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Never Too Late for Love

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Walking away, of course, doesn't mean it's over. Steve hates the goddamn soulbond.

He expects Tony to plead with him, to beg him to come back. He left Tony hanging, after all. And Tony had begged him not to leave. He steps into the elevator, hits the button for the ground floor, and he leans back against the wall, shaking, while he waits to see what Tony's going to say. He swallows hard, shuts his eyes, forces the tears back, forces the panic down. He's in public. He has to hold it together until he gets home.

Tony doesn't reach out to him. Tony doesn't say so much as a word.

And then there's an awful twisting, wrenching feeling, and Steve grabs the railing so he doesn't fall. The bond is faraway, pulled back farther than Steve's ever experienced from Tony's side, though he's pretty sure this was what he did to Tony during that last mission. He can't tell a single thing about what Tony is thinking or feeling unless he forces it. He can tell Tony's alive. That's it.

He sees now why it made Tony fall out of the sky. He hates the bond, but he hates not having the bond more. It's like tripping over a stair that's missing, over and over, not being able to catch his balance, vertigo and yawning dread all the way down.

The worst part is that he knows Tony did this out of kindness. Steve was the one who panicked. Steve was the one who ran. Tony just wants to remove all possible sources of panic. Even as he's terrified, even as he thinks he might throw up from the sheer wrongness of having his mind ripped apart, he's grateful. Tony is letting him be alone. Just like he wanted.

Tony is definitely a better man than he deserves, Steve thinks, and then he's hit with the sudden perfect sense-memory of his fingers wrapped around Tony's cock, and he feels queasy and sick again, because he liked it, he liked it, oh God, he liked it—

The elevator stops. Steve staggers out, across the lobby, through the doors. He ignores the doorman and hails a taxi himself. It's going to cost an arm and a leg to get home from here. He doesn't care. He's not taking the fucking train.

Everyone would stare at him and they'd know what he'd done—

A cab stops and Steve practically falls into the backseat. The driver glances at him in the mirror with concerned eyes. "Where to?"

There's a glint of recognition in the man's eyes. He's Captain America. Everyone knows who he is. And that means everyone's going to wonder why he's stumbling out of Tony Stark's building in the middle of the night. Hell, he's probably already on the security cameras. Some bored guard could be snickering at him from a control room right now.

"Brooklyn," Steve says. His voice is gruff, but it's better than crying. "There's an extra twenty bucks in it for you if you keep your opinions to yourself."

Throwing money at the problem. Tony would be proud.

"Yes, sir," the driver says, and the cab promptly pulls away from the curb.

By the time they get to the bridge, the strain on the bond is nearly unbearable. He's sweating, too cold and too hot and the same time, and his chest hurts like he's dying. The driver is silent, as requested, but he keeps giving Steve increasingly panicked glances in the mirror, the sort of looks that in Steve's experience tend to be accompanied by statements like maybe we should get you to the hospital.

Distance, physical distance, isn't an issue for the bond most of the time; Steve's been halfway around the world with no ill effects. As they found out on their last mission, though, if one of them tries to dampen the bond more than is healthy, suddenly distance matters a hell of a lot. And this time it's Tony ripping them apart. For him.

Tony's got to give him some slack here or he'll hang them both.

After a few seconds he starts to feel Tony in his mind, from afar, so subtly that at first Steve isn't sure whether the emotion is his or Tony's. Black, bleak sadness, the life leached out and replaced with wretched despair—it weaves itself through the empty places in Steve's mind, it whispers worthless, it whispers mistake. It has to be from Tony, because even though it's misery, the pressure inside him lifts just a little and he can breathe again, even if they're awful wheezing breaths that remind him too much of one of those long-ago winters when he came down with pneumonia.

Steve doesn't push closer, doesn't seek any more details. He's sure Tony can feel his panic, his thoughts chasing themselves in terrified circles, and he doesn't intend to give Tony more of that.

He directs the driver to his apartment, and he shuts his eyes and tries not to think about Tony's mouth on him, about his hands on Tony's body. They had slid into perfect synchronicity, feeling each other's pleasure. He remembers Tony nearly coming when he did, because he did, with no one so much as touching him. If Tony had come, would Steve have done the same?

The now-familiar combination of fear and desire twine together within him, and he knows the answer is yes. And he knows he would have loved it. Hell, even without the bond he'd have loved it. And he knows what that makes him. It makes him someone he can't be.

It was a mistake. Even Tony thinks so.

He can't do this. He can't be what Tony needs. He's tried and he's tried and he just can't. This proves it. Even if— even if he wants to, he can't. And he doesn't know what to do about it.

The taxi finally pulls up outside his building, and Steve shoves a wad of cash into the driver's hand without even looking at it. He probably tipped more than twenty. He doesn't care.

Weaving, stumbling, Steve makes his way up the stairs, fumbles with the lock on his newly-replaced door, and lets himself inside. He doesn't bother turning on the lights. He can see better than regular people. SHIELD at least had the courtesy to send a cleanup team—presumably after Fury decided he was innocent—so they've swept up the mess, fixed the door, and righted the furniture. But nothing is exactly where he left it. The table is too far over. The books are in the wrong order. One of the vases is gone. The effect is eerie. Everything is just a little bit wrong.

His entire life feels like that right now.

He drops down onto the couch and puts his head in his hands. The blinding terror has eased a little, but he can't stop thinking about Tony, feeling sicker and sicker every time he remembers how Tony felt, how Tony cried out in pleasure, how his hands were soft and warm and knowing, how the only thing Tony wanted was happiness and he couldn't even fucking do that right.

Down the bond, Tony's sadness rises up in a wave, and Steve's already reached for it before remembering why he shouldn't. Tony's hurting and his first instinct is to help even though he'll only make it worse.

Tony doesn't acknowledge him. He doesn't think Tony even knows he's there. Tony's attention is all turned inward, a hall of mirrors.

Steve realizes that Tony is crying.

Tony is sobbing.

Tony's still lying in bed. Steve doesn't think Tony's moved since he left.

Every single thought that runs through Tony's head is knife-sharp, and Tony's the one bleeding.

I'm selfish, Tony thinks. That's what I am, selfish and greedy. I think that because I want something I deserve to have it. I don't deserve anything. This is what I deserve. I deserve to feel like this. He wasn't ready and I pushed him and he freaked out and it's my fault. It's all my fault. He trusted me to keep him safe and I broke him. I broke him so badly he's never coming back, all because I couldn't stop thinking with my fucking dick.

Self-loathing runs down the bond, bitter and acrid, swamping Steve. It feels like he's drowning in it. He's being pulled down and he'll never come up.

It figures, I suppose. Tony laughs a hiccuping laugh, a laugh that racks his body until he starts crying again. Only I would manage to ruin my soulmate. Everything I ever wanted and I just keep fucking it up. Why do I ever think I get to be happy? Of course he doesn't want me. I ruin everything I touch. Why not him too?

Steve sees himself in Tony's eyes, sees his own terrified, disgusted face, sees himself backing away in revulsion.

Steve wants to reach out. He wants to go back. He wants to run all the way back to Manhattan in the middle of the night and he wants to hold Tony and tell him—

Tell him what? Tell him he's sorry? Tell him he didn't mean it? Tell him he'll never do it again?

It's not like he can promise that.

He can't do this.

He doesn't know what he's going to do.

Christ, he's probably ruined the Ultimates, too. What's left of them. He wasn't fucking thinking.

Tony's finally moving. Standing up and— getting himself a drink. Of course. Tony's getting himself the whole goddamn bottle. Tony's leaning on the kitchen island and tipping the bottle back messily and there's scotch dripping down his chest and he doesn't fucking care and he's thinking just make it all stop.

Tony drops the half-full bottle on the floor. It spills. He staggers back to bed.

Steve shuts his eyes and pushes the bond away, just until Tony's pain no longer claws at his heart. It's rotten, all right, but it's not the worst thing he's done today.

Steve lies down in his tiny lonely bed, his bed that smells nothing like Tony, with its firm mattress and scratchy, cheap sheets. He lies awake for a long time.

Steve's not sure he gets any sleep at all. He can't close his eyes without thinking about any of it, and then everything within him twists up into a sick, agonized longing and he tosses and turns, tangled in the sheets. Every time he checks on Tony—which is more frequently than he'd like to admit—Tony is asleep, with the low thrum of his mind blurred by drink. Tony's going to be asleep for a good long while.

Fury's probably going to call them back in. He has that long to figure out what he's going to do. He has to make this right.

He doesn't know what right is, anymore.

The sky outside is just beginning to lighten into dawn when he realizes he knows where to start.

He has to talk to someone.

When he thinks of it, he wants to laugh at himself. A year ago, he knows what he'd have picked. He'd have gone to confession. But even though he still goes to church, he hasn't stepped into the confessional since before the soulbond. He knows what they'd have to tell him: Tony is a man, and therefore the bond is wrong, when it would be sacred and holy if only one of them were a woman. The injustice rankles. He knows he doesn't want to hear it.

What would he tell the priest now if he went? Would he confess to all his impure thoughts? Would he say he's committed homosexual acts? Would he say he's lain with Tony?

They'd tell him to stop. That's not what he needs to hear. They'd tell him to repent. He doesn't.

The bond is right. He knows, in his heart, that that's true. He might not be sure of anything else, but he knows the bond is right. The universe didn't make a mistake. Even if he doesn't know what to do, even if he's not brave enough to be what Tony deserves, he knows that.

And anyone who wants to tell him that the bond is wrong—they're wrong.

With that, he knows who he has to talk to. There's really only one choice.

He gets ready to leave, and he puts on his Captain America uniform like he's going into battle. He's not, of course, and it's not like the shiny suit's going to fool anyone, least of all the people he wants to see, but he likes the comfort of it. The shield settles onto his back. He definitely doesn't need it, where he's going—it's not like he's bringing an actual weapon, either—but he just feels better having it. Captain America's a hero, after all. Maybe Captain America can be as brave as Steve Rogers needs to be, right now.

He checks the bond again. Tony's still asleep. He still has time.

He's still afraid. Of course he's afraid. But he's going to do this anyway.

Man up, soldier, he tells himself, and he steps out the door.

It doesn't occur to him until he's there that maybe he should have called first. At least he waited late enough that they were likely to be awake. He didn't really want to explain this over the phone—and, besides, isn't this what friends are for? He visits them often enough anyway.

Even so, Bucky raises an eyebrow when he opens the door. "Everything okay?" he asks. "You're up early. You here on some kind of official Captain America business?"

Steve shakes his head, and he feels a little silly for having worn the uniform, but at least he shoved the cowl back after he parked his bike around the corner. "No," he says. "No, I just—" and he can't even get the rest of the sentence out.

And then Bucky looks at him, really looks at him, and all of a sudden it's like Steve's fourteen again and Bucky's helping pick him up off the dirt in the alleyway and handing him his cane, and Steve feels grateful and glum again at the same time. He didn't even know he remembered how to feel like that.

"Geez, if it's as awful as all that," Bucky says, his gaze brimming with empathy, "come on in and tell me about it."

Some things never change.

The house is quiet; on the kitchen table there's only one mug of half-drunk coffee next to the newspaper, folded over to the crossword. Steve peers around but doesn't see anyone else. He realizes that he's glad he doesn't. Talking to her would have been... awkward.

"Gail's not here?"

"Nope," Bucky says, as he heads past the table to get Steve a cup of coffee without asking. "She just left. She's out to breakfast with her bridge club. She'll be gone all morning." He comes back, pushes the mug into Steve's hands. "I can't exactly play it with her. Or against her." He chuckles. "That's one of the things you never think of about the soulbond, eh? Card games are right out. At least there are other compensations." He winks.

Steve's skin prickles, cold all over, and God, he can't not think about—

Bucky's watching him carefully. "Oh, so it's that kind of business, is it? Affairs of the heart? Did you want to talk to Gail after all? I can ask her to come back." His gaze goes unfocused in the way Steve knows from experience means that he's talking with her, down the bond.

He checks his own soulbond again. Tony's still asleep.

"No, no, no," Steve says, hastily. "That's fine." Jesus, no, Steve doesn't need him to bring Gail back. He doesn't need to tell the first girl he ever slept with about all his problems in bed. It wasn't like he was any good with her either. "I think maybe she, uh. Doesn't need to know."

Bucky's face is sour. "Whatever it is, she's gonna know, Steve. Keeping secrets ain't possible. I know you of all people know that."

Steve winces. "I know. It's better she hear it from you than me, though." He pauses, staring down at the mug in his hands. "It's, uh... not exactly suitable for a lady. You know."

