Chapter 1: Bucky Barnes is supposed to be dead
Steve and Natasha spoke quietly as the rest of the Avengers filtered into the common area. “We don't have to do this now, you know. If you want me to brief them separately...?”
“Thanks, but no Nat. I’d rather get this all done at once, and deal with any fears the team has. We need a plan to find Bucky, since whatever Hydra did messed with my ability to Soul Sense him.” He looked over when Tony entered with his friend James beside him, obviously considering the benefits of current military connections, but the two men looked highly agitated.
“Okay, Cap, I’ve got a half hour maybe while Jay runs algorithms, then I need to go back to trying to fix the fallout from your little info dump. What’s the new crisis?”
Steve scowled slightly but let it go as Clint slouched in and flopped down beside Bruce. “Since we’re all here, fine. I'm sure you have all heard about the events in DC…”
“Yeah, loved watching it on the news,” Clint sniped out. Natasha looked torn between hitting him and apologizing, and Steve flinched slightly.
“Things were moving very quickly, and we didn’t know how secure our communications were. Yes, we would have loved to have had advice or help from any or all of you, but it didn’t turn out that way, okay?”
Colonel Rhodes looked tempted to speak, but Tony put a hand on his arm. “So what is it that you need now that we are all here to ask?”
Steve took a deep breath, and stood a little straighter. “What some of you may not be aware of, is that Hydra brought in an… operative known as the Winter Soldier.”
Clint gave a long low whistle and Rhodes leaned forward with an interested, “That guy’s real? Metal arm and all?”
“Metal arm?” Tony noticeably perked up.
Clint nodded. “It's the only description that all the reports agree on. We knew he was real, though, Nat encountered him personally, was lucky to survive.” He looked over at Cap. “So he was Hydra? Either way, if you couldn’t take him out when he was there, you aren’t going to find him now. Guy’s a ghost.”
“We aren’t taking him out, but we do have to find him. I don’t know how to say this except straight out... the Winter Soldier is actually my soulmate Bucky Barnes.”
The expected exclamations of surprise were cut off before most could even draw a breath. “Barnes is dead.” Tony’s voice was flat, but he stood abruptly and took a step towards Rogers. “That’s not possible.”
Natasha snorted. “Everyone thought Steve was dead too, Stark, I’d think you’d have seen enough in this job-”
“No, Steve was missing and eventually presumed dead, James Buchanan Barnes died from the fall in the Alps.” Anger had crept into his voice now, and his hands began to shake.
“Tony, I don’t know what you want to hear.” Steve was somewhere between defensive and annoyed. “It seems impossible, I know, but he’s my soulmate! As soon as we touched, I knew it was him.”
That proved the wrong thing to say as Tony’s anger exploded out of him. “You knew he was dead, too! So one way or another, it sounds like your so called ‘strong soulbond’ isn’t worth shit!”
“Tony, relax…” Bruce started, but he was already up in Rogers’ face, practically shouting.
“You signed an affidavit as his Soulmate that you felt him DIE! That’s why Howard was sure he was dead! It’s the only reason he was willing to try-” Tony cut himself off, spinning away and calling out sharply, ”Jarvis!”
“Fifteen seconds, Sir,” the unperturbable voice of the AI responded.
“Make it faster.” He moved towards the balcony, practically running as the doors opened automatically, and launched himself from the railing. More than one Avenger silently counted the seconds until the Iron Man armor shot up into view and flew away from the Tower.
Chapter 2: Tony Stark has a Soulmark
"What is his problem?" Natasha looked at the fading red speck with annoyance.
"Do you really want an answer to that, or are you just being bitchy?" The team turned to look in surprise at Rhodes, who had been quiet for the entire blowup. "I mean, not that it's my story to tell, or that I have the whole thing, but that pretty much put the pieces together from many a drunken or heartbroken rant." His casual shrug was at distinct odds with the glare he threw towards the Widow. "But I wouldn't want to bore you with any real facts about Tones."
"Well, Nat was being bitchy, it's true," Clint dodged the blow aimed his way with a lazy roll and faced Rhodey from the other side of the couch. "But that was a pretty weird reaction, even for a guy we know has issues with Cap and with soulmates. So yeah, anything you got that makes sense of it, I for one am all ears." Bruce nodded and Steve shrugged, just glad to be out of the hotseat for now.
JARVIS gave his little butler cough before interjecting. "I would note that Sir has standing orders authorizing the sharing of information related to his Soulmark with the Avengers and associates if it became relevant to team relations. This situation appears to meet such a standard of relevance, so Colonel Rhodes need not fear betraying a confidence in this matter."
"Stark has a soulmark?" This time Clint threw an elbow at Nat, but she dodged just as well. "What, nobody's ever gotten a picture of it, even his SHIELD file has the description area blank."
Rhodey sighed, "Yeah, he has a soulmark. Howard had it put on him when he was three."
Everyone gaped for a moment, with Clint being the first to speak. "Put on him? You mean an arranged Soulmate like royalty used to do or the higher Indian castes? That's crazy. I mean, I know the media called him the Stark Heir, but that's a step too far!"
"Howard wouldn't do that," Steve argued, "He was the biggest believer in Soulmates I've ever met! He even respected Fraternal bonds like Bucky and I had over unmated marriages. He would never deprive two children of their true Soulmates that way."
"Just one, actually." That got a whole new round of confused looks, as Rhodes clarified. "That was one of the things that never made sense till now. Tones told me that he'd been marked with the whole ceremony as a child, but not TO anyone else. He said if it had been that way at least he would have had someone, even if they weren't a fated match. But he said his father bonded him to a ghost, so he would never have a soulmate and there was no point in hoping."
"That explains... a lot, really," Natasha said quietly. The others nodded, clearly considering Tony's infamous playboy past in a new light, if he had no future soulmate to respect.
"But I don't see what that all has to do with Bucky?" Steve seemed to be warring between distress that his old friend would have done such a thing and confusion at his new friend's behaviour.
"Really?" Bruce gave him the sort of 'are you really this dumb' look they were more used to seeing from Tony. “There are a lot of stories about people trying to soulbond their children to young royalty, and the two reasons they don’t work are the spiritual stress of competing with a destined soulmate, and the inability to accurately reproduce a natural mark."
