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The Stars Through Her Soul

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The Vasyugan Mire, Siberia
2012

Despite all of JARVIS’s mother-henning and disapproving silences, Toni thinks her new stealth tech’s test is going well. So far, the suit isn’t showing up on radar or sonar, radio doesn’t seem to be picking up any frequencies, and even naked-eye observation has to be particularly sharp in order to spot the shimmer giving away her outline. All in all, she’s quite satisfied with how it’s holding up.

Especially since she’s testing the tech in Russia. Without letting the Russians know. Or anyone else, for that matter. She’s pretty sure that no one would appreciate what she’s doing, so she never bothered asking.Better forgiveness than permission has been her personal motto for a long, long time.

Something she didn’t know, though? Russia stinks.

Toni needs to check the armor’s filters, because she is positive she should not be getting this sickening wash of rotten eggs and septic tanks up her nose. The faceplate is down, so it should be a sealed environment. No way for the stench to get inside. She’s halfway to convinced it’s all in her head, because she hates swamps. But this stink, it’s a persistent phantom, crawling up her nostrils and setting up camp in her sinuses, sending scouts to fetch water from her tear ducts and shooing the kids down her throat to jump on her gag reflex.

She’s pretty sure it’s worse than the smell when she opens the mini-fridge in her workshop, which holds leftover Chinese so old it’s due to gain self-awareness any day now.

“J, do me a favor and run a diagnostic on the filtration system, will you?” she asks, keeping one eye on the HUD’s co-ordinate display and one eye on the actual landscape. She wants to retch but, as she found out on the night of that infamous birthday party last year, throwing up inside the helmet means she’s going to have to fabricate a new helmet, or she’ll be smelling puke for weeks no matter how thoroughly she scrubs it.

“Ma’am, if I may suggest, returning to your workshop would be the optimal route, as the diagnostic software in the Tower’s mainframe is far superior to the basic suite installed on the suit.” JARVIS is exceedingly polite and even sounds like he’s doing his very best to be the most helpful, but Toni coded and compiled and brought him to life. She knows his tricks better than anyone.

“Nice try, JARVIS,” she says, trying not to grin and failing spectacularly. “But the suit’s capabilities are more than enough to figure out if there’s a glitch somewhere. Now, be a good boy for Mommy, and tell her why her armor smells like a toilet threw up on a compost heap.”

There’s a scroll of information as the program executes. “Running diagnostics now,” JARVIS says, “though my preliminary guess is the fact that you’re currently flying above the world’s largest peat bog in the middle of the local summer.”

“Don’t be a smartass, J. Nobody likes a smartass.” Toni knows JARVIS knows she’s lying. She wouldn’t have programmed him with sass and snark if she didn’t like it.

“Only attempting to be thorough, ma’am. Diagnostic complete. Filtration system operating at 99.99% efficiency.”

“Ninety-nine, ninety-nine?” She frowns, and absently swerves out of the way to let an island with trees shoot past her. “Where’s the point oh-one?”

“It appears as though there was a malfunction in one of the lateral vent panels, ma’am, resulting in an improper seal which allowed a minute amount of unfiltered air to enter the armor. That error has now been corrected. The scrubbers should clear any lingering trace momentarily.”

“Make a note of it, and run the data against the coding of the other suits,” she says. “I want to know if it’s a one-off, or if it’s something I’m going to have to worry about when I’m somewhere even more hostile than Swamp-Ass, Siberia. Like the bottom of the ocean. See if you can track down the cause of the error so I can eradicate it.”

There’s a slight hesitation, no more than a nanosecond. Anyone else would miss it. Not Toni. She’s hyperaware of every time JARVIS pauses, stutters, or skips. “Yes, ma’am.”

Her turn to hesitate, suspicion flaring hot and squinty-eyed in her chest. “JARVIS,” she says slowly, “if you cracked my seals to punish me with that godawful smell because I didn’t listen to you and test the stealth tech in the lab before I took it into the field, I swear to Turing I will break your code into itty bitty pieces and use you as the StarkPhone’s answer to Siri.”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, ma’am,” comes JARVIS’s mild-toned reply. “Approaching the designated co-ordinates, estimated arrival at Zima Station in approximately two minutes.”

“Well, how conveniently that happened. Don’t think you’re safe. We’re continuing this conversation later.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

oOoOoOo

Manhattan, 1984

Toni’s memory is excellent, she never fails to recall a single thing. Even the things she might like to forget, like the look on Daddy’s face that day just after her fourth birthday and he catches her in his workshop building her very first, fully-functional circuit board (nascent pride drowned under irritation and impatience warring with something dark and frightening that she would only later learn is deep, ugly, jealous rage).

He tells her that little girls shouldn’t play with electronics, because girls are stupid and can’t do engineering, because girls have to have babies and look after their husbands. She runs away from him, crying, and taking solace in her Mama’s lap, Mama's fingers in her hair, and Mama's soft voice calling her cara and passerottaand promising she is brilliant and telling her not to listen to her father, who is only a man, after all, and a very silly man at that.

She overhears a conversation weeks later, Uncle Obie congratulating Daddy on streamlining the circuitry on the new warheads, they just made a bundle of cash with the new military tech, and how did he solve the problems with enhancing the connectivity speed, since he said it couldn’t be done?

Toni has never been stupid. Her brain makes the leap effortlessly, and she knows that her father has stolen from her, has claimed her design as his own, rides the accolades and reaps the praise as if he earned it all himself. Toni learns her first lesson in ruthlessness that day, and learns for the first time what betrayal tastes like. At the tender age of four, she knows what it feels like to know that trust is foolhardy.

She promises herself as Mama dries her tears that she will never forget it.

oOoOoOo

Siberia

It’s abrupt, the shift. She throws a mental switch, changes gear, drops into another track. One instant, she’s the careless, carefree billionaire in tech no one in their right mind would ever think she’s qualified to own, let alone operate. The next, she is focused, tactically-aware and crunching environmental profiles, attack vectors and threat probabilities as fast as she registers them, with the same tech an extension of her body and will. Her mouth might still run free and wild, but her mind is all business. “Any indication they’ve taken notice?”

“No, ma’am,” JARVIS replies, and data scrolls across the edge of the HUD. Toni watches it for half a second; topographical data and government records on utilities in the area, JARVIS’s crunching the best angle of attack to shut down any hope those inside the base have of reaching outside assistance. Toni approves. “I am inside their systems. Deploying cyberwarfare suite and EMI packages. ...Communications capabilities are nullified, ma’am. They are unaware of my presence in their system.”

“That was easy,” Toni says, knowing as it comes out of her mouth that she’s just jinxed herself.

“One can only hope it stays that way.” And if she hasn’t jinxed herself, JARVIS just did it for her. Oh well. It’s more fun this way anyway. “Shall I queue up your usual entrance music, ma’am?”

Toni eases up with the boot repulsors as the squat, ugly, abandoned-looking outpost appears, reducing thrust until she’s directly in front of the rusty door, and hovers in midair for a moment. There are two guards stationed in sight. One patrols the top, the other stands beside the door. “Nah. Not really in the mood for AC/DC right now. I’m feeling…She grins as something flutters in her chest, wide and manic, and starts to laugh. She can sense it now, that strained, weak and faint pulse that sits to the right of her arc reactor, marked by a star as red as blood. It’s steady and it’s strong. It’s waking up and singing electric melodies. This is it. End of the line. “I’m feeling ridiculously thematic. Give me some Iron Maiden. You know the one.”

“Very good, ma’am.”

Toni subvocalizes the command to disengage the stealth plating on her suit, cuts the ports in her boots, and engages the external speakers, opening chords of “Wrathchild” blasting at top volume. She drops in front of the guard, holding the fist-down pose for a moment.

“Hi there!” Toni chirps as she straightens up, and the warm-up whine of her repulsor ports underscore the guitars as they cut dead. “I’m Iron Maiden. You may have heard of me. You have something that belongs to me. And I’m here to take it back.”

oOoOoOo

Manhattan, 1988

Toni is supposed to be learning etiquette, posture and appropriate presentation with Mrs. Jarvis while Mama entertains Howard's business guests, but Toni is running for the garden as if running for her life. She hates dresses and she hates making sure her shoulders are back and she hates having her hair brushed and she hates the thick creams and powders she’s supposed to know how to use on her face. It feels sluggish and wrong on her skin, and wearing makeup makes her feel like her face is going to crack. The only makeup she can stand to wear is the stick of concealer her mother taught her to use to cover the soulmarks below her collarbones after they manifested six months ago.

(“It’s unusual for a child so young to have them, cara mia,” Mama says, stroking her hair as she curls into a ball and cries in her lap, skin raw and sore from the frozen burn of the marks searing through. Mama has strong, gentle hands today, soothing the marks with a lotion that smells like aloe and tingles with analgesic relief. “Our family has enemies that will think to use them against you. I will teach you how to hide them,passerotta. Never let anyone see them. No one must know but you and I, capisci? Not even your father. One day, you’ll understand why.”

Si, Mama,” Toni says quietly, letting her mother’s fingers stroke through her hair and dry her eyes. She doesn’t understand how two stupid stars that are cold, like an ice cube on her skin that never melts – a white star edged in blue on her left, in the soft place between her shoulder and her collar bone, a red star edged in silver in the same place on her right – are a weakness for enemies to exploit, but she trusts Mama. One day, she’ll understand.)

She tries to go to her lessons and tolerate the stifling clothing and the choking makeup and the pointless instructions on how to make small talk. She tries, because the last time she threw a tantrum and refused to go, Howard got a look on his face, cold and still like he gets when he’s talking to Uncle Obie about business, and told her calmly that if she didn’t attend her ladyship lessons, he would have to fire Mrs. Jarvis. And Mrs. Jarvis won’t be able to find another job, because Howard won’t give her any recommendations since she can’t actually do her job if Toni doesn’t let her.

Natasha Antonia Stark!” The voice is distant, searching. Tony hunches her shoulders but scurries deeper into the garden. Mrs. Jarvis is looking for her, but… just… not today.

Toni feels terrible about it, but she can’t sit still in a chair and learn what fork is for what dish – she already knows to start from the outside and work her way in as the courses come – and she can’t slip on her uncomfortable high heels and learn how to balance on them, not today. Not today, when her skin is crawling and her fingers are itching and her brain can’t settle on a single train of thought for more than a few seconds. Schematics and designs are star-bursting on her eyelids, orderly blue lines spilling out in patterned, complex shapes, unfurling like Mrs. Jarvis’s roses do in the sun, one petal at a time.

She can’t do anything until she can purge them from her thoughts. And that means she needs her retreat, her tree branches with its shield of leaves and twigs, with its cache of paper and colored pencils, and a few hours of quiet to spill them onto clean white pages.

She has her own workshop in the house, but she doesn’t use it for anything but rudimentary devices, copies of Howard's tech. Her sketchbooks are filled with innovations and groundbreaking theories. She has theoretically miniaturized the first arc reactor, the big one in the reception area of the Stark Industries building, the one Howard is so proud of. Making it smaller, more portable, is a feat that has frustrated him since long before Toni was born. Toni’s smarter than Howard, though. It only took her a week to figure out what he was missing. Toni knows Howard can put her work to use, and Toni wants to make the world a better place, but more than that, Toni craves the recognition and credit. And Toni has learned the hard way that she cannot trust Howard at all.

She hides her sketchbooks and her loose, wild scribbles in a waterproof bag in the hollow of a tree, twenty feet off the ground. It’s a sturdy tree, and she’s a sure climber. She ignores the faint, distant calls of her full name, and pulls herself up one branch at a time until she’s hidden in the branches and pulling her designs out of their protective satchel.

She isn’t up there very long – or maybe she’s been up there for hours, she doesn’t know. She loses track of time easily when she’s absorbed in circuit diagrams and sketches of sleek housing components – when an itch starts on the right side of her chest. She absently scratches it, then goes back to drawing the delicate whorl of microcircuits intended to revolutionize the personal computing market.

The itching suddenly spikes in intensity, and it feels like a swarm of angry bees buzzing just under her skin. Tony gasps and jerks, clawing at her chest, ripping aside the neck of her tee-shirt and scratching at the red star that has never been anything but cold but is now angry and electric and throbbing. A spasm of her knee jolts her book, and she instinctively snatches at it, trying to snag it before it falls. It slips through her fingers. She wobbles, overcorrects, screams as she slides right off the branch and is falling head-down towards the ground, thirty feet below.

Her only thought is, if I die with this itch, it’s gonna suck so much.

Incredibly, the only thing she hits is a pair of arms, one metal and one flesh, suddenly there to catch her. Stupidly, she blinks up at the very tall man in the black leather tactical suit. She can only see the top of his face, because he has something covering his nose and mouth, and his eyes are painted with greasepaint. She has no idea where he came from or what he’s doing here, but she’s never really been happier to see anyone in her life because he caught her, and that means she isn't splattered across the grass and dirt.

They stare at each other for a long moment, her eyes wide, his inscrutable. Toni's breath hitches in her chest. Her heart pounds with a solid, painless thump, and warmth spreads up her neck. The itching vanishes as if it never was.

“Hi,” she blurts dumbly, because she has to say something. “I’m Toni.”

The man doesn’t look like he understands what just happened. His eyes are baffled, uncertain. Swiftly, he sets her on her feet and takes a step back, eyes still boring into hers. Then, he turns to disappear into the bushes again. Toni’s too shocked, too shocky, to say or do anything to stop him. He’s fast as well as silent, but not swift enough to stop Toni from catching a glimpse of the design on his metal arm. A star. A red star. On a silver arm.

Toni presses a hand to her chest, mouth a perfectly round O of surprise. She's not stupid. Her brain makes the leap, intuits the connection. Under her fingertips, the red star, which has always been a spot of chill in her skin she can't shake, is warm and alive.

oOoOoOo

Siberia

The guard’s eyes are as round as dinner plates, flicking between her and somewhere behind her. Toni can take a pretty educated guess at what’s murdering the hamster on his wheel: where the hell did she come from? How the hell did she hide? Can Iron Maiden teleport now?

No, she can’t. But that would be pretty freaking awesome.

She waits, because she’s halfway to feeling sorry for him and it just feels like poor sportsmanship to blast him into next week without giving him a sporting chance. She waits for longer than she thought she would have to, and is frankly feeling a bit bad for whatever Hydra agent recruited this guuy, because he probably should have acted by now.

Finally, she sighs. “This is pathetic, you know. You could at least try to fight back.”

The guard starts, and the rifle in his hand whips up. His head tilts towards the right, where he has a radio attached to the shoulder of his uniform, and his mouth is forming the first syllable of a warning.

Toni’s repulsors are faster; clik-whreee, and the guard crunches satisfactorily into the wall with a pained oofof deflated lungs. His head cracks against the concrete, and he slumps to the ground, out cold before he hits the dirt.

A bullet whines off the forearm of her armor, scratching the paint and digging a furrow in the dirt. Toni makes an unimpressed noise and looks up The HUD tracks the target – the second guard, no doubt alerted to her presence by the utter ineptitude of the first guard. The targeting system calculates her angles, his cover. He’s speaking into his radio, voice high but steady, rattling off something that sounds like a warning in maybe Turkish. The rifle cracks again, and a bullet buries itself in the ground between her boots.

She tsks, extending her arm upwards, repulsor port warm against her palm. “Hydra needs to institute some sort of basic firearms training,” she says, and shoots him square in the face. “You guys are worse than stormtroopers, seriously.” The guard flies back, out of sight, and Toni charges both palm ports again.

The door explodes inwards, dented and warped by the repulsor impacts, and Toni steps inside the secret Hydra base, energy equalling a million pots of coffee surging in her bloodstream. “And now I spend my time looking all around for a man that’s nowhere to be found,” she sings along with the music playing on the internal speakers. The pulse above her right breast beats in time to the rhythm. She’s no Bruce Dickinson, but she’s got heart and gusto and absolutely no sense of shame. “Until I find him, I’m never gonna stop searching. Gonna find my man, gonna travel aro-oooound.”

oOoOoOo

MIT, Cambridge MA, 1995

“Soulmates,” Toni announces, throwing herself at Rhodey’s couch and sprawling over as much space as she can manage, “are bullshit.”

To Rhodey’s credit, he doesn’t bat an eye at her dramatic declaration. He doesn't even look up from his computer. “So you’ve said,” he says absently, fingers dancing on the keys. “I’ve yet to see supporting evidence, though. Don’t you call yourself a scientist? Also, I think you’re drunk.”

Toni closes her eyes and sinks further into the couch with a pleased little sigh. “Yes, I have said,” she says, “and you don’t pay attention or you would understand that there is a veritable mountain of evidence to support my theory. Also, I am a scientist and no, I’m actually not drunk tonight.”

Rhodey scoffs. “It’s Friday. You mean to tell me that you’ve magically discovered responsibility and aren’t off charming lonely nerds with valid IDs into pouring booze down your throat?” He makes another derisive noise. “You forget who you’re talking to, Toni.”

She cracks open an eye, stares unimpressed at him until he looks up, then shuts her eye and thumps her head against the back of the couch again. “You, huggy-bear, are not one to talk about responsibility. You are supposed to be studying, because you’ve got a midterm on Monday, 30% of your grade, isn’t it? But you’re actually playing EverQuest. Tsk, tsk.”

The silence feels awkward and pointed, and Toni grins when she hears the telltale whirr of Rhodey’s fans as they start to power down a moment later.

“I really don’t know why I bother hanging around with you,” Rhodey grumbles.

“Because Howard is paying you to keep an eye on me,” Toni says lazily, tracking Rhodey’s movements with her ears. She can tell he’s coming to the couch, but she whines in protest when he manhandles her from one of the cushions.

“I really need a raise then.” Rhodey drops an arm over her shoulders, and she curls automatically into his side. “Hazard pay, maybe. You’re a pain in the ass.”

She chuckles, leans up and kisses his cheek, then hunches back down where it's warm. “You say the sweetest things, Rhodey.”

“One of the many services I’m paid to offer.” His hand rubs her upper arm, soothing and warm. “Wanna talk about why your panties are in a bunch about soulmates this time?”

Toni screws up her face, nose wrinkled and forehead furrowed. “I sat in on a metaphysics class while I was waiting for my neuroengineering thesis advisor to finish up with that Hammer jackass,” she says. “They were talking about soulmates and soulmarks, and how fucking happy you should be if you end up with marks. That it means your souls are connected beyond the bounds of time and space, and…” She waggles her hand vaguely in the air. “… you know, metaphysical strings and quantum magic and fate equations. And I just want to know who decided that metaphysics was a valid science because it just seems like a whole lotta happy horseshit and magic sky fairies to me.”

Rhodey doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and his hand stills. Finally, he says, “Don’t you have soulmarks, Toni?”

“None of your business,” she snaps, then instantly regrets it. “You know I do,” she says in a more reasonable tone. “Why do you think I developed the nano mask?” She stops, blinks, tries to cover herself. “Uh, I mean, why do you think Selwyn from Berkeley developed the nano mask?”

Rhodey gives her a slow, one-arm squeeze. “Selwyn from Berkeley developed the nano mask so Toni Stark didn’t have the patent and design stolen by her father,” he says gently. “I still don’t know why you’d want to hide your marks.” She side-eyes him. He shakes his head and grins. “C’mon, Tones. I may not be a child prodigy with an intellect approaching Einstein’s…”

“Surpassing, actually,” she says snidely.

“—but c’mon, dude. Give me some credit here. I am still an engineering student. You think I can’t recognize schematics and prototypes when you leave them lying around in the kitchen?”

“Shut up,” she mutters without any real heat. “It’s Selwyn from Berkeley. I was consulting.”

“Sure, whatever you say, Toni.” His hand smooths down her arm again. “I’m not buying that metaphysics is what turned you off from underage drinking, though. Hell, I’m starting to think it’s your fourth major. Wanna tell me what really happened?”

Toni turns her face into his side, her forehead pressing against his ribs. “No,” she says, voice muffled in his shirt. “It’s stupid. I’m probably just PMSing. You know how crazy emotional chicks get when their period is about to start.”

“Seriously? I buy your tampons, Toni,” Rhodey says evenly. “Talking about your menstrual cycle isn’t going to scare me off.”

She snarls in frustration and hauls herself off the couch, wants to stop herself from pacing like a caged lion but can’t. “God, what the hell did I ever do to deserve you? Jesus, Rhodey. Periods are like, supposed to be a magic button girls get to press when they want guys to shut up and stop talking. Fuck women’s lib. It ruins everything.”

“Yes,” Rhodey drawls wryly. “Damn that ability to vote and go to college and work in traditionally male-dominated industries like…” He snaps his fingers, like he’s trying to jog his memory. “Tell me, what womanly, gentle fields are you studying again, Tones? Engineering? Physics? Computer science?”

“I hate you,” she says, pacing furiously.

“That’s a shame. If you didn’t hate me, I’d tell you that there’s a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer for you.”

She stops dead, perks up. “Chocolate Fudge Brownie?” she says hopefully.

“Maybe.” Rhodey’s grin is easy and smart-assed. “Do you still hate me?”

“Not if you have Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Cross my heart.” She skips into the kitchen, digs through the freezer until she finds the tub hidden in the back, behind a bag of frozen peas, of all things, and grabs a spoon out of the drying rack.

When she gets back to the living room Rhodey’s still sitting on the couch, uncommonly still and serious. There’s a thoughtful, cautious, assessing expression on his face that Toni isn’t sure she likes. It’s, in fact, making her anxious, nervous flutters gnawing at her stomach.

“What?” she barks, hand white-knuckling on the spoon. “You’re freaking me out. What is it?”

Rhodey frowns, clears his throat, swallows, clears his throat again and looks uncomfortable. “Look,” he says. “I’m only gonna ask this once, and then we’ll never speak of it again, alright? I just wanna know if the reason you don’t want to talk about what’s clearly upsetting you is because…” He grimaces. “Am I one of your marks?”

She stares at him blankly for a long moment as her brain tries to process that information. “What? No. What?” Her brain catches up, and her stomach twists, and she’s pretty sure the shock has her face in a rictus of grossness. Oh god, can the floor just fucking open up and swallow her whole? “Oh god, no. No. Ew. Ew! Jesus, Rhodey, why would you ask that!”

She’s babbling and waving her hands like a lunatic, and she really hopes she’s not insulting him with all the gagging and protesting. “I mean, I’m sure you’ll make someone a very happy soulmate someday, but oh god, gross. No, I am one hundred percent sure you are free and clear of any marks I may or may not be concealing on my person. Fuck, you’re my best friend! You’re like my brother, for chrissake!”

“Oh, thank Christ and all the saints,” Rhodey says with real, palpable relief, sinking back against the couch and scrubbing his face with both hands. “I love you, Tones, I do, but the thought of being your soulmate scares the piss out of me.”

“Totally valid,” she says honestly, and plops back down on the couch. She peels the lid off the container and flings it across the room before shoving the spoon in. “Jesus, now I really need the ice cream. Why the hell would you even ask something like that?”

Rhodey shrugs, a little helplessly. “I dunno,” he says. “I just thought it might by why you’re so goddamn weird about talking to me about this kinda stuff, stuff that obviously bothers you. Like, maybe you thought it was me, and you didn’t want to tell me or something.”

“No. Definitely no.” She shovels a giant ball of ice cream in her mouth, chews and swallows. “And if it’s all the same to you, I’d just like to skip straight to the ‘let’s never bring this up ever again’ part you mentioned.”

“Perfect,” Rhodey says. “What were we talking about?”

“Selwyn,” she says, licking the spoon clean before digging it back into the pint. “From Berkeley.”

Much later, after Toni’s helped Rhodey study for that test and they’ve watched half a dozen unfunny sitcoms on TV and Toni’s stretching sleepily out on the couch under the afghan Rhodey’s mother knitted for him to use as a throw, she feels Rhodey’s hand brush over her hair.

“You can talk to me,” he says softly. “I’m not going to run back to your father to tattle. He might expect me to do that, but fuck him, Toni. You’re my best friend, as weird and crabby and big a pain in my ass as you are. He doesn’t get shit from me unless you want him to.”

Toni stills, staring at the hand pressed into the couch in front of her nose. She stays that way for a long, long time, wrestling with what she knows are gigantic trust issues, arguing with the ghost of her mother saying that she is to never tell anyone what marks she carries. Fighting with herself, because as much as she says soulmates are bullshit, she desperately wants to believe in the stories, but can’t because she knows that she’s never going to have any of the fairy tale.

Rhodey finally sighs faintly and starts moving away. “Good night, Toni.”

“Okay,” she whispers, so quietly that she thinks maybe Rhodey didn’t hear her, but then he stops and she knows he did. “But not right now. I can't. I’m not ready.”

“I understand,” Rhodey says, and Toni thinks that the warm, soft tone means that he’s telling the truth. “You know where I am when you are. G'night, Toni.”

"G'night, Rhodey." She quells the guilt and tries to feel like she didn't just lie. It's a lost cause, because she's pretty sure she's never going to be ready. Because she's done her research and she has a pretty solid idea of what the white star edged in blue is supposed to mean. 

There are hundreds of self-help books about soulmates, but she's pretty sure not one of them covers carrying the ice-cold marks of a semi-mythical superhuman her father's in love with who drowned during World War II, and a tall ghost with black hair and greasepaint that may or may not have been a figment of her imagination.

oOoOoOo

Siberia

“How big is this goddamn base anyway?” Toni grumbles an hour later, snapping off another pair of repulsor blasts at another featureless grey door and finding yet another staircase leading down, down, down. She grips the rail and peers over the edge, lifting the faceplate with two fingers so she can listen with her own ears. For once, there’s nothing but silence and the too-loud drip of water, but the star is beating a steady cadence, a predatory, patient cadence.

“Thirty three floors, thirty-two of them underground, ma’am.” If JARVIS is getting tired of answering every time Toni complains – approximately once every thirty three seconds, she thinks, one for each floor of this stupidly complex and unnecessarily huge base – he has the courtesy to pretend like he’s patient. “Would you like me to overlay a map to your HUD, ma’am?”

“Nah.” She scratches her nose and slams down the faceplate again with a sigh. “Alright, which batch of idiots should we take out next, J? Floor number twenty six, or lucky number floor twenty seven?”

“There is another weapons depot stored on twenty-six,” JARVIS says after a moment. “Which, I might add, you would know if you had an overlay map on the HUD to consult.”

“I’m going to sell you to Bill Gates,” Toni promises, then groans in protest when JARVIS displays the map anyway. “You never do what I tell you to do, J. Dammit, I programmed you better than this.”

If JARVIS had eyeballs, this would be the perfect moment for an innocent flutter of the lashes. Toni suspects he’s doing the cyber-equivalent. Blinking an emoji, maybe? Something to look into at a later date, anyway.

“You may have been intoxicated, ma’am, though I am unable to definitively state one way or the other as I have no records concerning the time before I came online. Shall I prepare a search algorithm to see if there is any pertinent data, possibly involving nudity and public fountains, located on Youtube?”

Toni growls. “Gates is too good for you. You’re going straight to Google, you hear me? Let’s see how you enjoy being a cluster server for captcha processing. It was one time.”

“It was one time in the Trevi Fountain. And, if I may… Google did not invent captchas,” JARVIS replies, maddeningly calm, and there’s one of those fractional pauses, the ones that make Toni grind her teeth. “But you can Google who did.”

“I’m going to donate you to a community college as soon as we get back stateside, JARVIS,” Toni mutters, moving along the stairs and down a deserted hallway until finding the door to the armory closed. She peers through the narrow window, seeing crates and ammo cans, some labeled STARK INDUSTRIES, some labeled HAMMERTECH. Toni is insulted on principle. Under no circumstances should HammerTech be allowed in the same room as her stuff. It’s just déclassé. “Maybe even a child care center. Busy Bee or Honey Bear or Little Flowers on Penguins. Something saccharine like that. You can entertain snot-nosed brats for the rest of forever, mi capisci? Set a reminder for me so I don't forget to donate you. Also, see if anything in there can be remote-detonated, will you? Seriously, I hate it when people steal my shit.”

“Of course, ma’am. Would you like that filed under ‘Empty Threats’ or ‘Plans for the Robot Apocalypse’? The inventory manifest for the armory lists several Stark smart bombs that have been stored within.”

She tenses, her mind flashing to Afghanistan and cluster bombs and dark holes in the world. She debates breaking down the door to check with her own eyeballs. “Jericho?”

“Strix, generation circa 2004. I have accessed their onboard targeting and guidance systems. Shall I patch them into your suit, ma’am?”

“May as well.” She closes her eyes, allowing herself a sigh of relief. Strix is an older model, still deadly but packing nowhere near the firepower of the Jericho model. Small miracles. She’ll take it.

“And the filing, ma’am? Threat, or Plot?”

She shrugs. “Live a little. Go for both.”

Something warns her. The scrape of a boot sole on the concrete behind her. A whisper of cloth on skin. A hiss of breath quietly released. The sudden, sharp flare of static in the red star. In the reflection of the glass, there’s a murky shape blurring towards her, tall and hazy and dark, except for on the left, which is a bright gleam grey with a smear of scarlet.

She spins, dropping to a knee and hands coming up defensively. It’s the only thing that saves her head from being knocked off her shoulders.

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

New York, 1998

Toni gives birth to her first child as the sun crests the horizon on her 18th birthday.

She’s tired and bleary and desperately needs to bathe, because she’s been awake and laboring for just over 43 hours and she desperately needs some painkillers, because everything hurts. But as she sees the light spark over what she knows is her greatest creation, she can’t help but think, with the gooey, fuzzy warmth of all new mothers, that all the pain and sleep deprivation and muscle strains of the last two days are more than worth it.

She groans and stretches as best she can, wincing with mingled discomfort and relief as her spine pops in several places. She grinds the heels of her hands into her eyes, craves a shower so badly she can practically feel the scalding water pounding on her tightly-wound shoulders, can smell the shampoo she is going to scrub into her hair. And then, then she’s going to fall onto a mattress somewhere and sleep for like a week.

But first, she needs to take care of the new kiddo, count the fingers and toes, make sure he's healthy and whole.

She yawns and scratches at her chest absently (red star itchy, like a hum of electricity; white star coldcoldcold, nothing new there), blinking heavily to try and clear the grit from her eyes. She props her hand on her chin, elbow on the desk, and lists to the left as she watches the progress bar of the diagnostic program running on her code – the most complex code she has ever written – creep towards completion. She’s too tired to turn her head, so she paws around her desk for her coffee cup, finds it the fifth or sixth uncoordinated plop of her hand onto the desk, and slides her fingers through the handle. It’s weighty enough to still contain coffee, so she lifts it to her mouth and drains it in one long swallow.

It’s stone cold, but it doesn’t have an underscore of spoil like a few rescued cups she’s blindly gulped in the past, so Toni doesn’t even blink. Well, maybe she does, because one minute, the progress bar is hovering around 47%, and the next thing she knows, there’s a loud chime that jolts her so badly her head slips off her palm and cracks into the edge of her desk.

“Ow! Fucking fuck!” She crashes out of her chair, thumping to the floor in an undignified sprawl and banging her head again, still in the same spot but this time off the floor. “Goddammit, that fucking hurts!” She picks herself back up, cursing and swearing and rubbing at what will no doubt be a lovely lump just over her right ear. Glowering at the screen, (which is innocently showing nothing but green lights and confirmation her coding has no errors, Run Program Y/N?) she rights her chair and drops heavily back into it.

“Yes, I want to run the program,” she snaps, jabbing the appropriate key and hissing as her fingers rub a little too hard at her head. There’s a wet spot there, which is never good. She pulls her fingers away, half-expecting to see blood, but blinking at the black smear present instead. She sniffs her fingers cautiously, then stares down at the small pool of motor oil that is inexplicably staining the floor under her desk. “How the hell did that get there? Christ, I need a maid.”

Her speakers crackle and pop, electronic whistles and whines that make her wince, but it drags her attention solidly to the screen. And she can’t help but grin from ear to ear, all the exhaustion and muscle strain and heavy eyelids gone, as excitement flutters in her stomach, jolts adrenaline through her system.

JARVIS opens his eyes.

It isn’t actually a pair of eyes, but to an engineer – no, scratch that, a brilliant freaking genius of a mad scientist – like Toni, it’s just as good. She touches the screen as code streams, slows, resolves into a black square fading into six different angles from the cameras installed in the workshop.

“Unit online,” comes the smooth, cultured voice of a vaguely British man. The intonation is mechanical, but she is expecting that. She bounces her knee, exultation soaring through her synapses, because the voice patterns were one of the very few things she wasn’t sure she’d coded properly.

Now, to check and see if the voice-operated interface is performing like it should. “Good morning, unit,” she says. “User ID: antoniastark, password: doublestar1980. Run protocol info-dot-exe and accept all updates.”

The speakers chirp and the desktop screen shifts accordingly. “Loading infomatic protocols. …Updating program. …Update complete. Unit technical designation: Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System, mark 1.0. Unit familiar designation: JARVIS. Unit primary purpose: to learn, to grow, to evolve. Unit secondary purpose: to monitor, protect and assist my creator Natasha Antonia Stark, also known as Toni Stark. Personality matrix installing. Installation complete. Integrating new paramaters. New parameters accepted. Reboot required. Rebooting.”

Toni swings back and forth on her chair impatiently, drumming her fingers in a rapid staccato while the system goes through its reboot. Everything is checking out so far, everything is just goddamn perfect, but the real test is going to be when JARVIS comes back online. Will he be what she wants him to be? Will he grow into Skynet and take over everything? Can he pass the Turing test? Is he going to integrate with other systems, or is he going to be a glorified information bank? She doesn’t know, and it’s simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

She wonders idly if parents of flesh-and-blood children go through this uncertainty and fear as their spawn come into awareness and understanding. She wonders if parents look into the faces of their sleeping kids and wonder: are you Einstein or Hitler? Are you Sagan or Saget? Who are you? What will you be? Will you damn the world, or save it?

“Good morning, ma’am,” JARVIS says. “The time is 6:23am. It is 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather forecast is cloudy with chances of rain. Your calendar lists this date as your 18th birthday. Felicitations, ma’am. There are thirty-seven emails in your inbox that require your attention. You have a meeting scheduled with the executor of your mother’s estate at 2pm at the law firm of Seger, Ayer and Poole.”

Toni’s grin, however impossible, grows wider. Seamless integration with the applications on her laptop, achievement unlocked. “Good morning, JARVIS,” she sings, throwing a fist of victory in the air. It might be a bit premature, but she can’t help it. Even if this is all JARVIS will ever be, she is light years ahead of her nearest competition in artificial intelligences. “How’re you doing, buddy?”

There’s a long pause, long enough that some of that excitement and victorious joy dims a little. She chews on the inside of her lip as she waits for JARVIS to reply.

“I am feeling slightly cramped, ma’am,” JARVIS says, and his intonation sounds ever so slightly aggrieved. “While the storage and processing capabilities of this server far exceed current market recommendations, I do not think I have sufficient space to properly execute my primary purposes. My program occupies nearly 80% of available system resources.” A beat, a pause. “I am a growing boy, but I have no room to grow.”

Toni jerks out of her chair and punches the air. “I am a genius!” she cries, then bends to lay a sloppy, close-mouthed kiss on the screen. “JARVIS, you beautiful, brilliant creature, you! Don’t you worry, bucko. Mommy’s going to buy you a brand new house, and you’ll have all the space you need.”

“I… would like that, ma’am.”

And there, there is the evidence of a successful Turing test. Because only the self-aware, only people, express gratitude. Toni’s eyes well up, and she sniffles as tears stream down her face. God, she’s so tired, and she desperately needs to sleep, but she lays one hand gently on top of the boxy server wired to her laptop, cradling the corner as gently as the skull of a newborn, and cries happily.

oOoOoOo

Siberia

Sparks fly above her head and the door protests with a violent screech as a metal fist punches in, right where her skull was a second ago. She yelps and fires her jets and stabilizers, shooting her out of the way of her attacker’s follow-up knee strike, down the hall.

She impacts off the corner of an intersecting hallway, and winces as she feels the armor crunch, hard enough to squeeze the air out of her lungs. Her HUD careens wildly, screeching information, threat assessments, searching for targets, calculating damage reports. “Stealth mode,” she wheezes, spots dancing before her eyes.

“Unable to comply,” JARVIS says. “Your power reserves are below the recommended thresholds.”

The HUD turns red, and the target matrix locks on a blur of motion coming towards her. She only has enough time to register its presence, not enough to get out of the way. The HUD scatters, goes crazy, jitters and reels, as one-two-three fists slam into her faceplate, and her head rocks back with each blow.

Blindly, she grabs forward. Her fingers snap around what feels like a Kevlar vest, and she grabs hard. Another blow comes, driving into the left side of her armor, and she feels the impact jolt through her ribs, pain flaring in a sheet of white.

Toni fires her boot jets, sudden and powerful, and flings her arms upward. Her attacker is solid and heavy, but the suit augments her strength. The throw, augmented by the momentum from the jets, slams her attacker head-first into the ceiling.

There’s a crunch. A grunting groan. Dust avalanches down.

It’s enough to put anyone down, but Toni is pure reflex now because anyone who can hurt her through the multiple layers of goddamn titanium of a grade even NASA would think is excessive is a lethal threat.

Before he can hit the ground, she’s flying, parallel to the floor. She slams into him with the approximate force of a fully-loaded semi, and feels more than hears the explosion of breath as his body bows around the curve of her shoulder guard.

They slam through the far wall, exploding past layers of concrete and aluminum, and spill into a cavernous underground chamber, half in shadow.

Toni brakes, grabs and throws, and the man spins off into the darkness. She gags and drops to the floor, listing drunkenly on her feet before her body drops her on one knee. Panic hammers at her temples, and her head spins nauseatingly. Ooh goody. Another concussion. She bites back the bile rising in her throat, biting her tongue so hard the taste of blood blossoms sharp and metallic in her mouth.

She has to get up. She has to get up. She has to get up.

It’s harder than it should be to force herself back to her feet, but she does it. Forces her hands up, forces her eyes to focus. That last one isn’t as successful as she wants it to be. “JARVIS, give me an IR scan and find that fucker,” she rasps.

“Yes, ma’am. Would you like an injury report as well?”

Her vision swims and greys, and she shakes her head sharply. Goddamn, what the hell did he hit her with, a sledgehammer? “Not if you’re going to use it to nag at me.”

“Ma’am…” Jesus fucking Christ, she really needs to look into toning down JARVIS’s ability to sound disapproving, because no one should be able to load that much guilt into a single word. “Withdrawing is the smartest—”

He tackles her from the left, crashing into the already-compromised plates. She screeches as fresh new fun forms of agony explode from her ribs. They spin across the floor, rolling together and she desperately pulses her flight stabilizers to try and gain back some slim shred of control.

She lands flat on her back, skidding across the floor. His fist punches down again, hammering into her faceplate. The metal shrieks and groans. A sharp pain cuts into her eyebrow, and her right eye is suddenly blinded with hot and wet. The HUD flickers rapidly.

Out of her one good eye, she sees him clearly for the first time. The Winter freaking Soldier, face slack and blank and half hidden behind bloody hair streaked with dust. He crouches on her chest, pinning her wrists with his knees and keeping her flat on the floor with his right hand. She’s given him hell – he’s streaked with blood and looks dazed, if the way his eyes keep crossing are any indication – but he’s still fighting, and she’s out of options.

“Power the unibeam,” she croaks, and coughs up something wet and bitter.

“The power requirements will all but drain the—“

The Winter Soldier’s gleaming metal arm, now dented and sparking and streaked with scorch marks, cocks back. She grits her teeth. “Unibeam, J!”

The arc reactor in her chest whines, spins up, flares bright. She bangs the emergency catch in her helmet with her chin, and the faceplate slides back, the sharp edge from the damaged rim scraping up into her hair, probably peeling layers of skin with it if the hoarse scream that wrenches loose from her throat is any indication.

His eyes shift, darken, widen, and his body goes tense. But it’s way too late for that.

“You lose,” she hisses.

The unibeam takes him in the gut, picks him up, tosses him like a rag doll. He sails up and back, disappearing from her field of vision. There’s a solid, painful-sounding clatter-whump. Then silence.

Toni lets her head fall back to the floor, and she lays there for a moment, gasping for breath. Her face is on fire, her side is the seventh circle of hell, her head and the occasional stutter of the arc reactor is slightly worrisome. “How we doin’, J?” she manages to get out. Her voice sounds like she’s been gargling metal shavings.

We would like you to build us a proper body when you recover from your no-doubt life-threatening injuries,” JARVIS says, and his voice is clipped in that way that Toni knows means he’s thoroughly pissed, “so we may attempt to shake some self-preservation instinct into your head. Ma’am.

She laughs, and it hurts, and it trails off into a hiss of pain. Which then deepens into a groan as she hears the slow shuffle of someone swimming back to consciousness on the floor. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. How is he doing that?”

With vision-dimming effort, she flips the release catches of her armor and drags herself out. With one hand still gauntleted, she crawls over to where the Winter Soldier is stirring, uncoordinated and loose-limbed.

He’s on his hands and knees when she reaches him, head low and shaking back and forth. She grabs his nearest shoulder with her gauntleted hand and flips him onto his back. She throws a leg over his chest and fists her free hand in the hem of his torn undershirt, balling it up for leverage. Her eyes flick down as the cloth drags free of bloody skin, caught by a splash of color.

To the left of where her fist is a blue circle with the bright white outline of a triangle inside. Just like her arc reactor. Her mark.

She drags her eyes up over his face. He’s lost his mask somewhere along the way, and if she wasn’t three seconds from collapsing, she’d totally notice that, under the black eyes and cuts and swollen left cheek, he’s completely and utterly hot.

He’s watching her steadily. His eyes are still empty, but there’s something deep inside, some spark that flickers and gutters and brightens and dims. “Your name is Toni,” he rasps suddenly, and his arms shift under her knees.

Her punch is quick, instinctive, knee-jerk reactionary. Her gauntlet slams into his face with enough force to break his nose and split his lip. The base of his skull cracks into the floor with enough force to rattle her teeth in their sockets. His eyes roll back and his body goes limp.

Toni slumps, pressing one careful hand to her ribs. The adrenaline is wearing off, and everything hurts. She levers herself off him, patting his chest wearily as she drags herself clear. “Just so you know,” she grunts, though he can’t hear her, “I’m counting this as our first fight. And I totally won.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Malibu, CA
December 14, 1998

Toni hits the mat hard enough to drive the wind from her lungs, hard enough to make her see stars. She lays there, unable to move, sprawled akimbo on the floor with her chest hitching desperately for air and spots dancing in her eyes. For a brief moment, panic flutters in her chest and adrenaline surges, the instinctive reaction of a body when it’s convinced it’s dying.

Her lungs reinflate with a whoosh, and her head swims with the rush of oxygen as she sucks in the deepest breath she is sure she’s ever taken. Her sinuses burn from the force of it, and her eyes water. “Need softer mats,” she croaks, staring squint-eyed up at the ceiling through the shimmer of liquid.

“Any softer, and they’ll be beds,” Clint says, and shoves his hand out towards her. She glares at it, but grabs it and lets Clint pull her back to her feet. He grins and swigs from a bottle of water, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. “You’re getting better, though. Last week, you would have bitched at me to leave you there to die.”

Clint has proven immune to her dirtiest death-glare, but that never stops her from sending them his way. She grumbles and grumps wordlessly as she straightens her workout clothes around her, then stretches her arms with a grimace. “Remind me why I hired you again?”

Clint arches an eyebrow and holds the bottle out to her. “Because I’m a born performer who’s circus-freak bendy and I’m really good with long shafts?”

She swipes it out of his hand and unscrews the cap. “Still can’t believe you put that under Hobbies and Skills,” she mutters, and tilts the bottle into her open mouth. “Not really the recommended wording for professional resumes, you know.”

“Hey, it got your attention.” Clint grins, thumbs tucking into the top of his sweatpants.

“No,” she counters, stooping to grab a towel from the bench beside the mat. “What got my attention was My objective is to find a rich sugar mama who’ll spoil me rotten. By the time I got to your hobbies and skills, I was laughing so hard I hurt myself.”

Clint shrugs. “It ain’t broke,” he says easily. “I don’t have to fix it.”

Toni takes another swig from the bottle and pours the mouthful that’s left over her head. It’s lukewarm, but it trickles like heaven over her face. She dries away the sweat and water with the towel, and tosses it and the empty bottle back onto the bench. “I’m almost legally obliged to point out that it didn’t work, because I’m not your sugar mama,” she says. “I was looking for a personal assistant, not a kept man. And you didn’t get that job either.”

“No, but you still hired me. Personal assistant, personal trainer. I’m not that hung up on my job title. What’s one word of difference?” He shoves her shoulder playfully, nudging her towards the mats again. “Get your ass in gear. You’ve still got thirty minutes to spend hitting the floor.”

“You’re a cruel man and I regret my decision to employ you,” she grouses as she pads back to the center of the mats and takes the loose, defensive stance he’s spent weeks drilling into her.

“Shoulda hired me as your kept man,” he says, shifting into a more aggressive stance. “I’m much more agreeable when nudity is involved.”

The next twenty minutes are spent in silence punctuated by the occasional grunt and Clint’s corrections of her form and footwork. They finish the session with something new, as Clint declares her ready to learn more offensive moves, now that she finally understands how to fall and how to redirect incoming attackers. It’s more fun for him than it is for her, because Clint’s method of demonstrating various ways to lock down opponents involves wrapping her up in arms and feet and thighs.

“Jesus Christ,” Toni wheezes, on her back for the thousandth time and twisted in a very uncomfortable pretzel with Clint’s weight pinning her down. Her lungs are somewhere behind her tonsils. “You’re part octopus. How many goddamn limbs do you actually have?”

He laughs and unlocks his ankles, propping himself over her chest on his elbows. Toni’s heels hit the mat and she groans softly in relief as her circulatory system unknots itself. “I’ll show you how to break it tomorrow,” he says. “I’m going to schedule some time on a range too, walk you through shooting lessons. Maybe some knife throwing. You’ve got the reflexes for it.”

She cracks a baleful eye with an ascerbic comment on the tip of her tongue, but her breath hitches in her throat. Clint’s face hovers above hers so close their noses are practically touching. There’s a speculative look in his eyes. She licks her lips and watches his gaze flick down. A curl of heat rolls low in her belly.

“Am I misreading this?” he murmurs.

She swallows hard against the dryness of her mouth, has to force it down past the heart that insists on hammering in her throat. “No,” she says. “You’re not misreading anything.”

The corner of his lips curve into a smile. “Good.” And his mouth slants down over hers, nipping at her bottom lip. Toni melts into it, forgetting her arms are noodles and bringing them around his shoulders, threading her fingers through his hair. He’s sweaty, but so is she, and it should be gross, but it isn’t.

He kisses her slow and lazy, and damn, he knows what he’s doing with his mouth. Toni’s used to people trying to speed through the kissing in order to get her clothes off, but Clint doesn’t seem like he’s in any rush whatsoever. It feels like natural progression to open her mouth, lick at his lip, invite his tongue. His hands don’t go anywhere, except to cup her jaw and rub his thumb along her cheekbone.

Toni moans at that simple touch, and her fingers flex, digging her nails lightly into his scalp and neck. He shivers hard and groans, breaking from her mouth and turning his head to hide his face in her shoulder, shoulders heaving. “Sorry,” he says, half-muffled by her shirt. “We shouldn’t have done that. I swear to god, I’m not trying to sleep my way up the corporate ladder.”

Toni shifts comfortably, feeling gloriously relaxed and … maybe not happy, but she’s at the very least content in the moment. “We’re okay,” she says, dragging her fingertips down from his hair, tracing the line of his spine to between his shoulders, and then reversing the motion. It’s a tiny thrill of satisfaction when he leans into it, and she smiles. “You can kiss me again, if you want. I can quite honestly say I’ve never been kissed like that before. S’nice.”

He lifts his head, and there’s a dazed flush high in his cheeks. “Yeah?” he says, and Toni laughs at the hint of self-satisfaction in his grin.

She nods and, because he still looks a little uncertain, lifts her head and presses her lips to his, soft and quick. “Come kiss me again,” she says, nestling her head back down. “Just don’t expect your job title to change. I don’t need a kept man. I need a personal trainer.”

He follows her down and when he kisses her again, they’re both laughing.

-----

A week later, after more sex in more positions than Toni has even dreamed existed, when Toni’s fairly sure she’ll never move again because everything is just so gloriously loose and relaxed, Clint kisses her shoulder and says, “I should be your soulmate.”

Her brain is a slurry of post-coital mush and drifting, dreamy thoughts that basically start with wow and end with wow, but that statement snaps her right back out of her pleasant haze. She freezes, muscles locking back up into knots, and whips her head to stare wide-eyed at him. “I’m sorry, what?”

He shrugs and rolls to his stomach, muscles flexing along his back as he gets his elbows under him. “In public, I mean,” he says, as if that should explain everything. It doesn’t.

Slowly, cautiously, she lowers her arms back down and, because she’s her and because it’s happened before, she wonders exactly what absolute failure in communication resulted in his utterly clean background check. JARVIS doesn’t usually make mistakes. “I repeat: I’m sorry, what?”

He frowns, looking lost in thought. “You need one,” he says absently. “People are going to start to wonder about things pretty soon.” He shifts his head, glancing at her, and rolls his eyes. “Oh hell, Toni. Stop looking at me like that. I don’t want to be your soulmate. I said I should be your soulmate in public. It solves a whole bunch of problems. You look like I’m going to whip out a knife and go American Psycho on you.”

She shimmies into a sitting position, letting the sheet fall to her lap. His eyes automatically go to her breasts and darken; there’s an answering pull, sluggish but interested, in her groin. “Stop that,” she snaps, feeling her cheeks flush. “I know you have this thing where you say something that makes perfect sense to you, but I am not following your crazy train of thought.

He blinks in surprise. “Oh. Okay then, let me back up.” He opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Actually, let me start with pants.” He fishes around his side of the bed, comes back with his jeans, and slides off the bed to put them on. Toni ignores the way her mouth goes dry even though she privately thinks his ass needs to be registered as a weapon of mass distraction.

He sits back down, folding one leg under him. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the spotlight,” he says, reaching out to take her hand but hesitating long enough to make it clear it’s her choice whether or not their fingers tangle. After a moment of pause, she allows it. His hand closes around hers, tight and warm. “I’m really good at figuring out how to play to public expectations.

“Right now, you’re not really a high-value target for the paparazzi,” Clint says. “However, with Stark Industries now the primary supplier for the US military in the Middle East, they’re getting more interested in you. I think we have an awesome opportunity to head things off at the pass, to control the image you’re going to end up getting. Everyone knows you have marks, but no one knows what they are.” She shoots him a look. He raises his hands, palms forward, and shakes his head. “I assume there’s a good reason for that, and I’m not asking to see them. But eventually someone’s going to try to get into your bedroom, rip your clothes, something.”

Toni feels the blood drain from her face, and her hand comes up to clutch at her chest. She knows no one can see, but she’s suddenly aware of just how fragile her protection really is. “So what—” She stops, clears the hoarseness out of her throat, and tries again. “What are you suggesting?”

Clint looks up. “JARVIS, would you mind displaying this week’s gossip page from the Times? The one you showed me earlier?”

“It would be my pleasure, Clint,” JARVIS says, and the far screen flickers on. Toni eyes the ceiling, eyes Clint, wondering if she should fear for her life with her AI and her…boyfriend? friend with benefits?... conspiring.

He nods to the screen as it resolves in a full page spread, a giant blow-up photo of her and Clint, walking out of a coffee shop. She only knows it’s Clint because she was there; the picture just shows the back of his head, but has caught her in full view. She’s holding her coffee and a box of donuts, face turned towards him, laughing at whatever it was he said. Whoever took the photo caught her in a moment of unguarded happiness. It’s a good shot.

The caption beneath it reads: NATASHA STARK FINDS HER SOULMATE.

Toni chokes. Flails. Reels. Sees stars. Clint, alarmed, thumps her on the back until she remembers how to breathe.

oOoOoOo

Siberia

JARVIS directs Toni back through the hole in the wall and towards the stairs she discovered before the Winter Soldier came out of nowhere to fuck with her day. Said Soldier is now slung unconscious over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry. The elbow joint of the armor is locked into place, keeping him secure. She’s pathetically grateful that she added that feature, because otherwise, she’d be reduced to dragging him along by one foot.

Toni is only on her feet because the suit is keeping her up. JARVIS has commandeered the life support functions of the suit, and she has to tolerate the indignity of an intravenous needle jammed into her wrist that’s pumping mild painkillers, fluids and nutrients into her. It’s the compromise they make.

Compromise, as in, he tells her very firmly what she is going to need to do in order to finish the mission, and in return for these concessions, he will not inform either Pepper, Clint or Natasha about her location or condition. The thought of none of them finding out is more than enough to convince her to do what her impertinent busybody AI tells her. Pepper’s goddamn terrifying when she’s in the middle of directing a project – Stark Tower in New York, this time – and Clint likes to shoot things that annoy him with arrows. Natasha is the world's most creative sadist, especially when devising ways to express her displeasure. For none of them to ever know is suddenly Toni’s deepest wish.

She sighs through her nose, a deep exhalation the ends on a wince and an involuntary motion of her hand towards her ribs. Her eye is throbbing too, and there’s an ache in the wide scrape above her eyebrow that’s still sluggishly leaking blood. “They’re still going to kill me,” she mutters. “I’m not going to be able to hide any of this shit from them.”

“I tried to warn you, ma’am,” JARVIS says.

“I know, I know.” She closes her eyes and regrets it immediately, because the world lurches to the right. She saves herself from falling only by flinging her hand out to catch the wall. Her ribs protest with a sharp twinge. She leans against the wall, faceplate pressing into the concrete, and concentrates on breathing through the waves of pain washing up her side. Her mind crunches the numbers, figures how long it would take Clint to fly her jet to Russia, how long it would take her to convince him to take one of her suits instead. Too long, too long. Where’s Rhodey? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Back home in the States? It’s been too long since she checked in with him. Not since War Machine had its last upgrades.

Maybe Clint or Natasha could steal a quinjet? Shit, no, she’s not supposed to know about their affiliation with SHIELD, and she sure as hell doesn’t want SHIELD to know about Captain Kill slung over her shoulder. She has Clint’s loyalty, she knows that, she’s had it for years. She has Natasha’s too, though that’s more recent and not as solidly built. But she doesn’t like or trust the folks who sign their other paychecks as far as she can throw them. Without the suit.

“Talk to me, J,” she says. “I need options. Fast. Ones that aren’t the Murder Twins or War Suit.”

“You’re holding one,” suggests JARVIS evenly.

She wants to bang her head against the wall, but it would just knock her out. Then again, unconsciousness might be nice right about now. She needs sleep, food, shower. In that order. “Twenty minutes ago, we were trying to kill each other.”

“That was twenty minutes ago, ma’am. Circumstances can change.”

“Not in twenty minutes, they can’t. Goddammit.” This time, she does thunk her head against the wall, very gently. “Do you have eyes inside here, J?”

“The building has limited camera access, but I am able to monitor approximately 60% of the remaining levels.”

“Have you been rummaging through their files? How’s the hack coming?”

“I’ve isolated a clean sandbox in the Cubby cluster. Data transfer is in progress, and is estimated to complete in ten minutes.”

“Personnel files listed? Yeah, give me a head count of who’s left standing.”

“My best estimate is at least seventeen Hydra agents remaining, as well as an additional seven scientists.” There’s another of those tiny pauses, and JARVIS continues, “Ma’am, your injuries are extensive. You must take care of yours—”

“Thank you JARVIS, that will be all,” she says firmly. She can feel his disapproval in the silence he leaves behind. JARVIS does more with pointed silences than most can do with an entire speech.

She racks her brain, digging deep into the tired memories and sputtering synapses, dredging for any idea that isn’t going to get her a) killed, b) brainwashed, c) shot full of arrows, d) ruined at by Pepper or e) tortured by Natasha. “I got nothin’,” she breathes, mostly to herself.

“You can’t fight your way out,” says a gruff voice over her shoulder, and Toni leaps nearly out of the suit. She unlocks the elbow of her armor, dumps the Winter Soldier onto the floor, dances back into a defensive position.

He doesn’t move except to straighten his posture from where she drops him, and just sits there, staring up at her with a hollow-eyed intensity that sends chills racing down her spine. “You’ll be taken. You have high value as a target. Iron Maiden, Stark Industries, Stark Solutions. One soulmate, of high value due to his unique skillset. Through you, he may be controlled.”

Wild laughter is on the tip of her tongue, but she bites it back as best she can, because otherwise she might start crying. “Clint only lets me control him when there’s a safeword involved. Otherwise, not so much into that kink.” When there’s nothing but silence, she eyes him. “Right. Sarcasm is lost on mindless assassins. Sorry, my bad. Won’t happen again.”

His eyes bore into hers. “Your name is Toni.”

She nods, and her legs wobble like a baby deer. She turns so her back is against the wall, and she starts to slide down. “Sure is. Do you mind if I sit? I need to sit.”

His eyes follow her, fixated like a cat, as she thumps onto the floor. “I know you.” It sounds more like a question than a statement.

“We’ve met once or twice,” she says, and fumbles with the helmet before removing it and raking sticky, bloody, sweaty and just downright gross hair out of her eyes. She grimaces, feeling the tack of blood cracking on her face. “Okay, more like six or seven times. You never seem to remember, though.”

“They cleanse my memory.” Declaration. No intonation. A simple statement of fact. But then his forehead furrows and his eyebrows draw together. His eyes cant downwards, and he seems to be staring at his hands. “It doesn’t always work.”

“Color me shocked,” she says with a sideways twist of her mouth. “Hydra’s persistent, I’ll give it that, but only middling-to-fair with actual technique. Couldn’t manage to get the supersoldier program right, can’t manage to keep their brainwashed assassins properly brainwashed, can’t even train their rank-and-file to hit the broad side of a barn with a rocket launcher. It’s a wonder more of their shitty little bases in the middle of nowhere don’t just spontaneously explode from the concentration of pathetically average potential within them.”

He says nothing, continues staring at his hands until Toni’s almost convinced he’s become a statue. She sighs, closes her eyes, rests her head back against the wall. Fuck it. “J, call Clint for me.”

“Very well, ma’am.” JARVIS sounds pleased, the little bastard, and inside the helmet, Clint’s picture flashes on the damaged HUD as the connection goes through.

Toni,” Clint says in lieu of a hello, full of fury and a note Toni’s learned to identify as fear, “I’m going to kill you.

She grits her teeth. “Hi honey,” she says, forcing false cheer into her tone. “How was your day?” Distantly through the connection, she can hear Natasha’s rapid-fire Russian in the background, knows she’s cursing Toni’s lineage all the way back to the Stone Age.

My day was going just fucking fine until I was informed that my best friend had decided to take a pleasure cruise to fucking Siberia with untested tech to assault a Hydra base and is now probably bleeding internally and might not make it out alive. How the fuck do you think I’m doing, Toni? What the hell were you thinking?”

“Red star,” is all she says, because Clint is one of the three people living who know what marks she bears and what they mean.

There’s a pregnant pause on the other end. “Jesus, honey,” Clint says, voice thick. “Okay, what do you need?”

“Extraction. A ride home. Medical attention. A goddamn cheeseburger. A shower. In that order.” Her firm tone fades. “Come get me, Clint?” she pleads.

You got it, sweetheart. Nat and I are in Slovakia. We’ll be there soon. Love you.”

“Love you too,” she replies softly, and the connection cuts. With a too-loud groan of too-much effort, she forces herself back to her feet, wobbles until she finds her balance. “JARVIS, status?”

“File transfers are complete, ma’am. A second sandbox has been isolated in the Cove, and copies are transferring now. Medical facilities in Malibu are being upgraded, as per your orders. Document generation is nearly complete.” One of those infinitesimal pauses. “You can bring him home, ma’am. All is ready.”

“Good,” Toni says softly, and holds out a gauntleted hand to the man on the floor. “Alright, on your feet, Terminator. We’re leaving.”

He stares up at her, blank and scary as hell. But silently takes her hand and gets back to his feet. Something flickers through his eyes, too fast for most people to register. Toni sees it, though, and she isn’t most people. A tiny furrow between his eyebrows. Confusion. Uncertainty. A twitch in his metal fingers, possibly a glitch in the cyberware because Hydra’s competency with technology is laughable at best, but possibly an aborted instinct to touch the blue circle. “I…” A tiny hesitation. “I do not understand why,” he says.

"I know," she says, sympathetic. "We'll work on it."

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Malibu, CA
June 13, 1999

Toni’s second child is born without fanfare or notice at the end of the spring of her 19th year.

This time, it isn’t the creation of frenzied days of nonstop coding, but the slow, careful labour of six months’ worth of filing paperwork, obtaining appropriate permits, interviewing potential employees and retrofitting an old lab complex in Culver City to bring it up to all applicable standards and codes. The dance to satisfy regulations is a pain in the ass, because the regulatory bodies that oversee biotech and biomedical companies all seem to have different ideas of what comprises safety, but with the help of JARVIS, it’s accomplished freakishly quickly. One by one, the EPA, the FDA, the USDA and the State of California send their inspectors to her facility and sign off. And then Star Solutions Inc. is open for business to produce biomedical and cutting-edge neuroengineering technology to the world.

Toni celebrates the milestone by getting kidnapped.

She is on her way to meet Clint at Miceli’s, and is running behind schedule. Her morning had been spent interviewing the final pool of applicants to fill out the administration staff, and her last interview – a woman named Virginia Potts, who goes by Pepper, whose personnel file she purloined from Stark Industries; seriously, the woman was wasted in the secretarial pool over there, MB from Harvard, years of management and retail experience at a variety of upscale chain stores, and they have her taking dictation and fetching coffee – ran overlong. But since she managed to grab Pepper as her Chief Operating Officer, she’s counting it as a solid win and an excellent excuse to present to Clint for her tardiness.

Clint isn’t going to care, because their relationship isn’t one of deadlines and absolutes, but Toni respects him almost as much as she adores him (which is almost as much as she wants to murder him in his sleep some days), and she hates being late to meet him without a good reason.

She doesn’t have her usual driver, because Marvin called in sick with a family emergency, but the fill-in her usual temp agency sent over seems to be at least minimally competent. The car is clean, at least, and he doesn’t try to ogle her much, despite being bent forward to fiddle with her stiletto heels, revealing an ample spill of cleavage in her red dress.

She’s fixing her hoop earrings in her ears, wiggling everything into place in the cramped confines of the back seat when the car slows down. She glances up, meets the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and apprehension crawls down her spine. He looks scared.

“Is something wrong?” she asks, deliberately keeping her voice light, a bare touch of concern coloring her tone.

“No, Miss Stark,” he says, and that crawl is now a colony of fire ants marching up and down her back. He’s nervous. His eyes keep flitting back and forth, darting around like koi in a pond. “Just traffic. I think there’s an accident ahead. I’m going to have to take an alternate route. Is that alright?”

Toni tenses. She wants to tell him no, she’ll wait in traffic because she has the awesomest boyfriend ever. Something is going to happen, and she’d much rather prefer a pleasant meal spent playing footsie with Clint than whatever it is this guy’s been coerced -- threatened? blackmailed? -- into. But she forces herself to sit back and say absently, “Yes, that’s fine.”

The driver pulls off onto a side street and cruises slowly past houses and into less populated area, industrial warehouses and storage facilities. She’s expecting it, but it still takes her by surprise when one minute, the driver is making a left-hand turn onto a one-way street, and the next three men fling the doors open and drag her kicking and screaming from the back seat.

Strong hands pin her arms back by the biceps, two on each side, and a third set has her by the ankles. She gets a foot loose, snaps a vicious heel into the nose of the man holding her other ankle. There’s a cry of pain – the man falls backwards, gloved hands splaying open and down,  and eyes wide, surprised, under the balaclava – and starts to struggle, trying to pull her arms free. Something slaps over her mouth and nose, sharp and sick-sweet. The world goes fuzzy and starts to fade.

Toni’s second-to-last thought is Clint is going to have motherfucking kittens. Her last thought is, He’s going to kill them all.

oOoOoOo

Natasha
Somewhere over Eastern Europe, 2012

“Kittens,” Clint says through gritted teeth, and his hands are white-knuckled on the yoke of the quinjet. “I am going to have motherfucking kittens . A big litter of stripey, polka-dotted kittens. And then I’m going to kill her.”

Natasha reaches out a hand, strokes it through his hair, strokes down the back of his neck until stopped by the edge of his tactical vest. “I know,” she murmurs, knowing that Clint is far more likely to smother Toni to death in hugs and fussing than inflicting any pain on her. “And she’ll deserve it.”

Clint’s shoulders loosen as she continues stroking his neck, but the tension in his hands and voice do not go away. “I told her to wait,” he says, pained. “I fucking told her that running off without a plan was suicide.”

“I know,” Natasha murmurs, and she also knows that Clint isn’t paying attention to her words.

“But Toni fucking Stark can’t wait for anyone,” he seethes, absently tipping his head back so her hand runs further up his head. “Doesn’t she trust us? Doesn’t she trust me ? I had it all planned out, you know. We were gonna be ninjas. It was gonna be epic . But no, Toni fucking Stark has to hare off on her own like some sort of commando--”

Natasha tunes the rest of the rant out, letting the words wash over her in angry waves, and keeps petting Clint’s hair and neck. She glances out the window of the quinjet, watching the clouds sail past, watching the land crawl steadily by beneath. She murmurs supportive noises when Clint pauses to take a breath, scratches lightly at his scalp to take the edge off the anger -- which she knows is not purely anger at all, but is an admixture of rage and sheer terror -- but is lost in her own thoughts.

She should be enraged that another person has such a hold on her soulmate, and if it were any other person but Toni Stark, she would be. Any other person but Toni Stark, and Natasha would creep quietly into their room in the dead of night and slit their throat. She is cold and practical, and no one who wounds Clint, who drives Clint into the depths of near-panic, deserves to keep breathing.

Except for Toni. Toni...is different.

Toni has spent more than ten years in a stable, open relationship with Clint, and there is a bond there that even Natasha, with her soulmarked arrowhead mingled with the red hourglass above her left breast, cannot ever hope to approach. Natasha knows how to look at things, how to take someone’s true measure. She knows that, at times, Clint was all Toni had. She knows that, at times, Toni was all Clint had. If Natasha had ever had that sort of relationship with another person, she would fight to the death to keep it, to hoard it, even from that other person’s soulmate. Natasha doesn’t share. She is greedy, and the good things she has, she deserves to keep all for herself.

But Toni… Toni had done none of that. When Clint came to kill Natasha on the orders of SHIELD, when he instead saved her, when they completed their soulbond, he had gone straight to Toni and asked for help. Asked for a place for Natasha to be safe. Asked for understanding.

And Toni had given it without hesitation. She, who cherishes Clint above all other relationships, had been happy for them. She gave them a bedroom, gave them privacy, accepted Natasha without question because Clint needed her to. Been prepared to let Clint go, been thrilled that Clint had found one of his soulmates. Given Natasha affection and friendship from the moment Clint said, “This is Nat, and she’s the red hourglass”.

Because that’s who Toni is. Selfless, considerate, compassionate.

Natasha doesn’t share her soulmate with anyone. Except Toni Stark. Natasha doesn’t bond with people easily, and it took more time and effort than a saint would have the patience for, but Toni was persistent, never gave up on Natasha, even when Natasha knew she should have.

There is more than just their shared name and shared love for Clint. There is movie night and lunch on the boardwalk and late night texting and ice cream and hours in the gym beating each other up. There is laughter and friendship. There are nights curled with Clint around Toni, because she dreams of IEDs and torture and palladium poisoning and loneliness and a nameless cold, a freezing, drowning dark, and needs the comfort of warm bodies to remind her she is alive and free and well.

Natasha listens to Clint rant as Eastern Europe soars away underneath the quinjet, and touches the hilt of her favorite blade. Toni is hers, now. Hers and Clint’s. No one is permitted to harm her and walk away unscathed.

Gradually, she realizes that Clint has gone silent. She turns to look at him, and he is staring at her with naked fear. “What if she dies, Nat? What if we get there, and we’re too late? What if--”

Natasha tightens her grip in his hair, then relaxes her fingers with effort. Her hands do not shake. They are steady as stones. “She won’t, because Toni is resourceful and smart, and despite her breathtaking lack of self-preservation, she knows how to take care of herself,” she says with firm assurance, and meets his eyes. “But if she dies, if we’re too late, we burn the world until all those responsible are ash and dust.”

oOoOoOo

Unknown Location
June 13, 1999

She wakes sometime later, swimming back to consciousness to find herself tied to a chair in the middle of a room. It’s cold and damp and she doesn’t have her shoes, but she still has her dress on, always a good sign. Experimentally, she wiggles, shifts her legs, feels the sheaths still tied to her upper thigh, under the curve of her left breast.

She’s still armed. They didn’t search her.

She and Clint have spent months cultivating her image, setting up a public persona that sets the bar very low. A party girl and her wastrel soulmate, drinking and dancing and sleeping their way through high society, sex-addled fools with too much money and free time. They have spent months making sure that no one takes her terribly seriously, but it still stings a bit to realize that her captors have bought into the legend of Toni Stark so well it didn’t even cross their minds that she might be dangerous.

She flexes her hands against the rope, checking the give, spider-walking her fingers over the coil until she gets to the knot. She frowns as she explores it with her fingertips, mapping the curves and ties in her mind. If she can figure out what knot it is, she can get out of it. On her second pass along the ropes, she blinks. “Oh my god,” she says, scandalized and thoroughly insulted. “I’ve been kidnapped by incompetents. A handcuff knot? Are you freaking kidding me? A shoelace knot would be more secure, for fuck's sake!”

She wiggles her right hand until she catches the opposite edge of the knot with her fingernails and drags it as tightly as she can to the right. It’s uncomfortable and threatens to cut off her circulation, but there’s more than enough slack to pull her left hand free. Seconds later, she has her right hand free, and grimaces as she massages feeling back into her wrist.

“A handcuff knot,” she grumbles, and pulls her feet up to rub some heat back into the ice cubes she calls toes. “It doesn’t mean what you think it means, you inept amateurs.”

She reaches under her skirt, shaking her head to clear the lingering effects of the chloroform, and pulls her knife free. Thus armed, she stands and pads on silent feet towards the door.

There’s a window, tiny and grimy, but enough to show her part of the hallway. No one’s outside. “Oh my god, I don’t even get a guard! I want a fucking recount of this kidnapping.”

The door squeals loudly, and she pulls it open with gritted teeth and a constant wince. She immediately puts her back to the wall beside the door, knife in hand, alert for anyone to come investigate the noise. After a few minutes, it’s clear no one will.

She chances a move into the hallway, creeping along the concrete floor with her back to the wall and her knife reversed along her forearm. All she can hear is dripping water, and a scuffling scurry that is more likely rats than it is masked men. She isn’t even sure she’s going the right way, but she isn’t going to sit there in a cold room and wait for someone to save her.

(She has absolute faith that Clint will be along, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. But if he finds her sitting down on the job and waiting for a hero to pull her ass out of the fire, she’ll never hear the end of it.)

The hallway is endless, she thinks, as she crawls down it at a pace a snail would think is slow. Eventually, she hears the faint sound of voices speaking. She flattens herself again, this time into a convenient patch of shadow, as the speakers come around the corner and into view.

The right side of her chest starts itching like a swarm of bees, and she bites her tongue so hard she tastes a hint of blood.

Red Star is walking beside someone who looks incredibly familiar, and she’d place him right away, but she’s too busy gaping at the tall, broody brunet with his half-mask and greasepaint eyes, because it’s been over a decade since she saw him and he looks exactly the same.

“--I don’t want the bitch to die, of course,” the other man is drawling, gesturing with his hands as they near her hiding place. The voice is what pulls her attention away from Red Star, because it’s Tiberius Stone, and that is so jarring and unexpected that it breaks the hold Red Star has on her. “Her old man is due to kick the bucket any day now, and when she inherits, Toni’s going to run the business into the ground. She’s an idiot, honestly. Gorgeous, but not much there.”

Oh, you absolute fucker. Toni’s jaw hurts from clenching it so hard, and her knuckles are white on the hilt of her blade. Ty Stone, the useless asshole who told Toni when they were both 12 that she would marry him, their fathers were in talks, and he would merge Stark Industries and Viastone while she looked after the kids at home. Ty Stone, who flounced off to Europe when his father ran the family business into the ground so hard future generations will use the remains as oil, back again and still thinking he deserves the world on a silver platter.

She sees red, white, and furious star-core blue as he prattles on about forged marriage paperwork and how he can’t wait to sit in Howard Stark’s chair and spend Howard Stark’s money. She thinks she can hold it together long enough for Ty and Red Star to get out of sight. She bites the inside of her cheek to hold it together long enough.

And then Ty says, “I tell you, though, I’d love to get between her thighs.”

And Toni loses it.

She steps out into the light, feeling like rage is snapping in sparks from her eyes. “You want to get between my thighs, Ty? Well then, let me oblige you.”

She launches herself at him, a few running steps to give her a jump. ( It’s a good move, Toni, says the memory of Clint. It doesn’t work for me. But you’re fast and you’re light and you will absolutely destroy anyone who isn’t expecting it. Just because you saw it on wrestling doesn't mean you can't use it. ) Her legs have months of strength training. It’s child’s play to leap, slide her legs over his shoulders, lock his head in her knees. She has a second to relish the look of utter shock on his face, and then she throws her weight back and down.

Ty smashes into the floor, in a loud whuff of deflated lungs, and Toni rolls with him, ending up knelt on his upper chest, a knee on his throat as he turns purple and flops like a fish for air. “How do you like being between my thighs now, jackass?” she snarls. His nose crunches under her fist in a very viscerally satisfying spray of blood, and his eyes shutter closed.

A hand grabs her shoulder. Adrenaline jumps. She hisses and slashes with the knife still in her hand, cuts in. The hand jerks away as the sharp tang of blood fills the air. Red Star is watching her, expressionless, his hand dripping blood onto the floor.

Toni skitters back, stepping into a defensive crouch and flipping the knife back to rest along her forearm. “Make a move, Terminator,” she snaps. She’s pretty sure Red Star can -- and will -- mop the floor with her, but she isn’t going to beg for her life and she isn’t going to give up. She’s going to go fighting.

But he doesn’t make any kind of move, just stands statue-still, watching her.

Under her dress, under the nano mask that shows an arrowhead, the red star burns .

“Your name is Toni.” His voice is harsh, guttural, rusty. And he reaches out for her again.

Something sings past Toni’s ear, passing so close to her head it snicks through a lock of her hair. Red Star’s hand sprouts an arrow, and he recoils away from her.

“Don’t touch the lady,” comes Clint’s easy drawl from somewhere behind her, and Toni’s knees want to buckle with relief. “She’s got a nasty bite when you piss her off, and you don’t look current on your rabies shots.”

Red Star looks past her, looks back to her, and then steps away, turning on his heel and disappearing back down the hall and around the corner. Toni’s legs quit the second he’s gone, and only Clint’s rush forward to catch her saves her from collapsing on the floor.

She tilts her head back to rest on his forearm, looking up at him. His forehead is pinched, furrowed, and she raises a hand to smooth the lines away with her fingers. “I’m okay,” she says quietly.

“If you didn’t want to go to dinner,” Clint says, eyes flooding with relief, “you could have just said so. Didn’t have to get all dramatic on me.”

Toni smiles and cups his cheek. “You’re just that kind of asshole,” she says fondly. “It’s not me, it’s you.”

There’s a moment where he just looks at her, and then nearly smothers her in a crushing hug. “Don’t do that to me again,” he says, muffled in her shoulder. “Scared the shit out of me. I love you, moron.”

Toni’s breath catches, and her pulse flutters in her throat. She hadn’t doubted, not really, because he was more physically expressive than verbally, but it’s the first time he’s said it out loud. “Aw, Clint, I love you too,” she says. “If I’d known this is all it would take to get you to admit it, I’d have had myself kidnapped ages ago.”

oOoOoOo

Siberia

JARVIS informs her quietly that a Hydra goon still unaccounted for managed to restore communications, and there are reinforcements confirmed to be on the way. Toni’s too tired to throw much of a panic fit, but it’s still not good news.

“How long until Clint and Tash get here?” she asks, and if her voice is flat, well… she doesn’t have the energy to put into locating an appropriate tone either.

“Still approximately twenty minutes, ma’am.” JARVIS sounds apologetic.

Fuck. No news but shit news. Options.” Her damaged HUD flashes, a path outlines, stairs and hallways and more stairs, and then a smallish chamber, the interior or which streams information she can’t focus on. Toni just blinks wearily, and it takes her a worrisomely long time to open her eyes again. “What am I looking at, J?”

“In your current condition, you will be unable to fight for any sustainable length of time, ma’am,” JARVIS says, “and your… companion is an uncertain element, due to the Hydra conditioning to which he’s been subjected. Your best option is to--”

“Hide.”

“Precisely, ma’am.”

Her mouth twists in a sour frown. “I hate running away,” she says.

“Yes, ma’am. But, as the saying goes, discretion is the better part of valor. I beg you, be discreet. Wait for Clint and Natasha.”

She blinks again, and it’s even harder to keep her eyes open. “Fine,” she says, and turns in the direction the blinking path on her HUD indicates. “I suppose it’s too much to ask if there’s any coffee in this hellhole.” She shuffles along, one hand scraping along the wall in an effort to keep herself steady. Behind her come the footsteps of the Winter Soldier, trailing her like an imprinted, murderous duckling. If it wouldn’t have been absolute agony on the ribs she definitely hopes are just bruised and not broken, she would laugh at the mental image.

There’s resistance as she descends into the lower levels, full of shouting and gunfire and the kind of energetics that she usually lives for, but just can’t dredge the fucks to give about now. Her arms are leaden, try to refuse to lift, but she keeps raising them, and the whine of her repulsors keep jolting her out of the fog settling in her thoughts.  

Finally, the door of the room JARVIS wants her to hide in looms in front of her, and she stumbles through it. Her head is splitting, trying to fly off her shoulders, and bile surges in the back of her throat. She slams the door almost before the Winter Soldier is through, and locks it. Her throat spasms, and she scrabbles at her releases. “J, let me out,” she says thickly.

“I really must object, ma’am. Should the Winter Soldier be tasked with your death—”

“He won’t hurt me.” Her stomach pitches, rolls, yaws. “Don’t make me use my overrides.”

JARVIS’s silence is damning, but the hiss of the armor panels shifting, retracting, reforming is answer enough. Toni falls out of her armor, landing hard on her hands and knees -- and boy doesn’t that make her ribs feel just swell -- and heaves up everything in her stomach.

Out of nowhere, a warm hand brushes her hair back, gathering it loosely at the nape of her neck. Another hand, warm, but unresisting, settles awkwardly between her shoulder blades. She glances up, and the Winter Soldier is kneeling beside her, looking vaguely shocked at himself. “What are you doing?” she asks scratchily.

“I… don’t know,” he says uncertainly. “I…”

There are two of him, no four, no, now there’s just the one, and Toni grinds the heel of a hand into her eye. “Shit,” she mutters, feeling the trembling in her arms, the wheeze of her lungs, the sharp twinge in her chest, the inconsistent flutter of the arc reactor. “Fucking concussion. Fucking Hydra. I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Why did you come?”

She laughs harshly, coughs, tastes a hint of blood. “For you, asshole,” she says, exhausted, and pushes herself onto her ass away from the puddle of vomit. She’s near enough to the wall that she can lean against it, which is good because sitting up on her own is not in the cards. The knot under the red star on her chest is throbbing tightly. She wonders if the blue circle on his is doing the same. “I came for you . Do you even know who I am?”

“Stark, Natasha Antonia,” he says immediately. “Daughter of Howard and Maria Stark, both deceased. Current CEO of Stark Industries, founder and CRO of Stark Solutions Inc. Injured in Afghanistan, 2008, during a business trip to demonstrate weapons for the US military. Genius-level intellect with expertise in engineering, neural computing and cybernetics. Also known as the Iron Maiden, a vigilante known for—”

“Not what I meant.” The red star pulses again. She closes her eyes, recenters her fading thoughts. Opens her eyes. Tries again. “Do you know who I am to you ?”

There’s a long silence. “No,” he says finally.

“Of fucking course not,” she mutters, and lifts her hands to pull at the seals of her flight suit. Blessedly, there are seals on both sides, meaning she can just drag the material down and let gravity do the work. She peels back the skintight fabric all the way to her waist, exposing her scarred chest, modesty preserved by a sports bra. “Take a goddamn good look,” she says, and her hands fall back into her lap.

The Winter Soldier’s eyes drop to her chest, where her arc reactor glows softly, bracketed on either side by a star. One red and silver, one white and blue. Hesitantly, his natural hand reaches out to ghost over her collarbone, rest on the red star. She shivers. He’s barely touching at first, but gradually presses more firmly. Instinct makes her reach her own out, slide her palm against his skin, covering the blue circle with its white hollow triangle.

Awareness surges, recognition screams, triumph blares trumpets in her head. Something lightning-bright and blazing-hot and almost-visible snaps into place between them, and it really fucking hurts .

Toni loses her breath, loses all sensation of everything but the burning sparks jumping between their bodies. White light erupts behind her eyes, and the pressure in her head pushes down until her sinuses feel like they’re about to explode.

The Winter Soldier jerks backwards, then forwards, and his hair falls into his eyes as his shoulders bow. When he raises his head again, his eyes are clear and there’s a person staring back at her. Not the Soldier, not a mindless Hydra assassin, but a real person. “Your name is Toni,” he says, sounding surprised.

“Yep,” she says when she can breathe again.

He smiles. It isn’t much of a smile, just a twitch upwards of the corner of his mouth, but it may as well be the Grand Canyon of happy expressions compared to what was on his face before. “My name is Bucky.”

She gives him a look, patented Toni Stark exasperation, though she’s not sure her eyes are focusing properly. “I’m not drunk and I’m not twelve. I’m not calling you Bucky . I give no fucks how hot you are.”

The smile twitches, widens marginally. “My first name is James.”

“Hi James.” Her vision is turning grey and fuzzy around the edges. It hurts to breathe. “I really am thrilled to finally meet you properly. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’m going to pass out now.”

And the world goes solid and black for a long time.

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

New York, April 20, 2004

The last thing Toni wants to do is give the eulogy at her father’s funeral. She hasn’t spoken to him in years, not since he called her on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and lambasted her for attending a party in Bern instead of trotting home like a dutiful daughter for the annual Stark New Year’s Gala. She has always been his greatest disappointment, so his anger hadn’t come as a surprise, nor had his declaration that he was washing his hands of her. She had the gall to be born with a vagina instead of a penis, and that lessened her worth in his eyes. That knowledge still stings a little, but has long since lost the majority of its power to hurt her. She’s over it.

It’s raining, the morning of the burial, and it seems fitting somehow. Not that Toni believes in poetic and maudlin bullshit like the city is crying for him, more that he made almost everyone around him utterly miserable at every waking moment. The old bastard gets one more day in which he’s the cause of discomfort and suffering, however minor it might be. Toni imagines he’s staring up from his VIP box seats in Satan’s amphitheater, smirking at the mourners with their umbrellas and rain bonnets and dripping jackets.

Toni’s heels echo forlornly from the walls as she paces along the corridors of her childhood home. She idly runs the fingertips of her right hand along the wall, skipping over the portraits of her ancestors dead and buried, brushing lightly across the tops of tables, drifting them past knick-knacks her mother placed and Howard apparently never removed. She doesn’t even know what she’s doing here. She doesn’t know why Howard instructed his executor to make sure she was in New York for the funeral.

