From start to finish, you designed and painted it..."

"I did. But if you hate it, I'll-"

But then, Tony was kissing him, and Steve didn't exactly have many garments to lose.

"What are you doing?"

"I love it. And I want to pay you back by giving you the best night of your life."

"Please don't," Steve was worn out, and they were getting along just as so fine lately, the last thing he wanted was to jeopardize that.

“Why not? I promise to be very gentle. At first. If that's what you like. If not then-"

"You want to have penetrative sex, ‘rewarding’ me with it," Steve only then realized. "Get out."

"Fine, then I'll do it," Tony quickly offered when Steve was just about to get rid of him. "You are a tough person to bargain with, Rogers, but you win. I haven't been a bottom since college, but I don't think it should be a problem. Look, I came prepared, I even have lube."

Steve couldn't even believe what was happening.

"It's not funny, Tony. It really isn't," Steve warned. Suggesting to an Omega that he should top and Alpha as part of a hilarious joke was not just teasing but cruel.

"I wasn't kidding," Tony's face fell sensing Steve's distress. "I wanted you since I came back from Titan, Steve, or maybe even before. And if you don't want it the other way around then I'll just have to be with you in a way I can."

"If you mean that, come back tomorrow night," Steve didn't want to a serious conversation now, fearing that they will just end up fighting again, but he wasn’t just going fuck Tony on a spur of moment decision without discussing it first. He didn’t think Tony would even remember the next day that he was supposed to show, much less go with it.

But he did. And Steve wanted to stop him, but somehow he got sucked into it because Tony started off by pushing him into the bed without a word, settling on Steve's lap, and not only kissing him, undressing them both but... he was acting so vulnerable but still trusting with Steve, that Steve couldn’t hurt him by putting a stop to it.

Not to mention, he loved it. If Steve knew he could get off topping people and it could be just half as good as with Tony, maybe he would have tried it before. He was disappointed thinking that - as usually, it was the case with Tony - it was only a one-time thing, but he turned out to be wrong.

“Pep said we’re doing better now than just a few months ago,” he told Steve one day. “So would you finally train me? I know we’ve talked about it only in passing like a year ago, but I simply didn’t have the time then.”

“What kind of training?”

“Any type of combat you think could be useful.”

“You’re in a suit, I don’t necessarily think that any of that would be useful, Tony.”

“It’s funny you should say that, I think I could have used it when Thanos beat me up.”

“He had 4 Stones?” Steve pointed out. “It’s a miracle you could even engage him. I couldn’t. Not really...”

“Yeah, he could have killed me a thousand ways but then stabbed me with my own weapon. What kind of an Alpha lets that slide?”

“Tony, you can’t keep blaming yourself for-“

“And maybe I’d also like to spend some time with you, and not just in bed,” Tony added, kissing him. “By the way, do you have any plans for tonight?”

Steve was baffled by this new kind of Tony, but he got used to it so fast it was then impossible to believe there was a time when they didn’t get along.

“Do you know if you snore?” sometime later Tony asked him.

“Do you? Know if you do?”

“Fair point, let me rephrase the question. Do you think it would be weird if I slept here tonight?”

“Let’s find out?” Steve meekly suggested.

“Ahhh, so you want me to stay, you should have just said so earlier,” Tony teased him with a smile.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with you moving in here either,” Steve accidentally said, even though he knew Tony wasn’t ready for something like that when up to that point, he wasn’t even comfortable staying in Steve’s after they were finished.

“That could be a problem,” Tony told him, but then added with a lazy smile. “Because I want to keep your art, and at the moment it’s not going anywhere without a sledgehammer. Maybe you could move to my room?”

“You wouldn’t mind?” Steve was floored, but Tony gave him a look.

“Me? I kept waiting for you to bring it up but then grew tired of waiting. Seriously Steve you’re supposed to be in charge now, ordering me around...”

“Why don’t you tell me if you want something instead?” Steve might have blushed too. He only then realized how hypocritical he was not really thinking himself an Omega as if he was above his instincts, but still waiting for Tony to make the important decisions, not even considering that he could do it just as well.

“I also wanna tell the others. And I would like to give you a Starkphone so we can chat even when we aren’t together, but also so I wouldn’t have to watch you continue using that piece of crap you currently have. And I have to travel to California next month, maybe you could come with me? I know it’s sappy but I don’t wanna be unable to see you for two weeks, and it’s not like back when I could just use the Quinjet to fly back and forth easily...”

It was a bit overwhelming at once, but Tony must have kept these things in for a while now, so the least Steve could do was to humor him and learn how to use a new phone.

“Let’s do it. The only thing I need is to check if the hospital can go on without me for two weeks. And if someone can take over the group.”

“I’ll pay them off if I have to.”

“Don’t,” Steve hoped Tony was joking.

“Alright, but they better let you go.”

“Can I also ask you something?” Steve then decided to at least do that. “Do you think we could... switch things up a little in bed?”

“You gotta give me some more details, or my mind will wander to all to the possible very extreme and spicy options I’m almost certain you never even considered...”

“You topping me,” Steve couldn’t believe he suggested it, but he trusted Tony, and he wanted it.

“Ah, that. I like what we have now, Steve. Actually, that’s an understatement. I LOVE it, you make me mad with want, in a way nobody has before...”

“Aren’t you just saying that though?”

“You mean to say you haven’t noticed?” Tony just laughed. “Seriously? Do I look like I’m just ticklish while we’re having sex or something?”

“No, I’m just-”

“Then I don’t want to make you unnecessarily uncomfortable, Steve, so just don’t fret about it too much, ‘kay?” Tony kissed him, and Steve was both pleased to have Tony just looking at him the way he was at the moment, and still felt somewhat disappointed that Tony didn’t even seem to want to try it the other way around, not even once.

But he was happy moving in with Tony, seeing him that much more, and Tony also smiled more, especially when it was just them, so Steve took it as a good sign.

Didn’t dare to think it would last, but then 3 years later when Scott showed up out of the blue, they still were going strong. And now that Tony solved the little time-travel hiccup Bruce previously had, it must have brought back memories too, because Tony was unusually quiet, but then when they were about to sleep, he asked.

“Steve?”

“Hm?”

“I don’t like it. I know we owe it to everyone and ourselves to try, but... when Wanda mind-fucked me all those years ago, I saw everyone dead.”

“Nobody’s gonna die. We go get the Stones and we come back.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I won’t let any more people die on my watch,” Steve promised. “If I have to, I’ll go and bring them back myself.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, that something goes wrong and you...”

“What?”

“Get yourself killed. In the vision everyone was dead, but you died in front of me. And it was my fault. What if it really will be, because I created the time-GPS?”

“Tony...” Steve didn’t even know what to say. On one hand, if Steve had any doubts about whether Tony cared for him just as much as Steve for him, this would have been enough to prove him wrong. It was moving that Tony would just come out and say how much he wanted to keep Steve safe. But it was also as if after all this time, and all their years together, he still doubted Steve’s abilities because he was an Omega. “As you know, I’m pretty hard to destroy, and I can hold my own.”

“I know that,” Tony told him. “But nobody’s invincible, and when I saw that you didn’t vanish, after coming back from space, I... was secretly glad that you weren’t risking your life anymore.”

“I’m not gonna stay at home, Tony...”

“No, but I want you to be careful. And don’t even think about teaming up with anyone else...”

“We’re going to do it together, - this time - remember?” Steve said. He was going to go with Tony anyway, that way he could also back Tony up. “But you also have to promise to be careful in return, that’s only fair.”

“I wanna came back with you, no worries, Captain,” Tony’s mood and tone took quickly a turn when he was now suggestively whispering in Steve’s ear. “We could say your wish is my command...”

“I’m willing to try and see if that’s true,” Steve kissed him, but then pulled away for a brief second. “Just... please don’t act like this on the field, I don’t think I could concentrate on the mission at all...”

“You know me, I’d NEVER do that to you!”

Except, they barely arrived in 2012, and Tony was reporting in the status of 2012 Steve’s ass over the comms, on purpose, even provoking Scott to comment on it too.

And Steve was unexpectedly having fun at his own expanse, even when they jumped to 1970. But then, they were almost arrested on sight, and they were stuck.

It was a simple oversight: they drew attention the minute they appeared because - unlike people back then - had no scents. They could have passed as Betas in most aspects if nobody looked closely, but they too had scents, even if faint. Steve and Tony didn’t even get as far as the SHIELD building. It was not good.

Steve's mind was racing, trying to come up with a solution.

“Let’s rent a room in the closest motel,” Tony suggested. “We spend the night there, our meds will wear off, and we go in that stinky base as if nothing happened, take what we need, and go back.”

“And that would be a great idea except now they are on a lookout for us, and this mission wasn’t supposed to take longer than a couple of hours and I don’t have a day,” Steve tried to not panic, or hate the fact that the 21st century almost had him convinced that it didn’t matter what he was when it just compromised this mission.

“Steve your shaking, and I don’t know what are you talking about,” Tony told him.

“I’m in the middle of my Heat, Tony. If my meds start to wear off, I won’t be going anywhere.”

“I’m sorry I... what is... I don’t. I mean... that’s not... you can’t be...” Tony was incomprehensible.

“I can, it pretty much happens regularly, just... in this era, the treatment was hardly effective, Tony, Omegas had to be in a sealed room, chained to a bed if not mated, so...”

“Okay, we’re getting the room first, come on,” Tony said. “And I’ll buy any available medicine they have for Omegas and we’ll figure something out.”

And he was also very silent on the way, but when Steve started to feel truly miserable about it, Tony just took his hand.

“Why haven’t you told me?” he finally asked Steve with a confused expression once they got to the room. “We’ve been dating for years but we have to come all the way to 1970 for me to figure out that the man I love is an Omega?”

“You mean you didn’t know?” Steve couldn’t quite believe it either. He was so convinced, all along...

“Um, no? This may come as a surprise, but I don’t usually run DNA tests on my partners, and don’t even ask them, because it’s pretty clear what I am, and they can tell me if they feel like I should know. But after years, you could have at least mentioned it...”

“You didn’t know, but you knew I didn’t have a knot. Why did you think that was?” Steve felt just as confused as Tony looked.

“I thought the gender therapy back in your time wasn’t perfect, that’s all. You're bigger than me, and you’re always the first to jump on any sign of danger...”

“So you thought I was an Alpha all along? You were willing to surrender to me because you thought we were both Alphas and I didn’t want to be fucked?”

Tony just started laughing.

“Yes?! It only goes to show my father was right and I’m a horrible Alpha. I should have noticed at some point... Hell, Steve, did you enjoy any of the sex we were having for the last three years?!”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did, very much, thank you for asking,” Steve was sure he was blushing now.

“This is so fucked up,” Tony could only scoff. “I even teased you about the things you were doing and I thought wasn’t very Alpha-like...”

“I could have picked up on that or told you to stop if I didn’t think...”

“That I knew but I didn’t care because I was an asshole. Which I can be but not to this level, Steve...”

“I’m sorry,” Steve felt like an absolute failure. Captain America wasn’t supposed to be judgmental, yet he was in the worst possible way. Even after he fell in love with Tony, in a way, he never gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he knew what was going on in Tony’s head, just as Tony assumed he knew Steve's status.

“I... can I touch you?” Tony carefully asked.

“Now you know you don’t need my permission to do anything, actually,...“ Steve started, but then Tony pulled him into a hug and wouldn’t let go.

I’m sorry, Steve. But maybe it’s just as well. I can help you with the Heat - if you let me. But I also have a plan if you don’t want to. You’ll take the medicine, and I rent a car, and-“

“Do you think you could do without accidentally bonding with me?”

“I’d like to think so, yes,” Tony still didn’t let him go and Steve didn’t want him to either.

“Then I want you to help me,” Steve told him.

“In that case, we should both rest as much as we can today, turning in as early as we can,” Tony kissed him, and that's what they did.

In a way, they’ve been lucky, because only 3 days were left of Steve’s Heat, and Tony miraculously exercised some unbelievably firm control, because they got through it all without Tony marking him.

It should have been great. Steve had never shared his Heat with anyone before, the couple of flings he had were too casual for that, even back when he had to go through his Heats before the medication.

And none of them were Alphas. So it wasn't an exaggeration that when Tony was servicing him, it was the best sex of his life.

He wanted Tony to do this, otherwise, he wouldn't have asked for it. And the first couple of times, Steve felt both safe and satisfied too.

Only, he didn't exactly guess how different would it become as the Heat worsened, and they couldn't do much else for three days straight. Steve thought he was prepared for it but wasn't really.

"Hey, you're back." But Tony seemed so happy to be trusted and needed, even all smiles and teasing jokes and very hands-on even now that the Heat was gone, that Steve couldn't tell him this. "How are you feeling?"

"I'll be good," Steve told him. He hoped it was a white lie, and that he'd be good truly. "Thank you, Tony..."

"No, don't, my pleasure. Like, literary," Tony kissed him. "I got some food for us already, and was thinking that maybe we could spend the day in."

"We've just spent 3 days doing just that. And we need to get the cube and the particles before they move them. They already know we were there looking for something..."

"One or two more days won't make much of a difference, and you need rest. I do too. I was thinking something along the lines of staying in bed all day sleeping and doing nothing, or watching some million-year-old television, eating some snacks, and only have sex if we want to."

"I'd be much more relaxed if we managed to get the cube and the particles and only rested back home," Steve argued. Not to mention, if they were only to talk about what happened then, it should give him some time to think everything over before he'd have to communicate his feelings to Tony. "We should do it tonight."

"Steve, we'll never get to have a free vacation like this again. We'll never have the time between both of our schedules, and you know it. So why not use this? Maybe we shouldn't stay for just days, maybe we should stay for weeks..."

"I... can't, Tony," Steve had to come clean. "I'd love to take some days off with you once we're both back on the meds, but-"

"But what?"

"I guess I... can't tell how much of what I feel here is really me, and not just my instinct, and I..."

"You hated it," Tony could sense it from Steve's painful expression. "You wanna go back as fast as possible because you can't stand the thought of spending one more minute with me-"

"That's not it. It's not you. You were great, and did everything you c-"

"Don't do that," Tony frowned. "Don't patronize me by telling me I did everything right when you're upset. It's worse than if you told me the fucking truth."

And that was all it took for the insensitive Tony to be back, and his hundred walls were drawn up once again. It's been such a long time since he was like that with Steve that Steve had all but forgotten how easily he could slip into that role.

"Tony, I swear-" Steve took a step toward him, but Tony just turned away.

"I'll take a shower first, while you eat, then you should too, and then we're doing it. We're going back right away, even if I have to teargas the whole base to get in."

Hearing that Steve couldn't really eat a bite, no matter how hungry he was before, and Tony must have noticed too because he stopped Steve before they parted ways.

"Look, I'm sorry. We'll talk about it back home, right? I mean... if we go back to the things were, we have no reason to end something that has been working out so well for so long..."

"Tony, I-" love you. That's what Steve wanted to say. Reassure Tony that he wanted that relationship just as much as Tony, although, after the last 3 days, he didn't know yet in what form or shape could they manage it the best.

But then, Tony was right, and as the Avengers, they never had time, they were interrupted so Steve had to go left and Tony right, then a base was after them, then when they got back, Nat was gone, and Tony needed to design and build gauntlet for the Stones, not even coming back to their room for the night, even though Steve waited up for him.

And then, all Steve could remember were standstills next. Bruce bringing back the Vanished. The attack. Thanos back from the dead.

Both him and Tony fighting, although neither of them had time to recuperate properly after Steve's Heat, and then - by the time Steve realized Tony was in danger, Tony used the Stones and was dying.

And Steve felt like he was dying with him.

"Tony, don't you dare leave me like this," Steve was sobbing like a child.

"Always so... damn bossy," Tony told him with a found expression. "But it's okay, Steve, really. It's better than... my vision. Just take care and know... you were always... my Alpha."

He was gone before Steve could say anything back.

There was simply no way Steve would accept that. He used the sanitizer and fast healing foam Tony had used on Bruce before. Alerted Friday that they will need a Quinjet for transportation and Dr. Cho should prepare the new Regeneration Cradle.

He also wanted to send Peter to get Strange, but the Doctor was already there.

"I'm truly sorry Steve, but there was no other way. If there's anything in the future I can do to help you, I'll-"

"Just turn back time and bring him back," Steve couldn't care less about anything else.

"I'd undo his Snap then as well. I can only turn back time completely in a given space, or not at all, I can't concentrate the magic on his body, but ignore his fist..."

"You used to be a surgeon," Steve looked at him. "You operated around tissues all the time, and somehow found a way. So concentrate the time-spell as you would have a scalpel."

"Even if I could, and that's a big if, his death wasn't ordinary. If I bought him back, that would be only his body. And I'm not trained to use the Soul Stone to even attempt bringing Tony himself back..."

"I'll do that. You just heal whatever damage you can after," Steve told him.

He began chest compressions and used Mjolnir as a defibrillator. But all his limbs were shaking, so Strange took pity on him, taking over the compressions while Steve only held the hammer that much tighter.

"It's faint but it's definitely there," Strange announced after what felt like years, and Steve released a breath he didn't even know he was holding. "Now, step back. I'll try my best."

Finally, he fastened his necklace on his hand and worked on Tony for about 30 minutes. Then Steve took Tony to Dr. Cho who also spent three and a half hours operating on him, but the tissue damage and the burns were just the tip of the iceberg.

Tony might have looked more or less whole, but Dr. Cho told Steve that even the residual Gamma radiation was enough to kill Tony in a matter of days. So as a last resort, Steve insisted that they'd do a blood transfusion.

"I'm type O, the universal donor, and I have the Serum in my blood."

"Even under normal circumstances, there's no way to predict how a non-mutant human would react to a transfusion from you, Steve. It's possible it would only harm him. Not to mention, you're in no shape to give blood to anybody, I think you're bleeding internally..."

"Wouldn't you try in my place? If someone from your family was dying, wouldn't you try possibly everything to stop it?" Steve had no right to tell her what to do. Even if he was Tony's mate, she could refuse to treat him with something so highly experimental, so all he could do is to try to appeal to her hoping she'd understand.

"Alright, but I'm getting you a bed then too, and I'm going to monitor you. If you aren't healing while donating the blood, I'll shut it down. Tony wouldn't want for you to die as well."

Steve hated it, but he did every test and poking and "resting" routine she asked, while Tony was yet to wake up, even once.

Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, Bruce, and Peter came to visit, and while they couldn't do anything for Tony, at least they kept Steve company. When time was standing still, that was the only thing that kept Steve somewhat tethered to reality, if he heard them speaking.

On the tenth day, Steve was forbidden to give any more blood to Tony, and at first, he threatened to take Tony somewhere else where they'd treat him, but then he knew Tony wouldn't get a treatment like the one Dr. Cho was giving him, so all he could do then was watch.

On the 16th day, Tony regained consciousness and passed out promptly. On the 17th, he didn't move. On the 18th night, when Steve fell asleep in a chair next to his bed, he felt Tony's fingers in his hair.

"What have you done? I told you I made my peace with dying."

"I didn't. With you dying," Steve said. "I'm selfish like that. I've spent the last weeks thinking I can't even imagine a life without you."

"Now you're just telling me what I wanna hear."

"But also the truth. I'll call Dr. Cho to check on you."

"None of that, just stay with me," Tony said, but he drifted away again.

The next time they talked, Tony was more lucid, and according to Dr. Cho, he was on the road of recovery, albeit a long one.

"We need to talk," Tony told him. "There's something I want to tell you. A couple of things."

"It can wait, Tony," Steve said, but seeing Tony's expression, he added. "But I agree, there's also something I want to tell you."

"This can't wait, unfortunately," Tony sighed. "I owe you my life, Steve, as I hear it, multiple times over. And you should know that I'll never stop loving you."

"That's what I wanted to tell you in 1970 before they almost caught us. I love you too," Steve quickly said. "Even if I don't know how should we do this, I want it, Tony. I want you."

"It means the world that you say that," Tony gently reached out for him with his left hand - he couldn't use the right, and might never again. "And I wish we could do just that. But..."

"When it's us, there's always something, isn't it?" Steve could only give him a small, bittersweet smile.

"The reserves of secondary sex medicines are going to run out in 2 months. This means people will be forced to go back to traditional roles, and the governments are trying to avoid absolute catastrophe, passing new laws every day, trying to deal with the problem before it hits," Tony explained, and Steve only nodded. He was too preoccupied to listen to the news while Tony was sick, but he heard something like that in passing. "Given that both Peter and his Aunt are Omegas, if they don't provide documentation that they belong to an Alpha, they will be sent to an Omega-boarding school and an Omega-commune who knows where 'for their safety'. I promised May yesterday to mark her and adopt Peter with her so that they're both safe. Believe me, if there was any other way, any other Alpha I could trust with them, I'd do everything in my power to make it happen. But Pepper will marry Happy, and Rhodey was also asked by Maria already..."

"I get it. It's exactly what I would do in your place."

"You should also leave, Steve, and take care of your papers ASAP," Tony looked at him with an expression that was meant to be a cheerful smile but didn't quite turn out like one. "I've checked, and Sam recently registered as an Alpha. Ask him before anyone else does, he's a catch."

"I'll think about it," Steve promised, but he knew he wouldn't.

He went back to SHIELD requesting the gender change, and since he was Captain America, he got it. Then made a deal to bond with Wanda - not unlike the deal Tony had with May - so she wouldn't be deported.

It took 5 years until the situation was somewhat normalized and they could get a biological divorce, and by that time, they were best friends, so Steve secretly wished Wanda didn't want one.

But right after they signed, Tony dropped by in his suit, unannounced. He looked older, but since they hadn't any major threats in the last years, he looked more relaxed. Maybe happy? They didn't keep in touch so Steve wondered if maybe Tony finally fell for May, and now they were mated for "real".

He didn't have to wonder long though.

"I'm here because I want you back," Tony told him instead of a hello.

"I'm had the therapy, and now I'm an Alpha, Tony."

"Like that could ever stop me. Or don't you remember?" Tony gave him a wink.

"Everything's different now," Steve warned.

Even though the medicine was available to hide people's gender once again, now people weren't taking it. Many found a mate and bonded traditionally when the shortages hit, and just as many wanted to do now the same. Times were changing, and maybe this time not necessarily for the worst.

But that also meant Steve and Tony were no longer compatible.

"Not my feelings for you. I don't care how, I don't care if we fight a lot as two Alphas would. I can even undergo surgery if you want an Omega. Just say yes."

"I don't want you to change," Steve told him. "If it's not the crazy sex where we don't have the choice but to do it like in 1970, I... I think I'd prefer you to top me."

"You aren't joking?"

"But it's impossible-"

"No, it's not. And as an Alpha, I can show you. If you let me," Tony let his suit retract and put the nano-housing on the table. Closing the distance between them.

Steve kissed him first, but then Tony made good on his promise, and took control.

It was almost surreal, the exact opposite of their last time together. There was no rush, urgency, or hormones making them do it, and Steve was lucid this time.

Also, the pull he felt for Tony could no longer be just the byproduct of their biology, but it was still there. Different, but better as far as Steve was concerned, because what remained of their connection was something that they've built together back when they were dating. Which meant that if anything went wrong or changed that was beyond their control, they could still correct it in a way that wasn't.

"I've bought a car," Tony kissed him when they were finished, and Steve told him he never wanted sex in any other way, making Tony laugh with a borderline smug expression. "An old model. It needs a lot of work, and I have a very intricate design in mind for the paint that also needs fixing. Maybe you could introduce me to someone who could both help me with that and wouldn't mind if I also took him out on some dates?"

"Unless you bought it while I wasn't looking, wasn't it a little presumptuous of you to buy it even before you've talked to me?" Steve couldn't help but smile at Tony. It was so like him to do something like this, and Steve missed it dearly.

"I came here with a resolve to not leave until I got at least a date out of you," Tony admitted.

"Very Alpha-like."

"I guess, with you, I like to be one."

"And if it's you, I like when you are," Steve confessed, earning only a kiss as a response.

"Fair warning: Peter's still living with me, and even though I love him to death, he can be a handful, picking up guys like Wade..."

"And let me guess: Wade is bad news and we don't like him," Steve surmised.

"Oh, you'll see," Tony let his tone answer that question on its own. "And my work only seems to exponentially multiply as the years pass by, so I have the craziest schedules..."

"Same."

"And the media will probably crucify us for this relationship sooner or later."

"Let them try."

"Are you just repeating whatever I say now?" Tony chuckled. "Maybe we shouldn't discuss anything important after sex then if you're so under my spell still..."

"Did you want me to agree or disagree with that? I can't tell," Steve joked, pretending to be.

"You're incorrigible, Captain, and nobody else has the faintest idea," Tony smirked at him.

"It would be troublesome," Steve teased him. "If I acted like this with everyone, and they had the same reaction as you."

"You most definitely right," Tony agreed. "I like it this way the best."

"Me too," Steve told him, but now he wasn't just kidding either.

He had the capacity to change if the situation required that. If the Avengers needed it, if his country needed it, or any of his friends, he always did it in a heartbeat. Even with Tony, he did the same for years.

But after they got back together, it wasn't anything like that. Steve could be a better Alpha in every other different aspect of his life exactly because he didn't need to pretend with Tony. At home, he was safe to be just Steve without all the other noise in the background that otherwise kept buzzing in his mind.

If Steve wanted, he was free to be either bossy or uncertain, or anything in between. Giving or taking. Supportive or in need of support. Just as he encouraged Tony to talk with him if something was bothering him, and would hold him if things got tough.

As for the rest - they could always figure that out as they went. This time, truly together.

Chapter Text

2A

In his line of work, Loki's reputation was as good as his livelihood. You couldn't be a proper villain if you were a laughing stock, after all.

Thanks to Odin and Thor, that ship had almost sailed already, but then Loki tried to destroy a couple of planets here and there, and now that was the news.

Except when some mildly irritating sorcerer-wannabe appeared, and Loki wasn't expecting Midgard to even have that level of understanding of magic, so he was caught in a trap.

Falling for thirty fucking minutes.

Since killing was frowned upon by Thor, and Loki no longer wished to provoke him without a good enough reason, his self-preservation overruling his impulsivity, Loki couldn't just trample on the mortal, he had to get a little bit more creative to punish him.

"You'll pay for this."

Taking magic away from the mortal forever only seemed like the fitting punishment for a pathetic Midgardian humiliating a god.

And how? Well, that was the ingenious part of Loki's plan if he did say so himself, even though understanding his wit would have been only possible if anybody had at least as good of an understanding of magic as he did, and there was no one fitting that description, but alas.

One glance at the wizard who clearly never heard of color coordination given his blue attire, red cape, and yellow gloves, and Loki knew that this mortal was so quick and eager to use his magic because it was the thing he treasured the most. Maybe the only, given how desperate he seemed to prove himself.

So Loki used a quite intricate spell he'd read about a long time ago that made one's worst nightmare come true. And, as it was his expectation, the sorcerer wanted to retaliate, but now was just gesturing in the air like a madman.

"What the hell did you do to me?"

"Maybe this will teach you some manners," Loki smiled, then turned to Thor. "I'm ready to go, brother."

Except, he wasn't. Suddenly, pain seared through him like hot lava, emerging from his abdomen, but radiating everywhere so badly, that he ended up on the floor, right next to his victim.

And, he only closed his eyes for a brief second to take a couple of deep breaths, but when he opened them back up, he was huge as a house, with a protruding belly, pregnant.

"Loki, if you think your tricks will get you out of this one, you're mistaken," Thor tried to make him stand, but that was when the contractions hit.

"Brother, if you truly think I'd make myself look like this even to get you off my back, you truly never knew me," Loki told him, then gave the annoying human a what he hoped decently threatening look. "Is this some kind of failsafe? That if someone curses you, they get caught up in the same spell?"

Loki never gave it much thought, but it was true. As a male who had a capacity to be a woman, and also as a Frostgiant who was raised to hate Frostgiants, giving birth and having a kid inherit his origins was his worst nightmare.

Or maybe the spell bounced back? But then, the mortal couldn’t use his magic. So what was going on?

"Fine, be that way," Thor didn't seem to get how Loki wasn't doing this on purpose. "I'll fetch our father alone first, and we'll deal with you later."

"You! Answer me. What is this?" Loki demanded from the mortal. "How do I undo this?"

"My name is Doctor Stephen Strange, asshole," the wizard seemed annoyed, which would have made Loki smirk in response, but now he was too busy even for that. With the sudden unexpected child on the way and everything. "And I'm guessing you used a modified version of Kyriminirghthyz? Without considering the repercussions."

"You're smarter than you look, but still wasting my time by being dumb," Loki noted. "Repercussions don't apply to gods. I can curse someone without having the same magnitude of a curse lingering over my head."

"And if I was an average mortal, that might just be true. But a minute ago, I was also the Sorcerer Supreme, standing between all supernatural threats and this world. Which means that by cursing me, you undid the natural balance of good and evil and that power is bigger than even you."

"Even if you're right, and you're sorry little existence matters somewhat, it still doesn't explain why I got cursed this way," Loki was frustrated because the mortal's explanation made too much sense.

"This is only a guess, but since you've just banished a very important power that's crucial to this universe, the balancing powers might be trying to force it back to existence in another way."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that child is probably mine and will be extremely powerful."

Loki was about to throw up. Having a child with this ridiculous of a person was worse than having a Frostgiant baby.

"Undo it," he commanded Strange. "I don't care how, but this cannot happen to me, you understand? If you think for a minute that taking your magic away was bad, you don't want to what can happen if test my patience any further."

But, the simpleton wasn't getting the magnitude of his threats either.

"Are you quite finished?" he looked at Loki. "Don't you think if I had a way to undo this I would have done it already?"

Of course, his knowledge might be worth nothing, if he was weak.

"Then call someone in who can help. I'm sure you have mighty friends and we'll sort this out in a minute."

"What part of nobody else can substitute me don't you understand?" the human shook his head. "Otherwise you wouldn't be in the position you're currently are."

"Great," Loki muttered to himself. "Then get me a capable healer."

He sure won't give birth without help... He was more pain than he ever thought was possible already.

"Humans call them doctors, and I'm one."

"I said capable."

"If you want to explain to them how you got to this predicament despite being a man, be my guest. If not, I'm all you got. And Wong, if he is ever back from his lunch break."

"As nice as this has been," Loki sarcastically motioned between them. "I think I'm going to have to leave."

He would change his appearance to a female one, that way nobody should suspect anything, and get another doctor.

"Oh no you won't," Strange stood between him and the door. "The powers that child carries are essential to the Sanctums. I won't let you just simply walk away with it."

"Try to stop me," Loki said, ready to use magic, except... his own reserves were depleted as well. Damn magical offspring in a minute's notice, it must have leeched on Loki to grow so quickly.

It wasn't at all nice to collapse on the floor from even the effort, followed by the pitying look the mortal gave him.

"So, should I take a look at how you're doing?"

"You just stay away from my private areas or I'll kick you," Loki was adamant to go through the nightmare on his own if he had to.

"Tell me when you change your mind," Strange sat on the stairs, biding his time.

As if Loki was known to admit defeat! Ever!

He did though. He had to. Three hours later he was almost delirious with the pain and realized he knew absolutely nothing of childbirth other than its magical potency.

"I can't do this. I'm dying, I can feel it..."

"Is that the beginning of a very long apology?" Strange asked, examining the ceiling with great care, not even looking at him.

The nerve of this wicked human was unthinkable.

"All I'm saying is that I've changed my mind," Loki declared. "For a lack of a better option, you'll do for the task at hand. After all, this is all your fault."

"Alright, but once the baby is born, you'll leave the child with me, and never come back. Swear it on your magic."

Loki wanted nothing less than to be a mother to a human, especially taking care of one, but whenever he was told he was forbidden to do something, he had to it, just on principle.

"You don't get to make that decision, mortal."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you didn't care," Strange said, showing signs of distress for the first time. "Like you clearly don't care about anybody other than yourself, or the fate of this planet and everyone on it, or your father and brother..."

"You know me so well," Loki mused, not even entirely kidding. "But if this child is as powerful as you suggest, I might just want to raise them. Use them to fit my own selfish purposes and evil agenda you've just outlined."

He expected Strange to spiral into a fit of rage hearing that, and he was secretly looking forward to it, but his words had an opposite effect. The Doctor dropped his drawn shoulders and sighed.

"Fine, I'll help you, and we're going to discuss this once I can kill you without harming the only hope for this universe as well."

"Fine," Loki echoed in a similar fashion. "I just hope that your healer skills are better than your magical abilities were."

"If you're so concerned about that, maybe you should shut up so I won't be so distracted," the wizard offered.

"Oh, but I only enjoy dancing on the last thread of your patience too much, Doctor."

"And here I thought the torment of one simple pathetic mortal was a sorry excuse for the God of Mischief to even pay any mind to."

"You should consider yourself lucky. My first thought was to kill you."

"Ah, how unlike you to show such great mercy, I simply revel in your exceptional kindness."

Actually, Loki wouldn't admit, but this lowly creature had a quicker brain than probably Odin and Thor combined, which was admittedly a low bar, but still pleasantly refreshing.

"Feel free to dedicate your life to writing poetry about me after this. I except I'm quite a muse for somebody like yourself."

"I feel a pop song pouring out of my humble being already. It would have the refrain of 'shut up, just shut up, shut up'. Oh no wait, that's already a real song."

"You could do so much better than that, even with your limited capacities."

It was unexpected, but then the mortal gave him a slightly amused smile.

"I have to warn you, for you might be beside yourself because of the pain, oh divine Loki. But you mention my capacities way too often as if you're almost found of them, and we've barely just met."

"You're right, it's just the pain talking, which you're supposed to eliminate, doing a subpar job if you ask me."

"I apologize, but with humans, usually there's some more time to prepare for a situation like this, so I don't have any medications at hand. Not to mention, I'd only done this once before, I wasn't this kind of a doctor, and even then, the patient wasn't male."

"At this moment, I suspect neither am I - not completely," Loki noted.

"No comment on my inadequacy this time?"

"I trust you already can guess what I'm thinking about you anyway," Loki was in so much pain it wasn't really making it easy to even just talk, not mentally function.

"I was never a mind reader either."

"I could teach you things that would blow your mind away then. Maybe literary."

"I wouldn't even dream of wasting your precious time on my boring person any more than necessary by being in your company," Strange said, and it was Loki's turn to smile. He was sure nobody ever has sent him to Hel so openly while being so entertaining.

"You're at least less troublesome than Earth's mightiest heroes."

"The Avengers are synonyms for poor organization, inadequate use of resources, and way too much hot-headedness for me," the doctor declared.

"Huh." Now that it was put in this way, Loki couldn't help but think that the wizard had a point. And Loki had lost to that gang, so what did it say about him? "So what do you think about me?"

"You're an unexpected hindrance to my existence."

"Ah! But then our feelings are only mutual," Loki told him.

"I had the inkling that they might be," Strange told him when another mortal appeared. "Ah, Wong! Good timing, I need your help with-"

"Whatever this is," the other human said, looking at them. "I'm just gonna pretend I didn't see it and leave now."

"Maybe you did me a favor," the doctor only sighed, and Loki at first didn't realize Strange was talking to him once again. "If I'm no longer Sorcerer Supreme, I don't have to deal with these people any longer."

"Your worst fear was losing your magic," Loki kindly reminded him.

"Because it means I can't protect the planet, not because I ever wanted to be Sorcerer Supreme. Even the name is ridiculous."

"What would you want instead?" Loki asked, and he realized that was overreach given the disbelief on the doctor's face.

"I was a pretty good surgeon," he answered anyway. "Rich, celebrated, and carefree."

"And unlike most heroes, if you could go back to your shallow, superficial life, you'd do it?"

"I don't know."

It was funny because that was the truth. Anything else would have been a lie, and Loki didn't expect anything else but one, given everything else that was going on.

But his discomfort only grew, just when he thought it reached the worst - not really leaving a chance for him to talk.

He had to go through it to understand. Once you suffered so much for a tiny little bundle that was at least partially just you, of course you'd find it profound. And even though Loki wasn't an expectant mother to think gleefully of a child, when it was finally born, he thought he understood why Odin took him in.

"So, you'll take care of it?" he asked Strange, who held the blue baby with the help of his moving cape now.

"It's a girl."

"Well, excuse my grammar. Can I leave her with you or not? You were adamant just before."

"As were you. Don't you wanna hold her?"

"No, but look," Loki used a charm that Odin used on him. "Now you can. If I can give you one piece of advice: never raise her with siblings. I don't think you'd want that on your conscience, Doctor."

And, although his magic was still in wild disarray, Loki could still teleport away just enough so a magic-less Sorcerer Supreme wouldn't find him. Left Earth, heard about Odin's death later, just as the destruction of Asgard.

He all but buried the memory of having a child, and it wasn't hard, because he was working for (and secretly against) Thanos so that kept him quite busy.

It wasn't exactly easy to earn back Mad Titan's trust after the New York fuckup, but Loki was an expert in dividing and conquering and didn't exactly feel sorry for the Black Order members who got caught in the cross-fight.

Then, Loki was on a spaceship, when Strange appeared. He threw a knife at him without thinking, but it passed through.

"Astro projection, is it? I take it the simple but glamorous life of a doctor wasn't enough for you, finally?"

"What is this place?" the doctor turned around as if just from the decor he could tell that it was one of Thanos' ships.

"Never mind that," Loki grinned at him. "You shouldn't be here."

"No, but she's been asking about you. I told her nothing, of course..."

"Of course," Loki agreed.

"But she's more powerful than I am. It's only a matter of time and she'll figure it out for herself, you know. She's the one who restored my magic too. Without an incantation or conscious effort. She just asked me if I was broken, and she should fix me. Looked at me, and I was-"

"How very fascinating, and the next thing I know, you're going to show me baby pictures," Loki rolled his eyes. "But if memory serves, you seemed just bright enough to know if you can't give a straight answer to someone, there's always an option of lying."

"Because that worked out so well for your family," Strange said, and Loki banished the projection out of spite then, without thinking.

The next time Loki would see him, he would make him regret talking about the Odinson family as if he had any idea what it was like. But he already tried to teach Strange a lesson and that turned out spectacularly worse than expected, so then again, maybe not.

Not to mention, the next time he saw Strange, he was being tortured on Ebony Maw's ship, who couldn't get the Time-Stone off of his body.

And while Ebony's inadequacy came hardly as a surprise, Loki's worry whether the doctor lived or not was.

He was so preoccupied with that inner turmoil that he barely noticed the Shell-man and the Spiderling creeping up on him. It was only his luck it was a clone they had found first.

"Wait wait wait, I don't want any trouble," Loki put his palms up as he saw a human do it once. "At this moment, I think I'm here exactly why you two are."

"I doubt that," Stark told him. "The kid is simply here because he cannot follow a simple order."

"Still, may I suggest some cooperation?" Loki tried. "Ebony might not be the brightest, but he has powers."

"We've seen that actually," the boy told him. "There was a big fight and he-"

"Kid, shut it, the adults are talking," Stark said, then turned to Loki. "And true, I might be here because Thanos can't be allowed to get that Stone, but I can still kick your ass first, and get on my mission next. You almost leveled a city and destroyed my planet-"

"Nostalgic, are we?"

"Then threw me out on a window-"

"Fun times indeed," Loki couldn't help himself.

"And even if you could give me a reason why I should trust you, I couldn't believe a word."

And he was right not to, so Loki could only internally sigh. Not only would he have to kill Ebony himself, and try to avoid Thanos' suspicions about it later when he already had like 4 Stones, he'd also have to knock out Ironman and his underling first - without seriously hurting them or making too much noise. Right.

"I begin to suspect doing the right thing would be more appealing if sometimes it wasn't just so damn tiresome," he noted, picking up a fighting stance.

"I know what your problem is," Stark's faceplate closed while he did the same. "You're delusional."

"Not that's any of your business, but your annoying little planet grew on me, and now I have a pretty good reason to try to keep it safe," Loki told him, but Stark attacked nevertheless.

Was about to, but then Spiderman jumped between them, almost taking the hit.

"Mr. Stark, he might be completely nuts, but I don't think he's lying and we could use the help."

"Stay out of this, kid."

"All I'm saying is, if he wanted us dead, he could have swept the floor with us when we attacked his clone by mistake first."

"I'm already regretting this," Stark said. "But fine. He probably wants the Stone for himself, so we defeat the creepy alien first, and then I'll kill Loki."

"Good plan," Loki could only smirk. "A tiny bit - how did you so eloquently put it? - delusional about the killing part, but I'd like to see you try. Almost as funny as you thinking anyone would actually have a chance to take the Stone from Strange."

"Exactly!" someone just laughed, and then a tiny girl appeared. "When I have it."

"I might as well be delusional," Stark commented. "Or did I miss a memo on bringing your kid to work day?"

"Hello, my name is Peter," the Spiderling crouched down in front of her. "What is yours?"

He was about to reach for the girl who was indeed standing on the very ledge almost too carelessly, probably just to protect her. But Loki - knowing full well who she was - couldn't help but step between them, almost snarling.

"Don't you dare to touch my daughter." He didn't mean to supply the last part of information out loud, but it was too late.

"You had a child?" Stark's face was pure disbelief. "And you brought her here?"

"Are you my mother?" the tiny child only looked at him with some wonder.

"Wait, did she say mother?" Peter was staring, but not any less than Stark, who was so shocked that he was rendered speechless.

"Can't we just concentrate? Strange must be in pain and we need to get off the creep torturing him..." Loki decided to ignore everything else, and the fastest way to disappear was doing that.

The girl just held out a hand, and Ebony collapsed. Then she made another gesture, and Strange was free, and another, and he was good as new. And angry as hell for some reason - at Loki.

"I had everything under control."

"Sure. It looked like you did," Loki was just about to add something unpleasant to that sentence, but when he saw how the first thing Strange did was to check up on their daughter, his spite vanished.

"I didn't ask for your help, and as I remember, we've agreed on something, and you just broke it."

"Believe it or not, it was an accident. I was too preoccupied with trying to juggle rescuing you, eliminating the guy who kept torturing you, two stupid mortals, and your daughter who you let follow you to an enemy spaceship."

"Oh my dear god, you both are her parents," Stark managed to piece it together. "And now I can't help but picture how that happened."

"Just for your information Stark, nothing you're picturing right now had ever happened," Strange was quick to add. "It was just a spell, and for the record, I wasn't the one who messed up, either."

"You'd be only too lucky if I wanted to have someone like you, who can't even keep a six-month-old child safe..." Loki wasn't happy about that.

"She's a toddler?" the Spiderman wondered.

"Obviously, she ages differently," Strange took her hand protectively. "And she's more powerful than all of us combined, so how am I supposed to stop her? Of course, you'd know that if you would have been around..."

"I'm sorry that I chose to hinder Thanos' plans of destroying half the universe instead. Why do you think I'm here? He has already 4 Stones, and won't stop," Loki told him. "So if she has the Time-Stone-"

"Her name is Jade."

"... then you should get her out of here, and let me deal with the rest," Loki finished, and that cooled Strange's temper down as well.

"Right, I'll open a portal."

"But I only just found you," the girl pointed at Loki. "Don't leave - again."

This was why Loki never held her or tried to visit, even if he could sneak into the Sanctum probably(?) unseen. He knew it was for the best if she never knew about him, but he'd be too sentimental to abandon her then, and just hearing this, he was tempted to tell her everything was going to be okay.

When things usually weren't. And Loki was the last person even in the ring with three mortals who had a right to promise her anything.

"I'm unfit to be a parent," he told her the truth. "And I'm fighting a very bad man, so I'm quite busy."

"But I can help," she offered, when Strange opened a portal and was about to lead her through it.

"You're very brave, but it's something I have to do. On my own."

"Actually, about that," Stark spoke up. "And I can hear myself when I'm suggesting this, but maybe we could all work together. I mean sure, we could go back, and wait for Thanos to find us once again, or we could take the fight to him. Between Underoos, Mikey, the Good Doctor, the sorry excuse of a god and me, I think we could-"

"Who is Mikey?"

"Don't talk to him, sweetie, he's clearly a very confused man," Strange told Jade, pulling her back, and giving Stark a very dark look. "We're going home."

"But we won't," Jade was living up to her name now because, for one, she was glowing green. And second, she was levitating, and third, when she spoke, it was as if her voice was coming from everywhere. "See it for yourself."

And, she knocked them out, even Loki who was further away than his clone, not expecting her power to reach him.

When he opened his eyes, he was in a bed with Strange. Naked, and tangled up in each other's arms. Going on by the looks of the mortal, much older too.

"What is this?"

"A vision of a possible future, obviously," Strange woke up next to him. "I've told her to stop doing this, but when she desperately wants something, she looks for a future that matches her expectations, and keeps you in a loop in it until you go mad or just give in."

"So how do we get out of this one?"

"You tell me," Strange shrugged. "This is all your fault, you know. Wong and I could somewhat manage her when she was asking about her mother, but that was before you showed. Now even if we managed to get out, she'll never stop-"

"How does she know when she is supposed to let you out usually?" Loki just asked.

"She's must be-" Strange almost answered, but Loki only - ever so slightly - shook his head. "Actually, I have nooo idea. She's so smart."

"Must have been a trait she inherited from you, dear," Loki tried his best to both look and sound credible, knowing all too well that they had an audience. "I still remember, it was the first thing that I liked about you. Too bad it's over forever, and this reality can never-ever come true."

"Don't say that, hon," Strange was quick enough at least to get what Loki was trying to do, even if Loki could have hit him for that nickname alone. "Forever is such a long time. I wish at some point you could just be done with all the fighting, and come back to us-me. Come back to me. I missed you."

"Not as much as I missed you. And I love you oh so very much, but we can't have this. Not just yet. Maybe in the future, given this vision? But now... don't make our departure any harder than it already is."

"I doubt it could be any harder."

They waited, but nothing really happened. So Strange was coming closer to him, and Loki tried to signal with his eyes that he should stop right there, but then the doctor still went ahead and kissed him.

And... still nothing.

"Let me stop you right there," Loki quickly said before Strange could get any more ideas. Clearly, it wasn't working.

"Don't worry, I wasn't going to do anything else."

"Good," Loki tried to pull himself together. "Jade - we know you can hear us. You can't keep this up. There's a very, very bad man who will hurt all of us if you don't let us out."

"He won't because I'll just turn him back to a baby. Make him forget the bad things. He'll grow up again, and then be my friend," Jade told them.

"Oh no," Strange was white as a sheet. "Jade, that can happen. But sometimes what you see doesn't always come true, remember the ice-cream truck?"

"It's not like that, not this time," she just argued. "This time it will be alright. He won't kill me because he just lost another small girl and can't possibly hurt another. And I'll ask him if he just wants to forget, and he'll say yes. I'll also marry the guy in the red suit, it's been already decided-"

"I'm gonna fucking kill Stark before I let that ever happen," Strange growled. "Even if at some point Jade will be older than him going back and forth between possible timelines and aging differently, I imagine, I'll just..."

"Not that one, silly," Jade just laughed. "The attractive one."

"That's not... the word I'd use," Loki didn't have a problem with the Spiderchild, but that was before Jade mentioned him in a romantic context. Now he hated everything about him, dead set to stay on Midgard if he had to, just to make sure no teenager boy would ever dare to look at Jade in the wrong way. Now or ever.

"But you two, you are a problem. Do you know how many times I had to look with the Stone to get you together?"

"How many?" Strange asked, while Loki just couldn't help but ask.

"Why do you even care?"

"I'd like to know what I'm up against. Don't you?"

"I've lost count. And it was very boring. And sometimes very sad," Jade told them. "So you better get together. I changed so many things already..."