"Oh," Bucky says, very quietly, and Steve can't bring himself to look up, but then there's Bucky's hand on his arm, guiding him to a seat, the way he always did. "That kind of business. Okay, here, come on. Sit."

He's in the living room again somehow, sitting on the couch, as Bucky levers himself down next to him. Steve puts his mug on the coffee table. He looks around the room, at the framed pictures of Bucky and Gail's children, their grandchildren, the life Steve never had, the life he never got to see. The clock in the corner ticks away. Bucky doesn't prompt him. He just waits.

"I slept with Tony last night."

He waits one breath, two, and then he dares to look over at Bucky's face, steeling himself for the revulsion, for the disgust, because surely if anyone understands, it's Bucky—

"Is that all?" Bucky asks. "Good lord, the look on your face, kid, I figured it was gonna be something bad."

"I'm not a kid, I'm older than you," Steve says, automatically, and then his mind catches up with the sentence. "Wait, what?"

Bucky sets his mug down next to Steve's. "Don't take this the wrong way," he says, his voice somehow gentle and matter-of-fact all at once, "but we kind of figured you already were."

"What?" Steve says again, stupidly. His brain's stuck on the word. He can't seem to come up with anything else. "Why?"

Christ, if even Bucky, Bucky who knows him better than anyone in the world, already thought he was a queer—

"Well, he's a good-looking fella, ain't he?" Bucky's laugh turns into a cough, but his eyes are bright. "He cleans up nice and he probably has all his own teeth. Plus, he's richer than Croesus. He's a real catch."

"Bucky," Steve says, distressed. He can feel himself scowling. He didn't come here for jokes.

Bucky scowls right back. "He's your goddamn soulmate. How much do you need me to spell out for you? You just bonded. Unless your bond is different than mine, which I don't think it is, I know how it feels. I figured you two probably couldn't keep your damn hands off each other. Me and Gail never could." There's a bit of nervousness in his eyes when he says it, like even now he thinks Steve's not going to take it well, thinking about them together. But Steve has other things to worry about.

"Not that." Steve can hear his own voice crack in desperation. "I just mean— you know me, Buck. Did you ever think that I was... you know... like that?"

Bucky's sigh is long and thoughtful, like he doesn't know how to answer. Like he thinks Steve's asked the wrong question. "Honestly," he says, "you were so gone on Gail that half the time I used to wonder if you remembered that other human beings existed." He chuckles again. "So, no, I have to say that it never occurred to me as a possibility. Not for you. Not back then." He sips his coffee, purses his mouth in contemplation. "I never saw you look at me like anything other than a friend, for what it's worth. Never saw you looking at guys like you looked at gals." He shakes his head, ruefully. "And, hell, if you'd wanted to, you'd have had plenty of opportunity in the Army. And as far as I know, you didn't do a thing. Never even saw you sneak glances at the other fellas in the showers."

The relief Steve expected to feel rolls through him in a wave—but it lasts only a split-second, leaving an unaccustomed sadness in its wake. If he's not queer, if he's never been queer, then he's hopeless, isn't he? Then he'll never be able to be what Tony needs, no matter how much he tries.

"I never did, no," Steve says. His throat is hoarse. "I mean, maybe, maybe once or twice, just to, uh, just to compare. But I tried. I tried not to." He was good. He was.

"But," Bucky continues, slowly, carefully, like he doesn't think Steve's going to like what he has to say, "I've met a whole lot of people since we knew each other back then. There are a lot of different ways to be... something other than straight. And in my experience, the fellas who are trying their hardest not to look, well. It's because maybe they want to, deep down. Maybe so far down even they don't know."

Steve stares at him. Blood pounds in his ears. "So you're saying you think—"

"I'm saying that after Iceland," Bucky says, "I had a lot of time to think, and people were always asking me about what you'd been like, and I started to wonder, maybe. Maybe you could have been queer, I thought. But I didn't think you had ever known, and anyway, you were dead. And it wasn't likely to come up." He exhales. "And then you weren't dead, and you were dating that Janet Pym, but you were doing it like you had something to prove to the goddamn world, like it was some kind of test you had to ace, and I looked at you again, and I thought, yeah, okay, that's more than maybe, but what was I gonna do, tell you I thought you were a fairy? Ask you if you knew?" He snorts. "And then I saw you on TV, saying Tony Stark was your soulmate, and I thought, well, it looks like the universe did all the telling for me."

He doesn't know if that's what he wanted to hear. That he's been gay all along. That he didn't know. It's terrifying.

Tony was right, he thinks. Tony saw this in him, even before the bond.

But if it's true, then there's hope. If it's in him, if there's something there in him, he just has to... learn how to open up. Learn how to be himself. How to be there for Tony. How to stop being afraid.

Steve's vision is blurry. He can't turn to look at Bucky. "I just— I don't know how to do this, Buck."

The pause now is awkward. "Are you asking me for bedroom advice?" Bucky says, audibly uncomfortable. "Because I gotta say, I ain't been with a fella since '44."

Steve turns around and stares. "You what?"

Jesus, is everyone queer?

"Yeah, that was why I didn't tell you then. You'd have made that damn face." Bucky sighs. "You know how it was, right? Sometimes you just need someone right then, and someone's around, and there ain't much point in being picky. It's not a big deal." He gives Steve a sour glare. "And don't be looking at me like that, like you actually think people are only one thing or the other, forever and ever. I've met your soulmate, remember?"

"I know," Steve says, because if anyone's a walking billboard for bisexuality it's Tony Stark. He swallows hard. "I just don't know what to do. I— I was with him, last night, and it was good. It was the best thing I've ever felt in my life. And then he— and then I— I couldn't. I couldn't do it. It just felt wrong. I didn't want it to feel wrong, but it did. And I got scared. And I ran."

You grew up with me, he wants to say. You were right there next to me in the pews every Sunday. Weren't we raised the same? How were you brave enough for this, when I'm not? What did I do wrong? What am I missing?

There's another pause. Seconds pass.

"Christ," Bucky says. "Well, you sure fucked that one up, didn't you?"

Steve's face goes hot, his vision suddenly blurry. He realizes he hasn't cried, and suddenly it seems ridiculous that he's going to, and ridiculous that he hasn't, and he remembers Tony crying himself to sleep. "Thanks, Buck," he says. "I know I can always count on you to be—" and then all at once he's crying and the next word is a sob, and he knows he was in the wrong, he knows he's hurt Tony, but that's different than hearing someone else say it.

"Hey, hey, hey," Bucky says, and he pulls Steve sideways into a hug. "Come here. It's gonna be okay."

"How?" Steve mumbles the question into Bucky's shoulder. "I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to be... this. All my life I thought it was wrong, and now I can't— I can't change. I'm the one who's wrong, and I can't change."

Bucky lets him go and hands him the box of tissues from the table. "Well, that's nonsense. Of course you can change." He says it calmly, with absolute conviction.

Steve wipes his face off and stares at Bucky. "What do you mean?"

"I mean you already have," Bucky says. "I know you. If you think something's wrong, you don't do it. No exceptions. If you hadn't wanted to be with Tony, if you really hadn't, you wouldn't have even tried. Because you would have thought it was wrong, period. And you clearly didn't. You don't. Maybe you used to think so. You don't anymore."

For the first time in hours, Steve feels the tiniest spark of hope.

"I think you always paid more attention in church than I did," Bucky tells him. "They got you real good with the guilt. And you like absolutes. They say one thing is good and some other thing is bad, and you... you understand that. You like that. It's simple. Maybe you don't always agree with particular rules, but when you find a rule you respect, well, that gets lodged in your head pretty good. So when they tell you it's wrong for you to love another man, well, you're a kid, you don't know any different. Seems like a good rule to you. You don't know any better. You want to do what's right."

Steve squints. "You making excuses for me?"

Excuses aren't going to save him. There's nothing he can say to Tony that's going to make this better.

"No," Bucky says. "I'm giving you advice. My point was, the world's bigger than that. And sometimes right and wrong aren't the same as what you learned when you were a kid. The thing is, you had to go and get yourself frozen in an iceberg for sixty goddamn years."

Steve scowls at Bucky. "Tell me something I don't know, why don't you?"

"I'm trying to." Bucky sighs again. "The rest of us, we lived this all the long way. Things have changed a hell of a lot. It's not perfect, but it's better." He smiles a little. "You're so young. You're, what, twenty-five now? If you'd been born twenty-five years ago, if you grew up today, a regular guy, maybe you'd learn that it was okay. But you've got way more than twenty-five years to cover. I don't know how you go from there to here without living every year. But I know you must be getting better. Maybe if enough people tell you, it'll sink in. So you apologize, you take it slow, you try to do better. He's your soulmate. It'll work out. Maybe it just takes time."

He remembers Tony holding him close, saying I'll wait as long as I can, and he thinks he might start crying again.

"I... don't exactly have a lot of time."

Bucky frowns. "What do you mean?"

"Tony's dying." The words hurt his throat. He knows it's not his secret to tell, but he has to. "He has a brain tumor. It's inoperable." Steve swallows hard and tries to force the tears back. "He wants to keep it quiet, obviously, keep it out of the press. But that's why he's on the Ultimates in the first place. If it's up to him, he's going out in a blaze of glory. He— he wants his life to count for something."

"Shit," Bucky says, under his breath. "How long has he got?"

Steve shakes his head. "I don't know for sure. When I met him, he told me six months to five years." Steve hasn't done the math. He hasn't wanted to think about the math. "Best case scenario, maybe a couple more years left."

"I'm so sorry." Bucky rests his hand on Steve's shoulder.

"Yeah," Steve says, miserably. "Me too."

They sit there in silence again. The clock's still ticking. Tony's dying. Hell, Bucky's got lung cancer, hasn't he? Last Steve checked, Bucky's prognosis was better than Tony's, and Bucky's ninety. It's not fair. Not for Bucky, not for Tony, not for anyone. And Steve— Steve's got a goddamn healing factor. The doctors aren't even sure if he's going to age. At all.

He's going to watch everyone die.

"You can't think about it, can you?" Bucky asks.

"What do you mean by that?" He's thinking about it now. Of course he's thinking about it now. God, he can't handle this.

"I mean you're gonna wake up one morning and he won't be there. You won't see him ever again. You won't hear him. You'll never be able to touch him. There'll be a gaping wound in the back of your mind where half your soul used to be, and the rest of the world's going to expect you to get up and keep moving, because they don't have a clue what it's like." Bucky clears his throat. "You think it's gonna be a nice funeral? If you don't eat a bullet first, they'll probably want you to give a speech. Put on your Captain America costume, just like this, and go on up. You know what you're gonna say yet?"

Steve's head snaps around. "Jesus, how the hell can you ask me that?"

He remembers what Tony said: most people don't make it, after their soulmate dies.

He wonders if that's going to be him.

"Because you're not thinking about it!" Bucky shoots back. "You come in here like it's any old problem, but the problem is that your soulmate's dying, and that changes everything. You only get one soulmate. Maybe he's not who you would have picked, if you had a choice, but he's yours and you're his and this is all the time you've got, and it has to last you the rest of your life, because it's gonna be the rest of his. He needs you."

Steve laughs, low and sad. "I'm a mess, Buck. I can't be what he needs. I tried."

"For God's sake," Bucky says, "I ain't talking about your dick, Steve. I'm talking about the rest of you. He's your soulmate. He's dying and he's scared and he needs you. He needs you to be there for him. He needs you to stay with him. He needs you not to leave him."

"I know that!" Steve snaps. "I'm not an idiot."

"If you know that," Bucky says, "then why the hell are you here?"

Steve tries to summon up words. His mouth is hanging open.

"Look, maybe you'll decide you can sleep with him after all," Bucky says. "Maybe you won't. It ain't really my business. But I've outlived a hell of a lot of friends. There are always things you wish you'd done, or things you wish you'd said. How do you want to feel when you're standing there at his grave? You know that day is coming. Are you going to be glad you were there for him, comforting him? Are you going to be glad that you made him happy? Or are you going to give up? Are you not even going to try?" Bucky snorts. "I can tell you right now, those principles of yours aren't going to make you feel any better."

Steve lowers his head. He can't do this. How can he do this? "I don't know how."

"You do know," Bucky says, his voice softer now. "You're just scared. You go back, you apologize, and you don't leave him. And then you figure it out from there. You do the best you can. You try to make him happy."

"I want him to be happy," Steve admits, and it feels like a confession. "I— he makes me feel— I just— I've never felt like this about anyone— and when I think about him—"

He can't even get the sentence out, but Bucky understands.

