Chapter 1: i never promised you an open heart (or a charity)
“Howard? Why are you looming over the baby?”
Howard didn’t look at his wife, instead once more turning Tony’s wrist to the right, then to the left. “I don’t loom,” he muttered when he felt Maria’s hand on his shoulder.
“Hovering, then.” Together they looked down at Tony, fast asleep in his crib. Howard carefully placed his son’s hand back on the mattress, palm down so the name on his wrist was hidden.
“We should get it removed,” he said quietly. “While we have the chance.”
“Howard, that’s his soulmate,” Maria said sternly.
“His soulmate that he’s never going to meet?” Howard asked derisively, turning towards her. “It’s cruelty, Maria. We get it done now, he’ll never know.”
“So we let him grow up thinking that there’s no one out there that will or would ever have truly loved him?” his wife challenged.
He sighed, steering her out of the room. “You place too much stock in soulmates, my dear. They’re not the be all and end all of everything.”
“Should I be insulted?” Maria laughed, running her finger along her own name carved into Howard’s skin. “Look, all I truly know about soulmates is this: when the fascists were chasing us out of Italy and I lost my parents, when I thought every day was my last, knowing that somewhere out there, dead or alive, you had carried me in your heart, was the only thing that kept me going. No, soulmates are not everything, Howard, but they are enough. And besides, Tony deserves to know.”
Howard pursed his lips, thinking it through, knowing Maria won’t back down on this, and he finally nodded, earning a smile and a kiss from his wife. “He never said anything, you know,” he said to her as she began to walk away. “He must have wondered. Same last name and all. But he never said.”
Maria shrugged. “Maybe he was scared. Forties homophobia is a pretty big deterrent, Howard.” She headed towards their room.
Howard took a deep breath and let it out slowly, rapping twice on the door to Tony’s room. “You hear that, kid? You grow up and hate that name, you don’t blame me.”
There was a reason Maria didn’t want Howard to remove her son’s soulmark. One that she would never tell him directly to his face.
Howard was never going to be a good father.
She never even meant to get pregnant, even though Howard wanted an heir. Especially because Howard wanted an heir. She loved her soulmate, but he was never going to view any child of theirs as anything but another one of his inventions.
And Howard expected his inventions to be perfect.
Tony, beautiful, brilliant Antonio, was anything but perfect. He was a noisy, overly-inquisitive child who had a know-it-all streak a mile wide and was a bit spoiled. He was messy and loud and forever saying nonsensical things. In other words, he was a perfectly normal four year old, but Howard would never see it that way. Everything wrong with Tony needed to be fixed, NOW, instead of letting him grow out of his more negative qualities naturally.
Maria picked up Tony as he cried, running ice along the burns on his fingers and internally cursing her husband’s name. Of course he had pushed Tony to finish the circuit board, of course he had let their baby use power tools. He had been so disappointed when Tony’s first board hadn’t worked, told Tony not to even bother if he couldn’t get it right. Howard had always prized the scientific method, but with Tony, his creation, he couldn’t seem to fathom inaccuracies.
“Daddy will be mad,” Tony sobbed. “You have to let me down, Mama, I have to try again.”
Maria hushed him, running a hand through his hair. “Daddy won’t be mad, baby.”
“Yes he will, he’ll hate me. He hates me!”
“He doesn’t, sweetheart, he loves you.” As best he could, anyway. “And I love you, too.”
Tony only just sobbed harder, shaking his head.
This was why Maria insisted they kept the mark. Because Howard was going to carve their baby into a scientist no matter what, and Maria could say the words for both of them until she turned blue in the face, but Tony needed proof. She gently turned Tony’s hand so his wrist was facing them, running her hands along the name there. Her poor son. “He loves you, Tony.”
Tony slowly quieted, reaching out with his other hand, so small, and following her movements. “He does?”
“He’s your soulmate. No matter where he is, no matter what you’ve done, he loves you. Always. That’s what a soulmate means: always.”
“Always,” Tony echoed, a hint of a smile in his voice.
Edwin Jarvis dragged the glass of whiskey away from his young charge and replaced it with a glass of milk. “Would you like to tell me what brought this on?”
He had come home to find the liquor cabinet’s lock picked and Anthony flung out on the piano bench, contemplated the tumbler in his hands like it was a hand grenade. He had ushered both pre-teen and tumbler to the kitchen where he now sat beside him, rubbing a hand on his back.
Tony’s eyes were red. Jarvis didn’t even know Tony remembered how to cry anymore.
“M’ soulmate’s dead,” Tony whispered, and Jarvis felt his heart sink. He and Maria had talked about this moment, how to handle it. He was amazed, honestly, that it had taken Tony so long to piece it together. He only wish Maria was here now instead of off organizing a gala.
“You knew.” Tony was staring at him now, betrayal in his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone?”
“Because he made you happy,” Jarvis answered. “And you deserved that feeling for as long as we could give it to you.”
Tony’s lower lip trembled. “Why even let me feel that when you knew it was going to be taken away? He’s dead, Jarvis! Like, really dead, like for-decades dead. I’m never gonna see him. I’m gonna be alone forever.”
Jarvis pulled his charge into a hug, holding tightly until Tony relaxed. “Not so, sir,” he said softly. “He’ll always be with you. He was meant for you. That makes him a part of you, and nothing, not even death, can take that away.”
Tony’s body shuddered and Jarvis felt his shirt grow damp, but Tony remained silent. Jarvis hoped that meant the words sunk in.
“You’re seriously not gonna tell me?” Jim laughed, hitting Tony with a pillow. His roommate toppled over in a pile of gangly limbs and giggles. “I showed you mine!”
“And I’m sure Virginia Potts is a hell of a lady, whoever she may be,” Tony said. “But I didn’t ask you to show me, man, this isn’t quid pro quo or something.”
The words were as teasing as ever, but Tony’s eyes had shuttered by the end of his sentence. Oh. Oh. Dammit. Jim had overstepped some serious bounds here. “’Course, man. I didn’t mean - I just thought if I knew I could keep an eye out.”
Tony shrugged, sitting up, fiddling with the thick band around his wrist covering the name of his soulmate. Rhodes had never seen him take it off in the entire year he had known him. He’d bet that was one serious tanline.
Jim blinked, head snapping towards Tony, not sure he heard right. “He’s-”
“Dead,” Tony repeated.
Well, Jim was definitely taking Worst Best Friend this year. “Tones, I’m sorry.”
To his surprise, Tony looked up and smiled. “It’s okay. He loved me. Even if he never met me. He had my name. He loved me. That’s enough for me.”
“That’s…” Jim searched for words. “Weirdly mature of you, boss.”
Tony laughed, pushing at his shoulder. “Don’t rag on my coping mechanisms, man!”
Jim dragged the younger boy into a headlock, and promised himself he’d never let anyone bother Tony about that wrist band where he could hear them.
“What’s it like?” Tony asked Pepper once, as they were both drifting on inflatable tubes neither should have brought into the lazy river installment circling the hotel pool. But hey, who was going to stop Tony Stark, or his platinum card?
She made an inquisitive hum. “The soulmate thing,” Tony clarified, and Pepper opened her eyes to look at her boss. He wasn’t looking back, his eyes firmly placed on the ceiling, but she could read the yearning in his face.
Tony had told her the truth about his soulmate years ago, but it still hurt her every time she thought about it. To know that Tony would never feel what she felt-
Well, maybe she could describe it to him. Tony had always had an amazing imagination.
“You feel…complete,” she said, and Tony sighed and closed his eyes. “You feel finished. Like you’ve been a puzzle all your life and here someone has all the missing puzzles you didn’t know were missing. And you have all of theirs. It’s mutual, and that’s what makes it - so great, I guess. That you’re needed as much as you need. That your love is returned equally.”
She and Rhodey had turned out to be platonic, both happily seeing other people who were also platonically-bonded to others, but she couldn’t imagine being without him now. Functioning like she did now. Sometimes it scared her, that level of devotion. She knew now why some people killed themselves after losing their soulmates.
“Sounds wonderful,” Tony murmured, his right hand encircling the band on his left wrist. “You and Rhodey are lucky.” He didn’t mean it to sound petulant, and it didn’t, but she still felt a spike of guilt anyway.
“Very,” she agreed, reaching out to take his hand. “And lucky to have you, too.”
Bruce watched as Tony stuck a hand out to the Captain while popping blueberries into his mouth. “Tony Stark,” he said when he was finished chewing.
“I know,” Captain Rogers said, a hint of disdain in his voice. “I read about you.”
“Then obviously you know absolutely everything about me there is to know,” Tony said, blisteringly dry, but it was the expression on Tony’s face that caught Bruce’s attention more than anything. He looked strangely nervous and - expectant? Like he was waiting for a specific reaction.
Whatever it was, he didn’t get it. Rogers snapped at Tony a bit then left, and Tony came back to the lab equipment looking small and lost, fiddling with the band around his wrist.
Jesus, Bruce thought. Please don’t let them be soulmates.
Thor respected the Captain and his command, but even he had to admit that so far the man was absolutely dismal at connecting with the Man of Iron.
It was not all Steven’s fault, of course; Tony was pricklier than most monsters Thor had faced and his acidic manner of speaking took time to get used to. Between the two of them, both men were terrible at communicating with each other. So Thor did what he would do with his fellow warriors back home when they would fight.
He sat them down, and got them drunk.
“You both have much in common,” he said as he filled Steven’s cup with liquor straight from Asgard.
“Like what?” Tony asked, one eyebrow raising.
“You are both leaders of your people. You are both quick-witted and ingenious. You both are missing your soulmates.” That last one was a gamble; Thor was never sure when it was appropriate to talk about soulmates. (Personally he found the whole thing strange and frightening in a way he couldn’t define, but it was not his place to pass judgment on them.)
“My soulmate’s not missing,” Tony said, staring at Steve with an intensity that seemed out of place. “He - They’re just. Not here.”
“Neither is mine,” Steve said quietly, looking up at Tony, a curiosity in his eyes that wasn’t there before. “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said stiffly. “I’ve never known any different.”
“You mean you have never met yours?” Thor asked, a bit shocked. From what he had been told and what he’d seen, people had ways of hunting down their soulmates now, and Tony was quite famous.
“No. And I never will, so just-” Tony down his finger of scotch and then wiped at his mouth with a shaky hand. “Look, Thor, this has been great, but I know what you’re trying to do. Me and Cap here, we just don’t mesh well. I think he’s got a giant stick up his ass and he thinks that I’m not good enough-”
“When did I ever say that?” Steven cried, outraged.
Tony lifted his chin in the air. “Oh, you didn’t have to. Your face is plenty expressive, Cap. You’d make a terrible spy, by the way. But also, let’s not forget that you knew men worth ten of me with none of this. We all know who you were talking about, Rogers.”
“I don’t,” Thor volunteered.
Steven looked devastated. “Tony, I was - I was confused, and angry. I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry. Besides, didn’t you make me look like a complete idiot not one day later, flying that nuke into the portal? I thought you’d never come down.”
Tony’s chin slowly dropped so he could meet Steven’s gaze more fully. For one long tense moment Thor thought he might get up and leave, but then Tony sighed. “I didn’t mean what I said either. I just. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Steve said. “Hey, Tony. You’re good enough.”
“Yeah?” Tony said with a tentative smile, and Thor finally relaxed. They began slowly discusses other things, people and culture, the differences between Asgard and 1940s New York City and the world today. It felt like camaraderie. Thor would be most pleased to take this news to the Widow.
“What was he like?” Tony asked a few drinks in.
“Who?” Steve rolled his head to look at the other man.
“You know…” Tony laughed and fiddled with his wristband. “Barnes.” Thor detected a peculiar note of reverence when Tony said the name, but from what he’d said, Tony had grown up hearing tales of these Howling Commandos. Thor suspected such respect was not so far-fetched.
“You really want to know?” Steve asked. Tony tilted his head, a strange smile on his face.
“’Course I do. We could swap stories if you want. I could tell you ‘bout all the crazy shit Aunt Peggy got up to.”
And then Thor watched as a real smile, the first he had seen in this new world, grew on Steve’s face. “I’d like that.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” Steve said to Tony as they both stood in the kitchen, watching Bucky carefully fiddle with the remote.
“It’s no problem,” Tony replied, his voice very faint. “Couldn’t leave him out there in the cold, could I?”
After hearing what went down in DC, Tony had spared no expense helping Steve track down Bucky and bringing him back to the Tower - “only if he wants to,” Tony had said, cautious but hopeful. Now they had him back, and neither of them could take their eyes of the man.