"Of course," Strange sat on the bed. "It's no coincidence that we've ended up on the same ship, and your slip up about her being yours too - I think she made sure it happened that way."

This once, Loki didn't want to talk about it.

"I'm guessing the only question is... is it true?" Strange asked him. "Could there be a version of a future where you and I actually get along?"

"We already do," Loki was deliberately obtuse. "And we're also in agreement that nothing more should happen. If we have to parent her from here, then that what we should do, not letting her-"

"Right," the doctor nodded.

"And by us I actually meant you."

"I got that, and I have been dealing with just that for a while now until you show- I mean, she engineered a way for us to meet again."

They tried everything under the sun. It was exhausting, trying to appeal to a reason of a child who was convinced that they knew better.

And Loki and Strange kept looping for days in this possible future, so Loki decided to sit this one out. Which meant that he just went with the future, and figured why that day was the one Jade chose to trap them in.

That Strange and Loki had their anniversary then, surrounded by family and friends, and it was perfect. Except when Loki made a joke about how it felt too long for Strange and him to be together still, and the adult Jade told him it's been only 3 years because they kept wasting time dancing around each other.

Strange still wasn't playing along, so he didn't know. Loki could have kept it from him. But there must have been a reason Jade locked them up together, and not one by one with a perfect future counterpart. This way, they could get a glimpse of the future, sure, but also talk.

"You know, I find mortals extremely vulnerable and their life too short," Loki started, and when Strange gave him an annoyed look, he self-corrected. "What I mean to say is, I left not just because it was the right thing to do, and because not in a thousand years did I feel so embarrassed, but because if I stayed and actually turned out that I liked you as I imagined I could, you'd be gone way too soon, and I'd only end up worse than before, probably, and I don't need that, frankly."

"And the point is?"

"That if we are going to have a relationship, we better do it now. I mean when we get back. In this future, you look like you're 4500 at least, and we've been only together for three human years. That's worse than if we went for a relationship right after the accident."

"Don't call my daughter that."

"Right after the very joyous occasion that happened although we didn't plan it. So I've decided. Now or never. If you're willing to give it a shot then-"

"That's the problem. I don't."

Oh. Loki didn't expect that, but of course, he understood. He wouldn't date someone like himself either.

"That's not what you're supposed to say, Daddy!" however, now the tiny Jade appeared, not just a spectator anymore. And Strange used this to get them out of the loop.

They were back in the Sanctum, with Jade crying, and Wong running up to them with a weapon until he saw it was only them.

"You've been lying around, useless for weeks, and now look what you've done! You've upset her!" he looked like he could chop off Strange's head with the relic he was holding for it. "Jade, darling, don't cry, we can have ice-cream if you want..."

"Nicely done," apart from breaking a child's heart, Strange did well on getting them out of the vision, so Loki guessed that was it.

"Crying might be also just part of her grand plan, you know."

"It's not really working though," Loki noted, about to leave.

"But it is. I'm tempted to ask you out on some pathetic human activity with just the two of us, now that we're finally supposedly free to decide for ourselves, and I'm not sure I like it."

"Then don't," Loki said in quite a hurry.

"You did say now or never. And while I love my job-"

"I so knew you did," Loki huffed.

"And my uncontrollable daughter who just held me hostage and in a coma for weeks... I sometimes wonder that if I ever wanted a relationship, maybe it would have to be with someone like you."

"That sounded like an insult," Loki tried not to give away how he could be into that. Maybe. They barely knew each other, after all, and he wasn't just about to offer again when he already did in the fever-dream-like future.

"Let me rephrase. I didn't think I could or would have a shot at that kind of connection after I became Sorcerer Supreme. But now I'm retired and you annoy me the least of all the people I've ever met."

"Ah, I'm glad you've rephrased because this is so much better to hear," Loki sarcastically noted.

"If you want a different proposition, you better do it yourself. I'm all ears," Strange told him in return.

"I hate you the least too, darling."

"Okay, I take it back. If you want to impress me, it's best if we don't talk, just have sex. Preferably in the dark."

"Now, now, you'll have to take me on many-many dates before I even consider doing anything like that with a mortal."

"Exactly, I'm a mortal, and time flies for me, just as you've said. So maybe dates are overrated."

"Ah, do you want me so badly in your bed, Doctor? You sure sound like it."

"Maybe. But only to brag about it later. Me a lowly human, getting to a god-"

"I'm not sure anyone would like to hear about that," Loki said.

"I would. You can tell me how it would all go. Over dinner, perhaps?"

"Wow, if she can do this now, imagine what she'll be like when she's older."

"This means you actually wanna say yes, right?"

"Yes."

And they were about to take off to get some food, when there was a sudden screeching noise that stopped them both in their tracks, while Jade and Wong appeared, running.

"It's baby Thanos crying! Wong, I think he's hungry! Again!" Jade reported while Wong appeared with a bottle of milk, rushing past Loki and Strange now.

"Should we do something about...?" Loki was wondering. In a way, if Jade just adopted Thanos as a baby, he was a grandf- who was he kidding, grandma now, and hell if that wasn't wrong on so many levels, starting with the fact that it was Thanos.

"Nah, just ignore them. I estimate we have about ten to twenty years before he could get truly dangerous again - if he ever does, - and we still have countless dates ahead of us, so let's concentrate on what really matters here."

"Changing my looks so people won't recognize me on the street?"

"Actually, I think you'll find that this is New York. Nobody remembers, cares, and/or isn't too busy constantly being on their phone."

"You aren't. I'm neither."

"I've told you I liked you the best, why did you think that was?"

"Ah, so it's like now?" Loki teased. "Come evening, you might just be asking my hand in marriage."

"Sure, sure, just don't let Jade hear that. Not right now, at the very least."

Loki could only laugh.

"I sure hope not. I got pregnant from a guy once by accident, even before I knew his name, and although the kid turned out seemingly okay, I can't help but think it was rushed. In my culture, I'm considered almost too young for it with my humble couple of thousands of years..."

Some old lady must have heard because she was giving them weird looks.

"You hardly look a day older than 7000 to me, darling," Strange told him, correctly guessing that the number was high enough to be an insult, even in Asgardian terms.

"Aww, and you say the sweetest things, hon," Loki only hoped that payback was fair, and Strange would hate that nickname just as much as he did before.

"What can I do, you bring the best out of me, button."

"I do, it's true, he's nothing without me. Used to be, but now a six-month-old child is running the family business instead of him," Loki told the old lady, who was still there, but then made a very swift escape when Loki openly turned to her.

"So, I finally get to hear what you really think of me. Don't hold back."

"You don't want that. I can be brutal," Loki grinned. "But I'll tell you this: maybe my idiot of a brother was right about one thing. Midgard has some certain qualities I overlooked."

"Why thank you."

"I was talking about the planet as a whole, not you. Just before you go ahead and get the wrong impression..."

"Yes, of course, you were talking about the poor lady you've presumably given nightmares just now."

"Exactly. I start to like the people of this planet more and more."

"Give it a week. It'll pass," Strange assured him, but they also arrived at their destination, and the food was much better than on Asgard, so Loki didn't get his point just yet.

Chapter Text

2B

Vision couldn't find his place after the Snap.

He might have been unable to sense real grief as humans would, but every time something reminded him of Wanda, it was as if he started a very complicated and tasking calculation he never got to finish, and the cognitive unease was unbearable.

So when Captain Marvel mentioned she was shorthanded on some missions in space, Vision immediately wanted to go.

At first, they weren't a team: Vision avoided both of his teammates as much as he could, and Nebula was eerily silent too, only Rocket making some noise, but not because he was talkative either - he was just so used to Quill's playlist that he wouldn't pilot the ship without the music blasting from the speakers.

But then, Vision had this theory that you can only save someone's life and be saved in return a number of times before an unavoidable trust is formed, and that trust meant they then began to communicate freely - sometimes.

Rocket got drunk once and sent them both to hell, but in such a funny way that Vision could only smile - almost provoking him to a fight, until Nebula took him away to rest.

"It's funny, because even being completely out of it, he was right," Nebula smelled the liquid Rocket was drinking, then put it away.

"In what sense?" Vision wondered.

"We are more alike than we'd probably care to admit. I was a Luphomoid once who was then turned into a machine and was trained to act like one. You were a machine once, but then learned what it meant for Terrans to be human, and it became a part of you. So now we're both stuck in between, even if we came from the exact opposite sites of the same thing, and Rocket was right to-"

"Call us a couple of calculators whose only special ability was that we had legs to walk on?" Vision questioned.

"Maybe that too. But certainly when he said that we were different."

"I believe the term was 'beings whose humor was synthetic too'," Vision mentioned, with another faint smile.

"Yes. And he was right," Nebula nodded. "And I thought it wasn't only fitting, but funny."

Not that she laughed, or seemed impressed, but Vision was fully okay with that.

"Maybe we could try." It was like him cooking for Wanda when he couldn't eat.

"I wasn't programmed to be funny."

"But you're still capable choose what you want for yourself, or why else would you be here? Also, there were researches on Earth about the positive effects humor seems to have on humans," Vision questioned, and Nebula didn't speak up for a long time.

"And you think it would have any on me, still?"

"There's only one way to find out. And even if not, I'm sure Rocket would appreciate it."

Nebula only firmly nodded.

"I'm going to try." While Vision decided to do the same. Easier said than done.

Humor was something unexpected by definition, yet still not completely random, because it had to connect to the previous topic - just in an unusual way. Over the line in some ways, yet not way too over to make the listener uncomfortable.

In other words: it could not be simulated. Therefore, it was a worthy enough challenge to keep his mind on when he didn't want to think about what he lost.

Then, Nebula was badly injured, and while her physical body and her mental capacities weren't reliant on each other, her power reserves were running out as well.

"I think I've just come up with one," she told Vision in her last moments. "What will the villains of this galaxy see just before their well-deserved death?"

"What?" Vision dutifully asked.

"A Vision."

"I shall tell Rocket you said that," Vision could only promise. "I think he won't hate it completely."

Except, there was that cognitive dissonance again, hitting him hard when Nebula closed her eyes, the same way when Wanda died. A part of him knew it was over, and it was useless to dwell on it, but another part couldn't just accept it.

And with Wanda, he couldn't do anything about it.

But, Nebula had indexed memories and direct neural-link in her hand for easier reprogramming. Maybe her previous body couldn't be saved, but Vision could save her data?

Like he had a part of him that was JARVIS.

But, letting Nebula die, only to incorporate her into his systems, when he was too late to ask for her permission was not something Vision wanted to do.

However, how else could he save her?

Finally, a weird thought came to him. He had a capability to reproduce his cells in case he was hurt, so theoretically, if he did the same with a DNA key he can get from Nebula still, he could replicate her cells inside his body, while storing her data - mind - in a separate brain than his own.

How he'd "give birth" to this newly formed Nebula copy who would be physically a child, but mentally having all her memories were a different matter, but...

Better than nothing. Maybe he was selfish for the first time in his life, but he didn't want to lose his friend.

===

It had to be the possibly weirdest "birth" ever, with Professor Hulk and Tony Stark assisting Vision just about 10 months later, but baby Nebula was healthy, and being reborn as a child also meant that although she had her own memories, her mind didn't use most of the connections that were already there.

As Bruce explained, before language, memories of a small child are stored and called back very differently than as an adult, so Nebula had a couple of years before she would begin to remember - if she ever would.

Consciously, that is. It was a different matter that she seemed to be dreaming about her old life often enough and had an intuition to like and dislike the same things older Nebula would.

She always told jokes to everyone who would listen and kept asking for new ones in return. Bruce, Steve, Nat, but even Rhodey, Rocket, and Marvel kept telling her the best ones they knew, and Scott too, when he reappeared.

===

For the Time-Heist, Vision went back to the past with Rocket to collect the Soul Stone from Vormir, only to be told one of them had to die to get it.

"Do you want to hear a joke?" he asked.

"No. This is no time to-"

"What is the ultimate Turing test for a synthezoid?"

"While you're still not funny, I've decided," Rocket declared. "I should do it, my lifespan is short anyway..."

"When his life can be exchanged for the Soul Stone, although he is supposed to be just a biological machine," Vision finished it.

"Excuse me if I don't find it funny when you have a daughter to raise at home..."

"It takes a village to raise a child, and she is mine just as much as everybody else's in the compound," Vision told him.

"I still won't kill you," Rocket was adamant.

"I've always wondered what my purpose was," Vision said. "If the human concept of fate existed, why did I have the Mind Stone only to lose it? Why did I have feelings for Wanda just to watch her die? And why did I keep on existing after she was gone and my power was gone?"

"Life often doesn't make sense."

"Like with a joke, maybe there's only a connection you see," Vision agreed. "But if it wasn't me, someone else would have to die. If not for the feelings I felt for Wanda first, I'd probably just a machine, not a worthy exchange for a Stone. And if not for losing the Mind Stone, I wouldn't know how much of a gift it was that I could still save billions of people by doing this. For me, it all adds up."

===

"No it doesn't, and even if you jumped, you'd survived the fall, and I sure as hell won't hurt you," Rocket said. He had enough of losing people, he wasn't capable of accepting it - even if he never really got along with big, red, so stupidly heroic robot.

"That's why I started deleting my memories a while ago. I have another joke for you," Vision smiled. "Knock, knock."

"Who's there?" Rocket knew this type of joke since he'd spent so much time with the kid Nebula, who learned it from the Terrans.

But then, Vision's eyes stared into nothing, looking back at him empty, just a frozen machine without his memory files now - therefore the "joke". There was nobody there anymore.

Rocket did what he could: he laughed. He was still laughing when he got the Soul Stone in return, and when Bruce undid the snap and he got Groot and everyone back.

===

When it was all said and done, Rocket put the Soul Stone into a safe container and walked up to Wanda with it.

"You take this, exchange it for Vision, come back, and you'll live happily ever after," he told her.

"Bruce said he was dead."

"The last time I saw him, his synthetic body was just fine. He only deleted his memory banks, but I suspect they could be retrieved."

"By Stark, who hates me, and not without reason," Wanda said.

"I can do most of what he does," Rocket shrugged. "And if it's more of a biological matter, my teammate, Mantis can probably turn his mind back. You'll just have to get him."

"I don't know what to say-" Vision's woman seemed somewhere between overwhelmed and disbelief.

"Just don't ask him to tell you any jokes," Rocket warned her about the very real danger. "Because then he'll never get tired of trying to get one right, and if not even the pregnancy hormones could change how lame he was, I doubt coming back from the dead he'd be any different..."

"Did you just say pregnancy?"

"Oh yeah, not that was a funny story, but not the way I had to find it out," Rocket remembered. "I'll tell you all about it later."

===

When Vision regained consciousness and saw Rocket first, he was afraid his plan didn't work, but when he also saw Wanda and the little Nebula by his bedside, he felt like weights were lifted off his cognitive pathways.

Maybe that was what humans called relief. Happiness even.

"So, you couldn't live without me?" he pulled Rocket's leg a little bit, only too elevated that he could.

"The next time I have to bring you back from the dead, I'd add a separate database of jokes, you need of an upgrade," Rocket said, but he was grinning, not rolling his eyes at Vision, so that was progress. "I couldn't do it this time, fearing your lady friend won't recognize you with it, but the next time, mark my words I will."

"Oh, Wanda..." Vision could only say next. Lost for words because he was so glad to have her back, but there was no need to say more because then Wanda was both smiling and crying, and also kissing him at the same time.

"Vis..."

"I have so much to tell you."

"I think I've met the main story already, and I love her," Wanda looked at Nebula playing. "And I'm glad. Maybe you could also carry all her siblings we're going to have."

"I'm not sure I can do that, given that my Vibranium reserves are limited and-"

"Actually, Rocket told me about your newfound hobby, and I'm just kidding," Wanda told him with a smirk, then kissed him. "Although not about the siblings part, maybe."

"It's good to be back," Vision could only say, but when that made Wanda tear up again, he added. "Being alive means I'm one step closer to reaching my dream of becoming a stand-up comedian."

And she laughed, even if that was only to make him feel better. An almost laughable concept in itself, yet, as Vision had found, when it was Wanda who was smiling or laughing at him like that, it worked.

Chapter Text

3A

Thor wasn't mighty. He lost his father, he lost his hammer, and now his dignity: Thor barely got out of the prison in Sakaar when Loki turned him into a small, weak, but always incredibly hungry beast with a yellow-orange fur.

Saying it was for Thor's sake, and how the curse should naturally end once Thor was "safe", because Loki feared that he was way too careless after the death of their father.

Thor wasn't going to trust that, and wait it out in Loki's quarters, hidden away. So he went for a walk - and got almost trampled by the Grandmaster's men marching up and down on the corridors, looking for him.

Given how tiny his new form became, all distances seemed to only multiply. And everything he would use to orientate himself was also too far away, he got lost fast.

He was in the middle of nowhere as far as he knew, and hungry and sleepy, and with no power left in his limbs. So he only meant to close his eyes for a bit, but when he opened it up again, somebody's boots were just right in front of him.

"And what do we have here," a familiar voice said, and the person lifted him.

When it turned out to be Valkyrie, Thor could only hiss. "What do you think, how much the Grandmaster would pay for a small pet like you?"

The last thing Thor needed was to be given to the Grandmaster - again! just - as a pet now. Who knows what that lunatic would do with a small beast. Maybe even eat him or something.

No, no, no, Thor wasn't going back to another cage, not when he just escaped Loki, so he let out his claws out and even bit and snarled at Valkyrie, who didn't seem impressed - now holding him further away from herself, with some sort of disdain, but not letting him go.

Still locking him up on her spaceship, taking him everywhere she went, giving him alcoholic beverages instead of food and water, which Thor couldn't stomach in his current predicament, so he kept trying to get out when she wasn't looking, in dire need of some sustenance, but he was getting weaker, and she seemed to want to keep him.

"Angry girl! What do you have?" Hulk appeared once when Thor was pretty sure he was dying already, too week to even look up at the green monster.

"Don't touch my stuff, Hulk!"

"Cute kitten! But she sick."

Thor was too tired to even try to at least object to the pronoun that didn't fit him. Not that the little beast's pathetic little high-pitched roars would prove Hulk wrong anyway.

"Well, she doesn't eat anything I give her, so if it's anyone's fault, it's hers."

"They drink milk. No fault of tiny kitten if Angry Girl don't know," Hulk's enormous hands very surprisingly gentle when he raised Thor and gave him a small pet on his head.

"Take her if you like her so much. Like I care!"

So, Hulk did. Took Thor back to his room, wrapped him into a blanket on the floor to keep him warm, and returned with something that finally smelled so good to Thor that he hesitantly took a couple of steps to drink from it.

"Drink, Tiny," Hulk only pulled his form closer to the bowl he placed on the ground. "'t make you strong and big."

Thor needed to get out of this planet and save Asgard, but the Hulk was right, and he couldn't do that if he didn't have the energy. He only meant to taste the white liquid in the bowl, but once he started drinking from it, he couldn't stop until he finished the whole thing.

"Tiny hungry? Tiny cute," Hulk laughed, and then put him back on the makeshift bed he created for Thor with the blankets. "Now Tiny sleep. Get better."

Thor gave a dissatisfied noise hearing that nickname, but Hulk must have been right and he needed to sleep badly because once his hunger ebbed, he was already halfway there.

The next time he woke, he was petted by Hulk who bought him another bowl - which Thor devoured this time without a complaint.

"Tiny very dirty, need bath," Hulk announced, and that was the only warning Thor got before he got a bucket of water on his head, making him wish to retaliate by hissing, clawing, and biting his way to the closest dry surface.

Except, then Hulk also produced some soap and started to clean him, and it felt... nice? The little beast Thor was must have had more sensitive nerve-endings on its face and back because even being touched with the soap felt extraordinarily pleasurable, so Thor stopped fighting it.

Then he was immersed in more water again - he gave Hulk a very irritated high pitched roar - and dried with a towel, only for Hulk to pick him up and put him on the shoulders.

"Tiny and Hulk. Best friends forever."

And, Hulk was going somewhere, and he had much longer legs than Thor. So trying to stay perched on Hulk's shoulders was just a strategy, not that Thor agreed to stay with him.

But Hulk was free to walk the place and from his shoulder's Thor had a good view of where they were going and could try to memorize the layout faster than on his own.

If he wanted to escape, it was as good a plan as any, and if Hulk kept him fed so he could keep up his energy until he had a chance to run away then it was fine.

He didn't count on Hulk stripping naked for the night, but also taking Thor with him to his bed instead of leaving him on the blankets like the last time.

Thor couldn't sleep thinking if Hulk had a nightmare, he could just easily squish him, but Hulk only talked sometimes, and otherwise didn't move, and was warm, and still better than if Loki were to find him.

Also, waking up to someone petting him felt so good that Thor tried to get closer to Hulk's hands, asking for more, making the green giant laugh.

"Tiny funny!"

And, as far as the days went, Hulk's predictable routine was both a comfort and a good enough opportunity for Thor to plan an escape, so he stayed with Hulk for now.

He also realized that if he didn't like something, and would make a pathetic little noise of discontent, Hulk would give everything Thor could ask for from more food to more petting, and that made life that much easier.

Also, the Hulk maybe wasn't the brightest Avenger, but Thor was only beginning to think that even looking like a giant monster, he could be one of the kindest if he chose to, and Thor wanted to repay him for that.

So when Hulk bought a colorful string on the market one day, and then pulled it on the floor as if expecting Thor to do something with it, Thor tried to figure out what it was just to make him happy.

"Come on, no shy! Tiny can play now with Hulk!"

Thor laid down on the string, but that Hulk lifted him up from it.

"No! Chase the mouse, Tiny!"

Thor finally got it. He was to fake-attack the string, but at first, he had to look around so that nobody but Hulk would see his humiliation when he tried.

Only, it was fun! Being constricted into such a miniature of a form, Thor didn't get a chance to exercise, and this was a good enough excuse to do just that, while also appreciating his new body's unexpected agility and speed when it came to this kind of game.

"Good Tiny!" if it was possible, Hulk enjoyed playing with him just as much as Thor enjoyed the variety. "Tiny grow to a fierce cat for sure!"

Thor even let Hulk pat him after, and decided that if it was up to him to adopt an Avenger in a non-human form, he'd take the Hulk any day first.

If not for Asgard, he would have considered staying a little bit. But he needed to get back, and when they came across Loki with Hulk by accident, it only meant Thor needed to do it that much faster.

"Where did you get that cat?" Loki only asked narrowing his eyes on Thor, as if he planned any of this.

"Tiny and Hulk: best friends."

"Not my question though. I think that's my kitten, and I want him back."

Thor could only hiss at his brother and tried to claw at him when Loki attempted to touch him.

"Puny God stay away from Tiny, or die!" Hulk not only shielded Thor from Loki but was also basically yelled at Loki who seemed so intimidated Thor could have laughed.

Another thing he immediately liked about Hulk: he managed to scare Loki better than Odin himself.

But now that Loki knew where Thor went, he had to leave soon, otherwise, there was a small chance Loki would get him back from the Hulk, and would never let him go.

In a way, when Thor went to sleep on Hulk's chest that night, he felt sorry for his green teammate. Maybe even thought how he'd miss Hulk.

Except, when he woke, he was shaken awake by a very angry Hulk, and they were both naked in the same bed, and Thor wasn't just a treasured pet anymore, but himself.

"Where is Tiny? Thor scared him away! Thor makes Hulk ANGRY!!!"

Never mind the fact that Thor didn't have an explanation why he was sleeping next to Hulk without clothes, but at least that's not where Hulk's mind went.

"Hulk, buddy," Thor tried to calm him. "I know this will be hard to believe, but hear me out."

"Thor hid Tiny! Hulk no listen!"

"I did not. Tiny is closer than you think," Thor quickly told him, fearing for his life, when Hulk started throwing the furniture at him. Which stopped abruptly.

"Where?!"

"Here. I am Tiny. Loki cursed me to a different form."

"Thor lies! Thor left! Tiny stayed! Always!"

"Hulk, Hulk, I have to leave, but you can come with me," Thor insisted. "I need your help. I need all the help I can get."

"No, Hulk happy here. Hulk wants Tiny back! If Thor is Tiny, turn back!"

"It's not possible, I'm sorry. But we can still be friends," Thor offered, feeling like they already were. And, once he checked, and thanks to Loki's magic, the disk from his neck also disappeared, he only needed to put up some clothing and was ready to go. "Come with me."

"No, no, NO!!!" Hulk roared and was pretty much destroying the room in the meanwhile.

Thor thought it was best if he left before he could be next, even now that without the inhibitor in his neck, he had a chance to fight Hulk, that was the last thing he wanted.

Thor didn't want to kick the green monster when he was already down. But just when Thor was about to leave, he heard Banner's voice.

"Thor? Where the hell are we? Where are my clothes?"

"Banner!" Thor immediately turned back. "You're on an alien planet, but I need you to come with me, to Asgard. There's a fight to be fought."

"An alien planet? Asgard? I don't even know if Ultron is finally gone!" Bruce seemed to shut down hearing the information.

"Ultron? Ultron is history," Thor laughed, but regretted it immediately when he saw Bruce pale.

"Why, how long was I the Hulk?!"

"I mean, I don't know exactly, I just..."

"Don't avoid the answer just tell me, I'm not a child I can take it."

"Years."

"YEARS??!!!" Bruce couldn't take it. "How did that happen? I can't... I think I'm having a panic attack."

Maybe because the whole "Tiny" experience was still so vividly fresh in Thor's mind, but the first thing that came to him was that Bruce would calm if Thor would hug him. And it was helpful because it surprised Bruce just enough so his breathing returned to normal.

"Thor, what are you doing? We aren't... we don't do hugs. And I'm still missing my clothes."

"Yes, yes, you're right," then it was awkward, and Thor could only pray Bruce wouldn't notice his faint blush. "It's just... I kind of got close to the other guy."

"How close?" Bruce's face was pure horror then, and understanding what he must have pictured, Thor could only laugh.

"It's nothing like what your thinking, Banner! I mean, we did wake up completely naked and in the same bed this morning with him-"

"OH. MY. GOD!"

"But that was only because Loki cursed me to be this small animal you people call a kitten, and the Hulk was taking care of me until the spell wore off."

"Wait, a kitten, kitten, or is that some kind of euphemism for something I don't know and possibly don't wanna hear about?"

"A very real kitten. Of course, when Loki transforms himself, he gives himself all the majestic animals like this snake he once turned into, and when I went to pick him up-"

"So you were a helpless animal and the Hulk took care of you? That's just weird. Feels like I missed a century, man."

"Yes. And do you know what else has happened?" Thor was glad to have Banner somewhat back, now also picking up some clothes that were still humungous on him, but better than the alternative. "Asgard, my home planet was attacked by my evil sister, and I'm going to take the Quinjet to fight her, and I need your help. I need all the help I can get. In fact, why don't you go to the Quinjet now, and I'll also try to ask Valkyrie to join us..."

Finding out that the Quinjet wasn't operational anymore because the scavengers took it apart for parts, while Valkyrie turned him down, and then the Grandmaster noticed that his beloved Champion was gone wasn't exactly as planned, nor when Loki offered his help, and finally only tried to trick him again.

But just a stolen party ship, a lost eye, and a destroyed home planet later, Hela was gone, and the Revengers were still all alive, just as all the Asgardians on board, and though Loki didn’t come with them, he said his goodbyes in a form of a clone.

Hulk appeared later in his room, only in a pair of pants, which he quickly shredded next.

“If Thor is Tiny, Hulk sleep with Thor,” he said, taking up most of the space in Thor’s bed.

“And do you have to be naked?” Thor mused out loud. Although, he’d also never admit, but had the best sleep next.

Only to wake up with Bruce trying to sneak out from under his arms in the morning, but waking Thor in the process.

“You know, you keep telling everybody that Hulk is nothing like you, but that’s not true, is it?” Thor asked.

“Because I’m the one who gets angry?”

“I think he’s not only you but the real you. And for the record, I kinda like him better.”

"Ha, that's new," Bruce noted then asked. "And just for the record, now you're not a cat, and I'm still very much naked and in the same bed as you so... nothing happened?"

"He just missed his pet," Thor said.

"I'm gonna lock myself up in my cabin at night," Bruce murmured. "So I don't always wake up flashing you."

"I don't mind," Thor said, but when that made Banner only stare, he added. "I just mean after all that happened, and how I got used to it in my animal form, it's quite nice not to sleep alone. These cabins can get quite chilly at night, and-"

"I'll pretend you didn't just say that," Bruce could hardly speak, he was so upset. "I can't...I'm not interested, Thor, so..."

"It's nothing like that!" Thor tried to assure him, but when he reached for the mortal, Bruce just avoided his - only friendly! - gesture too like plague.

"Yeah, right, but it's still too weird. And you might be okay with the Hulk taking over, but I'm not. I need... to go."

And after that, neither of them appeared. Only on the battlefield fighting Thanos did Thor see the Hulk again, and after they've lost that fight, Banner all but disappeared, and Thor was busy helping to rebuild Asgard now on Earth - finding that physical labor had kept him mind off things. Like how responsible Thor felt thinking that with Mjolnir, he could have defeated Thanos, but without a weapon, he was almost just a joke compared to the Mad Titan.

But then Bruce showed up, being both Banner and the Hulk, and while Valkyrie invited him for a meal, he explained.

"Tony has a plan that could make everything right."

"No offense, because I know Stark is very capable considering he's just a mere mortal, but I doubt that's possible," Thor sighed.

"He thinks we could travel back in time, Thor. Get the Stones. Use them to bring everybody back."

"I'm sorry, Banner, but without my hammer, I'm useless," Thor was no longer hungry, so he stood to get back to work.

"That's not true though," Banner's voice stopped him. "You could have defeated the Hulk if the Grandmaster didn't shut you down."

That made Thor turn back.

"You... remember?"

"Ah, this isn't just a green tan, Thor. I'm both Banner and the Hulk now, in one. Actually, it's all thanks to you. You told me we were just the same, I just needed some time to accept it."

"I'm glad for you both. But still, I'm afraid I can't help you. I'm a better use as an extra pair of hands here than on some heroic quest, believe me."

"Except that's hardly true," Valkyrie appeared, accompanied by Heimdall. "The village could do just fine without your brooding face, your Majesty."

"And if there's a fight to be fought, the Aesir swore to help the Midgardians in exchange for the land we were given, so take this," he gave Thor the Bifrost Sword. "I don't have a use for it, but I have a feeling that you will."

"I can't possibly..."

"Who knows, maybe if the Nine Realms favor you, you'll learn how to wield it as more than just an ordinary sword."

Thor was on the way back to the Avengers (what was left of them) with Bruce already when he gathered his thoughts enough to note.

"They really wanted me gone, didn't they?"

Bruce only smiled at him: "I think they just know you better than you do yourself."

Once they got the Stones, there was the question of who should use them, and it came down to Banner and him.

"I can take Gamma radiation better than anybody in this room."

"And I'm a demigod, so what's your point? I defeated you in battle, you even admitted to it..."

"It's not just about force."

"And now you're just calling me stupid. I thought you insisted I come along on this mission because you thought I could be useful, so let me do that. Be useful?"

"You had been already useful, are you kidding me? Taking the Stone from Jane, telling us where to find it in the first place... Besides, I'm not a child just because I'm not a mythological god, I'm a scientist who can calculate the risks, and I'm telling you, I want to do it."

And, they would have kept arguing for ages, probably, but then they were under attack. Thor - instead of joining the fight with Thanos as the others left standing did, even though Thanos was just sitting there waiting - went straight to find the gauntlet under the rubble.

Put it on, and Snapped the army away, while bringing back all the Vanished. Then probably passed out for a bit, because the next thing he knew, he was in a hospital bed, with Banner irritatedly talking to him.

"If you dare to die on me now, Thor, after you stole my job, I don't know what I'm going to do."

"Loki's dead. Thanos killed him using the Stones, and I didn't even know, only when I put the gauntlet on."

"I'm so sorry, but that doesn't mean-"

"My whole family is gone, and I have no regrets."

"But I do!" Bruce told him with some force. "I don't want to lose another teammate now, but especially not after Nat..."

"I swore to protect Midgard, and I knew what it meant when I took the job," Thor quickly told him.

"You're just so... irritating, do you know that?" Bruce raised his voice now. "Fine! I'll just spell it out for you: I don't want you to die, because I care about you! After all the things we've been through together, how hard is it for you to understand?"

"You don't even like me, you said so yourself."

"I had to deal with my own shit first, true," Bruce said. "But you were also a recluse, and I didn't know how to just drop by uninvited, based on a conversation we had years ago so... I hoped we'd have a chance to at least talk after all the Time-Heist was done."

"What are you even saying?" Thor was not only in considerable pain, but also couldn't follow.

"This would be so much easier if you were a kitten," Bruce told him. "And you should know, I'm not into men in general, so I have no idea how to do this... but Hulk and I both agree that we kinda... like you."

"Kinda like me?" Thor wondered. It sure didn't sound like it the way Banner just said it.

"I mean, you've never actually said you wanted anything more than just a big green Hulk pillow, so I'm only putting it out there, but maybe I wouldn't mind if you did."

"Oh," it was a shock for Thor, even though it could be hardly called entirely unpredictable. But still a shock.

"And it's not a good timing now anyway when you've just learned you've lost your brother, and used the Stones, but..."

"You can come over and visit New Asgard anytime, Banner," Thor told him. "Valkyrie was just joking when she said she liked you any less."

"Well, I say this: I won't go if you die," Bruce stated.

It was different when he did, Thor showing him around first, then Bruce helping the villagers out instead of him, then somehow ending up staying for months, and only later noting.

"I was thinking about applying for a teaching/research job in Oslo. It would be only a couple of days, and it's not so far so I could divide my time between here and there. If you think that's a good idea."

"The kids love you, of course it is!" Thor only told him, teasing.

"I wasn't exactly talking about them."

"I know. And it's a great idea."

"Is it?"

"I believe it's what I've just said."

Thor was about to show him how much he meant it too when Bruce stopped him.

"And one more thing. If we're to do this... I love Miek and Korg just as much the next guy, but do you think they could find another dwelling so we didn't have to be roomies with them?"

"And lose all the joy of sneaking around?"

"It was hardly sneaking when the bed gave out."

"That was just simply bad carpentry."

"Or so you keep telling everyone, but I don't think for a minute they don't know very well what happened."

"Nobody knows!" Thor pretended to be even offended by the idea just for fun. "Why do you even think anyone knows is beyond me..."

"For one, because Val keeps referring to me as Queen Banner now."

"That's just one person with a bad sense of humor if you ask me."

"And everyone keeps giving me all these gifts!"

"They like you, which I can't say comes as a surprise."

"Uh-uh, and the last time I got an intricate knife that was specially designed just for me by the blade-smith, he refused payment telling me it was my wedding present?"

"Now I don't know where that came from, I never told him anything about a wedding."

"But you told him about everything else?" Bruce could only gape at him.

"I mean... yes?" Thor grinned. "I won't deny it if people ask, and everybody already could guess anyway..."

Bruce just gave out a very un-Hulk-like, mortified shriek and buried his face in the pillow.

"Should I tell them we broke up?" Thor inquired. "Because I couldn't keep my mouth shut, and it agitated you so?"

"No, don't," Bruce gave him a look. "I just wish you told me first!"

"So, we're going to be okay, then?" Thor asked.

"Better than okay, even." And then Bruce took a page from his book and only showed him without words what he meant.

Chapter Text

3B

Loki wanted to burn the whole world down. He spent his entire life living a lie. Not understanding why but instinctively feeling that he was never given the same chances as Thor. Never mind the same love.

So Loki hated Laufey and Odin, sure, but he hated himself the most. Why did he feel so betrayed and fucking angry? He was never a hothead. He didn't grow up to be cuddled, and if he had a chance, he'd chose not to be.

It made him stronger and this way, he could trust that the precious few who loved him (like Frigga), really cared for him, and that should have been enough. And if anything, he could finally try to live up to his Allfather's expectations, knowing that he'd never get it anyway.

And he was finally free of the Aesir the first time when he fell. He could have just started a new life, yet when Thanos talked to him, he barely needed to push a few of his buttons, and Loki himself asked how he could be of help to the Mad Titan to destroy order because he was fuming again. It didn't even take much.

Then he just went through the motions and didn't let himself think. He didn't even have it in him to be a proper villain, it seemed. Not the acting deranged part - that was surprisingly easy - but how he was plagued with doubts.

He feared if he would slow down, he'd changed his mind, and then Thanos would kill him for his failure, hunting him down no matter where he hid in the universe.

But when Loki was fighting Thor on the Stark Tower's balcony, he knew he made a horrible mistake.

He was furious because he felt like Odin had made a fool of him when Loki had always thought himself so smart. And Odin could only do this because, despite everything, Loki saw a father in him, and cared for him, even still no matter what happened - that wasn't a reason to be ashamed.

Because after all, Loki wasn't just angry like the green monster. He was betrayed and so humiliated that the fury he felt was just a way to cover up the truth, even from himself.

And it worked, but when the devastation of New York started, Loki didn't feel any better, just loss.

And Thor, the perfect golden brother, who was still trying to save him, what did he do? Loki was jealous of him for almost a millennium, but wasn't Thor just the product of Odin pulling his strings from the background, just as he did with Loki for so long?

If anything, the first time Thor was free of Odin's watchful eyes, he did something he wasn't supposed to do: fell in love with a mortal, so technically defied Odin and Asgard. Did he really deserve Loki's rage as Odin?

And even if Loki and the Chitauri succeeded in conquering Midgard, what was the point?

Loki may have thought he wanted recognition, but even if he still felt that way, he'd be conquering only one planet in Thanos' name, with an army that wasn't even his. And maybe he'd have some power on Midgard, but he didn't care about mortals, and it's not like he wanted to stay on a planet that was so crude and primitive.

"It's too late."

"No, we can stop it. Together."

Loki still wasn't above stabbing Thor for that suggestion, but then, he took off on a Chitauri ship and got lost in the crowd on the ground. Secretly switching sides, and working on eliminating any Chitauri ship and crew who got far away enough from the main battle.

This way none of the Chitauri of Midgard's mightiest heroes would know that Loki was working on protecting them, except a couple of civilians he had to save, because they were too busy staring at the alien ships and screaming, unable to help themselves by simply running away. Seriously pathetic.

Although, not all. One of Thor's friends was a surprisingly worthy warrior (albeit Loki could make no sense of his obnoxious personality or the whole getup he was wearing to the fight), and Loki only kept an eye on him because he got too close to Loki while fighting.

Or at least that's what he told himself. But when the good Captain was gradually losing the fight, and he was too preoccupied to notice that a soldier was about to shoot him from behind, Loki's legs moved on his own.

He wanted to tackle Captain America out of the way, claiming he was attacking him, but only when he got there did he realize he didn't have the time to do that.

The only thing he could do was jump between the threat and the Midgardian, taking a hit. When the Captain noticed, it was funny, because Loki couldn't have told which one of them was more surprised by the sudden turn of the events.

"Loki? What the...?"

"You should be more careful, Captain," Loki warned with a smile, acting like nothing was more natural than him saving the Midgardian. "You wouldn't want to die when there's still a fight to be fought, would you?"

And Loki quickly got away from the location, but unlike Midgardian weapons, the Chitauri weapons could hurt him, and taking a hit straight on slowed him down. Not to mention, when he kept on fighting - the battle had barely started, just as he told the Captain - he got other injuries as well.

Finally, when it was done, not only Loki's magic was completely depleted, but he didn't even have the strength to stand. It must have been the zeal of the battle that kept him going, but now that was gone, he literary collapsed.

He'd be no doubt captured by the Midgardians this way, but he couldn't even use glamour to change his appearance, and couldn't keep his eyes open.

===

He woke in a bed, and - if not for his injuries - comfortable. Warm. Hungry, but rested. Definitely not the torture or the imprisonment he'd expected before passing out, and he was still alive.

Even when he opened his eyes with great effort, he couldn't place his surroundings but managed to find his clothes and a joined lavatory where he could take care of his business and drink some water.

He only collapsed again on the way back, and that's how he was found. By Captain America himself.

"What the hell do you think you're doing out of bed?" and he didn't seem happy, so Loki automatically could only manically grin, falling to his default mightier than thou attitude he ever so often used.

"Leaving, I thought it was obvious."

He expected some anger, hate, or at least some kind of childish remark in return, like Thor, would no doubt react when Loki was impossible like this, but maybe the Captain was more than just what met the eye because he only gave him a look.

"And how is that working out for you?"

Loki couldn't help but chuckle - even though that came to an abrupt halt when he couldn't breathe for a minute after doing that from the pain.

"You're surprisingly funny Captain, considering that you're friends with my idiot of a brother," an insult, disguised as a compliment. Classic.

"I thought you were adopted."

"And believe me, I'm grateful for that small mercy."

"Are you really?" the Captain questioned with a tone that left no doubt that he saw through Loki's usual tricks easily. Maybe he was something else and not just on the battlefield.

Just as Barton said, being a natural leader of his people not just because of his powers and military background but because he was good at reading people. But, unlike Loki, who could occasionally do the same, this came from the fact that the good Captain cared - even for disgraced ex-villains, it seemed.

Or maybe, Loki - the real, vulnerable side of him - was more visible when he was so pathetic that he couldn't even stand, and his mask had especially slipped when he saved the Captain's life.

But if some tricks didn't work on him, Loki would just have to be more creative, figuring what would.

"So what, you'd found me, and thought you'd always wanted a demi-god as an exotic prisoner?"

"You're not a prisoner, but I advise you against leaving."

"Or else?" Getting the righteous Captain to threaten him could be interesting, but Loki was disappointed fast.

"Currently, you're in my quarters, and the others don't know. If you were to take a stroll in the Tower, however, I'm not sure I could protect you. After all, everyone else seems to be under the false impression that you're irrevocably evil, and I can't say I blame them. You've put a great deal of work into-"

"Wait, so you're trying to say that you'd carried me from the battlefield straight to your bed, getting me naked while nobody knows I'm here?" Loki twisted it and noticed a faint blush creeping up on the Captain's cheek.

The first weakness Loki found, so he wasn't about to waste it.

"Oh, Captain, you should have said so," Loki gave him a knowing smile. "I understand my charms are almost irresistible to some people, I just didn't know you were one of them. How would you take me? Rough and fast? Or maddeningly slow? Or could it be that you have no idea?"

"You're truly unhinged. And disgusting," the Captain told him.

"That's what you keep telling your friends. And maybe yourself too. But that isn't true, is it?" It required a certain cruel treacherous mind to pick on a person whose only fault seemed to be that he was attracted to Loki (as his ever-deepening blush only proved), but still too tempting. "Maybe somewhere deep down, you're bored of being the picture-perfect hero, parenting everyone around you, and you want some darkness in your life, and who better than a villain who can't even leave, even if you turn out to be abysmal, am I right?"

And, Loki didn't even have to fake his grin this time, enjoying the frustration that was coming off of the Captain in waves now.

"No, you fucking aren't! I took you in because you saved my life," the good Captain lifted him as if he weighed nothing, and not only carried him back to bed but also basically tore Loki's clothing off. With such a fervor that the demigod first thought he went too far, and his teasing would become a reality, but then the Captain was pulling the covers over him next, still furious, but wanting nothing from Loki. "But I didn't sign up to be ridiculed in the return, so you have a choice to make."

"Let me guess. I either do as you say, or you'd hand me over to your friends who all want a piece of me," Loki rolled his eyes.

"I was thinking more of shutting up or have me place a pair of my socks in your mouth just to shut you up."

"But, Captain, you already want to put things in my mouth? This can barely count as a first date. And gagging, really? Maybe it's true what they say, the meek sometimes are the ones who have the dirtiest imagination?"

Loki expected the same reaction as before, at least, but the Captain seemed to have a different composure now for some reason, laughing. And not just a mere chuckle either, but a wholehearted belly laugh.

"How 'bout a deal then?" he offered to Loki. "You conserve your energy by not talking, concentrating only on getting better, and I not only won't let anyone know you're here but once you're sufficiently healed, even take you wherever you'd want to go."

"Do you have a passageway between planets now, Captain?"

"My name is Steve. And no, but I have a bike, and I trust you can figure out the rest once you're better."

It was everything Loki wanted, given the circumstances, and therefore suspicious.

"And what's in it for you, Captain?"

"I literary just... forget it. I'm going to grab lunch. Do you also need some food?"

"No, demigods live on photosynthesis," Loki sarcastically scoffed.

"Then it's good you're basically in a glass building like a huge greenhouse," "Steve" was about to leave him without anything.

"I mean, if you wanted, you could bring me some."

"Was that a request?"

"Alright. I'd need some energy to heal if I can stomach anything."

"I'm a 94, from Brooklyn, and I used to be allergic to cats. Well, any pet with fur, really, but-" the Captain disclosed, making Loki interject.

"Very... entertaining, I'm sure, but why are you telling me this?"

"I thought we were stating random facts," Steve shrugged, grinning.

And that's when it hit Loki. Steve Rogers was often put down as the boring type, and Loki himself thought that was it, but clearly, it couldn't be further from the truth.

The good Captain could be just as funny as his conversational partner, just maybe before, he was only surrounded by a group of mediocre people, so it didn't quite show.

After all, he picked up on Loki's way of talking in less than 10 minutes, laying a trap for Loki just as Loki would have done himself. Loki couldn't help but appreciate the Captain a little bit better after that, so he wasn't as irritated as he would have been if he had to beg for Thor's help, for instance.

"Please, Captain, I really would like to not starve to death," he gave in, requesting food nicely. "So if you could be so kind..."

"Only if you call me Steve."

"You know what? Forget it. Maybe I die faster this way," Loki wasn't about to repeat a request, not even if he was only torturing himself at that point by being stubborn. But then, the Captain showed up with a complete feast in strange containers, and Loki had already devoured half when he felt Steve's eyes on him, watching him with some kind of wonder. Maybe even... some kind of weird fondness?

Which normally would have provoked him to snap at the spectator, but that attitude got him here in the first place. Dependent on the mercy of a mortal, half-beaten to death, far from home, never welcomed back, and with nothing to show for his efforts.

So maybe he needed to change tactics.

"Thank you. Steve."

"Are you sure you're well?" the Captain joked. "It's as if you've just thanked me, but that's unlike you."

"I'm 1048, from Asgard but originally Jotunheim, and I'm allergic to people asking questions they already know the answer to," Loki just said, and when he only got a wondering look, he just shrugged. "I mean, it's not like you really know me, so I thought I'd help you out a little, stating facts you seem to find important."

"Right."

"After all, you already have me naked in your bed..."

"There we go again," Steve just gave him a frustrated groan. "I'd better get to work."

And he didn't come back the whole day, only returning possibly at night, because Loki had woken up next to him in the morning. Which could have been pleasant, if not for the pain that accompanied Loki's consciousness then.

Most of his bruises were gone, but his broken bones still needed days to heal, and the wound he got when he shielded the Captain must have gotten infected because the pain was almost blinding, and he was weak, disorientated, and running a temperature. Not to mention, his magic was still stretched, struggling to tend to all the wounds.

"You look worse than yesterday," Steve got up later, showing great concern, hovering way too close. "Maybe I should have called you a doctor. You have a fever..."

"No, no, we have a deal," Loki couldn't help but say. "I have a way to heal myself..."

"You don't look like you do."

"But I need to transform myself to a lesser being, so more of my magic could go into healing my injuries."

"You can do that?" and the Captain seemed truly impressed, unlike the Aesir who believed that someone using magic was a sign of physical weakness. "That's kind of cool. So what, are you going to become a human?"

He even made a self-deprecating joke, making Loki smile.

"I was thinking a snake."