"Of course you do," Bucky says. "He's your soulmate."

"Yeah," Steve says, his throat hoarse. "Yeah, he sure is."

It's another forty-five minutes before Fury decides to call the Ultimates in for a meeting, and Steve's already back in Manhattan; his SHIELD comm beeps when he's a block away from Tony's place. He's not sure whether he should be relieved or grateful, and then he realizes that, no matter what, he's going to have to see Tony anyway, as Tony presumably also is being summoned.

Once again, Steve checks the bond: Tony is still asleep. The priority comm didn't even wake him. And if Jarvis hasn't come back yet, then nobody's up there to get Tony up and make sure he gets over to the Triskelion on time.

Steve supposes it's going to be him. They won't have much time for any of the apologies Steve desperately needs to make, but it'll have to be enough. This is what they've got.

He's spent the whole trip back from Bucky's house picturing it, trying to work out what he's going to say. Admittedly, he hasn't come up with much beyond I'm so sorry, but... that's a start, isn't it? He imagines himself kneeling on the floor, abasing himself, begging Tony's forgiveness. He'll do whatever Tony wants. Whatever Tony needs. Anything Tony asks.

He's on a mission.

He understands missions.

He parks; Tony's got a place for him in the garage. Tony's given him keys to everything. Steve ought to have realized a long time ago that that meant something. He walks into the building like he didn't leave it last night in tears. His head's held high, his uniform gleaming. He's Captain America. Maybe Captain America is brave enough for this.

He checks his watch. They're going to be late to the meeting. Well, Fury's just going to have to deal. They'll get there when they get there.

The display says that the elevator's still at the penthouse, so Steve hits the button and waits, waits like he's in a SHIELD C-130 two minutes from the drop zone, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. It's an odd place for the elevator to be, if Tony's still in bed. Jarvis probably came back already; that was probably him getting in just now. Steve winces at the thought of Jarvis being witness to this conversation. Maybe Jarvis will be kind and give them some privacy. Not that Steve deserves kindness.

The elevator opens, placidly, with a soft ding. It's empty. Steve steps in, waits for the doors to close, and thumbs the button for Tony's floor at the same time as he swipes the access card that will get him up there. The elevator begins to rise, and Steve turns around to stare out the glass behind him, at the cityscape beyond. The morning is bright and clear, and as the elevator rises Steve can see over the other skyscrapers all the way to the water, an awe-inspiring panorama. He can see the Triskelion from here, an island glinting in the water. Helicarriers sail overhead, five in low formation. It's picturesque.

Steve frowns. It looks like the helicarriers are dipping, but that can't be right. It must be the angle. A trick of the light.

The lead helicarrier tilts nose-down, diving for the Triskelion.

Oh, God. A wolf in the fold, Thor had said, and no one had been listening—

The entire carrier group follows, careening downward.

This can't be happening.

Steve unslings his shield, judging the distance to the ground. God, if he jumps from this height even he's going to die. He can't. He needs a different plan. He needs to think of something. He spins around, heading for the elevator controls, and that's when the elevator jolts under him and stops. The lights flicker off, and then are replaced by flashing red.

The computer panel on the wall—because this is Tony's building and there are computers everywhere—reads EMERGENCY STOP: ACCESS TO PENTHOUSE LEVEL IS UNDER SECURITY INTERDICTION BY RESIDENT.

Steve slams his fist on the buttons. Nothing. He's locked out.

Panicked, Steve checks the bond again: Tony's still asleep. But someone's barring access to the penthouse. It's got to be whoever else is up there. Steve doesn't think it's Jarvis.

And the helicarriers are still falling, and Steve doesn't think that's a coincidence.

Everything's gone cold within him. His heart's pounding.

A wolf in the fold. Tony had been trying to tell him last night, but, damn him, he hadn't been listening. Someone's been trying to take the Ultimates out, one by one. Bruce is dead. Hank's off the team. Thor's in custody, stripped of his power. Clint's been abducted. If their plan had worked, Steve would have taken the fall for it. He would have been out of the way too. Effectively, he is. And now, whoever they are—they're coming for Tony.

They're coming for everyone.

He glances back. Outside, the first helicarrier slams into the top of the Triskelion, whose defensive shields crackle and go down. The top floor of the building shears off in a spray of fractured glass and splintered metal. That's where Fury's office is. Where the team is, right now. They're dying and he can't do anything but watch.

And someone's in the penthouse, coming to kill Tony, to murder him like they slaughtered Clint's family. Tony's maybe a dozen floors up, but he might as well be miles away, because Steve's not there to save him. Steve's trapped in the goddamn elevator. Steve's not there, and the Ultimates are dying, and Tony's going to die, and he can't do anything

This can't be how it all ends.

Steve breathes out. He can't give up. There has to be something he can do.

There's only one way this is going to work, and even then they might not all come out of it alive. But this is the only chance anyone has.

He might not be able to save the rest of the Ultimates, but he's sure as hell not giving up on Tony. Tony's not dead yet.

He reaches for the bond and grabs it, firm and fast in his mind, like Tony's an anchor and the soulbond a line between them—and then he yanks, hard, dragging them back together, until Tony's mind collides with his. Steve's perceptions come apart like the jagged pieces of a broken mirror, sliding like glass into Tony's unprotected sleeping mind. It's not a nice thing to do, but there's no time to be nice.

Tony comes awake all at once, disoriented and startling hard. He doesn't even try to shield himself from it. Down the bond is only the exhausted numbness of a man who's cried himself to sleep and has nothing left now that the tears are gone. Guess I deserve that, Tony thinks, to himself, quiet and morose, and if he knows Steve can hear him, he sure doesn't sound like it.

Tony, listen to me, Steve says.

Tony rolls over and shoves his face back into the closest pillow. There's nothing in the bond but despair.

Tony, you have to listen to me, Steve says, desperately. Please. There's no time to explain. Your life is in danger. There's someone up there with you and they're coming to kill you. You need to get out of there right now.

There's another hideous crashing sound in the distance. Steve doesn't need to turn around and look to know it's the rest of the helicarriers going down. Whatever troops the enemy has are probably coming in.

Tony's pushing himself up and blinking. What the hell is that noise? His mental voice is fuzzy. What's going on out there?

We're under attack, Steve repeats. The Triskelion is falling and someone is coming for you. Run. Go now.

If they've got a team up there, a whole team like they used against the Bartons, there's no way Tony is going to survive. He wonders how it will feel when Tony dies, when the bond breaks. He wonders how much of his own mind is going to go with it. Maybe it'll be like losing a limb. Losing a sense. He imagines Tony being violently ripped away from him, Tony's mind silent forever, clawing Steve's soul away with him. He can't even imagine the grief. He can't imagine himself living through that.

Steve glances down at himself. He's just got the shield, but he can take a team out. And then if they've got guns left, he can borrow one himself if he needs it that badly. They'll have a bullet for him if he needs one, after it's over. If he can't live without Tony.

Steve shoves it all back and tries to think. It can't be a team after Tony. That can't be true. Building security would have noticed. They were in the elevator before Steve. Hell, if they were a team, they'd have taken out security. It has to be one person. Someone who belongs here. One of the Ultimates.

And then Tony gets it, coming fully awake, muscles coiling with tension. Goddammit, Tony says. Sometimes I hate being right. He slides sideways and drops onto the floor next to the bed, out of line of sight from the door, scrambling for clothes as silently as possible. Also I'd rather not die naked, if I get a choice.

The statement is flippant enough, but he feels fear rising up through the bond. Tony's hands are shaking. Tony's never like this in battle—but then, Tony has billion-dollar armor to protect him.

You're not going to die, Steve says. I'm on my way, but they're already there. They've shut down elevator access. You just have to hold on. You can do this. I know you can.

Steve jams his shield between the elevator doors and slowly works them open. Metal creaks, twists, and gives way, as Steve starts to see inches of light between one set of doors and then, high above, the other. The next floor is about six feet up.

He hooks the shield on his back and gets his hands between the gap, forcing the doors open. He realizes that, other than the shield, he's unarmed. Do you have any guns with you? he asks Tony, as he grabs the edge of the upper floor and hangs suspended, scrambling for leverage. If you do, now would be a great time to get them.

What, you think I sleep with a .45 under my pillow? Tony asks. They're in the gun safe in my office on the floor below me.

Well, that won't do him any good. Grimacing, Steve pulls himself up, dragging himself out of the elevator to sprawl on the carpet. Okay. He's one step closer, but he's not close enough. He pushes himself up and sprints to the emergency stairwell at the other end of the hall. They can't close that off, can they?

Apparently they can. He swipes his card. No access. He glances around him. There's a freight elevator, somewhere; there's got to be. But they've probably shut down penthouse access there too. Stairs it is.

He sighs, unslings his shield, and swings. Hard. The door doesn't stand a chance, and he rips the rest of it off its hinges and throws what's left of it behind him.

The stairwell is barren, concrete, lit by harsh emergency lighting. Steve takes a breath and he starts running.

He doesn't need to watch what he's doing. He can practically run up flights of stairs with his eyes closed. More than anything, he needs intel. He needs to see what Tony is seeing, to know what Tony knows, the instant he knows it—if Tony will let him in.

Steve's still holding onto the bond, clinging to it, but Tony's end is more tenuous than ever. He's skittish. He's hurting. And it's Steve's fault. He betrayed Tony's trust.

I can help you, Steve offers. Please. I won't hurt you. I promise. He puts every ounce of regret in the thought, sends an image of himself prostrate on the floor, apologizing. Let me save your life.

Tony laughs inside his head, slow and bitter. You have no idea how I feel about you, do you? If you told me you were coming to kill me, I'd hand you the knife. Whatever you want from me, you have it.

He can feel Tony steady himself. And then the bond opens wide, and he's inside Tony's mind. His vision doubles. There's his own view of the stairs, and there's Tony's bedroom, where Tony is still crouched on the floor. There's the sound of his own feet echoing—and, inside Tony's penthouse, a door opens and shuts. Steve pushes out with his senses, farther than Tony should be able to hear. He doesn't know how he's doing this, but he isn't about to question it.

There are soft footfalls in Tony's apartment. One person. Coming closer.

For what it's worth, they're between me and my guns, Tony says, grimly. He's glancing around the room. Steve recognizes the familiar calculus: what in here is a weapon? Not much, unless Tony wants to throw vases or chairs, and that's not going to do much good against whatever anyone on the Ultimates is packing.

Steve curses open floor plans. Tony's damn doorway, such as it is, is almost the entire width of the room. Get up, he says. Get your back against the wall closest to them. They'll be clearing the room, probably leading with their gun, but, God willing, you'll have a couple seconds where they'll be in front of you and probably not facing your way. Hit hard.

Got it, Tony says.

The footsteps stop outside Tony's bedroom. Tony is holding his breath.

The unseen assailant comes in like a professional, Glock first, pointed... directly at Tony. So much for that.

And then they step inside.

"Hands in the air," Natasha says, coolly. "I don't think you want me to make this any harder than it has to be."

They've found the mole, all right.

Tony raises his hands. He's blinking. He's numb, stunned, but recovering quickly. "This is awkward," he murmurs, and Steve has to admire the impressive amount of nonchalance he's projecting. It's all a front. He's always been good with armor, hasn't he?

Unimpressed, Natasha lifts an eyebrow. Her gun is pointed at Tony's forehead and her aim doesn't falter. "You're going to tell me that it honestly never occurred to you to suspect me? The Russian spy?" She scoffs.

"Honestly," Tony says, "at this point I was suspecting everyone other than Steve. I'm a paranoid bastard, darling." Steve can feel the sweat beading on the back of Tony's neck. "I did hope it wasn't you, though. Call it sentimentality."

Natasha smiles a thin smile. "I'm flattered. You liked the sex that much?" She makes a show of lifting a shoulder. "Well, I suppose it was more than you're getting at home these days, eh?"

Steve goes hot, he misses a step as he runs up the stairs, and he can feel Tony flush with rage.

"Fuck off," Tony snaps.

Natasha laughs. "Struck a nerve, have I?" She chews on her lip, contemplatively. "You know, it wasn't supposed to go down like this at all, with you. This is actually Plan C. But I think it's working well, don't you?" She's pouting now, another put-on. "It's a shame. I was really looking forward to the wedding. Oh, I know you were going to propose. You fell so hard. That's the thing about you, Tony. So damnably easy to manipulate. Just the slightest bit of affection and you're eating out of my hand. It's tragic, really. Did your parents not love you enough?"