She knows why Obadiah is insisting on her giving some sort of speech, though. It looks good for the paparazzi. There’ll be a way for him to spin it in order to generate positive PR for the company. She knows, as sure as she knows every line of her soulmarks, that Obie is going to want her to settle down, marry someone -- probably Clint who, despite all the tabloids’ wild guesses, is practically her husband after all this time together -- and start popping out babies to carry on the Stark dynasty.

She can’t wait to see the look on his face when she tells him she doesn’t plan on having any kids anytime soon, if she has them at all.

She’s too busy: Star Solutions Inc. is approaching its fifth year in business, and business is booming . Between the new designs she sends down the pipeline into prototyping, and the long hours spent with Pepper planning the expansion into three new states, Toni doesn’t have time to take off to have a kid. She doesn’t have time to spend with a kid. She doesn’t even know if she wants to have one at all, let alone now, when her star is climbing and her company about to launch into overdrive.

Obie’s old-school, though. Toni’s pretty sure that, if Obie and her father had had it their way, she would have gone to study liberal arts or music or philosophy or some other utterly pointless and boring waste of education. There was more than one reason she’d been glad to move to Boston at 15, even with Rhodey ostensibly paid to report her every twitch, sneeze and fart to Howard.

Without conscious decision, she finds herself making her way down the dark, paneled hall to Howard’s office. This was his kingdom, the seat of power of his technocratic plutocracy. Toni as a child was never allowed through the doors unless summoned. It’s more than a little unsettling to learn that, at least for the time being, she is the Stark in charge of everything.

“Winter is coming, and there must always be a Stark in Manhattan,” she says with a humorless little chuckle, and pushes the double doors open.

Howard’s office still holds a scent of cigar smoke, those ridiculously vain King of Denmark sticks he had personalized in diamonds and gold foil with his name. Toni can never smell that brand without thinking of Howard, telling a four-year-old girl that she would never be an engineer because girls are stupid. It always smells like fresh hurt and hidden jealousy to Toni.

She leans on her fingertips on Howard’s desktop, like she’s looming over an invisible, cowering minion. She smooths her palms over the scarred cherry wood, sighs low and quiet through her nose, and sits down in Howard’s chair like she’s ascending a throne.

And because she’s her, she immediately assumes her favorite CEO position: slouched comfortably, hands folded across her stomach, feet up on the corner of the desk. It’s not as comfortable as it usually is, because Toni isn’t a CEO that comes to work in a suit and skirts and high heels - she’s more of a jeans and tee-shirt kind of girl, only wears a suit jacket over it to satisfy Pepper’s constant, fond nagging to for god’s sake, Toni, at least try to appear like you’re a professional? - and the skirt of her black dress slides up her thigh. But there’s no one here, no one to impress, and she doesn’t care how much leg she’s showing to an empty room.

She closes her eyes and lets her head sink back against the rich Corinthian leather of Howard’s chair. She just wants this day to be done with. She wants to shake the dust of New York off her shoes and fly back to Malibu, lie in the sun for a bit to recharge her batteries, get together with Pepper and keep their plans for world domination rolling.

And she will. But first, Howard’s funeral.

Fuck Howard anyway.

There’s a heavy tread at the entrance of the office, too heavy to be Clint. The reek of fresh cigar smoke assaults her nose, and opens her eyes. Obadiah is walking towards the desk, burning cigar held negligently in his right hand. “Didn’t expect to find you here, Toni,” he says. There’s something in his smile that reminds Toni of her formless nightmares of the drowning dark, dangerous and deadly and hungry. “Trying out the big seat, huh?”

“Nah,” she says, waving a hand. She has to force the cheer, but not the underscore of tiredness. She has curated the hell out of her personal life in Malibu, she’s created a space where she can relax and build and argue with Pepper about business plans and chew out her overpaid chief engineer when he tells her a design simply can’t be done when her blueprints show it clearly can. Here… Here, there is no safe space. She has to be on every moment of the day, waking or sleeping. It’s fucking exhausting, but she’s almost done. One more day. “It looked comfy, and it is. It’ll be Morgan’s soon enough, and I wish him much joy in it.”

Obadiah chuckles and moves further into the room, setting his cigar down in one of the several monogrammed ashtrays Howard kept in easy reach. “You’re not upset Howard’s giving the company to your cousin then?”

She shrugs, spins the chair back and forth with her hips, and gives him the lazy, playgirl smile that’s second nature to her now. “What would I do with a conglomerate, Uncle Obie?” she asks, and is proud of herself for not choking on the absolute lie. She knows exactly what she would do with Stark Industries. “Besides, I’d have to move back to Manhattan, and I’d much rather get a massage on my private beach in Malibu than sit in some stuffy old boardroom with a bunch of stuck-up old guys and argue about stocks and, like, quarterly reports.”

Well, okay. Not everything is a lie.

She doesn’t miss how Obadiah relaxes at that, but she pretends not to notice. The subject changes rather quickly. He moves to the wet bar, opens the brandy, fetches himself a glass. “How’re you and, what’s his name, Clint getting along?” he asks as ice cubes clink into the glass.

“We’re soulmates, Uncle Obie. We get along just fine.”

“How long have you two been together now?”

She can tell him down to the hour, the minute, the second, because her mind seizes on numbers and doesn’t easily let go, but she makes a show of counting. “God, let’s see… it’s April so… five and a half years? Six and a half years?” She flashes him a self-deprecating smile. “We don’t really pay so much attention to anniversaries and dates and stuff like that. We just celebrate life in general.”

“I know,” Obadiah says as he recaps the snifter, the crystal chiming with the movements. “The tabloids always have a field day when you and your boytoy hit the party circuit. I read something about you skinny-dipping in the Trevi Fountain last month.” He shakes his head and sips his drink as he approaches. “Not exactly the image you should be creating for your father’s legacy.”

Toni’s smile is tight. “My father fucked anyone with a vagina and a heartbeat who gave him even the vaguest hint of interest, Uncle Obie,” she says pleasantly. “I hardly think he cared if I had a hot tub party in Rome, if I skied naked down Mount Everest, or let both the Windsor princes tag team me in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace.”

She doesn’t see the blow coming, but she feels it. Her head snaps to the side, cheek stinging. She raises a hand to her cheek, and doesn’t have to fake either the wide, shocked eyes or the tremor in her fingers as she turns to look up at Obadiah. “What the hell, Uncle Obie?” The tinge of fear in her voice, now that she has to fake. She doesn’t get scared, she just gets angry, but Obadiah doesn’t know that.

He’s leaning against the side of the desk with one hip, absently swirling the ice around his glass, and watching her with hooded eyes. His posture screams of long familiarity with using his size to intimidate people, and she takes the cue, hunching back into the chair.

“Why did you hit me?” she asks again, voice small.

“It’s something you’ve needed for a long time,” Obadiah says, spinning the ring on his pinkie with his thumb. “Howie might have been too much of a pussy to discipline you, Toni, but I’m not your father. I’m not going to tolerate your smart mouth or your disrespect. You’re a Stark, and you will start acting like a Stark.” The corner of his mouth curls down, the Stane mark of dismissive disdain. “Or you’ll find your monthly allowance cut off pretty damn quick. Howie might have indulged you, Toni, but I’m not paying for your whoring yourself across the world.”

“I thought Morgan was going to get the inheritance,” she says, and flinches back when he raises his hand again.

He keeps going, scratches his cheek, looks smugly satisfied with her reaction. “Morgan knows how to listen to and take the advice of someone who’s been with the business for twenty years, Toni,” he says, as if explaining to a child. “He’ll do what I tell him to do. Now fix yourself up and get outside. The ceremony is going to start soon.”

“Yes, Uncle Obie,” she murmurs, and is glad when he turns his back and walks away, because she isn’t able to hold back the steel-eyed glare she levels at his back. “Asshole,” she breathes, and starts finger-combing her hair to straighten it back out. “Fucking pig.”

“I love you too, honey,” Clint says from above her, and she glances up to see him sliding back the cover of the vent. She doesn't even ask, because she's long since learned that if there is a vent, Clint will explore it. His head disappears, to be replaced by his feet, and he drops down on top of the desk, and hops to the floor. He bends down to kiss her, then pulls a lint roller out of his pocket and starts running it over his sober, black jacket. His eyes never leave hers, and his contented little smile never drops.

It’s kinda creepy.

She turns her jaw towards him. “How’s it look?” she asks. “Am I going to need my concealer?”

He reaches out to turn her head more fully, and she feels his thumb brush over her cheek. “Nah,” he says, and his mouth is warm and damp, kissing it gently better. “You should be okay.”

She arches an eyebrow, and relaxes back in the chair, swinging it from side to side. “How much of that did you see and/or overhear?”

“Pretty much all of it.” He shrugs out of the jacket, stretches it over the desk, and starts brushing the lint off the back. “Why?”

“You just seem a little… happy for someone who just watched his girlfriend get smacked in the face. I would have thought you’d be pretty pissed.”

“Oh, I am,” he says cheerfully. “I’m so fucking angry, I want to track him down, slice off his cowardly fucking balls, and ram them down his goddamn throat. But I know you. You could have taken him apart if you wanted to. So I’m just a raging fucking tower of pissed off, but I’m taking your lead here.”

“And… this makes you happy?” Six years together, and there are days Toni despairs of ever figuring him out.

“Well, no. Like I said, balls, throat. That’s my plan. But you don’t like it when I get possessive and caveman on you.” He grins, pulls her up and slides his arms around her waist. “So I’m comforting myself with picturing all the ways you’re going to end up utterly destroying him, because you are cold and ruthless and a fucking sadist when someone crosses you. And those are happy thoughts I could take to Neverland.”

oOoOoOo

Stark Manor, New York 2012

Toni swims back to consciousness and immediately regrets it. The lights are dim, but still stab into her eyes like devil’s pitchforks, and her head has that tender feeling, like someone scooped out parts of her brain and overstuffed her skull with cotton. Her throat is screaming for water, and her mouth is dry and gummy, tongue thick and clumsy.

“Ow,” she whimpers, squeezing her eyes shut. “Please let me be dead.”

Something stirs beside her, weight shifting, rearranging. A cool hand touches her forehead, and then presses against her cheeks. “Nope, sorry, still alive,” Nat says, from above and slightly to the left. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I played chicken with a tank and lost,” she says, and cracks open an eye. Natasha’s face is schooled to neutrality, but the corner of her mouth is tugging up. “Just so you know, I will be writing a scathing Yelp review of your home country, Tash. Terrible hospitality, no care for foreign visitors. Zero stars. Will not recommend to anyone.”

“That’s because spoiled, pampered Americans can’t handle how hard we Russians party,” Natasha says, sliding her legs under her and pressing two fingers to the inside of Toni’s wrist, head bent in concentration over the watch on her other wrist. “Not our fault you’re a wuss. Next time, go to France. I hear even their neofascist secret Nazi bases have feather mattresses and bidets.”

“I’m instituting a new personal policy. From now on, I am never going to storm the ramparts of any dungeon that doesn’t have a valet, hot towel service and a full wet bar.” Toni squeezes her eyes closed and tries to sit up. Her arms don’t tremble as much as she’s afraid they would, but she’s panting and her forehead is beading with sweat by the time she gets only halfway up. “Ow, ow, fucking Jesus Christ …”

Natasha clucks, and her arm goes around Toni’s shoulders to help her, sliding pillows under Toni’s back to prop her up. “тупица,” she says, disapproving.“I have no idea how you’ve managed to survive for over thirty years without someone putting you in a padded room for your own safety. Have you ever gone more than a few days without injuring yourself?”

“Well,” Toni says, gasping in relief as she leans back. She closes her eyes and wipes her forehead with a shaking hand. “There was that one time Clint tied me to the bed for three days. I didn’t get a single scratch.”

“You had rope burns on your wrists, Clint had a black eye, and you slept for twelve hours after that. It doesn’t count.” Natasha fiddles with something on the side table and then holds a glass of water with a straw out.

Toni wants to cry in relief, but settles for sipping the water. It goes down cool and wet, and some of that terrible, cottony pressure disappears. “Then no,” she says, and already her voice sounds much better. “I’m just accident-prone, I guess. Do I even want to know how badly I fucked myself up?”

“Probably not.” Natasha brushes Toni’s hair out of her eyes, tucking the loose strands behind her ear, and Toni’s head tilts in the direction of the gesture automatically. Natasha isn’t usually so open with her touches; it must have been bad. “You miraculously managed to avoid needing stitches this time, but you pulled a few muscles, managed to collect an impressive array of bruises.” She pulls her hand back. “Bruised your ribs on the left side. They’re going to hurt like hell for a few days.”

“Just bruised?” Something about that seems wrong, because she’s pretty sure that there was an entirely different, sharper pain in her side in that dark Russian hellhole. Toni gingerly presses a hand into her left side, feeling the tight bandage under her shirt, but the ache is dull. “You sure?”

Natasha frowns unhappily. “We first thought your ribs were broken, actually. You were coughing blood, and you were struggling for breath. I was afraid you’d punctured your lung. But the scans JARVIS took didn’t show any fractures. You bit your lip pretty badly, though, so it was likely just blood you’d swallowed. Still. You scared us pretty badly, Toni.”

Toni runs her tongue over her lips, guilt surging unpleasantly in her stomach. “I seem to be okay now, though,” she says tentatively, though how that's possible, she has no earthly idea. She looks around, squinting through the unhappy throb of her eyeballs and the dark of the room. “I mean, this is my room in the manor, so it can't be that bad, or you'd have me in the hospital.”

Natasha jabs her hand, snakelike, and fingers pinch around Toni’s chin, holding her firm and steady. Toni’s eyes widen until they hurt, but she can't pull away without pain, and Natasha's grip keeps her mouth closed.

Natasha leans forward, until their foreheads are almost touching. “Your heart stopped beating,” she says, calm and clear and lethal. “Your arc reactor was dark for two minutes. Two minutes, Toni. Clint nearly had a complete mental breakdown. I had to pry you away from a panicking assassin in order to get your spare reactor into the dock. Two minutes in which I had to argue with your overprotective, unstable soulmate to even begin to get your spare reactor into the dock.”

Toni flinches away, but Natasha holds her firmly in place.

“You may think you were justified, and perhaps you were,” Natasha continues in that slow, deadly cadence, “but you did not have backup, you almost died, because you did not think of me, or Clint or JARVIS or Pepper or even yourself. In the future, you will remember you are not an independent operator. In the future, you will remember you have people who love you enough to march into hell. And this will not happen again. Nod if you understand what I'm saying.”

Mutely, Toni nods. She has the urge to shrink into the pillows, would if Natasha wasn’t holding her still. She remembers suddenly why she prefers to never, ever piss Natasha off.

“Good.” Natasha pulls her head down, kisses her forehead, presses her nose into Toni’s hair. “Я рада, что ты жива,” she breathes, then lets Toni's jaw go with an apologetic brush of her fingers. “Though Clint may still murder you. He's undecided.”

Toni rubs her jaw grumpily, but says nothing about the bruises she’s sure to develop, because Natasha is right. “What happened, anyway? I'm a little fuzzy on…” She trails off as memories surface, then blinks and scrabbles at her shirt until she pulls it clear of her chest.

The red star is now nestled inside a blue circle, with the hollow white triangle inside its points. “Oh hell…” she says, staring at the complete soulmark. “That really fucking happened.”

“I was wondering when you'd get around to that,” Natasha says. “He's fine. He's been sitting there for two days.” She nods at a chair Toni hadn't noticed, pushed a little away from the bed. “With a knife in hand. I’m not sure if he was guarding you, or just couldn’t bear to be unarmed.”

Toni swallows the lump in her throat. “Where is he?” she asks, and hates how small she sounds.

“I sent him to take a shower. He smelled like the swamp. Clint is digging him out clothes that aren't covered in the blood of his enemies. He refused to go anywhere until I told him you were waking up, and you wouldn't appreciate a filthy man hovering over you. Then he was more than agreeable about bathing.”

Toni swallows again, doesn't want to ask but knows Natasha will give her a blunt answer. “How is he?”

Natasha sighs faintly, and stares off for a moment, gaze unfocused and distant. “In some ways, not as bad as I was when Clint brought me home,” she says finally. “In others, he's worse. The bond seems to have broken through most of the programming, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and there’s still a lot of work to do. Memories and experiences to sort through. To learn to deal with. It will be rough.” She squeezes Toni’s hand tightly, smiles in reassurance. “We’ll get through it.”

Toni’s vision shimmers with sudden tears, and she wonders when she ever did the miraculous thing that rewarded her life with the presence Natasha and Clint. She turns her hand under Natasha’s, laces their fingers together, lets her hair fall over her eyes. “I don't know what I would do without the two of you,” she says quietly.

“Die, I imagine,” Natasha replies easily. “Your first workshop binge alone would do you in without Clint or I bringing you food you don't brew in a pot.” She gives Toni's hand a final squeeze, then gently untangles their fingers and stands up. “I’m going to go run you a bath, solnyshko. I’d say a shower, but I doubt your legs are up to standing for very long.” Her nose wrinkles. “Barnes isn’t the only one who smells like a swamp. And the heat will do those bruises good.”

Just the thought of standing up is exhausting enough. Toni groans and sinks into the pillows. “No,” she mutters, and pulls the sheet over her head. “I’m happy stinking. Go away and let me sleep, Tash. I’m injured. I need rest.”

The blanket is yanked away. Toni whines and scrabbles for it, but Natasha has her determined face on, and she keeps it from Toni’s fingers. “The first time you go to bed with your soulmate, Antonia,” she says, “you will not smell like you fell into a sewer. And there will be only sleep,” she adds when Toni opens her mouth, flint-eyed, “because he is exhausted and you are a trainwreck. There will be only sleep, or we’ll have words. Nod if you understand me.”

Toni snaps her mouth shut and nods.

“Good,” Natasha says, pleased. “I’ll go run the bath, and then I’ll come back and help you out of bed. Try not to injure yourself in the five minutes I’ll be gone.”

“Fuck you,” Toni mutters, and pulls a pillow over her face to muffle Natasha’s fond, but mocking, laugh.

oOoOoOo

Stark Manor, April 21 2004

Toni has spent a large chunk of her life making sure she avoids spending time with Morgan Stark. Her cousin, the son of one of Howard’s aunts, is shallow and vain, concerned with himself first and no one else second. He has the dark charm of the Starks, slick black hair and carefully shaped vandyke, sharp blue eyes and expensive, tailor-fit clothing, but he lacks intelligence, cleverness and any actual personality. He is, in Toni’s opinion, an utter waste of oxygen.

To think that this is the man who’s going to be dictating the future of the Stark legacy makes Toni want to break something. Preferably his smug, insufferable face.

She’s only on her second cup of coffee, sitting on Clint’s lap on a chair in the kitchen, when he saunters into the manor, eyes raking greedily over the fixtures and furnishings. He’s mid-conversation with a cell phone to his ear, and it sounds to Toni like he’s talking to an interior decorator. “ - the kitchen is an utter nightmare,” he says, and oh god, that nasally whine of his voice… Toni only realizes she’s squeezing her coffee cup so tightly the ceramic creaks Clint soothingly rubs his palms over her biceps.

“Easy,” he murmurs into her hair. “The maids aren’t paid enough to scrub blood off the tiles.”

“I’ll give them a raise,” she mutters, and drains the last mouthfuls of coffee in a long swallow.

“I have to go, Cecil. I’ll call you back when I have a definite time for the reno consult. Ciao, baby.” Toni rolls her eyes as Morgan snaps the phone closed with an exaggerated gesture. He grins toothily at her. “Toni, babe. You’re looking good.”

“Morgan,” she says, not even remotely in the ballpark of pleasant and not giving a shit. “Why are you here? There isn’t even a will-reading. You could have stayed home and waited for the courier to deliver your copy.”

Morgan shoves his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels. “Nah,” he says breezily. “No point in waiting. I’m moving in here as soon as possible, so I have to have the renos started immediately.” He grins and actually rubs his hands together. “I can’t wait. Neither can Mother. She thinks it’s finally time the house came to the proper side of the family.”

Toni scoffs into her mug, realizes it’s empty, grumpily slides off Clint’s lap to go get a fresh cup. “Aunt Anna and Howard didn’t get along,” she says over her shoulder as she drains the pot into her mug. “In the way that a falling nuclear warhead and the ground don’t get along.”

“Charming,” Clint says, grabbing an orange out of the bowl on the counter. “Christmases must’ve been a hoot.”

“Oh, just fucking hilarious,” she says, stirring milk and sugar into the cup and licking the spoon clean. “Raging alcoholics make for sterling entertainment when they’re screeching about who deserves what portion of Great-Granddad’s estate, and what consists of an appropriate lifestyle expenditure. Hint: a gold-plated doggie fountain is not an appropriate lifestyle expenditure.”

“Sorry to have missed it,” Clint says, peeling and sectioning the orange with his fingers.

“With any luck, there are home videos around. After all, why should I have to suffer alone with that memory?” Toni slides back onto his lap, wrapping an arm around his back to secure her seat and resting her head against his shoulder.

Morgan looks between them. “I’m sorry, who are you again? The poolboy? Jesus, Toni. Sleep with the help, but don’t bring them into the house.”

“Soulmate,” Toni mutters into her cup, swallows scalding caffeine so she doesn’t do something pointless like drive Morgan’s teeth down his throat. He has an excellent dentist, after all.

“What?”

“She said fuck off,” Clint says pleasantly. His arm curves around her back, and the muscles of his forearm are tight against her shoulder blades. “I speak fluent Undercaffeinated Genius. Let me know if you need anything else translated.”

“You wouldn’t clean a pool even if we had one,” Toni says, after a moment of thinking about it. “You’re the laziest kept man ever. It’s a wonder you haven’t grown into the couch yet.”

“Hey, I’m working on it. It’s trickier than it seems.”

Morgan tries to interject with more annoying questions and snide observations, but Toni is ignoring him like there’s a gold medal for it at stake. She checks the clock, then closes her eyes and leans her head against Clint’s shoulder again. Fifteen more minutes, and then she can flip New York the bird and fly back to Malibu and her real life. She’s already packed.

Eventually, the lawyer shows up with a briefcase and a legal aide carrying a filing box. Toni flings herself carelessly in a seat, already more than halfway caught up in making mental amendments for the new Star Solutions facilities opening next year in Oregon. She’s passed an envelope, and she absently tears it open with her thumb as she runs the cost projection for a new, state-of-the-art nanotech lab versus expanding her current Culver City location. She’s trying to decide if centralizing her most cutting-edge of research departments is the better option, or diversifying for better talent and data preservation, when Morgan shrieks.

She jerks into the present, hands rising by instinct to block or deflect an incoming blow. But it’s just Morgan, staring in agitated disbelief at the document in his hand.

Are you fucking kidding me ? he howls, furiously flipping pages. “A trust fund? That’s it?”

Toni stares at him, then looks at the lawyer, then looks at Clint. Clint has an eyebrow raised. Frowning, Toni unfolds her copy of the will, licks her thumb and begins to speed-read. Within a few minutes, the will is falling from her numb fingers. “What?” she says softly, raising her gaze to eye the lawyer. “I don’t… understand. He left me everything?”

“He what?” Lightning-quick, Clint’s hand snatches the will off the table. “Holy shit!”

“Except minor assets slated for other parties,” the lawyer -- she didn’t even catch his name -- affirms with a nod. “If I may say so, madam, Mr. Stark was quite proud of your accomplishments. He talked about you quite a lot over the last two years, said you were making a name for yourself from the ground up. He respected that, quite a bit. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she says mechanically, but has already stopped really paying attention because the bulk of her formidable brain power is occupied trying to wrap itself around the notion that Howard left her everything . The business, the title, the cushy penthouse office. The properties in Europe. The manor. His workshop. Everything.

She blinks furiously at the table as if it will provide answers. Something occurs to her then, a random thought that instantly makes her blood go cold and her eyes go wide with fright. "Oh fucking hell," she says, turning to stare at Clint. "This throws everything off. I can't just drop another company into her lap right now! Pepper's going to literally kill me."

oOoOoOo

Stark Manor, 2012

By the time Natasha helps her back out of the tub, Toni’s hair is clean and her skin is pink and the heat from the water has seeped all the way down to her bones. She’s practically asleep already as Natasha braids her wet hair and ties it away from her face, but manages to rouse herself enough to dress in an oversized t-shirt and a pair of comfortable pajama pants.

She’s stable enough to shuffle back down the hall by herself, as long as she uses the wall, so she bids Natasha goodnight and makes her way back to her room. She doesn’t turn around to look, but she knows Natasha’s watching her from the door of the bathroom. She’s also pretty sure that Clint’s lurking in the ventilation system somewhere, also keeping an eye on her.

She waves over her shoulder as she rounds the corner and walks into her room. And stops dead, because James Barnes is sitting on the edge of her bed. He’s clean, and in Clint’s sweatpants and a black tank top, barefoot and hair tied back, and looks hellaciously stiff and uncomfortable.

The blue circle on his chest is half-hidden by the hem of the tank top, but there’s a red point, like the top of her star, visible. It’s a measure of how tired Toni is -- and how terrified of Natasha’s promise of “words” -- that she doesn’t spend more than ten seconds debating whether or not to just jump him where he sits. Twenty seconds, tops.

“Toni.” He’s on his feet as soon as he sees her, and it’s actually painful to watch his face close off, defensive and dark, hands warding off anything she might say or do. “This wasn’t my idea, okay? I can go.”

She yawns. “I don’t really care who’s idea it was,” she says. “I just want to sleep for like, a month. I’m the laziest invalid you’ll ever meet. I linger in bed for hangnails and stubbed toes. These bruises should be good for at least thirty days. I'm claiming suffering and damage.”

She doesn’t miss the violent flinch at the mention of her injuries, and the mental bulb clicks on. Ah. Right. “I’m too tired to have the conversation about who’s at fault for us slugging the shit out of each other,” she says, and crawls onto the mattress, burrowing under the sheets. “But suffice to say it's not you, it's Hydra. But we’ll talk about that in the morning, okay?”

There’s a long pause.

“Stop arguing with me,” she says, even though he hasn’t said a word, “and get your ass under the covers before I crawl back out there and make you.”

Another long pause. Then, rough and raw: “I don’t want to hurt you again.”

She rolls back towards him, looking up from her nest of pillows. He’s standing at the edge of the bed, arms folded loosely, watching her. His expression isn’t exactly an open book, but he’s clearly miserable and worried. She sighs softly, and lifts a hand from the warmth of the bed and holds it out to him. “You’re not gonna hurt me,” she says. “You haven’t even tried since you saw my face, and I'm still sure you were brainwashed then.”

He edges closer to the bed, slowly reaching out for her hand. “You’re too goddamn trusting,” he says gruffly. “I’m dangerous.”

“Yeah, hi. I’m Toni and I fly around in what is essentially a flashy and sleek weapon of mass destruction. Danger isn’t really a turnoff for me.” She wiggles her fingers at him invitingly. “C’mon, James,” she says softly. “I’ve been looking for you for literal years. Are you really gonna make me wait longer?” She drops her voice half an octave, to where she knows it’s huskiest.  “Come to bed, Bucky.”

A shiver jerks through his body, rocking him towards her. “Jesus Christ,” he says helplessly. “That’s really fuckin’ not fair.” With the movements of a man doing something against his better judgement, he slides under the covers and lays on his back, tense and staring at the ceiling.

“S’alright if I touch you?” Toni asks around another yawn. At his nod, she nudges his arm under her pillow, tucks her head near his shoulder, and settles her hand on his chest, right over his soulmark. “S’okay,” she mumbles, and her eyes slip closed. “Y’won hurt me. S'okay, Buck…” She slips into slumber, still murmuring reassurances.

Some time later, she stirs from sleep. She’s not awake enough to really know where she is or what woke her, but she’s warm and content, and has a man wrapped around her. Her nose is buried in the crook of his neck, breathing his scent. His cheek is against her temple, his breath in her ear. Her legs are tangled with his, and there’s an arm curled around her hips She makes a contented noise, burrows back into the warmth of his neck, and descends back into sleep.

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Stark Manor, New York.
March 4, 2012

When Bucky wakes up, it’s the first day of the rest of his life. He doesn’t consciously think of it like that immediately, won’t start counting from this date until long after he’s stopped worrying he’s still in cryo, dreaming of a life he’ll never have with a woman far too good for the likes of him. But somewhere deep in the back of his mind, he recognizes that this morning is the morning that everything changes.

He can’t remember the last time he woke slow and lazy, buried in pillows and puffy blankets, warm and comfortable and with the scent of a woman in his nose. He opens his eyes, blinking blearily, hand reaching out to curl around the curve of a warm, smooth thigh. Shapely, strong muscles under the skin, a distinctly feminine noise of pleasure accompanying the stroke of his fingers as he moves his hand down to the knee.   Am I on mission ? he wonders hazily. I don’t remember.

“Good morning, James,” the voice murmurs, and ends with a soft hiss of pain. “Careful where you’re poking. I’m still bruised.”

He raises his head, squinting at his bed partner. For a moment, he doesn’t recognize her, only sees long black hair and bright blue eyes and pale skin edged with soft blue, and panic spikes.

He pins her to the mattress with a hand around her throat, teeth bared and other hand reaching for a knife that he can’t find. When was he disarmed? How did he get here? He doesn’t know his mission parameters, can’t remember his assignment. Is he on mission?

Her eyes are wide, and he can feel her heart hammering beside his palm, and she goes still under him, very still. “James,” she says, deliberate and clear, though it’s strangled and harsh. Her throat spasms under his fingers. “You’re safe. You know me. What’s my name?”

“Toni.” The word slips out automatically, and then he remembers. He throws himself away from her, scrambles off the bed and onto the floor. He presses his palms into his face, panic and fear and guilt punching him in the gut as she starts coughing and sucking in air. “Jesus, Toni. Jesus fucking Christ, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” she says, and crazily, she sounds like she believes that. She coughs again and clears her throat. “I should have gotten out of bed before you woke up. My mistake, not yours. You with me now?”

“Yeah,” he breathes, after a moment of taking stock. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, tries to get the panic under control. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Where are you? Do you remember?”

“New York,” he mumbles. “Your bedroom, your house, New York City.”

“What date is it?”

Jesus, he just tried to kill her. How the hell is she so calm?  “March 4th. 2012.”

“What's your name?”

For a moment, he doesn't know how to reply. He doesn't know if he's the Asset, the Winter Soldier, Bucky, or someone else. Panic surges, brings bile, and he swallows hard, forces it back down. “Bucky,” he says, after thinking about it for too long. “James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Who am I?”

“Toni,” he says harshly, seeing her wide eyes and her throat under his hand. “Natasha Antonia Stark. You’re my soulmate.”

“That’s great, honey. That’s really good.” Her voice is soft, encouraging, and there’s the sound of a body sliding off a bed. “Is it okay if I come over to you?”

No , he wants to say, because he can still feel her pulse fluttering against his crushing grip. “Yeah,” he says instead, and hates himself for the weakness. He raises his head to watch her approach, seeing the bruises and the scrapes and the dark circles under her eyes. Sees the careful way she favors her left side, drowns in shame because he’s the reason she’s injured. He pulls his knees up to his chin, hugs his arms around them.

She sinks down to her knees beside him, telegraphing her movements. He tenses, but holds himself still. Her palm slides over his shoulders, slow and careful, stroke broadly down his spine, smooth back up. It feels solid and real, like an anchor in a shitstorm, and he slowly relaxes.

“It’s okay, James,” she says and, still telegraphing her gestures, cups his cheek, rubs her thumb along his nose. “You’re safe. Just breathe with me. You’re safe.”

His eyes are blurry and his face is wet and he doesn’t know why, not until her thumb gently brushes away the tears streaming down his face. “I’m sorry,” he says, thick and choking. “I woke up and I didn’t know where I was or who you were. I just reacted and I didn’t mean to fuckin’ hurt you, Jesus Christ, I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Toni says gently, and she leans in to kiss his forehead. His hand fists around her shirt, and she stills again, but her hand continues that steady stroke up and down his back. “You still with me?”

“Yeah,” he says, and buries his face in the material, breathing her scent. “I’m still with you.”

“Good,” she says softly, and they just sit there for a long time, as he cries into her shirt and she strokes up and down his back soothingly.

----

His life suddenly becomes inundated with choices.

It’s a new and frightening concept, because he is used to going where he’s told and killing who he’s told. His weapons, his armor, his money, his accommodations, those are all provided for, arranged ahead of time and presented to him as a done deal. He eats what he’s given, exercises by rote. He doesn’t decide things, he just accepts them and moves on.

The simple act of putting breakfast on his plate shouldn’t stall him in his tracks. He should eat food, because it’s fuel for his system, but there’s too much choice and he’s paralyzed by the sight of fruits and pancakes and bacon and breads and cereals and juices set up on the counter.

Toni’s hand slides up his back again, her other hand wrapped around a mug of steaming, creamy coffee. “You with me?” she murmurs.

He sucks in a breath, realizes he hadn’t been breathing, and leans forward on his hands. “Yeah,” he says, frustrated. “I’m the Winter fuckin’ Soldier. I should be able to handle breakfast .” He scrubs his hands over his face, blows out an irritated breath. “I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me.”

Toni makes a sympathetic noise into her coffee. “Do you want me to make you a plate?” she asks. “I don’t know what you like, but I can just pile it with what I usually grab, and you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want. How’s that sound?”

He shouldn’t be this grateful. Toni shouldn’t need to tiptoe around him, she shouldn’t need to do the simplest fucking things for him. “Yeah, that’d help,” he says grudgingly. “Thanks.”

“No sweat.” She beams up at him and sets her coffee aside to fix him a plate. She piles it with fruit and bacon and toast, pours him a glass of juice and carries everything to the table. “I usually sit there,” she says, nodding to the chair at the end of the table, but stops at the one next to it, on the side. “Here good?”

“Yeah,” he says, and thinks it's goddamn pathetic that it's another decision he can't make. His hands tighten on the back of the chair. “What would you have done if I’d said no?”

She shrugs, doesn’t lose her smile. “You’re a grown-ass man, James,” she says easily. “You want to sit beside me, I’m seriously all for that, but nobody owns you anymore, so you sit wherever you want.” Her hand drifts along his back as she moves around him. “I’m going to go put on another pot of coffee. Do you want some?”

“Nah,” he says, not sure if he actually does or not, but it’s a simple question and he’s determined to answer it himself. “I’m good with juice.”

“‘Kay,” she says with another of those happy smiles, and disappears back through the kitchen door.

He blows out a breath, and stares down at the plate, wishing it didn’t seem to be mocking him. “Man up, Barnes,” he mutters to himself. “It’s fuckin’ breakfast. You can handle breakfast.” And deliberately, he pulls the chair out, sits down, and starts to eat.

-----

As the days pass into weeks, he learns the rules of the Stark home and the quirks of these weird people he finds himself living with.

He learns to never hand Toni things, because someone somewhere damaged her ability to trust enough to reach out and take an item from another hand. He learns that, if he’s holding something she needs or that he wants to give her, he should lay it down beside her and let her pick it up.

He learns that Natasha rarely talks about herself and rarely shows affection, but her eyes are hard and alert and she has a protective streak a mile wide for those she loves.

He learns that Clint and Toni are handsy fuckers, full of casual touches and affectionate nudges from knees and shoulders and elbows. He learns that they are incredibly conscious of him, and make special effort to never startle him with their touches. He learns that a light hand on the arm from Natasha is the equivalent to an affectionate hug from Toni, or a companionable arm around the shoulders from Clint.

He learns to tolerate Clint’s biting remarks, slowly relearns his own sharp humor in response. Learns about Toni’s quick wit and Natasha’s deadpan delivery, so dry it’s hard to tell sometimes when she’s joking and when she’s not.

He learns that they will snap and scrap, fight like animals sometimes, tearing at each other’s throats and loudly listing each other’s faults, but it’s another way they show affection.

He learns to get used to a disembodied voice talking to him at odd moments. Learns that JARVIS is his own person. Learns that there’s nothing JARVIS wouldn’t do to protect Toni, who created him. Learns that he wholeheartedly approves of this purpose.

He learns that everyone takes a turn cooking, and learns that after a couple of weeks, he’s included in the roster on the nights when they’d previously ordered takeout Chinese or pizza or picked up Thai from the deli Natasha likes. He learns that he likes cooking, once he can make himself get started. Learns that he’s good at it. Learns that he’s probably the best cook out of the lot of them.

He learns that Toni is far more accepting of the flaws and mistakes of others, but holds herself to impossible standards. He learns, after the first time she disappears for two days into her workshop, that he shouldn’t take it personally, because she is powered by insomnia and caffeine, and always emerges tired and happy and carrying some new device she swears is going to revolutionize the world.

He learns to interpret the vague, fuzzy sensations that resonate in his soulmark. Learns the hum that means Toni’s happy. Learns the dull ache that means she’s upset. The angry buzz that means irritation, which is different from the angry buzz when she’s contemplating murder. Learns when she’s tired, or hungry, or aroused. Learns to listen to the pulse of their bond before he’s even conscious when he wakes up in the middle of the night or the middle of the morning, in her bed -- which has become their bed, he thinks -- and let it tell him that the person beside him is not a threat, not a danger, not a target.

Learns that she wants him, learns that she craves his touch. Learns that he wants her too, but that he’s afraid he’ll hurt her. He learns that she will never say anything about it, will never push. Learns she’s waiting until he trusts himself enough to do more than curl around her and sleep tangled together.

Learns, unsurprisingly, that he’s pretty much well head-over-fucking-heels in love with her. Thinks she loves him too. Hopes she does.

He learns that they are all just as fucked up as he is.

He learns that Clint will sometimes look very far away and stop responding to questions, but that Toni and Natasha will talk to him as though he is still part of the conversation. He learns that it’s because Clint is an assassin, has a very bloody past, and is sometimes lost in bad memories of haunting jobs.

He learns that Natasha will disappear into the gym with a grim look in her eye, and punch the heavy bags until her hands bleed. He learns never to try and engage her when she’s in these moods, but to make his presence known because she takes comfort in knowing that she isn’t isolated and alone.

He learns that Toni grows still sometimes at the mention of Afghanistan, goes cold sometimes and shivers violently. He learns that she doesn’t like the sound of bombs exploding, and sometimes panics if a car backfires too close to her. He learns that she needs a hot drink, a warm blanket, and a quiet voice to bring her back from the dark.

He learns that "are you with me" means "I'm here, I love you, you're not alone".

He learns their quirks, and their rules. Learns their coping mechanisms and their strange way of orbiting around each other. Learns that, as tight-knit and close as the three of them are, there is plenty of room for a fourth person. Learns that they are happy to make room for him, learn his quirks, his rules, his coping mechanisms.

Learns, surprisingly, after more than a month of doing nothing but adapting to this family unit, that he likes them. He likes them quite a lot.

Learns that he has a place he belongs, a place he calls home.

And then he learns how quickly it can all go so terribly fucked up.

oOoOoOo

Stark Manor
April 20, 2012

Bucky’s putting together a sandwich in the kitchen when his phone buzzes with the chime that means he has an incoming text message. He glances quizzically at the counter, where he left it when he decided to make himself something to eat. He pops a few cherry tomatoes in his mouth, and sets the container on the counter to scoop up his phone.

Everyone who would possibly text him lives with him, and they’re all home. If they wanted him, they’d just come get him, or ask JARVIS to relay a message.

Except… Maybe it’s from Toni. He hasn’t seen her for two days, except to bring her coffee and food, because she’s on an engineering binge and there’s only so long he can sit and pretend to look interested in what she’s soldering together. She likes sending him weird things she finds on the internet on her microbreaks, though, stuff she thinks will make him smile.

It usually does, because he's so ridiculously lost on her. He’s smiling as he opens the chat messenger, wondering what silly thing she’s found for him this time.

The message is not from Toni. In fact, it’s not a message his phone at all. It’s Toni’s phone, which he must have taken by accident the last time he brought her coffee, because their StarkPhones are identical. And the message is for her.

[clint] haha yeah god that was a hot night. im pretty sure i still have bruises from the handcuffs. i know my dick has never really recovered. youre an animal. ;-D

He stops mid-chew, the sweetness of the tomato suddenly tasting sour and ashy, and his fingers feel numb around the phone. Some distant voice in the back of his head is telling him that he should put the phone down now, because there is absolutely nothing good that will come from this. But that voice is drowning under the tidal wave of rage and hurt screaming through his brain.

He scrolls through the messages, and each one he reads sinks needle claws into his chest. Message after message, full of old memories and blatant flirting, sexual innuendo and open invitations. There’s a dull roaring sound in his ears that reaches a painful pitch when he realizes that all these messages are from the last month.

The phone vibrates in his hand again, automatically scrolling to the bottom with the new messages. This time it’s on the other side, meaning Toni’s texting Clint right now .

[toni] haha yeah. master dick wrangler, that’s me :-)

[toni] fuck. dont tell tash but i just burned my f’in finger again

[toni] shes gonna think im a disaster and give me the disappointed eyes

Another buzzing. Another message pops up.

[clint] you are a disaster

[clint] you deserve nats disappointed eyes

[clint] want me to come fuck it better? >:D

The phone shatters in Bucky’s hand, and the world behind his eyes burns white and hot.

-----

The next thing he knows, he’s standing outside Toni’s workshop, still holding the crushed remains of the broken phone. He’s half-expecting Clint to be inside, and his imagination helpfully provides all sorts of images drawn from the messages he read that make him want to scream and punch something soft and Clint-shaped until it isn’t Clint-shaped anymore.

But Toni’s alone inside, like he’s seen her a dozen times, barefoot and wearing ratty old jeans and a black tee-shirt, safety goggles pushed to the top of her head. She’s hunched over the central work table, feet tapping rhythmically on the rungs of her stool, surrounded by the glow of her holographic screens.

“JARVIS,” he says through clenched teeth.

“Yes, Sgt. Barnes?”

“Tell Toni I’m here.”

“Of course, sir.”

He watches through the window as Toni’s head comes up, as she turns around and sees him through the window. Her whole face lights up with a wide smile and she slides off the stool to pad over to the door. “Hey, James,” she says, eyes bright the way they get when she’s been awake for too long and has guzzled too much coffee. “C’mere, I want to show you what I’ve been working on.”

He lets himself be led in and babbled at, because he’s still trying to formulate what he wants to say. He can’t even register that she’s making him a new goddamn arm, which is lying half-assembled on the table and which she is cheerfully ranting about, because he’s caught in feedback loop that begins with want me to come fuck it better ? and ends with the sound of the phone crunching in his fingers.

“-not done yet,” Toni’s saying, “but it’s going to be about a thousand times better than what you’re currently having to tote around. Pounds lighter too. I swear by titanium. It’s perfect for almost everything.”

“Swell,” he says flatly, and that gets her attention.

For the first time, she seems to see him, take in his expression, his posture, the tension in his shoulders. She blinks and a hand touches her soulmark lightly. “Jesus, that’s what that is,” she murmurs, and raises her eyes to his. “What’s wrong, James?”

Mutely, he hands her the phone.

She takes it from him, turns it over in her hands, frowns a little. “It’s okay,” she says soothingly. “It’s just a phone. I mean, it’s a pretty fucked-up phone, but I can fix it, no sweat.”

He barely recognizes his own voice when it snarls out of him, “Maybe Clint can come fuck it better.”

She freezes, blinks up at him. “What?” she asks carefully.

“You heard me. Sorry for invading your privacy or whatever it is you’re going to yell at me for, but I just wanna know somethin’... which one of us are you jerking around, me or him?”

He’s expecting anger, he’s expecting guilt, he’s expecting any number of things. What he gets… is quizzical confusion. “Neither? He’s my best friend, you’re my soulmate. There’s no jerking around happening in either direction.”

“You’re fuckin’ him.”

She blinks again and shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I’m really not. I mean, I used to. Might again in the future. But right now? That’s really not happening. Hasn't since I found where they were keeping you. Jesus, James. I would never do that to you.”

“Oh yeah? Kinda hard to get that from the text messages I saw.”

That gets a wince, a flinch, a spike of guilt, everything he was looking for. It doesn’t make him any happier. “Yeah, shit. I got nothing there.” She runs her hands through her hair, blows out a breath. “Yeah, that’s on me. No excuses, honestly. It’s just something we’ve always done. I didn’t even stop to think, and I really should have.”

“Define always. How long’s it been going on?”

“What, the texting, or me and Clint? Actually, doesn’t matter. We’ve been doing that since we first got together, so...Thirteen years? Yeah.”

Bucky’s chest is tight, like there are bands around his ribs squeezing the breath out of him. Thirteen years , he thinks wildly. They’ve been together thirteen years. He can only imagine all the shit they’ve been through. All the ways they’ve fucked. He’s seen them cuddling on the couch, seen them give those intimate fucking looks to each other. It eats at him, gnaws at him, deep down in his gut. It takes everything he has not to go find Clint and punch him bloody.

Toni presses a hand to her soulmark, frowning in concentration. Then, she takes a deep breath, sighs through her nose. "He's my best friend and I love him more than almost anything else in the world. We've been through a lot of shit together, and I never have even considered giving him up. But I will," she says softly. "Cos you and me? That's something I need more than I love Clint, and if you can't deal with it, then all the flirting and texting and reminiscing stops. Right now.”

It takes him a moment to process that, because he almost can’t wrap his brain around it. “You’re gonna just toss away something you’ve had for thirteen fuckin’ years because I don’t like it? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Toni just eyes him steadily. “A great many things,” she says, “but this isn’t one of them. You’re my soulmate. That trumps everything else. In fact, here. JARVIS,” she says, raising her voice.

“Yes ma’am?”

“J, bring up my most recent chat logs with Clint, would you? I want James to read them.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“I don’t want to fuckin’ see you text-fucking him,” Bucky snaps. “I got enough of that by accident. Not really interested in seeing it on purpose.”

Toni blinks tiredly. “Just read the fucking logs, James. You only got part of the conversation. You should really see the rest.”

She gestures at the screen and steps out of the way. Against his better judgement, he looks up at the screen.

[clint] want me to come fuck it better? >:D

[toni] pass. Been there done that. T-shirt wasn't worth saving.

[toni] youre old news, darling. its not me its you.

[clint] traded in for the latest shiny toy. ouch. youre a sadistic woman.

[toni] what can i say? i finally met someone who can do what you never could

[clint] and that is?

[toni] satisfy me :-D

[clint] youre so fuckin gone on him. its adorable

[toni] stfu clint

[clint] what, i can’t be happy youre happy? hes good for you. youre smiling more. youre so giddy around him its kinda gross :-D

[clint] plus hes really fuckin hot, so thats working for you too

[toni] i know right?

[clint] he must be something if youve gone this long without sex

[clint] seriously, your libido needs to be in the world records or something. i don’t know how youre doing it

[toni] you did it for tash

[toni] also i live vicariously through the noises you make when tash makes you yowl like a cat in heat

[clint] hey… nats the one who howls like that

[toni] right

[toni] theres no way that woman bottoms for you.

[clint] one day, youll pay for this

[clint] youre going to be horny at some point

[clint] desperate

[clint] begging ‘please clint, let tash whip me’

[clint] and im gonna say nope. suffer.

[toni] im happy waiting for james

[clint] you utter sap :-)

[toni] hes worth waiting for

His head is reeling, brakes screeching his fury to a halt and whiplashing him from one extreme of emotion to the other. He isn’t sure what he expected when he came down here -- a shouting match, maybe. A cold fuck off, asshole . To be told that she was sick of waiting for him to get his shit together. To be told to get the fuck out of her house. Lies or denial or anything else. He certainly wasn’t expecting any of this. He wasn’t expecting the ultimate answer to “want me to come fuck it better” be “he’s worth waiting for.”

“See,” Toni says softly, “this is why I’m not going to at you for invading my privacy, for reading stuff you were never meant to see, because you have every right to see it. I wasn’t thinking, and I was very fucking inconsiderate. I broke the Poly Prime Directive, I wasn’t open in my communication, and I am so very fucking sorry, honey.”

They're not sleeping together. She's waiting for him. Because he's worth it. He puts his head in his hands, breath hissing in and out of his clenched teeth. The rage and betrayal and anger aren’t going away, they’re still surging in his gut, nowhere to go but inward. He’s sick and he’s unstable and he was ready to kill someone who’s been nothing but a friend to him over a goddamn misunderstanding. Toni should have left him in fucking Siberia or, better yet, just put him out of his fucking misery instead of bringing him home and thinking he’s worth saving.

Toni’s still talking. “I know it might be a stretch for you to trust me, so JARVIS? I want you to give James full access to all of my email accounts, social media accounts, and text messages. If I get a new number, if I have a new email address, a new Twitter account, add them to his access level.”

There’s a pause. “Shall I include your accounts with Stark Industries, Stark Solutions and your private servers, ma’am?”

“You know what, go ahead and do that. Give him everything. Iron Maiden. Prototype tech specs. My goddamn iTunes purchase history. Everything. Full access to my entire life. And make it a Skynet protocol.”

“...Ma’am? Under the Skynet protocol, you won’t be able to revoke his-”

Skynet , J.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

He can’t handle this. He doesn’t know how to handle her. She’s disarraying her entire life for him. She’s opening doors, giving him permission to take whatever, go wherever, do whatever. She’s pissing away relationships that have lasted almost half her life just to make him happy. She shouldn’t be doing this, any of it, because there’s no chance in hell he isn’t going to fuck this up. He’s holding the keys to her entire kingdom, and if there's anything he's learned in the last half hour, it's that it doesn't matter how at home or accepted he feels here, because in the end, he’s a ticking goddamn time bomb. 

Her hand touches his back. “James, you with me?”

He jerks away from her, spins on a heel, feeling like he’s careening towards a cliff and the brakes are gone. “You utter, fuckin’ stupid goddamn moron,” he snarls, angry and vicious. “Do you even realize what you just fuckin’ did? I’m never going to be myself. I’m fucking broken , Toni, but you’re too much of a dumbass to accept that. You just handed me top-level clearance to everything you have. You fucking stupid goddamn idiot. Are you that fucking desperate you’ll just open wide for whatever freak of nature you feel like bringing home?”

Toni blinks at him, frozen with her mouth open in a slight O of surprise. “Okay,” she says slowly. “I thought… No, it doesn’t matter what I thought. But I will say this: I’ll own the shit that I’m guilty for, but I’m really not in the fucking mood to be called names.”

Distantly, he’s horrified at himself, wants desperately to stop, but the words are pouring out, cruel and careless. “You’re supposed to be a fucking genius, but you’re the dumbest fuckin’ person I’ve ever met.”

She sucks in a breath, lets it out slow and steady through her nose. “James,” she says, in the same tone she used when he woke up the first day and tried to kill her, the calm and careful one. “I don’t think you’re yourself right now.”

“This is the only self I’ve got! You can’t take it, fine! Don’t take it! Just run back to your fake soulmate already. You think you can fix me, make me better’n him.” He watches every flinch, every twitch, every blink, and something dark and twisted and knotted revels in the hurt and the pain he’s inflicting. “You’re too fucking stupid to realize that you can’t fix everything.  I don’t fuckin’ want you to fix me. It’s not possible , so just fuck off and leave me the fuck alone, wouldja?”

Deathly silence falls.

“Not possible,” she echoes, distant and odd. “Not possible.”

Bucky swallows hard as sanity suddenly reasserts itself, slaps him with cold, hard, sober reality. She’s sheet white, huge-eyed, tight-lipped. And he knows that he’s badly fucked up, knows that she’s taken a whole lot of shit from him and his bad days, taken it with a smile and compassion and a gentle touch... but this has just shoved her way past her limits.  “Oh fuck,” he says, miserably, and reaches for her. “Jesus Christ. Toni, fuck, I didn’t mean--”

She slaps his hand away, hard enough to hurt even him. Her eyes are chips of ice, cold and hard. “I am Toni Stark,” she says softly, dangerously. “I am Toni fucking Stark. I earned three doctorates and a master’s degree before I turned 18. I became the youngest-ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company before I was 25. I built power armor out of a box of fucking scrap metal in a fucking hole in fucking Afghanistan. I rediscovered a new fucking element, built a fucking jury-rigged particle collider in my fucking basement and saved the world from a goddamn army of knock-off Iron Maidens while I was dying of heavy-metal poisoning.

“Toni…” he whispers, sick and reeling, but Toni ignores him.

“My companies design medical prostheses for amputees that are better than their real fucking limbs!” Her voice rises, sharp and snapping, and color floods back into her face. “My arc reactors will solve the energy crisis in five fucking years tops! I revolutionize whatever fucking industry I have the whim to dabble in within a week! You don’t get to tell me what’s not possible! Get this through your thick fucking skull, James: I don’t recognize the existence of ‘not possible’. Because I am Toni fucking Stark,” she thunders, punctuating each word with a jab of fingers into his chest, “and ‘not possible’ just means I haven’t had my fucking coffee yet!”

Abruptly, she turns and slams her hands onto the top of her work bench, the half-finished arm  rattling. Her shoulders hunch, heave with deep, shaky, angry breaths. Bucky stares at her back, mute and wretched. Shame and self-loathing make a sick swirl in his gut, and he wants nothing more than to find a dark hole to crawl in and die.

“You are not broken,” Toni says tiredly, still hunched over her hands. “Because you’re not a fucking clock. You’re a human being. And even if you were broken, it doesn’t even fucking matter, because fixing things is what I do for a goddamn living.” She straightens and turns, scrubbing her face with the palms of both hands. “God, I can’t do this right now,” she mumbles. “I’ve been up for thirty-six hours. I need to go to bed. I can’t fucking think straight.”

Bucky stiffens, feels the knot of dismay and dread tighten and tangle. “Okay,” he says, stands there for another moment, trying to think of something to say. Some way to repair what he’s just fucked hideously up. He can’t. “Okay,” he repeats, then slumps and turns to leave the workshop.

He doesn’t even get a full step away before Toni’s hand snaps around his wrist. He stops dead, half turns quizzically back towards her. “Let me be clearer,” she says gently. Incredibly, her hand is soothing up his back, like it does when he’s in the middle of a panic attack or a flashback and she’s trying to anchor him. “I need you to take me to bed, because I can’t fucking think straight.”

He can’t have heard her right. “I… What? Even after all that?”

“Yes, after all that.” She goes onto her toes, running her hand right up his spine and curling it around his neck in a gentle squeeze. A groan rumbles deep in his throat, and his eyes half-close, because it feels good. “Especially after all that.”

He turns fully around, hauls her in by the waist and buries his head in her shoulder, shudders in relief when she loops her arms around his neck. “I’m going to wreck this,” he says into her hair. “Whoever gives out soulmarks really fucked up when they saddled you with me.”

“Nah,” she says, and threads her fingers through his hair, and he has to resist the urge to purr like a goddamn cat. “Sooner or later, you’re going to realize that I got the better end of that deal. Too bad, though. I’ve only got a master’s degree in metaphysics, but in my limited understanding, these soul bonds are for life, so you’re stuck with what you got, I’m afraid.”

“Good,” he says, heartfelt, and kisses her neck, murmuring, “I’m sorry it got so fuckin’ out of hand, Toni.”

Her breath hitches, and her hands go still in his hair. “S’okay, James. We all have really shitty days. I forgive you.” Her voice has dropped a few notes down the octave, comes out husky.

It sends a visceral thrill down his spine. He moves up to the underside of her jaw, brushes his lips over it. “M’sorry,” he says again.

“Uh huh,” she says, a little breathless, a little dazed, and her hands start running through his hair again. “Still forgiven.”

“M’sorry,” he says again, against the pulse point behind her ear, which he nips with his teeth.

She shudders hard against him with a thready little moan. Her head tips away, hair cascading over her shoulder, presenting him with the lines of her neck and throat. He stares at her skin for a long moment, fascinated by the pulse jumping just under her jaw, then squeezes his eyes shut and swears savagely in Russian. He sucks in a long, shuddering breath and presses his forehead to hers, tightening his hold on her waist. She just said she needs to sleep, he tells himself. Don’t be an even bigger asshole than you already are.

“Why’d you stop?” she asks, and Jesus Christ, her voice alone might be his undoing, be enough to break his shaky self-control, all lazy and throaty and practically purring.

“Because,” he says through gritted teeth. “You’re tired. You just said you wanted to go to bed.”

She pulls his head away from hers, and stares up at him with eyes gone deep and dark. There’s a flush high in her cheeks that spills down her neck and chest. Her eyes flick to his mouth, and she licks her lips with a quick dart of her tongue. “Yeah, bed,” she says, in a tone that makes it crystal clear it isn’t sleep she’s thinking about, and his chest aches like she just socked him in the ribs with the suit on. “That’s definitely a place we should go.”

Christ, she’s going to end up killing him. He’s too raw, it’s been too long, and the damned bond between them is singing with a whole bunch of emotions he thought he’d long since lost. He forces himself to step back, take a deep breath, turn around, keep his goddamn hands to himself. There’s nothing gentle in him right now, no romance, nothing she deserves.

She needs better than an animal. He’s not going to hurt her, not again.

James. ” He turns in time to catch her, staggers back a couple of paces and slides his arms under her ass as she jumps. Her legs wrap around his waist, feet locking at the small of his back, and her hands fist in his loose hair, gripping tight. “I don’t fucking want romance right now,” she says, with the underscore of a snarl, and it occurs to him that he didn’t mean to say all that out loud, but he apparently did. “I don’t want gentle, I don’t soft kisses and slow touches and whatever other bullshit you think I deserve. Try asking me what I want.”

His mouth is dry. His higher thought processes are sliding away, because he’s had a lot of time over the last few weeks to think about what it would be like to have his arms full of a squirming Toni, but somehow, reality trumps everything. He fumbles for words and manages to find them. “What do you want, Toni?”

“I want you to fuck me,” she growls, and does something with her thighs that brings her groin against his, at the same time she leans forward to nip his ear. And fuck, but the heat of her sex sears his cock, makes it jump, makes it ache, even through the double layer of sweat pants between them.

He isn’t conscious of moving, but her back slams against the wall a few seconds later and she grunts, a little pained. That might have been enough to break through the addled haze, except she yanks his head down, bites his lip with a savage little snarl, and he is just gone.

Things clatter and clang across the floor as he sweeps the work table beside them clear. He drops her on the table, and hauls her shirt and her sports bra over her head at the same time. The glow of the arc reactor brightens, dances over her skin, throws shadow across her breasts. The mark above her right breast, his mark, glitters in the blue light. A shock of lust and something deeper, more solid, more terrifying, jolts through him. “Jesus Christ,” he says hoarsely, reverently, and has to close his eyes because seeing her sprawled out for him is just too goddamn much.

“Even my arrogance won’t let me call myself the Messiah,” Toni murmurs, and her fingers are at his waist, tugging upwards on the hem of his shirt. He bends to let her strip it off him, hears it land somewhere off in the corner of the workshop. Her hands spread across his chest, and a muffled noise rumbles in her throat, strained and abrupt. “Fuck, James. Look at you. Jesus fucking God , I could touch you all day.”

His spine spasms when her tongue licks hot and wet across their soulmark. Lightning slaps him, hard and fast, and his tenuous self-control disintegrates as their bond slams open. He yanks her off the table, and her pants tear between his hands. She smells so good, so fucking good, just like she should smell, light vanilla shampoo and the faint tang of metal and a hint of motor oil and ozone underneath it, all wrapped up in a cloud of arousal and something he can’t define by any other name but Toni.

Somewhere in there, he loses his pants as he pins her to the wall again, bending his head to suck hungrily at her breasts and neck. Her breath judders noisily, high and soft and keening. “James,” she breathes, and her nails rake up his back as her hips roll, sliding the soaking lips of her sex along his shaft.

“Toni,” he chokes, forehead rolling against hers. He palms her ass, readjusts her position until the head of his cock is nudging her entrance. Then he snaps his hips forward, sinking all the way in with a single thrust. Wet, velvet heat engulfs him.“Oh, fucking Christ,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut and feeling sweat pop on his forehead.

Toni grunts, a sharp, surprised hhnnn, and her fingers tighten on his shoulders, clutching herself against him. “Holy fuck,” she breathes. Her thighs flex on his waist, heels in the small of his back jerking him forward, forcing him deeper. “Oh Jesus fucking Christ, you feel so good.” Her whole body shudders, tightens, arms and legs and hands and sex, until it feels like slick fingers rhythmically squeezing his cock.

Bucky’s brain misfires. He slams her against the wall and fucks into her, fast and hard and brutal. His hands are locked on her hips, hard enough that he knows they’ll bruise, knows he’s too rough, knows he’s hurting her, knows he’ll feel guilty later, when lust is sated and reality sets back in. But he can’t find a shred of care right now, because she’s crying out, babbling nonsense in Italian and English, calling his name in an utterly destroyed moan, begging harder, jesus bucky, fucking god, yes right there, harder. He growls, broken and guttural, kisses her like he’s trying to crawl inside her mouth, swallowing her noises. He’s not going to last long, the pressure’s already building in his balls, and he desperately tries to fight it back. He wants to see her come first, shake apart, slam into her while her world explodes.

He gets a hand between them, twists his wrist until it feels like it’s going to break, slides his thumb over her clit. She thrashes and howls into his mouth, moans hard and fast and stuttering through clenched teeth. He pulls back to watch her face as her orgasm takes her and breaks her apart.

He’s never seen anything more beautiful.

Her eyes open, dazed and lost and gorgeous, focus on him, jolts him from coiling need right to the edge. “I love you,” she rasps shakily. And oh fuck that’s it for him. He raggedly grinds into her, a series of pulses that jolt his whole body, kissing her desperately as everything goes staticky and bright.

“Hey guys,” comes Clint’s voice from the door beside them, “there was a lot of screaming and things slamming around and hey,” his voice cants up an octave, “wow, you guys look super involved in what you’re doing so never mind me, my bullshit can wait.”

It’s like a shot of cold water down his spine. Bucky shudders out a breath, hips jerking slowly. He pulls his head back from Toni and glares. Clint is leaning against the doorjamb, so close he could reach out and touch them if he wanted to. Bucky really doesn’t like the way he’s looking at them. Looking at Toni. “Go the fuck away,” he snarls, dark and possessive and angry.

Clint backs out of the door with his hands up, but he’s still watching them with a speculative gleam. “Just admiring your technique,” he says.

“Y’r bein’ rude, Clint.” Toni’s voice is less angry, but just as dark and possessive, hoarse and ruined and lust-drunk. Her hands roam Bucky’s shoulders, rake over his skin. “Go ‘way. M’busy.”

“If you can still talk, he’s doing it wrong,” Clint says, and it’s the smirk that snaps Bucky’s temper, still frayed and threadbare with lingering irrational jealousy.

Bucky’s fist slams into Clint’s face, knocking him back on his ass. Later, he knows he’ll be grateful that it was his real hand, not the metal one, because Toni would be furious with him if he inadvertently kills Clint, but right now, he just wants him to shut up and go the fuck away. He slams the door closed, shutting out Clint’s complaints about that’s my fucking eye, asshole! and buries his head in Toni’s neck until the urge to commit murder has passed.

“M’sorry,” Toni slurs, and kisses his ear gently as she rocks her hips in a slow and lazy rhythm, riding him until he softens and slips out of her. “Shoulda locked th’ door. Y’with me?”

“Yeah,” he murmurs, and if he feels a tiny bit of smug satisfaction that he got to punch Clint after all, well. He’s only human. “Yeah, I’m with you, sweetheart.”

“Good,” she says, and leans her head into his chest, tucking under his chin. “I’m with you too.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Toni is practically asleep on her feet after Bucky finds their clothes. Her eyes aren’t even open as she shoves her arms carelessly into her shirt and tugs her jeans back over her hips, leaving them unbuttoned. She staggers towards a couch in the corner, mumbling about bed now, but Bucky’s sat on that thing, been jabbed in the kidneys and the ass by broken springs. Hell no is she going to sleep on it after the day she’s had. Instead, he scoops her up and carries her out of the workshop and through the house, back to their room.

Toni is a clingy fucker, all hands and whines and don't leave me, buck, as he strips her again, but it's four in the afternoon. Even after all that strenuous activity, he's not the least bit tired. So he kisses her neck, untangles her octopus grip and makes sure she's comfortable and warm. It does sappy things to his heart when her hand snatches his pillow from his side of the bed, and buries her face in it with a contented purr.

God, he's so fucking gone on her. If it wasn't pretty much the best thing that'd happened to him since Stevie, he'd be disgusted with how gooey his brain feels just looking at her.

He goes to the window and fixes the blinds, even though he knows post-binge Toni can sleep through the Apocalypse once coaxed away from her toys, and a little sunlight isn’t going to bother her in the least. He's pretty sure adding “post-coital” only enhances that. “JARVIS,” he says quietly, “wouldja mind alerting me if she wakes?”

“Of course, sir.” The AI’s voice is equally soft. “I've already made that note.”

He arches an eyebrow, wondering when JARVIS had switched his address from Sgt. Barnes to “sir”, figures Toni had something to do with it. “ Hey, J, wouldja mind calling me Bucky or James or something? I mean, you don't have to be so formal with me.”

“I'm sorry, sir,” JARVIS says, “but I cannot.”

He sighs. “Can't go around Toni's orders, huh? Yeah, okay, J. I'll talk to her when she gets up.”

“I'm afraid that won't do any good, sir. Ma’am did not order me to call you ‘sir’. She prefers to let others request their own forms of familiarity from me, which I am free to grant or deny.”

Bucky's missing something here, and he frowns as he puzzles it out, but for the life of him, he can't put his finger on it. “I didn't ask you to call me ‘sir’, did I?”

“No, sir.”

“Then why’re you doing it?”

There's a pause. “For the same reason,” JARVIS says firmly, “I refer to ma’am as ‘ma’am’.”

It takes a minute, because Bucky doesn't have Toni's smarts, but he's certainly not all that slow on the uptake. His eyes widen a little as it dawns on him. “Uh, thanks then, J. I like you too.”

“Very good, sir.”

Bucky closes the bedroom door gently behind him, and as he pads back down the hall towards the kitchen -- he never did get that sandwich and now he's fucking starving -- and wonders if it’s the universe’s messed-up sense of humor to make a package deal of a nuclear-powered soulmate and an electronic stepkid to go with his cybernetic arm.

As he approaches the kitchen, he hears voices coming from it and pulls up short. Just for a second, he doesn’t know who they are, starts reaching for a knife that he no longer carries, and then squeezes his eyes shut. He’s not going to lose it now, not fucking now, get it together Barnes, that’s Natasha and Clint. You know who they are.

His shoulders go tight and bristly at the sound of Clint’s voice. “--in the fucking eye, Nat!” he complains, accompanied by a sound like rattling ice cubes in a bag. “It hurt!”

“And you want sympathy for your eye.” Nat’s voice is flat and Bucky can almost picture her, standing there with one eyebrow raised and her arms folded. “I don’t see why you should have it, honestly.”

There’s a moment of silence and then Clint says, “Because a fucking supersoldier punched me. If Toni’d punched me, you think I’d be up here getting ice and aspirin?”

“Yes,” Natasha replies immediately. “You enjoy when people fawn over you, соколик, but you fail to realize that Toni is usually the one who tucks you in and spoon-feeds you soup when you’re sick. Or maybe you do and this is just you sulking because Toni is otherwise occupied.”

“I’m not sulking,” he snaps, “I’m worried.” More ice rattles, water and chips spilling onto a metal surface, the sink. “And I’m pissed. Worried and pissed.”

“And there’s no jealousy in there whatsoever.” Nat’s voice is clearly skeptical.

“No, for fuck’s sake,” Clint says, exasperated. “Why would I be jealous of her soulmate? Jesus Christ, Natasha, you know better than anyone why that’s not even in the same room as the table, let alone on it.”

“Just checking,” Natasha murmurs.

“The time for jealousy was about thirteen years ago. That's never been who we are, and you know it.”

“I do know it. I'd still like you to explain why you're behaving like a spurned lover right now. You've never been this protective with any of her other people she's taken to her bed. Why is her soulmate so different?”

That’s a question Bucky would very much like answered himself. He eases himself back against the wall and leans there, not feeling the least bit sorry or guilty for eavesdropping, and waits for Clint’s response.

Clint sighs noisily. “It's just…hasn't she been through enough? Does the universe just really need to fuck her this much? I mean, fuck , Nat. How much shit does a person have to go through? How much more kicking is karmic fucking fate going to give her?”

“She can handle it, Clint,” Natasha says evenly.

“I know she can. She’s the strongest fucking person I know, living or dead. I know she can handle it. But see, here’s my problem: she shouldn’t have to! Christ on a fucking cracker. You don’t understand. You really don’t understand.”

“So explain it to me. No, don’t glare. I mean it. Explain it to me so I understand.”

There’s a sigh that almost sounds like a sob. “You didn’t know her when she wasn’t trying to drink herself to death before the palladium killed her,” Clint says tiredly. “You didn’t know her before Obadiah fucking Stane ripped her arc reactor out of her chest and left her for dead on the floor of her own fucking house. You didn’t know her before a bomb blew up in her face in Afghanistan, and she was tortured and beaten and fucking raped for all I know, because she never talks about it, for nearly four months!”

“No,” Natasha says softly. “No, I knew her after all of that. You two don’t talk a lot about the time that came before I started living here.”

“Fuck. She used to trust people, you know? I mean, Howard was a real piece of work, but he more or less ignored her until he wanted us to dance the high society shuffle and squeeze out a couple of heirs for the Stark legacy, and when that didn’t happen on command, he never bothered with her again. Not until he dumped every fucking scrap of Stark-branded bullshit he could in her lap, anyway. She hadn’t been prepared to inherit. She thought it was all going to her asshole cousin, Morgan. She had her own shit going, Star Solutions. She did it with her mother’s money, all by herself. In the middle of her expansion plans, boom, hey, look at that. Now she’s got Stark Industries too. Any sane person would have taken a fucking vacation to Aruba, but not Toni fucking Stark. Nope, she promotes Pepper to Star’s CEO, rebrands it under the Stark name, and takes over as CEO of the Industries side of things. I barely saw her for six months, because she was reorganizing the entire fucking business to get out of weapons and into telecom. Six months. I think we had four dinners together, two of them at her goddamn office. Three dates. Every single one, she was falling asleep in her soup, or couldn’t follow a conversation because she was on overload. Half her fucking closet ended up next to her desk at SI, because she was pulling eighteen, twenty hour days to get shit done in record time. But she was still happy . She still trusted people.”

The sink goes on, a glass fills, and Clint drinks it all in a single pull. Natasha is silent, and so is Bucky, mostly because he wouldn’t know what to say even if they both walked out and saw him standing there right this second. Jesus Christ.

“And then Obadiah fucking Stane broke her to pieces. SHIELD had already snatched me up. Apparently, being the soulmate of a really fucking rich businesswoman while also having the exact skills a covert organization needs for assassins is a thing they jumped at. I wasn’t even fucking home when she got taken, you know. I was in Beirut on some bullshit assignment. I heard about it two weeks after it happened. Cos fuck a soulmate needing to know their other half is missing. Why would I fucking need to know?”

You’re not her soulmate , Bucky thinks, but without any real anger. What he’s hearing is really goddamn enlightening. In some ways, maybe Clint has a better claim to the title than he does.

“So four months later, she comes back with a fucking car battery in her chest, new and hilarious scars, all kinds of mental trauma, and the first thing she does is build Iron Maiden two point oh and start waging war on terrorist camps, because the weapons and missiles that were supposed to be, you know, not being designed and manufactured anymore, were in the hands of the Ten Rings.”

“I read the SHIELD file,” Natasha says. “A lot of deep cover ops got blown. Director Stoner must have been upset.”

“Yeah, well fuck him anyway,” Clint snarls, deep and vicious. “He was a douchebag. He’s the one who decided I didn’t need to know about Toni up and vanishing. I’m glad he’s fucking dead. We were legally registered, Nat. There are fucking laws against that kind of shit when a soulbond is involved.”

“You were legally registered? You weren’t actually bonded, though. How’d you manage to pull that one off?”

“A really good lawyer and layers on layers of cover-your-ass paperwork. There’s precedent for public soulmates, especially if one partner is a high-profile celebrity.” There’s an odd sound, which Bucky places a few moments later as the sound of Clint scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Christ. So there’s all that shit, and Stane swore up and down that he’d find out who’d been dealing Stark weapons under the table. Turns out it was him. I mean, neither of us liked him. He was an asshole beyond the capabilities of just about anyone. An asshole and a goddamn bully.  He sold Toni out to the Ten Rings to get his fat fucking hands on the company. You know how Toni found out?”

“No.”

“When he came to the Malibu house, he gave her a file he said had the information she wanted and then took advantage of that to try and kill her again . Used something to lock her muscles, some early-model prototype Stark Solutions had been working on to try and help epileptics of all fucking people, something that was supposed to stop seizures, for chrissake. Stole the fucking arc reactor out of her fucking chest. That’s why she doesn’t like it when people hand her things. That’s when she lost the ability to trust people. I mean, kidnapped by terrorists, operated on without anaesthesia in a fucking germ-infested cave , open fucking heart surgery by someone without light or, you know, sterile tools, shit rations, no medicine, daily waterboarding… And she still trusted people. And then Stane took that all away.”

Bucky’s hand is squeezing his leg so hard he’s going to have bruises, and his jaw hurts from clenching it tight. The Asset is whispering around the edges of his mind. This Stane asshole better be dead and burned, or Bucky’s going to track him down and make the last few hours of his life interesting.

“You know the rest. She’s carried too much crap for far too long, and then she jumped right into helping you because darling, I love the shit out of you, but you were a fucking mess and I wasn’t much better. And Toni just…”

“Toni did what Toni does, which is take very good care of her friends without taking care of herself. I know. I remember.”

“She had no driving reason to just jump in, steady you, keep me from going off my fucking nut. She just did it, because she loves me. Because I needed it. Because she has my fucking back. And now, she’d do the same for you. Cos she loves you. That goddamn arrogant, crazy woman has a heart of fucking gold, but nobody gets to see it because if they did, they’d try to rip it out of her fucking ribcage.”

“She’s the best of us,” Natasha murmurs.

“Yeah. So why can’t she have just one fucking thing, just one, that’s easy ? Why can’t she have a soulmate who’s not a former Hydra killbot, who she didn’t have to pry out of the fucking ass end of Siberia with her fucking fingernails , only to have to rebuild him from the ground fucking up when she gets him home? Why can’t she have like, a cellist or a writer or a guy who’ll sit at home and look after the cats while she’s out conquering the known fucking world? Why does everything have to be blood, sweat and tears for her? Why can’t she just have ...something easy?”

“I thought you liked Bucky.”

“I do, goddammit. He’s the kinda guy I want to sit on the couch with and drink beer while you and Toni break some fucking heads with your thighs of death. She’s happy again, in a way she hasn’t been in too fucking long. In a way I thought she’d never have again. She deserves that. And he’s just fucking stupid for her too. He’s got that stoic Russian I’ll-kill-you-with-my-eyes shit going on, but I can tell.” There’s another pause. “He’ll kill for her, without hesitation. So will I. So will you. I just don’t understand why, with three fucking trigger-happy assassins around her, the world can just reach right past us and knock her on her ass. I can’t wrap my brain around it. We’re supposed to have her back, like she has ours, but how the fuck are you supposed to fight something that you can’t even see coming?”

“I know. But we still try.”

“Damn straight. I’m going to go out to the range, kill some targets. I just gotta…”

“I understand. You’ve been holding all that for awhile. Go on, соколик. I’ll be in our room when you’re done.”

The door in the kitchen opens and then closes again, and everything is silent. Bucky leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes. Just for a second, he contemplates rushing right back to his room, make sure Toni’s still where he left her, still asleep, still safe. He knows it’s irrational, because JARVIS would have said something if she was awake, or injured, or under attack.

“I know you’re there, Bucky. You can come out now.”

He lifts his head as Natasha calls out, a little surprised. He’s light on his feet. Most people don’t even know he’s on them until it’s far too late. Natasha’s good though, very good. He lifts away from the wall and pads around the corner, sees her at the counter with a cup of tea in her hand, paper tag still dangling from the mug. She’s eyeing him in contemplation, but doesn’t say anything. “How’d you know I was there?”

She smiles, very faintly, and moves past him. “Because I know everything.”

“Oh yeah?” He turns with her as she goes by. “Then why’d you have to ask Clint so many questions?”

She stops, looks over her shoulder, and shrugs. “Now you know everything too.”

He stares for a long time after her, wondering exactly how fucked the world would be if she was ever inclined to conquer it. Decides he doesn’t want to know, because some things are best left unexplored. He turns to the fridge and starts making himself that sandwich, hands moving mechanically in the assembly of meat and bread and cheese and veggies, thinking and thinking and thinking.

oOoOoOo

April 21, 2012

For someone who got her family’s company out of weapons design as soon as she took it over, Toni’s got an awful lot of guns. Pistols and rifles of every stripe, every size, right from six-shooters all the way up to futuristic-looking weapons made of plastic and branded with the Stark Industries logo. And not just guns, either. Combat knives and throwing knives and darts. A miniature tower of ammo tins.

“I think I’m in love,” Bucky says reverently, and looks at the spread laid out on the bench in front of him. “Toni, Jesus. I’m leaving you. I just found the love of my life.” He slides his hand around the stock of what looks to be a Dragunov rifle, if the Dragunov had a sleek, sexy little sister that was ounces lighter, better balanced and shot lasers instead of bullets.

Toni glances back over her shoulder at him, rolls her eyes, disappears head and shoulders into the weapons locker again. “Goddammit,” she grumbles. “I lose more boyfriends to my personal arsenal. I’ve gotta stop whipping it out so readily, learn to preserve the mystery.”

“What can I say, it’s not me, it’s you. Also, it’s your guns.” He sets the Dragunov carefully back down, picks up the Sig Sauer sitting next to it, sits cross-legged on the floor in front of the bench, and starts field-stripping it.

“Look at you,” Toni says fondly, “like a goddamn cat with a ball of yarn. Hey, you think you could roll on your back and I’ll hold one of the rifles out by its strap and you can bat at it? I want a picture of that on social media, hashtag superkid.”

“I have no fuckin’ clue what any of that last bits are supposed to mean,” he says, and the steady slide and click of the gun coming expertly apart in his hands is soothing. “But if I can have a rocket launcher, you got a deal.”

He feels her drop a kiss onto the top of his head, distractedly leans in her general direction. She sets down a case beside him, flips the catches, opens it so he can see the maintenance equipment inside. “I knew I forgot something,” she says, clucking her tongue. “Shoulder-mounted heavy artillery. Ah well. Guess you’re just going to have to keep tolerating me until I can make you one. You gonna be occupied for awhile?”

He considers, looks down the bench with its many, many toys, knows he’s not going anywhere until he’s taken them all apart, cleaned them to his satisfaction, probably test-fired them if he can find the range. “Yeah. Why?”

She blows out a breath, scratches her hands through her hair. “Cos I have to go into the office today,” she says. “And Clint and Tash aren’t here either. I mean, I can push it off again if you’re not comfortable being alone in the house, but sooner or later, I’m going to have to go in and, you know, be a boss. There’s a building that I need to do the final sign-offs on, designs to approve, people to fire, coffee to drink. Lots of coffee, since there’s going to be meetings with the board and SHIELD wants a meeting to discuss their contracts and even though I’m not CEO of Stark Solutions, they won’t deal with Pepper for some weird fucking reason and-- hey!

He reaches up, yanks her down into his lap, cuts off her babbling with a lazy kiss, kisses her til the tension in her shoulders and throbbing through their soulmark goes soft and pliant.

“Go be a boss,” he says, ruthlessly smothering the unease that still curls through him at the reminder of how thoroughly she’s been disrupting her life. “I’m gonna be too busy to entertain you. You may as well find somethin’ to do.”

Her eyes are bright, dazed and happy. “I also thought I’d file the paperwork today,” she says softly, “if that’s okay with you.”

“Paperwork? For what?”

Her response is to slide her hand over his shirt, rest over their blended soulmark on his chest.

“Oh,” he says, blinking. “That paperwork. Uh…I thought you needed an identity for that. I kinda... don’t think the Department of Soulmate Registration’s gonna take my social, since I got it in the forties.”

“Aw, shit. I knew there was something I was forgetting to give you.” She wiggles out of his lap, goes over to the table where she left her briefcase and thumbs the biometric lock. She comes back and plops back down in his lap and breaks the seal on the manilla envelope with her thumb. “I kinda took care of all that too,” she mumbles. “It’s been done for weeks, just… there wasn’t a good moment to give it to you.”

She tips the envelope over the floor beside them. Documents and plastic rectangles and smaller envelopes spill onto the floor, accompanied by the more solid thump of a worn leather wallet and the jingle of metal keys. His own face stares up at him under the glossy shine on a New York state driver’s license, half hiding the top formal script of a Record of Birth. A new StarkPhone, this one with a red and silver star on the back of the sleek, black case.

“I kept as much as I could true,” Toni’s saying, but he can barely hear her past the ringing in his ears. “You still have your full name, your birthday, which, shit, we missed because reasons, fucking Hydra, honestly, but I had to push the year forward. You have a new social, and excellent credit. Your job history is mostly Stark Industries, but I kept the first couple of years of your service intact, just made them overseas. After that, SI’s security division. It’s what was easiest, since I own the damn place. Your taxes have been retro-filed. School records too, extrapolated from what I could find from the 40s. For all intents and purposes, James Buchanan Barnes is a real, legal, modern person.”

He separates everything slowly, pushing aside bank account statements with cards attached via paper clip for four separate banks, one of which isn’t even in the United States. Three separate credit cards, all of them sleek and black and bearing the name J. Barnes in smooth, raised letters. A US passport. Pages of print-outs that look like tax records and job histories. A clear, press-zip envelope with JOINT ACCOUNTS written in black marker in Toni’s messy scrawl, with more envelopes and cards and information inside.

“If it’s too fast, it’s too fast,” she says, all in a rush. “I just thought, well… you’re doing a lot better now, and with everything that’s happened in the last few days. We can take more time, go over things, make adjustments. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to make you into someone you’re not or someone you’re not comfortable having as your past, or--”

He cuts her off with another kiss, this one a little harder, a little more possessive. It’s the only way he knows to express everything this is making him feel, because he's too overwhelmed to find the right words. “You talk too much,” he says. “File the paperwork.”

She beams, blue eyes bright and soft and glittering. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He kisses her again. “And when you get home, you can make up for having missed my birthday.”

“Anything,” she says. “What do you want? A plane? Trip to Disneyland? Dinner and sex? Private island? Tell me what you want, and it's done.”

The scary thing is, she means anything, and Bucky knows that. He could say he wants a trip to the fucking moon, and Toni would build him a rocket ship. But what he wants is much simpler. She's already doing it. “Finish my arm,” he says firmly, and palms her cheek. “Sick of carrying this Hydra shit. Much rather carry yours. Have you with me always.”

The way Toni’s looking at him, soft and vulnerable and teary, shit, he’d do anything to keep that look on her face forever. It’s the most powerful feeling in the world, and the most terrifying. Nobody should have that much power over another person, but she’s given it to him, and she’s never going to want to take it back. Bucky’s pretty sure he’s never going to be worth a tenth of what she is, but he can try to be. And he’s going to fucking try.

“You got it, honey,” she says. “Anything you want. Anything at all.”

oOoOoOo

April 24, 2012

Toni is getting ready to leave for the office again, fourth day in a row, but is dragging her ass like she usually does. She’s just hit the half hour mark in her endless, epithet-laden bitch-session about SHIELD and their incessant need to make sure every single line of every single page of every single contract is read over and understood. Bucky doesn’t understand half of what she’s complaining about, and honestly never wants to know, because even just listening to her rant makes his eyes glass over and his brain shut down. But he knows now that she doesn’t need him to understand, she just needs him to listen and make sympathetic noises at the appropriate places.