Tony was finally meeting one of his heroes; he had forever been asking Steve about Bucky, what he had been like when they were kids and during the war. He looked up to Bucky in a way he didn’t to Steve, and at first that had made Steve a bit jealous, but then he realized that Howard had essentially poisoned Tony against him by constantly putting him in competition with Steve’s memory. Bucky was safer, and not seemingly impossible to live up to. Tony actually had a Bucky Bear, although he had turned bright red when he admitted he had bought it in his teens.
As for Steve - Steve was getting back his soulmate.
He had taken a careful peak under the wrist band Bucky never took off while Bucky slept on the plane ride over, and breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw that HYDRA hadn’t marked over or cut off his name. God, he had missed him. Had missed having a soulmate, period, but Bucky more than anything.
Tony moved from beside him, approaching Bucky and sticking out a hand. Steve tensed; Bucky’s reactions weren’t always reliable. “I’m Anthony Stark,” Tony said, which was a bit odd as Tony hated his full name, but maybe he was saying it to give Bucky something concrete to latch onto. “But you can call me Tony. You okay with Bucky?”
Bucky stared at the hand, then Tony’s face, and then slowly reached out with his metal arm. Steve stepped forward, but all Bucky did was shake Tony’s hand. Tony inhaled sharply and the air seemed to freeze before Bucky broke it with a rough, garbled “Bucky’s fine. Anything’s better than ‘Asset.’”
“I bet,” Tony said, smirking a bit. Bucky dropped his hand and a shadow passed over Tony’s face, but then he was all smiles. “How ‘bout I give you the nickel and dime tour?”
“Ain’t got any money,” Bucky grumbled. “Didn’t exactly get paid for killing people.”
Tony shrugged, not looking the least bit horrified. “Eh, I’m rich enough for the both of us.”
Tony was quite possibly Bucky’s favorite person in those first few months. Steve and Sam tried to be there for Bucky as best they could, but Tony just had an uncanny knack for knowing when to hold his hand and when to back off. Tony would drag Bucky down to his lab and plunk him down amongst the mess and make him sorts nuts and bolts into drawers. It had infuriated Steve until he realized that the order soothed Bucky, helped him think.
Tony dragged them out on tours of New York, to all the best and the absolute worst restaurants in the city. “You’ve got cast-iron stomachs, you can handle it,” he’d laugh when Steve and Bucky would complain. And Steve was grateful that Tony had gotten Bucky out and about, grateful that he could see his soulmate in the sun, but part of him also resented it.
It was only that he recognized the way Tony looked at Bucky, because it was the same way Steve did. It was the same look Steve saw every time he glanced at a mirror. And he didn’t know how to feel about that. Sure, he had never told Tony, anyone, about his soulmark, but Tony had to know, didn’t he? Steve had moved heaven and earth to get Bucky back, he had never given up, gone weeks without sleep to bring him home. Surely Tony wasn’t that oblivious?
“You should tell him,” Natasha advised when he went to her. “Tony is that oblivious. If you don’t, I will. He follows Barnes around like a puppy, Steve, it’s not good. You’re all going to get hurt.”
“Who’s going to get hurt?” Clint asked, coming into the kitchen and opening the fridge to grab the milk.
Clint’s face screwed up in a frown. “Seriously, I’m starting to think he’s doing it on purpose. You and Barnes are literally made for each other, no way he doesn’t know. Soulmates are - you don’t get between soulmates.” Steve’s eyes flickered down to the ‘Phillip James Coulson’ written on Clint’s wrist. “He’s being an ass, is what it is. You want me to talk to him, Cap?”
“Steve should talk to him,” Natasha interjected, looking at Steve meaningfully before getting up and leaving. Clint watched her go and then turned to Steve with a dark look.
“Look, I’ll set him straight, Cap. You go be with your soulmate. You gotta cherish every moment while you still got it.”
Steve hesitated, uneasy about the entire situation. What if this pushed Tony away? Tony had been so good for Bucky - Steve wasn’t always capable of dealing with the person Bucky had become, too wrapped up in what they used to be, but Tony seemed to know what this Bucky needed before he even needed it sometimes. Steve didn’t want to ruin that, not when they both were doing better than they ever were before.
But, no. He had to think better of Tony than that. Tony was a good man, and a lonely one. Steve completely understood the appeal of Bucky Barnes, but Tony would get past this.
He headed upstairs to the floor he shared with Bucky. They weren’t back to sharing a bed yet, but Steve felt comfortable walking into Bucky’s room and laying down beside him while he read.
“Something wrong, punk? You got that constipated look you always get when you’re unsure about something.”
Steve punched at his arm. “Jerk. Nah, it’s nothing. I just-” He trailed off, looking down at his wrist band. He had been hiding it for so long. Out of fear, then out of grief, and now out of habit. He had nothing to hide anymore. Bucky was his soulmate. His always.
“You just?” Bucky asked, and when Steve looked back Bucky was gazing down at him, that old well-worn look in his eyes that Steve loved so much.
“I wanna take ‘em off,” Steve said, snapping at his band. Bucky’s eyes followed the movement and lit up.
He leaned forward to kiss Steve on the mouth. “I’m game if you are.”
Six months ago he would have gotten Tony drunk to do this conversation. But five months ago Tony stopped drinking, coincidentally at the same time Bucky Barnes came to the Tower.
Tony got sober. Tony came up to socialize. Tony slept, Tony ate. Tony took care of himself, and even managed to take care of Bucky, too.
If Clint weren’t so mad at the guy, he’d feel damn sorry about doing this. Because with Bucky around, Tony had gotten better.
But soulmates? You don’t mess with soulmates. You don’t get in between two halves of the same heart; that was just cruel. And Tony might pretend to be socially inept to get out of whatever gala Pepper wanted to drag him to that month, but he was almost as good at reading people as Natasha was. Steve was his best friend. He had to know what he was doing to the guy, blatantly going after his soulmate like that. The soulmate that Steve had watched fall of a fucking train, the soulmate that had been tortured and brainwashed by HYDRA.
Bucky needed stability right now. He needed the feeling of completeness and finality that only a soulbond could provide. Clint knew from experience. Pulling himself out of the nightmare that was Loki’s meddling had been a nightmare without Phil.
God, now Clint needed a drink.
The point was, soulmates should never be torn apart. Not by death, not by time, not by megalomaniac Gods, and not by narcissistic genius with the emotional quotient of a teaspoon.
As if summoned by negative thoughts, Tony appeared in the living room, surreptitiously looking around. For Bucky, Clint figured.
“Promise me you’ll be chill,” Sam whispered urgently. He had insisted being here when he caught wind of Clint’s plan, to ‘defuse the situation if need be.’ Clint thought it was unnecessary. He wasn’t going to pull any punches; Tony wouldn’t appreciate that. He was gonna give it to him straight and true.
Tony saw them looking, quirked an eyebrow, and sauntered over. “The arrows give you trouble, Katniss?”
“We need to talk.” Tony stopped in his tracks, looking between the two of them, and then slowly nodded, making a gesture for Clint to go on. “You need to leave Steve and Bucky alone.”
“Steve and…Bucky?” Tony asked, glancing at Sam for guidance.
Clint leaned forward to draw his attention back. “Look, we all see the way you look at Buck, and it’s not okay, Stark.”
“What’s wrong with the way I look at Bucky?” Tony’s hand went to his left wrist, where his customary black band covered his soulmark. “Did he say something? I know I can be a bit…much.”
And Tony looked so hurt and earnest that second doubts began to creep into Clint’s mind. Natasha had always said emotions had to be shoved in Tony’s face. “Tony,” he said, voice softening. “Steve and Bucky are soulmates. You do know that, right?”
Tony went still as a statue. “What?”
Clint looked at Sam, who nodded and shifted forward, taking the reigns. “Bucky is Steve’s soulmate. Always has been. And you’ve been so helpful, and they both adore you, but you’re starting to - overstep, a little.”
“Overstep,” Tony repeated faintly.With his right hand he dragged his left wrist over his heart and held it there. Pulse against pulse. Clint knew that trick; it was a textbook coping mechanism for those that had lost their soulmate. No one knew why it worked, but feeling a heartbeat next to your soulmark made everything not feel so lonely. He’d woken up in that same position several times after Phil died. “Why did - why didn’t Steve say anything?”
“I don’t think...” Sam paused, searching for words. “He hid it for so long, back in his time. I don’t know if he knows how to say it. He thought you would know. You two are so close.” That made Tony flinch hard and Sam rushed to reassure him. “No one’s mad, Tony. Just maybe take a few steps back. Give them some room. Just…be their friend.”
“Their friend,” Tony echoed again. Clint had never seen the man so lost for words. “Because they’re soulmates, so they’re like one entity. Complete. My mom always told me-”
He stopped, closed his eyes, and let his wrist drop. He looked, for a moment, like a puppet with its strings cut. Lifeless.
“I thought you knew, man,” Clint said quietly, because God, did he feel like a jackass now. Tony clearly did not know. “I’m sorry I came on so strong it’s just - soulmates are special, you know?” Sam kicked at him; once again, no, Tony did not know.
Clint watched as Tony visibly pulled himself together, pasting on a little smirk. “No, it’s cool. It’s good to know before I - well, I - I can’t come between that. Thanks for cluing me in, birdbrains.” Tony turned away, heading for the door to the kitchen.
Later when Clint went looking he found one of the liquor bottles missing from the cabinet and wondered how disappointed in him Phil would be.
Sam watched Tony’s face carefully as Steve emerged from the elevator with Bucky, their right wrists uncovered for the first time.
JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES Steve’s read, in the clear cursive print that Bucky sometimes slipped into on his better days. STEVEN GRANT ROGERS, read Bucky’s in Steve’s messy scrawl.
Sam brightened at the sight, damn proud of both of them. Tony’s jaw clenched tightly but other than that he didn’t respond, and Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m such an idiot,” Tony said under his breath. Sam allowed himself a small smile. He wasn’t usually a fan of Tony’s level of self-deprecation but in this case it was a sign that Tony was accepting things, that everything could be normal, no hard feelings.
“Only a little,” he said, nudging Tony playfully. “But it’s understandable.” Neither of them looked down at the wristband hiding Tony’s soulmate. Sam felt for the man, he did. Everyone deserved to meet their soulmate, but Tony was approaching forty-five and there was still no sign of them. Whoever they were, Sam hoped they got their asses in gear and weren’t dumb enough to listen to whatever the media said about Tony. “Hey. You’ll meet them. You’ve waited this long right? I promise once you do, it’ll be worth it.”
Tony looked at him and for a moment he looked so lost, so devastated, that a low swoop of dread filled Sam’s stomach. He’d seen that looked before, on soldiers who made it back only to find their home was gone. Some of them never found it again.
Then the moment passed, and Tony smiled tremulously. “I’ve always heard soulmates were a wonderful thing.”
“They are,” Sam reassured him, thinking of Layla Simmons, stationed over in China, waiting for him to call on Skype soon.
Steve and Bucky make their way over to the couch, holding hands, both looking apprehensively at Tony. The billionaire took one look at Steve’s wrist, one look at Bucky, and chuckled. “So, it’s always been you two against the world. All alone.”
“Yeah,” Steve said softly. Bucky was focusing intently on Tony, watching every minute twitch of his face, but beyond the slightly bitter tone of his voice, Tony was completely calm.
“Well,” he said, standing to clap Steve on the shoulder. “Not anymore. You’ve got all of us supporting you no matter what. I’m proud of you, Steve.”
Sam knew he was not imagining the relief on Steve’s face. He had been so worried after Clint told him about the intervention in the kitchen; Tony’s friendship was important to him. To both of them. “Thanks, Tony.”
“And I’m sorry-” Tony faltered, his eyes going distant and vague before a tiny, full-body shudder went through him. “If I’ve been a bit over-bearing and ah, oblivious. I’ve been told I have that problem. Selfish.” Bucky opened his mouth to speak but Tony was barreling forward. “You two-”
For the first time he looked at Bucky, and that inexplicable dread rose up in Sam’s gut again as the light in Tony’s eyes flickered out. “You deserve to be happy.”
Bucky rubbed at his left metal wrist, a nervous habit Sam had noticed he’d picked up since arriving at the Tower, and nodded. “Thanks. ’M not sure about deserving but-” He looked at Steve and smiled, heartbreakingly hopeful. “I am lucky.”
Tony’s responding smile was all wrong, distorting his face into something alien. He wagged a finger at Bucky. “Don’t take it for granted.” His voice was all over the place and Tony began stepping backwards. Sam tensed, ready to step in if Steve’s brand of mother-henning prevented Tony from saving some face but they all watched as Tony turned neatly and made his way to the elevator, calling for JARVIS to take him to the lab.
“He’ll be alright,” Sam told them both when they looked worried enough to follow him. “He’s hurt, and probably a little embarrassed. Just give him some time.”
