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Never Too Late for Love

Chapter Text

The armchair doesn't look like much, but it's Steve's favorite place in the house. Once upon a time, the chair was probably green, but it hasn't been green since they got it; the O'Riordans who used to live on the first floor gave it to them as payment for when Steve's da helped them fix the window that the landlord wasn't going to bother with until after Christmas. The chair is a muddy greenish-brown and the upholstery is soft and worn. Even though Steve's tall—at fourteen he's already tall—he's skinny, and so he can still curl up, fit himself against the cushions, shut his eyes, and listen to the wireless.

Steve doesn't just like the serials, with their thrilling adventures—he likes everything. When the news comes on and the reporters start talking about what happened today in faraway places, Steve lingers over each syllable of every exotic name. He imagines jungles. Palm trees. Mist-shrouded castles. Waterfalls. He imagines that his father's not drunk and shouting, that no one's teasing him, that his game leg doesn't hurt, that the high school boys haven't caught him in the alley after school again.

It's like being somewhere else. It's like being anywhere that isn't Brooklyn. It's like being in the future, the bright and perfect future.

He's jolted out of his reverie by a news announcement.

"—and our London bureau now reports," the man on the radio says, in clipped, urgent tones, "that the king is abdicating, in order to marry his soulmate, Mrs. Wallis Simpson."

Steve's eyes snap open. His soulmate?

Soulmates are— soulmates are—

It's a one-in-a-million chance. Maybe one in a billion. You meet someone. You touch them, skin-to-skin—Steve shivers a little at the forbidden thought, touching a girl's bare hands—and your minds are joined together for the rest of your lives. You sense their feelings. You hear their very thoughts. You share their pain, and their joy, and their love. You are never alone. Everything you feel is shared, forever, with someone made for you as you are made for them. That's what they say in church.

Steve's never met anyone who has a soulmate. He can only name maybe a dozen soulbonded people in the entire world. That's how rare it is. He supposes that only special people deserve soulbonds. He supposes the king of England is awfully special.

There's someone else speaking now, a man with a British accent, and Steve guesses that this is the king.

"You must believe me," the king says, "when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

It seems like it should be a movie. The king of England is giving up his throne to marry his soulmate. It's so romantic, Steve thinks, and he knows he shouldn't think like that, he shouldn't have so many feelings, so many dreams. He shouldn't be like that. That's not how a man acts. But maybe it's okay if it's only in his own head and he doesn't say it out loud.

The king continues, "And I want you to know—"

"Steven!" his ma calls from the kitchen. "Dinner's almost ready! Come help set the table!"

Steve sighs, flails around for his cane—he'd left it leaning against the arm of the chair—and pulls himself upright. He turns off the radio on the way out.

"Would you pass the potatoes?" his mother asks. "I'd like some, and maybe your brother would too."

It's almost a pleasant dinner at first. Da's—well, if not sober, at least not completely plastered yet—and Doug, all of six years old, is at least quiet.

Steve grabs the bowl awkwardly, one-handed, and he nearly spills it. And his brother—his baby brother—has to help him out, and eventually they right it.

Steve can't even feel happy at his victory as he spoons more potatoes onto his plate, because he knows he's weak and uncoordinated, and he hates it. Someday I'm going to be big and strong, and then they'll see, Steve thinks, the half-formed resentful fantasy that always used to comfort him, back when he was a little kid, back when he was lying in the dirt bleeding, and somehow it had still felt like he could be anything when he grew up. It's becoming less of a comfort now; it's painfully clear that he's always going to be weak and frail, always going to have a limp, always going to be skin and bones. He's not just going to wake up one day and be... cured. That doesn't happen.

"Now, Steven," Ma says, smiling, as he passes her the bowl, "what was on the radio just now? A special broadcast? I heard you listening to the news."

He knows before he opens his mouth that talking about it is going to ruin it, a thought he instantly feels stupid for thinking. It's just news. But somehow it's special. And he has to give it up anyway.

"The king of England isn't the king anymore," Steve says. "He's giving it up to marry his soulmate."

His mother smiles, but his father harrumphs disapprovingly.

"Good riddance," he says. "Wasn't much of a king, I hear. And that soulmate of his—divorced once, already married to another man. It's not proper. He shouldn't be marrying her at all."

Steve knows there's no point in arguing, but he sees red; his fists clench around his knife and fork. "But she's his soulmate."

A man's soulmate is the one woman he can always marry, even if she's already married—the church grants annulments for that, of course. Steve isn't sure the Church of England is the same about that kind of thing, but why wouldn't it be? She's the other half of your soul. Not being together would be wrong.

His father snorts. "Just because you have a soulmate, doesn't mean she's a good person," he says. The slurred pronouncement is absolute, like he knows everything about everything, and Steve hates it.

His mother is beginning to sense that this isn't the safe topic she'd hoped for. "Now, Joe, come on—"

"If I had a soulmate," Steve begins.

And his father just starts laughing. "Aww, kid, you think you're gonna have a soulmate," he says, with that mocking smirk. "Grow up! You really think you're that special? You think you're gonna meet some girl and touch her, and, boom, fireworks?" His eyes narrow. "It's that girl from school, isn't it? The redhead?" He laughs, and Steve goes hot.

He's ruining everything, making all of Steve's dreams ugly.

"What would you know?" Steve yells, forgetting he's at the table. Tears swim in his eyes. He knows he's a disappointment to his father. He just wishes his father would stop saying so.

"Steven!" his mother snaps. "Quiet! Don't talk back to your father!"

He hunches over his plate and doesn't look up.

Your soulmate loves you. She has to. She has to. It's better than family. She doesn't leave you. She loves you for what's inside, because she can tell. She can tell everything about you, and she still loves you.

He knows it's a fantasy. He's not stupid. He knows he'll never be that lucky. But that doesn't mean he doesn't dream about it.

He doesn't say anything else for the rest of the meal.

Monday morning is cold, cold even for December, and Steve can feel the chill down to his bones, as the wind whips through his coat like he's not even wearing one. His cane punches through the half-frozen puddles all the way to school. He slides on the black ice, off-balance; he's aching by the time he's halfway there, aching from tensing up while trying not to step wrong.

Bucky's waiting for him at the corner, the way he always does, so they can walk the rest of it together. Bucky comes up next to him, on his bad side, but doesn't offer Steve an arm; he knows Steve won't take it unless he's actually falling.

"Rough weekend, huh?" Bucky says, under his breath; he probably saw Steve at church yesterday, when Steve himself had barely looked anywhere but straight ahead.

"I'm fine," Steve says, and then: "I hate my father."

Bucky's hand comes up to the back of his neck for a split second, bracing him. "Aww, geez." He sighs. "You can't let him get to you." It's almost the same thing he says about the high school boys, except when it's the high school boys he tells Steve not to mouth off.

Like that's gonna stop him from standing up to them.

"I turn eighteen, I'm gonna join the Army," Steve says, even though he knows they'll probably never take him. Even if his leg were fine, they'd still probably never take him. "I'm gonna get away from it all. You just watch me."

Bucky chuckles. "Okay. I'm watchin'."

Steve slips a little on a patch of ice, steadies himself, bites back the nasty word he was about to say, and realizes he'll probably end up mentioning it anyway when he goes to confession. "Or I could join the circus," he says, mournfully. "Me and the dog-faced boy, we'll be buddies."

Bucky splays his hand over his own chest in mock-alarm. "And forget all about me?"

Steve laughs and feels a little better for it.

"That's the way," Bucky says. If it seems odd that he's a year younger and he's always the one holding Steve up, he's never said. "And hey, look, we're almost at school. I'll say hi to your girlfriend for you."

"She's not my girlfriend," Steve snaps, and he goes hot as they round the corner, the school looming ahead of them. Ordinarily he can take the teasing—at least from Bucky—but he's still a little raw about the whole thing. And it seems unfair too; she's in Bucky's class, Bucky's grade. He gets to see her the entire day.

They get inside and get their coats put away. There's a few minutes before the bell, and that's when Steve sees her: Gail Richards.

Maybe it's good that she's not in Steve's classes, because then he'd probably fail out of school.

She's beautiful. She always is. Her long red hair cascades down her back, shining even in the pale winter light. Her cheeks are flushed from the cold, and her green eyes sparkle. She's wearing the same uniform all the other girls are, skirt and sweater and proper white gloves, so she'll never touch anyone, not until she's married. And even then she'll only touch her husband. But she's so pretty, so clever, and when she talks to Steve she's kind. She's always smiling, or laughing.

He's going to marry Gail someday. And he knows it's a dream, a stupid dream, but he imagines: what if they're soulmates? He imagines taking her gloves off, seeing her bare hands, touching her—

Bucky nudges him, and, caught unawares, Steve nearly falls over.

"I'm telling you," Bucky whispers. "You should ask her out. I think she likes you."

Gail's grinning at one of her friends, saying something he can't hear. For an instant her gaze meets his, and she's looking at him and smiling, and then she moves on.

"I— I can't," Steve says, because he knows what she'd say already, and he doesn't want to hear it.

The bell rings.

Bucky shrugs. "I'm just saying," he says. "You never know."

Chapter Text

The air in the club is hazy with the blue tinge of cigarette smoke, and Steve shifts back in his uncomfortable chair and stares at the half-drunk beer on the table in front of him. He's eighteen; he can have a beer if he wants. It's not really helping his mood.

He doesn't know why he let Bucky talk him into this. Misplaced optimism, he guesses.

Oh, he knows exactly why Bucky wanted to go. Bucky's had his eye on this girl Claire for weeks now, but she'd only go out with him if someone would go with her friend Eileen and make a double date of it. And, of course, Steve was available. Steve's always available.

Come on, Bucky had said. If you're never going to ask Gail Richards out, at least go out with someone. You'll never get anywhere unless you try.

Well, he's trying, and he's still not getting anywhere.

Bucky and Claire are cutting a rug on the dance floor, and Eileen... abandoned Steve for a group of her friends, whom she had seen the minute the four of them walked in. She's barely looked back. Once she did look back, and he saw her laughing. He can only imagine what she thinks of him. It's not like he can dance, anyway. No one's going to want a fella with a limp like his. Why is he even here?

Bucky's a real good dancer, he thinks, enviously, as he watches him spin Claire. Bucky's hands tangle with Claire's gloved fingers.

He sighs.

"Pardon me for interrupting," a man says, from behind him, "but you look like you could use some company."

The stranger comes around to the side of the table, where Steve can see him. He's a little older than Steve. He's dark-haired, well-dressed, smiling, clutching his own drink in his hand. Waiting for Steve's permission, he supposes.

Steve glances around the room. All the other tables are occupied, and he supposes this guy needs somewhere to sit.

"You're not the company I came with," Steve says, as he sips his beer, "but I'll take it."

The stranger smiles, wide and oddly nervous, as he settles down opposite Steve, at the little table. "You look like you're having a hell of a night."

"Not anything I'm not used to," Steve admits, and the man gives him a sympathetic glance. "My friend—" he nods in Bucky's direction— "set me up on a double date, and he's out there having the time of his life and my date's not giving me the time of day."

"Dames, huh?" the man says, knowingly.

"Yeah," Steve agrees. "I've never had much luck with women."

The man smiles again. Something about the smile is sharper now. "Me neither."

It's a ridiculous statement—handsome fella like him, he could have any woman he wanted, Steve bets. But it's not like Steve understands women. It could be true.

"Too bad about your date, though," he adds. "You'd think she'd give a chance to a nice guy like you. Anyone would." He licks his lips, glances around, meets Steve's eyes again.

It feels like this guy's buttering him up, but he's not sure what for. Is he trying to sell him something?

At least somebody thinks he's nice, even if it isn't his date. Steve grins back, half-confused, half-pleased. At least somebody wants to be friendly. He could use a friend.

"People see the limp and they don't really look any farther," Steve says, drunk enough to give voice to the thought. He gestures at his cane, where it rests against the edge of the table. "It's like they think I'm not really a man. Not good enough. Not when they could have someone else. Someone better."

The man glances at the cane once, like it barely matters, and his gaze returns to Steve's face, intent. "That's a real shame," he says. His voice is pitched low; Steve has to strain to hear him. "The right person, though—maybe you just haven't noticed them yet. Maybe there's someone out there who wouldn't care about a little thing like that, eh? Maybe there's someone who thinks you're handsome, who'd like you no matter what. Maybe there's someone out there who wants to make you happy."

It's what Steve has always wanted. It's why he still dreams of a soulbond. That perfect connection, with no lies or deceit. Someone who will see all that he is, who will know everything he is, who will look past his body and love him for his soul.

Steve takes another sip of his beer. "Yeah, well," he says, and he smiles half a smile as he wipes off his mouth, "you know anyone like that, maybe you could introduce me, huh?"

The man leans in and smiles. His eyes are alight with excitement. His words are barely above a whisper. "I already am."

The sentence doesn't make sense at first, and then Steve's aware of the pressure of a hand on his leg, just above his knee. The stranger's fingers are sliding up to curve over his thigh, wide enough to bracket Steve's narrow leg with his entire huge hand.

The stranger is still smiling.

His fingertips brush Steve's inner thigh.

Jesus Christ, he's a fairy, and he thinks—

He thinks Steve's one too.

Steve can feel all the blood drain from his face. An icy fist of fear clenches around his heart. He can't breathe. He has to get out of here. He can't move. The man's hand still hasn't moved, and Steve's thigh where he's touching him is tingling, cold and hot at the same time. He's too aware of his body, feeling everything too much, the same way he feels pain, except it doesn't hurt.

The smile falls from the stranger's face, and he's staring at Steve, wide-eyed, stricken.

"Oh, no," the man says, under his breath, and he looks about as terrified as Steve feels, not that Steve can spare any time for that. "Oh, God, please, mister, I made a mistake, please, I'm so—"

Steve stands up, pushing the table away. Beer spills everywhere. He has to get out of here.

Steve's already fumbling for his cane and tripping, limping out of the club as fast as he can go. Of course, for him that's not very fast. He glances back once. He doesn't think the man is following. Good.

He ducks into the alley behind the club, shivering, and he leans against the wall.

No one comes after him.

The guy's about Steve's height, but with the right weight for it, so he probably has a hundred pounds on him, easy. He could make him do whatever he wanted. He's bigger and stronger and heavier, and it would be like the bullies, only worse. Steve would be powerless to resist. Would he have brought him out here, back to this alley, pushed him to his knees, made Steve suck him off?

Cocksucker, Steve's mind whispers. Fairy. That's what you'd be.

An awful yawning terror fills him, and he's shaking.

What did the stranger see in him that made him think Steve could ever want that? Why would he think Steve was like him?

He was wrong, that was all. The guy was drunk. He made a mistake. He said so himself. He saw something that wasn't there.

It's not true. It can't be. Steve isn't like that.

Bucky finds him not too long after that. Steve recognizes the shape of him in the dim glow of the streetlights. He's alone, which is good; Steve really wouldn't have wanted to explain this to his date. Either of their dates.

"Hey, you all right?" Bucky comes to his side but—thank God—doesn't touch him.

Steve nods tightly. "Fine."

"What went down in there?" Bucky asks. "I missed all the excitement, I guess. Saw you knocking over a table. Some jerk giving you a hard time?"

"Yeah," Steve says, and he's grateful for the lie. "Wasn't really expecting it, I suppose, and then he was right there, and, well, I had to—"

"Aww, geez," Bucky says. "People these days, they got no decency."

Yeah, that's one word for it.

Bucky's silent for a long while, and Steve hopes that's Bucky buying everything he says.

"Look," Bucky says, "we won't come here again, okay? I'm sorry I suggested it. I thought it was a good place. They said it was supposed to be fun here, a little wild, but if the guys here are gonna get in your face for being— for being who you are— well, then it ain't worth it to me."

An exquisitely awful combination of warmth and misery lodges in Steve's chest.

"Thanks, Buck." Steve's mouth twists. "That's real kind of you."

A smile flickers across Bucky's face, and he claps Steve on the shoulder. "It's nothing. You're my friend. And I'm your best friend, ain't I?"

"Yeah, you are." Steve sighs. His only friend, really. "What happened to the other guy?"

"Him?" Bucky shrugs. "Who cares? He's gone."

Steve wonders if he's going to another club, if he's going to find someone else who will do what he wants—

Why is he even thinking about this guy?

His heart is pounding.

Steve needs to leave. To escape. He needs to be somewhere better than this. Somewhere this won't happen.

The Army has rules. They don't let the fairies in. There would be order. Right and wrong. He'd be serving his country. He'd always be doing the right thing. He wouldn't have to wonder. He wouldn't have to doubt. He'd know.

Of course, the Army's not going to want him. But Steve's always been a dreamer.

Chapter Text

He was right.

The Army doesn't want him.

They've taken everyone else. Bucky enlisted right after Pearl Harbor, and, of all things, the Army decided to make a photographer of him: he's been at the Army War College in Washington for a few months now, taking photography classes. Steve can hardly believe it, but he supposes they need all sorts of jobs in the war. Bucky's last letter came two weeks ago; he's learning how to use color film, he says, and he can hardly wait to finish the course and get out there. He'll be a sergeant by the time he's done.

So Steve's still here, in Brooklyn. The bakery didn't want him anymore, so he's working an assembly line with the only people who are left: the dames and the fairies, the ones who were too queer to fool the government. And while any guy might think that being the only guy who isn't a pansy on an entire factory floor of women isn't necessarily a bad thing... well, it hasn't been a plus for Steve.

Most of Steve's fellow employees had taken one look at him and assumed he was some kind of fairy to start with, and that included the fairies. Steve's tall but he's rail-thin, and apparently there's something about his face that the fellas like, as if it's not bad enough already to have a gimpy leg. No one thinks he's a real man, and he hates it. More than one of the fairies had wondered if Steve was interested in supplementing his income. And Steve's not that desperate for money. He'll never be that desperate. He's had a lot of conversations disabusing his coworkers of the notion. Steve's not naive anymore. He can tell when men are making passes, now that he knows to look for it.

Now they at least know he likes girls, but, well. None of the girls like him. Same as always.

Steve has tried to enlist twice already. No luck.