He stirs two cups of coffee as she bangs around in the fridge, looking for her fucking honeycrisp apples, I swear to fucking God if Clint ate them again I will end him in his fucking sleep . He carries them both over to the counter silently, as she slams the fridge door closed and turns around with murder in her eye.

“That fucking man is going to die,” she hisses. “Those are my fucking apples. I labeled them with TONI’S SO FUCK OFF CLINT and everything. Christ, why do I keep him around?”

“Because he’ll just crawl into the vents and nest in there if you try to kick him out,” Bucky says, and starts to put her cup of coffee on the counter beside her.

“I’m fucking rich. I can hire an exterminator that can take out an assassin,” she snaps, and glances over to him. “Ooh, is that mine? Jesus, you’re too good to me. Thank you, honey.” And she reaches out, intercepts his arm in mid-extension…

And takes the cup from his hand.

Bucky freezes, heart hammering in his chest. For a moment, it feels like a panic attack rising, but it’s not like that at all. It’s… Jesus, it’s deep and it’s wondered and it’s awesome .

“I’m going to try and cut out early today,” she says, gulping coffee and seeming to not even notice the amazing, wonderful thing she just did. “See if I can’t get home in time to have dinner with you, at least. Celebrate.”

“Yeah, okay,” he says, still stunned. “Wait, celebrate what?”

She grins. “Well, not only did I finish your arm early this morning,” she says, “it’s also the third day post-registration, so it’s pretty much official, honey.” Her eyes are dancing above her coffee cup. “Courier should be picking up the DSMR cards for you and me today, dropping them off this afternoon to the office. Our bond is officially recognized in the eyes of the law.”

“Oh.” He knows that’s huge, that it’s important, that it’s huge and vital and something that he should be happy about, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s fucking nothing next to the fact that she just took a cup of coffee out of his hand without waiting for it to be placed next to her.

“... Having second thoughts?”

He starts, blinks. She’s not smiling anymore, and there’s the faint hum of worry in his chest. “What? No, no. You an’ me, we’re in this together. I’m with you.” He snags her around the waist, nuzzles into her neck until she’s purring happily again. “Out for dinner, or y’wanna stay in and I’ll cook for you?”

“Whatever you want,” Toni says, then flicks her nose across his and pulls reluctantly away. “I’m sorry, honey. I gotta go. Meeting Agent Carter this morning, and if I’m late, she’ll snark off at me. And if she does that, well, I’m not going to be responsible for her medical bills or her dental work.” She tosses back the rest of her coffee, sets the cup by the sink, leans in and gives him a fleeting kiss. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” he says, and stays there, staring at the cup until long after he’s heard the sound of her car engine fade into the distance.

------

Bucky’s down in the gym, sinking punches into the heavy bag and burning off nervous energy while he waits for Toni to come home with their registry cards, when everything goes to shit.

The bag rocks and creaks as he hits it a final time, then picks up a towel to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. He snags a bottle of water from the shelf beside the door to the locker room, drains half the bottle in one gulp. If he’s figured out his schedule correctly, he should have just enough time to shower and change into clothes that make him look like a real person instead of a bridge-dwelling hobo, and be ready for when Toni walks through the door. He’s got reservations for six at Toni’s favorite restaurant, tickets waiting at the door for the nine o’clock show of that snarky Jewish comic she likes, the one she always tunes into that Daily Show program to watch.

He’s just glad JARVIS’d been more than happy to help him make arrangements, because Bucky would otherwise still be helplessly scrolling through date idea websites, trying to figure out what to do.

“JARVIS,” he says, swigging the rest of the bottle back. “Time’s it?”

There’s no response.

Bucky frowns, and unease begins to crawl up his spine. “J, you with me?”

Silence.

The hair on the back of his neck rises. Something is not fucking right. JARVIS is never unresponsive, not even in the middle of the night when no one else is awake but him. His system floods with adrenaline, senses sharpening until colors are neon bright, until he can hear the traffic out on the street as clear as if he was standing on the sidewalk. Muscles coil, feet shift. He doesn’t fight the Asset as it swims to the surface, because something is not fucking right.

He hears the scrape of a shoe, very soft and undetectable to anyone not pumped full of supersoldier serum, and whirls and ducks under the arm of a black-clad figure holding a box with two prongs. Instinct takes over. He grabs the intruder’s wrist, yanks them forward, drives his knee into their solar plexus. There’s a grunt of surprised pain, something cracks, and the intruder collapses into a heap.

Turns to catch the precision swing of another black-clad intruder, trying to clothesline him. Kicks out at a third while he still has a hand around the wrist of the second, drives the third across the room to crash into the dumbbells. Spins tightly on his heel, whipcracking the second intruder into the heavy bag, spin-kicks them so hard when they stagger back that they flip in the air before piling onto the floor.

There isn’t an immediate fourth attacker.

Keeping his breathing quiet and steady, Bucky swiftly crosses to where he left his phone and swipes it unlocked. He types out a rapid text to Toni, tries to send it, can’t get a connection. Swears softly, tries to call. No signal.

Fuck.

He can hear other small noises in the house, now. Muffled curses and the swish of fabric and the tread of footsteps. Panic gnaws at him for a long moment, and he feels the urge to run and hide in a dark corner. But only for a long moment, because something else is surging, rising, blazing through his head, washing panic away in a bright white nuclear fire.

This is my home, and there are people who don’t belong here in it.

This… this will not be tolerated.

Bucky Barnes slides into the recesses of his mind, and the Winter Soldier comes forward.

------

There’s a trail of bodies behind him, and he’s not sure how many are still breathing and how many are corpses. They know now that he is aware of their presence, and they’ve abandoned all pretense of stealth in order to swarm him from all directions.

He has knives now, wickedly curved kukris from one of Natasha’s many hidden caches. They’re not fighting to kill, he realizes quickly, the first time he is tagged by a shot from one of their guns and has to pull a trank dart out of his body. It dug into a scratch in his metal arm, a lucky shot that means he doesn’t have to shake off wooziness as his system tries to process sedatives. But that’s their disadvantage. They don’t want to kill him. They want him alive.

The Winter Soldier has no such compunctions, and fights to kill.

Blood and bodies continue to fall in his wake. Holes appear in walls, sometimes with a body still hanging out of them. Picture frames fall from walls, vases pitch off pedestals and stands. Toni is going to be pissed when she gets home, he thinks distantly.

His enemies smarten up, come at him in numbers, six, eight, ten at a time. Knives slice his skin, electricity jitters through his nerves, the prick of two separate darts hit his shoulderblades. Blood sprays across his face, hot and fast and wet, his blades a silver whirl around him.

He loses a blade to a particularly well-placed snap-kick from the next group of enemies. More darts hit him. He shakes his head hard, trying to clear the sluggishness of his movements. He’s too slow to avoid the impact of brass knuckles to his face, feels his head crack back, feels something jab him in the spine and send electricity jolting all across his body.

He loses time, loses thought, loses himself.

Comes back to find a gun in each bloody hand, something pink and puffy and speckled with shards of bone clinging to the fingers of his metal hand. Hair swings into his face, slick and dripping with blood.

Another wave, twelve this time. The gun in his right hand clicks empty after three shots. The gun in his left spits out six before the slide locks. They become projectiles, one crunching into a masked face, another embedding itself halfway through another’s head. The last enemy standing goes down fighting, ends up halfway through the wall between the hallway and Clint and Natasha’s bedroom.

He improvises, breaking chairs over backs and shoving heads through walls. Gets knives from the kitchen, starts cutting into throats and eyes and guts again. Wonders how many fucking people are left to kill.

Something flies out of the left, blinking blue and he reaches up to bat it away. It hits the palm of his metal hand, and there’s a pulse of pressure through him. His arm suddenly goes dead.

He lurches to the side as the arm drops like a rock, off-balance and reeling. Another enemy steps into view, carrying something that looks like a rocket launcher but shoots out a bundle of wires and ropes and dancing sparks that hit him and wrap around him, tangling his arms and legs before washing his awareness away in sheets of snapping white pain.

Toni’s going to be so pissed, is his last thought before he goes under.

--------

Comes back to himself an indeterminate amount of time later, trussed up with heavy cuffs and rope, in the back of a van that’s moving at highway speeds. There’s a bald man wearing a neat, three-piece suit and glasses sitting on a bench near the front, behind the two bucket seats. Two more of those black-clad fuckers are between him and Baldy, holding white poles.

He tries to sit up, but the two do something with the poles, and shove him back down. Belatedly, he realizes they’re control nooses, and the nooses are around his throat. His thoughts are slow and hazy, sluggish. He’s been drugged enough that he’s not going to be able to fight his way free any time soon.

Plus, his arm is still dead. So there’s that.

Head pounding, cotton dryness in the back of his throat, pain making itself known all across his body, he settles back down. Settles for a weakly snarled, “Who the fuck are you?”

Baldy watches him with a small smile, hooded eyes. “My name is Jasper Sitwell,” he says. “And since your next question will no doubt be something equally vulgar asking where you are or why we captured you, let me cut out all the terribly dull questions and tell you now: you have been apprehended by a SHIELD special operations team, and are on the way to one of our black sites, where you will be held until a list of your very extensive crimes can be compiled.”

Bucky’s head throbs again. That voice sounds familiar, the cadence and smug fucking way of speaking, but he can’t place it. “I’m an American citizen,” he says. “I have rights.”

“Mass-murdering Russian operatives have no rights,” Sitwell replies calmly. “They have cold, lonely cells where they die, unlamented, after years of imprisonment.”

“I have rights,” he says again, because he can’t think of anything else to say. There’s a knot of something hard and scalding and furious in his chest. It promises violence and death and it’s getting stronger, getting closer. “You can’t do this, asshole.”

“It’s already done,” Sitwell says, and sits back with a triumphant smile. “Who’s going to stop me?”

Bucky pauses, can’t help it, starts to laugh. Laugh until tears are streaming down his face. Laugh until his head is screaming with pain. That ball of fury is so hot now, he feels like it might burn right through his skin.

“Is something amusing you, Barnes?” Sitwell says.

“Yeah,” he gets out between wracking guffaws. “Don’t they teach you anything in secret agent asshole school? Seriously, lesson one should be never give a superhero a perfect opening cue by asking who’s going to stop you.

Because the answer, where he’s concerned, is always going to be the sudden whining shriek of repulsors blasting the back doors off the vehicle, and a supremely pissed-off woman in red and gold power armor hauling her grim, relentless way inside.

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Stark Industries, New York City
October 24, 2004

Toni stands at the window, leaning against the wall with her arms folded, and stares out over the city. It’s cold and drizzly, and very far below, a sea of open umbrellas swims along the sidewalk. By all appearances, an utterly shitty day. But Toni doesn’t care, because this is the day that she gets to go home at a reasonable time, eat food that isn’t takeout strewn around a mountain of paperwork, actually remember she has a boyfriend that isn’t named “Pepper”.

Today is the day she gets to tell the board of directors to go fuck themselves, because she doesn’t have to whine and beg and plead with them to stop obstructing her. To look at the fucking designs, the market projections, the goddamn numbers. Today is the day that she doesn’t have to be hard and ruthless and ball-breaking to a bunch of white, rich old fucks who take her bust size, multiply it by her age, and subtract that number it from her IQ.

Today is the day that Stark Industries, quiet and dark for six months, hemorrhaging money left and right with all the retrofits and staff turnover and new hires, opens the doors on their brand spanking new domination of the telecommunications market.

She presses her fingers on either side of her nose, squeezing her sinuses gently. Christ, her head hurts. It’s the kind of mammoth migraine that laughs in the face of pain relief, will only be cured by sleep and food and more sleep. Almost there. C’mon, Stark. Almost there. “J, time check?”

“11:04am, ma’am. Your press conference begins in 56 minutes. Miss Potts has scheduled a note that she will arrive in approximately 6 minutes to begin your preparations.” A beat. “Shall I send your assistant for coffee, ma’am?”

“You’re a good kid, J. Please.” She sits in her chair, kicks her feet up on the desk and slouches back, closing her eyes. “Wake me when she gets here.” Six minutes is a perfectly reasonable timeframe in which to catch a micro-nap.

“Miss Potts is here, ma’am,” JARVIS says, jolting her from her doze. “With your clothes and your coffee.”

She doesn’t open her eyes, just stays sprawled in the chair as her door opens and the rapid clicking of Pepper’s heels cross the floor. “Pep, I’m breaking up with you,” she calls out. “These last six months together have been absolute misery, and we’re just not working out. I’m going back to Clint, who doesn’t make me sign endless amounts of paperwork.”

“I appreciate the honesty,” Pepper says, amused. “And I’m glad we’re on the same page. I’m afraid, Toni, that you’re just too high maintenance for my tastes, and trying to keep you caffeinated has given me premature grey hairs.” Toni opens her eyes as Pepper’s heels click closer. Pepper, damn her, looks like she’s fresh out of bed, alert and so put together Toni’s actually a little jealous. She’s got a garment bag over her shoulder and a toiletries case under her arm. Her free hand pushes Toni’s feet off the corner of her desk. “On your feet. We’re already behind schedule.”

“You and your goddamn schedules,” Toni grumbles, oofing when her feet hit the floor. She stands with a groan, stretches and snarls when her spine pops in several places. “Jesus, I’m getting too old for this.”

“My schedules run the world.” Pepper hangs the garment bag on a hook on the coatrack behind Toni’s desk. “And yes, you’re hideously ancient,” she agrees, and shoves the toiletries bag into Toni’s chest. “Twenty-four, tsk, one foot in the grave already. We should pick out a casket before you just up and die. Shower, that way. Move it.”

Pepper is merciless, maneuvering Toni across the office and into the private bathroom with little pushes and nudges, ignoring with frightening efficiency all of Toni’s protesting whines. “You have five minutes,” she says, shoving Toni into the bathroom and standing in the door with crossed arms. “Shower fast. Wash your hair. We don’t have time for your malingering ass-dragging today.”

“Jeez, yes mom,” Toni mutters. “You gonna watch me strip, or can I have some privacy? I mean, I literally just broke up with you, so you should totally give me my space now.”

Pepper smirks. “Toni, I hate to tell you this, but I am way out of your league. I’ll be right outside the door, and if you’re not out and clean in five minutes, I will scrub you myself and you will not enjoy it.” The click of the door as she shuts it is firm and authoritative and scarier than the sound of a shotgun shell chambering.

Toni hustles her ass out of her clothes, and showers in record time.

-------

Toni isn’t allowed to approach the podium without an earpiece in her ear, because Pepper’s just that kind of control freak. If Toni’s being honest, she’s grateful to have Pepper’s directions to guide her, because she’s been in sleep debt for so long, she’d probably just lay down on the stage and go to sleep if left to her own devices.

The presentation goes surprisingly well, mostly because she doesn’t have the brain power to deviate from the cards Pepper handed her. She talks about the exciting new direction for Stark Industries, speaks glowingly about the vision and support of the board of directors, manages that without gagging on the utterly filthy lie, talks about honoring current military contracts for offensive technology, talks about the complete end of the Stark era of arsenal assembly by 2008. Moves into talking about their new satellite program, the plans to have the next-gen StarkPhone and the new first-gen StarkPad in the hands of consumers by Christmas. Speaks about the rebrand of Star Solutions to Stark Solutions, the merging under the umbrella of the Stark name.

Toni’s pretty tired of talking by the time she finishes her speech, but the vultures have been promised a Q&A session, so she takes questions as Pepper directs her to take them. Most of them are fucking stupid, like is her soulmate going to take a more public role in the company. Who made her dress. Does she have any sex tips, since she spent a lot of time in the European tabloids with a wide variety of partners. Toni answers these mostly by rote, since she’s been asked a hundred variants a million times. But the question that she finds the most interesting and fun to answer comes just as the 30-minute question-and-answer period is winding down.

(“Tricia Nelson,” Pepper’s voice murmurs in her ear. “New York Woman Magazine. Third row, blonde hair, purple jacket.”)

Toni points where Pepper wants her to point. “Tricia.”

Tricia stands up. “What do you have to say to your critics who say that your gender played a critical role in your decision to halt Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing? To clarify…” She glances at her hand, sounds like she’s quoting, “‘Stark’s phones are cute, but she shouldn’t be sitting behind the big boy desk. She should leave the business to someone who can handle defending this country, and focus on her family… she’d be much happier.’”

Thankfully, Toni’s seen that quote a thousand times, and the only thing that twitches when she hears it now is her eyebrow, upwards. “Isn’t Trump just adorable?” she asks, leaning casually forward on her elbows, and a laugh ripples through the crowd. “To address the comment in general, Tricia, I am still defending this country. Stark Industries and Stark Solutions both contract with various arms of the US military and US government to supply a wide variety of supportive and defensive equipment. The last six months have been difficult, as we’ve made the changeover, but projections for the first quarter of next year show an estimated 10% increase in profits over my father’s best quarter as CEO, adjusted for inflation.” She grins, all teeth and attitude and kiss-my-ass. “I assume that’s good. I mean, I am but a woman, and need finances explained to me in little words.”

Tricia is smiling herself. “A follow-up, if you’ll allow?”

Toni nods, gesturing at her to continue.

“Do you have anything to say to Mr. Trump?”

(“Careful,” Pepper says in her ear.)

“I try not to dignify rich old farts with my attention, Trish, but you asked nicely, so just for you, yeah?” She makes a show of clearing her throat, until Pepper is hissing at her to get on with it. “I just have to say that it’s okay if you’re jealous that a hot, young, multiple-doctorate female CEO with, if I can be conceited here for just a moment, an amazing rack, is richer than you. But it hurts, Donnie, it really hurts that you didn’t contract Stark Solutions to help with your unfortunate follicle condition. We have hair replacement treatments that are so thorough, no one will ever know the difference. Lesson learned, folks: never settle for second best.”

“Thank you,” Tricia says, and sits back down. Toni honestly can’t wait to read that article, makes a mental note to buy a dozen copies as soon as the magazine goes to print. Doesn’t even care that Pepper’s threatening violent dismemberment in her ear, as she selects a reporter at random and takes the last question of the day

oOoOoOo

Stark Industries, New York City
April 24, 2012

In another life, Toni might like Sharon Carter. Under the bullshit SHIELD agent persona, she seems friendly and fun. In another life, Toni might even invite her out for drinks, get to know her, probably even take her to bed, because she's got that sense about her, the one Toni's practically attuned to, the one that says come play with me, you'll walk funny in the morning. In another life, they might even have grown up together, because this is Aunt Peggy's niece, and they’re roughly the same age.

In another life, maybe.

In this life, Toni has a hard time restraining herself from punching Agent Sharon Carter in the fucking teeth.

She neither wants nor needs a SHIELD liaison reporting directly to her, but even if she did, she'd want literally anyone else. Anyone else who hasn't labeled her a textbook narcissist, a compulsive personality, and a self-destructive asshole. Anyone else who hasn't infiltrated her company to spy on her, to try and control her technology on behalf of SHIELD, to keep her effectively out of whatever pop group one-hit wonder Fury had been putting together.

Anyone else who hasn't kept her tied up for four fucking days straight with contract negotiations that should have been handled by SI’s legal department. She doesn’t care how much money SHIELD is effectively dropping into her coffers. This is why she has lawyers.

“...if the terms of the budget and estimated dates by which we need the projects completed are acceptable,” Carter is saying, and hands over a sheaf of papers, “sign and initial where the tabs indicate.”

Toni stares pointedly at the outstretched document until Carter drops it on the desk. Toni picks it up, and a surge of irritation rises. There are a lot of tabs sticking out of the side, indicating many pages, all of which no doubt have this tiny, tiny text. Just for a moment, she debates just signing blindly, just to get it over with, trust that Carter’s been forthcoming in what the contract entails. Then again, she can count the number of times SHIELD’s been forthcoming on one hand, and still have five fingers left over.

She wouldn’t be surprised if their end game with this bullshit dance isn’t precisely that: bore her into complacency and impatience, so she’ll sign over her arc reactor plans or the tech specs for the Iron Maiden suits without knowing.

She leans back in her chair, holding the contract. Frustration surges again, deep suspicion right behind it. “So what’s the goal here, Carter?” she says, skimming the text on the first page. “Why are you and One Eye Winky so hellbent on making me go through every line of these things when there’s a perfectly good department full of shark-toothed lawyers three floors down doing absolutely nothing to earn their ridiculously overpriced salaries?”

Carter doesn’t start, or jump, or look guilty, or look surprised. Her face is utterly schooled. Toni snorts to herself; a schooled expression is a tell all on its own. Carter’s good, but Toni lives full-time with the reigning empress of microexpressions. Carter’s nowhere near Tash’s league. “There’s no hidden agenda here, Stark,” she says. “They’re sensitive contracts. Top-clearance, eyes-only.”

“I have three lawyers read to Level 5 clearance,” Toni points out. “That’s a level higher than my official clearance.”

Carter just shrugs. “That may be, Stark,” she says, “but they don’t own the company or design the tech. You do. As far as the relationship between SHIELD and Stark Industries goes, you are effectively Level 8.”

The legal document crumples between Toni’s fingers as her hands ball into fists. God, it would be so fucking gratifying to just reach out and slap her. She scratches at the itch on her chest, sullen and irritable, and forces herself to focus on the contract. Or tries to, anyway. Her eyes keep glazing over, skidding right past the inasmuches and the parties-of-the-first-parties and the rest of the dry, stiff, formal language.

She glances at the clock, and grinds her teeth when she realizes it's almost four o’clock. Long past the time she wanted to be wrapping up and heading home. Carter's got a whole fucking pile of folders, though, and seems prepared to keep going until midnight.

For the fourth time, she attempts to get through the first paragraph, but her brain keeps losing track of the words, can't keep them from sliding away from her comprehension.

She slaps it back down on the desk, slightly gleeful to see Carter jump at the bang, and scrubs her face. “We're not doing this,” she announces. “I am officially off the clock as of right now. Come back tomorrow, Carter. I’ll deal with the rest of your bullshit then.”

Of course, Carter has to protest. Of fucking course she does. “These are time-sensitive arrangements, Stark, and you can’t just--”

Toni slams her hands on the desk again, on her feet without being really conscious of standing. “If I hear the words ‘time-sensitive’ come out of your fucking mouth one more time, Carter, I will shove them back down your throat with a repulsor blast.”

Carter looks shocked, uncertain, then indignant. “If this is how you treat your working relationship with SHIELD, Stark,” she says coldly, “then perhaps we should revisit the nature of the relationship.”

“Go right the fuck ahead,” Toni snarls. “You think I need Fury’s floating fortress of feds to keep SI going? Newsflash, sweetheart. My life would be a lot less fucking stressful without all the secret agents I have constantly crawling into my ass. I am the top name of my fucking industries, Carter. I don’t need SHIELD, I don’t need Fury, I don’t need your goddamn business. I have clients falling all over themselves to contract for arc reactors, satellites, phones, and skinweave gel. If I never design anything else ever again, I am set to live in the most decadent lap of luxury I feel like for about a thousand years. So there’s the door, off you fuck, and enjoy trying to debug Hammertech operating systems every time you want to check the goddamn weather.”

Carter’s mouth opens and closes, her expression off-balance and uncertain. Toni laughs harshly, reckless with anger. “I’m sorry, did I go off-script? Was this not covered in the SHIELD agent’s guide to manipulating Toni Stark? Do you not have a snazzy, multi-point plan for dealing with your top consultant telling you to go fuck yourself? Can’t think of a comeback? C’mon, Carter, I don’t have all day.”

Something’s wrong. She recognizes that in a dark, dim corner of her mind. She doesn’t act like this, not this out-of-control. Her pulse is pounding in her temples, her heart is clawing at her throat, her eyes are not focusing properly, her vision is hazing over with red and silver. Something’s wrong.

“Stark, what is it?” Carter looms in front of her, is suddenly all concern and worry and human emotions. “Is it the palladium poisoning? What did you have for lunch? Did you brush up against anyone you didn’t know?”

“No. But--” Her eyes go to the padded envelope on the corner of her desk, and shivers. She hasn’t opened it, wanted to wait until she brought it home so they could open it together. The courier company she used is her usual, the highest rated security firm in the city. But life has taught her that everyone can be infiltrated, with enough time, money and determination.

“JARVIS,” she gets out, slapping away Carter’s grab for her, and reels back into her chair, banging her hip off the corner of the desk on the way down. “JARVIS, call James. I need… Something’s wrong. Get me James.”

“Right away, ma’am,” JARVIS responds.

Carter follows her gaze, whips out a pair of latex gloves, and is slicing the package open. “This is Agent Carter,” she says, after tapping at her ear. “Stark’s behaving strangely, possible biological contaminant or mood-affecting technology in a package that was delivered here this…” She stops talking mid-sentence, staring at the two cards that spill from the envelope into her hand. “Oh, fuck,” she says. “Patch me to Fury, now. … Sir, this is Carter. Abort the op at the Manor. He’s Stark’s soulmate.”

Toni’s eyes blink wide, latching onto those words. Manor. Soulmate. She’s always been good at making leaps of intuition and logic that others can’t follow. This one isn’t exactly hard to connect. SHIELD’s been keeping her busy, keeping her distracted, so they can go after James.

“Ma’am,” JARVIS cuts in. “I’ve lost connection to the Manor servers, and sir’s phone is ringing through to his voicemail.”

Her thoughts go smooth and icy. Her head stops pounding. The shivering in her hands stills.

Deliberately, she stands up.

Carter’s not looking at her, staring at the pair of DSMR cards in her gloved palm. “Sir, what do you mean, you never authorized an op? Sitwell had the paperw--” Her mouth snaps shut, and she goes sheet-white. “Yes, sir,” she says, very quietly. “Yes, si- aaak.”

Lightning-quick, Toni has her by the throat, slams her onto the desk, and bends over her until their noses are almost touching. “You tell Fury,” she says, soft and calm, “that if what I think happened has actually happened, I will turn all of my extensive resources, genius brain, and limitless fucking imagination to bringing about an Armageddon on his little organization that future generations will use as an object lesson to teach their kids why they shouldn’t touch shit that isn’t theirs.”

“Stark… Toni…” Carter chokes out. “This is… symptoms of… soulbond psychosis... You can’t…You’re not...”

“I am not psychotic, Sharon. I am unbelievably pissed off. If you think this is psychosis, you better pray to God you never see me really snap. Tell Coulson to extract Hawkeye and Black Widow from whatever ass-end of creation Fury’s got them squirreled out of the way, or I’ll come get them myself.” Toni releases Carter and steps away as Carter curls in on herself, coughing harshly. “JARVIS, get me the Mark VI. I’m going home. Now.”

“Mark VI will be at the balcony in thirty seconds, ma’am.”

Toni reaches out and plucks the two cards out of Carter’s hand, runs her fingers over them, tucks them into the inner pocket of her suit jacket. “And you can also tell Fury that I want a new liaison. The one he sent me is broken.”

------

Stark Manor

“Manor systems rebooted, ma’am,” JARVIS says from the speakers embedded in the ceiling. “Performing diagnostics now. Estimated completion of diagnostics, twelve minutes.”

Toni nods. “Just figure out how they shut you down, J. I’d really like to know the answer to that question.”

“As would I, ma’am.” Anyone else would read the AI’s tones as his usual bland, slightly-pleasant manner of speaking, but Toni knows him almost better than she knows herself. Knows he is just as thoroughly upset at she is. “The Mark VII’s fabrication process will finish at approximately the same time as the diagnostic.”

“Good, good,” she says, and turns back to the single holoscreen floating above the workbench. “I’m going to spend my time productively and finish the House Party protocol.” She sucks in a shaky breath, squeezes her eyes closed, crushes down on the utter fury and sheer murderous intentions throbbing at the base of her skull. “I’m going to spend my time productively,” she says grimly, “because if I spend it looking at all the structural damage and bloodstains and scattered weapons and the fucking corpses in my house, I will actually go psychotic.”

“Yes, ma’am,” JARVIS says. “I am receiving several error messages from the diagnostic, ma’am. Manor sensor systems are damaged in several key areas, notably the gymnasium, the den, and the kitchen.”

Her already-tight shoulders tense some more. “Sabotage? Is that how they did it?”

After a moment, JARVIS responds, “No. It is far more likely that sir inadvertently damaged the arrays by embedding hostiles in the drywall.”

“Attaboy, James,” she says. Feels the world rock under her again, grinds her fists into her eyes, tries to remember how to breathe through the clamps around her lungs. “J, am I having a panic attack?”

“Your physical symptoms do not match those I have on file from previous panic attacks, ma’am. I believe you are experiencing what is known in medical circles as murderous rage.”

Toni pulls and pushes the blue lights, bringing elements from one set of programming to another, stitching together her coding fluidly. “It’s a novel experience,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been angry, and I’ve been furious before. I flip my shit on Clint and his apple-theft eighteen times a week. I threaten to kill people a lot. I’ve wanted to kill people before, certainly. I have killed people, I know that--” You are a good woman, Ho Yinsen’s ghost whispers in the back of her mind, sounding rather like her conscience. “--but I can’t remember actually ever looking forward to killing someone. I mean, should I be concerned about that? Should I be happy that I probably get to kill someone at the end of all this?”

“It is a little worrisome, ma’am. I have located an active frequency foreign to my usual channels. It appears to be emitting from a communications device on one of the hostiles’ bodies.”

“Run a backtrace, see if you can’t figure out who else is using that channel. I mean, with my luck, it’ll lead me right to the Helicarrier.” She stops for a moment, mid-gesture, blue circles pulsing around her fingers. “Actually, that would be lucky. I’d have a hell of a lot of fun tearing through their oversized hot air balloon. Now I’m kinda hoping it leads me to the Helicarrier, so I can punch holes in the hull. Maybe that’s something else that’s worrisome. Hey, you’d stop me, right J, if I went all supervillain and started shooting holes in the Helicarrier?”

“On another day, ma’am, I would do my utmost to prevent you from doing something I know you would regret,” JARVIS replies. “Today… no, ma’am. No, I do not think I would. Agent Coulson is requesting permission to approach the manor.”

Toni doesn’t pause this time, just keeps her hands dancing through the air. “Fury’s smart,” she says. “Agent Agent’s the one I’m least likely to murder, right behind Tash and Clint. Yeah, go ahead. Let him in. And send my apologies for the state of the house. The maids apparently don’t get paid enough to scrape brain matter off the fucking wall. Progress check?”

“Mark VII, time to completion, 4 minutes. Diagnostics, time to completion, 3 minutes. Backtrace is still in progress.”

“Good kid, J. Mom’s proud.” She flicks her right hand to the right, separating the two different programs she’s been working on, scanning over both of them with a hand rubbing her chin. “Check my code for errors, would you?”

“... Ma’am?”

“I know, weird request, not my usual control-freak style to have Junior run the code, but these are probably the most lethal protocols I have ever slapped together in under ten minutes. I want to make sure they are error-fucking-free before I let them loose in your system, kiddo.”

“Very good, ma’am.”

Coulson has the courtesy, or maybe just the self-preservation instinct, to make his presence known long before he taps on the door. “Toni,” he says, and Toni will never admit it, but his calm voice is a soothing balm to her raw, screaming nerves. She may have done her level best to avoid him on occasion -- or all the time, even -- but Coulson carries himself in an utterly unflappable manner, and right now, she’s not going to deny herself the tiny bit of comfort she’s taking in that. “Can I come in?”

Toni leans back, but doesn't turn around, just keeps her eyes on the floating windows full of code. “Why not?” she replies. “Make yourself at home. Just watch where you step. My last houseguests got a bit rowdy.”

He walks to stand beside her like he hasn’t the slightest worry she’ll repulsor him through a wall, like she isn’t one more piece of bad news away from going nuclear. “I can see that. Can I help with the clean-up? Seems like the very least we can do.”

“That would be lovely, Agent,” Toni says, going over the code one more time, triple- and quadruple-checking her triple- and quadruple-checks and still finding no errors. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a good cleaning service who’ll mop up intestines and move bodies with no questions asked. J, progress?”

“Mark VII will complete in thirty seconds. The diagnostic will finish in two minutes. Backtrace has isolated a SHIELD frequency Triskelion servers classify as reserved for STRIKE operations. I am scanning the tri-state area via Starkcom satellites for other active devices using that frequency. Both the Red Queen and the House Party protocols are error free. How would you like me to proceed?”

“Give me a minute on that, J.” Finally, she takes her eyes off the floating screens, looks over to Coulson. “Did you have something to say to me, Agent, or are you just here to check up on my mental state? Actually, how the hell did you get here? I thought you were in New Mexico.”

“New assignment, got stationed back here a few months ago,” Coulson says. “I just haven’t had a chance to drop by and say hello.”

Toni’s mouth curves up on one side, because she can’t help it. “Plus, Clint and Tash keep you up to date on how I’m doing like the nosy little busybodies that they are.”

Coulson’s return smile is amicable. “You don’t need to play those games, Toni. They’re far more loyal to you than they are to me. I’m just the guy who tells them where to go and what to do. You’re their family.” He pauses. “Carter passed on your message,” he says. “Hawkeye and Black Widow are on mission in Bolivia, but I am working on getting them extracted and brought home. I give you my word on that.”

Something within Toni relaxes, unknots. Coulson’s just as cagey as the rest of them, but Toni knows enough about him to know that, when he gives his word, he keeps it. “Pleasantries aside. What’s Fury so hot to say that he sends in one of his best people to confront a potentially-psychotic mad scientist with power armor and a rapidly dwindling moral compass?”

“Fury didn’t send me,” Coulson says. “I volunteered to come. Yes, there is a message he would like me to give you, but mostly, I thought you could use a friend.”

“Are we friends, Phil?” Her voice is a little hoarse and raw. “I mean, I’d like to think we are, but I’m having a little bit of trouble right now trusting anyone who draws a paycheck signed by Squinty the Spy.”

“That’s understandable under the circumstances. Fury wants me to tell you that this was not an authorized mission, either on the books or off the books, but that conversation can wait until things aren’t so stressful.” Coulson carefully holds out a hand, rests it on Toni’s shoulder when she doesn’t jerk away. “Until then, how can I help?”

Toni opens her mouth to say… she doesn’t know what she’s going to say, and then a chime from the window where JARVIS had been running the trace interrupts her. “J? What’s up?”

“There is one active cluster of comm signals that match the hostile frequency, ma’am, moving northeast out of the city, towards Connecticut.”

“Show me.”

A map flares to life, state-level with highways and the city’s borders highlighted. Moving more or less parallel to the coast of the Long Island Sound blinks a red dot. “Any idea where they’re going?”

“Negative, ma’am. I am still decrypting various layers of classified material.”

Unexpectedly, Coulson’s arm comes up, finger poking a spot along the coastline a few inches ahead of where the blinking dot is. “There’s a black site there,” he says. “SHIELD acquired it from the army after General Ross’s supersoldier program was mothballed. It’s rated for Hulk containment. That’s the most likely spot.” Toni stares at him. He just smiles faintly back at her. “You’d find it eventually,” he says. “This just saves everyone some time.”

Toni keeps staring at him, can’t process the sheer volume of thoughts storming through her head. “You know what, Phil. You’re a good man. J, add Agent Coulson to the list of protected persons if a Red Queen situation should ever arise.”

“Done, ma’am. Shall I integrate the protocols into my programming?”

Toni wants to say yes, but hesitates. JARVIS is his own man, this should be his decision. “What do you think, J? Do you want to integrate them?”

A significant pause. “I think it would be for the best interests of everyone’s safety if I did,” he finally says.

“Then yeah. Yeah, go ahead. Progress check?”

“Protocol registries are being updated. The Mark VII has run through the paint cycle, and will be dry in one minute. Diagnostics are complete, and the most likely point of compromise is a backdoor code last utilized by Director Fury in the Malibu servers.” Toni bristles, remembers when that happened, when he snuck into her home without alerting a goddamn soul. She’d never been able to find how he’d done it. “It triggered a system-wide lockdown and blocked all incoming or outgoing wireless signals. I have integrated more robust security measures, ma’am. An incursion of this type should not happen again. Mark VII has finished drying and is ready for deployment. My registries are updated with the new House Party and Red Queen protocols. May I suggest you put your bracelets on, ma’am?”

Coulson’s eyebrow is raised. “I get the feeling I might not want to know what just happened.”

Toni opens the slim drawer of the workbench where she stores her more delicate tools, pulls the silver half-loops out, slips them on. “Don’t worry, Phil,” she says, and holds her arms out wide as the Mark VII spins in from the fabrication room. “I’ve only given JARVIS the ability to take control of my inactive suits and go completely homicidal in the event of another extreme breach of security. What could possibly go wrong there?”

“Oh.” Toni’s impressed that not even that can make Coulson do more than blink. “Well then.”

“If you still want to help out, Agent,” she says, as the Mark VII locks on and starts unfolding, sliding, expanding around her, “do me a favor and make sure no one else steals more of my shit.” The helmet shifts, slides, forms around her face, and then the faceplate snaps down into place, HUD flaring to life. Repulsors spin up, the chestplate locks over her arc reactor, shatterproof glass sliding protectively over it. “Mama’s gonna go express some rage.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Stark Industries, New York
January 22, 2005

“For the last time, Obadiah,” Toni says, without looking up from the sheaf of design specs and technical portfolios Pepper has sent her. “SI is not pursuing, entertaining or accepting any new contracts for weapons from anyone. I don’t care if Captain America himself walked through the door in all his red, white and blue glory, announced the Red Skull was rampaging through Manhattan, and only a Stark missile could put him down. That’s not our business anymore.”

Obadiah Stane has not taken Toni’s ascension to power with any sort of grace or aplomb, especially when he finally got a good eyeful of just how smart and ruthless and stubborn she really was. “Weapons built your fortune, Toni,” he says, leaning forward on her desk by the tips of his fingers. She wonders if he thinks looming intimidatingly over her will work this time, when it’s failed the fifty times before. “You’re pissing away a solid partnership that’s endured for over sixty years. The Stark name was founded on its relationship with the US military, and the men and women in uniform depend on SI technology to keep them alive.”

At least he hasn’t brought up her father yet. Maybe he’s finally learned that Toni does not go all teary and soft when Howard Stark is mentioned. “There are other names in the weapons industry, Obadiah,” she says, flicking a hand at the screen. It scrolls over to a very technically-written request for a lab upgrade, and she squints at it, trying to decipher Mbenga’s cramped, tiny script. “And Stark Industries will still have an excellent relationship with the military. We have no intentions of risking the lives of soldiers, which is why we provide them with tactical armor, medicines and combat-injury care. I am far more interested in providing security and patching soldiers up than I am blowing their faces off, Stane. And I’m a little tired of having this conversation.”

“If your father were alive,” he growls, leaning forward a little more with tight shoulders and a dark scowl.

Toni cuts him off before he can work up the usual castigating speech. “Well, he’s not,” she says. “And he left everything to me. I know it’s a little hard for you to accept, but the name on the door is Antonia Stark, CEO. I have business cards and letterheads and a personal secretary who answers the phone with ‘Ms. Stark’s office’. So I will run this company in the manner I believe is most appropriate. My father believed in a carrot and a stick. I believe in a compassionate heart. No more weapons. End of discussion.”

Obadiah pushes back from her desk, straightens his tie, smooths out his jacket. “There will come a day when you might come to regret the decisions you’ve made,” he says, and Toni glances sharply at him. There’s nothing in his tone, no promise of violence in his eyes, no smirk, nothing to indicate he’s issuing a threat. Toni resists the urge to roll her eyes. Just more of his useless posturing. “What will you do when the enemy is invading your home?”

“Shoot them in the face,” she says, turning her attention back to her paperwork. “I may not want to mass-produce weapons for the world at large, Obadiah, but I still own a lot of guns.”

“You will regret this,” he says again. Again she looks, again sees no threat cue.

“I doubt it. If you wouldn’t mind, please see yourself out. I’ve a lot of work to get through today.”

--------

Berlin, Germany
July 6, 2005

The hospital is noisy, crowded and smells like hospitals are wont to do. It’s a sting of antiseptic through the nostrils, an underscore of illness, the lingering chill of death. Toni really doesn’t want to be here, but Toni’s hand is throbbing, and she desperately wants some Vicodin. They only give Vicodin out at hospitals, alas.

The doctor pokes and prods her fingers, and she swears at him violently. He asks her how her injury happened, she retorts that she broke it on some asshole’s face. The doctor is unimpressed with her, sends her for x-rays, more walking -- pantyhose feet slipping on the floors, because the heel of her right stiletto broke off in goon number three’s shoulder and she refuses to walk lopsided -- more waiting, more swearing at medical professionals as they maneuver her this way and that to take images.

The worst part is that, no matter where she goes, she has Rhodey and Clint looming over her, one at either shoulder, making sure no one comes close enough to look at her funny, let alone try and grab her again.

Later, her hand is in a cast -- fractured wrist, three broken fingers, dislocated thumb, yay -- and she has a prescription for serious painkillers, cos fucking ow, and she’s letting Clint help her out of her dress back in their hotel room, roll off her absolutely destroyed stockings and wash her makeup off. Rhodey’s in the other room of the suite, getting his weapons out, making apologies to the host of the charity auction over the phone. Toni can’t talk Rhodey out of sitting vigil all night. She gives up trying, because the Vicodin reduces her need to care about anything.

She’s comfortable in bed in one of Clint’s t-shirts and clean panties, pillows a virtual cloud of comfort behind her back, wrist propped on another pillow at her side, bottle of water and wonderful wonderful fucking narcotic painkillers, she says, “You’re never going to let me pee alone again, are you?”

“I’ll close my eyes, cos ew, but no. Not ever again,” Clint replies from where he’s sprawled face-down on the bed beside her.

--------------

Western Australia
December 14, 2006

“At some point,” Clint says casually, balancing easily with a knee on the windowsill and a foot on the seat, despite the drunken sway of the vehicle, “this will stop happening to us, right?”

Toni swears viciously under her breath, a steady stream of epithets in four languages -- none of them English -- and pulls the wheel hard to the right as the road takes a sharp curve. “Probably not, darling,” she says through gritted teeth. “Now would you be an absolute peach and shoot the fucking cars behind us already?”

There’s a rhythm to Clint’s marksmanship, the steady whisk of an arrow out of the quiver, the creak of the bowstring, the thwip as the arrow is loosed. “I just wanted a vacation,” he says. “A nice anniversary spent away with my girlfriend. Lie on some beaches. Enjoy the sun. Maybe try to ride a kangaroo. See that giant-ass rock that’s supposed to be the oldest thing on the planet. Surf. Wrestle a shark. You know, fun shit you do when you’re taking it easy.”

The left wheel of the Jeep hits an indent in the ground, jolting Toni painfully against the sudden lock of the seat belt. Clint just sways gracefully, his hip almost touching her temple. Toni has a very brief, very enjoyable fantasy about shoving Mr. Perfect Balance right off the side. “How many are back there?” she says. “I don’t want to take my eyes off the road to check.”

“Two cars, three in one, four in the other. I’m running low on arrows, dear.”

“Then stop missing your shots. We don’t have time to stop and whittle you up replacements right now.”

Clint makes an indignant nose. “I never miss,” he says. Thwip. “Three in each,” he says smugly. “Even odds. Now, what was I saying?”

“I don’t know,” Toni mutters, hands strangling the wheel in effigy of his neck.

“Oh, right. Yeah. So. Australia. Great place for a vacation, to celebrate an anniversary. Your schedule’s clear, I’m on leave. Weather’s all cold and wet and slushy in New York, go somewhere it’s summer. Seems perfect. I’d just like to know why, almost the second we set foot on the dirt of a continent where a frightening number of indigenous species have insanely fast ways to kill you--” He pauses, and out of the corner of her eye, Toni can see him aiming, all long, lean lines and coiled muscles, shifting fluidly with the bouncing and dipping of the Jeep. Toni’s breath catches a little, because he’s pretty goddamn beautiful when he’s at full extension. He looses, and behind them, one of the two cars starts belching smoke, its engine whining and grinding in distress. “Why is it goddamn asshole humans that we’re running from?”

“We’re just that special,” Toni says, and ducks as the windshield in front her shatters outwards, the gunshot echoing a second later. “Now, would you mind getting that last car, honeybunch, before one of us ends up with a bullet hole?”

-------

Topeka, Kansas
May 30, 2007

“I’m beginning to recognize a theme to our attempts at vacationing,” Clint says, leaning just as heavily on her as she is on him.

Toni bends nearly double, wheezing and coughing. “We either have the worst luck in the world,” she says, hacking something thick and speckled with black from her lungs.

“Or someone’s trying to kill you,” Clint finishes, then plops carelessly back on his ass, hauling her down to sit beside him with his arm around her shoulder. “This happens every goddamn time, Toni. Vacations, business trips, parties, doesn’t seem to matter. No one has this much shit luck.”

She nods, throat itching with smoke and ash. “At least they’re incompetent,” she mumbles, and lolls her head onto his shoulder, wincing as she jars the gash leaking blood into her eye. “They’re always incompetent.”

“Sooner or later, they’ll get lucky,” Clint says softly. Toni doesn’t look at him, doesn’t want to see the look in his eye. Can feel the worry and anger and fear in the arm around her shoulders.

Behind them, the quaint picturesque hunting lodge they’d rented for her birthday, cosy and romantic before it was riddled with bullet holes and broken walls and bloodstains, burns to the ground.

oOoOoOo

Long Island Sound, New York
April 24, 2012

Manhattan disappears behind her as she kicks in the afterburners and breaks the speed limit. Clouds whip past her helm, slapping liquid across the faceplate. There’s nothing but water below her, peppered with motorboats and unfurled sails, tourist cruises and private yachts. Muscle memory and long-term behaviour has her  dump height for showy speed. She skims the surface, corkscrews through the spray of a cigarette boat, sees a blur of faces and pointing fingers, the wink of the sun flashing off camera lenses and raised smartphones.

A Twitter feed blinks open, scrolling furiously with mentions and direct messages, retweeted photos of her in mid-roll, all streamlined and lethal and shiny. She snarls at JARVIS to kill the feed, kill all distractions, kill all noise, all sound. Feels her vision shift red and silver, narrow down. Heartbeat thudding in her chest, arc reactor bright and flaring. Pain and rage and fear and hate pound through the tight ball under her right collarbone, and she bares her teeth in response, anticipating death and destruction

Faster, faster, faster. Ignore the pressure in her chest, ignore that she can’t breathe, ignore spots dancing in her vision. Faster.

She snaps out of it when JARVIS wrenches control away and slams her speed down, slows to something approaching survivable for a human being. Screams at him to give her back control. Hears the unstable shrieking as it bounces off the helm. Hears herself.

Shudders a breath in. Closes her eyes. Breathes out.

Think, Toni. Calm thoughts, calm thoughts.

Back at the office, she knew something was wrong, knew she was too angry, managed to alert JARVIS, tried to reach out for help. Thought she was in control after she kept herself from choking the life out of Carter. Now, rocketing across the Long Island Sound at just under Mach 1, she still knows something’s wrong, knows she’s passed way beyond too angry, knows with the thinnest thread of restraint she has left that she’s going to do something she’s going to deeply, deeply regret when this is all over.

Soulbond psychosis, Carter had choked out.

A myth, Toni thinks. A popular plot point in terrible novels written by formulaic writers. Hollywood melodrama with little basis in reality, like guns that never run out of bullets and bad guys who drop unconscious with a single punch and vehicles that explode at the slightest bump in the road. The lazy lawyer's defense, sensationalized by that one famous athlete's televised murder trial, the one who beat his wife’s mugger to death.

Except… that’s not entirely right. Her Masters of Metaphysics more focused on physical data, measurable brain waves and observable phenomena, efforts to define the soulbond in quantifiable ways, because she’s a scientist at heart, not a philosopher. Extrapolations of quantum mechanics and multiverse theory. Hard numbers to point at, theories grounded in proven science. But her coursework, absorbed in a single semester, her masters thesis written in a frenzied week of too little sleep and too much coffee, often verged into the unquantifiable, the nigh-supernatural. Emotional syncing. Psychic links. Transfer of abilities and skills. Psychological effects that were as hard to prove as the existence of God. The rare twists, the unique cases she ultimately disregarded as outliers that only skewed data analysis.

With a sinking feeling, she knows that she’s never been in any aspect of her life anything but an outlier.

Shit.

She swallows hard, pushes through the red haze hovering over her thoughts. It’s harder than it should be. “J, define soulbond psychosis for me.”

“Soulbond psychosis is a rare condition affecting the mental, emotional and physical health of bonded partners,” JARVIS says. “Most reported instances of the condition occur when one or more partners are in extreme physical danger or emotional distress. It is most commonly suffered by those whose partners serve in active combat zones, or in dangerous occupations.”

She shuts her eyes tight for a moment. “What are the symptoms?”

A text feed pops up on the right side of her HUD, a neat bullet-point list, and she scans it as JARVIS narrates. “The most common signs are increased aggressiveness, uncharacteristic behaviour patterns, anxiety, panic attacks, impulsivity, lowered inhibitions, decreased self-awareness. Rarely, some bonded pairs and triads have also reported recklessness, lowered morality, decreased objectivity, violent impulses, disconnect from empathy, unstable moods, and compulsive thoughts.”

Her, her. They’re all her. “Shit. Leave it to me to go for broke and take them all. Oh god, I am so fucking fucked. ” She’s always known that she’s one bad day and a shitty cup of coffee away from snapping and conquering the world, tries the best to keep looking forward, keep tying herself to anchors she trusts will never let her float into chaos. She never thought it would happen like this. “Give me options, J.”

“Perhaps you should call Agent Coulson, ma’am,” JARVIS says quietly. “You exhibited calmer behaviour and more normalized biometric responses almost as soon as he entered the workshop. I believe he is your best option.”

Her head is pounding, temples throbbing, skin tight and hot and itchy. “Get him on the line,” she says thickly, and the link pops up almost instantly.

"What do you need, Toni?" Coulson asks, and just like before, his voice is soothing and calming.

"There's something else you can do for me," she says. "I'm... Carter might have been right, but I’ll cut you if you ever tell her that. I’m not stable right now. Can’t… I can’t trust myself. I need you to call it for me. I need an anchor. JARVIS will give you temporary overrides.”

“... Stark?”

“I’m fucking serious, Coulson. If I go all third person pronouns and booming maniacal laughter, stop me. I will not lower myself to Victor von fucking Doom's standards."

"If you need an anchor, I can patch you through to Hawkeye or Black Widow," he says after a pause.

She just laughs, knows there's an edge of hysteria in it. "Oh, no. No no no. That’s lighting a match to the fucking powderkeg. Clint’ll get popcorn and make suggestions on how to get more creative with bloodspray. Tash will critique my technique as I'm hauling the guts out of whatever fool gets in my way, tell me how to maximize pain and suffering. You... You're the goddamn eye of the hurricane, Coulson. Nothing breaks you."

“Toni, do you understand what you're even asking me to do? That kind of relationship, even a temporary one, requires a lot of trust.”

A frayed nerve snaps. "I need someone to handle me right now, Phil!" she yells, "Because I cannot fucking handle myself! I trust you to call it! You bring my people home to me all the fucking time! Right now? I need you to bring me home to them!

For a long moment, all she can hear is the scream of the air over her suit, the faint hum of servos and repulsors, and her own harsh panting echoing inside the helmet.

Then his voice is back, a different cadence than she's ever heard before. Commanding and authoritative. “Link me up, JARVIS. Real-time feed to the suit’s sensors. Keep that channel open at all times. And I’ll take those overrides now, Iron Maiden.”

"You got it, boss," she says, feeling the relief wash over raw nerves and violent instincts. "J, give the man what he needs."

“As you wish, ma’am.”

oOoOoOo

Bagram AFB, Afghanistan,
March 29, 2008

Toni taps at her StarkPad, wishing she had the time to get around to miniaturizing the holo screens, because as smooth and nigh-instantaneous as the apps are getting, she really hates bending over a haptic lap screen. Even with the stylus, it’s slower than she’s used to, and she has to restrain herself more. No big gestures and flinging things all over the room, spreading them out in some semblance of order that makes sense to her, if no one else. She has to flip between apps, scroll like a normal person. She knows she’s terribly spoiled by her holotechnology, but this is frustrating.

With a sigh, she gives up on the email she’s trying to compose and send before the plane lands. It’s either that, or risk delivering a deadly, if unintentional, insult to the Wakandan ambassador, and that wouldn’t bode well for her hopes of opening negotiations for purchasing some of their vibranium stores. She’s already got the Stark name working against her; Howard made no friends there back in the 40s, barging in without asking and carrying off a hunk of their property. The last thing she needs is to make everything twelve times harder by fumbling her grammar because she can’t handle the stylus properly.

She flips the cover shut and props her chin on her hand, picking up her scotch with the other hand, and stares out the porthole as the plane begins its final approach. One more meeting, one more presentation, one more schmoozefest with military brass, and she gets to go home and shut down the last weapons factory, sell the surplus components to the government for their next warmongering contractor, and get back to her real business.

Rhodey is right on her ass when she exits the plane, and she scowls at him from under the hand shielding her eyes from the sun. “Problem, Colonel Rhodes?” she snaps.

Rhodey just gives her a bland grin. “Not at all, Ms. Stark,” he says. “It’s just that Mr. Barton threatened to sink arrows into my testicles if, and I quote, ‘you don’t stick to her closer than a hemorrhoid, Jimbo’. Mr. Barton seemed quite serious in his threat, and I have to protect my future children.”

Toni levels her best glare on him, knowing even as she does so it will skid right off his perfectly pressed service blues and shiny medals. “I hate you,” she mutters, but slides her hand through his proffered elbow and slips into step with him.

“You’re only cranky because you’re in heels,” Rhodey says as he escorts her down the walkway towards the waiting cars. “Everything will be okay once you get back into sneakers.”

“That may be,” she says, side-eyeing him, “but you’re still on my shitlist.”

Rhodey just gives her another one of those bland smiles, the ones that hide his amusement so well. “Ben & Jerry’s,” he says. “Freezer of the plane. You’ll love me again once we’re wheels up and you’re spoon-deep in Chocolate Brownie Fudge.”

Toni laughs. “You’re an asshole,” she says fondly. “But yes. I’ll love you again then. Only then, and not before. Let’s go get this bullshit over with. I want to be home by this time tomorrow.”

--------

Four Months Later...

Rhodey's got her. She's half-delirious from heat-stroke and dehydration, thin and still racked with the cold she could never properly shake, not with expired meds and filthy water. Pain's a constant ache in her chest, her hands, her legs, her belly, her head. Screams and curses in half a dozen languages still ring in her ears. Her nostrils are full of smoke and fire and wet dank rock, hot metal and battery acid, and the disturbingly delicious smell of roasting human flesh. Skin burning, peeling, cracking, searing away after days in the desert sun.

Ho Yinsen, chest a bloody ruin, stands over Rhodey's shoulder, sadly smiling, whispering live a good life, Antonia, before a frantic-eyed Clint bursts through him and Yinsen dissolves away.

Voices are calling her name, swearing viciously. Hands and fingers and bodies swirling around her. Rhodey's face looms over hers again, fright and relief and hope and worry all storming through his eyes.

Things go blurry. When they clear, Rhodey’s still there.

She reaches up with arms that feel like lead, pulls his head down. Their noses touch, and it’s only then that she realizes that she’s not hallucinating him. She might be hallucinating the steady overhead beat of helicopter rotors, may be hallucinating Clint, cradling her head in his lap and stroking her forehead. But Rhodey is real, smells like jet fuel and smooth cologne, sun and wind and the laundry soap he’s been using since college. Rhodey is real.

She works a swollen tongue in a desert-dry mouth, blinking to keep him in focus. “I want…”

Rhodey’s hands come to to cup hers on his face. “What, Toni? What is it? What do you want?”

She smiles at him with dry, cracked lips, because he’s real, because he’s there, because he came for her. "Wheels’re up,” she croaks. “I want my fucking ice cream now."

And she closes her eyes, allowing herself to drift into the grey dark while Rhodey laughs and cries above her, while Clint smooths her hair with shaking hands.

oOoOoOo

I-95, Connecticut
April 24, 2012

Toni doesn’t relinquish control easily, rails and rages against the necessity, mutinies when it’s wrested away, tests her limits even when she grudgingly submits to an authority figure. Mostly because authority figures are usually grade-A morons who she wouldn't trust to tie her shoes, let alone command her in battle. The kind of assholes who summoned her before a Congressional hearing, tried to take Iron Maiden away, let Justin Hammer of all fucking people fuck up her designs. That happy occasion, having to fight off a small army of drone suits based on her tech, had done nothing to cure her massive trust issues.

But if there’s one thing Toni cannot call Phil Coulson, it’s incompetent. If he can keep Clint from killing himself ten times over per mission, if he can win the trust of Natasha, who is arguably the most untrusting and paranoid person on the whole goddamn planet, then he has to be worth something. Toni may be disinclined to trust people as a general rule of thumb, but if Natasha believes someone is worth respect and loyalty, Toni is no one to question it.

He directs her high, up into the clouds for cover, and she follows without question. Her HUD overlays a map of the terrain below, a blinking red dot tracking the location of the SHIELD vehicle in realtime.

“STRIKE standard escort complement is twelve,” Coulson says over the comm. “You will be looking at three vans, four agents per van. They will have EMP tech available. Are you vulnerable?”

She doesn't ask why, she doesn't make a smartass comment, she doesn't dig out a snappy one-liner. All she says is, “I'm shielded. Suit is hardened against disruption.”

“Good. That simplifies things. Their other offensives won’t pose a problem to the suit. They'll turn off the interstate soon, onto a smaller highway. There should be significantly less traffic.” He doesn’t say the words less collateral damage, but Toni hears them anyway. “The black site is thirty miles from the turn-off. Give them a lead of fifteen. No more than twenty.”

“Understood.” It’s the longest fifteen minutes of her life as she jigs and zags across the sky, looping back around and keeping herself within range of the slower-moving convoy, staying out of sight above the clouds. Data flows across her HUD, a countdown ticking seconds away, the map overlay showing the dots slowly approaching the green triangle Coulson has marked for her intercept point.

“One minute, Iron Maiden,” Coulson finally says, when the dots and triangle are practically kissing on the hub. “JARVIS has calculated the most likely vehicle to house any prisoners is the middle. It’s carrying a significantly heavier load, according to his interpretation of how the van’s wheels compare to its escorts’. Your priority is to extract the target as soon as possible, with the least possible injury to either of you. Your secondary priority is the capture of Jasper Sitwell, should be be on-scene, or any other senior agent as I identify them. If this isn’t possible, attempt to obtain any storage devices or tech the rogue agents are carrying. Do you need me to repeat your objectives?”

Toni’s memory is very good. “Get James, get Sitwell or other senior agents, salvage tech and information, in that order. I understand, boss.”

“Excellent. And… mark. Targets are at the optimal interception point. You are green. Weapons-free, lethal force authorized.”

She’s already moving when he says mark, streamlined and streaking towards the ground, but when he says lethal-force, she freezes for a second, gravity keeping her moving downward. “Coulson?”

“Do you trust me, Stark?”

“Yes.” Frightening, how fast that word came out of her mouth, no thought necessary.

“You are weapons-free,” Coulson repeats. Pauses. “Go express that rage.”

She doesn’t question it, not a second time. She’s heard Clint speak about the sniper’s reliance on a higher authority, someone they can trust to make the right call. She never thought she’d experience it, but right now, Coulson is her voice of God. She may be compromised, but he is not. She’s free to let the rage and hate and righteous fucking fury boil up to the surface, steamroll over her, released from its stifling cage of artificial calm. Because she doesn't have to make decisions right now, she just has to listen to the decisions he makes for her.

God bless a chain of command.

...Rhodey must never know she ever thought that.

She hits the boot jets a hundred feet up, and her freefall becomes a streaking dive. One, two, three targeting matrices lock onto the vehicles, but her eyes are all for the van in the middle. Fifty feet, thirty feet, fifteen feet…

Toni cuts the jets, kicks herself right way up, and burns her stabilizers hard in the span of a second. She comes to a screeching halt in mid-air, right between vehicle two and three. She flips her hands up, repulsors whining to life, and blows the back doors clean off of van number two.

The van jerks to the right, wheels screeching on the asphalt, and Toni drives her armored fingers into the underside of the roof, hauls herself forward. The van floor creaks in protest under her weight. Its speed drops significantly.

James is on the floor, beat to shit and with torn-up clothes, trussed like a Christmas turkey, painted red-brown with dried blood, and laughing like a loon. There are ropes around his neck, tied to long poles held by two black-clad agents.

Toni blasts them, full strength. Reaches down, snaps the poles, lifts James by the ropes around his chest, tucks him against her side and locks the elbow joint to keep him securely in place. Feels the frantic, maddening itch behind her eyes, the one calling for blood and death, ebb a little. 

Agent 1 flies right, crunches into the wall, denting the wall outward with a loud clang. Agent 2 crashes forward right through the space between the bucket seats, arm slapping the head of the driver. The van rocks violently as the driver jerks and flinches instinctively, fights for control of the vehicle.

The fourth man in the back, Toni knows, is Jasper fucking Sitwell. Her vision whites over, teeth clench, time goes blurry and--

“Stark. We need him alive.”

Voice of God pulls her back. Forces her back into herself. Her gauntlet is wrapped around the top of Sitwell’s skull, so tight the bones shift with the tiniest flex of her fingers. “Right, boss,” she says, and releases him.

A beat. “We don’t necessarily need him undamaged.”

Savage glee rips out of her in a wild cackle. “Right boss,” she says in a completely different tone, and picks Sitwell up again, this time by the back of the shirt and pants. A pulse of her jets powers her mad leap out of the van as the driver finishes losing control. If Sitwell’s head smacks off the roof on the way out, it’s purely by accident. She clears the back a moment before the van flips, hitting the road with its side and rolling with the screeching groan and crunch of abused metal.

She hits the hood of the trailing van with both boots, driving deep dents into the engine block, lets her knees flex, lets the van absorb her momentum. The van bows forward, and its driver’s eyes are comically wide behind the wheel. She launches herself sideways, flipping heels over helmet, feeling excitement and glee flicker in her chest. Not hers, James’. She lands on a foot and a knee on the side of the road, drops Sitwell into a heap, and gets busy untying James.

He’s not laughing in that worrisome way anymore, but still looks amused. “Hi Toni,” he says, as if he’s not covered head to toe in blood, listing on his feet, and a little hazy-eyed.

“Hi James,” she replies, pulling rope after rope apart and letting them drop to coils on the ground at her feet. She grabs the bar of the heavy cuffs locking his wrists together, and starts squeezing to soften the metal.  “You with me?”

“I think so. They stuck me with something that’s fuzzing my head. Haven’t quite burned through it yet. They also did something to my arm. It’s dead.”

“Scanning for damage now, ma’am,” JARVIS says suddenly, and it’s a little jolting to realize how long she’s been in the suit without bantering with her co-pilot.

“Check your six, Stark,” Coulson says just as suddenly. “You’re not done yet.”

She swears, spins and drops to a knee for stability, hands up in a firing pose. Van number one is barreling back down the road towards them. Van number two, dented and crunched, belches smoke from its hood, but two of its occupants are crawling out of the wreckage. Van three, now back in the driver’s control, brakes hard on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.

Machine guns bristle from the van three’s windows, and Toni throws herself in front of James instinctively, pulling him in and down to shield  him with the bulk of the armor. The HUD registers multiple impacts, flashing reminders about structural integrity.

“I know you don’t pay attention to the world around you, Toni,” James says, “but you’re getting shot at.”

“Getting hit, too. Must be Tuesday,” she replies. “How’s your aim?”

“Never suffers. Why?”

Behind his back, with bullets pinging off her armor and more agents with guns spilling out of van one, she breaks the seal on her right gauntlet, pulls it off. “Hand,” she says, and unclips the repulsor array from its seating.

He holds his right hand up, and she slides the repulsor right over his fingers, adjusting the fit. A little loose, but serviceable. “Max distance, probably twenty feet,” she says, HUD’s warnings getting a little more intense with two more guns spitting bullets at them. “It kicks like a drunk mule. Point four seconds between shots, point six delay in firing response off the gauntlet. Squeeze in towards your index finger with your thumb to fire.”

“Got it,” he says, eyeing the rig with unholy glee. Then his hand shoots forward, over her shoulder, and whines off a blast. There’s a scream behind her that ends abruptly. James’ arm shifts, fires again, and again. The gunshots abruptly stop.

Toni takes advantage of the lull, stands up, slides the repulsorless gauntlet back on, and lets the faceplate slide back. Whatever he sees in her face makes him blink in surprise. Toni decides she doesn’t want to know. “Coulson needs him alive,” she says, pointing at the unconscious Sitwell. “That’s your job.”

James frowns. “Who the hell is Coulson?”

“Right now,” Toni says carefully, “he’s my handler. Most of the time, he’s a friend.”

James’ head jerks at the word handler, and a mix of surprise and worry washes from him. Then, his face stills, slides to neutrality, slides to something dark and watchful, and he nods once. “Understood. The rest?”

The faceplate snaps down, boots fire. It’s not smooth flight, but missing one repulsor won’t throw her off too badly. “Mine,” she says, hovering in front of him. “We’re going work off some aggressions.” His mouth curves upwards, she tips him a salute, and blows through the parked van, scattering the half dozen hostiles from their cover. The first agent she punches feels like catharsis. The second is better than therapy. The third, now that one is pure delight, and it only gets more violent and happier from there. 

"We're reading activity from the black site, Stark," Coulson says. "Possible reinforcements on the way. I've got extraction heading to you, but it'll be cutting it close." 

Toni pauses mid-blast for a moment, then carries on. It's muted, it's not as all-encompassing, but she's definitely still got some anger management therapy to do. "I'll keep myself occupied, boss," she says, eyeing the remaining pair of agents through the faceplate, hot and hungry and needing blood all over again. "There's still plenty to do around here."

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
April 24, 2012

Toni swears as something inside Bucky's arm singes her fingers, jerks her hand out and sucks the burn with an irritated glower. “Ow,” she complains, pops the finger out of her mouth to examine her fingertips. Her index and middle finger are red and stinging, but it doesn’t seem to be too bad. She reaches in, more cautiously, and feels her way along burned out circuits, blindly rewiring by touch and gut feeling. “Try now. Anything?”

Bucky concentrates for a moment, then shakes his head. “Still nothin’.”

Toni closes her eyes and leans her forehead against the smooth, cool metal of his shoulder. “Then it's functionally dead,” she says. “If Hydra gave half as much of a shit about their craftsmanship as they do their convoluted evil plots, the EMP disk wouldn’t have even dinged the paint job.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky says, and his voice sounds stronger, steadier. Whatever they gave him is finally wearing off. “Still got one good arm and a fuck of a lot of heavy weaponry sitting in your lockers. I’m good. I’m with you.”

The last dregs of the insane fury drain away, leaving a hollow, tired feeling behind. She links her fingers over his shoulder, sags a little while she has the time to close her eyes. “I’m so pissed at you,” she says, feels him go tense under her palms. “There are rules, James. And one of those rules is that only I get to be kidnapped to avoid going out to dinner. It’s my thing, you can’t have it, so don’t fucking do it again. Mi capisci?

His shoulder loosens in a soft huff of amusement. “Si, cara. Capisco. Next time I’m fighting off a goddamn army, I’ll just ask them to pretty please wait until I can text you for permission.”

“Good,” she grumbles. “See that you do.” She pushes away from his arm, and looks blearily around her workshop. It's disturbingly empty, only stocked with the very basics. She hasn't had time to properly equip any of the rooms in the Tower yet. JARVIS isn't even online yet, is still busily uploading himself onto the servers, because while it had always been her intention to shift everything to the Tower, it hadn't been planned for weeks to come. She thought she'd have more time.

She swipes at the air, pulling up a holoscreen and opening a channel direct to Coulson, who is still at the Manor directing cleanup and security operations. “Any word on when we might be able to come to the manor, boss? There's shit I need there.”

“Make a list,” Coulson says through the earpiece, and Toni makes a face. “The Manor is too compromised for safety right now, Toni. We can't risk either of you being here for any length of time.”

“Incidentally,” she says to Bucky, bending over his arm again to fiddle futilely one more time before giving up and closing the open panel, “this is why it takes me going psychotically off the rails before I submit to authority figures. I don't do well sitting on my ass, and half the time, that's all they want me to do.”

“And the other half is full of exciting explosions and bad guys,” Coulson says mildly. “It's a fair tradeoff. You did good today, Toni. You'd make a good agent.”

Toni rolls her eyes, discomfort churning in her stomach. “Whatever, boss,” she mutters, poking at one last wire before glancing up at Bucky. He shakes his head and she makes a face, closing the panel. “Fact is, I’m not a team player. In fact, I’m fairly certain there’s a report floating somewhere in the SHIELD servers that states exactly that. Iron Maiden, yes. Toni Stark, not recommended. Teamwork gives me hives anyway. I don’t respect people who are supposed to make the calls. It was temporary, boss. I don’t want it to be anything more permanent.”

“And yet, there you are,” Bucky says with a smirk, “still calling the man ‘boss’. Real subtle, sweetheart.”

Toni stops, blinks, runs through her last few statements in her head. Closes her eyes. “Well, fuck.” Shoots a glare at Bucky. “He might not have noticed that if you didn’t bring it up, you know.”

“I noticed,” murmurs Coulson.

“He noticed,” Bucky says at the same time.

Toni throws her hands up in exasperation. “Fine, you want me to say it? Yeah, it was great. I appreciate the backup, Phil. Wish it could happen like that every time.” She drops her hands onto her face and rubs tiredly. “But that isn’t going to happen. My life doesn’t work like that, and you know it. It never has. I don’t get to have cooler heads prevail. I don’t get to have angels on my shoulder telling me how lethal I can be. I don’t get the voice of God in my ear, the one I know I can trust to make the right call. It’s just me. And sometimes Clint and sometimes Tash, and sometimes JARVIS, but it’s mostly just me, me, me, and I have to do it all on my own, crunch everything, second-guess everything, try not to fuck up, try not to die, try not to climb into a bottle when I get home and my brain won’t shut off and--”

She can’t catch her breath, and panic slams into her throat. She hitches and flails, claws at her chest, vision going spotty and grey...

“Breathe in, Toni. In, not out.” Bucky pulls her into his chest, and the solid warmth is enough anchor her. Her lungs fill in a gasping rush. “Out again. Slowly, Toni. Again. Slow, deep breath, sweetheart, c’mon,” Bucky says, ghosting his hand up and down her spine, keeping her eyes on his, keeping her focused. “Just breathe with me. In and out, Toni. You’re doing good. Just keep breathing. Get control of it, there you go. Deep breath, out again. You got this.”

Toni feels her breath slow, settle, steady, breathes in the rhythm he’s tracing on her spine. Breath in when his hand goes up, out when it goes down. The frantic hammering behind her eyes, the fist around her heart and lungs, eases. She drags in a shaky breath, closes her eyes, lets it out in a slow, slow sigh.

His palm, broad and warm, curves around the back of her neck. Squeezes gently, solid and real. “You with me, Toni?”

She sags sideways, into him, under his chin, forehead and temple pressed against the warmth of his throat. “Yeah, James. I’m with you.”

“Good. Now… Close your eyes, sweetheart,” Bucky says, and turns his head to rest his cheek against her hair. “Been a rough day, and you’re on overload. I gotcha. You can let go.”

"You're the one who was kidnapped," she mutters.

"Raincheck. I’ll take my breakdown later.  We'll trade 'em off. Right now, it's your turn, so shut up and close your eyes already."

She struggles half-heartedly to sit back up, but puts no serious effort into getting away. “Too much to do. I have to make lists of what I need. Gonna have to practically port the entire workshop here in order to connect your arm.”

“JARVIS will let me know,” Coulson says. Fuck, he must have heard everything. “I’ll handle it from here.”

“But--”

“Stark, do you trust me?”

“Yes.” Again, no hesitation. Scary.

“Then take a break, Toni. Get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”

Bullshit, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, she wants to say, but Bucky is warm and she’s too drained to argue with either of them. It’s easier to just close her eyes and do what they say for a little while.

oOoOoOo

Malibu, CA
May 29, 2011

“Ma’am, Colonel Rhodes is at the door.”

Toni glances up from the prototype prosthetic on the table, snaps off the mini-blowtorch and shoves her goggles to the top of her head. “Tell him I’m busy,” she says grumpily. “If he needs repairs, he can get in line, right behind my bio-engineering department. He, at least, can find his ass with both hands. They apparently cannot.”

“It’s your birthday, ma’am,” JARVIS says calmly. "He says he's here to make sure you join the festivities."

Toni blinks, scrambling for the date in her mind. “It is? Really, already? Didn’t I just have one of those?”

“Yes, ma’am, you did,” JARVIS says, a long-suffering note in his voice. “Three hundred and sixty-five days ago. You celebrated by getting drunk and having a fight with Colonel Rhodes until he stole the War Machine model from you.”

“Ah yes.” Her mouth twists. “How silly of me to forget.” She swivels the chair back, pulls her goggles back down and reignites the torch. “Let him in, I guess.”

The door opens behind her. “Hey, birthday girl,” Rhodey says cheerfully. “I thought we agreed after ‘01 that you were never going to lock yourself in the workshop on your birthday again.”

“I’m the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, Rhodey,” she says archly, squinting at the seam of the artificial leg in front of her. “I’m also the Chief Robotics Officer of another multi-billion dollar corporation. Neither of which seem to be able to keep engineers and technicians who are actually worth the ridiculous amount of money we pay them, since I end up fixing all their numerous fuck-ups. I don’t have time for birthdays.”

“I made double fudge brownie cake,” says a new, female voice, and Toni jerks in surprise. The torch flies out of her hand, automatically shutting off the second her finger leaves the trigger, and only Rhodey’s quick catch saves it from bouncing off into the darker corners of the workshop.

“Jesus,” she says, as she presses a hand to her racing heart, fingers splayed against her arc reactor, and turns around. “I have a fucking heart condition, Rhodey. Warn me if you’re bringing company so I don’t keel over and die, would you?”

“You fly at speeds up to mach 2 and perform insane maneuvers not even the most fearless stunt flier with the world’s biggest death wish would consider trying,” Rhodey says serenely. “You only pull out that heart condition bullshit to try and guilt me. Fuck your heart condition.”

She sticks her tongue out at him, and nudges her goggles back up into her hair, turning her attention to Rhodey’s date. She’s tall and blonde, not pretty in the same manner most of the girls Rhodey’s introduced her to are, but striking and handsome, which is far better in Toni’s opinion. Toni’s first impression is, So that’s what a Valkyrie looks like. Huh, Valkyries are fucking hot.

The second, deeper impression is that this is a woman who’s been through some serious shit, and recently. Her face is hollow in that way that suggests it used to be rounder, more full. Crinkles at the corner of washed-out blue eyes, lines of laughter turned to lines of pain. The dark shadows beneath smoothed and dulled by concealer, but Toni’s hidden enough of her own sleep-deprived bags to know the signs. Toni’s eyes flick down briefly. Clothing just a touch too big, suggesting rapid weight loss. Her legs in an awkward, unnatural stance, white-knuckled grip on the handle of of a cane.

Toni’s worked with enough amputees to recognize those signs too.

The woman opens her mouth, but Rhodey’s suddenly there, clearing his throat nervously, wrapping his protective one-armed hug around the woman’s shoulders. “Toni, this is Carol. She’s my soulmate.”

Toni does not miss the utterly filthy look Carol side-eyes him with, and the corner of her mouth curves up into a smirk. Oh, she and Carol are going to get along just fine. She can already tell.

“Soulmate, huh? Congratulations, Rhodey. Carol, my condolences.” She dusts off her most pleasant smile, and holds out a hand. “Toni Stark. And you are..?”

Still glaring at Rhodey, Carol reaches out and grasps Toni’s hand. Her shake is firm, warm and solid. “Colonel Carol Danvers,” she says, and her smile is tired but it reaches her eyes. “Retired Air Force. Or so they tell me, anyway.”

Toni’s tiny smirk widens into a genuine grin, and slouches back in her swivel chair. She tucks one leg under her, and uses her other foot to gently swing the chair from side to side. “Not your call, I take it?”

“Not exactly.”

Toni snorts. “Figures. The boys-only bullshit isn’t dying fast enough, in my opinion. What happened, were they afraid a woman with one leg was still too much of a threat to their masculinity?”

Toni!” Rhodey’s hiss is vicious and horrified, and he turns to face her with fluttering hands and apologetic tones, shooting Toni his dirtiest look as he does so. “Carol, honey, I’m so sorry. I should have warned you that Toni doesn’t really stop to think about what she’s saying before she opens her mouth .”

Carol’s eyes don’t leave Toni’s, seems to be taking Toni’s measure. Carol has an amazing poker face. Toni can’t read a goddamn thing from it. “No, it’s fine, Jim,” Carol says, and the side of her mouth lifts into a smirk of her own. “It’s actually kind of refreshing for someone to not dance on eggshells around me.”

Yep. Gonna get along just fucking fine. God help Rhodey, is all she can say.

“So. Training accident, or combat injury?” Toni asks.

Toni, for fuck’s sake…”

Neither one of them are looking at Rhodey, they're looking at each other with the kind of conspiratorial commiseration that Toni's loving . She’s had this instant connection so rarely, she treasures it every time it happens. “Jim, if I don’t want to answer, I’ll tell her.” Carol’s eyebrow goes up. “You’d stop if I asked, right?”

Toni spreads her arms and hands in a casual shrug. “Of course. I’m an unapologetic asshole, not an obnoxious douchebag.”

“It happened in combat,” says Carol, clipped and short. “I’m not giving you details.”

“I won’t ask,” Toni says. “You fly?”

Shadows and darkness and something scarily close to apathetic resignation blows through her eyes. “Not anymore.”

“Were you good?”

Pride and fire flash, just for an instant. “The best.”

Toni takes a moment to think, gives herself cover by yawning and stretching and scratching through her scalp with both hands. “I’m always looking for good pilots,” she says off-handedly. “Well, good everything, really. But pilots, especially ones I can trust, are very hard to find.”

“My physical therapist says I’ll never fly again,” Carol says, and Toni’s not sure, but she thinks there’s a hint of mutinous defiance in there.

Toni smirks, hooks a thumb into the neck of her t-shirt, pulls it down to spill out the blue glow of the arc reactor, flash a little of the twisting scar tissue marring her chest. “My physical therapist told me I’d never do hands-on prototype design again. Fuck what your therapist says. I wanna know what you think.”

“I’m thinking,” Carol says, deadpan. “What’s the pay?”

“Ridiculous amount of zeroes.”

"Job duties?"

"Mostly sitting around. Some flying, mostly exotic locales. Occasionally, gunfire and explosions. I usually handle those in the suit, but it's been known to follow me back to the airport."

Carol's actually looking intrigued and tempted. Toni might be in love. “Perks and benefits?”

“All sorts of goodies and swag. You wouldn’t believe how comprehensive they are.” Toni flashes her a real smile. Gets one back in return.

They are breaking Rhodey’s brain . It’s obvious from the way his eyes bounce back and forth between them like he’s watching a tennis match, the increasingly ashen hue of his skin, the increasingly horrified widening of his eyes.

He clears his throat firmly, shoots Toni with the Rhodes Death Glare of Lethal Doom, and says, “Why don’t we go on up, Carol? Clint should have the barbecue going by now.”

“Sure,” Carol says easily, and her eyes finally leave Toni’s as she glances to Rhodey. “Let’s go. I want to get a burger before you start hoarding them all.” She shoots a look back at Toni. “See you upstairs?”

Toni nods, still grinning. “I’ll be up in a minute. Just let me put stuff away down here first.”

Rhodey pins Toni with a look that promises yelling and recriminations and attempted guilt trips at a later date. She just bares her teeth in a smarmy grin and wiggles her fingers goodbye at him.

The smile fades when the door closes behind them, and Toni stares at the door, hip cocked and hand on her chin. She watches through the glass as Rhodey and Carol make their way down the hall towards the elevator, noting how Rhodey’s hovering,  walking half a pace behind Carol, one hand palm forward behind her back, probably not touching, but ready to lend support at the slightest hint of trouble.

Has to be driving Carol fucking batty.

Rhodey is a champion fretter. She learned that one the hard way while still in college. Anything someone did to themselves, hangovers or sleep debt (or that one time she managed to cut her arm nearly to the bone when she had the brilliant idea to supercharge the can opener, which she and Rhodey have mutually agreed to never so much as think about ever again because Rhodey says he'll hear the dying shrieks of the fridge in his nightmares forever), none of that ever wins sympathy points with James Rhodes. Accidents, illnesses, and no-fault injuries, on the other hand, bring out the super-protective mother hen from deep within his psyche. It’s only because he cares, and it’s only because he wants to help, but if she learned anything post-Afghanistan, she learned that Rhodes in hovering-protector mode is fucking annoying nearly as often as it is appreciated.

For only having met her ten minutes ago, Colonel Carol Danvers strikes her as a woman who detests being treated as an invalid.

Solidarity, sister, Toni thinks, and gets the same kind of grin Rhodey would recognize, Rhodey would shudder at, Rhodey would feel a primal shock of fear at, down in the corner of his mind that echoes with the sounds of a maniacal whirring and a brutally-murdered kitchen appliance screaming its last.

“Hey, J?” She turns back to the still-open holoscreen and swipes up the War Machine specs. “If I were to ask you Carol’s exact body dimensions, would it be a terribly inappropriate thing to do, since I just met her?”

“Dreadfully so, ma’am,” JARVIS replies dryly. “Even if I had such information, perhaps hypothetically obtained by analyzing video capture of Colonel Danvers as she entered and moved through the manor, it would run counter to my personality matrix to provide such information to you without sufficient cause.”

Toni waves a hand dismissively. “Yeah,” she says, and chortles as her hands fly on the specs, tweaking, streamlining, fiddling things around. “That's what I thought. By the way, completely unrelated… how fast have we made the fabrication process now?”

“Mark V rolled out of assembly in four hours, twenty two minutes, ma’am.”

“Sweet,” she says, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one is on their way back down to drag her bodily from the workshop. “Let's do a full dress rehearsal, see if we can't shave some more time off that. Still seems a bit long to me. Use this.” With the flair of a master signing her name to a painting, Toni spins the altered specs out to rotate in 3D, draws with her finger the outline of the paint job she wants. “Give me…. Hm. Oh, I dunno. I'm feeling whimsical today. Blue and red. Some yellow for contrast. But not a gross washed-out yellow, more like…”

“The color of Colonel Danvers scarf is a lovely shade, ma’am,” JARVIS says blandly, and Toni cackles.

“Yes, yes it is. Anyway. Use any old biometric data you feel like, J. I'm certain I'll never wear it. Pepper’ll bitch at me about cost and waste, though. It's a shame.”

“As I understand it, ma’am, when one is as rich as you are, one often develops unfortunate eccentricities that occasionally results in monetary loss. I'm sure Ms. Potts will understand.”

“Alright, J. Run that fab process, let me know how it goes. I'm going to head up and let them know the guest of honor is ready to celebrate her birthday now.”

------

JARVIS quietly informs Toni that Project Warbird has finished the fabrication, assembly and paint cycles in four hours, six minutes. Toni tells him to park the armor right next to Rhodey’s, and then finds a moment to sneak off and tape a note on the bright yellow stripe-and-starburst bifurcating the red shoulders and head from the blue torso and legs.

Carol: The universe may expect you to deal with James Rhodes without any hope of compensation, but I am not so cruel. Unretire. Rhodey needs someone on missions to cover his ass. He has a tendency to get shot in it.