"Um, you can't. Should anyone find you, they'd call pest control..."

"Are you afraid of snakes, good Captain?"

"No, it's just that it would be weird. Anyone walking in here, finding a giant snake in my bed..."

"Weirder than finding me in your bed?"

"How about something like a puppy? Please?"

"I don't even know what that is."

"It's the young of a dog. And if anyone saw you, I could just say you ran away in the Battle, and I'm only keeping you until I find you a home. It's perfect. You could even leave this room without anyone suspecting," and Steve typed in "puppy" to a magical device, and produced pictures of the said animals.

Loki couldn't decide whether the Captain was toying with him, and mortals really kept these strange things as companions, or this was just a trick for Loki to humiliate himself, but he had an idea.

"I have a better idea."

He took the device from the Captain's hands with some difficulty and tried to type, but that's when he ended up back on the pillows again, his eyes teary from the sudden pain.

"What did you want?"

"I thought I could check out how those cats you mentioned looked like."

"Just because I said I was badly allergic?"

"Exactly."

"And the smaller you are, the more magic you have to heal, right? So it should be a kitten then," Steve held the device in front of him with a furry little beast displayed.

"Midgardians keep these things around for no reason?" Loki didn't see the appeal. Unlike a horse that had at least some practical use, this creature seemed to lack it. "Or maybe, it's like a food source that you only slaughter when-"

"Jesus, we don't eat them. They are companions."

"And you don't use their furs as clothing or something?"

"No, how can you even think-"

"Good, I had to make sure," Loki told him after he saw the sheer disbelief on the Captain's face, turning into a "kitten".

But just when he thought it was such a good joke to turn into one, and get close to Steve, seeing if he could induce an allergic reaction, the Captain just picked him up, placing him on a pillow, and started stroking him without a warning.

"It's customary to pet the kittens though."

I'm going to kill you for this. Loki hoped his eyes conveyed, because he just used all his dwindling magic at the moment for the transformation, so he couldn't just turn back to send Steve to Hel.

Also, even though he wouldn't admit it, it felt exceptional to be petted, and the Captain had a smile on his face while doing it, like a little black ball of fur was the cutest thing he'd ever seen, and Loki made a mental note that he could just as well use it later.

He almost had a heart attack when there was some strange, sudden noise coming from up close, and he realized he was doing it.

"Relax, it's also a cat thing. They purr when they are having a good time."

Loki had found out he also had claws, sharp teeth, and could still hiss at the Captain who seemed to be so full of himself now, but that didn't last.

His magic needed to be replenished, his wounds healed, and paradoxically while he felt light and agile, he also was very lazily sleepy, and couldn't keep his eyes open.

===

After the transformation, Loki was healing fast and almost effortlessly, and strangely, he got along with the Captain better than if he was himself. Maybe having a small and helpless had its advantages when it came to the nurturing type of heroes that the good Captain was.

Loki tried to hate this earnestness, but couldn't, not when Steve bought him food plenty times of the day, talked to him, and even risked petting Loki ever so often, knowing full well that Loki would bite his hand off if he wasn't in the mood for it.

Also, the Captain started showing him off. He only took Loki to the kitchen after Loki was mostly healed, and to show him what other options Loki had besides the usual milk to eat, but when the one called Natasha seemed to be charmed by Loki, Steve would often take Loki to Team meetings and events like the Avengers all watching ridiculous moving pictures together.

Loki still avoided Thor every time his brother tried to pet him, but otherwise acted like a well-behaved cat with everyone else.

Why? It was part of a new unspeakably nefarious plan to eavesdrop on the Avengers' plans, of course, nothing to do with the pets he got.

Only, sometimes he got so comfortable that he kept forgetting the nefarious plan, and that was alarming, to say at least. Making him think he should leave as soon as possible.

But then there was the Captain, taking him everywhere, and even asking Thor for instance what he truly thought about Loki, and there was no way Loki would miss that talk, even if Thor would only tell Steve the usual customary lies.

"No matter the horrible things he did, I still cannot help but love him. And you know what, I've heard that he disappeared at the end of the fight, and I'd like to think it was because he realized he was wrong, and not just because he saw we were winning."

It was unlike for a kitten to roll his eyes, so Loki couldn't, but he settled in Steve's lap instead, which basically meant he wanted to be petted instead of listening to Thor's bullshit any further.

"Actually, I hadn't told this anyone, but he saved my life," the Captain told Thor, and in turn, he met with Loki's tiny little kitten teeth next.

"He did?"

"Yes. He sustained quite an injury just to save me. I was overwhelmed and exhausted and didn't even notice I backed into a weapon, so if not for him, I'd probably be dead," and the Captain either didn't care that Loki was trying to claw his hand off, or was too preoccupied to notice. "And not only that, but even after, he fought the Chitauri and protected the civilians."

"I'm glad to hear that. Maybe there's still some hope left for him yet," Thor announced as if Loki would care for his opinion regarding his future.

"He stabbed you though..."

"I expect he wanted to do that for a long time. And he could have used his magic or the staff on me, or just picked any of his favorite knives that would have done more damage, but he didn't, so if anything, I should be grateful," Thor mused.

It was the first time that Thor not only acknowledged Loki's competency, but correctly guess his hidden motives, and if Loki wasn't there to witness it, he wouldn't have believed it, so Loki stopped scratching Steve's hand trying to get him to leave.

But that was a mistake because it turned out the good Captain wasn't finished just yet.

"And tell me," Steve asked. "Did your brother take many lovers?"

"What a strange question, Captain." At least even Thor noticed that, giving the Captain a look that made Steve red.

"I mean. When he saved me, he said something crude. So I was just naturally wondering..."

"Ahh, he must have sensed your discomfort, Captain. Normally, Loki is like a monk. I don't think he'd ever kissed a girl, really, much less do more, so whatever the comment entailed, he must have been just all talk."

Loki was about to show Thor how he wasn't just all talk, clawing one or possibly both his eyes out for this, but then Steve stood, and was leaving with him.

"Thank you for the talk, Thor."

And when they got back to Steve's quarters, and Loki was still clawing the door, trying to activate the motion sensors to get to Thor and stab him in a bigger knife this time maybe, Steve told him.

"For the record, I know what it's like."

Having an oaf for a brother? Loki somehow had his doubts about that.

"I mean, I only realized I was in love with my best friend when he died, and by then it felt kind of pointless to tell anyone, but not being interested in the ladies should have been my first clue," Steve told him. "Heck, not even the Avengers know, even though I have been told this era is more tolerant. I just... don't want them to look at me any different."

The good Captain must have thought Loki was the same, being attracted to men only, and trying to make him feel better.

It wouldn't have worked if Loki didn't know that the Captain meant every word and if... it didn't remind Loki of how being a Jotun in Asgard felt like.

So he stopped clawing at the door and gave Steve an unamused look.

"So, what do you say, should we go to sleep?"

Loki wanted to, but then, when the Captain picked him up to place him on the pillow where Loki usually had slept and turned the lights off, Loki felt restless, and not just the usual way how cats can be active during the night.

So he turned back to himself, turned the lights back on, and kissed Steve proving to him that just because Thor didn't know about everything, it didn't mean that Loki had no experience in the arena.

When he let the Captain go, he expected shock, panic, or maybe even some disgust, but Steve only asked.

"Are you sure you should be wasting your magic like this? Just a couple of days ago, you were dying..." and he looked slightly concerned as well.

"I'm fine. But if you don't want me then never mind," Loki was mildly irritated.

"I haven't said... I do. But this is not the way."

"I'm almost healed, and clearly just a burden," Loki thought better about it, now looking for his clothes Steve hid somewhere. "So I'll leave..."

"I don't like threats, and we both had a long day, so why don't we just talk about this tomorrow..."

"It's called self-preservation, Steve, and I don't want you to lie for my sake," it took ridiculously long for Loki to find his garments, but when he did, the Captain was smiling widely at him. "What, am I this pathetic or...?"

"I'm sorry, it's just... you called me Steve."

"Don't think it means anyt-" Loki started to say but was promptly shut up when Steve kissed him. And, since Loki was still not wearing any of his newfound clothes, he was about to undress the Captain as well but was stopped.

"Look, I like this. But I meant what I've said, and if we were to have sex, I don't want it to be just because you're emotional. And/or still hurt. I'm not the one-night-stand kind of a guy."

"You aren't?" Loki sardonically asked. How was it that Steve could kiss him like there was no tomorrow than carry on as if nothing happened? "And how do you know it would be a one-time-only thing? I haven't said anything..."

"Because nobody knows you're here, and all my friends think you're a super-villain, for one?"

"Friends? I thought you were just your colleagues."

"They kinda grow on you, even though I wouldn't call them my friends to their faces, but they are my family now. Not unlike Thor is yours, even if not by blood..."

Loki refrained from commenting on that, but only because he saw no point trying to convince Captain America about anything he didn't want to believe.

"So what? I can't sleep with you until I give myself up to the Midgardian authorities, and by then, too bad, because they'll keep me locked up and far far away from you anyway?" Loki just asked instead.

"I don't know. But that's the point. If you like me and not just feel some misplaced gratitude that I took you in, I'd like to figure it out first. With you."

Was it surprising that the righteous hero of America only came with conditions like this? No. But Loki could still headbutt the Captain in frustration - just in the hopes of knocking some sense into him.

"However wrong Thor was, he was right about one thing. I was never the introduce you to my parents type of guy, Captain."

"And I'm back to Captain."

"Well, you should have let me suck your dick at least, that way you wouldn't be preoccupied with what leaves my mouth," Loki told him, and still noted with some kind of satisfaction that Steve did blush hearing that. "But it's too late now, I'm leaving. As you've said, nobody here knows who I am, and-"

"And you don't have a ride to the other galaxy, nor any money," Steve stood between him and the door. "Not to mention, you're still hurt, and people are looking for you. Highly trained and dangerous people..."

"I can stand my own."

"About the Avengers not knowing, we could tell them. They aren't children if I vouch for you..."

"I don't think Barton would forgive me as easily as Thor, no offense. And..." he was about to lie through his teeth how he hated every minute in Steve's company, just to have the last word, but when he looked at the Captain, and he looked truly sad to see him go, he couldn't.

"And it's just my luck. I fancy a guy twice in a century, but it's never right, is it?" Steve helped him out.

"If it's any consolation, a century is nothing, Steve. Goes by in a blink of an eye." That at least earned him a small smile.

"So, no matter what I say, you're leaving?" the Captain figured.

Loki only transformed to Stark - knowing full well that the original one was most likely away working, and it would be the least suspicious if he was to leave the Tower.

"Maybe you could get a real cat, Cap. And come out to your teammates without using me as an excuse?" he winked, and was still wearing a forced smile when he left.

Hoping for his own sake of sanity that he'd never have to see Steve again.

===

Only, Thanos sent an even bigger army next, and Steve got hurt. It was in the news. And despite Loki's best judgment (who only got back to the states when he heard because he hoped to find himself a spaceship he could use to leave Midgard after the fight), he couldn't stand the thought of not checking on him.

He first took a form of a nurse, but the Captain received care in a private facility, and it seemed that everyone knew everyone there, so they only asked him if he was lost, not even letting him further than the reception.

So he went with a cat as a disguise, and not only because he knew more about the creatures now, thanks to a page called Youtube and all the cat videos on it. He could climb up to the window of the room Steve was kept in, and get in without a problem.

Or so he thought, but it was just then when Stark had stepped in with a bunch of obnoxious balloons that were meant to inspire the Captain to "get well soon", and when he saw a random black cat, his first instinct was to transform his watch to a weapon and aim it at Loki.

"Make a move, Lokitty, and I'm going to bust you out of the room. Through the walls," he said, and when Loki tried to pretend he didn't get what was happening because he was just a cat for real, he added. "Steve told us. And it's not every day that cats appear in hospitals. If you were a human, you'd know."

"If the Captain told you, he must have told you that bringing that army to Midgard was my worst mistake I regretted doing as well," Loki morphed back, trying to appeal to Stark's common sense. "So I'm not the bad guy here, and besides-"

"The jury's still out on that one, and you broke Steve's heart, so you leave now. Or, I'll be only too happy to arrest you..."

"I'll go, you have my word," Loki said. "But let me check him first. I think I could speed up his healing."

"He'll be just fine without your tampering. Now-"

"No, I won't," Steve chose this moment to wake up, and even though it was apparent he could barely speak, he took Loki's hand. "Stay. At least until I can be sure I'm not just hallucinating you on the drugs they're pumping into me. I've spent years trying to find you. I never should have let you go, Loki. If it takes me to be half-dead to see you, and you leave, I swear to god I'll just get into more trouble the next time."

It was absurd, but also very Steve, and it at least made Stark shut up, while Loki ran a crude diagnostic spell, cursing Odin that he never encouraged Loki to use his magic to heal people, only for fighting.

But Stark was not wrong, and Steve was on the road of recovery already. And Loki promised him to stay, but every time an Avenger came to visit, Stark being only the first one of many - many Loki didn't even know from before - Loki felt out of place like a sore thumb.

He was sure everybody was just as uncomfortable in his presence as he was with all the heroes in one room, so finally, he slipped out before Barton could make an appearance.

Only seeing Steve next when there was a mega-threat again, some crazy Midgardian scientist going too far with his experiments, and this time Loki showed up not to scavenge alien shipwrecks but to back the Avengers up.

It was just his luck that he tried to be covert, but Barton was the first to notice him, yelling at him from a roof.

"Hey, if you aren't here just to look pretty, take this," and he threw something at Loki, who first assumed it would be a bomb or a grenade, but it was an earpiece with Avengers chatter. "Hey Cap, Loki's here, where should I send him?"

And then there was a huge fight that was quite frankly way too exhausting for a local Midgardian threat, but when Loki wanted to leave, Steve came up to him, and not only kissed him when it was over, but straight on dragged him to his bed next, and it's not like Loki had ever had any problems with that part if the Captain was offering.

"I thought you didn't do one-night stands," he still told Steve after they finished, and both of them basically collapsed into the covers after all the fighting and then the extracurricular physical activity.

"I still don't. But it wasn't. It's not going to be."

"Oh?"

"But I realized I had to show you what you were missing out on," Steve added with a smile, making Loki smile back. "And anyway, you love me. It's only common knowledge now."

"How is that?" Loki went along with the joke.

"You came running when I was hurt. Then the next threat comes, and you even fought on our side just to make sure I was okay..."

"Huh, are you sure I wasn't just trying to do the right thing for once?" Loki didn't like how pathetic the Captain made him sound.

"You, and the right thing in one sentence?" Steve tried not to laugh, but it's not like he did a good job covering it up.

"Okay, you're right. I had ulterior motives," Loki admitted. "But if we're being honest, I'd let you know, I'd like you a lot more if you didn't make fun of me for it."

"No promises," Steve annoyingly told him, but he more than made up for it the way he was beaming with happiness, and Loki wanted to think it was at least partially because of him.

The Avengers did not comment on Loki's appearance in the Tower later, only Thor interacting with him by giving him a crushing hug, but then the others had their ways to let him know they noticed his presence.

JARVIS kept filling up bowls automatically with cat food whenever Loki entered the kitchen. Natasha asked him to train with her, but that was just an excuse to use Loki as a punching bag, and whenever Loki wanted to try a Midgardian dessert, Clint showed up and snatched it away from him saying that sweets were for only the good guys.

Which, in turn, made both Pepper and Bruce secretly bring ice cream to him, and Loki wanted to tell them he was fine - Asgard didn't have such an overly sweet cuisine anyway - but he also discovered that Midgardians didn't eat ice cream alone, and he enjoyed the talks they had thanks to it. Not to mention how Steve always ate any ice cream Loki would leave because his metabolism was fast enough that he needed the calories.

"You know what I just realized today on the field?" Steve one night told him.

"What?" Loki was half-listening only, still sitting on their bed, meditating at first glance, but practicing advanced magic that was impossible for him before - before he didn't know about his origins to understand that he shouldn't try magic the way Aesir did it.

"I've never told you my catchphrase. We didn't get to fight each other for that long or intensively, so it's kind of a missed opportunity."

"In that case out with it, Rogers," Loki jokingly kissed him, letting go of the magic, paying full attention to what they were doing then.

"I can only get it right when it means something, though, you know?"

"Then why, why on Nine Realms bring it up?" Loki couldn't help but smile, even though Steve was, once again, acting mischievously, toying with the God of Mischief himself.

"Because if we were to proceed with this very pleasant activity, I think I could tell you," Steve suggestively pushed Loki into the bed, and Loki loved it.

"Is it something that people would say in bed then? Just as well as on the field?"

"No, not really, but I could tell you after I made you come for the first time."

"For the first time?" Loki wondered grinning, but then Steve made good on his promise, making him not only come but laugh once he heard what the catchphrase was.

"Right?" Steve seemed to be proud of himself, and gods, Loki couldn't even imagine leaving him these days. Especially when Steve was looking at him like this, even though if technically Loki never promised to stay again after he broke that promise in the hospital room.

"You know what I would have told you if you told me that in Stuttgart, babe?" Loki kept nodding as if in agreement.

"What?" Steve gave him a look.

"I would have told you to show me not just tell me," Loki gave him a wink, and that, in turn, made Steve laugh. Right before he also applied that advice on their current situation that had nothing to do with fighting, that is.

Chapter Text

4A

If there was one thing that Howard Stark didn't like, it was when people were "weak".

No matter if you've just had major surgery or a child, if you just lost the love of your life, or you were born tall when he wanted you to be short. Work was work, and it needed to be done without "complaints".

It didn't take a lot for Tony to learn this, and for a while, as a prodigy, it seemed Howard was proud of him. Not when Tony got older though.

First, there was the issue that the more Tony seemed to be doing academically well, Howard's expectations only grew ever higher. And second, he always told Tony to think for himself, instead of copying him, but when Tony started doing that, it turned out Howard didn't want Tony's opinion at all - except if it matched his own.

So Tony grew up resenting the man, but he was still baffled when at age 28, he got a heart attack, and the doctors told him he needed less stress, a regular sleeping and exercising schedule, and a much better diet.

Those things were for ordinary people, and Tony somehow had the misconception that he was "better" than that.

Just as when he was taken to a hospital at the age of 32, thinking he was going to have another attack, if he wasn't dying, and the doctors told him it was just a panic attack, and they only referred him to a psychologist next.

Where, it turned out he didn't only need to take care of his body, as he previously was forced to learn, but he needed companionship as well. And not just friends whom he'd only see every two weeks, the psychologist had said - not accepting Pepper as a friend because she was also working for him, and not accepting all the times Tony met Rhodey where they were also on a work-trip because it's not on a weapon-deal that you could make meaningful conversations on.

Tony told her that he had never had a meaningful conversation than in his whole life, while he didn't hold back when he told her on no uncertain terms that she was crazy even suggesting that Tony would need anyone and that's why the panic attacks started.

However, just to prove her wrong, he kept a record of when he spent time with Pepper and Rhodey, and how he was doing emotionally and even at work, in the attempt to prove that social interaction didn't affect Tony as any other human being - only, it did.

"The data shows that you have less pain, anxiety, and even slightly but measurably more productive at work after you've spent some time with either Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes, sir," JARVIS had informed him.

So even though Tony never went back to the psychologist, he knew he was proven wrong once again. And if she was right about his friends, she was probably right about other things too.

But how to get a romantic partner, even if you acknowledge the fact that there's a small chance that you might need one. That was the real problem, not the revelation itself.

Tony was born with a soul-mark for "death" and "merchant", so Howard had that removed when Tony was just a kid.

Since a soul-mark can be removed, but never tattooed over (and it would be visible on special equipment like X-rays still), the custom was if that a mark was removed, they'd tattoo a new fake (and often way over the top positive) mark on your other arm.

So when you met a guy or girl for the hundredth time with the "kind" or "honor" or "dignity" mark on the left hand, but they used their right hand, it was obvious they had the procedure.

But Tony was also left-handed originally and had been bought up to use his right from very early on, so not a lot of people would even guess that the mark for "iron" and "man" was just fake.

He had hacked into the Pentagon a long time ago, and now had a backdoor to a database with all the registered soul-marks, and on very random occasions, he had searched for his match, but found none.

Either he didn't have a soul-bonded, or they were dead, or living in a country with no administration, or... their marks had been also removed the same was Tony's was, and a fake was registered instead.

And the dating pool outside the conventional soul-mark bonding was just a series of one-night stands. Everyone who gave up on their mark for one reason or another was clear that they might never get a chance for something real, so none of them even tried, Tony included.

However, that was before Tony was humbled by the fact that he needed human connections as well, and ran the search for his mark again in the database - coming up with nothing.

Just before he was kidnapped and held hostage for years by a European aristocrat/crime lord who seemed to have the real "iron" and "man" mark, and wouldn't listen when Tony tried to convince him his mark wasn't real.

He was never tortured, and he was comfortable - but at what cost. He was given the finest food, room, clothing, books. But the books were always strictly on paper so he'd have no chance to hack them to get out, and Tony felt like he was kept in a cage because he wasn't only locked in a room, but he was watched 24/7 by armed guards.

And not to mention, he had to date this Schmidt person every other night, and while Tony didn't want to end up in one bed with Schmidt ever, the more time passed the more Tony overheard about Schmidt's operations, so he was more intimidated to admit he wasn't who Schmidt thought he was.

By then, Tony knew too much, and if he was expandable, he feared Schmidt would just kill him, so he tried to play along while not giving in, but had panic attacks now almost every other day, even if he was safe - for now. He knew it would never last.

Then he got sick - not even his heart, just the flu or something trivial, really, but with fever, unfortunately, - and Dr. Zola ordered a couple of tests and figured it out. And Tony would have attempted his third major escape plan he was working on for a long time but was anyway too sick to even stand.

That was when Rhodey showed up with the CIA and Happy and Pepper using Tony's tech, and saved Tony just in time, taking him home. So Tony went through the whole ordeal seemingly unscathed, but his resolve had changed.

He stopped looking for his soulmate because he thought it was better if he never knew them. He had nightmares that he'd become like Schmidt, keeping an innocent woman chained to his person while he would slowly but surely destroy her, just because he was Tony Stark.

Maybe he wasn't Iron Man, but he was still toxic to everyone and everything around him, just as Schmidt was.

He even couldn't help but avoid Pepper and Rhodey as well, because Tony knew Rhodey had destroyed Dr. Zola's files before turning the rest of the damning evidence over incriminating Schmidt, but in order to know what to file as a document and what to leave out, both Pepper and Rhodey had seen it all.

And Tony felt ashamed with them knowing who he really was, even if the mark was only proof of what they must have already sensed when they were with Tony.

Tony himself didn't even check the documents, assuming he was familiar with its contents. And perhaps Rhodey and Pepper truly treated him differently after, or perhaps they just wanted to leave him some space after the "traumatic experience", or even possibly away because Tony himself had distanced himself first from them, but nothing was the same.

It was only on Tony's birthday that Tony got into a huge fight with the both of them. Tony was just getting to know a lovely redhead who had a not so appealing mark ("black" and "widow", despite never being married), but she wasn't shy about it, and that was exciting and something new, and Tony might have drunk a little bit too much, but he was having fun, except when his party was canceled.

By Pepper who sent people home first, and when Tony wanted to object, by Rhodey, who slapped Tony when he was about to object.

"What's your problem?" Tony asked his best friend. "This is my birthday, property, and party, and..."

"And you were having eye-sex with that hooker."

"She's not a hooker, and actually really smart speaks like a hundred languages and-"

"Like you care," Rhodey just huffed.

"You know me so well, but then why are you upset when I'm only being myself?" Tony knew the whole night he was acting like an ass, but it was also the soul-marks' influence.

If you were born with something that wasn't exactly nice, it wasn't just a description, but also a limitation. An excuse if you wanted to show people how horrible you could be.

"I can't just standby and watch you do this to yourself, but it's also isn't just about you," Rhodey told him.

"But who?" Tony wondered.

"'WHO?!' I don't know, let me think," Rhodey put on a very sarcastic wondering face. "Your soul-marked? Even if you don't give a shit about it and what it's supposed to mean, it's still... "

"Tragic?" Tony offered. "For them to be destined to be with me?"

"I'm not... forget it. You'll never see me again," Rhodey wasn't even about to argue, and left.

And Tony had no idea how badly he hurt Rhodey for more than 6 years.

During this time, Tony had to undergo surgery, getting a pacemaker, and was examined again, and he realized his mark has changed based on the very discrete reports he got about it.

It was uncommon, but sometimes similar meanings could morph into one another, and Tony supposed that the hidden "death" wasn't exactly far from "war", and maybe "merchant" was further away from tinkering like Tony liked to do, therefore the new "machine", which was freshly on his wrist, yet still invisible to the naked eye.

And it wasn't like Tony was about to do anything with it. He gave up on ever meeting his destined then long ago, just as he realized he might need friends, but that meant little and close to nothing if those friends don't like you/want to see you.

Only when Rhodey was shot down on a mission and lost his ability to walk Tony couldn't pretend to ignore him anymore. He had to show up for Rhodey, even if Rhodey made it clear he didn't want to see him.

"I'm sorry, but who are you?" to Rhodey's credit, he tried his best to send Tony away.

"The doctors didn't tell me you had memory loss as well," Tony could only tell him in a similar fashion.

"Oh no, if you had been in my life for the last 6 years, I'd remember."

"But if you don't let me recap everything for you: I'm truly sorry about everything, but I'm here now."

"And I'm sorry, Tony," Rhodey looked at him. "But I'm not sure I can an apology like that's just years late. I just..."

He also looked like he wanted to say something, but then looked at Tony by his bedside, and only shook his head.

"I get it," Tony offered. Rhodey talking to him was already better than he expected. "But you were there for me when I needed someone for 20 years. So at least let me help you financially if nothing else."

"I don't need charity, Stark."

"Then be my friend again, and it'll be just a favor."

Rhodey gave him a look, but when Tony didn't look away, he gave in.

"As your friend, I gotta be honest: you seem in desperate need of one if you pay off cripples just to spend some time with you."

That not only made Tony laugh but also hope again that maybe not everything was yet lost.

And when Tony offered to make something to help Rhodey walk again, while Rhodey was honorably discharged, and in need of special physical therapy that Tony insisted he'd pay for just to get the best doctor anyone could get, it was easier to coordinate all three from one place.

So Rhodey moved in with him, and Tony felt horrible because he knew this would have never happened without the accident, but they were talking again, even if just during meals or randomly when Tony was making the special braces for Rhodey.

"So, you're dating Pepper now?" Rhodey asked out of the blue just when Tony thought he was comfortable with the silence between them.

"We're officially on a break," Tony sighed. "At least that's what we told everyone."

"But it's not the truth?"

"But I'm a bad boyfriend, and I was convinced when Killian showed up that he was her destined, so I looked up her mark and found a completely adorable guy for her instead."

"But let me guess, you haven't told her," Rhodey gave him a disapproving look.

"I couldn't," Tony agreed. "So I only hired and assigned him as her assistant, and I'm only biding my time until they realize-"

"Jesus, Tony," Rhodey facepalmed. "Just when I was almost convinced you're different, you always pull something like this."

"Oh, I'm sorry, it's my bad," Tony couldn't help but say. "I'm so horrible that I was willing to give up the woman I love so that she could be truly happy..."

"If you believed in the marks, by the same premise you could be just as well happy too, so it's no sacrifice," Rhodey told him. "And if not, you're just pushing her away just because she got too close."

"I do believe in marks."

"You sure have a funny way of showing it."

"And I don't wanna brag, but I have changed," Tony said because it was true. Maybe his abduction, maybe his heart surgery, or just the years, but something left a mark on him other than the mark he already had. "I'm not letting her go because I trying to get rid of her, I'm trying to help her so she wouldn't resent me later, and would still be my friend after."

"Then just tell her. It doesn't have to be complicated and a long confession or apology, but at least convey the facts that she has a right to know. Just say the words. That's how you should have told me too, so I wouldn't have to figure out later."

"Tell you what exactly?"

Rhodey just gave him a look, "What do you think?"

But Tony had no clue. And when he just sat there, temporarily forgetting to even work on Rhodey's braces because he was confused, Rhodey shook his head.

"Even now, when I mention it, you can't even acknowledge it just even if for one joke so that we could move on pretending as if nothing happened," and Rhodey seemed more disappointed than upset, but still was about to leave Tony's workshop just the same. "And that's not even the worst part, Tony, but how I don't know if you genuinely can't even guess how it makes me feel, or you just simply don't care."

"What are you even on about, I... what?" Tony, didn't get it, but by then Rhodey was gone.

Given how the topic was Pepper's mark, Tony might have looked Rhodey's up just trying to make sense of it all (and with Rhodey it wasn't hard either because for military and government officials their marks were in a more database that was open for the public).

Only to find "war" and "machine" that matched his own.

At first, Tony wouldn't believe it, but when he looked into his medical files as well as Rhodey's, they both were scanned by several different medical devices multiple times that could detect the real mark, and the results were the same for them both, for years now, consequently.

And Rhodey had seen Tony's records, and only knew him too well, so he must have assumed Tony had looked up his mark - which he did, even if the wrong one - and when he didn't even mention it, Rhodey must have thought it was because he wanted to ignore their connection.

It was only a day later when Tony had a file which his father buried a long time ago, and the nerve to face Rhodey with it, who opened his door after the knocking but was about to shut it on Tony's face when he saw it was Tony.

"I didn't know!" Tony waved the sealed document, trying to get the information across. "My mark was different when I was a kid, and by the time I heard it changed, it was after my surgery, and I gave up finding my match by then."

"What surgery?" Rhodey was looking at him funny.

"Um, I'm part of machine now," Tony gestured at his chest. "Just don't make grandma jokes with me, 'kay? Sometimes even young people get pacemakers..."

"You have a pacemaker and you didn't tell me?" Rhodey seemed more furious than surprised.

"I mean, we weren't exactly talking, so..."

"So this was after your kidnapping. And you had no idea I was your match until... when?"

"Yesterday, when I didn't get why you stormed out?" Tony meekly suggested.

"But you've seen my military record a thousand times, you knew my mark, so when you were told yours have changed."

"I have a shitty memory," Tony admitted. "Just one of the few qualities that I can blame if you say you don't want to be with me."

"For the record, I have never said that I didn't want to," Rhodey stated with a small frown. "That's why I left and still got upset yesterday. It's okay if we chose to ignore it, but we've never even talked about it, not even once."

"I... I have issues, but also the tendency to make inappropriate jokes. Do you honestly think I could have kept my mouth shut about any of this if I had known?" Tony tried to appeal to Rhodey stating that he wasn't as bad as Rhodey thought he was by saying he was fucked up, but in a different way.

"No, I suppose you would have mentioned it if only to rub it in my face."

"Maybe?"

"Still, it's... I have a lot on my plate now, Tony..." Rhodey said, and he looked just as tired and worn out as he said, and Tony was ever too happy to accept some resemblance of normalcy between them back.

"Of course, we don't have to deal with this now, I promise."

"Although, I don't think I'd like it to be a taboo either, just..."

"You need to recover, and I need to complete your braces-"

"Also, you should call them something cooler. If you were serious about the no grandma jokes, then..."

"I'll think of something," Tony quickly promised, suddenly way too much conscious about the simple fact how Rhodey could always make him laugh, and now he knew it wasn't just a mere accident. And as always, when in pain or doubt, he had the worst defense mechanism: joking about it. Because if he was grandma, then Rhodey was? "Bye, grandpa..."

"I take it back. We shouldn't acknowledge our marks at all, ever again," Rhodey theatrically flinched. "Lest someone accidentally figure out I'm in any way or form connected to an idiot."

Tony just left, and... spent the next year trying not to, but pinning after Rhodey who was back to being his best friend, but also now that didn't seem enough.

As Tony hadn't considered dating Pepper originally, he was even less likely to let himself ruin everything he had with Rhodey for a night. But now that he knew that maybe it wouldn't be just that, he was constantly thinking about it.

Sometimes, like when they were just having fun spending time together, Tony wondered if the mark was a guarantee that they could have that always if somehow he managed to convince Rhodey to stay with him for good. As much as anything could be a guarantee, at least.

Other times when Tony was tired or distracted or just having a particular day, his thoughts wandered better, and unfortunately, it meant that his mind also generated countless images that weren't just fantasies about a long-lasting companionship, gently holding hands.

It was too late, but now Tony got the difference between friendship and what he felt for Rhodey when Rhodey's military friends kept showing up, and they became Tony's friends as well, and while he never would have considered Steve or Bucky or Sam for a night, Rhodey was always different, wasn't he?

It could be only Tony who didn't notice his feelings before because he was so preoccupied with the false fact that feelings, emotions, and sentimentality weren't for Stark men.

But what good did that revelation do now? Never was a drink more tempting than whenever Tony had thought about that, even though he quit because he couldn't take it with the medicine he had to take.

"I have come up with a better name. SuperLegs. Because I have super legs," Rhodey told him one day when he was already able to walk in the mansion with it, adjusting quickly once Tony got the braces ready. "How much weight I can lift now with them? A car, perhaps?"

"Please don't, you still have completely human arms as well," Tony said, half kidding, half worried.

He used to think of Rhodey as if he was invincible with the army muscles, quick thinking, and cutting humor, but that - obviously - wasn't always enough to protect him from everything.

"Still, when they say you should lift from the knees, I have SuperKnees," Rhodey insisted. "So arguably..."

"I'm going to make a box for you Super-legs just to put a warning label on it saying you shouldn't try to lift vehicles with it," in a way, it was funny too, because usually, Tony was the reckless one, and Rhodey tried to talk him out of it.

"But if I had requested it?"

"If you have any request, I'd be happy to apply them," Tony offered, but it was also a trap. "After Pepper reviewed and approved them, she's the CEO, after all..."

"A classic, hiding behind Pepper now, are we?"

"Technically, she also handles the lawsuits if you accidentally get crushed by a car because of my tech, so it's only fair."

"Except, I wouldn't get squished, I'd be like a super-hero, helping everyone out," Rhodey said.

"Ah, because it's so often that people need their cars to be lifted by a man?" Tony couldn't help but point out.

"There could be plenty of situations where they do. I already thought of three, just listen..." Rhodey said.

After that conversation, and as Rhodey's birthday was slowly coming up, even though Tony knew it was a bit too much (but when was he ever known as subtle?), he thought of what could be a great present.

Only, he had to kind of rush to complete it. And - afraid for Rhodey's life - he had to test the prototypes one by one, often with some difficulty, which meant that... yeah, he might have destroyed half of his garage in the process, and he had black and blue bruises all over.

It was just dumb luck that when Tony broke the piano Rhodey was out, so he wouldn't figure how it happened, but he was suspicious, at least.

"Um, do I need to beat up someone for you, Tony?" Rhodey asked. "I have SuperKick abilities now also, you know."

"No you don't, and besides, I'm fine," Tony told him.

"The 'I ran into a door' was never a valid excuse, but doing that for what it seems like 20 times isn't any better."

"I'm taking boxing classes from Happy."

"And also joined a Fight Club or something?"

"Wouldn't you like to know, SuperKick," Tony finally said, and that at least got Rhodey smiling.

"Now you're getting it."

"It's not that difficult to grasp."

They were just kidding around, like so many times before, really, so Tony had no idea why Rhodey chose this moment to just - out of the blue - kiss him.

"Um, what just happened?" Tony's mind seemed to reset. Not the usual way he reacted to a kiss like that, but it was also anything but ordinary that Rhodey would kiss him. "Am I dreaming?"

That made Rhodey only chuckle, "Does this seem like something that would happen to you in a dream, Tony?"

"Quite frequently, except you don't stop to ask that," Tony admitted, which only earned him another kiss, to then he had to reach out for Rhodey next because he didn't want it to end.

But also, when Rhodey only gently stilled their movements when the kisses grew too heated, Tony understood.

"I know I started it. But I also don't want to ruin what we have," he said.

"Would it? Necessarily ruin everything?" Tony could only wonder out loud.

"Have you met us?" Rhodey asked with no dignity. "Even back when you had a working heart, and I had my legs, we were always just..."

"Don't say losers, 'cause we aren't."

"I was going to say unlucky. In some aspects."

And hell, it was killing Tony but he couldn't push of Rhodey didn't want it. So he kept working on the suit, and on Mark 41508 (or at least that's what it felt like), he deemed it worthy to show Rhodey as his birthday present.

"Is it a modern cosplay costume or something?" Rhodey wondered when he first saw. "And what's with the gold and red?"

"The paint is for representing the speed," Tony said, mildly offended. "But I'll tone it down to your boring taste, should you want to, I mean..."

"And am I supposed to call a crane to get this into my room as decoration or what?" Rhodey either didn't get it quite just yet or was teasing him, or both.

"I'd rather you didn't use it in your rooms. The landing can be rough on the hardwood floors."

"Because I'm supposed to get into this thing and jump around or something?"

"It flies," Tony finally revealed. "I figured you could be a better help to the army piloting a flying suit than with SuperLegs."

"No! You're just fucking with me, nobody on this planet could design something like that, not in this century!"

"I could," Tony smiled, strangely feeling shy about the suit when he'd like to gloat about everything else.

"I want to try it," Rhodey seemed both excited like a little kid, and also hesitant. "But if you invented it, shouldn't you fly it?"

"I've tried it plenty of times while testing, and believe me, I've had enough of it for a lifetime." Not to mention, Tony was still not very fond of confined spaces with his occasional panic attacks. "You can hop in right now, or maybe even later, should you choose..."

In all honesty, he thought Rhodey would be in the suit by now, not just talking about it.

"Now, but...my braces?"

"Oh, it's meant to work around your SuperLegs, so if every month or so, the battery of the suit dies, you'd still have SuperKick," Tony could have hit himself how he forgot to mention that.

And after that Rhodey took the suit flying for about a whole 10 seconds in the garage before he asked if he could take it out on the open for real, and Tony sat down with a coffee, scrolling down on Twitter for the longest time until Rhodey had returned.

All cheerful and seemingly high on adrenalin.

"I'm like Batman," he told Tony. "Only, way too cooler. And I've almost blown up something before JARVIS helped, it's like..."

"Happy Birthday. Tell the military they can reimburse me for it later..."

"I love it, but I also can't. I've been discharged, remember? And surely, some people are more capable to fly this suit, and not just one either," Rhodey said.

"Tell the army they either take you back with this tech, or they get nothing, it's as simple as that," Tony couldn't care less about that. It was so different, finally seeing Rhodey being back to himself again, and that's why he made the suit in the first place. "Or maybe I should tell them, so they better accept it."

"Do I have to take it off? Can't I just sleep in it?"

"I already had changed the color scheme to a more minimalist approach, so if you leave it for the night, JARVIS could take care of it for you."

Rhodey seemed to be convinced because he soon exited the suit, but he still eyed it as Tony's robots came to take it apart, for now, so they could be put back into the machine that handled the paint. (Or in this case, artificial sanding so it won't have a color but the dark grey of the metal matching more Rhodey's style than the current paint-job.)

"Um, I have a question," Rhodey was still lingering while Tony was typing away on the screens, analyzing the data Rhodey collected during his first test drive, looking for possible improvements or anything to fix.

"Yeah?"

"What the hell could I possibly give to you on your birthday next to match this?"

"Just... don't despise me too much when I'm being intolerable next," Tony said. "We both know it's only a matter of time and it should happen again that I speak before I think or just-"

"I could never hate you."

"You must love the suit only too much if you say that," Tony tried to lighten the mood a little, but also switch topics because Rhodey was staring at him again, and the last time he looked at Tony like this, they were kissing, then quickly and amicably agreeing that it should never happen again, but if it was to, Tony wasn't sure he could just let it go as easily as the last time.

"I do, but it's also not about that."

"It so is."

"Maybe I'm also high on adrenalin too, but no it's not."

"It is."

"Not."

"Is."

"Not," Rhodey ended up coming way too close for what seemed like a simple childish disagreement between them. "Lock the suit away, and I'll still say the same."

"And here I thought you'd like it, but then it turns out you..." Tony couldn't help but fake-complain, and he couldn't even finish the sentence because Rhodey had kissed him again, and Tony could only kiss back.

"Just so you know, I like the suit so much, that even if we break up, I'm going to take it."

"I wasn't aware that we were going out."

"I believe I just indicated that from now on we were," Rhodey told him.

"Oh?" Tony would have loved to have a comeback for that, except he was a loss for words, still half-convinced he misunderstood, but fully hoping he didn't.

"Yes, and if we were to do it, we should do it right."

"And by right you mean..."

"Giving us a real chance, for once. And I have some ground rules..."

"Of course you do," Tony could laugh because Rhodey was always more organized than him.

"Like how if either of us has a problem, we have to come out and say it, right away."

"Sounds sensible."

"And we should have a code-word if we were to discuss something serious so the other would know when not to just crack up jokes about it..."

"Yeah, that could happen."

"And for the first time, I want you properly in a bed, not just here on a desk."

Tony would have agreed to everything at that moment, but it was torture to think they'd have to stop, even if for the sake of relocation.

"Oh, and I'd be on top. You might have more money than me, and-"

"I wouldn't want you any other way," Tony told Rhodey.

"Really? Because I mean it..."

"You wanna see how much I mean it too?" Tony could only grin.

"Yes, in fact, I would. Just not here, as I've said."

"You're cruel."

"But you love it."

"Shit, I do," Tony admitted with an awkward laugh.

It was the first time that he was about to have sex with someone who knew him so well - even better than Pep - and normally he would have been terrified by that thought, but with Rhodey everything was different, and not just because of their marks.

If it was Rhodey, Tony could still trust another person, and for once his luck seemed to swift somewhat, because, for a start, that was enough. It undoubtedly helped that while Rhodey and Tony shared a certain sense of humor, Rhodey was still more mature than any of Tony's past flames, so if things got rough, he'd compensate for Tony's quirks, until they managed to get back to some kind of balance again.

Even though Tony tried not to rely on Rhodey's patience like that so often nowadays.

They had been together for just half a year but seemed as if it was always that way when the army had conducted a search and rescue with Rhodey in the suit, and the media got a whiff that there was an exciting new tech that was flying around and Rhodey had to do something with it.

Rhodey went up to a podium, holding the cards Coulson had given him, ready to read them, but then his eyes met with Tony's, and he simply threw them away.

"Yes, there is a suit, and I'm flying it. It's Tony's creation, actually, and... it's called War Machine."

"Aaand I didn't even give him SuperSpeak," Tony only muttered to himself, ignoring how the horde of reporters were all simultaneously trying to ask Tony and Rhodey questions.

"I'm sorry, what, could you repeat that, Mr. Stark?" one journalist asked, making Tony smile.

"No, I'm going to be very busy soon. I'm just a sucker for superheroes, and man if Colonel Rhodes doesn't look sharp in that uniform," he said, not expecting the mics to pick up on that, already making his way to Rhodey who was making his way to the exit.

So when all the online news were full of not even the news about the suit, but their relationship, Tony was just hoping Rhodey wouldn't be offended, but he shouldn't have worried.

"So everyone knows. Good," was all that Rhodey said, just before taking Tony back to bed again. "Now if anyone as much as looks at you in the wrong or in a suggestive way, they know they should expect War Machine to show up at their door knocking, teaching them a lesson they aren't likely to forget."

And even though it was obvious he was just kidding, Tony also couldn't help but laugh, and not just because he could get used to the new name for the suit.

Chapter Text

4B

Thanos not only snapped away half of the entire universe but also made sure to half every soul-marked couple.

For everyone standing, someone - their most precious other half - had to die (if they hadn't already). And with it, the idea of having a soul-marked partner too had to die too, at least for some years until the next generation was born and raised.

But if the generation of the Snap wasn't going to find a way to make connections outside the soul-marked relationships, the entire galaxy would die out. So if there was any future, it was for the generation who had soul-marked partners but would be inevitably raised by people who couldn't have been soul-marked. Thanos was convinced it would make a difference.

Steve, on the other hand, wasn't sure.

"In a way, we're lucky," Nat told him one day.

"Not how I've been feeling lately," Steve could only sigh. Losing the fight to Thanos was just too much. Steve spent many days walking the halls like a zombie, unable to accept what happened still.

"Yes, I mean it's horrible," Nat agreed. "But you and I, we're luckier than the others."

"How so?" Steve humored her by asking.

"We already were natives to this hell before it even began. True, we are miserable just like everyone else is, but we've been dealing with being miserable for years now, unlike them."

And she was right. She had her mark burnt off when she was just a baby, never having a chance to try to find her "other half".

While Steve had found Peggy, and woke up 70 years later just to find her aged, sick, and then gone.

Steve was relying on his missions and friends rather than to face that, but Sam and Bucky were both gone, and his superhero life as well. What was there left to save, when they were needed and had failed?

"Regardless of my advantage, Nat, I don't think I'm handling it any better than anybody," Steve told her. The only thing he was more familiar with about the situation than the rest was how he would pretend to be fine when he wasn't.

"You've lost the most important person in your life, yet you got up every damn morning and did what you could considering the circumstances, for years now," Nat gave him a stern look. "No matter what you think, if you could help others to do the same, it'd be a start. A start not everyone has right now, mind you."

Suicide rates were off the charts, after all, even though now they weren't reported, or openly talked about.

"It's all just a pretense though," Steve admitted. "I'm on the very edge of almost breaking down in every given moment, every single day. I ignore the pain and dealing with it, still hoping that one day I'll find the strength to sort it out, but things only seem to get worse than better, and truth to be told, I don't wish the same torment on anyone else, even if technically they'd live."

"Sounds to me as if you wish you didn't," Nat seemed to be worried about him then, so Steve quickly had to take even that hint of truth back. She had enough on her plate with Clint now, he didn't want to pile up on it, and for no good reason too.

It's not like she could help him when he couldn't deal with it, right?

"No, it's not. I'm just not a Jedi Master to teach anyone anything," Steve hoped a pop-culture reference coming from him would somewhat distract her. "I mean... the time of the superheroes is gone. We need neighbors helping out neighbors now, not Captain America, so that's what I'm going to do. Help out where I can, but not claiming I have any insight how it's going to be all okay when even after years I still have bad days, even if not so often now."

Nat didn't look like she believed him, not really, but at least she didn't voice that, only putting a hand on his.

"You know, Steve, you're one of the few who I know for sure that could have never been my soul-marked, but sometimes still wish were."

"Nat, I'm-"

"That wasn't me flirting," Nat quickly said before he could tell her. "Just me telling you that in a world where there isn't a chance the find the perfect match anymore, you're quite a catch."

It didn't feel like it, but Steve smiled at her still, and she smiled back. And if nothing else, Nat succeeded in making him feel less crappy if only for a minute, because she reminded him that even in what it felt like the end of the world, he still had friends - like her.

So, it still could be much worse. That itself maybe wasn't a comfort, just a fact, but something to give him the will to go through one day, and then the next, always concentrating on the just one, but starting again the next day, on repeat.

And Steve did try his best to give back just as much as got.

He took over Sam's group. Helped Bruce trying to fix the mistake with the Hulk formula, which was more often than not just Steve giving him another blood sample, but sometimes they've also talked.

Managed to locate Clint with Rhodey, and talk him down, bringing him back to Nat.

Tony also came to visit and turned out how he was plagued by doubts about whether or not he'd be a good father, and Steve had not much to tell him because he didn't know anything about the topic, but Tony didn't need that.

He just needed someone who would understand if Tony was completely honest, even if the truth wasn't sometimes all flattering, basically answering his own questions after Steve listened for a little while without interrupting his line of thoughts.

Steve's predictions of the world not needing superheroes but common folk who were still willing to take a part came true, so when Bruce had "cured" himself, and now only became the Hulk if he chose to, and mentioned that in the meanwhile he also cracked how Steve could be turned back to himself, he was just telling it as a joke, but Steve's mind kept on working on that.