Everyone knew he was trying again, and when he shows up to work the next morning, the woman next to Steve takes one look at his face and pats him awkwardly on the shoulder, as they're waiting to clock in.

"Steve, honey," she says, "you're still helping out here. You're doing your part."

True enough. They're machining weapons. No one's ever said, but Steve can guess what bomb casings look like. It's for the war effort. He is helping; she's not wrong.

But he shakes his head. "I want to be out there."

He's as good as everyone else. That's all he wants to be. Just the same as everyone else.

"Hey, sweetheart!" one of the men calls out to Steve as he walks by, with an unmistakable leer. "Let me know if you change your mind about what you want!"

Steve bites his lip and says nothing. It's not worth a fight.

It's payday, so that evening he scrounges up a nickel for the pictures. Partway through the newsreel he sees a familiar face, moving down the row ahead of him: Gail. His heart seizes up. He's hardly seen her since they were in school together. She's smartly-dressed, gorgeous as always. He knows she's got a newspaper job, that she's a real reporter. She was always clever.

He could... he could talk to her.

But what would she think of him? The man next to her is in uniform, probably a boyfriend, probably about to ship out. What can Steve offer her that anyone else can't? Nothing, that's what.

She probably doesn't even remember him.

Steve sinks back into his seat as the newsreel plays on, showing men he'll never be.

It's not fair.

"I don't make the rules," the man at the desk of the recruitment office says, for the fourth time, "and the rules say you ain't fit for combat."

This time he barely looks up from his sandwich.

Steve's pulled himself to his feet. He's hardly even leaning on his cane—just to prove he can go without it—and he's shaking, fuming with a rage that threatens to spill out of him. He's got to do something. They've got to let him do something. He's tired of watching strangers on the street sniff disapprovingly as they see him, one of the rare men not in uniform. They wonder what's wrong with him. And then, of course, their gazes turn sympathetic as they see exactly why he's not in uniform. Poor thing, he hears women say, sometimes.

He doesn't want to be poor. He doesn't want to be pitied.

He's sick of working at the factory with the dames and the fairies. He's just as good as everyone else. He just wants his chance, his fair chance, to serve his country.

Life isn't fair, and he's not going to get it.

The phone on the man's desk rings, and Steve knows it's time to leave.

"Yes? Uh, okay," the man says, into the receiver, and then his wide-eyed, disbelieving stare settles... on Steve? He covers the receiver, directing his next words to Steve. "Um, go in there."

He points to a door behind him, and Steve's stomach drops. Did they find out that he tried to enlist more than once? They must have found out that he lied on at least one of those sets of papers. They caught him. Jesus, what are they going to do to him?

"Why?" Steve asks. His hand is shaking on his cane.

"Just go in there," he repeats.

"What's in there?"

The door swings open of its own accord, and there's a man standing there. He has a bushy mustache and a sergeant's stripes on his uniform. He looks at Steve, and there's a glint in his eye that can't possibly be approval—but God almighty, it looks like it.

"Mister Rogers?" the man asks. "I'm Sergeant Dugan. Can we have a word?"

It feels like a dream. The Army wants him after all.

He can't stop smiling.

Not only are they letting him enlist—which would have been amazing enough, on its own—they're putting him in a special project. Project Rebirth. They're going to make him better. Stronger. He looks down at himself, at his thin hands, at the narrow bones of his wrists. They're going to make him a super-soldier.

You're a perfect candidate, the sergeant told him.

Steve's never been a perfect anything before.

Dr. Erskine, the man in charge of Rebirth, had been purely officious at first, only asking him for some blood, but he had softened up a little when Steve was actually signing the papers. It won't be easy, he said. There will be weeks of surgeries. Steroid shots. And then a final experimental treatment, another injection. It may be quite painful.

Pain? Ha. Steve knows all about pain.

He gets the feeling he isn't their first test subject. But whatever happened to the other ones—he's not going to be those guys. He's going to be better. He's going to be perfect. Just like Dugan said.

He realizes he's whistling as he walks down the street. He glances down at the cane in his hand. Soon you won't need that anymore, he tells himself.

A shop door opens, just ahead of him, and he nearly bumps into the woman coming out. And it must be his lucky day indeed, because it's Gail. Alone. She has her hair pulled back, and she's wearing a pale green dress, with lacy gloves to match. She's gorgeous.

"Oh!" She stops, looks up, and then her lips part in a smile. "Steve! Hello!" She sounds like she's honestly happy to see him. She's still smiling.

"Gail!" he says. "How are you?"

She nods. "Fine, fine. And you?" She looks at him like she's— like she's actually looking at him. Like she's honestly happy looking at him. "You look like you're having a good day."

Steve feels like he's glowing. "Oh, I am. I really am."

And then he decides— he's just going to go for it. The worst she can do is say no, right?

He clears his throat. "Say, uh. Would you like to have dinner with me sometime? We could catch up."

The smile on Gail's face grows even wider. "I would absolutely love to."

"Oh, that's lovely!" Gail says, her eyes sparkling with laughter, as Steve finishes telling her about the last letter he got from Bucky, about how Bucky says he wants to take pictures of all of them, put his new skills to use.

They met at the diner at least two hours ago, and they're still here, lingering over cups of coffee, talking about anything and everything, like neither of them want this meal to end. Steve sure doesn't. He still can't believe he's here. He finally asked Gail out and she said yes. He's sure his fourteen-year-old self would never have believed this.

He should have asked her out long ago.

He's already picturing the letter he's going to write to Bucky: You remember how you told me I should ask Gail on a date already? Well, buddy, you were right. He imagines Bucky telling his fellow photographers at the War College about his pal Steve—he told Steve, in the last letter, that he told them all about his friends already—and he wonders if maybe these strangers will be happy for him. Bucky probably told them all about his hopeless passion for Gail.

Maybe not so hopeless now, huh?

And then there's the rest of the news. He's probably not allowed to tell Bucky about the special project. He'll have to ask how much he's allowed to say. Maybe he'll see Bucky out there, overseas. That would really be something, wouldn't it?

Hell, maybe the Army will want to give Bucky a job taking pictures of their super-soldier.

The thought of being someone people want to look at, to take pictures of, to pay someone to take pictures of—it's so alien to Steve's entire life that it seems entirely, patently ridiculous, hilariously unthinkable, making laughter both bright and bitter rise up within him.

Gail blinks at him. "Are you all right?"

She puts her hand on his, for just an instant, and then the world is strange again, a different kind of strange, because she's touching him, and even though she's wearing gloves, of course, he fancies he can almost feel the heat of her body through the thin fabric, and the sudden rush of desire burns through him. What if— what if she really wanted to touch him?

"Fine," he manages to say. "Absolutely fine. I was just thinking that this evening has been really swell. The most fun I've had in a long time." She nods eagerly, and he licks his lips. "Maybe— maybe you'd let me take you out again sometime?"

Gail's smiling, and Steve is for sure the luckiest guy on Earth.

"I'd really like that, Steve," she says, with a shy smile. "Maybe next Thursday?"

Anytime she wants, he'll do that. "Yeah!" Steve says. "Yeah, yes. Whenever you want. Uh. Wait. No."

Six months of surgeries, the doctor had said. Rebirth starts Friday morning, and they told him not to eat anything the night before.

Gail frowns. "Thursday's not good?"

"I have a doctor's appointment," Steve says, which is sort of the truth. Boy, does he ever.

"Oh!" Gail reaches out like she wants to hold his hand again, but she keeps back, like she thinks she's being too forward. "Are you sick? I hope it's nothing too serious," she says, and she says it like she honestly cares what happens to him, and Steve just goes warm all over.

"Oh, no," he says. "It's good news. It's really good, actually." He has to be able to tell her this much, right? "The doctors, they think they're going to be able to fix me right up. Make me all better. A special treatment. No more limp. No more anything."

Yeah, it'll be a real special treatment.

He knows she can't help it; he sees her glance dubiously at the cane leaning on Steve's side of the table. He waits for her to say whatever she's going to say. She'll be happy they're making him normal, of course; of course she'd rather be seen with a normal fella. Of course she'll be even happier when he's in uniform like everyone else, so people won't assume she's with some lousy good-for-nothing bum.

"That's exciting," she says, with a hesitant smile. "You won't be in pain anymore?"

Steve stares. He'd never thought of it like that. "What?"

Her gloved fingertips tap on the table. "I mean, maybe it's not my place to say," she says, a little nervously, "but I've always worried about you, since we were kids. You looked like you were hurting a lot. And I'm... just glad you won't have to be in pain anymore. That's all."

Oh. Oh, wow. She cares. She really cares.

Steve is so lucky. He doesn't even know what to say to that. He never thought anyone could care, not like that.

"I mean, I guess I won't be in pain," Steve says, awkward, wrong-footed. "But it's— that's not the point. I'm— it's gonna be something special. You'll see."

Gail glances away and then back at him. "I already think you're special, you know," she says, with another smile. "You don't have to do this for me—"

"I want to," Steve says. "It's gonna be good. Trust me."

Gail smiles. "I trust you."

He's finally going to be someone.

Gail's going to love him then. She can't really love him now, can she? Not the way he is now. No one would. But he's going to be different. Better. Nothing holding him back. The future is all blue skies. Wonderful from here on out.

"I have to go away again," he tells Gail. "Don't worry. It's the last treatment. But I'll be gone for longer than the others."

Gail bites her lip and nods.

It's been six months. Six months of surgeries, tests, injections, more surgeries. He's gained a bit more bulk; he thinks some of the shots were steroids. But Gail has just looked more and more concerned, especially when she's seen him after the surgeries, cut and bruised, long precise cuts running down his arms, disappearing under his clothes.

None of the cuts have scarred.

He still has his cane; even with all his new muscles, they haven't fixed his leg yet. He's living in a strange, in-between body, a butterfly in a chrysalis, trapped in the middle of a transformation.

They say that he'll be even stronger after the last of the treatments. They say he'll be the strongest man alive. Steve can't really imagine what it will be like. He can barely even picture walking down the street and not being in pain. That's already his fantasy. He doesn't know how to want more, even though he knows more is coming.

He's sitting opposite Gail in her family's tiny apartment; her father, of course, is keeping a watchful eye on them from the kitchen, where he's reading a newspaper.

By now Gail has figured out that these aren't exactly any ordinary doctor's appointments; she's seen Steve escorted away by the Army men, seen him disappear for days at a time. He doesn't know what they've told her. Maybe they haven't told her anything.

At least he's gotten to see her; he's come back and taken her out as often as he can, even though sometimes the drugs have made him too sick to eat.

Gail folds her hands in her lap and Steve thinks, again, about what it would be like to touch her bare skin. About what it would be like if they were soulmates, never to be parted. It would be perfect. It would be right. And maybe, maybe now that everything's going right for him, it would be okay, it would be okay just to see.

Steve glances guiltily at the kitchen—and Mr. Richards glances back—and he knows they're not going to get any time alone together.

And besides, he doesn't even know if Gail would want to.

Gail's brows draw together. "It's not dangerous, is it? The last treatment?"

Steve opens his mouth and realizes he doesn't know what to say.

"It's very important," he says, finally. "I think— I think if they didn't think it was going to work, they wouldn't be doing it. The doctor, he says my progress is very encouraging."

This will turn the tide of the war, Dr. Erskine had told him. And he wants that. How could he not want that? If there's something he can do, to fight for his country, he wants to do it. He wants it more than anything.

Gail's face tightens; she looks even more apprehensive. "All right," she says. "Just— be careful, okay?"

Steve smiles. "I will. I should be back in another week, okay? Maybe— maybe I'll take you out then. To celebrate."

The morning of the procedure, Sergeant Dugan shows up at his room on base with a thick Top Secret folder, and Steve understands that it's too late to back out.

There are things about the war that no one knows, that no one would believe if he told them: the Axis is working with aliens. Real, honest-to-God aliens. He thinks it's a joke at first, but Dugan isn't kidding.

This is what they're making Steve ready to fight.

This is why he needs to be bigger, better, stronger than anyone else. He needs to do this because no one else can.

"Test subject fifty-five," Dr. Erskine says, as they stride into the test chamber, and Steve wonders what happened to the other fifty-four.

It doesn't matter. He's ready. They strap him down. The needle slides into his arm. The injection this time is hot, like fire—the last one, Steve thinks, the last one ever—and it burns all the way through his veins.

"Are you having trouble breathing?" Dr. Erskine asks.

Steve's throat closes up.

And then the pain starts, and he's screaming, and all he can think is that he's grateful that he doesn't know if Gail is his soulmate because no one else should have to live through this. His body is changing, racked with convulsions, and he rips the restraints away like they're nothing.

"Here we go again," one of the soldiers says, raising a gun. Steve doesn't know what that means. Did this happen to the other subjects?

Steve's panting—oh God, he can breathe again—and he stares down at himself, at the body he doesn't recognize.

"Heil Hitler!" a voice shouts, and then a bullet goes through Steve's shoulder.

Erskine goes down with the next shot.

Everything is a blur after that.

They did it. They made him a super-soldier. But he's the only one.

They give him three days to get everything in order before shipping him out.

He meets the president. You have to wear our flag and win the war, the president says, and Steve knows this is his responsibility. This is bigger than him. He belongs to his country now. And he has a job to do.

He has to go. But at least he gets to say goodbye first.

He's late for his date with Gail. He takes the stairs two at a time, not even breathing hard, bouquet clutched in his fist. When Gail opens the door, her hands go to her mouth, and then she reaches out like she wants to touch him, like she isn't sure if he's still real. There are tears in her eyes.

"Steve, sweetheart," she whispers. "What did they do?"

"It worked," he said. "It worked and I'm— I'm all better. And I'm shipping out. Tomorrow."

Gail still looks like she's going to cry. "Maybe you should come in."

The apartment is empty. Gail puts the flowers in water.

They stare at each other and Steve just— he blurts it out.

"I love you," he says. His head is pounding. "I've loved you since middle school and I didn't have the guts to tell you. I didn't—I don't know why. Now it's so easy. But I do. I love you."

Gail is smiling. "I love you too," she breathes.

"You don't need to say that," Steve says, automatically, because it can't be true, can it?

"It's true."

"I didn't know that," Steve says, dumbfounded.

And they stare at each other, and it's such a goddamn relief that Steve starts laughing. She loves him. She loved him anyway. God. This is a dream come true.

"And I, uh," Steve says. "I always wondered."

His hand is shaking as he extends it, palm up. Unflinching, Gail meets his eyes, and very slowly she tugs off the glove on her right hand, exposing pale skin. Everything within Steve goes hot and a prickling arousal courses through him at this, the sight of the forbidden.

He glances around. No one's here. They're really alone.

Their hands are inches apart.

Gail's palm presses against his and there's—

There's nothing.

He's holding her hand and they're—

They're not soulmates.

Hot tears well up in Steve's eyes.

He can't have this.

"It's okay," Gail whispers. "It's okay. It doesn't mean this isn't right. I still love you." And she blushes. "I know you didn't do this for me, and you were handsome before, but I just, I want you to know—"

Her hands grip his biceps like she wants to touch every inch of him, and, oh, Steve wants that.

She goes up on her tiptoes and kisses him.

Steve's never kissed anyone before in his life, and he's not sure he's doing it right. His body is still strange to him, and he doesn't quite know how to hold her, where to put his hands, if he's holding her too loose or too tight. She throws her arms around his neck and pulls his head down, drawing him closer, and her mouth opens under his, sweet and warm, and the liquid heat of arousal slides down his spine and everything about his new body is too goddamn sensitive and Gail's tongue presses against his and she leans into him and he's rock-hard and in ten more seconds he's going to come in his pants just from kissing her.

He pulls away, panting, more than a little afraid of himself.

He wonders if soulmates feel like this.

He wonders if regular people feel like this.

He wonders if this was what they meant about sin and temptation, because, God, he's burning with it, he wants it so badly, it's unknown and terrifying and he still wants it—

He wishes he knew what he were doing. But he can't ask if it was okay, if he did a good job, if that was what she wanted. She's smiling. It has to be good, right? He can't be that bad at kissing?

"I love you too," he says, infusing his voice with a confidence he doesn't feel, because he needs to man up. He needs to be the one here who knows what he's doing. He'll figure it out soon. "When I get back," he says, "I'd like to..."

For God's sake, he's wanted to marry her since he was fourteen and he can't even say it. Everyone gets engaged when they go off to war. He wants— he wants to know that he'll have someone waiting for him. A future, even if they aren't soulmates. He's going to do right by her.

"Say it when you get back," she says. She pauses. "When are you coming back?"

He might not know much else, but he knows the answer to this one. "When I'm done."

Chapter Text

The night is chilly, here in France, and the skies above are cloudy; Steve shivers and pulls his coat tighter over his uniform. The coat is long enough, and the night dark enough, that it would be difficult for any onlooker to make out the details of his uniform, to note the deep blue rather than the expected olive drab. He fancies he looks like any other soldier, any one of the thousands of GIs enjoying the grateful hospitality of liberated Paris. Over the past three years, Steve has come to find relief in these brief moments of anonymity. Right now, he isn't anyone. And he certainly isn't Captain America.

Which is good, because certainly no one would expect Captain America to be standing outside a disreputable-looking brothel.

Oh, he's not going in.

The rest of the men can give him shit for it. As much as they like. They certainly have before. Goddammit, Rogers, do you want to die a virgin? was how that Canadian, Howlett, had put it.

Nah, Steve had drawled. I'm planning to live forever.

He hadn't been particularly impressed by Steve's answer.

Steve opens his coat just enough that he can fish the worn picture out of one of his pouches. Gail's smiling face stares up at him. To Steve, keep me close, the picture says, and he smiles back at it, like he always does.

He loves Gail so much. And she's worth waiting for. They're going to be married. Six months. If the war's not over then, he's putting in for leave, and they're getting married anyway, because he's tired of waiting. He's got it all planned out. After the war—because they're going to win, he knows in his bones—he's going to come home. He's got his eye on that little house on Cedar Street, the one with the cherry trees. It's going to be the perfect place to raise a family.

That's what he wants. Peace. Love. A family. And, God willing, that's what he's going to have.

He smiles again and tucks the picture away, safely, next to his heart.