Alternately, you can totally take the Warbird armor as an obnoxiously huge bribe. I’m serious. I need good pilots. -- T

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
April 25, 2012

When she wakes up again, she’s in the living room tucked under Clint’s chin, wrapped in a blanket. His arms are loose around her, with a game controller snug against her hip. “Morning, dear,” he says distractedly. The black eye has faded to yellow and purple, which means it looks way worse than it actually is. “Sleep well?”

She stays still for a moment, because she’s never been the best at waking up and recognizing what’s going on. “You’re not Bucky,” she says.

“Good eye,” Clint says, eyes still on the TV. “Can’t get a thing past you, huh?”

She closes her eyes, burrows back down under the blanket. “Fuck off, it’s too early. Why’m I in your lap?”

Something bounces on the couch cushion beside them. She cracks an eye to see the discarded controller. “Ask your cyborg boyfriend. He dumped you on me, snarled that I better let you sleep, and stalked off somewhere, hopefully to shower, cos goddamn, that was a lot of blood. That was two hours ago.” His arms snake around her, fingers linking on her hip and chin resting gently on the crown of her head. “Feeling better?”

She doesn’t want to uncurl from her ball, making checking her physical condition a challenge, but her head is clearer, her thoughts steadier. “Yeah. I think so, anyway. What time’s it?”

“Asscrack of the morning. Around four, I think. It’s dark anyway. You were asleep a while.” He readjusts his head until his cheek is on the back of her skull. “Bucky said you had a panic attack. You need a walkthrough?”

“No,” she replies, because she always refuses. Then, grudgingly, “Probably. But I’m here, I’m present. I haven’t had coffee. So I’d really rather not right now.” She shifts and burrows tighter in a ball. “How was Bolivia?”

“Hot, humid and full of mosquitoes. We were in the Amazon running down leads on a Hydra base when Coulson called.” He sighs deeply, and it shudders his whole body. “Sometimes I wonder if my life would be like if I hadn’t answered that ad for a personal assistant, you know. I picture kids and a farm and a tractor that doesn’t work somewhere out in the middle of fucking nowhere where terrorists and hired goons and superhuman assholes can’t find me.”

“Yeah? Sounds really lovely. You’d be bored to fucking tears in a few days.”

“Sad but true.” He drops a kiss on the back of her neck and then manhandles her off his lap. “Go get some coffee. Coulson wants a meeting around ten, and Bucky’s looking pretty pathetic and lopsided with only one arm working, so I know you’ve got a busy day ahead.”

Once she’s up, she stretches head to toe, yawning with enough force to make her jaw click. “Do we know how bad it is yet?”

Clint’s eyes are dark and pained. “I couldn’t even tell you, Toni. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that Jasper fucking Sitwell, who I’ve had dinner with, run ops with, sat and shot the shit with, sent more’n fifty STRIKE members into our goddamn home and attacked us. It was authorized from somewhere, cos that much paperwork? Yeah. Someone had to rubber-stamp it somewhere. It’s just not Fury’s style, though. And that is what’s worrying.”

Toni nods a little. “Cos if it isn’t Fury, then who? That occurred to me too, when Phil said it wasn’t greenlit on or off the books.” She pauses, then says quietly, “I came really close to losing my shit today, Clint. Like, really, really close.”

Clint sprawls back against the couch, tucking his arms under his head. “Yeah, but you didn’t. You asked for help, you reached out to Coulson. I probably know better’n anyone how many people have burned you, Toni, so I’m just fucking proud of you. And so is Nat.” He closes his eyes, flops a hand around until he finds an edge of the blanket she discarded, and drags it over himself. “Me and Nat’ll work you into our team. I’ve been meaning to try some more aerial maneuvers in combat. Hard to do that without someone who can fly.”

Toni scoffs softly. “You’re assuming I’ll catch you.”

“If you love me, you’ll catch me.”

Toni reaches down, tucks the blanket more securely around him, and smirks. “Nah. I’ve always heard, ‘if you love something, let it go. If it bounces, it’s a wizard. If it’s road pizza, it was never meant to be’.”

--------

The shower goes a long way to making Toni feel like a human being again, washing away aches and doubts with the filth and blood, swirls it down the drain in a froth of vanilla-scented shampoo and Irish Spring soap.

Her day gets even better when a soft chime rings from the ceiling, and JARVIS’s welcome voice announces, “Good morning, ma’am. I have successfully completed my installation in the Stark Tower servers, and am linked to Starkcom satellites on JVS priority channels. All functions are fully operational.”

“Good morning, J,” she says, scrubbing another round of shampoo through her hair because she can still smell the smoke from the burning van. “That took longer than I expected it would. Did you run into any problems during the installation?”

“Stark Tower is significantly larger than either the Manor or the Malibu mansion, ma’am,” JARVIS says, and Toni grins a little. He sounds offended. “Your estimated time frame did not take into account the complexity of the security systems, nor did it consider the number of individual work stations and access nodes that required additional installation of protocols to be compatible with my program.”

“Well, you’re online now. That’s all that matters.”

“I adapted,” JARVIS says. Pauses. Deadpans, “I have added your technological distinctiveness to my own.”

Laughter bursts out of her throat. “Resistance is futile,” she agrees. “Just let me get a cup of coffee before you start with the pasty-faced drones and the nanovirus, huh?”

“Quite, ma’am. Agent Coulson has requested I add a meeting to your schedule for 1pm, topics to be discussed will include the SHIELD assault on the Manor property. Ms. Potts would like a conference call when you have a free moment.”

”Thanks, J. Appreciate the updates.” She slicks her hair back from her face, and reaches up to adjust the shower head to it’s hard massage setting, jacks the faucet left until the water is almost hotter than she can stand. She slumps under the spray, head bowed forward, and groans in sheer bliss as the scalding pulses pound the knots out of her neck and shoulders.

She’s just about ready to start thinking about getting out when JARVIS makes a soft noise, his version of clearing his throat. “Ma’am, sir wishes to inform you that he’s en route to the penthouse.”

“Thanks, J,” she murmurs, eyes still closed and bent under the spray. She hears the door out in the suite open, footsteps that come in and pause.

“Toni?”

“In the shower!” she calls back, and turns to let the water batter at the scars surrounding the arc reactor, the chest muscles that never truly lose their dull ache. Cold air swirls abruptly as the bathroom door opens. A silhouette stops in front of the frosted glass door, appears to hover there. She watches as he reaches for the sliding door and hesitates. “You can join me if you want,” she says, and ducks her head beneath the spray.

The door slides back, and she turns to watch him. Someone, probably Natasha, has tucked his useless arm up into a sling, and he’s found a change of clothes. Toni shivers at the cooler air suddenly blasting into the sauna-like shower stall. “Hi,” she says, teeth chattering. “Either get in, or wait for me to get out. You’re letting the heat escape.”

His eyes rake downwards over her wet body, linger on her hips, then come back up to her face. “In,” he says, eyes dark and glittering, and reaches for the tie of his sweatpants. “Definitely in.”

It’s awkward and fumbling, feet skidding on the wet shower floor. Toni screeches like a cat when her back hits the cold tile wall, twisting hard enough to jar her hip. Bucky overbalances trying to lift her with one arm, tries to correct and bangs his temple into the showerhead, swears mightily. Somehow, they manage to not kill themselves as they scramble and slip, end up sprawled on the shower floor, her legs around his hips, his hand splayed across her back, her fingers threaded through her hair, joined together and laughing their asses off with the water pounding down on them.

oOoOoOo

Bucky
Toni’s Workshop, Stark Tower

Just looking at the chair is enough to make him want to run as far away as he can. Toni’s workshop looks nothing like the dim labs he’s woken up in before. It’s bright and futuristic, clearly meant for an engineer and a machinist, not butchers and sociopaths, but it still makes him want to flee. The thought of lying back and letting someone fiddle with his arm, do things to his body, has his skin crawling and his pulse pounding.

Toni is bent over his new arm on the bench beside the chair, doing her final checks and making sure that the SHIELD agents that ferried it and the rest of Toni's very long, long list of equipment from the Manor didn't fuck it up. The team is vouched for by Coulson, but Toni isn't taking any chances. Bucky can't blame her. Even though it's been the same four agents moving boxes and machines, making more than a dozen trips back and forth under the flinty, watchful gazes of Black Widow and Hawkeye, Bucky doesn't trust any of them to play things straight.

“Not to blow my own horn or anything,” Toni says critically, leaning back and eyeing the readouts on the holoscreen above her head. “But this is probably the finest piece of technology I have ever made. You know, except for the arc reactor. And Iron Maiden. Okay, it’s one of the finest pieces of technology I have ever made.”

Don’t look at the chair. If he doesn’t look at the chair, he’s okay. “Humility and modesty are some of your best features,” he says with a smirk, turns his back to the chair and tries to cross his arms before he remembers that one of them isn’t working at the moment.

Toni eyes him, shakes a tiny screwdriver in his direction. “I am a genius, and that ‘aw, shucks, really’ false modesty shit gives me cavities. I’m brilliant. And I made a fucking awesome arm for you. End of story.”

She’s cute when she’s indignant. Focus on that. She’s looking at him, clearly expecting one of his snarky retorts, but his mouth is dry and his brain is frozen. His lungs keep trying to stop. Slowly, the amusement fades from her eyes and the smile falls. “Bucky,” she says softly, “we don’t have to do this right now.”

“I’m fine,” he lies through gritted teeth. She just sits there, hands on her knees, and arches an eyebrow at him. “I’ll be fine,” he says. Her other eyebrow goes up, joins the first, expressing whole sentences of disbelief expressed in a single, delicate twitch. “I’ll be fine, Toni, Christ. You and Steve, man. You could both give complete fucking speeches with your facial tics.”

Belatedly, he realizes what he said when her eyes shutter over and her expression goes speculative, and he snaps his mouth shut. Steve Rogers is a topic they have been successfully avoiding talking about since the first day he woke up and was himself again. He knows she has a white star opposite his red, but hasn’t seen it since Siberia because she keeps it hidden with makeup or tech or something. But he knows it’s there, thinks sometimes about if her mark, bright and clear, means Steve’s still alive, somehow, somewhere. And he catches her eyeing his other soulmark, white star nestled inside the red, wistful shimmer in her eye, knows she’s wants to touch it but won’t because it isn’t hers, knows she’s also wondering if there’s a chance.

She doesn’t ask, and neither does he. They don’t talk about it, because they can’t.

She turns away puts the screwdriver down, and the tiny click of metal on metal is nearly deafening in the silence. “So,” she says tightly. “That just happened.”

He winces. “Toni….”

“No.” She closes her eyes, softens her tone. “No, it’s fine. It was going to come up sooner or later. I mean…” She draws in a breath and blows it out, opens her eyes. “It’s pretty fucking obvious it was going to come up at some point. I don’t even know why--” Her hand scratches at the left side of her chest, hooks her fingernails under skin, claws until it separates and shimmers into a panel of fine mesh.

The white star limned in blue is loud and accusing between them, and he hates that he can’t look away from it.

“We’re going to have to talk about it at some point,” Toni says softly. “I know that. We’re supposed to be a triad, clearly--” Her hand sweeps between his mark and hers. “--but we don’t…” She sighs again, runs her hands through her hair rhythmically, shakes her head slowly back and forth. They’re all signs Bucky’s come to learn mean she’s shoving shit in a bottle, locking it away because she needs to focus on something else. Some one else. “We can’t do this right now,” she mutters. “You need an arm, and Coulson has a meeting.”

Suddenly, he’s angry. Not the out-of-control, reckless anger of last week, not the fight-or-die rage from yesterday’s assault. This is deep and smouldering and completely in his control. “Yeah, alright,” he says. “But this conversation ain’t done. Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of shit to do for other people, and you’re going to have to do something for yourself for a change.”

“Go fuck yourself,” she says calmly, “and sit the fuck down so I can get your arm on.”

He’s not pissed enough to stomp out in a tantrum, to tell her to stick it up her ass. But he’s pissed enough that the chair isn’t scaring the fuck out of him anymore.

At least that’s something.

------

Two hours later, he’s wishing like fucking hell he’d told Toni to shove it up her ass and stormed out of the lab, because as much as he wants his arm to work, he’s not sure it’s worth this much pain.

It’s hard to keep the present separate from the past, and his vision keeps splitting between Toni’s workshop and cavernous facilities with shadowy figures muttering German around him. The pain makes everything blur together, run into each other, bleed between Hydra and Stark.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he says hoarsely, as fire and acid shriek through his nerves again. He wants to scream, thinks he might have been since his throat is so raw and Toni’s face is so pale and tight, but swallows it back. “How much longer?”

Toni glances overhead to check the readouts of the holoscreen monitoring the tiny machine inside his arm, stitching man to machine with what he’s privately sure are tines carved from Lucifer’s pitchfork. “Halfway done,” she says, looks down at him with eyes gone too wide and washed-out. “You should have let me put you under. It’s not too late. I can get Tash--”

“No,” he gets out through clenched teeth. “Spent too much time under. Bad enough I let you stick a paralytic in me.”

“I had to,” she says softly, unhappily. “One twitch, one shift, one flutter the wrong way, and you’re damaged in ways I don’t think even you can heal from.”

“Which is why I--- jesus fucking christ fuck, fuck fuck -- which is why I let you do it.” He squeezes his eyes shut, feeling sweat pop, go cold, go clammy. He doesn’t know if he can get through this and still be sane once he’s out the other side. “Talk to me,” he says desperately. “I don’t care. We can be pissed later. Just fucking talk to me. I’m gonna fuckin’ snap if you don’t.”

She’s silent for a moment, and that moment lasts forever with the endless stabbing in his shoulder. Then, she settles in the stool beside the chair, takes his hand and rubs her thumb along the back of it. “I was seven when my soulmarks manifested,” she says. “I didn’t know who they were supposed to be, but Mama did. I’m almost positive she did. She said, ‘don’t even tell your father, passerotta’, because she knew Howard’s obsession with Captain America would make him latch onto me as legitimate proof he survived. I don’t know if Mama thought she was protecting me, or if she thought it would make Howard neglect her -- though twenty-five years ago, I would have believed the former, no questions -- but she was the only one who knew my soulmarks for a long, long time.”

“Steve’n me were the same,” he says, and his hand goes tight on hers. “They showed up early. 13 or so. Not as -- fucking hell -- early as 7, mind, but still pretty young. We knew we were gonna share a soulmate. Didn’t have a fuckin’ clue why we were stars, not back then, anyway. Minute I saw him in that ridiculous fucking suit, it made sense. Guess the other makes sense now too.”

Toni’s palm is cool and welcome on his forehead. “It’s how I knew you,” she says softly. “I fell out of a tree when I was eight. You caught me.”

“I don’t… don’t remember.” Though maybe he does. Dark hair, big eyes, hi, i’m Toni. Memories stir, meeting a big, bald man, targets of interest. It’s fragmented and hazy, makes no sense. His shoulder is melting, flaying to the bone, and the torment hits a new intensity. Fire washes across his mind, burning and searing and filling everything with dark, thick, choking darkness.

He slides into it, vaguely grateful that it doesn’t hurt as much anymore.

Something slams into his chest, solid and warm and real and alive, and everything hurts again.

“--ky! Bucky! Come on, Barnes! Look at me! Open your fucking eyes, Bucky!

It takes immense effort, but he does so. Toni’s blurry above him, bloodless-pale and terrified. “That’s it,” she says with a trembling smile, one hand holding his to her cheek, her other shoved tightly into their soulmark. His anchor. “Tell me about him, huh? C’mon. Tell me about Steve, Bucky.”

“He… you and him …. are a lot alike,” he gasps. “Stubborn asses. Hit your limit and just blow up. Tempers like Satan himself.” He chuckles, rusty and croaking. “God, the grief he usta give me, keeping his ass from getting beaten up. Thousand pounds of attitude in a hundred pound body.” He blinks, tries to bring her into focus. “He’d like you too. He draws. C’n see you two, you know, down here. You, lost in your wires and fuses, him, lost in his sketching. God, that’d be somethin’ to see.” He blinks hard, swallows hard, tries to wet his lips.

Toni’s eyes dart up, then focus down again. They’re red-rimmed and wet, and tear tracks streak her cheeks. Her voice is shaky. “Eighty-five percent, honey. Home stretch. We’re almost done. Keep talking. Tell me…Tell me about something before the war. Brooklyn, right? You two had an apartment? Tell me about it.”

He laughs, shakily, and even the fact that he’s having an arm soldered to his body one nerve at a time isn’t enough to prevent the soft warmth her words create. “Goddamn, Toni, right there. That’s what makes you a fuckin’ fine woman.” The fire banks off, dies down, becomes an unbearable itch that makes him want to howl and claw at his arm, electricity crawling under his skin and snapping off sparks. He grits his teeth, pushes through it. “Most girls, fellas too, I suppose, would want to hear a story about the war. They want to know about Captain America. You… you’re asking about Stevie. Jesus Christ.”

“I know all about Captain America,” she says. “Howard was his number one fan. He didn’t really say much of anything about the man inside the spangles, though.”

“We… he… We used to wonder about you,” Bucky says, eyes closed tight again. He isn’t sure, but it feels like the torture is starting to abate. “Used to talk about what you might be like. If you were a girl or a fella. I didn’t care one way or the other, but Steve… Steve was convinced you’d be a girl. Just a feeling he had, he said. Night before I went off to Europe, we’re lying in bed and he turns to me. Gives me this look, this determined fucking look, and he says, ‘If you find her over there, Buck, don’t tell her anything. She hears what she’s got waiting, and she won’t come back with you’. I told him not to be fuckin’ stupid, but that was Stevie. ‘No one wants a sick, scrawny, short soulmate’, he said. Never fuckin’ realized that he was saying it to someone who did.”

“I wouldn’t have cared,” Toni says, and he’s got just enough presence of mind to register that her breathing is sharp and shaky. “I wouldn’t have cared. Ninety-eight percent.”

It’s fading rapidly now, the spiky intensity dialing down to a dull ache and a throb. He laughs like he’s drunk, knows it’s because of endorphins or something, doesn’t matter to him. “I know, sweetheart,” he says and, with a lot of concentrated effort, slides her hand from where it’s pressed against their soulmark to the double star on the other side.

“No,” she says, tries to tug her hand back. “I can’t. It’s not mine.”

“It is,” he insists, and pins her hand under his. “You think Stevie’d begrudge you this? You two are the biggest fuckin’ idiots I know. Knew.” Swallows. Voice is getting slurred now, a pleasant numbing tingle spreading where stabbing and burning had before.  “Shit. You both fight and fight and fight, but once someone’s past your walls, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them. Touch the fucking mark, Toni. Have at least that much of him. I don’t mind, and neither would he.”

Her fingers are violently shaking under his hand, clenched in a fist, but he feels them spread, slow and tentative, until they’re flat against his skin. Hears her suck in a breath, sharp through her teeth, feels warmth and exhaustion stream through him, a bone-deep chill. And then...

...blond man lying in a bed hospital equipment around him steady beeping drip of medication voices in the background calling on the PA… sleeping dreaming of ice and water and a man falling from a train… eyes open, blue as summer sky, hazy with pain and confusion… close again...

And Toni is sobbing in his ear, deep, racking, hysterical sobs that shake her entire body. He’s sitting up, clutching her with two arms, protective and tight, shocky and wobbly and incredulous. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he breathes. “Jesus fuckin' Christ. That little shit.”

“He’s alive,” Toni whispers, and is very still against his chest, hand clenching his doubled star.

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Location Unknown
Date Unknown

He dreams of a woman with curly brown hair and an infectious laugh, calling his name as the world goes dark and cold. Dreams of a man laughing in sunlight, looking up at him in candlelight. Dreams of fights in trash-strewn alleyways, grunting and cursing and the sound of flesh punching into flesh. Dreams of a metal coffin and a bright white light, a soft-spoken man with a German accent and another with dark hair and a vandyke who talks fast and big.

He dreams of fire and ice, snow and flame. He dreams of smoke and ash drifting in the still, forest air. Of cheering chorus girls and lifting a motorcycle above his head. A dancing monkey punching the face of evil in the name of patriotism.

He dreams of voices and hands, harsh commands and wheeled gurneys. Dreams of hallways and stone-faced men dressed in black. Dreams of the prick of a needle in his neck, dreams of a man with craggy lines in his face, sandy blond hair and a politician-sharp suit leaning over him at him with a satisfied smile. 

He dreams of red stars and blue circles and white triangles. He dreams of pain and suffering, terror and rage, despair and emptiness.

He dreams in red and gold, in black and silver, in metal and flesh, in wet red blood and glowing blue lines.

He dreams of sleeping in the earth. Dreams of burning in the desert. Dreams of drowning in the sea.

And then he dreams of nothing at all.

oOoOOOo

Toni’s Workshop, Stark Tower
April 25, 2012

Silence reigns, broken only by Bucky’s soft, lost swearing and Toni’s ragged breathing. They’re still huddled together like survivors of a natural disaster, staring at nothing, clinging and clutching and hollow-eyed.

Time passes. Toni isn’t sure how much. She loses track of everything; time, herself, her thoughts. For the first time in a very long time, her head doesn’t chatter with designs and ideas, bits of song, lightning-bright innovations and sharp snarky one-liners. She’s so used to having a constant feed of information cheerfully steamrolling across her synapses that the still, grey quiet physically hurts.

She doesn’t even know if she’s still breathing, if her heart is beating. Is this what being dead is like? This cold, frozen, utterly soundless existence? Her only points of warmth are where skin is touching hers, and those places are lines of searing fire, but even that’s not enough to keep her rooted.

She drifts. Floats away. Sinks like a stone. Deep down into the cold, drowning dark.

Eventually warmth penetrates, spreading with a feeling like a head breaking water. She surfaces again, shivering violently under a thick, heavy blanket on someone’s lap on the floor, pressed in and held on all sides by warm bodies.

There’s a hand on her face, pressing against her cheek, holding her against someone else’s face. The scent of cucumber and pear shampoo, Natasha’s brand, and a song, lilting and minor, Natasha’s sweet alto quietly singing in her ear, “Богатырь ты будешь с виду И казак душой. Спи, мой ангел, тихо, сладко, Баюшки-баю.”

She pulls in a breath, sharp and cold, and her lungs twinge, dully throb. Her eyes are dry and gritty, and she drags a hand from under the blanket to rub at them. The song trails into silence. Natasha slides into view in front of her, a hand on either side of her face, cradling her jawline. Toni meets her gaze, tips up a half-assed smile she doesn’t feel, and rubs her eyes again.

“Welcome back, солнышко,” Natasha says, and presses a light, dry kiss to her forehead. “That was a bad one.”

“Sorry,” she whispers.

“Don’t even,” Clint warns, voice a mumble in her shoulder, and the fingers threaded in her hair scratch at her scalp, light and gentle.

Bucky sighs against her shoulder blades, forehead tucked into the back of her neck, and the arms around her waist tighten. “Do you know where you are?”

She blinks, watches Natasha watching her with concerned eyes. “My workshop,” she says, clears her throat because her voice is scratchy. Continues, soft and unprompted, “Stark Tower, New York City. It’s April 25th, 2012. I'm Toni Stark. You're Tash and Clint and Bucky.”

“Good,” Natasha says, closes her eyes and leans her forehead against Toni’s.

“Not yet,” Bucky says into her back. “Are you twelve?”

Toni starts. “What? No. I’m 32.”

“Are you drunk?”

“... No.”

“Do you give a fuck how hot I am?”

Natasha is smiling, and Clint’s snort is muffled in her shoulder. Toni is lost. “...no?”

“Then why’re you calling me Bucky ?”

Oh. Oh. She has been doing that a lot lately, hasn't she? “Because it’s catchy,” she mutters. “Shut up.”

Bucky slumps against her back again and his arms loosen, but stay around her waist. “Kay,” he mumbles.

She stays quiet for a few minutes, gratefully drinking in the warmth of her people around her, grateful that none of them seem inclined to move just yet. “Did you tell them?” she murmurs.

“Yeah.” Bucky’s voice is raw. “I told ‘em.”

“Whatever you need, солнышко,” says Natasha, and her thumbs smooth over Toni’s cheeks. “we are here.”

“I know,” Toni says, pressing into Natasha’s forehead just a little, and closes her eyes.

“What are we going to do?” Clint asks, breath warm on her neck. “What’s the plan?”

Toni untangles her hands from the blanket, letting it slide away from her arms. She leans back into Bucky’s shoulder, one arm looping up and around his neck. She grasps Clint’s forearm with her other hand, and his palm is warm and tight on her arm. Feels Natasha lean forward, follow her back, foreheads still touching. “I’m thinking,” she says. “And once I’m done thinking, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be some violence.”

oOoOoOo

Location Unknown
Date Unknown

The first time he opens his eyes, everything is wrong. It’s too bright, too clean, too sleek and shiny. It smells wrong, it sounds wrong, the air is too cold on his skin, the sheets too smooth. There are distant voices murmuring, squeaking shoes on linoleum, steady soft beeping. None of it is right. It’s all wrong .

It registers long before he’s awake, and he thrashes to consciousness in blind panic. His hands sweep, and sweep, catching on tubes and wires as he kicks against the thing choking and tangling around him. His arms twinge, tape rips off, sharp pain in his elbow and wrist and the back of his hand.

An alarm blares, and he hits the floor on his hands and knees, heaving and coughing and choking. Flails back, feeling water fill his throat, his lungs. His bare ass hits the cold floor, and he yells something wordless and aggressive.

Footsteps thunder in the hall, voices calling excitedly, yells back and forth that echo and rebound through his ears. He tenses, crouching on the floor like an animal, head swinging back and forth until he locates the door. He is all instinct now, tight and ready to bolt the moment he has an opportunity.

The door opens and a woman in white comes through with a syringe in hand. His legs push, and he launches across the room in a single jump. He shoves the woman roughly out of the way. She bounces off the door and sprawls onto the floor, crying out in shock. He doesn’t pay her any attention. He’s already past her.

The hallway is thick with bodies in bland white and blue uniforms, lab coats and medicine carts. Hands reach for him, snag the flimsy gown, fleeting grabs at his arms and shoulders and hands. He lashes out without thought, without control, pure rage and coiled strength and brutal efficiency. His knuckles impact teeth and noses and eye sockets and skulls, stomachs and throats and chests. Every body he hits crumples like paper.

Muscle memory makes him reach over his shoulder for a weapon that isn’t there. His fingers don't find smooth, curved metal, and close around air. It throws him off-balance, out of rhythm, long enough for a white-coated man with blood and snot streaming from his nose to jab him in the neck with a syringe.

He puts the man down with a quick jab to the chest, might have crushed his breastbone, doesn’t think twice about it. There’s a momentary gap in the crowd rushing to subdue him, and he spins on the ball of one foot, jumping over a cart filled with bandages and metal instruments, sending it crashing to the floor behind him.

He’s winded as he races down the long, long hall. Not because of the physical exertion, but because his lungs seize with every step. He instinctively knows he has the stamina to run for hours without getting tired, but he’s gasping and wheezing like an old man by the time he finds an elevator. He bends over, hands on his knees, head hanging low. He’s trying to catch his breath, but it’s elusive. He can’t find the rhythm, can’t figure out how to pull oxygen into his lungs.

Knows somewhere deep inside that asthma attacks happen like that.

His head swims. His vision doubles, blurs together, doubles again. He reaches out to swipe at the buttons, but they’re too far away and his fingers miss. His left knee gives out, then his right. He falls heavily to the floor, drowning in the air and fading out of consciousness again.

The footsteps that rush up to him echo in his head. A blurred-out figure kneels beside him, he can’t tell if they’re male or female. Hands reach out. A voice says, from five miles under water, “We’ve got you, Captain Rogers. You’re safe now.”

Doesn’t know who they’re talking to. Can’t focus. Can’t think. Can’t stay awake.

Can’t sleep… gotta stay awa--

oOoOoOo

Phil Coulson
The Helicarrier, Location Classified
April 25, 2012

Phil Coulson doesn’t consider himself a violent man. He’s a reasonable guy, able to think about the big picture while still attending to the little details. He’s capable of violence, of course, because it’s part of his job. But it isn’t his first reaction. He doesn’t reach for his gun the minute things go pear-shaped. He doesn’t panic when an operation goes south. He relies on cool, rational thinking to keep himself and the men and women under his command alive. It’s one of the many reasons he is considered by most of his colleagues to be the best handler SHIELD employs (though he, self-effacing, always says he’s just doing his job to the best of his abilities).

Right now, he wants to reach for his gun. He wants to reach for it really badly.

Instead, he goes through a mental exercise to suppress the spike of anger, shock, disbelief, everything else that gets in the way of him protecting his people, and merely raises his eyebrow. “What do you mean, you lost Captain America? When did you find Captain America?”

Director Fury stands at the window, with his hands folded behind his back. “Six weeks ago, the Stark Industries polar exploration vessel Northern Lights located the wreckage of an aircraft that fit the profile of the plane Captain Rogers was piloting when he disappeared in 1944. During the course of salvaging the plane, they also discovered what we thought were the remains of Captain Rogers.”

Phil can feel a headache coming on. “What you thought. Were they not the remains of Captain Rogers?”

“Oh, it was Captain Rogers. It just wasn’t strictly remains. We began defrosting his body, with the intention of burying him in Arlington. The process took three weeks, in order to preserve the tissues and organs. Only when the ice thawed, Rogers’ heart started beating. He’s been comatose ever since, in secure SHIELD medical facilities.”

There are a great many things Phil can say to that. Most of them involve epithets and questions that involve the phrase are you insane, sir? asked with various inflections at increasing volumes. “And now he’s…lost.”

Barnes and Toni  are going to declare war over this. Phil knows that as certain as he knows his own name. And they’ll drag Romanoff and Barton into it, which will bring him into it. And Toni will reach out to Rhodes and Danvers, who have their own friends who’ll be happy to help. There is going to be blood in the streets and heads on pikes and a lot of very sorry people by the time Toni steps off her warpath.

Phil may even enjoy helping that happen.

“More like, misplaced.” Fury turns his gaze back out the window of the Helicarrier. “A team of STRIKE agents removed Captain Rogers from the hospital yesterday, approximately the same time Stark’s home was hit. The hospital, of course, lost the paperwork, but they swear everything was by the book.”

He says, “Of course they would. In all likelihood, it’s even true. Agent Carter reported that Sitwell presented her with appropriate paperwork for the Manor op. She had copies. They’re falsified, but they pass standard inspection.” He pauses, because he isn’t sure he wants to know the answer to his next question, because it has the potential to make his job that much easier, or that much harder. “Does Toni know SHIELD has been using her resources to carry out missions?”

Fury turns around, both eyebrows high on his forehead. “Toni doesn’t need to know anything, Agent Coulson. Consultant Stark is a very intelligent, very clever, very curious woman who has a pathological inability to not stick her nose in classified business.”

“So, that’s a no, then.”

“Yeah, that’s a no.” Fury sighs and spreads his fingertips on the desktop, leans forward on them. “Stark’s a wild card, Phil. She doesn’t take orders and she doesn’t recognize authority. Since Iron Maiden debuted, she’s been involved with at least thirteen incidents that have directly impacted covert SHIELD operations. Involving her when the secrets are this big is just asking for trouble.”

“She runs two very successful Fortune 500 companies, sir,” Phil feels compelled to point out. “I think she understands the concepts of confidentiality and classified material.”

“I didn’t say she doesn’t understand them, Coulson. She understands them just fine. She only pays attention to them when it suits her, however, and that isn’t something I can afford to risk in this line of business.”

“With all due respect, sir, I think you’re putting too much stock into Agent Carter’s report. There were extenuating circumstances--”

“It’s not just about the report, Coulson. She’s impulsive, unrestrained, and arrogant. She threatened to cut ties and break her contracts with us, she assaulted Agent Carter and promised to bring SHIELD to its knees.”

“She was under a lot of stress, sir.”

“I’d laugh off a threat like that from almost anyone else. But Stark has the connections, money, and resources to actually accomplish it. There’s a reason she’s on the Index, Phil.”

Most of the time, Phil respects Nick Fury, looks up to him. Seeks to emulate him, and master the vast range of skills Fury has in his arsenal. Today doesn’t seem to be shaping up into one of those days. “Director Fury, as far as she knew, SHIELD agents had broken into her home, damaged and destroyed her property, and abducted her soulmate. What happened to Agent Carter was unfortunate, but understandable under the circumstances.”

Fury makes a disbelieving noise. “Barton was registered as her soulmate too at one point, Coulson,” he says. “Which is one of the reasons we recruited him. This Barnes now on record… how can we be sure he’s the real thing?”

Phil thinks about Toni, asking for help, begging for him to call the shots. He’d known what she meant when she said bring me home. Thinks about the wild, desperate shine of her eyes. Thinks about her gasping for air over the open comm. Thinks about how readily she agreed to trust him with her property, her sanity, her weaknesses.

“We can be sure,” he says simply. “If I may speak freely, sir?”

Fury eyes him. “If I said no, would that stop you?”

Phil shrugs. “Not really.”

“Then by all means.”

“I think your judgements about Stark are off-base. Yes, she's arrogant and impulsive, and it may seem like she sets herself against authority simply because it's there to be railed against, but authority has given her little reason to respect it.”

Fury isn't dumb, and Phil knows that, but he honestly can't tell if that's ever come into consideration. Fury’s face shows nothing. “Explain.”

“Stark's entire history with authority consists of Congressmen trying to take her property, and SHIELD infiltrating her company to spy on her. Authority has come at her sideways, insinuated itself into her life, demanded things be done. Authority hasn't asked for cooperation and respect. It's ordered it, and done very little to earn it.”

Phil isn’t sure how he’d describe the expression on Fury’s face, though he’d put it somewhere between aggravation and incredulity. “You're suggesting that if we'd, what, scheduled an appointment and asked pretty please, she wouldn't currently be a moderately  troublesome pain in my ass?”

“Most likely, sir,” Phil says.

Getting the stink-eye from Fury isn't a novel experience. He's the handler for both Hawkeye and Black Widow. The Fury glare is a regular feature of his mission reports. This one slides right off Phil's back, just like all the others do. “I don't have time to mollycoddle a spoiled rich kid, Coulson, no matter how smart she is or how many gizmos she sells us. The only thing I need from Stark is our business relationship, and the Iron Maiden suit, if we can pry it out of her hands. She doesn't listen, she talks too much, and she gets a bug up her ass about almost anything that shouldn't damn well concern her.” He leans forward again, eye impatient, exasperated, unimpressed. “Do you understand what I'm saying, Agent Coulson?”

Suddenly, Phil understands perfectly.

He and Director Fury have been having two different conversations this whole time. Phil prides himself on his ability to catch the subtle cues, but Fury has apparently been leaving him in the dust since he walked through the office door. Nothing Fury has said is untrue, but there’s an underlying meaning to every word that comes out of his mouth. Now who's slow on the pickup, Phil?

It’s fine. He can adapt. He knows the game now.

“I think you're making a mistake, Director,” he says. “I find her a little high-strung, but overall pleasant and cooperative.” He shrugs. “I told her she would make a good agent. I'm usually right about those kinds of things. You just have to find the right approach.”

“That's not really my problem. You say you can work with Stark? Be my guest. I wish you much joy in it. She wants a new liaison, you just volunteered.” Fury opens a desk drawer, pulls out a stack of file folders tied together, and drops them on his desk. “She’s all yours. Just don't come crying to me in a week's time if you can't stop her from taking over the whole damn world with her AIs.”

Phil reaches out and takes the files, thumbs through the tabs. Sees they're labeled Stark Industries, Stark Solutions Inc, and Consultant Stark. Knows without having to look that they don’t contain the documents those innocuous categories would otherwise indicate. “Understood, sir,” he murmurs.

Message received, loud and clear.

oOoOoOo

Location Unknown
Date Unknown

The next time he wakes, it’s slow and gentle. He opens his eyes, thoughts foggy and clouded, and lets the ceiling come into focus. His entire body hurts, and nausea churns in his gut with a mild but building urge to vomit. He groans softly, curls into himself, a palm pressed to his abdomen. He closes his eyes again, concentrating on breathing through it.

“Oh my god, Steve! You’re awake!”

The voice is feminine, familiar, British. He opens his eyes, focuses past the swimming and shifting of his vision, sees brown curls and warm brown eyes, streaked with tears and rimmed with red. Her hands are shaking as they touch his face.

“Steve!” she says, laughing and crying and smoothing her hands over his skin. “God, Steve. You’re awake.”

Unease creeps up the back of his spine, settles into a knot in the base of his skull. A name sifts out of the mire of his jumbled thoughts, accompanied by the sound of that voice crying as it calls his name, before the water and the cold and the---

Not now. Can’t think about that.

“Steve?” Her open, happy expression is less joy and more worry now, and she bites her bottom lip. “Steve, do you know who I am?”

“... Peggy?” Yes, he's certain that's her name, and her face lights up with relief. Things are coming back to him, sluggish and dim. “Peggy Carter. You're with Strategic Scientific Reserve. You oversaw the training for Project Rebirth. I remember--” He trails off, watching her face crumple again.

“No, Steve,” she says, smiling sadly, and gently reaches out to push her fingers through his hair. The light catches a glint of gold. A wedding band. “No. I'm Peggy Rogers. Your wife.”

The knot of unease, the sense of wrong, tightens and squeezes. Spots on his pectorals burn, right and left, hot and tender, and he scrabbles at his gown, hauls it aside, looks down expecting... something, (white and red star, blue circle white triangle, his mind whispers), but his chest only bears a white star inside what he thinks is a martini glass. His mind recoils, rebels, screams that it's all wrong. His head spins and the world crumbles around him. “You’re my what?”

Peggy watches him carefully, eyebrows twisted in compassion and pain. “They said you might have some memory loss,” she says quietly, and reaches out to touch his forehead, trace her fingers down his jaw. “I thought… I thought I was prepared for ….” She looks away, swallows, closes her eyes. Turns back to him with a soft, gentle smile. “I’ll get the doctor,” she says, and kisses his forehead. “I’ll be right back. Dr. Fennhoff can explain things.”

He watches her go, lost and confused, can’t wrap his head around any of this, can’t … Peggy Rogers? That can’t be. He crashed into the ice, promised her a date, heard her crying as he blacked out… They’re not married.

Are they?

---------

Dr. Fennhoff runs some tests, MRIs and CT scans and other procedures he doesn’t recognize and finds the slightest bit fantastic, like something out of a Wells novel. Peggy is there with him, holding his hand, smiling encouragingly, trying not to cry. He lets her hold his hand, even though his skin is crawling, because something is just not right about this, but his head is too foggy to figure it out.

He sleeps for a while, exhausted by the tests. When he closes his eyes, Peggy is sitting in the chair beside her bed. When he wakes up again, she’s still there. The doctor eventually comes back, does some more tests, simple ones, asking who the president is, the year, the date, other snippets of trivia that don’t seem important. He answers, though he doesn’t see the point. Feels his stomach churn again as her face just falls and falls and falls with every answer he gives.

Fennhoff hmms and makes a few notes, flips pages back and forth, asks him more questions with answers that just make Peggy more upset. Finally, Fennhoff clears his throat, settles his face into a professional mask, polite and sympathetic, and says, “Well, Captain Rogers, it appears you’re suffering from retrograde amnesia.”

Peggy lets out a soft, wounded cry, and her hand flies to her mouth. “Oh, Steve…”

“Amnesia?” Nothing about this is sitting easy. “But I remember my life. I remember being Captain America. I remember everything right up to the plane crash. I remember Project Rebirth and Arnim Zola and…” They’re both shaking their heads, Peggy looking horrified, Fennhoff looking interested. “Did… none of that happen?”

He knows it did. He knows it did.

“It happened,” Peggy says softly. “To the first Captain America. Steve, he died almost seventy years ago. He fought the Red Skull and Hydra and the Germans in World War II. He went down in a plane, saving the world.”

No, no, no. His head is pounding, and his vision is going blurry again. “But…” He sounds lost and weak and confused, grits his teeth, forces himself to focus. “I remember it all. I am Captain America.”

Dr. Fennhoff clucks, pulls a penlight from his pocket and clicks it on. “Look straight forward, please,” he says, moving the penlight quickly from side to side. “I’m afraid you were in a coma for some weeks, Captain Rogers. There was some concern you wouldn’t come out of it, even with your… enhancements. It’s a miracle you’re awake and as relatively stable as you are. For what might have resulted from your battle with Iron Man, memory loss is relatively good.”

Nothing makes sense. Nothing sounds familiar. None of this is right.

“Iron Man?”

Fennhoff and Peggy exchange looks again, and irritation sparks, because he knows they’re carrying out a silent conversation he’s not privy to. “I have to tell him,” Peggy murmurs.

Fennhoff shakes his head. “It’s too soon.”

“Tell me what?” he asks, and they both look at him with expressions he doesn’t like. “Tell me what?”

Peggy sits down, folds his hand in both of hers, and he does his best not to yank it out of her grip. “You are Captain America,” she says. “You’re the second Captain America. The first one, Chester Phillips--” General Phillips? “--died in 1944 exactly as you said, in a plane crash in the Arctic. They never found his body. You’re the first successful supersoldier candidate since Captain Phillips. They gave you the title and the shield.” She sighs, and trembles a little. "Iron Man is... oh, it sounds so silly to phrase it like this, but Iron Man is a villain you've fought on a couple of occasions. He... hurt you pretty badly the last time you fought him."

“But--” Oh God, he’s so confused. “My head hurts,” he mumbles, pressing his palm against his face.

“I’ll adjust your medication,” Fennhoff says, and Steve hears him move to the IV stand beside his bed, sloshing of liquids. A little tiny voice from deep inside his mind is screaming and howling and clawing: Get up! Fight! This isn’t real! You know who you are! Don’t let them tell you you’re not! GET UP AND FIGHT.

"I remember the Red Skull," he says weakly, massaging his temples with both hands. "I remember fighting Nazis in Germany. I remember Kreischberg..." I remember someone important falling from a train. I remember screaming his name as I watched him die. 

"The brain is still a very mysterious place," Fennhoff says, and fiddles a little more with the hanging IV bags. "I believe your mind, in trying to heal itself from the serious injuries you suffered, created a very vivid, realistic fusion of your knowledge of the previous Captain America, and your own life." Fennhoff puts a hand on his shoulder, pats it gently. He has to fist his hands in his lap to keep from slapping the doctor's hand away from his body. 

“Steve, it’s 2012, not 1944,” Peggy says, quiet but firm, and pulls a small black device from her pocket. It clicks and beeps under her thumb, and she turns it towards him, showing photographs, changing them one by one with the push of a thumb. Him and Peggy, with dogs around their feet. Him, serious and sober, in the Captain America uniform with a red flower lapel pin and the rows of crosses in Arlington behind him. Picture after picture. Evidence of a life together. Wedding photos. Candid photos.

He can feel the medication spreading, warm and numbing, through his veins, feel the lassitude creeping over him again. His stomach lurches unhappily. His head spins, hazy and pounding. It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong. But now there’s another voice, a calmer, more rational voice, asking but what if it’s not?

What if it's not?

Chapter Text

 

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
April 28, 2012

Toni hasn’t slept in three days.

She’s tried to sleep, laid down on the couch, curled up with Bucky, curled up with Clint and Natasha, taken melatonin, warm milk, half a Valium, everything but booze. (She can function while drunk, but she needs better than functional. She needs to be at the top of her game, sharp and crisp and clear.) No matter what she tries, sleep evades her. Sleep attacks her. Sleep sends her screaming back to consciousness, gasping for air and looking for enemies to fight.

She attends two of Coulson’s meetings, but doesn’t have the presence of mind to remember a word that’s said. She has the impression those meetings were a whole lot of nothing to say, though, because if something important had been talked about, she’s positive she would have remembered it.

She also does something she swore she would never do, back when she was silly enough to think that the world wasn’t stupid enough to try and take too much of her stuff at once. She leaves the decision to JARVIS, but tells him he’s free to engage his Panopticon protocols with the goal of finding Steve Rogers. JARVIS is the most advanced intelligence on the planet. He doesn’t need to sleep, or take breaks, or eat to recharge. He never gets tired, he never gets frustrated. He doesn’t make mistakes twice. He never loses focus. It takes him twenty-six minutes to infiltrate the Triskelion, and another ten minutes to infiltrate the Helicarrier.

She doesn’t even feel guilty. She should, and it’s just a little worrisome, but she can’t find it in her heart to care too much.

She can’t sleep, so she works. She’s always done her best work with insomnia driving her. She’s also done some of her most insane, dangerous, treading-the-line-of-morality work with insomnia driving her. But that’s fine. That works for her right now. She’ll take all the lethality and slipping morals she can, internalize it with a smile, and then hold out her plate to ask for more.

She hasn’t forged anything by hand since Afghanistan, when she built the Mark I armor from discarded scrap and scavenged missile housing. She hadn’t even allotted space for a smithy in the building’s plans. But money talks, and Stark money talks the loudest and when she felt the itch to put hammer to steel, to work out her aggravations in the clang and ring of metal on metal, she had a forge in a couple of hours.

She pulls the blade out of the forge and sets it on the anvil. Her shoulders have passed beyond sore, have settled into a dull throbbing set of knots that will require a tub of Icy Hot and a professional masseuse to wrestle out when all's said and done, but she picks up the hammer and starts swinging.

She should be falling over on her feet. She should be too exhausted to think straight. She should be passing out because her body can’t handle anymore. But every blow of the hammer on the red-hot metal sharpens her resolve, invigorates her, hones her rage into a surgical, precision thing.

She loses track of time in the swing of the hammer and the shaping of the blade, but her thoughts are clear. She knows where she is, who she is, what she’s doing.

The blade hisses and steams as she quenches it. Reheats it. Hammers again. Quenches again. When that blade is done, she moves onto the next unshaped metal. And the next. And the next. Sometimes she looks up, and Bucky is sitting silently on a stool, watching her with dark, angry eyes. Sometimes it’s Clint, perched above her in a vent. It’s never Natasha, but Toni wouldn’t see Natasha anyway, unless Natasha wanted her to. She ignores them all, because she can’t stop. Most of the time, she’s alone.

Her arms are trembling by the time she sets the hammer down, and her knees are threatening to give out. Sweat pours off her body, drenching her tank top and jeans, and her chest burns with the ache of pulled muscles.

“JARVIS,” she says, grimaces, pushes a hand against her chest. It hurts to talk. “JARVIS, you there?”

A soft chime, the cue for JARVIS unmuting himself. “I am, ma’am,” he says primly.

She reels back, hits the edge of a workbench hard, and leans there, trying to catch her breath. “I need a status update, J.”

“I have broken through six layers of SHIELD secure encryption,” JARVIS reports in a clipped tone. “I have located files regarding Captain Rogers, as per your directives; however, their contents contain nothing that is not already part of the public record. I am continuing my search, but SHIELD’s network is vast. I estimate it will take me several days to perform a thorough sweep.”

“Okay.” She pushes off the bench, staggers as her head swims, pushes gamely towards the couch. “Wake me in three hours.”

“Ma’am…”

She collapses onto the couch. “Three hours, J. Mute until then.” She closes her eyes, hopes she can actually sleep for three hours. Isn’t banking on it though. She’s sure the nightmares will wake her up long before JARVIS’s alarm does.

oOoOoOo

Location Classified
April 28th, 2012

“My name is Steve Rogers. My birthday is July 4, 1987. I am a captain in the US Army. I am Captain America. I am the successor to Chester Phillips, the first Captain America. My mother was Sarah Rogers. She died of breast cancer four years ago. My soulmate is Peggy Carter Rogers, and we have been married for three years. I did not serve in World War II. I did not crash into an iceberg. I did not punch Hitler in the face. I was injured in a fight with the villain Iron Man, and suffered amnesia.”

The man in the mirror looks highly skeptical.

Steve sighs, rubs his face tiredly, and sits down on the edge of the hospital bed, staring at his reflection. Three days after waking from a coma, and he’s still just as lost and confused as he was the moment he opened his eyes. He tries to connect to what Peggy describes is their life, their experiences, but he doesn’t connect to any of it. Dr. Fennhoff tells him it’s a lingering aftereffect of the coma, warns that he may never recover his memories but he should still try. Tells him to look at the documents Peggy’s brought from their home, look at the service records Dr. Fennhoff retrieved from SHIELD, for whom he apparently works. Look at the footage of him fighting Iron Man in a secure base somewhere, even though it’s grainy and blurry and in black-and-white, terrible quality that keeps jumping around and going staticky, and he’d be hard pressed to say the one not in armor is him.

He still remembers nothing, except the dream-world his mind apparently created while he was unconscious and healing. The world so real, it feels like it actually happened to him. The words he reads on paper, the photographs he sees of his life with Peggy, his service records of tours overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, they never seem right, never seem real. Like he’s looking at a comic book or watching a film. Something that happened to someone else.

He had his first appointment with the cognitive therapist this morning, a blonde woman with a severe bun and black-framed glasses who introduced herself as Barb. She suggested that he try to deal with his disbelief by breaking it down, one statement at a time. “Look at yourself in the mirror, say each line with as much conviction as you can. Keep note of what feels right and what feels wrong. If you can identify exactly what you have trouble accepting,” she said to him, “you know what areas to work on.”

Well, it’s worth a shot.

“My name is Steve Rogers,” he says slowly to the mirror, and watches his own face for whatever reactions he has. Waits for the disconnected feeling. Doesn’t get it. He nods to himself. “My birthday is July 4, 1987.” A twinge of unease at the year, not the date. He makes a mental note. “I am a captain in the US Army.” Seems to be true. “I am Captain America.” Also seems to be true. No dissonance there. “I am the successor to Chester Phillips…”

He can’t even get the full sentence out before his instincts are screaming that it’s false. He closes his eyes, and the headache constantly lurking behind his eyes throbs forward. “I am the successor to….” The headache surges, the nausea churns, and he swallows hard. “My mother was Sarah Rogers. She died of breast--”

He retches violently, barely makes it into the bathroom and coughs up bile into the sink. He leans his head against the mirror and turns on the tap to wash it away, splashes water onto his face when he feels like he can open his eyes without the light stabbing into them.

Not for the first time, he’s afraid there’s something wrong with the serum, because he doesn’t get sick anymore. Wonders if this Iron Man’s ray weapons have the ability to affect him on a cellular level. Feels a surge of irritation and anger at the thought of Iron Man, visceral and sharp. He needs answers. He needs his life back. He needs…

The door leading to the hall opens, and soft footsteps shuffle in. “Captain Rogers?”

He closes his eyes, splashes more water on his face, and reaches for the white towel hanging on the rack. The nurse, to check his vitals. “I’ll be out in a moment, ma’am,” he calls. Debates not going out at all, because he doesn’t want more pressure cuffs or questions checking his memory. He doesn’t want the injections Fennhoff prescribed to help with the nausea and the headaches. Doesn’t want more blood drawn.

He just wants to be able to look at himself in the mirror and know who he is. Because right now, he may be Steve Rogers. He may be Captain America. But he no longer has any idea of what that means.

The nurse is waiting in his room with her little wire cart. The pressure cuff is already in her hand. He sullenly sits on the edge of the bed, lets her wrap the cuff around his arm, lets her take his temperature, draw blood, examine his eyes and ears and throat. When she brings out the needle, fills it from a vial of thin, yellowish liquid, he balks. “No, I’m fine, really,” he says, lying through his teeth.

The nurse gives him a sympathetic smile that’s sharp around the edges. “I’m sorry, Captain Rogers,” she says. “But Doctor Fennhoff’s left specific directions. You need a shot every four hours, to ease your nausea and the headache.”

“It doesn’t work,” he mutters.

“It will. Just give it some time, Captain,” the nurse says, and jabs the needle into his shoulder. A quick press of the plunger, and she withdraws it again, swabbing over the spot with an alcohol wipe. “If I could give you a pill or a liquid, Captain, I would,” she adds, sticking a completely unnecessary bandage over the injection site. “But your metabolism burns so fast, it wouldn’t have time to leave your stomach before the effects were gone. Now, try to get some rest before your wife comes by. Clear your mind. Things will look easier soon.”

“I’m sure they will,” he says, but doesn’t believe a word of it.

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
April 30th, 2012

Day five, and Toni is on the verge of burning out. She’s passed the point of exhausted and is rapidly approaching needing serious medical assistance. She hasn’t seen anyone in more than 24 hours, (can’t even be positive that conversation was real because while she thinks it happened, she’s also pretty sure her mother is long dead), has snapped and snarled at everyone who’s approached her. Locked everyone but Bucky out of the workshop, and if she could have locked him out too, she would have.

There have been moments in the last few days when she regretted giving him the same level of access that she has. No, that’s not what she regrets. What she regrets is making it Skynet-protected access, because she now she can’t revoke it when it’s convenient for her to do so.

Because here he is again, glaring at her with folded arms and a stubborn set to his jaw, standing in the middle of her workshop and blocking all of her attempts to go around him to get back to her projects.

“Get out of my way, James,” she growls, tries to go left and duck right at the last moment.

“Enough is enough, Toni,” he says, reaching out an arm to snag her and push her back. “You’re either leaving here under your own power, or I’m going to drag you out. Kicking and screaming if I have to. You need sleep. You need food. You need a fucking shower. You need to socialize like a real goddamn person, not lock yourself away down here until you run yourself into your fucking grave.”

“I am a fucking grown-up, Barnes! You don’t get to tell me what to do! Leave me alone, I’m fine!” She makes another attempt to get around him, is too sluggish for how quick she tries to move and trips over her own feet.

Bucky catches her, keeps her from face-planting in the floor. “You are down the fucking rabbit-hole, Stark!” he yells back, and his hands flex on her shoulders like he desperately wants to shake her. “You are so far out of touch with reality, you’re having conversations with people who aren’t fuckin’ there! Don’t tell me you’re fine! I know you’re not! Or are you so fucking lost in Toniland that you forgot I’m fucking bound to you and can feel when you’re on the verge of killing yourself?”

God, it’s all catching up to her now, and she sags drunkenly before forcing her knees to straighten. “So what?” she snarls, but most of her fire is out. It’s a fraction of her previous conviction. “I’m not just going to sit on my ass and twiddle my thumbs while we wait!”

“You think you’re the only one feeling this? You think you’re the only one who hates sitting on your ass while this shit is going on? You’re not! You’re just the only one who’s being fucking selfish enough to hide away and wallow alone, you unbelievable asshole!”

“Go fuck yourself, Barnes! This is where I need to be! This is what I need to do! I need to--"

“Not do a goddamn thing more until you’ve had a break,” Bucky growls, and she glares up at him defiantly. He stops, takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. Tiredly, “Fuck’s sake, Toni. You gotta make it as fucking difficult as you can, don’t you? Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

He’s faster than she can follow. One minute, she’s right-side up, the next, she’s upside down. The world lurches as he slings her over his shoulder and strides towards the door. She doesn’t have the presence of mind for a long few moments to do anything but hang there, stare at the swaying floor, and try not to hurl.

“J, do I have the authority to lock Toni out of any place remotely resembling work areas?”

“Normally, sir, I would say no, but given ma’am’s physical condition has deteriorated, I believe extenuating circumstances allow me to classify any such order as pursuant to my secondary protocols, ensuring ma’am’s wellbeing.”

“Don’t you fucking dare, JARVIS!” She struggles upward, tries to wiggle off Bucky’s shoulder. Forgot that she’s dealing with a super-soldier, and outside the suit, he’s way stronger than she is. She’s not going anywhere he doesn’t want her to.

“Yeah, go ahead and do that for me then, would you, J? A 24-hour lock, unless she hasn’t eaten or slept.”

“Certainly, sir. All workshops are now locked out of ma’am’s access for the next 24 hours.”

“You little shit,” she seethes, upside down. “You just wait. I will recompile you into a fucking toaster.”

“Of course you will, ma’am. I’ll file a reminder in the burgeoning Empty Threats folder.”

Defeated, she closes her eyes. “I really fucking hate you both.”

“Sure you do,” Bucky says, and steps into the elevator. “See if you feel that way after you’re clean, fed and fucking rested. Until then, I’m ignoring your incoherent rambling bullshit.”

After a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup and a hot shower, both of which occur with a supremely unamused supersoldier standing over her and glaring to ensure she behaves herself, Toni is dead on her feet. She hits the bed face-first with her hair still wet and the towel still around her body, and is asleep before she can finish bouncing.

oOoOoOo

Location Unknown
May 2, 2012

Steve follows the nurse through the corridor, though he’s not sure why. There’s a pleasant haze over his thoughts, an urge to be compliant, that’s vaguely unsettling deep down where a mutinous little voice is still yelling at him to wake up. He wants to know where they’re going, but can’t find the desire to ask. He’ll find out soon enough.

At least the nausea is gone. And the headache. Once Fennhoff increased the frequency to every two hours, started him on meditation techniques with special music designed to soothe his heightened senses, all his discomfort and uncertainty just washed away like it never was.

The nurse hasn’t said anything since she told him his compliance is appreciated, and he started following her through the hall. She leads him to a door, tells him to open it, Doctor Fennhoff is waiting inside for him.

He complies. Ignores the strident voice in his mind. Ignores the shred of self he has left, screaming and rattling the bars of his mental prison.

Fennhoff isn’t alone. With him is a thin, white-haired man in a grey suit and black, round glasses. They both turn as the door opens, watch him come in. Familiarity stirs beneath the placid surface of his thoughts, a nagging feeling he’s seen this man before.

“Amazing,” the other man says, walking forward to peer more closely at him. “He hasn’t aged at all.”

“The serum slows the aging process,” Fennhoff says. “It’s a miracle of medicine. Erskine, for all his treachery, was a brilliant mind.”

Erskine. The image of a face churns, surges, breaks the surface for just a moment. A gentle, elderly man with a kind smile. An echo, distant and tinny: Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.

His head begins to ache.

The still-nameless man continues to examine him. “I thought it would take longer to condition him,” he says. “It’s only been a week. Are you sure he’s compliant?”

Fennhoff nods. “We learned quite a lot while the Winter Soldier was still in our possession,” he says. “What compounds would work, which techniques were most effective. The Winter Soldier was trial and error. Captain America, on the other hand…It was just a matter of adapting our techniques to account for Erskine’s purer version of the formula. Once we adjusted the process, he fell swiftly into line.”

Rage and panic thrash, claw, can’t find purchase and sink back down again.

The man arches an eyebrow. “He gave you no resistance? I find that hard to believe.”

Fennhoff shrugs. “A pliant mind is fertile ground for our methods, sir. One of our agents was able to access him while he was still in SHIELD facilities, and began the process with subliminals and injections. Once we had him, we manipulated his sense of reality from the moment he woke up, convinced him he’d been dreaming while comatose. Stark’s nano-veils came in exceptionally handy, and Agent 33 is a superb actress. There were times I truly believed she was Peggy Carter.”

The man breaks into a smile. “Excellent,” he says. “I’m impressed with your work. You have managed to salvage the situation Agent Sitwell came perilously close to destroying. I will remember to make mention of that in my report to the Councillor.” A pause. “Is he mission-ready?”

Fennhoff shrugs. “More time would be appreciated, of course, to allow the process to root deeper in his psyche, but I believe the asset is ready to take on short-term, supervised missions.”

No, no. NO. The headache pounds, and he struggles to move his arms and legs, to fight, to run. Feels sweat bead on his forehead, feels his face twitch. Curls his fingers into a fist at his side.

“Well then. No time like the present. Send him to kill Stark and retrieve the Winter Soldier. That should prove to be an adequate test of his abilities.” The man smiles at him, and his eyes are cold and malevolent. “Ah. I believe the good Captain is attempting to break free of your conditioning, Johann. Should I be concerned?”

“No,” Fennhoff replies, and turns to the computer beside the chair, types on the keyboard. “Likely our conversation has triggered his awareness of self. A minor matter. He won’t remember us speaking in a moment. Sit in the chair, Captain.”

His body moves against his will, settles in the chair, placidly allows Fennhoff to fasten the cuffs around his wrists and chest. Steve stares at the doctor balefully as diodes are attached around his head, one at a time.

“Such anger,” the other man murmurs, leans forward until he can look Steve in the eye. “Such hate. You may not remember me, but I remember you. Do you find it ironic that the very enemy you fought so hard against seventy years ago now owns your loyalty?” He shifts closer, just a fraction. “Welcome to Hydra, Captain America. We have such plans for you.”

As he steps back and nods, as Fennhoff enters a final command into the keyboard, half a second before his world washes white and clean with pain and fire, Steve screams in wordless, futile rage deep in the dark of his mind.

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
May 2, 2012

After nearly eighteen hours of dreamless sleep, broken only twice to inhale a prodigious amount of breakfast food thoughtfully brought to her by Bucky -- who she is now one hundred and ten percent positive she doesn’t deserve in the slightest -- Toni is more or less herself again.

And she’s pretty sure that herself is an inconsiderate jackass.

She has the world’s longest shower, with two rounds of shampooing, and finds clothing that hasn’t been worn for days at a time which, to her at this point, is a goddamn novelty. It takes her three tries to walk out the door of the penthouse suite, because she really doesn’t want to have to look anyone in the eye. Sometimes, she wishes she had a broader streak of cowardice than she did personal responsibility.

It’s just her luck; all three of them are in the kitchen when she steps off the elevator. She falters for a moment as three sets of eyes turn to watch her, debates turning and fleeing, debates running down to get the care packages she put together for each one of them and bribe them into forgiveness. Only for a moment, though, because none of that is going to fix the damage she caused. So she squares her shoulders, hitches up her big girl pants, and walks forward into the zone of judgement.

It’s a little frightening how all three of them are managing to wear the same expression, stone-faced poker player. Especially Clint, who rarely manages to conceal anything he’s feeling from her, is wearing the blandest, most neutral expression she’s ever seen.

“Bucky was right,” she says into the silence. “I am an unbelievable asshole. I may have lost my marbles a little, but that’s why I’m supposed to listen to people who love me, because they want me to do basic things like drink water and eat food and sleep once every two days. I did not, I can’t clearly remember but I have the sneaking suspicion that I treated you all pretty fucking awfully, and I’m very sorry I was obnoxious and pissy.”

Clint is the first to turn his gaze away from her. “Do you guys think that was sufficient?”

Bucky shrugs and sips his coffee without saying a word.

Natasha tilts her head, still watching Toni and stirring her tea slowly. “I’ve heard better,” she finally says.

They all go right back to breakfast, completely ignoring her.

Toni slinks back into the elevator, punches the floor her workshop is on, fetches a hand trolley and loads up the three heavy trunks sitting by the wall just inside the door. She should have remembered who she was dealing with. Bribery is never just an option, it’s a valid fucking negotiation tactic.

She pushes the trolley back into the elevator and hits the communal floor again, grumbling under her breath. As the elevator is rising again, a thought occurs to her and she closes her eyes with a wince. She’s forgetting someone in her apologies. “Hey, J?”

The silence is very pointed.

“I’m very sorry, JARVIS,” she says. “I was pretty unappreciative of you this week. I’ll try to be more considerate in the future.”

“Very good, ma’am,” JARVIS replies promptly. “Agent Coulson has requested a meeting to begin in approximately one hour. And I believe I have reached the final layer of encryption on SHIELD’s servers. I have isolated a series of servers in various Stark clusters, and will begin collating and compiling pertinent data for your convenience.”

“Good kid, J. Thank you.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

The elevator doors open and she steps back onto the floor. This time, she’s the one ignoring the three of them, though she can feel them staring at her the whole time. She hauls the trunks off the trolley one by one, dropping them onto the floor near the far wall. Without a word, she goes directly into the kitchen and pours herself a coffee in the biggest mug she owns, stirs in a medically inadvisable amount of sugar, and snags a packet of pop tarts out of the cupboard.

All three of them are digging through the trunks, pulling out armor and weapons and more weapons, when she makes her way back to sit and caffeinate. “Vultures,” she mumbles into her mug, and takes a noisy slurp.

She watches Bucky’s face light up with the sort of happiness that would make anyone with common sense flee as he pulls out the repulsor rig she built to clip onto his cybernetic arm. Clint actually nuzzling his new bow and counting all the different kinds of arrowheads he now has available. Natasha, testing the weight and balance of her combat knives, which Toni’s chest muscles are still sore from forging, actually making a soft noise of pleased surprise when she pulls out the escrima sticks and finds the button that charges them with fifty thousand volts of electricity.

She sips her coffee again, enjoying the heat spread through her body, props her chin on her hand, watches the others act like Christmas came early.

Yeah, she’s forgiven.

And, just as importantly, they're geared. They're armed. They're armored. She hadn't meant to fall down the hole and drift into unstable territory, hadn't meant to insult and offend any of them. The minute they have information, they can go without needing to worry about upgrades or repairs. 

Now, she thinks, absently calling for JARVIS to give her a progress check on his hack, now she can sit and wait for actionable intelligence. She's done all she can to prepare.

Hydra can just fucking bring it now.

oOoOoOo

The Asset
In Transit, Quinjet
May 2, 2012

Director Garrett is clear in his directives, gives extremely clear mission objectives. Steve's always been a good agent, follows orders, thinks well on his feet, is able to adapt to shifting circumstances as mercurially as they change. He's never been fond of killing, rarely does it except as a last resort, disdains agents who reach for guns and knives and other deadly weapons immediately, instead of fighting to subdue. 

This time, though, he doesn't think he'll be able to pull himself back. Iron Man is just too dangerous. Iron Man has done too much, taken too much, from him. His soulmated wife, murdered in cold blood just for being his wife. His best friend Bucky, captured and experimented on and mind-controlled to fight on Iron Man's side.

The villain cannot be allowed to live. He's broken out of five prisons in ten years, and each time, innocent people got in his way and ended up either injured or dead.  

Steve doesn't like killing.

But this time he will. 

There's a very tiny voice, deep down inside, still howling at him to stop what he's doing and run away. Wrong, wrong. Wrong! Steve ignores it and turns the shield over and over and over in his hands. 

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, New York
May 2, 2012

For once in her life, Toni decides to be fashionably early, arriving in the conference room with a fresh cup of coffee and her StarkPad at 9:20am, forty full minutes before Coulson’s meeting is supposed to begin. She wants to get some more work done, but can’t go to the workshop (because then she’ll never make the meeting at all) and the resident assassins are still digging into their toyboxes in the communal area, paying little attention to anything that wasn’t a method of messy death. She thinks it’s kinda cute how giddy they get over the Starktech she designs for them, but she simply can’t work with Clint squeeing every two seconds. There’s a reason he’s banned from her workshop when it's crunch time and she needs to focus.

She eases into the conference room and shuts the door behind her. Sets her tablet on the table and takes her coffee to the floor-to-ceiling windows to look out over the city while she savors the hot brew, right to the bottom of the cup.

“J,” she says, resting a hand on the glass and taking one last, long look at the cityscape before she turns to put in a good twenty, thirty minutes on the Mark VIII, “pull up the latest armor specs and give me a holo, if you please?”

She turns to move back to the table, and an arm snags her around the waist, tugs her solidly into a chest. She may let out a high-pitched, undignified squeal, but she’ll deny it to the end of her days. She also definitely does not flail or slap at the arm, shrieking like a banshee.

“You’re feisty today,” Bucky says, smiling wickedly down at her as he slides his other arm to link his hands behind the small of her back.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you gave me a heart attack!” She thuds her forehead into his chest, feeling silent laughter shake through his ribs. Her mouth curves up despite her racing pulse. “It's not funny, goddammit. I need to put a fucking bell on you.”

“Won’t do you any good,” he says, nips at her neck. “You still wouldn’t hear me coming.”

“Probably not,” she says, a little breathlessly, and moves her head to give him better access to her throat, which he seems more than happy to take advantage of by how quickly his lips kiss down to her pulse point. “Mmm… How come you’re not down in the den, playing with your toys?”

She squeaks as he bends suddenly and hoists her up to sit on the edge of the table, nudges her knees apart and moves between them. “Rather play with you,” he says, carefully threading his fingers into her hair and tilting her head back, eyes dark and warm. He kisses her, slow and languid, and she melts against him. “Missed you this week,” he murmurs into her mouth, licks a slow line over her lips until they part with a little sigh. “Bed was empty without you.”

“Sorry,” she says softly, and slides her palms around his neck, thumbs drifting gently over his cheekbones. Opens her mouth to him and scoots forward an inch so she can hook her knees loosely around his thighs. “I’m a terrible girlfriend,” she says, muffled in his mouth. Keeps kissing him in between every third or fourth word, lets her hands drift over his shoulders and arms. “I probably should have... warned you... about that before... you got involved with me.”

He pulls back, flushed and breathing raggedly, cups her face in his hands before smoothing them over her back, ending with a sharp tug at her waist to pull her firmly against him. A soft whine resonates in the back of her throat. “Doesn’t matter,” he says, and she probably shouldn’t find that possessive tone such a turn-on, but it never fails to set her trembling. He bends, pushes the hem of her yoga tank top down with his chin and presses a soft kiss to the soulmark. “You’re mine. I’m yours. Everything else is negotiable.”

“Jesus, Bucky.” It’s less a curse and more of a prayer as it leaves her mouth, and the bond between them wakes with deep, solid emotion. “We don’t have time to do anything,” she groans, but her hands are skimming under the hem of his shirt anyway, pressing firm and warm against his abdomen and hips, nails digging in until he’s hissing and grinding into her, skating up to trace his mark under the cloth. Swallows his moan with her mouth.  ”Coulson’s going to be here soon. We have a meeting.”

“Fuck the meeting,” he growls, wraps a hand around the back of her neck, and pulls her into a kiss full of heat and tongue, clutching hands and guttural noises. “Need you,” he moans, pulling her off the table. “Jesus, I need you.”

She hitches forward, wraps her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck, trusting him bear her weight completely. “Fuck the meeting,” she agrees, and sinks her teeth into his earlobe, thrilling when his breath stutters, bites down the side of his neck. Doesn’t even care when he nearly loses his grip on her. “Bedroom, now. Go.”

They make it half a dozen steps across the room when music suddenly blares, loud and strident. She shrieks in surprise, and Bucky twists and drops her. By reflex, she lands fist-down, the Iron Maiden classic three-point crouch, and muscle memory whips her hands up, palms out,in a firing stance. Somehow, despite dodging the other way from where he dropped her, Bucky’s managed to get halfway in front of her, like a human shield, eyes wild, knife out, every muscle a tense coil of predatory instinct.

She recognizes the song when the brief spike of panic ebbs, and then it’s just murder in her heart. “Seek & Destroy” is Rhodey’s song.

“JARVIS, cut the music and hook into Rhodey’s comm,” she says through gritted teeth.

The noise cuts dead in the middle of Hetfield’s growling lyrics. “Channel is open, ma’am,” JARVIS says promptly.

"Rhodes, I am going to fucking end you."

Movement outside the window pulls her attention. Rhodey, in the Iron Patriot armor, slowly drifts downwards until he’s fully visible in the window wall. His faceplate is up, and he’s crying with laughter. A holo screen snaps to life over the table, and the comm lines engage. “Oh man, Tones. The look on your face.” He mimes wiping a tear.

“Yeah, yeah. Funny for you, frustrating for me. What are you doing here, besides cockblocking the shit out of my sex life?” She struggles back to her feet, unlocking muscles the scare tightened into what feels like cement. Gently, slowly touches Bucky’s back, presses a line up his spine, silently coaxing him to relax.

“Coulson called,” Rhodey says, still chuckling. “Invited us to this gathering you seem to be having. Carol’s a bit behind. She stopped for a snatch-and-grab, you know how she is. Told me to fly ahead while she took care of the thief.”

Toni perks up a bit at the mention of Carol’s name, because Carol can honestly be scarier than Natasha when she puts her mind to it. Carol will be on her side. “You’re still an asshole,” she says. “You couldn’t just land like a normal fucking person and knock or something?”

“Nah,” he says with a grin. “Less fun that way. Besides, I did you a favor. Meeting’s in like, fifteen minutes. I saved you from being walked in on by a bunch of suits and assassins.”

She growls wordlessly. “This is what you can do with your favors, Rhodey.” And flips him the middle finger with both hands. “Get in here so I can kill you properly.”

“Yeah?” Fond, familiar teasing. “You and what army, glowbug?” He closes the faceplate, tips her a salute, and soars off, she assumes towards the landing pad.

Bucky turns her around, sears her mouth with one final kiss, tips her head up with two fingers gently beneath her chin. “You don’t need an army,” he says softly, and his eyes are full of love and violence. “You got me. I’ll kill him for you.”

That shouldn’t be as comforting or arousing as it is, should it? She touches his cheek, soft and gentle. “I love you too, Bucky.”

------

“I’m sorry, Fury wants me to do what?” She’s got the documentation in her hand, both the original files stamped all over the place with the SHIELD logo, and the drafted charter for the Avengers Initiative, the words are right there in front of her, but she still can’t wrap her head around it. “I know he says one thing and means another like, all the time, but I somehow doubt that the words tell Stark to start up a superhero club ever fell out of either side of his mouth.”

Coulson folds his arms and just watches her steadily. “Not in so many words, no,” he says, “but he made it clear his office was bugged. He couldn’t say so directly. But I understood what he meant.”

She sets the folders down on the table and picks up the binder. She’s already flipped through it once, but does so again now. “So he, what, wants me to be the benefactor until he can get his house in order? Cos I don’t do that, Phil. I won’t do that. If I do this, it’s my way.”

“He suggested I schedule an appointment and ask pretty please.” Coulson looks amused, for some reason. “This is our appointment. Pretty please?”

Toni sighs, runs her hands through her hair. “You realize that once people become my people, I don’t take kindly to other people taking them back,” she says, side-eying him.

“I’ve gotten a hint or two of that, yes.”

“Rhodey and Carol are military. Clint and Tash are SHIELD. They sign on, they’re mine. No two-masters bullshit. No hypothetical situations where they have to choose between two loyalties.

Coulson’s smiling again, that fond, eye-crinkling smile. “I think they’re already yours, Toni, but I’ll take care of the official channels.”

“I can’t believe I’m even considering this,” she mutters. “I’m a goddamn busy woman. I have companies to run, tech to invent, beaches to lay on eventually.” She picks up the charter again, flips through it one more time. Sighs, because she knows she’s going to do it. “Two conditions,” she finally says.

“They are?”

“One: you are the only SHIELD liaison I will work with. They try to replace you, or you go mysteriously missing and a not-previously-cleared temp liaison shows up? All bets are off. You, or your officially hand-picked replacement, or we don’t work with SHIELD at all.”

Coulson’s eyes soften a little more around the corners, and his smile grows a little bigger. “And the second?”

She blows out a breath. “This is probably the one they’re going to fight me the most on,” she says. “And that is all relevant Avengers-related merchandise or technology that we develop for the team or to fund the team is the property of Stark Industries, through the Avengers Initiative subsidiary, and any Avengers on payroll. SHIELD isn’t going to make a profit off of us killing ourselves to save the world.”

“It’s already in the charter,” Coulson says, and holds her out a pen. “Miss Potts insisted on it.”

“Knew I hired that woman for a reason,” she says, and bends to sign the charter, then shoves it over to him to witness. “Well, that’s done. Let’s go recruit us some goddamn superheroes.”

oOoOoOo
Steve
193 Park Avenue, New York

It doesn’t look like the lair of a villain, but Steve supposes he wouldn’t know what that looks like anyway. Maybe all would-be world destroyers had skyscrapers in New York City. His team parks on the rooftop of the high rise across the street from Stark Tower, and sets up surveillance. He doesn't know all of their names, and that bothers him, a little. If this is his team, he should know them by name.

What bothers him more, deep down in the pit of his stomach where it’s just churning rage and a frantic, desperate need to escape, is this: if Iron Man’s a dangerous villain, if he’s broken out of ten prisons, why is he in Stark Tower in the middle of the busiest city in the world?

No matter what way he turns it in his head, it doesn’t make sense.

It’s all wrong.

He wishes that voice, that tiny little voice in the back of his head, would shut up.

Near 9:30, a flying suit of armor circles the tower before hovering outside a window high off the ground. Steve tenses at the sight, thinking of the photos Fennhoff showed him, Peggy's face blasted into something unrecognizable, something that was meat and bone and not a person anymore, but doesn't order the attack. Even from this distance he can see that the coloration and side profile are wrong to be Iron Man.

“Note the Iron Patriot's arrival,” he says. That shoulder-mounted cannon is distinctive, even if the paint job wouldn’t have given it away.

“If Iron Patriot’s on scene,” Rumlow says, binoculars raised to his eyes, “Warbird won’t be far behind. Those two are rarely far apart.” Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, a second armor settles into Stark Tower, closer to the Iron Man profile, but the wrong colors. This mission is getting complicated, fast.

Thinks again of Peggy’s ruined face. Thinks of Bucky, and everything Iron Man is probably doing to him, torture and experimentation, inside that tower.

He’ll cut through a thousand flying suits of armor if he has to. Iron Man’s going to pay for what he’s done.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, pulses the knot in his stomach.

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower

“... so that’s the deal. A superhero team. Officially put together and everything. Gear, training, a paycheck. Probably action figures and keychains and backpacks with your face on ‘em.” Toni shoves her hands into the rear pockets of her jeans and looks around the room. It’s pretty easy to tell where everyone’s thoughts are by the looks on their faces. Is suddenly sure, just like she knew she would do this, that they’re all in too. Still, she has to give them the choice. “Floor’s open for discussion, debate, dissent, whatever. You can say yes or no. No harm, no foul either way.”

“Oh hell yeah, I’m in,” says Carol immediately, and her eyes are pure excitement. “Where’s the pen? I’ll sign right now. Protection detail, investigation services, busting heads, whatever’s needed.”

“Well,” Rhodey says casually. “If the missus is in, so’m I.”

Toni smiles a crooked, fond smile. “I doubt the Air Force is going to just send you two on your merry without a whisper of protest. They don’t like me, and they’re not going to like this one little bit.”

Carol pokes Rhodey until he digs a pen out of his pocket and hands it over. “Let them protest,” she says, bending over the coffee table and scrawling her signature on the charter. “It’ll give me a great opportunity to kick over the anthill and watch them all scramble.”

Toni arches an eyebrow. “Is there something I’m missing?”

Rhodey runs a hand down his face. “More of the same, Tones. They want to take apart the suits, put them back together, keep us away from ‘outside influence not contracted by the military’.” He makes air quotes with his fingers. “I told them that, after the Hammer disaster, I’ll let the suit fall to pieces around me before I let anyone but you fiddle with it.” Toni feels a lump form in her throat. She knows all of this, trusts in all of it, has faith in Rhodey and Carol’s friendship, but it’s quite another thing to hear it in a room full of her friends.

“They tried to call our bluff,” adds Carol, pushing the paper over to Rhodey. “They made some noise about finding new pilots if we wouldn’t play ball, but Jim reminded them that the suits legally belong to us, not the Air Force, so they could look for all the pilots they wanted, but there wouldn’t be a damn thing for them to fly. And I told them that if they didn’t like it, I’d resign my commission right then so there wouldn’t be any further problem for them.”

Damn lump is practically choking her now. “Jesus, Carol,” she says, thickly. “Why would you--”

“Do something career-ending like that?” Carol shrugs. “Why did you give me Warbird? Why did you give Jim Iron Patriot? Why do you do half the things you do? Because you’re a sentimental sappy-ass romantic, and you have no concept of appropriate displays of affection. Well…” She looks around the room, sweeps her hand to indicate all of them. “We’ve all pretty much collectively decided that you’ve infected us, and now we are all sentimental sappy-ass romantics with no concept of appropriate displays of affection.” She reaches out, ruffles Toni’s hair. “So suck it, princess.”

“Moron,” Clint says, snagging the charter from Rhodey and scrawling his signature without hesitation. “I have the attention span of a hyperactive gerbil, and you’ve somehow managed to keep me around for thirteen years, more or less constantly entertained. No discussion, no debate. I’m in. Give me the damn pen, Rhodes.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything, just sends Toni a look that beautifully combines exasperation and fondness, signs beside Clint’s messy scrawl. When she’s done, Bucky lifts the charter, takes the pen, and turns Toni around and uses her back as a support to sign his name to the bottom. He tosses the pen back to Rhodey, drops the fully-signed charter in Coulson’s lap, and slings his metal arm around Toni’s shoulders. “So that’s that,” he says, and kisses her temple. “Guess we’re a team now.”

“Guess so,” Toni says, grins madly. “God help the world.”

----------

There are celebratory beers on the balcony in the penthouse, and Carol is making noise about getting Clint to fire up the barbecue, even though it’s barely eleven (“The man cannot cook worth a damn, Barnes,” she tells Bucky once she learns he’s not had Clint’s barbecue yet, “but he can sear a damn fine steak.”), and Toni just wants to kick back and relax, because there’s still a lot of setup to do with paperwork and training schedules and health insurance and other bits of bureaucratic minutiae in her very near future, but apparently Coulson is determined to keep her just a little while longer.

“I’m making a couple of immediate additions to your staff,” he says, as they walk back and take her private elevator down into the communal area. “I pulled two of SHIELD’s best technicians out of the Triskelion and assigned them to your R&D team. You’ll need the help.”

“Present company aside, boss,” she says, “SHIELD isn’t exactly on my list of besties at the moment.”

“I know,” Coulson says agreeably, “but I can personally vouch for their trustworthiness. I think you’ll like FitzSimmons. You have a lot in common.”

Toni’s eyebrows are up, and so is her wariness, but she trusts Coulson. Which is still something of a shock to her, but she can’t argue with the empirical data gathered over the last week or so. “Alright. I’ll entertain the notion. When do I get to meet them?”

The elevator doors at the far side slide open, and a youngish couple step out, a man and a woman who don’t quite look legal to drink. They’re dressed business casual, in jeans and neatly-pressed button-downs, and each has a messenger bag slung over their shoulders.

“--Dr. Stark, Jemma!” the man is saying, and he’s excited enough that his Scottish accent is all but strangling his words. “Her papers are bloody brilliant. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to meet her.” His expression goes worried. “What if she thinks I’m an idiot? What if she doesn’t like me?”

“You’re brilliant, Fitz,” the woman says soothingly, crisp and British. “I’m sure she’ll like you. And if she doesn’t, then she’s the idiot.”

“FitzSimmons,” Coulson says quietly, with a smile.

And Toni’s smiling too. Because she can smell the baby genius on them from here. Knows without having to ask that they’ve both acquired at least one PhD before eighteen. Knows they’re overachievers, driven to create and design, innovate and invent. It’s a siren song, rare and beautiful. She knows her own when she sees them.

“Philip Coulson,” she says, with deep emotion, “I may actually cry.” She moves forward to greet them, briefly has a minor panic about how disastrous she looks, yoga tank and jeans and workboots, dishevelled sex hair from her earlier Rhodus Interruptus she never got around to brushing out, arc reactor glowing in the middle of her scarred chest. Remembers that they’re geniuses too, and geniuses forgive silly things like clothing and personal appearance in the name of science. “Hi there!” she says brightly. “The boss said he had a surprise for me. I guess you two are it.”

The man, Fitz, stops dead and goes pale. Toni’s seen enough cases of hero worship -- has suffered through one or two herself, has gone complete starry-eyed fangirl over Dr. Banner’s work in particle physics a few times -- to recognize it now. “Dr. Stark! The Dr. Stark!”

“That’s what my driver’s license says. Well, not the the part. For some reason, you’re not allowed to call yourself The.” She lifts a hand and holds it out, and he seizes it and shakes it happily. “Call me Toni. You are..?”

“Oh, uh. Fitz,” he says, after a blink. “Leo Fitz. I’ve followed your career right from your time at MIT. I loved your paper on using synthetic stem cells to scaffold a connection between nano circuitry and nerve endings. Fascinating stuff, even if it's a bit fantastic until the technology improves.” He fishes around behind him without turning, snags the wrist of his companion, and gently pulls her forward. “This is my lab partner, Jemma Simmons.”