“But?” Steve clearly hadn't missed the look and was more than a little irritated.
Rhodes sighed and spelled it out. “But as Tony so… emphatically pointed out, you provided an affidavit of your soulmate’s death, and I’m sure Howard had detailed photos of your mark from the Project Rebirth files.”
Chapter 3: Push me, pull me
"It does kind of make sense.”
The gathered Avengers gave Steve universal looks of confusion, which was fair enough, as the statement had been preceded by ten solid minutes of “that's impossible”s and “Howard wouldn't do that”s.
“Not Howard soulmating the two of us, that's still crazy, but the idea that Tony was, I don’t know, forced into my bond with Bucky. We've always had this… push/pull thing going on, since we first met. Like I want to get up in his face and tell him to get out of my face.”
Bruce chuckled quietly. “Yeah that about sums you guys up. Tony didn’t seek you out as much physically, but he was always keeping track of you, while asking why he couldn't get away from you.”
“It also explains the problem with trying to sense the Winter- Bucky,” Natasha corrected herself under a sharp glare. “You said you could sense the presence of the bond but it was scrambled and didn’t have a distinct location like you used to be able to sense. That would make sense if you are sensing two people with an instinct only meant to deal with one.”
“Explains the hell out of Stark’s daddy issues, too,” Clint commented, to three confused looks and a sad nod from Rhodes.
“Yeah, all the work he put into getting any sort of approval from Howard, and the only thing the bastard cared if he could do was impossible.”
“What are you talking about?” Steve glared between the two.
Bruce had caught up by then. “You think Tony was soulmated to Cap in order to act as a… a divining rod for his location?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, Stark senior’s obsession and all the expeditions he launched were legendary at SHIELD by the time I joined. Why else would he link his son to a man most had given up as dead?”
“Howard wouldn’t… he just wouldn’t do that!”
JARVIS’s voice had just the tiniest hint of an edge to it when it spoke up again. “Unfortunately, ‘Howard’ did exactly that, Captain. Your retrieval was the only factor in the choice to-”
"You don't actually know that!" Steve interrupted the AI, glaring at the ceiling. "You only know what Tony believed to be true when he talked about it, you've never even met Howard!"
"I'm afraid that is not entirely correct, Captain Rogers." The contrast of scrupulous politeness showed disapproval for the yelling better than any scold could. "While the elder Mr Stark passed away before my creation was complete, I was provided with the journals of my predecessor, which gave a first hand accounting of the decision to mark Sir with your soulmark."
"Predecessor?" Bruce questioned, and Rhodes stepped back in.
"Jay is named after Edwin Jarvis, the family butler when Tony was growing up. Tones found a set of diaries after he died; he didn't want to read them himself, but he talked about making them part of JARVIS if he could figure out the right kind of data to encode them as."
"Indeed. The contents are not memories in the sense that direct input from my cameras would be, but they are ranked among the most reliable primary source documents, particularly when considering Sir's emotional needs. Edwin was greatly concerned with the Soulmarking decision, and went so far as to ask Mr Stark whether he thought Steve Rogers as a man could be a good soulmate to a genius some 40 years younger than he."
The AI paused until Steve looked up from his brooding for the answer. "He recorded the response that night, in somewhat heavier writing than usual as : I'm obviously not going to let Anthony bother the man by following him about once he's found. I imagine the presence of a soulbond might be comforting to the Captain after the loss of Barnes, but more importantly, we can recover the only success of Project Rebirth and begin it again."
Chapter 4: Labor circles and souvenirs
Tony returned to the tower the next morning with a gym bag slung over one shoulder and boxes piled in his arms. Steve looked up from his breakfast, surprised to see see him exit the main tower elevator rather than coming in from the balcony or his penthouse.
“Tony, uh, good morning.”
“Hey Cap, Jay told me everyone got caught up on the soul saga last night.” He slung the bag over the back of a chair and started sorting the boxes on the table. “Sorry about the meltdown, that was supposed to be your drama. But you did say it’s always about me.” He shot the other man a cheeky wink.
Steve groaned, both at the reminder of their first major fight and because Tony obviously had built his walls back up and would not be open to a discussion about how this had hurt him. “I’m sorry too… I couldn’t feel Bucky at all, and they told me that what I’d experienced was a breaking bond, so I signed the paper. I never imagined-”
“Hey, no one ever imagines what a Stark will do, if you could, we wouldn’t be geniuses.” The smile was a little more brittle, but the clap on the shoulder as said genius went for his coffee meant the apology was accepted. Any further discussion of blame was cut off when Bruce and Rhodes entered from the Avengers elevator. “Hey, thanks for coming down, guys, we’ve got a couple extra projects now, so I wanted to talk to you before I got back on the Widow-leaks issue.”
Rhodey ignored the babble and just gave his friend a hug then a long look. “You sleep at all last night, Tones?”
“Bah, why start now? So, I have to get back to damage control, but I’m going to set up a labor circle to see if that helps Cap get his soul-radar working better.” He patted the gym bag in what he seemed to think was an explanatory way.
Steve looked hopeful but confused. “A labor circle?”
“Oh, that makes sense!” Bruce nodded approvingly to his science bro then explained to the others, “I’ve seen them in India - you can use certain materials and symbols to form a sort of… sanctuary from the Soulbond connection. It requires intense concentration to activate the effect and the person inside can’t leave without setting it all up again, so it’s not a long term solution, but if Tony cuts himself off, you should have a much easier time trying to Sense Barnes.”
“Huh. How did you know this stuff, Tony?”
The other man’s face fell for a moment, before he went back to purposefully rummaging through the boxes. “There was a time in my late twenties that I was having really horrible nightmares every fall. Lucid dreaming didn’t do a thing for them, and after some research, I tentatively identified them as bond dreams. The labor circle helped.”
Steve glanced at the others before venturing, “Nightmares?”
“Drowning and freezing,” was the quiet reply. “It was a series of very hot summers in Greenland, and I can only assume you thawed out enough for a coma-like level of awareness. I actually took a trip North for old times sake, but my bond perception was still just as screwed up.”