There's a rustling noise, and when he looks up, Bucky's leaning against the wall next to him. Steve can barely make out his face by the glow of the lit cigarette, and that much only because his sight is superhuman. There are weary lines carved into Bucky's face. The last mission took a lot out of all of them. It's no wonder everyone wants to... relax.

"Hey," Bucky says.

"Hey, yourself," Steve returns. "How are you holding up?"

Bucky exhales smoke. "Been better. Been worse."

Steve supposes that's as good as he can expect, really.

He'd asked for—and gotten—Bucky, when they started, three years ago, but sometimes he wonders if this is what Bucky wanted. He knows it's not what Bucky would have been doing without him. His classmates in the photography program all went off to take pictures of training exercises, safe on Allied bases. None of them are out here documenting Captain America fighting the Axis. Half the things Bucky's been taking pictures of probably won't be declassified until Steve, Bucky, and their fellow soldiers are long gone. Ashes to ashes. He'll never be able to talk about it as long as he lives. The public is never going to be allowed to know about aliens.

But Bucky's still here, so it can't be that bad.

Steve sighs. It would be good to be able to take his mind off it.

Bucky jerks his chin in the direction of the brothel's entrance. "You finally interested tonight, or what? Lotta pretty girls in there. I bet you anything they'd give Captain America a discount."

He'd like to say he can't picture it, but the shameful truth is that he can. He might be a virgin, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know what it is to want. He's seen the women beckoning them closer, with sultry smiles and enticing glimpses of skin. He's not naive, and he's not innocent.

Admittedly, he might be a little hazy on some of the finer points. His Catholic-school education had mostly concentrated on how this sort of thing should be reserved for marriage, with additional haranguing about avoiding masturbation—Steve's not so good at adhering to that one, especially since the serum. But he tries. He doesn't have any idea what women like, really, and he thinks about Gail waiting for him, and he thinks about showing up on their wedding night and saying I have no idea what I'm doing. He can't possibly admit that. But he can't do this, either.

"I'm waiting," he tells Bucky, with a pointed glare. "I'm not interested in buying anything they're selling."

"It's not like you only gotta do the one thing with them," Bucky says, and a strange fearful irritation scrapes at Steve's nerves, this envy that everyone, even Bucky, knows more than he does. They know everything, and Steve knows nothing. "I mean, they could... they could give you some advice, maybe? You could just watch 'em."

"Yeah," Steve says, "because my fiancée is going to be thrilled that I asked prostitutes for advice." The sentence comes out a little sharper than he means because the worst part is that he really would like some advice. And God, would he ever like to watch. But he can't. He can't do this. He can't possibly ask for help. They'll know he's ignorant. He doesn't even know what he doesn't know. He must be ignorant of something, otherwise Bucky wouldn't have said he needed advice.

Don't people just like sex? How can it be more complicated than that?

Bucky shrugs. "Suit yourself," he says. "I'm going, though. Some of us don't have Gail at home waiting for us, you know."

Steve has no idea what to say to that, so he just stands there, staring into the dark, until Bucky sighs and leaves.

He pulls out the picture of Gail again. Waiting is hard, but he knows it will be worth it.

Steve's on a twenty-four-hour leave pass, and they let him come home first. Sometimes being Captain America has its advantages.

He's already seen his parents and Doug—all of whom were overjoyed, of course—and he spent half the time there checking the clock, waiting for the moment he could excuse himself to go see Gail. He'd managed to send a telegram so she's had maybe three days' notice. He can't wait to see her. He's missed her so goddamn much. The war is lousy, lousy beyond the telling of it, and with everything he's seen and done he's so glad he's had her waiting, a perfect and pure shining light beyond a blood-soaked battlefield. The ugliness will never touch her.

She'll never fire a gun. She'll never watch a soldier die. She'll never have to punch a goddamn alien in the shape of a human. She'll never break a man's neck in the shadows. She'll never do dirty, awful things for her country. She can't understand what it's like, and he never wants her to. He just wants to hold her as long as he can, hold her and let the rest of the world disappear.

When Gail opens the door, he can hardly believe it. She knew he was coming, all right.

Not only is she not wearing gloves, she's not wearing much of anything.

She's wearing gauzy, silky lingerie, a little slip of a dress going down to her thighs, the creamy fabric giving way to pale skin; elegant stockings adorn her shapely calves. The dress itself is cut low, and her perfect breasts almost spill out the top of the dress, whose thin straps are sliding off her shoulder, lending the suggestion that he should help them slide further.

Steve's tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth as he stares, speechless with dizzying desire. He's never seen Gail like this. She's always been covered up, gloves and long coats and dresses down to her knees. He's barely even dared to imagine Gail like this. Last time they had a few stolen minutes together, she let him slide a hand under her sweater and he just barely brushed the swell of her breast with his fingertips, and that memory alone has been sustaining him for months and months of lonely nights.

She's staring back, and he realizes that she's never seen him like this, either—he's in full Captain America uniform, mask and helmet tucked under his arm, shield on his back. Her lips are parted, and she's wide-eyed, dazzled, and Jesus, she's never looked at him like this before, even after Rebirth. He feels like he's ten feet tall.

"Hi, Steve," she breathes. "I've missed you. Do you want to come inside?"

He definitely does.

She leads him to her room. They're alone. He can't quite believe it.

He feels awkward and self-conscious, dropping the shield on the chair in the corner, but Gail's looking up at him like every move he makes is hypnotic. When he moves to put the helmet down too she smiles up at him and says, "Put it on for me?"

He feels ridiculous, like he did the first time he tried the gear on, like he's going to a costume party, but Gail looks up at him and says, "You look like a god," and, yes, this, this is what he's always wanted. She loves him. He doesn't think even soulmates could possibly feel like this, amazingly wonderful, like the world is made of light and stars and Gail is the only thing that matters.

She wraps her arms around his neck and whispers in his ear. "I want you, Steve. Right here."

Everything in him goes still and then shuddery, in a terrified kind of excitement, because she wants— oh, God, she really wants—

"You sure this is a good idea?" he asks. "What about your old man?"

She's already pulling him back onto the bed, her thighs wrapping around his hips, and even through the layers of leather and fabric between them he can feel the heat of her body. His balls ache with need, and his cock is hard already, pressing up against her, and, shaking, he tries to resist the impulse to just roll his hips up against her. His body knows how to do that, even if right now his brain can't focus on anything but the satiny softness of her skin.

"Dad won't be back for hours," she says, with a grin. "Besides, he knows you're only home on leave for one night. He isn't stupid. He knows it's been three years."

They're getting married in a matter of months, he tells himself. They love each other deeply. If they spend a night together now, what's the harm? They both want this. They're already spending the rest of their lives together.

He smiles. "You wanna help me with the buckles?"

"No," she murmurs. "I want you to leave it on."

This is the point where his imagination always fails him, where his fantasies turn soft and blurred, and as Gail unbuttons his fly—dear God, her hands on him—all he can think is that he has no idea at all what he's doing. And there's no way he can say that. She called him a god. He has to be strong. Confident. In control. That's what Gail wants. That's what he has to be.

She draws his cock out, carefully. She's never touched him before, really. She's never seen him. Her teeth worry at her lip, and there's a flash of trepidation in her eyes. Is he too big? He knows he grew some, after Rebirth. A few discreet glances in the camp showers have left him with the impression that he's big, but he's not that much bigger than most other guys. It'll fit, won't it? It has to fit somehow.

"What do I do?" she asks. Her cheeks are tinted red, and she doesn't look up. "How— how do I get you ready?"

Honestly, he's pretty goddamn close to ready, just at the thought of what they're about to do. He hopes he can last. He knows, vaguely, that it's bad to be too fast; he's heard the other GIs laughing about that. How fast is fast? He's pretty quick when it's just him and his hand, but then, he has to be; there's never much in the way of privacy in the Army.

But Gail wants to know what to do, and he knows the answer to that one, at least.

"Like this."

He folds her hand over his cock, and he keeps his hand on hers as he shows her how to touch him. Her fingers on his shaft are hesitant, her touch too light, an agonizing tease. Alone, his grip is tighter, the rhythm faster, and sometimes he'll even play with his balls, when he's absolutely positive no one will walk in on him. He'd really like it if she touched him there, but he can't say that, can he? It's too strange.

When her thumb brushes the flushed head of his cock he can't help but moan out loud, a noise he quickly chokes back. He's not some kind of girl. Pre-come runs over their joined fingers, and Gail stares in what is clearly now fascination, as his cock twitches and throbs in her fist, growing even harder. God, all she has to do is hold him in her hand and he's going to come. He thinks the serum made everything more sensitive. It's embarrassing, is what it is.

"Like this?" she echoes, and the pre-come smears over his shaft and eases the slide of her fingers, and he has to bite back another unmanly whimper, and, oh, he's so close—

Quickly, he lifts her hand away.

She looks up, her gaze plaintive. "Did I do it wrong?"

"No," he says. "You did it right, but I'm— I'm ready now." He hopes he sounds confident. Like Captain America.

She lies back down—Jesus, she's not wearing anything under that dress—and she draws him close. His cock slides between her legs, hot and surprisingly wet. He reaches down, and with a bit of fumbling, figures out where he's supposed to go, his fingers disappearing between slick folds. But then he lines up and pushes and it doesn't go in and for one awful moment he's convinced that he's doing it all wrong and she's going to know that he's a goddamn clueless idiot and she's going to laugh and laugh—

Gail's eyes are shut and her face is almost blank. Her breasts rise and fall under the thin fabric; he can see her nipples pushing taut against the satin and he has to shut his eyes so he doesn't come just at the thought of seeing her breasts. He grits his teeth and pushes again and Gail gasps, a high, broken noise, and oh God, he's inside her. She's hot and tight and wet, slippery-wet around him, like he was made to fit there, and it's nothing like his lonely hands and the thought drifts through his mind that he understands why everyone else thought he was crazy for waiting, because nothing on Earth has ever felt like this.

He opens his eyes.

There are tears on Gail's face, and she's biting her lip almost hard enough to draw blood.

Oh God, oh God, he did something wrong. He's hurting her. How is he hurting her? It feels so good to be inside her; how can it be so good for him and bad for her? This can't be right. What did he do? Is he too big? Is he wrong? Is there something wrong with him? There can't be, can there? The serum should have fixed it.

"Gail, sweetheart?" he whispers. "Are you okay? Are you all right?"

She nods valiantly. It has to be a lie. "I'm fine," she says, and her voice cracks on the last word. "It just— it hurts a little, that's all."

He's heard the men laughing about this, tales of nervous virgins. She didn't seem nervous. He must have done it wrong.

"I— I can stop," he says. "I'll stop. I'll stop."

He's holding still within her with what feels like a Herculean amount of effort, but— she's in pain, and it's not right.

She shakes her head. "No, keep going. I want you to." She licks her lips. "My friends, they say it always hurts at first. It's supposed to be like this. I think." She reaches up and lays her palm against Steve's face. "I want to make you happy."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," she says. "I love you, Steve."

She does something and her body goes even tighter around him, and it's like he can't help it after that. He thrusts forward into her, again and again, hard and heavy, his hips snapping forward as he buries himself to the hilt, and it's so good. She feels so good. He can feel the pleasure building up in him, low and hot in his belly. One thrust, two, and then he's coming. His head tips forward, nestling against her shoulder, as his body pistons into her, as he finds his release in a burst of blinding, pure pleasure.

Gasping, he slows, and he pulls out. He's done. It's over.

"I love you," he whispers against her skin.

He lifts his head and dares a glance at Gail. Even though her face is too pale she's trying to smile, still trying, and the hazy bliss within him is dissipating rapidly, because he did it wrong, somehow. He did it all wrong. He strokes her hair. "It— it wasn't that bad for you, was it?"

He hopes he doesn't sound desperate. Panicked. He can feel his own thundering heartbeat.

"It was good," she says, after too long a pause. and he thinks that has to be a lie. "It— it hurts a bit, still, but— they say it gets better. Easier. I'm glad we did it. I— I liked making you happy." She looks away. "I— I know you're a man and you must have needs. It's necessary, isn't it?"

He wants to say that he doesn't need this, that he'd have jerked off a thousand more times instead just to avoid hurting her even once, but he— no. Too crude. Too much.

He wasn't good. He can feel his heart sink. He wasn't any good. He's— he's bad at sex. The fear that gnawed at him has now taken root: it's true. He really is bad at it. He couldn't make it good for her.

But they've got time to get better. He can figure out what he's missing. They've got their whole lives ahead of them.

The war is almost over. It has to be. And then he can come home to her for good.

They're just over a minute out from the drop zone, and Steve can see flashes of fire in the sky through the plane's open hatch as they circle lower and lower. Half the island below is taken up with a missile silo, just where the maps said it would be. The Nazis are building some kind of super-rocket.

Other than Bucky—who is here, as always, as his photographer—the men aren't anyone he's worked with before. And they're nervous. The usual call before they'd boarded, smoke 'em if you got 'em, had been met with dozens of shaking hands lighting up. Even now they're chattering amongst themselves. They don't think he's real. They don't think he can possibly be as good as everyone says he is. They think this is a goddamn suicide mission.

"Bucky," he says, "would you do me a favor and assure these fine gentlemen that I've never lost a crew in three years of these covert operations?"

He takes out his picture of Gail, folded and creased, and he runs his fingers over the dog-eared edges. "In fact, just to hammer home the point, you're all invited to my impending nuptials in six months' time."

Is he confident? Sure. Why shouldn't he be? He's coming home. He always comes home. This rocket is the Axis' last-ditch plan. The war will be over soon. He just has to get through this. And then there will be Gail. There will be everything.

He remembers Gail's smiling face, the way Gail's body felt under his, even as his own body is humming with adrenaline, lighting up, ready to go. Outside the sky is brightening into patchy dawn—it's 0600 here in Iceland—as the rain pours harder. Shit weather for a drop, but it'll have to do.

It's not until after literally everyone else on the goddamn plane has already jumped, parachutes opening up in pale circles below him, that he sees the real problem here.

That rocket in that missile silo—it's already aimed at Washington. They didn't get here fast enough. And that means he has to take it out.

While the voice on the other end of the radio is indignantly squawking that the north face of the base—where the rocket is—is impregnable, he grabs the yoke, steers the plane into a descending spiral, and bails out just before the plane hits the base wall in a fireball. Looks like he punched a hole through the impregnable base after all.

He stands up and waves at the men on the ground. Bucky knows the score; he's already heading in Steve's direction even as bullets are ricocheting off of Steve's shield. They're not touching him. Nothing ever touches him.

"Come on, ladies!" he yells. "What are you waiting for, Christmas?"

He turns around and runs to the rocket. Bucky's at his heels, wanting to know where the Germans got that technology. They have a prototype hydrogen bomb on this rocket, and right now even Los Alamos has nothing like this. Steve remembers the files and files of information about aliens on Earth, and he just grins and tells Bucky as much as he's allowed to—he wouldn't believe him if he told him.

Aliens. Dear God.

The Germans—or, hell, maybe they're secretly aliens—are shouting at each other, and that's when the first stage of the rocket ignites, fire pluming out at its base.

He's too late.

Running toward the gantry, he yells back over his shoulder. "If you want to get a picture for the morning paper, it's not going to get much better than this!"

He can't be too late. He can't be. He doesn't look back. He knows what he has to do.

He leaps—and his fingers lock into the side of the rocket. They rise together.

He's ripping paneling off the side of the rocket as fast as he can. His gloves catch and tear on the metal and his hands are bleeding by the time Bucky raises him on the two-way radio and figures out where he is.

"I might be carrying enough explosives to sabotage the rocket's internal guidance system," Steve says. "I still might be able to knock this thing off-course."

This is what he has to do. He has to stop the rocket from hitting Washington. This is the bargain. This is the price. This is the only coin he has to spend. This is what his life is for.

Everything within him is suddenly very calm and still, even with the engine roaring and the wind whipping around him, with the land below him growing smaller and smaller. This is his death coming, he knows. He can see it.

He'll never get to come home. He'll never see his family again. He'll never marry Gail. They'll never buy that little house on Cedar Street. They'll never have children.

This is his future, and there is nothing.

"But what about you?" Bucky's voice on the radio is agonized.

"What about me?" Steve grits out, and he manages to free one of his hands. He grabs a grenade out of his belt pouch. It feels heavy in his hand, a heaviness far out of proportion to its actual weight. Here is his death, in his own hands.

He pulls the grenade pin with his teeth.

Five seconds. Four. He shoves the grenade inside the rocket's circuitry, as deep as it goes. Three. Two.

"Steve!" Bucky yells. "Don't be an idiot!"

It's going to be the last thing Steve ever hears.



Everything around him goes up in flames. He loses his grip, and he's falling, and he's falling—

Above him, the rocket goes off, high in the atmosphere, and it's too bright to see. But it's off-course, and that's what matters.

He did it. He smiles. He really did it. Everyone's going to be okay.

He's falling away from the light. It's brilliant, blazing, the sky above him all fire, like a second sun in the dawn skies. He never thought death would be so beautiful.

He shuts his eyes.

Gail, I'm so sorry, he thinks.

He hits the water.

Chapter Text

There is nothing—and then, suddenly, there is everything.

The first thing Steve is aware of is sensation. Pressure. Heat. He's too cold, and then too hot, every inch of his skin smarting and stinging like his body has forgotten how to register even the simplest of inputs. He's freezing and burning all at once. His clothes are too tight. His shirt scrapes over his chest. He's lying on a lumpy, tilted bed, and there's the weight of something on him—a blanket, maybe?—but it might as well be an anvil for all that he can move it. He's weak. But he's getting stronger. He just needs a few minutes.

Where is he?

He can't move his arms. Reflexive panic wells up in him—is he paralyzed? what happened?—but then he manages to flex his fingers, jerk his arms. There's something heavy and taut over his wrists, and something else over his biceps. He's in restraints.

Memory filters back, slowly, patchily. There was... a rocket? He was falling...?

The Germans have him. It's the only explanation. Somehow he survived the fall. They picked him up out of the sea, and here he is, their prisoner, bound and helpless.

There are sounds. Quiet at first, then louder. There are voices, but he can't make out the words even to identify the language. It's all hushed whispers. There are strange, mechanical beeping noises, like nothing he's ever heard before.

