Bucky braces his hands on his hips, and tilts his head to the side, expression caught somewhere between anxious, confused, and nervous. “Well, shit.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, worrying at his bottom lip, and rubbing at the back of his neck. “That can’t be good.”
They glance at each other, share a helpless little shrug, then look back at the hospital beds, and the two pale, unconscious figures tucked under several layers of blankets. If it weren’t for the machines attached to both of them, and the monitors displaying two steady heartbeats, the bodies would look almost dead, they’re so still. No twitching fingers, no fluttering eyelids. Nothing.
Steve automatically lifts his arm when Bucky turns towards him, wrapping it around Bucky’s shoulders while Bucky curls into his side, and tucks his face away against Steve’s throat, shivering ever so slightly. It’s been a difficult couple of months for Bucky since the Project Insight mess, and Steve can only imagine what it must be doing to him right now, having the control, and the agency he’s worked so hard to regain ripped away from him again. Steve pushes his nose into Bucky’s hair, breathing him in, then presses a kiss to the crown of his head. “Someone’ll figure it out, Buck. Someone always does.”
As if on cue, the door to the infirmary crashes open, and Tony—still in his torn undersuit, with half of his face caked in dried blood from a wound above his right eye—storms into the room, the rest of the team, and a harried looking doctor not far behind. Tony skids to a halt next to the first bed, and reaches out as if to touch the man on it, but pulls his hand back at the last moment, and starts tapping his fingers against his chest instead. His voice is raw, and cracks when he asks, “What do we know, doc?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” says the doctor, and steps up between the beds to check the equipment. “They’re stable, as far as we can tell, but there aren’t any guarantees when magic is involved. For all intents and purposes, Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes entered a comatose state immediately upon being hit, and there haven’t been any changes since.”
Steve watches with a surreal sense of detachment as the doctor adjusts the IV in his hand—or, rather, the hand of the body Steve used to occupy, and is currently staring at because he’s very much not inside that body—and then does the same to Bucky, before she starts to explain treatment options. Part of Steve wants to scream, to shake his friends, and yell at them that they’re both standing right here, but they’ve tried that to no avail for the last couple of hours. Whatever, or wherever, Bucky and he are at the moment—Ghosts? Spirits? Spectres? Trapped somewhere? Between worlds?—no one can see, hear, or feel them.
“For the time being, however,” the doctor finishes, sounding genuinely apologetic, “there isn’t anything to be done. I suggest everyone get some food, and rest. And Mister Stark, you should really let me have a look at that cut of yours.”
“I’m fine,” Tony insists automatically, but doesn’t fight it when Natasha, gentle but firm, pushes him down into one of the visitors chairs. “Tis but a scratch.”
Bucky huffs out a quiet laugh at that, turning his head just enough to see Tony without dislodging himself from Steve. Right after Sam and Steve had brought Bucky in from the cold, there had been few things Bucky could enjoy without fear of triggering something unpleasant, be it food, sports, music, or films. But then, one night, Steve had woken up to find Bucky gone from their bed, and, heart beating wildly, had run through half the tower in search of his missing boyfriend. He’d eventually found him up in the penthouse, curled up in one corner of Tony’s massive couch, a fuzzy blanket draped over him, a cup of steaming hot chocolate with mini marshmallows in his hands, and grinning along to Tony’s running commentary of the movie up on the screen. Monty Python, as it had turned out, was just silly enough to be perfect for Bucky.
Bruce, Clint, Sam, and Thor are shuffling out of the room, talking among themselves in hospital appropriate hushed tones, while Natasha moves to stand behind Tony, hands on his shoulders in silent support. Tony tips his head back against her stomach, and allows his eyes to flutter shut, hissing and grimacing when the doctor starts cleaning, and then stitching up his cut. The whole thing doesn’t take more than ten minutes, and after making sure everything’s working properly once more, the doctor excuses herself with a stern reminder for Tony to go, and catch some sleep.
Steve as well as Natasha know him better than that, though. Natasha walks around to stand in front of Tony, pinning him with a pointed look. “I’ll get you a sandwich, and you’re going to eat it. And drink at least two glasses of water with your pain meds.” The way she says it makes it clear that refusing isn’t an option. “And you’re going to bed after having dinner with the rest of us,” she continues, talking right over Tony when he opens his mouth to protest, “because you’re hurt, and you know Bucky’d bitch at you if he could see you not taking proper care of yourself.”
“Damn right,” Bucky mutters, and Steve has to hide a fond smile away in Bucky’s hair. “Dumbass.”
Tony pouts up at Natasha. “Fine. But I want coffee.”
“This isn’t a negotiation,” Natasha reminds him, but one corner of her mouth is twitching, and Steve knows she’s going to indulge Tony. He still isn’t entirely sure what happened between them back when Natasha’d been assigned to spy on Tony, but whatever it was, they’ve grown closer for it. Everyone knows Natasha has a huge soft spot for Tony, even though no one’s crazy enough to tease her about it anymore; they’ve all learned from Clint’s mistakes. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
Tony smiles, tired and half-hearted as it may be. “You’re the best.”
Natasha studies him for a moment, then leans down, and cups Tony’s face between her hands. “This,” she says, nodding over at Bucky and Steve’s bodies, “isn’t your fault. And you’re not going to blame yourself for something that was out of your control, because you’re not an idiot.”
“Tasha,” Tony sighs, trying to turn his face away, and making a grumpy noise in the back of his throat when Natasha won’t let him. “Come on.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything else, only presses a quick kiss to Tony’s forehead before heading out. Tony watches her go, then heaves himself up, exhaustion written into every line of his body, and goes to perch on the edge of Bucky’s bed. Now, with no one else here to see, he brushes some wayward strands of hair away from Bucky’s eyes, fingers lingering.
“You have to wake up, you hear me?” He looks over at Steve, eyes shining tellingly. “You too, Cap. I don’t—I can’t—I’m so sorry, I—I should’ve been quicker. This was supposed to be easy, but I fucked it up. I wasn’t fast enough, I didn’t have your back, and now—now you’re—”
Tony cuts himself off sharply, and hunches over, scrubbing his hands through his already messy hair, his breath hitching. Bucky whines, pained, and Steve hugs him a little tighter. Steve itches with the need to comfort Tony, to reassure him, and he knows Bucky feels the same, can sense Bucky’s desperation, and helplessness through their bond. But while they’re not falling through floors or furniture, touching people other than themselves has turned out to be a little trickier. It’s possible, but it comes with a sense of almost overwhelming wrongness, like someone, or something, is trying to discourage them, to prevent them from making contact.
“Okay,” Tony says after a long moment, clearly to himself, inhaling shakily. He gets up again, and Steve can’t help but smile at the look of determination on his face, because he knows what it means; Tony has a plan.
By the time Natasha gets back fifteen minutes later, Tony has moved the medical equipment out of the way, pushed Bucky and Steve’s beds together, and tucked them in more comfortably, closer together. When Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, Tony juts his chin out, stubborn, and says, “It’s scientifically proven that close proximity to a soulmate can speed up a person’s recovery.” He swallows hard, eyes pleading. “I have to try, Tasha.”
“You should talk to them.” Natasha motions for Tony to sit down again in a chair next to the beds, and puts the tray with the food in his lap. “Familiar voices have been known to help.”
She stays just long enough to make sure Tony eats, and takes his pills—Steve could kiss her for that, he really could, because while Tony’s obviously able to take care of himself, he’s entirely incapable of putting himself before the ones he cares about—before going to get showered, and changed herself, clearly recognising Tony’s desire for privacy.
“All right,” Tony declares, putting on a brave face, and clapping his hands together. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s talking.”