Until one day he appeared on the doorstep of Bruce's lab, asking the scientist if he could turn Steve back - for real.

"I could, but why would you want that?"

Because it's who Steve was. It was also part of the reason why Peggy meant so much to him. She knew him as the "real Steve", but still loved him.

Not something Steve could claim of any of the people he knew now, and it shouldn't have mattered, of course, but it did. Losing to Thanos with all his power, speed and strength felt as if Steve lost because he forgot how it felt when he had none of that.

And while logically Steve could accept maybe that wasn't a reason, emotionally, he felt like he became someone else after the Serum (even if not Red Skull territory), maybe also too complacent with all the power he had that was enough for a while but nothing against Thanos and... he also felt like he betrayed some of his core beliefs when he divided the team for Bucky, even if he wouldn't let any of his friends be killed on any given day.

Going back to his old life, therefore, wasn't just a thing when there was no fight to be fought anymore, but also something he thought he desperately needed.

"I have thought about it a lot. And this body is just as much of a different person to me as the Hulk was to you. So if there's any way for me to get back and not die in my original form, I want to do it, Bruce," Steve was ready to beg if he had to, but he was understood just by the way he said it.

"I've seen your medical history, and most of what you had have some kind of treatment now, just... I want you to be sure. The human body can't handle the transformation back and forth, so if I turned you back to just..."

"Steve," Steve helped him out.

"Yes, to just Steve, then you'd never be Captain America again, even though I also have a very good guess how the Serum works now," Bruce warned.

It didn't matter though, so Steve told him he had already decided, and after a month, he was back.

Happier than since years, even though most people on the street hadn't even noticed him, and Nat got quite furious with him because Steve hadn't told her what he was gonna do.

But Bruce understood, and Tony, at least, seemed to like him better. Maybe it wasn't a lie that before he was annoyed by how "perfect" Steve was, and now that no longer applied, they somehow communicated better.

Except, Steve genuinely thinking the fight was over turned out to be completely wrong when Scott showed up, and they had another chance of correcting what went wrong.

Steve was part of the team still, but now almost useless, having regrets for the first time since he was changed back. He couldn't even hold up his shield for long now, not without his arm going numb.

And Tony could give him all the fancy tech in the whole world, but when it came to the Time-Heist, Steve still had to be teamed up with someone who wasn't as useless in combat as him.

Or, it was the original idea, but when Steve and Thor went back to Asgard, Thor wasn't himself either. They were both almost killed by the guards if it wasn't for Steve panicking and then suddenly remembering Mjolnir.

Back before Ultron, he could move the hammer somewhat, but didn't want to disappoint Thor or any of the others who couldn't... but now was an emergency, and even though Steve changed so much and he feared how it might not work, when he got separated from Thor and the guards have cornered him, too twitchy to listen to how Steve meant no harm, Steve didn't have much to lose.

And it worked. Which meant he could get the Stone and collect Thor from his mom - as it turned out, which was good news, except how it only sent Thor spiraling further down.

"I wanted to summon it before, and couldn't. You, on the other hand, Captain, are like a twig, and still mightier than me."

"I'm no longer a Captain. In a certain sense, I never really was. And it's not a competition," Steve tried to tell him. "And I've lost my way too. I had to become like this to remember."

"If this is the part where you tell me there's also still a chance for me, Captain, that's where you're wrong," Thor told him. "You know what? I don't care about the Time Heist at all. My soul-marked, my family, my friends, so many of my people, and even my insufferable little brother were all killed before the Snap. I'm still doomed, even if we succeed, so I don't care. And that only showcases exactly why I'm not worthy of Mjolnir anymore, and why I'll never be again."

And when Steve tried to tell Thor how it wasn't so, Thor didn't listen, just insisted on how they should return.

Expect when Steve counted back, he didn't activate his device, and Steve - guessing this would happen - didn't either.

"Captain, I'd rather just stay here, and have a few good years than going back where I have nothing."

"We can't know how it would change everything."

"Even living in the caves as a madman, but still going strong because of all the energy I have on Asgard as a deity is still better than-"

"People count on you."

"No, they count on you returning the Stone, I'm not needed..."

"Yes you are," Steve told him firmly. "If you aren't comfortable with who you are now, you can still become the Thor you were once before, but you can't give up."

"Have you missed the memo on how I look like now, Captain?"

"Why, have you missed the memo on me?" Steve turned it back. "I look like this because I did it-"

"And you're more mighty than me."

"I'm not. It's not a skill, nor a power!" Steve argued. "It's a simple decision. Repeatedly, every day, but everyone can do it. Again and again, what do you choose? And if the answer isn't what you wanted to choose, and it hasn't been for a long time now, then the energy required to change may be just as much as the energy you waste on grieving the fact that you're stuck."

He not only didn't manage to convince Thor, but only provoked him, it seemed because he attacked Steve, so Steve had to extract himself to the future with the Stone finally, leaving him behind.

But then Nat was gone, an alternative version of Thanos also showed up, and Steve got injuries in the fight so grave - even with Mjolnir - that he was almost sure he won't survive them.

Thor showed up though, looking nothing like how Steve had left him, defeating Thanos with the element of surprise.

"I took the long road," he then told Steve, once the fight was over, and Steve woke in a hospital bed. "And your advice, Captain."

"You mean..."

"I got a menial job back on Asgard, and lived out the years rather than jumping to here. Turning into someone that's not exactly the Thor I used to be, but at least someone I can live with."

"For what it's worth, you saved us by showing up just on time," Steve said.

"It's only thanks to you, Captain."

"I only left you behind."

"Right after you told me what I needed to hear. Not even my mother could bring herself to do it, not to the degree you did at least."

"Talking is easy, doing it is a completely other matter..."

"Exactly, and you did both," Thor patted him on the shoulders with what could have been intended a friendly gesture, but when Steve only winced, he stopped abruptly. "Apologies, I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You didn't, I'm just a ridiculous twig-like mortal now, remember?"

"So what are you going to do now, Captain?" Thor seemed to be unfazed by that comment.

"I haven't got the slightest."

"Missions? Working for the army of Midgard or friend Stark again?"

"For the record, I've never worked for Tony," Steve was irritated, but he also noticed Thor was just giving him a mischievous smile. He provoked Steve on purpose with that, feigning that he didn't know that only. So seeing that, Steve only added. "I don't know. Might just retire. Maybe some fast-food restaurants are hiring or something."

"And if I told you I needed a partner?" Thor said, now taking his hand.

Shocking Steve so much he almost forgot to talk.

"I'm sorry, Thor, I know we've both lost our marked ones, but..."

"Oh, not like that, Captain!" Thor only gave him a huge grin. "I meant on the mission I assume I'll still have. Protecting this world and such. I could be the muscle, and you could be my consciousness warning me if I'm doing something wrong."

"Sounds like something you could already do on your own."

"Fine, I'll admit, you're smarter than me. So I'd be the muscles, and you'd be the brain."

"But I'm not. Smart," Steve said. "Almost every other Avenger are more qualified than I am."

"I'm not talking about the many PhDs Banner claims to have but didn't yet come handy when we were in the fight," Thor told him. "But when you remembered to call Mjolnir in the past. Being able to work your way out of tricky situations even when it seems-"

"Street-smarts."

"Yes, exactly!" Thor seemed only ever so happy that Steve got it.

"SHIELD is full of people like that."

"And yet, none of them would tell me to pull myself together."

"Fury would."

"He already has a job," Thor seemed to have an answer for everything.

And at first, Steve didn't think he'd do it in a million years, but then somehow, years later, when Earth was barely managing the chaos of the aftermath of the Blip, and Thor bought news with the Guardians that something worse is coming, Steve did want to fight.

In any capacity he could, even if for him it only meant that he joined both Thor and the Guardians and tried (and sometimes failed) to instruct them to fight with some sort of strategy, coordinating mostly from onboard the Benatar.

Not thinking much of sleeping next to Thor every night when everyone was cramped into such a small space together, only getting somewhat of a surprise when they had defeated the next 5 space-maniacs and there was nothing left him to do, and Steve asked Quill for a lift to return to Earth.

Thor then asking him when they just barely landed.

"Would you like me to stay as well?"

"Are you kidding me? You're a space pirate now."

"Not more than you are, Captain."

"I've told you to call me Steve a hundred thousand times," Steve got used to Thor's antics by then, but they still bickered a lot about it. "And you have no reason to stay, but now I feel like I could finally do something else."

"That's where you're wrong," Thor told him.

"I can't do something else?"

"That I have no reason to stay," Thor corrected. "Way back when I offered to become your partner..."

"It wasn't a bad idea, after all, was it?" Steve wondered, a bit sad that it was over now that he was leaving.

"I didn't mean it for missions."

"You did."

"I just saw how uncomfortable you looked, so I lied."

"That's... unlike you," Steve couldn't even guess why Thor would choose to tell him now.

"You forget, I also had Loki for a brother," Thor smiled. "But I can't just leave now without asking first. If you could perhaps change your mind about it if I stayed. I know I'm nothing like your beloved Margaret, and you aren't like Lady Sif either, but I also tend to think that's a good thing."

Steve had never considered crossing that line with Thor before. He must have gone real red too, because Rocket, who was doing maintenance on the ship and were just passing them, commented on it too.

"You don't have to decide now, either," Thor gave him an easy way out. "But the gang isn't going anywhere without Quill picking up some new music and some movies first, and Rocket and Drax getting drunk, so I'll expect I'd only have to leave days later unless you tell me that maybe I shouldn't."

And then everything went back to normal, or at least how it was before, but now Steve couldn't misinterpret how when Thor was talking to him during the team dinners, with a profound twinkle in his eyes, that it was maybe more than Thor's usual friendly manner with which he treated the other Guardians as well.

And maybe Steve wasn't as unaffected as he first thought either because he could barely sleep without Thor snoring near, and couldn't seem to think clearly now every time they talked.

But still, it was impossible, right? So Steve only waved goodbye when the Guardians were leaving, aware that he might not see Thor ever again.

Except that then there was something wrong with the ship - "a fucking faulty Terran part!" according to Rocket - so they were stranded for a couple of more days.

Rocket coming up to Steve with an annoyed expression.

"I've always liked you, Steve. Thought you had some brains at least if nothing else."

"Thank you," Steve knew it was meant to be high praise, not an insult.

"But you proved me wrong. Had to wreck my ship just to save you from the worst decision of your life..."

"What? I didn't... I truly want to stay here," Steve thought Rocket was talking about Steve coming back to Earth.

"I'm talking about Thor and you."

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," at least, Steve was tactful not to give anything away if Rocket was bluffing.

"Bullshit, princess," Rocket didn't seem to care though. "Not only we've been watching you two dance around each other for years now, but then I've just heard the big idiot tell you everything a couple of days ago, finally, and you'd just let him leave?"

"We haven't been..."

"Don't act stupid or I'm going to shoot you, Captain."

"Just... don't tell anyone," Steve was almost sure he blushing again.

"AH! But I've got news for you!" Rocket laughed. "Everyone knows! Hell, we've been betting when you'd finally get together, and I'd be damned if I let the grouchy machine girl win."

"Why, what did Nebula bet?"

"She said it will never happen. I've placed a good enough sum against her, because never is a long time," Rocket shrugged. "But my point is-"

"I'm sorry, but my personal life isn't meant to earn you extra credits," Steve was about to leave, trying to not take offense, but still feeling somewhat of a laughing stock, when Rocket stepped in front of him.

"I wouldn't have made the bet if I also didn't think it was the best for you and the demigod."

"Of course."

"I'm not that horrible. So you either tell me what's wrong, or I'll just accidentally leave Thor behind for the next tour, giving you two plenty of time to sort it out."

Steve had a somewhat sharp answer for that because whether Rocket was doing it on purpose, or not, he was using emotional manipulation now, and Steve wasn't raised to react well to that, but then Thor also appeared.

"Leave it, Rabbit. Steve had made his choice, and he doesn't like me like that."

"I do, it's just..." Steve automatically corrected him, before realizing that in itself, that was also an admission, not just the comforting he meant it as.

"No you don't," Thor only repeated. "And I don't need you to lie otherwise-"

"It's not a lie," Steve quietly said. "But I'm a mortal, and we're both men."

"And I'm a talking animal," Rocket said. "So what?"

"Rabbit is right. Neither of that matters," Thor said. "But I understand how you'd need an excuse if-"

"It's not!"

"Isn't it? Midgard has plenty of stranger couples, even men," Thor shrugged.

"Now, but when I grew up, it was still... never mind," Steve considered, and judged it didn't matter still, but then Thor stopped him.

"No, if it is the problem, then tell me," he commanded.

"I... it might be not as before, but it's still a deviation. Some people will always say-"

"Some people or you? I do not wish to quarrel with anybody about our life, but I'd do it in a heartbeat, if that was the only thing you worried about, Steve," Thor just gave him a look.

"I'm... already... weird. I can't... be gay as well. Or bi, but that's not what people would say, even dragging Peggy's name through the mud..."

"You chose to become like this again," Thor reminded him. "And you have more authority than Quill all day, every day, even like this, or maybe exactly like this. So why would this be any different?"

It was though. When Steve chose to become himself again, he had nothing to lose. Now though? It felt like he had a lot of things. Even Thor's friendship and how that affected all the Guardians if nothing else.

"It's different because..."

"Well, I think I've told you everything I could, and I wouldn't begin to presume I know what kind of prejudice the Midgardians have for two men in a relationship," Thor said. "But, as a wise man once said, 'it's a decision'. And I'm rephrasing here, but if you want something else, and you aren't happy, and you might think you'd be more so with me, then you know where to find me."

He was leaving too, except this time Steve stopped him.

"Wait. You're right. It may be selfish but I want you."

Thor stared at him as if he just grew another head, "You just indicated..."

"I know, but I've decided. I want you, I want whatever it is, and the rest we can figure out as we go."

"Does this mean-"

"This means I finally earn that twenty thousand credit from Nebula and thirty more from Quill," Rocket interrupted. "And that if Thor doesn't come to collect his stuff in the next 10 minutes, we're leaving with Stormbreaker and everything he owns."

"I'll be there in a minute," Thor told him, but he was intently looking at Steve.

Only kissing back once Steve kissed him, but then almost too occupied when Steve also made them stop.

"Um, Rocket started the engines, and I don't think he was kidding about your weapons."

"So you'd like me to stay?" Thor only smiled, not rushing to save Stormbreaker from the claws of Rocket at all.

"Yes. Although I can't predict how the others will react, so..."

Finally, when they were back for a while, and they met with the other Avengers, it turned out they shouldn't have worried.

"I was right, everyone pay up!" was all Tony said, while Clint, Rhodey, and Bruce were paying him, mildly annoyed. "Welcome back you two! And congratulations. Just don't polish each other's hammer in the kitchen, or anywhere near the food we eat. Also, don't break up soon, because there's also a bet on that."

"Why, do you not employ someone to clean your table from time to time, friend Stark?" Thor only asked, as if serious, making Tony probably have a minor stroke right there and then before Steve could jump in.

"Relax, he's kidding."

"Am I?" but Thor was both having fun at Tony's expanse as well as teasing Steve. Who was, despite his best efforts, grinning back.

Steve was quite old-fashioned when it came to sex, preferring to do it in the bed a hundred times over than the unforgiving surface of any table where anyone might just walk in on them, and Thor knew this as well, but there was no need for them to announce that, was it?

Especially if Tony now even forgot about his bet-money for a while, it seemed.

"For the record, a lot of us only lost because we thought it would happen sooner," Bruce told him with a smile, and Steve was glad.

Maybe he wasn't Captain America any longer, nor a Guardian, not really, but he had a partner, a couple of friends, and a home. As Thor reminded him, always just one decision away from another Steve, and in this case, he was looking forward to seeing what would that mean for them in the future.

Chapter Text

5A

Quill hated his new school. It was a prestigious school where there was Latin on the curriculum, the students their uniforms correctly, and they always had not only toilet paper but also soap, the fanciest freshener, and a stack of real towels on the loo.

Quill wondered how Yondu managed to get him there at all. Usually, his adoptive father and he went from one crappier place to an even crappier one, and only stayed as long as it took for Yondu to con all the locals he could out of their money, then when they begin to suspect, it was time to move again.

But Quill couldn’t complain. Yondu first only adopted him to look more credible with a son, but - unlike all the other foster kids before - still kept Quill after he became too old to be cute and earn the locals' interest with it.

Although, Quill still wasn’t big, and that was part of the problem. It wouldn’t have mattered if Ronan was to beat him up if he could at least land a few punches on his own.

The whole thing started when Quill got to the school for rich kids, like Gamora, whose father was one of the most famous politicians in the country.

And Quill’s usual routine of making friends quickly and easily didn’t quite work, because of his abysmal knowledge of the actual subjects in school (in other places that were the least important but here everyone thought he was stupid), and he identified Gamora as someone people listened to, so he tried to get in her good graces, right on his first day.

Except, Ronan, who was not only the captain of the football and the debate team, the second-best student in the entire school (if not the planet), claimed Gamora was his girlfriend (she wasn’t), and Quill tried to steal her (he didn’t).

So of course, now he had to make sure Quill knew “his place”. First only tried to humiliate Quill with words, but when Quill turned out to be better in banter quick, then he simply beat Quill up, not letting him talk.

It’s not like it was the first time Quill had a black eye, but how Ronan seemingly wanted to hurt him every time he saw Quill, even when he had no longer the excuse of Gamora, basically without a reason was new.

And the teachers loved the protege, Ronan so much that even when Quill tried to use a teacher as cover one time, thinking surely Ronan at least wouldn’t hurt him in front of one, Ronan did the same and the teacher pretended not to notice. Or maybe it was because of the generous donation Ronan’s parents were making so he couldn’t get in trouble but the result was the same. Quill wasn’t safe anywhere.

Never in his life did he want to skip school so much, but he couldn’t, because even with the Ronan problem, he couldn’t risk his attendance failing. Yondu might have been a con man, but he was still a hundred times better than any other foster parents Quill ever had, and he couldn’t afford to jeopardize that by causing trouble for him if the child services should show up, asking why Quill wasn’t in school, as he was supposed to be.

The only thing that seemed to work was if Quill went straight from class to class, only visited the toilet when Ronan was too preoccupied to notice, and got plenty of detentions.

The purpose for the latter was simply that if Quill was kept longer than Ronan in school, Ronan at least wouldn’t wait for him trying to beat him up on the way home - a small break.

Also, Quill hid away if Ronan was looking for him, and most of the time got away with it.

Only, he couldn’t run forever. One day he snuck into the girls' locker room by accident. Gamora didn’t believe him so he got quite a slap, while Mantis screamed trying to cover herself up, and Nebula went on changing as if he wasn’t there. Ronan and his gang (Rocket, Groot, Drax) only had to follow the commotion to find him.

And Quill got his worst beating then because he was “after Gamora again”.

And unlike the other schools, where Quill was always just a loser but at least popular, somehow the worst thing was how all the people who were there just stood by watching - except Gamora who stormed out as if angry that they were taking up space in the locker room - with a stoic expression on their faces, and as if Quill only got what he deserved.

He managed to get home somehow, and even skipped days trying to recover, but while his body healed, his walkman - the only thing he owned beside a couple of comics - was also cracked, and he couldn’t replace it.

So when he had to go back to school, and Ronan was about to flush down his comics on the toilet, Quill jumped him first, even though he knew he had no chance to win.

“You asshole, you already destroyed my walkman! Give them back!”

“Who the fuck uses walkman anyway?” was all he heard from a laughing Ronan before he got a blow on the head and promptly passed out.

Woke up in the nurse’s office still breathing while none of his body parts seemed to be broken - a miracle - but when he tried to sit up looking for his comics, he could only collapse back to the bed. That’s was only when he noticed Rocket and Groot were there.

“Relax, if I wanted to kill you, I could have done it while you were passed out,” Rocket told him, but that didn’t sound comforting at all. “And I got you your comics back, even though they are drying.”

Peter didn’t want to cry, but when he saw the carnage of the pages, still wet and almost like a paper mache, he had tears in his eyes, even if also some dignity so he wouldn’t start to cry in front of someone else.

“You want me to thank you or something?”

“No, but you can have this,” Rocket straight on threw something at him, making Quill wince when it managed to hit one of his injuries.

“What the hell is this?” Quill asked because it looked like a phone with earphones. And not just a cheap model either.

“My spare phone, what else,” Rocket said from the door. “And I have all sorts of subscriptions but also music, so you’re welcome.”

“What?”

“You said your walkman was done. Just don’t tell anyone I gave it to you,” and Rocket left, while Groot followed.

Leaving Quill with a device that if pawned, would have meant more money than Quill ever had to his name, but still… furious. He was not a charity case and didn't need a phone, especially from one of Ronan's best pals.

So he chucked the phone to Rocket's locker and thought he was done with it, but he was wrong.

The only thing Quill even remotely liked about this school was Film Club, because with Yondu, they seldom even had cable, so no matter what the club chose to stream, Quill almost definitely never had seen it, no matter how old the movie was.

And nobody there talked much, watching the screen, so it was almost like safe heaven to Quill. First, because Ronan didn't seem to know Quill was in that club, and second because the quiet kids at least didn't pick on him like everybody else.

But that was over when Rocket showed up, with his indispensable bodyguard, and wanted to give Quill his phone back.

"You better take it, or I'll tell Ronan where to find you every Tuesday."

"Why should I?" there was even less chance of Quill taking the device after that threat. "So that you could report to the teachers that I stole it?"

"Don't give me ideas," Rocket said, trusting the device back at him.

"Well, I won't, because there's no way I'm taking it," Peter said. "And if you don't mind, I'm trying to watch a movie here."

"Like you hadn't seen Star Wars a thousand times before," Rocket huffed.

"FYI, I hadn’t!" Quill didn't mean to almost yell this, now making even the teacher shush them, but he had enough, so he went on talking anyway, even if on a dropped voice. "And yes, that walkman might have been the only thing I cared about, but even if you gave me your phone and I'd take charity from an asshole, how long do you think I could hang on to a phone until Ronan saw me with it and it ended up in a toilet anyway?"

"You're right," Rocket said after a small pause. And just when Quill thought it meant he'd leave, he added. "I'll talk to Ronan to leave you alone, and you keep the phone."

And he left the phone on an empty chair next to Quill, who first just wanted to leave it also, but he was too tempted. Just taking it home for one day before giving it back to Rocket the same would mean Quill could not only listen to music but maybe also watch a couple of music videos where people danced to the music.

His mom always told him his dad was a phenomenal dancer and that's where Quill inherited his "talent", but Quill suspected she just saw how much he liked to dance and made up stories when she didn't even know who his father was.

Nevertheless, Quill had always liked music, and dancing was something they could do together for free with his mom every single night - before her illness got worse, so...

So he took the phone - strictly temporarily - and was just about to return it to Rocket's locker once again the next day, still early when Ronan caught him in the act.

"Stealing, Quill, really? Let me do you a favor and report this to the teachers. You don't belong to a school like this anyway, so I expect you'd be better off somewhere else."

Quill would have just left it - Ronan had no proof, and Quill wasn't stealing anyway - but that's when Ronan grabbed him by force.

And Rocket and Groot also showed up.

"Ronan, let him go," Rocket, for his credit, was trying to stop him - this time at least. "I've told you he wasn't worth it."

"The piece of shit tried to steal your phone," Ronan only gripped Quill's throat tighter. "Which can't be a surprise after he already tried to hit on my girl. What's next? Breaking into our houses? Although, as I've heard, his step-father is just the type who might try something like that so..."

And Quill then not only hit Ronan because he wanted him off, but because of Yondu too, and that would have only earned him a worse beating too if Rocket didn't step between them.

"Stop it."

"Uh-oh, why?" Ronan only mocked Rocket now. "Is Quill your new boyfriend, Rocket? Groot just wasn't good enough for you anymore?"

And that was enough for Rocket to attack Ronan then. Both of them were seniors and about the same height, so it should have been an even fight, but Rocket seemed almost wild with fury and could have seriously hurt Ronan if not for Groot pulling him off the other teen.

"Don't. The coach will kill both of you if he hears his players got into a fight. And if he hurts you, I'll join too, and the coach will definitely hear it from someone."

"Oh yes, listen to your ex, Rocket," Ronan said, and Rocket would have already jumped to give him another punch, but Groot wouldn't let him.

And that seemed to calm Rocket somewhat, but when Ronan left, giving him the finger, he snapped at Quill.

"I've told you to keep the fucking phone! Maybe Ronan is right, and you deserve what's coming to you if you can't even accept it when people are trying to do something for you!"

"Thank you," Quill said, and this time, he wasn't even sarcastic, but he added. "Not for the phone, because I obviously can't keep that but... for standing up for me."

"I wasn't. I was only standing up for myself," Rocket just sneered. "And it won't happen again, so you better take the phone and be glad I don't just take it from you, you humongous idiot."

He was rude but also had a very nasty-looking bruised face now, and Quill somehow got the impression that he was... what? Trying to be decent in his own way by giving Quill the phone?

"Alright, thanks," Quill said. "But only for a while. I'll give it back soon."

Before Yondu would make them move again soon, not even leaving him enough time to return it, preferably.

"Don't. I'd rather you just left it in the lost and found if you don't want it," Rocket told him. "I can't afford Ronan thinking I talked to you let alone did you a favor."

And there it was again. Quill's anger which overruled every reason.

"I'm sorry, I caused so much trouble," Quill said, but this time he wasn't, and he let it show, throwing back the phone at Rocket now. "But I don't remember asking for your help, so you can just shove your phone up your ass."

"What's your problem?" Rocket didn't seem to get it.

"What's my problem?"

"I believe that's what I just asked."

"I don't want pity!" Quill said. "And no matter how rich your parents are, buying me a phone won't make up for the fact that you stood there watching when Ronan beat me up and might have just laughed about it too!"

"Oh yeah? I'm the bad guy?" Rocket seemed now angry too. "Because I at least tried to do something? And you say you're poor like it's a fucking privilege, but don't seem to get how things work for us! It's not about the money, but the friends you have! Ronan's father can bankrupt my father in a blink if he chooses to, just like everyone else in this town, so what am I supposed to do?"

"I... didn't know," Quill couldn't believe it but felt quite sorry for Rocket. He didn't only sound like someone who was upset because he just had a fight with his friend, but someone who was only friends with Ronan at all because he had no other choice.

"Of course you didn't," Rocket told him. "But I'm telling you right now. If you want to survive this semester, you better keep out of Ronan's way and just pray he'll forget you even existed. And I'm telling you this as a friend, not a threat."

"Got it," Quill started to realize Rocket was serious. And that this was probably the last time they'd ever talk.

Except that wasn't true either when Quill was quietly trying to eat on the very corner of the cafeteria as fast as he could (only risking it because he saw Ronan and Nebula slip into a hidden corner of the library together, and estimated they'd be busy for a while) when Rocket and Groot showed up with their trays.

"Are these seats taken?"

"Yes," Quill said, if not for his sake, then trying to get Rocket to wise up and go away before anyone noticed.

"Then we'll just leave when all your other friends decide to show up," Rocket sat down anyway, and Groot followed his lead by smiling at Quill.

"What do you think you're doing?" Quill couldn't just sit there, and ignore them.

"What does it look like? I'm eating," Rocket told him. "Despite your poor upbringing, you seem to be familiar with the concept, so I don't get your confusion."

"Did you just call me fat?" Quill couldn't believe this.

"For the record, I didn't," Rocket told him with a voice and a gesture that seemed to be his attempt to calm him down. "I was trying to be funny."

"It wasn't his worse joke yet, either," Groot only nodded.

"Wow, thanks, buddy, for having my back like that," Rocket only noted.

"Anytime," Groot either didn't notice the sarcasm or went along with it.

"Still," Quill insisted. "You'd made it very clear you can't even be caught dead in my presence..."

"It turns out that ship has already sailed," Rocket shrugged. "Ronan not only complained to his father but made our life with Groot a living hell last week."

"I'm sorry about that, but-"

"So I figured. If he's already doing everything in his power to make us miserable, he can't make us even more miserable, right? Might as well spend some time with the people we like, no, Groot?"

"But your dad, you said..."

"It looks like Ronan's father doesn't like Ronan either, so my dad is safe," Rocket explained. "Had I known this, I would have broken his nose earlier, believe me."

"And what about Groot?" Quill didn't know why he was about to send the only two people away who wanted to sit with him now, it seemed, when just days ago he was so lonely he almost asked Yondu if he could come with for Yondu's poker night.

"His parents aren't really in the same social circle, so they don't care," Rocket waved the concern off. "So, please please pretty please, Quill, can we eat lunch with you from now on, even if we don't share any classes?"

"Does he always talk instead of you?" Quill asked Groot now, instead of answering.

"No, of course not," Rocket answered this as well, while Groot only smiled, and when Rocket wasn't looking, he just gave Quill a silent nod while grinning, making Quill almost laugh as well. "We've just basically known each other since we were 4, and Groot was always shy."

"I was. In the past," Groot now spoke up.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Rocket now looked at him.

"I'm sure you can figure it out, being my spokesperson," Groot teased him.

"You're saying you'd like to talk? Well go on," Rocket gestured at Quill. "Communicate with our new friend. Show me how it's done, then."

"How is your lunch, Quill?" Groot asked.

Quill only then noticed he was yet to take a bite.

"Oh come on, asking about the food in the cafeteria is only marginally better than talking about the weather," Rocket teased. "Surely, you can do better than that."

"He's my best friend, and my adopted brother," Groot told Quill as if reading his mind. "But he can be too much, sometimes, even unintentionally."

"I think I begin to sense that," Quill gave Rocket a smile, who seemed irritated at first, but then his complaining didn't fit the fondness he addressed Groot with.

"You can always choose to be Ronan's best friend now, Groot."

"See? That's why I don't talk," Groot winked at Quill and truly didn't speak after, while Rocket kept ranting on about everything and anything, and somehow...

After nobody talking to Quill for such a long time in this school, Quill rather found it endearing and entertaining than annoying. He secretly looked forward to all their lunches now, and Rocket and Groot joined Film Club too, and it was the best.

Except, Quill was probably the last to know that Ronan now was picking fights with Rocket all the time, and he tried to get other students to do the same as well, and Rocket and Groot's lives were slowly but surely turning to a living hell because of Quill.

"Just sit somewhere else!" Quill told him. "I'll be out of this school in weeks if not any day now, anyway, I'm not worth it."

And if he had known how cruel Ronan's minions could be, he would have insisted for Rocket and Groot to keep their distance a long time ago.

"I want to sit here," Rocket wasn't calm either. "And I'd be damned if I let Ronan dictate anything in my life again!"

"I'm with Rocket," Groot agreed.

"Besides, what good would it do now? Just use your head, Quill," Rocket told him. "Ronan won't forgive me either way, and that was true a month ago all the same as it is now, no matter where I sit."

"But your other friends just might, if you sat with them!" Quill hated how Rocket treated him sometimes. Making decisions for Quill saying it was for the best, and not even willing to discuss it - the same as it was when he was trying to force the phone on Quill.

"For the record, I'm not his friend," Gamora appeared out of nowhere. "But I couldn't help but overhear, and all the other tables are full, so mind if I sit?"

Quill just stared, and she took it for a yes. Quill expected it to be a one-time thing, but the next day not only Gamora sat with them, but Drax and Mantis as well, and even though Quill was jumpy, Gamora only took his hand one day, when Rocket wasn't at the table, and quickly said.

"If you're worried about your boyfriend, we're protecting him. In class. Not that he couldn't take Ronan, but the teachers don't like trouble, so... don't worry, we've got him."

It was probably the nicest thing she'd ever said to him, so Quill felt bad for correcting her.

"That's great. But he isn't my boyfriend."

"My mistake," she shrugged, with a face that said she wasn't convinced. "I'd known him for a very long time, and I knew right away you were gay..."

"Me?!" Quill almost laughed. "That's just... ridiculous. You can't possibly think-"

"You tried to get close to me right your very first day here," Gamora said as if that was proof.

"Exactly!" Quill was confused. "How is that any proof? If anything, it's as Ronan says, and I had a nefarious plan to seduce you..."

"And first I thought you did," Gamora told him. "But only when you became close with Rocket did I realize that you never once stared at my cleavage or ass while doing it."

"It's just only polite!" Quill said. Not to mention, he wanted Gamora as a friend then. "In my previous schools, and believe me, I had many, I'd always had a girlfriend..."

"Good for you," Gamora told him.

"Besides, Rocket doesn't even like me like that," Quill was pretty sure, although by then he had an inkling that Rocket might not be straight.

"Are you... sure about that?" Mantis asked as if she was pretty sure Rocket was head over heels with Quill.

"Groot, tell them," Quill tried to ask.

"I don't know what to tell you, Quill," Groot, however, wasn't any help saying that, and adding an apologetic smile, as if he too was convinced how Quill was wrong.

"So, what did I miss?" Rocket got back then.

"I asked Quill to go to the prom with me," Gamora said. "But he told me he'd rather go with someone else."

"Who?" Rocket was now eyeing Quill half-hesitantly, half-suspicious.

"She didn't!" Quill insisted quickly before Rocket would believe her even for a minute. But his desperate attempts to save Rocket from a possible humiliation must have looked as if he was trying to save himself.

"Quill, if you want to go with me, all you have to do is ask," Rocket gave him a charming smile.

"See? He likes you back, Quill," Gamora stood, finishing her meal with a smile. "Why even wait until prom to ask him out?"

"Very funny guys," Quill muttered, but not because now the whole table was teasing him, but only too conscious because although Rocket was pretending to do the same Quill knew him by then, and it wasn't just a joke.

Rocket would have gone to the prom with Quill if he asked for real, and... he was no longer surrounding himself with people he didn't like so...?

"Quill, you look like a tomato," Rocket was only ever too happy to declare. "And no worries, we can get you in as Groot's plus one, if you wanna join us as all."

After all, Quill wasn't a senior like them, so he could only go if he was invited.

"Sounds great."

"It's a date!" Drax declared, raising his juice glass as if it was a drink, and they were toasting to it, and Mantis was already doing the same, and Quill could only shot a very nasty look at Groot who was about to do the same, but when seeing Quill, he quickly just took a sip of water instead.

"Yeah, it is," Quill's only defense was sarcasm now. "Because I tried, but I can't hide my feelings for Rocket any longer, so deal with it. He's mine!"

Luckily, Rocket knew him as well, it seemed, because he only grinned, and didn't take him up on Quill's declaration.

Except, people seemed to overhear that conversation, and not only started bullying Rocket, but it got so bad that his parents were called in, and when his father was told the teacher feared it was because of Rocket's sexual orientation, Rocket wasn't only grounded, with not even Groot allowed to visit, but also didn't show up for school.

"They'd considered pulling me out of school," Rocket told them when he was back. "But this is one of the best schools in the state, and it would be very inconvenient to move now, when I'd been already accepted to a college that's far away from all of you, so. I can't go to prom, though."

"Ronan's such an asshole," Mantis noted. "I wanted to go with all of you."

"And we still will," Quill said. "All we have to do is make sure that Rocket's parents don't know about it, 's all."

"Right, because that's so easy," Gamora noted.

"Um, like you've never snuck out on your window or something?" Quill told her, but when he could tell she didn't, and he looked around, and all of their faces were blank, he supposed there was some advantage of not growing up as a rich kid, after all. "I'll teach you. All of you. And your sex lives can thank me later."

"How come I'm disgusted by you even when I try to like you is a mystery," Gamora only wrinkled her nose. "But Quill's right. We'll all come and get to take you to prom, Rocket, even if it's the last thing we do together as this group."

"Damnit, Gamora, I've already said that he's mine," Quill joked. "I'm taking him. But you can pay for the limo for everyone if you have cash."

He didn't count on Rocket staying behind the rest, and asking him when it was only the two of them.

"Why are you doing this, Quill?"

"I owe you for the phone, remember?"

"No, seriously. I think you'd have a real chance with Gamora now, and you like her."

"Like? Yes," Quill shrugged. "Would date? Possibly not. She's scary if you ask me."

"There's no guy in this school who wouldn't date her given half a chance..."

"And she only likes me because she knows I'm the exception to the rule."

"No, you aren't! And she doesn't. And-"

"I already have a date, remember?" Quill winked at Rocket and was about to leave too, when Rocket got the tray from his hand, putting it on the table, then stepping closer to him than ever before.

"Just don't, Quill. Ask who you really wanna ask, I can still be there anyway."

"And if I already did?" Quill was nothing if not stubborn. This time, he didn't want to just back down, but he must have underestimated how pissed Rocket was about the fake-date thing, because one second Quill was about to crack a lame joke, and the next, Rocket was pushing him to the table and kissing him.

In. The. Middle. Of. The. Cafeteria.

Only stopping after Quill froze on the spot, with his mind blank too.

"Stop mocking me, Quill," Rocket just warned him in a low voice.

"I wasn't... I'm not... you're my best friend!"

"Well, not anymore," Rocket just shook his head. "And just FYI, I'm dating Groot, and I don't appreciate any jokes about it."

A couple of people took pictures, so now the social media was full of them kissing, and while people just mostly ignored Quill, Rocket had it worse, with everyone saying he started it, and finally, it wasn't a surprise that Rocket's parents saw, and decided to get a private tutor for their son, after all, not even letting him attend school any longer.

And although Quill wasn't sitting alone any longer - hell, even Nebula joined their table now for some reason - he felt just as bad if not worse than when he did.

Giving up on the whole prom too, until Gamora didn't show up with a limo for real.

"Why aren't you dressed? Where is your tux? We're already running late because of Mantis," she only said.

"I'm not going," Quill told her, while Yondu only eyed them with interest from the background.

"Hell you don't, you're supposed to help us break out Rocket, remember? Nobody of us knows how to do that shit but you."

"Climb the tree under his window, or scale the fence or something. I'm sure you can figure it out."

"You have 5 minutes to get over yourself and put on your tux, or you're coming like this," Gamora threatened.

"Ha, jokes on you, because I didn't buy one, so I can't."

"If I may," Yondu said while he pretended to be immersed in the paper he was reading. "If a pretty girl like her asks you to prom, I can lend you some clothes."

"She wants me to go with her gay friend," Quill was irritated because Yondu would never-ever let him even stay out late, but then when Quill was dead set on not going, Yondu even offered to help.

"Ah! So you're gay? That explains a helluva lot," Yondu seemed unfazed.

"That doesn't explain anything!" Quill couldn't believe this. "Not that I'm saying I am..."

"Whatever, we don't have time to argue," Gamora said. "And if Rocket was ever your friend, you owe him one good night after the hell he's been through because of you."

And she was right, and Yondu let Quill borrow his best suit, even if he didn't have a tux, and they were on the way to the limo when Quill stopped her.

"I'm not sure he wants me there though. I was just kidding about us dating, but didn't realize he was with Groot all along."

"That's what he told you?" Gamora just sighed.

"You know how close they are..."

"Groot!" Gamora yelled for Groot, who just waved happily at Quill from through the limo's open roof when he heard. "Did you ever date Rocket? Or are you planning to?"

"Is that what he'd told you?" Groot asked Quill. "And you believed him? I thought you were supposed to be a kid of a con-man."

"But... you are close."

"We're like family, yes," Groot told him. "But I'll never be Rocket's type, and I'm completely fine with that."

"Groot's asexual," Mantis now told him. "It's pretty obvious. Like, everybody knows."

Quill didn't. But then, it also meant that he went with the group to break out Rocket, and when Rocket seemed to be only so happy to see them, Quill relaxed as well, and all of them danced together the whole night as if nothing happened.

Only, Ronan tried to ruin that too, shoving Rocket to the floor, calling him names, provoking a fight. It was Groot who managed to punch Ronan first in retaliation, and he was already being escorted out by a teacher, when Rocket wanted to probably do the same, and Quill wasn't sure how much longer he could hold him back.

"Don't. He isn't worth it."

"I don't care. I've had enough of his bullshit, and it's not like I'll ever have a chance to hit him again..."

"So don't hit him. Piss him off by staying, and having the best time of your life," Quill suggested while he led Rocket the dance floor - only the two of them now. "After all, the teachers can't throw you out for dancing with me, right?"

It was such a lame excuse really to dance with Rocket, but by then, Quill was already doing it, and...

Somehow Rocket turned out to be a good dancer, so not only did they pogo a bit, but soon they were having a dance-off while... not really competing. At least, the way Rocket looked at Quill was completely distracting.

And, when Rocket kissed him at the end of the song, Quill didn't freeze up this time, but only ever got back to his body when he realized Groot was back somehow, cheering for them as did all their friends, just as well some others - but not Ronan, who seemed to be on the edge of a stroke witnessing a simple kiss.

"Groot, how did you come back? I thought you were sent home," Quill wondered, making Mantis say.

"We helped him climb in through the ladies' window! With the secret sneaking skill you taught us, Quill!" she seemed so proud too, Quill didn't have the heart to note that there was nothing secret about climbing things. "So now Prison Break has nothing on us!"

Gamora, Drax, and Nebula also cheered, while Groot just thanked them again.

"And what's that?" Quill hated not knowing.

"Only you don't know, possibly on the entire planet," Rocket told him with a teasing smile. "You're lucky you're so cute."

And he didn't let go of Quill's hand for the whole night, although he didn't try anything after the kiss either. But even the best nights had to end, so they were going home in the limo, Gamora arranging for the driver to take Rocket and Quill back last, maybe to give them some time together.

"You really like me," Rocket then stated.

"Yes."

"I do too. But I'm also leaving for college soon, and it's not like my parents allow me visitors. Especially guys."

"I could visit you in college," Quill argued.

"I chose one on the other side of the country to get away from my parents," Rocket just gave him a sad smile.

"And my stepfather is known to move around a lot. Maybe I could ask him to move because of me this once."

"Don't," Rocket told him, and when Quill wondered if he should take offense, he added. "You're smart, but never had a chance to study in a proper school before. I'm thinking Yondu couldn't get you into one before either. So don't mess that up. That said..."

"Yeah?"

"I could give you my phone for real this time. That way, maybe you could reach me to ask if I was back in town for Thanksgiving or something if you'd still want to meet then."

"And what if I didn't want to wait until then?"

"I suppose I can also risk my life and climb out of my window until I need to leave too."

"You better," Quill could only say, before they were kissing once again, probably trying the poor driver's patience by taking so long now.

The next time Quill asked Yondu for a favor, it wasn't a suit.

"I need your car."

"No."

"I want to run away with my boyfriend, but I can't do it without a car," Quill insisted. "Please."

"Alright, but just because you asked so nicely," Yondu almost gave him the keys, but then stopped him. "One thing though."

"Yes?"

"Why don't you bring him back for dinner first, and let me talk to him before I never see you two again?"

"You don't mind?"

"I'll even order some pizza for three, kid."

"Why?" Quill wasn't used to such treatment. Something was up when Yondu was offering pizza...

"Oh, because you'd rather eat something else?"

"No, I meant... what are you up to?"

"Apparently nothing, because you just canceled pizza."

"No, NO! It sounds great," Quill assured him, and left with the car, but was still suspicious even when the late dinner was over, and he took Rocket back with the car.

"Sorry about Yondu. I can't even begin to phantom why he was acting so strange," he told Rocket, but "strange" didn't even begin to cover it. Yondu was way over the top nice one minute, only to be a complete jerk to Rocket the next...

"He was just testing me. He cares about you," Rocket told him.

"Now see, that where you're wrong," Quill couldn't help but laugh. "He threatened to get me back to the system every single time when I was a kid and I did something he didn't like... only kept me because people suspected a "widowed father" less to con them, and-"

"Or at least that's what he told you when you were being insufferable as you can be sometimes. But he cares about you, Quill," Rocket told him.

"Uh-huh. Cares, like when a girl once stabbed my hand with a pencil, and I was afraid I'll get led poisoning or something and he just laughed and offered to pour some whiskey on it for me from the bottle he was drinking or the time when-"

"Trust me, he does."

"Yeah, like you'd know."

"I do, actually. Takes one to know one," Rocket just told him, kissing him before Quill could register what he had said.

Chapter Text

5B

Coulson's doing good enough in school. If he puts in some effort, his grades show it, and he also has a grasp of what it means to get to an elite university and he decides quite early that it isn't his path. He'd rather settle for less if he has some time to kill instead.

But he's also restless. When he was a freshman, there were a lot of clubs he wanted to try, and everything seemed so cool, but now, he can't find his place anywhere, and nothing seems to fit.

Of course, there's his part as the editor of the school's online newspaper, which is significant, because technically anything factual comes from him. Peter takes the pictures and does some old movie reviews, Loki has a reoccurring bit on Viking fantasy games as well as a comic strip, Tony is giving tips on music while always putting together a crossword puzzle, and Pepper is all about how anyone could go green and recycle (and why everyone should), not to mention, the most meticulous proofreader Phil had ever seen.

But in case something happened in the school, or Principal Ross wants something newsworthy (or what he deems as such, at least) showcased, it's too "boring" for anyone else's tastes so that only leaves Phil to deal with it, and he was only ever so happy to, for years.

Now, though, Phil wants something more. Maybe his muse is gone, remembering why he started the newspaper in the first place, dragging it out of the obscure paper-based solution the school had before but nobody read. But he can't seem to care any better about any topic to write about than he cares about the rest of the clubs there are in school.

He adds two new columnists to his team, Shuri with some cool science and tech news, and sets up a platform for Scott's stand-up comedy videos, and both of them not only do an excellent job, but also get along well with the others, so Phil is pleased, and also very proud of them all, even if the same thing can't be said about his work for the paper lately.

But the next day he's interviewing the Coach "Fury", and Phil's mind all but skip 4-5 questions he doesn't remember even asking, because he's too busy staring at the players play (when they're finally allowed, after a long-long list of harrowing exercises).

"Of course, in my spare time, I'm not always just a coach. I help set up weapons capable of mass murder, but only because I believe there are aliens who might get us one day, and I want to protect Earth," Fury tells him, but Coulson isn't exactly listening.

Luckily, he mastered the art of pretending to pay attention, and now he uses it.

"Of course," he echoes, and then remembers there was something about the planet in Fury's sentence as well, so he adds. "Go Earth."

"Uh-huh," Fury laughs at him then, and Coulson doesn't know what's so funny, but he smiles back. "I take it you're a huge basketball fan, Coulson?"

"I... think this is the closest I got to ever watching a game." And it's not a lie, he knows squat about sports.

"Maybe you should also interview them."

"Who?" Phil now misses the context entirely, and not just because he isn't paying attention.

"The players? Maybe even do an exclusive edition on them? It's not like you're wasting paper since it's all digital, and I'm sure a lot of girls and even some guys would love to read it. And I imagine our baking sales to raise funds for the team would go a lot smoother," Fury suggests. "It's a win-win."

"I don't have anyone who could report on sports."

"I can," Fury grins. "And I usually do. If someone sucks, I yell at them right away, all you have to do is to report everything I say, just maybe with less swearing."

Coulson thanks him for the opportunity and leaves, but later at night, as he listens back to the recording on his phone, and gets to Fury's bit on the aliens, he feels so bad for not paying proper attention and Fury even noticing it, that Phil pulls up his laptop and spends hours on the internet learning more about the sport.

Finally, he notices he didn't even sleep a wink, and he might not know everything, but he knows enough, and he sort of wants to do it. Given everything, he feels it could go either spectacularly, or go up in flames horribly, so he gets a second opinion.

Maria is his best friend, and Nat and Clint are her friends, so they often just hang out. There's Jimmy, too, who Phil used to date, but they ended up being friends.