Steve nodded and sat down to watch some TV, but for a long moment Bucky remained standing, watching the elevator as if waiting for Tony to come back.
JARVIS watched his creator stumble into the lab, holding his left wrist to his chest. He was crying. JARVIS did not have any previous recordings of Sir crying.
Something was very wrong.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asked, and Tony responded with a laugh, lasting two seconds longer and two decibels higher than the average of his past instances of real laughter. “Sir?”
Tony made his way to the table where his main computer was kept and sat, swaying in a similar manner to previous instances of Sir being inebriated, but JARVIS knew he didn’t do that anymore, had stopped shortly after learning Sergeant Barnes was coming to live in the Tower.
Sir laid his arm out on the table, his wrist - his bare wrist - facing up. JARVIS analyzed the handwriting there in an instant, a thousand if/then statements colliding to form a very distressing conclusion.
“Did you know,” Sir said in a hoarse voice. “That my mother once told soulmates carry around pieces of each other? That way they’re never alone. Not even death can stop that. No matter where they are, no matter what you’ve done, you’ve got somebody who loves you. Always. That’s what a soulmate is.” Sir laughed again, reaching down for the liquor bottle he had brought in from the kitchen earlier, the one he had yet to crack. He did now, taking a long sip before JARVIS could even begin the sequence to remind him of his pledge to stay sober as long as Sergeant Barnes needed him.
“Oh God, I thought I was going to be happy. Can you imagine, J? What a fucking joke. I should have known. Dad did. Said the mark was a fucking mistake. He always did know best.” Tony held up the bottle in some form of a salute.
JARVIS remained silent. For all that Sir had given him room to grow, he was still a machine. He didn’t know how to respond to this. For awhile he simply watched Sir drink, and quietly mourned along with him a future that was lost to them now.
“I thought he loved me,” Sir whispered. “All that time, I thought he loved me. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. No one could.”
“Hey, J,” Tony said some time later, only slurring a little. The cameras couldn’t fully capture his expression, his head tilted into shadows, but he was staring at the mark on his wrist again. “Fire up the soldering iron.”
Natasha helped Thor tear Tony out of his armor, piece by piece, cursing him all the while. “Дурак!” she spat, tossing one of the gauntlets aside as Thor worked on the legs. Steve was going to have to bench him after this stunt for certain; he’d have no choice. Tony had always been reckless but this was borderline suicidal.
What had changed, she wondered in the back of her mind. Tony had been doing so well, all of them meshing well, living together at the Tower. Barnes coming back had made it even better, slotting neatly into their little circle, and though Tony’s obvious crush on him was doomed to go nowhere, surely that wasn’t enough to send Tony into this kind of tailspin.
She didn’t even realized the band that hid Tony’s soulmark had broken off until she was staring at the skin of Tony’s left wrist, mottled by a deep burn. A very recent burn, the scar a very bright pink. If there had been a name under there, it was gone now.
The pieces fell into place very quickly after that.
“Oh.” The small, simple word fell out of her mouth like a stone. “Oh, Tony.”
It felt weird to be sitting around drinking while Tony was in the hospital, but the nurses had chased them out hours ago and after a battle like that, they all needed to unwind. They left Bruce at the hospital, and their phones were all at the ready, but the environment had relaxed just a little.
Bucky didn’t know that he could follow suit, though. He kept seeing Tony diving into that explosion over and over. What had he been thinking?
That had been a common thought these past few weeks, as Tony withdrew further and further from the team for no apparent reason. He’d overheard Clint telling Steve that he had advised Tony to back off a little and honestly, that still kind of bothered Bucky; everyone had been so worried about the attention Tony was paying him but Bucky liked it. He liked that Tony never treated him like he was fragile, he liked being the center of Tony’s world and he liked making Tony the center of his if only for a brief time, because it always made Tony smile and Tony should always be smiling.
There hadn’t been a need to confront him; Tony was smart and would realize his crush had a soulmate and they would ease into being friends. But he also knew it bothered Steve so he didn’t say anything. Tear the bandaid off quicker, he supposed. He didn’t know Tony would take it this seriously.
Gone were the movie nights catching him and Steve up on modern cinema, or the weekly Wednesday tours to the weird hole-in-the-wall joints dotted across New York City. No more sitting in the lab watching him tinker. No more random spurts of Italian desserts filling his fridge. No more Tony, period.
It hurt, and it also irritated him a little. Just because he didn’t want Tony didn’t mean he wanted Tony gone. He missed him, like a physical ache, like cold in his bones. Steve said that Tony wasn’t very in touch with his feelings and didn’t handle rejection well, but it had been weeks. Bucky just wanted his friend back.
“So,” Clint suddenly said loudly. He was a bit drunker than the rest, and looking at Natasha. “Heard you two had to take off everything. Even that little band of his. D’you see a name or is he actually a robot?”
“Clint. Dude,” Sam breathed out, annoyed. “Not cool.”
Clint frowned, seemed to internally repeat what he said, and then frowned harder. “No. Wait. I just mean-”
“Shut up,” Natasha snapped. The room froze. She had never spoken like that to Clint before. Bucky wondered if anyone else could see the minute trembling of her fingers. “You don’t know what you’re asking, so be quiet.”
It’s not like Bucky wasn’t curious, too. Whoever was Tony’s soulmate - well, they were damn lucky, and the sooner they realized it the better. They had to know, Tony was on TV three times a week. Tony was brilliant, and funny, and had a mountain of issues and insecurities but wasn’t afraid of pushing through them for the right person.
Tony just needed that right person. Like Steve was for Bucky. Bucky turned towards Steve, sitting beside him, and nuzzled into his neck, finally relaxing when he felt Steve’s hand begin running through his hair.
“Something wrong with the arm?” he asked, and Bucky looked down to where he was rubbing against his metal wrist. It bothered him sometimes, even though there was nothing wrong with it. Like a phantom pain.
“’S nothing,” he murmured. Steve kissed his forehead and they settled in closer together.
Everybody deserved a Steve.
He hoped Tony found his soon.
Tony stared down at his wrists as Helen helped him fasten the cufflinks. He was leaving the hospital, finally, two days later than planned, but it had taken awhile to get Helen and her prototype skin-grafting machine here and a little bit longer to convince her to help him.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of his left wrist. Smooth, bare, free of markings. No scars. No names.
“You’re a life-saver, Helen,” he whispered, and she glared at him before sending him on his way.
He was heading back to the tower now, back to the team, back to the bots and JARVIS, back to him. Except Tony couldn’t go back to him - that would mean that Tony had ever had him in the first place.
Of fucking course you never had him. Who in the hell would deserve to be the other half of you, Stark?
His mother, Jarvis, his friends, they had all told him that soulmates were love, and acceptance, and unconditional. And it had saved Tony’s life more than once to know that he ranked that, even those years when he thought his was dead. He had lived his life dreaming of that kind of bond, that even when he was the scum of the earth, Merchant of Death, he could have that kind of love.
But it wasn’t for Tony. There was no other half. There was no love, no acceptance, no unconditional. There was just him, alone. Like always. Like he deserved.
Still a disappointment, after all this time. Sorry, mom, for single-handedly - ha! - ruining your entire philosophy on soulmates.
He should have known from the beginning. He had just been so caught up in, the swelling tide of everything that had been promised to him. Completeness. Serenity. An open heart. He had been so caught up in waiting for that moment when he would finally be loved back that he hadn’t seen there wasn’t any more love to be given.
There were paparazzi waiting outside, swarming the car where Happy waited for him. Tony, with a practiced smile, threw up a peace sign with his left hand, his sleeve pulling back, and a thousand pictures were taken of his blank wrist.
Tony Stark had no soulmate. It would be front-page news for the next week. He preferred it this way. This was his story, and his alone now. He wasn’t abandoned, unwanted, a cast-off of a failed bond. When future interviewers ask him, he’ll smile and say “I guess I just loved myself enough for two people.”
Tony had burned his heart out of his chest a long time ago. This was just making it official.
He never had a name. It never said James Buchanan Barnes.
Tony Stark had no soulmate.
Chapter 2: i never wanted to abuse your imagination
The world doesn't stop spinning for a broken heart.
In which I throw all the standard Tony-in-distress tropes in a pan and bake them. Also this is about eh, 2000 words too long, but hey. Also, minor change from the previous chapter that I'll have to go correct, but James Barnes is actually kind of a generic name, so I switched to their soulmarks being FULL names.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Maria fit the cap over Tony's head for about the fourteenth time, twisting it this way and that to get it to stay on right. The moment she let go it slipped, falling over one big brown eye, and her three year old son giggled.
"Doesn't fit, Mama," he informed her. "Youuuuu looooose."
"Antonio," she said, half admonishment, half fondness. "Don't you want a picture with your soulmate?"
The eye she could see narrowed a bit, considering this. "Mama," Tony said after a moment. "This is a hat."
"Yes, it is, bambino."
"Mama," Tony whined, a fierce pout erupting on his face as he grasped at her wrist. "Soulmate!" Then he pointed at the long line of pictures that ran along the wall of the den. Every one showed herself and Howard, smiling as they showed the cameras their wrists, one name pressed close to the other. It was an old money tradition, one that she was sure Howard used to scoff at but was now only too eager to emulate. Maria's family, back when she had still had one, had done it for generations, from portraits to early photography. Tony wouldn't be able to carry that on for her, not really, but she would make sure he had something.
"You're right, sweetheart. Your soulmate isn't here. He couldn't come. But this-" She adjusted the cap once more. "This belonged to him." It had taken a lot of digging and bribing to find Sergeant James Barnes' army cap, the one he left behind the day of his fatal mission, but after three years she had finally done it. Liberating it from some old man's boxed up Captain America collection had been easy to do once she promised him some of Howard's own artifacts - it wasn't like Howard would miss a drawing or two, anyway. "So now it belongs to you. Just like he does."
"Really?" Tony asked, grabbing at the hat to pull it down and look it over. "Oh, boy! Mama!" He smashed the hat back on his head, crumpling the top but holding it steady. "I look good!"
Before she could scold him to be more careful, she did a double take. Tony was smiling wide at her, James Barnes' cap perched on his head, his chubby left arm holding it up near the back so James Barnes' name could be perfectly seen. "You look wonderful."
"He'll like it?"
Maria smiled tremulously. "He'll love you." Tony beamed and she stood up. "Now stay just like that, Tono, while Mama gets her camera."
Dutifully, Tony remained still, and a moment later he was captured on film; forever smiling, forever bonded, forever alone.
Tony took his temporary suspension better than Steve could have ever dreamed.
The genius was holed up in his lab, as he has been for the past several weeks, working out the dents, burns, and outright mutilation of Mark Some-Far-Too-High-Number when Steve came down to find him. Two days out of the hospital, two days wallking away from injuries that could have killed him, two days since -
TONY STARK HAS NO SOULMATE
- anyone had seen him that wasn't a paparazzo or Happy Hogan. Steve came in swinging, mad and disappointed because right now he couldn't bear to be anything else, but Tony just nodded his acceptance. "I figured," Tony said dully, marking another spot on the armor with chalk.
"It won't be forever, Tony," Steve said. "Just until we're sure you can handle being back out there."
"Rogers," Tony said, throwing something that was pretty damn close to a smile at Steve, who knew what Tony's actual smiles looked like. "I screwed up, alright, I admit it. You don't have to sell me. Suspended, got it. Just don't let it out to the press and we're good."
"It's not just - Tony, I would never -" Steve sighed, wondering when it became hard to talk to Tony Stark again. "It's not just that. You dove into an explosion. Intentionally."
"I had to make sure everything was destroyed," Tony said dismissively.
"You're not the only one that can run the numbers. SHIELD's given us the rundown, Bruce has given us the rundown, I can give you the damn rundown. There was nothing left, everyone was clear, and all that was left was a sixty percent chance the explosion might be strong enough to breach the armor. Something I'm sure JARVIS told you." The AI, however, remains frustratingly, loyally quiet; perhaps he just knows better than Steve when to pick his battles.
Tony snorted. "The sixty percent, that's 'running the numbers,' I assume? Spare me, Cap, no one knows what my armor can withstand but me."
Steve took a deep breath. "Look, SHIELD has recommended you see someone. In light of last week's fight, I have to agree."
Tony dropped his hands, letting them hang and swing. Against his will, Steve's eyes were drawn to the blank space on his left wrist, the one Tony wasn't bothering to cover anymore because there wasn't anything there.
"Ok. We're not good," Tony said quietly. "I was having a rough couple of weeks, I got a little sloppy in battle, okay, and I get that that's not good. I'm submitting to the suspension, no muss no fuss no problems, Rogers, but I will never agree to letting some stranger shrink my head. I'm fine now."