“Damn, I’m sor-”
“Cap, you literally had no choice in the matter, okay? Howard just… I know he was your friend, but he changed after the war, I know he did, because Mom and Aunt Peg both told me so. He was obsessed and he made some stupid choices. Neither of us got a say, and we both have to deal with it.”
Steve clearly rethought his first two responses and ended up giving a nod and a small smile. “Okay, no more apologies over this. So is all this for the labor circle?”
Tony perked up. “Just the bag, this stuff is the result of digging through the attic at the old family mansion.” He opened one and pulled out a few service medals, a worn army jacket and some yellowed envelopes. “There were a few things from Howard’s Commandos collection that weren’t Smithsonian worthy but it felt wrong to just throw away after he died. Pretty sure these are all from Barnes, I also put a call out to the folks doing cleanup in DC to contact me if they find any gear or weapons that he might have lost in your fights. They may help you focus.”
“Oh…” The objects were examined with care. “Thank you, I’ll start trying as soon as you have the circle set up.”
“Next up, Brucie, I know you have your own projects, but I had a thought on why the Capscicle couldn’t sense his Bucky Bear, and I was hoping you would look through the data and give me your thoughts.” The two other boxes were revealed to contain file folders stamped with various levels of secrecy by the US military, SHIELD or Stark Industries. “I don’t want to prejudice you with my theory, and I know I’m way too close to this to avoid a confirmation bias.”
“I’d be glad to. Steve, I’ll probably look these over here rather than in the labs, so if you need any help getting into the right frame of mind for your search, well, I’ve got experience with several different meditation traditions.”
“Excellent!” Tony clapped his hands and grabbed Rhodes by the arm. “And your job, Sugar Plum, is to help me set up the circle, then make sure I’m kept fed and coffeed while we get back to work, since I won’t be able to make kitchen runs. I’m aiming to give Cap a good 12 hours if there aren’t any emergencies.”
Steve smiled at him like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. “Thank you, Tony. Why don’t you break the circle at ten this evening and get some sleep, and we can compare notes in the morning?”
“Sleep, bah!” But when he turned away, Rhodes gave a nod and thumbs up to the plan before following his friend down to the lab. “Sleep is for people who don’t have info dumps to fix and Commandos to find. Now is the time for coffee!”
Chapter 5: Light, warmth and Wrong Thoughts
The light was gone.
The Asset went tense in his basement hiding spot, instinct preventing him from moving in his shock and hesitantly probed the space where he usually sensed the bright intensity of thought.
Not his own thoughts, he had come to understand. Not even the Wrong Thoughts, which were removed by the Chair when they grew strong enough to distract him from his missions. The Chair could never take away this kaleidoscope of half sensed ideas and images that had emerged over the years, or even remove his memories of it. He knew it was another person - an amazing person with galaxies in their mind - but shied away from the thought of another soul.
Soulmates were a weakness - he would know from the many missions making use of them. The Asset was not allowed weaknesses, and the idea of the light becoming someone else’s mission was…
No. He had never held back any information from his handlers, even knowing that correction of Wrong Thoughts would be painful. It was his duty to remain in optimal condition, so problems could not be hidden. But the light was his, and would not be reported as a problem.
Now it was dark, but the Asset tried to think through it rationally. There were times in the past where the light had gone out for brief periods but returned unharmed. He would wait a full day before thinking of it as truly gone rather than hidden.
In the meantime, the light’s absence was bringing the new sensation into sharper clarity. It was more warmth than light, and had started when he had touched the Failed Mission. The Failed Mission still weighed on him, and with the handlers dead, and all local safehouses compromised, there was no way to receive new orders or report the Wrong Thoughts that had sabotaged his efforts.
Was the warmth a Wrong Thought, or was it his like the light? It felt more intrusive than the light, as if it was trying to force itself to a greater strength, and he couldn’t allow that when it was connected to failure and Wrong Thoughts. Until he found backup handlers, he had to do what he could to keep himself in optimal condition.
The Asset tried to rest his body while he focused his mind on the memories of the light. When night came, he would move again.
Chapter 6: The Snail Shell of the Soul
This chapter, sadly, has very little plot. It is, in fact, a thinly veiled treatise on how souls and soul bonds work in this world. So if your eyes start to glaze over at that sort of thing, I promise this should be the only chapter it happens in.
The second morning meeting of the Bring Back Bucky Barnes Board (named by Tony, and of course, pronounced ‘B-b-b-b-b!’) featured breakfast smoothies by Tony and bagels by Steve. After the initial talk of preferences and jam passing was done, the group fixed Rogers with an array of expectant looks.
“I’m reporting first then? Okay, well, the labor circle definitely helped. My sense of Bucky is still very weak, but it was more clear, and I got a general sense of direction. It isn’t anywhere near where it was before he… fell. I don’t know if he’s hiding from me deliberately or if it’s the Hydra conditioning, or just because the bond somehow restarted and this is how a newly met bond feels?”
“Wait,” Rhodey looked up in confusion. “You don’t remember what your bond felt like when you met Barnes?”
Steve shrugged with a slightly embarrassed air. “We grew up in the same neighborhood of Brooklyn, so we found each other pretty quick. I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t have Bucky until he left for the War.”
“Hmm, that explains why you didn’t realize that there was still a bond there.” As all eyes turned to Bruce, he opened up a folder and laid out some of the paperwork Tony had provided the day before. “This isn’t conclusive, since I obviously have a ridiculously small sample size to work with, but I’ve got a pretty strong theory about how the Serum interacts with Soulbonds.”
He shuffled papers for another moment until Tony shoulder bumped him. “Well, don’t keep us in suspense, Brucie Bear, wow me!”
The other scientist chuckled and nudged him back. “For people who care about social conventions, discussing Soulbonds in a methodical way can be very tricky. I know where Tony here stands, but I don’t really have a read on you two’s religious beliefs. So, I guess I’m trying to figure how many disclaimers to start with.”
“I’m not the hardcore psionist like Tones, but it’s not my bond we’re discussing,” Rhodey turned to Steve. “You were raised Catholic, right? This stuff is gonna go against Catechism, especially the 1940s version.”
