She meets him in Budapest. Budapest, where he stands across an empty plaza on a moonless night and trains an arrow on her chest, and though she is dressed in an Alexander McQueen gown and has no weapons he is not fooled by her. He knows that she is a weapon, complete and whole unto herself.
She meets his eyes, and something moves within her and settles into place, tumblers turned by his key. They are both Dominants, and somewhere out beyond this dark square and this moment there is someone waiting for them, for their loving guidance, who will not be complete without them. They are meant to be together- Natasha and this man and the person who is yet unknown- and she sees the knowledge dawn in his eyes. He lowers his bow, sheaths his arrow.
Natasha crosses the plaza in moments, catches him about the back of the head as he settles rough-hewn hands upon her hips, and they embrace. Kiss. Feel out the empty space between them where another body will one day rest.
"My name's Clint," the man finally gasps against her ear, when they settle.
"You know mine."
"Yeah. Want to hear you say it, though."
"Natasha. Where is ours?"
Clint blinks, bends forward to rest his forehead against hers. Over his shoulder she catches sight of a man in a suit, a mild expression, but her attention is for Clint, for the iron will of his voice when he swears, low and rough against her lips,
"I don't know. But we'll find them. We'll find them and we'll make them so happy, keep 'em safe."
She meets another man, in a dark and dank house.
Bruce Banner blinks at her when she rises to meet him, and Natasha's heart skips a beat. For a moment she hopes-
But no, this man is not submissive. The shudder of her heart is the same wild recognition she felt in Budapest, not the possession she one day hopes to feel, and she steps back, momentarily unbalanced. He is similarly discomfited, but they manage to complete the transaction, though neither of them can win the upper hand against each other. They are immovable objects, splintering against one another, bereft of water to smooth their edges.
After they pick up his meager belongings and take a seat on the plane, Bruce is the first to broach the subject. No true shyness in this man.
"Did you feel that, in the house?"
Natasha was born for lies, but she cannot lie to this man: not about this. "Yes. You and I: we're bonded Dominants."
He laughs, though without humor, and rolls his head back against the interior fuselage to stare at the ceiling. "Like it wasn't enough to be a freak of science, now I have to be part of a rare bond configuration. Wonderful."
Natasha swallows, unused to the regret she knows she will feel when she reveals this. "Rarer than you think."
His gaze flicks to her. He raises a brow. "How so?"
"There's three of us. Myself, you, my- my partner, Clint Barton."
The air is hot, and very close. Bruce leans forward. "Three Dominants. You didn't mention a sub. Our sub."
Natasha takes a breath. "We don't know who they are. We haven't found them yet, though we've tried." They've gained something of a reputation around SHIELD for making eye contact with anyone and everyone, searching, for restlessness, for the electric tension of Dominants in too small a space, itching for someone to ground them.
Bruce drops his head into his hands, pushes his fingers into his hair. "I- I hoped. There's this empty part of me, that's always been there, and when I saw you, I hoped-"
"I know, Bruce." His name is beautiful in her mouth. "I hoped, too."
She reaches for him, and he comes to her, willingly. They kiss, and it is good, and it is wonderful, and it is not enough.
She sits in the infirmary beside Clint, after Coulson-
"Clint. Have you-" she hesitates, and the uncharacteristic silence makes his attention snap to her, hold, "-have you felt anything... different, in the bond?"
His eyes narrow, and he goes inward. His hand goes rigid in hers.
"Fuck," he breathes. "Bruce, Cap and Thor?"
He thuds his head back into the headrest of the chair and laughs. "Fucking seriously? I thought it was bad when it was just you and me, and now there's five of us? What the hell, are we supposed to get five subs too? Besides, what about Stark?"
Natasha frowns. "I'm not sure. He's open about his status as a sub in the press, but I don't..." she waves a hand, "I don't read him that way. I should feel his dynamic, acknowledge it, but he is like a void." She's resorted to similes. She hates being so imprecise.
"Huh. Do any of the others have any ideas where to look for the poor bastards that'll be our subs?"