"Now?" Steve said, eyes flicking down to Tony's wrist again. "You start drinking again, don't think we didn't notice, you spend days in here and who knows if you ate or slept, you don't spend any time with your friends, you try to blow yourself up, and then you walk out on live television and show-" Tony's eyes narrowed and Steve stopped himself. "And you expect me to believe that now it's all better. Now you're okay. I know you better than that, Tony."
"Really," Tony said flatly.
"I know this started when you found out about me and Bucky," Steve said bluntly, and it was a hollow victory when Tony's gaze, so steady until now, flicked away. "Tony, I'm so-"
"Stop talking," Tony hissed, and for a moment, Steve did. All he could see was the blankness of Tony's wrists, how wrong it was that someone wasn't out there for Tony, that someone didn't belong to his friend, that Tony, brilliant lonely Tony, would never know what it felt like.
"Why didn't you tell us?" he asked quietly. Tony, who had settled and begun to turn back to his work, shot a venomous look towards Steve.
"So you could look at me like that?"
"I would never have judged you, Tony," Steve said fervently. Sure, it was strange, that Tony had no name. It explained a lot about him, his reluctance to entertain long-term relationships and his ignorance of the bond between Steve and Bucky, his wariness of interpersonal connections. But it was a part of Tony just like everything else, and Tony was his best friend. He'd never turn his back on him.
For some reason, Tony laughed at this, at him, and Steve felt himself flush. "If you knew-" Tony said, between fits of giggles that sounded a bit hysterical. "If you knew." He didn't look like himself at that moment, mouth cracked wide in an insane grin, wetness at the corner of his eyes, shoulders and fists tight and miserable.
I want my friend back, Steve thought. "Tony," he said out loud. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too, buddy," Tony shot back. "You have no idea." He seemed to settle after a moment. "I'm not talking."
Steve wanted to put his foot down, tell Tony that as team captain he couldn't in good conscience let Tony back on the field until they were all sure he was well again (like he was crammed next to Bucky on the couch, walking between him and Buck on the streets of New York, like he was flying Steve through the air and laughing, really laughing) but for now he backed down. Tony wouldn't hear it from him, not today. "Then how about eating? You still up for that basic function? Cause Bruce is making tikka masala tonight." Instead of the outright 'no' he expected from him, Tony hesitated. "We miss you."
Tony watched him, eyes roving quickly over his face, before he laid down the chalk and stepped away from the suit. "Okay," he said quietly. Steve exhaled in relief, but Tony wasn't done. "I did it because of you and him."
Steve stiffened. "What?"
"You and Buck, being brave. About your marks. I figured I should start telling the truth, too. I lied to myself my whole life about my mark, but hey. There's you two. Ready to show the world."
Steve absorbed that slowly, shaking his head. Only to Tony would something like that really make sense. "But on national television, Tony?"
He grinned, and he couldn't know how unfriendly it looked. "Had to beat you two to the punch somehow, didn't I?" He began picking his way towards the door, clapping Steve on the shoulder as he passed. "I was just talking myself into it. I'll be better now, Steve."
TONY STARK HAS NO SOULMATE
Steve didn't believe him.
Anthony spent many quiet hours with Thor, more than he ever had before, but the Thunder God didn't mind. It seemed easier for Anthony to be with him than with the others, easier to bear his blank wrists with someone who was the same.
(Thor didn't tell him that he saw Tony's scarred wrist before Natasha took him away. Didn't tell him that he knows. If it was easier to pretend that something lost was something never to be gained, Thor wouldn't take that away from him.)
"You ever feel it?" The Man of Iron asked him on one of those early days after his release from the hospital. "Jane, her soulmate is Darcy, right?"
"Platonic," Thor confirmed, though he had been told many times how precious platonic bonds were. 'Even,' Jane had scoffed. 'That's always the qualifier. Even. Well, just letting you know, big guy: I love you, but I would give anything for Darcy, even you, even if she's just platonic.' It was not a threat, for Thor was secure in Jane's great love for him; it was an explanation, and he treated it and their bond with the seriousness and respect it deserved.
"Right, platonic," Anthony said. Thor would consider his wave dismissive if he didn't know of the relationship between the War Machine and Lady Pepper. "But do you ever look at her and just know something's missing?"
"I am not human, Tony," Thor said gently. "Asgard does not have soulmates. To me, your earthly bonds seem more unnatural than my lack of such."
"So I seem normal?" Anthony asked, a half smirk-half grimace twisting up his face.
"There is nothing wrong with you, Anthony. There never was."
"There's always something wrong with me," Tony said plainly. "I wish I didn't know. Like you. I've fixed almost everything-" And brown eyes lit briefly upon the blank wrist (Thor had seen in, twisted up with scars that were so carefully, deliberately placed.) before resting on Thor, considering. "You got a god of memory I can talk to?"
"We have a raven," Thor answered. "It does not grant boons."
Tony nodding, staring blankly ahead for a moment before he huffed a laugh, out of place and unfeeling. "Your god-bird sounds lazy. You wanna spar?"
Thor assented, watching Anthony leave to go change into his armor, wondering if Tony would goad him (beg him) to going rough on him again today. To beat him into the ground until he can't stand up again.
Tony came for dinners, stayed for movies, played games on his suped-up Wii with the others. He didn't drink, or at least he didn't get drunk. He talked again. Smiled, even. Like all those few bleak weeks were just a blip on the radar, a random downswing Tony had recovered from.
But Tony was great at playing pretend. He had a lifetime of practice. He wasn't getting better, not really. For them, he had stepped into a role he didn't fit anymore.
It was painful for Clint to watch.
Because he couldn't ask Tony about his blank wrist. He couldn't point out that Tony was dead behind the eyes. He couldn't watch Bucky watch Tony, or the way Tony didn't watch Bucky. He couldn't bring up the fact that he had known a happy Tony Stark, and the one in front of him now was a faker. Because he could tell, everyone could tell, that Tony was one wrong move from falling apart again.
So he muddled through with the knowledge that half a Tony Stark was better than none. If Tony wasn't better, at least he was here. Isn't that what Clint used to tell himself, after New York? At least you're still here. He watched Tony pick at his food, maintain a safe distance from everyone, and retreat to his labs every night. He let Tony bestow all the fake smiles and the half-hearted jokes on Clint that he wanted and tried to return them, tried to show Tony that it was okay. He ate himself whole with a guilt he couldn't explain every night and wished for Phil.
(He'll never know, he thought pityingly sometimes whenever he looked at Tony. Other times he looked at that blank wrist and thought he'll never know with seething jealousy.)
"Tony," Bucky said, cautious and quiet in a way he hadn't been in months. "My arm's been acting up. Could you...take a look at it sometime?"
They all held their breath; Clint had one eye on Tony and one eye on the mound of mashed potatoes about to fall from Bruce's spoon. But Tony just carefully chewed through his bite of steak, kept his eyes on his water glass, and nodded. "Sure thing, Barnes. If you can bear one more night, I've got a free space just after lunch tomorrow."
"I - yeah, sounds good." Yeah, let's nobody mention that Tony would have once dropped everything for Bucky or for any of them, let's all pretend Tony doesn't need time to prepare for an appointment with someone he used to love.
"Sounds good," Tony repeated without feeling, without looking, and took another bite of food.
Clint wanted to scream. Half is better than none, he reminded himself, but half of nothing was still nothing.
Bruce didn't think any of his teammates were stupid. They were far more guilty of the sin of willful ignorance.
Was it Bucky, he'd wanted to ask Tony, and never did. Or Steve?
Tony wore so many things that others would be ashamed of - his ego, his pride, his obscene wealth and intelligence, the addictive personality - as badges on his metaphorical lapel. The man had made a lifetime of glorifying his father's neglect, crafting a careful freedom from care. Every bad thing someone had said about Tony Stark was another piece he put into his armor. Proactive and defensive and utterly effective.
There were many truths about Tony and this was the most unpleasant: he always hit first. If he'd never had a soulmate, he would have been crowing about it from the day he became aware of how he was lacking.
So to wait until he was forty-five years old, after a convenient trip to hospital where Bruce witnessed a personal visit from Dr. Helen Cho, after finding out the man he had been obsessed with for longer than any of them had known was bonded to their mutual best friend, after a downward spiral that took weeks to complete, to show that he had no soulmate? To tell the world there was one more thing wrong with Tony Stark?
That wasn't Tony. That was Tony lying.
His soulmate had existed, and been taken away, so Tony found a way to get rid of the name before anyone could find out how much he'd been hurt. And the timing...it had to be Bucky or Steve. Had to be. It fit all too well, and it was maddening that no one but Bruce chose to see it.
Then again, he didn't ask either. He didn't want to know like the others didn't want to see. He thought that maybe it would hurt too much. Tony, him, the owner of whoever's name was removed, all of them. He thought maybe this was the only way Tony could heal and move on.
He thought, looking at the Elizabeth Karen Ross scrawled on his own wrist, that maybe Tony had the right idea.
But still, Bruce was a scientist, and curiosity drove him, so still he wondered.
Tony checked over Bucky's metal arm with patient and steady hands, forgetting himself and the walls he had built over the last month and muttering a constant stream of explanations and assurances and praise while the soldier absorbed it all, his eyes locked on the mechanic's face. Bruce had never seen either so relaxed.
"That feel better?" Tony murmured, adjusting a wire.
"Yeah," Bucky replied, audibly breathless. "You're a genius, Tones."
"Yes, I am," Tony agreed, smiling toothily up at Barnes, real and genuine. "Sorry I couldn't get you in sooner."
"I know you're busy."
"Sure, but you were in pain. I should've-" His tone was rapidly filling with self-hatred, and Bruce watched as Bucky cleanly and neatly cut it off at the root with a hand on Tony's shoulder and a few words.
"Hey, you've done more than enough. Wouldn't be here without you."
Tony melted, there was no other word for it. "You ever get tired of trying to sell me that one, Barnes?"
"I'll stop when you buy it, doll."
Tony opened his mouth - Bruce could tell this was a well-worn conversation, some inside joke they played on each other that wasn't quite to the punchline yet - when the door to the lab slid open, letting in Steve Rogers with Natasha hot on his heels. Tony immediately went stiff and jerked himself upright and Bucky's incandescently happy smile he had been wearing for the past few minutes fell away.
"Steve," Tony greeted. "Here to pick up Buckaroo for a playdate?"
"We've got a meeting," Steve said, seeming a little dismayed that whatever scene he had just interrupted was over. But Tony nodded and quickly snapped Bucky's arm back together.
"Of course. Hope it goes well." It was the same words he always used whenever he sent Steve and Bucky off to the group therapy they went to weekly. He hadn't said them in months. There was a second part in which Tony would say Be open and - what's the word - maudlin? And Steve would say Mindful, Tony with a fond smile. But it never came.
Instead there was a heavy silence as Tony turned away. "You're good, Barnes," he said when there was no evidence of anyone moving. Natasha's eyes were darting everywhere, meeting Bruce's once or twice with a soft, weighted knowing.
"You could come with us," Steve suggested softly, and Bruce loved his friend for never stopping to try.
"I don't have what you have," Tony snapped, and ouch, in every way. Natasha stepped forward even as Bruce tried out a hundred different phrases in his head to find out which one would diffuse this situation the fastest.
"What, bravery?" Barnes shot back, all hurt and anger. "Because at least me and Stevie are willing to talk about whatever's bothering us instead of holing up in our labs and ignoring the world and hoping it just goes away. I hate to spoil the ending for you, sweetheart, but it's not."
Tony whirled on him. "Tony," Bruce cautioned, and Tony just froze. Bucky threw a dirty look in his direction; whatever Tony had been about to spew, Bucky had wanted to hear it. So had Steve, judging by the frustrated expression on the Captain's face. But Bruce was Tony's friend first; this would be on his terms, or not at all.
"You boys are going to be late," Natasha drawled, and Bucky pushed himself so hard out of his stool it fell over, clashing down. Tony, his back to the room, barely contained a flinch. "Very soon, in fact," she prompted further when nobody moved towards the door. With a sigh, Steve came and gathered Bucky, casting a sad look towards Tony's back before escorting his shaking soulmate out.
The door slid shut. Tony's shoulders shook.
Bruce said after a moment, because he didn't know what else to do, "I could use your help, Tony."
"Yeah?" Tony asked hoarsely.
Tony forcibly relaxed himself and came over, Natasha following with feigned curiosity that soon became genuine. Their eyes met just once as Tony explained his new theory on Hulk pants, and she shook her head minutely.