Steve can feel Tony's heart pounding, can feel Tony's breaths, slow and even, a forced calm. Tony says nothing.

"The soulbond was a complication, of course," Natasha adds. "But given how much of a muddle you two were making of it all by yourselves, I didn't have to do much. A news story leaked to the tabloids here and there, to give you something to fight about. I honestly didn't think you'd bother getting Rogers out of SHIELD custody after we framed him for what I did to Barton's family. He could have presented a problem, if you'd managed to put up a united front. But you two couldn't even stay together all night, could you? We've got security footage of him running out of here. He's long gone, isn't he?" She smiles. "It's just the two of us now, Tony."

Steve glances at the stairwell as he passes it. Seven floors to go.

Tony's doing something inside his head that Steve can't quite understand; he's never been close enough to see it before. He's focusing intently on something that feels strange, something with a harsh and mechanical feeling, but he's reaching out in a way that reminds Steve of the soulbond, like there's something he can touch—

"Oh, the nanites?" Natasha laughs. "I had the backdoor access removed after you thoughtfully handed your design specs to SHIELD the other day. I had some modifications made. You'll find your own suits don't work as well as they used to. I wouldn't trust them if I were you." She clicks her tongue. "There's no getting to me like that. There are plenty of things I can do to you, though."

And then there's a horrible throbbing pressure inside Tony's head, inside Steve's head, dizzying and intense, and Steve has to stop and grab the railings so he doesn't fall. He's panting for breath, and he doesn't understand why Tony isn't screaming.

After a few seconds, the pain stops. Thank God. She doesn't want to kill him. She'd have done it already. She'd have done it then.

It's going to be all right, he tells Tony. Hold on. I'm coming.

There's a brief flicker of acknowledgment, but nothing else. Steve's not actually sure if Tony's even bothered to check where he is. Does Tony not believe him?

Tony glances out the window at the carnage beyond. There are giant-men, jets, huge robots—New York is in the throes of a full-scale invasion.

Steve swallows hard and keeps running.

"Just out of curiosity," Tony drawls, "how much are they paying you for this?"

Natasha's eyes flash with scorn. "Why? Are you going to double it?"

Tony shrugs. His hands are still held high. Steve can't believe he's trying to bargain. "I'm a businessman, sweetheart. If your loyalty's up for sale to the highest bidder, I'd at least like a chance to put in an offer."

"The Liberators?" Natasha laughs. "Almost nothing. I didn't need their money. Surely it doesn't surprise you. America ruined my country. This is my revenge." She smiles a small, almost sweet smile. "I wouldn't say no to your money, though. Why do you think I'm here?"

"Ah." Tony's voice is dry. "So that's why I'm still alive. How much?"

"All of it," Natasha says, tightly. "Come on. We're going downstairs, and you're going to transfer some funds."

She gestures with the gun barrel. Tony doesn't move.

"I don't see why I should," Tony says. "I'm already dying, after all." The bond is cold, suddenly, gray with sadness. "This is the end of my use to you. There's no reason you won't shoot me after the transfer goes through, and if that's the case, why not just shoot me now? Get it over with." Steve can feel the smile on Tony's face. "I mean, what else am I living for?"

Tony, no, Steve says, but Tony doesn't say anything.

"You can't bait me," Natasha says, smiling back. "You're leverage, Tony. You have a soulmate, remember? We want Captain America. Imagine the symbolism if we capture him. And you're going to help us. We cut you, and he bleeds. You're going to want to keep yourself alive. For his sake."

Tony's mind is a haze of agonized dismay. Tony takes a step forward, and then another.

"Good boy," Natasha says. "It's almost too easy with you, isn't it? Look how much you feel for him. All wasted."

That's not true, Steve says, desperately, as he pounds up yet another flight of stairs. Only a few more to go.

If Tony hears him, he doesn't reply.

Tony is walking down the corridor, Natasha's gun pressed to the base of his skull. He wobbles a little as he steps down the spiral staircase to the lower floor, and Natasha isn't quite keeping pace with him. Tony's a step ahead, and at the bottom of the staircase he ducks, turns, kicks out—

He and Natasha go down in a tangle of limbs. The gun goes off, a wild shot, before Tony kicks it away.

Tony's good, but Natasha's better. She slams his head against the banister, a blow that makes Steve's head ring, that he feels as if he'd been punched himself. There's blood oozing down Tony's face. His skull throbs. She grabs him and flips him over the railing.

When the world rights itself, Tony's lying on the floor, and Natasha's standing over him, gun in hand again.

"Cute," she says, "but futile. Stand up, Tony."

Tony pushes himself to his feet, and he lets Natasha guide him into his office. He can't get to his guns now, of course. There's blood dripping from his temple, down his face, soaking his shirt.

Steve blinks and looks around himself.

Last floor.

Steve has his shield in his hands. He opens the door as quietly as he can. The office is one of the few actual rooms; they can't see him. But he can hear them.

Tony's typing something on his computer, following Natasha's murmured instructions.

"This really is all about the money for you, isn't it?" Tony asks, voice loud enough that Steve can hear him now even without checking the bond. Down the bond Tony is still numb. Stunned. Betrayed. Like he'd been hoping against hope that it wasn't just the money, that she hadn't used him.

"Did you really think it was true love?" Natasha purrs. "Do you think I find cancer-ridden drunks attractive? No one loves you, Tony. I don't think anyone ever could." She laughs. "And you, of all people—you have a soulmate. You're desperately in love with him—oh, yes, I know—and yet, he'll never love you back. He can't. Not like you want him to. It's impossible. He's straight. And he can't stand you. He can't love you. He's your soulmate and even he doesn't love you. Do you think maybe the universe is trying to tell you something, Tony? There's no one for you."

Steve goes hot with rage. His shield is tight in his hands as he edges down the corridor. He's going to kill her. How can she say that? How can she say all those lies? Tony's brilliant and brave and wonderful, and anyone would be proud to love him. He's going to kill her.

But the worst part is... Tony believes her.

He can feel it in the bond, a soul-deep ache, despair closing in on all sides. Tony's not fighting back. Tony's not telling her how she's wrong. Tony's mind is replaying that awful moment, not twelve hours ago, when Steve walked out the door. It's like a needle trapped in the record groove, terrible sadness over and over.

No. It isn't true. It isn't.

Steve's scared—God, is he ever scared—and he's made a hell of a lot of mistakes, but he— but he—

He's at the doorway. He takes a shaking breath.

Tony's sitting at his computer, his back to Steve, and Natasha is leaning over his shoulder, her gun pressed against his bloodied temple. Neither of them have spotted him.

"Actually," Steve says, "I love him with all of my soul. Thanks for asking."

They both notice him at the same time. Tony's head jerks around, his eyes wide in shock. Natasha's already raising her gun—

But Steve is faster, and she doesn't even have time to get a shot off before he's launched himself into the air, hurtling across the room. He swings his arm in a wide arc, sideways, and the shield collides with her head with a very satisfying crack of metal on bone. She goes down instantly, unconscious.

Tony's still frozen, staring at him. Staring through him. Like he's looking at a ghost. Like he thinks there's no way Steve can really be here.

"I told you I was coming," Steve says. He smiles.

Tony doesn't smile back. Tony's just sitting there. The bond is practically riven with shock. God, what if something's wrong? Tony's head's still bleeding. Jesus, what if he's injured? What if it's brain damage? What if it's the cancer?

Tony, are you all right?

He's not aware of making the conscious decision to move, but somehow he's at Tony's side, tugging Tony up out of the chair. His hands rove over Tony's arms, shoulders, neck, then gently across the back of his head. His fingers bury themselves in Tony's hair. His thumbs stroke Tony's cheeks. Blood sticks to the leather. His gloves are in the way. He needs to be touching Tony. He needs to be touching all of him right now.

Dazed, Tony blinks up at him, like he's waking from a dream.

I'm fine, Tony says, and there's a flash of emotion, quickly suppressed, something aching and longing. It's like his armor's going up. Steve's watching him lock it all away. Tony gives him a smile that might almost be a perfect showman's smile, save for the lingering sadness in his gaze. Good strategy. You really caught her off guard there, saying that.

Tony thinks he doesn't mean it.

It was the truth, Steve says, desperately. I'm in love with you.

The bond flares up in denial and disbelief, and there's only one thing Steve can do.

He kisses him.

The kiss stays chaste for about half a second. Then the soulbond opens up, wider and brighter than ever before, and Steve puts everything he feels in it: apology, affection, love, the attraction that he's spent all this time trying not to face. It still scares him, just a little, but it's Tony. Tony won't hurt him. Tony couldn't hurt him.

Oh, God, Steve, yes, Tony says, and that's when Tony's arms come up around him and Tony's kissing him back. Steve's never kissed a man before. Once, that thought would have terrified him, but now all he can think is that he's never kissed his soulmate before, and it's a crying shame, because they could have been doing this months ago.

And Tony's really, really good at kissing. Sure, Tony has a lot of experience, but Steve thinks the real difference is that Tony's his soulmate. The bond is bright like sunshine, brimming with love—from Tony, from both of them together. Steve is weak in the knees and Tony is leaning into him and shivering and thinking it's never been like this and please stay, please stay, please stay.

I'm staying, Steve says.

Tony breaks the kiss to smile at him.

Steve can feel Tony's head still pounding where Natasha hit him. Tony should never be in pain. His fingers smooth over Tony's temple and he doesn't know what he's doing except that he wants the pain to go away, and he pushes and it's just... gone. It's like sharing pain, only in reverse.

How did you do that? Tony asks.

No idea, Steve says. It just seemed like something I could do. Maybe they can figure it out later.

You're wonderful, Tony says. I love you so much.

Steve smiles back and then glances guiltily around the room. As much as I wish I could suggest taking me back to bed, I think we've got other things to do first.

Yeah, yeah. Tony lets him go and grins. Time to save the world. Let's get a security team up here for Natasha. Then I need a drink, and some pills, and I need to get to the basement.

Steve frowns. What's in the basement?

Tony's still grinning. You didn't think I only had the one suit, did you? The old armors don't use nanites, and they'll work just fine.

They might be all that's left of the Ultimates, but the country needs them. They're going to do this.

All right, Steve says. Let's go.

Steve is at the far end of Tony's workshop, shoving all the guns and ammo he can carry into his belt, because Tony's basement is much better stocked than Tony's apartment. Tony's about halfway into the suit, the technicians beginning to fit the chestplate around him. Steve's never actually seen him suit up before, and he wishes he had time to linger on it, because the process is fascinating. People are milling around Tony with pieces of metal and wires and hoses, and Steve can't make sense of a single part but somehow it's just like what he thought the future was going to be when he was a kid, and he's here watching it, and it's Tony, and Tony is his soulmate and Tony loves him and he's never going to get tired of thinking that.

He holsters another gun. He's sure he's grinning like an idiot.

Tony lifts his head over the swarm of technicians, catches Steve's eye, and winks. Be good, darling, and I'll let you take me out of the suit when we're done.

Promises, promises, Steve says.

They're on radio silence, because broadcasting their location would be deeply unwise; besides, there's not much Steve has picked up so far that makes any sense whatsoever. There are a lot of people calling for help. They're going to get help. Soon. They're almost ready to go out there.

A computer screen near Tony blinks on, and Tony frowns at it. "Perimeter security is picking up someone with an Ultimates transponder."

That can't be right. The Triskelion went down. "Where?"

"Here," Tony says.

There's a flash of movement by the closed door, and Steve has his gun unholstered before he registers exactly what it is.

Jan's standing there, full-size now, wingless, her hands crackling with the remnants of one of her stings. She's gasping for breath. "Oh, thank God," Jan says, and she takes a wavering step backward and leans against the wall. "They didn't get either of you."

Steve exhales hard. At least Jan survived. At least they're not all dead.

"Late to the meeting," Tony says, holding out his hands for the gauntlets. "Sorry not sorry."

"Wasp, sitrep," Steve says, as he holsters his gun. "What's going on out there?"

"Quicksilver got the team out of the Triskelion in time to save their lives," Jan says, and Steve has a relieved half-second to think all right, they're safe before Jan continues, "but they've all been captured. Fury, Pietro, Wanda—I just barely got away." She sighs. "Turns out Hank wanted to be useful, and when Nick wouldn't buy his robots he ended up selling them to the other side. Idiot."

"My ex just tried to murder me," Tony offers. "I'm not judging."

"Who are we up against?" Steve asks. "I know they call themselves the Liberators, but that's about it."

"They're a multinational superhuman team with a grudge," Jan says, despondently. "They've got one of everybody."