"No, and I don't think there will be five subs for us. Bonds are supposed to be stable. I can't imagine a ten-person relationship being so." She tugs at the bond within her, at the spot where it spreads and links to the others, and though it is stable, though she smiles at its existence, there is still nothing centering them.
"Yeah, well, bonds are supposed to be between three people at the most, and look how that turned out."
"Clint." She narrows her eyes.
"Yeah?" He grins at her, scarred and rugged and pale, and she loves him.
"Stop being realistic."
He laughs, and tugs her down to kiss him, and though she is happy to, she knows they both are wondering where to find their missing piece.
Steve doesn't mind the twenty-first century, really. Subs' rights have made amazing progress, and even when he thinks how brightly Bucky would have shone in this time where there were no limits on his abilities, it has ceased to wound as much. There's more food and more variety, more information, just... more.
More bond configurations, too.
It's dinner time in the Tower, and he's got one hip against the counter and is watching Bruce do something aromatic and wonderful with rice and chicken and cream. A gentle prod at the bond informs him that Natasha's sitting in the living room, Clint's perched atop the entertainment center, and Thor is in the kitchen with them, measuring out spices for Bruce.
Of all the things he's been most surprised by in this new time, the relationship he's fallen into is the winner.
"What's cooking?" Clint wanders in and hooks his chin over Thor's shoulder to watch him start mixing spices. "Smells Indian."
"Chicken tikka masala," Bruce says, and at his glance Steve hands over the fork and butcher's knife so he can begin shredding the meat. He likes being useful, even if it's only as a glorified gopher. "It takes a while to cook, and I'd be lying if I said it was healthy, but we fought well today and I think we deserve a reward."
"Or you're bribing us." Natasha enters the room with her novel in hand, stretches onto her tiptoes to kiss Steve - and how strange that is, to be surrounded by physical affection - and helps Thor carry the condiments to Bruce.
"I confess I can be bribed by such savory dishes," Thor confesses with a sheepish grin. "My appetite makes it easy."
Bruce laughs and holds out a spoonful of rice for Thor, who tastes it and pronounces it delicious.
"This is a sickeningly domestic scene," Tony says from the doorway, his voice laced with that strange mixture of irony and humor that Steve is still trying to decipher. "I saw you kiss Steve, Natasha. What's this, all the Avengers got together and decided to try a polyamorous relationship and I wasn't invited?" He saunters into the room, his hair wild and grease streaked down one cheek, and steals a bit of rice from the pot. "All five of you?"
Steve realizes, suddenly, that they haven't told him. With moving into the Tower, and learning to function as a team, and as a bonded unit, it can be easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a team member who isn't part of them, especially when none of them can read him as sub or Dom. He clears his throat.
"We're a bonded unit, Tony."
Tony's gaze glances across each one of them, incisive, then swings back to Steve. He raises a brow. "Five Dominants?"
"Yeah," says Clint. "Trust me, it's weird to us, too."
"Unfortunately not yet." Bruce stirs the pot and scrapes some rice off the sides. "We haven't managed to find them." He manages a weak smile. "It's very frustrating."
Tony cocks his head and meanders to the kitchen table. "Well, my resources are at your disposal. If you're going to do anything illegal, tell me first so I can help set up the proxies- relax, Steve," he tosses an insouciant grin Steve's way, and Steve shuts his mouth with a glare. "I figured there was something going on, since I never saw any subs hanging around up here, and I knew you guys were all Doms."
"You're a sub, right?" Clint says with an appalling lack of manners. "It's just that none of us can get a read on you, and-"
Tony's smile freezes over. His tone is light, as it always is, but there is ice beneath the veneer. "I am a sub, yes. Much to the Board of Directors' and others' displeasure."
"Do you know why we can't-" Clint cuts off with a grunt as Natasha kicks him beneath the table.
"Why you can't read me?"
Steve quietly mourns the complete lack of stealth Thor and Bruce are displaying, their attention obviously turned to the conversation happening behind their backs.
Tony, for his part, answers, tone clipped, “I presented as a sub early in life, and my father and his investors believed that learning to hide that fact would be necessary were the company to succeed.”