Steve blushed slightly. “I was never very good in Sunday School anyway. I’ve caught up some on how souls and bonds are thought about these days - a psionist believes that the soul is completely made of and governed by psychic energy, right? No divine intervention involved in its formation or in bonds?”
“Generally.” Tony gave one of his whole face shrugs. “I mean I’m not totally closed to the idea of a Cosmic Yenta out there deciding what mark goes where, but I’d have to see and test its sentience myself to completely buy it.”
“Okay, well, I understand that the soul is considered to be built up out of our psychic energy, but I guess I still believe that God places the first spark and knows what will grow from it.”
The other man looked like he was going to launch into debate mode for a moment, but Bruce neatly cut him off with, “I think we’ve got plenty of common ground to work from, then. The thing that really matters to this discussion is that because the soul is accreted out of psychic echoes of our thoughts and emotions, it doesn’t necessarily reflect who we are, so much as an amalgam of everyone we’ve ever been.”
“Tony explained it to me like a snail shell,” Rhodey put in helpfully. “The psychic residue builds up with each emotion we feel or sensation we experience. Our personality is like the outside of the shell, where you can see a little stripe of what all the layers of shell before looked like, but the bulk of it is just the current layer. But the soul is all the layers inside, and if you examine it separate from our physical brain, it’s like you could unroll the shell completely and view it in a way that every part that had ever built up has equal weight in describing it.”
“So Rumlow for example,” Tony said, breezing over the thunderous scowl the name produced. “Your self as you experience it right now hates him and all your memories are tinged by the betrayal, right? But your soul contains a perfect record of the times you liked him, or trusted him to have your back, or didn’t think much of him at all. And if it’s freed from your body and unwrapped, those feelings are just as real and immediate as your current ones.”
“Oh!” Steve grinned. “Like the verse where the bible says that you’ll know your soulmate in heaven, but any mortal relationships will be put into confusion.”
“Exactly!” Bruce once again overrode any argumentative tangent Tony might have taken from that, to move the explanation along. “Now, the Super Soldier Serum in all it’s forms has been tied to souls. Many of the common components to the attempts resemble the ingredients in inks used to create arranged bonds, or the elements of labor circles and other soul related rituals. The idea was to harness the massive psychic power each person has within them and express that in their physical forms.”
“But Erskine thought that by tapping into the soul, it had the side effect of bringing some of those traits into the physical world, right?”
“He theorised on the possibility in his notes, based on the form some of the failures took. But I think the ‘inner’ traits expressed were from the overall soul, not the outer layer. For instance, me getting angry in the moment is what brings out the Hulk, but I wasn’t a particularly angry person when the Hulk was created. He expresses rage and fear and a desire to ‘smash’ that layered onto my soul over many years, and stayed there despite anything that has changed for me as a person.”
Rhodey hummed loudly and leaned forward. “Okay, this is pretty interesting, but you said you were going to talk about soulbonds, not just souls.”
“Right, yes,” Bruce blushed slightly, causing Tony to give a small ‘aw’ noise. “The connection which I was maybe getting distracted in leading into, is that in order to draw from the entirety of the soul that way I believe it does, the serum would have to momentarily unwrap it from our mind and body.”
Steve gaped for just a moment. “You mean that when I took the serum, I briefly died on a spiritual level?”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but there are few other circumstances where souls open up in that way to compare it to.” A quick shuffle of papers brought a yellowed form to the surface. “The day after you took the Super Soldier Serum, Sergeant Barnes filed a request for a telegram check on you based on your soulbond. He didn’t believe you to be dead, but reported his awareness to be much fainter after a sensation in the bond wrenched him from his sleep.”
“He was surprised to see me… I just assumed it was how different I was, but looking back, he didn’t know I was coming for him.” Steve looked down at his hands for a moment. “I was so happy to see him, and my awareness of him was still just as strong. You think the serum had broken our bond for him?”
“Not broken, as much as reset it. I hadn’t met my soulmate yet when I took a version of the serum, so again, this is all going from very little data. But from what Barnes said in his request and what you experienced, I’m thinking the temporary disruption and then reweaving of your soul made it unfamiliar to his. You were still bonded; you have the same soulmark after all. But until you saw him again in Europe, he experienced it as an unfulfilled bond.”
“Okay…” Steve stood and paced for a minute while the other men quietly gave him space. “Okay. So we know Bucky was given some version of the serum when he was a POW. And later enhanced further. But why did I have the ‘bond breaking’ experience when he fell?”
Bruce seemed truly uncomfortable for the first time, and Tony patted his arm as he took over. “One thing we know is that simply administering the serum is not enough - or at least not fast enough for any of the tests to be ruled a success. It has to be activated in some way. They used Vita Rays on you, Bruce’s project tried gamma radiation. Hydra’s notes indicated that they believed sufficient physical trauma that would actually require enhanced healing to survive could also trigger serum activation.”
Rhodey looked ill, and Bruce a little green in a more disturbing way, but Tony focused on Steve. “They probably wouldn’t have tried it on Barnes, because he was their best success so far and they wouldn’t risk that until they knew what had gone right. But when he fell, his injuries must have been enough to activate the serum, and likely just barely survivable with it.”
“And, if he was in… some sort of coma,” Steve seemed to be feeling his way through the conclusion as he spoke, “I wouldn’t have been able to sense anything from him with the bond… reset or whatever. Nothing that I would have concentrated on identifying after what I had felt.”
“Pretty much, and now I have to double apologize for the other night.” Tony made a disgusted face. “Not only did you have no way of knowing what Howard would do with the information, from a subjective view, your report was completely accurate.”
“Relax, I mean it. Maybe you geniuses think you should be above emotional reactions, but after living with a burden like that all your life, I can’t blame you for being angry when you realize it was even worse than you knew.”
Rhodey cleared his throat. “On that note… I feel like someone has to bring this idea up, and I’m the most likely to survive. Howard gave Tony the same soulmark as Steve, so that the soulbond would allow tracking. And I’d guess he made sure Tones was trained in every spiritual and meditative technique out there to make him as good at it as possible.”
“Yeah, Sugar Bear, that’s pretty accurate, but where you going with it?”