Steve opens his eyes.

He's in... a hospital? There's a greenish blur in front of him. When Steve blinks a few times, the sight resolves into a man, smiling at him, wearing scrubs. A doctor.

That's the only normal thing about the situation.

The room is full of shining metal and glowing flat panels, like a thousand tiny cinema screens have come to life around him. Steve supposes it must be more technology that the aliens gave them, the same way they gave them that hydrogen bomb. To his left are floor-to-ceiling windows, and the city beyond looks like New York but not quite, New York but too much, full of buildings he doesn't recognize. Could they not even get New York right? Did they really think this would fool him? Where is he?

Oh, and the room is full of soldiers, their guns trained on him. They're not wearing German uniforms, but they're not wearing any uniforms Steve does recognize; they have shoulder patches of something that Steve thinks might be a stylized eagle. If it's an attempt at making an American uniform, it's laughable. They aren't even trying.

"Captain America?" The doctor adjusts his glasses. His accent is very convincing. At least they got a good spy for him. "My name is Dr. Robert Bruce Banner and I'm the assistant principal of the super-soldier program you joined back in 1942." He gestures behind him, and Steve realizes there are men here other than soldiers. "The gentlemen behind me are the industrialist Tony Stark and the head of SHIELD international security, General Nicholas Fury."

The doctor points to each of them in turn, and Steve stares. The man that the doctor says is a general—he's black. There are no black generals in the Army. There just aren't. The Krauts have to know this. They aren't that stupid. Why are they trying to pass this fella off as a general?

And the other man, the industrialist... is even more inexplicable. He's wearing a business suit, and he's holding something small and boxy to his ear, maybe some kind of future radio. But the horrifying thing is that the hand cradling the box is gloved; he's wearing soft, dark velvet gloves, a charcoal gray to match his suit. Like a woman might. Like he's some kind of fairy. Steve's never heard of any industrialist named Stark, and he sure as hell knows no one with that kind of money would be mincing about like a goddamn queer in public. It's not Steve's business what any one of those deviants does in private, but even the pansies Steve worked the factory line with damn well knew better than to bring that shit out where anyone could see it.

Why would the Germans not even bother to get any of this right? Maybe it isn't them. But isn't Stark a German name?

He flexes. He's not strong enough to break the restraints yet. He asks them what the hell is going on. He asks about the bomb. He's sure they'll have a story about the bomb.

The man in the suit lifts a gloved hand in his direction. "You neutralized it, Captain," he says. He doesn't sound like a fairy; his voice is low and even, like he's trying to be calming. There's a small smile on his bearded face, the sort of look Steve supposes is meant to be reassuring. Of course the Nazis want him calm. "The mission was a success and the Allies won the war, but not without a price, I'm afraid."

"I think you'd better brace yourself for this, soldier," the man who cannot possibly be a general says, grimly.

Steve swallows hard. "How long have I been out, doc?"

He was in a coma? He can't have been. Lies, like everything else.

The doctor—weaselly bastard, Steve's already starting to hate him—is temporizing. Unexpected side effects, he says, scratching his head. He was frozen. The serum did something. The serum preserved him.

Steve yanks at the restraints. Leather creaks. "Would somebody please just give me a straight answer here?" he snarls.

The men look at each other, their faces grave. The not-general, Fury, turns back to him.

"Fifty-seven years, Captain."

They're lying. They're all lying Nazi scum. They think he's stupid.

His heart is pounding. It's a trick.

He rips out the restraints, vaults up, and elbows this so-called general in the face while disarming him.

"You should have done your homework," he says, as Fury sags to the floor, cupping his now-broken nose. "The highest-ranking black man in the Army is a captain I grew up with." He flings out a hand in the direction of the industrialist. "And you expect me to believe that a real man wears gloves like that? Nice try."

The soldiers are readying tranquilizer darts, so he does the only thing he can do—he throws himself at the window.

It can't be a real window, of course. There has to be a picture beyond. A series of mirrors. Some kind of model.

The window shatters around him in shining shards, and he falls. Again.

He hits the tarmac and looks up.

The alien landscape of a New York he barely recognizes stretches out on the other side of the water. Huge skyscrapers gleam. He can't identify most of them. But the bridges are right. It has to be New York.

They could have made a lot of changes in fifty-seven years.

The city is real.

It's all real.

Everything crumbles away, then, into a yawning, aching betrayal, like he's lost his footing and is tumbling down a cliff. He isn't meant to be here. Everyone he's loved is probably long gone. He wasn't supposed to be here. This isn't for him. He did his duty. It was supposed to be over.

And then he's squashed flat.

By a fifty-foot-tall naked man.

If this is the future, he hates it.

The giant naked man is named Hank Pym, Steve learns, and he's not always giant. He can change size. His wife, who at the time he met her was six inches tall, had wings, and was also naked—Steve studiously avoided looking at her—is named Janet. The general whose nose Steve broke is really a general. The doctor who woke him up is some kind of biologist.

That just leaves the industrialist in an expensive suit and women's gloves.

The industrialist has waited patiently while doctors and uniformed SHIELD agents—whatever this SHIELD thing is—have scurried back and forth, poking and probing, asking questions and drawing blood. The industrialist just been sitting there, the whole time, on the next bed over, his gloved hands—Jesus Christ, his hands—folded in his lap, kicking his feet in the air.

Steve can't stop staring at the man's hands.

Maybe it's the drugs they had him on—he's still a little groggy—but somehow he's fixated on the sight. The man's long fingers are interlaced, his hands resting on his thighs, the gray of the velvet gloves blending into the gray of the suit. Maybe Steve's brain is just built to find gloves... intriguing. Soon he'll catch up and stop thinking about this man's hands, because he's obviously— well, he's obviously a man. Not Steve's idea of a good time, no, sir.

He's never seen a man in gloves before. Work gloves, sure—hell, his uniform had them—but not fancy gloves, not gloves like women wear. Like women wore.

Maybe women don't wear gloves now.

The only woman Steve has seen so far has been naked.

What kind of screwed-up world is this?

The man's looking back at him. His eyes sparkle sapphire-blue and his mouth curves in a smile. Steve realizes that, for this brief moment, the two of them are alone. And the man's looking at him like— well, Steve can't really tell, and that's the strange part.

It's not like the fairies never made passes at him, before. But at least he could tell when they were interested. And there's definite interest in this man's eyes, but Steve can't tell if it's like that, and he's not quite sure why. The man's face is thoughtful, somewhere between awe and contemplation, and his gaze travels up and down Steve's body like he's memorizing the look of him—but whether he's doing so for immoral purposes is a great mystery.

Steve's torn between saying I'm sorry I said you weren't a real man and go fuck yourself. Maybe both.

He clears his throat. This is the future. This is all he's got now. He should at least try.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I've forgotten your name."

The man leans back, bracing himself on the cot, hands splayed, and for God's sake, Steve needs to stop staring. The man smiles like he's seen Steve looking, and Steve grits his teeth.

"It's Tony," the man says. His voice is light, pleasant, friendly. "Pleasure to meet you, Captain."

"Likewise," Steve says, and it feels like a lie. He coughs again. "They said you were an industrialist?"

Tony nods.

"What industry?"

It feels awful that he's sitting here making small talk when his entire world has gone away.

"Oh, all of them, darling," Tony says, with a smile. His voice is a little breathier. The drawled endearment makes Steve go hot.

Tony's a fairy, isn't he? He has to be. Can men just... act like that, in the future? Like they can do whatever they want? Like there are no goddamn consequences?

Angry and miserable, Steve shuts his eyes.

"Hey," Tony says, gently, and there's something sympathetic in his voice, like just because he's soft he thinks Steve needs to be coddled too, and he hates it. But there's nothing left in him to make Tony stop. Tony coughs, a quiet noise. "So, uh, since everyone else has stepped out, there are a couple things they asked me to mention. One is that General Fury has, well. A business offer for you, of a sort. A mission, I guess you could say, But we can talk about that in a bit. The other is that you should feel free to ask us—well, me, right now—anything about anything. If you have any questions."

Suspicious, Steve slits open one eye. "Anything?"

Tony raises a gloved hand palm-up, making Steve's spine prickle. Does he have to draw attention to it? "Anything." He smiles. "I am the future, darling."

He doesn't want the future. He wants his goddamn life back.

He wants his family.

"My family," Steve blurts out. "My— my mother and father, and I have—had—a brother, a little brother—"

Tony draws back, stricken. "Ah." His voice is quiet. It seems he can be serious, after all. "That. I'm so sorry. We're, uh. We've got people looking into the records. We can get you the obituaries soon. Someone can take you to the cemetery."

They're all dead. Of course they're dead. Even Doug. Doug was fifteen yesterday and now he's gone.

Oh, God, what about Gail? What about Bucky?

Steve blinks back tears. "I don't know if it was in the records," he says, voice hoarse, "but I have. I had. A fiancée. Her name was Gail Richards." Tony says nothing, and he presses on. "And if you're looking, could you look up my best friend too? James Barnes."

God, he hopes Bucky survived Iceland, at least. He hopes Bucky made it through the war.

He hopes Gail was happy.

Tony bites his lip, and there's recognition in his eyes. Recognition and reluctance. He's heard of them. At least one of them. Maybe both. And Tony doesn't want to tell him. Did something happen to Bucky? Jesus, it was bad, it has to have been bad. What the hell happened?

"Uh," Tony says. "Well. I can tell you right now that they're both alive. They're, uh. Famous, actually. As these things go." He swallows, throat working. The coy, teasing artifice is gone. "You might not like the details. Maybe you— maybe I can find someone else to tell you—"

Tony's not meeting his eyes.

Steve grips the side rails of the bed so hard that metal creaks. "Tell me."

Tony does.

They'd bought the little house on Cedar Street.

The street sign is warped through Steve's slightly-teary vision and the tinted window glass of SHIELD's limousine, but there it is: CEDAR ST. Right there on the corner.

Of everything Tony told him, of everything that was in the file that Fury handed him when they got into the car, Steve thinks that this final bit of information is the most egregious. Salt in the wound. A boot on his face, grinding him down into the dirt.

They'd known—they'd both known—that it was what he'd wanted, that it was where he'd wanted to live, that it was his future, and they'd taken it from him. They'd done it on purpose. They'd taken his fucking life from him—

The folder Fury gave him bends in his hands, and Steve shuts his eyes and takes a shaking breath.

They didn't know you were alive, he reminds himself. Maybe they thought they were somehow honoring his memory. He imagines Bucky and Gail looking at each other, misty-eyed, saying it was what Steve would have wanted, and Bucky signing the papers.

It all dissolves into an awful, impotent rage.

What happened to them wasn't their fault. It feels awful to think of it like that, like a calamity, a misfortune. It should be a blessing. It sure as hell doesn't feel like one to Steve.

Not their fault. What good does that do? They might have fallen in love anyway. Hell, for all he knows, maybe they were in love anyway.

He grits his teeth. His jaw aches.

Fury's sitting next to him; his eye roves over Steve. "Are you absolutely sure this is the right time to put yourself through something like this?" he asks. His breath whistles out his bandaged, broken nose. Steve has apologized. Twice.

Steve swallows hard. "There's never going to be a good time."

Fury raises an eyebrow. "Good point."

They get out of the car. Steve's boots crunch through the frozen snowdrifts. The cherry trees that Steve always wanted are in the front yard, leafless in the dead of winter.

Fury knocks—

—and Bucky opens the door.

Steve's been steeling himself for it. Working himself up. Trying to picture the face he only just saw, grim and determined on a dawn battlefield, and then overlaying fifty years, like paper over paper. He thought he was ready.

Bucky is old.

Of course he is. Steve knew he was going to be. It's not quite a stranger's face; the eyes are the same. But his face is lined, years upon years weighing on him. He stoops as he stands. His hand on the doorframe is trembling. His gaze goes back, past Fury, and settles on Steve.

"Jesus," Bucky breathes, and his voice is an old man's trembling voice, a raspy voice, decades of cigarettes. Lung cancer, Bucky's file had said. Too goddamn many cigarettes. "You look exactly the same."

And then Steve's pushing past Fury, and Bucky hugs him, hard.

"I'm so sorry," Bucky says. "We thought you were dead. Swear to God, we thought you were dead."

There's a noise, and Steve looks up to see Gail, stopped on the stairs, staring at them. Her hair is silver, and her face creased with laugh lines. Her eyes are as kind and bright as ever and she's not his.

She was never his.

Steve can see it, now that he's looking, the way they're attuned to each other. It goes beyond the familiarity of a half-century of marriage. They're not even looking at each other, not quite, but Gail's turned toward Bucky like he's always going to be the most important person in the room.

She's not wearing gloves anymore. She doesn't need to.

"I heard," Gail says, hesitantly. "I mean, Bucky told me." She taps her temple with one finger. "Here."

They're soulmates, Tony had said.

One-in-a-million chance. Gail was never for him. She was always for Bucky, destined for him, and Steve had never known.

They'd made movies about it all, Tony had told him. Captain America, tragically lost, but his fiancée finds that his best friend is her soulmate. Based on a true story. Tony had asked if Steve wanted to watch any of them, and Steve had only barely restrained himself from putting his fist through the wall.

The thought comes to him that if Gail had kept away from Bucky, if she hadn't touched him, they'd never have known. This would never have happened. She had been meant to be his and she'd touched Bucky, he thinks, with a wash of ugly jealousy.

"How?" Steve chokes out. "I mean, how did you two—"

Bucky turns back and shares a fond smile with Gail, and Steve bites back every bit of awful rage. This is a treasured memory. They've told this story hundreds of times.

"Actually," Bucky says, and there's a bit of awkwardness in his eyes, "it was, um. Because of you."

"It was an accident," Gail says.

This is the first time that it hasn't been the best thing that's ever happened to them, and Steve knows this is his fault too.

Bucky clears his throat, a racking, phlegmatic cough. "They, uh. When you died. They sent me home to tell your folks. They figured it should be someone who knew you. Who was there, in Iceland, and who could tell them how it happened. And I volunteered. I'll never forget the look on your mother's face in all my days." He sighs. "After all the crying was done, they said I should go tell Gail, too, so I went over to her da's place, and she could tell, right away, looking at me, what the news was, and she just started bawling, and she threw herself into my arms. And."

"We... touched," Gail says, taking over the story, though she averts her gaze at the mention of the skin-to-skin taboo. "His jaw brushed my forehead, and that was all it took." She smiles, though there are tears in her eyes. "Fireworks. And then I heard him in my head, clear as a bell, thinking how sorry he was."


There are more words that should probably come out of Steve's mouth, but he can't make himself say any of them.

He did this to them.

This was supposed to be his life.

She was supposed to be his soulmate.

The universe had said no. And they'd been given his life, to live without him. His perfect soulbond. Not his. Never his.

He'd thought, when Gail had agreed to marry him, that he'd had everything, that he'd had his future all planned, but this is the future and he has nothing at all.

Gail descends the rest of the way down the stairs, and then she's hugging him, too. She still feels the same in his arms. The last time he saw her, they slept together. That was fifty years ago, and now she's another man's wife. His best friend's wife. His best friend's soulmate. For God's sake, she and Bucky have grandchildren.

Damn him, he should be happy for them. They're his two best friends in the entire world. His only friends, now. They've got something that almost no one in the world has, and here he is, pitying himself because it wasn't him?

He remembers his father's mocking voice. It was never going to be him. He's never going to have a soulmate. His old man had been right after all.

"I'm happy for you," Steve says. He forces the words out, like saying it can make it true. He should be happy. It's the right thing to do. What they have—he should be glad they have it. That they found each other. He died, and his friends found love. Isn't that what he should have wanted?

They look at each other, and he wonders what they're saying about him in their heads.

"You ain't, you liar," Bucky says, and Steve should have known better than to try to put anything past him. "But it's all right. You don't have to be. I know it's a shock."

If he'd lived— if he'd lived— it might have happened anyway. He'd have married Gail, and one day maybe she'd have bumped into Bucky. An accident. And then they'd have known, and he'd— he'd never have been able to keep her, anyway.

Steve swallows. "I'm happy you're happy." He feels his way around the words. That much, at least, sounds true when he says it.

There's nothing here for him.

They should have left him in the ice. It would have been the kindest thing to do.

He's sitting in the limo as they pull away from Cedar Street. You can come back anytime, Gail had said, and the glance she shared with Bucky suggested that she knew that he'd want to wait. Whenever you're ready.

Fury is sitting next to him, gaze studiously fixed on the view out the other window, pretending that he doesn't know about the tears rolling down Steve's cheeks. It's probably the nicest thing anyone has done for him in the future so far.

"I want in," Steve says. He stares out at the winter-gray skies. His hoarse voice rasps at his throat.

"Excuse me?"

Steve turns around to see Fury regarding him in incomprehension. Steve doesn't bother wiping off his face. A tear drips from his chin to his shirt, staining the fabric.

"The mission," Steve says. "The operation. Whatever it was that's so goddamn important that you brought me back to life for it. Give me it."

Fury winces; at least he has the grace to look ashamed. His eye is downcast. "We can wait," he says. "You've had a hell of a day, Captain. It's a lot to get used to."

There's nothing else left. There's no marriage, no children, no house on Cedar Street. Not for him. This is the future and the future is the mission and there's no point in pretending he can ever have anything else. He signed his life away in 1942. They made him for war. It's time to send him to war.

"Give me it," he repeats. "Sir."

There's a briefcase between them. Fury opens it and wordlessly hands him the top file, a manila folder stamped with the words THE ULTIMATES.

Steve opens it and is confronted with a picture of himself. Then the man who woke him, Bruce Banner, listed as a consultant. Then a smiling blond man whose name is listed only as Thor. Then Hank Pym, the man who was fifty feet tall. Then Janet Pym, who is pictured both clothed and with wings. And then—Steve finds he's not really surprised about this—Tony Stark.

In the photograph, Tony isn't wearing gloves at all. He looks a bit younger than he is now—not that he's all that old, but he looks somehow innocent. He's smiling, his eyes lowered, practically making love to the camera.