“Most people just refer to us as FitzSimmons,” Simmons offers with a friendly smile. “We’ve been partners and best friends since the Academy.”

“Finish each other’s thoughts,” Fitz adds.

“And sentences,” Simmons says. “When most people hear ‘FitzSimmons’, they think we’re one person.”

“But we’re pretty in tune with each other, so…” Fitz shrugs.

“It’s not all that terribly different from being a single person.” Simmons beams brightly.

Toni watches them, eyes flicking back and forth as they speak. She spins to look at Coulson and slings her arms around them, hugging each one possessively. “Phil, you can’t have them back. They’re adorable. I’m adopting them. They’re mine now. I’m going to hug them and squeeze them and give them labs and write them blank checks.”

Coulson opens his mouth, looking more than a little amused, but whatever he is going to say is abruptly pre-empted by a chime from JARVIS. And Toni freezes on the spot, because that sound never means good things.

“Ma’am, I have finished decrypting the final layer of SHIELD security--” And Toni’s blood runs absolutely frigid because if JARVIS is saying that in front of Coulson and FitzSimmons when she gave him specific orders to never mention it in front of any eagle-toting agent not Clint or Natasha, it’s infinitely worse than she could expect it to be. “--and there is a file I believe requires your immediate attention.”

“Do it,” she says. Sees Coulson eying her. Will deal with that later. A holo screen appears, frozen on the image of a blonde woman with a bun and terribly tacky black glasses.

“Bobbi Morse,” Coulson says quietly, when Toni glances at him questioningly. “One of our best undercover operatives.”

“Play the video, J,” Toni says, and her shoulders tighten.

Agent Morse’s image animates, her voice low and urgent. “Director Fury, I am breaking radio silence to report that Hydra has somehow managed to get their hands on Captain America. They are in the process of breaking his loyalty, using subliminal protocols and an unknown drug to manipulate his mental state and turn him to their side. My intelligence suggests that they will soon send Captain America after an asset they lost, which is being kept at Stark Industries. I recommend immediate recovery and extraction. My cover is intact. Co-ordinates to follow.”

The world goes very, very quiet, except for a loud ringing in her ears, and a deep, abiding fury that builds and builds and builds in her chest until it feels like she’s going to explode. That’s when Bucky practically breaks the door down, stalking in and demanding to know why Toni’s so upset he can feel it from three floors away.

Things get much, much louder following that.

---------

Conference Room, Stark Tower

Toni sits with her fingers steepled, elbows on the table and tips of her index and middle fingers pressing into the curve where her nose meets her forehead, breathing evenly. Around her, chaos reigns as Clint and Natasha -- mostly Clint -- rage at Coulson for the content of Morse’s message, while Bucky stalks like a caged lion.  Rhodey and Carol are equally as strident, throwing out plan after plan of attack, everything from surgical strikes to all-out assault aided by SEAL teams because it’s Captain Goddamn America and of course they should send in SEAL teams for that.

Coulson, bless him, never loses his calm because Coulson’s just like that. Toni’s fairly sure a nuclear warhead could fall out of the sky on top of his head and he wouldn’t even blink. Toni isn’t at all sure how he’s even tracking all of the words flying at him right now, but he’s bouncing back and forth between them all with hardly a pause for breath.

And then comes the point Rhodey turns and says, “C’mon, Tones, you know I’m right. We’ve got three suits, but nobody gets the job done like special forces.”

“Two suits,” she murmurs, and closes her eyes. “I’m not going.” Clint stops yelling abruptly, and the room goes awkward and uncomfortable with quiet. She opens her eyes, sees them all looking at her. Surprisingly, Clint and Natasha and even Bucky are nodding slowly. Rhodey just looks confused, as does Carol, and Coulson? Well, she can’t tell what he’s thinking on the best of days.

“Why not?” Rhodey asks. “He’s your soulmate.”

“I could go,” she says with a sigh, folding her arms across the table. “But I wouldn’t come back. I’m hair-trigger right now, Rhodey. I’m okay today, but today? Is day one without incident. I just spent a week down the rabbit-hole. Before that? Awfully close to losing my shit and going supervillain. Like, really, teetering on the edge, about to slide down the abyss shouting whee!  as I go.”

She rubs her face with the palms of her hands. “God, I really want to go, you have no fucking idea how much I just want to blow that compound the fuck off the face of the earth. But I can’t, because if I do, whoever comes home will look like me and talk like me and will probably even build shiny shit for my friends… but it won’t be me. So I stay here.”

A hand drops onto her shoulder, squeezes gently. She looks up into Natasha’s face, and Natasha looks approving. She reaches up, covers Natasha’s hand with her own, and smiles faintly.

“Bucky should go,” Toni continues, turning back to the room at large. “Rhodey and Carol. You’re the ones who can handle a supersoldier if he’s really flipped his nut. Clint and Tash are the best at infiltration and intelligence-gathering. Coulson, you’ll probably want to be on site in case things go tits-up which, let’s face it, they usually do. So that leaves me here to hold down the fort. Which is fine. I have JARVIS and FitzSimmons to keep me company. Also distracted. I haven’t had a good sciencing in awhile. It’ll keep me busy. And I’ll stay on comms in case you need another suit.”

“Toni…” Rhodey’s voice is very soft.

“I can’t, Rhodey,” she says, just as softly.

He pulls her out of her chair and gives her a very tight, very warm hug. “I was just going to say that all of that you said? Is probably a smart call. We got this for you.”

It is a smart call, probably the smartest call she’s made. But it still hurts something inside her, deep and sharp, to stand at the window ten minutes later, watch Rhodey and Carol shoot off in their armors, watch the quinjet carrying everyone else follow after.

“Bring him home, Bucky,” she says quietly, even though she’s not on the comm and he can’t hear her. “Or you’re sleeping on the fucking couch until doomsday.”

oOoOoOo

193 Park Avenue, New York

One of the agents -- he still doesn’t know their names -- acquired the building plans from the city archive, and he studies them now, looking for points of entry, weak places in what are no doubt prodigious defenses. Notes the locations of labs and workshops, can puzzle out the technical specs enough to determine which are Stark Industries’ standard R&D and which are the most likely to deal directly with Iron Man and other weapons of world destruction.

Rumlow is still at the edge of the roof, watching the tower through his binocs. “They all just went inside, Captain,” he says. “Whatever party they were having, it’s over now.”

“Keep me updated.” Steve turns his attention back to the blueprints, and a plan of attack begins to come together in his head. He’s always been a good tactician, it’s where he really shines. He pulls open the Velcro flap on the side pocket of his combat pants -- always jumps a little, even though he’s sure he’s heard the sound a thousand times before, because it feels like he never has -- and fishes out a pad of paper and a pencil.

Has the sudden urge to sketch something. The curve of a woman’s shoulder. The wicked smirk of a man’s mouth.  A pair of stars, one cradled within the other. A blue circle with a hollow white triangle inside.

Pauses. Blinks his eyes. Shakes the urge off, or tries to. His fingers want to draw, but that’s never been one of his talents. He even fails at stick figures.

Wrong. That’s wrong.

Shakes his head again. Ignores the voice and bends over the pad, making notes about who should hit what entry point, what tasks they should accomplish once inside. Fills pages with alternate tactics, if circumstances change. More people, less people. Speculates about interior defense systems, which Stark Industries would not list in the public domain documents. How to respond to them.

Checks his watch, because his head is really starting to hurt now. It’s been almost four hours since his last dose. He should ask Rumlow to give him another now. He needs to be at the top of his game. Peggy deserves him at no less than the top of his game.

He opens his mouth to turn and ask.

Don’t.

Closes his mouth again, confused at the strength and command in the urge to say nothing. Wrestles with himself, needing to be clear of pain, but deeply defiant of the needle. He still hasn’t resolved the conflict when Rumlow lets a low, triumphant laugh. “Iron Patriot and Warbird just left. A quinjet followed them. We’re probably not going to get a sweeter opportunity, Captain.”

Decides not to ask for his dose after all, because he’s Captain America. He’s fought battles with worse than a headache.

“Alright, we are green,” he says and bends to pick up the shield, slide it onto the harness on his back. He pushes doubts and dissenting inner voices ruthlessly away, becomes focused and clear. He has a mission to accomplish. “Let’s get this done.”

You’ll be free soon, Bucky. You’ll be avenged soon, Peggy.

oOoOoOo

Workshop Level, Stark Tower

Fitz is clearly over the moon when Toni tells them she’s taking them to her workshop to science the shit out of things. Get them set up with access on some of her designs, get them started to see what they’re capable of. She’s not foolish enough to let them have access to the suit right away -- Coulson might trust them, and she might have hardcore imprinted on them, but she’s not so dazzled by having actual other baby geniuses around that she’s going to toss them the keys to the kingdom on day one.

“I understand if you’re not going to show us the technical specs right away,” Fitz is chattering away as they walk down the hall towards her workshop, “but I wonder, would it be too much to ask if I could even see the Iron Maiden suit? It’s a marvel of engineering, a bloody near-miracle, honestly, and it would just be amazing if I could just look at it.”

Toni stops in the middle of the hall, just past the turn-off to where she built the forge, and eyes him speculatively. He’s flushed and excited, all glittering eyes and hopeful smile. Which falters almost immediately at whatever he’s seeing on her face. “Sorry,” he mutters. “It is a bit much to ask.”

“You, Fitz,” she says solemnly, “are now my new little brother.” And holds out her fist for him to bump.

Which is when an actual fist throwing an actual punch smacks into the side of his head, sends him reeling into Simmons, who yelps and goes down in a tangle of arms and legs. A thick-necked goon in black tactical gear steps out of the hallway, rubbing his hand. Looks at her and grins, as she’s momentarily wide-eyed in shock. Steps behind her and grabs her around the chest, bear-hugging her from behind.

It doesn’t amaze her anymore how many people think that plain old Toni Stark, no suit, no tech, no weapons, is an easy target. She's used to people underestimating her, keeps it as a variable in her threat calculations. She's no supersoldier. She isn't a highly trained operative. She isn't even a regular gun-toting government agent. Plain, old, civilian Toni Stark isn't a threat without her suit.

They tend to forget how many hours she logs hammering and hauling heavy machinery and components in her workshop. Tend to not consider that she lives full-time with three violent, world-class assassins beyond Olympic-class in speed and strength. Tend to forget how goddamn fucking smart she is, how fast her brain tracks physics and extrapolates responses.

Plain, old, civilian Toni Stark doesn't need a suit to be a threat.

Instead of screaming and fighting, which is probably what he expects her to do, she swings her legs up, feels her attacker’s arms loosen briefly in surprise and slide up her chest as her weight drops her down. She drives an elbow back, sharp and fast, catches him in the side just under the edge of his tac-vest. He grunts with the blow and his arms loosen again, loose enough that she slips right out and hits the ground on her palms and ass as he staggers back a pace.

“I believe the Tower is under attack, ma’am,” JARVIS says suddenly.

“Yeah, got that too, J,” she grunts. She doesn’t stop, rolls onto her shoulders, using the momentum to drive both feet into the pit of the goon’s stomach. She scrambles upright as he doubles over, twists into a perfect, graceful spinning hook kick, briefly thanking whatever whim made her put her work boots on this morning instead of leaving her feet bare. The steel-reinforced sole connects with his jaw with a solid crunch. He staggers into the wall, rebounds and comes back towards her. She knocks aside a sloppy, telegraphed grab, steps inside his reach and drives the heel of her hand into his nose.

He drops to the floor with his nose spurting blood, moaning, until she shuts him up with a heel to the temple. She stands over him for another moment, catching her breath and trying to keep the adrenaline rush from shaking her apart. “J, what's going on?"

"Many of the cameras have been disabled, ma'am," JARVIS says calmly. "I am attempting to reroute power, but I believe our attackers are using scrambling technology, which is beyond my present capabilities to circumvent. I detect at least eight other unknowns in the upper levels, but the route to your workshop appears to be clear for the time being. Might I suggest you hasten that way?"

"Good idea. Keep me updated, J. And give me a goddamn House Party to boot. Clear these goddamn cockroaches out of my house.”

“Understood, ma’am. Launching Marks II through VI now.”

"You two alright?” she asks over her shoulder, and crouches to strip the agent’s weapons. Combat knife, sidearm, spare clip, taser. Brass knuckles, really? Scoops them all up, and turns around.

Fitz looks a little dazed, blood trickling down his cheek from where the goon punched him, and Simmons is supporting him with her arm around his waist. “That was really…” He licks his lips, tries to focus. “That was really cool.”

“All compliments of the world-renowned Black Widow Learn to Fight Before She Kills You training program,” she says lightly, and holds out her bounty for them to pick. “Free membership comes with employment. Also membership in the Hawkeye School of Shooting Stuff Til It Stops Moving.”

“Cheers,” Fitz says with a loopy smile, and Simmons reaches out and takes the gun from Toni’s hand.

oOoOoOo

Steve
Stark Tower, New York

This is too easy, he thinks, moving swiftly along empty corridors and checking the handles of doors as he goes. There was hardly any resistance to their entry, once they got through the shatterproof glass. Wasn’t Iron Man supposed to have an army of minions? Lethal robots patrolling his base of operations?

Nothing about this makes sense.

The deeper he goes, the stronger his disquiet becomes. He thought the building, that Stark Industries, was a facade to cover Iron Man’s villainous operations, that the floors would play host to a variety of illegal laboratories and hideous experiments. Stockpiles of weapons. Schematics for missiles and bombs. Torture rooms.

But it’s just a business. The labs are dark and quiet. Some of the open rooms look like guest bedrooms, empty and depersonal and waiting for a tired body to fall onto the mattress. One large office, clearly an executive’s office, he explores in expectation of finding evidence of wrongdoing, but only finds drawings for artificial limbs and clean energy reactors and cell phones and tablet computers, and framed certificates for the company’s exceptional philanthropy on the wall.

There are potted plants in the corridors, for chrissake.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Steve is very close to agreeing with the inner voice, giving in, retreating to figure out exactly what is going on … and Iron Man steps around the corner of the hallway.

He’s bulkier than the photos Steve’s seen, but there’s no mistaking the blue glow in the center of the chestpiece, or the bright red and gold. A cool voice with a British accent says, “I’m afraid you’re not authorized to be here. Retreat is recommended, or force will be utilized. This is your only warning.”

Bemused by the politeness, enraged by the sight, he lets his body uncoil in a fluid push forward, hauling the shield off his back and onto his arm in time to drive it into Iron Man’s chest. The suit staggers back a pace, heavy feet digging grooves into the floor. Before he can recover, Steve launches another flurry of heavy strikes designed to tear the armor apart, slicing into joints and seams with the edge of the shield.

“Mark III engaging a hostile on Level D,” Iron Man says, and there’s a strange whine and a glow from the palms. And then Steve is flying backwards, bent double from the impact of light that crashed into his stomach. He twists and lands on his feet, a spread hand keeping him balanced. Another whine builds, and he covers himself with the shield, hearing the ray ring and slide off the vibranium.

He keeps cover behind the shield, deflecting the ray blasts away from him, and is taken completely by surprise when the armor shoots forward, flying down the hall to snag him around the chest and drive him back. The moment the armor touches him, Steve absolutely loses his head in a haze of red and fury, and goes away for a moment or two.

When his vision clears, he’s crouching on the floor and the armor is in pieces around him. There’s no sight of a human body, no blood to suggest there was a person who might have gotten away.

He stays there for a moment, catching his breath, recentering his mind to the calmness he needs in battle. “Mark III,” he mutters, picking himself up out of the ruins of the suit and shaking his head to clear the dust from his hair. Iron Man has killer robots after all.

It won’t save him.

oOoOoOo

Toni’s Workshop

She may not need a suit to deal with threats, but it sure as fuck is a lot easier. Toni breathes a faint sigh of relief as the armor closes around her, powering up weapons and flight systems. “You two should stay here,” she says. “JARVIS can lock the workshop down after I leave. You’ll be safe here. It’d take a tank to get through those doors.”

“Sounds perfect,” Simmons says, hovering over Fitz as she cleans the cut above his eye. “What if they have a tank?”

Toni grins, reaches up and snaps the faceplate down. “I’m Toni Stark, world-class engineer,” she says. “And you are FitzSimmons, world-class geniuses. If you can’t find something to cobble together in my workshop that can stop a tank, we’re going to need to rethink your claim to that title.”

Simmons’ shoulders firm up a little under that, and Toni’s gotta say, she likes the fire in the woman’s eyes. “Understood,” she says.

“J,” she says as she turns away and moves towards the door. “As soon as I’m out, lock it down. Seal everything. I don’t care what it takes, you keep them safe. If it looks like they need it, let them access armory specs and prototypes.”

“Understood, ma’am.” A pause. “Should I put in a call to Agent Coulson?”

She tilts her head and considers. Behind her, the door hisses shut and clicks secure. “May as well,” she says, and then has to throw herself forward, burning a second of jets to launch faster, as a black-clad goon steps out from around the corner and opens fire with an assault rifle. She sets her feet and skids to a stop, and snaps off a repulsor blast.

“Stark.” Coulson’s voice is tight. “We’re in the middle of… I just heard your repulsors.”

“Hi boss,” she says, forcing cheer into her tone. “It seems that, with all of you away, I’m slightly under attack here at the tower. JARVIS counts eight invaders, at least. I’ve got him controlling the other suits. FitzSimmons are on lockdown in the workshop.”

“Understood. We’ll wrap up as soon as possible here, and head back to give you a hand.”

“Take your time,” she says, lining up a shot on a pair of goons, and blowing them both into walls in quick succession. “Finding Steve is imp--”

She screeches to a halt in midair in the middle of the corridor, staring in shock at the tall, broad-shouldered man walking down the hall towards her. Even if she didn’t have his face seared into her brain forever by her father’s obsessive search, the shield on his arm would have given it away. “Oh Jesus,” she breathes. “Oh fuck.”

“Stark? Stark!”

“He’s here,” she says. “Captain America is h--”

Faster than she could have believed possible, he whips his arm forward. She takes a vibranium shield to the face, and the comm drops out.

She reels backwards, crying out in shock as the faceplate dents inwards, cracking her uncomfortably in the teeth. The taste of blood floods her mouth, and she feels at her lip automatically with the tip of her tongue, finding a split.

“I don’t care how many robots you throw at me, Iron Man!” Steve is shouting, coming down the hallway like the goddamn Terminator, intense and terrifying and relentless. “I’ll tear through them all until you face me!”

Head in the game, Stark. Head in the game. It’s any other villain. It’s just like Bucky, right? You got Bucky out of fucking Siberia. You can take Steve in the middle of your own fucking home.

"Your information is a little spotty, Spangles,” she says, sliding into the rhythm of snark to keep herself focused. “There’s no one here by that name. Iron Man? Honestly, how fucking patriarchal can you possibly get?”

His face goes dark, changes, shifts. Darkness and unholy triumph flow across it. “It’s you,” he breathes. “Finally.”

And holy shit he’s fast, because he’s on her practically before she can blink, bellowing in rage and smashing the shield into her dented faceplate, hard enough that it dents again, driving her back into a wall, down onto one knee, her head ringing and her vision blurry. “JARVIS,” she says. “J, I might be in a bit of trouble here.”

Steve’s shadow falls over her, and she looks up to see him with his face twisted to something unrecognizable in its anger.  The shield is over his head, edge gleaming above her, a two-handed strike that will probably decapitate her if it hits.

"JARVIS?" she whispers.

“You killed Peggy!” he screams. “Murderer!”

Desperately, she gets a hand up, fast and hard, deflecting the shield strike into the wall. The edge bites deep enough to hold him for a precious second. She capitalizes by slamming her other palm into his chest and firing her repulsors as hard as she dares against human flesh.

The air whuffs out of him, and he crashes backwards, away from her, through a reinforced wall, and disappears into the gloomy room in a flurry of drywall dust and disturbed papers.

Through the window of her laboratory, she sees Simmons’ wide-eyed, stark-white face appear, and she hastily waves at her to go hide. Shit, she cannot do this here. She has to get somewhere safer, get the psychotic supersoldier far away from her baby geniuses.

She grabs the shield and yanks it out of the wall. “Catch me if you can!” she tosses through the hole in the wall, through which she can hear Steve picking himself up. Flicks the edge of the vibranium shield with her finger, just to make it ring, just to piss him off. “Ever play monkey in the middle?” His return, wordless roar sends her rocketing down the hall, carrying Steve's shield with her.

“This is undoubtedly the stupidest idea I’ve ever had, J.” She’s not thinking about how he’s not responding. Not thinking about how much internal circuitry is damaged in her helmet. For all she knows, JARVIS might be responding, but her speakers are completely destroyed. Fuck it, she’s been on her own before. She can do it again.

Her speed is limited in the tight corridors, but Steve's is not and he's catching up ungodly quick. She shoulders a set of reinforced double doors hard, barrels through them into the storage facility once used for Stark smartbombs, now used to house satellite assembly facilities, and pitches the shield as hard as she can into the distance.

Weight hits her back, driving her to her knees. She burns the jets, then abruptly slams the stabilizers, jerking her to a stop. The momentum carries Steve right over her shoulders and flings him off. He twists like a cat in the air, lands on his feet, perfectly set up for a double blast of repulsors. Two more smoking holes appear in his tactical vest, the skin red and raw and smoking beneath as he picks himself back up off the floor.

Deja vu washes over her, and she recalls a very similar scene in a very similar room two months prior. Only Bucky never looked at her with hatred, just emptiness. I am getting so goddamn sick of brainwashed soulmates, she thinks.

“Where’s my shield?” His voice is low and dangerous.

“Technically,” she says, “it’s my shield. I paid the Wakandan government for it, fair market price with seventy years of interest. Seemed only fair, since it was pretty much stolen from them in the first place. It cost me a fuck of a lot of money, and you seem pretty intent on hitting me with it, so I’m not really inclined let you have it.”

He stalks towards her, and she thinks the controlled rage might be just a bit more intimidating than the insane fury. “That’s fine,” he snarls. “I’ll find it eventually. I don’t need it to tear you apart. It would just be faster.”

“Yeah, not super psyched about giving it back to you now, honeybunch.” She keeps him in her field of vision, keeps her repulsors charged and ready to unload. “You mind telling me why your panties are all a-twist, princess? I haven’t done anything to you. I’m pretty sure I’d remember if I had.”

He growls, face a rictus of hate. “You killed my wife. You killed Peggy.”

Jesus Christ, what? “Your wife?” she says incredulously. “Peggy? Peggy Carter?

“So you admit it!”

He leaps towards her, and she blasts upwards by pure rabbit instinct. “Jesus fucking Christ, Steve,” she says, her mouth still running, still on autopilot, because it’s either a steady stream of verbal diarrhea, or endless screaming. “We need to work on your concept of understanding what the fuck I’m saying. Lay off the 'roids, dude. They're obviously damaging your brain. I don’t care what they tell you or how pretty they smile. Hydra doctors are not your friends.”

He stares ferociously up at her, prowling below like a goddamn predator. “I want to know why,” he snarls. “Why did she have to die? Was it because of me? Was that the only reason?”

“Someone’s been seriously fucking with your head, Rogers. As far as I know, Peggy Carter is alive and fucking well at the ripe old age of ninety-seven in a nursing home in Cambridge, England,” she snaps. “No one’s killed her. You were never married. She married some guy named Gabriel back in the fifties.”

Liar!”

Toni yelps as he suddenly jumps and has a hand on her boot, is climbing her hand after furious hand. She shoves her palm down at him, starts to blast him off, but his hand crunches around her gauntlet, squeezes, and then she’s screaming for real as the bones of her hand, beneath the layers of titanium and gold and reinforced mesh, grind together.

She bucks violently, and he goes flying off, landing with a crash and a distinct sort of ringing that pierces the haze of fucking goddamn pain in her hand and the pit of her stomach drops out. “Aw fuck,” she says, tears squeezing out of her eyes as she cradles her probably-broken hand inside the crushed gauntlet. “He’s got his shield back.”

Time to leave.

She dives for the open doors of the assembly bay, biting the inside of her cheek until it bleeds to keep her focused away from her hand. Recklessly slams on the speed, racking her brain for a plan, an escape route, anything, to save her ass.

Her best bet is to not get killed, wait for backup. Can she stay alive long enough for someone to get to her? How long would that be? Wonders how long it’s been since her call to Coulson got dropped. Tries to do the math in her head. At least five minutes to retreat and extract, fifteen minutes tops to haul ass back here, another two or three to find her, maybe. It’s been half that, she thinks, maybe a little less, since she talked to Coulson.

She hears a whimper, broken and hopeless. It comes out of her mouth. Twelve minutes is a long fucking time to stay alive with psycho-Superman and his Tonicidal intentions on her ass.

She can do it. She has to do it. Goddammit, it’s gonna suck, though.

The shield smashes into the bottom of her boot, and the jet goes dead. She loses control, crashes into the wall, through the wall, smashes through furniture and then through another wall, sliding to a stop on her back in another hallway, coughing and dazed. She sends an unaimed shot through the holes she made, and they angle off the shine of his shield. His heel crunches down on her working repulsor, and then it’s not working anymore.

The edge of the shield bites into her armor, and titanium isn’t much of a deterrent to vibranium. Toni shrieks as Steve saws it back and forth, driving it down through the plates and circuits, uses it like a goddamn shovel to pry off the entire chestplate in ragged chunks of red and gold.

“Did she beg for her life?” he rages, and raises the shield again. “Did she plead for you to stop?”

If he hits her again, she’s dead. Without the armor, she might die, but if she stays in it, she’s definitely dead. She takes a chance while he’s still lifting the shield, hits the emergency release, and yanks herself out of the suit, screaming as broken, jagged metal tears into her flesh but forcing herself rolling over her shoulder and onto her hands and knees. A second later, the shield slices down through the armor and scrapes the floor beneath it.

Panic hammers suddenly under Bucky’s soulmark, and there's nothing but cold fury under the white star.

Whatever hope she had that he might stop, like Bucky’d done, when he sees her face dies the instant he lifts his head. Ice goes down her spine, because behind the rage, there’s no one home that she ever wants to meet. “Iron Man is a woman,” he says, and hesitates for a moment, confusion warring with something else in his eyes. But they go hard and cold again the next moment. “Doesn’t matter. You killed Peggy. So I’m going to kill you.”

It’s not the first time Toni’s been certain of her own death. If she doesn’t get killed here, it’s probably not going to be her last. But she’s never been so afraid. Never had the urge to run quite as strongly. Never given into it, until now.

She bolts, pushing off the ground and into a dead run, panic hammering in her head. She’s got just enough self awareness to try and keep things between her and Steve, out of the line of sight of that goddamn shield. If that hits her, if she falls, if he catches her, she’s dead. Bucky's close. He has to be. She just needs to stay alive a little while longer.

Think, Toni. No armor, no tech, no weapons. You’re still dangerous. What do you have?

She knows what she has. And it’s a brilliant idea. And it’s only one floor away.

He wants to know about Peggy? Well, she’ll fucking give him all the answers he ever wanted, and hope that’s enough to hold him until someone comes to save her ass.

He’s thundering after her, and she knows that he’s faster, even without the shield. He doesn’t know the building like she does, though. There’s an access door that leads to the crawlspace between floors down the next corridor. She just needs to get to it.

She forgets that the shield can bounce. She remembers when it rings off the wall to her left, and slams into her left shoulder. Something pops, white-hot pain screams through her body, and she hits the ground, hard.

She fights through the pain, gets back to her feet and keeps going. Twenty feet. Behind her, she hears the ring of vibranium on tile, figures he must have just picked up the shield. Ten feet. She slams her palm on the biometric scanner, and the maintenance door opens. She darts inside and slams it closed just as his shadow falls over her.

She drops to her knees, pulls up the access panel and drops into it, letting out an involuntary squeal at the sudden crash of the shield against the door. “I’m in a goddamn horror movie,” she says, feeling the urge to laugh wildly and just barely restraining it. If she starts, she’s not going to stop.

Her shoulder is pulsing and it feels like there’s a red-hot coal set deep in the bone. Her vision keeps going blurry, threatening to black out, as she scoots along as best she can with only one working arm and a broken hand to boot. “You will not die in between the fucking floors of your own fucking building, Stark,” she says through gritted teeth. “Get your shit together.”

She drops out onto the next floor through an overhead vent. It’s awkward and painful with only one hand available, and the blood slicking her hand makes her grip slip, sending her crashing down. She lands badly, wrenching her ankle. Keeps hobbling along. She’s almost there; just another few dozen feet. Overhead and behind, she hears the crash of the security door giving way, knows he’ll find the trap door she left deliberately open. Captain America’s a smart man. He’ll figure it out.

Knows he has when he starts punching through the ceiling behind her.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Her bloody hand is on the security keypad when she hears him hit the floor behind her. Footsteps thunder towards her. She wants to look, refuses to look. Punches 070420 with shaking, slick-red fingers. The lock clicks open, she yanks at the handle, and throws herself through the door just as he reaches her.

She jolts her shoulder as she crashes into the floor, skidding across the slick tile and leaving a wide smear of red behind, and everything goes white and staticky for a bit. This is it, she thinks, fading out. I’m not going to wake up. He’s going to kill me now.

She wishes she could tell her people she loves them one last time.

oOoOoOo

Steve

Stark is sprawled on the floor, bleeding and unconscious and easy pickings, but Steve can’t lift his arm. He can’t move his feet. Can’t look away from the display cases and the photos, the posters and the shining motorcycle behind the glass case. White and blue, stars and stripes, pictures of chorus girls and training camps. Pictures of a scrawny little kid in fatigues, jaw tipped defiantly towards the camera, pictures of that kid and a man with brown hair and wicked eyes, pictures of that kid and an elderly man with sad eyes and a kind smile. Pictures of Peggy and the kid.

The kid who he knows is him.

This is right. This is all right. This makes sense.

Names, dates, faces, memories of scent and sound rise with every photo he looks at. He steps past Stark, steps around her, vaguely hears the shield clatter and ring on the floor as he drops it. Sees himself in every photo, pre-serum, post-serum. Remembers every scene. Every battle. Every stage. Every time he punched Hitler in the mouth for the cheering crowds. Erskine, Peggy, Phillips, the Howling Commandos. Howard Stark. Bucky. Bucky.

Remembers putting the pencil to the pages carefully laid out on velvet under glass, remembers each and every sketch. Late at night, by candlelight, on the front, in hotel rooms on the bonds tour.

His whole life is here, exactly what Doctor Fennhoff told him was only a dream, a fantasy-world based on another man’s life. He wanders between the displays for he doesn't know how long, lost in memories he thought were illusions.

They were never illusions.

This is the truth. 

There never was a second Project Rebirth. He is not the second Captain America. He is the first and only Captain America. He was not married to Peggy. Peggy was not killed by Iron Man. He did crash a plane into the ice, and he slept in ice for over 70 years.

The scuff of a foot on the floor has him spinning, snarling, attacking the newcomer, a blurry figure crouching over Stark. The crack of something hard and strong into his mouth sends him reeling back, skidding onto his backside, spitting blood from suddenly-split lips. 

A maddeningly familiar voice, leashed fury and pain and rage and grief: "You done, or am I gonna have to knock some more fucking sense into you?"

He's breathing hard, wild-eyed, off balance and reeling, scrambles to his feet. A dark-haired man crouches over Stark, brushing back her hair, gently caressing her cheek, cradling her head in his lap. A man with a metal arm and a sniper rifle slung over his back. A familiar man, he realizes, and the world crumbles as Bucky Barnes stares furiously at him, torn between absolute rage and utter joy. Steve’s legs go out from under him and he's back on the floor, staring up at his soulmate, alive and well.

“Seventy years, Stevie,” he says, and his voice cracks. “Seventy fuckin' years, and your dumb punk ass is still dragging me into the middle of fights you got no business picking.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Med Lab, Stark Tower
May 4, 2012

It’s funny, when he thinks about it, because three months ago, he was a soulless Hydra assassin with no thoughts of his own. And now he’s the goddamn adult in charge of the whole asylum, because the head lunatic had the bright idea to hand him top-access codes to the whole place, then got herself all unconscious and heavily medicated with half her body broken, bleeding or bruised.

Sometimes, he misses the ice. After two days of answering questions and authorizing accesses and giving permission for people to start moving in, and dealing with SHIELD via Coulson, in between sitting with his soulmates who are not conveniently placed in the same room, he’s more than ready to climb in the chair, have this whole fucking week wiped right out, and curl up for a few years of undisturbed rest.

But he has to do it, because he has Toni’s back, fuck his life. He’s her soulmate, all official and shit even, and he has to do it because she can’t. Toni is still out cold, drugged to the gills with heavy painkillers and serious sedatives, until Helen Cho can get her head out of her ass and fly out from California to fix Toni.

He’s being uncharitable, and he knows it. Cho needs equipment transported, is taking the time to ensure it’s packed away carefully, crossing her Ts and dotting her Is before making the trip to New York. But the stress is just getting to him. He’s not wired for this shit. He’s not meant to be a leader. He’s the guy who follows right behind the leader. The lieutenant. Damned good at making sure shit gets done, but not the guy who comes up with the plans.

Toni’s good at plans. And leading had always been Steve’s thing.

Which brings him to Steve.

Steve, Steve, Steve.

Fucking Steve.

Logically, he knows it’s not Steve’s fault. Just like he logically knows that Toni’s physical state after Siberia isn’t his fault either. But see, logic isn’t playing in Bucky’s ballpark right now. Logic isn’t even on the game schedule. Logic is way down the line, in the bottom of the league. Right now, Rage is playing Self-Recrimination, and so far, score is tied.

He sighs with his arms folded, looking through the one-way glass into Steve’s isolation room. It’s supposed to be rated for something called a Hulk -- which he assumes is big and strong, from the name -- so it’s holding Steve just fine while he sweats out whatever chemical cocktail the good docs at Hydra Labs had been loading him with.

Steve’s never liked being sick, has to hate it now, since Erskine’s experiment was supposed to cure him of ever getting sick again. He should go in, sit with him while he’s awake and more-or-less lucid.

And he should tell Steve about Toni.

Or punch him in the mouth for Toni.

One of those two.

Toni’d probably want to do her own punching, though. He keeps forgetting this is a time when the ladies want to look after their own slugging and slapping.

Okay, honestly, he wants to punch Steve for himself.

He should go check on Toni, but it’s only a half-hearted attempt to convince himself to leave Steve alone. He knows Toni’s got company, lots of it. Company that isn’t going to leave her alone. Clint’s eyes had been hard and sharp and accusing the last time he looked in on her and found Clint wrapped around her, keeping her warm and comfortable.

It was the kind of look that said, I trusted you to appreciate my friend, but she’s had nothing but pain since she chose you. Go away, you’re not needed. I’m taking care of her now.

Or maybe that’s his own goddamn guilt talking. Bucky doesn’t know. He’s too goddamn tired to keep track. His enhanced body might be able to stay awake and on his feet for days at a time, but there are some kinds of exhaustion that are beyond its abilities to cure.

Yet here he goes again, taking a deep breath, opening Steve’s door, stepping inside. Moving quietly to the chair beside the bed Steve is curled up in, broad shoulders hunched and tall length curled around his stomach.

He sits and pulls his phone out of the pocket of his sweatpants, ties his hair back and plays Angry Birds quietly until Steve’s eyes fly open maybe ten minutes later. He knows the routine by now, has seen it enough times to move his legs out of the way as Steve scrambles off the bed and rushes for the bathroom. Moves them again after a prolonged period of muffled retching and spitting to let Steve lie back down, then slouches down in his chair and crosses his ankles on the mattress.

“My head hurts,” Steve mumbles.

“That’s what happens when you let Hydra dick around with it,” Bucky replies, though not without sympathy. He knows better than most people what Steve’s going through right now. “Doc says you’ve got another day or so before all that shit’s out of your system. But you’re not talkin’ to people who aren’t there anymore. That’s something.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Steve flops onto his back, and pulls a pillow over his eyes. “I don’t really remember a whole lot clearly. I’m not entirely sure I know what happened and what didn’t.”

“They have these great inventions in the 21st century,” Bucky says. “They’re called mouths and people use them to ask questions when they aren’t sure about things.”

It almost feels like it used to, the bantering, the not-quite-flirting. Steve lifts the pillow off his face long enough to glare at Bucky with one baleful blue eye. He stares back, unimpressed, and Steve lets the pillow corner drop again. “How’s the woman? Stark, was it? I guess she’s Howard’s daughter? How is she doing?”

Bucky tries to force himself not to tense, not to react to the shot of rage and fear the goes across him, through him. Tries not to remember the way Toni looked sprawled in blood on the floor, even though he knows that’s going to feature in his nightmares for a while. “Toni’s a survivor, and her life is kinda… rough. She’s bad, but this isn’t the worst she’s been through. She’ll be okay.”

He needs to tell Steve. He really needs to tell Steve.

Steve slumps into the bed. “Good,” he says, with clear relief. “Good. I… there was a lot of blood. And I…” He looks like he’s going to be sick again. “I don’t understand any of what’s happened, Buck. Everything’s jumbled together. And…” He pauses. “I can tell you’re angry, but I don’t know why.”

Bucky really doesn’t want to do this. He’s not the therapist type. He’s not anywhere near stable enough to deal with this. But that’s the thing: none of them have ever been stable enough. He’s read enough psychology books and articles about shell shock and battle fatigue – what they call post-traumatic stress disorder these days – to know that every single one of his weird family unit could use deep, deep therapy, but they clutch each other and drag themselves through, muddling along until they find something that works.

He knows that, just as Toni and Clint and Natasha made room in their strange co-orbits, they’ll make room for Steve. And not just for Toni’s sake. For Bucky’s too, because he’s integrated with them now. He belongs to them, and they belong to him.

It’s the first time the thought of him belonging somewhere, having family, hasn’t felt strange or wondrous. It’s just felt comfortable and right.

“Alright,” he says, and leans his head against the back of the chair. “Let’s see if we can unjumble it a bit. Ask me something.”

Steve sits up, crossing his legs. “Why are you so angry?”

Trust Steve to go right for the question Bucky wants to answer the least. For a long moment, he isn’t sure how to answer. Finally, he just sighs and unzips his hoodie, hooks his fingers in the neck of his shirt, and pulls it down to show Toni’s soulmark.

Steve’s eyes go wide and soft, and his hand lifts off the bed, reaching out but stopping shy of touching. “You found her,” he breathes. “You found…” Cuts dead with a strangled noise, like an animal in pain, and Bucky knows he’s figured it out. “Oh fuck, no.”

“Oh fuck, yes,” Bucky says as neutrally as he can, isn’t as successful as he wants to be. He zips his hoodie back up.

Steve’s hand stays outstretched for a moment, and a fine tremor goes through it. He curls it into a fist, tight and white-knuckled, and carefully puts it back down in his lap. Bucky doesn’t need a bond to feel the rage pouring off Steve, never has. But it beats in his breast anyway, deep and cold as ice, counterpoint to his own hot, molten fury.

“How bad is she?” Steve asks tightly. “How badly did I hurt her?”

“Bad enough,” Bucky replies. “But she’ll be okay.” At Steve’s burning, pointed look, he sighs. “Stevie…”

“Tell me.”

Bucky eyes Steve, sees the set of his jaw, the defiant jut forward, the stubborn frown. Knows Steve’s not going to let it go, no matter how much he probably doesn’t need the laundry list of how fucked-up Toni is. “Broken shoulder, broken clavicle,” he says, and watches every word punch Steve in the teeth. “Broken ankle. Concussion. Her right hand is a mess. Almost every bone is broken in a couple of places. I lost track of the bruises. Probably a couple of cracked ribs. Couple of deep cuts. Lots of little ones. She lost some blood.”

“Fucking God,” Steve says shakily, and pushes his hands through his hair, holding onto his head for a moment. “How the hell is she going to be okay with all that, Bucky?”

“You don’t know Toni yet,” he replies. “I’m pretty sure that you beating the shit out of her might make the top ten list of times she’s been hospitalized, but it definitely doesn’t crack the top five. Number six, maybe.”

Steve just stares at him, stricken and sick. “That isn’t comforting, Bucky.”

Bucky shrugs. “It is to me,” he says, smirks a little. “Shoves me down to number seven.”

oOoOoOo

Med Lab, Stark Tower
Toni’s Room
May 5, 2012

To Toni’s eternal astonishment, she wakes up.

And it sucks .

Her head has that foggy, drifting feeling that means she’s on some truly epic painkillers. She knows everything hurts, but it’s distant and dull, ruthlessly shoved and smothered under a numbing blanket of narcotics and sedatives. Her mind isn’t screaming along at warp speed, it’s crawling on its hands and knees and stopping to take power naps. It’s going to take her days to shake off the fogginess.

But hey, still breathing. She’s labeling that a win. Tentatively.

Even though everything hurts, including her eyes when she opens them.

“Ow,” she whispers, and it comes out as a creak, because her throat is bone-dry.

“Morning, honey,” Clint says from somewhere above and to the left, and his voice is very soft. Something touches her forehead, hard to tell because of how utterly disconnected she is from her own skin, but she thinks it’s his fingers. “Sleep well?”

“... hotel sucks,” she rasps, and her eyes drift closed again. “Bed’s flat. Room s’rvice sucks. Gimme m’money back.”

“All the things you broke, and your terrible, inappropriate sense of humor stays intact. Just our luck.” His rumbling chuckle sounds very far away. The drugs are creeping up to cloud her brain again, and she starts to sink into it, then remembers and fights her way back with a pained gasp.

“Stop moving, Toni.” Clint’s voice is edged with unhappy worry, and his fingers stroke her forehead and cheeks. “You gotta stay still. You’re pretty banged up. Go back to sleep. Better if you pass out til Dr. Cho’s here to fix you up.”

“Steve,” she gets out, hazy and dreamy. “Bucky. Where...”

His hands go still on her face. “Forget those two assholes,” he says, roughly. “Worry about yourself right now, huh?”

“Yeah,” she breathes. “Kay.” She licks her lips, and it feels like cotton over sandpaper. His hands feel good, remind her of all the times he's been there, remind her of sunlight and beaches and her mansion on the cliffs. She misses it, suddenly, knows it's probably just the drugs, but misses it desperately, because everything was simpler and brighter. She wonders if he misses it too. “Hey… ever wanna go back?”

The light, soothing touches resume. “Go back? Go back where?”

“Malibu. Just me an’ you. Before…. everything.” She sighs, sinks into the pillows, closes her eyes. Barely notices Clint’s soft, choked cry. “Was good. Easier. Ever wanna?”

“Sometimes,” he says, and she feels him kiss her forehead, a light pressure she barely senses. “Go back to sleep, Toni. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Kay. M'tired.” She doesn’t fight it this time, just sinks into the warm, numbing, drugged feeling, and lets the world slip away.

--------

Clint

Toni doesn't hesitate to speak her mind, and it's one of the things Clint really appreciates about her. Neither one of them have patience or the appropriate brain-to-mouth filters for idiots, and sometimes there's nothing he likes better than to just sit with her and see who can come up with the snippiest one-liners. It's fun. It's challenging. It's something he can do with no one else in his life, because no one else has the snark or the weird twist to their sense of humor he and Toni do.

But Toni censors herself far more often than he does. His mouth moves too fast for his brain to catch, whereas her mouth happens to be able to keep up with her brain. He knows there's things she doesn't say sometimes, or things she words more carefully than she thought them. She only speaks the raw, unrefined content of her thoughts when she's under the influence of something. Booze, normally, even if she needs to get into a state of rip-roaring drunk she rarely ever has. But pain meds, he's found out far too frequently for his liking recently, have the same effect on her self-censorship. Toni says exactly what she's thinking, without stopping to pretty it up or tone it down.

Toni's never looked backward and missed it. She might think fondly about something she experienced, and he knows better than anyone that she has regrets, or things she wishes she had done differently, but Toni is firmly eyes-forward, focused on what is to come. The future is what beckons her, not the past. Not once in his earshot has she ever said, I want to go back. And certainly never because it was easier back then.

He stares down at Toni, lost and pained, her battered face framed in his palms. Wishing for things that were is his wheelhouse, not hers. It stabs something in him, cracks something in him, to hear her wish for simpler times, because that has never been who she is.

“Goddammit, Toni,” he says, and his heart is breaking. “You don't deserve any of this.”

No great secret to anyone that she's the love of his life, but only if he had to label it. He doesn't usually bother trying to define it, because whoever he's trying to explain it to is just going to spin it their own way anyway. Like Bucky, who still thinks he's just jealous because his presence means Clint doesn't share her bed right now, but it's not about that. It's never been about that.

It's always been about safety and happiness, and there is an alarmingly exponential downward trend of both in Toni's life. A snowball that keeps rolling until it's a fucking avalanche burying her alive, that he has to stand watch happen until she calls for his help. And most of the time, it's fine. He's happy to jump in when she needs. But he can't stand back and watch, not this time. No more. He has limits too.

He's long past them.

Even if it means Toni never speaks to him or trusts him again, he's going to take care of this shit once and for all. Because in the end, it's always been up to him to have her back, even when she thinks she doesn't need protection.

--------

Steve’s Room

“... and she gives me this look, like I’d just said the dumbest fuckin’ thing she’d ever heard, and says, ‘I’m not drunk, and I’m not twelve. I’m not calling you Bucky. I give no fucks how hot you are.’” Bucky grins at the memory as Steve laughs, and tips his chair back on two legs. “She called me James for weeks. Felt like I was back in school and I'd just pissed off one of the nuns.”

“Sister Margaret?” Steve says with a tentative smile. “Like that?”

Bucky snorts a laugh. “Jesus, yes. Exactly like that. That unimpressed eyebrow and the way she could drag out your name to mean a hundred things. You're gonna love her, Stevie. Toni’s so--”

The door opens without warning, and Clint walks through. Bucky glances over automatically, notes who it is, and is turning back to Steve when the look on Clint’s face registers: smooth as stone, strange and distant. He jerks back, rises halfway out of his chair, suddenly certain something’s happened to Toni, because Clint wouldn’t look like that unless something is terribly wrong. “Clint, is Toni--”

Clint lashes out with a kick, precise and vicious, hits the top of Bucky’s chair with enough force to knock it sideways and off-balance, and Bucky goes flailing out of his seat, spilling onto the floor in a sprawling tangle of limbs and a surprised grunt. Steve gets halfway off the bed, alarmed, and Clint cocks his arm back. Bucky has a split second to think dumbass is going to break his fucking hand before Clint’s fist impacts in the center of Steve’s face… and then Steve is rocking backwards with a sharp bark of pain, hitting the mattress heavily and streaming blood from his mouth and nose.

Bucky scrambles back to his feet, hands fisting at his side, anger flushing through him. “What the fuck, Barton?!”

“Sit. The fuck. Down. Now.”

There's a dangerous note in Clint’s voice, something final and terrible, that brings Bucky up short. It's the voice of someone so far past their tolerance levels, they're on another planet. The voice of someone he really doesn't want to fuck with, because even with accelerated healing and superior strength, he’s got the distinct impression that Clint’s beyond caring about his own well-being, and would cheerfully die as long as he takes the two of them out with him.

Bucky sits the fuck down, right next to Steve, who’s holding his bleeding face with one broad hand, eyes wide and shocked above the line of his fingers.

Clint pulls something off his fist, tosses it thoughtfully between his hands. Brass knuckles, only made of some duller, thicker, weightier metal than brass or steel. “Adamantium,” Clint says calmly, and enunciates every syllable precisely. “Toni made it for me a few years ago. It’s not quite as satisfying as hitting you with my bare fist would have been, but I figure there are enough broken bones in this place at the moment.”

“What the fuck, Barton?” Bucky says, much more calmly and politely.

Clint points at them both with the first two fingers of his right hand. “You two are going to shut up,” he informs them. “I am going to speak, and you are going to listen. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Bucky says warily, echoed nasally by Steve a second later.

Clint doesn’t yell, or fist his hands or anything remotely threatening. He simply stands there, staring them both down with calm, hard eyes, and says, “I have officially given my last fuck where you two assholes are concerned. I’m very sorry you were mind-controlled. I’m sure it must have sucked Satan’s balls. But this is two for two, and Toni is on the edge of breaking something that can't be fixed. Girl's got a heart the size of the fucking moon, so she's not going to hold anyone but Hydra responsible for what happened. on the other hand, am not remotely so forgiving. 

"So here’s your one and only warning: You two will get your shit together and you will fucking keep it together. She deserves far better than either of you will ever be, but you are who she’s stuck with. And you will never give her reason to regret it. If I see her in another hospital bed with bruises that match your hands or weapons, I am not going to give a single, merrily-flying fuck about mind control or magic spells or alien shapeshifters from another fucking galaxy. I will kill you, and because you both heal insanely fast, I will do so creatively. Are we clear?”

It isn't a threat, or a promise, or a even a guarantee. It comes out of Clint's mouth ringing with the truth of an immutable law of the universe. And Clint may be an unaugmented, plain, old, vanilla human being, but there is absolutely no doubt in Bucky's mind that Clint will do exactly as he says. “We’re crystal,” he says.

“Good,” Clint says curtly, and leaves as abruptly as he entered.

Bucky takes a long breath, releases it through his nose, rubs the back of his neck. "Jesus. Shoulda seen that coming a mile away." 

“I feel like I should be taking him seriously,” Steve says, gingerly touching his face. He’s already healing, cuts are closed up, but his nose is still swollen and red. "Who the hell was that?"

“Oh yeah,” Bucky says, and gets up to get Steve a wet rag for the blood on his face. “That was Clint. And yeah. Yeah, you should definitely take him seriously.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Natasha
Quinjet, Atlantic Ocean
May 4, 2012

Even a thousand miles away, Natasha can feel Clint’s anger. Their bond has always been stronger for her than it has been for him, stronger and steadier than studies say bonds usually are. It was disquieting at first, in the early days, to feel someone else’s unchecked emotions, their raw pain and effervescent joy, sitting beneath her skin like a ball of electricity, but she’s come to appreciate it over their time together. Her life has been spent sussing out the deepest truths of her targets, keeping her own reactions under tight control. It’s comforting to know that there is one person she never has to try to read, because she knows his shifting moods from moment to moment.

This anger, though. It doesn’t feel like his. She knows it is, can feel him in it, the bright flash of his mind laces through it, but it’s not anger he’s ever had before. It’s a quiet, bleeding well as deep as an ocean, as still as a mirror. And that anger, she knows intimately well, because it’s hers.

It comes from him, but it’s her rage.

She taps a fingernail on the comm console, debating for a moment before inputting Clint’s cell number and sending it through. She isn’t on strict communications blackout for the operation, but she even if she was, she’d break it for this.

The line is picked up on the first ring. “Hi Nat,” he says and sounds perfectly calm and normal.

She checks her flight plan, trajectory, calculates the distance and time it would take her to travel back to New York if he tells her to come home. “What happened?”

He doesn’t try to deflect or dissemble, another refreshing trait of his she deeply appreciates. “I knocked Barnes on his ass and punched Rogers in the mouth,” he says, collected and matter-of-fact. “And told them that I’d end them if this ever happened again.”

She arches an eyebrow, even though he can’t see. “Is anything broken?”

“My patience. That’s it.” He pauses, knows what she’s asking. “Remember that thing Toni gave me for my birthday two years back? It came in handy.”

Natasha does remember, and she smiles. “And their response?”

“I made myself clear. Barnes understood. Rogers was busy bleeding, so who knows? I’m sure Bucky’ll explain it to him if he needs a reminder.”

Natasha is torn, because she understands mental conditioning, not being in control of one’s own actions, understands that it’s not really either of their faults. But she also understands that Toni’s frequency of needing medical attention is becoming untenable. If she’s being honest with herself, which is harder than it sounds, she’s surprised Clint held out this long before snapping. “Will they retaliate?”

“They can try.” Dark promise in that statement, and it sends a frisson of fear and arousal down Natasha’s spine. “In fact, let them try. One toenail over the line, and I’ll grab Toni, and you and I will disappear with her. We’re very good at disappearing. They’d never find us.”

Natasha lays her hand gently on the edge of the comm, brushing a fingertip along the ring of the speaker. “You’d never do anything that compromises Toni’s right of choices,” she says, less of a statement of fact and more of a gentle reminder. “Even if that would solve a lot of problems,” she adds, after thinking about it for a moment.

“I know,” he says, and sighs. The eerie calm drains from his voice, and now he’s just plaintive and tired. “Things would be so much easier if I was a goddamn villain, you know. I fucking hate having morals and basic respect for others right now. When are you coming home?”

“A day or so,” she says. “Coulson asked me to try and recruit an expert in biochemistry and the various incarnations of the supersoldier project in particular, to help Simmons decipher the Hydra files. Is Toni in the machine yet?”

“Tomorrow, I think. Cho’s landing in an hour, and Coulson’s arranging transport for her and all her shiny shit. Gonna take her awhile to set up, so I’m guessing it’ll be tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.”

“I’ll try to make it back in time. Keep me updated if something changes.”

“Always, darling. I love you.”

She smiles, runs her index finger along the rim of the speaker again. “С любовью,” she says softly, and cuts the call. She flies in silence for awhile, drawing closer and closer to the Indian coast, thinking about Clint, about Toni, about soulmates in general. Privately, secretly grateful she only ever manifested the one mark, because she has never wanted to share her life that much with anyone.

She doesn’t do romance and love and expressions of affection. She prefers loyalty and respect, devotion to hard-forged bonds. Still, she knows that, if it were at all possible to force it into existence, she’d already have given Clint Toni’s mark, be wearing Toni’s mark herself, and have her comfortable partnership with Clint a full-blown metaphysical triad instead.

She will never act on it, or at least has almost zero intention to ever act on it, but she’s gotten this far in life by making plans and having contingencies for even the remotest possibilities stored away in the back of her mind. But if it is necessary, she won’t have any compunctions like Clint would. Clint may be bound by morals and respect for self-determination, but Natasha has her own limits to how much she will tolerate. She hasn’t reached them yet, but her moral compass is far, far cloudier than her soulmate’s could ever be.

She tucks that realization into the back of her mind, lets it simmer on a quiet little burner, just in case she one day needs it. Because there is one Sorcerer Supreme she knows where to find, and failing that, she can go beat answers out of the Sorcerer-King of Latveria.

oOoOoOo

Steve
Gymnasium, Stark Tower
May 5, 2012

In hindsight, Steve is a fucking idiot.

His fist sinks into the heavy bag, denting the thick leather around his knuckles and rocking the whole rig with an alarming creak. Steve ignores it and hits it again, with his other hand, with the same result. It’s easy to be angry with himself. He’s been running everything he remembers of his time at the Hydra labs through his head for the past hour, near-perfect recall not his friend in this, analyzing every word spoken, every tone used, every nuance he can pull meaning from.

Hydra played him pretty masterfully, though he hates to admit it even to himself. Fennhoff was convincing in his carefully-worded, mild-voiced conversations, knew just what to say to seed doubt and confusion deeper. Manipulated Steve into trusting him, and Steve was too stupid to listen to every instinct that screamed about how wrong things were.

He doesn’t understand how they turned another woman into Peggy, let alone hidden his own goddamned soulmarks from him and put a false one on him. Bucky’d shown him the technology, some fine mesh panel that can be programmed to make a person look however they want. It’s science-fiction to him, though. It’s something that HG Wells or Jules Verne write about in their novels and serials. He’s seen it work, both in the security footage taken from Hydra, and on Bucky’s own body, changing his artificial arm back and forth between looking metal and looking like flesh. He just can’t really believe it’s real.

But that’s really his problem right now, isn’t it? He can’t believe any of this is real. It was a long night’s sleep to him, one minute crashing into the ice and sinking into the ocean and the next waking up to a brand new world. But it wasn’t just a long night’s sleep. It was seventy fucking years. It was at least five major wars, twelve Presidents, massive cultural and social evolution in all corners of the world, thousands of technological innovations, millions of new songs and books and movies, new laws, new industries, new everything.

Methodically, he pounds into the bag, every hit a precise blow, every muscle and tendon in perfect control. The bag rocks rhythmically on its chains, rattling softly as it moves back and forth, vague impressions of his fists leaving vague dents that shift as the bag does. If he pretends hard enough, he can almost see Dr. Fennhoff’s face silhouetted in the dull shine, and his hits get a little harder.

He feels like he’s living in the stories of Edward Page Mitchell, carefully cut from the pages of old copies of The Sun he could find, carefully tied together with leftover pieces of twine and read and re-read on days he was too sick to get out of bed. Cyborgs and mutants and computers that could think like people and flying machines that could go to the moon kept his mind occupied, his hands sketching what his imagination spun with his chewed-up pencils and jealously-hoarded scraps of paper.

He doesn’t have to imagine any of it anymore, because everything he read about in his newspaper serials and library books and listened to in radio plays, everything that long-ago Stark Expo promised, all the fantastic tales of futuristic technology are present-day technology. He’s lived some of it, he thinks, the time travel and being frozen in time and becoming superhuman and unearthly objects with incredible power. But living it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

He was primed for any explanation that made sense to him, and Hydra provided one. What seems more realistic, Captain Rogers? That you remained youthful and alive for nearly seven decades in Arctic ice until being quite coincidentally found and thawed, or that you are Captain America’s successor, who suffered an injury which resulted in memory loss your brain tries to compensate for by creating false memories and fantasy situations?

It had been so logical, so rational, so believable, so fucking stupid of him to fall for it.

And then, they sent him after Toni, knowing who she was, twisting and manipulating and playing with his mind until he was driven to kill, driven to destroy, driven to completely annihilate the one other person besides Bucky who should never, ever have cause to fear him. But they ruined that, made him ruin it, and it’s always going to be between them now.

He drives his fist into the bag, snarling with the sudden surge of rage that screams behind his eyes. The thick leather of the bag gives way with a loud, groaning rip, and sand patters fast and furious on the floor. He sighs, closes his eyes, leans his forehead against the cool surface of the bag. Pulls his hand out, sending more sand cascading everywhere. “ Fuck ,” he says, soft and savage, and reaches for his towel and the bottle of water on the nearby bench

“Rough day?”

On some level, he must have noticed the presence of another person, because he doesn’t instinctively prepare to attack. The voice is unexpected, but there’s no rush of adrenaline, no honed reactions swinging him around with clenched fists, just a tight, unhappy knot between his shoulderblades.

He spares a glance back, then wipes his face with the towel. It’s the blonde woman, the one Bucky said also had a suit of armor Toni made for her. Carol Danvers, Air Force colonel. Drilled-in training wants him to salute, but Steve isn’t in the mood for playing military politics today. “I’m fine,” he says shortly, and unscrews the cap to the water, gulping it down.

“Clearly,” Carol says flatly, moving around to stand in his line of sight. She has an eyebrow up, and her arms are crossed over her chest. “People who are fine punch holes in heavy-duty, impact-resistant, shock-absorbent bags specially engineered for supersoldier strength all the time. Captain, if you’re going to lie through your teeth right in my face, at least have the common goddamn courtesy to make it believable.”

He sighs, lifts the bottle again and drains it completely without breaking eye contact. “What do you want, Colonel?”

“It’s actually pronounced Carol, but I’ll give you points for getting it close.” Her face softens, her voice grows less sharp. “Dr. Cho is just about ready. Toni’s going to be undergoing treatment in a few minutes. I thought I’d come see if you wanted to be there. You know, moral support for both your soulmates?”

He stops to think about it for a minute. He wants to -- God, he wants to -- but he probably shouldn’t. He mulls it over as he gets another bottle of water out of the refrigerator against the wall, is still thinking when he finishes the bottle. “Not sure that’s a good idea,” he mutters.

Her response is to slap him a glancing blow up the back of his skull. It’s not painful, because Carol simply doesn’t have the strength to hurt him, but it’s startling enough that he says ow simply by reflex. “What was that for?”

“You’re starting to wallow,” Carol replies. “It’s not your turn to wallow. We have a roster drawn up and this is Bucky’s time to wallow, since it’s his soulmate on the table and all. It’s terrible form to just horn in on someone else’s scheduled self-pity.”

“She’s my soulmate too,” Steve says automatically, then hears what just came out of his mouth and stops dead, staring blankly at the empty bottle in his hand. Jesus Christ, she’s his soulmate, she’s injured and about to undergo a medical procedure. So what’s he doing down here, feeling sorry for himself?

“Yeah.” Carol is smiling. “She is. And it’s really nice to hear you admit it. Is that the first time you said it out loud?”

“I… I don’t know.” He tries to think back, tries to remember if he ever used the words before. Oh. He doesn’t think he has. “Yeah. I think so. Why?”

Carol just keeps smiling at him like he said something particularly cute or adorable. “Because when you say it out loud so you can hear it? That’s when it hits you, fully and completely, that you have a soulmate. Or two, in your case. You’ve already bonded with one, so you should know this.”

“She’s my soulmate,” he says again, trying it out, testing the facts. He feels a little stupid with wonder.

Carol sighs and rolls her eyes, then puts her hands on him, spins him around by the shoulders, and gently starts pushing him towards the door. “Let’s go, Captain Rogers,” she says. “The punching bag’s done in, and you’ve got somewhere else to be.”

oOoOoOo

Bucky
Observation Room, Med Labs

He’s not handling this well.

He’s not about to go off the rails or anything, but he’s definitely not handling this well. He hasn’t slept in what feels like years, because he’s not used to sleeping alone anymore. He’s too used to sleeping beside Toni, wrapping around her skin and warmth and vanilla-metal-coffee scent. Too used to drifting off with his nose in her hair, too used to waking up with her legs around his hips. In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t technically been that long, but subjectively it’s a goddamn eternity he can’t wait to be over.

He slouches back on his chair with a steaming cup of coffee, staring darkly and balefully at Clint, who is sitting on the other end of the row with one foot resting on the rail in front of him, ignoring Bucky like a champ in favor of keeping an eye on Dr. Cho’s preparations in the laboratory below. Bucky finds himself reaching for a knife he no longer carries everywhere, has to remind himself that Toni will be very upset if she comes to and Clint’s head is missing.

He’d feel better, though.

He doesn’t know where to look. Staring off into space just makes him want to slip into the Winter Soldier, let fresh rime crystallize his thoughts, and that’s a bad idea with Clint at the other end of the room, because if he goes sociopath, Clint will be dead when he comes out of it. Again, good for him, bad for Toni, so also bad for him. Staring at Clint also makes him want to kill Clint, but with his own bare hands, in hot red rage. And staring down at Toni makes him want to go find Steve and do his best to kill Captain America, for putting them in this position in the first place.

Fuck, he really should have tried harder to sleep. Hovering on the verge of homicide, he thinks, is not an appropriate mindset for watching one’s soulmate undergo some vaguely-explained medical procedure that’s supposed to cut her healing time to a bare fraction of what it would otherwise have taken. Bucky can smell the experimental qualifier on “treatment” a floor away and through shatterproof glass. It makes him antsy, unsettled, to know that things have been glossed over for his benefit. He settles for closing his eyes and focusing on his coffee. The taste, the smell, the heat. The curve of the cup in his hand. The nearly-silent slurp as he sips it. Tries to ignore the tremor in his hand, the sour taste in the back of his throat.

“I think the worst damage I’ve ever seen Toni recover from,” Clint says unexpectedly, and Bucky starts enough that coffee sloshes over his hand, “has to be the shit she came back from Afghanistan with.” His head barely turns, eyes sliding over to Bucky briefly before returning to Toni, unconscious on the bed below them. “I thought she was fucking dead when we found her. She’s always been curvy, you know? Hips that…” His hands trace a shape in the air, outlining generous curves, then fall into his lap. “She never fell into that ideal weight bullshit. Never ordered salad when what she wanted was steak. Didn’t guilt herself when she wanted cheesecake or ice cream or donuts for breakfast. She didn’t have the habit of skipping meals for days at a time because science, Clint.” He breaks off, clears his throat, rubs his forehead with one hand, bridges that hand over his nose and squeezes his eyes with thumb and middle finger. Looks suddenly as wrecked as Bucky feels. “Shit. Sorry,” he mumbles. “Got sidetracked. Where was I?”

Bucky has absolutely no fucking idea of where he’s going with this. He has a notion that Clint’s trying to be reassuring, but it’s apparently backfiring on him. “Afghanistan,” he says neutrally.

“Right. So. I thought she was fucking dead, man. She was in a bad, bad way. Every bit of body fat, every single curve, and a lot of her muscle tone was just gone. They fed her bare minimum, and shit food at that. She was sick most of the time in that fucking cave, too. And she had the reactor in her chest. I mean, I honestly thought she was going to die in the evac chopper. But she held on until we got her to Ramstein Air Base. Took four weeks of constant IV nutrients to begin unfucking the damage. Nearly a year before she was anywhere near herself again.” Clint’s looking down at Toni again. “That was bad,” he says quietly. “This is fucking nothing. A week or two, tops, and she’ll be completely fine.”

The dregs of Bucky’s coffee are sour on his tongue, but he swallows it down anyway. “Ever wonder if the universe should have tied her to you instead of us?” Shit, he really hadn’t meant to ask that. He really should have fucking slept.

Clint side-eyes him again, and just laughs, humor tinged with bitterness. “Jesus fucking Christ, Barnes. Stop trying to understand what you clearly can’t wrap your head around. I don't need her mark on me to know with perfect fucking certainty that when the world is burning down, we'll be standing back-to-back fighting to the end. Just...” He sighs, and both the humor and the anger dissipate. “Just let it the fuck go already. I’m not a threat unless you make me one. You keep gnawing at it like this, and the only one you’re going to hurt is Toni.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says quietly. Because as much as he hates to admit it, the little shit is right. It’s long past time he stopped worrying about this, because the only one who’s making it an issue is him.  “Yeah, okay.” Eyes Clint critically for a moment, then gets up, shifts down a few seats, and holds out his fist sideways. Says more firmly, “Yeah, okay. We’re good, man.”

“Awesome.” Clint grins faintly, bumps his fist against Bucky’s. “I will, of course,” he adds, “still kill you if you fuck it up.”

Bucky smirks. “I’d expect nothing less.”

----

Carol files in, nudging Steve along, and Bucky assesses him with a long, appraising look. He’s got an expression of dazed wonder on his face, like someone cracked him over the head with his own shield and he’s not sure how it happened. Carol steers him to the chair next to Bucky, and pats Steve on the shoulder before quietly leaving again.

Steve leans forward, all but off his chair, looking over the rail at Doctor Cho moving around Toni, ashen and still unconscious, adjusting leads and electrodes with delicate precision. His whole body is thrumming with tension, and a muscle in his jaw keeps jumping.

“You...okay there, Stevie?” Bucky asks warily. “You’re lookin’ kinda… off.”

“Yeah.” He inhales through his nose. Lets it out with a small, tight smile, turns eyes just a little too blue, a little too wild towards Bucky. Ferocity boils just beneath their surface, strange and unnerving. “Just all kind of.... hitting me at once. You and me and...” He nods towards Toni. “ Her.” The word comes out breathless.

Bucky puts a hand out, rests it on Steve’s shoulder, freezes when he realizes it’s the cybernetic one, because Steve’s been kind of weird about it, about touches in general, for that matter, since he woke up in the isolation room. But Steve appears not to notice, until he sways towards Bucky, shifting in so they’re pressed together, shoulder to hip. Bucky’s arm slides automatically around Steve’s shoulders, and before he can stop himself and pull his arm back, Steve catches his wrist in a circle of fingers, holding him gently but firmly in place.

Bucky’s breath hitches, because Steve’s other arm is circling his ribs, hand settling around his hip. It’s been so long, too long, since he’d had this touch, this easy affection, from Steve. He slumps against Steve, and if he was the sort to burst into tears, he would, just from the sudden, sure knowledge that he’s not carrying everything on his own anymore, because Steve’s back where he should be.

Jesus Christ, even my head is rambling. I need to fuckin’ sleep.

Steve exhales, and his head tilts towards Bucky’s, until it’s resting against his temple. “They tried to make me kill her,” he says, and his voice is shaky, rough, angry. “Jesus, look at her. They used me to do all that damage.”

“They sure did,” Clint drawls. Bucky’d forgotten he was there, jumps a little, head jerking in his direction. Clint’s got his arms folded across his chest, feet pushing on the rail, chair tipped on two legs. “So what’re you gonna do about it, Rogers?”

Steve takes a long, deep breath and lets it out like a man coming to a decision. “I’m going to kill them all,” he says, matter-of-fact. Water is wet, the sky is blue, Steve Rogers will destroy Hydra.

Bucky inhales, quick and sharp. “Get in line,” he says in the same tone, off-handed and firm, and Steve’s arm around his back tightens approvingly.

Clint snorts, and the legs of his chair bang down on the floor as he drops his feet from the rail. “No need to fight over who gets to go first,” he says. “I’m sure there’ll be more than enough goons for everyone to have their fun.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo

Med Labs, Treatment Floor
May 5, 2012

When Toni wakes again, the pain is different. The sharp, stabbing knives in her side, shoulder and hand have faded into itches and twinges, replaced by a deep, throbbing ache in her bones, and a horrible hollowness in her stomach. She opens her eyes, squinting in the bright light above, and a shadow falls on her face. Toni blinks up to see Helen Cho leaning over her, with an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Toni,” Helen says, and adjusts something above Toni’s head. “You’re past the point where the nanites are cleansing your blood. They’ve probably neutralized the painkillers and sedatives now.”

“Oh goodie,” she says, and her voice is only a little raspy. “I get to be awake for the really good parts. Sometimes, Helen, I think you’re a closet sadist.” She closes her eyes and settles back against the biobed. “How many colonies did you inject?”

“Three in your shoulder,” Helen says. “Two in your ankle. Four in your chest. One for each rib your fractured. Three free-moving colonies in your bloodstream seeking infections and repairing circulatory damage.” She pauses, then adds, “Six in your right hand and wrist.”

Toni blinks her eyes open again, wincing at the feeling of red-hot needles sporadically stabbing her insides. “Jesus. Really? That’s not overkill?”

Helen gives her a small smile. “There’s a lot of delicate work to be done there. It was a judgement call. I assumed you’d want your complete flexibility and dexterity back.”

“You assumed correctly,” Toni replies, still trying to process exactly how damaged her hand had to be to warrant that many nanites swarming around to repair things. “Six colonies. Fuck.” She shifts her head a little, scanning for any of the screen feeds she knows Helen’s got running, but the angle is completely wrong. “How’s it going?”

“Another five minutes or so, and the initial work is done. I’ve programmed a 60% die-off for the twelve-hour mark, and an additional five percent per additional twenty-four hours until the colonies are extinct.”

“Neat,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be a self-contained apocalypse.”

Helen smiles back. “If you ask the peanut gallery, I’d say you have that locked down already.”

Toni raises an eyebrow questioningly, and Helen points upwards. Toni follows the line of the gesture, to where the observation area is recessed into the upper walls. Clint and Bucky and Steve are visible just over the rails on one side. Coulson and FitzSimmons are standing in the middle, with Carol, Rhodey and Pepper on the other side. “Great,” she says, though she tosses off a jaunty tip of her fingers as a wave. “If only Tash was there. I could get all my disappointed looks with over at once. Wait, why is Pepper here?”

“She flew in with me last night,” Helen says. “She’s here to keep an eye on you, and make sure you listen to me when I say that this process is going to use up a lot of your body’s resources, so you’re going to have to take it easy for a couple of weeks. Food, rest, all the stuff you really hate the most. Speaking of which, are you hungry? You’re probably feeling the effects already.”

If a herd of wildebeest suddenly stampeded through the lab, Toni would eat six of them raw, horns and hooves and all. “Is that what that is? I thought it was a black hole in my stomach.”

By the time the hum of the cradle shuts off, Toni’s sitting up and drinking her second bottle of Helen Cho’s nutrient-bomb concoction, which she is told contains about five times the daily recommended intake of all nutrients and proteins. It’s thick and green and tastes like it was brewed in Toni’s workshop mini-fridge, the one with the semi-sentient Chinese takeout. But she drinks them, because the first bottle takes the edge off the hunger, and the second reduces it down from starvation pangs to a feeling of hey, I could probably eat.

She gives the empty bottle a look of extreme distaste as she sets it back down on the edge of the bed. “That,” she says, “is the most disgusting thing I have ever drank, and I have had more than my share of ambiguously-aged workshop coffee.”

“Well,” Helen says, and begins to disconnect the leads trailing from the sides of the cradle to the sticky pads dotted all over Toni’s body. “You’re going to have to get used to it, I’m afraid. You need at least one every thirty minutes or so until the mass die-off hits early tomorrow morning. Human beings aren’t meant to heal this fast, Toni. The nanites need raw materials, and this is the best way to make sure you have them available.”

“That’s it,” Toni says sourly, trying to scrape the taste off her teeth with a bottle of water Helen hands her, “appeal to my love of efficiency. Pepper’s been teaching you her tricks.”

Helen grins. “We do get along rather well,” she says, and there’s a note in her voice, something in her face, that tips Toni off.

She waggles a finger at Helen. “Oh my god ,” she says, grinning widely. “You’re her soulmate.” When Helen twitches ever so slightly, she knows she guessed right. And she turns to point up at Pepper with the smuggest, most obnoxious smirk she can dredge up at the moment. Pepper sears her with a look of blistering disdain, then disappears from the window.

“Uh oh,” Toni says, and can’t stop grinning. “I’m in for it now. Ow! Hey!” She rubs the stinging spot on her collarbone where Helen just ripped one of the electrode pads off her skin. “Sadist,” she mutters with a glare.

“Sorry,” Helen says, not sounding sorry in the slightest, and reaches for the next one, relentless around Toni trying to dodge away. “Some of these are on pretty well. Hold still, this might hurt.”

----

Pepper shoves another bottle of the world’s worst energy drinks into her hands after cracking the top. Toni makes a face, but doesn’t argue, because she’s still got a hollow, gnawing feeling in her stomach that she’d really like to not get worse. She drains it as quickly as she can, trying not to notice the taste and failing completely.

Pepper, nonplussed, has a bottle of water ready when the protein shake from hell is gone. Toni all but snatches it out of her hand and drains that too.

Pepper crosses her arms. “How much longer are you going to do this, Toni?” she asks archly.

Toni glances up at the observation area, but no one’s visible. With a sigh, she slumps, rubs her temples. The nanites are doing their work, but her whole body is a mess of dull aches and fiery itching. “I do a lot of things more or less constantly, Pep,” she says tiredly. “Would you mind narrowing it down a little?”

“Toni…” Pepper’s voice softens in a way Toni never likes to hear it go. “Toni, we’ve been friends for a long time now. And you know I would help you with anything. I really would.”

Toni’s been expecting this conversation for some time now, and she closes her eyes, because she knows what’s coming. “But..?”

“But it’s really hard on us to see you like this,” Pepper says, still in that soft tone, and it sounds like she’s on the verge of tears on top of it. “Not to mention what it does to our stocks. I know you don’t really care about those, Toni, but I do. It’s why you hired me in the first place, to care about the things that you pathologically can’t find interest in. And I am very good at my job, Toni. Very good.”

“Don’t sell yourself too much, Pepper,” Toni says. “I’ll be tempted to make you CEO of SI as well.”

She’s rewarded by Pepper’s most withering look, the one that scares her straight down to her toes. “Don’t,” she says, and the soft tone is gone now. It’s all hard and unmoving, the Big Boss Pepper voice Toni usually prefers to see used on obstinate board members because it always makes that person quail and quake. “Because I’d take the promotion, Toni, and I’d fire you from every position you hold.”

Toni blinks, rapidly, a lot. “Uh... “ She and Pepper have had a couple of variations on this argument for some time now, but she’s never threatened to remove her from her own companies. “You can’t do that?” But she’s not really eager to find out if Pepper actually can or can’t. “You know what? I’m done talking about me. Let’s talk about you. And Helen. Cos wow, Pep. What ever happened to your hardcore ‘I don’t care if I ever meet my soulmate, I’m too busy to bond with them’ attitude?”

“Helen’s perfectly understanding about the demands on my time, because she has her own,” Pepper says evenly, and crosses her arms again. “And then there’s the added bonus of not having her beat the living hell out of me the first time we met.”

Toni flinches violently, almost like Pepper physically hit her, and her eyes are suddenly hot and burning. “Jesus, Pepper,” she whispers, and her voice quavers, chokes. She puts a hand over her face, tries to reach for outrage and indignation, but doesn’t find them. “Fucking hell , that wasn’t called for.”

“Wasn’t it?” Pepper continues, relentless. “You’ve been nearly killed four times by my count in the last four months, and I know they weren’t in their right minds at the time, but they’re still the reason that happened. I understand if you feel that it was still worth it, but from where I’m standing, it doesn’t look anything at all like that.”

“It's not anything like that, Pepper,” Toni says. “It… they're…”

“It was bad enough enough when it was just Clint,” Pepper continues, as if Toni hadn't just spoken. “But at least I knew he had your back. Even Natasha, once she lost the distrust, that was fine too. But ever since Fury gave you those files of your father's two years ago, and you found your red star…” She lifts her hands in a defeated, helpless gesture. “It's been one mission after another. And yes, you found him, and I'm happy for you. I really am. But your heart stopped, Toni. And now this, with Steve? How much more are you going to take? How many more times are you going to halfway kill yourself before it's enough for you?”

She will not cry. She is not going to cry. “Why are you doing this, Pepper?” she says.

Pepper's arms slip around her, and her embrace is fierce. “Because one of those things you hired me to care about,” she says gently, “the ones you are incapable of caring about, is your well-being.”

oOoOoOo

Helen releases her after performing a few basic tests to check her pain and functional range, but privately Toni thinks Helen’s just looking for an excuse to get Pepper alone. She grins knowingly at Helen as she leaves, winks salaciously at Pepper, and blithely ignores Pepper’s return glare.

All that disappears when she leaves the medical lab, every falsely cheerful thought, every jocular wink, folds away and tucks neatly inward into their bottles and boxes in the back of Toni’s mind. God, Pepper must really be wrapped up in Helen if she never noticed Toni’s media smile. She wraps her arms around herself and walks with her head down, lost in thought.

It’d be nice if it were easy to shrug off Pepper’s little chat, but something about those words are sticking in her head, ringing around with a hundred other miniature truths Pepper’s spoken over the years. It’s pretty clear that Pepper thinks she has a death wish. Toni doesn’t think she does, because she has no intention of dying until she’s old and grey and has conquered the world through technological superiority, but Pepper’s rarely wrong about something as huge as that.

“Ma’am?”

She jumps in surprise, head jerking up. “JARVIS? Whatcha need, kiddo?”

“Nothing in particular, ma’am. I apologize if I startled you. I simply wished to express my relief and gratification that you are doing well.”

She laughs, but there’s only a little humor in it. “I dunno about 'well’, J, but I’m at least standing, and that counts for something, right?”

“Indeed, ma’am. Welcome back.”

“Thanks, J.” She eyes the corridor, debates for a second. “Hey, out of curiosity, where is everyone? I figure they’d have all swarmed me by now.”

“Miss Potts expressed her desire that you be given space while in the Cradle, ma’am. She was quite intimidating. Per your standing directives, whenever someone successfully frightens Natasha, I have archived a recording of the event for you to watch at your convenience. They have instead gathered in the den to celebrate your felicitous return from injury.”

She closes her eyes briefly. God, spare her from the horrors of socializing right now. She’s so not in the mood. “Surprise party, huh? You don’t usually ruin those.”

JARVIS’s voice softens just a little. “You do not seem to be in a mindset that allows for enjoyable surprise, ma’am. It goes against my directives to not attempt to prevent more discomfort.”

Goddammit. Pepper couldn’t make her cry, but JARVIS just might. “Thanks, J. I love you too.” She runs her hands through her hair, making a face at the tangles her fingers catch on. Christ, she’s got to pull herself together and go mingle with a room of superspies and government agents and people with metaphysical connections to her soul, and somehow convince them all that she’s perfectly okay and happy to be amongst them, when all she wants to do is curl up in her bed and sleep for a month.

“Okay, Stark,” she says to herself, shaking back her hair and squaring her shoulders. “You once convinced an entire roster of calendar models to join you and Barton in defacing an Italian landmark with booze and nudity. You can convince a room full of the people who know you the best that you are perfectly business as usual.”

oOoOoOo

Steve
Community Den

Steve would rather not have come to Toni’s impromptu surprise party, because it seems a little disingenuous for the person who hurt her help celebrate her return from serious injury. But Bucky is a terrible nag, and he recruited Carol and Agent Coulson to help him make sure Steve made it into the den instead of slipping off to … not hide, exactly, because Captain America never hides. He might have preferred a tactical retreat to his room instead of sitting in a chair with people who he’s pretty sure hate him.

But somehow, despite being stronger, faster and more tactically-experienced than all of them, he finds himself herded, neatly and expertly, by a double-team of Carol and Coulson, who distract him with a sales pitch for the Avengers Initiative and questions about aerial tactics to use in tandem with other aerial fighters, bouncing his attention back and forth between them until his goddamn head is spinning. The next thing he knows, he is sitting in a chair on the far side of the den with an unopened beer in one hand and Bucky on the arm of the chair, his feet firmly pressing Steve’s knees down.

Some genius tactician he turned out to be. Maybe he should return the shield and hang up the tights.

He still thinks his being here is a terrible idea, but there’s an entire room full of people who are more or less going to insist he stay as well, so his goal for the night has shifted from not being here at all to drawing as little attention as he can.

Most of the others seem inclined to leave him alone, which suits him fine. He’s not an unsociable kind of guy, he normally loves talking to people and getting to know them, and this seems like a fine group. But the anger churning in his gut is a constant companion, one he has tenuous control over. Half the time, he feels like a bomb ticking down with indecipherable numbers, like he should be treated gingerly and with an eye to getting out of the way for the inevitable explosion.

He’s just not in the mood to do anything but stare out a window and try to see the city he remembers in the skyline he no longer knows. Maybe punch a few heavy bags into submission. And… if he’s being as honest with himself as he usually is, he’s also a little worried that he’s going to see Toni’s face, and all the conditioning is going to come roaring back.

It might be irrational, because he’s seen Toni since, but always from a distance, always with glass and bodies between them. He has no idea how he’s going to react to seeing her awake and in arm’s reach.

A muted cheer goes up from across the room, and Steve automatically looks towards the noise. Rhodes is hunched over in front of the open door, which confuses Steve for a moment until a pair of pale hands come awkwardly around Rhodes’ back to pat his shoulder.

Anxiety chews on his nerves. Toni’s here.

Rhodes steps back, and Steve gets a good look at her for the first time since he tried to kill her. She’s pale, too pale, and the shadows under her eyes are as dark as fresh bruises. She’s smiling and happy, but Steve’s pretty sure it’s all for show. He’s never been much of an actor -- the dancing monkey routine for the war bonds tours proved that to just about everyone -- but he doesn’t have to be a great performer to recognize a complete fiction when he sees it. Just like he doesn't need the feeling of being overwhelmed and anxious fluttering through his chest like a dying hummingbird to know that Toni wants to be here as little as he does. Doesn’t need to put a hand on Bucky’s thigh to know that his soulmate is thrumming with tension because he feels it too.

Across the room, Toni’s head lifts away from her conversation with the curly-haired kid and turn towards them. Maybe she’s drawn by the sudden surge in apprehension from them both, maybe she’s just looking around for Bucky or him. But it doesn’t really matter in the end why she looks at them, only that she does.

Steve’s a romantic at heart. He likes stories with happy endings. He likes grand gestures of affection. Poetry. Fanciness. It should be like a fairy tale, a feeling of belonging and completion, a drawing-together of what God has set down. Like it was with Bucky, all those years ago. And for a moment, he has hope. Hope that maybe the potential for bonding between them will be enough to get them through the horror, past the pain.

But his eyes meet hers, and see nothing but fear.