"So, what do you guys think?" Coulson asks and gets a knowing look from Maria. "I mean, it's time-consuming, and maybe nobody would read it..."

"But they would," Nat notes. "Fury's right about that."

Phil carries on unperturbed.

"And I also said no already, while I know nothing about basketball, but... I kind of want to, now?"

"And this has nothing to do with the fact that all the basketball team members are both insanely athletic and simply gorgeous," Maria points out, giving him a knowing look. "And you could be around them for a while since you've just said yourself, it's not easy to interview all of them at once..."

"I didn't even notice when I was there," Phil tells her. "I know what you're saying is true when I see them around, but on the court, it's not about that."

"You just keep telling yourself that," Jimmy grins. "Should make your job easier."

"So you think I should do it?"

"Would it matter if we told you you shouldn't?" Clint just lazily asks, just as always, when you think he didn't pay attention, but then sees right through you.

"You're right. It's a distraction I didn't know I needed," Phil can't believe he's doing this, but he wanted something new for the newspaper (and himself), and this could be it.

"I'd say," Maria implies something else with her tone, making Nat laugh but stop when she sees Phil's expression.

"Don't worry, Phil," she then tells him. "We won't tell the players about the all basketball trading cards you own."

He doesn't have any, but that also gives him an idea later on.

He visits Fury and apologizes, and once Fury just laughs saying he's forgiven, and he shouldn't print the bit about the aliens, because then they'd also know what Fury's planning, it's easy for Coulson to ask if his offer still stands, and Fury just tells him.

"Yeah. Although I'd prefer it if my boys wouldn't know why you're here - at first. They can be insufferably competitive, and I'd rather not break up any fights."

"So what, it's not like I can go undercover, they know who I am," Phil says, even though he isn't exactly popular, and while a lot of people read the newspaper, not many can connect him to his name, and he's completely okay with that. "Or at least can guess, since I was here to interview you just yesterday."

"That's why you're going to have a real undercover job. Should you want to really do this," Fury stands to explain. "We're criminally understaffed since it's only me and the boys, so you could be the new addition to our team."

"Doing what?" Phil somehow senses this is a clever trap, but he wants to do it all the more.

"We need a waterboy, a statistician, and a social media manager to consult the boys."

"You want me to pick one," Coulson thinks he understands, but he doesn't know Fure that well yet.

"I want you to do all of them," Fury holds out a hand. "Deal?"

And so it begins.

"That's Drax, Quill, Odinson," Fury introduces the team called "Avengers" while Phil is sitting next to him, a bit meek now that all the players' eyes are on him. "Then we have Barnes, Wilson, and our team captain, Rogers..."

And hell, Maria must have been right, because Phil quite misses the rest of everyone's names (luckily it's not the end of the world, because it's on their uniform), when Rogers flashes a bright smile at him as a greeting.

"And I also have some nicknames for them, but you'll get used to it fast. At least I hope so, for your sake," Fury both promises him and sort of threatens at the same time. "And why are you lot not warming up already, ladies?"

Some already start, but Rogers notes.

"Personally, I was waiting for Coulson to introduce himself as well."

Phil absentmindedly looks at Fury as if waiting for his approval, but it's just a stunt to avoid eye contact with Rogers, who keeps looking at him still.

"It's only fair, just make it quick," Fury rolls his eyes, while Phil clumsily stands.

"My name is Phil Coulson. I'm going to help Fury out from today, while possibly earning some extra college credits. If there's anything you need, you can tell me."

"Anything?" Rogers asks, and Phil tries to tell himself, Rogers doesn't even know Coulson is gay, so there's no way he'd be flirting.

"Well, I'm not a counselor," Phil at first tries to straighten the question out for a serious answer since this is the first impression he's making, but when he sees the bored faces of the athletes, he thinks better of it, and switches tactics. "Or your mom, Rogers."

That earns him a burst of small but surprised laughter from the guys, so Coulson goes on.

"But other than that, yes. I'll also give you advice on how to manage your social media accounts one on one, for instance, so please don't be surprised if I ask you to stay after practice for a 15-20 minute chat."

"You heard him, now could we start?" Fury nods at him, and Phil supposes that's a sign he didn't mess it up badly - even though with Rogers around, Coulson doesn't exactly feel like himself. "Pretty pretty please?"

It's not easy though, juggling suddenly not only schoolwork, the paper, and a new position for which Phil has to do tons of research (you can't just provide reliable statistics out of thin air, without knowing how it works, for instance, and then there's the game and social media strategies he also has to start from scratch), but it's also something new, and maybe - probably - it will help with getting his muse back.

It might be doing it already, it's just hard to tell when you don't even have time to sleep because for now you're so immersed.

The only thing he doesn't like about his new hobby is how he'll revert from his usual self to a high school student with a very shallow and embarrassing crush whenever Rogers is around, so he tries his best to avoid the captain as much as he can, and concentrate on the job Fury had given to him.

While also soaking up the team's dynamics, personalities, and general status quo that should be very helpful for the paper when Coulson will come out with the exclusive.

Originally, that's planned after a couple of weeks, but Phil doesn't want to leave just then, so he keeps putting off asking Fury about when should they do it, and Fury is probably only too happy to have some help because he doesn't bring up the topic either.

So the weeks turn to months, and then, no matter how Phil would try, he also has to talk with Rogers about his social media presence. Given how he's the captain, and Coulson should have started with him in the first place, and by now basically talked with everyone else, it's not something he can put off any longer without an excuse.

And he has none that he'd like to share with Rogers or Fury, so he decides to get it over with, even if - for obvious reasons - he'd like to keep it short.

But also, he can't cheat Rogers out of the analytics of the digital profile he has either, so it's uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when Rogers says he's starving after practice and invites him to the closest local diner for dinner, and Coulson is about to say tell him no way, but then the captain's stomach also rumbles so loudly that Phil takes pity on him.

He only orders some soda and some fries to keep himself from staring at Rogers who is devouring two menu's worth in just a matter of minutes, and just to make matters more impressive, he not only doesn't get any on his "civilian" clothes, but he doesn't stop beaming at Phil while doing it either.

"Um, so," Coulson reverts to examining the charts and graphs he printed out for Rogers, but they are little help when he can't concentrate on them. "You're popular online. There isn't much to discuss, you're doing a good job at it."

"Thanks."

"As I'm sure you figured that out already," Phil notes because sometimes it's hard for any of the Avenger members to ignore all the girls who'd like to get to know them better, even though Fury is managing the issue at hand well given the circumstances. "But I have two suggestions. If you don't mind."

"I'm all ears."

"Right. One is that your posts get as many likes and shares as anyone on the team, but you don't update so often as the others."

"I'm just not the tech guy," Rogers admits, and Coulson nods deeply as if he didn't know that already. "I'm fine with posting a photo of myself once in a while, but not after every workout, if you know what I mean."

"Yes," undoubtedly, there were some members of the team who liked to post then, when they looked like male models, and Phil had the horrible duty to scan through them as the social media advisor.

"So you're saying that hurts me?" Steve's now wondering.

"Not necessarily," Phil tells him. "But with the numbers you have now if you posted more regularly, I think it's safe to assume that you could easily double your following, although there's always a risk of too much content too if nobody cares. But I've found that in your case, girls can rarely get enough of your posts, so..."

Rogers does something that Phil can't place: he blushes. It's unlike the rest of the players who are fully aware of the attention they get and even revel in that, and Coulson wonders about that, but Rogers pushes on.

"And you said there were two things, so what's the other?"

"Right. You're too nice."

"Excuse me?" Rogers asks, and Phil shakes his head.

"I meant to say that the online perception of you is that you're nice."

"I fail to see how that can be a bad thing."

"It's not. Up until to a certain point," Coulson tries to not sound insulting while telling him the facts so Rogers would get it. "Moms and daughters can bond over fangirling you, and if you'd consider trying out to be a pro, one day there would be no brand which wouldn't like to advertise with you. Even the family brands, because you're a safe bet."

"But?" the captain now has a different smile on like he suspects something bad is coming, and Phil wishes he could just avoid looking at him altogether.

"But it also hurts you. There are a lot of people who don't believe someone could be so perfect and still so humble and sweet."

"You think I am?"

"Not my words," Phil says, and it's true. His description would probably be worse in the sense that it would be even more over the top. "And if people think you're not genuine, while all the guys are jealous because they can never live up to the standards you dictate, now that can be a problem."

"I see," Rogers says, and he's still smiling, although he seems to be in deep thought.

"I also have a report of a couple of pages here, going into the trends on your profiles and people's perception of them, with more details, should you want to take a look," Coulson's all too happy to finally be done with the meeting now, handing the pages over to Rogers. "Just... be careful, if you're trying something new, to not overdo that either."

"So I shouldn't be a complete jerk, just sometimes, maybe, the right amount?"

"Exactly," Phil can't help but smile back this time. "It's hard to tell the difference without any routine, but you can always post more, as I've already said."

But Rogers has a patience of a saint when it came to online trolls, and Coulson expects he'll navigate this challenge just fine, incapable of being a real asshole anyway.

But the captain has an interesting follow-up question just when Phil puts some money on the table, basically ready to bolt.

"You think it's worth the time? Being more popular on social media?"

"Maybe? You have to decide for yourself. Every university with sports scholarship says it's the last thing they care about, yet they to investigate it, even if not officially, believe me."

"Yeah, it's one of the reasons I don't like being online so much. I don't like the idea of someone going through all my entire electronic trail, and try to judge me based on it..."

"I'm sorry, I know I barely know you, it's just-"

"Gosh, sorry, not you, you're the best, helping out both Fury and us when you don't need the extra credit," Steve quickly starts explaining now.

"I do-"

"You already have an editorial post in the high-school newspaper, as well as reporting on news that matter."

"Sometimes it's just trivial things," Coulson notes, because now Rogers was making him sound bigger than life.

"It concerns our school and every student, so for us, it's not."

"Even still," Phil's crush isn't helped by the Captain being nice. "If you meant you don't like the ideas of the decision-makers to go through your posts, you shouldn't worry, because most of them will love you, and I couldn't dig up any dirt on you, so..."

He means it as a compliment, not that he was digging for it specifically either, just all the other players had some kind of borderline red flag posts and Cap didn't, but the way he manages to phrase it isn't good.

"I mean, not that I was looking for any. But seen some players post about everything and anything, and that's not a good idea either, believe me..."

"I'm not as perfect as people assume I am either," Rogers seems to take pity on him and steers the topic slightly.

"Well, that might be an advantage then. Maybe you should show a little bit of that side of Cap as well."

"Call me Steve. And... could you maybe advise me about that? I know you're busy, but if I wrote a post I wasn't sure about..."

"I'm not that busy, but I'm also sure you can figure it out by yourself," Phil tries to keep his calm, and not panic that Rogers seemingly unaware of the effect he had on others and wants to spend more time with him, but Phil's voice sounds harsher than he originally planned on, so to ease that he adds. "Steve."

"Even if let's say I'm attracted to guys, and that might hurt my future career at some point, just as ruin some of the expectations the girls have about me online?" Steve then asks.

"Maybe start with something smaller."

"But do you think I should ever come out? Or just keep that private, not exactly a secret, but not admitting it in front of everyone with an internet connection?"

"Wait, so you're saying you are truly...?" Phil is so confused.

"I thought you knew," Steve tells him, and Phil realizes that it's not just a practical joke, but real.

Shit. And that certainly qualifies as a real reason for Steve to ask him follow-up questions of the topic, so they aren't quite done with it, not just yet.

"Well, it's not easy to predict, but if you wanna do it, and you time it right, and we chose the platform wisely, then... it can be done. Although just to be clear, it's not what I've meant to suggest."

"Right, I figured. But everyone who knows me knows, and it's not like I want to hide it. I just don't want anyone to treat me any different because of it, so I'm not sure."

"I'll do some research on the topic, and get back to you," after all, Coulson can't just back out of the social media manager role now, that he could really help someone, and not just by pointing out the obvious.

But it would be so much easier if it was any other player, and if his mind wasn't still frozen by the fact that Rogers just admitted to being gay, and that means Phil doesn't have a crush on a straight man (again), but...

Not that it changes anything. Coulson has his strengths, but he doubts any of them is what Steve is looking for in a guy, so.

"Thank you," Steve says, but when Phil tries to leave, he also reaches out for him, to stop him. "And I'm sorry."

"About what?" Coulson notes how the door is just six feet away, yet he seems to be unable to reach it.

"For making you uncomfortable. I've noticed how you try to avoid me, and now I'm asking for a favor..."

"I'm not-"

"I mean it's okay, I get it," Steve adds with an apologetic smile. "I try not to stare at you ever so often, but truth to be told, I have a little crush on you."

"Ha! Hahaha," Coulson laughs, but it comes out forced, and it's not like he knows what is the normal reaction to this. "Nice one, you almost got me."

"It's not... a joke."

"Yeah, because on a scale of one to ten, I'm a 4, and you're like a 13, and if we add the digits together, they are the same," Phil hates to grade people, but he also dislikes whatever this is.

"I've told you I'm just a solid 7 tops, not how people see me at all," the Captain says. "And as someone who'd read all of the articles you've ever written, I'd say you're easily a 9, Phil."

"That's... too kind, but I've gotta go," Coulson decides the only way is to deal with this is to have at least Maria listen to the story, if not all of his friends, and then they'll surely tell him he'd dreamt the whole thing, or that Steve was doing it as part of a charity or a bet or something, and then he wouldn't have to think about it ever again.

They aren't helping when the whole gang is laughing at him, and Maria sarcastically notes "who could have seen this coming?", and now Natasha is laughing so hard her tears are falling, and Clint isn't far behind.

Even Jimmy just notes that it was about time that Coulson moved on from their failed relationship as if nobody considered that Phil might just not date Steve.

So he takes good care of avoiding Steve, even more, going as far as only emailing him the research on the topic he promised to help him with, not doing it in person, and in turn, Steve still smiles at him a lot but doesn't talk to Coulson unnecessarily or alone, and that helps.

"So, I'm thinking it's time to do the exclusive now," Fury then one day says. "Our annual fundraising bake sale is coming up. But there's one thing regarding."

Phil might blush deeply then, thinking the Coach somehow noticed his improper behavior around Rogers, and Fury no doubt notices that, but he says something else.

"I lied to you, Coulson. I do think the exclusive is a good idea, but you wouldn't need to go undercover for that. I wanted some help managing the team, and you've been doing such a good job that I don't want you to quit. Not even after the interviews are done. So think about it?"

"Yeah, thank you."

"Also, which player is it?"

"What?" Coulson's pulse is racing.

"I can tell you're dating one of them, but I can't protect you if I don't know who. So which one?"

"Neither."

"Bullshit."

"I have an unrequited crush but I would never bring it in here, so..."

"I'm still waiting for a name, and I'm not known for my patience."

"Rogers. I figure my best course of action is to try to keep away from him, so that's what I've been doing..."

"Good job," Fury says, but it sounds more sardonic than honest. "I've always wondered why you hated him so much but figured it must be because he's the captain..."

"For the record, I'm-"

"You're cursed. With the smart people's curse."

"And what's that?" Coulson can't help but wonder.

"Most of the time you're so smart you forget how dumb you can also be."

"For the record, sir, I'm only being responsible, especially if you want me to stay with the team..."

"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that," Fury says, then goes to yell at Bucky and Thor a little, and Coulson is reminded how Maria had said the same, even before Phil started this gig.

But they aren't so close as Coulson is, and he's never been wrong about things like this before, and he has his reasons, even if the others around don't seem to care about them.

Time at least goes quickly when Phil's busy, so the extra edition is a huge success, and that only leaves the bake sale, and he kind of has an idea.

"Um, about the bake sale," he tries to get Fury's attention one day.

"Yes?"

"I was thinking... why a bake sale?"

"It's tradition."

"Yes, and we can uphold that tradition by selling baked goods as well. But I was thinking, and maybe we could sell some other stuff as well. It's always good for the team to have a little extra cash, right? Even if it's not what matters..."

"It matters! The more we can get the better, so I wouldn't have to buy the boys uniforms with my own money!" Fure tells him, and Coulson realizes it's true, and he's been doing that for a while. "But the Principal is adamant that sports aren't that important, and you can only sell so many baked goods a year, and people keep graduating high school, how dare they, so if you have a better idea, out the fuck with it."

"We also sell stuff with the Avengers' logo on it. It's simple branding, and I can get it done."

"Great! Let me know how much it will initially cost."

But, it was just part of what Coulson wanted, so he stays, hesitant now.

"Anything else on your mind, Coulson?" Fury then asks.

"You know how pro teams also have trading cards, showcasing their players, and stuff like that, right? Also, players endorsing products? So I was thinking, maybe we could have a smaller version of that. Selling posters and merchandise with..."

"The pictures of our current players."

"I've already talked with Peter, he would love to help and take a couple of pictures of the guys while playing..."

"Like I need my team's ego to skyrocket any further," Fury mutters, but just when Phil wants to take it back, he adds. "But if even I think it's a cool memory to have a poster of the team to keep, I can't even begin to imagine the young girls of the school will feel about the idea. Just a side note, Coulson, if we're going to do this..."

"Yeah?"

"Charge a good price for the posters, and make sure the people trying to get them don't trample each other to death, will you? Ross wouldn't like that."

"But of course, sir. And I'll get the first poster to you as soon as we have it," Phil promised.

"Also, maybe as the social media manager you should stick around and make sure the pictures of each player are tolerable at least..."

"Peter knows how to take a good shot, and he's been known to photograph moving subjects exceptionally well, so he has my full confidence."

"Just as mine or I wouldn't allow it," Fure nods. "And while on the field, most of my players will look okay, some are shit when photographed directly. So maybe you should help them, just to make sure if we're doing this, the result is somewhat decent..."

And Phil did. He didn't expect the team to suck in front of a camera this much after all the selfies he'd seen in his research, and Peter no doubt helped, but...

While Steve in real life looks always friendly and upbeat when he is aware that Peter is about to press the button at the camera, his whole demeanor changes, and he looks more murderous than sane.

It is sort of hilarious - Peter is having the time of his life, although he refrains from showing it so he wouldn't insult Steve who is trying so hard - it also means that Phil has to spend more time with the captain yet again, so he switches tactics.

"Just tell us a little about yourself," he orders Steve, trying to direct his attention elsewhere.

"I thought the interviews were over."

"I'm sure Peter hasn't read them."

"I..." Peter starts to tell him that he did, but Phil glares, and Peter corrects himself. "...haven't read a thing. And I always have some conversations like this with my subjects, it helps me to capture their real personalities better, and-"

"Really?" Steve doesn't look convinced, and Peter is overselling it, so Phil quickly jumps in.

"Also, is this something you wear often, Steve?"

"I mean... no, but I wanted to look nice if people will buy stuff with my face on it..."

"No I get that, but... let's just take your jacket off," Coulson suggests, holding out a hand for it. "After all, it's not your CV, so it's meant to be a little bit more casual."

"Fashionista now, are we, Phil?" Peter teases him as if he knows only too well how Coulson might not just take the first layer off of Steve if he had a chance, but Phil promptly ignores him.

And, some years later to the century, they have a good enough picture as well, that has nothing to do with Phil's presence, but rather Peter making a joke, and the Captain genuinely laughing if only for a second, which Peter managed to masterfully catch at the perfect moment.

"Nice. I'd buy that," Coulson tries to be nice because Steve looks harrowed after the whole ordeal, but maybe it's too much of a compliment because then Steve's head snaps up hearing that.

"You mean it? You'd buy a mug or something with my face on it?"

"Who wouldn't," Phil tries, but then Cap comes up to him.

"I don't care about the sales, I was just asking about you."

"I will. Buy something," Coulson tries to pretend as if it's not a big deal. "Maybe not a mug, but I'd like to support the team, so, maybe something more practical..."

"Then, you don't hate me," Steve states, but it's more of a question.

"No. I never did."

"Alright, because if you're straight and I was coming on too hard by telling you about my crush on you the last time, I just wanted you to know I'd never-"

Coulson panics then a little, because while Peter is great, he isn't exactly the one to keep a secret, and although Steve isn't closeted, he isn't technically out either, so...

But as he looks around, nobody's there but them.

"He left a while ago now."

"Oh, sorry. I'm not straight either, and I don't hate you."

"But? I'm too perfect for you too, just as I am for the people on the internet?" Steve asks. "Because I can be a jerk, if that would give me a chance with you, so..."

"No, I hate jerks, it's... just don't. It's more like-" Coulson is trying real hard to express something pretty simple, in reality, but he can't say that, and rephrasing goes so slow that Rogers has plenty of time to interrupt him.

"Prove it."

"What?"

"Prove it that you aren't put off because I'm nice. Go out with me."

"It's not..."

"I mean, why buy stuff with my picture on it if you could spend some time with the real deal, right?" it's as if Steve's a completely different person than just 10 minutes before, so Phil's kind of confused.

"Um..."

"You didn't quite fall for that, did you," Cap then relaxes into a shy smile then. "I thought I'd try to channel Bucky a bit, but you're right, and I'm more likely to date a 70-year-old woman unintentionally than someone I'd like to."

Coulson still struggles to accept the concept that Steve could be interested in him in any way that wasn't just a bad joke, but to the hell with it, he had a long and tiring day, just as Steve, and it's not like they didn't earn at least some food to eat, right?

Besides, it's not like Phil's situation could get any worse, it's already awkward as hell between the two of them, so maybe instead of Coulson pulling away, he should see where this would go if he moved into the exact opposite direction.

"Why don't we have dinner at the diner? I could eat," he suggests, making Steve grin.

"I'd love that, I'm ravenous."

And it's not an exaggeration either, and this time, Phil thinks it's kind of endearing to watch him eat all the food he'd ordered.

Except, somehow that is only the beginning of Steve making plans for the both of them, and while it's not a big deal, it suddenly turns out to be when Steve doesn't just kiss him goodbye one night but also asks.

"Do you wanna meet my mom?"

"Oh, I'm..."

"I know we're not there yet, but... she has cancer, and she... might not be around much longer, so I was thinking..."

"I'm so sorry Steve," Phil says, while he offers some comfort. "Why haven't you told me before?"

"It's only recently gotten worse, so... and you already know Bucky is my best friend, so I expect you'd like her, she's at least funnier than him..."

"I'd go, but... Are you sure you want me there?" Taking the precious time that Steve could spend with just his mom. "Maybe you should just be with her..."

"I want to be. But I also don't want to close myself off from you, and I'd like her to meet you. If you don't show, she might just think I made you up to make her feel better, you know."

"Why would that make her feel better?" Coulson asks before he can rethink the possibilities.

"Because I'm so happy? With my boyfriend?" Steve spells it out for him nevertheless, and that's when it hits Phil how much exactly Steve likes-him-likes-him.

Yes, they started sleeping with each other half a year now, perhaps, and even managed to shut up Bucky about it, who kept teasing them both, but Coulson always only allowed himself to be moderately happy about it, not taking anything for granted because...

Well, they barely knew each other when they started going out for one. And high school life was sometimes moving so fast as life on a highway, so even after they'd been doing well together for a while, and maybe even better as time passed, Phil expected something to come between them eventually.

If not somebody better for Steve, given his popularity that only miraculously grew after he took Coulson's advice about how to come out on the proper social platforms.

"I'll go with you to see her," he then manages to pull himself out of his head if only to kiss Steve now. "She must be amazing."

"Yeah, she is."

And Coulson doesn't quite get how much so until he sees her, and though she can barely keep her eyes open, she still talks to him for hours and makes him laugh so much that by the end, Phil's sure his face muscles will be sore the next day from all the smiling.

And since Steve would have to return to an empty house then, every night, Coulson tells his parents, and Steve gets permission to stay over indefinitely, even if only the couch, which can't be that comfortable, because Steve wakes him up in the middle of the night, sneaking into his bed.

But, he's also so sincerely apologetic and nice in the morning when Phil's mom finds them still next to each other that she's charmed and not only lets Steve stay where he is, but even years later, when they visit Coulson's parents for the holidays, she still remembers what Steve likes to eat at it takes it up on herself to make all of his favorites - while none of Phil's.

But that's also fine, if not nostalgic, just like the mug Coulson bought with Steve's picture on it just as a teasing joke at the bake sale, but that's still in the cupboard there.

"Remember this?" he asks Steve when he finds it.

"How could I forget? I look great. Maybe we should take it, and you should use this at work, just so everyone knows who I am."

"Yeah, because being my husband is burying the lead there," Phil can only laugh, while Steve only leans closer with a teasing smile.

"Exactly, I am, aren't I? They can't have you."

Chapter Text

6A

After New York, both Frigga and Thor tried to appeal to Odin on Loki's behalf. If it was up to his adoptive father, Loki was sure he'd be locked up in a cell somewhere with the keys thrown away forever.

This way though? Well, it's not like he wasn't watched 24/7, and he was free to do as he pleased, but he'd take what he could get.

After all, even if he had to stay on Midgard, and the Avengers were his jailers, it was such a primitive planet with petty little people that it wasn't a bad thing.

Loki devised like a hundred possible escape plans in just his first week there. And was about to leave truly after the first two, but then something unexpected happened.

Some killer robots turned up, and Loki - as part of his penance - had to help the Avengers to get rid of them. Even got an undercover mission with Barton and Natasha after to figure where the maker of the robots had such advanced tech.

And if Loki wasn't allowed to generate mayhem, the second best thing was a worthy opponent to fight and infiltration. He even enjoyed his missions with the mortals - although he made sure to complain left and right about them, lest they suspect.

And when both the Captain and then Natasha thanked Loki for his help, first for his combat skills, and the second for a simple shape-shifting charm, Loki finally figured why Thor loved his humans so much. They treated any relatively advanced being as if they were truly special, and it was so easy to please them!

So somehow one mission turned into a dozen, and after a while, even Stark began to tolerate his presence, even if he was never as naive as the Captain to trust Loki, but that was only smart.

Steve, on the other hand, maybe relied on Loki too much. Bringing him a case that he didn't even share with the other Avengers, asking for Loki's help. At first, Loki didn't know whether he agreed to do it because he was looking for validation of the good Captain, or he wanted to betray him.

Then, his focus shifted.

Looking for Steve's best friend, who was taken prisoner, mind-washed, and experimented upon, they managed to get close many times. And the more Loki saw of this Barnes, the more he found him a wonder.

The Winter Soldier was supposed to be a soulless killer who was conditioned to obey the commands of Hydra. Yet, he not only didn't kill Steve, at one point he even fished him out of the river, saving his life.

It all took a turn though when Steve tried to cultivate that connection and tried to talk to Barnes about going home with them, the Winter Soldier snapped again and tried to kill both Steve and Loki, not holding back, disappearing again.

That didn't stop Loki, who had (a secret) access to all Hydra, SHIELD, and SI emails and was on Bucky's trail just in two weeks again, but he didn't take Steve for this visit.

Maybe he was bored on this simple planet, suddenly finding the case of Barnes so interesting. Or, maybe he wondered how much a person can be conditioned to do anything that isn't in his nature - after all, Odin had been raising Loki as if he was an Aesir when he wasn't.

Whatever it was, when Loki arrived, Barnes seemed not only aware of who he was, but also right about Loki's motivations. Mostly.

"Did you come to kill me?"

"Why would I do that?"

"You didn't bring Steve with you."

"So you know who he is," Loki said. Already cloning himself with a simple illusion and sneaking behind Barnes, but Barnes might have expected that from their previous encounters because he was alertly positioning himself in the only place of the room where he couldn't be surprised that way. "But I'm not here to kill you."

"Not right away, maybe, but I've heard about you. You're the kind who likes to toy with your victims first," Bucky told him, and Loki was genuinely amused. Steve had worked with him far longer, and he never assessed Loki so well.

"If you realize I'm more likely to keep you around longer if you amuse me, amuse me," Loki wasn't about to deny any of his wrongdoings or occasional malevolent intent either.

If this was a game, Barnes seemed to know how to play it, at least he opened with a pretty strong hand, and Loki could only encourage that.

"I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not that amusing," Barnes told him next. "Why do you think I live in the middle of nowhere, alone?"

"Trying to get rid of your best friend as well, who likes you even if you're a maniac or boring? You tell me," Loki sat. And it wasn't just a command.

"No," Bucky seemed defiant.

"See, another unexpected move. You've just said you know I could kill you without effort in a blink, and you still don't follow simple commands."

"I've followed enough commands for a lifetime," Barnes' eyes flashed at him with some anger. "So if you want to kill me, do it. Otherwise, stop wasting my time and leave."

"I won't kill you, but I might just want a brief glimpse at your mind first, Sergeant. This won't hurt a bit," he promised to the mortal, but Barnes fought him off.

Bucky didn't start to resist until Loki mentioned it was about Barnes' brain and not his life that Loki was after. So Barnes should have some very dark secrets, even if Loki wasn't completely sure before, now he had to know.

It wasn't easy, and the "Winter Soldier" made an escape once again - surprisingly capable once he decided he wanted to fight, but still pulling enough attention of the locals wherever he went for Loki to find him easily enough.

This time, he didn't even waste any time talking, he attacked Barnes while he was asleep, and he was already reading Bucky's mind when he realized Barnes wasn't sleeping, and it was a trap.

While Loki got some of Bucky's worst memories, Barnes seemed to have anticipated this, and not only stabbed Loki while he had to get close to Bucky to connect to his mind, but used a cursed object to do it.

It wasn't enough to kill Loki right away, but as he collapsed to the bed where Barnes was faking sleep just seconds ago, he realized Bucky could use this window to hurt him badly then.

Especially since he seemed to have a knowledge of relics that were the only things powerful enough on Midgard to even injure Loki.

"This pitiful curse will only keep me incapacitated for about 5 to 10 minutes," Loki told him. "So if you want to kill me, you should get on with it right now."

"It's not my intention to kill you," Barnes told him calmly. "If it was, you'd be dead already."

"You stabbed me. Surely, you know I'll kill you for this, given a chance?" Loki promised.

"I'm not planning on sticking around that long," Bucky told him. "But take this as a warning. If you don't leave me alone, I won't just use such a weak artifact the next time."

And he was truly about to leave, but Loki's voice stopped him in the door.

"I'd got what I came for anyway."

"No you didn't," Barnes didn't believe him, of course.

"I didn't read it from your mind, true, but your behavior told me everything I need to report to Steve."

"I don't know what you're on about, but I-" Bucky was a good enough liar, but he still lingered, which once again, just proved Loki's theory about him right.

"Then answer me this. Does the good Captain know that you're in love with him, and always had been? What do you think he'll say when I'll-"

"You won't tell Steve such bullshit," now Barnes wasn't just hesitant to leave, but he only came back to Loki's bedside, his glare so intense, that it was almost funny.

"Except, it's not just bullshit, is it?" Loki was still incapacitated, but otherwise suddenly in a good mood, only too happy to stir some trouble. "You broke free of your control years ago. You only acted as Winter when you last saw Steve because you wanted him to give up on you. For his own sake. You love him so much you want to keep him safe, even if it also means you'll never see him again."

"I've changed my mind."

"Oh, you're going to kill me? Just so I can't tell your boyfriend that-"

Barnes didn't stab him again, but the punch Loki got wasn't pleasant, even though if it only made him laugh because Bucky's anger only meant he was on the right track to figuring Barnes out.

"Steve isn't my boyfriend, or... a freak like that," Barnes only hissed. "One more comment on him and I'll-"

"But you are," Loki stated, not really intimidated. "Believe me, I get it, I have had taken many lovers and some would even shock you. But what I don't get is why do you think of yourself as an ultimate danger to the good Captain."

"I'm not telling you shit."

"And I can tell Steve everything I know."

"He won't believe you."

"Or just direct him on your way," Loki offered. "You know I can find you better than any human technology. Especially now that I had my magic in your mind. Even if faint, there's a residue I can track."

"You're lying. Again."

"Perhaps," Loki told him with a smile. "Are you willing to bet Steve's life on that, though?"

He was exaggerating, but it seemed to have struck a chord on Bucky's side because just thinking about it, he visibly flinched. He truly thought he was a grave danger to Steve, but why?

"Alright, so what do you want to know? That I care for Stevie more than anybody else? Even myself?" Bucky questioned.

"I already guessed that. But what I'm yet to figure out why do you consider yourself so dangerous."

"If this is your way of calling me weak without even saying, the joke's on you. I'm not the one lying defeated, unable to move."

"You're right you aren't, at least not yet," sensation started to return to Loki's limbs, and Barnes was just standing too close. So Loki could use a swift move to tackle him - using his own body weight to gain the advantage over Bucky. It was clumsy, but maybe also a reason why Bucky didn't expect it quite so soon. "But now that the tables have turned..."

"If you already surmised I'm attracted to men, and you're looking for intimidation, not something else, maybe you shouldn't settle in my lap," Barnes surprised him then by saying. If it was a move to distract Loki, Loki himself couldn't have orchestrated it better.

"What else could I be after?"

"You say information," Bucky said. "But I suspect it's something that would keep your mind off of whatever is that you're trying to avoid. And I guess what I'm saying is that I could help you. With that."

"You've also said you aren't that interesting."

"Learn my secret once, and it's over," Barnes acted nonchalantly. "Put that off to a later day, keep me in a limbo of when you'd try to find it out, and until then, I might just be pressured to be as entertaining as I can be."

Loki loved it. Bucky just manipulated the God of Mischief to do what he wanted, and with such mastery that it should have been taught in schools or something.

And it worked even though both of them knew what the real intent was behind, because as Barnes pointed out, Loki enjoyed not knowing Bucky's dark secret just yet, and it's not like he couldn't take it from him any day later when he got bored of Bucky's tactics.

While Barnes no doubt could be proud that he managed to put the issue off for now, seeking ways out of Loki's grasp with the time he just managed to procure for himself - just all the more challenging for Loki.

So he kissed Bucky as a test first, but when he was also positively surprised by the Midgardian's reaction, he noted.

"Last chance to change your mind, Sergeant."

"If you know me so well, you should also know that I don't actually mind."

"Careful, I'm a murderous villain in case you haven't heard."

"You're just all talk," Barnes turned them around with a swift motion, getting the upper hand, but only using it to kiss Loki.

And, if nothing else, the human had some decent moves for a mortal, and Loki not only stayed for a couple of hours then but promised to return.

Even months later he wasn't closer to figuring out Bucky's secret, but Barnes now sent Loki his address first, no matter how many times he moved.

Loki began to suspect that he no longer cared about Bucky's darkness either because, for the role they had in each other's lives, it was better if neither of them knew the details.

Why ruin everything with complications, right?

In theory, that was right, but when reality came crashing down, it turned out everything but.

Loki didn't think Bucky was in danger. Nor that he'd care if that was true.

Then, Barnes not only disappeared but surfaced on US soil again as the Winter Soldier. And not just that, but a monster mind-controlled by Hydra too.

If Loki took just a longer look into Bucky's head, he should have figured that the triggers were still there, but he didn't even try. He didn't ask Barnes about it either, enjoying their arrangement too much.

And when Loki had managed to overpower the Winter Soldier (with the help of the Avengers only, although he'd never admit it), and spell Bucky's mind back, Barnes was hurt.

A simple Midgardian wouldn't have gone up into flames being hit by one of Stark's weapons, but Bucky wasn't a simple mortal. Loki had already seen the signs of that firsthand, like his power, speed, stamina.

A bit sluggish in the daylight, but having better night-vision than Loki himself. Or the fact that Barnes had some kind of magic lingering in him, even if sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes being almost cold to the touch, sometimes warm, and all the more passionate.

Bucky was what some obscure texts on Asgard referred to as a "draugr" (what the Midgardians would call vampire), and a royal draugr in that, meaning that he didn't come out of the transformation as a flesh-eating zombie.

And Hydra must have used his weakened state after the ordeal to influence his mind, so it wasn't over just because Barnes shook off their control once, as Loki thought it was.

And while being a draugr, Bucky possibly could be invincible, he clearly wasn't sucking humans dry every single night for power, and his dead flesh was extremely flammable when his magic ran low - like then.

So when Stark only meant to incapacitate him, Barnes caught on fire. Loki used magic to put it out, but probably all it did was that he elongated the pain Bucky was in.

And Loki didn't want Barnes to what? Fade away, given that he was already dead? Loki couldn't be the only one to remember him, not after everything. Whatever unfinished business Bucky had with the Captain, Loki wanted them to make amends at least.

So, it wasn't a choice, not really.

"Captain, I can help save your friend's life," Loki told Steve over the comms. "But only if you leave. You can't see this."

"What the hell-"

"Listen to him," Nat didn't question Loki, and Stark flew up to them and dragged Steve away.

"I need you to drink my blood," Loki told Bucky then. "It should be potent enough to restore you, and if I'm lucky, my magic will save me from dying, unlike a simple human."

"No."

"I've sent Steve away, he doesn't need to know just yet, and if this works and you'll live for it to be relevant, you owe him an explanation anyway," Loki was impatient. Barnes still wasn't leaching on him just then, as if it was Loki who only had minutes left.

"It's not him I don't want to see me like that," Bucky told him with effort.

"I can also cast a spell, so none of the Avengers-"

"You'd see. I'm a monster," Barnes said, barely audible.

"Believe me, I've seen monsters, and a walking ghost demon drinking blood that was freely offered doesn't even qualify to be in the top 20."

"No," Bucky declared again, and with such finality too, that Loki hated it.

"Well then, have I ever mentioned I was a Frost Giant?" Loki shifted to his original form he still despised. "But we don't have time to discuss who is more hideous now, so if you'd only drain me from my life-force this time, we could postpone it-"

"You're only guessing. It might not be enough to help me. At all," Barnes argued. "But you could die trying."

"A mortal killing me? Now I know you're delirious..."

"But I'm no mortal."

"Well, neither am I, and I'm telling you-"

"Just take care of yourself," Bucky told him before he passed out. Falling into a coma as far as Loki could tell with a simple diagnostic charm, close to true death, so...

Loki cut his wrist with his dragger and placed the cut just the right way to feed Bucky.

And at first, when Barnes' eyes popped open again, he only grabbed Loki's wrist tighter, instinct taking over, but that didn't last.

Once Bucky was back to himself enough, he had the power to shove Loki away, now strong enough to jump on his feet, and escape the stunned Avengers. While Loki not only couldn't gather himself from the ground, he also fainted and woke... in Asgard.

Odin putting him in a cell that Loki couldn't escape, even when healthy. And giving away so much of his blood to Barnes sort of wrecked his magic too - Loki hoped it wasn't permanent, but still. It wouldn't be enough to escape anyway.

"Why? I did all you wanted from me. I helped Thor and his friends. The pathetic little planet!" Loki hoped he yelled at Odin with fury, but in truth, he felt frail. "Why punish me like this now, when I'm already in pain... Unless you wanted me to suffer all along."

"I didn't order you to fall in love with a mindless creature, but should have seen it coming," Odin barked. "After all, you're so self-obsessed, you don't even have the capacity to care for real a partner."

Despite how Loki simply knew how it wasn't true, it was surprising how Odin's words still hit their mark and made Loki both so tired and furious at the same time.

"I only have the capacity you raised me to have," he snarled back. "No doubt fearing the repercussions of raiding so many, defenseless worlds, you took in a Frost Giant baby, and raised it as more of a monster than any of my people originally are. Hoping your actions and golden son will look better by comparison."

"I didn't teach you to talk back to me, boy!" Odin was furious, but probably just because Loki's words were closer to the truth than they'd ever been.

Before he didn't see his stepfather as a man, so of course, his actions and motives were beyond what Loki would dare to question, even on the deep corners of his mind.

But then, Loki spent some time with the humans, and he had to figure that when it came to emotions, the Aesir weren't that different, just had longer lives to play out the same pre-written scripts of life, everyone just playing a part.

And Loki rather thought of himself as a monster than accept the possibility that Odin might have never cared for him at all.

Funny, because with Barnes, even when Loki tried to make himself look bad on purpose, he only got understanding, and only got Bucky angry when he saved his life despite Bucky telling him no.

Had it been Thor, Odin, or maybe even Frigga, who was hurt, and things would have gone very differently, even though they were Loki's family, who supposed to care.

That said, Frigga did let him out of his prison, and Thor snuck him out of Asgard, but Loki couldn't return to Midgard without the Bifrost, and Heimdall was loyal to Odin only. And he also wasn't sure Barnes would want to do anything with him anymore.

Centuries had passed, and Loki hid away as a traveling healer (now that he realized that his magic wasn't wreaked but overflowing, so he had to give some away of it constantly to not make himself sick with too much) until Thor sent a messenger.

Odin was dead, and he was welcomed back "home". But Loki's new home was between his simple rural village now, and Thor (after some nagging) accepted that.

Except maybe when one day when Loki was reading in his tent, and he heard the voice.

"I'm not feeling well, and I've heard I can get some help here."

"Come in," Loki put down his book and stood to greet yet another villager, except it wasn't.

It was Bucky, smiling at him tentatively.

"I'd feel much better if you didn't curse me out of your tent right away, Healer."

Still, Loki did. He had a good, slow, and calm life now. He lived true of his real nature, not continuing with the story Odin forced on him. But it was still a very fragile system, while Loki's feelings for Bucky simply weren't.

Loki going against Barnes' wishes saving his undead life was only proof.

So it was only wise to not risk everything he'd finally found by a relationship that might just devastate him later, right? The last thing he needed was a shove toward the abyss while he was already doing a balancing act.

To his credit, Bucky didn't complain or push, but he didn't leave either. Which was annoying. Ever so much when the people of Loki's village started to get to know him, and everyone loved Barnes, even though he could probably drain and kill them all in a matter of minutes.

Simple people were the worst at recognizing the danger they were in and judging someone's character. Loki only knew this too well, they took him in too, when he wasn't a healer just yet, not even completely sane either just then, 100 years ago. Or was it 140?

Like it mattered.

"What kindness should I do for you now, to make you leave?" Loki found Bucky sitting next to a fire, while the locals celebrated around them - a child was born, and everyone was drinking. Even Bucky, as Loki noted.

"If you think going against my will was a kindness-"

"Yes."

"I'd tell you I'm a very kind person and I owe you to do the same for you."

Loki could only laugh.

"Which, in this context means that you won't respect my wishes now, and won't leave, no matter how I don't want you here."

"I think you do," Bucky offered as if semantics were their biggest problem. "I'm sure you'd figure a way to get rid of me if you didn't."

Well, challenge accepted. After that conversation, Loki did everything in his power to do just that, actively trying to force his will on Bucky, but...

"You told the villagers I was a vampire," Bucky evaded Loki's tent without even announcing his presence first, clear on how Loki wouldn't invite him in if he did.

"Well, it's only true. And I'm responsible for their health."

"Except I won't hurt them."

"Sure, until you just might," Loki agreed. "Even if you can go a decade without blood, how do you know the same can be said of two decades? A dozen? It's only a matter of time, so-"

"It's not. I came looking for you only now because the crappy Midgardian technology is incredibly slow on the uptake," Bucky told him. "But now they have nanobots that can be injected into your blood, and heal you on a molecular level if needed."

"I'm surprised you left this utopia then," Loki had the answer immediately. "Or maybe you just decided you didn't like the taste of said bots?"

Bucky only laughed.

"I also got treatment, although it took ages for Bruce to get it right. Now I eat human food, or whatever is close to consume, and the nanobots synthesize them into something close to blood, so I can sustain myself," Bucky told him. "Sometimes the bots need to be checked out, and normally it's a health risk to have them constantly in my body, but..."

"You could live a normal life then," Loki surmised.

"Only if you're interested in something like that," Bucky told him without a blink. "I came here to tell you-"

Well, Loki had a good enough guess already, so he blasted Bucky out of his tent with quite a bit of magic. Only to find himself lingering in front of Bucky's tent in the middle of the night next.

"If the villagers see you, they'll talk, you know," he heard Bucky's voice from the inside. "So unless you want them to have the wrong idea, either leave or just come in."

"It's only for one night, you understand. I can't take any of them as lovers, so..." Loki wasn't fooling neither himself nor Bucky with that excuse, but it was also okay when Barnes shut him up with a kiss that was almost better than Loki's memories.

And his memories of their time together were profound ones, so... Who was he kidding. He was completely losing this battle trying to fight Bucky.

So, Bucky might have been living in Loki's tent by the time he told Loki.

"Could we... get back to Earth?"

"If you think I'd live there and leave my people-"

"Only for a visit. Some people would like to see you. I promised to try to persuade you on their behalf."

It took some convincing for Loki to agree, but he was quite surprised when he not only found Thor living there with a Midgardian wife but saw how most of the Avengers still alive and kicking as well.

"My dear mortal-mortal enemies, you all look surprisingly well. Should we do something about that, what do you say?" he asked, which earned him some unamused looks, but none of them really believed the threat, and Loki couldn't keep up the facade much longer either, laughing. "Sorry, it was worth a try."

"If you were aiming for scary, you shouldn't have said anything," Hawkeye suggested. "In your place, I would have just stood there, and laugh like a maniac."

"You hear that, Buck? I've lost my touch," Loki noted, now glad he agreed to visit Midgard.

"I'm sure you can get it back," Bucky only said.

"What do you have in mind? Should we take over the world? A galaxy? Or poison everyone at dinner and see if the nanobots can find and neutralize a toxin that's not from this planet?"

"Or, you could just surprise them by not pulling anything, just think about it," Bucky told him, as if it was the evilest of plans, and not just a suggestion because he knew all too well that while Loki didn't like to seem soft, he kind of didn't feel compelled to do anything he would have in the past, a long-long time ago.

"You know me so well," he told Bucky, and it wasn't a joke either. "It's a wonder why you tolerate me."

"I'm glad you wonder that, because Steve wants to give you the talk, and I can't keep him away from you forever."

"The talk about bees and the-?"

"No. The talk of what he'll do to you if you ever break my heart."

"I see. I haven't been threatened in what it feels like centuries, so... I suppose I could let him have his fun," Loki said, just before Bucky kissed him in appreciation, and when they parted...

Well, that everyone was staring at them was putting it mildly.

"What, Bucky told you we were just friends or something?" Loki wondered, but then Natasha helped him out.

"You melted into that kiss. We all thought..."

"That Barnes was the mortal and you were the god in your relationship," Stark finished the line of thought. "The cat to your dog. The Watson to your Sher-"

"I got it, thank you," Loki shut it down. "So I get milder and docile as I age, so what? Deal with it!"

"As if you were ever..." Bucky started, but then realized they were in public and how Loki might not want for everyone to know, but it was too late.

"We need to talk," Steve appeared then, as promised, so Loki could only go with it.

"Yes, Bucky might have mentioned you have something to say to me."

"You? Oh no. Buck, if you ever hurt Loki, I won't be able to be friends with you anymore," Steve then just said, which made Loki smile, but not his partner.

Only when Steve left them after a round of pleasantries did Loki dare to ask.

"Are you... okay?"

"Yeah. I never expected him to accept me. And now he's even making jokes about it, it's quite surreal. I'll need some time to adjust."

And then, Loki finally figured how Bucky' darkest secret wasn't his brainwashed or his vampirism, but how Steve's opinion would perhaps change if he knew.

"I think you'll be fine," Loki assessed, reaching for Bucky's hand with a comforting gesture. "Unless you wanted to date him because then I can't help with your regrets."

"You won't get rid of me that easily," Bucky gave him a lazy smile, and Loki couldn't help but smile back.

"Knowing you, I won't waste the effort unless you meant it as a challenge."

"Not exactly the challenge I'd like to take you up on."

"No? Then what?" Loki wondered, but they were interrupted then, and only got to explore the topic - with great attention to detail - later.

Chapter Text

6B

Dark magic came from pain. Everyone was so quick to point fingers at the users of it, but truth was, there was a difference between an accomplished dark mage and a child that used one dark spell unwittingly once.