Steve tries to tell himself he isn't looking at Tony's bare hands. It shouldn't draw his attention. It's not like he's never seen a man's bare hands before; it's only that he's never seen Tony's in person. It feels like he's looking at something forbidden. It shouldn't mean anything.

In his defense, it's been an deeply fucked-up day.

It doesn't matter. This is the mission. His family is dead. The love of his life was never really his at all. What else is there but this?

"Yeah, okay," Steve hears himself say. "Sign me up."

Steve doesn't quite understand what kind of outfit the Ultimates are until after he signs on the dotted line.

God help him, they're stars.

He's not new to being a symbol; he's Captain America, after all. He'd signed up to wear the flag, to have Bucky follow him around taking pictures for the folks back home. He knew that there had been posters and newsreels. He'd met rich men and politicians, a few times—but mostly, he'd been doing what the Army paid him for. Special operations.

Tonight they've literally rolled out the red carpet at the Triskelion, and flashbulbs go off in Steve's face. There are his new teammates. There are reporters. There are celebrities whose names he doesn't even know. There's the president. The second president he's ever met. He asks Steve if the future is cool.

No one has told Steve what cool means. He hopes the right answer is yes.

This seems to please the president and the crowd of celebrities. He exhales hard.

The next person he sees is, of course, Tony.

Steve showed up to this shindig in the new Captain America outfit they made him—brighter, tighter, shinier, with scale mail on his shirt, stars on his shoulders, and a strange round shield. He feels ridiculous. More ridiculous than in the last uniform, even. He knows it's armored but it looks like a goddamn costume. It clings. He feels like everyone is staring at his ass.

Tony probably is staring at his ass.

"Cap!" Tony says. "You made it."

Tony is smiling at him. Tony has his hand on the back of the woman next to him, a gorgeous brunette in a shimmering dark evening gown. She's wearing gloves to match the dress; Steve had begun to wonder if anyone did. Tony introduces his date; he says she's an actress. Jennifer someone-or-other.

Tony is wearing gloves too, with his tuxedo. They are in no conceivable way men's gloves, like the leather gloves Steve currently sports with his uniform. They're pale, creamy satin, covered in a layer of finely-worked lace. They catch on Steve's gloves when Steve shakes his hand.

If Tony's a queer and everyone knows it and somehow that's okay, why does he have a lady as a date? But if he even likes women, what's he doing dressing like a fairy? Acting like one? In public?

The future is bizarre.

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Steve tells Jennifer someone-or-other, and she smiles.

"How do you like the party, darling?" Tony asks him—him!—and Steve would swear he's flirting, but he can't be. "It's in your honor."

He read the Ultimates' file, cover to cover. He has to admit he doesn't understand why Tony's here. Tony's putting up the money, and Tony has some kind of suit of armor (he calls it Iron Man, which sounds like the height of arrogance). But everyone else on the team has some kind of power: there's him, and there's Hank's size-changing, and Janet's size and flight, and Thor... may or may not be a god. He also may or may not be on the team. That doctor, Bruce, is a consultant. And then there's Tony. Who is a regular guy—a billionaire—who wants to be on the team apparently for the hell of it. No powers whatsoever. No military experience. No nothing. Just a brain, a suit, and a lot of money. What's in it for him?

He has a lot of questions about Tony. He thinks Tony might even answer that one.

"It's great," Steve says, which is mostly a lie, because he's always hated this. "I see we're going to be teammates."

Tony hums noncommittally. "So we are."

"I was just wondering," Steve asks, "why you decided to join? It seems... unusual." He tries to think of a better word. "Unnecessary."

Tony's lips twist. It's the first expression Steve has seen on his face that might be considered ugly. "Saving the world is unnecessary? I expected better of you, darling."

Steve grits his teeth. Is Tony being obtuse on purpose? "Not like that. The funding is necessary, although it didn't have to be you. The suit, presumably, is a good idea. But SHIELD could have put someone else in it. A soldier. Didn't have to be you. And yet you insisted."

A flicker of some unreadable emotion passes over Tony's face and is gone. "I'm very altruistic," he says, and Steve knows that's not the whole truth. "I wanted to do good." His eyes narrow. "What, that's not enough for you?"

Steve doesn't know what else to say. Now isn't when he should press him.

There's movement off to his left, and a woman in a green dress comes up next to him.

"Janet!" Steve says, surprised and pleased.

She's not wearing gloves. Steve's torn between being scandalized and remembering that he's already seen her naked. Steve glances around the room. Maybe half the women are gloved. And Tony, of course.

He's going to have to ask someone about this sometime, the glove thing. Not Tony.

"Please," she says, with a smile. "Call me Jan."

"Jan, then." Steve glances around. "You bring your husband?"

She waves a bare hand, like it's normal, like she doesn't care that anyone could touch her, and Steve shivers. "Oh, he's over there, talking shop with Banner. Me, I decided to leave molecular biology home for the evening." Her eyes sparkle.

She has a doctorate too. Two of them. Steve remembers that much from the files.

"I like to take molecular biology with me everywhere I go," he returns, gesturing at himself, and is rewarded with Jan's laughter.

She smiles. She puts her hand—Jesus, her bare hand—on Steve's arm. Is she... flirting with him too? Good lord. She's married. What the hell is wrong with the future?

Maybe she's just being friendly. He smiles back.

"I think this team is going to be a lot of fun," Jan says. "I know we're all so glad you agreed."

Fun isn't really the word Steve would have used.

He wonders what this team is going to be like on the battlefield. He wonders who they're going to fight.

They're all goddamn civilians. He wonders which of them is going to break first.

The answer to that, Steve discovers, is Bruce. Bruce had to go and shoot himself up with a serum variant, and, well—

Steve's standing here, in the wreck the Hulk made of Manhattan, swaying on his feet. Everything around him is jagged metal and splintered wood—some of which, thanks to Thor, is still on fire. The SHIELD boys are taking Bruce away in a straitjacket, Hank's fifty feet tall and lying unconscious in the wreckage, and Tony's helmet got lost somewhere in the fray. His face is covered in a strange greenish gel and his hair is sticking up wildly, but he seems to be basically in one piece. Jan looks winded but fine. They're okay. They made it.

Tony squints at him. "You all right, Cap?"

"Fine." Steve can feel his face form into a scowl, the way it wants to all the time around Tony.

Tony's smile is sly. "What's the matter, sweetheart? You pissed because Wasp didn't show you her tits?"

Steve can feel his face heat up. Jan had needed to get the Hulk's attention somehow, and that was what she'd picked. And, yes, she's a decent, married woman, and, yes, it's wrong, but now he can't stop thinking about it, and for God's sake she's married and he needs to not imagine anything about what Jan would look like topless. He wishes Tony weren't good at guessing. He doesn't think Tony's even doing it on purpose. He hopes Tony doesn't know.

Glaring, Jan turns around and makes a gesture that decent women in Steve's day didn't admit to knowing. "Fuck off, Stark. It worked."

Tony just laughs. "It did, it did." He's still laughing. "And we'll be heroes."

"We saved New York from one of our own," Thor says.

"Thor!" Tony crows, brightly, which is when it occurs to Steve that Tony is actually drunk. "How nice of you to join us. Have you changed your mind about the evils of the military-industrial complex?"

"No," Thor says, but at least he's smiling.

Tony pouts. "Well, we'll still be heroes."

"How do you figure that?" Steve asks.

"Easy." Tony waves his armored hands in the air. "No one but us knows who the Hulk is. I don't think SHIELD's planning on telling the public. So, to the rest of the world, we've saved New York from a problem we definitely didn't cause." He beams.

Something twists in Steve, and the crumbling future hollows out, hollow-rotten. This wasn't what he signed up for. He cracks his jaw. There's blood on his face. It's dry, and it pulls at his skin.

"That's a lie," he says, and he doesn't know why he's saying it. He doesn't know why he's even surprised.

"I'm an excellent liar, darling." Tony flashes him a smile that belongs on a magazine. "Say, how about dinner?"

"Dinner?" Is Tony— God, is Tony asking him

"Dinner," Tony repeats. "Everyone. My place. Give me a few days to get the details sorted. You're all invited. You don't need to bring anything. I've got plenty of wine."

Steve breathes out. It's okay. It didn't mean anything. Tony didn't mean it for him.

Steve hadn't been able to picture what a penthouse suite belonging to a man worth three hundred and fifty billion dollars would really look like, and even now that he's standing in it, he can't quite believe he's here.

He wore his Army uniform, figuring there was no way he could be underdressed in that; Thor has gone for the casual look and opted for jeans. And Tony, of course, is wearing a silk robe in eye-searing purple. With embroidered gloves to match.

Oddly, Hank and Jan are absent. Steve supposes the other SHIELD personnel—Wanda, Pietro, Clint and Natasha—weren't invited.

It's been a few weeks. Steve has had time to look up gloves on the internet, which led him into a pile of articles about something called second-wave feminism, the upshot of which is that women these days seem to feel they shouldn't have to wear gloves if they don't want to—which explains Jan, but it doesn't explain Tony. The internet confirms that men wearing fancy gloves is just as queer as ever, and it even offered him pornography, at which point Steve hurriedly closed the computer.

If he wants to know, he'll have to ask. That's not a conversation he wants to have with Tony. Ever.

Tony's penthouse is airy, spacious, covered with art... and moving boxes. Decluttering, Tony says.

It doesn't make sense until halfway through dinner, when Thor asks Tony why he's on the Ultimates. It's the same question Steve had for him, the one he dodged. But they're a team, and they've fought together, and maybe that makes things different now. He looks like he might actually answer.

Tony chews on his lip and considers Thor's question.

"Well, it's not tax evasion," he says, which had been Thor's guess, and he's smiling, but there's something faraway and sad in his eyes, and it makes Steve want to— it makes him want to—

He doesn't know what he wants. He hates it.

Tony's gaze turns to Steve. "You have a guess, Captain? You've had plenty of time to think about it." His eyes flash with something that might be scorn. "Have you decided I'm good enough for altruism yet? Or do you have another answer?"

He's mercurial; the mood is gone in an instant as Tony sips his wine. He's always drinking; even Tony's SHIELD file had mentioned that. But it hadn't mentioned why Tony had joined up. So either Fury doesn't know, doesn't think Steve should know, or doesn't consider it important.

"Girls," Steve blurts out.

He doesn't know why he says it. He's heard Tony talk about women, casual drawling remarks about gorgeous blondes, the same way he talks about everything else. And it doesn't make sense with... the way Tony acts, but it seems like he likes women too. Maybe he needs the help, the cachet of being a hero? Maybe he's not good with women? Steve understands that, all right. Maybe women just want Iron Man? Sure, Tony's a billionaire, but no amount of money can buy being a superhero.

He remembers how Gail used to look at him, awed, a wide-eyed gaze that made him swim with heady power. Yeah, he can see why Tony would want that.

"Not that I don't believe you're not altruistic," Steve says, which is almost entirely a lie. "But it seems like you might want, well. Female companionship."

Tony looks at him like he's looking right through him, and Steve knows he's been found out.

"Not this time, I'm afraid," Tony says, lightly, which—probably on purpose—makes him sound like a goddamn queer again.

Tony taps the side of his skull with one gloved finger. "I've got a brain tumor," he says, and if he says anything else Steve can't hear it over the roaring in his own head. Jesus Christ.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Steve asks. His voice is faint. He doesn't understand the future. They joke about so many things now. This can't be real.

He glances over at Thor, who looks horrified. Thor doesn't think Tony's joking.

That's why the moving boxes. That's why the Ultimates. That's why Iron Man.

Tony's dying.

"How long?" Thor asks.

Tony shrugs. "Anywhere between six months and five years. It's inoperable."

He didn't know. Oh God. He didn't know. Should he apologize? What is he supposed to say?

Jesus, Tony's not even thirty.

And then Tony turns around and asks Jarvis for that gift I found for Captain America.

"What?" Steve asks. "What are you doing buying me presents?"

You don't even like me, he wants to say, and he's not sure if he means I don't even like you or but you're dying and you shouldn't be, and he can't say anything else as Jarvis sets the box in front of him.

It's his helmet. It's battered and dented. Some of the paint's been scraped away, but the white-on-blue A is plainly visible. He hasn't seen this since Iceland. 1945. A few months and a lifetime ago.

He realizes he's smiling. Should he be smiling? Tony's dying. Tony's dying and Tony found this for him and he has no idea what to say.

"What do you think?" Tony asks. He sounds concerned. Like he cares.

Steve stares helplessly back. "I don't know what to say."

Good one, Rogers.

"Say you'll join me in a toast," Tony says, and they drink to Hank, Jan, and Bruce.

He takes the helmet home with him. It sits in his tiny, near-empty apartment. He's alone in the future.

He wonders, briefly, if Tony is alone in his huge, empty penthouse.

And then, of course, they find out why Hank and Jan never made it to Tony's dinner.

Hank likes to hit her. And this time he hit her hard enough to put her in in the hospital.

Steve knows what any man would have done in his day. He knows what the right thing to do is.

So he hunts down Hank, tracks him down to a bar in Chicago, and tells him to pick on someone his own size.

Oh, it's still a fair fight. He's not a monster. He makes Hank change size first. Hank the giant man against Steve, now, no one can complain about that. That's even.

He feels a grim satisfaction, standing there in Chicago, with Hank, that wife-beating son of a bitch, still giant, lying unconscious.

Jan will be happy.

And then, well. Then it's the Chitauri.

Looks like even more people Steve knew from the war aren't dead yet. Unfortunately, these ones are the aliens. And they're attacking Micronesia.

Two hours until the mission. It's time to see Jan. And Jan... isn't happy.

She glares at him from her hospital bed. She refuses the flowers he's brought. She says she's taking a transfer. She doesn't want Steve to be... an idiot knight in shining armor. That's what she calls him.

He hears her crying as he leaves.

He can't do anything right. That's what he is. An idiot. The muscles, the body, everything—it's all worthless. She can see right through him.

He's unsteady on his feet as he heads across the Triskelion. He's got twenty minutes until the mission. God, he can't let anyone see him like this. Does he look as miserable as he feels? He must. He turns down a corridor, heads to an out-of-the-way restroom. No one needs to see Captain America try not to cry right before they risk their lives against aliens. That's probably the most demoralizing thing Steve can imagine.

He sways and braces himself on the wall. Jesus, why did he take this job? He's a mess.

Five minutes. Five minutes to put himself together. Splash some water on his face. He'll be okay.

He pushes open the men's restroom door to find that he's not alone.

He can't quite make sense of what's happening at first. Natasha's bent over the counter between two of the sinks and Tony's behind her. Tony's pants are around his ankles; Natasha's are on the floor, and the shirt she's wearing is pushed up, her breasts bared, quivering as she rocks back and forth. Tony has one hand on her hip, and the other is stretched forward to cup her breast, rubbing a thumb—God, he's still wearing those damn gloves—over her nipple with deft little circles as he fucks into her, heavy and rough, and Jesus, from this angle, side-on, Steve can see everything. It's more of Tony than he's ever seen before, that's for sure. Tony's ass flexes as he thrusts, and he can see Tony's cock, huge and hard, sliding into Natasha, slick and wet and red. He can see practically the whole length of Tony's cock, pulling almost all the way out and then pushing in again, giving it to her hard, driving deep.

Steve can feel himself getting hard, helplessly, his cock pressing against his uniform.

Natasha's eyes are shut, and she's moaning as Tony snaps his hips forward again and again. She forces herself back on Tony's cock with every thrust, and her whole body rocks with the motion. God, she's— she's really enjoying herself, isn't she?

He can't help but wonder what he did wrong with Gail. What Tony knows that he doesn't.

And then Tony glances over, sees Steve standing frozen in the doorway, and... smiles. His hips stutter and slow into an easy, lazy roll, but don't quite stop.

"Why, hello, Captain," Tony says. His face is flushed. His voice is breathy and low. "Fancy meeting you here." He turns his head and winks. "Here to stay, darling? I don't mind if you want to watch." Tony's eyes go glassy and he groans, a low, broken noise that goes straight to Steve's cock. "Don't worry," he murmurs. "It won't be much longer."

Why is Tony like this? Heat rushes through Steve—rage, arousal, fear, shame. It's a tangle of emotions, and none of them are good. And the worst part is the tiny corner of his mind that thinks maybe I want to and maybe I could learn something.

He wonders if Tony can see that he's hard, and terror swirls within him.

Natasha opens her eyes and reaches back to hit Tony with the heel of her hand, but she can barely stretch as far as his side. Her fingers catch on the tails of his dress shirt. "Tony." Her eyes narrow. She glares at Steve. "I mind."

"I," Steve says, dumbfounded, and he's trying desperately to avoid looking at the place where they're joined, at the shaft of Tony's cock where it pushes inside Natasha's body. He can't think about how it looks, how Tony is almost as big as he is, how Tony must feel with her clenching warm and tight around him. "I'll. I'll go."

He turns and flees.

He's a few steps outside the restroom when the moans start up again, and he hisses through clenched teeth, hastily adjusts himself, and goes to find another restroom.

Maybe it would have helped if he'd had his head in the game at the beginning. The déjà vu isn't doing him any favors, because he remembers dropping over an island to fight the Chitauri and their friends. Maybe it'll kick him another fifty years into the future again. That would be a fucking blessing.

God, if he hadn't had to listen to Tony making jokes about the absent Scarlet Witch's breasts over the comms, Tony who was laughing and happy because, Jesus, he'd just gotten laid and Steve had walked in on him—

He mutes Tony's comms. He keeps going.

Micronesia is still and silent around them. Thor and Tony are ahead, doing recon.

Thor comes back. "The island's deserted," he says. "It has been for weeks."

Fury had been confident. The information about the Chitauri came straight from SHIELD's psi division, he said. No fooling them.

"Thor's right," Tony confirms, as he lands, the suit glowing around them. "Could the psychics have had a migraine or something?"

Fury just looks disgusted, which, to be fair, is how Tony makes Steve feel, most of the time. But they're here and they've got troops, so they might as well use them. Fury orders them to fan out.

There are three seconds left on the atomic bomb when one of the soldiers finds it.

Oh, God, not again.

Steve toggles the comms on and yells. "Tony!"

Two seconds. One second.