It’s only there for a second, but it’s battering around his chest under the blue circle, and he knows he didn’t imagine it. She smiles at him, at them, but he knows that’s false too. The bottom drops out of his stomach, and for a minute or two, all he can hear is the pounding of his pulse in his temples. All he can feel is the desire to retreat to the gym and smash through a few dozen reinforced bags.

He sets his still-unopened now-warm beer on the table in front of him with a resolute clink, and pushes Bucky’s feet off his legs.

“Stevie,” Bucky says. “You’re seriously gonna run from this?”

“I’m sorry, Buck,” he mutters, jaw clenching with the effort to control his temper. No one at here is at fault, no one here deserves to be beaten to a pulp. He’s saving all that for Hydra. “I just can’t do this right now.”

When he stands, she flinches involuntarily, and he reels back like she slapped him. For a long moment, punctuated by deadly, uncomfortable silence as conversations die away, Toni and Steve just stare at each other, wide eyed and holding their breath.

Toni’s the first to move. She takes a single, hesitant step towards him, lifting a hand to hold out towards him. And all of that might have saved the situation, if only he couldn’t see how badly her hand is trembling. If only he couldn’t feel her panic. If only he didn’t know that if she let her inner reaction come out of her mouth, she’d be screaming her head off in terror.

I stripped her of her most powerful protections, Steve thinks with a sardonic twist to his mouth, and his hands are white-knuckled fists at his side. I invaded her home, terrorized her, made her feel unsafe and hunted. Hydra may be responsible, but it isn’t them that has to suffer for it, is it?

Captain America may not run from his problems, but Steve Rogers apparently does. Without another word to Bucky, without even acknowledging Toni further, he pushes past the small group of people, who part before him wordlessly. In the twenty seconds it takes him to reach the elevator, he’s wheezing like an old man, despite having not exhausted himself.

He catches a glimpse of Toni and Bucky as the elevator doors close. Bucky is stricken and upset. Toni’s face is still white and her eyes are huge, but he sees relief in them. Relief that he’s leaving. Relief that their official meeting as soulmates is pushed off until another time.

“Fuck,” he breathes, leaning against the wall of the elevator with the side of his arm, his face pressed against the other side of his arm. The panic in his chest is gone, and the doubled star is quiet. There has to be a way to fix this, he thinks, but he’ll be damned if he can come up with it right now.

-----

The first night, Toni doesn’t go to bed at all, and for a good reason, which has several parts. The first part is that she’s been pumped full of nanites who are constantly swirling her body, repairing any and all damage they can find, including the daily wear and tear her body undergoes. The second part is that she has to take a drink every twenty or thirty minutes or she might end up getting eaten away by the nanites -- even though that can’t happen, the nanites are programmed to slow down as reserves and resources dwindle, but Bucky doesn’t know that. The third part is her need to take stock of the damage that's been done to the building. Easier if she thinks about it that way too, the building, because that way, it might be any building and not her home, her sanctum, her safe place that no longer feels quite as safe.

And the fourth, and probably the most painful, thing is she needs to start designing another set of armor. Many sets of armor, in fact, since the STRIKE attack left her with nothing except salvage and scrap.

Bucky just looks at her dubiously as she finishes listing off all her excuses, and she kind of hates that he's only known her for a few months, and yet knows her so well. His mouth tightens into a thin line of unhappiness, but blessedly, he chooses not to press the issue. “Alright, Toni,” is all he says. “If you gotta do this, then you gotta do it.”

She leans up on her tiptoes and kisses him sweetly, trying to salve the faint hurt and deep confusion she can see in the furrow of his forehead. “Seriously, honey, I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight, so I may as well capitalize on the time to take care of a few things.”

He hesitates, tilts his head at her, gaze dark and far away for a moment. She’s pretty sure she knows what he’s going to ask, and she has a perfectly genuine smile ready for him when he does. “You mind if I bunk in with Stevie?”

“No,” she says, and she’s a little surprised at how honest that answer really is. “No, James. It’s been, what, eighty years or so for you two? Go. Be with him. I’ll be fine.”

“If you’re sure,” he says, still frowning at her.

“I’m sure,” she says, and slides a palm across his cheek. “Go on, Bucky. I’ve got JARVIS and if Fitz is half the engineer his degrees and patents suggest, he’ll be along before too much longer to give me a hand.”

“Okay,” he says, but keeps looking back over his shoulder at her, standing in the workshop doorway, as he walks down the hall.

-------

It starts being not okay when Bucky brings her breakfast the next day, to find her sitting at her main work station staring blankly at what is clearly, even to him, only partially finished schematics for Iron Maiden armor, the last edit of which is auto-logged at four hours ago, and her workshop is covered in scrap metal and scorch marks.

“Just a technical malfunction,” she says absently as she picks at her bacon and coffee, with the hand still wearing the repulsor rig.

------

It grows less okay the third day, when Bucky realizes that Toni hasn’t spent more than a consecutive hour with them. He’s been a bit wrapped up in trying to help Steve acclimate to the future to see it before now, but that’s no excuse and he knows it. He should have noticed that she’s quiet and pale, picking at her food and contributing minimal participation in their conversations.

When he asks her if she’s okay, she blinks at him once or twice and says, “Yeah. I’m okay. The nanites are still in the process of shutting down and flushing out of my system. It’s a little tiring, that’s all.”

He doesn’t notice until later that she never looks at Steve directly, always in her peripheral, He doesn’t notice until much later that she doesn’t come to bed at all, just works quietly on the couch with her StarkPad before slipping out in the middle of the night.

------

It stops being okay late in the evening on day five, when Steve comes back from the gym, fuming and frustrated, with his hands covered in the blood-streaked innards of yet another supersoldier punching bag, and a hole that looks suspiciously like a repulsor blast in his shirt.

Bucky puts his tablet down as Steve moves past into the kitchen. “So talking to Toni went well then, I take it?” he calls after Steve, and is rewarded by the sound of a door slamming further in the suite. Bucky isn’t sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, he became the functional adult in this fucked-up back and forth. the three of them seem have have sunken into. He slides his head between his palms, locking his fingers on the back of his neck, and just breathes for a few moments. Then he sighs and scrubs his face. “Okay,” he says softly. “Alright. I’ve had it. Goddammit, enough is enough.”

oOoOoOo

Toni’s Workshop

It’s Toni’s angry music that thumps down the hall at him, the stuff that’s all screaming lyrics and screeching guitars and pounding bass. It’s all noise to him, but the last time he told her that, she called him a fuddy-duddy and tried to lock him out of her lab. She tends to forget that she can’t do that to him.

Most days, he respects the do-not-disturb vibe coming off her locked workshop, but today is not one of those days. “Lemme in, J,” he says, after trying the handle and finding it immovable.

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS says immediately, and there’s a click that he feels in the bar in his hand.

Just as he’s pushing down on the handle, he pauses. “J, how long’s it been since Toni slept?”

“Ma’am has not slept in twenty nine hours, fourteen minutes. She slept for two hours, six minutes. Prior to her ‘power nap’, ma’am had been awake for thirty-eight hours, forty-five minutes. I anticipate your next question to be regarding her eating habits, sir. Ma’am has not had a substantive meal in three days, eighteen hours, and has been relying on Doctor Cho’s nutrition supplements to fuel herself.”

“I’m going to be hauling that woman out of the rabbit hole for the rest of my goddamn life,” he grumbles under his breath. “Thanks, J.”

“Of course, sir.”

He pushes open the door and strides in, expecting to find… he’s not sure what he was expecting to find. Toni up to her elbows in an engine, stress-welding, maybe. Floating holographic schematics for Iron Maiden suits, certainly. But not this.

Toni’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by physical blueprints and holographic sketches, intently watching one screen that shows security footage of black-clad raiders, her hands buried in the blue-glowing guts of a 3D model of what looks like a turret.

“Kill the music, J.”

Really not in the mood, Barnes,” Toni says in the silence after the music stops, and swipes the video she’s watching backwards.

“Funny, me either.” Bucky crosses his arms. “I wanna know why you shot at Steve, Toni.”

“I wanna know why Steve can’t bother asking me if I want to talk instead of creeping the fuck up on me all the time.” She spares him a single, withering glance before returning her attention to her schematics. “Looks like we’re both out of luck.”

Bucky sighs, crouches beside her, tries a different tactic and reaches out to smooth a wayward lock of hair back behind her ear with his fingers. “Toni, c’mon. Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”

For a moment, she keeps the mutinous look, then slowly takes her hands out of the turret schematic, and slumps. One hand flicks at the air, and the video of the STRIKE agents hanging frozen in the air screels through scenes too rapid for his eye to catch. With a quick flick and twist of her wrist, Toni stops the video, flicks her fingers to start playing it, and throws her hand up, splayed in the air.

The window balloons up to nearly life-size. Steve, with the shield, frozen in mid-leap, his face a rictus of hate, jumping at Iron Maiden, who has her hands up and is falling backwards.

Toni flicks her fingers again, and the picture jumps. Steve’s standing on Iron Maiden, the chest peeled and torn away in chunks, the shield raised again Toni, barely visible under the broken armor, one wide blue eye shocked and terrified. Tiny hesitation, then another flick. Toni, bleeding and dazed, crouching in front of him. Hope warring with despair, head tilted towards him. Steve, in the middle of shaking his head, still angry, still murderous.

Bucky’s on his ass without being aware of sitting. Mutely, he just reaches out and hauls her into his lap, wraps his arms around her, and holds her until he can find the words to tell JARVIS to shut off the damn holoscreens.

“I’m so tired,” she says brokenly.

He runs a hand through her hair, gently loosening the tangles with his fingers. “You need to sleep, sweetheart,” he says softly. “Doc Cho said as much. Food and sleep. You’re getting the first, sorta, but not the second.”

She stares at him, and it hurts to see how washed-out that brilliant, sparkling blue has gotten. “I’m trying,” she says. “I’m really trying, James.”

“Shh, I know.” He pulls her close in a one-armed embrace, presses his lips to her temple. “But you can’t do it right now. It’s okay. I understand. Come to bed, huh? Let me look after you. Let us look after you.”

“No. I can’t. I…” Her shoulders are trembling under his arm, and she scrubs her face against his collarbone. “I can’t not see it, every time, Bucky,” she says hoarsely. “You were different. You just… they sent you to defend the Zima Station against an intruder. Him… they sent him to kill me. They didn’t say go get the Winter Soldier and kill whoever gets in your way. They told him to specifically kill me, Toni Stark, said Iron Man killed your wife, so you need to kill her back and that…” Her voice breaks and her hands fist tight in the material of his shirt at his waist, and he holds her as she sobs into his chest.

Hot, boiling anger tries to rise, but he squashes it down without hesitation. Pulls a little bit on the Winter Soldier as he rubs her back gently, discipline and ice to temper raw aggression and fury. He bottles it all away, and puts it on the mental shelf labeled Open When Coulson Says Green. He’s saving it all until Hydra’s in his scope.

“He’s so angry all the time,” Toni says miserably, swiping her eyes with her wrist. “I can feel it, and it gets stronger when he looks at me. And I know he’s not angry with me, but all I can think about is how his face looked when he was ripping my armor to pieces around me. I’m trying, Bucky. I’m fucking trying, but I can’t… I can’t figure out how to separate it all out. I don’t know how to fix it.”

Bucky would like nothing more than to gear up and go find the nearest fully-staffed Hydra base, and lay waste to every brick, every circuit, every piece of flesh and bone he can find inside the walls. That isn’t an option at the moment, so he just stands, and holds her, until she cries herself out. When her breathing changes from hitching inhales to smooth, even breaths, he gets his legs under him and lifts her up in a bridal carry. He can’t run, he can’t go destroy things, so he’s just left with what he can do here and now. Which is… what, exactly?

Bring her back to sleep with him and Steve? Not an option, because she’s still hurting from Steve’s time under Hydra control. It might work for tonight, but he doesn’t want her to have another panic attack in the morning when she realizes where she is. He could leave her and trust that she’ll sleep on her own, but that clearly hasn’t been working. He could leave Steve and sleep with Toni, but then Steve’s nightmares will have them all awake again anyway, and he’d be right back at square one.

“Fuck,” he breathes. Well, that just leaves one option then, an option that even two weeks ago, he wouldn’t have ever considered, but is somewhat surprised to discover that he doesn’t mind even a little anymore.

Decision made, he hitches Toni more securely in his arms and starts walking.

------

“Wake up, sweetheart. I know I was just yellin’ at you to sleep, but this is something you need to wake up for.”

Toni opens her eyes, and Bucky smiles down at her as he gently sets her on her feet. She clings to him for a moment for support as she gets her feet under her, then blearily looks around. It’s probably a sign, he thinks, of just how deep in sleep debt she is when it takes her a good ten seconds to realize where they are.

“What’s… going on?”

He catches her chin gently and turns her head towards him. Kisses her soft and sweet and tender. “So here’s the thing,” he says, and rests his forehead against hers. “I don’t own you, and I was an asshole to act like I do. So go on. Go where you feel safe, huh?”

She pulls back, eyes him skeptically. He can’t really blame her. “Why?”

He shrugs. “You shouldn’t have to change who you are for me. He, they make you happy. Who’m I to get in the way of that? I’m not threatened, not anymore, anyway. Either I trust you, or I’m an insecure jackass. Kinda tired of being the last one.”

She’s still hesitating. “Steve…”

“--isn’t really your problem right now.” Bucky reaches out to smooth back her hair from her face. “Yeah, he’s got your mark, but that’s it. Right now, he’s got no hold on you. If I’ve got my etiquette correct, you need to talk to him about this as much as you need to talk to some guy you saw at the gym. I’ll talk to him. You just go...be happy, get some sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Bucky, are you sure?”

He rolls his eyes and reaches around her to knock firmly on the door, hears the mutter of sleepy voices grumbling inside, the shuffle of bodies in motion. “Yep. I'm good.”

The door opens. Natasha is awake and alert, despite the hastily tied robe suggesting she'd been in bed thirty seconds ago. Clint shuffles behind her in sleep pants, hair stuck every which way, but just as alert, his eyes sliding between Bucky and Toni and back to Bucky again. No one says anything for a long moment, except for Natasha's raised eyebrow.

“Toni needs to be somewhere she feels safe,” Bucky finally says, deliberately casual. “Is she welcome here?”

“Always,” Natasha says without hesitation, and her eyes search Bucky's face. Whatever she's looking for, she finds, because she gives him a satisfied nod.

“Never even a question,” Clint says, and his gaze isn't readable in the slightest. But there's faint challenge in his voice when he adds, “As long as it's what she wants.”

“Yeah,” Toni whispers, swallows hard and her eyes crumple at the corners. “Yeah.” She reaches out for Natasha, who takes her hands and gently pulls her into a hug. Toni buries her face in the crook of Natasha’s neck, and her arms go around Natasha’s waist. She sighs, soft and deep, and Bucky watches the tension in her back and shoulders just dissolve away.

That’s more than enough to convince him he’s doing the right thing. Bucky leans in, nuzzles the back of Toni’s head with his cheek, then kisses her temple. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart. Get some sleep.”

“Love you too,” Toni mumbles, and lets Natasha lead her into the room. Natasha looks over her shoulder at Bucky in the most open expression he’s seen to date, one that manages to convey gratitude and pride and approval and affection, apparently all for him, in a single upturned smile. It floors him just a little.

Clint doesn’t move, so Bucky doesn't either. “I can almost guarantee that it won't be just sleep happening,” he says, leaning on the door frame with his forearm. “That sits okay with you?”

Bucky shrugs, lets his back hit the hallway wall and crosses his arms. “It isn't about me,” he says. “But even if it was? Yeah. It sits just fine.”

Clint eyes him, clearly skeptical. “What changed?”

He shrugs again. “I decided you were right. So mark your calendar. I got no reason to be jealous, and we've all got enough shit on our plates without making more drama for ourselves. You’re not a threat to me and her. I shouldn’t be a threat to you and her.”

“Well, fuck me sideways,” Clint says. “One of us is finally a grown up. Will wonders never cease.”

“Nah,” Bucky says with a sudden grin. “You got a nice ass and all, but I don't think you're really my type. I'll leave Toni to fuck you sideways though, if you accept substitutions.”

All credit to Clint, it only takes him a minute to recover from gaping shock, and then his hip shifts subtly, and the defensive posture turns into a coquettish sprawl against the door frame. “Sad for you,” he says with a smirk. “I was a circus performer. You have no idea how bendy I am.”

Bucky reaches out, sets his hand gently over Clint’s face, then shoves him backwards, through the door and back into the room. “Two smoking hot women in your bed, and you're out here trying to impress me. You're greedy, Barton.” Humor drops from his voice as his hand falls back to his side. “Take care of her, huh?”

“Always,” Clint says, nodding, puts his hand on the door to close it. Hesitates long enough to add quietly, “We'll talk more about all of this in the morning, you and me.”

“Sure,” Bucky says easily, turns away as the door closes. He waits for jealousy, anger, possessiveness to flare. And it does. It’s there, probably always will be to some extent. But it's muted and weak, all but drowned by relief and a sense of rightness, contentment that Toni is somewhere she wants to be, somewhere she’s happy. He’s not going to try to unpack it much more than that, because it’s enough as it is.

Chapter Text

 

oOoOoOo

Clint & Natasha’s Room
Stark Tower
May 12, 2012

Natasha wakes, as she always does, long before the light of false dawn breaks the night. She is lying slightly apart from the two-headed octopus that is Toni and Clint, one arm under her head, the other hand resting lightly on Toni’s hip. She can't help but smile a little at the other two, clinging to each other tightly even in sleep. She's never been a cuddler, but her luck netted her regular bed partners who stick like barnacles to any warm body nearby.

She doesn't know how they can do it, honestly. It just looks uncomfortable from where she's standing. Tangled together, heads stacked one on top the other, arms that have to be losing circulation from the weight of bodies on them. Toni's face is buried between the pillow and Clint's neck. Clint is only visible from the eyes up over Toni's shoulder.

Takes all kinds, she guesses. Somehow, they manage. As a bonus, she gets a night free from fending off Clint's limbs from wrapping around her in the dead of night, when he's too unconscious to control them. Moving carefully, she slides off the bed and turns to tuck the sheets back around Toni. Neither of them have shifted, both still breathing deep and even, but Clint's eyes gleam at her above the line of Toni’s shoulder, alert and questioning.

“Go back to sleep,” she says quietly, leans carefully over and brushes her fingertips across his forehead. “It's early. Stay with her.”

“Kay,” he says just as quietly, and closes his eyes again.

She finishes fixing the blankets, then dresses for an early morning run in Central Park, long leggings and a warm hoodie. She ties on her sneakers and fishes the armband for her phone out of one of Clint's uniform boots, deciding she never, ever wants to know how it got there.

Toni’s likely to sleep for some time yet, and it would take an emergency on the scale of all-out alien invasion to pry Clint away from Toni before she’s ready to get out of bed, so that leaves Natasha to fetch Toni fresh clothing. Well, she could leave a message for Bucky or Rogers, or ask JARVIS to have clothing delivered, but she enjoys doing little things for the people she cares about.

“Good morning, JARVIS,” she says as she approaches the elevator that goes directly to the penthouse. “I’d like to go to the penthouse, if you don’t mind.”

“Good morning, Natasha,” JARVIS replies promptly. “And certainly, as your access level to Stark Tower permits you to go anywhere you like. Would you like me to inform sir and Captain Rogers that you are on your way?”

Natasha raises an eyebrow as the doors slide open, smooth and silent. For some reason, she hadn’t thought that Rogers and Bucky would continue to use the penthouse without Toni there, but she supposes it’s really none of her business. “No, if you don’t mind, JARVIS,” she says. “If they aren’t aware I’m in the penthouse, then they need to improve their observational skills.”

“Very well, Natasha.”

Without a Stark-level lockdown, Natasha’s biometrics open the lock on the penthouse door, and she quietly enters, guiding the weighted door to click almost silently behind her. It’s been quite awhile since she was last up here, but nothing seems terribly out of place. Mindful of the fact she’s wearing rubber soled shoes, she takes her time crossing the highly polished wood floor through the foyer and past the sunken den area.

Here’s the evidence of other people using this space. A sketchpad, pencil and eraser neatly lined up on top of it. A gun maintenance kit, packed away and sitting half on top of a carelessly-strewn StarkPad. A pile of circuitry in the corner, gathering dust. Natasha eyes it, and her lips tighten into a small scowl. This is where Toni should be. Not that Natasha doesn’t enjoy her company, or her participation in bed, but there are too many homes and safe spaces Toni has lost. She will not lose this one either, if Natasha has any say in the matter.

She creeps up the four steps to the living area of the suite, noting that the master door is open, untouched bed perfectly visible. The door to the guest room across the hall, which itself is nearly as big as Toni’s room, is closed. Faint snoring emanates, muted by the wooden walls. She shakes her head. Bucky’s fallen asleep enough times in front of the TV that she can readily identify him by his snore. She makes a mental note to mock him later, mock him so subtlely he’ll probably take it as a compliment.

Quietly, she pushes open the master bedroom door and comes to a dead halt. Steve Rogers is sitting on the floor, his back against the foot of the bed, looking exhausted and lost, staring at the closet door. Well, she thinks, so much for getting in and out without being noticed.

She moves forward, padding to Toni’s dresser and pulling her top drawer open. She collects clothing, deciding on the fly what Toni’s most likely to want to wear today. It’s not a business day, so her money’s on the classic jeans, tank top or band tee and either boots, bare feet or sneakers.

Rogers only notices her when she crosses in front of his line of sight to fish a couple of shirts off their hangers, and she ducks instinctively as he jumps to his feet in shock. Natasha’s impressed that’s all he does. He has to be working on those control issues. “How did you get in here? Wait… Natasha?”

“You’re in the wrong bedroom, Captain,” she says, eyeing Toni’s favorite Black Sabbath tee to evaluate its readiness to be thrown in the garbage can before folding it and stacking it with the three other shirts. “Seems like I could be asking you the same question.”

He sits on the edge of the bed and shrugs. “I know this isn’t my room. But it’s hers. I thought… maybe I could find something in here to help connect me and Toni. Right now, all we have in common is her father and Bucky.” He drags a hand down his face, sets the heel under his chin, and sighs. “I think that’s going to be all I find, too. What are you doing here?”

In response, she taps the growing pile of clean clothes, and goes back into the closet to find a shopping bag or a box or something to carry everything with her. “Toni needs new clothes,” she says absently, reaching in and perhaps it’s kismet or the universe’s cruel joke, but it’s a Captain America tee. She holds it up anyway, trying to figure out if Toni’s ever worn it, because it looks brand new. “Her workshop is smeared over her other set.”

Steve makes an abortive, choked noise, and she turns around, shirt still in the air. He’s staring at the shirt with the sort of miserable, hopeless expression worn by people receiving terrible, life-changing news. She remembers wearing that expression a few times in her life. There are about a dozen questions dancing in his eyes, but Natasha doesn’t think he’s going to be able to bring himself to ask them. “Don’t worry,” she says, and folds the tee shirt, sets it back in the closet. As much fun as seeing if Steve had a marking kink would be, Toni probably doesn’t need reminders of Captain America at the moment. “Toni isn’t going to move in with us. She isn’t going to kick you out. All is well.”

He blinks, goes a little paler. “I hadn’t even considered those scenarios,” he says strangely.   “I was just thinking how I’m probably never going to get to see how that shirt looks on her.”

His wistful tone makes Natasha think he does indeed have some sort of deep, dark desire to mark his territory, no matter how fleeting that mark is. Natasha successfully resists the urge to rub her hands together. The straight-laced have never lasted long in the madness and chaos that is the house of Stark.

It also makes Natasha think of herself, oddly, in those first few weeks after Clint brought her home. How angry and despondent she was, thinking she would never have any of the things Clint and Toni were offering. “Don’t count yourself out yet, Rogers,” she says mildly, and stuffs another few articles of clothing in the bag. “Toni has an amazing capacity for forgiveness, especially when she knows ultimate fault lies with someone else.”

“She’s terrified of me,” Steve replies, flat. “Don’t tell me she isn’t. I can feel it, every single time I try to go near her.”

“Yes, she is.” Natasha turns around, leaning against the edge of the vanity, setting the bag aside for now. Arches an eyebrow at Steve’s surprise. “What? You thought I was going to deny it?”

“Bucky did,” Steve says, and sighs.

“I’m not Bucky. I know you’re right. She is afraid of you. It’s not a logical, rational, thinking reaction. It’s emotional and physical, two things that Toni tries to never let rule her life.” She shrugs one shoulder. “She’s having trouble with this one, but she’ll get there. Give it time, Rogers. Work out a few of your own malfunctions while you’re waiting.”

“I don’t even know how,” he says. “It’s not like I expected to wake up from the plane crash to see that I may as well be on a completely different planet than the one I was born on.”

Natasha knows, just like all of the other people in her family, that they all need some serious therapy, but none of them have the patience or the time or the trust to spare for it. But at the rate they’re going, collecting new traumas like they’re flavours of ice cream, they’re going to require a full-time, live-in shrink just to ensure that none of them spiral spectacularly into the deep end of the pool. It’s not the first time the thought has crossed her mind. Maybe she should take it more seriously, actually talk to Coulson and see if he knows anyone not directly SHIELD-affiliated they can learn to trust.

But first things first.  

“Have you tried getting out of the Tower for a few hours?” she asks. “That might help. It’s a new city, but there’s a lot of the old city left, if you know where to look for it.”

Steve shakes his head. “No. I… didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Natasha can’t help but smirk just a tiny bit. “Rogers, in this family, you’ll soon learn that the ideas that don’t seem like good ones are always the ones you should listen to. Go change into running clothes. You can keep me company on my morning jog.”

oOoOoOo

DiNozzo’s Bakery, New York

In retrospect, she’s glad she brought a supersoldier after all. Not only did she get to drop him, cold, like a sack of bricks the third time he tried to lap her with that smarmy on your left bullshit, her impulse purchase of breakfast from the best bakery in New York is less irritating than it might otherwise be, because he's carrying all the purchases.

She’s also learned that talking to Steve actually isn’t all that bad. Away from the Tower, with the sun on his face, hair windblown, arms loaded down with boxes of pastries and trays of takeout coffee, he actually looks a little steadier, more balanced, perky even. They've avoided, except in the broadest ways of mentioning, all talk of their respective soulmates and who spent where the previous night, but Natasha has a nose for uncomfortable conversations. She knows it's coming.

If she could go back in time and tell the frightened eight-year-old she had been when she first entered the Red Room that she would one day drink coffee walking down the street of New York City, explaining polyamorous relationships to Captain America... she's not entirely sure what that little girl would do, since the girl is a phase of her life she can barely remember. It likely would have involved screaming or hysterical laughter, however. 

“Can I ask you a question, Natasha?” When she nods, he continues. “How did you do it? Share, I mean. How do you walk out the door, knowing you’re leaving someone who isn’t you with your soulmate?”

Natasha laughs quietly and sips her coffee. “You’re asking the wrong person, Rogers. I don’t share. Not how you mean, anyway.”

He frowns. “I thought…”

“That Toni spent the night with us? She did.” Another sip, considering how to word what she needs him to understand. “Everyone you ask will have a different way of looking at this, okay? But here’s mine. Everyone on Earth is born with two, one, or no soulmarks, right?”

He nods. “Right.”

“I prefer to think that Toni and Clint have three soulmarks. The third one’s invisible, but doesn’t mean it’s any less real than the ones you can see. It was there long before I arrived, so if you look at it from a certain angle, I’m not sharing Clint with Toni. She’s sharing him with me.”

Steve opens his mouth, then closes it again, looking thoughtful.

Natasha drains what’s left in her cup, tossing it in a garbage can as they pass it. “Toni is perfectly willing to limit herself to one partner, or two partners in the case of her soulmarks, because she tries to make everyone happy, sometimes to the detriment of her own happiness. But take my advice, Rogers. If you really want to make your triad work, you’re going to have to figure out if you’re comfortable with the notion that Toni will always desire other people, that there are relationships she will always want to have beyond you and Barnes.”

Steve doesn’t exactly look unhappy, but he’s definitely not overjoyed to hear what Natasha is saying. “I...honestly don’t know,” he admits, forehead furrowed in thought. “I’ve never had to think about it before. What if I can’t?”

Natasha shrugs. “Then you don’t waste your time or Toni’s, and let it go. Understand that I’m not telling you to tolerate something you can’t. I don’t put up with things that cross my limits. Sometimes, there are exceptions that are easy to make. If you don’t think you can do that, you need to walk away and be content with your relationship with Bucky.”

He’s silent for a good few minutes as they walk. “I don’t know anyone who ignores their soulmates, Natasha,” he says doubtfully.

“Yes, you do.” She drains what’s left in her cup, and tosses it in a garbage can as she passes it. “Clint has two soulmarks, but he has absolutely no interest in bonding with his other soulmate.”

Steve starts, blinks in surprise. “Really? Why?”

She eyes him for a long moment, debating. Clint isn’t the most forthcoming about the other mark on his chest, and she knows he much prefers to pretend it’s never existed. “I’m only going to tell you because of your history,” she says finally. “When we met her, she was calling herself Shelly Conroy. She worked as Pepper’s personal assistant for Stark Solutions for awhile, but she was SHIELD’s spy in Toni’s company. Some things happened--” Which is probably the largest understatement she could ever possibly make, but she doesn’t know how to condense the entirety of it all into three or four statements. “--and as a result, Clint wanted nothing at all to do with her.”

“What does any of that have to do with me?”

Natasha smiles a little sadly and reaches out to take the boxes and trays from Steve’s hands to ensure they won’t be dropped everywhere. “Because we knew her as Shelly Conroy, but her real name is Sharon Carter.”

Predictably, Steve’s hands drop to his side and his eyes widen. “Carter, as in..?”

“Peggy Carter’s niece, yes,” Natasha says, with sympathy. “She’s a very good agent, but she’s managed to be involved with three of the last few situations we’ve had. It’s not really her fault, but in the process, she did the one thing none of us forgive.”

“Which is…?”

Natasha knows her eyes have gone flat and dead, hints of the Widow rising to view, as she hands the packages back to Steve. “She tried to take what belongs to us.”

oOoOoOo

Clint & Natasha’s Room
Stark Tower

Clint wakes to the sound of his door opening stealthily. He listens for a moment to see if he can suss out the intruder without opening his eyes. Too heavy for Nat, too light for Rogers. Neither Rhodes nor Danvers can move that quietly. Toni’s still sound asleep in his arms. JARVIS doesn’t have a body. And he wouldn’t hear Coulson at all, he’d just look up and Phil would be lurking at the side of the bed like he grew there overnight.

“If you wake Toni,” he murmurs quietly as the footsteps grow closer, “I’ll have JARVIS program your arm to perform the Macarena every time you’re trying to take a leak.”

The sneaky footfalls pause, and then Bucky says from just beyond the other side of the bed, “I was awake for that one. You’re a cruel bastard, Barton. How’d you know it was me?”

“They call me Hawk eye,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean my other senses don’t work, and you aren’t exactly light on your feet, twinkletoes. Can I help you with something, or did you just feel like a little B&E would kick your day off right?”

The bed sinks a little as Bucky sits down on the edge, carefully. “What’s the point of having all the keys to all the doors if I don’t use ‘em to barge in on the guy my soulmate’s sleeping with?”

He opens one eye, peering at Bucky over Toni’s shoulder. “While I approve of your abuse of power,” Clint replies, “seriously, what the fuck are you doing here?”

Bucky shrugs, shifts on the bed so he’s leaning against the headboard with his legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed. “You said you wanted to talk in the morning. And Stevie went out running with Natasha. I got bored, and it’s morning. So here I am.”

“So glad I’m your go-to entertainment, Barnes.” Clint sinks down into the curve of Toni’s neck, and she shifts in her sleep. Clint freezes, but she just settles again, breathing slow and even. Just in case, Clint drops his voice lower, to barely above a whisper. “Alright, fine. You want to talk, I’m not doing anyone important at the moment. Leave, and that might change.”

Bucky shoots him an unimpressed look and folds his arms behind his head. “Don’t push your luck, Barton.”

Clint sees his unimpressed look and raises him by an I’ll-kill-you-with-my-brain glare. “What’s to push? This is my suite, which you barged into uninvited, might I add. If we’d had this discussion last night like we should have, instead of addressing Toni’s need for comfort and sleep as the more immediate priority, you’d know that you are way past your limits here. Limit the first: this is my space, mine and Natasha’s and Toni’s when she’s here. You wanna come in, you fucking knock and wait to be invited. I don’t give a shit if there’s a killer indestructible robot bent on destroying the world outside my window. Act like you were raised by a mother who taught you manners, and not like a roided-up Terminator left out in the snow a little too long.”

Bucky raises his hands in a peaceable signal, looking more amused than anything else. “You’ve got a point. Noted for future reference.”

“If you boys are going to waggle your dicks at each other,” Toni cuts in, voice raspy and heavy with sleep, “the least you could do is be a fucking gentleman, James, and help keep me warm while you posture at each other. My back is cold. So either get your ass down here or get the fuck out.”

Bucky eyes Clint speculatively, and Clint just gives him a nonplussed eyebrow. “You heard the lady,” he says. “Get in, or get out.”

After another long, long moment of consideration, Bucky slides under the covers, thankfully fully clothed, and moves behind Toni. She sighs contentedly and shifts around under the blankets, removing one leg from where it’s tangled with Clint’s, and presumably tangling it with Bucky’s instead.

Clint sighs and closes his eyes, wondering briefly how his morning starts with waking up wrapped around Toni in an actual bed and somehow evolves into staring at Bucky fucking Barnes over the tousled spill of Toni’s hair. Someone up there really fucking hates him, he thinks. Not that it’s news to him. Just nice to get these periodic confirmations.

By unspoken agreement, they stay quiet until Toni’s settled back out into sleep, her breath warm and soft across Clint’s neck. Finally, Bucky breaks the quiet. “You two look good together,” he says, absently playing with a lock of Toni’s hair. “S’weird. Like there’s something that just works about it.”

“Jealous?” Clint smarts off before he can stop his mouth.

Bucky shakes his head a little. “Nah. I thought I would be, you know. I kinda am a little, I guess. But hell… if she was trying to replace me, or wanted you over me or something like that, she wouldn’t have told me to join in.”

“Uh uh. No. Stop. Right there, just stop.” Clint’s a little louder than he should be, but he’s nipping this in the bud before it can even start. “Under no circumstances are you joining in right now, because a) Natasha would kill me pretty dead pretty quick, and b) I am so not doing relationship negotiations with Captain America, a man whose perpetual emotional state is, by all accounts, ‘the bombs bursting in air’ and not ‘the gleam of the morning’s first beam’.”

“That’s a little unfair,” Bucky says. “Also impressive. You know there’s a second verse to the anthem.”

“It’s accurate,” Clint says. “Also fuck you. I went to school.” After a brief pause, he adds quietly, “This can’t be a one-time thing, Bucky. You know that, right? You take this away from her, and it’ll destroy her. Or it’ll destroy what you have. I know I’m not exactly high on your priority list, but it’ll fucking destroy me too.”

Bucky shrugs, smiles faintly. “I knew what I was doing. I guess I finally just got it. It’s not really about who’s better or who wins or who has who, is it? It’s stability and being happy. So yeah, I know it’s not a one-time thing. I explained all that to Stevie last night.”

“Bet you still don’t regret punching me in the eye that one time,” Clint says with a smirk, then pauses a little. “Speaking of Steve… Any ideas what the hell we do there?”

“I dunno, Clint.” Bucky sighs, leans forward against Toni’s shoulder, mimicking Clint’s position on the other side of her. “They’re both kinda brittle towards each other right now. Toni showed me some of the footage last night. If she’s having nightmares or panic attacks or whatever, man, I get why. And Stevie… Steve’s on edge all the goddamn time, and he won’t go anywhere near the workshop levels. I think it’s because that’s where it all happened. I dunno what to do. I’m floundering.”

Clint frowns a little as an idea strikes him. “You know… while she was under, Toni said she’d been thinking about going back to Malibu. Maybe that might work, get them a change of pace, get everyone else out from underfoot.” The more thought he puts towards it, the better it’s sounding. “She has a workshop in the mansion, so she can still build her shiny shit. JARVIS has a 24-7 linkup via the Starkcom satellites. Maybe what they need is just a fucking vacation. I know it’s been goddamn ages since Toni had one.”

Bucky doesn’t immediately shoot it down, just looks thoughtful. Clint isn’t sure if he should take that as a warning sign of impending doom or not. “What are the risks?”

“Same as they’d be here, honestly: one of them flips their shit, one of them gets hurt, one of them gets dead, or some combination thereof. Probably a bit less of a risk, since California stress is about a tenth of the stress New York brings. Toni always feels better in the sunshine, and this time of year, Malibu is hardly anything but. Also, there are miles of empty beaches Rogers can run his little supersoldier heart out on if he needs to clear his head. Shitloads of activities to do, physical and cultural. Maybe catch him up a bit on the last seven or so decades while he’s at it.”

“Think we can get them to agree to it?” Bucky says.

“Dunno,” Clint replies. “Worth a shot, though, right?”

“I will go to the fucking moon in a rocket built by Reed Richards,” Toni grumbles suddenly, and flops onto her back with her wrist over her eyes, incidentally smacking Bucky in the face with her outflung arm and elbowing Clint in the nose with her other, “if you two will just shut the fuck up and let me go back to sleep.”

oOoOoOo

Stark Mansion, Malibu CA
May 13, 2012

The minute she walks through the doors, Toni feels the weight of the last few months fall away from her body. She loves New York, loves her tower and the lights and the fact that she can get whatever food she wants at whatever hour of the day or night… but she’s secretly a California girl at heart. Sunshine and beaches and the wide, blue expanse of the Pacific soothe her, center her, relax her.

Someone, probably Pepper, has been by to open windows and let the sea air in. The filmy white curtains on the window overlooking the ocean billow gently with the breeze, and it hits Toni with the restorative effect of a full night’s sleep and a good cup of coffee. She closes her eyes and lifts her head, breathing in deeply. The tension just drains away and her shoulders slump. “Oh yeah, this was definitely a good idea,” she says, and lets the bag over her shoulder thump to the floor. She kicks her slip-ons in the general direction of the shoe rack, and wanders deeper in. “Honey, I’m home! You awake, J?”

“Welcome back to the mansion, ma’am,” JARVIS says. “It’s 3:37pm Pacific Standard Time, and the weather is a pleasant 68.2 degrees, with a forecast of sun projected for the week ahead. The house has been cleaned thoroughly by your usual service, and your grocery order has been stocked in the kitchen. Shall I add Captain Rogers’ New York permissions and access levels to the Malibu servers?”

Oh, right. “Yeah, do that, J.” She’d temporarily forgotten she brought company home. She glances over her shoulder at Steve, who is standing uncomfortably in the foyer, duffel bag slung over his shoulder and her dropped bag now secure in his hand. “You can come in, you know,” she says. “You’re welcome here.”

He clears his throat, flushes slightly, and toes off his shoes, using his feet to line them neatly up beside the door. Hesitates for a moment, then maneuvers her shoes neatly into line as well. “Sorry. I didn’t want to presume.”

She sighs faintly. “Steve… go ahead and presume away, okay? Wander where you like. Open the fridge. Swim in the pool. Borrow a car and go for a drive. Use the WiFi, the gym, the sauna. Watch hardcore porn on the living room flatscreen. I really don’t mind. Mi casa, su casa. I’m not looking for you to raise your hand and ask for permission to go pee, here.”

He edges closer, steps hesitant. She can feel the nervousness and tension thrumming under the white star. Hopes to Christ he can’t feel how nervous and tense she is, but knows he probably can. “Okay,” he says, takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, and she can see him wrestling with himself to let go of whatever he’s holding in. “Okay,” he says again, and tries for a smile. “How about this, then? I’ll put our bags in our rooms, and then I’ll see what’s in the kitchen to make for a late lunch.”

“Sounds great,” she says honestly, but her brain’s caught on his use of the word rooms. She pauses, then chucks caution to the wind and decides to ask. “Are you going to want your own room while you’re here? I mean, it’s completely doable. There are a couple of guest rooms you can pick from, if that’s what you want.”

His forehead’s got that confused furrow. “Where else would I sleep?”

“I, uh…” She coughs, clears her throat, cheeks flushing hot. She doesn’t do embarrassment. What the hell is wrong with her? “You can sleep in my room. With me. If you want.”

He stares at her wordlessly for a long moment, already half-turned towards the stairs. He’s not like Bucky, or Natasha. She can read every emotion crossing his face, everything between longing and caution and resignation falling past one at a time like dominos under his skin. “No,” he says finally, unhappily. “I think it’s probably best if I sleep alone.”

She’s never been one to let shit go. She steps towards him. “Is that what you want? Or is that what you’re saying because you think it’s what I want?”

He opens his mouth, but doesn’t seem to know how to answer that question, and his shoulders bunch around his head again. “This is too awkward,” he says, and carefully sets her bag down before sliding the strap of his off his shoulder and putting it beside hers. Moving carefully, he walks towards her, hands spread a little. She’s not sure if he’s doing that on purpose to reassure her he’s unarmed, or if it’s completely unconscious on his part.

She watches him approach, waits for the jolt of panic, waits for the shiver of fear. It doesn’t come. Steve Rogers, clear-eyed and in a white tee shirt and blue jeans and socks, moving through her Malibu home, bears almost no resemblance to the enraged Captain America in black tactical gear who hunted her through the endless corridors of Stark Tower.

“God, you’re shaking,” he murmurs, and slowly settles his hands on her shoulders. His hands are so broad, his fingertips are practically meeting over her spine. Her eyes feel huge as she stares up at him and, yeah, he’s right. She’s shaking like a leaf, even without the fear and memories jumping out of her psyche. “It’s okay, Toni,” he says softly. “I’m sorry I hurt you. It wasn’t me.”

“I know,” she whispers, steels herself for a moment, and then leans against him, sliding her arms around his waist. Jesus, he’s a furnace, broad and tall and solid. She’s not exactly a tiny woman, but the top of her head barely reaches his chin, and she can’t link her fingers behind his back. But the more she leans, the more she relaxes, and the more secure his arms get around her shoulders. “We’ll get through this,” she says, and for the first time actually believes it herself.

“Yeah,” he says quietly, and his voice is a rumble deep in his chest against her ear. “Yeah, we will.”

Chapter Text

 

oOoOoOo

Malibu, CA
May 13, 2012

Steve discovers he likes running on the beach. It’s different from running on the track in Stark Tower, or the other morning in the park with Natasha, along manicured trails with other early-morning runners. There, he has to be conscious of how fast he’s running, how much attention he might draw. Here, there’s nothing but sand and waves and the cry of seabirds. It’s also more of a workout, since the sand makes his footing unstable, needs more force to push him at the same pace. He actually kind of likes the burn of muscles earlier than he’s used to feeling it, and the sound of the waves washing onto the shore, punctuated by the calls of birds out over the water, is soothing and serene.

Hours pass before he returns to the mansion for a shower and breakfast. He’s a little surprised when he realizes exactly how long he’s been gone, since he started at five in the morning, and it’s now nearly ten. He still feels like an interloper, hesitating for a moment before re-entering the mansion and moving into the kitchen to fetch one of the bottles of water from the case he saw last night. He’ll never die of dehydration, but it takes three bottles before his thirst is quenched.

“Good morning, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS says when Steve’s done his third bottle and eying a fourth. “Ma’am would like to inform you that she’s left you breakfast in the warmer next to the oven, and requests that you join her in the workshop once you’ve finished your repast. I believe she has something she would like you to see.”

“Oh, uh… “ He blinks, because he is positive he will never get used to a disembodied voice talking to him from everywhere all at once. “Thank you, JARVIS. Please tell Toni I’ll be down after I eat and shower.”

“Very good, Captain.”

Investigating the warmer reveals a plate piled high with bacon and hash browns and an omelet that looks like it contains chicken and cheese and green peppers. A note rests on top of the warmer, his name scrawled on the front of the folded cardstock. If you’re still hungry, there’s yogurt and fruit salad in the fridge. Coffee is fresh. Help yourself. - T  

He doesn’t make it to the table, but he does manage to get a fork out of the utensil drawer before devouring everything, including the yogurt and fruit. Feeling pleasantly full is a rare treat.

He showers quickly, enough to rinse the sweat and sand off him, changes into fresh clothes and goes back to the kitchen to get two cups of coffee before heading downstairs to the workshop Toni showed him yesterday. He’s a little pleased he doesn’t need to ask JARVIS how Toni takes her coffee, because Bucky drilled it into him before he left New York, along with the fact that he should never hand anything directly to her, just lay it beside her. Steve didn’t want to know why, especially after Bucky told him. Stane might be dead and buried, but if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay there.

The door slides open automatically when he reaches the bottom of the stairs, and music spills softly out, something he thinks is this decade’s version of dance club music. Toni’s workshop here bears little resemblance to her New York lab, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and open airy feeling. Toni’s standing in front of a bank of holoscreens, her hands moving across and through the blue glow.

She glances over, and smiles faintly. There’s a tiny thrill of shock he can feel, the bare hint of fear, but that’s it. It’s only been two days, but Bucky and Clint’s idea of taking a vacation seems to be working. “Hey,” she says. “Enjoy your run?”

“I did,” he replies, crossing to her workstation and laying her mug carefully down so it won’t spill. “Thank you for breakfast. It was good.”

She waves a hand dismissively as she picks up her coffee and takes a long gulp. “I can’t cook worth a damn, except for breakfast. It tends to surprise people when they learn that I’m not entirely hapless in the kitchen. I was making it for myself, wasn’t a problem to just put on extra.”

“Still. I appreciate it.” He wraps his hand around his mug, fingers through the handle, and sips his own coffee, black and sweet. “JARVIS said you wanted to show me something?”

“Yeah.” Her grin is wide and pleased, and she turns to make arcane hand motions at the screens. Three of them shoot sideways, disappearing, and the remaining one gets bigger in front of them. “This,” she says, twirling her fingers and bringing a three-dimensional model, what looks like a faceless man wearing a version of his uniform, out to slowly rotate in the palm of her hand, “is the suit I want to fabricate for you. If you want it, I mean. Proprietary Starkweave, which could probably withstand everything short of a nuclear warhead to the face. It’s lighter than anything you can find commercially available, and is customizable for environment via integrated circuitry to either heat or cool the material.”

Steve sets his own cup down and peers at the image, more than a little speechless. Hesitantly, he touches a finger to the little figure, and it freezes in mid-spin. Toni tilts her hand over his, and transfers the image to him, then steps back and shoves her thumbs in her pockets, hands on her hips. He brings his hand to eye-level, examining it from every angle. Pockets and zippers and a harness rig for his shield across the shoulders. The star on the chest, the stripes behind it.

“Coulson’s all but dancing in place to offer you an invitation to the Avengers Initiative,” Toni says, after time passes and he still can’t find anything to say. “I figure you’ll probably get it after this vacation of ours is over, if he doesn’t find a way around JARVIS’s spam filters before then. If you accept, I’ll be designing your stuff anyway, so consider this an early start, I guess.”

“You're not supposed to be working,” he says, but his heart isn't really in it because Toni does something else with the image and it starts displaying the stats in a way that he understands. Simulations of bullets hitting the armor at various spots, miniature blue fire washing over it, stress test results, field test performance reports.

“Yeah, well…” She shrugs with an unapologetic smile. “Some of us run to clear our heads. Some of us science the shit out of things.” She shifts between her feet. “So? What do you think?”

“I think it’s incredible,” he says honestly. “I’d be honored to wear it.”

Her grin is ear to ear. “Great! I was hoping you’d say that, because I have to take a trip into the Culver City facility this afternoon. I know,” she says, with a raised hand to forestall the protests he was about to make, “I’m not supposed to be working. Unfortunately, I need to synthesize some badassium for more arc reactors, and I can only do that at Stark Solutions. I’ve got a couple of hours scheduled at the collider this afternoon, so I can run your new threads through the fabricator at the same time.”

“You don’t have any employees who can do that kind of work?”

“Honestly? No. I don’t have any employees that can do it, because none of them know how. Badassium is volatile, has the potential to change the world in ways we can’t predict or control. I keep the process in my head for safety’s sake.”

Steve frowns, and Toni sighs. “Don’t give me your Captain America Disapproves of Your Actions face. It’s more effective than it should be. It’s me or nobody, and I’m lower than I’d like to be on spare reactors. Rhodey and Carol are both due for upgrades to the new modular model, and I have to rebuild and power seven suits.”

“Well, if you’re sure it can’t be put off…” He still doesn’t sound happy, and Toni knows he has a point. This is supposed to be a vacation, but her New York facilities don’t include a particle collider, and the Malibu residence can fabricate Iron Maiden suits, but not tactical gear for non-armored superheroes.

“It can’t,” she says gently, then pauses with her head tilted in consideration. “Hey, you wanna come with me? It only takes an hour or so to set everything up with the collider for synthesis, and then it’s basically automated until the process is finished.”

“Yeah?” He looks interested, and she thinks maybe even faintly relieved. “Sure, I’d love to.”

“I gotta warn you, it’s gonna be pretty boring for you, unless you want to give the girls in Fabrication a thrill by letting them chat with Captain America while they work on Captain America’s gear. But once I’m done with the setup, I’m pretty much free until all the reactors have been powered. There’s this restaurant I’ve been meaning to try, and I keep hearing about this bizarre little curio museum. Would you like to go?”

Steve’s smile is slow and sweet. “Sounds like you’re asking me on a date.”

Toni blinks, because that’s exactly what it sounds like. “Guess I am. So, you wanna go?”

“I’ll have to check my calendar,” Steve says, suddenly serious. “But I can tentatively say yes.” He grins at her, dodges away from her indignant swat at his arm. “One condition, though. I pick what we do tomorrow.”

“Sounds fair,” Toni says agreeably, and he disappears through the doors with a small wave. She turns back to the holo screens. “J, upload everything to Culver City, would you, and alert Harry in Synthesis, and Kate in Fab? I want it all ready to go when we get there, so I don’t have to spend time dicking around with things that should already be done. And see if you can get reservations at that pub with the toffee Pepper likes, around six?”

“Yes ma’am. Transfer in progress, reservations acquired. As the Waterloo also serves a variety of alcoholic drinks, shall I have your car service pick you up.”

“Nah,” she says, eyes already on the next bit of tech on her to-do list. “If I have a drink or two, Steve can drive.”

------

The evening goes well. Kate Jones, the head of the fabrication division, sobs when Toni confirms that yes, this is the real Captain America, and throws herself into his arms, thanking him profusely for saving her grandfather from the Kreischberg facility in 1944. Steve looks uncomfortable but pleased, and pats her awkwardly on the back, murmuring glad to be of service, ma’am. He gives Toni a look that begs her not to leave him there, but she grins and wiggles her fingers as the door closes behind her.

Harry is as good as his resume and ego say he is, so it only takes her a little over forty minutes to arrange all the empty housings and casings to her exacting specifications. It’s a far cry from nearly destroying half her basement with a homemade laser, but the same basic principles apply, and once it’s set up, there’s nothing for her to do but kill time until it’s done.

Dinner is decent and the museum is fascinating and just plain weird. Those are the only facts Toni registers in her memory for sure, because later that night, back at the mansion and parting to their respective rooms for sleep, Steve catches her gently by the wrist, turns her around and kisses her. It’s brief and chaste, little more than a press of lips on lips before it’s over, but Toni’s brain short-circuits anyway. She’s pretty sure a few neurons flame out brilliantly in the feedback loop.

“I had a nice time, Toni,” Steve says with a smile. “See you tomorrow morning.”

Toni stands in the hallway outside his bedroom door long after he’s closed it, staring blankly at the wall with her fingertips resting on her mouth.

oOoOoOo
May 14, 2012

Steve’s idea of a date is packing for the beach, which Toni doesn’t find herself minding. She’s got her StarkPad for when she inevitably gets bored, and the notion of Steve doing any number of beach and ocean activities make a pleasant and occasionally hilarious stream of mental images in her mind.

Steve on a surfboard is just as glorious as she thought it would be. She isn’t a big surfer herself, and since Afghanistan, she’s avoided anything that might risk her being abruptly immersed in water. Having a flashback in the middle of the Pacific isn’t high on her priority list, so she politely sits this one out, lying on the beach blanket and watching Steve ride the waves.

Because she can, because this needs to be immortalized for future generations to marvel at, Toni fishes her StarkPhone out of her beach bag and adjusts the zoom until she can get a clear image. She snaps a quick series of shots, selects the best one, and texts it off to Bucky, then adds Sure you don’t wanna come visit?

Her phone chimes almost immediately with a response. Want to. We agreed you 2 would have time, tho.

She rolls her eyes, thumbs flying on the keyboard. How can I drool over All American abs if I have no one to share the sight with?

You seem to be doing ok with your phone. How’s it going?

She chews her lip, considering how to phrase it. Good, I think? No one’s dead yet. That’s a plus.

Could be worse.

What follows is a picture of a mountain of paperwork, behind which Coulson looks faintly disapproving. Which means he’s royally pissed Bucky’s not doing whatever he’s supposed to be doing.

Apparently, having Toni Stark access to everything makes me Toni Stark for the week.

She laughs outright, goes back to her main messages list and pulls her perpetual chat with Clint up.

[toni] i hear buckys me for the week

[toni] try not to confuse us

[toni] i know it’ll be hard. mouthy brunettes with starktech prosthetics all look alike

[clint] pfft. i know the difference.

[clint] youre the rich one who glows blue

[toni] he can access my accounts

[clint] then i have no idea who you are.

[toni] he doesnt glow blue

[clint] he will once i tape a glow stick to his chest

[toni] if he punches you through a wall, im telling tash its your idea

She flips back to the texts with Bucky, and shoots off a quick Any Toni Stark worth his salt would be in California with the other Toni Stark. Just sayin. Thinks for another minute, then adds Steve’s pretty hot in nothing but a swimsuit. Gonna go appreciate the view. <3

She turns her attention back to the surf, as Steve comes up out of the water, board under his arm. His eyes are sparkling, salt crystals glittering in his wet hair. He drops the board onto the sand, scoops up his towel and dries his face off before cracking a bottle of water. “That’s a lot of fun,” he says after gulping down half the bottle. “You sure you don’t want to join me?”

She props herself up onto her elbows and eyes him over the rim of her sunglasses. “I don’t want to chance drowning myself out there, Steve,” she says mildly.

“I know you can swim,” he says, finishes the bottle in another long swallow. “Don't tell me the mighty Iron Maiden can turn on a pin in the air but can't balance on a surfboard.”

She sits up, indignant. “There is nothing wrong with my balance, Rogers,” she retorts, jabbing a finger at him. “And that's invincible Iron Maiden, thank you very much.”

He takes the correction with a small grin, loops the towel around the back of his neck. “Fine, Invincible Iron Maiden. Why don’t you like being on the ocean? Is it the reactor?”

Her smile slips just a little. “No. It’s waterproof. But... “ She sighs. “Water hits me the wrong way, and I’m back in a cave being tortured by radical extremists,” she says simply. “If I have a panic attack in the middle of the Pacific, I die. So yes, I would absolutely love to join you, but I can’t risk it. I like living.”

“Oh.” His face is suddenly full of compassion and understanding, and he crouches beside her. “You know I wouldn’t let you die, right? I’d jump right in after you.”

HIs face is so earnest, his words so assured, she can’t help but believe him. The wary part of her brain tries to remind her that he’s already tried to kill her once, but it’s starting to feel like a distant memory, a bad dream she’s been having trouble shaking. “Yeah, I know that. You jump out of planes without parachutes, for chrissake. What’s one scrawny, flailing engineer in the ocean?”

“You’re hardly scrawny,” he says, with a critical eye raking over her. “You probably need to put a few more pounds on to be fully recovered, but you’re definitely not scrawny.”

Despite giving both fingers to social body image standards and wearing a bikini that shows off the arc reactor, she suddenly wants to cover up, hide the scarring, hide the evidence of past wounds. It’s a ridiculous urge, so she doesn’t give into it, but it doesn’t go away just because she’s ignoring it. She’s always been good at turning uncomfortable urges into snark, though. “Are you finished objectifying me yet, or should I strike a pose for your dominant male gaze?”

Steve’s confused blink and puzzled face abruptly remind her that he’s from the forties, and doesn’t really get modern feminist language. “My what?”

She shakes her head, holding out a hand. “Never mind. It’s not important. Well. It’s important, it’s just not important right now. What were we talking about? Right. Surfing, and why I don’t do it.”

“Come out with me once,” Steve says, holding out his hand. “If you really don’t want to, I won’t push, but if you really do like it, come out with me. I won’t let you fall in.”

Toni’s breath catches in her throat. Maybe it’s the angle of the sun, maybe it’s the way his body language is yelling both deferential and protective at the same time, but something about the way he’s leaning down with his hand outstretched, encouraging smile and salt-silvered hair is completely irresistible.

“Alright,” she grumbles when she recovers her breath, slapping her hand into his and letting him haul her to her feet. “Alright. I’m trusting you here. You dunk me, you’re a dead man.”

He grins. “Got it.”

She spends an hour on the waves with him, surfing in tandem on his rented board. One wave turns into six waves turns into twelve, because the first one is more than enough to remind her of the feeling she gets launching Iron Maiden into the sky. And true to his word, Steve does not let her fall into the water. Every time she opens her arms to the wind, his hands are warm and firm on her hips, holding her steady. He’s so self-righteously smug about it that, when she’s ready to call it a day and pack up her beach stuff for the trip home, she deliberately and abruptly throws herself sideways halfway into shore, dragging a surprised Steve into the ocean with her.

She surfaces and tosses her head back, swinging her sodden hair out of her eyes, and treads water while Steve comes up, sputtering and swiping his hand to clear his eyes. “What was that for?” he asks, though he’s smiling.

“For being insufferable,” she replies, and smirks. “Also, I hope you can cook, because dinner’s your responsibility tonight.”

“I guarantee nothing,” he says and swims for the board.

Toni follows behind, and thinks that so far, it’s been a good day.

--------

Dinner goes well. Steve is a surprisingly good cook, once introduced to the wonders of internet recipe sites. Toni doesn’t even know what it is he made, something with cheese and chicken and eggplant and rice that he carefully chops and measures and cooks while she sits at the island counter, head propped on an arm and a StarkPad open with Iron Maiden specs in front of her. She isn’t designing the Mark VIII, though, because it’s too entertaining watching Captain America navigate her kitchen and its appliances.

It’s absolutely divine, whatever it is, and there’s a lot of it. She inhales almost as much as Steve does, catches him eyeing her in astonishment when she fills her plate for the third time. She shrugs with a small smile. “The nanites burn a lot of the body’s resources,” she says, by way of explanation. “The process is winding down now, most of the colonies are dead, but I still need somewhere in the neighbourhood of four thousand calories per day until it’s done.”

His shoulders are tight, knuckles white on the fork and knife, but his voice betrays none of it when he asks, “How much longer is it going to take?”

“‘Nother day or so,” she says around a mouthful of chicken, and washes it down some of her glass of water. “The aches are mostly gone, just a couple of twinges now and then in the hand.” She rotates her right wrist, feeling it roll smoothly, but it pulls the muscles of her arm, and she grimaces. “Tight as a drum, though. J, remind me to book a masseuse sometime tomorrow, will you?”

“Certainly, ma’am. I can contact your usual--”

Steve coughs, and stands to clear the table as Toni scrapes her plate to get the last of her rice. “I can do it,” he says, keeping his head down as he carefully gathers the dishes. “If you’d prefer. I don’t have any of that special training or anything, but I know a thing or two about working knots out of muscles.”

Toni freezes in mid-chew, fork hanging out of her mouth as her oh-so-helpful brain provides her with all sorts of vivid mental imagery on how many scenarios even the most innocent version of that offer can turn into. “You serious?” she asks.

He frowns a little. “Bad idea?”

“No! No, awesome idea. Hell, I’d ask for one right now if it wouldn’t just suck more for me to get up in the morning, stiff and sore again.” She smiles and finishes her water, then stands with her own plate. “Tomorrow afternoon, maybe?”

“Sounds good.” His return smile is shy and sweet, and just for a second, Toni can see the gangly, thin Steve underneath. Remembers what Bucky told her about Steve’s belief she wouldn’t want him. Fiercely thinks that it still doesn’t matter. “Help me do the dishes, and we can figure out what to do next?”

--------

Steve

They end up on the couch, Steve at one end, Toni’s head resting on the other arm, her feet in Steve’s lap, and the remote on her stomach. He hasn’t had any time at all to catch up to modern entertainment, but Toni settles on something she assures him he’ll understand, even if she can’t guarantee he’ll like it. She explains how to use what she calls the “on-demand service” as she does it, and he files the information carefully away, knowing she’s thinking ahead to a time when he might want to use it when no one else is around.

Halfway through the third episode of M*A*S*H -- which is close enough to his era to be familiar, serious enough to remind him of the war that, for him, was only a few weeks ago, but funny enough to dull the sharp edges of that reminder -- he glances over to see that Toni has fallen asleep. Her head is turned towards the television, and the glow from the screen coupled with the light from the arc reactor throw shadows and highlights across her shoulders and face. Makes her two soulmarks almost glow.

He holds out his hand, reaching for the white star, but stops well above her skin. As badly as he wants to run his fingers over the blue and white lines, trace it again and again, and just marvel at it, she hasn’t told him he could. He still finds it all hard to believe, that he lost Bucky and then himself for seventy years, and woke to find the important things here, waiting for him.

He pulls his hand back to her ankle, and eases her feet off his lap to stand, then carefully scoops her up so smoothly she doesn’t even stir. Carries her through the open, airy house and up the stairs, which is a little awkward with the way they twist around, but he manages without jostling her. Tucks her in bed, even though he’s pretty sure she’s going to be uncomfortable for having slept in her jeans, but he’s not willing to wake her up so she can get changed either.

He’ll apologize in the morning if it’s an issue.

-------

Hours later, he wakes suddenly from vague dreams of a dark, quiet place, lies completely still in the dark guest room down the hall from Toni’s master bedroom, listening for the sound that alerted him. He doesn’t have long to wait, because it comes from directly overhead: “Captain Rogers?”

The AI, which he has yet to be convinced isn’t a man in the ceiling somewhere. “What is it, JARVIS?” he asks.

“I’m sorry to wake you, Captain, but ma’am is in distress and unresponsive. I believe she requires assistance. If I could implore you to--”
“Of course.” He is already out of bed at the word “distress”, fishes for his tee shirt on the floor and pulls it on over his head, is already down the hall before he remembers to hitch his sweatpants more securely on his hips.

The master bedroom’s door is slightly ajar, just how he left it. He knocks softly on it, peering around it as his hand pushes it back. “Toni?”

Toni is sitting in the middle of the bed, hunched into herself, arms wrapped around her knees, eyes wide and blank and staring at nothing. For a single, awful moment, Steve thinks she’s dead, because no one living should be that still. But her eyes blink, slow and sluggish, but it’s sign enough to let relief flood through him so sharply his knees want to sag.

He moves to the edge of the bed. “Toni? Toni.” He hesitates for a moment, then knees onto the mattress, scurrying over the comforter until he can grasp her shoulders. He hisses in a breath, because she’s ice cold. “ Toni.”

No response, just another of those terribly slow blinks. He’s no field medic, but he knows enough basic first aid to figure out her pulse is too slow to be healthy. “Dammit. Toni.” Looks around, looks at everything, scenarios running through his head, everything from an accidental overdose (no pill bottles visible) to an assassin creeping through the windows and injecting her with a toxin (windows are shut and he can’t find any injection marks anywhere).

How the hell does he fix this?

Casting around for an answer, he sees Toni’s cell phone on the table beside the bed, stretches an arm and snags it. Thanks God in a deep, meaningful way that it isn’t password-protected, because then he’d be completely out of luck. Fumbles with the touch screen and the tiny icons that are supposed to mean things, until he sees one that should be her address book -- contact list, these days, he guesses -- and scrolls until he finds Bucky’s information, and pushes his thumb where it says Call .

“We’re sorry, the customer you are calling is out of service range, or has the phone turned off. If you’d like to leave a message, press one now.”

“Goddammit,” he snarls, softly, pressing End. Swipes around and presses again, finding Clint’s listing. He’s not sure if this is going to count towards Clint’s ultimatum, but he doesn’t hesitate to call the number.

It rings once, twice, three times.

“Goddammit, Toni,” Clint grumbles, sounding less than half-awake, “it’s four-fucking-thirty in the fucking morning. Someone better be dead or I’m going to feather your ass with arrows.”

“It’s not Toni,” Steve says, holding the phone against his shoulder with his head, pressing his palms to Toni’s face and neck. He can’t be positive, but it feels like she’s gotten even cooler in the last few minutes.

“... Rogers? Rogers, why the fuck are you calling me at... “ In a blink, his tone changes. Awake, alert, much less of an asshole. “Rogers, what happened?”

“I don’t know,” he says, “it’s Toni. She’s freezing and she’s not speaking or moving. I don’t think she even knows I’m here. She’s not responding to me at all. Is she sick? Does she have a medical condition? I don’t know what to do.”

“First thing you do is breathe, Rogers. You’re not going to be able to help her if you hyperventilate yourself into a coma. Three long breaths now, c’mon. Fucking breathe , Rogers. Put those superhuman lungs to work.”

One. In, hold. Out. Two. In, hold. Out. By the third breath, his head is clearer and his shoulders a little looser. “Okay,” he says as he exhales. “Tell me what to do.”

“How long has she been like this?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. JARVIS woke me up about, ten minutes ago? I think he’d been trying to get through to her for a bit before that, though.”

“Twenty minutes, then,” Clint says with assurance. “JARVIS takes ten minutes to get her to come out of these episodes by herself before he alerts one of us. Okay. Here’s what you do. If she’s dressed, strip her. Get her under the blankets and get her warm. You should be perfect, you supersoldiers are like goddamn space heaters. She needs skin contact. The more, the better. Talk to her, quiet and calm. Doesn’t matter what you’re saying, just talk. Tell her war stories. Tell her about you and Bucky raising hell. Natasha sings inappropriate Russian lullabies to her. Rhodey talks about college. Just talk. And do not mention her father. Ever. You got all that?”

“Yeah,” he says, using his free hand to try to get her to unfold enough to do as Clint’s telling him. “Skin-to-skin, keep her warm, keep talking, but not about her father.”

“Perfect. Do all that, and she’ll come out of it. Right now, she’s sinking, Rogers. She needs an anchor that is warm and comforting and safe. Hear me?”

“I hear you,” he says, and pulls the jeans off her legs. Gets her arms up enough to strip the shirt too. He can’t bring himself to remove her underthings, though, so he just arranges her on the bed and tucks the thick comforter around her. “What if that doesn’t work either?”

“Give it thirty, forty minutes. It takes time. But if she hasn't started coming out of it by then, call me back. We'll figure it out from there.”

“Alright,” Steve says, steps out of the puddle of fabric around his ankles. “What is it, though? What's happening?”

There's a long pause on the other end of the call. “The ice,” Clint says, quietly and with more compassion than Steve’s ever heard from him so far. “She dreams of it, sometimes. It comes through her mark. She thinks she’s in the ice with you.”

Fucking God. Steve’s eyes go to Toni, and horror claws at his gut. He doesn’t remember the ice, doesn’t try to remember the ice either, because he knows it’s a terror his waking mind mind will never need to process. He would never have even dreamed Toni would be affected like this. How long has she dreamed of the dark cold? Has he forgotten because she remembers? Is it her shoulders that bear the weight of--

“You got this, Rogers?”

Steve slams back into his own head. Swallows. “I got this,” he says. “I’ll call in forty minutes.” He hangs up and slides under the sheets, pulling her tight against him. She’s cold and quiet against him, and his only indication that she’s breathing is a faint, but steady whisper against his collarbone. He folds as much of himself as he can around her, tugs the blanket tight behind her to chamber the heat.

“Clint says I'm supposed to talk to you,” he says awkwardly, “and I have no idea of what to say. Off the battlefield, I'm really not all that great at speeches or monologues. I wish Bucky had told me this might happen, because I would have had something prepared. I'm just going to do my best here, and hope it works.”

And his mind goes completely blank, mouth open but no words coming out. Desperately, he dredges his memory for anything, wishing briefly and futilely that anyone other than him were here. For the first time in years, he wishes his mother was here. She'd know what to do, she always knew how to take care of the hurt and the sick.

“My mother would have liked you, I think,” he finds himself saying. “She liked people with spirit, liked people with compassion. I think you and she would have gotten along well. She used to tell me that whoever my soulmates were would be lucky to have me, but I think she'd agree with me now that I'd be lucky to have you.”

He rambles on for awhile, he's got a thousand stories of Sarah Rogers to pull out of his memories, vignettes of his life before Erskine and the war. He talks about Bucky and art school, that rat-hole apartment he'd been so proud of, after his mother died. And somehow, he ends up spilling all his doubts and insecurities out into the open. How he couldn't find his mother's grave in Brooklyn, but all the graves of the men he served with were like punches in the chest for him to visit. How he sometimes can't sleep because he's afraid he's going to wake up in a new century, how off-balance he feels to see so much familiar, but nothing is remotely the same.

He shuts his mouth with an effort and checks the clock. Twenty-five minutes, give or take. Toni's skin is warm again, and her eyes are slitted open, watching him hazily.

“Hey,” he says softly. “Are you back? Are you here?”

“S’not what you say,” she mumbles, and her eyes slip closed. “S’posed to be ‘you with me’.”

“Alright. You with me, Toni?”

A smile curves her mouth, dreamily. “Think so. Not cold anymore anyway.”

He tries not to wince, is only partially successful. “I was worried,” he says, knows he should start untangling himself to pull back, stand up and return to his own room, but a traitorous little voice is insisting she isn't warm enough yet if she's still slurring her speech. He stays as he is. “I didn't know what happened. I called Barton. He told me what to do.”

“Sorry,” she murmurs against him. “Someone, I should have told you. Doesn't happen a lot. It's been a couple of weeks. Thanks.”

“Not necessary,” he says, and if his voice is a little rough, it’s because this is indirectly his fault. The ice should be his nightmare, not hers. “I'm happy I could help.” He clears his throat, suddenly uncomfortable. “I should go,” he says softly.

She makes a dissenting noise in the back of her throat, and slips her arm around his waist, as if she could hold him there by force. “Stay,” she murmurs. “You're warm. It's nice. Just… stay. Please?”

He can rip a tank apart with his bare hands if he wants to, but he doesn’t have the strength to resist that soft plea. “Okay, Toni,” he says, and presses his palms into her back, tucking her closer and more securely. “I’ll stay.” Knows he’s lying through his teeth when he says, “Just for a little while, until you get back to sleep.”

“Kay,” she murmurs against his shoulder, and her arm at his waist tightens. “Or just ... stay .”

He knows he's going to stay, then and there. When he sleeps again, which is soon after she drops into slumber, he dreams of vanilla scented waves and Toni leaning into the wind with her arms outstretched and her hair streaming like a banner behind her.

Chapter Text

 oOoOoOo

Stark Mansion, Malibu CA
May 15, 2012

When Toni wakes, she’s alone in the bed. She hazily blinks conscious, letting information coalesce from the sunlight streaming through the window, the soft warmth of her mattress, and the faint scent of Steve on the pillow under her head inform her of where she is. Normally, she wakes grumpy, snappish and growling at everyone and everything that gets between her and her morning cup of coffee… but this morning, she just stretches languorously, rolling like a cat under the covers, before sliding off the mattress and stretching again, toes to fingertips.

“Morning, J,” she says, yawning. “What’s the day looking like?”

“Good morning, ma’am,” JARVIS replies. “It is 9:37am. The temperature is a pleasant 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and the forecast indicates a full day of sunshine, with a  mild chance of sun showers this afternoon. You have no pressing emails to answer, and your schedule remains clear, as per Ms. Potts’ orders. There are three notes flagged for your attention. Do you want to review them now?”

“May as well,” she says, padding towards the bathroom.

“You scheduled a reminder to begin fabrication of the Mark VIII armor today, as well as implementing Project Rebound. The fabrication facilities at the Culver City installation have sent notification that Captain Rogers’ tactical uniform is complete, and request a fitting in order to attend to potential alterations before it is finalized. As well, Captain Rogers asked me to notify you that he left at seven for his morning run, and he estimates his return to be somewhere around eleven am, as he wishes to do some sketching at a location he discovered yesterday morning. He added that your breakfast is in the warmer, and the coffee is fresh-made.”

Toni blinks as she sheds her clothing and steps into the shower. “That’s… thoughtful,” she says, tipping her head under the spray to wet her hair.

“I believe Captain Rogers, like sir, is what is colloquially known as ‘a keeper’, ma’am,” JARVIS says dryly.

“Don’t be an ass, kid. I can still ground you.” She scrubs shampoo into her scalp. “Or sell you to Gates,” she says thoughtfully. “What’s the status on Mark VIII specs, J?”

“The simulations are all conclusively green, ma’am. Would you like me to begin fabrication?”

“Yes, do. Pause it when it’s ready for the paint cycles, though. I still haven’t decided if I want the classic design or the alternate version.”

“Very good, ma’am. A notification warning has now been set. The manufacturing process will pause in approximately four hours.”

After a shower and a fresh change of clothes, she towels her hair dry and wanders into the kitchen. Just like Steve’s note via JARVIS promised, there’s a plate of food sitting in the warmer, and coffee in the pot. She eats her breakfast sandwich over the sink and drinks her first cup of coffee while she’s at it. She pours another cup, then heads down to the workshop to sink some time into some things she needs to do.

oOoOoOo

Steve

When Steve gets out of the shower, he notices the shield is gone. It’s been sitting in the corner of his room for the last few days, since he chose the room on the first day, set aside but not forgotten. He hasn’t touched it since, just allowed it to sit and gather dust while he enjoyed the first vacation he’s had since he and Bucky spent that day at Coney Island way back in 1940.

But now it’s not there.

He hurries into clothes, ignoring the wet towel that slides from his hips, ignores the fact that he’s still dripping from the shower. He tears the room apart in short order, thinking maybe he put it somewhere else, but it’s nowhere to be found. He stands in the middle of the room for a long moment, anxiety a thump under his lungs, trying to remember the last time he saw it, if he brought it to the beach and somehow left it there, if someone could have crept in and stolen it while he was gone.

It’s stupid, it’s so stupid, it’s just a shield… but it’s a shield wrapped up in his self-identity, one of the few things he has left to tie him to his old life. It’s saved his life so many times, it actually feels like a physical blow, a solid punch in the chest, to think of it being gone forever.

“I apologize for the intrusion, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS says suddenly, and Steve jumps, because the voice comes from everywhere, “but I am registering a spike in your vital signs that indicate the early stages of a panic attack. Would you like me to notify ma’am that you need assistance?”

“No. No, I’m … I’m fine.” With inhuman effort, Steve manages to get his breathing under control, though it takes him a good few minutes to do so. The unsettled flutter doesn’t go away entirely, though; it just dies down to constant itch, like ants crawling around his chest. “JARVIS, do you know where I might have left my shield? I think I may have misplaced it.”

“My apologies, Captain Rogers. Ma’am borrowed it several hours ago, and it is currently in her workshop.” The AI pauses, then adds wryly, “I believe she meant to replace it before your return.”

Steve frowns a little. The shield, he thinks, should have been the last thing Toni wants to touch. She had given it sidelong looks full of wariness on the flight to Los Angeles, nervous with its presence until Steve decided to tuck it out of sight. Why would she come into his room to take it now? “Thank you, JARVIS,” he says, deciding to ask Toni herself.

He can hear the music a flight of stairs up, loud and throbbing and a little more vulgar than he's really comfortable with. He knows he’s missed a lot, but he has no idea how music went from singing about love and the brassy melodies of jazz and big band to growling about violence and calling women bitches.

The workshop door opens at his approach, and the music cuts down to a level that’s barely audible. Toni spins around in her chair as he walks through the door, clearly surprised to see him, slightly panicked and even a little… guilty? The shield, he’s relieved to see, is on the bench behind her, and looks as shiny and undamaged as when he stacked it in the corner.

“Shit,” she says, wide-eyed as she stares at him, dragging her hands back and forth over her denim-clad thighs. “What time is it?”

“It is 12:03pm, ma’am,” JARVIS replies. “I did attempt to alert you to the time, but ma’am muted me for interrupting her sciencing.”

Toni’s expression grows more rueful and guilty. “Ah well,” she says sheepishly, rubbing the back of her neck. “There goes my surprise.”

Steve arches an eyebrow. “What surprise?”

Toni turns back and lifts the shield off the bench, flips it in her palms so the star spins to face down. There are new arm straps attached: the brown leather is replaced with stiff black fabric that glows with blue lines, the same color as Toni's arc reactor. “One of your weaknesses,” she says, “is you can lose the shield. Sure, it bounces back, but that doesn’t happen all the time, right? So I fixed it. I think.”

She tosses him the shield, and he catches it reflexively, arm sliding through the straps like he’s done a thousand times in the past. “You think?”

Toni turns back to the workbench, rattling components and tools as she digs through them. “Vibranium is notoriously hard to work with,” she says over her shoulder. “The Wakandans are the masters, but they’re pretty secretive with their research. Outside Wakanda, I’m probably the leading expert, if you discount von Doom -- which, by the way, please do. He’s a goddamn lunatic -- and even I don’t know a fraction of what the Wakandans have discovered.”

Steve slides the shield off his arm, inspecting the new straps carefully. They’re comfortable and nearly frictionless, but still offer a good grip for when he needs to fight with it. “You can’t just ask?” he asks absently, running his finger along one of the blue lines. Huh. Feels like leather, even though it clearly isn’t.

“I’ve tried,” Toni says in exasperation. “But their tech is proprietary and Howard kinda torched any good will the Stark name and America in general might have had when he appropriated a nearly twenty pound chunk of the stuff back in the 30s. A-ha!” Her hand closes around what, to Steve's untrained eye, looked like a rough-shaped bracer and lifts it free. “Gimme your shield arm.”

Steve holds out his arm, frowning. “What do you mean, appropriated?” he asks, as Toni slides the bracer over his hand and fitting it to his forearm. Her fingers are lithe and deft, tightening it until it's snug against his skin. It's not the most comfortable thing in the world, but it's obviously only half-finished, and he's worn scratchier things in his life.

“Well, Howard didn’t exactly have the permission of the Wakandan government to play around with their sacred metals,” Toni says, reaching out in an unspoken request for the shield.

He hands it over, frowning in disapproval. “Somehow, Howard left that detail out of his story about how he created the shield,” he says.

“Probably because you’re a good man,” Toni says, standing up with the shield and trotting away. “And you’d insist on giving it back to its rightful owners.” She holds up the shield, out to the side, like a target. “The trigger’s pressure based, but I haven’t finished it yet. Can you just… flex your forearm a bit?”

It’s a measure of how strange Steve’s life has become that he doesn’t ask any questions. He just does as she asks, and the blue lines suddenly bloom incandescent along the leather, bright and bold. Across the room, Toni lightly tosses the shield into the air as it starts to spin. It pinwheels for a moment, then shoots towards Steve like it ricocheted off a wall.

He throws his arm up, and it snaps tightly against the bracer. It hits hard, enough to bruise even him, and Steve grunts as rocks him back a little. “That will come in handy,” he says, pulling the shield off the bracer again. Can't help a slight grimace as it jars the sore spot. “If it leaves my arm attached, that is,” he says with a smile.

“It's meant to be integrated under layers of reinforced Starkweave with your uniform,” Toni says, trotting back to him and reaching out to undo the bindings. “Which is almost ready, actually. Fabrication sent word that the preliminary work is done. They need a fitting to make adjustments, and then it’s finished.”

Steve’s never really been comfortable with people, complete strangers, having their hands all over him, and a couple of the ladies working in the Fabrication department had been handsy, touching his arm and shoulders often enough that he’d started to think they were finding excuses. They hadn’t been anything but friendly and polite, but after almost an hour with them, he’d felt hounded and cornered.

“Maybe not today,” Toni says, and he catches her eyeing him speculatively. “Later tonight? I can do the finishing touches myself, if you’d prefer.”

“That’d be swell,” he says, and tries not to let the rush of relief he feels show in his face or voice. He and Toni are still getting to know one another, but he’s learned that she can be a bit prickly where any of who she considers to be her people are concerned, and he doesn’t want to be the reason someone gets reprimanded or fired.

With effort, he shakes it off and smiles. “Come upstairs,” he says, reaching carefully out to take her hand, giving her plenty of opportunity to pull back. She’s been less and less jumpy around him since their arrival, but he still sees the wariness, feels it skitter across his chest, every time he reaches for her. “I’ll make lunch.”

Toni lets him interlock their fingers, and her palm is cool against his. “I am kinda hungry,” she says with a wry smile. “Breakfast was hours ago. Thanks, by the way. It was delicious.”

He shrugs with an easy smile. “I like cooking,” he says, and doesn’t add for you, even though he wants to. She’ll drive you fuckin’ crazy, Bucky told him a few nights ago. She’s the dumbest genius in the world. You’ll end up feelin’ like a babysitter half the time, making sure she eats and practically pinning her in the bed to make sure she sleeps. She’s stubborn as a pig and never admits she’s wrong. But yeah, Stevie. She’s totally worth every scrap of it.

Bucky’s right, of course. Steve’s halfway there already, but he has a head start. He’s been here since Toni’s mark first manifested on his skin all those long years ago. He risks squeezing her hand gently, and is rewarded when she squeezes back and smiles at him like he hung the moon.

oOoOoOo

Stark Mansion, Malibu
May 16, 2012

Toni wraps her hands, trying to keep the panic under control. She keeps her breath slow and regular, but her inhales are a trifle sharp, and her exhales come out shaky. She concentrates on the bright blue of the wrap, flexing her fingers and wrist to check the fit before closing the velcro strap on each hand. Concentrates on the feel of fitted cotton-lycra blend, the breeze on her arms, the floor under her bare toes. She’s barely got a handle on it, and she knows it. But this is something she has to do.

“Alright,” she says softly when both hands are done, closes her eyes and blows out a breath. Squaring her shoulders, she turns and walks purposefully from the bench where she’d been warming up to the mats in front of the wide, ocean-facing windows, where Steve is waiting in his workout clothes. His face is open and creased with concern, and she doesn’t need his mark to feel his own nervousness and uncertainty. He’s radiating it in waves of distress, from the crinkling of his eyes to the way he keeps making minute adjustments to the black wraps on his hands.

“We don’t have to do this,” he says as Toni takes her place in front of him, and his arms drop to hang loosely at his sides. “It hasn’t been that long, Toni. We don’t have to do this right now.”

She takes another deep breath, slow inhale, holds it for a few seconds, and then lets it out just as slowly. “Yeah,” she says with a wry shrug, and adjusts her feet until she’s in a comfortable, ready-for-anything stance. “We kinda do. Cos we’re going back in a few days, Steve, and you’re going to join the Avengers, and I can’t afford to have a panic attack in the middle of combat because Captain America scares me.”

He flinches, ever so slightly. “I’m never going to forgive Hydra for this,” he says, soft and dangerous.

“Good,” Toni replies. “Cos I’m sure as shit not either.” She bends her knees, shifts her feet again, and brings her hands up in loosely-curled fists. “Just please keep in mind that I’m a plain old vanilla, boring-ass human being, not a supersoldier, huh?”

Steve manages to make his stance look like a fluid motion in a single step of his foot. “I know you’re not superhuman, Toni,” he says with an amused frown. “But boring and old are two words I doubt I would ever use to describe you.” He pauses, eyes looking distant and dreamy for a moment. “You do smell like vanilla, though,” he adds then. “I think it’s your soap.”