For someone to turn to dark magic, and become proficient, not just the pain of a catastrophic event was needed, or one prolonged period of despair. It was only constant and powerful pain that almost broke you that would push you to the next level.

Those who turned completely dark had been suffering constantly for decades, so it wasn't usually born out of nothing, as the stories sometimes would lead you to believe.

And it had a positive effect. Even from a very young age, Loki could take away the pain of others, and make it his own. If he wanted to be honest, sometimes it seemed like it was the only skill his family appreciated.

He would have taken Thor's pain away and suffered it a hundred times over still if it meant that Frigga was smiling at him proudly, and Odin didn't have any negative comment on Loki or his magic.

As time passed though, everything was taken for granted, and there was less magic even in magic. And Loki also developed a sort of magical tolerance, his powers feeling different. He couldn't feel anything in his magical essence, and with his mind, he supposed all he should be feeling was used.

He also hit a wall in growing his powers. Or maybe, it should be better said that he was standing in front of a metaphorical door, and he knew that if he opened it, he'll know unimaginable powers he hadn't before.

But it would also mean that he'd risk the magic controlling him if he didn't succeed in controlling the magic. It was a dangerous step in the evolution of any magical, and even when you did it once, pulling such energy and using your body to channel it was forever risky.

If you lost control of it even for just one second, it could kill you or worse. Destroy everything and everyone around you. And sometimes, when the pain was too much even for a seasoned mage, they'd lose control on purpose. Cautionary tales were full of them.

So Loki never even risked it. Until he learned he was adopted, and a Frost Giant. Then he left home and would have probably self-destructed, if not for Thanos finding him, and taking him as an understudy.

Teaching and coaching Loki, even though it also meant that he was molding Loki to fit his own agenda - Loki still owed his life to the Mad Titan.

So he went to Midgard when Thanos asked. And he was ready to use the Chitauri spell, which was forbidden for thousands of years now, and with good reason.

But Thor appeared and he still wouldn't see Loki as a monster, and maybe it was enough for just one person to believe that for Loki to stop, or maybe he wasn't going to do it anyway? He knew what was the price of any war too well as an Aesir, a Frost Giant, and a magic-wielding being, and while he had no choice to ignore his past, he didn't want to be the reason for anyone on Midgard to end up the same.

So he absorbed all the energy he could, from the spell that has been already released and substantially more powerful than him. He fully expected to die, and it's not like it would nullify the enchantment entirely. You couldn't put back a genie in a bottle, even though Loki tried.

But he had surprising magical capacity as it turned out. More power than Odin or even Thanos had ever given him credit for - but maybe that was a strategy. Only, Loki believed them.

So it was unfortunate because while it meant that he could save Midgard and even the individual Midgardians who would have been caught up in his spell more efficiently, he didn't count on staying alive while doing it.

He had no plans. He couldn't go back to Asgard, not to mention how furious Thanos probably was with him, but he didn't know any other life.

And he had spent months in a Midgardian hospital bed with the ever so strange mortals as his only company - he was too week to do anything about his condition, and the Midgardian medicine quite frankly was underwhelming compared to what magic could offer.

Although, when a little better, Loki could send out clones of himself to spy on the Midgardians to pass the time (it started with Thor, but as time passed, he was bored, and it was better than the so-called television), and one of the humans was less of a joke than the others.

Stark had what the magical texts called a "restless pioneering soul", who no matter his achievements, his conquests, or even his wealth, would always live in turmoil. He'd never settle because after everything he'd done, there's always something bigger, better, and more. Whenever Midgard had a group of people like this gather in one era, revolutions came and rewritten history.

Stark's curse was that he was in an era where Midgard wasn't blessed with many brilliant men like him, and alone he was just a small clog in the machine, not having much effect.

Sometimes discouraged whether he was doing the right thing at all - technology could harm just as help, although never stopping because it wasn't in his nature to stop. Not being able to draw inspiration from any fellow competitors, because nobody was doing things like him, so turning to alternative geniuses of other genres like music, trying to still forge a way ahead when his path wasn't clear.

Loki found he could relate, although they were nothing alike, so he wondered if he should do one harmless experiment when he had enough magic for it, and that's how it started.

Just one time, when Stark came to talk to him, Loki took his pain, self-doubt, and constant worry, and wondered if it would have any impact on how productive Stark could be that day at all.

Problem was, it had a remarkable effect. Stark worked for 3 days straight without sleep or rest, like a machine, upbeat and with measurably faster and trashing less of his ideas later, so arguably with better results as well.

It was then not only Loki's curiosity that he continued to pull misery from Tony but also a "justified" motion. Loki was a deity, and if he could help mortals so much through Stark by taking so little action (doing something he had always done for others with not much effect, nor was it then his choice whom to support), then he had to, right?

Except, he should have told Stark. Warned him about the consequences. Asked for his permission, right from the beginning. He did none of these. With time, it was even harder to tell, because by then he'd also had to admit that he'd been doing it for months.

But as Tony didn't know what was happening, he wasn't aware why he liked to spend time with Loki so much. He must have subconsciously noticed that his mood became better when he spent time with Loki because he kept showing up next to Loki's bedside in the hospital room, and then offered Loki accommodation in the Avengers Tower as well, but when they talked...

Well, for the lack of a better word, Stark was flirting with Loki. Mistaking his good mood and relief from grief when Loki was around for attraction. And the more Loki wanted to escape this, knowing full well what was happening, the more Tony seemed to enjoy teasing him about it.

"I could teach you so many things," he was telling Loki, who only dared himself to not react, in the hopes that it would discourage the topic, but it wasn't working. "Things I'm sure not even the Aesir know about. I could take you to new highs you didn't even dare to dream of..."

"Will you ever stop?" Loki closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Unfortunately, him taking Tony's sadness away also seemed to have empowered Stark's confidence.

Which was fragile before at best, hidden behind a facade, so it was only healthier now, but not how it seemed to be directed toward Loki.

"Why? What do you think I'm talking about?" Tony asked with a mischievous smile, so Loki was careful not to fall into that trap.

"What were you talking about?"

"My workshop, what else. Teaching you about technology. And also, it's five floors up, so it's quite high..."

"But of course," Loki could have rolled his eyes. If only the topic was just directed for a workshop visit, and he could sleep at night.

"Alright, maybe it was a little bit more than that. But you're attracted to me, so I can't figure why you wouldn't want to come to visit either way."

"You're here often enough anyway."

"So you don't even try to deny our chemistry," Tony only heard what he wanted to hear. "Are you shy? Maybe even-"

"Or, has it not occurred to you, that maybe - just maybe - I don't want to have sex with you?" Loki was quick to jump on defense, hoping this would be discouraging enough.

But it's hard to do that when the certain person whom you were talking to had experienced many rejections when younger, and now you were tied to their emotional landscape because you were secretly making them feel better, and you could directly sense the sharp pain your words just caused.

"I mean it wouldn't be smart," Loki tried to self-correct.

"Don't," and although Stark maybe hasn't even noticed, his whole posture shrunk on himself, and now his mood took a turn.

And when Loki tried to pull at least some of the darkness from Tony, now he was met with impenetrable walls. Stark not only had a brilliant mind, it seemed, but some elementary magic as well without noticing.

It was just Loki's luck. Mess up one of the human's life of a select few he couldn't fix - not without permission.

"Well, I'll be seeing you-" Tony said, and wanted to leave, and judging by his expression, he wouldn't return either, not soon...

So, Loki did what he felt was the only way. Blocked the door with some magic, and rushed to Stark to kiss him. Didn't even object when that led to something more, soon Tony pushing Loki down on his bed.

"Are you sure about this? You've just said..."

But by then, Loki had no mind to object for Tony's sake. He wanted the engineer, even if it was a horrible act for Loki to use Stark's messed up feelings like that. Loki wanted him since the first time they've met, and by then he couldn't bear to stop a very willing Tony, not anymore.

How was it possible, that despite Tony being a mortal, he was a better lover than any of Loki's previous flames was a mystery.

On the other hand, how Loki was only more drawn to him than ever wasn't.

Without sex, Loki could only siphon some of Tony's darkness slowly, incrementally away, with care. With the physical side of things, with touch, he could directly take everything as if it was offered on a plate, and it was... addictive. Like a drug for humans. And Loki was powerless against the pull it had on him, just as Tony probably was, the only difference being that Loki knew better, and he had the power to stop.

If the humans knew what he was doing, even if Thor suspected, Loki was sure none of them would have greeted Loki as an Avenger now, working with them. Then even cheering when Tony told everyone they were a couple.

But Loki supposed he deserved what he got. The deeper he sunk into a lie, the more difficult it was to set it right, and in the past, he was only ever too quick to use lies and magic instead of facing problems head-on like Thor, so this punishment seemed to fit his crime, years later.

Then Thanos attacked a couple of years later (Loki excepted that too, even earlier), and while Loki and Thor did their best to try to tell everyone on Midgard to be ready for such an attack, there was no way they could have been.

So maybe Loki couldn't live with Tony honestly, but he could sacrifice his life without lies. After all, Thanos taught Loki most he knew, and there was no way for Loki to win, but at least he could protect Tony, right?

When Loki ran out of magic, he took it from the people around. He took more than ever before, and he wouldn't have survived if he tried to contain it, but he only needed to last for a very short while, then even if he exploded, he'd just have to make sure to do it in Thanos' face, far away from Tony, right? And not let the dark magic take his right mind until then.

But it wasn't enough, Thanos had magical stones that were charged by thousands if not millions of magicals in the past. Some even gave their lives for them, only making the artifacts more potent than ever, and Thanos had a will to wield such power, unfortunately.

So when Loki didn't have more magic, he started depleting his life force, using "red" magic, which was red because the caster used his or her blood as a last resort. Casting spells that took years off from the caster's lifespan, but unmatched in power.

Except, this time, even this unimaginable power was handled by Thanos, and Loki was starting to wonder if all this was for naught. If Doctor Strange and Wanda hadn't shown up to save the day then, with Thor giving them a hand, Loki would have died for nothing.

This way, he lived, but also... Upon hospitalization, when Doctor Strange examined Loki, he'd found the very much 1, existing 2, established and 3, strengthened the connection between Loki and Tony, and he asked Tony about it, assuming he knew about it.

And Tony was understandably fucking furious.

"I think you owe me an explanation. How could you do this behind my back? How dare you?" he demanded from Loki when Loki first regained consciousness, barely able to breathe, not able to talk, but he tried anyway.

"I'm... sorry. I get it if you... want me to leave," Loki told him, even though, he had a feeling he was only alive because Tony was close to him now. Close enough for Loki's magic to take some dark energy from him, even when Loki was unconscious.

"Leave? I wanna murder you nine ways before Sunday, but I'm not gonna let you fucking leave," Tony told him. "If what the Doc said was true, I'm the only thing that's keeping you alive now."

"And you don't need to do that."

"But I do! I would do it for any Avenger, but since it's you, I'll just have to do it all the more."

"I thought you were... you've just said..." Loki tried to say but was so weak that a coughing fit interrupted whatever he could say.

"Oh, I'm angry. Horribly. Both for you keeping secrets from me, and how you seemed to think it was a good idea to try to stop Thanos on your own, risking your goddamn life in the process, believe me. But I don't want you dead. That's kind of part of the reason why I'm furious..." and he wasn't. Or couldn't have been, because he said all this so calmly.

But when Loki got a tiny bit better and could stay away not passing out from his injuries, that's when Tony gave him a tray of food - only to pull it back when Loki would have reached for it.

"Believe me, I can't work from here, so I want you to eat and get well soon," he told Loki. "But I also have a feeling if I don't ask you this now, you'll never tell me. So... what kind of spell did you have me under for the last three years?"

"Closer to five years," Loki admitted with a guilty conscience.

"Five? One day I'm gonna have to get back on you for this," Tony said. But when Loki fell silent, waiting for that, he added. "Not today though, when you're incapacitated and still haven't told me shit. So go ahead. And talk."

"I'm a dark magician, so I can use dark thoughts, moods, and general energy to do things mortals can't," Loki started.

"So, in a nutshell, of all the people around you, I was the most pathetic, and you decided-" Tony started, but Loki quickly corrected.

"You were the most brilliant and hindered at the same time. So I thought it would make a difference at first. And when it did, I sort of got sucked in."

"Because I was pushing you into a relationship, and you didn't want to destroy me by saying no," Tony stated, not even looking at Loki, but still very much using it as a question to access what happened.

"No. I got sucked in because your... darkness is so similar to mine. It's hard to put it into words."

"Well, try," Tony sarcastically noted. At first glance, he was angry, but at second, he had lines under his eyes, and his emotions were volatile, shifting from one extreme to another. Also a complication of Loki leeching on Tony, then mostly stopping when hospitalized now.

"I was drawn to you more and more because our darkness is so similar. It's not only more like a - for a lack of a better word - delicacy when I meet someone like you, but magically speaking, it also makes most sense that I'm attracted to your darkness because if I take magic that's closest to my own, my magic wouldn't have to convert or change it all to use it right away. And it's even more effective if we're close. I only intended to share your bed for one night, then always swore it won't happen again, or if it did I'd tell you, but... I'm a horrible person."

"Let me get this right. You take the darkness from me because I'm similar to you?"

"Exactly," Loki hoped at least Tony getting this now would mean that Tony will stay away from him. When he could without killing Loki, that is.

"And what does that mean for me? I'm collecting more of this dark energy because you constantly top it off?"

"No."

"Then?"

"You'd feel a little bit more... happy is a strong word, but maybe less... burdened and lighter, if you will."

"And my attraction to you?"

"Could be just a side effect."

"That's what the Doc said as well, but I don't get it."

"You might have realized you're in a better mood because of my magic when I'm around. And you mistook it for what humans call attraction when it's just a kind of automatic reaction," Loki said. "Not to mention, due to the constant transfer of energy between us, now we have a shorter, faster way of connection, and could very well be that you can feel my addiction to the process resonating back to you, even if you aren't magical."

He expected a lot of things, but not Tony staring at him for a while, contemplating, then... throwing his head back to laugh.

"I can't believe this."

"It's not a joke, Tony! It's a very serious offense that I used you like this, and-"

"That's what Strange said, but I disagree. You're basically saying that you took my deep-rooted self-hate, self-doubt, and dark thoughts away, making me feel better while you also got stronger. And that our relationship isn't just special but even magically strengthened. As if you were a frickin' good vampire, spreading happiness and dating me in the process."

"I'm not!" Loki was upset how Tony didn't seem to get it. "Haven't you just heard anything I've just told you?"

"I did, and if I had a choice, I would have only asked where can I sign up for it. As it wasn't, because you volunteered me by yourself..."

"Tony, please, you can't just be okay with this-"

"I'll settle for some cruel torture I can inflict on you upon your recovery later as retribution. Like, you won't be allowed to date anyone else but me. Ever. Or complain about the fact. And you brought this on yourself, Mr..."

"I... but I can't," Loki didn't get it. Tony wanted to forgive him, but it didn't make any sense. So maybe this was also because of the magic?

"And I also demand you to teach me some magic. So the next time you want to suck my darkness out of my body, at least I'm aware. Maybe even capable of stopping you, if you would use it to kill yourself on the field," Tony now gave Loki a disapproving look. "Deal?"

"No."

"Then I'll go to the Doc then, he said he'll teach me."

"I mean no, we can't stay together. I'm a danger to you, and you're-"

"If I learn magic, you'll have no power over me, right?" Tony, however, didn't listen. "And tell me this: if I was the happiest person alive, and well, would you ever put me down just so you can leach on my darkness once again?"

"Of course not."

"No, think about it. It's an important question."

"I'm not that kind of a monster. Even when I used the Chitauri spell, I never let it roam free because... I know what it's like to be hurt, and I can't inflict that on anybody else."

"So it's a strong no."

"Of course, there's no guarantee," Loki said. "I could turn to it just as unexpectedly as I was pulled to you..."

"I doubt it, and for the record, even Strange said you wouldn't, and he kinda hates you now because you got all the credit of defeating Thanos," Tony told him. "But as long as that's true, you're kind of one of the best things that ever happened to me."

"I'm really not."

"Alright, not just one, but the best," Tony now had a faint smile in the corner of his lips. "My work is my life. And although I've always given it all I got, since you've been secretly feeding on my emotions, the same thing - all that I got - means a lot more. I don't want to lose that. Not to mention-"

"Ask Wanda then. She's also a dark witch, and crazy powerful, maybe you can work out a deal with her."

"Not to mention, I enjoy the process. When you leech on me while you're under me," Tony was now smugly grinning. "No offense to Wanda, but not in a hundred lifetimes could I enjoy her like that, if you know what I mean."

Loki thought he must be getting better indeed if he could think of the aforementioned activities with such vigor now. But he listened to his body once before when he should have used his words instead when he first slept with Tony, so now he tried to concentrate on what mattered.

"You're taking this way too lightly," he told Tony. "Trying to prove something to me or yourself, or maybe even Strange, I don't know. But if you pretend to be fine with it, and bury it, it'll only resurface later more viciously and you'll hate me..."

"I did say I'm planning to get you back for it," Tony said. "And don't worry, I'll complain when I don't like something. Loudly. And maybe even try to annoy you ever so slightly, once you're better, and stuff you can't even imagine right now, because you've never met Tony the Vicious Avenger before... but I'm more intelligent than basically kicking myself in the nuts as well by breaking up the arrangement that worked so well in the past for both of us, whether I knew about it or not."

In a way, he was right. While he was also very wrong. But Loki didn't have it in him to resist then, and Tony took it as an agreement. So they didn't break up.

Not even when Tony learned magic, and now could channel his power into his creations, making unbelievable hybrids of technology and magic, like only a very limited few in the whole galaxy could (not even Loki).

If anything, Loki wondered if maybe he was just holding Tony back from brilliance then. Until...

Tony sensed how Loki was more distant because of that, and one day when in bed, he leeched on Loki's magic now, almost giving Loki a heart attack.

"What on the Nine Realms?! It's not safe for you to-"

"I'm not just capable of handling this magic, but feel invincible now so shut up," Tony told him, high on power still, probably. But while Loki did this trick more times than he could count, it was never done on him. Even Frigga and Thor, who cared for him wasn't capable to, and the fact that Tony would just do it, out of blue was... Overwhelming, but in a good way.

As strange as it was, when Loki had no enemy to fight (and protect Midgard from), and his magic would turn against him, Tony would take it and use it in his process of inventing.

Then, when a threat surfaced and Loki was on the field, Tony would open a channel between them, and let Loki take all the magic he'd need for the next fight.

Somewhere between the two of them, even the darkest forces were balancing out, and...

"You remember how you've told me once that I could be so much better off if I had some peers who were like me?"

"Yes. Geniuses tend to change the world, but that change often skyrockets if they aren't working alone," Loki said, and Tony just smiled.

"Well, guess what, I'm doing exceptionally well nowadays..."

"But we can't know how much better you'd do-"

"And I have a theory. I think you're my tribe. Making me all the more brilliant," Tony stated then.

And Loki was about to tell him it wasn't true, but Tony shut him up with a kiss, then saying.

"Don't argue with me, I need complete agreement and support from you to become even more awesome."

"But then, who'll challenge you, Tony?" Loki switched tactics, smiling as well, because Tony knew Loki hated to be told to shut up, and still did it, knowing how it was the only way to get Loki to change the topic.

"Um, that would be Bruce, probably. He's great, you know," now Tony was pulling his leg as if he didn't even get how Loki was referring to himself.

If it was anybody else teasing him like this, or making jokes on Loki's expanse, he wouldn't have appreciated it. But Tony was different because Tony could be teasing the hell out of him one second, just to be there for him the next, so... Loki kinda loved it.

That said, sometimes payback was still in order, but luckily, Tony seemed to be entertained by that side of Loki as he was fine with all the other sides of Loki, which was not a small feat, given that he knew Loki the best.

Chapter Text

The Sorcerer Supreme, with the magic of the Time Stone, couldn't be surprised. Even when the Ancient One couldn't foresee her death, she must have had a very good guess what would happen.

Even as a Doctor, Strange had the intelligence that would permit him to assess certain situations and people, and see how it all would play out in the end.

Add the ability to investigate all the possible futures to the mix, and photographic memory and Stephen could have been used as a future-predicting machine because his accuracy rivaled certainty.

However, what was he supposed to do if in all the possible futures (14,000,604) he saw Thanos won?

Because that's what happened. When Bruce Banner literary dropped in the Sanctum, and he told them Thanos was coming, Stephen investigated all the possible futures, and found none where Earth wasn't doomed.

So, he had to use that spell. It was a spell that would make the caster's most desired wish come true. Since Strange wished for Thanos to be defeated the most, it fit.

Only, as always, the spell came with a very steep price. It would grant your most desired wish, but the reason it was forbidden because it would grant your wish in a way that was also nothing like you imagined. Many magicians who cast it went mad, turned dark, or resorted to suicide because they couldn't take the reality they fabricated with it.

Strange, however, living through an eternity of pain with Dormammu, doubted it was anything he couldn't take, and... it was his only choice. Something he wouldn't expect, because everything he could (all 14 million of them) didn't hold the solution for the problem.

So he began the incantation, and at first, he didn't think it worked at all until he didn't wake in the Avengers Tower - as Tony Stark.

You'd think Stark could get a lift to anywhere anytime, but with Miss Potts chasing (now Strange) around with paperwork, and his driver refusing to drive him without a talk he insisted they should be having, getting back to the Sanctum wasn't easy.

And even when he did, and Wong opened the door, he only said: "We aren't buying anything," and closed it on Stephen's face.

There were many theories about how magic worked, and why some of the mages were stronger than others, but Strange had a unique opportunity to test one thing.

If you knew the theory, but had a different body, how much power could you still muster? The answer was not that much. As Wong and Mordo told Strange when he first used the Eye, it wasn't just enough to know an incantation to use it. You had to have an inclination for magic, and Stark - while he wasn't a complete zero on the scale - didn't have what it took to be Sorcerer Supreme.

So, now Stark stood between all magical threats and Earth in Stephen's body, with no knowledge of even the basic spells, while Strange who had the knowledge, was trapped in a body that didn't have the power to execute it.

How would this help defeat Thanos? If anything, this was a failure, even though it had its moments.

Like Wong's horrified face when instead of knocking on the Sanctum's door again, Stephen magicked himself in.

"What in Vishanti's name... who are you and how did you get through the Sanctum's protections?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you!" Stark explained in Stephen's body. It was surreal, to say at least. "That I'm not myself! Whoever this is..."

"It appears we've switched bodies with Stark, Wong," Strange said. "Mr. Stark, I'm Doctor Stephen Strange, and currently-"

"But why would you use a body-switch spell?" Wong wondered.

"I didn't."

"If not, then... you did something even worse," Wong realized. "Couldn't stop at meddling with Time, you had to add Reality to the list?"

"It's part of a bigger plan," Strange tried to sound confident. So far, he had no idea how two incapacitated superheroes were better than their original future, but he had to trust the spell. "Stark, we probably should-"

"If the next thing out of your mouth isn't how you have a very easy way to turn me back, I'm gonna flip," Stark, however, seemed to be more agitated than Strange himself. Which was funny, because having Strange's body and powers was no reason to freak out.

"It's all part of a bigger plan," Stephen repeated himself. "I've checked all the possible futures, and Earth was destroyed in them all. So I did a spell..."

"I don't even want to hear it," Stark turned around. Probably to leave.

"You think they'd even let you in your precious Tower looking like this?" Strange tried to stop him.

"You're right. So undo it, or should I click my heels three times?"

"Please don't," Stephen thought how ridiculous he'd look doing that. "It can't be undone. But, if you help me save the world, I'll help you with whatever paperwork Miss Potts seems to be adamant about."

He only took a couple of steps toward Stark, who held out a hand to stop him, and then stared when his hands were shaking badly, which was probably the last straw before he freaked.

He had most of Strange's powers, but not the slightest idea how to control it.

In a way, it was lucky he didn't do something worse, only leveling the Sanctum in a shockwave when his panic - at least it must have been - triggered a huge burst of energy release, which Stephen could barely shelter himself from, even a simple shield is pushing Stark's body to its limits.

A classic "don't give a newbie a bazooka" situation, Strange realized when he managed to get out of under all the rubble and get to Stark, who was... having a panic attack.

"Control starts with your breathing," Stephen tried to tell him. "Let's..."

"That shit doesn't work for the Hulk, while should it work for me," Stark snapped at him.

"Believe me, I thought magic was bullshit as well at first, but if you don't want to level half of the city, you have to trust me."

"We'll all die," Stark clearly didn't. "And it's going to be your fault."

"I'd rather die knowing that Earth was safe. And that's why I did the spell as well."

"Next time, exclude me," Stark was furious. But also, while yelling, he forgot about his breathing, and now the magic was retreating. "I'm not in the business of..."

"The Sanctum needs to be repaired, or we're all dead already," Wong also appeared. "But if the Time-Stone is used incorrectly-"

"That's why we're lucky I've been switched with someone who is a world-renowned genius. I'm going to coach Stark through it."

Wong knew just as well as Strange that it was the worst idea ever, but it's not like they had a choice, and if Stark knew the risks, he'd panic less.

"I'm not doing any magic tricks," and Stark still wasn't even on board.

"You must. You have all the power of the greatest magician of the entire planet at your disposal to do it. Or is it that you can't do what us, a couple of wizards can?" Stephen tried a different approach that would have worked on him, only hoping it would have the same effect on Stark as well.

"Alright, one spell, and then I'm out of here."

It was a start. So Strange first explained how the spell was supposed to work. Then he went through the composition of the spell, and the intricate tricks you had to pay attention to, and he left the gesture last on purpose because he didn't want Stark to accidentally trigger it, but before they could practice the movement for more than 5 seconds, Stark grew impatient and used the spell anyway.

Turned back time correctly, when he all but saw how Stephen would have done it only twice.

"He'll kill us both in a matter of days," Wong told Strange when he braced himself for the worst, but Stark did it.

"There, now I'm going home," and Stark just took off the Eye, placing it Wong's hand, shook off Levi, and walked out on the door.

"I was wrong," Wong stared at Strange. "He'll not only kill us in days but let the word be destroyed in a matter of hours. Why didn't you stop him?"

"Nobody knows the Sanctum is unguarded, and I have some basic magic still," Strange told him.

"But that's no use-"

"And I was only mocking him, but he is a genius. He managed to use the Time-Stone correctly for the first time without effort..."

"It could be a fluke."

"Let's not tell him that," Strange decided. There was some hope for them just yet, maybe, if they played it right. "It's better if he isn't self-conscious about his magic, or we're just as much in deep shit as you've said."

"Shouldn't have used that spell, Strange," Wong only murmured then. "But if you're staying for dinner like this, at least take a shower first."

===

Tony was working on a suit that wasn't only composed of nanotech but could also reflect the light in a way that would render him invisible to the naked eye for days. A magic trick, not expecting he'd turn into a wizard overnight for real.

He did go straight home from the magician's temple, and hacked himself back into his workshop, updating Friday about what happened while actively avoiding everyone else for now, but it was little to no help.

First, Strange did say the fate of the world depended on this spell, and that it couldn't be undone, and that wasn't exactly comforting news. Second, Tony did throw out the magician's clothing the minute he got home, but it's not like he could do with the Doctor's body. With magic.

Threatening Tony to blow up every time Tony got worked up just thinking about what happened or what would happen now. And he didn't have the green eye-thingie to restore the Tower if he destroyed it, not to mention, Pepper and Happy didn't have shields like the wizards to save them from the shockwave.

So he couldn't let himself blow up, but then he had a nightmare, and woke up in the snow, on a mountaintop where he'd never been in his entire life. Only ever too lucky that he fell asleep with the nano-housing on, so he could fly himself back from... the fucking Himalayas.

That's when he knew he had to go back to Strange.

"You did this to me," he told the Doc about teleporting in his sleep without intent."So now you're going to have to help me fix it."

"You're meaning to say you teleported on your own?" Strange seemed to be stuck on the least important detail.

"Yes, I did some magic without your help, I'm unbelievably talented..."

"No, it's not... You might be, but I need to know," Strange frowned at him. "You're sure you weren't wearing a ring like this?"

"I've never seen more stupid-looking jewelry in my life, and I can assure you, I'd remember, Doc," Tony told him. "So, I was thinking. Block my powers. I don't want them."

"Can't. But if you truly teleported without a Sling Ring, maybe I could teach you to control it."

"I don't have time for this," Tony wanted to leave again, already regretting coming back. He was too old to join a cult now, and no matter what problems he had in the past, there was one constant thing he could rely on. Science. Not magic, and waving wands around.

"I thought you said you almost destroyed the Tower several times," Strange kindly reminded him. "And besides, what else would you do?"

"Work, I have an actual job that doesn't consist of setting up mirrors and pulling out of white bunnies out of hats, you know..."

"Are you quite finished?" the Doc just gave him a look. "I meant that if you would have tried to do that yesterday, you would have figured how you can't even hold up a razor just right, so how are you planning on building anything?"

"I can use voice command with my AI, and have the machines assemble most of what I want," Tony tried, but it was true. He didn't consider how it could be a problem.

"Most of, but not everything, right? Therefore, you need my help," Strange told him. "If you're also willing to help me, you have yourself a deal."

"That's why you let me leave yesterday," Tony realized with some mild irritation. "You knew I'd be back anyway."

"You don't wield the Time-Stone for a number of years without not having some insight," the Doc told him.

"So I'm supposed to believe that you have a spell to keep your hand from shaking and you haven't used it on yourself just yet?"

"It's not a spell. If you learn to channel my magic, you can use it to keep your hands steady," Strange explained. "It's a constant effort, but you-"

"Alright, will this take long?" Tony could only sigh. "Because I wanted to go back by lunch, I have an SI board meeting at 2."

"Disciplines spend decades learning magic, and you can't attend the meeting anyway..."

"But I can, if I digitally mask myself as Tony Stark, and only video conference in. I've already finished the program that's needed for it last night, while you've been doing what exactly, with my body?" Tony meant how no matter what changed, he'd still have the capability to adapt, while the Doc was trying to come at him with some kind of Hagrid act, not much of a use.

However, Strange misunderstood him.

"Nothing much yet, but don't give me ideas," and instead of intimidated, he seemed to be in a challenging mood, but two could play that game.

"I'm warning you, Doc, if you ever as much think of a rectal exam or something like that while you have my body, I'll return the favor."

"How?" Strange smiled. "Maybe a machine handling your most delicate parts isn't a good idea, no matter how you could probably program a routine for yourself overnight..."

Another thing Tony didn't consider he couldn't be doing without his hands.

"Enlighten me then, how did you manage this particular problem then, Strange?"

"I can teach you a spell or two for that as well."

Tony could only inwardly groan. But he'd be a hundred times more irritated soon if he didn't learn that spell so...

"I don't think we'd start your training from the beginning, or waste time on theory," the Doctor must have sensed his reluctance. "I'll just show you what you can do, and you'll have to figure out how to do it yourself. My body's muscle memory should probably help you. But in turn, I want your phone number."

"Why?"

"So I can directly contact you if the planet's under attack and we need your help."

"Speaking of impending disasters," Tony said. "I'll give you my phone number if you, in turn, take out Pepper to dinner."

"I have no intention of dating your woman, Stark-"

"It's not a date. It's her way of checking up on my mental state. And you don't even have to do anything, just go out, have some food, and don't give her any reason to doubt your mental sanity."

"Is that all?" Strange wondered, but then, when the other wizard appeared, he turned back to Tony. "If you manage to teleport yourself the way you did in your dream, showing Wong and me, you got yourself a deal, Stark."

"No offense, but I'd rather not waste hours to get back to the States again," Tony told them.

"Oh no, you could just teleport yourself upstairs, or a couple of meters to any direction," the Doc insisted, so Tony closed his eyes, and tried to remember the feeling of the teleportation magic.

He wanted to teleport behind the other two, but his control sucked, so he ended up next to them, but they didn't know that, right?

"There, did I pass the exam, Professor?" Tony said, but then, the wizard standing next to Strange was staring at him with a bewildered expression, and Stephen was... laughing. Like a madman, in Tony's body.

"What?" Tony asked, then mildly irritated. Maybe he messed the spell up, but it was no reason to laugh him out of the Sanctum, it's not like he claimed to be Gandalf or anything, right?

"It's impossible. He doesn't have a Sling Ring. Not even the Sorcerer Supreme can just teleport without one..." the second magician seemed as if in some kind of a shock.

"Apparently, Tony Stark can," Strange told him before turning to Tony. "You must forgive us. Disciplines are taught right from the start that they can't teleport without a special ring, and you just proved that principle wrong."

"How did you do it?" now the second magician was on Tony. "What did you even think of?"

"All I was thinking was how I wanted to do it? Then I just did," Tony suggested.

"Imagine what he could do if he'd seen a couple of things we can do," Strange seemed to be in a good mood for the first time since Tony had met him, talking to the other wizard. "Maybe that's why the spell worked out this way."

"I wouldn't celebrate just yet," the second wizard seemed cautious.

"No, but it's a start," Strange said, and Tony wanted to wipe that smile off. He didn't ask for this and hated if it was working out for the wizard all too comfortable in Tony's body that he stole.

"I'm not spending the night here."

"A good thing that you can teleport yourself in then, every morning," the Doc grinned.

"Every day? I have to come here every day?" Tony echoed. "For how long?"

"I assure you, the faster you learn, the less time you have to spend in my company," Strange told him.

"That spell better worth all this trouble," Tony could only mention, because it's not like it would be safe for him not to learn how to control this power that was dropped in his lap, so he had no choice.

Also, if he could be the one to save the world, he'd do it (he had been doing that for a while now). But he didn't want to give Strange the satisfaction, since it was all the wizard's fault.

"You can also use Astral Projections to do your work while sleeping," the Doc offered.

"If that's true, I hate you a little bit less," it was the closest Tony would get to a thank you, given everything.

===

The more time they had to spend together, the more Strange was conscious of how similar they were, seeing himself in Stark, and not just because Tony now looked exactly like him.

And the more he was annoyed by Tony's antics when he would have done the same thing in the same situation, the more compassion he felt for the Ancient One when she had to deal with him and his questions.

But at least the similarity didn't end there. True, maybe Stark didn't have Strange's memory, but he had the same curiosity, drive and when even those ran a little low, could be provoked into learning new things just by presenting it as a challenge.

Strange never taught him the inner workings of a single spell, thinking that if Tony was doing it instinctively, he might just find different solutions to the same problems, but there was still plenty of practice both mentally and physically that Stark needed.

At least their quid pro quo system worked wonders until it maybe worked too well. Stephen couldn't place the fact when Stark suggested something more based on that system that they were already doing.

"So, Doc, for every favor you do for me, I do one for you."

"That's right, and it's non-negotiable."

"I don't want to change that either," Tony said. "I was thinking of another type of favor too, actually."

And Strange wasn't obtuse to notice what Stark must have meant when he was giving him a suggestive look.

"I thought we established that while my hands are crappy, you can do anything with a clone-"

"And I have been doing just that if you want to hear about it..."

"Then?" Stephen didn't want to. Hear about it.

"I... can't help but think about.... it occurred to me one time, that I'm in a unique position that nobody else is, not really, and now I can't stop wondering how it would feel."

"To do exactly what?" Strange didn't know what Stark was on about but had a wild guess that he won't like it.

"I can fuck myself."

"Ah!" Stephen said, expecting something like this, but still not expecting this completely.

"And now I want to do it. So, what do you say?"

"Hard pass."

"Come on, Doc, you like yourself just as much as the next guy, and weirdly, it's hardly any different than if you do the same alone, given that I have your body... Not to mention, you must be bi, so..."

"Must be, you say."

"Well, your body reacts to all sorts of hot individuals so I figured-"

"I have better things to do, leave," Stephen didn't want to entertain this. At all.

"Why, you don't want to try it at least once? Fuck yourself?" Stark, however, seemed to be adamant it was the best idea he ever had. "Because given our arrangement, if you let me do it, you can do the same to me later. So, how about tomorrow then, if you're busy today?"

"No. Never gonna happen."

Except, they were sparring and Stark got the upper hand and used this anyway to kiss him first, then proved to Strange how it was a very good idea indeed.

Not so much though that Stephen wouldn't say.

"I still won't let you fuck me."

"Well, there are always ways around that, I can show you if you want."

"I don't."

"And here I thought sorcerers weren't truly monks," Stark was doing the same thing as Stephen when he tried to get Tony to do something he resisted, and then Strange challenged his ego a little bit, and even though Stephen knew this, it still worked.

He wasn't into men per se, but as a doctor, a body was a body and at least Stark was good, so he had no regrets, though it had to be one of the weirdest morning afters when Strange woke beside his own naked body still sleeping, while his Astral form sitting at Strange's desk, Stark busy working already.

"Coffee when you wake up?" Stephen offered and got an amused smile, and for a day or two, he thought that was it.

Except, then Tony kissed him again.

"I owe you one, remember? So..."

And it was kinda difficult to stop once it already happened twice as if the count of the occurrences mattered? But they did, and Strange finally managed to break it off after a while with an excuse.

"We can't do this anymore. I can't. It reminds me of all the things I've lost."

"You had a girlfriend before your accident?" Stark misunderstood.

"No, I mean my body. You got magic, but me, on the other hand... I'm still struggling with the simplest of spells."

"I haven't thought about that. Come over tomorrow, I'm going to show you something."

"No."

"It's something that may or may not help defeat Thanos, so I won't take no for an answer," Tony told him, and he was right, if it was Thanos related, Steven had to go.

"You know what would help defeat Thanos? If you could finally master the spell that lets you see into the alternate futures, Stark."

"But in the meanwhile, it's better than nothing."

It was a suit. That also flew and amplified magic, and Tony must have thought it would cheer Strange up if he was allowed to test it, but it made him miss Levi instead. And it wasn't a lie, he was also missing his magic, even though now he had steady hands.

How his life was ironic that way, right?

"It's great," he told Tony, thinking of going home.

"Just great? You must hate it."

"I'm not. But it's not the same. No amount of tech could replace... forgive me, I'm tired. I wanted this to happen, and the suit is nice, and I might just borrow it if Thanos appears one day. But I'd like to return to the Sanctum if you don't mind."

And maybe Stark thought he was still being a bitch about a spell he used himself or took it as a sign of how the extracurricular part of their arrangement should be ended, because he never approached Stephen suggestively again after that, and that was good.

Or at least that's what Strange thought, until Thanos came, and was defeated. And he had his body back, feeling much better about that, but quite like how he also lost an opportunity for something else.

"So?" Wong appeared a couple of days later. "You know what I'm about to say?"

"I... haven't looked into the possible futures just yet, I need to readjust," Stephen told him, but it was a lie. He didn't want to look, because it would also mean that he'd see how without an excuse to see Stark every day, they'd probably never see each other ever again.

"You mean you can see it?" Wong asked.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"In some cases, it's not a victory to win a war if you know it's going to happen."

"I don't get that."

"I mean, Stark didn't see the future because he had to find his own path to defeat Thanos, maybe," Wong explained. "Or, he couldn't because something's been happening to you, something major in your life that you shouldn't see before it happens, and when he took over your body, the restrictions stayed the same."

"Let me check," Strange quickly focused on the Stone and the spell to suddenly conjure... nothing. Nothing at all. Not a thousand possible futures, or even one.

"It's not working?"

"I'm going to die soon," Stephen announced, almost just to himself.

"It's not only death that would be spoiled if you knew about it. Think about it this way-"

"I have to talk to someone," Strange wasn't listening.

If he was dying in a possibly relatively short time, at least he wanted to talk to Stark once - while they were both completely themselves.

"You could have called ahead, Doc," Tony seemed to be surprised to see him, but also glad. "Or after the crisis is gone, you've already got rid of my number?"

"How are you holding up?"

"Great. I still have just barely enough magic to sustain a projection for each night, so my life is pretty much back to normal, but I also got to get some sleep, which is better... But you aren't here to talk about that, are you?"

"I'm dying. I mean I will die soon, probably," Stephen clumsily explained. "And anyone who could understand how I knew are only the other Masters or you, so..."

What was he doing? Strange started to think it was a horrible idea that he came to the Tower in the first place when Stark was looking at him as if contemplating something, but that didn't last.

"I'll pour you a real drink, while I pretend to join you with some water, and you have to tell me all about it."

"I don't want to intrude..."

"Stephen, are you under the impression that if you were, I'm the type of person who wouldn't tell you that? I know we're not exactly friends but that's only because..."

"We're both too self-centered for that to work?" Stephen chuckled but was mildly surprised by the answer.

"I was going say I still have the biggest crush on you ever, so it quite interferes, but I'm sure that's usual between masters and disciplines of magic, right?"

"Um no, no, I'd never had any... attraction to the Ancient One," Strange stated. "And not just because she was old and strict... It's not... Usually, people don't..."

"My mistake then, I'm special. Or you are," Tony smiled at him. "But it's true."

"Or you're only saying it because you're trying to make me feel better given that I've just told you I'll die..."

But then Stark kissed him, and with such a fervor too, that didn't seem fake.

"Weirdly enough, I like kissing you this way better."

"And if this isn't just pity..." Strange started because he didn't want that.

"If it is, it's the other way around, given that now I'm just a humble human being, and you're the strongest magician on the planet," Tony told him.

"...I seem to have a recollection of all the places where your body is sensitive."

"Let me try see if I remember yours."

===

Tony hated the fact that Stephen was going to die, but part of him knew this was the only reason the Doc showed up that night, so when Strange appeared one day with a "we have to talk", Tony could only hope it wasn't about how Stephen wanted to break it off.

"I fell asleep while meditating in the morning," Strange started. "And saw a couple of thousand possible futures."

"Oh, I thought you weren't supposed to," Tony was shocked.

"Fall asleep or see anything? Well, neither. But I didn't see myself."

"What does that mean?"

"I think... Wong told me something the other day, but I didn't listen," the Doc was positively radiating stress out of his every gesture, and Tony found it curious that he was so relaxed just this morning that he would fall asleep while meditating. "It's also possible that I'm not gonna die."

"But then what?" Tony didn't understand.

"Maybe I don't see myself because I fall in love, which is another significant life-changing event, just as if I was going to have a child or lose magic or something like that."

"Oh. But why?"

"Because then I could use time-magic to find the perfect way to tell you that I do."

"Do...?"

"Love you. Or if I'd see that it would end badly, I wouldn't even come here. Decisions that could be life-altering in my life. I'm also not able to see those, not just my death."

"Oh," was all that Tony could say. "So I have to tell you that I feel the same way? But I already kind of did."

"You didn't say-"

"I'm telling you right now," the last thing they needed was an argument about the semantics. "So I'm curious then... if you still have some time left and we both want this..."

"Yeah?"

"Then are you allowed to move in with me?"

"Here?" was all that Strange asked.

"I mean, I get it if you can't, acting as Oz and everything," Tony was babbling now, just to cover up how he might have made a mistake. The Doctor didn't seem like the type who wanted commitment, and Tony should have done it much later, and maybe along with some grand gesture or something. "It was just an idea. After all, you could still portal out if there was an emergency, and otherwise, we could be seeing more of each other with our busy schedules and everything, but you know what, I'll just-"

"Let's do it. I'll tell Wong first thing tomorrow."

"Only tomorrow?"

"I assumed I can stay here for tonight."

"In that case, I can also give you some closet space," Tony couldn't believe it, but Stephen was smiling at him.

"The only thing I could put there right now would be Levi, and I doubt he'd appreciate that."

"Maybe I should get him a display cabinet or some room with my suits."

Levi took the last part as an insult, because even though they got along just fine with Tony before, now he was doing everything in his power to make Tony's life harder.

"I get it. No locking you up in behind some glass."

But the cloak only imitated an angry shrug.

"Or anywhere. I'll key you into Friday's processes, so she can open you any door if Strange is in danger, so you can come to him anytime. But you have to promise to give us some privacy in return."

Tony only got another shrug, but he was convinced Levi was now laughing at him when Strange got back from his morning shower and saw them interacting.

"You know, sometimes I'm convinced he likes you better."

"Only prefers to annoy me more, probably, ever since I shrugged him off the first time we've met," Tony surmised, while the cloak only patted his shoulder, making Stephen laugh.

"You can always threaten to wash him in a machine," he told Tony.

Which turned out to be a mistake, because it got Levi sulking, and unfortunately that meant he didn't let them get close to each other for that night, getting between them the worst times, but that cloak-mood didn't last.

Not when Tony secretly programmed a "Levi Spa Day" routine into Dum-E's processes, and the cloak was having a gentle wash/massage while interacting with Tony's robots, while the "adults" were free to spend some time only the two of them.

Chapter Text

7B

As fun it was to live on Sakaar, the Grandmaster sometimes could be fickle, who would even sell his mother for some entertainment if he was bored. Loki understood this sentiment perfectly and managed to navigate his testy moods most of the time, but then, it couldn't be expected to last forever.

A witch fell on Sakaar, and resisted capture going against all sorts of weapons Sakaar had to offer only using her magic but still winning - the first sign she was capable. Second, she not only managed to get Grandmaster to give her accommodation and food, but she wanted money. Lots.

And after just about 10 minutes, she realized that the Grandmaster would only transfer so much credit to her if she gave him a spectacular show. Which, to Loki's misfortune, meant that she suggested magically dueling Loki, and the Grandmaster was delighted.

Not only did he get to see a magical duel, but he also made sure to note to Loki that if he didn't win, he'd fall out of favor. Technically, Loki had an escape plan out of the planet should something go wrong, but he didn't want to leave just yet.

So he traded a few things around and felt quite accomplished when he got a quite useful (and old too) spell-book for next to nothing.

Found a spell that wasn't exactly harmful, but could end the "duel" with Loki's immediate win right before the witch could get a chance to hurt Loki, which seemed like a good plan.

Loki wanted to use a body switch spell between her and one of the gladiators. Since it wasn't exactly a curse, it would wear off as soon as the two switched people could get on better terms, but Loki had his doubts if she would ever try to get close to a simple footman, even if her magic depended on it.

Only, she wasn't just capable, but more capable than Loki gave her credit for. She only put up a shield, and the spell bounced back.

Which wouldn't have been a problem if it wouldn't have hit Loki - and the Hulk.

Waking up in Bruce Banner's body, without magic, was almost as painful as when Loki realized he and Banner in Loki's body were locked up, but the Grandmaster and the witch were standing in front of their cage.

"She told me you tried to cheat," the Grandmaster turned to Loki, so he must have been informed about the spell.

"I thought you liked if someone did cheat," Loki reminded him, but he kept an eye on the witch, trying to figure what she was scheming because he was almost positive their rivalry didn't end there. But why did she tell the Grandmaster about the nature of the spell?

"Not if you try to cheat out my people and me of a great show," the Grandmaster said. "I'm very, very disappointed by you, Loki. I was tempted to melt you into a puddle, but then I was told that then the body of my Champion would be gone as well, and that can't happen. So if you want my forgiveness, you better find a way to switch back and do it fast. Otherwise..."

"Even if I had a way, not to mention a way without my magic," Loki started. "I don't think I want to change back just so you could kill me."

"I wouldn't. If you dueled her for real. But if you don't change back, you can bet you wouldn't like what comes next," the Grandmaster only said, and promptly left, before Loki could even try to explain how he wasn't capable of the impossible on a whim just because he had - used to have, as it was - magic.

So, Loki tried another way.

"How can I call on the green monster?" he asked Bruce, noting how his body looked different when Banner was slouching in it.

"Believe me, you don't want to," the scientist told him.

"Oh but I will, and you will escape with me, Banner."

"No, I'm not telling you anything."