Steve makes room for another magazine in one of his belt pouches. "Define everybody."

"Their leader's a guy from Azerbaijian with super-soldier serum and some hard feelings about that disarmament. China threw in their own version of the Hulk—they're calling him the Abomination—and someone named the Crimson Dynamo, who's got his own suit of armor." She glances significantly at Tony. "He has fifty giant-sized versions of himself."

Tony flexes his gauntleted hands and sighs. "Great. That'll be fun."

"They've got a speedster, a woman who controls insects, a guy they gave Thor's gear to, a man who can make duplicates of himself, and, uh." She pauses. "Thor's brother."

"The researcher?" Steve asks, incredulous.

"Oh, shit," Tony says. He looks like he wants to hit himself in the face, but he's wearing gauntlets. "He was right. Thor, buddy, I am so sorry." He glances over at Jan. "Do they have him? Thor?"

She shakes her head. "Not that I saw. The basement cells were still secure."

"Do you think you can break him out?" Tony asks Jan.

"He's crazy," Steve says, tightly. "He's crazy, and they have his gear. I know you like the guy, Tony, but there are only three of us, and we can't justify sending a third of our force back there. Not when there's nothing he can do without his belt."

"That's what they want us to think," Tony says. "We were set up, Steve. Someone went to considerable effort to get him out of the way. I'm betting he's nowhere near as crazy as we're meant to believe. And I'm betting he's more powerful than we thought."

"You're saying he's the Norse god of thunder," Steve says, flatly, "and that his brother is Loki, god of mischief and lies."

Divine intervention would probably explain how his face ended up on a tape of him murdering Clint's family, wouldn't it?

"I'm saying he's been right about absolutely everything else," Tony says, and Steve can feel the sincerity down the bond. Come on. We need everyone we can get. "And if he's right about who his brother is, we definitely need him on our side."

"I'm in," Jan says. "I can get him."

"Okay," Steve says. He trusts Tony's judgment. Of course he trusts Tony's judgment. And then he blinks, because Tony only asked Jan, and that's strange. "We can all go get him, actually."

"You can't," Tony says, and he pushes an earpiece into place. "Well, you won't want to. Radio chatter says they've hit a dozen major cities, and they're in Washington, holding the president hostage. And that's where they've moved the rest of the Ultimates."

Steve swears under his breath. "You're right," he says. "I'm going to DC. And what are you doing?"

Tony grins at him and drops the helmet over his head.

I've got your back, darling, he says.

Got to go pick up a surprise, Tony says, and Steve glances to his left, through the jet's Plexiglass canopy, to see Tony peeling off toward the sun in a red-gold blur. Don't worry. Back in a bit.

Honestly, the fact that Tony knew where SHIELD kept its prototype jets—and had, in fact, designed a couple of them, cloaking systems and all—and was able to help him get out of New York had been enough of a pleasant surprise that Steve's wondering what else Tony thinks they need. Steve is beginning to think he might be able to take back DC after all—but he does need Tony's help.

What kind of surprise?

Tony laughs. If I told you that, it wouldn't be a surprise. You'll like it. You don't need me for phase one, anyway.

The first part of this plan is small-scale and stealthy. Tony traced the rest of the Ultimates transponders to the White House. Steve's going to break the rest of the team out, and they'll go from there.

I still need you, Steve says, and Tony's mind shines with happiness.

The comm crackles. "New York is basically secure," Jan reports. "I have Thor, not that he's doing much good. And I took down Swarm. She was the one with the insect powers. Captain Britain and the rest of the Europeans came to lend a hand."

"Thank God for international cooperation," Tony says. "All right. Give me ten minutes, Cap, and I'll give you perimeter defenses like you've never seen. Wait until you see what I'm packing." His voice lowers. Steve is sure Tony is smirking.

"Is that innuendo?" Jan asks. "Ugh. No one wants to hear about your dick, Tony."

Tell her you want to hear about my dick, Tony suggests. Steve's grinning, and it takes him half a second to identify that bright golden feeling within him as pure joy.

"Just ignore him and he'll stop. Let's not encourage him," Steve says, but he cuts his mic before he starts laughing.

Please encourage me, Tony says.

Later, Steve tells him.

The nice thing about all the stealth gear that Tony has designed is that Steve can actually put the jet down pretty close to the White House and no one sees him coming. He evades the first and second set of perimeter guards—all wearing patches with a raised red fist—and, soon enough, he's actually in the White House, his back to the wall, edging down a corridor in the West Wing. There are more guards now, wearing metallic suits that Steve dimly remembers seeing in one of those tech briefings. They give the wearer super-strength, but SHIELD had abandoned the research on them because they shaved off all but a month of the wearer's life.

He supposes the Liberators don't care about a thing like that.

The Ultimates are up ahead, Tony says. Big room on your left. Lifesign count is twenty-eight guards. I have to take care of a thing for the next couple minutes. You're good on your own, right?

I've got this, Steve says. He weighs his shield on one arm and flips the safety off his gun. There's a brief burst of acknowledgment from Tony and then the bond goes distant again, as Tony's concentrating very hard on something very technical. At least Steve can tune out the numbers and passcodes.

He's not particularly thrilled about one versus twenty-eight, but there's nothing he can do. Thirty seconds and he's down the corridor. Outside the door. He takes a breath, raises his gun, and kicks the door in—

Clint's standing in the middle of a scene of absolute carnage, with Wanda, Pietro, and Fury behind him; Fury's hand is clutching the stump of a right arm that isn't there. Blood soaks his bandages. Clint's hands are thoroughly bandaged, and he's almost entirely covered in blood—Steve hopes it's not all his—but his grip on his bow is steady.

Thank God. They're a team again after all.

"I thought you were dead," Steve says.

"Eh," Clint says. "Not so much." He glances around the room. "Can't say the same for everyone else, though." He lifts his head. "Ready when you are, Captain."

Steve meets Wanda, Pietro, and Fury's eyes in turn. "Everybody ready?"

They nod. Fury picks up a gun with the only hand he's got. They're ready.

Outside, through the shattered windows, Steve can see robots stomping by. Giant robots and giant men in suits—that must be the Crimson Dynamo that Jan had mentioned. A bow and arrow isn't going to do much good against that. Neither are guns.

Tony? he asks. Any luck? We've got robot problems.

I've got you, Tony says. Stay right there. Airstrike incoming.

Steve wants to ask him exactly where he thinks he's getting an airstrike from given that the Liberators are controlling everything—but then the sky lights up blue-white as a huge beam of energy strobes down the street and the robots are just... gone.

There's a giant floating laser platform, and Tony next to it, suited up. Tony waves.

Hi, Steve, Tony says. You like your surprise?

I love it, Steve says, and he knows Tony is smiling.

Steve starts to work his way through the crowd of regular human adversaries while keeping tabs on the rest of the fight. Pietro takes the speedster down, the Crimson Dynamo is no match for Tony, somewhere along the way the guy with Thor's belt surrenders, and the guy who makes multiple copies of himself—hell, Steve can punch him. A lot. So he does.

And there are smaller, man-sized robots, but they're... not fighting.

And then Hank Pym's voice comes over the comms. "Guys, I want you to know I'm with you. I infiltrated the enemy. My robots have specific instructions to hunt down the Liberators."

"Oh, hell, no," Clint says. Somewhere in the background, Pietro begins to swear.

"Quiet. If he says he's on our side, I'm taking him at his word," Steve says. "We can sort out who ends up in custody later."

There's a roaring noise from the vicinity of the Washington Monument that can only be the Abomination. Steve can see the huge green monster, towering over everyone else between here and there. He remembers how much damage Hulk did to Manhattan all by himself. This guy's going to be tough.

Then there's another roar, this one oddly familiar.

"Hey!" Tony says delightedly, coasting above the battle. "Look who survived a tactical nuke to the face!"

Bruce is alive. Steve almost can't believe it. But the Hulk—thank God—is happily disposing of the Abomination.

They're winning. They're actually winning. They're going to take the country back.

"Cap?" Clint says. Steve's not sure where he's holed up, but there have been sniper shots from somewhere, so it has to be somewhere useful. "There's a guy at the other end of the National Mall who nearly took my head off with a fucking lightsaber. I'm thinking he might be the guy in charge. Come check out Darth Maul."

Steve wisely does not ask Darth who?—Tony says we'll get you caught up as he soars overhead—and instead turns to Pietro. "Quicksilver, can I get a lift?"

Pietro just nods.

Tony, you ready this time? he asks, remembering how poorly Tony took this before.

He can feel Tony steeling himself, in the back of his mind. Ready.

Pietro grabs his arms, and the world is a blur of motion—and then Steve's standing at one end of the Reflecting Pool, and there's a man in a red and black uniform holding some kind of glowing red sword.

The man smiles. "Ah. Captain Rogers. A pleasure to meet you."

Steve hefts his shield. "I'm told you were looking for me."

He nods. "Abdul Al-Rahman. And I've waited half my life to rip that star from your chest."

As introductions go, it's memorable.

There are ten or twelve men behind Al-Rahman, all wearing those super-strength suits. He gestures lazily to them, a raised hand. "No interference. This is between him and me."

"Sounds good," Steve says, and he lifts his shield and braces for impact.

Al-Rahman is fast, and that's the first shock. Steve just barely dodges the attack. Al-Rahman's glowing blade slices open the uniform at Steve's shoulder like it's made of paper, and scores a line of fire down his arm.

Steve! Tony says, and Steve doesn't need to look up to see Tony waver in the sky, in shock from the blow.

I can do this, Steve returns.

But Al-Rahman presses on. The super-soldier serum flows through his veins. Every move Steve makes, he can counter, and he hits back just as hard. Steve punches as hard as he can, a blow that would down ordinary men, a blow that was good enough to take out a goddamn Chitauri—but Al-Rahman just takes it and keeps going.

Steve's supposed to be better than this.

Even worse, Al-Rahman has noticed.

"Feeling outclassed, Captain?" he asks, as Steve narrowly avoids a strike that would have decapitated him. "It must be terrible. All those years believing in the dream, in American exceptionalism, and maybe you're just not that special, eh? Maybe you're not good enough after all. How does that feel?"

For an instant it's like Steve's a kid again, frail and broken, knowing deep down in his soul that he's never going to be good enough—

Don't fucking listen to him, Tony snarls, but it's too late. Somehow everyone knows Steve's weaknesses, don't they?

Al-Rahman gestures with one hand, and suddenly the men behind Steve are swarming him. Holding him down. His shield is torn out of his grasp.

So much for that non-interference.

"I wanted a fair fight," Al-Rahman muses, as one of the men behind Steve forces his head back, baring his throat. "But you can't expect me to walk away with nothing. Not after everything you did to the people I loved."

There's blood dripping down into Steve's eyes. He can barely see anything beyond the red smear of the glowing blade. So this is how it ends.

"I take no pleasure in what comes next," Al-Rahman says.

The men force Steve down as Al-Rahman raises the blade.

He was right. Steve was never good enough. He dies here, now, alone. He can't save himself.

And then—he hears Tony. You're not alone, Tony says. I've got you.

Between one breath and the next, Tony's in his mind. Tony's closer than ever before, closer than Steve thought possible. There's nothing keeping the two of them apart. When Tony's heart beats, so does his. His thoughts are Tony's thoughts. And then the bond opens wide, wide, wide, and strength pours through him, so much energy, and he can move—

He tears himself out of the grasp of the men holding him, rips the sword from Al-Rahman's hands, and reverses it, stabbing upward in one harsh motion—

The sword goes through him.

Al-Rahman's eyes are wide and frozen, glazing over in death.

It's over.

Tony lands next to him. Metal creaks as Tony runs to his side. He can't see Tony's face with the suit on, but then, he doesn't need to. If I weren't wearing half a ton of metal, I think you know what I'd be doing, Tony says, and he very gingerly rests an armored hand on Steve's shoulder.

How did you...? Steve begins, but he realizes that they know all they need to know.

Hell if I know, Tony says. You're my soulmate.

Well. That's good enough for Steve.

The rest of the Ultimates begin to gather around Steve—and then the sky burns with fire, as a dark-haired man floats above them.

Maybe it's not over after all.

"I am Loki," the man—the god?—calls out. "Half-brother to the wretched Thor and forgotten son of Odin." A sinister smile spreads across his face. "But I've had enough of simply tinkering behind the scenes. You've forced me to show my hand and thus you will suffer as no man has ever suffered."

And then Wanda steps forward. "Unless I stop you, of course."