“Well, it didn’t work because Barnes was still alive and as Steve’s… original soulmate, had the same mark. Which means that he soulbonded you to both of them and the interference stopped you from being able to track, just like it stopped Steve from any chance until you went into the labor circle.”
Bruce scooted back slightly from the table and muttered, “You’re a braver man than me, Colonel.”
“I’m not saying you should do this, just putting the idea out there, if only to reject it. Given all the circumstances, it’s possible that if you two switched places, Tony would have a better chance of tracking Barnes down than Steve does.”
He glanced between the two men, both ashen faced and horrified. “Just, ya know… putting it out there?”
Chapter 7: Steve feels like an asshole, but doesn't act like one
“Just, ya know… putting it out there?”
Rhodes coughed uncomfortably and the look on Tony’s face transformed in an instant into a friendly grin. “Course you were, cupcake, no worries. I doubt we’re at a point of trying that yet, but me and the Capsicle will chat about it. Speaking of which, we need to work out a schedule for me using the labor circle the next couple of days, because I have some SI things and a debrief at the Pentagon that I can’t get out of…” He was dragging the larger man into the elevator by sheer force of personality, it seemed, and waving behind them. “Great presentation, Brucie, bye now!”
The instant the doors closed behind them, he collapsed against the wall, closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
“Are you okay, Tony?”
“I’m fantastic, how are you feeling?”
Steve gave a deep sigh. “Like an asshole.”
The other man cracked one eye open to give him a skeptical look. “Not that there haven't been moments where I would agree with you, but why this very instant?”
“Funny. I’m serious, if you can help find Bucky, I should be grateful and… and excited about it, not being petty and-”
“Hey, back that up, huh? If there’s one subject you’re entitled to be selfish and even petty about, it should be your Soulmate.” The elevator doors opened, revealing a sunny roof. “Oh, thanks Jay, this is why you're daddy’s favorite.”
“As you say, Sir.”
“I do say!” Tony pointed a finger not back into the elevator where the voice had come from, but at a random corner of the helipad. “Come on, Cap, grab a piece of roofing tar and ruin your pants with me.”
Steve sat with a sigh, though he did pick a raised concrete strip. “Not an even offer, those are your workshop pants, nothing can ruin them any more.”
“Not true, these have never caught on fire!” He leaned back and took a couple of deep breaths before picking up the prior conversation. “People aren’t supposed to have to share their Soulmates. Even identical twins get their own. There’s no ‘should’ in this situation; no expectation on what you can and can’t handle.”
“Maybe not but… I had accepted that Howard bound you to me, that you were in the bond I share with Bucky and that was what was causing the interference… but I didn’t think of you as my Soulmate. And when Rhodes was talking about you as Bucky’s Soulmate, maybe being better than me-”
“I’m not. Not better at searching, definitely, and as for the other…” Tony flopped all the way on his back and addressed the sky. “I accepted a long time ago that I didn’t have a Soulmate, and there’s a reason I didn’t tell you about all this when we met. I may not believe in an omniscient cosmic yenta, but I know that Soulmates aren't random. Did you know that the marks appear at the high end of the age range when child psychologists think our basic personalities have been set? There’s a base level of compatibility in them, and no offense, but I think we lack it.”
“Yeah, we probably do. I can tell where the bond with you is, now that I’m aware of it, and maybe it’s just so different from what I’m used to feeling from Bucky, but it mostly just bugs the hell out of me.”
“Ha ha.” Steve looked out over the skyline for a moment. “Why do you think you wouldn’t be better at searching?”
Tony flinched slightly, then gave a bitter laugh. “I dunno, maybe the fact that just considering it is putting me on the edge of a panic attack?” He laughed again. “Of course, according to Jay’s sensors, I’ve been on that edge pretty regularly since…” he waved his hand vaguely at the open sky above the tower where the invasion portal had been. “So, hey, at least I’ve got some new material, right?”
“It’s not something you need to worry about, I’m good if I’m focused, so I’ll be fine in combat, but the point is that when Rhodey even suggested that… expectation of being able to use the Soulbond that way… I know it’s pathetic and all, but-”
“You know, one good thing to come out of this,” Steve reached over to grab the other man’s shoulder and gave a good try at a smirk. “I feel a lot less guilty about all those times I wanted to punch Howard in the face.”
Tony burst out laughing, with only a tinge of hysteria to it. “That’s probably for the best, yeah. Everybody wanted to punch Dad at some point. Pretty sure Aunt Peg actually did a couple of times.” He sat up with a deep sigh. “So, we’ve both got reasons to avoid switching places, and it’s too soon to think you won't be able to do it, anyway. You just need to work with the connection that’s there now that you know why it isn't what you remember.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Understanding what happened to the bond makes it a lot less scarey when I don’t feel it like before.”
“Good.” Tony stood and clapped his hands together. “Oh, and I did mean it about having a full schedule the next few days. I’ll probably just have to make the labor circle in my bedroom once I’m back at the Tower then work on my tablet till I fall asleep. JARVIS can let you know when it’s set if you don’t just feel it.”
Steve nodded and stood as well. “That’s fine, we’ll have to work around some things as this goes along.” They both started walking back to the elevator, but he stopped suddenly. “Tony, wait.”
“Why, is something wrong? Thought we covered today’s angst.”
“Yeah, I guess we did, and I feel like I should wait for a better time to bring this up, but I’ve been feeling that way everytime we talk, and I'm thinking maybe there won't be a better time and I should just take the time that's now…”
“Whoa, deep breaths, Cap, whatever it is, you’re probably right that there will always be something else going on. So go ahead, what is it?”
Steve took the suggested breaths and faced the other man straight on. “When we found out about the Hydra infiltration of SHIELD, the Zola computer was going on about all the strings it had pulled behind the scenes, and- He didn’t say it straight out, he implied some thing about… about your parents. About their deaths, and,” he swallowed hard, “And Bucky’s role as the Winter Soldier.”
Chapter 8: Relief and its origins
Tony had just finished lunch when he got a text that Steve was finished searching for the morning so he could participate in team training. Blissfully ignoring the hint, the engineer stepped across the labor circle and over to the fabricators before he began to smile.
“Something going particularly well with the gauntlets, Sir?”