"And here I thought you were supposed to be smart. How long do you think it is before the Grandmaster will start to threaten you as well if he doesn't get the Hulk back?"

"I'm on some weird alien planet and just been told that not only I missed years of my life, but I also lost my body in the process, while I got locked up for something you did," Bruce told him. "So whatever you say or do, there's no way I'll help you. You'd only double-cross me. At least this way you'll be forced to change us back."

"This isn't a trick!" Loki was in disbelief. "The spell can only be undone if we manage to get to some kind of understanding, and while I have my doubts that we'll ever manage to do that, it's immaterial, as long as we're behind bars. Even if by some miracle, I would be able to reverse the spell, you'd be still a prisoner of the Grandmaster, don't you get it? Not to mention..."

"That's not what he told me."

"The Grandmaster isn't known for thinking clearly. If he melts me while I'm in your body, you might die as well."

"Again, maybe not. And..." Banner started, but Loki saw through him.

"You don't want your body back, is that it? You secretly wanted to get rid of the monster for years now, only to realize it took over your body, and now you'd rather just not have it back at all."

"I do! But I won't fall for your bullshit. If you ask me, you're just like the Grandmaster, except the fact that he seems to be fond of the Hulk at least. So if I have to choose between the two of you, I'll take him."

"You're right, I like to screw with people so much that I'd do it, even if I maim myself in the process," Loki sarcastically said. "So of course, please, go with the madman, that's a better choice..."

"Out of the threats I'm facing-"

"The imminent one is him," Loki finished the sentence for him. But he was also getting desperate. He began to have doubts that he'd ever manage this. And he didn't especially like his body, but his magic was always there, and losing it would mean that 1, he would be helpless like he was now, and 2, he'd lose a part of himself like a missing limb.

"I disagree," Bruce Banner was wrong, but not even listening.

Loki only remembered wishing that he could just conjure his knives, even if he couldn't have magic back like ever when he just... blacked out. Woke up with no memory, naked and not happy, because he was still in Sakaar, based on the decor.

"You saved your life, you know," the Grandmaster visited him soon. "When you managed to return my Champion, you proved you had value, while that other guy in your body..."

"Where is he?"

"He's already being prepared for the arena. I hope he'll give us a spectacle before he dies."

Loki couldn't do anything. He wished he could Hulk out, but even if he did, and would have unimaginable strength for a mortal, he had no way to control that strength.

Besides, priority dictated that he'd concern himself less with destroying everything in his wake (maybe even the Grandmaster while he's at it), and more about saving Banner's life, before it would be too late and Loki would be stuck like this forever.

Even forever as a mortal was significantly different, after all, and if he was frank, he liked his mind too much to surrender it to the Hulk from time to time.

He had a couple of plans for how to get to the Arena, but he couldn't manage either in time.

Only, Banner was returned then promptly.

"Maybe you aren't so boring either, after all," the Grandmaster laughed cheerfully, bringing Bruce back to the room Loki was kept as well. "Maybe you could even fight each other. Or, the two of you could try to face the witch. I'll try to decide which one should we do next week."

They couldn't wait so long.

"What happened?" Loki asked, and was alarmed when he saw that Banner was hurt.

"I got almost killed, as you might expect. Then, out of nowhere, your magic protected me."

That was unexpected but appreciated. It gave Loki still a second chance to maybe - just maybe - set things right.

"And now you know I haven't been lying to you and the Grandmaster is dangerous," Loki added. "So, you need to do exactly as I say."

Banner didn't look happy.

"I'll help you, but only if you explain every step of your plan."

"If I'm lying about not trying to trick you, I can give you a false reason you know," Loki already felt tired just thinking about justifying all his decisions, and they hadn't even started just yet.

"I'm pretty sure you're going to trick me. But I'm telling you this because I might just have a better idea."

"Do you now," Loki couldn't help but think Banner was all talk.

"Explain everything and we shall see, right?"

Walking through Bruce the simplest steps of magic while justifying it was supposed to be a pain, but surprisingly, it wasn't.

Banner picked up things so easily as if he was using magic all his life, but he only got the right amount of power to do it right. Loki wasn't going to mention this, but at the same time, he couldn't just accept it.

"How are you doing this?"

"I thought it was obvious. I was following your instructions," Bruce looked at him. "So, should I-"

"But I haven't even taught you this spell."

"Yes, but you did teach me how to cast an illusion, and use the gaps between reality to hide anything, so all I did was just combine the two, and hide while keeping the illusion up-"

"I know how it works, I just didn't think you'd figure it out," Loki noted.

"Maybe once you get to know me, you'll figure I'm not as terrible as you seem to think humans are," the mortal seemed to be proud of himself, which was annoying.

"But I know you. You trashed Stark's floor with me."

"That's not me. It's-"

"Isn't he though? Maybe you can be only Bruce Banner the most charming, sweet, and clever guy because you have someone else to blame when you aren't."

And that got Loki what he wanted - surprise! wait, it wasn't - except that now Bruce not only stopped smiling but seemed tired if not fed up with the whole magic lesson, and his progress slowed.

Which meant that their escape had been just delayed.

And, if there wasn't some miracle cure they could find once free, Loki would have to bridge more of a rift between them.

"You aren't as inadequate as I thought."

"For someone who is supposed to be the Liesmith, you're a surprisingly terrible liar," Banner said. "And don't you think I know why you're saying that?"

"Because it's true? I haven't said you're great, just that you aren't terrible."

"Maybe we should try and get out of here instead of talking," Bruce announced.

His magic was, arguably, given that it was just a couple of days, the best progress Loki has ever witnessed, although he didn't know that many magicians.

And they managed to get as far as the hangar where they would have stolen the Grandmaster's ship, but unfortunately, it was guarded not only by the security system, but also magic - the works of the witch, by the looks of it.

So, they were not only thrown back to a room, but a prison, and now the witch assured them that the cell was shielded from magic attempts at escape as well.

"You need to turn into the Hulk," Bruce surmised. "I know him better than anybody else, and can calm him down, once we're far away from here."

"Except, I'm not trusting you with our plan completely alone," Loki reminded him. "And the Hulk hates you. Maybe hates you the most."

"Maybe, but I also know him well. As you've said, he's a part of me."

"If he was, I wouldn't be able to transform into him, he would have gone with you at the swap."

"Maybe, maybe not. But you gotta let me try," Banner said.

"Absolutely not."

But then, the Grandmaster took Loki to the Arena, and he almost died before the Hulk came out, and then...

"How long was I green?"

"A month," Bruce told him. "And I've heard the Grandmaster saying that it's getting boring. He's planning on putting us against that witch any day now."

"Then, make me angry," Loki couldn't believe he barely got his mind back and he was volunteering for yet another possibility to lose it again. Not to mention, endanger Banner in his body, because the Hulk could hurt him if he didn't like what Bruce was going to say.

But if it was that or staying in a prison cell for the rest of their lives, may it be short or long, while they were supposed to serve as entertainment to the Grandmaster, it was a no-brainer.

"Um, I think your horns are stupid," Bruce said. Loki couldn't help but laugh.

"Was that supposed to be an insult? Should I be raging right now?"

And, Banner just blushed, so Loki assumed he was right.

"I'm usually trying to be nice, you know."

"Maybe that's why you need the Hulk."

"Are you trying to provoke me so I might just provoke you better?" Bruce was only too right because that's what Loki was doing.

"Of course not."

"You're still aren't better at lying, you know."

"Nor are you, with the insults."

"Well, then, how about this," Bruce just walked up to him and hit Loki. Unfortunately, he didn't quite know how to throw a punch, and his hand seemed to be hurting more than Loki's face that got the most of the blow.

"Are you quite alright?" Loki wondered with some hint of amusement.

"No, I think I broke something."

"You have a strong jaw, it seems."

"You aren't supposed to be insulting me. But then let me say this: For someone who claims to be a god, your motivations are quite simple, aren't they?" Bruce started, and Loki couldn't help but ask.

"Enlighten me, what are they?"

"To get something you lacked as a child. When your parents clearly were capable to give it, yet they withheld that from you. You feel cheated, so you cheat others. Kind of not that complex of a character, aren't you."

Loki knew he was supposed to be angry, but he could hardly be when it was the truth.

"You're saying all I want is love."

"Amongst other things, but... you aren't green, or even close to green," Bruce sighed. "I'm sorry, I thought-"

"No, I guess it would have worked with a lot of people."

"But it didn't with you," Banner came closer. "So I can only assume, but... you're beating yourself up with the same thoughts every single day, aren't you?"

"I'm not."

"I'm sorry."

"I said I'm not."

"And I still think lying isn't exactly your strong suit."

"Tell that to all the people I had tricked in the past," Loki felt somewhat underestimated now, no matter how Bruce was right and he was trying to lie.

"Maybe they weren't really smart."

"Not really, but that's beside the point."

"Or paying attention," Bruce added. "And you did your best with the hand you've been dealt, but sometimes you can't help but wonder what if you were given the same chance as Thor. Where you could be now if it weren't for-"

"Stop talking like you know me," Loki now could only warn Bruce. "You know nothing."

"I know your type."

"There isn't anyone like me."

"But there is. I've literary just said that your motivations are the most common," Banner said. "And you only want to shut me up because it's what keeps you up at night. Not just a fear of being completely ordinary or ignored, but the fear that Odin was right to treat you the way he did because you are the worst brother, even if you made sure you excel in both knowledge and magic, Thor still has..."

That's when Loki changed. Which was lucky too, because he didn't want to hear the rest.

And when he woke, they were already in space.

"For the record, I didn't mean all that," Bruce warned right away. "But it had to be something that's-"

"My weakness. I get it," Loki probably would have done the very same thing, and Banner not only managed to get them out but also took him on the escape, which was good news. "But for it to be a weakness, it has to be at least partially true."

"That's the key to a lie too, by the way," Bruce was now even trying to change the subject for Loki's sake.

"Believe me, I know."

"You can practice on me."

"You're quite horrible at apologies."

"Not there just quite yet," Banner grinned.

"That's what I'm saying. That you aren't."

"Uh-huh, sure."

Bruce was so different than for instance Thor and his friends that Loki begun to think that maybe it wasn't quite horrible that out of all the mortals he could have been switched with, he got Banner.

So he acted deliberately obtuse now, a little bit of fun.

"Yes, I'm quite sure, that's what I'm saying."

"Well, then you're wrong. I don't own an apology for you when all I did was that I saved your life," Bruce seemed to have an answer for everything.

"You mean you saved yourself, and the body you hope to return to."

"That would be very much like you, wouldn't it?"

Loki didn't quite get how it happened, but Banner could make him laugh, even when the ship they stole began to malfunction, and there wasn't any habitable planet anywhere close.

Or maybe an impending horrible space death was just making them even giddier, because neither of them got much to lose, and this way, at least, they could be as honest and giddy as they would like.

"You know, I think your spells are based on science. If only I had my lab to test everything I can do with your powers..."

"You know, you might not be dying. There's a chance that you, as a Frost Giant, could take the cold of space if the ship completely broke down, and you can examine all the things you want."

"You wouldn't be there to discuss it."

"Many Midgardian people would though."

"And I don't want to aimlessly float around in space for years, even if I could perhaps survive. Which arguably won't happen, because there's a difference between a cold planet and cold space."

"So, if this was your last day on Midgard, what would you do," Loki just asked. A part of him was sure he did because he wanted to get to know the strange habits of the people who bested him in New York against all odds, so if they miraculously would survive this, he could use the info.

But the truth was, he still didn't care about any other mortal, not in the slightest.

"Have a nice lunch."

"Now who is lying."

"It's not, I'd hate to get to the end of the world on an empty stomach."

"Then let me correct the question: if you could only do one thing? Surely not lunch?"

"Maybe not," Bruce said, and it was weird, because he looked like Loki, but his expression was nothing Loki would have ever had on, not in a million lifetimes.

And the next thing he knew, they were kissing, and then, just at the very worst of moments, the proximity sensor of the ship went off, signaling that another ship was passing by them, and they had to rush into the cockpit to try to radio them, everything else put on the hold.

Or rather, completely forgotten, once they weren't dying. Although, maybe it was better to be said that they weren't dying - just yet.

Because it was the Grandmaster's ship that picked them up. And Loki didn't want to think what would the Grandmaster do with them as punishment for the failed escape.

He didn't have to wonder much though, because... the Grandmaster deemed Bruce in Loki's body less precious than Loki who could still become his beloved Champion, and was about to melt him.

But Loki moved fast, maybe even without thinking, and he was supposed to be dying next, but. He felt a change coming, and instead, he lost consciousness, the Hulk taking over.

He fully expected to wake up as Bruce, and was surprised when he didn't even open his eyes yet but felt his magic humming away, very close and ready to obey his whims once again - he was back to himself.

"I busted you out, and you were ready to save me," Bruce then told him. "So the curse is broken."

"It wasn't meant to be a curse."

"But don't tell me you aren't glad that it's over," Banner said, and Loki didn't have to correct the sentiment.

The Grandmaster was gone, courtesy of the Hulk, and now all the planet was in a strange state of upheaval, but Bruce thought he could use the Quinjet to try to get back to Midgard, and Loki was kind of supposed to enjoy Chaos, and use it.

But having two close calls on his life, he also wanted to do nothing with it. He couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if they weren't found just for a little bit longer, but one kiss - especially given the circumstance - didn't mean anything, and that was only proved right when they avoided even mentioning it in passing since.

"I trust you'll take care of yourself," so that was all that Loki had said.

"I think I'm going to be just fine. Seeing the Hulk from a different perspective and talking to him helped."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"So glad that maybe I can trust you wouldn't try to kill me the next time we meet?" Bruce asked with a smile.

"Don't push your luck," Loki was also smiling. "And besides, wherever would we meet?"

"Unless you come to Midgard."

"Maybe it's better if I don't return," Loki noted.

And it was years before he did, but by then, both Sakaar and Asgard were destroyed, and Thanos was coming, so he was sent to warn Midgard by Heimdall, hoping it would make a difference.

Except, they all sort of knew Thanos was getting stronger with every Stone he took, and his army would be quite a challenge even on its own, as it had been on countless times in the past, on countless planets already.

"Wait," Bruce stopped him when Loki told the Avengers everything they needed to hear, and everyone scattered with no time to waste, understanding the seriousness of the situation perfectly well without Loki going into further details. "You remember that you asked me what would I do if I knew the world was ending in a day, and I didn't have much time?"

"Bruce, it was-"

"Just a question to you maybe, but now it's happening for real. And I didn't get to finish my answer the last time."

"Don't. Just because the world is ending..."

"Maybe not just because of that," Bruce said.

"Then why didn't you tell me about it before," Loki just wondered out loud, half hoping he wouldn't be heard.

"Because I wasn't sure you didn't just find yourself attractive. I mean, you kissed back, but maybe it was also because of the unique situation we've been in, and you could have been curious, that's all..."

"And why would you bring it up now?"

"Because I won't have another chance and we both know it."

"For the record, I'm not that narcissistic," Loki felt ridiculous saying that, but then again, it would have felt weirder if he didn't.

"So who do you find attractive then?" Bruce gave him a wondering look.

"As if you don't know already."

It was the best end of the world, and Loki has already witnessed the end of two worlds, but he guessed any number of them could come, and he'd hardly change his opinion about it.

Then, they fought and lost together, but also, what neither of them expected: they both survived the Snap, and after all the devastation it brought, it only made Loki consider how he shouldn't mess up something so important.

"I want to be with you. I can't promise I'd change, but..."

"One - you better," Bruce told him in return. "And second, I'm kind of prone to change plenty for the both of us."

"If you're talking about the Hulk, I just consider him a bonus."

"Oh? And if he also likes you, what then?" Bruce wondered.

"Also?" Loki asked, but then just shook his head. "Then I'd try and see if I could shape-shift to my Frost Giant form."

"Oh," Bruce reddened. "I wasn't talking about that."

"Oh, my mistake," Loki said.

"You're lying and having fun doing it now, aren't you?"

"You mean you can't tell? Anyway, I have this evil plan," Loki started. "I want to use the science of Midgard and my magic fused together to go after Thanos, and somehow bring back everyone, and..."

"And?"

"You have to help me. I mean somebody has to, and you're the smartest Avenger, right? So what do you say?"

"Okay, but just because you didn't say it was Tony."

"Who is Tony?" Loki asked.

"Stop talking before I change my mind," Bruce warned, but when Loki only grinned in turn, he didn't.

They managed to not only bring back everyone but to genetically (and safely!) give magic to ordinary people with a new type of Serum that only unlocked the hidden potential.

This meant that Loki wasn't that special with his skillset anymore and that Bruce could have dated literary twice as many other people, but when that didn't seem to happen, Loki just started to relax a little after a long-long time.

Maybe because Loki wasn't the average person with average problems, but neither was Bruce, and yet? Somehow it still worked. Maybe even better than Loki would have expected.

Chapter Text

Of course - of course - a mission was a mission and Sam Wilson didn't become a CIA agent by putting anything before that. Time, money, and even his personality were riding on the back seat often just to achieve what Cap had tasked him with, but you can only stay sharp and alert if you aren't just going through the motions, and when Sam got the umpteenth undercover mission, it kinda felt like he was.

Yes, Sharon was a good partner and capable in hand to hand combat just as when wielding all sorts of weapons, as well as Nat who was their occasional backup, while Sam was the "people person" on the team, befriending people so effortlessly that no information was hidden him for long as long as somebody knew about it, so their skills complemented each other well. But for the love of God, couldn't he just have one mission with Nat, or literary anyone else other than Sharon?

Sam figured they were both neat-freaks almost to the point of OCD, which wasn't that uncommon in a line of work where forgetting about small details could get you killed, but it was very distracting when Sharon had a completely different system than he had, and he only gallantly offered to do everything the way she preferred for their very first mission, not expecting it will literary become his life later.

So when he was supposed to go undercover as a counselor for a gated community, and Sharon (acting as his wife) was unloading the boxes from "their car", and Sam didn't want to argue their placement, he rather opened up the garage door to a very nice and sunny weather, and surveyed what was going to be their immediate vicinity for the next couple of months.

"Heads up, Sam, some nosey neighbors have spotted you standing there like that," Nat told him over the radio, watching over them from a van a little bit. "So you might wanna step in and help Sharon finish setting up the cameras and mics inside before the first welcoming committee gets to you."

"I guess it can't be helped. When you're as handsome as me, people will notice," Sam declared.

"We'll take your word for it," Cap joined the conversation on the comms. "But could you be just as handsome and still hurry?”

"Nevermind that, they are already on route," Nat announced. "Sharon can deal with the tech, but you need to stall them, and under no circumstances let them into your house."

"I don't know if I can for long without pulling attention," Sam warned. "Sharon, how much more time do you need?"

"At least 10 minutes. I’ve barely started."

"Even if I fake a heart attack, it wouldn't take them 4 to call 911," Sam said.

"Yeah, so you better think of something else," Sharon exclaimed.

"But it's kind of hard to accept housewarming gifts when I'm clearly without my partner, and I can't go into the house we're supposed to be warming up," Sam muttered under his breath.

"I'm sure you can figure something out," Cap told him, and Sam couldn’t even answer because two people were already on the top of him with the possibly fakest smiles ever.

“Hi there, my name is Arnim Zola, and this is my husband, Johann Schmidt,” the smaller person got hold of Sam’s hand and was shaking it so enthusiastically that he forgot to give it back. “We’re part of the neighborhood watch, so we thought it was appropriate that we’d be the first to greet you.”

“Also, to ask you about why exactly you’re here,” Schmidt barely bothered to veil his discontent and generally threatening composure under some smile as if he was only kidding.

But, since he and Zola were Sam’s mission Sam thought it was a good opportunity to make a good impression on them. So he also offered a steady handshake to Schmidt to show how he wasn’t intimidated but didn’t forget to be amicable in his words just so he wouldn’t be perceived as a threat.

“It’s nice to meet you both. I’m Sam Wilson, and my partner and I just moved here.”

“Delightful,” Schmidt was sarcastic, but Zola wasn’t.

“I’d invite you in, but we're still unpacking the boxes just yet, and my partner doesn't like to have people over when our place is a mess,” Sam thought the best defense, in this case, was offense, bringing that up before his guests could. “But if it’s not a bother, we’re planning on making some rounds introducing ourselves to everyone, so maybe we can drop by later? Where do you guys live?”

“Just right across the street,” Zola told him. “And it would be our pleasure, right, darling?”

Sam began to think Schmidt only had one type of face which was menacing, but when he then looked at Zola, he was also as if a different person, if only for a minute.

“Indeed. We’d love to welcome you and your partner as well, Mr. Wilson.”

“Call me Sam,” Sam immediately offered. He had a notion then that for this mission, he’d get further much faster if only he had a male partner masquerading as his lover, given how Schmidt only seemed to have some soft side if it came to Zola, but it’s not like the higher-ups in the CIA would ever sign off on that, and as if he could magically transform Sharon into a man in 5 minutes. “And also, since we’re so new to the community, please tell both of us right away if we’re doing something we aren’t supposed to. We didn’t have time to read through all the material we got when we bought the house just yet.”

The “Neighborhood Watch’s manual on proper community etiquette” spanned for about 400 pages, and there were some “rules” he and Sharon would have to inevitably break while doing their job, so he figured it was easier to feign nonchalance and get an early warning if they were noticed this way.

“No worries, we give everyone at least 24 hours to adjust,” Schmidt creepily said, as if joking, but then again, his eyes remained cold as if he saw what Sam was trying to do, and wouldn’t let him use it as an excuse longer than a single day. “But you should join the Neighborhood Watch, and maybe hear it for yourself.”

“Just tell me where to sign up,” Sam knew it was a way to give him chores, but it also played into his hands when he wanted to get to know all the men of the said Watch a little bit better. “And maybe my partner could join a book club or something?”

“I’m in the book club!” Zola rejoiced.

“And in possibly every club this town has to offer,” Schmidt teased him. “But, we don’t want to keep you, when you said you were quite overwhelmed by boxes everywhere.”

It was almost as if he didn’t want Zola to talk about the said clubs, and as if he wasn’t buying any of the “boxes everywhere excuse”, as he regarded Sam then, but Sam also knew, that even if it was so, he’d just have to keep calm and stick to his suburbian role as if nothing happened.

“Well, see you soon, don’t go far,” Sam was kidding then, and thought that was it when…

A lot of things happened at once.

A man showed up as if on a casual run, just passing by Sam’s lawn when a gunshot-like noise rang out, and suddenly, he was on the ground, as if shot, but the way his eyes darted around, Sam almost immediately got how it wasn’t the case.

He saw what PTSD was like with so many of his sources in so many different countries that he knew the signs.

“Are you alright?” Sam rushed to the man and helped him up, only then noticing that the man had brilliant blue eyes, muscles everywhere, and a metal leg. He almost asked his name, but the man’s irritated look stopped him, and that was their luck.

“‘M fine,” and he was about to resume the pace he was running at, slowly, but he also could barely stand, so Sam had to catch him before he fell straight on his face.

By then, Schmidt and Zola got there too.

“Who the hell are you?” whatever civility Schmidt had for Sam, now even that was gone without a trace. “And what are you doing here?”

“I was just out on a run, not breaking any laws,” the man argued.

“But you are,” Zola told him firmly, even though if not in a manner Schmidt was surely about to. “This and all the streets around are part of a gated district where you shouldn’t be able to enter without a guard letting you in, so you better tell us how you did, or we’ll call the cops.”

And just by the man’s expression and posture (not to mention, missing limb and PTSD and how fit he was), Sam could tell that this man was ex-military, and on a mission - just as him - maybe investigating Schmidt - just like him. Possibly a PI, if not a professional, but in both cases, the last thing he needed was the cops showing up.

And if there was a secret way into the neighborhood, Sam could use that information later, so he acted before the silence could get too long.

“He’s… my partner, actually, sorry about that. You know how it is, he gets cranky without his morning run,” he laughed. “Sweetie, you should meet our new neighbors, they’d only dropped by to say hello.”

“Sam, what the fuck are you doing?” Nat asked on his comms in his ear, but Sam only grinned. Especially when the ex-soldier only gave him a murderous look first, before turning to “their” neighbors next with only a slightly scowling face.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize,” he told Zola. “And I prefer if I don’t get so many questions so early in the morning on my own front yard.”

It was perfect. He might have fucked his cover-up by nearly fainting when he heard a sharp noise, but once Sam gave him a way out, he was so in character that even Sam couldn’t tell it was just an act if he didn’t know.

“Yes, Sam also mentioned you can be quite groggy about unpacked boxes too,” Zola immediately accepted the man as the missing piece of the puzzle. “But no worries, our community won’t sacrifice you just because you have a little bit of a mess in the living room or something.”

Sam had 400 pages that would indicate otherwise, but he was only ever happy that everything worked out so well. But just in case some people saw Sharon, he also had to take care of that.

“Speaking of introductions,” Sam turned towards the house when the jogging man introduced himself as “Bucky Barnes” to Zola and Schmidt. “There’s also Sharon who’d love to meet you.”

“Sharon?” Schmidt asked, and even Barnes tensed up a little, but that was nothing compared to the look Sharon gave Sam when he rushed into the house to get her saying.

“Change of plans. I’ll explain later. But for now, you’re my sister-in-law, sister to none other than Bucky Barnes, who is my partner,” he told her. “You’re only here for a couple of days to lend us a hand unpacking.”

“What?!” she was gaping at him, but then, she wasn’t the only one.

“What?” Cap could have been an echo of her in the comms. “What the hell are you up to now, Sam?”

“Improvising a little. Just trust me,” Sam told them.

And, when it turned out that Bucky was FBI, knowing next to nothing how they had a conflict of interest with the CIA in this case (it was on American soil, but Zola and Schmidt were immigrants with ties to shady individuals to every continent around the globe), even Cap had to accept that replace Sharon with Bucky was the best course of action, given the circumstances.

And, Sam managed to give Sharon a reason to stick around all the same for a while, as family, while…

This whole replacing her last minute wasn’t at all about how he loved the idea of working with someone else. Or at least that’s what he tried to tell himself when he had found Barnes’ “mean” face endearing just that night.

They had to sleep in one bed, and it was also a place where they could freely discuss strategy, because Sharon installed a frequency jammer, disguised as a faulty mobile charger, so they couldn’t be bugged or overheard there.

“Just so you know, I’m not into you,” Barnes told him plain and simple.

“I didn’t think you were,” Sam was having way too much fun with this guy. “But now you seem way too defensive about it…”

“I’m NOT! It wasn’t me who introduced you as my life partner out of the blue without any obvious warning!”

“I could tell you were a vet and working an angle, so I gave you a front seat to the show, while also handing you a perfect cover on a silver plate,” Sam told him.

“Oh, so I’m that obvious? You barely met me for a second or two, and you know everything there is to know about me?”

“No, but I figured I’d love to. Get to know you better. While also giving us both a chance to do our job,” Sam only meant how he could sympathize with PTSD, having seen it on the field countless times before.

“I’ve just said. You aren’t my type,” Bucky stated, clearly thinking of something else.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Sam could only grin. “But it’s an open secret to my team that I’m gay, and I think it would be easier to get closer to Zola if I have a male partner for this mission, so I’m going to flirt with you all the way, whether you like it or not.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying. I don’t,” Bucky said, as if on cue, with a very serious frown, but then also surprised Sam. “But as long as you let me do my job, and not try to grope me while we’re in private, I think I can stay in character. This is too important of a job to mess up.”

Sam wouldn’t admit it but wanted to test that famous last words.

Not that he’d ever compromise a mission over it, but he had a chance to unexpectedly have some fun while on the job this once, and he wasn’t going to sit around doing nothing either.

And, it’s not like he was groping Bucky, as Barnes said, in private, and without a very good reason - or should we say, excuse - either.

First of all, it wasn’t groping. Sam rather used his words to make Barnes blush, secretly laughing to himself whenever he managed that, either with a funny pet name, or some crude situational humor.

And second, when it became groping, it was only because Bucky started it when he almost as if attacked Sam with a kiss in front of everyone, and didn’t spare tongue either - as if saying that he wasn’t intimidated, while cunningly using it as a shut-up technique on Sam, after which Sam felt he had to prove that he wasn’t intimidated either, and how he could manage to Barnes go delectably red even when he wasn’t talking.

And it worked like a charm, not only affecting Barnes, but making Zola almost swoon over them and how cute they were together, taking both Sam and Bucky in his confidence as if on a fast track, while Schmidt was still very cold with them, but at least always accepted any joint activities with Sam and Bucky being present if Zola was the one to suggest it - even occasionally having Sam and Bucky over, which Sam used to plant high tech spy gear in a couple of places where he was sure it’d go unnoticed, as well as trying to get to know everything and anything he could about Schmidt, while Bucky was doing the same thing with Zola, later on, the night.

“Don’t. Ever. Grab my ass like that again,” Bucky only told him when the bedroom door closed behind them, and Sam turned off his comms for the day, ready to turn in.

“Sorry, but you kissed me so suddenly, I just wanted to sell the show,” Sam said, making a note how Bucky was right, and he went too far with that, probably. “But-“

“You did just that,” Bucky said with a dark look. “So much so that I’ve spent half of the afternoon hard, not being able to concentrate on anything anyone said after. It’s very distracting.”

“Oh, so you liked it,” Sam grinned, but then realized it wasn’t funny. “But don’t worry, I promise I won’t do it again. In fact, I’m sorry I got carried away.”

“Yeah, don’t be, just don’t do it,” Bucky seemed to relax then, seeing how Sam got it. “Usually I’m comfortable with a little bit of PDA with my partners if it’s just for show, but then again, they were all women in the past.”

“Maybe you should think about why it’s different with a guy then. Don’t even have to tell me, just for you,” Sam told him, because he was half-convinced Bucky was as gay as he was if he had spent hours with a hard-on just because they’ve exchanged a steamy kiss, but he also didn’t want to overstep by claiming that or anything, even though it was a bit tempting to see how Barnes would react. He seemed to have a full palette of angry, agitated, and murderous scowls, if not some vulnerable, open ones ever so rarely.

“I know what it means, I just prefer not to advertise it, so nobody else knows,” Bucky surprised him. “But I don’t want it to become an issue either, so that’s what I’m saying.”

But then, when Sam just as much got a confession of how Bucky was not only attracted to men, but him too, he couldn’t just shut up and ignore it, could he?

“You know, it’s not your fault. Most of the people wouldn’t mind taking me for a ride, because I’m outgoing, easy to talk to, funny-“

“Don’t know when you should stop talking, you mean,” Bucky corrected.

“- charming, and considerate-“

“More like less annoying when you make an effort…”

“And I’m hot like summer on a tropical island.”

“That might be true, even,” Barnes shrugged. “Though I’ve never actually been on an island like that.”

“And now I feel objectified,” Sam made a fake-disapproving face while enjoying the attention.

“I have a vague feeling that you’ll eventually get over it. Somehow,” Bucky told him, but what was shocking was not what he said, but the way he said it as if he was flirting back for the first time since Sam flirted with him so many times in public. But, the difference was that they were completely alone now.

Maybe, someday, by some miracle,” Sam said, half-convinced that he was reading more to the situation than he was supposed to when he just promised to hold back on that front.

But then, Bucky did something that was even more unexpected than him kissing Sam just before. He laughed, just before getting into the shower, and then coming back to sleep next to Sam smelling great and as if nothing ever happened between them.

Surely that was the reason why the next day - and then the day after and the day after that - Sam was missing out parts of conversations he was having with everyone else because his mind was preoccupied with such a flimsy detail that Bucky’s smile was one of the most attractive smile’s he had ever seen, and what he would or could do to see that smile again.

Sam did promise he wouldn’t make Bucky uncomfortable anyway, and he was respectful of how Bucky had told him how Sam should take a step back or two, so it’s not like he could even try, let alone guess what would do it.

But, when he started to pull back, it was as if Bucky started to push. Now it was him making Sam almost blush in certain situations, and that was when he knew he was in trouble.

That said, he couldn’t guess what was Bucky’s mind when Bucky still kissed him ever so often in front of everyone (but that could have been only to not draw attention to why they suddenly stopped all PDA), came to sleep in only his underwear now (which definitely couldn’t), and would organize some night activity for them even when it wasn’t a double-date with Zola and Schmidt, even when they could “finally” be free of each other after all the pretense during the day.

But no, when it turned out that both Bucky and Sam liked Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they spent every night in with dinner (together, talking), watching a couple of episodes while writing the reports for their respective bosses, and Bucky even teasing Sam ever so often as well as telling jokes now (yes, where had the world come to!), and Sam who was generally a very good strategist and a logic first emotions later type of guy, now only could bear a couple of days without reacting to what very well seemed to be a challenge on Barnes’ part.

But, while Sam decided he won’t just sit there silently if Bucky chose to tease him to the ground, he also reminded himself that he didn’t know Bucky before, and his style of normally communicating to people, and maybe he was acting differently only because he trusted Sam now better to not take advantage of their situation while they were forced to spend so much time in one place together.

But, fair was fair, so vowing to himself that he wouldn’t have any expectations, Sam started to allow himself the same kind of small freedoms that Bucky seemed to enjoy.

Meaning, that when Bucky seemed to be flirting at him, he’d reply likewise, and when Bucky forgot to put on T-shirt for the night, Sam did the same, even though he generally liked to have some more garments on for the chilly weather they were having. And, when Bucky kissed him in front of everyone, he might have kissed a little back more because he wanted to, and less because they had eyes on them everywhere and needed to look the part.

Then, when Bucky had some horrible nightmare waking them up both, the pace was suddenly changed between them, when all Sam could think of doing then was to hold him until he calmed, and then say.

“You don’t have to tell me, but… I just want to let you know that you can?”

“I’ve never told anyone,” Bucky said, but just when Sam thought it was a sign from Bucky’s part how they should both pretend to go back to sleep even if it was probably not so easy after what just happened, Bucky added. “And for a reason too. I didn’t just lose one of my limbs in the war, let’s just say.”

“Your best friend?” Sam guessed. Sometimes connections forged under extreme situations were stronger than ties to one’s family, he knew.

“Lover. But it’s not like I’d ever found a job again if anyone knew, and what was the point of coming out then, when he was already… gone, shot in right front of me, and I was broken.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sam could only say, knowing full well that whatever he’d say wouldn’t help, but he still wanted to let Bucky know that it was okay to tell at least certain people who he trusted. “But for what it’s worth, I’ve got to know you a little lately, and can say with full confidence that you are a lot of things but definitely aren't broken.”

“Is that your expert opinion, Doctor?” Bucky shot back because it was one thing that Sam’s cover was counseling, and how they both knew that although Sam had a general interest in the arena, he didn’t have any of the qualifications he’d need if he wanted to open a practice. “No, I’m sorry, the last thing I want is to get defensive with you in the middle of the night when it was my screaming that woke you up.”

“And I was holding you just a couple of minutes ago,” Sam only smiled.

“And that, yes,” Bucky gave him a very tired look back. “So maybe I’ll watch some cat videos online or something, and let you sleep.”

Sam also understood if Bucky needed some space - heck, on a mission like this, it was a miracle how they got along so well so far - and he also slept back before thinking too much of it. But then, Bucky also started pulling away from him, both when they were alone, and in public, and even Zola noticed.

“What’s up with you and James? Do you want me to talk to him?”

“No, I’m going to,” Sam said. “Just I fear it’s not going to be an easy conversation so I’ve been putting it off for a while.”

“Is it finances, your jobs, or the topic of kids?” Zola asked. “Usually it’s one of these three.”

“Neither, actually,” Sam always followed a policy to only lie if it was necessary, even when he was a completely different person from time to time on missions. “It’s just... his past? Sometimes everything seems to be okay, but other times, he shuts down, and I’m having a hard time reaching him over all the things he had to go through.”

And only then did Sam understand that part of him hated to see Bucky suffer in silence so much because he wished there was something he could do for him. And how that couldn’t be just signed off as a teasing relationship he thought he was maintaining with Bucky.

“I’m not saying I know what you’re going through,” Zola told him with a sympathetic expression. “But I feel like I can relate to you, Sam. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remind Johann that we’ve already made it. We have citizenship, a beautiful home, nice friends, and good food on our table every single day, but he still acts like we’ve something to prove, whenever he’s contacted by someone from our past.”

“You mean like relatives in Germany?” Sam wasn’t even aware him opening up a little would get Zola talking, but it wasn’t that uncommon of a phenomenon, and now his focus was rather on the mission once again, with Zola talking.

“If it was just that,” Zola sighed. “But there’s… an organization that we’ve left for a reason, but they still try to contact us from time to time, and whatever intimacy and trust I’ve managed to build with my husband in the meantime, it’s often then just, “puff” gone, whenever they reach out.”

Although Sam didn’t plan on it, it proved to be the most important conversation he had with Zola, because…

“Sounds like you’d do almost anything to get rid of the haunting past for him just as I’d do it without thinking for Buck.”

“Yes, I would. No question.”

Because, that conversation made it possible for Sam to convince Cap (and Cap to convince his higher-ups) that Zola would act as a double agent willingly if it meant that the US would grant him and Schmidt immunity while bringing the bigger fish (Hydra) down, and that meant that Sam and Bucky’s mission was abruptly over.

That, and how Bucky had heard the recording of the conversation, Sam was having about him with Zola, meant that by the time Sam got to “their house” the last time to pack up, Bucky was already gone, and while Sam considered contacting him, what could he say?

Maybe he could try to tell Bucky how he felt, but as chatty and outgoing as Sam Wilson could be when working, he had found the very same thing all the more difficult when it was “real” about his own thoughts and feelings and aspirations and important things that weren’t just a role he could morph himself into with high stakes, but not emotionally involving him - until the last mission, that is, where he kind of managed to get very involved even without noticing at first.

It didn’t help how Natasha and Sharon were constantly teasing him about it either, even if Cap told them to stop, and how Sam’s next partner for an undercover mission was also a guy posing as his partner, but even if he wanted to, he couldn’t have reminded Sam more of how unlike Bucky he was, and how that now also - somehow - became the definition of unattractive in Sam’s dictionary, even though there was nothing wrong with Scott.

So Sam decided this cannot go on, not until at least he could spare a sentence or two with Bucky about it, getting a feel how much of it was real and fake on Bucky’s side, and for that, he recruited even Cap and Coulson in the office to help.

And yes, he may have stolen the idea from 99, when he nominated their team of 5 for an interdepartmental competition and didn’t forget to send a taunting email to Bucky that the FBI's teams were sure going down.

This way, Sam could show off his skills in a friendly manner, and maybe also signal to Bucky that despite how Sam came off on the recording with Zola, he had never seen Bucky less than an equal, and therefore he'd invite him to a fair competition in the form of the game, while maybe also having a chance to see Bucky’s reaction in person if Sam was to invite Bucky out to lunch or dinner or just anywhere really, depending on the situation.

Only, there was no situation whatsoever, because Bucky’s team won overall, and Bucky simply left to celebrate with them - an oversight on Sam’s part. But who knew Agent Barnes used to be a sniper, and that one of the very first challenges was paintball?

(Not to mention, Nat was great too, but Cap was hesitant to go all-in whenever he was paired with a female opponent, while Coulson left his glasses at home, and that small thing meant he almost got 0 points in every possible category.)

So Sam did have to try again, and a bit more directly this time, ringing Bucky up on the phone. He barely got over the awkward initial hellos and how have you been routine with Bucky, who quite frankly didn’t help him out with his one-word grunts as an answer, but it was also very much like him that it made Sam smile, and then barely managed to be a man and ask Bucky out when Bucky suddenly pointed the question back at him.

“As a date or just as friends?”

And Sam had no idea how he should respond.

“Neither,” he said lamely, but then realized how that could have sounded. “I mean, I would like to talk to you first. I owe you an apology. I’d never got to explain myself and how I talked about you with Zola.”

“You told him whatever he needed to hear so he’d flip on Hydra.”

“No, I didn’t. But I’d rather not talk about this in the phone,” Sam told the truth, already uncomfortable although he thought he could postpone the rest of the conversation where they’d be over some fine food to help Bucky digest whatever he was about to say.

“Funny, because I much rather you’d say if you have anything left to say on the line,” Bucky told him.

“Well… It wasn’t a play to get Zola to confess. I was genuinely talking about you.”

“Because I had a nightmare one time, and you saw me as this fragile man you’d want to protect from his past?”

“What? No!” Sam almost raised his voice hearing that, as if the volume was ever making any meaningful conversation easier. “Look, I’ve only ever admired you. And your team winning the competition only proved that my taste in men is still very fine, thank you very much.”

“Now you sound like you meant the invitation as a date before.”

“Because it would be if you’d have it,” Sam admitted. “Though first I wanted to maybe watch your reaction to the suggestion and only cowardly offer if I could be sure I’m not just pestering you with unwanted attention.”

“I might be missing a limb, Wilson, but believe it or not, I can still tell someone off if I don’t want their advances.”

“Like when you did just a few days in on the mission?” Sam had to ask.

“No… that was more of a warning to back off, or I’d be tempted to take your acting skills seriously and fall for you for real.”

“Really?!” Sam’s mind was full of wonder.

“Like you didn’t know that!” Bucky was laughing now. “You only came on stronger after that!”

“I… was very intent on only coming on as strong as you did, with me.”

“Ah, so you were only mirroring me, and it’s my fault.”

“It’s not… I wasn’t. And it’s not like there’s blame to take when the mission went better than expected,” Sam said. “And things were going so nicely between us too, just maybe not by the end.”

“Yeah, my colleagues don’t usually end up holding me half-naked through the night, telling me I’m not broken,” Bucky stated in a tone that meant to be cheerful no doubt but came out somehow different. “And then won’t go to our neighbors talking about it, knowing full well that it’s a personal issue for me, and their conversation is being recorded.”

“That’s why I wanted to apologize,” Sam quickly said. “It sounds funny, but… maybe I only told Zola the truth about how I was worried because I really was, and-“

“If anyone can understand what it’s like to date an unstable person it would be him?” Bucky scoffed from the other end of the line.

“No, but I wanted to know if there’s anything I could do for you.”

“Well, after my boss got an indication that I was having problems, he got me to involuntary therapy, so you shouldn’t bother anymore,” Bucky told him, on the verge of no doubt hanging up.

“Wait, wait!” Sam said with a certain urgency. “Just give me one chance. That’s all I’m asking.”

He could guess how Bucky wasn’t in the habit of doing that since his lover was killed, and how it wouldn’t be easy, even if he humored Sam’s request, but it was a start. After all, Sam wasn’t working for the CIA because he wouldn’t revel in a challenge if the setup was right, and the price was something sweet.

“Alright, but I’m not going anywhere where people would gawk at my leg, and if I get bored I’m gonna just leave.”

“Excuse me, but have you met me?” Sam had to ask, grinning. “Boring is not even in my dictionary.”

Which it wasn’t, but messing up felt familiar, when Sam was at first considering how getting to bed with Bucky just after their first date was maybe going too fast, but was being too turned on to care then, only figuring how it was a mistake when Bucky wouldn’t respond to his texts later.

“I feel used,” Sam was just one step away from a stalker when he all but ambushed Bucky in front of Bucky’s apartment.

“Scary much?” Bucky just jumped a little and then asked, but also added. “I thought you got what you wanted.”

“A fuck? People hit on me every day, so I wouldn’t necessarily have to work for that, you know…”

“Well then, good luck.”

“All I’m saying, it’s not what I had in mind, though sex would be very much part of it, especially since I just loved our last time together if you know what I mean.”

“I’m glad. But I’ve told you, I’m broken.”

“And I’m not taking that as an excuse. If you have a problem with me, tell me. But if not, I’m not going to let you bullshit yourself out of this.”

“Oh, is that what I’ve been doing?” Bucky was angry at him now, but Sam was adamant.

“Yes,” he stated, stepping closer to Bucky. “But I’ve got a very keen bullshit detector and I won’t let you pretend you don’t just adore me.”

“Clearly,” Bucky huffed, but when Sam kissed him, he only kissed back and wasn’t gentle about it as if he only considered it as the extension of their argument, so Sam only reacted to him similarly, and well… It wasn’t exactly an ideal start of a relationship, but Bucky not sending him away after was a good sign, just as how now Sam managed to get Bucky on dates sometimes and had always a pass to Bucky’s bed without either of them mentioning what it meant (or didn’t mean).

And Bucky sometimes felt better too, until he didn’t, and was perhaps on the edge of breaking down again for some reason he couldn’t even talk about given his line of work, and Sam truly thought that they’d never get over it together, but every time he showed up at Bucky’s apartment, he was never turned around, and then, one day, Bucky told him.

“I…um… got the last session with my therapist yesterday.”

“Okay,” he did say it was mandatory, so Sam assumed it was way over now by then, but Bucky must have had a reason for bringing it up, so he was listening.

“She told me I was doing so good there was no need for me to see her anymore,” Bucky said with a sigh. “And in a way she was right.”

But, Sam had a horrible sinking feeling that a but was coming.

“If you need some time alone, I understand.”

“I’ve spent decades alone after my lover died, or at least that’s what it feels like,” Bucky just shook his head, looking at him. “But also, I think she told me not to talk to her anymore because she knew I was telling her stuff I should be telling you.”

“Like?”

“Like how I still visit his grave sometimes and talk to him?” Bucky said with a pained face. “And how it used to help at first, but now it only feels like I got stuck in the past, and maybe…”

“Yes?” Sam knew it was hard for Bucky, so he listened the best he could.

“Maybe it would be nice to say goodbye to him once and for all, but I don’t feel like I can do it alone, so I wanted to ask you to come with me?”

Sam was pretty convinced a bad-ass agent who could face down any foe was capable of doing anything he set his mind to, but he also knew that wasn’t an invitation on Bucky’s part for Sam to start telling him about that.

In fact, Bucky was nowadays very clear on what he wanted from Sam, and if he said he wanted Sam to go with him, it was just that what he wanted.

Support for on a daunting motion of closing the door on an aspect of the past, to let in some possible future, and maybe Bucky was also trying to tell him - in his own way - that he wanted Sam to be part of that future.

So Sam only drove him there and waited while Bucky talked, respectfully standing a little bit further back, but telling Bucky once they were heading home in the car.

“You know, maybe you could still visit him sometimes. Once a year? Or when you just can’t deal with the living? But not too often, or I might just get jealous.”

“It’s good of you to say that, but I’m good. Finally,” Bucky told him, and Sam thought that it was half for the sake of reassuring him, not because it was true, because the last time Bucky indicated to him not everything was peachy, Sam went ahead and made hit recording circulating both of their agencies talking about it to a villain.

But the effect of saying goodbye was undeniably there when Bucky started smiling more (when with Sam, not so far gone as to extend the same greeting to strangers, that wouldn’t have been the same man Sam fell in love with anyway), talking more without being directly prompted, and was generally being more affectionate with Sam even in public, even if people occasionally stared and/or were rude about it.

And meanwhile on the next interdepartmental competition both of their team lost, they only used that as an excuse to spend the rest of the day together, and Bucky only then told him that he was considering early retirement, and maybe doing something else for a change.

“All my life I had been a soldier, an agent, and someone who’d be there to have your back.”

“My back?” Sam almost made a dance move out of just looking at his said body part, thinking first he’d look cool doing it, but only realizing that maybe it wasn’t so when Bucky could hardly stop grinning at him.

“Are you quite finished? Maybe we should put this on Youtube or something…”

“You were saying?” Sam deflected, and Bucky let him.

“The point is, it’s time I wasn’t just someone’s sidekick, but the main character in my own life, you know?”

“Do you mean to say I should be your “sidekick” from now on?” Sam couldn’t help but wonder, and by that, he pretty much meant their usual arrangement when it came to sex.