They had a plan for this. There's not enough time.

The closest soldiers are vaporized in blinding light. Reflexively, Steve shields his eyes and spins around, and this is it, this is the end—

The light changes. It's blue-white. Tony's landed next to him, his hands raised, and he's glowing.

"Whatever you're doing, do it fast," Tony says, the words practically snarled. "I didn't exactly have time to test the forcefields against nuclear fission."

Steve taps the comms again. "Thor, get us out of here!"

"Out of here where?" Thor asks.

Fury's voice comes over the comms. "We're getting reports of alien craft in the skies over Phoenix. Looks like that's where the invasion's happening."

"Got that, Thor?" Steve yells.

In answer, lightning crackles around them.

When he can see again, they're somewhere else. Alien spaceships are silver-bright in the skies above them, and Steve raises his shield.

"Tony? Thor?" he says. "Lead the charge."

It's a hell of a fight.

Steve gets out a message, letting as many people know as he can that SHIELD has been compromised by Chitauri agents. Shapeshiters. And then Tony and Thor take to the skies, downing spaceships like it's nothing. Energy blasts and lightning arc through the air.

His own battle is on the ground. He'd fought Kleiser back in '45, but Kleiser was Chitauri, and he just. Isn't. Dying. Instead he's here ranting about a superweapon underground that's going to destroy the Earth in twenty minutes, as he and Steve trade blows.

"None of this would have happened if you hadn't stopped that rocket," he snarls.

Steve punches him in the face. He's not making much of a dent. Fury shoots him in the head. Still no dent.

They drop the Hulk on him. That, at least, has an impact.

He orders everyone to fall back. From here on out, it's just watching. He breathes and wipes the blood off his face. He waits for his arm to reknit and listens to the comms chatter. Above him, planes dive in formation against the spaceships, and Tony and Thor can finally be relieved in order to get underground with Jan and Natasha—what the hell is Jan doing here? She was in the hospital!—and work on the doomsday bomb.

Steve gets on the loudspeaker and goads Hulk to fight the spaceships. He tells him the pilots called him a sissy-boy. Okay, that part is sort of fun.

Tony's voice crackles in his ear. "Thor's going to teleport the bomb off-world."

He hears Natasha in the background saying Thor's just a schizophrenic.

Yeah, well. Seems like Steve's throwing in his lot with the crazies.

The ground heaves in a shockwave, and then... everything's quiet. Except for the Hulk trashing spaceships, of course. Clint knocks him out with a tranquilizer, at a distance. At least this works better than Manhattan.

It's over. They're standing in the wreckage, smiling. They did it. The Chitauri are gone. The Earth is safe.

"I think this means we're officially superheroes now," Jan says. And she's beaming. At him.

Well. Maybe some things about the future aren't so bad.

They are, indeed, superheroes.

A few days later, there's a reception at the White House. Thor refuses to attend, but most of the rest of the team does. Tony, of course, wears elegant black velvet gloves with his tuxedo and spends the evening flirting cheerfully with the First Lady when he's not dancing with Natasha. Steve suspects that it's the only way Tony knows to interact with people.

And Jan's there. Jan's wearing a little black dress and gloves that only barely suggest being gloves. Jan asks him to dance, and he's barely over how strange that is when she kisses him. They're not soulmates, Steve thinks, as their lips touch, and a tiny part of him is disappointed, the part of him that is never going to get over being disappointed. He just needs to accept that he doesn't have one. He's not that special. He should be happy with what he's got.

Jan's in his arms and smiling up at him. It's enough. It should be enough.

After the reception, Steve discovers something else about the future: the dames put out on the first date.

Or at least, they try to.

Since they don't need to be back in New York urgently, SHIELD's reserved them a block of rooms at a local hotel. Jan laughs and smiles and heads over with him, her hand in his the whole way, and she's still smiling at him.

"I don't want to be alone," Jan whispers, and she snakes an arm around his waist. "Can I come in?"

He doesn't want to be alone either—literally, he doesn't want to be alone. He's not that naive, and he knows what she actually means. But he doesn't know what's right. For God's sake, she's still married to Hank. She's another man's wife. But maybe this is what the future is like now. Maybe this is what he's supposed to do. Involuntarily, his mind flashes back to Tony, bending Natasha over the restroom counter, and he swallows hard and feels his cock begin to stir.

Yeah, okay, this is the future.

"Of course," he says, his voice a husky rasp that he doesn't even recognize, and he fumbles for his keycard.

As soon as the door shuts behind them, she's up on her toes, kissing him and kissing him, pushing him backwards across the room until the back of his calves bump the bed. Belatedly, overwhelmed, he realizes he was probably supposed to let her push him over, but he's still standing, graceless and confused. Jan kisses him, open-mouthed and messy, leans into him, and he can feel her breasts press up against him, a thought that makes his cock throb in his pants—and, of course, the way Jan's grinding up against him, she can definitely feel that herself.

This is wrong, he thinks. Something about this is wrong. It's not— it's not romantic, and that's a stupid, emotional thought, but it's true. They're just in a hotel room because neither of them wanted to go home, because they're happy they won. Is this what there is? Is this all there is in the future? Is it meaningless sex with whoever is reasonably friendly and happens to be around?

"Nice," Jan breathes, and Steve nearly yelps in surprise as Jan's deft fingers outline his cock through the fabric of his pants, stroking him expertly. "I can't wait."

It wasn't like this with Gail.

The wrongness knifes through him, sharp and bitter and sad. He can't do this.

He gets his hands on Jan's shoulders, and he's holding her back at arm's length as she stares up at him, confused.


"I can't," he says, and he chokes on the rest of the sentence. "I— I can't. I'm sorry."

Her face is twisted up, pain and confusion. He's disappointing her. Goddammit, he's supposed to be able to do this right.

"Is it because of Hank?" she asks. "Listen, you don't have to worry about him. We're separated. We're getting a divorce. I'm not going back."

He shakes his head. "It's not him." It's only partially the truth. "I just— I'm not feeling— I can't," he says, miserably. "Later, okay?"

"Okay," she echoes, soft and wounded, and she backs away.

His legs give out on him, and he stumbles back and sits down hard on the bed as she lets herself out.

In the corridor, there's quiet, high-pitched laughter, matched by a lower chuckling. Tony and Natasha are on this floor, he knows. They're probably going to have a great time, and he turned Jan down and is sitting here, alone.

What the hell is wrong with him?

Steve's got nowhere to be in the morning, and by the time he's aware of the morning light diffusing through the gauzy curtains of the hotel room, a glance at the clock lets him know it's 0700. He supposes it doesn't matter.

He wonders if the hotel has a gym. There's probably nothing he can safely punch, and the weights are probably all too light, but he has a feeling that even stretching would do him some good. Calm him down. Make him feel a little more centered. Maybe there's somewhere he could go for a run.

He wishes he could run away from all of it.

He knows the Ultimates just saved the world from an alien invasion, but he doesn't feel like a goddamn superhero.

He sighs, digs out sweatpants and a t-shirt from his suitcase, and goes looking for a gym.

On the way downstairs, he finds Tony, the lone occupant of the third-floor lounge.

Tony doesn't even have to open his mouth for Steve to know what kind of night he had: he's wearing the same clothes Steve saw him in at the reception, albeit more disheveled. He's lost the jacket and tie and his shirt is done up unevenly, but he's still wearing the gloves. His sleeves are rolled up, and there's an inch or two of bare skin between where the gloves end and his shirt starts.

Something about the strip of skin is hypnotic; Steve can't take his eyes off it. Tony wears gloves, wears them like he's too good for everyone, like he can't possibly stand to let the filthy commoners touch him. His gloves are conspicuously expensive, in delicate bright fabrics that only draw attention to the fact that he's wearing them, and Steve hates all of it.

He's seized with the impulse to touch Tony, to run two bare fingers over Tony's skin, there over his arm where there's just enough room for Steve's hand. He exults in the perverse pleasure of the thought, knowing how much Tony would detest it. Tony doesn't want him to touch him, and so he wants to. Everything about Tony's personality irritates him, and it feels perfectly just—fair, somehow—that he could do something to irritate Tony.

He doesn't, of course. He's a better man than that. But he could.

Tony's leaning against the wall. His hair is a mess. His collar's open, and there's a line of hickeys along his throat. There could be no clearer advertisement of the fact that Tony spent the night with a beautiful woman.

And Tony has a flask in one hand. It's seven in the morning and he's having a fucking drink.

Steve opens his mouth, remembers that Tony saved his life on that island, and shuts his mouth.

This would all be so much easier if Tony were a lousy teammate. He wouldn't have to put up with a lush. But, no, sober or not, he actually is a fucking genius and he's good in combat. In some ways, it's awfully inconvenient.

Tony lifts his head, and his gaze just barely meets Steve's. He's looking at him with lowered eyes, through dark eyelashes, the usual blatant flirtation. He lifts his flask in Steve's direction, a lazy gesture somewhere between a salute and a toast. His throat works, and his tongue swipes out to lick up a stray drop of liquor. It's obscene, is what it is.

"Morning, Cap," Tony says. His voice sounds like sex, low and rough, and Steve isn't sure how he's managed that one. He looks like sex, too, slouching against the wall and waiting. Steve half-expects to hear him start talking like the fairies at the Navy Yards. Standing there like that ought to be illegal. He looks like they should get him for solicitation. "You and Jan have a good time last night? She as good as she looks?"

This is crass and crude and wrong. Steve's jaw tightens. He shouldn't be talking about Jan this way.

Tony's face brightens and then dims, in an awkward, if sympathetic, understanding. "Oh," Tony murmurs. "No luck, huh? I thought you were gonna get some for sure, when she left with you." And then Tony has the audacity to smile. "You should have let me know you needed advice, darling. I'm very good with women." He winks, and all Steve can picture is the way Tony looked at him when he walked on him and Natasha, and from the curve of Tony's smile, it's exactly what Tony means for him to picture.

Not only is it crude, it's deeply, monumentally unfair. Here he is, Captain fucking America. He's not scrawny and limping anymore. There's nothing wrong with him. He should be any woman's dream, the way he looks now, and he— he doesn't know what to do, as if inside him he's still frail, still broken, and even Tony knows it. Helpless fear chills him to the bone and makes him hot with rage at the same time. And here Tony is, dressing like a fucking queer with fancy gloves up to the elbows, posing here with one hip jutting out like his goddamn perfect ass is on sale to any man with a dollar, and it's Tony who has women beating down his door, it's Tony who knows exactly what to do with them. It's not fucking fair.

"You can take your advice and shove it up your ass," Steve growls, which is probably not what he should have said, but, hell, if he'd been thinking at all, he wouldn't be here. His anger is a red mist, muddying all thought. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

He snaps his mouth shut, crooked pleasure alight within him. Telling Tony what he thinks of him is unexpectedly satisfying.

But Tony denies him the satisfaction of any reaction. His face doesn't change. Tony merely screws the cap back on his flask, as if Steve's words are nothing at all whatsoever to him, and he slides the flask into his pocket before looking up. "Mmm," he says, a quiet noise that might even be agreement. "You're so angry. You really needed to get laid, didn't you, sweetheart?"

He can't take even one more second of this. He has had enough.

"Why the hell would I want advice from you?" Steve snaps. "Look at you mincing about in your sissy gloves, calling everyone sweetheart and darling! Who do you think you're fooling? You're a goddamn fairy! What does a queer like you even know about women?"

Stricken, Tony's face is briefly—oh so briefly—racked with pain, and Steve has a split second to enjoy the fact that he actually said something that got through to whoever the real Tony Stark is, under all his posturing and gesturing and masks. And then Tony's eyes light up, his mouth curls in a dark, savage smile, and all Steve can think is oh fuck, I made a mistake as Tony steps closer, slinking forward like a jungle cat, a predator on the prowl.

His gaze somehow both languid and intent, Tony presses one fingertip, very lightly, to the hollow of Steve's throat. The velvet of the glove is soft against Steve's skin. Steve could knock his hand away. Steve could break his fucking wrist for daring to touch him.

Steve can't move.

Tilting his head up to look him in the eye, Tony smiles with too many teeth. "Here's a lesson about the twenty-first century, darling." His voice is a low, sultry purr, the kind of voice that Steve imagines Tony uses to whisper sweet nothings in Natasha's ear, and it infuriates him. He's not one of Tony's girls. "If you go around asking men if they're filthy queers, eventually someone's going to assume the reason is that you're personally invested, as it were, in the answer."

Tony flattens his palm against Steve's chest and draws his gloved hand slowly down, until his fingers are splayed over Steve's sternum. Steve wonders if Tony can feel his heart beating double-time.

Steve doesn't know what Tony's going to do to him.

"It's a facile explanation, of course," Tony says, his voice even and level, like he's lecturing Steve about the forcefields the Iron Man suit produces. "It's not necessarily true. Sometimes bigots are just bigots. But generally the thinking is that you wouldn't be quite so frightened if you didn't have anything to hide, mmm?"

Steve swallows hard. "I'm not afraid of you, Stark."

It's a lie.

"You are, though." Tony almost sounds gentle when he says it. Steve can feel the heat of Tony's breath on his face. "You're afraid of me. Just a little bit. Not as afraid as you are of yourself." He taps Steve's breastbone with two fingers. "Spangly costume, shiny shield, biceps as big as my head, and there you are praying desperately that no one will notice it's all a facade. Hollow core. Inside's just fear and bravado. Captain America has to be a real man, after all. A man's man. And you don't know how. You don't know anything about yourself. You don't know anything about fucking anything."

"Stop it." Steve's voice is hoarse. It rips at his throat.

Tony clicks in disapproval. "You asked me a question, darling," he breathes, and the smile on his face is a taunt. "Maybe you should have asked yourself whether you wanted to know the answer. You want advice from me because I know what I'm talking about." Tony's fingers against Steve's chest begin to drift lower. It's almost a caress. "You're so tense," he says, a soft observation. "Relax, darling. I'm not going to hurt you. Not going to do anything you don't absolutely want. Not my scene, darling. Although the way you're looking at me, I don't think you believe that." His laugh is bitter. "I've never understood that about you straight boys. What makes you all so fucking terrified of a little happiness, huh?"

Steve's tongue has cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Tony's hand slides even lower, his fingertips at the waistband of Steve's pants, and distantly Steve wonders why he hasn't stopped Tony yet.

"I could get on my knees for you, sweetheart," Tony whispers, an offer too brazen to be genuine, but it doesn't stop Steve's breath from catching in his throat, doesn't stop his cock from throbbing and hardening. He hopes Tony doesn't notice. He's not sure he has a choice about what Tony notices. "I could suck you off right here," Tony breathes. "I give a champion blowjob, if I do say so myself. Best you've ever had. How about it?"

Steve was in no way prepared for this.

All he can picture is Tony on his knees, Tony's mouth wrapped around his cock. Everything within Steve rises up, arousal and nauseated disgust. He doesn't want to want it. It's sickening. It's not right. Tony can't want to put his mouth there. No one should. It's dirty and wrong and goddamn perverse and he's damned if the thought doesn't make his blood heat. He knows as Tony says it that Tony doesn't underestimate his skills in any area: it would be the best blowjob he's ever had.

It would also be the only blowjob he's ever had. Tony doesn't need to know that.

Tony's eyes are dark, nearly black with desire, a physical reaction he can't fake. Christ. Tony wants this. "You know you want to know what it's like," Tony murmurs. "You know that's why you're scared, don't you? What if you like it? What if this is the kind of man you really are? What if everything you think you know about yourself is wrong?"

"I'm not interested," Steve grits out, although if Tony's hand goes any lower, Tony's going to find out that Steve's body disagrees with that.

Tony breathes out, an unsteady, raspy breath ending in mocking half-laughter. "Or maybe you want it the other way around, hmm?" His eyes are gleeful, glimmering with satisfaction. "It's such a cliché, but it might be exactly your speed. Big strong man like you wants to give it all up. Maybe you want to be the one on your knees. Maybe you want to surrender."

He pictures Tony the way he'd seen him the other day, bending Natasha over the counter, and it's all too easy to put himself in her place, with Tony holding him down. Terror swamps him.

That, finally, is what gives him the impetus to move.

He knocks Tony's fingers away and then shoves him, hard, against the wall, pinning him with one hand against Tony's shoulder. His other hand is raised into a fist that he's not conscious of making until he sees that it's what Tony's gaze is focused on. Tony isn't fighting him. His body's gone limp. He's still smiling.

"Is this how you're going to handle all the team disagreements?" Tony asks. The question is mildly curious, like he just wants to clear up some obscure bit of ambiguity in the team bylaws. "You're just going to punch us when we say something you don't like?" He frowns, an artful, petulant moue. "You let Hank change size before you beat the shit out of him. Do I have time to go get the suit?" He raises his eyebrows. "Or do you just want to ruin my pretty face? Admittedly, I think fellatio sounds like much more fun, but obviously you have a different—"

"Shut up," Steve snarls.

Tony's mouth snaps closed.

"I don't want to hear a single word from you on this topic ever again," Steve says. His voice is shaking. "If you choose otherwise, you will regret it. Do I make myself clear?"

Tony meets his eyes. "Crystal-clear, Captain." There is no coy teasing, no taunting pet names. Tony knows he's not joking.

He lets Tony go, turns, and stalks out.

When he finds the gym, he ends up punching a hole in the wall.

They go back to New York. Steve doesn't see Tony.

Steve shows up at Jan's door the next afternoon, flowers in hand. Flowers are always a good idea, aren't they?

He used to bring Gail flowers.

He wants this. He wants her. He does. Jan's a great gal, and she's so beautiful, and he wants her to be happy, and they had a great time, and none of that is a lie. Sure, okay, maybe he's a little bit scared. It was overwhelming, at first, and that was why he backed out. But he's had time to think about it, time to run it all through his head, the way he thinks about battlefield tactics, and he's ready now. He can do this.

He knocks, runs his hand through his hair, and then smiles at Jan when she opens the door.

"Hi," he offers.

Mouth open in surprise, Jan takes a step back. Her bare hands are half-raised, like she doesn't know what to do with them. She's wearing worn jeans and—Steve notes appreciatively—a tight t-shirt, its low neckline exposing a hint of cleavage. Determinedly, he keeps his gaze on her face.