“What? Oh, no, just… relieved, I guess? It was a feeling I got sometimes after I used the circle before, and it’s gotten more intense as Cap’s search goes on.” He reviewed the processing and made a couple of small adjustments before glancing at the nearest camera. “Something you wanted to say, Jay?”
“Considering that your most common emotional responses to your Soulbond status are reported as ‘frustration’ and ‘anxiety’ I am merely considering exactly whose relief that might be.”
He stopped dead on his way across the room. “Huh. Guess I asked for that one, didn't I?”
“You are, of course, free to pursue the topic with a human friend, or simply repress it.”
“You know me so well, buddy…” DUM-E bumped him eagerly with a ball, which he tossed in a marginally safe direction. “No, you’re right, it wouldn't be mine, and Steve is mostly disappointed when he finishes, so it’s not him. But what would Barnes be feeling relieved about, especially before when I did this?”
“If he is aware of you, perhaps he is merely relieved at your return, as I am given to believe that the mental presence of a Soulmate is comforting.”
“He’s not my Soulmate!” DUM-E, returning with the ball, swerved away in alarm. “No, I’m not yelling at you, come on… I don't have a Soulmate, Jarv, I have an unwanted position in someone else’s bond. A bond between one guy I barely get along with and another who was used to kill my parents.”
“Technically, Captain Rogers was uncertain if the assassination was carried out by the Winter Soldier specifically.”
Tony sighed and hopped up on a workbench. “You kept my dream journal for years, I think in retrospect we can both pick out which nightmares were from Barnes. I always assumed the one about my parents was symbolic of my guilt, but now…”
For a few minutes, the only sounds were the fabricators, DUM-E’s whirling and the occasional thump of the ball. “Okay, lay it on me.”
“I simply observe that those who are bonded to you have experienced it differently than yourself.”
“Well, Rogers didn't experience much of it at all, since he spent most of my life doing time as a Capscicle. And it sounds like Barnes hasn't been fully compos mentis the majority of the time either.”
“However, you Sir, aside from some regrettable pharmaceutical adventures, have been fully mentally functioning, and in your youth were actively pursuing a stronger Bond connection.”
Tony fell back on the table, wincing as various tools and parts poked him in the back. “So you think that even though I never got anything except regular chills and occasional murder dreams, Barnes at least might have experienced something resembling a true Soulbond connection with me.”
“Given the disruptions caused to his original bond with Captain Rogers, it certainly seems like a possibility.”
“Please tell me you aren’t going to make the same suggestion Rhodey did.”
“Certainly not, Sir!” The A.I. infused his tone with a convincing amount of offense. “Actively searching for Sergeant Barnes would result in a higher percentage chance of emotional damage than of success. However, it is possible that if Rogers were not providing interference, that the Sergeant would seek you out himself.”
“Huh.” He sat up and absently accepted the ball DUM-E had been hopefully extending. “You know, we really haven’t considered the Barnes-stormer’s motivations in this at all, have we? Might be something to bring up at the next Bbbbb! breakfast.”
“As you say, Sir.” Tony made a face at the dry tone - his naming skills were excellent! “In the meantime, the fabrication is completed. Would you like to begin testing n-”
JARVIS cut himself off with an alarm blare and screens sprung up around the workshop. “Alert on Metatron protocol, subject : Virginia Potts. Danger level : highest.”
Chapter 9: Hostages and overrides
Bruce burst into the gym, bringing the already sparsely attended training session to a halt. “JARVIS, bring the news up in here!”
Steve, Clint and Natasha gathered around the screen that was projected onto the nearest wall showing a street packed with police cars and a discreetly labeled restaurant with the windows seemingly barricaded from the inside. An excited looking reporter stood in the foreground.
“-to refuse contact, sending out individual hostages with messages three times. Police will not say if they are in contact with Mr Stark, or whether the perpetrators are seeking him due to his activities as Iron Man, his work with Stark Industries, or a more personal motivation.”
“Pepper was on a business lunch, and was the main target,” Bruce explained, obviously holding firmly onto his calm. “There's an estimated 60 other hostages, and the only thing they’ve asked for is Tony to contact them via Pepper’s phone. Also, the workshop is on lockdown.”
Cap looked pointedly at the ceiling. “JARVIS, override the lockdown and inform Tony of the news.”
“I’m afraid you do not have override privileges in these circumstances, however you may rest assured that Sir is aware of the situation at hand.”
Clint cursed. “He’s contacting them and trying to negotiate, isn't he?”
“Of course he is.” Natasha’s voice was thick with contempt, recognizable even when she switched to grumbled Russian.
“You may rest assured, Ms Romanova, that while Sir is a civilian, he hardly qualifies as an amateur in dealing with kidnappings and hostage situations.” The AI’s tone was scrupulously bland. “As such, he is well aware that not all professionals have the same priorities in resolving such conflicts.”
Steve looked offended. “Obviously our priority will be the safety of all the hostages!”
Bruce shook his head. “SHIELD may be in tatters, but I imagine the agents’ training is going to keep them... equally concerned with keeping an ‘intellectual asset’ of Tony’s caliber out of terrorist hands.”
“Well, yeah.” Clint’s easy shrug contrasted with the Widow’s blank expression. “If Stark lets them blackmail him into doing work for them, a lot more than 60 civilians are gonna end up hurt. That’s just lo… huh.”
All attention was drawn back to the newscast when a line of frightened looking people, largely waitstaff and chefs by their clothing, began to file out of the restaurant.
“Crap, what did he give them, JARVIS?”
“Nothing as of yet, Agent Barton, he asked that the employees be released as a show of good faith. Sir has requested that the ‘spy twins,’ as he puts it, proceed to the scene to try to infiltrate the building. He suspects that even if he can negotiate for the release of all hostages, Miss Potts will be held back.”
“So he wants us there for a rescue once the collateral is thinned out enough to make it safer.” Clint headed over to the gear racks and started pulling on a stealth suit. “Good enough plan as far as it goes.”
Natasha snorted. “But it doesn't go far enough. What is Stark giving them? If it's truly valuable tech, we need to be tracking them back to their bosses, not taking them out for one person.” Nonetheless, she geared up while arguing.