Steve doesn't know what she has up against her sleeve, but he hopes it's good enough. She's facing down a god. He can feel Tony's doubt.

Please let this be enough.

Loki scoffs. "You? The little Scarlet Witch? All you can do is bend probability, my darling. What could you do against a god of mischief?"

"Oh, I don't know." Wanda smiles. "Increase the odds of someone showing up to kick your ass?"

She holds out her hands, and the world goes scarlet. Behind her is Jan, who for some reason is fifty feet tall, Captain Britain, the rest of the European team... and Thor.

Thor stands proud, head held high, and his fists crackle with lightning. He's holding the hammer.

"Oh, no," Loki says.

"Looking for trouble, Loki?" Thor asks.

I think I've found religion, Tony says.

Steve's just going to let the gods handle this one.

So there are dragons and trolls and a giant wolf and a rainbow and a hell of a lot more fighting—Steve's not exactly sure how anyone is going to explain any of this—but they've won. They've done it.

And here they are, standing in the rubble. SHIELD's carting away the bodies, and most of the team is sprawled out on the steps. Tony's still suited up, and from the low hum of activity down the bond Steve guesses he's off helping the rescue workers move chunks of buildings.

The adrenaline's wearing off and Steve's beginning to feel the aches. He's pretty sure that the last time he actually slept was when he passed out, drugged, in Tony's bed. It's strange to think that that was only twenty-four hours ago. God, he's exhausted.

Which is maybe why he says it.

"We can't do this anymore," Steve says, and half the team turns around to stare at him.

"What?" Thor asks.

"Not like that," Steve says. His hands clench, frustrated. "The world needs the Ultimates. But we can't be SHIELD's Ultimates. We can't be... the face of American foreign policy. We can't be their soldiers. We can't fight their wars. Otherwise this happens." He gestures at the chaos around them.

Thor's face splits in a grin. "Oh, now you agree with me."

"Come on," Pietro says, "we did save the president."

"You're talking about going independent," Jan says. "About us being our own superhero outfit."

"Yeah," Steve says. "I guess I am."

Jan frowns in thought. "I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but there's the matter of funding, isn't there? Not just salaries, but... everything. Weapons. Equipment. Conference space. Million-dollar jets. Right now SHIELD's picking up our tab, but bankrolling a team would be billions and billions of dollars."

There's a quiet mechanical humming noise, and then Tony's overhead, repulsors glowing—then dimming as he lands.

"Gosh," Tony says, "I wonder where the Ultimates might possibly find a billionaire to sponsor them." His helmeted face turns toward Steve. "I don't know, Cap, maybe you should think about that a bit. Maybe you can think of someone."

He cuts the external speakers, but down the bond, Steve can hear him laughing.

"Tony," he says.

"I'm in if you are," Tony says. "Sounds like fun." He raises his voice. "Everyone's invited back to my place tonight. Team party."

There are ragged cheers from the rest of the Ultimates. His Ultimates. Their Ultimates.

They're doing this. Together.

This, Steve thinks, is going to be good.

The party is excellent.

It's more sedate than Steve would generally have expected of one of Tony's parties. They're down a few members; Bruce had disappeared after the Hulk took out the Abomination, and Hank's in SHIELD custody, though Jan had assured them all he was doing fine. There's also less liquor in evidence than Steve expects of Tony in any situation, because most of the team isn't mixing booze with heavy-duty painkillers, and tonight that includes Tony.

Thor's drinking like a fish, though. Steve supposes he's more than earned it. He's perched on a couch, telling Wanda and Pietro about how Jan broke him out of the Triskelion's cells. Jan's on his other side, throwing in details.

Steve doesn't want to monopolize Tony, so mostly he just sits back and lets Tony make the rounds of the party. Tony's looking good, better than Steve would have thought for a guy who'd been in the middle of a battle this morning. Save for the bandage taped to his temple, you wouldn't even know. He's bright, he's smiling. He looks happy, Steve thinks. Then Tony catches his eye and the bond glints with affection, and Steve knows Tony's happy.

It's good. And, Christ, Tony's handsome. Steve catches himself looking at the way Tony moves, the way he walks with a little shimmy of his hips, the way he holds his hands—God, his bare hands—when he talks, the way the pale insides of his wrists disappear under his crisp cuffs, the edge of his collarbone revealed by the gap at the top of his shirt where he's left it unbuttoned. Steve catches himself pushing the thought back, the way he would have before. He would have told himself it didn't mean anything, told himself it meant something else... but it didn't.

He always wanted this.

And, he realizes, Tony wants him to look.

Exactly, darling, Tony says, with a wink.

Clint puts in an appearance, an hour or two in, which honestly Steve wasn't expecting. He has a thousand-yard stare, and Steve gets up to talk to him—because, hell, he's seen combat fatigue before, and the man just lost his entire family.

I've got this one, Tony says, before Steve can get there, and he cuts in front of him and heads to meet Clint at the door.

He can't hear what Tony and Clint are saying over the general noise, and he feels like just eavesdropping via the soulbond would be rude, but Tony's broadcasting an aching, empathetic grief that's impossible to miss. Then Tony leans over and hugs Clint. Clint smiles, steps back, nods once. He glances over at Steve and touches his own forehead in a makeshift salute, and then he's out the door again.

Steve wends his way around the partygoers—Thor is out of his seat refilling what looks like an honest-to-God flagon of mead—and joins Tony by the door.

"Natasha's dead," Tony says, very quietly. "Clint took care of it."

Steve reaches out and interlaces his fingers with Tony's. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Tony says, in a voice that suggests that it really isn't. "I'm just sorry she was never who I thought she was." Tony squeezes his fingers.

"Do you wish," Steve says, and he can't finish the sentence. He shouldn't need Tony to tell him this. He shouldn't need Tony to reassure him. "I mean, do you ever— do you ever wish she—"

Tony shakes his head almost violently. "Jesus, no. I wish she hadn't been a terrible human being. I wish she hadn't done what she did." But even if she had been a good person, I wouldn't trade you for anyone, he continues, vehement, earnest. No matter what. It's you for me, Steve. Always. I promise.

"Okay," Steve says. "Okay."

Tony's thumb rubs over the pulse of his wrist, and Steve can't help but smile. They stand there, looking at the team, assembled, at the night sky beyond. It's quite a view.

"Soak it all in while you've got the chance," Tony says. "Next week the whole penthouse is getting scrapped. This level is going to be the hangar for the team base. Gotta put the jets somewhere."

Steve blinks. "You move fast."

"Only sometimes," Tony says, with a smile that Steve isn't quite sure whether to interpret as lascivious. "Some things, it's worth spending time on."

Steve can feel himself blush. "I— yeah. I'll remember that."

"See that you do," Tony says. His voice is low, husky, and, okay, yeah, they need to make it through the party first. Steve's looking forward to the end of it.

Eventually the party winds down, of course. Wanda and Pietro leave first, then Jan, and then Thor, who wanders to the recently-repaired elevator singing drinking songs in a language Steve doesn't recognize.

And then it's just him and Tony left. Tony's at the other end of the living room, maybe ten feet away, tidying up abandoned cups with the air of someone desperately stalling for time.

"Well," Tony says, glancing over at him, his tone deliberately careful. As if this is casual, when they both know it's anything but. "Thanks for coming to this little shindig. If you want, I can get you a ride back to Brooklyn. If that's what you want."

Steve takes a deep breath. "I was kind of hoping," he begins, and he can feel himself trembling, "that if I asked, you'd let me spend the night."

The only noise in the room is the tiny, sharp sound of Tony's breath catching in his throat.

They stare at each other in silence. Tony's closer to the windows than he is, outlined by the Manhattan skyline, the darkness kept at bay by the two of them, by this bubble of light. Tony's eyes are wide. He licks his lips. The bond pulses with a longing that feels weighty, somehow. Momentous. Like this, here, now... it changes everything.

"I love you too much to even consider saying no," Tony says, his voice barely above a whisper, as Steve's heart trips and pounds in his chest. "But if you run away again, you'll break my heart. And I'll let you do it." His mouth curves in a smile that's so very sad. "You can have whatever you want. Anything you want. If you never want to touch me, I can work with that. Just, please," he says, hoarsely, and he's begging, and that's when Steve realizes there are tears in Tony's eyes, "please don't leave me."

Shaking, Steve takes a halting, stumbling step forward. Then another. Then another. Then he's holding out his hands, and then Tony's in his arms. Tony's leaning against him, arms wrapped tight around him. They're holding each other up. Somehow his hands are on Tony's face, and their mouths meet, and they're kissing and kissing and kissing.

I'm here, Steve says. I'm sorry and I'm here and I'm staying. For good.

He pushes everything he has into the soulbond. Every bit of love, every ounce of reassurance, everything he can possibly give Tony. Now Tony's the one shaking, shivering in his arms, kissing him back.

Tony breaks the kiss and tips his forehead against Steve's and he's smiling. Down the bond there's a tentative joy.

"Can I?" Steve whispers. "Can we?"

Tony's smile turns teasing. "Can we what?"

You know what I mean, Steve says, impatiently. I hear you're some kind of mind reader.

Tony laughs. Maybe so. But I like hearing you say it.

"Can you take me to bed?" Steve says. His voice is low and smooth, and Tony shudders against him.

"Yeah," Tony says, with a dazed, half-delirious laugh. "I can definitely do that."

Last time, Tony had led him slowly to bed. This isn't going to be like last time. They're running up the stairs together, holding hands. He pauses to kiss Tony again—God, why haven't they been kissing this entire time?—and he works Tony's shirt open as he does. By the time they get to the bedroom Tony's shirt is hanging off him and his hair is disheveled. It's a really good look on him.

He's about to pull Tony's shirt off him and start working on his own clothes when Tony leans in and kisses him. He locks his hands around Steve's wrist and slowly pulls his arms down.

"Shh," Tony murmurs against his lips. "It's not a race, darling. You can slow down a little. I'm not going to disappear if you don't get me in bed before midnight."

"I know," Steve says, but at the same time it feels like he has to. He has to know now if he can do this. And, God, he could have died today. They both could have died. "I just— it could have been too late."

"Not too late." Tony kisses him again. "Never too late. We're here now."

This is what they have. They're here. They're making the most of it. It's all they can do.

"Okay," Steve says. "Okay. We are."

He pushes Tony's shirt back off his shoulders, and God, there's so much of Tony to touch, warm skin under his bare hands, the bond between them lighting up with every touch. He kisses Tony as he pushes him back toward the bed, as he undoes Tony's belt with one hand, as he pulls out Tony's cock. He can feel it in his own body, like he's touching himself. He's not afraid. Not anymore. This is Tony and he loves him.

Tony tips his head back as Steve kisses him again, exposing his throat, and then it seems like the most natural thing in the world to keep going, to press kisses to Tony's collarbone, his pecs, across his ribs, then lower and lower until Steve sinks to the floor, his mouth inches from Tony's cock as Tony sits on the edge of the bed.

Steve's mouth waters. His cock throbs in his pants. He wants to. God, he wants to.

Tony gasps, a small, soft, vulnerable sound. His thighs are shaking, a fine tremor in the muscle, but he doesn't press forward.

You don't have to. His mental voice is earnest. You never have to, okay?

I want to, Steve says, and he leans forward and takes Tony's cock into his mouth.

He'd imagined that he would feel debased. Lowered. Used. Powerless. He feels anything but. The weight of Tony's cock on his tongue, filling his mouth, is somehow comforting. He knows Tony is enjoying this. Tony is very carefully holding still, but he's breathing heavily, his breaths half-voiced moans. And the soulbond's phantom sensation on his own cock, well, that's a hell of a thing.

And even though he doesn't know what he's doing, for once his ignorance doesn't wound him. Tony knows. Tony can tell him how to do this. He kind of likes the idea of that. He doesn't have to be in charge. Tony's going to show him.

You're doing great, Tony says. Just like that, oh God. You could— with your hand—

Like this? Steve obligingly wraps his hand around the base of Tony's cock. He doesn't dare try to take him all in, the way Tony had done for him, but he licks the head of Tony's cock as he tightens his hand on the shaft, tight, the way he knows Tony likes, and at least he knows how to do this part. Tony moans and Tony's cock jerks in his mouth and, God, Tony really likes this.

Tony's hand cards through his hair, settles on his scalp. Steve waits for the fear, the fear that Tony could hold him down, could make him do this—and then he realizes that he'd do it. That's what he wants. He wants Tony inside him. He wants Tony to be in control. He wants Tony to open him up and slide inside him and show him everything, all the things he's never known. He wants that.