“But you’re not-“
“Not the company?” Tony grins, and there is ugliness in it, sharp-edged and glittering. “To my father, I was. So I spent most of my childhood enrolled in quote-unquote ‘orientation therapy’ boarding schools until I went to MIT at fourteen. Trained me to suppress it.” He leans the chair back on two legs and reaches for the fridge to snag a beer, his shirt riding up to expose the flat of his belly, the line of hair arrowing into his jeans. He snaps opens the beer against the table. “Didn’t actually allow my orientation to have anything to do with my relationships until I started working with Obadiah Stane.”
At that name, Natasha goes stiff.
“I hadn’t realized you and he were in a relationship,” she says, careful, formal. “It was not in your file.”
“We hid it well. Or rather, he hid it well.” Tony takes a long swallow of beer, and Steve finds his attention riveted to the sinuous curve of Tony’s neck, heat curling in his belly. “I would’ve been over the moon to show everybody how Obi and I were together, but he didn’t want to.” Tony rolls the beer bottle between his hands and stares down into its neck, and there is something unaccountably old and sad and tired in him, something that Steve has never seen in him before. “He didn’t want me to be publicly acknowledged as submissive. Not when the company was at stake. Was really fucking confusing, let me tell you, to have him yelling that I had to be dominant in public and then crawl and lick his boots in private. Of course, the problem could have all been solved had he not been an orientationist fuck and realized that I could run the company just fine as a sub, but…”
“Where is this man now? I had not heard of him before.” Thor inquires.
Tony glances up at him, and his eyes are dark and terrible in the arc reactor’s glow. “He got me captured in Afghanistan, had me tortured, stole my arc reactor, and tried to kill me.” In the frozen silence he drains his drink and sets it down with a thunderous click. “So I killed him.”
“Oh,” Bruce whispers.
“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ So you’re not going to get a read on me except in very specific circumstances where I choose to let you, and after ten years of orientation therapy and more of Obi it takes a hell of a lot out of me to fight that conditioning.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say, how to respond to this awful revelation of just how damaged Tony has to be, and glancing around he can see that no one else does either. He can’t imagine Howard, the Howard he knew, forcing his child to be trained to lie to everyone around him about his orientation, to be so nonchalant about the deep wound in him.
“So can you do it now?” Bruce asks, tentative, looking ready to flee the room if Tony takes the question the wrong way. “So we could see?”
Tony shrugs. He looks so comfortable, in his worn T-shirt for a band Steve’s never heard of and patched jeans white at the knees, and Steve almost doesn’t want to know, to push him out of that comfort. “I mean, yeah, I could. I don’t do it often. I’m a really awful sub, you know, and it’s not often worth letting people read that part of me when they might end up saddled with me. They fucked the sub part of me up, dear old Dad and Obi. It takes me forever to fall into subspace, I have a terrible time staying down, and when I come out of it-“ he winces, shakes his head, “-it’s not pretty.”
“We would still see it,” Thor says. “I have never heard of this ‘therapy’ you speak of, I would enjoy knowing if there are changes in how I sense your orientation.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.” Tony glances around, and at everyone else’s nods or shrugs he offers them an expression approaching a smile and drops his head back. He takes a few deep breaths that rattle in him, a strange metallic sound at the end of each breath – something to do with the arc reactor? – and then, all at once, in some strange moment, it’s as if a fortress falls, a wall breaks, a cloud moves aside.
A key, turning in a lock.
“Tony,” someone chokes out, and it takes Steve a moment to realize that it’s Clint, Clint half-started from his chair, face bloodless, hand outstretched.
Bruce drops the spoon.
Natasha’s lips part.
Thor lets out a deep rumble of possession, and thunder booms in a cloudless sky.
Steve forces his fists to uncurl, the raging fire in him to quiet as every ounce of him screams to lunge across the room and take Tony, that beautiful infuriating man, theirs, into his arms.
Tony opens his eyes and glances at them, and as he pales, as he shoots to his feet and backs up, it’s like a gate slamming shut, or a shadow blocking out the sun.
Natasha lists to one side in her chair as Bruce makes a panicked noise, and Tony says, low and fierce and harsh,
“Oh, fuck, no-“
And flees the room.