It was Bucky, and if anybody else had been his soulmate Tony might have been able to be selfish. Might have fought. Bruce could almost see everything Tony hadn't shouted before: that he was the one who prompted Bucky to go to therapy when Steve was content to let him languish upstairs, that he had been the one brave enough to tell Bucky he wasn't well when Steve was convinced the power of love could save him. But it was Steve who was the one who actually went to therapy with Bucky when Bucky needed a hand to hold. It was Steve who talked him down after a bad session, reminded him who Bucky Barnes was.
It was Steve who was Tony's closest friend out of all of them - the man who had bonded with Tony over loss, the captain who led him into battle, the one who Tony had chosen to let in.
It was both of them, and Tony knew it. Couldn't stand to hurt them in that way. So he had chosen a different way, one he deemed more bearable for all of them: he took himself away.
Tony always hit first.
Somewhere a phone was ringing.
That wasn't really abnormal for Stark Industries; they were a Fortune 500 company that specialized in cutting edge technology. Pepper was honestly more worried when the phones stopped ringing. But usually those calls were for deals and mergers and corrections. Usually she faced those with a practiced smile and carefully crafted assurances and buzzwords.
There was no way to respond to the calls that were coming in now. Nothing to say to the dip in stocks that SI hadn't already. 'Tony Stark and Stark Industries will continue to make the quality, boundaries-pushing products that they have always produced...' or some trite like that. 'You were happy to buy his products before you found out he had no name, what's different now?' was what written between the lines.
She was sure SI would bounce back. Moral outrage only lasted so long before people wanted the next phone upgrade. That wasn't the reason she was sitting in the dark, shoes off, drink poured in her office, ignoring the phone call that wasn't about SI or the stocks. It was about Tony.
TMZ SHOCKER: TONY STARK'S BLANK WRIST CAUGHT ON CAMERA!
25 MOMENTS THAT PROVE WE REALLY SHOULD'VE ALREADY KNOWN ABOUT TONY STARK (#4 WILL MAKE YOU CRY)
"Tony Stark: soulless. Something we've known all along, but now there's visual proof. More on the story at 5..."
Like a fucking masochist, she'd read every one. Every article, every blog post, every transcript, she devoured them. We should have known, they all said. It's so obvious.
But Tony had told her, Tony had looked her in the eye and said 'my soulmate is dead' and she had believed him. How could she not? That look in his eyes, the loss and the grief, the way Tony drifted through life as if waiting for something that would never come, how could he be lying? She had been one of the few people Tony had told about his soulmate at all. If he was brave enough to tell her that person was dead, why wouldn't he be able to tell her that his soulmate never existed at all?
"A lot of what you hear about him, it's kinda hard to believe, you know? He's Iron Man, he saved our asses a couple years back. But now - you can see it, right, 'cause he's got nothing. Nobody. You gotta wonder why the Avengers even put up with him."
Tony hadn't talked to her in weeks. Then again, she hadn't made the effort to reach out either. It wasn't because of the soulmate thing, it wasn't - Tony was Tony, she repeated on loop, and she'd loved him for years. This changed nothing. But the fact that he lied to her, that he sprung this on all of them out of nowhere and left her to deal with the fall-out, that was hard to swallow.
"Ms. Hogan, you have a call on line one."
Pepper barely lifted her head from her hands. "I told you no calls today, Deborah."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, this is priority - Colonel Rhodes?"
Just hearing her soulmate's name was a balm right now. "Jim," she breathed, immediately reaching for the phone. She heard his fond, familiar hello and nearly wept. "Oh, God, Jim."
"I know, Pep. Sorry I can't be there. Happy better be taking good care of you."
"The best he can. He's a little upset he hasn't been of much use lately." She dropped her voice to a whisper, worried the vultures outside could get to her even here in her sound-proofed office. "Tony hasn't left the Tower. Since."
A tiny crackle of static tickled her ear as Jim sighed. "Guess that answers my next question. I haven't been able to get off base at all - superiors have got me running missions nonstop with the suit. I think they want to preemptively build up some good PR in case..." In case people turned on Iron Man, next. Tony Stark was already a hard sell for a lot of people, but Iron Man had always been a point of pride. The man who built the suit could be forgiven a lot once he was inside it, but now that the general public knew that man had no name, no other half, no tether, it wouldn't be long before they started to question everything Tony did.
"He won't answer my calls," Jim said miserably, wrenching her from her thoughts. "I know he was in a real bad place even before this last go round in the hospital; kept talking about everything being ruined but I wasn't able to talk him down to figure it out, at least not over the phone. You know anything?"
"Before the accident," Pepper paused, thinking back to those horrible few weeks she had seen the Tony Stark of old re-emerge. "I think he was heart broken. He had a pretty big crush on Bucky Barnes - so big he somehow missed the Sergeant and Steve Rogers were soulmates."
"Shit," Jim cursed with feeling. "That's so...Tony." Pepper made a hum of agreement and they lapsed into silence, content in each other's presence even over the phone and consumed with worry over their best friend.
"Did he lie to us," Pepper finally managed quietly. "This whole time? He told us they were dead. He knows - he knows we love him, right, it wouldn't matter-"
"No it wouldn't," Jim said firmly. "And no, I...don't think he did. Lie."
"You don't?" Pepper asked, surprised, hopeful.
"No. You do?"
"I...I don't know. He won't talk to me, Jim-"
"I know, Pep. It's okay." And because he said it, for a moment it was. "Here's what I know: Tony was so mad after his parents' car accident that he burnt all the family photos he could find with Howard in them, even though I told him about fifty times that night alone how much he'd regret it. Tony gets real stupid sometimes when he's hurt. I think this is one of them."
"So, what are we supposed to do?"
"Same thing we always do: take the first step his stubborn ass won't and help him. I know you're hurt that he didn't tell you everything but at the very least...I can't be there right now, and I can't make JARVIS accept my call. Could you do it for me?"
"I'd do anything for you," Pepper told him sincerely. "And you know it, you bastard."
"Feeling's mutual. When I get back, I promise to kick Tony's ass for making you cry, Potts."
"You know what would make him even more guilty?" Pepper said, smiling now. "A hug."
Jim laughed. "Oh, you are diabolical! Fate got me good when it got me you, Pepper."
"Feeling's mutual," she shot back. Already she felt a hundred times lighter. "I think I should maybe actually try to work today after all. I'll talk to Tony, I promise. Love you, Jim."
"Love you, too."
She hung up, feeling warm and alive and rejuvenated. Complete. She basked in the glow of it for several moments, enjoying the steady pound of her pulse against Jim's name on her wrist. She was so lucky.
And Tony was, too, though she knew he couldn't see it now. He had her, Jim, and Happy. He had the Avengers and Iron Man, his health and wealth. If he didn't have a soulmate, or if they really were dead, then she'd do what she'd always done: she'd fill in the cracks, pick up the slack. She'd make up to him everything the universe tore away. She only had to figure out how to start again.
"You can come out any time, Itsy Bitsy. I won't bite it if you won't."
"Clever," she remarked, pushing away from the corner and coming to sit beside Tony while he methodically ate his cereal.
"I thought so."
The circles under Tony's eyes looked painted on and she could swear underneath his thin sleep shirt she could see the curve of his ribs, more defined than it should be. This was the first time she'd seen him eat unprompted in weeks. It was almost harder to watch Tony try to hold himself together and fail than to watch him fall apart completely.
And she was only going to make it worse.
"I'm surprised to see you up so early," she remarked. "And eating breakfast, no less."
"You wouldn't be if you had seen the angry super soldier who nearly broke down the door to my lab last night. He was very insistent."
"He's worried about you. We all are." She didn't even bother asking which one; either one could bend Tony to their will with a word and neither one would realize Tony was doing it out of guilt.
Tony had an over-developed consideration of soulmates that surpassed even Clint's. Natasha wasn't sure where it came from - if anything, a lifetime of being Bucky Barnes' soulmate should have soured Tony on the idea altogether. The obvious conclusion was someone from his past had done a great deal to instill in Tony a borderline sycophantic devotion to thought of soulmates, or what soulmates represented. Considering Tony's childhood, filled with parental neglect and abandonment, it probably hadn't been a half-bad idea, giving him an evergreen source of love and devotion that couldn't be marred by real life experience. No one could foresee how it would backfire.
Tony had placed his everything into his soulmate, and then was blessed enough to have said soulmate seemingly come back to life for him, only to have it all ripped away. A lifetime of faith rewarded only to have it dashed the next moment. Tony spun wildly out of control for weeks as a part of his identity was ripped away, so he did the only thing he could and created himself a new one. Soulless. Blank.
She'd seen it before. She'd seen the results. She had to tell him, if only to save him.
"Do you need something, Nat?" Tony was watching her now, curiosity and suspicion dueling in his eyes.
"Actually, I do." She angled her body towards him, fought the urge that rose up from nowhere to take his hand. "I need to tell you a story."
"Kinda the wrong time of day for this, isn't it?"
She laughed against her will. "This isn't a bed time story." With that, she reach for the band that wrapped around her wrist. Tony's eyes widened, panicked.
"Let me tell it," she insisted. Let her trust Tony with this, let him see that she did, and maybe that would pull him back from the dark edge she was about to walk him up to. She unclipped the fasteners that held the band tight and slid it off her wrist. She had been wearing it for so long that even on her pale skin they could both see a faint line demarcating where the band covered her.
She laid her wrist out on the table, eyes fondly tracing the name left there. Still black and bright and whole. Still safe. She would have known, of course, if anything had happened to him, but she still couldn't stop herself sometimes from slipping off the band in private and delighting in the evidence that she had saved her soulmate for one more day.
"Alright," Tony said hoarsely, his eyes caught wide and gleaming on her name but his thoughts clearly a million miles away. "I'll bite. Who's Nikolai Petrovich?"
"Nobody," Natasha answered. "I killed him."
Tony jerked hard in his seat, rearing against the backrest in an attempt to get away from her that the rest of his body wasn't ready to follow yet. She felt a guilty pleasure in that - that some part of him knew that wasn't her, some part of him was waiting for the full story.
"When we graduate from the Red Room, we are given our first assignment: we must murder our soulmates. A widow never leaves her mate alive." Natasha felt her mouth twist up in a grim smile. "Nikolai Petrovich was three years older than me, Ukranian, a kind boy who lived with his sickly mother. He was too poor to have gone to college but he was still so very smart - he could do things with those primitive computers that would make you blush, Stark. But my mentors told me he was not to be had, that he had to go, Natashenka, you have to be free. And I believed them. I was made to wear other people's skin; what room did I have in me for another half?
"So I followed him. Watched and waited for the perfect moment. It was not hard; he was clever but he was also a common sort. Routines and checklists and quirks, these make up a person with a target on their back, and Nikolai had plenty. I could have killed him the first day, certainly the second, even the third. By the fourth I had to make my move, or else the other girls would be after me."
Beside her, Tony didn't even seem to be breathing. It wasn't easy for her either. That time in her life was both the darkest and the brightest. "So that day, Nikolai waited for his train to come. It was crowded; it always was, the train system is terrible there. One moment, Nikolai was standing next to the tracks like the perfect fool he was, the next, I pushed him over the edge." Tony sucked in a harsh breath. "People screamed, so loud you could even hear it over the oncoming train, but it was too late. Nikolai died instantly."
"The next day," she barreled on. She had to finish. "I accompanied Viktor Tretyakov to the Romania border, a little worse for wear, a few cuts and bruises, some blood loss, but alive and whole otherwise. A nice family took him in there. Nice girls for him to meet and marry, which he did. Nice children like the ones he would someday have. A good life. And I went back to the Red Room and told them my soulmate was dead, and that was the truth."
Her voice did not waver as she finished her own tale; she had accepted her fate a long time ago. It was better that Nikolai lived a thousand lives as someone who was not hers than die by her hands.
"We had one night together where everything was as it should be, and that was enough. And Fury has been kind to us both; once a year, our anniversary as it were, we exchange very, very encrypted emails. He's fine, good. Three daughters, one with my name, and all of them love the Black Widow. His wife is an extraordinary woman who has kept my secret for years and we've agreed that he does not deserve her." She laughed a bit at the memory of that. "We've had twelve days of being soulmates. I would not trade it for the world. Some people get far less."
Tony looked away, reaching out to his bowl and idly spinning the spoon. "Still. It must have been hard. I can do a lot better than anything Fury can come up with so if you want-"
"Some girls chose a different route," Natasha continued, unable to hear further kindness from Tony. "There were many who chose to kill their soulmates. They had never known them. They would never have a life that could hold them. In the end, it wasn't much of a loss. But some girls, they couldn't bear it. So they got rid of their marks. They tattoed over them, they cut their wrists up, I knew a girl who got hold of a cheese grater and-" She inhaled. "The smartest girls, though, they always burned them off."