"Steve!" She's smiling, and the knot that is Steve's stomach begins to loosen. "This is a surprise. It's really good to see you again." She says it like she never thought he would be brave enough to come back to her, and that thought only strengthens Steve's resolve. Of course he can do this. He's led men into battle, for God's sake. This should be easy.

He clears his throat. "I, uh. I wanted to apologize for... how things ended up between us, the other night." He tries to smile. He holds out the flowers. "I thought I'd come by and say so."

Her mouth rounds, and she reaches for the flowers, taking them in both hands. Their bare fingers brush, and nothing happens. "That's really sweet of you, Steve." Her teeth flash white as she smiles. "But there's nothing you need to apologize for. If you weren't— if you're not interested in anything, that's all right. I don't mean to rush you. I know things were probably different in the forties."

Steve bites back the sudden swell of aching grief. God, she has no idea. But he's in the future now. This is his life.

He smiles. He meets Jan's eyes. He smiles wider. "I was a bit startled," he admits. "And I needed some time. But you didn't do anything I didn't want." He takes a deep breath. "I was hoping I could make it up to you?"

He sees when Jan understands; there are spots of color, high on her cheeks, and her gaze darts away and then back. She smiles up at him. "Well." She draws out the word. She licks her lips, slow and deliberate, and Steve can feel heat gather low in his belly as he watches her tongue slide. "I'm free now, if you're... interested."

"Oh, I'm very interested," Steve assures her.

She lets the flowers fall, and she drags him inside.

They're sitting on Jan's couch, kissing. Kissing is good. Steve likes kissing. Steve at least has some experience with kissing. He's more and more emboldened as they go on, because Jan— well, Jan clearly has some experience with kissing. It's not like kissing Gail. Gail had never kissed anyone before Steve, of course, and she'd always seemed so... hesitant. Waiting for Steve to make a move, and going along with it.

That's not how Jan kisses. Jan kisses confidently, like she knows exactly what she wants and she's going to get it. Doesn't she want Steve to take charge? He deepens the kiss, slides his fingers through her hair, and she moans as her mouth parts under his—

And then she pulls away. "Not quite so much tongue, okay?" she murmurs. Her mouth is slick and red.

The criticism takes Steve aback, a pang that hits him deep in his chest. Is he not even good at kissing? How is he supposed to do it differently? Confused, he pulls back, and Jan leans in, her mouth capturing his bottom lip, which, yes, is nice, but it can't be as nice, can it? Awkwardly, he mimics her, and wow, she really likes that, moaning and pulling herself closer, and, okay, that makes Steve feel like a million bucks. His cock twitches, trapped in his pants.

"Here," Jan whispers, and she takes Steve's other hand from where he's decorously left it at her waist and slides it up and under her shirt and, wow, all right, they are definitely doing this.

Steve has to break the kiss for a second, to heave gasping breaths, like he's been running a marathon, and attempt to control himself, otherwise he suspects he really is going to come in his pants. He can't stop the thought that floats through his head, the memory of Tony grinning at him after the Hulk fight, sly and knowing, asking if he'd wanted Jan to show him her tits, and then the way he'd seen Tony and Natasha, her shirt pushed up, his gloved fingers fondling her as he fucked into her and for God's sake why is he thinking about Tony Stark when he's got a pretty girl in his arms?

He shuts his eyes and kisses Jan again, and he's not thinking about anything but the taste of her mouth—she has to ask him to use less tongue again—and the warmth of her body pressed against him and the curve of her breast under his questing fingers, the whispering of satin and the rough lacy edges of her bra. When he slides a thumb over her nipple, she moans into his mouth. She's straddling his thigh, rocking herself back and forth on it.

When he opens his eyes, Jan's smiling at him, her gaze dark and eager.

"Want to take this party somewhere more comfortable?" she asks.

He does.

Jan's bed is huge and soft, and he lets her push him down, so he's sitting on the edge of it. She yanks his shirt off for him and before he gets his arms down she's unzipping his fly. His exhale of relief as his cock is freed from his pants turns into a surprised moan as her fingers slide expertly over the shape of him even through his underwear. She knows what she's doing, he thinks, and the thought is getting him even more worked up even as he wonders whether it really should.

Jan guides his hands back to his own waist. "Pants off, soldier," she says, and her voice is the best kind of tease. "I'll make it worth your while," she adds, grinning.

As he lifts up enough to slide his pants all the way off, Jan steps back, and Steve watches in dazed awe as she pulls her shirt off over her head to reveal ample breasts barely contained by her lacy bra—show you her tits, the memory of Tony's voice choruses, and he ignores it—and then unbuttons and steps out of her jeans to reveal similarly-lacy, if not matching, panties.

She's beautiful. Steve's heart is pounding in his chest. He can't believe she's really going to let him do this.

Jan looks down at him with another teasing grin. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," she says; Steve left his boxers on. Before he can reply, she reaches behind herself and unhooks her bra and Steve can only stare, dumbfounded, and hope that maybe she'll let him touch her breasts again, because God, that's even better this way. His cock throbs, heavy and impatient.

They both get their underwear off at the same time. Steve's lust is now slightly tempered by confusion—it looks like she's trimmed her hair... down there. Do all women do that? Gail hadn't. Is it a future thing? Was he supposed to do that? She's looking down at him and she doesn't look intimidated at all, not like Gail had, so he guesses he must be okay. He passes muster.

"Nice," she says, and as she reaches out and gives his cock a lazy stroke that makes him go weak in the knees, she steps closer.

She tilts her head up and Steve knows what to do now. He bends his head and kisses her, spins them around, tumbles them both to the bed. Jan is soft and warm underneath him, her arms wrapped around his shoulders, and she's kissing his throat and jaw, a line of urgent little kisses. Okay. He can do this. He's done this part before, after all. He nudges her legs apart and settles his hips between her thighs and—

"Whoa, hey, no!" Jan snaps, sharply, in his ear, loudly enough to hurt.

He pushes himself up and off her immediately, and she's scrambling away, and what did he do wrong? Isn't this what she wanted?

"Jan, what—"

She's got the drawer of the nightstand open, and she tosses him a small foil packet and a squeeze bottle filled with a clear and viscous gel.

"One," Jan says, and her eyes are flashing in anger, "there is no way you are putting your dick in me without a condom and ideally a generous amount of lube. This is non-negotiable."

"Oh," Steve says, looking stupidly at the little packet. A prophylactic. He supposes they don't come in tins anymore. He and Gail, they hadn't even thought to use one. It would have been immoral and, besides, they'd been engaged anyway.

God, it was a lucky thing he hadn't gotten Gail pregnant.

"Okay," Steve mutters, eyes downcast. His face feels like it's on fire. "Okay. Of course. I— I forgot. I'm sorry."

"Two," Jan continues, just as stridently, "I mean, what the hell? Did they not have foreplay in the forties?"

Now his face is definitely burning. Christ, he did something wrong again. He kissed her. He felt her up. She was obviously enjoying herself. She asked him to come to bed, after all. Didn't that mean she was ready? He was ready. Wasn't she ready? What else does she want?

"I—" Steve says, "I thought we— I thought you were already— what do you need me to do?"

Jan sighs, almost despondently, like he's said it wrong, like he's just supposed to know. "Well," she says, like she's taking pity on him, "you could eat me out first. I'd really like that." She gives him an encouraging smile.

What is that? Is he supposed to know what that is? Obviously. God, he's doing it all wrong already.

Steve blinks. "I could what?"

"Eat me out," Jan repeats, confused, as if saying it slower is going to help.

He has to admit it now, he guesses. "I don't know what that means. I'm sorry."

"Oh," Jan says, softly. "Okay. Uh." She motions downward at herself. "I could sit on your face, or you could just move over and get your head between my legs, but either way you just... lick me. Get me off with your mouth. Get me all nice and wet." She smiles. "You, uh. You know what I'm talking about, right?"

God. Of course he's heard of it, just not by that name. He was in the goddamn Army. He's heard of basically everything one human being can do with another. But that's different from actually doing it, from her asking him to put his mouth there. It feels dirty, just the thought of it, and he shudders with sick-wrong lust, a tangle of guilt and desire, because half of him wants to but it isn't right, and anyway what the hell does he know about how to do it? He can't just lick her.

"With my mouth?" Steve says, incredulously, before he can think better of it, and apparently he really should have thought better of it.

Jan looks at him in bleak anger, her mouth gone tight, like he's an utterly irredeemable disappointment, and he can feel something within him crumble.

"For fuck's sake," she says to herself, under her breath, "I thought you'd be better than—" She breaks off and raises her voice. Her smile now is forced. "I wouldn't just— I'd blow you too, you know. Make it even."

And that just makes it worse, because all Steve can think of now is what Tony had offered, how Tony had offered the same thing, and Jesus fucking Christ, does everyone in the future just want to suck people off? Jan's a nice girl, a decent girl, and she shouldn't go around offering something that in Steve's day his fellow soldiers would have had to pay a working girl for. Doesn't anyone have any morals nowadays?

Maybe you want to be the one on your knees, Tony's voice whispers in his head, and for one awful moment everything whites out in terror. It's not true. It isn't.

"I— no," Steve says, and he hopes Jan doesn't think he sounds panicked. "I— I can't. That won't be possible." He hopes he sounds steady. Commanding.

Jan looks at him now with something akin to total disbelief, like she didn't think he'd ever turn that down. He watches her breathe in, breathe out, steady herself. "Okay," she says. "Well. I guess you really are from a different time, huh?" And then she glances down all along his body and back up and gives him a smile. "I think we can still make this work out. Kiss me a little more first, why don't you?"

Relieved, Steve slides closer to her. He can definitely do that.

The kisses are messier now, open-mouthed, and she doesn't seem to mind when he uses his tongue there, sliding it into her mouth a little heavier and harder in his excitement. He cups her breast with his hand and she moans, throwing one of her legs over both of his, and she's hot and wet, rocking against him, leaving slickness in her wake. His cock is trapped between their bodies, throbbing, and it's so good he almost can't take it—

And then Jan's pushing him... onto his back?

"Okay," Jan says, breathlessly. "Okay. Let's do this. Nice and easy."

She rips open the packet and rolls the condom onto him, then squirts the—lube, she'd called it—into her hand and quickly coats him with it in an efficient up-and-down stroke. Oh, that's nice. Like Vaseline or lotion. It feels a little strange with the condom, the sensation a little dulled. But maybe that's good. Maybe that means he won't come immediately.

And then she gets her leg over him and just... eases down on him, and oh, God, he knows he's not going to last. He can see his cock sliding into her. He can't look away.

She's breathing out, slow and shallow. "Wow, you're big," Jan says, and her face is twisted up and Steve's not sure whether that's a good thing, being big. "Okay. I've got this."

It's taking every bit of self-control Steve has to hold still because she feels amazing. He gasps, lightheaded, and he's shaking, but he doesn't thrust up as she lowers herself until finally she's all the way down.

Her chest rises and falls—God, Steve can't stop staring at her breasts—as she takes a few steadying breaths, and then she shifts her weight on him and Steve thrusts up and groans before he can stop himself from making a sound because, oh, she feels so good around him.

And Jan moans right back. "Okay, there we go," Jan says, her voice lazy with pleasure. "That's the spot. Good angle. You keep hitting that, and I think maybe this is going to work for us."

What spot? Are some angles better than others? He can't possibly ask that. So he nods, and he grabs her hips, and they start to move together.

For once, he's doing this right, he thinks, joyously. With every thrust he makes, Jan rolls up and down to meet him, and she's moaning like she's— like she's really enjoying herself. She's hot and tight inside and she's clenching down around him and it's absolutely wonderful.

Tony's wrong about him, he thinks triumphantly. He's not a queer. He loves women. He loves this. And, see, he knows what to do after all.

"Oh," Jan breathes, entranced. "Just like that. Come on. Don't stop."

Her cries with every thrust are higher-pitched, and Steve is just barely holding on, only tenuously in control of himself. Her perfect breasts bounce as she moves atop him, and he can watch his cock sliding in and out and in, and she tightens around him, and God, he can see himself fucking her, just like Tony with Natasha and oh fuck

He grabs her hips and pulls her down helplessly and he's coming and coming and he knows it's too soon but he can't stop himself—

He falls back, panting.

Jan stops moving and stares down at him, eyes narrowed. "Really?" she asks, and her voice is practically disgusted. "Really? Already?"

How was he supposed to last longer when it felt so good?

"I'm sorry," he breathes, helplessly. "I'm sorry. I couldn't—"

"Yeah," she says, acid in her voice. "I get that."

She climbs off him, gets rid of the condom for him, and then sprawls next to him. Steve's waiting for her to tell him to leave. Surely they're done. He's done. She can't want anything else, can she? Maybe she wants to cuddle? He'd be happy to hold her.

He reaches out, hesitantly, but she's rolling over and grabbing some kind of device from the drawer of the nightstand.

"I can take care of myself," Jan mutters, as she rolls back the other way to lie on her back next to him. "Guess I should have done that to begin with."

The device in Jan's hand is a little silvery cylinder, maybe a couple inches long, about the size of a bullet, with a button on one end. When she pushes the button, the thing buzzes and starts to vibrate.

Steve can only stare as Jan slips the little cylinder between her legs and presses it inward a little—not inside her, he thinks, her hand's not far down enough for that, but it seems to be somewhere specific and he has no idea where—and just holds it there. Her hips hitch up in the air in an insistent rhythm, and she moans. After a minute or two, her free hand comes up to caress her breasts, to pinch at her nipples, and her hips move faster.

Steve doesn't offer to help, and she doesn't ask. He wouldn't know what to do, anyway.

Another minute and she's gasping—and then she cries out, arches up one last time and holds herself there as tremors shudder through her body. Her mouth is open, her head thrown back in ecstasy. She's beautiful. Her skin is flushed, her nipples are elegant peaks as her breasts quiver, and then she sags back to the bed. She's actually, finally smiling.

Then she switches the device off and glances over at Steve. Her brows draw together. He's sure he was staring.

"What?" she asks. "You've never seen a woman have an orgasm before?"

"Uh," Steve says.

She doesn't ever have to say it, but he can read the pity in her eyes. This is how he was supposed to make her feel. This is how he was supposed to make Gail feel. He can't do it.

He's even worse at this than he ever suspected he was. What is he doing wrong? Why can't he do this right? Why can't he make women happy?

Maybe he should just give up entirely. Never sleep with anyone again.

"I—" Steve tries to say. "I— I'm sorry I—

"It's okay," Jan says. "No big deal. Really."

She is very obviously lying.

This was only my second time, he wants to say. I don't know what to do.

Steve thinks maybe this was a mistake.

Steve doesn't bother getting up off the couch when he hears the knock. It can't be Ultimates business; SHIELD's not in the habit of sending messengers when they can use secure phones instead. The only other possibility is Jan. And he... has no idea what to say to her.

He'd stammered out something awkward about how he hoped they could still see each other again. What the hell had he been thinking? They worked together! And she had nodded and smiled and said sure, yeah, I'll call you.

He's not sure if that means she won't. He wasn't expecting her here already. He has no idea what to say. Sorry I'm a lousy lay? Even in the future, that doesn't cut it.

But she wants to see him again. She must, if she's here. That's good, right?

He's got to fix this somehow, he knows. There's no putting this off.

There's another knock at the door. Jan is insistent. That's her for sure.

He sighs and gets to his feet. He tests out a smile. Okay. Okay. He's ready.

He opens the door.

Tony's standing on the other side. He has a bottle of wine under one arm. His gloves today are dark, funereal. His face is absolutely blank for an instant, and then he smiles the saddest smile Steve thinks he's ever seen on him. Another mask? It has to be.

The smile falls from Steve's face. Jesus, if this is another one of Tony's goddamn games—

He's not in the mood.

"I came to apologize," Tony says, wearily. There's no sweetheart, no darling, no performance whatsoever. "But if this is a bad time for you, I can go." His voice is low, gravelly, exhausted. "Or, hey, if you just want me to fuck off, I can do that too. I'm easy." There is no hint of innuendo in his voice. He looks the way he sounds. He's not smiling. He just looks... tired. There are little pained lines framing the corners of his mouth and eyes. Steve's never noticed them before.

Steve wonders if this is what Tony is really like.

Tony came all the way here. Tony's making an effort to patch things up. For God's sake, Tony brought him wine.

He remembers the wine at Tony's dinner; Tony had given him a present then, his old helmet, right after he'd told him he was dying. Steve thinks maybe this is just how Tony is. Maybe he softens people up with gifts. But he's here to apologize. That's got to be worth something. They have to work together, after all.

The least Steve can do is meet him halfway.

Steve steps back. "Come on inside."

He feels an unexpected rush of embarrassment as Tony looks around the place. He's seen where Tony lives, after all. Tony has an airy, bright penthouse in Manhattan, full of objets d'art. Steve's just got a dingy Brooklyn walk-up. He invested in a better lock after the last break-in, but that's about all the place has going for it. The mismatched furniture is from vintage stores and thrift stores, and a few things he had to assemble himself from this big Swedish store Jan took him to once. It's nothing, really, compared to what Tony's billions have bought him.

Still, Tony doesn't say anything as he glances around, as Steve shuts the door behind him. Tony holds out the bottle of wine in his hand with a little nudge. "For you."

"Thanks," Steve says. He's not in the mood to drink it by himself, and he suspects the sharing is part of the apology. "Hang on, let me see if I have a corkscrew."

He discovers that he has some kind of combination corkscrew and bottle opener; what he doesn't have are wine glasses, and Tony looks mildly askance as Steve sets down a couple of chipped coffee mugs. Steve doesn't know how much the wine cost, and he decides that he doesn't want to know.

Tony takes the offered seat at one end of Steve's kitchen table, and his gloved hands encircle the mug of wine, obscuring the WORLD'S #1 GRANDPA logo (Thor had thought he was funny). Tony doesn't take a drink.

Steve sits, and Tony watches him in silence; if he was a predator before he's prey now, perfectly still except for the motion of his eyes.

"I was out of line." Tony's voice is quiet. "I was out of line, and I am deeply sorry for my actions. It won't happen again. You have my word, Captain."