He realizes his free hand is on his own cock, rubbing his erection through his pants, so worked up by the thought of it, by Tony rocking ever so slightly into his mouth, that he could practically go off just from this.

He sits back. He knows Tony was close, and for an instant the bond goes disjoint and Tony's just sitting there blinking down at him, wondering where he went. Tony's chest is heaving and his eyes are unfocused. Steve did this to him.

There's a glow of pride in his chest.

You should see yourself, Tony says. God, you're gorgeous. There's a reflected image, then, him kneeling here between Tony's legs, fully dressed, but in every other respect clearly a mess. His lips are red and bruised, slick and wet. His eyes are dark, hazy, sultry, and he's looking up at Tony with a gaze full of longing.

Steve's never seen himself look like that in all his life. But it's him now. This is what Tony's Steve looks like.

"Can I kiss you?" he asks, and, Jesus, he sounds like sex. Of course he does. He's been sucking Tony's cock. His cock twitches again.

In reply, Tony tugs him up and over, and their mouths meet as Steve topples over onto him. His cock presses against Tony, and even clothed, he's rocking up against Tony, hips thrusting forward as Tony pushes back against him, as Tony's tongue slides into his mouth, as Tony frantically arches up against him.

They break the kiss just long enough for Steve to lean back and haul his shirt over his head, and—God, yes—Tony's fingers work at his fly and Tony's shoving his pants off and Steve manages to get his boots off, God knows where they'll end up, before pulling Tony over next to him. Tony's pressed up against him, skin-to-skin, a level of intensity neither of them were ready for. Tony thrusts up against him, his cock sliding up along Steve's cock. The bond mirrors it, doubles it, the sensation echoing back.

Do you want to come like this? Tony asks. He turns his head and kisses him and keeps thrusting, and God, if they keep doing this it's going to happen in about the next ten seconds and they won't have a choice. Do you want us to come like this?

Tony flails a hand over to brace him, his palm on the small of Steve's back, and Steve thinks about Tony's hand sliding lower and lower and he wants that.

He gets his hands on Tony's shoulders and pushes Tony away.

Panting, bereft, Tony stares at him before blinking and getting his bearings. "Not like this?" Tony breathes. "Okay. Just say the word. What do you want? I can— I can suck you off again—"

"Not that," Steve says. "I want— I want." He doesn't know how to say it. All the words he knows for it just sound so angry and crude and that's not what he wants at all. "I want us to make love."

Tony blinks again, long lashes fluttering against his cheeks. "Darling, you might need to say more words than that. I thought we already were. Is this one of those forties things, where you mean something different than I do?"

He can't say it. Even the soulbond is failing him. He can't ask for it with sensations, with memories, because he has nothing to compare it to. He knows what it was like to be inside Gail and Jan. Would it be like that for Tony? He doesn't know how it feels, to open up and let someone in, but he remembers that all-encompassing warmth. He wants to be that for Tony. He wants to give that to Tony. He wants to know what it's like.

Tony must catch the tenor of his thoughts then, because he pauses. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes dark, and his tongue runs around his lips. "Oh," he says, softly. "Oh, that. Of course, darling." He smiles, like he knows a wonderful secret and he's looking forward to sharing it with Steve. Steve wonders if this is how he was always supposed to feel, excited, instead of ashamed and ignorant. "Have you ever done it like that with a woman? Probably not, hmm?" Tony just smiles, avid. "You'll love it. It's tighter this way. You really will love it."

He hadn't quite been expecting Tony to say yes so fast, and he stares, dumbfounded. "I will?"

"Of course you will," Tony says, and he's pushing himself away, flailing behind him in the nightstand, getting out a condom and a bottle of... something. Tony takes advantage of the increased distance to give him an admiring once-over. "I won't lie, I've been looking forward to getting that in me for ages. Bent over the desk, on the conference table, up against the wall. So many fantasies."

Oh. He hadn't exactly said— and Tony had assumed—

He gets his hand around Tony's wrist as Tony moves to flip open the bottle.

"Not like that," Steve says, and apprehension clouds his mind, because if Tony had assumed that, maybe that means he doesn't want what Steve wants. But he's come this far. He can say it now. He can be this brave. "I meant, uh. The other way around. You inside me. If— if that's something you want."

His gaze is still focused on Tony's wrist as he says it, and he looks helplessly up into Tony's face when he finishes. Tony's mouth is half-open, slack with surprise, and he can feel Tony's astonishment down the bond. There's desire, too, a sudden burst of it, an intense wave, and he knows Tony wants it. He knows that Tony has wanted it, that Tony was never going to say; there's a tinge of secrecy around the edge of the feeling.

Tony mouths if that's something you want soundlessly, incredulously, like he can't believe Steve thinks he could ever not want this. Like it's something he always wanted but never thought he could have.

Tony seems to be at a loss for words—the bond is still full of surprise—and it takes him a few tries before he speaks.

"Are you sure?" Tony says, very softly. "It's... a big step. We don't have to do everything all at once, you know." Tony doesn't want to frighten him. He knows that.

I know, Steve says. But Tony clearly wants something more from him than that, so he knows he has to try to explain. And I'm scared, because I've never done it, but I want it more than anything. I want to know what it's like. And I don't want to look back, later, and think about the things I could have done but was too scared to try. We're here now and we have a chance. I don't want to miss our chance. I want to make the most of it.

He knows Tony knows what he means. He knows their time together is finite. Tony's blinking back tears.

"Yeah," Tony says, hoarsely. "Yeah. I know what you mean."

And you strike me as the kind of guy who knows exactly what you're doing, Steve says. I think you'd know how to show me a good time. He puts a little edge of desire in the words. He wants that. All of Tony's experience. All of Tony's skill, brought to bear on him. The thought is heady.

Now Tony smiles. I'm going to make you so happy, he says. You just lie back and let me take care of you.

Steve can do that. But it doesn't sound like much fun for Tony, if he's just lying there. It'll be good for you, though, right?

Tony's smile grows even wider. Oh, I'm definitely going to enjoy this.

Tony nudges Steve onto his side and then his front. He can't quite see Tony from here, and despite himself, his stomach knots up with tension. Tony's not touching him. He pictures Tony looming over him—

Easy, Tony says, and he settles a hand on Steve's shoulder. What, did you think I was just gonna stick it in you?

It's not like Steve had done any better with Gail. He can feel his face color, and he buries his head in his pillowed arms.

It's okay, Tony says. No one's born knowing everything. It's okay not to know. But I'm not putting anything at all in you until you're good and relaxed. There's the pressure of lips against Steve's shoulder blade.

Tony was good at foot rubs, but Steve discovers that Tony is amazing at back rubs. Tony works up and down his back, kneading his fingers into the muscles, until Steve relaxes bonelessly into the mattress. It's nice, but scrupulously chaste.

You could go lower, Steve suggests, hopefully.

Tony's hands work even lower, and then suddenly it isn't chaste at all. Tony's fingers smooth over his lower back, over his ass, and even the feather-light sensation makes Steve's cock jump, trapped between his belly and the mattress. He hitches his hips up into Tony's touch, a reflex he didn't know he had, and he hears a broken moan that must be him. God, he didn't know it would feel this good. It's a ridiculous thought, because it must feel good, otherwise why would anyone do it, but he didn't know.

Tony chuckles. It gets even better. Tony nudges Steve's legs apart with a warm hand, and Jesus, Steve didn't know that even his thighs were so sensitive. Tony just keeps his hand there and strokes his inner thighs gently. The way you respond to this, Tony says, almost reverently. God, it's like I'm the one doing this for the first time. The bond brims with contentment. I'm going to get the lube out, use my hands, okay?

It sounds great, but... it seems remote. He wants to watch. He wants to see.

Steve pushes himself up on his elbows and tries to turn over. Can I see?

He can feel Tony considering this. You're definitely limber enough for it. Roll back over?

Steve does, and Tony promptly wedges a pillow under him, so his ass is in the air. He feels... exposed. His face heats, and he realizes Tony's looking at him, and he realizes Tony likes it. He realizes he likes it.

And I thought I was the showoff, Tony says, with a fond smile. He's squeezing something clear and viscous from the bottle onto his hands. Got to slick up first.

Okay. Steve bites his lip. This is it. This is really it.

Relax, Tony says. It's going to be good. He continues aloud. "Fair warning, since you don't know what to expect. It will probably feel weird at first. But it's not going to hurt; it's just going to feel weird."

Steve nods. "Okay."

Tony sets the bottle down, smiles an encouraging smile, and puts one hand... on Steve's cock. He strokes him slowly, lightly, clearly not intending to bring him off. His other hand comes up to fondle Steve's balls, the way he's always liked, and the combined sensation makes Steve gasp and twist, pushing up into Tony's grip. And then the hand on his balls slides lower, further back, and somehow it still feels good, as Tony's slick fingers rub over his hole in time with Tony's hand on his cock. He wants— God, he wants more—

Tony's watching his face intently. "Good?"

Can't Tony tell from the bond? "Oh, yes," Steve breathes. "More."

And then Tony pushes one finger inside him and it's just... strange. It doesn't feel bad, but it's nothing like the amazing ripple of sensation his fingers had on the outside. It feels like it's not somewhere anything is supposed to be. Steve bites his lip.

"Yeah," Tony says. "That's what I meant by weird."

Steve can feel his cock starting to soften, even in Tony's grip, and Jesus, that's never happened before. Is there something wrong with him?

Tony leans in and kisses the inside of Steve's knee. Perfectly normal, he says. Your body's still trying to figure out how to feel about this.

Tony works his finger in and out, seemingly unfazed, and the sensation slowly shifts from strange to neutral. But it's not good. Maybe Steve is doing it wrong. Tony adds another finger, and that just adds extra strangeness. But it doesn't hurt, at least. He feels a little stretch. He frowns and squeezes down. It's almost pleasant. He supposes this is as good as it gets. He feels so open. He must be ready now.

"There we go," Tony murmurs, and he smiles. "See, you're loosening up. This is the part where we figure out if you're actually going to like... well, what I think you're going to like. With your sensitivity, I'm betting on yes."

Steve squints. "What are you talking about?"

Tony gives him a brilliant smile. This, he says, and he does something with his fingers, shifting them inside Steve, and—

For a blinding moment, there's nothing in him but pleasure. He arches up, pushing against Tony's fingers, wanting more, more, more, forcing Tony's fingers on that spot. He's gasping, panting, his head thrown back. If Tony just keeps touching him there, God, he could come from just that, that's how good it is.

"Oh, yeah," Tony says, a little smugly, but Jesus, he's earned it. "You like that."

Steve's still gasping. "I— oh— yes— please, Tony, please—"

He didn't know it was going to be like this. He thought it was going to be good, all right, but good because of Tony being with him, of the intimacy of Tony being close. He didn't think it was going to feel like Tony could rewire his brain, every circuit pointing to pleasure. He didn't think Tony could make him beg for it. He's never wanted anything this much.

Tony shifts position—making his fingers inside Steve do even more interesting things—and leans down and kisses him.

Now you're ready, Tony says, and Steve can feel him smile against his lips.

Tony slides his fingers back out, and Steve feels wet and achingly empty as Tony reaches for the condom.

"You don't need that," Steve says, "unless you want it. Serum means I don't get or carry diseases anymore."

"Must be nice." Tony's voice is somber, and he's silent a moment before continuing on. "You have a preference? It gets messier for you, without. I assume so, anyway. Not that I've, uh, ever personally had the opportunity."

Tony's smile is abashed, and Steve marvels that he's found something Tony Stark, of all people, has never done in bed.

Steve plucks the condom out of Tony's hand and tosses it away. I want to feel it when you come inside me.

Jesus. Tony swallows hard. Keep talking like that and I might not make it that far.

Come on, then, Steve says, and he pulls Tony down on top of him.

It feels so right. Tony's body settles against his, warm and heavy and solid. This is what he's been missing all this time. He feels safe. Protected. Loved. He lets his legs fall open, feels the press of Tony's hips against his thighs, and he knows this is where he was meant to be.

Tony has a steadying hand on him, moving him around, hitching his leg up. And then Tony smiles down at him. Breathe, darling.

Steve breathes in and out, and then there's a blunt pressure against his hole, bigger than fingers, pushing forward, and for an instant he thinks what if I can't? but he breathes and tries to relax and then, oh God, Tony's inside him—

He can feel it through the bond, the sensation shared and doubled, and Tony's pausing to let him get used to it, but he's ready now, he wants more, he wants everything. Tony pushes all the way in, as far as he can go, and Tony's staring down at him, dark-eyed and dazed, drunk on happiness, ecstatic, like Steve's body is a religious experience, and it's like nothing Steve has ever felt, it's like nothing Tony has ever felt—

The bond opens wide between them, and then they're one.