There was a longer pause before the AI responded “It may comfort you to know then, that the demands at hand are not for blueprints or finished technology, but rather that Sir ‘consult’ on an ongoing project.”
Steve, who had been helplessly pacing since he was already geared, looked at the ceiling in shock. “He’s trading himself? No, that’s not okay, don’t let him leave, JARVIS!”
“While you have partial override privileges in these circumstances, I’m afraid Sir has already left the building.”
“...right. Okay, then.” He started heading for the door. “Hawkeye, Widow, infiltrate with an eye towards extraction but stay on coms. Bruce, get to the command center you and Tony were setting up and monitor any cameras in the area and further communications from the terrorists. I’ll be a block or two away with my bike, so if possible we want to let a couple get away and I’ll follow them physically while Bruce does on the cameras.”
Clint was checking the action on his collapsible bow. “Tony worked up some arrows that leave trackers on a ‘graze’ but we haven’t field tested them, should I try to use a couple on runners?”
“Only if Miss Potts is already secure, she’s your first priority.” Natasha turned to object, but the Captain raised a hand to cut her off. “I’ve gotten a look at Iron Man’s full assessment and file since we became independant. He’s calling it this way not just because he cares about her, but because he knows he’s of much less use to them without that leverage.”
She screwed her mouth up distastefully but gave a curt nod. “He thinks without her, he can refuse or play them until we can catch up. ...he’s probably right.”
“So let’s go.” As he headed for the garage, Steve tapped his earpiece three times and asked quietly, “Just out of curiousity, do I actually have any real override privileges?”
The AI had the decency to give his butler cough, though his tone held no embarrassment. “You have full privileges within your private quarters, and the ability to override Sir, but not lock him out, in any systems dedicated specifically to the Avengers. In other matters you, like Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes, have a… ‘tie breaker vote’ in situations where Sir’s orders or behaviour cause conflict between two or more of my primary directives.”
“Huh. Okay, good to know.” Pulling on a discrete brown jacket and replacing his cowl with a helmet, he noticed the channel was still open. “Anything else, JARVIS?”
“Apologies, Captain, I just received an additional communication from Sir. He wishes to request that if normal tracking methods fail you remain alert to any signs of distress through the bond you share. In such a case, he recommends initiating the new ‘Stray Cat Protocol’ for Sergeant Barnes.”
Chapter 10: Upgrade to Soldier, now with personal pronouns
The warmth was searching for him again. It happened more days than not - the light would fade away and the warmth pressed in, looking for him, sending him images of himself through a warped mirror, where he fought beside the Failed Mission.
The Soldier knew now that the Failed Mission was Captain America, Steve Rogers. The images he was being sent matched the intel collected at the museum and from online sources of a man named James Barnes, or Bucky, who was the Mission’s soulmate. They also matched faint memories of before… before he was the Soldier, a time when he might have been a person. But even if he felt more like a person than when he failed the mission, he didn’t think he was that person anymore, the person in the museum, or the memories he was being offered. The Warmth wanted that person, and was searching for him, but it made the Soldier a little afraid, especially since his Light (Soulmate) always went away when the Warmth searched. He didn’t like it hiding his Light, something might happen to it while he couldn’t feel it.
The Light had been afraid or hurt in the past but the one time the Soldier had had the freedom to try to help, he had barely had a direction to search in and his rampage had quickly alerted the handlers.
Such memories were wiped away by overwhelming relief when the Light surged back into being, thoughts dancing with creation and success. This was the Soldier's second favorite mood, just behind the wonder that often lay like a golden haze over the fireworks of discovery.
He went back to securing his latest hideout, calculating again how many incidents of the Warmth’s searching he should risk before moving again. Since it all began, he had become more adept at hiding his own thoughts from the Warmth (failed Mission? Steve Rogers?) while identifying the emotions behind the images he was being sent. Today had been frustrated still, so he was in no immediate danger.
This sub-basement was clean while still allowing quick exit and even had a source of water, and the Soldier was pleased to be able to stay another day or two. He had been moving around the city in a rough pattern, as allowed by available hiding places, and had tentatively identified the location of the Warmth. At first it had been an attempt to find the threat so he could move further from it, but lately he hadn’t been as sure.
The Warmth (mission, Steve?) was capable of hiding his Light. If he tracked it down, could he find his Soulmate as well? Was there a threat to the Light, and should he eliminate it? The actions would fall easily into his abilities, but there was no mission, no handlers, no guidance. While the Soldier had sometimes been given the discretion to plan the method of execution, more often he followed exacting guidelines, and never had it been his choice whether to make a death public or hidden, whether witnesses were allowed, if more collateral was better.
Hiding and avoiding capture he could plan himself, but a Mission needed a handler, at least to start. Unfortunately, as his mind became clearer, his interest in finding Hydra handlers had faded. The Warmth (Stevie?) wanted things similar to a handler, but no, that was ridiculous. Not even the most loyal of his former handlers would have planned a Mission against themselves.
As always, it circled back around to the Light. If he could somehow find it, while avoiding the Mission (Warmth, Captain America) then everything would make sense. The Soldier would defend it as himself without need for orders, and he could trust his Soulmate to be his handler for any needed Missions. He just had to find his way there.
Shaking himself out of the recursive thoughts, the Soldier began the exercises he could do in his limited space. If he worked himself into enough exhaustion to sleep, perhaps he would see a solution when he awoke. When he was lucky enough not to have nightmares, he could feel the Light more clearly in his dreams, and sometimes felt like it was putting his tangled thoughts in order.
But after only fifty pullups, he fell to the floor with a cry at sudden pain he knew was not his own. Throwing his mind open as well as he could, he felt a strange echo of the pain from the Warmth, but mainly anger, fear and an incongruent sense of gratitude that was clearly from his Light.
Forgetting all his previous plans and all concerns of hiding, the Soldier grabbed those weapons he was not already wearing and swiftly left the basement. No handler was needed for this Mission. Someone was hurting his Soulmate, and they would die.
Chapter 11: Punch clock villains
There was a sharp crack, a grunt of pain, and then a vaguely annoyed voice.