Tony stiffened, spoon falling from fingers that appeared suddenly nerveless. "Can't imagine the big wigs were happy with that."
"They didn't care. The marks came back."
Tony lost color so rapidly she worried for his stability in that chair. She reached for him but he didn't move at all, staring blankly ahead at nothing. There was nothing in his face, his eyes glassed over like a doll's. "What," he said faintly.
"The mark comes back, Antoshka," she said as gently as she could. "I'm sorry."
He flinched then, wrenching away from her, eyes wild on his face. "What are you sorry for? I don't have to worry about any marks. I don't have a soulmate."
"Tony," she tried, but he was pushing up, away. "Listen to me, look at me: having something, however small, it's better than having nothing."
"You have no idea what you're talking about," he snarled, stumbling out of his chair, turned towards her like he was afraid to show her his back.
"It's still going to be there, Tony," she said, not moving, barely breathing. "And so will we. So will he." It was the last push, her last card, a terrible truth that the master spy herself couldn't keep tucked close. "I didn't want for you to be confused when it happened. Or scared."
The smartest girls, the ones who burned themselves, were the ones who always screamed the loudest when the names came back.
"Nothing's going to happen! I made sure of it!" Realizing what he had just given away, Tony backpedaled fast, nearly tripping over the couch before finally turning and getting out of the room as fast as he could. Natasha was left alone, the quiet of the room only broken by the slow drops of milk sliding off Tony's abandoned spoon.
Maybe it had been the wrong choice to tell him, but at least now he would know. Maybe this would push him over the ledge; maybe it would save him. Wherever he landed, the Avengers would be waiting for him, she would make sure of that.
She slid her band back on, Nikolai's name disappearing behind a walk of unbreakable silk, and fastened it tight.
Steve ran his hand through Bucky's hair as the other man slept. It had been a hard day for both of them, an end to a hard week. Hell, a hard month, for all of them. Sam felt exhausted, bearing witness to Tony's increasing skittishness and dealing first-hand with Bucky's alternating fits of depression and anger. At this point he was more than willing to go along with Thor's suggestion and lock all three of them in a room.
Sam figured Tony had, like always, decided something that he had no control over was his fault and promptly lost his mind over it. Sam had seen the man's face: he genuinely had no clue Steve and Bucky were together, but of course Tony Stark was dying to flagellate himself over getting in the way of something he had no understanding of. And then, Jesus, that scene outside the hospital: Tony Stark's blank wrist from one hundred different angles and in high definition. Sam hadn't realized what exactly Tony had been going through, or else he would've kept his mouth shut about soulmates and helped the man through it.
Now, he spent most of his days helping Steve keep Bucky upright, picking up the slack that Tony's had abandoned. Used to Steve and Tony had a pretty good system: Steve did the holding, Tony did the prodding. Steve consoled him and Tony invigorated him. Steve put the pieces back and Tony made him live. It was a balancing act and it worked like nothing Sam had ever seen. Tony was just good with Bucky in a way neither of them were, knowing the exact moment when Bucky needed a helping hand and when he needed a kick in the ass.
Now the man had gone, and Steve was exhausted taking care of a Bucky he didn't quite understand anymore, and Bucky spiralled the longer Tony stayed away. Sam just looked after the both of them the best he could and left Tony up to Bruce and Thor and privately, in the deepest reaches of his mind, quietly hated them all for being such idiots.
"I wish it was like before," Steve said out of nowhere, staring at the TV.
Sam could understand that; he wished it, too. Waiting for the other shoe to drop when it came to Tony's obsession with Bucky was nothing when it came to whatever the hell their lives had turned into. "Even when Tony was after Bucky?"
"At least he still cared," Steve nearly spat. His hand tensed involuntarily and Bucky whimpered. Steve looked down, smoothing back his boyfriend's hair, and breathed evenly. "That's - I know he cares. That makes it even worse. He's just shutting us out, all of us, and pretending like he's the only one hurting. It feels like he's throwing it back in our faces."
"I hear you."
"Before, it was tense," Steve tipped his head back. "But at least Tony was there. I could reach out and touch him, and I knew I could trust him with Bucky. I thought he trusted me, too. Now he's just..."
"A stranger wearing Tony's face?" Sam guessed.
Steve grimaced. "He's trying so hard and every day I want to scream at him that he doesn't have to."
Sam thought of the Tony they ate dinner with every night, the one who liked to pretend like nothing had ever happened. How many times had he wanted to ask Tony if he was hurting and how many times had he closed his mouth, knowing it would only drive Tony further away? "It won't last forever, Steve."
"You don't know how stubborn he is, Sam," Steve said with a miserable chuckle.
"No. But I know how stubborn you and the Bombpop down there are. I know where I'm putting my bets."
Steve gave him a grateful smile and passed a hand over Bucky's head again. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sam. I just...I feel like I'm failing him."
Steve only shrugged.
Eat. Drink. Work. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat.
Always master the basics first. He's learned better now than to run before he walked.
Add some variations. Eat. Work. Smile. Drink. Laugh. On cue, now. Don't miss it. Don't show it. He's fine. Work some more. Keep working. Sleep, maybe. If he could. Wake up. Repeat.
(Ignore Bucky. Ignore Steve. Ignore his blank left wrist. It was nothing to take notice of. It had always been like that. He had always been like this.)
Tony lived on.
Before - before Bucky, he had been a lovelorn idiot who had accepted his fate a long time ago. Before the hospital he was a broken mess who was faced with what he couldn't have. He emerged out of those doors, wrist held high, a new man built out of pieces of the old one. If he just pretended long enough that this was normal, then maybe he'd start believing it himself. He'd done it with Iron Man, after all.
He'd always been so great at that, deluding himself.
So he ate and slept and on occasion remembered to eat and drink. He worked like the devil was at his heels. Tony lived on and quietly hoped that, like always, that would be enough. He'd remade himself a dozen times over and lived to tell the tales a dozen times each. This was - if he could just look at it, objectively - this was just another story to tell someday. When it didn't hurt so much.
But, he wondered at night, when he couldn't sleep, days when he never ate, long hours when he never spoke - but when would that be? How long did he have to wait? How many hours, days more did he have to go on like this? The day that would come when he could smile at Bucky and not yearn, that would happen, right? It had to.
He wanted a heart as blank as his wrist, that was all. That wasn't too much to ask.
It would be far easier if he didn't miss Bucky so much. Like cold in his bones when they were apart. Like he had chopped his left arm off instead of burning it. And other, less dramatic things: his smell, his laugh, his eyes. The way he shook and struggled after a hard day, fighting to get back to him and Steve. A warm weight at his side, a cup of coffee in the morning with too much sugar because Buck was shit at eyeballing everything not sighted through a scope. A half of his heart.
He busied himself working on the material for Bruce's new uniform. Bruce had been fine with anything stretchy that would accommodate the Hulk but despite previous assurances otherwise, Tony was still worried Bruce might be caught in a fight in his human form before he could transform. He wanted to add at least some level of protection, but of course that fucked with the elasticity of the material. He was close, though, and if he could get this right the whole team would benefit. A new undersuit for him, new panels for Natasha, Clint, and Steve's suits to allow them more flexibility. Bucky, when he was further from his Winter Soldier persona, tended to be a slugger in hand-to-hand combat, so he wouldn't get as much use out of it, but Tony was always working on his uniform regardless, making the next best thing, keeping him safe.
"J, open up a new project file in the Barnes subfolder, I want to work on a redesign for the shoulder of his tac vest. Segmented plating along the shoulder blades and collarbones since the idiot keeps deciding to take hits for everyone. In fact, open up two, I noticed his gun jamming the last fight, pretty sure it was because he actually reloads too fast...stupid super soldier reflexes...best gun on the planet and he's too good for it to work properly."
His face lit up as he thought of his soulmate, who when it came to fighting might actually be too wonderful. It made him sad sometimes, because Bucky was painfully aware of how good he was, and how he had gotten that way, but Tony used to tell him that he was on the side of the angels now and sometimes angels had to pack a powerful punch.
'Haven't you ever read a Bible? All that smiting and trumpeting and terrifying helpless peasants? Angels kick ass. Righteously.'
'Lightning is going to strike you down, Stark.'
'See, and now you know why I don't go outside.'
He felt himself flush at the silly little winged keychain he had bought for Bucky after that. He'd never bothered to give it to him, too scared and then too wrong.
Tony jerked from his thoughts and looked forward. "Yeah?"
"Sir," JARVIS repeated and then, bizarrely, he hesitated.
"What is it?"
"...there is something on your wrist."
Abruptly, all heat fled his body. No, he thought. No, I made sure.
The memory of that conversation was like ice in his veins. It couldn't be real. He'd just smudged some oil, that was all J was seeing. The mark was gone, and Tony was going to live on. This was the only way he could.
He'd look down, and it'd be nothing. A false alarm. He'd look down and he'd laugh at how scared he'd been, he'd curse himself for the small bloom of hope blossoming underneath it all.
He looked down.
There, blacker than ever, scrawled in the jagged print he only used occasionally, was Bucky Barnes' name.
"It appeared approximately two minutes ago, Sir." And Tony hadn't felt a thing. Like it had been there all along. Like it belonged there. "Would you like me to contact Dr. Cho?"
What's the point? Tony thought. It echoed around in his head as his legs went numb and he slid to the ground, unflinching at the coldness of his concrete flooring. He began to laugh, or maybe he cried. He wasn't sure. What's the point?
It would always be there, and it would always mean nothing.
JARVIS called for Colonel Rhodes right before the override was issued. He had seen what had happened the last time Tony had that name on his wrist, and he could not allow it to happen again. The others would be cut off, for none of them were trusted that far by Sir, not anymore, but Rhodes' codes were built into the very fabric of Sir's security systems.
01101000011001010110110001110000, he sent off as Tony raised his head, mouth already shaping the words to shut everything down. Help.
JARVIS watched his creator rage for nearly two days. As predicted, all attempts at communication were muted, all attempts to get in blocked. Doctor Banner, Agent Romanov, Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers, all were turned away. Even Thor, with whom JARVIS had recorded a marked increase in time spent in Sir's company, was refused.
The bots were safely ensconced in the alcoves that held their charging pads but everything else not nailed down was destroyed. Sir would pause for long amounts of time - sometimes remaining standing and staring at nothing, sometimes talking to people not present or deceased - before picking up his hammer and bringing it down again.
Sir had hurt himself last time that mark was on his wrist, before JARVIS could stop it or call for help. His programming hadn't account for the probability of mutilation because...the mark made Sir happy. The chance of it causing him pain should have been zero. Tony had not even screamed when it happened. He sat back, his skin still smoking, called for bandages, and cleaned himself up. JARVIS had stayed silent then, gathering data. The best course could not be determined immediately. Maybe this would be better. He didn't know; didn't understand. The previous data did not match up with Sir's actions, conclusions met were unreliable at best. So he did not call anyone that day.
It was a mistake JARVIS had since learned from, as Sir would have wanted him to. Tony had created him to think and act accordingly, and Sir's control over him was, by mutual agreement, only allowed so far.
('Having your choices taken away from you sucks, buddy.' A wrist waved into the camera, his first primitive eye, that read James Buchanan Barnes. 'I wouldn't trade this for the world, but fate fucked me hard on this one. Can't whine about it and do the same to you, can I?')
He did what he could, powering down lights to prompt his tired creator to sleep and refusing to turn on equipment that could aid in his storm of destruction. Tony raged at him, but if he would not take care of himself JARVIS would have to do it for him.
He would tell Sir this, but he had been muted.
A blip on the surface of JARVIS' conscience. A communication that Sir was refusing to let through. 011011110110111000100000011011010111100100100000011101110110000101111001, it bounced off of him, insistent.
On my way.
He'd blasted off as soon as he'd gotten JARVIS' message, knowing the AI didn't ask for help idly. Jim was pretty sure he'd broken something in the suit; War Machine was smoking when he'd left it on the landing pad earlier. Truthfully, he'd been waiting for something like this. He'd been busy overseas but every report he heard from Pepper or Wilson detailing Tony's terrifying over-correction of the tailspin he had been in before the hospital trip confirmed his suspicions more and more. Tony wasn't a good liar, but he was a great actor, and he could bluff with the best of them. Still, every actor had to step off the stage at some point, and there were dark things waiting in the wings for Tony that he could only avoid for so long.
He'd avoided the Avengers as best he could, heading immediately for the elevator taking it down the lab. The windows were blacked out, the air stiflingly still. With a hiss, the lab door quietly opened and Jim stepped into the dark room beyond it. One by one, lights from above flicked on, kept low. "Thanks, J," Jim whispered, and began the hunt for his best friend in his labyrinth of a lab. His feet crunched through broken glass and twisted metal as he walked. He wished he was surprised by the sheer amount there was, or how far the damage had spread.