“That part of my life I’m content with already,” Bucky pretended to think about it. “Unless, if it’s something you’d want to talk about…”

“Nah, no, no, no, no.

Sam maybe said too many times that, and too fast too, because Bucky was now laughing.

“Well then, I take that as a compliment, rather than to think you’re intimidated by anything.”

“That’s because I’m not.”

Sure.

“You want me to prove it?”

“Actually, no. But you should have seen your face,” Bucky only kept smiling at him, as if it was meant to provoke him, but all Sam could think was how much he liked that smile right from the very first time he saw it. And, how, he wouldn’t do anything that would jeopardize that now that Bucky seemed to found a way to it back again.

Chapter Text

Yelena didn’t lie, she only had limited time in New York. And that was cut short when she didn’t complete her assignment.

She had to disappear, basically fall off the face of Earth for a while, and lay low, but figured she still had a couple of hours left, and there was only one thing she wouldn’t have minded doing then.

“How about that drink now, Kate Bishop?” Yelena made Kate jump, and that was payback. Kate pushing all those buttons in the elevator was pushing Yelena’s buttons, just before.

A super spy defeated by a super-annoying child. Never mind the fact that they were the same age, and that Kate was better in hand-to-hand combat than most of the men Yelena had to fight.

“You know, if giving me a heart attack in the ER was your plan, I gotta say it’s a stupid plan. They’d just revive me right away,” Kate Bishop told her, saying nothing about said drink, but not really angry either, talking too much. “If not, you could just call me Kate.”

“Yes, because nothing screams familiarity between us than me beating you up,” Yelena scoffed. “But sure, I’ll call you Kate if we get that drink already.”

“I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t say you beat me up. If anything, I’d say it was a fair fight where we’ve both pulled some punches while trying to keep each other busy so I’d say—“

“Now you’re being funny again. But I’m telling you, I could laugh much better after a couple of shots of vodka,” Yelena warned because it was one thing that it was her fault, truly pulling some of her punches. Another how she didn’t like Kate Bishop think even for a minute that if she was to fight a Widow - any Widow - for real she’d survive the first few minutes. That kind of thinking will only get her killed, and even though she talked too much, she didn’t deserve that.

After all, what kind of American takes up archery, fencing, and martial arts when her mother would have the money to pay for anything she wanted? What kind of a girl risks her life for a dog that’s not even hers? And what kind of an Avenger would tip off the police at Christmas so they could arrest their said mother?

“In case you didn’t notice, Yelena, we’re at a hospital. I’m waiting for the result of some scans to see if my wrist is broken,” Kate reminded her. “And I’m pretty sure having blood all over your superhero costume isn’t a fitting look for any party.”

“This wrist?” Yelena asked, and it wasn’t disappointment that made her grab it, it was really a way to tell whether it was broken or not. “I can tell you without scan you’re going to be able to hold glass with alcohol anyway. Unless, you only invited me because it was trick, knowing well that our fight wasn’t anywhere fair as you’ve just previously claimed.”

“That’s so not fair, you saying that. I’d want nothing more than to get out of here, but truth is, I don’t have any money, and I promised Clint to let the doctors fuss over me this once, so…”

“I can pay,” Yelena offered. “Although it’s a mystery how someone can live to be 20 and not have any money.”

“My mother canceled my cards, and somehow I doubt she’ll change her mind about that when I just got her into prison. Just when she was about to leave her mafia boss to keep me safe.”

“Sad, saaad story. Vodka would make that better also,” Yelena usually didn’t like to repeat herself, but the truth was if she didn’t drink that night, she wouldn’t know what to do until she was bound to leave. “And I can get you some other clothes with little less blood on them, if it’s truly such a deal in a club where you’d be in the dark anyway, just watch.”

Even entering the hospital, counting the exits, and examining the flow of people coming and going, Yelena noticed how the patients who had to stay got a hospital gown, while their clothes were put but not locked away, so it took her about two minutes to find something that wasn’t an eyesore, and threw it at Kate.

“So you’re coming or not, Kate Bishop?”

“This isn’t my style you know,” Kate complained, and the way she pulled on the top Yelena got her showed how she must have thought it was too revealing, but Yelena only thought she looked just hot enough so they could get to any club in NY for free. “And I’m only going because I really hate hospitals, and you didn’t kill Clint, so maybe there’s some hope for you yet.”

“Well I’m so glad you seem to think so,” Yelena sarcastically noted, but she was truly pleased she didn’t have to spend the night alone. “So, which club is closest with some okay music and good alcohol?”

“I’m not sure but I can find out,” Kate was on her phone then, and all Yelena had to do was to take off some of her layers too, and the bouncer let them into a club which was dark and noisy, but at least you didn’t have to stand in line to get your drink.

At first, Yelena and Kate only drank and danced some, but after just a short while a couple of guys invited them to a drink and a table, and Yelena had her fun listening to them (American guys trying to act impressive was a comedy on its own) but also listened when Kate was talking to them as if she didn’t know everything there was to know about Kate Bishop already when she researched her.

But it was fun, more fun than Yelena ever had on any of her assignments, until… She saw just a woman in the crowd with red hair, and her mood turned despite all the alcohol.

She could feel Barton was telling her the truth about Nat, only surrendering it after she hurt him already plenty because he felt guilty about what happened, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.

Nat was meant to be the one to know what they were supposed to be doing after they’d freed the Widows, and she was gone. Not to mention, Yelena just took an assignment only to let her target walk away, incriminating the person who hired her instead. If word of that got out, she’d be out of the job, and possibly very dead very soon.

“Sorry boys, but I feel like dancing a little bit more, so if you’d excuse us…” the best she could do was forget about her future, and what it would bring, and enjoy the moment right here and right now, and that’s what she did.

“Are you, like,… I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I’ve noticed the way you looked at that woman from before,” Kate wasn’t as smooth asking what she wanted to know as she was with her dancing, making Yelena smile. “I mean… I guess my point is… I could be your wing-woman or something… if that is what you want.”

“I’m not a lesbian, Kate Bishop,” Yelena just told her. “She just reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“Okay, I hear you. Cool. I mean it would be cool either way, obviously, but it’s also kind of cool that you didn’t deflect my question as if we were friends, so…”

“Are you, though?” Yelena had to ask, and then watch as Kate blushed.

“Pff, no. Why would you even ask me that?”

“Maybe because I got you perfectly pretty clothing at hospital, and you said it wasn’t your style or the way you just asked me,” she shrugged.

“Well, I’m not either, so… there you have it,” Kate told her, and Yelena could only grin hearing that, adopting her style to the music that just changed tracks, while Kate seeing that did the same.

Half the time Yelena danced as if mocking all the people around her for what they dared to call “dancing”, not knowing what they should do with their arms, not having space to use their legs either, and using ridiculous moves that were surely trendy on TikTok or something, but all in all, looked as if they weren’t even listening to the music, just were in a weird trance.

Yelena only realized how much it meant that she had a person in on her inside joke when Kate noticed what she was doing and joined her, overdoing everything that everyone else was doing even more than Yelena, bringing some so delightfully obnoxious moves that Yelena thought Kate must have had practiced them when most people wouldn’t have been caught dead even once attempting them.

So time sped up just a little without Yelena noticing because she alternated on laughing at Kate’s moves just before pushing the whole game just one step further to ridiculous with her own, making it Kate’s turn to laugh and.

And that was it. Really. A great night, some good memories despite the recent bad ones, and then Yelena had slept in the airport already, leaving the country. Almost sure she’d never see Kate Bishop again.

Except when Yelena got herself in a tough situation by botching her last job, and the only choice she had was to retire forever or get the people who were trying to kill her, and after a week she had spent on a farm doing nothing, she felt like she was going crazy already, she did something she never thought she would.

She let herself be caught, and for a laughable salary, but another - and completely legal! - identity, she started taking down people she was working for before. In the beginning, she had her doubts whether she could follow someone’s orders again, but if Nat could do it, so could she. It had its perks and disadvantages, but…

What she didn’t expect to see was Kate Bishop introducing herself as someone else on a very fancy dinner Yelena also had to attend, working just as much a job as Kate.

“Why are you here?” she asked Kate, who only had asked her instead.

“Why are you? Who is your target?”

“As if I’d tell you,” Yelena had to laugh. “That is if this was that kind of job, which it certainly isn’t. I’m only after something away from the party this time, but I know for a fact that you shouldn’t be here.”

“The way I see it you aren’t my mother and you’re bluffing,” Kate shrugged. “I know for a fact that you aren’t on the guestlist just as much as I’m not. So… care to share what’s in the vault that could be so important that someone sent you to steal it?”

Yelena really liked Kate, but this time, she made a wrong move. Talking so loudly about the vault she wasn’t even supposed to know about, just one step away from being overheard by the host who Yelena was about to rob, while people were already starting to notice them, two women in full make-up and designer dresses as if they belonged, yet arguing as if they didn’t.

“That’s it, Kate Bishop,” she told Kate. “If you don’t leave the party now, knowing how much danger you are currently in just by being here, I’m going to call security as if you were harassing me.”

“Or, we could work together.”

“I don’t work with civilians.”

“Their security is better than most places.”

“Like you’d know.”

“They had already thrown me out of a party last time.”

But as entertaining as it was to talk to Kate again, that only brought attention.

“Just stay out of my way. We’ve already been noticed.”

“So, I could be the distraction you’d need!” Kate almost yelled after her, a very unprofessional move, because she was arrested in just 10 minutes after that, and escorted out - truly leaving a gap in security which Yelena didn’t hesitate to use, except when she left on the back of the mansion, and almost hit Kate when she was waiting for her in the shadows, thinking she was the enemy.

“I thought I told you to go home.”

“And I made your job easier, so share with the group. What did you steal and who wants it so badly that they’d hire you?”

“It’s a kind of job you don’t want to get involved in, kid,” Yelena wasn’t about to reveal anything to her that she didn’t already know, being there.

“Huh, so when we went for a drink years and years ago, I’m Kate Bishop, but when I’m a responsible adult who matured a lot since then, earning my money as the best PI there is, even helping you out, I’m suddenly a kid?”

“Yes.” If it was this or the owner of the mansion connecting the thing that was stolen to Kate Bishop’s appearance at his party, it wasn’t even a choice.

“Okay, then I’ll fight you for it.”

“Don’t make me laugh, Kate Bishop.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going to tickle you.”

“As if you could!” Yelena told her, but Kate wasn’t lying. She got faster and stronger since they last met, and Yelena could have found herself in a pickle with her dress that wasn’t meant to be used in fights, if she didn’t also train every day, also honing her skills since New York.

“Admit it, you’re happy to see me,” Kate almost managed to break her nose, so Yelena kicked in her general direction, barely missing Kate’s leg just by a hair.

“Would be much more delighted if we weren’t caught here.”

“Could be arranged. Just shared what’s on the drive you have hidden in your necklace.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about…”

“I was already here when you snook into the vault. I saw you hiding the drive, and I won’t leave without the information,” Kate was nothing if not a capable annoyance and determined, which bought back some memories.

“I’ll have a drink with you and tell you as much as you need to know if you let me go now,” Yelena tried Kate’s technique then, while also thinking maybe a drink wouldn’t be so bad. Not that she could talk much about her life, but Kate didn’t seem to have the same problem.

“Let’s get one together, now. At the hotel I’m staying,” Kate suggested. “And you tell me everything that’s connected to my case, and in return, I won’t push on the details that aren’t.”

Admittedly, Yelena could have knocked her out then, because she wasn’t guarding so well while speaking, but she was reluctant to do it because she didn’t want to leave a passed-out Kate Bishop in the backyard of a very dangerous man.

“You are still very annoying, you know that?” Yelena could only wonder out loud. “But fine, we’ll negotiate the terms later, but we need to leave right now.”

It wasn’t that surprising that Kate tried to get her drunk at the hotel bar, then kissed Yelena when going up to her room, thinking that way she could steal what she wanted from her, but it was surprising that Yelena caught her in the act, and didn’t even get angry.

“I’m sorry Kate, but your charms can’t possibly make me forget what I’m doing when I’m on a mission.”

“Then maybe we should meet sometime when you aren’t,” Kate suggested, as if serious. “Or… tell me what’s on the drive, and see firsthand how I’d still want you to spend the night, but this time not for a girl's night, let’s just say.”

“Still funny, I see,” Yelena told her, and she was about to crack a joke maybe too, just to leave all the same, when they were attacked.

Then, had spent 2 weeks on the run and got almost killed what it felt like a dozen times, but their game then evolved from funny dancing to saving each other’s lives, and while Kate wasn’t a Widow, most of the time she could fend for herself, and while she never as much as flirted with Yelena again, she wasn’t exactly bad company.

Even though it was probably her fault that a simple mission got so complicated.

Yelena thought her boss was going to positively flip when she didn’t just unnecessarily elongate the mission but asked for a week off after, but only got a “finally, take two if you need it”, and found herself at Kate’s door with some pizza and a bunch of DVDs wondering.

Why was she even there, ready to knock?

The last time Kate invited her out for a drink was only to save Barton, and then only went with it because Yelena didn’t take no for an answer. Probably only kissed Yelena now because of the case she was working, and showing up at her doorstep without calling was creepy.

Even if Yelena didn’t come here because of that kiss per se, but more because she wanted to celebrate they were still alive after everything, and kind of missed an almost-friend which they became in that two weeks, right?

But when she only left the pizza and the DVDs, walking away, someone was banging on the door of the apartment she was temporarily staying in the next day like a maniac, and it was Kate.

“How did you find me?” she had to ask, but that meant she also had to open her door, and that Kate burst in with some Italian food and a bunch of DVDs.

“Well, it’s my job now. I’m good at finding people and things.”

“And invading other people’s apartments?” Yelena suggested, too hungover to care that she was still in her PJs. She may or may not have gone to a club last night when she decided she couldn’t possibly spend another night with Kate, and got drunk so much so that she still felt as if she still was, in a way.

“I’ve brought food and can wait until you take a shower you desperately need,” Kate announced.

“Shower, and leave you to snoop around my things?” Yelena asked, but running water did seem nice, given everything. And if Kate indeed wanted to snoop, the joke was on her, because this was more of a safe house than a permanent location for Yelena, meaning that Kate probably wouldn’t find anything, not even if she had the time.

Only hours later did Yelena ask.

“Why did you come here, really?”

“Because we’re friends?”

“I don’t have any friends,” Yelena told her on no uncertain terms.

“Wow, thanks for clearing that up,” Kate this once didn’t push all the more when Yelena sent her away, so Yelena had to add.

“I can’t afford to have any. It’d be too dangerous. For everyone involved.”

“Yeah, right, because I can’t take care of myself,” Kate abruptly stood. “Sorry for wasting your time then. I just saw you on the footage of my apartment last night, and I thought you were there because… never mind.”

“Why did you think I was there?” Yelena had to ask because Kate wasn’t the type who’d stopped talking on her own before.

“Honestly?” Kate turned back from the door. “I thought maybe you wanted to take me up on my offer.”

“And by offer you mean…?”

“When I kissed you and suggested we could do more than that. But, you’re not interested, so…”

Yelena wasn’t going to jump Kate Bishop or any women, ever, but at that time and place, just seeing Kate turn to leave her life forever was unacceptable, even when it didn’t happen yet. And, she also wanted to have Kate’s confidence back, without it, she seemed like a completely different person.

So she only made it to the door quicker, closing it before Kate could leave, then pushed her to it only for one kiss - that was as far as she thought it through.

Maybe part of her expected Kate would leave anyway by then, or something, but when Kate turned them, and pushed her to the door next, challenging her for dominance, she kind of blanked on why this wasn’t such a good idea.

“This isn’t a good idea. On so many levels, Kate Bishop,” she could still say when they somehow already advanced to her bed.

“I disagree,” Kate looked up at her with a mischievous smile. “If we aren’t friends, we can at least do this without risking anything.”

It was kind of hard to disagree with her by then, and not just because of her reasoning.

And they clicked so well that it would have been a crime to end it just after one "date", so whenever Yelena had some time to kill and was in the city, they either went to eat somewhere, or Kate came over and sometimes they talked, sometimes they didn’t, but considering how it couldn’t possibly last, it kind of surprisingly did.

Then, Yelena had a bad couple of jobs, and someone followed her, and while Kate could fend for herself, Yelena’s apartment was in pieces when they were finished, and it could have been much worse, because, since the longest time for some time, Yelena was too preoccupied with Kate to lock the door properly once they entered through it (kissing already).

So Yelena decided to cut their losses then and disappear, and she did it so well - yet another identity - that not even Kate could find her - if she was even looking.

But, unfortunately, years later, she did run into Mockingbird in a mission, and the next thing she knew was how Kate ambushed her, so angry that she was twice the fighter, defeating Yelena to only let her go saying.

“You know, if you told me you wanted out, I’d get it. I talk a lot, snore, and generally am sometimes a little too much for some people, and I’m not willing to change for the sake of them. But leaving me the way you did suggests something worse.”

“Worse?” Yelena was lying on the floor covered with pieces of broken glass, so she had to be careful when she stood, and she wasn’t exactly sure Kate was done sparring her just yet.

“Something like thinking you’re doing it just for my sake?”

“I’m… glad you understand,” Yelena found herself saying. It was done and gone anyway now, so what was the point?

“Well, I don’t.”

“You just said…”

“I don’t, because I don’t want to. So either you go out with me tonight, or I’ll just have to find your boss and beg them for a job, just so that we can almost get killed together again a couple of times, that seemed to have worked the last time…”

“Please don’t,” normally, Yelena wouldn’t take a threat like this seriously, but if anyone would do it, that would be Kate Bishop.

“So, meet me at 9? And maybe clean up your bed before that, even if not the whole room?”

Gone were the times when Kate was at least somewhat intimidated by her, and Yelena honestly didn’t know why Kate would still want to be with her, but at the same time, she couldn’t say no.

A job and another job was her only life in the last couple of days and while she could always find new and interesting people if only for a talk or a night, she felt more and more distant from everyone else given her line of work, if not lonely despite never having a problem to be popular if that was what she wanted to achieve.

It was Kate’s turn to break her heart, when Kate had spent the night, but left even before Yelena woke, and Yelena assumed it was over, and it truly could have been.

Until, Yelena had to admit defeat, and call none other than Barton himself, trying to find Kate but not managing, no matter what, and that was saying something. Part of her was terrified too, that Kate died, not just disappeared, but when she managed to track her down, and Kate opened her door with a “What do you want?” she was only too glad to be wrong.

“You’re right. I don’t hate you. I wanted to protect you. And that’s silly because you don’t need protection from me or anyone, but I could retire. And help out with your PI business, or pick some lame hobby up like cooking anything that’s not macaroni. Not that you’ve ever said you wanted something serious like that, but… I mean, as a possibility, that’s all,” usually it wasn’t Yelena who was babbling, and… doing it before checking a room for possible threats, which she clearly had missed now, because a guy walked up to the door from Kate’s room then, asking Kate who it was.

“Wrong door, my mistake,” Yelena didn’t even think to ask whether Kate had already moved on, and now almost possibly made a fool of herself for no good reason.

“Just give me a sec, I’ll be right back,” Kate told the guy, and followed her, as if they still had something to talk about, kissing Yelena just when she wanted to tell her that it was okay. “So… thing is, I’m not in the PI business anymore. I got fed up and got very lucky with a new gig I like much better.”

“Congratulations.”

“But you see, the thing is, it’s really hard to be an undercover spy pretending to be Paul’s housewife if you appear out of nowhere saying that you want to be with me, and I can’t even tell you that you should prove it right now because we really can’t.”

“Oh, so that guy isn’t…”

“My boyfriend?” Kate laughed. “Can’t say that he is, even though we look cute together in our fake photos.”

“Barton really should have warned me not to disturb you when you’re working,” Yelena didn’t know what Kate talking to her meant, so didn’t want to hope too much, but at the same time… “We aren’t working for two opposite sides though, are we? I don’t think I could keep that up, knowing you.”

“No, I don’t think, but careful, that almost sounded like a compliment,” Kate smiled at her. “And as I’ve said, I’ll have to return soon, but I can’t if you keep me here with compliments.”

“In that case, it wasn’t. But maybe there’ll be a better time for some compliments later?”

“Who are you and what have you done with my favorite assassin?”

“You got me, I’m a robot sent here to destroy the planet,” Yelena did the robot too, making Kate laugh, and it was as if just that made her think maybe coming there was worth it, even after everything. “But before I do that, I need to understand what you’re thinking, so please give me another chance? I’m willing to do whatever you wish me to do in turn…”

“Whatever?” Kate’s eyes had a twinkle on them now.

“I mean, if you want me to quit my job, and do something else, or…”

“Just let me do mine, and you’re on,” Kate kissed her, but when that got heated, also pushed her away. “I also meant it as in right now.”

“Yes, yes, apologies,” Yelena could only say. But, when Kate turned to leave, she also kissed her again. “This was just an incentive of what is yet to come if you wrap up this job fast and without getting killed.”

“Oh, and you know me. So fragile that I’ll need a bribe before any given mission I’ll have to keep the second part in mind,” Kate was leaving her in the hallway now, but also was grinning ear to ear, and it was hard for Yelena to turn to leave just yet then.

“Well, you better,” and it wasn’t directly addressed to Kate either, just as it wasn’t a suggestion, more like a small prayer.

That was all Yelena could do other than trusting Kate and her abilities even if in danger, because somewhere along, at some point of time, inexplicably, somehow, she’d also changed, and now she knew she couldn’t keep away from Kate as she originally thought she wanted, not for the sake of protecting her, or, as it was, not for the sake of protecting herself either, even if loving someone also meant a risk that she could just lose them too.

So many years have passed since Nat’s death, but it was only then and there that Yelena got back her life again, when she didn’t care of her fears any better than her feelings, and Kate didn’t mind that she still struggled with it sometimes, as long as they could always find the time between the crazy moments in life to spend together.

Chapter Text

If first impressions matter so much, then why an earth would ever someone come up to you in a bar and say something like this, even before a hello, or some sort of introduction:

"A day that bad, huh?"

"Please don't offer to make it better," Bucky mutters, wishing all talkative gays were banned from the bar he was frequenting. And if they had to come in, then they wouldn't have pick-up lines that were barely veiled insults, not to mention, such clichés.

"Then, would another drink of whatever girly drink you have make it better?" his chatty new friend doesn't seem to be fazed by his lack of interest, nor the drink that he just dubbed unmanly either.

Bucky looks at him and registers how the other man is unexpectedly attractive, and even if rude, knowing that for one night, that would hardly matter, when he probably has less talking planned for it than Bucky himself, who just planned a quiet night alone.

"No, it would not," Bucky says, deciding he still wants that, even if now it was a question of what he should say to get it. "Because no matter how much alcohol I consume, I won't like you any better."

"Oh, but dear, who said you have to like me for what I have in mind?" the other guy even laughs at his joke as if he's sooo hilarious.

"Hm, last time I've checked, both rape or kidnapping were criminal offenses, depending on what you're talking about," Bucky tells him, and it isn't just a jab either. He wouldn't pass over this guy to try either. "The only thing I know is that it would be against my will, and so, as I've said criminal either way."

"How DARE you," the man's smile is quick to fade. "I can get 10 hotter guys any day, every day, I'm not a creep. If anything, you should consider yourself lucky I even talked to someone like you, and you're the one who should not be such a bitch about it."

"Well then, if I'm so unpleasant, I'm sure you can just easily leave me the fuck alone," Bucky mirrors back the other guy's initial, fake smile. And that did the trick already because the guy is giving him murderous looks, but just about to turn away and leave exactly as Bucky wanted, but maybe Bucky doesn't know what he wants, because he finds himself adding. "And find your 10 victims."

"What did you just say to me?" the guy turns back, not because he didn't hear, but because he is ready to hit Bucky next, if Bucky wasn't waiting for this to happen, ducking the first blow before giving the man a punch on his own.

They are just about equal height, but the asshole of course is so confident because he probably has twice the muscle Bucky has, but on the other hand, he lacks speed.

And, if anything, Bucky provoked him into this fight, so no matter what happens, he kind of deserves it. He hears a crack in his left arm when the other guy manages to twist it back, and Bucky has to free himself from his hold or get another knee in his ribs that aren't faring well either, but the pain is expected.

The cops showing up for such a small thing and arresting them both isn't. Processing Bucky's fingerprints and identifying him as a missing person, James Barnes isn't.

"So let me understand this, Mr. Barnes," the cops have him in a room then, both irritated that they have to interrogate someone so late. "One day your husband left for work, and when he came back, you were just gone. Only to show up 8 years later, on the other side of the country, in a bar fight?"

"I haven't committed a crime," Bucky tells the policeman in what he hopes calm tone. "You have no reason to keep me here, even less interrogating me."

"A broken jaw and 3 ribs on the other guy tell a very different story."

"I was only defending myself, I didn't throw the first punch," Bucky says. He'd wave his broken left hand in the face of both of the cops, but he can't even feel it, and he wasn't even offered a glass of water yet, so there's no reason to think he'd get a bunch of painkillers or medical attention any time soon. Maybe the station doesn't even have any doctors available in the middle of the night either, so by the looks of it, it's better if he doesn't try to act all "clever" now, and provoke the police officers as he just did the man in the bar.

"Still, you could see how it looks bad for you, James."

"Don't call me that."

"Well, it's your name, isn't it? You're James Barnes, and you've been missing for 8 years..."

"My name is Bucky, and I'm not the guy you're looking for, your database must be wrong," he can only say because James Barnes is dead. He was so careful for so long, never even collecting a parking ticket for 8 years, only to make a rookie mistake like this, after everything...

"Well, it's funny, you see, because we rang up your husband, and he also IDed you as James Barnes. Now, you might say that the clerk at the front desk made an error when pulling up your file, but to claim that your husband wouldn't remember your face, even if he'd admittedly not seen you for years, seems a bit of a reach," the other cop says, and Bucky can only blink up to the mirrored glass panel of the room.

"Is he... here? Now?"

"Who?" the first cop nonchalantly fakes ignorance, watching him keenly.

"The husband," Bucky refuses to say Steve's name, hoping - no, almost praying, even though he isn't a believer - that Steve can't possibly be. When Bucky ran away, they were living in New York. There's no way Steve would be able to get to California in just an hour.

"As a matter of fact, he is," the second cop agrees, turning to look at the mirror, indicating that Steve might be behind it, watching. Hearing those words, Bucky's pulse doubles, but he forces himself to breathe. "And we'd very much like to release you to him for a certain amount of bail for your minor misconduct in the bar, and call it a night, but you see, when a person missing for 8 years reappears, we ought to ask some questions."

"I'm not telling you shit," Bucky's only hope now is to not cooperate, in an attempt that they might keep him locked up then, not releasing him to Steve if he's truly there. Buy some time first, and prepare a plan for the worst next.

But all his hopes crumble when a man named Bruce Banner busts into the interrogation room, followed by yet another police officer, and Steve himself, claiming that he's Bucky's lawyer, and the cops cannot hold him overnight when the bail was paid, and he's badly injured and that Steve, Bucky's loving husband would like to welcome him back first, and Bucky will be overjoyed to answer any questions the officers might have later, in the comfort of Bucky's home, when the shock is gone, after a good night's sleep.

Bucky wonders what home the lawyer is referring to because he had been living in motels, basically homeless for almost a decade now, but by then Bucky's shaking so badly, he doesn't want to risk speaking. That, and the look Steve gives him right before anyone could have a chance to see is more than a reason for Bucky to shut up, even when the lawyer says goodbye, even when Steve basically forces Bucky into a car, and even when the driver of the car drops them off in front of a villa where Bucky had never been in his entire life.

He expects Steve to only get violent when they are left alone, but even in the villa, there are people greeting them both, and Steve only orders them around, even telling a man to call a doctor for Bucky, smiling at Bucky as if with a fondness for everyone to see.

And maybe he knows fully well how Bucky's waiting for the other shoe to drop and enjoys keeping Bucky in the limbo of suspense, maybe even considers pretending to care before he'd inadvertently, like always, would drop a bomb on him.

Emotional, physical, doesn't matter. But Bucky got punished for almost everything he had ever done in their marriage, so he has no doubts that disappearing without a trace for years would make Steve just so furious he might even kill him.

Not yet, though. Steve is putting up his nice guy act in front of his staff, and in just a matter of half an hour, Bucky's arm is reset, he gets medication for his cracked ribs, the cut on his forehead had been stitched, and he also had been offered to take a bath in perfectly hot and scented water, in the most luxurious bathtub he had ever seen.

Not that he had seen bathtubs much in the crappy motels where he'd been hiding, more familiar with showers and mold, and non-existent water pressure than he'd care to admit.

"I told Peggy, our housekeeper that you'll be using the guest bedroom," Steve appears just when Bucky toweled himself off, making Bucky freeze at first, then putting on the clothes that had been set for him to wear for the night just as fast as he can. "She also left some food for you, and told me to tell you you can call on her if you need anything, even during the night."

Sounds too good to be true, but Bucky doesn't know where to find her, and maybe that's the point. He'd only ask for one thing of her: some clothes that he could wear to escape, instead of the flimsy PJs that - as he's keenly aware - barely keep covering anything up from Steve, who is eying him through the fabric indeed.

"You've changed so much."

"You didn't," Bucky's thoughts slip out before he could stop it, but Steve just smiles.

"I always knew I'll find you, and bring you back. All this... is for you," he gestures around.

"The LED lights in the bathroom?" Bucky wonders. So far Steve is yet to hurt or threaten him, and he's uncharacteristically feeling bold, given that there's hardly anything he could say to Steve that would anger him any further than Bucky's escape back in the day surely did.

"The villa, the people who work for me, the cars, you name it," Steve shrugs, ignoring Bucky's rudeness even. "When you left... But today's hardly the time to talk about it. Rest for now, and I'll show you everything later. Just know that... I'm so glad you're back. As I knew you would be."

After years of conditioning by Steve, Bucky tries and fails not to interpret that as a threat, but so far he got off easy considering everything, and he knows he needs the sleep. Right after checking that all the windows and the doors were part of the alert system so he can't leave, he does just that, too, trying to sleep.

But he doesn't dare to eat or drink anything that has been prepared for him, nor take the painkillers that he also finds on his side table, so the pain and the fear of what's going to happen keep him up.

He only risks sneaking out of his room for the landline when he supposes everyone is asleep and does something he didn't think he ever would, calling a person who is at a party, probably, given the background noise, not exactly matching how Bucky's almost whispering to the phone.

"Tony, it's Bucky. Bucky Barnes. I don't know how to say this, but... I need a lawyer."

And he thinks he'd be lucky if Tony could manage that, not even being able to give an address to Tony when he asks where he should send the lawyer.

"Um, can't you trace back the landline or something? I only know I'm somewhere not that far from LA."

But maybe that's a mistake because the next day not only a lawyer shows up, but Tony himself, with his assistant, his bodyguard, and a redhead lawyer who is serving Steve divorce papers in Bucky's name before Steve could even ask who they are.

"And, Bucky's coming with us."

"You can't just burst into people's homes, taking their sick partners away!" Steve's temper shows, and Bucky sort of regrets calling Tony already, but also not if he could leave now, by some miracle.

"Not if their partner is kept against their will," Tony stands up to Steve like Bucky never could. "And are in the danger of getting more battered if they stay."

"You think you're so smart and know everything about me and my husband, do you?" Steve's attitude quickly changes from bad to worse when he sees Bucky appearing in his own clothes now - that Steve's housekeeper must have washed during the night, because it's fresh and clean, and was neatly folded by the end of Bucky's bed when he woke.

"As a matter of fact, yes," Tony says.

"You're wrong. And it doesn't matter what you say anyway. James is finally home after so many years, and he has no intention of leaving anyway. Isn't that right, James?"

Bucky knows how he has to leave now that Tony gave him a chance to, but his instinct to just go along with whatever Steve says to minimize confrontation is so strong from the past that he hesitates.

"See?" Steve takes it as if he was right, telling Tony.

"No, I'm leaving," Bucky angles himself closest to the door, and shame or not, behind the red-haired lawyer. "And I'm divorcing you, Steve. I don't want anything, just... sign the papers."

"His lawyer will be in touch, asshole," Tony adds then before they all leave. "And if you don't want some very unpleasant news to come out of your conduct of the last few years, Rogers, I'd sign the deal fast too."

Bucky still can't believe he actually said that when Pepper guides him into the car, and the lawyer lady gives him water, probably to calm him down because Bucky's limbs are shaking again.

"Why did you have to threaten him?"

"That was hardly a threat," Tony says, shrugging. "I just stated some facts he must have known already. After how he treated you..."

"All I asked for was a divorce lawyer!" Bucky is grateful to be leaving the villa alive and not in a body bag, but also agitated. "You don't know him as I do... now he'll come after you and everyone you like, and-"

"I'd like to see him try."

Famous last words. Bucky half hopes that Steve's affluence is only for a show, but when Stark Industries stock starts dropping like crazy the next day, he realizes he not only made a mistake involving Tony but also how Steve not only had gathered extreme wealth since Bucky had seen him but also contacts to the right people, it seems.

And if Bucky could ever escape Steve, taking up crappy jobs, earning next to nothing for years, always on the road, and looking over his shoulder, but in turn starting a new chapter in his life, taking up another name, and enjoying the anonymity that came with it, now he doesn't have the same luxury.

Steve gives many very public and seemingly heartfelt interviews, showing the most recent photos of Bucky to every reporter who asks, saying he's Bucky's high-school sweetheart, soulmate, and husband, and they'd hit a hard patch, but he'd do anything to get Bucky back.

Bucky throws up after seeing the first interview, even though he's staying at Tony's now, and knows how Tony has high-tech security, not to mention a helipad as a possible escape route, but Bucky still feels oddly trapped how close Steve is, too, the two villas being situated only an hour away if traffic isn’t bad.

"I need to meet him. And you need to apologize," he tells Tony.

"I meant everything I said."

"He isn't the type to stop."

"Until someone stops him," Tony only agrees to take it a step further. "And I can't say I'm not looking forward to giving him a taste of his own medicine."

"Well, I'm leaving," Bucky tells him. "I'm not going to be part of any of this, whatever this is about..."

"You asked for my help!" Tony gains speed as he puts himself in Bucky's way.

"For a lawyer, not for this!" Bucky can only say, on the verge of either losing his composure or his mind, at least that's what it feels like. "And only because you kept saying you owed me a favor, and I could use one, but..."

"I owed you more than a simple favor, and we both know it," Tony says. "And after what he did to you, and still thinks he can do to you later, Rogers deserves all this and more!"

"Huh, funny," Bucky can only laugh. "Because you're doing the same thing he would have done in your place, deciding what's best for me, even if I keep telling you I don't want any vengeance or payback or even his money, Tony!"

Bucky desperately wants to leave, and get to a bar, and have a drink or two, except he's almost certain that Steve has people of his private security watching the house, ready to take Bucky back to Steve even by force if he left Tony's, and... by the looks of Tony's emotionless mask, he managed to hurt Tony as well, worse than he intended, just wishing Tony would back down, not provoking Steve's fury if they could help it.

"I'm sorry, that was too far," he apologizes, but it's already too late.

"No, no, you're right. Maybe you're right. He has a connection to high places. And if you want to run back to his arms, I'm no better than he is, if I'm trying to stop you."

"I've never said-"

"Yes, you didn't, but meeting him? After everything he's done to you? And you expect me to just stand by watching, while you haven't told me half of the things that happened, but I already had nightmares after the ones you did? The only good thing about divorce lawyers is that you don't even necessarily need to communicate with him directly, and whatever fortune he'd made for himself lately, you also arguably own a huge chunk of it and we can keep it over his head if he doesn't sign..." Tony looks both more and less calm while saying this.

"Yes, but I also know him, and he'll never sign anything if he feels like he's pushed to do it. He'd rather go bankrupt and come here with a gun than to let me go unless he thinks it was his idea, or I am no longer of any interest to him or something..."

"You're just afraid," Tony says, his tone is wearily accusatory.

"And with good reason!"

"Yeah, well, maybe my protection isn't enough for you..."

"Or, if I don't learn to protect myself, I'll never be able to live free?" the last thing Bucky wants to do is argue over semantics, but part of him is furious with Tony, and a part of him thinks he's only mad because Tony had already taken many hits because of him.

And while Steve was abusive in the past, his target was never anybody else but Bucky. He didn't have any friends, Steve had isolated him from his family saying they'll never accept Bucky marrying a man, and, if Bucky wants to be honest with himself, he didn't have anything that mattered to him then.

He only dared to leave because he knew that if he left and was caught by Steve, even the worst Steve could do to him was nothing compared to the thought of how if he stayed, nothing ever would change.

He truly tried not to flinch when Tony took a sudden step toward him, but his body was still relying on old instincts sometimes, and he couldn't have known what he wanted.

"I... wanted to kiss you, actually," Tony took a couple of steps back. "Which only proves that you're right, and I'm an asshole."

"No, you couldn't be if you tried," Bucky told him, smiling a sad smile. "But it's me, I can't..."

"That's exactly what you said the last time you left," Tony tells him, scrunching his face up. "And I thought I have made my peace with that, but then you're here, and all I can think about is if only I could have met you before him, you'd never have a reason to want to leave, and I can't help but hate him all the more."

Tony's only right in the sense that Bucky doesn't believe in "never" and "forever" anymore, not willing or wishing to admit that if Steve wasn't, Bucky and Tony would have never had a chance to meet.

Not to mention, even if they started dating, by some miracle both of them wanting more than the one night stand they had, they'd be broken up by now a hundred times, both of them being troubled by different things even when they were alone, so what possible good would it do to put all their problems together?

Bucky says nothing, only kisses Tony lightly, and when Tony closes the distance between them and would like to lead Bucky to somewhere more private, Bucky just sidesteps the request.

"Um, I'm sorry Tony, it was goodbye," he says and dares to not look back as he leaves.

Dealing with Steve and the divorce is like an uphill battle that he's never going to win, but the truth of the matter is that staying in one place long enough to do that has its perks.

Bucky can find a therapist (Sam), and not restart his session every time he needs to move, he can take up a more steady job than poorly paid physical labor now that he's now afraid that only giving his name would ring alarm bells, and even - after years - see how petty Steve can be, when he finally gets the courage to really look at him, sitting across the table many times during the divorce negotiations until Steve gets the message that Bucky won't be anyone's play toy anymore.

He also lists all the things he didn't like about Tony in group therapy, unexpectedly talking about him instead of Steve, when the topic comes up, explaining how Tony was sometimes too stubborn for his own good, but then getting questions that make him uncomfortable in return, like the one pointing out that usually what bothers us in other people the most is the trait we also have and can't accept and then some.

Bucky himself thought of that many times when Steve had treated him the way he had, and Bucky became abusive to others in turn, the final straw that made him leave, in the end.

Also, the first reason why he only ever hooked up with Tony so briefly, even considering how Bucky didn't stay in one place for too long, and especially if you add the fact that Tony offered to fly out to wherever with his PJ if Bucky wanted, just to meet him.

So after all the brainwashing - even if it was for the best, Bucky feels like therapy is just that as well - it's kind of surprising for Bucky when he orders some food he's not even sure Tony would eat, and then shows up at his front door like a person who has any idea of Tony's schedule, more likely to get the cleaning lady than Tony who could be in other countries for all Bucky knows, but...

"Hi, I brought food. And an apology, if you care for it," he says, when the door opens, and Tony's standing there.

"Is this a porn script or somethin'?" Tony asks. "Like, guess what the delivery is?"

"Um, it's just food," Bucky says, but he’s probably scarlet by then, and that doesn't escape Tony's notice, although he visibly struggles not to comment on it.

"Well, I hope it's completely vegan, with no nuts, dairy, lactose, and that it's not cold already..."

Bucky's face falls, making Tony laugh.

"I was just kidding. I haven't had breakfast yet and starving, so I was just about to order something when you showed up."

"But it's in the middle of the night."

"Man you have so many good qualities," Tony laughs. "Not only perfectly timed delivery, but you also know how to read a clock..."

Bucky knows this technique only too well, but he decides to let it go if Tony could let their last conversation go.

"And you don't even know the half of it."

"I have heard that you're recently divorced with a decent sum to your name," Tony gives him a wink, but just when Bucky would feel uncomfortable, he gets plates and starts to plate the food Bucky bought.

"Don't go all utilitarian on me now," Bucky can only say. "I mean, I know how you don't have two pennies to your name, but I'm not as glamorous as you may have heard."

"I can't tell, truly, or is just part of the flirting?" Tony asks him then.

"Is that what we were doing?"

"I was, thank you for noticing."

"Well, Natalie was great, so even though I didn't want a thing that was Steve's I still got a decent enough sum so that I can pay you back for her fees..."

"And now you just mention her because you know I'm terrified of her, and ever since she threatened me, she's the least sexy topic there's to talk about, and I did mention flirting. Twice."

"For the record, I didn't know she threatened you."

"Yeah, well, saying she'll only be your lawyer if there are truly no strings attached, and if I don't let you divorce your husband whatever way you want to, there are, so..."

"She's a better friend than I deserve," Bucky notes then.

"That, and scary. Now back to flirting."

But truth is, even if there's flirting, there's not much else, and when the dark comes, Bucky rather leaves by himself, instead of letting them both guess what should or could happen.

But the wait isn't so long, and his phone rings, and it's Tony.

"I've just finished repairing this car that I had for ages now, and I thought we could try to see how it fares by taking it on a road trip," he proposes. "Just a couple of hours, half a day most."

Bucky is a little bit taken aback, and also at work, so he kind of escapes to the toilet to talk, but then everything is echoing back.

"And where are we going?"

"It's a surprise, of course."

Bucky never liked surprises, and knowing Tony, he fears that even a road trip will get out of hand, but all that therapy was not for naught, because he can say:

"Fine, as long as it's not a trip to the Moon, or to Japan, or something over the top."

"Well, first of all, how dare you to think I'd trip you into something like that," Tony says from the other end of the line. "Second, hold please, until I cancel the private jet to Thailand..."

"Not funny," Bucky says.

"I'll tell you what isn't: it's a date, and you've already agreed to it."

And, even before Bucky would have a chance to say anything back, he just hangs up the phone, so Bucky can't even ask what he should wear then, ending up in some clothes that seem ridiculous for what Tony had planned: driving out to the edge of the city, uphill, seeing the lights from a distance, eating a couple of burgers, and ending up having car sex when Bucky's almost sure neither of them is young enough for such a thing, yet still feeling surprisingly giddy about it later.

"Um, so this date, how'd you rate it? Surely, you'll give me 5 stars?" he asks, feigning that they'd only met through an app, and it had a rating system.

"Yeah, yeah, of course, as long as you also give me 5."

"Funny how I'd do, but the last couple of ones depend more on me than you, even if it's supposed to be about you," Bucky says, saying what he meant to say just a couple of nights ago, but also not saying it directly, so if Tony wanted, he could just make a crude joke and they'd never have to mention it ever again.

"For the record, I don't have any crude comments about you feeling better, but I'm glad," Tony says as if reading his mind. "And I want more than a single date. I mean, you dressed up so nicely, it's a crime not to go to other places now, or soon..."

"You know I'm more of a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy."

"Believe me, I can only appreciate that, but don't ever try to tell Pepper that, or you'll surely give her an aneurysm."

"I was unaware that she'll be present on our dates."

"Well, you see, I have the unfortunate chore of having to attend these charity galas, just so I can donate a sum. And I'd be less bored if I had a date, but I'm going to need a well-dressed one."

"I'm almost sure I know a guy who's gay and dresses nicely at work..." Bucky says, but he's being shut up by Tony leaning close, and kissing him then.

"You're incorrigible."

But Bucky has an answer at ready.

"I have learned it from you."

And it's true because when on the run, Bucky rarely risked stepping out of the line, even just pulling attention the wrong way would have been far too dangerous, and he was still secretly convinced that there was no escaping Steve, even though he already did it.

He met Tony then, and spending time with him was the first time that Bucky could just let go a little, even if it was more of a fake it until you make it situation back then, only resulting in some confidence now, years later.

And if it was only that, without the work Bucky put in, like when in therapy, like finally having the divorce behind him, or just the morning runs he enjoys so much, clearing his mind, or letting himself reach out to Tony without knowing what can come out of it, and Tony taking it in strides, matching his speed in every step, it could have crumbled over time.

But Bucky just went on a surprise date that went surprisingly well, and he felt like for once he could try again truly because even if it didn't work out with Tony, he now knew who he was.

"Is there a possibility of a surprise date that also ends in your bedroom?" he can only suggest, making Tony consider.

"You know, I must warn you when you say things like that, you should consider how I've been never this tempted to speed all my life."

"You have such little faith in me that you either think that it wouldn't last until we get back, or..."

"Or?"

"Or that you assume I'm only into men who are F1 pilots?"

"Well, no, but Steve was tall, blond, blue-eyed, and very... manly."

"He also knew how to use that all to his advantage. Like his height and build, when he was hitting me," Bucky notes. "But if you think of him as a role model, you can drop me off here."

"Nah, if we must have something like that, I'd rather you hit me. Like, spanking, and not so hard, you know, just to put me in my place sometimes..."

"How 'bout none of that, even as a joke, and therapy for you instead?" Bucky wishes he could laugh, but becoming the person he morphed into while with Steve, he still couldn't entirely forgive himself for it, so it is a sore subject with him.

"Hey, hey," Tony notices the change in his mood, quickly trying to tell him now. "You know I'd never do or ask anything of you you aren't comfortable with? That's why it makes me so happy that you mentioned my bed. When I wasn't sure you'd want another date when the last time we did something like this, you said you didn't do dates, but especially not relationships..."

"I'm sorry."

"For the record, I also don't. Like, most of the time," Tony then starts the car. "But, I've also had some therapy, and when I was told that I tend to like people not for who they are, but who they could be, having expectations of them that were different than they are, they'd never told me that you not only matched everything I ever thought you'd be, but also outdid it, and yet you're still real."

"I didn't do anything."

"You were under pressure, fearing for your life, but you were still strong enough to send me to hell."

"Is that what I did?" Bucky wonders, because surely not.

"Kinda, but it was a good thing."

"Like, I should do it more often?"

"If I'm being a patronizing jerk when you can pull through all the shit yourself? As it pains me to admit, yes."

"Now I worry you still see me as someone stronger and better than I am," Bucky can only smile, just thinking about how sometimes there are still harder days, and maybe some scars will never heal, no matter how he now lets himself stop and relax sometimes as well.

"The therapist also fell asleep when I was talking to him, and suggested that I might have had some issues with my mother when the entire world knows it was my father I had problems with, so I'd only take anything they said with a grain of salt," Tony says, leaning in for another kiss.

"For the record, if I could, I'd like to change my 5-star rating to 4."

"Do I talk too much? Or was it-"

"No, but with 4, you'd have to take me to many more until I gave you 5, right?"

"Alternatively, you can also give me one more each time. Like, 6 out of 5 today, and 7 out of 5 the next time," Tony suggests, grinning at him. "I mean, only if you want to encourage my textbook narcissistic behavior as the therapist put it..."

"Hmm," Bucky pretends to think, too long.

"Cut it out!”

"If you take me home, I'll give you an 8 out of 5, Tony, gladly."

And, when Tony does, and he's smiling, Bucky also notes how Steve could always talk smooth, and do the big gestures, and pretend to be the nicest man ever in existence, but how he'd never once smiled at Bucky like that, so maybe - just maybe - everything is going to be if not even fine, but just a little bit better this time around, and that thought is enough for Bucky to smile back, and start the car's radio, making them both sing the lyrics of pop some song so loud they'd both firmly deny it if anyone else asked, but it's perfect for the moment, and the memory.