“Really, you are ruining the moment here. Can you take a break? Huh, bad pun.”
Dan paused to take in the scene as he entered the room. Tony Stark was handcuffed to a computer desk, with one hand loose enough to reach the keyboard and mouse. The other was held down and the boss was breaking another finger, snarling in rage.
“You have never taken me seriously, and if I get nothing else out of this, I will teach you what a mistake that has been!” The spittle was flying, and the lady doctor who invented the boss’s formula was looking nervous.
He sidled inconspicuously up to Harry. “Is Stark provoking him on purpose? What the hell?”
The other guard kept his eyes on the prisoner, but didn't hesitate to whisper back, “I don’t think so, he started out pretty standard, sassy but not stupid, then around the time Killian finished with his left foot, the guy just went… weird. Spacey, but happy. Now he’s acting like this is some distraction from his best day ever.”
“I need some shears!” The boss had turned his attention to them, which was never good. “Bolt cutters, something! What are you even doing here, Fielding? Aren’t you watching the perimeter cameras?”
Straightening quickly, Dan gave his best impression of efficiency. “A cat or something knocked down the south-east ground cam. Christine is still watching, I came to see if you want me to reset it, there’s very little area that isn’t covered by others and it could draw attention to…”
“I pay you morons to handle security, not bother me about it! Do whatever keeps us most secure! Ah ha!” Reaching past them, he grabbed a fire ax from the wall and headed back to the desk.
“I hate working here,” Dan said mournfully, “These people are so weird…”
Harry shrugged. “I’ve seen worse. Last guys I worked for had a legit secret lair in an old bank vault.”
“Oh, hey, whoa!” Stark seemed to finally be paying attention as the boss tried to find the best chopping angle. “This seems excessive, I need my hands, I build things with them. I'm gonna build my soulmate a new arm, cause his is hurting him.”
Both men perked up like excited meerkats. “Stark has a soulmate?” Harry practically had dollar signs flashing in his eyes. “Do you know how much TMZ would pay for that scoop?”
“Ooooh, that’s why he’s being like this,” Dan breathed as Stark went back to mumbling in what was now identifiable as a lovesick daze. “They must have just met or something, that’s like, new bond haze turned up to eleven!”
“So it’s not Potts, or Rhodes or an Avenger…” Harry had dropped his gun to get at his phone and was texting desperately. “Oh God, we gotta find out who it is, I’m gonna be rich.”
The boss, meanwhile, had gotten Stark’s hand into a good position and was hoisting the ax. “Well, you’re gonna have something in common with this soulmate soon. Maybe when Extremis is the only way for you to work again, you’ll be more willing to-”
There was a knife embedded in the boss’s forehead. Dan started to turn towards the door, but a bullet punched through his right shoulder shoulder just before a graze to his temple brought him to the ground.
Harry’s phone landed beside him, cracked screen flashing with re-tweet notifications, but the black clad intruder was on him before he could get his gun up. “Oh,” he said, but a metal fist to the face took him out before he could say, “THAT arm!”
Tony should probably care about the dead body collapsed beside his chair, or Maya, alive and cowering behind it. He should care about multiple broken fingers and toes, and about the dangers of an experimental drug with an unknown number of doses on the loose. Tony should care about a lot of things.
But right at this moment, the only thing he cared about was the man walking towards him.
Every time he had seen a romance in the last two years, he had had to excuse himself when the soulmates inevitably met and began the standard spiels. “Oh my God, it’s really you…” “I’ve never felt like this!” “I’ve been searching for you my whole life.”
Blech. Tony had met his soulmate after being forced to literally search for him for a good chunk of his life, and frankly the irritation and disappointment were things he had felt plenty of times. The stupid bond that Howard had tied him into flailed weakly, but found nothing to hold onto, and Rogers obviously didn’t even notice that much. Discovering that the original Bond still existed had been a bit of an explanation, but just reinforced that he would never have a true soulmate. He had already put out feelers for someone who would be able to manage an UnBonding in such a strange situation, so once they found Barnes, the two super soldiers would be free of their unwanted third.
Tony didn’t think he was going to be able to do that anymore.
When Killian had broken his first toe, he had felt a faint echo of the pain, and a sense of anger and distress outside of his own. It was a relief, knowing the bond was enough for them to notice, and he could only wait and hope Rogers listened to JARVIS and gave Barnes a chance to try his luck.
He didn’t expect it to change his life.
He didn’t expect that less than half an hour later, in the midst of yet another tantrum from his captor over Tony’s refusal to fix his shitty math, that something scrambled and muffled from the back of his mind would explode into a beauty that made the outside world irrelevant. He didn’t expect to feel another soul filling all the broken parts of his and making all that cliched, romantic drivel make sense. He didn’t expect to get a Soulmate out of it, but he did.
Time had passed in a haze after that, the various injuries and threats noted only as brief distractions from learning his beautiful Mate. Beautiful but broken, with constant pain in his arm and confusion from a contradicting mess of memories and training, and Tony swore that as soon as he was out of this annoying warehouse, they would start fixing things together.
And now he was here, all black leather and bristling with weapons, with a ridiculous Hannibal Lecter mask, but it didn’t matter, he could dress like Freddy Krueger and still be all Tony wanted in life. He paused a few feet back, aiming his gun past the desk, and Tony tore his eyes away to see Maya still there. “It’s fine, she’s fine, get out Dr Hanson, call for an appointment, we’ll get you a lawyer, whatever, go…” Agonizing seconds passed while the woman ran, but then his Soulmate took the last few steps and knelt to snap the handcuff chains with his metal hand.
Then he tried to fuss with the broken fingers, but he was wearing a glove on his flesh hand and Tony wasn’t having with that and reached up to the mask. “Can I? Please?” A nod of unhesitating trust, and the leather was tossed away so they could touch skin to skin.
Whispered Russian in a tone of awe were the first words he heard from his Soulmate. “My light…”
“Oh my…” He could feel tears running down his face, but almost laughed at the words he couldn’t help but let out - Tony Stark, reduced to romantic cliches! “It’s really you.”
Random sidenote - I would get SO MUCH more writing done if I took then train in instead of working locally. Every time I need to take the commuter rail it's like a productivity day.