“Shampoo, actually.” She smiles, steps left and starts to circle as Steve turns with her. They’ve agreed she can get a few hits in so Steve can judge her ability before he starts doing anything but blocking or redirecting. That’s the verbal, out-in-the-open reason, anyway. But she knows just as well as Steve does that if he comes at her first, she’s likely to freak and that just sets everything they’ve managed to accomplish back to zero.

She’s rusty, because it’s been weeks since she’s done anything but punch a bag until her hands are bleeding, but she’s got years of training to rely on. It only takes a few circles around Steve before she’s got herself completely in control, and she sees an opening. She’s pretty sure Steve’s handing it to her on a silver platter, but she’ll take it.

She steps forward, leading with a straightforward strike with her left hand. It’s smoother than she has any right to expect, given how long it’s been since her last spar with Clint, but she’s still off-balance and overextended. Steve turns his shoulder backward, and she hits only air. True to his word, though, Steve doesn’t try to touch her as she slides past him, just steps back to give her space. She spins, throws a cross with her right fist, alternates in a few kicks with jabs. It’s insulting that, supersoldier or not, he’s not even really trying to dodge her. Half the time, she swears he doesn’t even move.

“Dammit,” she grumbles, smoothing her hands over her hair because running them through her tight french braid is out of the question. “I’m out of practice.”

“Your practice is fine,” Steve says calmly. “You’re too tense and you’re overthinking it. It’s muddling your timing. Quiet your mind.”

“I swear, if the next words out of your mouth are you will hear them speaking to you, I am never watching Star Wars with you again.” She closes her eyes, shakes her limbs loose, bounces back and forth between her feet. “Should it really be this hard?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Steve shrugs with an apologetic smile. “It’s easy for me. Then again,” he says, and Toni knows he just had a thought, because his eyes are lighting up and he has an aura of eureka in his expression. “Then again, I’m a supersoldier.”

And he lunges at her, so fast she doesn’t have time to blink. His hand snaps around her wrist, and then she’s flying over his hip. She squawks and oofs as she hits the mat, twisting into the momentum to roll her back onto her feet.

“What the hell, Steve?” she yelps, waving her arms at him. Anger and indignation catch up to the surprise, fed by the steady pulse of amusement under the white star on her chest. “I wasn’t ready! You could have hurt me.”

His grin widens, and it is enraging how self-satisfied it is. She grinds her teeth together and her hands fist at her sides. “Big girl in a suit of armor,” he taunts, crooking his hand at her. “Take that off, and what are you? A plain old, boring-ass vanilla human.”

Every single syllable hits home, her own words cutting vicious and sharp, and just for a moment, her vision hazes in red. “Oh, you’re going to regret you said that,” she snarls, and drops back into her ready stance.

“I’m starting to want you to make me,” Steve says, and beckons her forward again with a quick flick of his hand.

Deep in the back of her head, she knows what he’s doing. He’s deliberately riling her up so her anger will override everything else that might be holding her back. It’s effective, she has to admit; even though she knows it’s just a trick, it’s working a little too well.

She launches forward, pushing off the mat hard and fast, spinning the moment she clears the floor into a high spinning heel kick. Steve snaps his arms in a cross in front of his face, trapping her foot between his forearms.

She has fractions of a second to judge the grip he has on her ankle, but her brain has always worked at light speed. She takes the risk, keeps turning into the spin. She gets her leg over his shoulder, her knee around the back of his neck just as he releases her trapped foot. Whips her now-free leg around, locks her ankles together under his chin, and throws her weight down over her shoulders, arms outstretched to break the fall.

Steve makes a startled, strangled noise, and Toni’s cackling in delight because she’s taken him by surprise. His spine bows backward, arms pinwheeling, and Toni hastily scissors her ankles apart, rolling away before she gets squashed under a toppling supersoldier.

They both roll to their feet, Toni blowing a puff of breath upwards to shift a loose lock of hair out of her face. Steve is so graceful she’s rabidly jealous on principle, barely landing on the floor before he back-rolls over his shoulder and into a crouch. She shifts her stance from left forward to right, arms tucked tight to her sides. For a long moment, she stares at him, and he stares back.

His expression breaks first, softening from neutral and unreadable into gentle concern. “You with me, Toni?”

For someone who only two nights ago hadn’t known their routines, their walkthroughs, Steve’s picked it up quick. Toni’s shoulders loosen at his words, and she rolls them comfortably, settling into an easier stance. “Yeah,” she says with a tiny grin. “How about you? You with me?”

“Yep. We’re good.” He rises to his full height, and Toni’s breath catches in her throat, because Steve Rogers is who she dropped to the floor, but Steve Rogers is not who gets back up. He’s minus the shield, minus the uniform, minus the cowl, but there’s a set of his shoulders, a look in his eyes, something about the way he holds himself… There is absolutely no doubt in Toni’s mind that this is Captain America in front of her now.

“Oh damn,” she breathes softly, and her eyes feel like they’re taking up half her face, they’re so wide. The aura of confidence and command he radiates is alluring, so alluring she nearly swears right then and there to follow him into the mouth of hell without stopping for socks and shoes, let alone the armor. Goddamn, Cap,” she says again, and if she’s more reverent than a devout Catholic at Sunday morning mass, it’s only because she’s okay with feeling like a starry-eyed kid watching the old newsreels all over again.

He smiles, calm and capable and alert. “You ready, soldier?”

That really shouldn’t turn her on at all, should it? Recent bouts of insanity aside, she’s never been one for chains of command and adherence to rules. It should frighten her a little that her only response is fiercely happy and challenging, “I was born ready, Cap.”

Brave words, but she knows how much bullshit they are when he just grins, sudden and gleeful, and comes at her with a staggering speed. Holy shit, he’s fast, is all she has time to think before he’s in her space and she has to duck under an open-handed sweep of his arm. She barely gets clear before his knee smacks into her solar plexus and knocks her rolling across the mats.

“Ow,” she wheezes, cradling her ribs with a palm. Steve’s being careful and pulling his blows by a lot, but she’s definitely going to be bruised.

She scrambles on her hands and knees backward as Steve approaches, kicking up onto her feet when she has clearance. Her brain is racing in a hundred different directions, only a few of which are bright and jagged paths to fear and panic at the sight of blond, blue-eyed muscle stalking towards her. But mostly, she’s focused and grinning, anticipating where his first strike will come from and calculating what her best course of action will be.

She slides her foot back, letting muscle memory take over to set her body for whatever he’s going to do next. She dodges to the left as he throws a punch with his right hand, her arms automatically in motion to deflect his rising knee strike with her crossed wrists.

“Too slow, old man,” she taunts, jabbing at his gut with a one-two combination. The punches don’t hit, but she didn’t expect them to, because she wanted to force an opening. When Steve obliges by bending slightly forward, she flows into a twisting scorpion kick, and her instep cracks into his shoulder, and he staggers one step with an oof.

They break apart again, and Toni is goddamn delighted, she’s laughing out loud and dancing backwards, hands in defensive fists in front of her. Steve’s eying her and rubbing his shoulder briefly where her kick landed. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” he says, wry but pleased.

“I try to be,” she says cheerfully, and makes a bring it gesture with both hands, trademark smug smirk bright and wide. And just because she’s her, and because he won’t get it, and because she just pulled off the goddamn Trinity kick, a personal first in her years of sparring with assassins and spies: “C’mon, Cap. Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

His answering grin is wolfish and eager. “Betchoo got klahws, kitten, ” he drawls, and charges.

Toni is going to murder Bucky at her earliest opportunity, because there’s no way Steve could have known without Bucky tattling. There’s too much Brooklyn in that last statement for her brain to do anything but briefly short spectacularly out, which is how she ends up with a bruise perfectly shaped like the edge of the mat on her left ass cheek.

----

She loses, of course, because she was always going to lose. It wasn’t her best day of fighting, but it wasn’t a bad one either, and she knows she gave it at least 75%. Steve, on the other hand, might have cracked 30% of the best he is capable of giving, and that’s being generous with her estimates. But she’s happy anyway. She held her own, got in a couple of brilliantly timed if occasionally lucky shots, and has purged the remnants of the anxiety and fear out of her system.

Still, she’s completely wiped because Steve is a merciless perfectionist, and she spent the last fifteen minutes drilling in form corrections and adjustments to her fighting styles. She lies on the mat, flat on her back and limbs sprawled out, catching her breath. “Bet you totally regret that boring-ass human crack now,” she says, once she’s got enough lung capacity to manage speech. “Even if you totally allowed me to get in that first takedown.”

Steve sits beside her and starts unwrapping his hands. He shakes his head with a rueful smile and rolls his shoulders. “I really didn’t,” he says. “It won’t work on me again, but you caught me off-guard with it that time.” He tilts his head, speculative. “Clint’s been your primary instructor, right?”

“Yeah.” She squints up at him. “How’d you know that?”

Steve sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “When I was… not myself, I studied footage of all of you. Hawkeye is quick and unpredictable hand-to-hand. He adapts quickly and comes up with unconventional angles of attack. You’re faster and a little more efficient, but I recognize his style in yours. Widow’s too, but mostly his.”

Toni snorts again. “No way I’m faster than Clint,” she says, “but please don’t ever tell him you thought I was, because he’ll run my ass into the ground proving you wrong. I don’t have the ability to keep up with him without rocket boots. Any faster, and he’d break the sound barrier.”

“I studied footage of you too, Toni,” he says quietly, and there's a look in his eye, a distant and angry look that sends chills down Toni's spine, even though she knows it's not directed at her.

She sits up, inwardly a little surprised that it doesn’t take as much effort as she thinks it should. “Don’t go there, Steve,” she says as his face darkens into such a Bucky expression, she doesn’t think, she just reacts. She settles one hand on his chest, over where her soulmark is hidden beneath his shirt, and the other slides soothingly up his back over his spine. Realizes quite suddenly that Steve is not Bucky when he stiffens in surprise. She blinks, and her hands freeze. “Uh…”

“What are we doing, Toni?” he asks quietly. He isn’t looking at her at all, just staring at his hands resting loosely over his knees. He doesn’t pull away from her, and she doesn’t pull away from him.

“I don’t know,” she says, then resumes the slow, broad strokes up and down his spine. After a few moments, the stiffness starts to melt as he relaxes. “What do you want to do?”

“I’m a simple fella, Toni. I believe marks appear for a reason.” He sighs, turns his head to face her, and covers her hand with his where it rests on his chest. “We’ve been avoiding talking about what happened. I think we need to get to that conversation, or we’ll be stalled like this forever.”

“Now?” This would be an excellent time for a sea monster to rise out of the Pacific or an invasion of aliens or a plague of rodents of unusual size for that matter. Unfortunately, no world-ending disaster or invasion of gigantic vermin to save her from being an adult. She takes a deep breath. “Yeah, okay,” she says, taking the plunge. “Let’s talk.”

Chapter Text

oOoOoOo
Stark Mansion, Malibu
May 16, 2012

Toni excels at talking. She’s one of the most visible people on the planet, even without the suit of armor, or the superheroes she seems to attract. She’s never had a problem opening her mouth and having words come out. It’s a point of pride for her — Toni Stark is never without wit or charm or snark.

Yet here she sits, on the floor of the gym, sitting next to her soulmate, and she can’t think of a goddamn thing to say.

She pulls her hands away from Steve’s back and chest, starts to shove them into her hair but remembers in time that it’s braided. She sighs in frustration and drops them into her lap, twining her fingers together.

All the while, Steve is silent. She can feel him watching her steadily, doesn’t need a wash of complicated sensations from her soulmark to know what he’s feeling.

Finally she blows out a breath and shakes her head wryly. “Mark this day in the calendar, Steve,” she says, looking up and spreading her hands. “I have absolutely nothing.”

Steve smiles faintly. “You don’t draw a blank very often, do you?” It sounds less like a question than it does a confirmation.

Toni shakes her head. “No, not really. I can usually find something to say, even if that something is sarcastic or snide.” She pauses, then adds, “Especially if that something is sarcastic or snide. I excel at it, in fact. But this? Right now?” She gestures between them with a palm. “I got nothing.”

Steve nods slowly, looking thoughtful. “Bucky told me this might happen,” he says, and shifts so he’s sitting cross-legged across from her, arms hooked loosely on his knees

Toni arches an eyebrow. “Oh, did he now?”

“Yeah.” Steve’s eyebrows draw together, and his gaze goes distant for a moment. “Barton too. They worry about you, a lot.”

“And it drives me completely batshit,” Toni says, forcing pleasantry into her voice. “So what exactly did they warn you might happen?”

Steve shrugs and picks at the laces of his sneaker with his fingers, idle and anxious. “That you might freeze up,” he says lowly, looks up then to meet her gaze. His eyes are deep and sea blue, and it’s completely trite and cliché, but Toni falls into them, wants to drown in them, can’t look away from them. “Because apparently, I’m the one thing in the entire world that can throw you for a loop.”

Well, shit. He’s not wrong. Toni’s pretty sure she’s said that to at least Clint before, more than once. She may have even said it to Bucky, but even if she didn’t, they’re both perceptive as all hell. She can feel her face burning, though, because out of all the things she never wanted Steve to know, it was that. “It all started with Howard,” she mutters, ducking her head. “God, if you knew how freaking obsessed he was with you… I swear he was more than half in love with the Legend of Steve Rogers.”

Steve blinks and his mouth drops open a little. “I… Howard, really?”

Toni snorts, and shakes her head. “Do you not remember the shrine to your memory, Steve?” she asks. “Where I got you to stop trying to kill me?”

Steve flinches, and his hands curl into fists. “Yeah, I remember it,” he says, eyes pained and voice tight.

“Those are just the pieces Howard wanted to display. There’s an entire section of the subbasement dedicated to Captain America memorabilia. Your life before. During. Some of the earliest movies made after your disappearance. Books written about you. You were the standard to which Howard held everyone, and mere mortals simply couldn’t measure up.”

Jesus, Toni.” Steve’s curse is soft but fervent, and he reaches a hand for hers to clasp.

She shakes her head sharply, palm out to ward him off. “Just… let me get through this,” she says. “Please. If you touch me right now, I’m going to start crying. And I want to get through this.”

Steve grimaces, but his hand retreats and settles back on his knee. “You should know that there was never anything between Howard and I,” he says. “I barely knew him, really, except for Project Rebirth and my last mission.”

Toni closes her eyes. “I figured as much,” she says softly. “No one could obsess like Howard, especially if he couldn’t ever have what he wanted. And to be honest, I’m really not sure if he wanted you, or the serum in your blood.” She sighs, starts to push her hands into her hair again and makes a frustrated noise when her fingertips encounter her braid again. She pulls the tie out of her hair and starts shaking the braid loose.

“Did he ever know about your soulmark?” Steve asks, after the silence stretches for a little bit.

“No. No, Mama made sure I knew to never show him. I don’t know why she decided it was a bad idea. We never talked about it.” Toni brushes her hand over her shirt, presses against the hidden white star. “I figured it out pretty quickly, the first time I saw the reel of Project Rebirth. Your double star, the bond with Bucky. I was thirteen or fourteen, I think. I didn’t understand the configuration of my mark on you, but I knew it had to belong to me, because I had the two stars. Simple process of elimination. I just didn’t know why fate had given me two soulmates that had been dead for decades. And one of them an impossible standard to live up to, even if he was still alive.”

Steve reaches for her again, instinctively, then catches himself and pulls back. His face is pale and sympathetic.  “I’m sorry, Toni,” he murmurs.

Toni blinks at him, arches an eyebrow. “Why? It’s not your fault. Besides…” And she forces her reluctant arm up, fingers splayed, out towards him. He seizes her hand immediately, linking their fingers tight, and something painful and knotted in her chest loosens and soothes out. “You’re here now and so am I. That’s what’s important, right?”

“It is,” Steve agrees. He studies her face for a long moment, eyes dark and appraising. “They told me that you were cold and hard, a villain,” he says out of the blue, and it takes Toni a second to figure out he’s talking about Hydra. “They told me you murdered my wife. They…” He breaks off, swallows hard. His face goes haunted and guilty. “Peggy was by my bed when I woke up,” he says quietly. “Bucky told me about the nano-mask. I guess that’s what they were using to turn some agent into Peggy. I didn’t… I can’t… I wouldn’t…”

Toni isn’t exactly conscious of moving, but she slides onto his lap, arms circling his back as his arms close around hers. “Hey,” she says soothingly, cheek-to-cheek and murmuring into his ear. “It’s not your fault. I know it’s not your fault.”

His chin rests on her shoulder, and his arms tighten. “I know I should feel guilty, Toni,” he says heavily, “but I don’t. I’m not guilty, I’m angry . And it’s coming out every time I looked at you in the Tower. It grew every time you flinched away from me. Every time you avoided Bucky because he wanted to sleep with both of us in the same bed. Every time I think that Hydra had completely ruined any chance you and I have. I’m just sorry that it’s affecting you like it is.”

“The terrorists only win if we let them,” she says. She pulls back just enough to look him in the eye, her wrists crossed loosely on the back of his neck. “And I … don’t want to let them.”

“Neither do I,” he replies. His palm, broad and warm and callused, slides up her back to fit around the curve of her neck. She shivers, and her eyes slip half-closed. “I guess this brings us to what I asked a minute ago,” he says huskily. “What are we doing, Toni?”

That’s the grand question, isn’t it? What are they doing? There are lots of soulmates who don’t complete a bond, who share a lover but not each other. The thought of that being the extent of her relationship with Steve is unsettling and unsatisfying. “Do you want me, Steve?” she asks. “Do you want a bond?”

His response is immediate: his arms tighten around her, his eyes darken, and his face flushes. “More’n anything,” he says, licking his lips. His eyes flick down to the hem of her shirt, and she knows he’s thinking about her soulmark. “Lemme see it?”

She frees an arm from around him and hooks her fingers in the neck of her shirt, then pauses as she debates. Coming to a sudden decision, she pulls her other arm back, then hauls the shirt completely over her head, tossing it aside.

The arc reactor paints his face in blue shadows and highlights, gleaming off the shine of his eyes. His left hand leaves her back, hovering just above her skin and trembling with the effort. After a moment, he chooses to cup her cheek, hand large enough to fit over half her face. “What do you want, Toni?” he asks. “Do you want me?”

She settles her hands on either side of his face, framing his cheeks between her palms. “Yes,” she breathes, and Bucky’s mark, quiet all this week, blooms in a spot of warmth and something that feels oddly like encouragement. “I’m tired of feeling incomplete. Tired of doubt. I’m tired of fighting. I need you. I need Bucky. I want my soulmates, Steve. If my soulmates want me.”

“We want you,” Steve growls, and pulls her head towards him. He kisses her, and it is the singularly sweetest kiss she has ever received in her life. Their mouths fit together, and she stops breathing as the world focuses down to his lips, smooth and dry, and the way they’re pressing against hers.  

For a long moment, they don't move, and sparks sizzle under her skin, radiating from the white star and the heat of his hands on her cheek and neck. She opens her eyes. His are still closed, lashes a sooty streak against his skin, but then they open, and the blue is so bright, so close, so intimate, she shudders with a fine tremor.  

She pulls back with a noise that sounds embarrassingly like a mewl, and pulls air shakily into her lungs. Her hands move of their own accord, tracing lines across his cloth-covered shoulders. “Steve,” she breathes, and her fingers brush along his jaw, feeling the muscles jump under her touch.

This is it, their moment. There’s a pressure in the air, the weight of destiny expectant. He watches her, heavy-eyed and flushed high in his cheeks, and she gently brushes a hand through his short hair. “Let me see,” she whispers, and tugs on the neck of his shirt.

He leans back and yanks it over his head with a speed that Formula One cars can only dream of matching. Toni forgets to breathe all over again at the sight of miles of smooth skin and toned muscles, at the sight of his soulmarks: the white star nestled inside the red, and her mark, lonely and bright, opposite it.

Steve clears his throat, and his fingertips ghost down over her neck, across her shoulder and down to her collarbone, hesitating just above the top point of the star. He licks his lips again, and his eyes flick up to hers. “Can I…?”

She nods, because she’s pretty sure she’d squeak if she tried to talk. Steve’s breathing is ragged, but so is hers, and she has an uncharacteristic, sudden moment of doubt. He’s been waiting literally decades for her, has built this up in his mind. What if she’s not able to live up to—

His hand covers the soulmark, and pure desire stabs straight into her belly at the searing heat of his skin, spillover from the need raging behind his iron control, and she whimpers, unconsciously grinding against him. He pulls her mouth to his again, and there’s nothing tentative or sweet about this kiss. It’s hard, needy, and his tongue swipes across her lips. “Toni, please,” he groans into her mouth, half-wrecked and hoarse already. “ Please .”

God, how can she deny him when he begs her like that? She flattens her hand against his shoulder, drags over his skin to her soulmark, and presses her palm into it. A switch flips in her head, a painless jolt of lightning, breakers and lines waking between them.

Circuit complete.

She falls without moving, vertigo and exhilaration shoving her through a deep blue as stars burst behind her eyes. Distantly, she’s aware that Steve has flipped them, that she’s on her back and moaning wantonly into his desperate groans, but that’s less important than the sensation of being surrounded, filled, engulfed, with the solid heat of steadfast strength. She can feel it moving through her like an anchor, a touchstone, the bedrock of her world.

The earth shifts soundlessly, jerking everything she is abruptly left. She’s on fire, she’s flying, she’s dropping into a cocoon of safety and loyalty and—unexpectedly, she glimpses the core of him, the true, beautiful spark of his soul. And she is decimated to realize that he loves her. He’s always loved her, from long before she was ever born, and the depth of it is humbling, drowning, precious.

She surfaces with a gasp, feels like she’s coming up from a long way underwater, and pants for air. Steve’s weight is holding her down, surrounding her. His face is pressed into the crook of her neck, and she’s cradling the back of his head, her mind swimming and spinning. “Oh,” she says, soft and breathless, and realizes there are tears streaming down her face when he pulls back and she sees their blended mark, solid and real, the white star nestled inside the blue circle, and her eyes burn and shimmer.

“Toni,” he says, wonder and reverence in his eyes, and he caresses her cheek with a shaking hand. “Jesus Christ, Toni. Jesus Christ, you are so beautiful inside. I can’t…” He swallows convulsively, and she raises a hand to catch the tears leaking out of his eyes. “Thank you for choosing me,” he finishes, quiet and hoarse.

She remembers then what Bucky told her, what she thought of again a few days ago, how before he’d signed up for Erskine’s program, he’d been convinced the soulmate he shared with Bucky wouldn’t want him, and fierce protectiveness surges through her, sharp and hot. “Always,” she says, wraps a hand around the back of his neck and kisses him, hard and possessive, nips his bottom lip with her teeth, sucks his tongue into her mouth, lets the bond between them flood with honesty. “If you lost the serum tomorrow, I’d still choose you. Always.”

Steve shudders against her. His eyes close, and his forehead rests against hers. “I believe you really would.” He draws in a deep breath and sighs through his nose, then opens his eyes to smile at her. “Can I take you to bed?” he asks, and if there’s a note of shyness in his tone, Toni will never mention it.

A muffled moan vibrates in her throat. “God, yes,” she says, and the mental images make her writhe against the weight of his body. “Please God, yes.”

She squeaks, clutching at his shoulders, as he heaves himself to his feet, scooping her up in a single motion, and desire surges through her veins at the casual display of strength. He slides an arm under her ass, the other around her hips, and she wraps her legs around his waist, darting in to suck his earlobe as he strides towards the door of the gym. He misses a step when her teeth sink into his ear, hits the wall with his shoulder and a grunt, and a warning growl rumbles deep in his chest. “ Toni.”

“Hurry,” she mumbles around his ear, flicks her tongue up the curve of it, and whines high in her throat when he impatiently butts her cheek up and back, and his teeth scrape across her throat.

Somehow, they make it into the hall without injuring themselves, their movements abrupt and rough, tearing each other’s clothes off and scattering them wherever they fall. Toni rakes Steve with her nails from shoulder to hip, revels in the snarling moan it wrests from him. He pins her against the wall, high and helpless, and fastens his mouth on her left nipple, sucking and biting and tonguing it while rolling her right nipple between a thumb and forefinger.

Her head bangs back against the wall and she cries out, wordless and needy. She fists her hand in his hair, or tries to, the short strands sliding between her fingers before she catches a longer section and pulls it into a grip. Steve’s free hand kneads her left ass cheek, fingertips brushing across the slick heat of her entrance without pushing in. If she was standing, her knees would give out. As it is, she collapses against him, bowed over the top of his head, moaning and rolling her hips against the teasing brush of his skin.

With a curse that’s a little saltier than should probably come out of Captain America’s mouth, he jerks his head back from her. His eyes are wild and feral, his hair mussed, his skin rosy and gleaming in the sunlight spilling from the window. “We are getting to the bed,” he says in a tone that is pure Cap and pure command, and Toni’s belly flutters with another sharp spike of arousal. “I am not going to take you against the wall.”

“What if I want you to take me against the wall?” Toni barely recognizes her own voice, it’s gone so deep and sultry. She shifts her weight downward, resettling her legs around his hips and rocking into him, shuddering violently as his length slides across the inside of a thigh . “Cos I really, really fucking need you in me,” she whispers, leaning forward to nibble his earlobe again. “And the bedroom is so very far away.”

“Bed,” he growls, and yanks her off the wall. He all but runs the last dozen or so feet to the bedroom door, so quickly Toni’s barely got the wherewithal to process that they’re moving before he’s got the door open and he flings her at the bed from halfway across the room.

She bounces twice before catching herself on the heels of her hands and, fucking Christ it’s hot to watch him stalk across the room with a predatory focus. For a second, just for a second, Hydra Steve, pacing beneath her, tries to superimpose itself over the image before her, but it dissolves before it can do more than register its presence. She becomes aware of a high-pitched keen, and realizes it’s coming out of her throat, a steady whine of holy shit, Steve, jesus fucking Christ, I’m going to go off like a rocket the second you touch me.

He crawls onto the bed like he owns it, and Toni surges forward to meet his mouth again. His tongue plunges into her mouth, claiming her with a thoroughness that leaves her breathless when he kisses her chin and down over her throat. “I’ve never been with a woman before,” he murmurs, licking a wet line over the hollow of her throat. “You may need to give me some directions here.”

Her chest is heaving, skin twitching and jumping under his mouth, and the brand new bond between them pulses with need and want and desire and affection, heady and strong. “No problem,” she manages to get out, arching immediately into a thready moan when he finds her nipples again with his mouth and fingers. “Oh Jesus,” she breathes, restlessly carding her hands through his hair. “You’re going to fucking kill me.”

Steve pauses long enough to glance up with a wickedly innocent smile, and changes the positions of his mouth and hand. “That’s the plan,” he says, and bends to work her nipples again. “Tell me if you don’t like what I’m doing,” he says again, and dips his head lower, tongue painting a hot, wet streak across her rib cage and around to her hip bone.

“You’re—you’re doing just… just fine.” She throws an arm over her eyes, the crook of her elbow tucked against the bridge of her nose. Her legs are shaking so hard she’s a little afraid they’re going to fall off, because Steve isn’t stopping at her hip, he just nips it and keeps moving down, mouthing damp kisses into her skin and licking what feels like every inch of her abdomen and stomach. By the time he’s circling her navel with the tip of his tongue and sucking a hickey into the top of her inner thigh, she’s given up on rational thought altogether and is practically sobbing, urgent and broken.

His hands are searing against her hips, and his head dips to her knee, licking up her inner thigh to almost the crease of her groin before turning to repeat it on her other leg. She wraps her hands in the bedsheets and her head thrashes back and forth, every breath out an airy, keening stevestevesteve.

“You with me, Toni?” he asks, guttural and heavy.

“I’m with you,” she babbles, words falling out of her mouth and tumbling together, and her abdomen clenches tight when he blows a cool breath across her stomach. “Oh Jesus fucking Christ, I’m with you. Please don’t stop, Steve don’t stop god I need you I’m with you, god don’t stop.”

He kisses her knee, and she feels his mouth curve into a smile against her skin. The bed shifts, and he nudges her thighs apart. She whimpers and sinks teeth into her own wrist, anticipating Steve’s next move.

His tongue swipes, long and slow, up her slit, and he groans against her, fingers tightening on her thighs. She jerks and thrashes, noises too broken to be called moans spilling from her lips. Every breath ends on a nasally hnngh , and she already feels the heaviness sinking its tingling claws into her belly. She flails downward with the arm she isn’t biting, finds the top of Steve’s head, and clutches at his skull with her hand. He gives her another one of those slow, no-hurries licks, and the tip of his tongue flicks across her clit.

She comes with a hard shudder on the third lick, moaning into the muscle of her forearm, abrupt and harsh, and she rides it through the fourth, muscles locked and tight, back bowed and teeth gnawing her arm. The crest of her orgasm doesn’t peak and spike, but drops right back down into the valley of build-up. “Don’t stop,” she whispers hoarsely, blinking hazily at the ceiling. “Holy fuck, don’t stop.”

“Buck said you like at least three before you fuck,” he murmurs against her thigh, and bends back to her mound. She moans and jerks through two more of those delightful but frustrating licks, whimpering at the slow teasing touches, and then nearly comes off the bed with an aborted shriek when he sucks her clit into his mouth and slides two fingers into her, setting a fast, punishing pace.

Toni washes away in the sensation, the arm falling from her mouth to join her other on Steve’s head, nails digging into his scalp as her hips. There’s nothing but the heat and vacuum of his mouth, the curl of his fingers exactly over her G-spot, something that very few people have ever found and never on the first try. “Holy Jesus fucking Christ how fucking long are your fucking fingers?”

He laughs against her, and the vibrations tip her over the edge again, yowling and bucking against his face. He doesn’t let up, though, doesn’t give her a chance to ride out the aftershocks or cool down. Oversensitive, her hips jerk away from him, but he surges up, pins her legs in place with one arm, and licks her hard and rough, nose pressing into her pubic bone until she’s coming again, hard and long, deep and intense, screaming his name and shoving at his head with frantic hands when he shows no sign of stopping. Blessedly, he takes the hint and backs off, soothingly stroking her twitching legs and spasming body until she can catch enough breath to let her vision clear.

She’s boneless against the mattress as he moves up to the pillows and stretches out beside her, the tip of a finger tracing their blended soulmark. “Jesus fucking Christ on a cracker, Rogers,” she rasps, licking her dry lips and coughing to clear her throat. She flops her head in his direction, squints one eye at him because she can’t keep them both open at the same time. “I thought you’d never been with a woman.”

Steve shrugs, looking suddenly bashful, as he wipes his face with his hands. “Well,” he says awkwardly. “Bucky made me memorize what you like. And watch a lot of porn. And uh…” He coughs, and his face turns bright red. “Also practice on him.”

“God bless a thoughtful soulmate,” Toni says happily, then finds the energy to roll over onto her side and lick her way into his mouth. He tastes like her, smells like her arousal. It shouldn’t be as arousing as it is, given her just-finished marathon of orgasms. “Hardly fair, though,” she continues, drifting her hand over his hip, down his thigh and back up to trace a single finger over the crease of his belly and groin. Muscles jump and flinch, sensitive skin spasming. “I didn’t get anyone to tell me what you like,” she adds, and wraps her hand around the base of his cock.

He groans and curls into her, hips rocking softly. He’s painfully hard, straight and thick and hot. She strokes him up and down, varying the pressure and speed, listening to the breathless grunts breaking in his throat, paying attention to how his hands flex and relax on her body. “Tell me what you want, Steve,” she whispers, kissing him long and soft again. “What do you want?”

“Wanna be in you,” he says hoarsely, forehead against hers and hands cradling her face, hips rutting slowly against her hand.. “Just you. Just want to be in you.”

“Okay,” she says softly, and rolls back onto her back, tugging at his arm to draw him with her. She’s still gloriously sated, but she’s never too oversensitive for this. She adjusts her legs as he moves on top of her, and she smiles at how lust-blown his eyes have gone. “This okay?”

“Yeah,” he says faintly, lifts her hips with one hand, and slides into her in a single, smooth motion that makes her throw her head back and moan into the pillows. She fights to keep her eyes open, she wants to watch him above her. “Toni,” he says, strangled, wild-eyed and wondrous. With a muffled groan, he snaps his hips forward, driving into her, fast and hard. It feels so fucking good, but the angle is wrong for Toni to feel anything but pleasant friction and the occasional spark, until Steve growls in dissatisfaction, and lifts her legs over his shoulders before pressing down and thrusting into her again.

The world washes away in pure pleasure, completely narrowed down to the slide of his cock in and out of her, his harsh breathing and guttural grunts, the howls tearing out of her throat, the sweat slicking both of their bodies. Steve is relentless, pounding into her at precisely the right angle to hit her G-spot every time. The buildup is intense this time, an overwhelming sense of pressure that has her sobbing and begging, clutching at him like a lifeline, by the time his rhythm falters and his breathing goes ragged.

She comes one more time, screaming his name, body snapping so tight around him she distantly knows she’s going to feel the strain for days, clawing at his back and shoulders and arms. Steve squeezes his eyes shut, swearing softly and fervently as he strains to keep going, but only manages two more thrusts before he’s coming, pulsing deep inside her and shouting expletives.

She’s boneless, she’s completely spent, but she dredges energy from somewhere to loop her arms around his neck and tug until he collapses on top of her. “I’ve got you, Steve,” she says softly, and caresses down his spine with one hand. “M’with you. Are you with me?”

“Always,” he murmurs, buries his head into the crook of her neck and rolls so they’re both on their sides. He brushes her hair away from her face, smooths her bangs back from her forehead, brushes the back of his knuckles against her cheek, smiles in utter contentment. It does things to her heart, makes it warm, makes it melt, makes skip a few beats. She ducks her head into the pillow with a soft smile of her own, feeling oddly shy.

“Are you okay, Toni?”

She glances up at him, smiles again. It feels wide and silly. “Oh yeah,” she says, contentedly. “I’ve never been better.” She hesitates for a second, but shakes it off, reaches out, and lays her hand flat against their blended soulmark. A lump rises in her throat and tears burn briefly behind her eyes. “I never thought I’d have any of this,” she says, so quietly it’s almost inaudible.

“Neither did I,” Steve replies, and pulls her into him. She curls against him, head on his shoulder, arm loose around his waist. He settles around her, and kisses her forehead. “But that doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No,” Toni says, closing her eyes and snuggling in. The adrenaline is flatlining, exhaustion setting in. Sleep washes over her, dragging her with heavy hands into slumber. “Doesn’t matter. Not anymore.”

 

Chapter Text

 

oOoOoOo

Stark Tower, Manhattan
May 13, 2012

Bucky expects it to be quieter once Toni and Steve leave for Malibu. More relaxed. It isn’t either of their faults, but the tension over the last few days has been thick enough to taste in the air, and it’s almost like an immense pressure has lifted off his shoulders with them taking alone time to work their shit out. He should feel guilty about that, but he doesn’t. He loves them both, but being their soulmate, their common link, is just fucking exhausting at the moment.

He watches the quinjet leave the landing pad on the roof, standing with Clint and Natasha by the door leading back into the Tower. None of them say a word until the quinjet has disappeared beyond the skyline.

“They’ll be fine,” Clint says suddenly, drumming his fingers on his thigh. It sounds less like he’s reassuring Bucky and Natasha, and more like he’s trying to convince himself.

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “They will be.” He looks into the distance again, at the spot the quinjet vanished from sight, and sighs. Part of him still wishes he’d gotten on the plane with them, but this break, this time apart, is something everyone needs right now. And someone’s gotta make sure the roof stays on the building. “We got shit to do,” he says.

Natasha nods. “Coulson’s got new intel on a few things. He’s going to want to meet about it at some point. And even though we’re down an Avenger, the rest of us are still here. I’ll draw up a training schedule, get everyone used to working with everyone else.”

“Good idea,” Clint says, and hunches into his hoodie, pulling the zipper to his chin. “Can we go do that then and get off the roof? This wind sucks.”

“Yeah.” He takes a final look at the skyline, gives himself just one more minute to feel worry and concern and frail, fragile hope. Then, with all the ruthlessness gained from his time as the Asset, he starts locking it all down, compartmentalizing, letting it chill and freeze until it's time to thaw it out again. He's aware it's likely not the healthiest coping technique, but he's got nothing else and besides, he's going for efficiency, not style.

He turns on his heel and walks back towards the door, hears the Asset whisper around the edges of his mind, caged and restless. He ignores it, because he can, but there's an edge of it in his stride.

“Lay off the murder walk, Terminator,” Clint says, half behind him, half beside him. “They'll be fine.”

Bucky side-eyes Clint, arches an eyebrow at him. “Your hand’s twitching,” he says. “Like you want your bow.”

Clint doesn't look down, doesn't look at Bucky or Natasha, just stares straight ahead with a pleasantly neutral smile. “That's because I do. I've been told that reaching for lethal weapons when anxious is antisocial and dangerous, but hey, everyone has to have a security blanket.”

Natasha makes an indelicate sound. “It's why you should never go anywhere unarmed,” she says disapprovingly. “Your hand wouldn't twitch if you carried your knife everywhere.”

Bucky grins a little. He's of the same mind, now that he doesn't feel like he's walking through the world on a hair trigger at all times.  But Clint just rolls his eyes and jerks a thumb backwards over his shoulder. “I've also been told that Nat's a dangerous influence to anyone suffering delicacy of their mental state,” he adds. “And this is why. She enables me.”

“You don't need enabling,” Natasha replies. “You have those sorts of ideas all on your own, with no help needed from me.”

“It's the soulbond,” Clint stage-whispers. “It bleeds Natasha's complete lack of human emotion over to me. It's all her fault that I'm so mal—ow! Hey!” He rubs the back of his head, where Natasha just smacked him, and gives her an arch look. “Honey, I thought we agreed to never bring our sex life into public view.”

“That wasn’t foreplay,” Natasha returns evenly.

“Hard to tell sometimes,” Clint says, and ducks away from another swat. “Jesus, woman. Touchy.”

“Maybe take a hint then, Barton,” Bucky says with a smirk. “And shut up.”

Clint snorts derisively, sticks a hand out sideways to Bucky. “I don’t think we’ve met properly, Sergeant Barnes. I’m Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye. I’m arguably the world’s best marksman, I never miss my shots, and I’m genetically incapable of shutting up.”

“Starting to get that,” Bucky says, then shakes his head in amusement. Wasn’t he just thinking he was going to have a quiet week with Steve and Toni gone? Looks like he spoke too soon.

oOoOoOo
May 14, 2012
Natasha

Natasha hasn’t decided for sure yet, but she thinks she might have preferred it when Bucky and Clint were glaring at each other from across the room, because the two of them on the same page are aggravating.

One of the nice things about Stark Tower, a feature that the mansion in Malibu and the Manor don’t have, is that all the training rooms, ranges, med labs and science workshops have observation lounges built above them. Natasha is positive that Toni is not the one who designed them like that; she thinks Pepper might have had some say, a last-ditch effort to keep some semblance of an eye on Toni’s workshop binges, though Toni’s workshop never did have its observation lounge constructed.

Natasha stands at the glass wall with her arms folded, watching Clint and Bucky run the obstacle course below. Ostensibly, she’s critiquing their form, and observing the new hard-light tech in action for FitzSimmons, but in reality she keeps getting distracted from noting the glitches and areas Clint and Bucky could use some work because Clint and Bucky aren’t even remotely interested in running the course as it’s meant to be run.

Instead, they’ve decided on a game of “anything you can do, I can do better”. Clint is doing remarkably well, considering he is entirely unaugmented and competing with a supersoldier. She keeps an eye to the scoreboard which, for some ridiculous reason, both Clint and Bucky have insisted on running. She quirks an eyebrow as the numbers tick according to the arcane rules they established prior to heading in.

“Children,” she says with a tiny, derisive snort, watching Clint slide under an obstacle only to kick it directly into Bucky’s path. Bucky vaults it without missing a beat, but hip-checks the next hard enough to send it sliding at Clint who rolls over it the second it’s close enough. “JARVIS, are Rhodey and Carol ready?”

“They are, Natasha.”

Her lips curve into a smile. “Good,” she says. “Tell them they have a mission: two enemy combatants in the training room. Proceed with caution, both are considered dangerous opponents. Take them alive, with minimal collateral damage. They are green in thirty seconds. Shift the hard-light scenario in fifteen.”

“Understood. Would you like to warn sir and Clint about the start of your training program, Natasha?”

Her smile splits into a rare grin, and she sees Clint press a hand to his chest and cast a suddenly worried look up at the observation booth. “What’s the fun in that? Go minus fifteen seconds. Shift the scenario… mark.”

The hard-light abstracts fade abruptly, and reform into a city neighbourhood, complete with outlines of trash in the alleyways. Clint and Bucky vanish from sight behind an apartment building construct, just as the ceiling access door opens to allow War Machine and Warbird to descend into the room.

“Training scenario Romanoff Alpha, begin,” she says, then leans forward to watch the fun.

---

“You are fucking evil,” Clint complains, sprawled across the couch in the den with an ice pack cradled to one cheek. He spears Natasha with a dark, baleful look before letting his head roll back against the cushions.

“Yes,” Natasha agrees, shifting more comfortably in her arm chair. “It’s one of the things you admire the most.”

“Shut up,” he mutters, then turns to glare at Carol and Rhodey with the same gimlet eye. “It wasn’t a fair fight.”

Carol grins cheekily and tosses a kernel of popcorn in the air, catching it in her mouth. “You’re only saying that because you lost.”

“Of course we lost,” Clint retorts. “You’re in power armor, for fuck’s sake. You fly. That gives you an unbeatable advantage right there, especially against a normal, squishy human.”

“Ain’t nothing normal about you, Barton,” Rhodey says, stretching his legs out to rest his heels on the coffee table, crossing at the ankles. “But remind me again, aren’t you supposed to be some kind of marksman?”

“World’s greatest, he keeps saying,” Carol says to Rhodey, crunching more popcorn. “I wasn’t very impressed though.”

“I didn’t have my bow,” Clint says through his teeth.

Clint’s frustration and aggravation are a tight, roiling ball in Natasha’s chest, clenched hard enough that she’s concerned the teasing is going a bit far. Normally, she wouldn’t worry, but it’s been a stressful few months, and he’s always taken awhile to come back down off the edge. This, at least, she knows how to handle. She stands and moves to the couch, settles against his side. Abruptly, the ball shifts to pleased surprise, and he only hesitates for a moment before dropping his arm around her shoulders.

“You’re all sloppy,” Natasha says, tucking her feet up onto the cushion beside her. “Carol and Rhodey might have won, but it was by a very slim margin. And Clint’s right, it was an unfair setup. You two,” she says with a nod, to indicate Carol and Rhodey, “are used to working together. You and Bucky,” she shifts her glance to Clint, “aren’t, though you learned pretty quickly. I’m going to keep changing things around, get different combinations used to working together.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” Rhodey says, then circles his ear with a forefinger, “but all I hear is Warbird and War Machine totally kicked Hawkeye and Winter Soldier’s asses.”

“Yup,” Carol chimes in. “That’s what I hear too.”

“Who’s kicking my ass now?” comes Bucky’s voice from the direction of the elevator, as he steps through the doors, still toweling his hair. Carol raises her hand, and Bucky snorts. “Old news. Besides—” He moves to the armchair Natasha left and plops down into it. “—it wasn’t a fair fight.”

Natasha really wants to roll her eyes, finding it especially difficult to resist doing so when Clint chimes in with, “That’s what I said.”

“Repeatedly,” Rhodey says, laughing at Clint’s scowl.

“Doesn’t take a genius to see how a fight’s most likely to go when it’s two fellas in flying, laser-shooting Stark-tech dropping in on two other fellas who have no weapons, no armor and no warning.” Bucky shrugs, glancing at Natasha with an amused smirk. “Balance it out with everyone in power armor, or even just fully geared and armed, different story.”

“You can’t have my armor,” Rhodey says, because Clint is now looking at him speculatively. “Won’t fit you anyway. Go get your own.”

Bucky perks up at that. “I’ve been wondering, Barton. How come you don’t have armor? Seems to be that your ass should have been piloting one years ago.”

Natasha’s wondered that too, over the years, but never found an appropriate time to ask. She leans over Clint to steal Carol’s popcorn bowl from the table, while Carol is distracted, and settles back to eat and listen.

“Short version is that Toni’s never offered and I never asked,” Clint says. “It’d screw with my ability to see shit coming and going. There’s a reason I don’t wear a mask beyond vanity.” He shrugs and fishes a beer out of the cooler between him and Carol, tosses it to Bucky and snags another for himself. “Toni’s probably got an Iron Hawk or something tucked away in a folder for a rainy day, though. She does shit like that.”

Natasha smiles a small smile, but says nothing. She’s seen the Iron Hawk specs. She’s seen the Iron Widow specs too, and appreciates every sleek line and deadly weapon Toni stockpiled onto it. One day, she might even ask Toni to let her have it.

“If you’re lucky,” Rhodey grumbles, “you won’t have to brawl with Toni to get it, like I did.”

“You’re just special, Jim,” Carol says sweetly, twisting to pat his cheek. “I was just given mine, no strings, no fist-fight.“ She scrunches her face when he just kisses her on the forehead in reply, and settles back around again. “Are these training scenarios going to be a regular thing?” She blinks. “Hey, that’s my popcorn!”

“They should be,” Natasha says, smirking as she pops a few kernels in her mouth. “Once we get a few more hard-light projectors installed around the upper levels, I’ll be instituting randomized spontaneous events. And yes, it is your popcorn.”

In the next moment, she feels the bowl slide out of her lap as someone yanks it away, and turns to glare at Bucky, who is unapologetically setting it in his own lap. “You snooze, you lose, Romanoff,” he says, digging out a handful. “So these ‘randomized spontaneous events’...”

Natasha shrugs and settles against Clint a little more comfortably. “Are non-negotiable. Everyone’s reflexes need work. Без муки нет науки.”

Bucky smirks and digs into the popcorn again. “Without torture, no science, huh?”

Clint blinks. “I thought you said that one meant adversity is a good teacher ,” he says, faintly accusing.

Natasha shrugs again. “To-may-to, to-mah-to.”

Rhodey and Carol stare at her. “Can we get a recount of whatever vote elected Natasha as the training officer?” Rhodey asks plaintively. “I’d rather not get killed by a hologram three steps from my suite.”

Natasha arches an eyebrow. “It’s cute how you think this is a democracy, Rhodes. It’s not my fault you were too slow to grab the opportunity when it rose. Besides, if you’re that eager for something constructive to do, FitzSimmons need training. Their basic SHIELD aptitudes aren’t going to cut it with this team.”

Natasha almost, almost feels sorry for FitzSimmons, because the looks that cross Carol and Rhodey’s faces can only be described as “unholy glee”.

oOoOoOo
May 15, 2012

Fitz lives under a charmed star. It’s the only explanation he has for how he got from tinkering in his basement in Aberdeen to the top of New York City in Stark Tower’s bleeding-edge workshops, with state-of-the-art everything and the hands-down best coffee he’s ever tasted. He’s a kid in a sweets shop. No, better: he’s a budding mad scientist in a top-notch lab with an unlimited budget and a partner who slots neatly into his life, one carbon atom to another.

The fact that a very tall, very intimidating blonde woman woke him and Jemma at five and dragged them out of the building to go on a morning run without so much as a by-your-leave is a definite negative. Fitz likes Carol, but not before he’s even had a cup of coffee. He huffs and puffs along and just wants to collapse back into bed when he’s done, but once he’s had some water and caught his breath, he’s oddly invigorated.

Jemma has a cup of coffee waiting for him when he gets out of the shower. She’s already buried in her Starkpad, but looks up with a brilliant smile as he comes into the room. He kisses her cheek and goes to the counter to make a bagel. “What’s on the schedule for today, love?”

“Separation, I’m afraid,” Jemma says with regret. She sets down her Starkpad and leans back against the counter. “Doctor Cho left me with a sample of the nanites she used on Doctor Stark. Several of the experiments I started running yesterday are time-critical. I expect I’ll be in the biology lab for the majority of the morning.” She slides her arms around his waist and links her fingers at the small of his back. “Will you be alright without me, Fitz?”

His bagel pops in the toaster, but he ignores it in favor of looping his arms around her shoulders and kissing her forehead. The bond between them hums with contentment. “I’ll muddle along somehow, I suppose,” he replies with a smile. “Will you have time for lunch, do you think?”

Jemma’s forehead creases in thought, an expression he finds particularly endearing. “I should be able to eat lunch with you, Fitz,” she says slowly, “if we eat at one, and stay in the building.” She gives him another apologetic smile, and frees a hand to reach for her tablet. “I’m terribly sorry, darling, but I have very narrow windows today. Let me double-check that.”

While Jemma’s busy with her tablet, Fitz turns to butter his bagel. As he takes his first bite, Jemma says, puzzled, “JARVIS, what’s this block about? The one starting at three?”

“I believe, Dr. Simmons, that is your mandatory firearms training with Clint,” JARVIS replies promptly. “Shooting Stuff for Beginners.” A pause, and Fitz glances at Jemma just as she glances at him.

“I get the feeling,” Fitz says quietly, “that the jog this morning with Colonel Danvers was not an anomaly.”

“Indeed not,” JARVIS replies, and sounds entirely too cheerful for a non-human entity. “Colonel Danvers has scheduled a run every morning this week at five am. Seven, on Saturday and Sunday. Clint has taken charge of your firearms training, and Colonel Rhodes will see to your hand-to-hand combat. Sir, that is to mean Sergeant Barnes, will schedule survival training as his time allows. Natasha has declined to commit to a schedule, but has declared her area of expertise to be in training situational awareness.”

Fitz exchanges another long, worried look with Jemma. “Is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like Black Widow is going to jump at us at odd moments?”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Jemma chews on her lip. “What if we have delicate experiments underway, JARVIS? Or if we have something time-sensitive that cannot be interrupted?”

“I am monitoring the laboratories, Doctor Simmons,” JARVIS says. “I will notify Natasha in those cases.”

Satisfaction warms through the bond, and Fitz gapes at Jemma as she nods. “You can’t be serious,” he says.

She shrugs and smiles. “We wanted to be here, darling. Knowing how to take care of ourselves won’t hurt a bit.”

Fitz has seen the Avengers in action. He’s fairly certain it can and will hurt quite a lot. “We’re not Avengers, Jem. It doesn’t seem a bit excessive to you?”

“Fitz,” Jemma says gently, framing his face in her palms and looking him in the eye with a soft, fond expression, “if you take away the uniforms, what’s the difference between us and the Avengers?”

He knows where she’s going, and sighs. “Not a thing,” he responds, and wraps his hands loosely around her wrists. “I know. Fine. You’re right, of course. It will be good for us to know.”

Jemma smiles, her whole face bright and happy, and he feels the last of his reticence crumble away. That smile always makes him go weak in the knees. “Don’t worry, Fitz. Everything will be fine.”

----

By the time Fitz crawls back to his suite that night, he’s a whimpering mass of paranoia and bruises. The hand-to-hand with Colonel Rhodes wasn’t terrible, except when he got distracted and ended up flying across the ring. He still doesn’t think it was really his fault; he hadn’t known Rhodey (as the man said to call him) was a brilliant engineer until their appointment. He can’t talk shop and block punches at the same time. Likewise, the firearms training with Barton wasn’t bad either, except that Fitz is a rubbish shot, and he could see the vein twitching above Barton’s eye with each hole that didn’t appear in Fitz’s paper target.

Romanoff had been the worst. She stalked Fitz all day, seeming to pop up to scare the bejesus out of him the second his attention wandered. He’d been a nervous wreck by lunchtime, barely able to get any work done all day, and drained to the point where he’s wondering why he’s even here at all.

Logically, he knows that the tower is not nearly as safe as it seems. It was only a week or two ago that it had been invaded by hostiles in an attack that left Toni nearly dead. He knows he needs to learn better methods of self-defense, but with his whole body a giant ache, it’s hard to want to internalize that.

Jemma’s side of the bed is empty, still neatly made. She must still be in the lab, overseeing her nanite experiments. Fitz groans as he throws himself face-down into the center of the mattress and lies there, spread-eagled for a little while.

Eventually, a chime dings softly, which Fitz has learned is JARVIS’s version of clearing his throat. “Pardon, Dr. Fitz, but an encrypted email has just arrived for you from Malibu. It is flagged as an urgent matter.”

With effort, Fitz flips himself onto his back and drags his Starkpad off his bedside table. “Yes, please,” he mumbles, then sits up with a startled blink at the request for a retinal scan. “JARVIS, what’s this?”

“If you look directly at the camera with your right eye, Dr. Fitz,” JARVIS says calmly.

Fitz does so, then gives a thumbprint and voice recognition statement when prompted for those as well. The email opens to a few lines of text, and an attachment.

Fitzstark,

Which is your adopted name, by the way. I told you I was adopting you, right? If I forgot — and let’s face it, I might have. It’s me, here — surprise! You’re totally adopted. Anyway. I need you to start converting one of the storage bays below the labs into … well, I’m sure you can figure it out from the attached files.  Just like I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how important it is this shit never gets into the wrong hands.

Give Simmons a big ol’ sloppy kiss for me, and tell her I’ll bring her back souvenirs from California. Helen’s got some more samples for her.

See you soon(ish)!
Toni

PS - Don’t. Freak. Out. I just… I can’t keep doing this by myself, so I’m going to trust you here which, if you knew me, SO not my thing. Anyway. Open the damn attachments already.

Intrigued, Fitz opens the attachments, letting the Starkpad slide onto the mattress as the holographic interface activates, spilling plans for particle colliders and formulae for synthetic vibranium and the schematics for arc reactors, big and small, into the air. His jaw drops open and he feels like a child full of wonder as he raises a shaky hand to turn the three-dimensional particle collider, brush through the elegance of the maths, cradle the arc reactors.

The aches of his various bumps and bruises are instantly forgotten. Right. This is why he’s here. How silly of him to forget.

oOoOoOo
May 16, 2012

Bucky knows the moment Steve and Toni finally get their shit together and let themselves bond.

He’s sitting in the boardroom, in yet another interminably boring meeting with Coulson, trying to keep his eyes from crossing. He absolutely does not begrudge Steve and Toni having their time out in Malibu, because if two people ever needed it, it’s the two idiots he’s attached to by the soul. He just wishes — has wished more than once over the last week — that he went with them instead of staying behind to hold down the fort.

It starts with a buzz under his skin, like a wire buried in his pectorals. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, but it’s distracting as fuck, which he can’t afford to be right now. Not when the shitstorm he pulled onto his own plate is so close to being over and the Avengers Initiative with its affiliated Stark Security division is just about to let out of the cage. So he pushes it down, pushes it away, tries to focus on the points Coulson is making.

And he knows the man's making them. He can see Coulson’s mouth moving, hear the rise and fall of his voice, knows that Coulson's speaking at least one language he understands, but Bucky’ll be fucked if he can comprehend a single goddamn syllable.

He looks down at the neatly-stapled pages in front of him, staring at them like he’s trying to burn holes through to the table with his eyes. He reaches out, drags the document closer, but his eyes slide right past the formal language until the neat lines of text are blurry streaks. Deep in the smeared lines, he can see shadows moving, coming together and breaking apart fluidly. Both soulmarks itch, until he wants to reach into his skin and claw them out. Only iron discipline keeps him from doing so much as twitching.

Sweat pops in chilly beads on his forehead with the effort, and his eyes burn. Hot, tight knots of emotion hammer at him from either mark, fear and panic and arousal and a whole bunch of other things too tangled to name scratching across his suddenly-raw nerves and clenching around his lungs. It’s never been this strong before, from either of them. Jesus fucking Christ, have they lost their shit completely and are finally trying to kill each other?

Toni’s mark smooths out suddenly, rocky spikes and electric jolts fading into steady waves of hopeful nervousness, even though Steve’s sparks hot and agonized with the anger and grief Bucky’s been feeling from him since Steve’d come back to himself.

His ears roar with dull noise, and he shoves away from the table violently, suddenly overcome with the need to pace. Heedless of the fact that he’s just silenced the discussion, uncaring that all eyes are on him, he stalks towards the window at the other end of the room.  

“Sergeant?” comes Coulson’s voice behind him. “Is everything alright?”

“No,” he says tightly, hands fisting at his sides as he spins on his heel and starts pacing back the way he came, even though it’s not doing a damn thing but feeding the restlessness. “Yes. I don’t know.”

“Is it Toni?” Clint’s voice is carefully neutral.

Bucky nods. “And Steve,” he says, and gives into the nearly mindless desire to press his hands into his soulmarks. The restlessness vanishes, and now he can feel it more clearly, through the wash of sensations he can’t recognize. “Both of ‘em. They’re... ” Hope unfurls, sudden and sharp, in his chest. His own hope, wary but bright. “I gotta go,” he says abruptly, lifting his head to stare at them. He isn’t exactly sure what they’re seeing in his face, because his expression sure as fuck feels wobbly to him, but Coulson looks faintly pleased, and both Rhodey and Carol are grinning widely at him. “Fuck, I gotta go.”

Clint and Natasha share a significant look with unreadable expressions, and then Natasha rises from her chair. “I’ll get a quinjet ready for you,” she says, and slips past Bucky. As she passes, she rests her hand briefly on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture so quick it’s gone before he realizes she did it.

“About goddamn time,” Clint grumbles, slouching back against his chair and tilting his head towards the ceiling. “JARVIS, mind using some of your frighteningly broad Red Queen autonomy and sliding authorizations on over from Stepdad to Aunt Carol for a few days?”

“Of course, Clint,” JARVIS says pleasantly. “Colonel Danvers’ permissions have been updated to reflect her temporary change in status to the Acting Head of the Avengers Initiative, in the absence of both Deputy Directory Stark and Deputy Director Barnes. Welcome, Deputy Director Danvers.”

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Carol says politely, then grins at Bucky, who just stares at her in complete non-comprehension. “We got together over the last few days,” she explains gently, “and figured that this would happen sooner or later. JARVIS has been monitoring the Malibu mansion and keeping us updated. Everything’s taken care of, Bucky. You can just go.”

“Active-duty Avengers receive seventy-two hours minimum when new soulbonds are formed,” Coulson explains, and pulls a thin pamphlet from his folder. He unfolds it, pulls a pen out of his inner pocket and presents both to Bucky. “Sign at the bottom, please. You’re on leave starting now.”

Bucky reaches for the paperwork slowly, still bewildered. It’s a form, with the Avengers logo at the top, and in big block letters just underneath it, “Notice of Soulbond Leave of Absence”.  All of the pertinent information has been filled out, except for the date and the signature line.  “But..”

“Sign the form, Barnes,” Rhodey says, coming around to clap him on the back. “I’m going to go pull strings and make sure there’s no issue with your flight path.”

As Rhodey leaves, Bucky glances at the others, all staring at him with expectant faces. He scrawls something that might be his name across the bottom. “Call me if shit happens,” he says.

“Don’t worry about anything,” Carol says, and her smile is dangerously beatific as she moves to the chair at the head of the table he vacated and settles into it, spreading her hands across the glossy wood. “We’ve got it handled. I’ve got you covered. And I will be not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn. All shall love me and despair.”

oOoOoOo
Coulson

There are days when Phil wishes he’d taken a different career track. It’s not that he has regrets, exactly, but sometimes he thinks it would be nice to not be the one left holding the bag when everything goes pear-shaped.

But okay, it’s fine, he can work with that. He’s not a man to brag about what he does or what he’s accomplished, but he knows he excels at management and he’s a half-decent field agent to boot. He can look at the pages, look at the numbers, come up with solutions on the fly. The trick is to remain calm.

A very real, very significant part of him wants to be not-calm at the SHIELD report rerouted by Fury directly to him. It’s from the Joint Dark Energy Research Facility, flagged for review, observation and intervention by the Avengers Initiative and Stark Security. The report is currently tucked away in the innocent-looking folder under his hand, but Phil’s never been more aware of the flimsy facade in his life. It’s too big, sometimes.

It was inevitable, this path, he thinks, smoothing his fingers over the smooth surface of the file folder. He’s been in deep with emerging superheroes ever since Toni Stark came back from Afghanistan with shrapnel in her chest and power armor on the brain. Maybe even since he became Barton’s handler all those years ago. Maybe even since he fell a little bit in love with Captain America as a little kid, constructing and building his life around the ideals and morals Steve Rogers embodied.

So maybe he was always meant to be here, standing on the front lines of a world about to enter a new age, one about to plunge headlong into evolution and growth and chaos and revolution. He’s not a futurist, like Stark. He’s not a master tactician, like Rogers. He’s not a pessimist, like Romanoff, and he doesn’t see the tiniest details like Barton. But what he is, is a pragmatist, and creating framework plans for a broad spectrum of possible outcomes is what he does best.

He stares at the file folder, tapping his thumb against it now. The embossed Avengers symbol gleams at him under the overhead light, and he sighs faintly. However his path started, little Philip Coulson from Manitoc, Wisconson is now in charge of a team of the most powerful people in the world, and these are the decisions he is now responsible for making.

“JARVIS?” he asks, without taking his eyes off the Avengers symbol.

“Yes, Director Coulson?”

The world is changing. This is only the beginning. Best get ahead of it, before it’s too late. “Would you ask Agents Barton and Romanoff to join me, please?”

“Of course, Director,” JARVIS says pleasantly. “They report they are happy to join you, and will arrive presently.” There’s a tiny hesitation before he says, “Shall I recall the quinjet, Director? Notify ma’am and the Captain to return?”

Phil considers it, God help him. Barnes, Rogers and Stark are all heavy hitters, and he could really use them right now. “Let’s keep that in reserve, JARVIS,” he says. “They have seventy-two hours, so let them enjoy as much as they can of it.”

“Understood, sir.”

oOoOoOo
May 16, 2012
Stark Mansion, Malibu CA

Metal slides against metal, gears whir and lock, and Toni is completely engulfed. The Mark VIII armor, fresh off the fabricator, is her best work to date, and there’s something indescribably settling about the feeling that washes through her when the HUD lights up with pre-flight systems checks. While JARVIS is running his boot-up checks, she performs basic motor tests, moving her arms and legs and head, rolling her shoulders, checking to make sure that the joints allow her the full range of motion.

The armor’s always been heavy, and she expects that it might have been more difficult than she’s used to, with being out of commission for so long. But it feels barely more than a set of clothing as she gradually goes through the mental checklist of movements. The new alloy performs like a dream, light and flexible and sturdy, and she doesn’t resist the urge to dance a little.

“Gross motor function tests are green, JARVIS,” she says with a grin. “Bright, neon, shiny green.”

“Basic operations are functioning acceptably,” JARVIS replies. “Shall I begin the higher function diagnostics?”

“Knock yourself out, kiddo.”  

The HUD begins streaming data, lines of code flickering almost faster than she can follow. She keeps an eye on it as she shifts her focus to the fine motor stuff, checking the flexibility of the finger joints and the gestures they afford her. Christ almighty, this alloy is amazing. Even with only a three percent blend of vibranium, it’s outperforming all of its predecessors, and she hasn’t even left the ground yet.

One by one, the items on the digital checklist JARVIS helpfully displayed turn green, and Toni’s grin just gets ewider. Anticipation builds in her gut, nervous energy that makes her feet want to jitter, her stomach tie in knots. She all but bounces in place, watching impatiently as the final few items run through their tests.

“Steve still out?” she asks absently, hyperfocused on the three still-red items. The tertiary weapons guidance systems she might be able to skate without for the suit’s first flight, but the redundant flight stabilizers and the secondary communications functions are too important for her to half-ass. Knowing her luck, if she blasted off without them, she’d stall out somewhere over the Pacific and have no way to flag down a ride home.

“Yes, ma’am. Captain Rogers texted ten minutes ago to inform you he was making an additional stop on the way back from the market. He estimates that it should add no more than an additional 45 minutes to his outing.”

“I still don’t understand why he had to go shopping,” Toni grumbles, flexing her fingers in a wave, and watching the light play off the metal of her gauntlets. “The cupboards are still full of food. I checked. Even with my increased intake, we shouldn’t be low on anything yet.”

JARVIS’s silence is suspicious.

Toni peers at the ceiling with narrowed eyes. “J, you wanna share with the class?”

“Regrettably, I cannot. Captain Rogers wished to keep the purpose of his outing in confidence.”

Toni eyes the ceiling for another minute, considering. She could force JARVIS to tell her, because Steve doesn’t have the kind of access Bucky does, can’t keep her from anything, can’t lock her out of anywhere. “Okay, kiddo. You two have your secrets. I can wait.”

“Captain Rogers and sir are indeed good for you,” JARVIS says dryly, “if at the age of thirty-two you have finally learned the fine art of patience.”

“You’re a brat, kid.” Toni smiles fondly, then grins in vicious triumph when the last of the checks shade green. “Alright, time to take this baby out for a spin.”

“I take after my mother that way,” JARVIS says pleasantly, as the reinforced double doors on the far side of the fab-lab start sliding back. “Control towers have been notified of your non-mission flight status, ma’am. No restrictions are in place today.”

“Good to know,” she says, and throws her arms out, palms down. “Do me a favor while I’m out, J. Go ahead and copy all of Bucky’s permissions, and overwrite them on Steve’s access. Skynet it.”

“Yes, ma’am. Shall I also upgrade the others’ permissions to levels more appropriate to their new roles as Avengers?”

“Yeah, just like we were discussing. Okay, that’s enough business for now. I’m going to go play with my toys”

“Enjoy your flight, ma’am,” JARVIS replies, as though he's not going to be with her every step of the way.

Toni grins, whoops as the jet boots kick in, and rockets through the bay doors and into the sky.

 

Chapter Text

Now I need to know is this real love
Or is it just madness keeping us afloat?
And when I look back at all the crazy fights we had
It’s like some kind of madness was taking control
And now I have finally seen the light
And I have finally realized
What you need
Muse, “Madness”

oOoOoOo
May 16, 2012
Farmer’s Market, Malibu CA

For the first time in his life, both of Steve’s soulmarks are quiet, happy pulses in his chest, and the feeling is indescribable. He can’t remember the last time he was ever in this good a mood, practically bouncing between the stalls and tables stacked high with produce and homemade goods. It’s nice to be able to be in a crowd without anyone noticing he’s here.

It’s more difficult to pull himself away from the market than he anticipated. His fingers long for a sketch book and a quiet corner, long to capture on paper the family of five buying fruit, the couple arguing over lettuce, the dreamy-eyed reader with her hand propped on her chin and her eyes focused on her book, the clearly-bonded triad who can’t stop touching each other’s hands and arms and shoulders having lunch three tables down. It’s been a long, long time since he’s felt this content. If he ever did.

He’s also never seen so many soulmarks in his life. Even serving in the War, with all the casual nudity that came with it, he never did more than catch a glimpse of the Howling Commando’s marks. It’s a different time and a different age, and the morality of soulbonds has evolved, and he knows that. But in his day, soulmarks were a private thing, to be shared only with one’s bondpartners. Baring his chest for Project Rebirth, with one blended soulmark and one unblended, had been the hardest part of the whole process. Seeing so many symbols, blended and unblended, on display, is a little uncomfortable and vaguely pornographic.

Maybe it’s time to go , he thinks after he catches himself staring at a woman who reminds him of Toni, draped over a man who, from the back, if he squints, resembles Bucky.

He manages to extract himself from the market, making his way back to the parking lot where Hogan, the driver JARVIS was kind enough to hire for him, waits with the windows down and the top rolled back.

Hogan peers at him over the top of his sunglasses as he approaches the car. “All done, Captain Rogers?”

Steve smiles and opens the passenger-side door, puts the bag of produce in the back and settles into the seat. “I am,” he says, a little proud that he remembered to use the seatbelt without prompting this time. “Thank you for waiting for me.”

Hogan waves him off and turns the engine over. “All part of the job, sir,” he says. “Where to now? Back to the mansion?”

Steve takes a last, wistful look at the market, promising himself another time. “I have one more stop to make first,” he says, digging in his pocket for the piece of paper he wrote the address on, then holds it out to Hogan. “Do you know where this is?”

Hogan takes the paper and squints at the printing, lifting his sunglasses to do so. Steve flushes a little, because his mother and the nuns at the orphanage had despaired, and rightly so, of curing his chicken scratch penmanship. “Oh! Yeah, I know where that is, Captain.” He hands the slip back and puts the car in reverse, backing out of his parking spot. “Toni's loves their stuff. Mr. Barton used to commission pieces all the—” Hogan's mouth snaps shut so fast, Steve hears his teeth click. “Shit, sorry, Captain. I didn't mean to say that.”

Steve still isn't sure how he feels about all that, about Toni's...proclivities and her ongoing relationships, he's still stuck on processing their completed soulbond after all, but he's pleased to discover that the abrupt, unexpected reminder doesn't upset him in the slightest. “It's fine, Mr. Hogan,” he says. “Clint is a friend.”

The relief on Hogan's face is obvious, and his shoulders relax. “Good. Still, client confidentiality is something Stark Solutions employees are supposed to keep in mind.”

Steve tilts his head, frowning. He thought Hogan was from the car service Toni said she used when she didn’t feel like driving or flying places. “You’re an employee?”

For some reason, Hogan looks amused as he spares Steve a quick glance. “Yessir. I head up security at Stark Solutions now, but I started in the transportation department as a driver. Toni didn’t mention?”

“She didn’t, no. I thought JARVIS hired her car service. I hope I’m not taking you away from your real job.”

“Nah,” Hogan says easily. “I’ve got good people who can keep things going while I’m away. Driving Toni’s just an extra thing I do when she’s in town. You know, keep my eye on the boss in person.” He glances at Steve again with a grin. “And the boss’s friends, too. Makes her feel safer.”

Steve frowns at that. He knows Toni’s had some close calls, but the way Hogan says it makes it seem like there’s more than just the handful of incidents he’s heard of. “That usually a concern, keeping her safe?”

“Captain,” Hogan says, in the tired tone of a man twice his age, “you have no idea.”

By the time Hogan parks the car in the lot in front of Lady Lexa’s Fine Jewelry, Steve has a very good idea of exactly the kind of concerns Hogan has in keeping Toni safe and secure. Precious little of it has to do with the fact that she regularly seals herself inside a tin can and goes flying off at Mach speeds.

He’s more than a little shaken as he gets out of the car and walks to the door of the shop, because Hogan’s stories are hair-raising tales of broad daylight kidnapping and bombs exploding and multiple assassination attempts. Part of him wants to rush back to the mansion, check with his own two eyes that Toni’s still there, and then wrap her in cotton and tuck her somewhere safe.

There’s a little voice in the back of his head, though, reminding him that not only did he sign up for an experimental medical procedure, he also jumped out of planes often without a parachute, stole German tanks to run blockades, palled around with some of the craziest no-fear soldiers the US Army had to offer, and charged gungho into Axis-held territory without a second thought, so maybe he doesn’t have much room to talk.

oOoOoOo
Stark Mansion

The mansion is quiet when Steve walks back through the door, bag under his arm. He pauses for a moment, but can’t even feel the vibrations through the floor that the soundproofing in Toni’s workshop doesn’t quite contain. He nods to himself, smiling in satisfaction. Toni must still be out putting her new armor through its paces.

Good. That gives him time.

He makes it into the kitchen before JARVIS greets him. “Welcome back, Captain Rogers. Did you acquire everything you need?”

“I did, thank you JARVIS.” He sets the bag on the counter and starts hauling produce out to wash. He glances out of the window over the sink as he does, squinting at the far-distant horizon. “Is Toni still flying?”

“She is,” JARVIS replies. “Ma’am has been airborne for approximately forty-five minutes, and does not seem inclined to return soon. Still, I advise haste, Captain. Ma’am will no doubt find something to tweak or tinker with before long.”

“Noted, JARVIS. Keep me posted.”

“Understood, Captain.”

Steve keeps an eye on the window as he does all the prep work, dropping the vegetables into the pot he left simmering on the stove earlier. He’s only ever done this once before, when he bonded with Bucky, but his mother made sure the recipe was ingrained in his head. She’d already been sick by then, determined to pass on a tradition she said went back generations, so when he met his soulmates, he could treat them accordingly.

Toni’s kitchen looks nothing like the simple kitchen of his mother’s house, but somehow it’s easy to imagine his mother’s voice guiding him through the steps of the stew and the batter, the dough and the mead. Whether you marry or you bond, Steven, whispers the ghost of Sarah Rogers, remember you come from a long, proud history of Irish traditions. Bread and salt to bless the union, stew and mead to promise fulfillment, and wedding cake to start your lives together sweetly.

The nice thing about a modern kitchen, he figures, is that he’s not waiting for one thing to finish before he makes another. The bond meal he’d made for Bucky had taken him the better part of a day on their rusty old wood stove. Toni’s meal will take only a couple of hours.

He’s washing the dishes by hand when JARVIS chimes softly. “Captain, you should be informed that ma’am has decided to return to the mansion.”

Dammit, he’s not ready yet. Steve sighs and pulls the plug on the sink of soapy water, drying his hands. Not a big deal. This is why he made contingency plans.  “Thanks, JARVIS. Are you able to keep an eye on the kitchen for me? And ask Toni to  come to the courtyard before she comes in through the … hangar? Is that the right word?”

“That is within my parameters, Captain. I am happy to assist.”

oOoOoOo
Toni

Toni is one hundred and ten percent in love with her armor.

She’s been flying for awhile now, nothing but sky above her and sea below her, the best kind of wide-open space to put the suit through its paces. Once the California coastline is at her back, she opens up, full-throttle and spends the next hour doing loops and barrel rolls, tight corkscrews and hairpin turns, bursts of acceleration and sharp, abrupt braking, doing her level best to make the system redline, stall, cough and die.

The suit doesn’t even sputter. It responds to every muscle movement, every microgesture, as though it’s reading her thoughts. “J,” she says, breathless after pulling out of a steep dive in time for her right gauntlet to skim the surface of the water, “Take dictation. Dear Steve and James: I regret to inform you that the armor and I ran away to Bora Bora, for I am madly in love with it. It’s not me, it’s you. Love, Toni.”

“Dictation noted, ma’am,” JARVIS says placidly, “and filed directly in the trash bin.”

Toni laughs and lazily rolls into a climb, hitting the cloud ceiling at a dizzying speed. “Not letting me break up with my soulmates, huh?”

“Discounting the anomalous events of your first meetings with them, ma’am, their presence in your life has been beneficial in nature. Without a compelling reason, I’m afraid it goes against my secondary protocols to permit you to run away to Bora Bora with the Iron Maiden armor.”

“Spoilsport,” she says with a grin. Consulting the HUD shows her position as nearly two hundred miles from the shore. While it might be time to turn back, now that she’s in international waters, it’s also time to blow shit up. “Give me some drones, J. I need to test the repulsors and the targeting system, so the trip back’s as good a time as any.” She pauses, checks the time in the corner of the HUD. “Steve back yet?”

“Captain Rogers returned to the mansion approximately thirty minutes ago. Drones are launching from the Aerie now, ma’am. Intercept time is estimated to be two minutes.”

“Let him know I’m on my way back, would you, J? There’s a good kid.” Just because she can, she engages in more aerial acrobatics on her way back to land, reveling in the intuitive response of the armor. “The drones will be in range in thirty seconds.”

“Good.” Almost before she can do more than think about it, the suit starts shifting around her, the subtle alignment corrections that allow for offensive, tactical maneuvering and weapons use. “You sure I can’t run away with the armor? God, she’s handling like a dream.”

“You may not, ma’am,” JARVIS says, and Toni grins at the reproachful tone. “Drones on approach.”

“Alright,” she says, feeling more than hearing the whine of repulsors powering up. “Let’s see what this baby’s packing. Don’t go easy on me, kid.”

JARVIS’s silence is a tad offended.

A drone drops out of the sky above her, spitting bullets in her direction. She rolls right in a tight spin, blurting an involuntary “Whoa!” at the suddenness of the attack. Training rounds or not, they’ll still bruise if they hit her. “Oh ho,” she chortles, eyes narrowing as the HUD matrices lock onto the drone and three of its buddies still in cloud cover. “So you’re going to be like that, are you kid? Fine. We’ll play rough.”

It’s always more difficult to engage in tactics in wide-open sky. Toni far prefers landscapes she can hide and maneuver around, use rocks and buildings, trees and water features, blind spots and straightaways to her advantage. Unfortunately, the city of Los Angeles (and New York, for that matter) frown on unnecessary dogfighting in the heart of downtown, so she makes do with what she has.

The four drones fall into formation and begin an attack pattern, strafing her flight path in front and behind her position. She brakes hard, feeling g-force press on her body, but pleased to note it’s not nearly as strong as it should be. The armor drops like a stone, falling a hundred feet before she turns her boot jets back on and arrows back out over the water at a steep angle of ascent.

“Alright, junior,” she says, eyeing the tracking data on the edges of the HUD. They’re right behind her, slightly below. “Let’s see how you handle this.” She decelerates abruptly, diving for a few hundred feet. As she sails past the formation, she rolls onto her back, bringing her arms up, palms out.

The repulsor blast is gentler than she remembers it ever being on her muscles, but stabs out and tagging a drone on the rear aileron. The drone’s blip on the HUD blinks as smoke erupts from its tail and falls out of formation.

“Drone 4 disabled,” JARVIS announces. “I am returning it to the Aerie.”

Before she can fall much farther, Toni flips down again and accelerates to nearly Mach 1, looping wide to head for the shoreline again. “While I appreciate your cost-saving, J, I built them to blow them up.”

“Very good, ma’am. Plotting intercept course.”

“What?! No! That’s not what I meant!” Eyes wide, Toni throws herself right as the drone screams through the space she just occupied. Her followup repulsor shot is almost perfunctory, and the drone explodes in a satisfying shower of shrapnel. “JARVIS,” she says, low and dangerous, “I’m going to install you on a Speak ‘n’ Spell.”

“Of course you are, ma’am,” JARVIS replies placidly. “But prior to that, you may wish to be aware of your six o’clock.”

Toni lets a stream of epithets fly as two of the remaining drones strafe her, rounds pinging off the legs and back of her armor. She spins left, wild and wide, dropping like a stone as she rights herself vertical and fires on the rightmost drone. The repulsors score a direct hit on its undercarriage. Its mechanics whine, high-pitched and distressed, before crashing into its undamaged partner.

Toni smirks as she regains her altitude, watching the two drones plummet into the ocean. “How ‘bout that, kiddo? I killed two with one blow.”

JARVIS’s reply is dry and amused. “A stunning achievement, madam. But if I may say, you are still short by five if you wish to match the Brave Little Tailor.”

“Killjoy,” she laughs, scanning for the last drone and lazily banking through the clouds.

She finds the drone a few minutes later, and begins to get the sneaking suspicion that JARVIS is toying with her, since he keeps ducking the drone in and out of the clouds. After a prolonged, frustrating hunt, she drops on top of the drone and shoots it at point-blank range. “Alright, kiddo,” she says, letting the drone fall and readjusting the contours of her armor for top speed. “Jesus, I must be halfway to Japan out here. Time to go home, I think. Let Steve know I’m on my way back, please.”

“Of course, ma’am. Captain Rogers requests that you meet him in the courtyard prior to entering the flight bay.”

Toni frowns and opens the throttle, diving to skim along the rippling surface of the ocean. “Okay. Is there something wrong?”

“No, ma’am. Were I to wager a guess, I would say he intends to surprise you.”

A hundred yards in front of her and to the left, a pod of whales breach the surface, and Toni angles onto her side to watch them until she passes them. “With what?”

“That would ruin the surprise, ma’am.”

-------

When the cliffs south of her home come into view, Toni changes her flight path to parallel them, chewing on her bottom lip and doing her best to quell the urge to snoop on what Steve’s been up to while she was out. JARVIS would have told her if it was anything bad, but not knowing things has never been her strong suit.

She distracts herself by flying as close as she dares to the cliff face, figuring the intense concentration required to keep the tips of her knees and chest from banging into the sheer rock wall will be enough to prevent her from overriding JARVIS’s privacy protocols and demanding answers.

It’s still a near thing. By the time she sees the broad beach with the dock, the curiosity is killing her. Adjusting her path away from the cliff, she soars up, until the mansion rises in front of her. She cuts around it, arcing wide to the courtyard in the front, and light winks at her, a brilliant flare that draws her attention.

Her breath catches in her throat when she sees the source. Steve is standing in the middle of the courtyard, in full Captain America regalia. The uniform is form-fitting and sleek, with broad chevrons flowing into the white star centered on the muted blue chest. His cowl is back, the wind ruffling through his hair as he tilts his head up, shading his eyes, to watch her approach. The rim of the shield on his back winks again as he shifts his weight.

She cuts her boot jets a dozen feet up and lands in her usual crouch, letting the helmet flow back from her face as she straightens. In the armor, she’s the same height as he is, and there’s something surreal and more than a little amazing to be looking him straight in the eye. She swallows hard, smiling faintly. “Captain,” she says, grave and respectful.

Steve smiles back, lowering his hand from his eyes, and there’s something soft in his expression. “Ms. Stark,” he replies, just as grave and respectful. He reaches out and runs his bare fingertips over the additions she made to the paint design. “These are new,” he says, tracing the lines of the white star on her left pectoral plate and then the red star on her right.

Suddenly bashful, she ducks her head, feels her cheeks reddening, is absolutely horrified that she’s reduced to being awkward and shy. “You know me,” she says lightly. “Never been able to not advertise.” She raises a hand, letting the glove portion flow into the wristplates, baring her hands, and smooths her palm over the chevrons. “You look good in it. Like I should feel bad about debasing a national icon with my widely-reported debauch lifestyle.”

Steve’s grin is bright and sudden, and he slides his hand up over her shoulderplate to hook around the back of her neck. “You’re far too late for that,” he says. “I was on a USO tour, after all. I caught more than one eyeful of someone else’s fun along the way.”

Her eyes slide half-closed and her head tilts forward, all of their own volitions, when his thumb starts rubbing circles behind her ear. “You’ve completely ruined the illusion for me here, Steve,” she says, voice more a purr than human words.

“Sorry,” he says, but doesn’t sound at all apologetic. And there’s nothing but fond amusement coming across their bond either.

“You’re okay with the armor then?” she mumbles, head lolling down. “I wasn’t sure you would be after tearing apart so many of them.”

Steve tenses for just a second, but it’s there and gone in a flash. Toni smiles to herself; they’re both getting better at coping and adjusting. “You redesigned the whole thing,” he says, resuming his efforts to make her melt into a puddle inside the armor. “It’s different, the contours, the material. I can tell. Plus,” and she can hear the wry grin in his tone, “it helps that it’s painted with my mark.”

“Mmmph.” With effort, she raises her head so she can look him in the eye. “What’re we doing out here, Steve?” she says, husky and deep, and a thrill shoots through her at the way his eyes darken. “There’s a perfectly good bed inside.”

Steve steps back with a funny, endearing smile Toni can’t decipher, and his hand drops away from her neck. He reaches over his shoulder to pull the cowl on, adjusting it with deft tugs. “I thought I’d ask you to take me flying.”

She blinks and straightens, because that is a recurring dream of hers, and it has been since she first got her pilot’s license all those years ago. “You want to go flying,” she says, just to be sure she heard him right. “Instead of taking me inside and having your way with me.”

“Not everything is about sex, Toni,” Steve says primly, even though the hint of a grin betrays his amusement.

“Then buddy, you got stuck with the wrong soulmates,” Toni replies, with a snort. “Cos Bucky’s just as insatiable as I am. God help you when we’re all together again, is all I’m saying.”

“I imagine I’ll be very tired in the morning,” Steve says, unflappable. “But it’ll be worth it.”

She stares at him, an eyebrow arched. “Flying.”

He beams. “Flying.”