God, he swore Tony Stark was the only person he'd ever wished could do things by halves. Everything his best friend did, he did all the way. Great for getting out of cave in Afghanistan with nothing but a doctor, a missile, and some scrap metal. Not so much for recovering from a broken heart. Good thing he'd had JARVIS on his side this time.
As he passed, machines turned back on and holograms burst back into life. Tony must have given an override instead of taking the time to shut things down. He caught a glimpse of a new project Tony had opened just before, a new gun and body armor for Barnes. Oh, Tony.
He was distracted by the bots coming back online and trundling out of their stations, so he missed the moment that Tony pulled himself upright into a seated position in the front seat of his father's Roadster. One moment there was nothing and the next he had turned and Tony was staring at him, big brown eyes dull until they moved past him and took on the destruction. Butterfingers was already maneuvering a push broom through the mess on the floor and U was cooing sadly at some twisted chunk of metal that looked like a new gauntlet prototype.
DUM-E came over, a washcloth in his hands that could only be described as sporadically soaking, and dropped it on the side of a car, bumping his claw gently against Tony's grease-, tear-, and holy-shit-was-that-blood?-smeared face. Tony glanced down at it, then up at his bot, and Jim heard something clank inside the car as Tony twisted to grab at the cloth with one hand and pet DUM-E with the other. Methodically, he wiped down his face. Jim took note of the bruised, blistered hand wrapped around DUM-E's strut and took three good guesses at how Tony had torn apart the lab.
Tony took his hand back to press the washcloth tight to his face. "I'm sorry," Jim heard him say. Of course the jackass couldn't look him in the eye and say it.
"It's alright," he lied. "Not the first time I caught you moping in your dad's car." Tony's shoulders shook. "You dying again?"
"Would you let me be dramatic and say I wish I was?"
"Leaning towards 'hell no,' but there might be a minuscule chance if you drop the cloth and actually talk to me."
Ever so slowly, Tony obeyed, removing the washcloth and putting it aside. Jim was relieved to see that any blood that had been on Tony's face came from minuscule cuts and not anything serious, but he took special note of his friend's puffy and bloodshot eyes. He hadn't seen Tony cry in years. "What's wrong, Tones?" he asked gently.
"Why are you here?"
"JARVIS called. He's worried. So's Pep."
For some reason that made Tony flinch, his gaze dropping to his hands. After an uncomfortably long silence he asked "can you tell?"
"When she's worried, do you feel that? You know, I've asked around and the first thing people say is that it makes you feel complete, but there's gotta be more." Rhodey felt his brow furrow. He knew full well Tony had basically memorized everything ever written about soulmates, scientific or metaphysical or goddamn Cosmopolitan. "There's more, right? There must be. Right? Rhodey? 'Cause I figure, you complete me, honeybear. And then there's JARVIS, Pepper, the suit. Lots of things complete me. A cup of coffee 'completes' me. So you soulmates, there's like some super secret psychic handshake you don't tell the rest of us."
"Tony," Jim said. "What's wrong, man?" Carefully, he approached the car and, like he did so many years before, placed his hand on Tony's shoulder. This time Tony didn't look up. "Why are you asking this?"
"Because-" Tony barked, and then subsided. He fiddled with the hem of his left sleeve, pushed down over his hand. "Rhodey, I lied."
Jim took a deep breath and smiled sadly. "I know."
If Tony was surprised by this, he didn't show it. "I have a soulmate."
"I know." Now, Tony looked surprised, and Jim realized Tony had thought he was thinking of the secret a college freshman had told him years ago. "You told me he died, Tony. I saw your face; you couldn't fake that kind of grief. I don't know why you got the mark removed, but that's your prerogative, Tones. I still don't see-"
"It came back," Tony whispered, and reached for his sleeve. Jim tightened his grip on his shoulder, mouth opening to tell Tony 'no,' he didn't need to see this, he wasn't here to extract secrets, he just want to help - but the fabric slid away and all that left him was a choked, clumsy gasp as the name there was revealed.
James Buchanan Barnes.
"Tony-" he managed. "Tony, dammit, get out of the fucking car." Tony looked up at him, confused and hurt, but obeying. He opened the door, ignoring the hammer that fell to the ground (yep, that had been guess number two) and shakily stood on bloodied feet. Without hesitation, Jim swept him into a hug and held on tight.
Tony didn't even jerk or stiffen; he instantly melted into Jim's arms, head collapsing into the crook of his neck. "He's Steve's," he very nearly sobbed. "God, I'm broken, Rhodey. I couldn't even do this right." Tony babbled on as Jim held him, letting him unleash everything he'd kept within these past few weeks. The whole sordid story of trying to forget it, trying to get rid of it like he did the mark. Feeling like dirt every time Barnes so much as looked at him, bemoaning all the hard times he hadn't been able to talk him down from. "And I felt it, Rhodey, I still feel it. He completes me, I get it now and I can't even - so I just want proof, okay? Tell me what the secret is."
Jim couldn't answer. His brain was racing too fast to do more than hold on tighter and hush Tony gently.
Because the thing was: it had always been weird, Tony's mark being on his left wrist. That didn't happen. Growing up Jim had just thought it was more evidence of what a special snowflake Tony Stark had to be but when he got older and properly joined the Air Force, things changed. He'd seen things among the other soldiers, especially ones who came back from mission whole in body but not in mind. Bonded men and women with their right wrists once proudly bare, who suddenly never went without long sleeves.
And it felt like more than coincidence that Tony's whole clusterfuck was occurring with a man who had no left wrist.
"I think," he said raggedly, pushing Tony away so he could look him in the eye. "I think you're missing some data."
Later, when he had gotten food and water into Tony and even convinced him to sit on something that didn't have wheels attached to it, Jim wrapped his arm around Tony's shoulder and brought him close. "There is no secret," he said, and suffered through Tony's full body shudder. "That - the way you feel, you feel finished, right? Like a puzzle - that was always Pepper's comparison. I always thought of it more as scales, me on one side and the world on the other. And I went up and down until I found her, and suddenly no matter what the world weighed, she was always enough to balance me out."
"That's nice," Tony breathed. "I like that." Jim waited, patiently, and sure enough Tony spoke again. "I don't think of it like that, though. I just feel cold, mostly."
"You've been avoiding him for weeks, Tony. What was it like before?"
Tony shifted like he couldn't decide if he wanted to pull away. "He felt...he felt like the arc reactor."
"Like he was keeping you alive?"
A brush of Tony's hair against his neck, a shake of the head. "Like he remade me."
Jim closed his eyes; that - that was intense. Quietly he murmured "yeah, Tones. That's it. That's the bond. There is no secret."
"But it can't-"
"I've got a secret, though," Jim interrupted. "And it's pretty classified, so I'm risking a lot telling you this, but I'm pretty damn sure you need to hear it." He let Tony pull away then and they faced each other. Carefully, he took hold of Tony's left wrist. "I've...seen stuff like this before. The military has all sorts of fancy names for it, some we stole from psychiatrists, some we made up ourselves. Lots of acronyms. Most common is PTBS, post traumatic bond shift, but well, the boys up top always have to make things simple. Call them the two-sided."
"I don't understand why you're-"
"I know, Tones, but listen to me, okay? There are soldiers I've met, good soldiers, and all the sudden they're shaking and they're shifty and they don't submit to medical exams. They shower alone and won't undress in front of anyone. Most of them once went bare-wrist." Rhodey took a deep breath and looked Tony in the eye. "And nearly all of them have moderate to severe cases of PTSD."
Tony froze, still as a statue, but Rhodey barrelled on. "They aren't the same, not like they were before. Mental trauma, it does things to you, you know this, Tony. The awful truth is that it changes you. To go through that, you don't often come out the other side the same person you went in as. So say you go to therapy and you take your meds and you do all the right things, and you get better. You still went through it, and maybe you can't go back to how it was before. Your soulmate, maybe they can't fit anymore. They can't complete you. So fate, or whatever it is, steps up to the plate, and gives you someone who can."
"I don't..." Tony's eyes were huge in his face, almost terrified.
"Tony," Jim said gently. "Barnes was held by HYDRA for over fifty years. He was tortured and brainwashed and mutilated. You think even Steve Rogers could look me in the eye and say he's the same man he was in 1940?"
"No," Tony breathed, and then he went impossibly paler. "No, Rhodey, he...he and Steve..."
"Those men, the 'two-sided?' They get a second name, Tones. On their left wrist." Tony was shaking his head now, eyes flicking all around, and Jim raised his wrist between them. "You wanted proof, I can't give you that. But I have got data: you've always been left-wristed. Your soulmark is a deeply-traumatized man who has no left arm. He lost it before you were even born. You think he completes you and if any of the remarks I've heard from Pepper and Wilson are true, he's pretty damn miserable without you. I can draw a pretty clear conclusion to that, can you?"
"That's bad science," Tony said faintly. "You gotta...form a hypothesis. Define some variables. Do experiments."
"Then why aren't you doing that, genius?" Jim asked, soft and fond and sad. Tony's eyes refocused, going wide again as they met his.
"You think I should tell him? No. No, I can't do that, he and Steve are happy!"
"Him and Steve wouldn't want you doing this to yourself," Jim said firmly. Then, with an internal wince, he went for the kill. "They wouldn't want you to lie to them."
As he expected, that earned a tiny flinch from Tony and a sudden, heavy silence.
"And if you are soulmates, if I'm right about you and Barnes, then he needs you, Tony. Steve won't be enough." He left it at that, scared to say more and push Tony too far. Truthfully, he didn't know if telling Barnes would help in the end. But at this point he was pretty sure it couldn't hurt.
"The two-sided...what happens to them?"
Jim closed his eyes at the question, letting Tony's wrist finally drop. "We send them to counseling, no exceptions, and special allowances are made so they can keep it secret; we make a note on their file but no one but high-ranking commanding officers know what it means. We try to keep it normal, make sure they know there's nothing wrong with them. Understand, Tony, it's incredibly rare, it only happens in very extreme cases. I've heard its more common in the civilian sector, dealing with bipolar disorder and long-term depression-"
"Rhodey. What. Happens. To them?"
He sighed. "...sometimes, they ignore it and stick it out with their old soulmate. Sometimes that doesn't work, and they meet the new name and start over. Sometimes, the other person is already bonded to someone else and wakes up with a new name on their other wrist. A few times, there's been no corresponding name at all. I won't lie and tell you those guys always get happy endings. I'm not gonna tell you it'll be easy, cause it won't, not for any of you.
"But SOP to get them well again is to encourage them to try, either way. You can make do with a half-life, Tones, but it's never going to be a healthy one. You know that," he adds softly. Tony's head dropped low between his shoulders, a unspoken acknowledgement. "You have to give him the chance to decide."
The next few minutes passed in silence.
"You know," Tony said out of the blue, still looking down. "You say all this. But I've been through some serious shit the past couple of years. I've got the doctor's note to prove it. And I've never - why didn't I get another name?"
Jim saw him rub his right thumb along James Barnes' name and smiled, bittersweet. "I guess even though all that, he still fits you."
When Tony finally raised his head, his eyes were closed and wet at the corners. He breathed in deep once, and when if it hitched just as the inhale turned to an exhale, neither would ever make a mention of it. "Before I do anything, I gotta make a trip. Come with me?"
"Anywhere you go," Jim promised. He had won. It wasn't a pleasant sort of winning. He grabbed Tony just at the back of his neck and pulled him close. "You hearin' that, Tony? I love you. No matter what happens, you will always have me."
And if it all went wrong, maybe that would be enough until the time Tony could learn to finally love himself.
Bucky was just drying out his bowl from dinner when the subtle hum that Tony had specifically installed in their apartment - at Bucky's request - to signal JARVIS' presence filled the air. "Excuse me, Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers, but Mr. Stark is requesting admittance to your floor."
The bowl fell from his nerveless fingers, clacking hard on the stainless steel counter top and without a word Bucky whirled on Steve, who was staring back at him, eyes wide and mouth gaping. Tony wanted to talk? To them?
Well, hell, it had only been fuckin' weeks since the last time Bucky'd had a decent conversation with the man he had considered to be his closest friend in this new century. Even longer for Stevie. And not for lack of trying on their part. They had asked Tony what was wrong, told him he wasn't alone, and when that didn't work went to the good old-fashioned well of the back alleys of Brooklyn and tried to provoke the guy into doing something.