He doesn't know what he feels and what Tony feels. It doesn't matter. It happens to both of them. Tony pulls back just far enough to thrust in again and they're both gasping with the pleasure, the feeling from both sides, taking and being taken. Tony presses himself close, rocking against Steve with slow little rolls of his hips that touch that place inside him, that make Steve arch up and search for more.

Tony slides a hand over Steve's hip, up his side, and Steve knows if Tony just touched his cock he'd come, but that he doesn't want it to be over. Steve reaches up and strokes Tony's face, then drops his hand to capture Tony's.

Steve's never done this before, but his body knows what to do. He knows what Tony needs, how to match Tony's rhythm as Tony drives into him, how to tighten down around his cock, making Tony cry out. The pleasure echoes down the bond and Steve sobs aloud.

He can't stop touching Tony. He drops Tony's hand to run his fingers over the corded muscle of Tony's arms, over Tony's flexing shoulders—Tony's so strong, and the thought thrills him—and gasping, he pulls Tony closer, so Tony can slide deeper into him, oh, he's got the perfect angle now—

He knows he can't last. Neither of them can. Nothing lasts forever, after all. He knows Tony's close, as close as he is. Tony thrusts into him, hard, one, two, three times, and then Tony wraps his hand around Steve's cock and strokes him once, gently, and that's it, that's it, Steve's gone. He's coming and coming, and his own pleasure pushes Tony over the edge. Tony's gasping and coming. Steve's senses are keen enough that he can feel it, can feel Tony's come spurting hot and wet inside him, and that thought is enough to make his own cock twitch and spurt again, a messy arc all over his stomach. He tightens down around Tony, who moans brokenly as his come drips out of Steve's body, as he thrusts through the aftershocks until it's finally over.

Tony's arms give out and Steve pulls him close. Tony pillows his head on Steve's chest and lies there, panting, satiated, until he finally pulls out. It's a little messy, and Tony smiles at the face Steve makes. Tony wipes them both up and then curls up on top of him again.

That was, Steve says, and then he gives up, because there aren't words.

I know, Tony says. I know. He slides up Steve's body and kisses him, long and lingering and sweet.

The world is warm and hazy, and there's nothing in it except him and Tony.

Steve wraps his arms around Tony. We can do that again sometime, right?

Tony's smile is fond. Every night, darling.

He doesn't know how long that's going to be. There are no guarantees. But he loves Tony, and Tony loves him, and he's going to stay with him every night, and that's got to be enough.

Waking in the morning is an oddly familiar experience.

Steve's only slept in Tony's bed once before, but he's seen it through Tony's eyes most mornings. The high ceiling, the slant of light through huge windows—it all feels like something he's always done, even though he's never spent the night here before.

Tony's next to him, lying in a pool of sunshine, and Steve's definitely never woken up next to Tony before. Steve's never woken up next to anyone before. Tony's skin is gilded by the morning light. His chest rises and falls as he breathes. There's the slightest smile on his face.

Steve wants to wake up like this every morning.

Tony's eyes flicker open, and his smile grows wider.

Good morning, Steve tells him.

You stayed. Tony's mental voice is awed, grateful.

I stayed. Steve leans in and kisses Tony, and Tony kisses back, and Steve wonders, hopefully, if they can just stay here in bed all day—

Someone clears their throat from the doorway. Steve turns his head, sees Jarvis, then yelps and scrambles for the covers. Tony, much more blasé, doesn't even bother moving.

"Good day, sir," Jarvis says, unflappable. "Your appointment is in an hour and a half. Will Captain Rogers be staying for breakfast?"

"Yeah, sure," Tony says, lazily. "Get him breakfast." He frowns. "Get him two breakfasts. He eats a lot."

"Very good, sir," Jarvis says, as he disappears.

Sorry, Tony says. Should have warned you. He's seen worse from me, anyway.

Steve makes his hands unclench from the covers. No problem, he says. So what's on the agenda for today?

Nothing much. But Tony's bright smile dims ever so slightly, shadowed. Doctor's appointment. One of my oncologists.


There's something hard and cold in the pit of Steve's stomach. Even now, even after all this, even though they've finally found each other—Tony's still dying.

There's nothing they can do but make the most of the time they have.

Do you want me to go with you? Steve asks.

There's the tiniest pulse of hope down the bond. Steve realizes he's never asked Tony this before.

You don't have to, Tony says, hesitantly. It's not like it's going to be anything exciting. You'd just be sitting in a waiting room for a while, while they scan my head. And then they tell me about my worsening prognosis. You wouldn't be missing much.

That sounds like something no one should be alone for.

Yeah, Steve says, but do you want me there?

He remembers what Bucky told him. Don't leave him, he thinks. He thinks maybe he's learned something.

Tony pauses for a few seconds, like this—out of everything he's said—is the hardest to admit. Yes, he says. Please.

Steve takes Tony's hand. Then you've got me.

After Tony goes in, Steve is the only person in the waiting room. The coffee table is piled high with years-old magazines, which are actually of some interest to Steve being as most of them are from when he was in the ice, so all the old news is nothing he remembers. He leafs through articles about Y2K halfheartedly; all of his thoughts are with Tony.

Tony's lying there in some kind of very loud machine that's almost claustrophobically tight. Tony knows what kind of machine it is, of course, as well as a bunch of facts about the procedure. It's not invasive, other than the dye injection at the beginning; Tony's mostly just bored, although his feelings about hearing the impending results of the scan... well, those are dismal.

This is actually much more entertaining with you here, Tony informs him. Ooh, flip back. I want to read that.

Whatever you want, Steve tells him, and they go through the entire magazine together, finishing by the time Tony's scan is done.

The doctor—the woman who interprets the scan, anyway—is in the next room over, and when Tony slides out of the scanner he sits up and waits like he's done this a million times before.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Stark," the doctor says. "We're experiencing some kind of technical problem. We're going to need to redo the scan."

Steve can feel Tony sigh inwardly, but of course Tony smiles his best smile. "Fine by me," Tony says, and he lies back down again.

During the second scan, Tony starts getting restless; in the waiting room, Steve runs out of computer magazines, and there are only old issues of National Geographic.

And then the doctor comes out again. "I'm terribly sorry about all this, Mr. Stark," she says, and her face is the picture of bewilderment, "but—"

Oh, fuck me, Tony says, but he keeps smiling. "Still not better?"

She shakes her head. "If you could come with me down the hall, the CT scanner is free."

"Of course," Tony says.

Steve zones out somewhere near the middle of the fourth scan, the one that comes after the CT scan. He knows they must be talking about the scan results, but Tony's been nothing but quietly frustrated the whole time, not seeking him out. He supposes if Tony wants him, he'll ask.

And then Steve sits bolt-upright, because all at once there's an overwhelming swell of emotion from Tony, a tidal wave, too much to tell if it's bad or good, but Jesus, he's in his doctor's office being told about his brain tumor, of course it's bad—

Tony? he asks, but he's not sure Tony hears him. Tony's too caught up in this— this— whatever it is—

Steve's on his feet instantly and he doesn't know what he's doing or where he's going but he knows Tony needs him.

"Captain Rogers?" The door opens and there's a nurse standing there. "Mr. Stark, he's—"

"I need to see him." Steve's voice is hoarse. "Please."

It's going to be all right, he says to Tony, even though, oh God, it isn't and it can't be—

The nurse leads him down the hall and opens the door to an exam room, and there's a doctor in there but mostly there's Tony sitting on an exam table, fully-dressed, and he's shaking, and he raises his head, and he's been crying

Steve takes three steps forward and he wraps his arms around Tony. He doesn't care about the doctor, he doesn't care about anything but Tony. It's going to be okay, he repeats. I'm not leaving you. No matter what.

Tony lifts his head and he's... smiling? It's going to be better than okay, Tony says, and that's when Steve realizes that the tears in Tony's eyes are tears of joy. The bond pulses with a tentative, incredulous happiness. How can any of this be good news?

"What's going on here?" Steve asks.

"You're going to want to sit down for this, Captain," the doctor says.

Steve sits on the table next to Tony, so he can hold Tony's hand.

"Steve, it's in remission," Tony says, aloud, and the word doesn't make any sense at first, and Tony's still crying.

"Spontaneous and total," the doctor says. She puts up three different scans. Steve doesn't know what he's supposed to be looking at. They all just look like a brain to him. "I thought it was equipment error at first. He looks like... someone who has never had a brain tumor. There are no traces." Even her smile is looking a little misty-eyed.

That's when Steve gets it.

"He's not dying," Steve says, shakily, and Tony squeezes his hand. "You're not— you're not joking, right?"

Tony's going to be okay. Tony's going to live. The thought is nearly unbelievable. They can be together— God, they have a future—

"It's a miracle," the doctor says. "I don't understand how this is possible. I wish I knew. It shouldn't be possible. The way the tumor was developing— people just don't heal from that. Not like this. But he did."

And then Steve knows exactly why. It's him.

"I wouldn't be able to get cancer," he says, slowly. "If it were me. I couldn't get it. I have a healing factor. The serum would heal it."

She squints at him. "I have to say that I am not an expert on your particular set of circumstances, Captain, but that's my understanding."

Tony already knows where he's going. Holy shit, Tony murmurs, somewhere at the edge of his mind.

"It's me," Steve says. "I'm the miracle."

The doctor's just staring at him.

"When they tested the pain transference of the soulbond, at SHIELD, what they did was hurt me, because they knew I'd heal fast," Steve says. "That was all they did to confirm that. That was all they needed to do, to prove it existed. No one ever tested it in the opposite direction."

Tony's mind is dazed with shock, but he's catching up fast. "Not until we were in combat, anyway."

"We were in Norway," Steve remembers, "and you took that hit from Thor, the one that felt like it damn near stove your chest in—"

"It didn't," Tony says. "It didn't, though. It was just bruising—"

Steve shakes his head. "You didn't get the armor off for hours. No one physically checked you until then." He pauses. "I'd probably have healed it by then. If it had been me. And your head, Tony, you stopped getting those headaches—"

Down the bond, there's a dawning realization. "I haven't had one since probably the time you took me to meet Bucky and Gail. Jesus."

"And we were in combat yesterday," Steve says, urgently. He has to lay this all out. He needs to know if it's true. "You got that head wound, what, twenty-four hours ago?" He gestures at Tony's temple, where gauze is still taped down.

"Just about," Tony agrees.

It had bled hard, like most head wounds; Tony had gotten one of his techs to patch him up at the same time as he'd been putting the armor on, because they hadn't had the time for anything more elegant. Steve had watched the guy clean up the cut and slap a bandage on it.

Steve reaches out and peels away the tape and then the gauze.

The butterfly bandage on Tony's face is holding together... nothing.

The skin is perfectly clear. No scars. No sign that he was ever hurt.

"I healed you," Steve whispers, awed. "It's not just pain that transfers down the bond. It's everything."

There are tears rolling down Tony's cheeks.

You saved my life, Tony says, his mind full of joy and gratitude. God, Steve, you saved my life.

"This is amazing," the doctor says, and Steve belatedly remembers they're not actually alone in the room. "Would it be possible to run more tests? There are going to be a lot of people who want to talk to you."

"Yes," Tony says, "yes, of course." He smiles, a little awkwardly. "Maybe a bit later, though? I'll call. I— we— I need some time to process this."

"No problem," the doctor says. She still looks stunned, herself. Steve bets she never gets to deliver this news.

"It was nice meeting you," Steve says, and he realizes as Tony tugs him out the door that he doesn't even know her name.

Tony's dragging him down the hallway, fast, like he's got somewhere to be, but they have all the time in the world now—

They stop because they have to, because they're waiting for the elevator, and Tony smiles at him, and he smiles back, and he can't believe this is real, but it is, it is.

So what do you want to do now? Steve asks.

The elevator doors open, and Tony pushes him into the empty elevator, back against the wall.

Honestly, Tony says, right now I just want to take you back to bed.

Steve smiles and smiles and kisses him. Yeah, Steve says, I can work with that.

He remembers how it felt to wake up in that hospital bed at SHIELD. It feels so long ago now. He'd hated the future then, but everything is bright and beautiful now. He has Tony. His soulmate.

It's not the future he ever thought he'd have. It's better.

It's their future, he thinks, and all he can feel down the soulbond is Tony's gratitude, Tony's joy, Tony's love. It's their future, together.