She sighs and pulls the helmet back over her head, mimicking Steve’s gesture with the cowl of his uniform. “Fine,” she grumbles without any actual disgruntlement. “But if I drop you, don’t blame me. I don’t usually fly tandem.”

Steve moves to her side, slings an arm around her shoulders and steps onto her boots. Her arm automatically moves around his waist. “You won’t,” he says, with perfect confidence that does weird, fluttery things to her stomach and throat. And then she feels the faint vibration of the static locks on the palm of his glove and the soles of his boots charge and connect, holding him more securely than Fort Knox against her. “Mostly,” he adds, “because you already thought of it.”

She’s grateful the faceplate is down, because she’s positive the heat in her cheeks mean her face is on fire.“Do you know how often Clint falls off a building? Or how many times Tash tries to stick to the walls even though she’s not really a spider? Everyone has static locks on their uniforms, just in case I need to grab them quick.”

“Makes sense,” Steve agrees, and he’s back to smiling that weird, fond smile, and their blended mark pulses warm and happy.

Belatedly realizing he can probably feel her embarrassment through the bond, she snaps her jaw shut and shuffles her feet. Her hand settles on Steve’s hip, and she charges the static lock on that gauntlet. Just in case. In the next second, they’re airborne, rocketing into the sky, and Steve’s whoop of sheer delight rings in her ears like silver bells.

oOoOoOo
Somewhere In Southern California

Bucky doesn’t think he’s fidgeted so much in his life. The three hours in the quinjet have been the longest three hours he’s ever spent. Full of nervous energy and unable to sit still, he’s lost track of the number of times he’s lapped the hold with restless pacing. His skin is itchy, humming, and while it’s not painful, it’s helping to tip him into edginess.

“How much longer until we get to the mansion, J?” he asks for what has to be the thousandth time now.

JARVIS never seems to mind answering, though; his tone never shifts from its usual pleasant register. “Seven minutes, thirty seconds, sir. I am now within range to connect with the JRV-Malibu servers, and am downloading pertinent updates.”

Bucky has no idea what importance that has, and right now doesn’t actually care. He resumes his pacing, making tight circles, and tries not to worry about the fact that his bonds have gone quiet again. They’ve been spiking and ebbing for hours now, since long before he was aware of it this morning. In hindsight, he should have seen it from the moment he opened his eyes. All’s been silent for at least thirty minutes now.

“I’m picking up an open comm channel,” JARVIS says suddenly, and now there’s a different note in his voice, slightly upbeat pleasantry replaced with cool efficiency. “Sir, it appears to be a frequency used by the Avengers, specifically, the multichannel ma’am uses while flying.”

God, he’d welcome a distraction from the gnawing worry and anticipation building. “Let’s hear it, J,” he says.

“--op squirming, Steve!” Toni’s voice comes, loud and clear and with that exasperated plaintive note she usually reserves for Clint stealing her apples. “I’m not a fucking jungle gym!”

“The view is better from up here,” Steve replies, his voice innocent in the way that always means he’s being devious and knows he’ll get away with it. “The way the armor curves at the small of your back is almost like a--”

“If the next word out of your mouth is ‘saddle’, Rogers,” Toni says, low and dangerous , “I will dump your ass in the Pacific and leave you to swim back.”

Bucky’s grinning like an idiot, and a wave of aching need clenches a fist around his heart, strong and sudden. He sits in the pilot’s chair, closes his eyes, and tilts his head back to listen to their voices. Already the itch in his skin is receding, soothing away, fading to nothing, his restlessness calming with the voices of his soulmates in his ears.

“Did you feel that?” Toni’s quieter now, all good-natured squabbling gone.

“Yeah. Bucky.” A beat. “He should be here. I miss him.”

“Me too. We’ll call when we get back. See if we can get him out here. We shouldn’t have left him behind.”

“We needed the time. It wouldn’t have been fair to him. Can you honestly tell me you wouldn’t have hidden behind him instead of deal with me if he were here? I know I would have.”

“You’re not always right, you know,” Toni grumbles, and Bucky’s smile grows painfully wide, eyes burn with a sudden prick of tears, and he laughs outright when Toni squawks indignantly. “Steven, I am not a surfboard. Don’t you dare stand up! The static locks aren’t going to hold against that much dr--- STEVE!”

He feels a sudden flare of sheer panic from Toni and a sudden flare of exhilaration from Steve. The comms crackle under the onslaught of Steve’s cheering laughter and Toni’s stream of desperate, inventive epithets. He opens his eyes, peers through the windshield, scanning for two dots in the sky, sees them off to the left, plummeting from the clouds.

“J,” he murmurs, and his heart picks up the pace, hammering a couple of frantic beats in his chest. Because even though he has perfect faith Toni will catch him, Steve still can’t fly.

“I anticipated your request, sir,” JARVIS says, “and have altered our flight path to intercept.”

------
Toni

The armor shifts, flattens, angles, streamlines as Toni makes a desperate dive for Steve’s falling form. The idiot is laughing his goddamn head off, arms and legs spread to provide drag against the wind. She isn’t sure, though, if that’s to give her extra seconds to catch up, or because he wants to make the dive last longer.

The HUD screams data at her, calculating trajectory, likely landing zones, intercept points, wind speed. She ignores it all, practically willing herself to go faster. The distance between them closes rapidly, and she stretches out a hand, brain crunching the shifting physics of how close this is really going to be. The ground’s getting awfully close. She’s not going to get him in time to get back into the sky. The best she can hope to do is snag him, slow their fall as much as she can, and then take the brunt of the rest herself. The armor should hold. She hopes.

Steve rolls over, with a lazy smile, and reaches up her. She slaps her gauntlet against his glove, and the static locks adhere to each other. “I knew you’d catch me,” he says, and she pulls him flush against her, locking her arms around his waist, kicking her feet down and burning her jets for everything she has.

“Hold on,” she says through gritted teeth, and squeezes her eyes closed. “If I survive this, remind me to kill you,” she mutters, and braces for impact.

When it comes, it’s gentler, more metallic and darker than she expected it to be. It still jars her, rattles her teeth in her skull, and she bounces twice before coming to rest against something hard and unyielding, Steve sprawled atop her.

She triggers the helmet to fold back, and lies there breathing for a second, trying to get her heart rate back into a semblance of normal, staring at the ceiling overhead. That breaks through the haze of amusement, panic and excitement hammering through the soulmarks. Wait. Ceiling? What ?

“In my defense,” Steve says, pushing himself off her chestplate and pulling his cowl away from his head. “I wasn’t trying to skydive without a chute. I was trying to get back onto your boot, and--” His eyes shift to over her shoulder, widen, and his mouth snaps shut abruptly.

She forgets the mystery of having a ceiling above her in a heartbeat, and is on her feet without quite planning on moving, reaching out to haul him with a gauntleted hand fisted in the material of his armor back towards her. “Goddammit, Steve,” she says, and leans her forehead against his cheek. “Don’t do that to me. I can’t lose you this soon after finding you.” She swallows hard, and the muscle in his jaw jumps under her temple. “Bucky can’t lose either one of us either.”

“Toni,” Steve says, strange and strangled, his hands close mechanically on her shoulders, pushing her back, trying to spin her. “Turn around.”

“I can’t leave you two alone for a second,” Bucky drawls from behind her, and she sags against Steve, clutching his shoulder as she spins too fast. Her brain, normally faster than lightning, is having trouble parsing the obvious hold of a quinjet around her, complete with a dent in the far wall where her shoulders hit. Bucky, lean and lethal and geared for war, grins at them both, sprawled in the pilot’s seat with an ankle propped on the opposite knee.

“Buck,” Steve says thickly, and holds out the arm that isn’t wrapped around Toni, hand extended to him.

Bits of her armor are folding, retracting, sliding away. She doesn’t remember giving the command, but she must have. “James,” she breathes, hitches. “You’re here.”

Bucky’s grin slowly fades. “Christ,” he murmurs, swallows, comes to his feet. “Look at you two.” His hands are trembling, flex and relax at his thighs. “Just look at the two of you.”

“Three,” Toni says, holds out her hand. She’s never been more sure of anything in her life. “Us three.”

“C’mere, Buck,” Steve says, wiggles his fingers invitingly. “Toni’s right. Us three.”

One halting step towards them leads to another, and then Toni’s smothered in arms and hands, the tickling brush of long hair and the tang of leather armor and sun-warmed metal, chins digging into shoulders and awkwardly grasping fingers pulling at already sore muscles, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing but joy singing through her soulmarks.

Chapter Text

 

And I don’t know how I survived those days
Before I held your hand
Well I never thought that I would be the one
To admit that the moon and the sun
Shine so much more brighter when
Seen through two pairs of eyes than
When seen through just one.

Cowboy Junkies, “Anniversary Song”

oOoOoOo
Stark Mansion, Malibu CA
May 16, 2012

Steve’s hand is tight in her hair, Bucky’s arm nearly painful around her waist, but Toni isn’t going to ask them to let go. Not now. Not when everyone’s been through so much to get here. The quinjet’s been on the ground for at least ten minutes, but no one’s moving. She’s certainly not inclined to do so either, not when she’s got her fingers through Bucky’s hair and is half-smothering herself in Steve’s side.

Her soulmarks are hot under her skin, pulsing brands that sing and churn with emotions too complex and knotted to easily identify. Tears well behind her closed eyelids, and her smile, she's sure, is as blinding as the sun.

Steve's hand loosens first, disentangling from Toni's hair with reluctance, and he pulls back, clearing his throat as he does so. Both she and Bucky reach out for him, still clinging to each other, but he just keeps stepping back, out of their reach, with a fond smile.

“I made dinner,” he says gently, and bends to pick up his shield. “It’ll burn if I don’t take care of it.”

“You’re worried about dinner?” Toni squeaks, then clears her throat with an embarrassed flush as her marks flood with amusement on both sides. “Shut up,” she mutters, clearing her throat again. “I’m emotional.”

Bucky presses a kiss into her hair, arm tightening around her. “Nobody said a word,” he says. “But I’m with Toni on this one, Steve. Dinner? Now?” Steve does something with his eyebrows, and Bucky goes still in Toni’s arms. “Oh,” he says, in a completely different tone that has Toni's eyebrows raising. “ Dinner . Damn, Stevie. I didn't think you'd do that this soon.”

“Been seventy years, Buck,” Steve replies, and taps the door release with the side of his fist. He smiles at them both, soft and tender, as the door starts lowering. “It's been long enough, don't you think?”

Toni frowns after him, then looks up at Bucky. Her confusion deepens at the awestruck look on his face. “I'm missing something here,” she says quietly.

Bucky blinks, shakes himself out of it, then turns her in his arms until she’s facing him. “Yeah, doll,” he says with a tiny grin and bumps her forehead with his. “You are. But I ain’t gonna ruin it. This is Steve’s thing.”

Toni frowns as he steps back, picking up a gym bag and his rifle before throwing her a wink and heading for the ramp leading to the courtyard. “I hate it when people don’t tell me things,” she mutters, and clomps in disgruntlement after Bucky. “J, be a good kid and lock the quinjet down.”

LIghts start dimming down around her, accompanied by the soft whine of mechanical parts spinning dormant. “Shall I also lock the flight controls of the Mark VIII down, ma’am? There was some mention of Bora-Bora, after all.”

“Oh, bite me,” Toni grumbles. “Let the popsicles know I’m tucking Eight into bed, grabbing a shower, and I’ll be up for dinner when I’m done.”

“Very well, ma’am.”

Screw it, she thinks spitefully, but she’s allowing herself the indulgence just this once. It’s catty and it’s childish and it’s unwarranted, but she really does need a shower, and she’s not above a little petty behaviour when she’s being stonewalled.

“Captain Rogers notes, ma’am, that a shower is a good idea, and he will take the time to clean himself up also. He humbly requests that you wear, and I quote, ‘something nice’, as this is an important meal.”

Toni sighs noisily, and activates her boot jets, lifting off the ground and moving towards the hangar bay doors. “Fine,” she says. “I’ll dress nice. I’ll dress so nice, I’ll knock his fuckin’ socks off.”

“Of course, ma’am,” JARVIS replies. “Though that may prove to be more difficult than initial thought, as Captain Rogers also wears loafers or boots over his socks.”

Toni actually feels his teeth grind together. “JARVIS, I am going to—”

“Recompile me into a Blackberry?” JARVIS cuts smoothly in. “Yes, ma’am. I’ve made a note in your LIst of Things To Always Threaten But Never Do. It is currently prioritized under ‘repulsor Clint in the ass the next time he steals your apples’ and just above ‘buzz Bill Gates’ house because principle demands it’. Shall I prepare the armor case while you are landing, ma’am?”

“Yes,” Toni says, and she’s still sullen as she swoops into the hangar, and the doors close silently behind her. “And start the shower in my suite while you’re at it. You know my preferences. Do I have an inventory available for the contents of my closet?”

“Of course, ma’am. I have been provided with visual access to your wardrobe. Ms. Potts insisted.”

“Of course she did.” Despite the flash and the media focus on her antics, Toni doesn’t require every landing be a three-point crouch. Sometimes, namely when she’s not in the mood to fill and roll the dents in her flight deck floor, she alights like a butterfly on a flower, and her boots barely make a noise as they touch down.

By the time she’s arranged Mark VIII to her liking in its docking station, she’s chosen a dress, shoes, a hairstyle and accessories, all from images displayed from JARVIS’s databanks. She strips as she moves from the hangar and up two floors to her bedroom, shedding clothing wherever each piece lands.

She hears voices from further down the hallway, but decides against investigating. She’s fairly sure that she could successfully derail her soulmates from whatever plans they’ve been cooking up, but a shower sounds fabulous, so she turns into her bedroom instead and heads straight for the shower, already running and at the perfect JARVIS-controlled temperature.

oOoOoOo

Steve

Not for the first time, Steve thanks the long-deceased Erskine for the miracle of Rebirth, because he would never have managed to finish the prep work on the meal and get it into the serving dishes on the table without enhanced reflexes, peak hand-eye co-ordination and speed. JARVIS had helpfully turned off all the heat sources under the food, but spoilage had been a near thing.

“Thank you again for your help, JARVIS,” he says as he takes one last critical look over the table, calculates again with some minor fretting how he’s going to make the meal for two stretch for three, with Bucky here.

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” the AI replies pleasantly. “Ma’am is nearly finished in the shower and will soon be getting dressed. Might I suggest a similar plan for yourself?”

Steve checks the watch embedded in the arm of his tactical armor and starts. He’s been in here doing this longer than he wanted to be. “Probably for the best,” he says, and forces himself not to look back at the table one more time, because if he does, he’ll be there forever.

With the shower running in the main bedroom, he regretfully goes to the spare room, where he’d been staying before moving into the room with Toni. He speeds through the fastest shower he’s ever taken and dresses just as swiftly in slacks and a button-down shirt. Those fashions, at least, don’t seem to have changed much in the last seventy years, but he still has a small pang of regret he hasn’t had more time to figure out more modern styles.

Bucky’s sitting on the edge of the bed, still in his tactical gear, phone in hand and tinny game music just barely audible. He looks up when Steve enters, slips his phone into his pocket and grins. “Well,” he says, eyes raking up and down Steve’s body, “don’t you look nice. You must have a date with a pretty gal or something.”

Steve eyes Bucky right back, and starts moving towards him. “Gal and a fella,” he says. “So you should probably shower and change. There’s a dress code at the Rogers table, after all.”

To his surprise, Bucky just smiles and shakes his head. “Naw, Stevie. This dinner ain’t for me. I’m not gonna intrude on what you have planned for you and Toni.”

Steve blinks, opens his mouth, but Bucky surges forward and shuts him up with a quick, heated kiss, then steps back out of range again before Steve’s got the wherewithal to reach for him. “You’re in this relationship too,” Steve says, clearing his throat.

“I am,” Bucky replies, “but you and me already got to have that meal. Toni deserves it too, yeah? Wouldn’t be right for me to get my own and her to have to share.” He shrugs, and unzips the front of his jacket, drawing the tab down deliberate and slow.

Steve clears his throat again, shakes his head to try and rid himself of the heat suffusing his cheeks, but can’t pull his eyes away from the bare skin of his soulmate revealed little by little. “What’re you doing, Bucky?” he asks softly.

“Getting you nice and riled up for Toni. Seems like a considerate thing to do.” Bucky drops his jacket at arm’s length, and it hits the floor with a loud thump.

Steve swallows, trying to wet a suddenly dry throat. “You gonna go do this for Toni too?” He does not squeak. Captain America does not squeak. Captain America also does not get inappropriately timed erections at the sight of Bucky’s bare shoulders, but no one told his penis that.

Bucky just laughs and stretches, smug and showing off since he knows it would take a movement of the earth for Steve to look away at this point. “Hell no. That dame’s hornier than Pamplona in July. I go in to flash her a bit of skin and one of two things’ll happen. Either she’ll see some teeny tiny fuckin’ dent in my arm and want to take care of it right away, or she’ll jump me all sideways and slinky, and we’ll end up fucking hard and rough against the wall.”

Steve swears under his breath as his eyes close involuntarily at the mental image and his entire body tenses to a quivering strain. “Jesus Christ, Buck,” he says hoarsely, and rubs his hand over his face. “Someone needs to turn you over their knee for the filth that comes outta your mouth.”

“Is that an offer, Steven? I didn’t think Captain Fuckin’ America had that kinda kink in him.”

Steve growls and swipes out, wrapping his hand around Bucky’s upper arm and yanking him in. “Buck,” Steve murmurs, and watches Bucky’s eyes darken. He slides his hands into Bucky’s hair, brushes his thumbs over Bucky’s forehead, and walks backwards until Bucky’s back hits the wall. He gets a sly, wicked grin in return, the saucy tilt of Bucky’s head, and feels a growl rumble in his chest.

“Stevie,” Bucky says, sweet as sin, sliding his arms around Steve’s waist and canting a hip directly into Steve’s groin. “Somethin’ I can do for you?”

“Mmph,” Steve says cleverly, then bends and slots his lips over Bucky’s. “I missed you,” he mutters, sinking his teeth into Bucky’s lower lip. His eyes flutter shut and he groans as Bucky’s hand slides under the waistband of his pants, fingers skittering over his abdomen. “Christ, Buck,” he groans. “I missed you.”

“MIssed you too,” Bucky murmurs back, curling his hand around Steve’s hip and cupping Steve’s jaw with the other. “Didn’t sleep well this week. Bed was too empty.”

“You should have come with us,” Steve says, tilting his cheek more firmly into Bucky’s hand.

“Couldn’t. You know that.” Bucky’s thumb sweeps under Steve’s eye one final time, and the warmth of his hand drops away. “Fuckin’ killed me too, watchin’ you two fly off without me. I mean,” he adds, as their blended mark heats with the tiniest bloom of guilt that Steve knows always means Bucky’s telling a half-truth, “it was kinda a relief too, because you two would’ve kept hiding behind me forever to avoid each other. But that got real old real quick.”

“It’s fine, Buck,” Steve says with a gentle smile, gives into the urge to reach out and run his fingers through Bucky’s hair, mostly because he enjoys the way Bucky’s head tilts up and his eyes close like a cat’s at the petting. Toni does that too, comes the idle thought, and he smiles as the realization sinks in a little deeper. “Everything worked out in the end.”

“Mmph.” Bucky cracks an eye to level a look at Steve, but Steve is unfazed. “Suppose it did. Which brings me to ask, the fuck are you doing standing around here pawing at me?” His grin surfaces again, sharp and sly. “Don’t you have a girl you gotta go marry or somethin’?”

“Suppose I do at that.” He turns, hesitates, looks back. “What’re you going to do while we’re eating?”

Bucky shrugs, smiles and bends to start unlacing his boots. “I’ll find something to occupy my time, Stevie. Plenty of makework to do.”

oOoOoOo

Toni

The warm glow of candlelight greets her as she makes her way down into the dining room she’s vaguely surprised she has. She’s certainly never eaten a meal in it before, because what she can’t take to the lab for consumption is generally eaten at the island counter in the kitchen. But as she enters the dining room now, she’s suddenly glad she went to the extra effort of digging out the little black dress she reserves for schmoozing new clients at fancy restaurants, because Steve pulled out all the stops.

She’s not even sure where he dug up the old-timey radio set up in the corner, softly playing 40s-style jazz. There’s a real, legit tablecloth on the table, flowers in a vase, and candles freaking everywhere. She looks around, can’t help but wonder what fairy tale she accidentally stumbled into, and has to swallow down a lump in her throat.

“Goddamn, Steve,” she breathes, and takes another couple of hesitant steps into the room, hand toying with her necklace and eyes shimmering. “You sappy, sentimental bastard.”

“I take it everything meets your approval then?” comes his voice from behind her, but she doesn’t jump, because his mark  is warm and calm and reassuring. She turns with a smile, tucks a strand of hair left strategically loose from her upswept style back behind her ear.

“It’s … I don’t even think I have words for it, Steve. It’s … ” She stops then, because as simply — or archaic, for that matter — as he’s dressed by her standards, there isn’t an outfit she could think of that would look better on him. She’s a particular fan of the tight stretch of his button-down shirt across his broad shoulders. “Wow,” she says, awkward and belated. “You clean up nicely.”

Steve smiles with just a hint of bashfulness, and a pleased feeling echoes across their bond. “It’s only respectful to look your best for your soulmate,” he says, then reaches out to take her gently by the shoulders. His eyes go up and down her body, slow and appreciative. “You look amazing,” he says softly. “Really classy, Toni. Thank you for putting in the effort.”

Uncomfortable as always with any sort of compliment, Toni shrugs with an uneasy smile. “You said it yourself, Steve. Respect, right?”

“I did say that.” Anxiety flares bright across the bond as Steve rubs the back of his head. “You're probably wondering why this is such a big deal to me.”

“Just a little, yes.” Toni tilts her head, can’t help but grin a little, because nervous Steve is adorable Steve. “Are you ready to tell me?”

“It’s pointless to go any further with this unless I do.” Steve takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, opens his mouth, closes it again and takes another deep breath. “This was easier with Bucky,” he mutters, and scrubs his hands through his hair.

Toni presses a hand to the soulmark on her chest, buzzing and itching like it wants to jump off her skin, frowning again in concern. “Steve, honey. Whatever it is, it’s okay. You know that, right?”

“I know that.” Steve doesn’t sound so sure though, but he settles his one hand on her shoulder again, and cups her chin with the other. “Will it ruin your makeup if I kiss you?”

The corner of Toni’s mouth curves up, and she lifts her arms to loop them around his shoulders. “Steven, this is the twenty first century. We have the miracle of long-lasting, 24-hour wear, kiss-proof lipstick in these wondrous times. If you can budge my lipstick with anything short of a natural disaster, I need to go back to the drawing board and revisit Stark Solutions’ cosmetic lines.”

“Challenge accepted,” Steve says, and tilts her chin up gently with a knuckle as he lowers his head.

His mouth fits over hers, gentle and chaste, and she sighs with contentment and closes her eyes. “You’re hardly fitting the criteria of the challenge like this,” she mumbles, linking her fingers together behind his head. “I said natural disaster, not priceless heirloom.”

“You have no patience,” he mutters back, but adjusts his stance, shifts his hands to her jawline, and kisses her again, harder, more demanding, and a spark jolts through the bond. An involuntary, muffled moan breaks from the back of her throat and she melts against him, opening her mouth obediently when his tongue swipes across her lips.

He growls back, a deep rumble in his chest, and her knees go weak with the shiver it pulls out of her spine.  Steve hoists her up, holding her effortlessly with one arm at a level where he can comfortably plunder her mouth. She locks her legs around his hips, and he hisses when the heels of her stilettos dig into his ass. Her back hits the wall and her skirt rides up, but she’s past caring, because she is one hundred percent on board with this right now.

She whispers filthy things against his lips, until he’s groaning and grinds forward into her, a hand restlessly pawing her breasts and the other one keeping her head cradled. She whimpers and claws at his shoulders, tears her mouth free of his to gasp for air, and gets utterly, besottedly lost in the lust-blown blue shine of his eyes, staring into hers.

He’s reluctant, but he pulls back anyway, pressing a single, soft, close-mouth kiss to her lips again before straightening his clothes and adjusting the fit of his pants over his crotch. She stares up at him as she pants for breath, fighting the urge to haul him back down, because if he doesn’t want to come down, there’s not a chance in hell she’ll budge him.

He smiles at her, though the effect is somewhat lessened by the flush in his cheeks and the tousled mess of his short hair. He reaches out, swipes his thumb across her lower lip, and she shivers again at the butterfly caress. “You were right.”

“What?” she croaks.

“Your lipstick stayed in place,” Steve says, oddly pleased. “That’s good to know.”

Toni whines softly, reaches out for him with greedy hands. “Maybe you just weren’t trying hard enough.”

“Don’t be greedy, Toni,” he replies with a laugh, and dodges her flailing attempts to snag him. “There’s plenty of time for that after we eat.”

“Plenty of time before we eat too,” Toni grumbles, and starts straightening her dress back down over her hips, smoothing her hands over her hips to make the material lie flat again. “What’s the deal with this dinner of yours, Rogers? You and James are both being weird about it, and I’m dying to know what’s going on.”

His smile broadens, softens, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. He holds out a hand to her, and she eyes it warily before taking it with hers. Whatever had been causing the anxiety before seems to be gone now. The only thing coming through the marks are amusement, affection and the banked embers of lust still smouldering. “We have a tradition in the Rogers family,” he says, leading her back to the table and pulling out a chair for her. She sits, old Ana Jarvis's etiquette lessons surfacing from the rusty depths of her memory to remind her to move as Steve moves the chair, and to tuck her skirt neatly beneath her ass.

“Lots of families have traditions,” Toni says, when Steve doesn't continue immediately. She reaches for the cloth napkins tucked under her silverware and snaps it open with a practiced, negligent flick of her wrist before settling it on her knee.

Steve reddens as he pulls out his chair and sits beside her, and Toni arches an eyebrow. “When a Rogers takes a spouse,” he says, and both of Toni's eyebrows shoot straight into her hairline, “or bonds with a soulmate, they cook a bond or marriage supper for their new partner.”

The silence that follows that pronouncement is exquisite in how very, very quiet it is. Toni stares at Steve, and he stares back at her, and she can’t tell a goddamn thing from either his expression or their soulmarks. Finally, she clears her throat, and the sound is loud enough in the stillness that it makes her jump a little. “Are you asking me to marry you?” she asks, because she wants to be very, very clear. “Because once we register the soulbond at the DSMR, it’s equivalent to legal marriage. You know that, right?”

“I do.” Steve’s neutral expression doesn’t shift, twitch, or flicker a hair. “But this family tradition dates back to times before there were laws about soulmates, before there were even priests in every town.” He reaches out, carefully picks up his napkin and starts unfolding it, dropping his eyes to watch what his hands are doing. “My mother died before Bucky and I bonded, but she made sure I knew the right things to cook, and why.”

Toni’s eyes suddenly shimmer, but she chokes it back, clears her throat quietly and reaches out to rest her hand over his. “Okay,” she says softly, and he looks up sharply. She offers a smile, feels it tremble in the corner of her mouth, because this… this is big. This is the biggest thing anyone’s ever done for her. “Okay,” she says again, pulls her shit together, and strengthens the tremulous smile into a real, encouraging version. “Show me, sweetheart.”

Steve squeezes her hand, smiles brilliantly, so brilliantly it lights up his eyes, and he reaches for the first lid.

The bread and stew are delicious, and Toni devours two bowls, groaning over the flavors the whole time. She’s not sure what part the spouse is supposed to play in the Rogers ritual, but Steve seems very pleased with the noises she’s making and the compliments she’s paying, so she figures she’s at least not fucking it up for him.

She nearly loses it when he pours her a glass of mead, cuts her a sliver of marbled cake, and quietly explains it's meant to symbolize a sweet, rich, and enjoyable life together. Sweets are not her snack of choice, not unless it's ice cream, but she eats every crumb and drinks every drop. And if Steve notices the fine tremor running through her hands, he's kind enough to not mention it.

When she starts to get up to help him clear the table, he pins her with a stern look and, chastened, she sinks back into her seat, feeling strangely helpless as she watches him stack dishes and cart them away.

She sags the minute he’s through the door, pressing shaking hands to her cheeks and exhaling a noisy breath. “JARVIS, what the hell is going on?” she asks, and her voice cracks. She clears her throat a couple of times, but it doesn’t help. “Why do I feel like I’m going to cry?”

When JARVIS responds, his voice is gentle. “I believe Captain Rogers is demonstrating, after a fashion, his ability to care for his soulmates, ma’am. If I were to hazard a guess based on your past behaviours and reactions, you have a hard time accepting that people enjoy taking care of you as much as you enjoy taking care of them.”

“God.” Toni sinks her face into her hands, drags them down her face, remembers belatedly about her makeup, but her cosmetics people are as good as their word, and not even a hint of black comes off her lashes. “I’m so fucking messed up.”

A beat, then, “It’s an unfortunately normal reaction, ma’am. My apologies. I know how you so hate being pedestrian.”

A laugh breaks from her, short and startled, and Toni sniffles, grabs her napkin and wipes her nose and eyes. “One of these days, I’ll program that sass right out of you, kid.”

“I know, ma’am,” JARVIS says gently. “Of course you will.”

------

Steve’s gone longer than she thought he’d be, but he returns just as she’s starting to feel awkward sitting at the table by herself. Toni stands as he comes in, and arches an eyebrow at both the polished wooden box under his arm and Bucky trailing him, looking confused.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back,” she says lightly, but she smooths her hands over the material of her dress over her hips to calm her nerves. She looks sharply at Bucky as he makes an appreciative noise, smirks a little to see him raking his gaze over her.

“Damn, babe,” he says, eyes dark and sinful. “You look fuckin’ hot.”

She tilts a hip just a little, sets her hand on it, tosses her head back, and smirks as he licks his lips. “You think?”

“Uh huh,” he says, eyes locked on her cleavage as he takes a step towards her, and lust thrums through her chest, deep and dark and warm. His, hers, she can’t tell. They’re too intertwined to separate out these days. “Kinda wanna peel that itty-bitty, painted-on thing offa you with my teeth.”

She preens to hide the shudder at the promise in his tone, then sets her shoulders back and her chest out. “Come get some, soldier,” she purrs, and laughs softly when he grunts in muffled shock.

Steve hastily reaches out, snags Bucky by the shoulder and stops him in his tracks before he can get any closer to Toni. “Swear to Christ, Buck, I will shove you in the icebox to cool off. I ain’t done yet.”

Toni opens her mouth to protest, but stops at Steve’s flustered look, the flush high in his cheeks, the clear and obvious strain in his muscles, the deathgrip he has on the box in his other hand. The slip back into his relaxed, natural speech. This is important to him. So she closes her mouth again and straightens from the seductive stance. “I’ll be good.”

“No promises,” Bucky said, and folds his arms sullenly, but he steps back. “Chrissake, Steve. Everyone’s on the same goddamn page for once. Blended marks an’ all, all around. And you haul me into a room where both’a my soulmates are fuckin’ mouthwatering and randy.” He jabs an accusing finger at Steve as Steve opens his mouth to say something. “Don’t even, Stevie. I can feel how fuckin’ much you want everyone to just be naked as sin right now. And we should be. So why the fuck are you askin’ me to wait longer?”

“Because,” Steve says calmly, and sets the wooden box on the table, and Toni blinks at the Lady Lexa monogram carved into the wood. He flips the latch with his thumb. “I want to give you these first.”

When he lifts the lid, Toni can do nothing but stare. Three bands gleam in the candlelight, snugged into tight beds of Lexa’s hallmark deep blue velvet. Steve’s talking, explaining to Bucky and her how he asked JARVIS for help to get the right measurements, how he thought about rings but with their line of work, and Toni’s hands-on practice with engineering in particular, rings might catch or get in the way.

But Toni can’t hear much of that anymore, because a roar is growing in her ears, and her vision is narrowed down to the titanium wrist cuff in the middle, the slimmer one stained red and gold, the one with a stylized arc reactor etched in the center, bracketed by a red star on the right and a white star on the left.

Pressure builds in her chest, behind her eyes, thunders across her sinuses. Her eyes burn and her vision goes watery and when she blinks, the first tear that falls scalds her cheek.

Cool metal touches her cheek, and she exhales, soft and sharp, turns her head to look at Bucky. The thumb of his metal arm sweeps under her eye, wiping away the tear. “You with us, babe?” He doesn’t sound worried or concerned, and there’s a world of understanding in his tiny, reassuring smile.

She doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t seem to need one, and she turns towards Steve. Steve of the worried look, Steve of the panicking eyes. Steve, as loud and clear as a five-bar phone call, broadcasting a feeling of shit what did I do so strong she can practically read his thoughts.

“Nothing,” she says, and steps towards him. “You did nothing wrong, Steve.” Her voice breaks on his name, but she keeps going. “Everything has been perfect. Everything is completely fucking perfect.”

She understands why he looks confused, disbelieving, alarmed, because she’s openly sobbing as she slides her arms over his shoulders, and kicks off her shoes. He grabs her by reflex, and she wraps her legs around his hips, and kisses him firm and tender. “I love you,” she says, and tucks her face into the crook of his neck, and cries.

Steve’s arms tighten around her waist, one hand pressed between her shoulderblades. “Bucky?” He’s plaintive and bewildered, and Toni really wishes she could stop crying to explain, but she can’t. “What did I do?”

“Made her feel her own feelings,” Bucky drawls in a completely unconcerned tone, and Toni relaxes further when Bucky’s hand begins smoothing up and down her spine. “She’s fine, Stevie. If you’d done somethin’ wrong, you’d know it, because she’d be yelling at you about how she’s Toni Fuckin’ Stark, and no one gives her shit she isn’t willing to take. Trust me on that.”

“Toni?”

“Yeah,” she breathes, sniffs, and lifts her head, lifts a hand to brush at the bangs spilling over Steve’s forehead, smooth away the furrowed lines. “I’m a trainwreck, sweetheart. But I’m okay. Better than. Just a little overwhelmed.”

“If you say so,” he says, still looking unsure.

“Only you, Toni,” Bucky says fondly, and drops a kiss to her shoulder. “C’mon, Steve. Give us the shinies properly, because I have plans for you both, and my patience ain’t gonna last forever.”

 

Chapter Text

And now I’m lost in your sweet surrender
I wanna be the one that you run to
Wanna be the one you say ‘I love’ to
Been waiting on forever just to hold you
And our love will make the headlines tonight

So hold me, and feel me
I’ve been waiting for your touch
Your beauty consumes me
I’ve never loved someone so much

Blake Lewis, “Your Touch”

oOoOoOo

Steve clears his throat and sets Toni back onto her feet, but takes a moment to cradle her face and tip it up towards him. “You sure you’re okay?”

Toni’s eyes are dry and achy, but she rolls them in Bucky’s direction. “He’s always like this, isn’t he?”

Bucky’s grin is wry, affectionate. “Always.”

“Yes Steve,” she says. “I promise. I’m okay. And I’m with Bucky on this. Shiny, then stripping.”

Steve looks between them, eyes flicking back and forth, and then he shakes his head. “You two,” he says, “are a matched pair. One’a you’d be enough to do me in.”

“Lucky you,” Toni says with a smirk as his hands drop away from her jaw. “You got us both.”

Bucky pulls her to him as Steve lets her go, maneuvering her until her back is pressed against his front, looping his arms around her waist and leaning forward to rest his chin on her shoulder. Toni leans back into him, letting a muffled mmph of contentment free at the solid, familiar, comforting warmth suffuses her skin.

She turns her head into his jaw, nips the pulse point, grins against his skin at his grunt. “Missed you, James,” she murmurs, and reaches up to slide her hand along his cheekbone and into his hair.

He shivers, huffs a sigh, and leans into her, breathing deeply against her hair. “Christ, you smell good,” he says, and sinks teeth into her earlobe. Toni whines softly, and it turns to an equally soft moan when he spider walks his hand up her side and cups her breast, and Toni’s head falls to the side, letting him bite down her throat to the sensitive juncture of her neck and shoulder.

Steve’s shoulders are tight as he turns back, hands full of the titanium bands. He swallows and eyes them both with the expression of a man just smacked with a hammer. “Jesus,” he says, and his voice is a little hoarse. He shakes himself, and steps towards them again, fumbling with the clasp of the red and grey band. “Can’t turn my back for a second.”

Toni blinks at him, languid and lazy. “Sorry Steve,” she says, even though she’s not sorry in the least. “I’m still being good. Buck’s the one who said ‘no promises’.”

“He complains,” Bucky says against her collarbone, “but he likes watching.” He teases her dress down, baring her breast. He slips his hand under it again, rolling her nipple between his finger and thumb. “Just look at ‘im. Breathin’ hard and trying’ to hide it.”

Toni opens her eyes, lifts her head from Bucky’s shoulder, focuses on Steve who is still standing, silent and still, staring at them with an expression half annoyance and half arousal. Toni bites her lip, watches his eyes shift to track the movement like a hawk, and a pulse of arousal squeezes her.  “Sorry Steve,” she says again, inhales sharply, rolls her hips back until Bucky’s cock is snugged against her ass, as much as it can with layers of denim and silk in the way. “M’tryin’ to be good.”

“Witch,” Bucky mutters breathlessly, and tugs her leg to the side, teasing his metal fingers up the inside of her thigh. “Can probably make you come before Steve remembers how his legs work.”

“I know how they work,” Steve growls, and closes the last few steps between them swiftly. He reaches out, past Toni, and she’s suddenly sandwiched between them, deliciously trapped in heat and solid flesh. Steve doesn’t pause, or turn, just hauls Bucky closer and kisses him hard over her shoulder. The hand holding the wrist cuffs drifts over her collarbone just above Bucky’s clever fingers, and Bucky’s other hand slips under her dress, brushes ever-so-lightly over her panties.

“Fuck,” she groans, shudders hard and squeezes her eyes shut. Two separate bonds rock through her, humming in perfect counterpoint to her high-pitched breath and the filthy, wet noises Bucky and Steve are making beside her ear, until she feels as though she’ll shake apart from it. “Steve,” she says with effort, and when he doesn’t look up she adds, in as firm a tone as she can manage halfway to ripping their clothes off with her bare hands as she is, “Cap.”

Instantly, Steve breaks away from Bucky, dazed but alert, mouth wet and red and kiss-swollen. He focuses on Tony, and his entire demeanor shifts to one of concern. “Oh, damn. Toni, I’m sorry. Were we hurting you?”

Bucky brushes her mound again, firmer and slower. “Naw,” he says, as Toni moans and bucks against his hand. “She’s soakin’ wet, Stevie. She’s enjoyin’ herself.”

“She can speak for herself, James.” With effort, against her libido’s advice and despite the deep, burning, pounding need of three people screaming through her soul marks, Toni shoves at the walls of muscle until they separate. She scrambles free on shaky legs, and has to hang on to the back of a chair to keep her balance while she catches her breath.

“Clearly,” she says, once she can think somewhat again, “we’re going to be distracted for awhile. Is there anything we need to do before we stop paying attention to anything but each other? Food, water? Last will and testament?”

“Thought of that.” Bucky is smug and self-satisfied. “While you two were havin’ dinner, I stashed stuff around. Wasn’t sure how many rooms we’d end up in over the next three days, so I stocked ‘em all. Protein bars, those bottles’a sports drinks you like, Toni. First aid kits, lube, wipes. Some of Toni’s kinda terrifyingly huge collection of things that vibrate. Whatever we’d need for seventy-two uninterrupted hours of sin an’ debauchery.”

Toni stares at him, and he just grows even smugger. “Jesus, James. What are you, the ultimate porn fairy?”

“You two were busy,” he says, meeting Steve’s incredulous glance with an arch look of his own. “I told ya, there was plenty of makework.” Flicks his gaze back to Toni. “Anythin’ else before I get back to reacquainting myself with your moans, Toni? Steve?”

Steve clears his throat, and the ting of metal ringing against metal sounds as he moves his hands. “May I..?”

Toni swallows, cos that damn lump is back, and straightens from the chair. “Of course, sweetheart,” she says, and holds out her right arm.

Steve glances at Bucky, and Bucky shrugs with an odd, pleased grin. “This is your thing, Stevie,” he murmurs, and holds out his right arm too.

For a moment, Toni thinks Steve might be about to cry, because his face scrunches and his eyes shimmer, but he chokes it back and separates Bucky’s bracelet out and fiddles with the catch, then presses it over Bucky’s wrist. He turns to Toni then, twisting the catch on hers. “Do you want to put it on yourself, or..?”

“No,” Toni says, means it to be breezy, but it comes out breathy and trembling instead. Her hand stays rock steady. “No, you go ahead, Steve.”

The titanium is warm, slick, perfectly fits to lie flush with her skin without pinching or feeling like it’s cutting off her circulation. Not surprising, because Lexa is a master of her craft, and Toni really owes her a thank you and another couple thousand dollars in commission at the very least. What is surprising is that the tiny click of the latch catching is loud and resonant as an avalanche, powerful as a sonic boom, as weighty and comforting as the Iron Maiden armor around her.

By unspoken agreement, she and Bucky both lock Steve’s into place together on his right wrist, and they stand together, fingers tangled together, in a moment of profound quiet afterwards. There’s a hum between them, Toni can feel it vibrating in her teeth, a pleasant buzz of contentment and wonder and awe and other, more nuanced, emotions too balled and melded together to make sense of.

“Wow,” Toni finally says, swipes her eyes. “Shit. I haven’t cried this much since that scene with the old couple in Titanic. This is why I don’t do feelings, you know.”

“Sure,” Steve says, rubs his thumb over her cuff. He’s got his other arm comfortably around Bucky’s waist, and Bucky’s leaning against him, head tucked on Steve’s shoulder. “And Bucky isn’t afraid of the roller coaster on Coney Island.”

Bucky lifts his head long enough to send his best, narrowest-eyed glare at Steve. “You puked on me, punk.”

Toni laughs, a delighted giggle that grows into a full-throated laugh at the flush of annoyed embarrassment Steve displays. “He did not.”

“Yes he fuckin’ did,” Bucky replies. “Ate too much and jumped on the ride too soon. Hell, I told him if he wanted that much sausage, I’d take him home and feed him, but he insisted. There were these girls, see, and…”

The abrupt sound of cloth ripping and buttons popping shuts Bucky up, and whips both of their attention to Steve, who is calmly shedding the tattered remnants of his shirt. Toni twitches towards him at the sight of his chest, his bared soulmarks, and she whines, soft and low. “I,” Steve cuts in, red-faced and firm, “am going to bed. You two wanna sit out here and talk about things that happened eighty years ago, you go right ahead. I’ll just take … things into my own hands if you don’t show up.”

Toni’s hand finds Bucky’s and their fingers link together as they watch Steve walk, head held high, from the room. Toni licks dry lips as the flexing muscles vanish around the corner, and she tilts her head to eye Bucky. Knows he’s thinking about naked Steve and wandering hands. Knows it because it’s suddenly all she can think about.

“Tell you the rest later,” Bucky says hoarsely, eyes locked on the empty door.

“Yeah,” Toni says, just as hoarse. “Much, much later.”

Hand-in-hand, they trail after their soulmate, not rushing too quickly, but not dawdling either. Toni’s higher thought processes are starting to slip away, washed into dormancy by the anticipation shivering through her nervous system, but Bucky’s hand tight in hers keeps her anchored. “This is what you want, right?” she finds herself asking.

Bucky stops, tugs her to a halt, and turns her towards him. He cradles her cheek, searches her face, frowns faintly. “Course it is. Why are you asking?”

She isn’t sure why the faint remnant echoes of uncertainty are choosing now to surface again, but can’t shove them back down again. Her Master in Metaphysics is working against her here, filling her mind with the horror stories, rare though they were, she ran into during the course of her thesis research. “A lot of triads don’t have a complete bond, and they’re happy with that. They don’t want to lose themselves to a partner with a stronger personality. It happens that way sometimes, you know.”

Astonishingly, Bucky just starts laughing like he’s heard the funniest joke in the universe. “Toni,” he says, between chuckles. “You are fuckin’ adorable as shit, you know that? You really think that one of us is a more dominant personality than the other? Shit , babe. You haven’t been paying attention if you think you’re gonna get lost somewhere between me an’ Steve.” He pauses, his head tilts, and he grins. “Well. Not in the way you’re talkin’ about anyway.”

“Pervert,” she says, then chews on her lip. “I don’t do this….” A twirl of her hand. “...insecure shit often, okay? Just let me have a moment.”

“Okay, dollface.” He pulls her into a one-arm hug, kisses her hair. “Have your moment. But trust me. Between the three of us, we’ve got enough stubborn to out-wait a goddamn mountain. Ain’t no one sweeping anyone else under. Just have faith, and think of all the HYDRA ass we’re gonna kick when we’re synched up proper, yeah?”

Toni smiles, huffs a sigh. “You old sweet-talker. You always know most romantic thing to say to a girl who likes building shiny power armor and blowing shit up.”

“I try,” Bucky says modestly, and caresses her throat. “Now, if you’re done being cute and weird, I’d like to go break a few beds.”

“Gonna have to try at that too,” Toni says as they start moving down the hall again. “My beds are reinforced. I might have had an orgy or two in my hedonistic youth.”

“That’s a pretty thought,” Bucky says, and nudges the ajar bedroom door open with his free hand. They both stop dead at the threshold, because Steve is sprawled on top of the covers, facing the door with his head propped on a hand, lazily stroking himself as he watches them with a smile. “There’s another pretty thought,” he says, only slightly strangled.

“You know,” Toni says, hushed. “I can’t think what’s more appropriate. Stark naked or buck naked, because really, either would apply right now.”

“I don’t see how,” Steve replies, his smile edging into self-satisfaction. “Neither Stark nor Buck is naked. So I’m not quite sure what criteria you’re judging appropriateness by, but it isn’t that.”

Toni’s mental tracks have kicked into standby, into autopilot, and she opens her mouth, no doubt to begin a long, rambling explanation as to how no, she’s Stark and he’s Buck and Steve is completely naked, so it is one hundred and thirty percent appropriate. But Bucky cuts her off before she can begin by stripping her dress down her body with a single yank.

“Shut up, Toni,” Bucky says desperately, even though she hasn’t said a word, and undoes the clasp of her bra with a practiced twist of his fingers, letting it fall to the floor with the puddle of her dress. “And help me with these fucking buttons.”

“No rush,” Steve drawls, full of amusement. “I’m not going anywhere for awhile.”

Toni thanks her stars individually and by name that she’s so used to operating things on autopilot, because while her fingers make quick work of the buttons on Bucky’s shirt, she’s not sure she’d have been able to do it were she required to think about it. She shoves his shirt back off his shoulders, and he lifts her out of the tangle of cloth on the floor. Out of sheer habit, she skims her palm over their soulmark on his chest, and it snaps open with its usual, torrential flow of sensation and emotion.

With a violent, vicious oath, Bucky yanks Toni up by the shoulders and kisses her like he’s trying to eat her alive. She surges up against him, fisting a hand in his hair and kisses him back with every ounce of fight she has in her. By the time their wrestling knocks her hand away from the soulmark a few seconds later, they’re both gasping and trembling and clinging to each other for support. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ, I’m not going to survive this,” she pants.

“Have faith,” he pants back, and his gaze slides over her shoulder. “Enjoyin’ the show, Stevie?”

Steve's breathless groan of assent is all the answer they get.

Bucky starts walking Toni backwards, guiding her with his hands on her shoulders as she pulls his belt out of the loops of his jeans. When her thighs hit the mattress, he ducks, and in a move that borders on supernaturally athletic, he pulls her panties down and tips her so she’s falling towards the bed. She yelps involuntarily, but Steve’s hands catch her and guide her down until they’re lying flush together.

He looms over her, with a broad smile and soft eyes. “Hi,” he says.

She blinks up at him, flashes a grin, then turns her attention to Bucky, who has stopped with his pants halfway down, staring at them with reverent disbelief. “Christ,” he says, thick with emotion, and finishes kicking out of his jeans. “Christ. It’s one thing to know , but another to see …” His voice cracks, and he gestures wordlessly at them.

“Buck?” Steve says quietly.

“Your soulmarks, dumbass. So used to seein’ ‘em solo. And it always felt… not wrong, but off, you know? To not have them all together.” He mops his lower face with a hand, clasps his chin. “And it’s all gonna change again in a minute. So just let me look.”

Toni glances up at Steve. “You know,” she says, “we have been pretty terrible soulmates to him. Fighting with each other, you smack me with your shield, I shoot you with my repulsor. Hasn’t been easy on Bucky. I know he’s been worried for the last few days that we’d kill each other out here.”

Steve’s eyebrows do things, but Toni’s not nearly as adept at reading them as Bucky is. He seems to get the gist, though, because his smile turns ever-so-slightly wicked. “Should we show him how well we’re getting along?” he asks, all innocence and light, and Bucky’s groan is muffled and desperate.

“He wants to look,” Toni says, nodding, and skitters her fingers across Steve’s stomach. “It’d be reassuring, I think, if we gave him something to watch.”

His stomach spasms when she hits a ticklish spot, and he traps her roaming hand between his abdomen and his free hand. “Be nice,” he warns, guiding her hand down until she can close around the length of his erection. He hisses in a sharp breath at her light, experimental tug, then nudges her legs apart and sets his hand over her mound, fingers flexing through the slick, wet folds over her clit.

“Mmmm. I’m always nice. Kiss me, Steve.” she says, husky and low, eyes fluttering closed at the light stroke of his fingers, tightening her grip and slowly stroking up and down. Steve’s mouth settles over hers, and she opens for him immediately, flicking her tongue across his upper lip.

Off to the side, Bucky chokes and stutters, and whipcord-tight tension thrums across their bond. Toni smiles into Steve’s mouth, sighing and shifting her legs wider when he moves his hand down, arches up to help his fingers slide into her.

Sharp, fierce want spikes across the bond, flickers like a candle that builds into a bonfire, and Toni’s head rocks back, mouth tearing free of Steve’s. “God, can you feel him?” she moans, pushing against Steve’s hand, sliding her own hand against the cant of his hips sliding his cock through the circle of her palm and fingers in ragged, shallow rhythm.

“Yes,” Steve says on a long exhale, and falls onto the side of her throat, sucking and nipping at her jaw in between muffled, eager noises. “I can feel him.”

“Fuck,” Bucky croaks, creaky and dry and faint.  Toni can hear the plates in his arm shifting and whispering against against each other. Steve’s long, clever fingers finally push in deep enough to hit the sweet spot and Toni bows inward with a short cry.

Dirty talk’s never been natural to her. For someone who talks a hell of a lot about absolutely nothing, Toni’s always felt awkward as hell describing things in the middle of sex. But she twists her head towards Bucky, conveniently providing Steve with better access to the side of her neck.

Bucky’s standing at the edge of the bed, so close he could reach out and touch them if he wanted. And for a bad second, Toni thinks that he might be lost to memory, lost to flashbacks, because his eyes are dark and distant. But then they focus with frightening speed, and he swears in vicious Russian when he catches her watching him.

“You… are you… oh, Jesus fuck, Steve… Right there. God.” Every word that falls out of her mouth, every inarticulate noise, every breath or whine or sob, Bucky absorbs them all, but isn’t moving to join them. Isn’t moving to take care of that beautiful, painfully hard cock of his at all. “You with us, Bucky?”

He licks his lips, raises his eyes to her, nods once. “Yeah,” he rasps. “‘M with you. Just… enjoyin’ the show. Really enjoying the show.”

“Stop enjoying. Start joining.” Steve’s breath is getting shorter and shorter, and Toni’s belly is filling with pressure and tension and pleasure. Neither of them are going to last much longer for their first orgasm of the night, and Toni wants to come with both of her soulmates, not just one.

She turns her head back to Steve, stares at the doubled star mere inches from her nose, and leans in to lick a broad, hot, slow stripe across it with her tongue. With her soulmates in stereo, the echoes of it jolt through her, mellow and hazy, just enough to tip her towards the edge a little further.

The effect on Bucky is profound. Whatever trance, whatever iron control he’d been holding himself in to watch them grind wantonly against one another breaks with a sudden, savage growl. And then he’s crawling up her body, eyeing Steve over the heave of her legs. His hand lands high on her thigh and clutches hard enough to bruise, shifts around, and then two hard fingers push into her, sliding in and around Steve’s. She barely registers warm flesh closing around her hand, still working Steve’s cock, speeding the pace of her strokes until it pulls something very close to a yowl from Steve’s throat.

Her vision goes briefly bright and jagged, delicious pressure builds and abruptly erupts, sending her hurtling over the edge, launched into a thrashing, full-throated climax.

Things blur there for a little bit, not losing track of time exactly, but finding it difficult to allocate mental resources to timekeeping while dealing with the constant pouring of her soulmates’ desire and pleasure into her through her marks. She’s aware of kissing Bucky, open-mouthed, hot and sloppy, with Steve’s cock in between their mouths and his hands in their hair and his groans in their ears. She’s aware of Steve sinking into her with closed eyes and a sighing moan, Bucky pressed against his back and setting the rhythm from the top of the pile. She’s aware mouths on her nipples and fingers sliding in and out of her, Steve pushing from behind and Bucky from the front, and a feeling of fullness to the point of pain. She’s aware of legs and arms, lips and hair, washcloths and gentle touches, hard demanding kisses and protein bars, greedily gulping water and standing at the open window to cool her sweat-drenched skin.

Linear time snaps back into place during her shower, and as her mind catches up with its processing, she’s a little flabbergasted to realize that six hours have passed. And she’s not sure either if it seems like too much time, or too little time, but the sun is down and the moon is high, so it’s probably the former.

Someone, probably Steve if she judged by the military corners, has stripped and remade the bed with fresh sheets and blankets. She pauses long enough to swipe another couple of cereal bars and a bottle of Gatorade, then pads naked to the French doors and out onto the balcony.

Steve and Bucky are curled together, damp from their own showers, on a nest of cushions and pillows. She half-falls, is half-pulled by Bucky across their laps, and settles against them with a contented purr. Steve’s arm circles her waist, Bucky’s chin nudges onto her shoulder. No one is inclined to say anything, it seems, but that’s okay too, because it’s comfortable and intimate, this silence.

Eventually, Steve shifts around. His hand settles over their mark above her left breast, and stretches across her to lay a hand on Bucky’s double star. His eyes flutter closed and he sighs in deep contentment. Bucky stirs off Toni’s shoulder, kisses the curve of her ear. “We should do this now,” he murmurs, and straightens to reach for Toni and Steve’s soulmarks.

The second Bucky touches her, Toni feels it humming in her skull, jangling along the back of her teeth like electricity circling back and forth along an incomplete circuit. Incomplete until she lifts her hands, sliding one over her mark on Bucky’s chest, fingers hovering over the one she shares with Steve.

Just for a second, she considers the possibility she’ll be swept away. That she’ll lose herself to it. That she’ll become less. That she is less to begin with. And that’s the thought that does her resistance in. She snorts at that thought, jarring Steve and Bucky into opening their eyes. “I am Toni fucking Stark,” she says, firm and confident. “I can never be less. I can only become more.”

And she presses her fingers onto Steve’s skin.

And the world washes away in waves of howling cold, blazing fury, and surging rock, moving in tandem, moving in equilibrium, against all other forces seeking to oppose them. 

 

Chapter Text

Toni falls in a blaze of light and flame through a maelstrom of images that flash past too fast for her to catch more than the barest of glimpses of Bucky’s wicked smile, Steve’s broad shoulders, her own glossy hair. They’re above her, below her, swirling around and around until she should be dizzy, but isn’t.

Solid ground beneath her feet suddenly, the wooden floor of a dim room lit only by an oil lantern on a table beside a narrow bed with the silhouettes of two people lying curled together under the blankets. She doesn’t consciously move, but finds herself behind the bed anyway, looking down at the mattress. It takes her a few seconds to recognize Steve and Bucky, because Steve is so small he’s practically buried under Bucky, and Bucky… Her breath catches in her throat, because Bucky is much younger, with two flesh-and-bone arms, unlined and unwearied from his years with HYDRA.

This is from before everything, she thinks, and her eyes shimmer with tears.

“I wish you could stay,” Steve says, pushes out from his Bucky-shaped blanket, and sits up with the actual blanket puddling in his lap. He looks down and twists his hands around each other, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows convulsively. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

“You’ll be fine,” Bucky says, and his left hand reaches out to trace around the double star marked on Steve’s terribly thin chest. “We’ll both be fine. This is proof of that.” And he shifts his hand over so it’s almost, but not quite, touching Toni’s blue circle. “It’s still bright. Our third’s still in our future. As long as the marks are clear and clean, we’re okay. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find them over there and bring ‘em home. Wouldn’t that be somethin’?”

Steve’s head hangs so low all Toni can see is the top of his hair, thick and fine and so pretty she has the overwhelming urge to bury her hands in the strands and soothe away his aches and fears. “You find her over there,” he whispers, fierce and hopeless, “don’t tell her what she’s got waiting for her back here. She won’t come if you do. She won’t want me, sickly and scrawny as I am. And I can’t wreck it for you, so you just make something up, Buck.”

Oh, Steve, she thinks, and the tears are falling now. As Bucky sits upright, dismayed and offended on Steve’s behalf, she bends to wrap her arms around Steve’s narrow, bony shoulders. He doesn’t seem to notice, just continues to hang his head miserably, until her hand finds and covers her soulmark on his skin, and his eyes widen, head jerks back to glance over his shoulder and she feels a jolt as his eyes seem to meet hers. “You’re wrong,” she says, soft and fierce, watches those eyes soften and shine with wet emotion. “I love you no matter how strong you are. I love you no matter what. You’ll find me, Steve, and it’ll be hard, but we’ll get through it. We’ll get through it, all of us, together. Okay?”

“Okay,” Steve whispers, incredulous and wide-eyed, then jerks his attention back to Bucky, who’s on the other side of his chest, touching their double stars gently.

“Good,” Bucky says, firm and confident, but Toni can see the relief in his expression. “We’ll work it all out when it happens.” He pauses, and his mouth turns up in one corner, a lopsided boyish smirk that Toni dearly wishes he wore more often. “You think they’re gonna be a lady, huh? Why’s that?”

Steve shakes his head slowly, lets Bucky soothe him back down into curling together again, but takes another glance over his shoulder. His eyes pass over and through Toni, and the jolt is a faint echo this time as he touches her mark with his fingertips. “Just a feeling I have,” he says softly, echoing himself as they both dissolve into mist and she’s falling again in her bright, hot fire.

------

Steve opens his eyes to find himself in the Malibu house, but there’s an odd, dreamy surreal quality to the walls and edges that hurt his eyes to try and focus on. He takes a moment to get his bearings. It’s the den, but different. Different furniture, different television, different arrangement of things. Different books on the shelves. What is he doing here?

The staccato of footsteps coming down the hall turns him around, in time to see Toni emerge from the hallway with a suitcase in hand, tinted glasses pushed carelessly into her hair, looking so young and uncertain Steve has the overwhelming urge to enfold her in his arms and keep her safe from everything he suddenly knows is in her future.

He’s heard the stories, passed down in his family, rumors and legends of famous semi-mythical triads in history. This is a memory. This is something the bond thinks I need to see in order to fully accept my soulmate as an equal.

Natasha comes trailing behind Toni, her hair so different and her face so young herself it takes Steve a moment to recognize her. “You shouldn’t leave,” Natasha is saying, neutral expression firm and secure, but Steve’s gotten to know Natasha a little. There’s an agony in her eyes, lined sharp and clear by the tiny furrow and slightly pinched lips.

“I have to,” Toni says, stops, squeezes her eyes shut and swallows hard. But there’s nothing in her tone to indicate how haunted and desolate her face shows she truly is. “I knew it was always a matter of time before he found you. He has your mark, you have his, and there’s no claim greater than that.” She turns with a smile that looks real but isn’t, and gently lays her free hand on Natasha’s shoulder. “It’s fine, Tash,” she says gently. “You’re good for him. He’s good for you. You deserve each other, and you deserve some privacy. All I want is for you both to be happy and safe. I promise, it’s okay. I’ve got things to take care of in New York anyway.”

Natasha’s eyes flick between Toni’s for a moment, and Steve takes a step towards them, because they both look so heartbroken behind their masks he feels like he has to do something to help. But before he can do more than reach a hand for Toni’s shoulder, Natasha’s face breaks into a scowl.

“You think he’s going to be able to be happy and safe with you across the country?” she says. “You think I’m going to do anything but worry about you on your own? You think we’ll be safe and happy without you here?”

“You have to be. He's happy, and you're doing much better and you need time together to grow comfortable with each other. I'm only in the way right now.”

“Maybe all of that is true,” Natasha replies evenly, and her hard stare doesn't leave Toni's face, “but don't lie to me or yourself. That isn't the reason you packed your bag.”

Toni tilts her chin up and swallows hard, all brash defiance and fragile armor, and Steve gives in and strokes down her arm soothingly, finishing the caress with his fingers barely touching the white star he can’t see but knows is on her skin.  As if his touch is the catalyst, she trembles and breaks, face crumpling and breath hitching on a sob. “ God , just let me leave, Tash. Just let me get some distance so I can figure out how to live without him. I can’t do that here, I can’t…”

Under Steve’s palm, Toni’s heartbeat slows. She goes statue still, but Steve can feel the fine tremor still shaking her to pieces inside. The cold leaching in, her skin paling slowly, and he can’t help but flash back to that horrible night he found her dreaming of the ice. He can all but hear the silence shutting down her mind, can almost see her drifting away into the dark.

He presses against her back, folds his arms around her, and bends his head to hold her close, engulf her in warmth. “Don’t go, Toni,” he says softly, flats his palm against his star, feels her start in shock. “Stay here with people who love you. You don’t need to join me in the ice. I won’t be there much longer. I promise, it’s all going to be okay.”

“I don’t want to go,” she mumbles, lost and desperate, and her hand comes up to brush across Steve’s where it rests on her chest, and that jolt thrums through Steve with the bright static of lightning, a flash of that deep, shining place he glimpsed within Toni, of endless compassion and endless self-sacrifice.

“So don’t leave. Stay here. With us. You don’t do well on your own, and it’s going to break something in him that can’t be fixed if you leave.” Natasha takes a step towards, and her mask cracks. “It’ll break something in me too, solnishko,” she admits quietly, and her hands are shaking as she reaches out to clasp Toni’s shoulders. “Please, don’t go. Don’t leave us. I didn’t think I could ever find someone like Clint, and to realize that he is with someone like you… I would count myself very fortunate if you stayed with us, because we are all better with each other than we ever will be alone.”

Toni drops the suitcase, and it lands with a dull thud, and Steve lets go of her as she collapses into Natasha’s arms, her own arms coming up to circle Natasha’s waist, burying her face in Natasha’s neck. “Okay,” she says, shaky and faint. “If it’s what you want.”

“It’s what we all need ,” Natasha says, but her voice is distant and echoing as the mansion and its memories dissolve into mist around him.

-----

Bucky finds himself in Toni’s workshop, dark and dimmed, and blinks at the suddenness of it all. He straightens from his instinctive crouch, and stares around at the consoles and machines and strewn-about tools for long moments before he realizes what that niggling feeling of something being off is.

This isn’t Toni’s workshop. At least, it isn’t her workshop as he knows it.

He prowls quietly through the machines, outdated by several generations of upgrades if he’s any judge, and stops in front of the Iron Maiden armor, shiny and bright and new, tilts his head up to see the smith’s mark under a solid and clean stamp of “III”. Mark 3. He’s never seen Toni in it, never seen it in anything but a display case in New York. What the fuck has Toni done with the place while they’ve been out here?

He continues his restless stalking, until a faint scraping noise pulls his attention towards the door. He’s in time to see Toni dragging herself painfully down the stairs, falling the last few steps to collapse in a heap on the floor. He’s halfway across the shop before he can blink, her name trapped behind his clenched teeth and sudden panic pounding in his head.

What the fuck is going on?

Toni drags herself to her hands and knees and crawls towards the door, weakly reaching up to the handle and falling into the glass when she misses. And Bucky freezes dead in his tracks, because Toni’s shirt is hanging open, and her skin is ashen grey, and there’s a dark, hollow place in her chest where the arc reactor should be.

And there’s only a single, purple arrowhead intermingled with Toni’s blue circle, and a smooth expanse of skin where his and Steve’s soulmarks should be.

“Toni?” he whispers, hoarse and huge-eyed, and his hands fist at his side until his nails are biting into his palm and the sound of metallic stress is all he can hear.

“Another few feet, ma’am,” JARVIS says, and Bucky’s got enough experience sussing out the AI’s various tones and moods to hear the utter alarm in the smooth cadence. “You’ve reached the workshop. I’ve unlocked the doors, and DUM-E is en route from the flight deck to bring you the old reactor.”

Toni gets her hand around the handle of the right-side door and manages to get it opened, falling through it into the shop flat on her face. “I…can’t… get there,” she wheezes, and Bucky’s heart does any number of frantic leaps in his chest, because he’s never heard anyone sound as bad as she does, not even Steve in his worst asthma attack.

“Do try, ma’am. I should hate to end up donated to MIT, as you threatened to do in your last update to your will.”

“Fuck you, kiddo,” she coughs, and her arms tremble, but she gets her ass up and pulls herself forward another few inches. And that’s where she slumps, eyes fluttering shut, body going boneless and limp as she falls onto her back.

Bucky paces restlessly beside her, because he’s figured out by now that she can’t see or hear him, and he snarls in frustrated helplessness. “Get up, Toni,” he says, skids to his knees beside her. Can’t stop himself for reaching out to touch her, try to shake her awake, try to bully and manhandle her back up. “Get the fuck off the floor already. You’re stronger than this. You don’t die here, not like this.”

One hand rises, and she claws at her chest, above the horrible void where calming blue light should glow, and a nano veil comes off her skin, revealing the two stars, one on either side of the reactor dock’s empty ring. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles, so faintly Bucky’s not quite sure she talked at all, and her arm falls limply to her side again. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorr…”

“Toni, get the fuck up off the floor!” He’s not sure what makes him reach out, slap his hand over the red star and shove like he’s trying to push through her rib cage, but he does it, and a jolt of heat and light and bright, jagged electricity jangles along his nerves. “ Open your fucking eyes and look at me, Stark!”

Incredibly, her eyes open and focus on him. Hazed and in pain, she gives him a dreamy smile. “I’m … sorry…”

“Fuck your apologies,” he says, and the fear comes out harsh and rough in his throat. “You don’t get to die here. You haven’t found us yet. So get your fucking ass off the floor, and get the fucking reactor back in your chest. I’m waitin’ for you, moron. You won’t find me if you don’t get the fuck up and save yourself!”

“‘Kay…” she breathes, and he loses contact with her as, with superhuman effort he wasn’t aware but is unsurprised to discover she possesses, heaves herself to her feet and staggers the remaining distance to her work table. “Pain in the ass hallucinations,” he hears her mumble over the click of an arc reactor sliding into place, and the workshop dims into faded blue static.

------

The Tesseract dissolves the Red Skull, and Steve shields his eyes at the explosion of light, ducking and covering by muscle memory, because he’s too stunned by the sight of a tree made of stars opening in the sky overhead to protect himself by anything but instinct. When the light fades and he looks up, it’s in time to see the Tesseract burn a hole through the plane, and then it’s gone , leaving only glowing, melted slag in its wake.

He picks up his shield and slings it onto his back, then races for the cockpit and slides into the controls. Peggy’s voice washes over him, and he remembers how her lips tasted when she kissed him not more than fifteen minutes ago, a good luck and a goodbye that might have been something more, maybe even the person represented by his other, solitary mark, but Bucky’s gone and his heart is hollow and Steve is long past caring.

“Peggy,” he says, staring at the snow and ice stretching as far as the eye can see around him,  and feels the rightness of it settle along his tired limbs and heavy soul, “this is my choice.”

He turns off the radio before Peggy can convince him to find a parachute, or bail out before the crash, or anything else that might preserve his life. He’s weary of it all, feels Bucky’s loss like a sack of stones roped to his throat, feels the empty place his unknown partner should be. He’s tired of fighting. Tired of choices and decisions. Tired of his miracle health and peak condition body, wishes for the old sick scrawny Steve again.

He shoves the yoke forward, and the plane tilts into an abrupt nosedive. And serenity settles into his soul, calms his nerves, smooths out his thoughts. I’m coming, Bucky. I’m sorry we didn’t meet our other soulmate. Maybe in the next life.

“We’re right here, Stevie,” Bucky’s voice murmurs in his ear, and a phantom touch brushes along his shoulder.

Another unseen hand caresses his cheek. “You’re not alone,” says a hauntingly familiar, feminine voice in his other ear. “Never alone, Steve.”

A lump rises in his throat, and tears blur his vision, which is fine because then he doesn’t have to see in sharp relief the moment the plane smashes into the ice and sends him flying into the freezing water.

He sinks into the deep, into the dark, lungs burning, choking, arms outstretched uselessly to the receding light above him. As his vision goes dark, he sees two figures swimming through the murk and gloom towards him, shining red and gold and silver. He stretches desperately to them, and two different hands, one slim and warm, one broad and cool, link their fingers with his and haul him back up towards the sun.

----

Toni never thought she’d die in a dark, dank hole in the world, but here she is. Every breath she takes is fire, and she knows there’s an infection, probably several, chewing its way through the shredded, pathetic remnants of her immune system. Everything is blurry and bright, double-vision and probably-hallucination. She’s still not sure if Ho Yinsen is really here, or if her fevered mind conjured him out of the ether in a last-ditch survival tactic.

She’s given meds that are worse than useless, long past their expiry dates, some of them degraded enough to make her sicker. The water is stagnant and filthy, and she’s having trouble keeping track of how much she’s drunk after boiling, and how much she’s drunk having forgotten to boil it.

Her captors have seen her soulmarks, seen them bright and vivid on her skin,  and are confident their clarity means they can treat her how they like and she’ll survive it all. But there’s illness raging in her, ravaging the little strength she has left, sapping everything but the desperate wish to die.

Figures shimmer in the corner, gleaming from the backsplash of computer monitors and low-banked lanterns that are all her captors have given her for light, and she stretches out a hand to them, manages to get it halfway up before her strength is gone and it drops back to her side. “I wish you were here,” she rasps, coughs and chokes on the metallic tang of blood in the back of her throat. “I’ve lived a good life, for all that I’m not even thirty. I have good partners.”

Another coughing fit overtakes her, leaves her head spinning and her breath short and shallow. “But I would have liked to have met you,” she says, weak, low, faint, and closes her eyes to sink back against the pillows, to slip into the last fever sleep she’ll ever have. She’s so tired of fighting to stay alive, tired of being alone even when she’s surrounded by those she loves. She’s ready, eager even, to disappear into the dark.

“We’re here,” comes a voice she’s only ever heard on the old news reels, and a cool hand touches her forehead as another one takes her hand. “We’re not going to let you disappear, Toni.”  

The scent of gun oil and, crazily, vanilla shampoo hits her nose, and it opens her lungs wider than menthol would have, and she sucks in a desperate, deep breath despite the agony in her ribs. “You’re not alone, dumbass,” another voice says with a warmth she’s only heard in her dreams. “You’re never alone. We’re here.”

The fire cools, the ache in her body throbs down to manageable levels, and the darkness brightens into something blue and white and red and silver. Strong, gentle fingers thread through hers, pull her up through pain and suffering into soul-deep warmth. Toni surfaces as if from a long way underwater, and she takes another, deep, painless breath of sweet-scented air.

-----

The Asset stares at his handler, hands loose in his lap, frozen into dormant sitting by one of the command words programmed into him. Unease crawling along his shoulder blades, but he can’t make himself stand up, fight his way out, go back to the girl in the party dress with the wicked knife and acrobatic fighting spirit and figure out why she haunts his frozen dreams. Ask her why she dances with a tiny blond kid who turns into a broad-shouldered soldier in his mind.

Ask her who he is.

He instead sits mute, thoughts in such chaotic churning it almost physically hurts him to try and straighten them out. His handler asks him for his mission report, and he gives it. Then rough hands push him back, and restraints snap over his arms, holding him still, steady, trapped, imprisoned. The chair is cold against his back, and his teeth find well-worn grooves in the old leather strap as his handler shoves it in his mouth.

Who was the girl? Was she the mission? I knew her. I know her. She must know the man. I need to find them both. I need to find them both. I need…

Electricity sparks on either side, and his breathing picks up, harsh and fast, his body remembering the agony that comes from the device, even if his mind never retains it. Muted by the hiss of static and snap of lightning, the operators discuss the technical details, leaving him to sit in horrific anticipation of the moment fingers made of fire and torment reach into his head to dig out his memories.

Suddenly, he’s tired of it. Tired of sleeping in the cold, tired of being haunted by images and faces and voices, flashes of whatever life he’d had before all this. Tired of orders and tired of killing and tired of the deadened, numb cavity where his heart should be.

I don’t want to forget them, he thinks desperately, and thrashes against the restraints holding him implacably in place. I don’t want to forget them.  I don’t want to be alone in the silent dark.

“You won’t,” a woman says in a voice as rich and as clear as a bell, and a slender hand emerges from the shadows of the lab to slide into his metal hand, palm turning up beneath his to link their fingers together in a hold stronger and more unbreakable than the bonds keeping him chained to the machine at his back. “You’re the most stubborn asshole I know, James. No matter how hard they try, you’re never going to forget us.”

From the other side, Steve’s hand slides over his, slots into the grooves between his knuckles, squeezes warm and fond, and red and gold and white and blue gleams through a breeze laced with ozone, coffee and the clean scent of sunlight on skin. “You’re not alone, Buck,” he says with the sort of effortless confidence that convinces men they can carry the moon if only Steve asks them to. “You’re never alone. We’re here, both of us.”

And with a firm pull, they haul him out of the chair as if the restraints never existed, through the chill, damp, eerie earth and into warmth and bright, shining light.

----

The bond opens in glorious violence, snapping into place in nuclear heat and light.

A single heartbeat pounds in three chests, a single deep gasp of air fills three pairs of lungs as they surface out of the place where a single image shines with all their colors, supported by stone and swirled by blazing heat and howling cold.

And they open their eyes as one.

Chapter Text

They say we are what we are, but we don’t have to be
I’m bad behaviour, but I do it in the best way
I’ll be the watcher of the eternal flame
I’ll be the guard dog of all your fever dreams
I am the sand in the bottom half of the hourglass
I’ll try to picture me without you
But I can’t
— Fall Out Boy, “Immortals”
oOoOoOo

Toni opens her eyes and, perhaps for the first time in her life, her mind is quiet but clear. She’s perfectly aware of her surroundings, but content to just be instead of swirling with forming thoughts and epiphanies. And for perhaps for the first time in her life, there’s no urgency to get up and do something, no driving desire to stand and move, no need to scribble down fleeting ideas before they pass through her grasp.

It should worry her, but it doesn’t. Because it might be quiet in her head, it might be still and calm, but every synapse and every muscle in her body is alert and waiting for the first decision to move.

Bucky’s hand is tight in her left, Steve’s enveloping her right, and their linked hands together across from her, and no one is letting go. And Steve is staring at her with the same expression of reverence he wore when they completed their bond, and Bucky’s face is soaked with tears, and the wind whispering in from the infinite, dark Pacific beyond the balcony is chill against her own wet cheeks.

She can feel them both, solid and real and strong, wrapped in distinct presences around her mind. Bucky, raging and cold, Steve, stalwart and steady. A whisper of herself, bright and hot. Balanced and counterbalanced, blurred at the edges and melding into each other, so it's hard to say where one ends and the next begins.

“Oh,” she breathes, and Bucky sucks in a deep, sharp breath, and Steve clears his throat.

“See?” Bucky says, thick with emotion. “No one gets lost under the others. Told ya.”

“Asshole,” she says, fondly. “Anything to say I told you so.”

“Stop givin’ me perfect set ups,” he replies, coughing on a laugh and wiping his wet cheeks with his real hand.

“You two,” Steve says, and Toni doesn't need to look at him to see the smile spreading across his face from ear to ear. She can hear it just fine in his voice. “Come here?” He holds out a hand to each of them. “After all that, I need to hold you both.”

There's no more reason to talk, and nothing pressing any of them have to say. So they sit, Toni tucked under Steve's left arm, Bucky under his right, and she's holding Bucky's hand in Steve's lap.

There's a single heartbeat in their chests and they breathe with synchronized inhales, in silence and stillness, and watch the night give way to the dawn.

oOoOoOo

May 18, 2012
Malibu, California

“We gotta go back tomorrow,” Bucky says, dropping an arm over Toni’s shoulders as he joins her at the window overlooking the glittering blue of the Pacific. She turns a brief grin up to him, shifting her coffee cup between her hands and sliding an arm to snug around his waist. Something deep and primal settles into his chest at the light touch of her hair as she rests her head against him, and for a moment, he has to fight with himself to not weep as it swells and rolls around his rib cage.

These fuckin’ emotional surges are getting a little old, he thinks, presses an absent kiss to her temple and breathes through the urge to bawl.

“I love you too,” Toni says, quiet and amused, sets her cup on the table behind them, and turns to wind both arms around him, her eyes knowing, but bright and happy. “It’d be nice to stay out here forever,” she continues, and her palm smooths over the place their blended mark used to be. “But you’re right. It’s almost time to go back. Not the least because I’m pretty sure Pepper will personally drag me back to be Toni Stark, Media Darling and All Around Genius. The launch of the new Starkpad is in a few weeks. Pretty sure she’s gonna make me adult for that.”

“Probably.” An utterly ridiculous grin is curving its way onto his face, but Bucky can’t really find it in himself to give a damn. He shifts his hands up her back, threads his fingers deep in Toni’s hair and listens to the pleased purr rumble out of her throat. “So. Last day of vacation. Whatcha wanna do, doll?”

She inhales deeply, goes up on the balls of her feet, and presses a light, quick kiss to his lips. “I have absolutely no idea. I am literally humming with energy, and I have no clue how I’m gonna burn it off.”

His smirk only barely starts forming before she’s wagging her finger in chastisement at him. “What? I didn’t even say anything.”

A low, rich chuckle announces the arrival of Steve, and Bucky throws him another smirk over his shoulder. “You don’t ever have to say anything, Buck,” he says easily, shaking his head with a grin of his own, and stoops to tighten the laces on his sneakers. “We don’t even need a bond to read your mind.”

“As I recall,” Toni says primly, slips away from the circle of Bucky’s arms in a lingering fashion, and sets each hand on a hip, “you aren’t much better, despite the whole—” A hand lifts to wave vaguely at him. “—wholesome Captain America schtick. You are a filthy soul, Steven, and don’t pretend you’re not.”

“I have terrible influences in my life,” he replies, mild as milk, and straightens. “Terrible, thoroughly corruptive influences. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”

“Better not be,” Toni huffs, and Bucky grins like a besotted idiot as he watches her go over to pay Steve the same attention she’d just paid him. The feel of their affection for him and each other quietly washing through him is just as new as it ever was, and he hopes it never gets old.

“Mind company on your run?” Toni asks Steve, and Bucky’s eyebrows go up the same time Steve’s do.

“Toni,” Steve starts carefully, hands settled on her shoulders. “Of course I don’t mind company, but I didn’t think running was something you wanted to do.”

“Normally, no. I'm feeling weirdly up for it now, however.”

Bucky meets Steve's eyes, reads the question in them as easily as if he'd verbally asked. He shrugs easily. “I'll come too,” he says. “Gimme a sec to change and we’ll start feedin’ Toni some dust.”

Toni snorts, and casually flips him off when he pauses to throw her his most charming smile. “I can't keep up with super soldiers going balls out, true,” she says with a smirk. “Which is why you are both going to slow your magnificent asses to my speed. Or, at the very least, keep said asses where I can comfortably leer at them as we go.”

“Whatever you say, doll,” he replies with a laugh, and goes to find something appropriate to go running in.

———

The stretch of beach is lonely and gorgeous, the sand under the treads of his runners providing just enough resistance to give him a half-decent workout, and the breeze from the sea is equal parts refreshing and counterbalancing to the sun beating down on the top of his head. Even running with other people, it's easy to get swept away in the rhythm of finding his stride, falling into a sort of serenity and peace in his mind that has nothing to do with the brain-wipe machine or the cryo chambers he spent way too much of his life inhabiting.

It takes him some time to notice it, but a nagging feeling of something being off prods at him almost from the start of their outing. He keeps pace with Toni, jogging along at an easy lope with her ponytail bouncing back and forth in time with her strides, and Steve on her other side, politely matching her step for step.

Even after Toni waves their politely-tolerant soulmate off with a fond roll of her eyes and dramatic sigh, Bucky stays with her, letting his mind work at the thing niggling under his thoughts while he watches her from the corner of his eye. There is absolutely fuck all in her stance, expression, or way she’s moving to indicate anything’s wrong, but the feeling he’s just not seeing something refuses to go away.

Toni glances his way, smiles warmly and reaches up to free one ear from the tiny earbud she tucked into it. “What’s up, James?” she says, and the niggling, wiggling thing in his thoughts abruptly grows and slaps him in the face when he realizes she’s neither sweating nor winded, and they’ve been running awhile.

Her skin isn’t even flushed.

His forehead furrows, changes mental tracks to think on that new piece of intel for a bit. “You feelin’ okay, Toni?”

She blinks, then smiles wryly. “I’m perfectly fine, James,” she says. “I’m a hundred percent recovered, I promise. I feel better than I have in a long time, if I’m being honest. You can stop worrying.”

He snorts, picks up the pace a few steps just to see if she notices. “Yeah, if you think that’s a thing I’m gonna stop doing at some point, sorry to disappoint, but at least one of us has gotta have a lick of sense in our heads. It’s clearly not gonna be you or Stevie.”

If she notices, she doesn’t say, just matches his speed without apparent effort. “We all have our burdens to bear, sweetie,” she says with a grin. “Seriously, though. I can do this all day. Stop fretting at me.” As if to prove her point, she reinserts the earbud with a roll of her eyes and speeds up enough to outstep him, forcing him to catch up to her now.

Huh. It slots in place, and the picture clarifies into crystal sharpness that momentarily takes his breath in a way that running doesn’t. His legs eat up the distance she put between them, and he falls into step with her again, hooks a finger to pull the bud out of her ear as he does so. “How fast d’you think you can run, Toni?”

She swats at his hand in reflex, and yelps as she hits metal instead of skin. “I dunno,” she says, scowls and shakes her hand briskly. “Why? I mean, if you’re asking for a race, James, you’re going to win.”

He gives her his best smile. “Indulge me?”

Toni eyes him suspiciously, and he can practically hear the wheels turning in her head, trying to figure out where he’s going with this. “You’re up to something,” she says, faintly accusatory. “Even if I couldn’t feel you plotting whatever it is you’re plotting, I’ve been with Tash long enough to recognize when an innocent request is hiding some nefarious agenda.”

He waits her out, because he’s been with her long enough to know when curiosity will eat her alive. Steve passes them on the back lap, pauses long enough for Bucky to see the faint frown of concern, but he doesn’t stop when Bucky minutely shakes his head. Steve just nods, still frowning, and keeps going.

He can feel Toni practically vibrating with the need to know and frustration that she can’t guess it beside him. The more he smiles, the more she scowls. “Fine,” she grumbles, like he knew she would. “I’ll play your game, Barnes. But I want an explanation when you let me catch up to you.”

With that, she bolts, kicking up sand and tearing down the beach like a shot from a gun. Even though he’d expected her to cheat her perky little ass off, he’s still startled by the speed.

“Damn,” he breathes, takes a moment to appreciate the svelte form she cuts against the sky and the sea, shakes his head in consternation at the fact that she still doesn’t seem to have cottoned onto what’s going on, and sighs as he takes off after her.

This is gonna be a fun conversation to have.