Instead, Stark had remained withdrawn and isolated and sad and all the adjectives Bucky would have never wanted seen applied to him. Scared was his least favorite of them all. Tony looked at them, at him, with fear in his eyes. The one person Bucky thought he could count on to never do that, and there he was, pretending with all his might that nothing was wrong, like he had lived his whole life ignoring Bucky. Like they'd never been friends.
"Sirs?" JARVIS prompted, but Bucky couldn't form the words, torn about a million different ways at once. He hated feeling like this, and it only made things worse to remember when Tony used to be the person piecing him back together when he got this way. He'd been so fucking worried, and angry, and...
So lonely. He'd had Steve stuck to his side like glue these past few weeks, and he'd still felt so alone. Always wanting more. God, Bucky was a mess - a greedy, selfish mess who didn't deserve what he had and took advantage of every kindness offered to him. No wonder Tony had run away from him.
Just as rapidly as his body had perked up as adrenaline borne of nerves and excitement and no small bit of anger coursed through him, now it plunged into a state of stunned passivity and lassitude as his mood plummeted. The transition was old hat to Bucky by now, but it never got easier to bear. He sagged against the counter top and waved a hand through the air.
"Let him in," Steve interpreted, and Bucky tried to steel himself. Whatever happened, and whatever Tony had to stay, it had to be better than this. For the last month, Bucky had felt locked in a stand-still, waiting for something he couldn't even identify. Tony had gone away, taking all that heat and life with him, and his life had frozen again. And nothing could get him moving again. Bucky wished he was better, wished he was like that man from before that wanted nothing and nobody but Steve Rogers, but he wasn't. He needed Tony.
He'd fucking beg. He hadn't tried that yet, but he'd do it, he swore to every God who was listening, he'd beg. Bucky wasn't too proud to be desperate for the few things he had left in this world.
Steve led him to the couch and down onto the cushions, taking a seat beside him before he took his hand, holding it tight. Always there for him, and what did Bucky give him in return? "I love you," Bucky told him, voice thin. "I really do. I never did deserve you."
"Ain't about deserve," Stevie said, like he always did, nuzzling a kiss to the side of Bucky's neck. "You were made for me. 'Til the end of the line." Bucky smiled weakly. Every soulmated couple had their metaphors for their individual bonds. Til the end of the line had always be Stevie's, and Bucky had said that if that was true, their line must be a circle. There was no end. They spoke the words and meant forever.
Had he kept that promise, Bucky wondered late at night sometimes while Steve slept soundly beside him and wondered again now as Steve held his hand. Or did they burn it out of him in that chair?
"Mr. Stark arriving."
Five seconds later, the elevator doors opened and Tony Stark (always shockingly smaller in person than Bucky built him up to be in his head) walked out onto their floor. He hadn't been here in months, Bucky thought, and his mind caught on that like a dog with a bone the way it did with things sometimes. Tony looked thin, unwell, and unhappy, scared and not hiding it, but that's what Bucky caught on: I missed you, I missed you, I missed you.
"I need to talk to you," Tony said nervously. "Which I know is kinda shitty for me to come up here and say since you've spent the last few weeks telling me the same thing and I've basically blown you off every time but-"
"Tony," Steve said, firm but fond. "It's good to see you. Come sit down."
The small kindness seemed to hurt; Tony's eyes shifted to Steve and his whole face crumpled. Bucky panicked, thinking that he would turn away, that they'd never get him back, and he lurched towards him in his seat. Tony's gaze flew back to his, brown on grey, and just like that, so easy, Bucky's tiny frozen snowglobe of a world shattered back to life.
Tony nodded and picked his way over to the couch. He had a file in his hands, Bucky noticed for the first time, and he was wearing a shirt that was clearly two sizes too big for him. The sleeves swallowed his hands. Bucky was grateful for Tony's unintentional kindness - the sight of Tony's blank wrists always made him queerly nauseous. Carefully, like he was hurting or sore, Tony lowered himself into an armchair and placed the file down onto the coffee table.
"You've been holed up in your lab for awhile," Steve said. "I saw Rhodey come through the common room earlier. Did...something happen?"
Tony looked up, first at Steve and then Bucky. "Yes," he said.
"Yes?" Bucky prompted when Tony didn't speak further. He leaned forward, his hand escaping Steve's grip to wrap around his metal wrist and rub hard. Phantom pain, the doctors had called it. He'd found it funny when they said that and didn't know why.
"Tony, whatever it is-"
"Yeah, I need you to not do that," Tony said abruptly, cutting Steve off. "Don't be...you. You're gonna regret it if you do, trust me, I - look, I - I never knew about you two."
"We know," Steve said, exchanging a sidelong glance with Bucky. "Nobody blames you, we weren't mad-"
Tony shook his head; every bit of him was shaking, Bucky realized with growing alarm. "Stop. Stop doing that. I don't - God, I'm so fucking sorry."
"Sweetheart, you ain't done a thing we can't forgive." The words slipped out, hanging in the air, and it wasn't until the other two were looking at him that Bucky realized they came from him. "I mean. I'm not gonna pretend playing hide and seek the past few weeks was a lot of fun, but that was only because there was no good reason for it, Tony."
"Even if I lied?"
There was a beat, and then another, and then out of the corner of his eyes Bucky saw Steve's head snap towards Tony. "Lied about what?" Bucky asked, only half-focused as his gaze followed Steve's down to Tony's covered left wrist. For most of the time he'd known him, Tony had had that wrist covered, unusual among the population, and Steve had mentioned Tony's absent soulmate once or twice. Then suddenly after that horrible battle Tony had come out of the hospital waving a bare wrist in the air for everyone to see. It was a sight that always left him cold; unnatural, yet Tony seemed to revel in it, always showing it off whenever he could like he had to something to prove.
Now it was covered up again. Now a shaking Tony Stark was sitting in their living room telling them he was sorry. Bucky had always been the sniper, trained to see the whole battlefield, and there was something there, niggling at the back of his mind, something a part of him knew and just hadn't let the rest of him in on the secret yet. Tony jolted up to his feet and crammed himself between their knees and the coffee table before sitting on the hard wood. Bucky thought about how warm he was against him, how he looked more alive and real than anything else in the room, and something clicked in his head, a final piece falling into place.
"I'm sorry," Tony whispered one more time, and Bucky wanted to open his mouth, no and please and Tony all scrambling to break loose, but he sat frozen. He could've stopped it.
Tony pulled back his left sleeve and with a cruelty he couldn't mean or know, placed his wrist on the seam where Bucky's leg pressed against Steve's. James Buchanan Barnes, it read in the scraggly print Bucky sometimes couldn't help but write in occasionally, a remnant of Winter like a cold breeze in April. Not the smooth cursive that flowed across Steve's wrist at all, not the hybrid writing he found himself using every once in awhile nowadays. His name, real and there and undeniable. There was a roar in Bucky's ears drowning out everything else but his own stuttering, helpless thoughts.
James Barnes, all over Tony's wrist. All over Tony. That was his name on Tony's wrist, a part of Tony that belonged to him. His first thought was only of course. His second was I don't have a match. His third thought was Steve, and he was ashamed it wasn't his first.
Steve hadn't moved a muscle. Bucky wasn't even sure he was breathing. He couldn't bear to look at his face - couldn't bear to tear his eyes away his name on that skin.
"I tried to get rid of it," Tony said lowly, and Bucky wasn't prepared for how much that revelation would hurt. "After I found out about you two. You are the best thing that's ever happened to me and I didn't want to hurt you." He was sure even Tony didn't know which one of them he was talking to. "So, I'd kept it secret for so long and I thought well, no one should know. I thought I'd make it real. But then it came back and Rhodey said - he said a lot of stuff. I'm not sure it's all true. But he said that you should know. And I-"
Their eyes met and the world shrunk down to the space between them. A soft smile curled Tony's lips. Bucky had never seen it before, and he considered himself an expert on Tony's smiles. He wanted it again, all the time.
"I wanted to tell you," Tony whispered. "I wanted you. I always have." It made something unfurl in Bucky's chest, bright and warm. Winter turning to spring, summer not far behind. Like a clock ticking on, he thought nonsensically. Ever forward. That was Tony; that was them.
"And I thought that this all might sound crazy or desperate, because of before, so I brought-" Tony reached beside him and pulled the file into his lap. He tried to withdraw his left hand to steady the paper but without thinking Bucky reached out and held it tight.
Steve let out something dangerously close to a sob, stood, and left the room.
Left behind, both men scrambled to their feet, crashing into each other and sending the file to the floor, scattering the contents. Tony untangled himself first, following a few steps in Steve's wake before seeming to catch himself. Bucky had made to follow but his eyes had lit on a picture of a young boy in a familiar cap, stopping him in his tracks.
"Is this you?" he breathed, and while part of his mind screamed at him to follow Steve, his body disobeyed, leaning down to pick up the picture. There were more, a brown-eyed boy growing from image to image, a cap one year, a Buckybear the next, an old medal and a beat up army coat that swallowed him. And in every picture a thin wrist adorned with James Buchanan Barnes' name was proudly displayed towards the viewer.
"Yeah," Tony whispered softly, without turning around.
That little boy was alone in every picture. Year after year, he got taller, ganglier, and clearly smarter, that joyful smile diminishing on every return. The last photo was the hardest to look at. It was a Polaroid, unlike all the rest, and Tony was several years older than the picture before, wearing an MIT shirt under his sports jacket. He was standing at Bucky's grave at Arlington, sleeve pulled back to show his wrist even though the photo was too blurry to make out the words. His face was unsmiling.
"Why?" Bucky asked. Why would someone do this to you?
"It was a tradition in my mother's family, and she wanted me to be apart of it however I could. I stopped it, once I figured out you were dead, but that last one - that was my idea. Me and mom took a roadtrip to DC one summer." Tony shrugged and gave a miserable laugh. "I called it closure." He finally turned around and silently began gathering the pictures one by one, not meeting Bucky's eyes.
"Tony, I-" He looked at his right wrist, Steve's name big and bold. Then his left, cold and bare. "Tony, I don't have your - I never had your -"
"I know. Rhodey said-" Tony cut himself off, stacking all those photos together, all those cruel little stories of a boy hurtling towards heartbreak pressed tight together before he pressed them to his heart and looked up. "These used to be enough for me. I had your name, I had someone who'd loved me, I was set. Now, I have you, and you have Steve, but that's - that's way more than I thought I'd ever get, so. For once in my life, I'm gonna try just being grateful."
"Tony-" Bucky said, helpless.
"Do you love me?" Tony asked, painfully earnest. They stared at each other in shock and then Tony was all movement, turning away. "Forget I said that, go find Steve, just -"
"No." Bucky caught his arm, held him there. "I'll beg," he warned, and Tony stared at him like he was crazy.
"I don't know," he said. He heard paper crunching and realized he was crunching the Polaroid, Teenaged Tony's stoic face disappearing between his fingers. Good riddance, he couldn't help but think. He didn't want closure. "I don't know, alright, I don't know anything, except - you have to stay. I told myself I'd beg if I have to. Just don't run away again."
"You're breaking my heart, Barnes," Tony told him, weakly teasing and painfully serious all at once, so utterly Tony, and Bucky had missed him so much.
"Seems only fair. The last few months have been hell, doll," Bucky told him honestly. Big part of therapy, that honesty. Right now he could see why. "Because you weren't there. I don't want you to leave again."
With a pained smile Tony turned so he could curl the fingers of his left hand around Bucky's forearm. "Please don't beg."
"Stay," Bucky said. Between them their wrists crossed, Steve's name on his running into Bucky's name on Tony's. He stared at the sight for a few moments longer before using his grip to swing Tony around, pressing him into sitting on the couch.
"Stay," he said, begging anyway.
"Okay," Tony whispered, looking a bit awestruck. The way he always had around Bucky, and just the way Bucky had always felt around him. It made the next part ten times harder but he had to do it. For the first time he was the one having to be strong for both of them. He couldn't let either one down.
When he pulled away, the split second of confusion and the dawning resignation that followed on Tony's face tore through him, straight down his soul.
"I'll be back," he promised, and moved away, scared that if he stood there for one moment longer he wouldn't leave. Steve needed him. Til the end of the line. They'd faced most everything together since the moment they met, and they would do this together, too, or not at all.
He sped into the dark hallway leading to their bedroom, feeling the weight of Tony's gaze on his back, and prayed Tony would listen to him. Stay, for him. Whatever may happen, there was a piece of Bucky that clearly belonged to Tony.
Call him selfish, he didn't care; he had no intention of ever losing a piece of himself again.
These boys are all very brave. I might come back and fiddle with some of Rhodey and Bucky's dialogue, but I wanted to go ahead and get this out. I hope you'll forgive a poor author for indulging herself and making all of Steve/Bucky/Tony's bond metaphors cyclical/circular.