Steve clears his throat. "I started it. It was my fault. I should have been able to handle the consequences."

Looking at Tony, watching him open his mouth and close it again, Steve can see the precise moment when Tony opts not to say you definitely started it.

"I owe you an apology," Steve says, and the words jumble uncomfortably in his mouth. "I'm sorry I called you a. Uh."

Maybe he should have thought about how he was going to phrase this.

"Bisexual," Tony interjects. The word is blunt. "Since you asked. Not that you actually asked." He takes a large and uncouth swig of wine; his throat works as he swallows. "That's the polite word. That people will call themselves, and that you can use to describe them. The impolite words would be everything that has ever come out of your mouth in reference to me." He doesn't sound angry. Or even nervous, revealing this fact about himself to Steve. He just sounds tired. He sounds like he's used to hearing everything Steve ever called him, and worse.

"I'm sorry," Steve says, helplessly. "I just— I—"

There's really nothing he can say that will make this better.

He remembers the way Tony's eyes had gleamed. You're afraid of me. He doesn't want to think about whether Tony was right.

"It's done," Tony says, again bluntly, with no hint of his usual charm. "Forgiven. Forgotten. It's over. I'm sure you won't say it again, and I won't... invade your personal space again. I hope we can still work together."

Tony pauses; he's waiting for a reply.

Steve nods. "I'd— I'd like that."

There's a faint smile on Tony's face as he lifts the coffee mug. "To the Ultimates, darling?"

Steve salutes him with his mug. "To the Ultimates."

They drink.

"You're a good teammate," Steve says, because this is the only praise he knows how to give. "It's been good working with you. And thank you for— for saving my life. In Micronesia."

Tony's smile is a little broader then, a little more real. "You're welcome," he says, as he sips wine from his ridiculous mug and glances over, at life through Steve's tiny casement windows.

Steve studies Tony's profile. He's well-groomed, handsome as always, but it's different now. It's interesting, seeing him with so few of his masks. He's still possessed of that same dizzying intensity, that focused intelligence—without the jokes and the pet names it's somehow more intimidating, a razor sharpness. And something about him is undeniably real, without the artifice. He's dying, Steve remembers. He's dying and he doesn't want anyone to see.

He's letting Steve see him.

"I slept with Jan," Steve says. He can't imagine what possessed him to say it, because it's none of Tony's business, but it's too late, he has.

Tony's gaze slides back and settles on him. His expression doesn't change.

"Congratulations on your heterosexuality," Tony says, dryly, and he raises his mug in another toast.

Steve doesn't drink.

Steve kneels down, the motion familiar even after so long an absence. He can barely see the shadow of the priest's face through the screen, and this is familiar too.

It was a good idea to come here, he tells himself. He needs this.

Then the priest starts talking, and as Steve crosses himself he registers that it's in English, not the in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti that he was expecting, and he blinks, dumbfounded with the shock of it. He knows the mass changed; that much was obvious. But he hadn't known this would change too.

Everything reminds him he's living in the future.

He realizes it's his turn. He hopes they haven't changed this part.

Steve clears his throat. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he says, and then he actually has to pause to count. "It's been fifty-seven years since my last confession."

He can see a blur of motion, a convulsive jerk of surprise that relaxes, as the man on the other side presumably figures out exactly what kind of man who looks—and definitely sounds—like he's just turned twenty-four can truthfully say that.

Yeah, this isn't going to be anonymous.

"These are my sins," Steve says, and the priest doesn't stop him, so this must still be how it's done. He swallows hard. "I, uh. I've been struggling with homosexual feelings. For a friend of mine." It's Tony. The priest knows who he is. He has to know Steve means Tony. Who else would he mean? "I— I've felt lust for him, Father."

The priest is silent, waiting.

He thought he'd feel better, but right now he just feels more terrified. He's said it, aloud, he's made it into a thing that exists, and all he can think of is Tony's hand on his chest, Tony grinning at him, Tony offering— and he would have, he could have done it, some part of him wanted to do it

And then he ran out and slept with Jan. Well, that one's definitely a sin.

"And I committed an act of fornication."

The priest clears his throat. "With this friend of yours? Or another man?"

Even— even his confessor thinks he's gay—

Steve shakes his head violently. "No, Father. With a woman."

There's a pause. "And how often did you feel lust for your friend?"

"Once," Steve says. It can't be right, once. It feels like it should have been more. Maybe it was more, but he didn't notice. It seems ridiculous to say that he didn't notice, but it feels like he didn't, like he tried not to. "But it was— it was a lot of feeling, Father. He asked if I wanted to— with him— and I— and I wanted to, I really wanted to, and I—" He takes a shaking breath. "I was so afraid. But at the same time I wanted to do it. I nearly did."

More silence.

Steve thinks that for fifty-seven years he's probably had more sins than that, but right now his mind's blank. "And I, uh, I took the Lord's name in vain. Probably a lot." Is he done? He thinks he's done. "For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God, penance, and absolution from you, Father," he says in a rush, and he hopes they still say it like that.

"That sounds like it was hard to say," the priest says.

Steve nods fervently before he remembers that the screen's there. "It was, Father."

The priest pauses. "There's a difference between action and attraction," he says, finally. "The fornication that you committed, that was an action. But the homosexual feelings you felt for your friend, you didn't act on them."

Steve swallows. "No, Father."

"But the attraction you felt distresses you more than the action you committed."

"I knew I could... feel lust for a woman," Steve says, and he realizes he didn't confess that. He supposes it's implied. "I didn't think I was the kind of man who could feel those feelings for another man. The world these days is... different from the one I grew up in. I'm not used to people saying these things so openly. It's hard to know what to do, when it's— when it's right there. An offer." He shuts his eyes. He feels like he wants to cry from the shame of it. He should have been better. Tony shouldn't have been able to get to him. "I didn't know I could want to take him up on it. I thought I was... immune."

He'd turned men down in the past. There have been offers before. He doesn't want to think about why it's different when it's Tony.

There's another pause. "In the news they talk about superhumans," the priest says, and oh, yes, he definitely knows who Steve is. "But even if you're a man who has been given greater physical strength than other men, you're still human." There's a quiet breath. "Captain."

Oh, he knows.

"And being human means that you struggle with temptation, as do the rest of us. Lust is a sin, yes, but people sin. Temptation is there to test us. The important thing is to resist the temptation. And even if you succumb to temptation, that in and of itself is an invitation to open yourself to grace. God is merciful, and you are still a beloved child of God."

And that, right there, that takes Steve's breath away, to hear it like that. He can still be a good person, if he tries. Maybe he's going to keep having these thoughts about Tony every so often. But that doesn't— it doesn't make him gay, does it? He's normal; isn't that what the priest is saying? He can be normal. He just needs to not give in.

And Tony said he wasn't going to ask again. It's never going to come up again, that offer.

So it'll be easier. And he can still be good. A good person. A good man. That's what he wants.

The priest reminds him that the door is always open. After half a century away, Steve supposes he should come back regularly. The priest assigns him penance, prayers and reflection, and after Steve says an Act of Contrition—they haven't changed that, at least—he absolves him. In English.

The words are unfamiliar, but that's not the important part. His sins are forgiven.

"Thank you, Father," he says.

He's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay.

It gets better after that.

Steve settles into a working relationship with Tony that is, if not friendly, at least comfortable. Tony doesn't quit it with the pet names, but then, he uses them for everyone, so Steve tries not to take it personally. Tony doesn't get close, and that's how Steve likes it.

Amazingly, he hasn't entirely torpedoed his chances with Jan. While she hasn't invited him to her bed again, she's been willing to date him. They're stepping back, taking it slow, and honestly, Steve likes it that way. He can handle kissing as the maximum allowed activity. There are fewer ways to disappoint her with kissing. He's worried he's stuck in the past, too old for her—and sometimes she seems sad, or frustrated, but she's still here. He's not entirely hopeless.

The rest of the Ultimates are coming together well; they haven't had a major battle since the Chitauri, but they are all a credit to the team in training. Thor's a great guy and a terrifying ally. Clint and Natasha are no-nonsense, all-business—and Tony is still head over heels for Natasha, even if Steve doesn't see why. And when Pietro and Wanda bother to show up, they're pretty good.

Not every day is a success. Some days Steve wakes up and misses 1945 with a heartsick ache that will never go away. Some days he can call Bucky and Gail, talk to them, and try to shake it. Some days talking to them makes it worse, because all he can think of is that they had the life he didn't have. The soulbond he didn't have. He wonders if they pity him inside their minds, for not being as lucky as they are. But those days are farther and farther apart. Some days he wakes up, and he's glad for the Internet, for all the food he never would have tried a half-century ago, for his new favorite soap operas. He gets up every Sunday and goes to church, and even if it's in English now, that's... okay. It's a new world.

Steve thinks he's getting used to the future, all in all.

Chapter Text

It's a perfectly routine training exercise.

SHIELD's got them set up in an old Air Force base, and they've already run ground drills, hand-to-hand, and target shooting for everyone with ranged weapons. The fliers are up now, taking out dummy targets dropped from the SHIELD jets simulating attack passes above them. Thor had a clean run, hundred percent, lightning strikes delicately picking off every individual target. And now it's Tony's turn.

Whatever else you can say about him, Tony is astonishingly good in the air. He's a blur of red, gold, and silver, swooping back and forth in graceful arcs, repulsor rays lashing out with exactly the right amount of energy. Nothing wasted. Steve's already planning to compliment him—and everyone else—as soon as Tony lands. It's good leadership to make sure the team knows he thinks well of them.

And then one of the dummy rounds catches Tony in the face.

Tony flips backwards in midair, the elegant arc of his flight arrested.

He's holding out his arms, flailing. The repulsors are working haphazardly, flipping on and off like Tony can't tell what he's doing. He's dropping, catching himself, and dropping again, repulsors flashing like emergency beacons. His head is thrown back. He looks like he's having some kind of seizure.

"Tony!" Steve yells, and he sprints across the tarmac to where Tony's going to land.

He scans through the Ultimates comms. Tony's channel is made up entirely of coughing, gagging, and a hideous breathless wheeze. What the hell went wrong? He got hit, sure, but he's had worse before. Is it the cancer?

Clint overrides the comms; he's the one monitoring Tony's suit telemetry via the SHIELD hookups. "Cap, he's choking on that damn inertial gel. He can't breathe. You gotta get his airway clear."

"Can do," Steve relays.

Tony hits the ground, bounces up—Steve winces—and arcs out along the tarmac in a long streak of hot metal and ionization before coming to a halt on his back. Over the comms, there's only a weak, desperate wheezing.

As Steve gets closer, he can see that the hit was harder than he thought—the faceplate and helmet are deformed, bent in, but not actually shattered, and Steve suspects that whatever system distributes the inertial gel was ruptured internally, but not in such a way as to let most of it out. Some of it is dripping, though. It's oozing, slippery and greenish, from under Tony's chin.

Steve crouches at Tony's side. "Hold on. I've got you, Tony. Just hold on."

He's seen Tony take the helmet off. There are catches somewhere here. There must be. He finds depressions in the metal, tries to hook his fingers in, and his uniform gloves, soaked with the gel, slip ineffectively.

Steve swears, yanks off his gloves, and reaches out again.

His fingers slot into the catches. At least he has a better grip this time. The suit creaks but doesn't give way. Tony's several-billion-dollar suit of armor is very sturdy. Tony's groused about the repair cost before.

It'll do him no good if he's not alive to pilot it.

Steve pulls hard, and the metal groans and snaps, finally yielding. Tony's staring up at him, panicked and wide-eyed, covered in green slime and gasping for breath, and Steve frantically throws the helmet down and reaches out to wipe the gel away.

His bare hand touches Tony's face—

It's like being struck by lightning.

It's the most excruciating pain Steve has ever experienced. Worse than Rebirth. Worse than anything. His vision whites out, and blinding agony splits his skull open, roars down his spine, crackles along all of his nerves. He wants to scream but he can't open his mouth.

As quickly as it came, the pain recedes, leaving only the throbbing headache, which begins to dissipate, albeit at a slower rate.

Below him Tony is choking, and Steve grabs Tony with shaking, weakened hands, hauling him upright, whereupon Tony takes a gasping, grateful breath and coughs up gel all over his shoulder.

Maybe Steve had some kind of reaction to the gel. He doesn't think he's ever touched it before.

That's when he becomes aware that there's something in his head that isn't him. It's like someone else is looking over his shoulder. They feel... weary. Exhausted. Steve can feel their pain in his own body, bruises along his ribs, an ache in his jaw, and a hideous doubling of his own headache. There's another feeling with it too, a sense of grim determination, an idea that his other self expects this and more and is just going to soldier on.

What the fuck was that? The voice in his head is precise, articulate, confused, somehow familiar... and definitely not him. Oh, fuck me. Head doesn't usually hurt this much. Not often, anyway. Guess I should be expecting it as the tumor grows.

There's something very familiar about the voice, about the feel of the mind occupying the same space as Steve: sharp and clever. Keen in all sense of the word. Used to pain. Used to not showing it.

Oh, God. Oh God oh God he touched Tony's bare skin and it can't be. It's a one-in-a-million chance. Rarer, probably. Better odds of being struck by real lightning. It can't be, but what if it is?

What the hell are they going to do?

This can't be happening.

He's still holding onto Tony by the shoulders of the armor and he shifts Tony back to look him in the eye. Tony's pupils are tiny, pained pinpricks; his eyes are wide, and his face is flushed from coughing, all the capillaries broken. He's a mess.

Tony? Steve shapes the thought, very carefully, and pushes it forward. Can you hear me?

Tony gives him a jerky nod. Steve? Tony asks inside his head, and it's the same voice that was just marveling at the pain, small and somehow disbelieving, and his mouth doesn't move when he says Steve's name. Is that you?

Oh, God. No.

It's a soulbond.

Tony's sitting facing him on the flight back to the Triskelion. His scratched and scraped armor glints around him. The inside of Tony's head is a terrible, sad place, like he's sunk down into a swamp, although you can't tell that from looking at his face. He's smirking. Like he thinks this is fucking funny.

The rest of the Ultimates are silent as the jet flies on. No one else seems to know what to say to them. Steve doesn't blame them.

Steve is only barely keeping a lid on the panic, on the thought I'm not a queer I'm not I'm not that's running back and forth. He hopes Tony hasn't noticed. Tony has probably noticed.

He used to dream about having a soulmate.

He never, ever wanted this.

It's because I have a dick, isn't it, darling? Tony's mouth curves in a mocking, bitter smile. It's the first thing Tony has said to him—or, really, thought at him—since this happened. It's all right. You can be honest.

Tony had said they would never talk about this again.

Steve supposes all bets are off now.

Tony knows what he's been thinking. Tony knows he doesn't want this. Tony knows everything he's been thinking, and the terror wells up in Steve again and he snaps back, harsh and unkind.

It's because you are a dick, Stark.

Okay, so it's not the nicest thing he's ever said to anyone, and it sure as hell isn't what he'd ever imagined saying to his soulmate, but it feels sometimes like Tony brings out everything rotten in him. Like the opposite of a soulmate.

He feels the impact of his own words hitting Tony, the sharp pain of them, like a bullet through flesh—and then, in a split second, it's gone. Pushed down. Like Tony can't be hurt. Iron Man, indeed.

It's a great dick, Tony says, meditatively, almost cheerfully, like he hasn't even heard. Like it all just bounces off him. Many, many people have said lovely things about my dick, you know. I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

He remembers walking in on Tony, watching Tony— oh, God, Tony knows he's thinking about this—

Tony knows every flaw and failing Steve has ever had.

For God's sake, he's never even heard of men having other men as soulmates. He supposes it would be rare. The queer ones.

"I'm not a queer," Steve blurts out, loudly enough that Thor turns around and gives him a dirty look.

Sorry, darling, Tony drawls, inside Steve's head. But it looks like the universe disagrees with you.

The bored SHIELD doctor sitting across from Steve in the exam room is halfway through the pack of cards, each one held up in front of Steve in turn.

Jack of hearts, he hears Tony confirm, in his mind, and presumably aloud in whatever room they have him in. Two of clubs. Nine of diamonds. This is mind-numbingly dull. Queen of spades. Three of diamonds.

There are apparently special cards that the esper division has for testing telepathy, but they hadn't been able to dig up the deck that lives in their office, so it's regular playing cards for Steve, with Tony identifying each one as Steve relays it to him.

This is the last of the testing, what the doctors dismissively referred to as "antique" telepathy tests; they've had him and Tony in various scanners for hours, measuring their brainwaves, measuring their heart rates, measuring everything that can possibly be measured. Steve has heard them whispering about the synchronicity characteristic of a soulbond.

It's real. Not that Steve needed any doctors to tell him that.

Steve has no doubt they're at a hundred percent accuracy. The SHIELD doctor's face doesn't change as they finish the deck, and he turns and keys something in on his laptop, presumably checking with Tony's examiner.

"Think of a number," the doctor says. "Mr. Stark is also thinking of a number. Tell me what yours is. And then ask him what his is."

They want me to think of a number, Tony informs him. And then tell you what it is. And same for you.

Steve is sure he's scowling. One.

"One," he tells the doctor, who nods and types something on his laptop.

The loneliest number, Tony says, and there's a tune in Steve's head from a song he doesn't know. Tragic.

Steve wants these goddamn tests to be over already. What's yours?

If there's a way to smirk with just your brain, Steve's positive Tony's got it figured out. You honestly can't guess? There's a wave of delighted, self-congratulatory amusement, like he's getting away with something—although Steve has no idea what it is.

Steve sighs. No. Come on.

The cackle of laughter in his mind could only belong to Tony. Soixante-neuf, darling. There's a flash of an image, a memory, the sensation of being tangled up in satin sheets, a mouth on his cock and another man's cock in his mouth, and God, he's never done that, he's never wanted to do that, he's never even thought of doing that, and Tony has done everything, and what if that's what Tony wants—

"That's obscene," Steve says, aloud, in utter disgust. "I'm not saying that. You should be ashamed of yourself."

The SHIELD doctor finally cracks a smile. Great.

Why? Tony asks, a simple and almost earnest question. Like it would never have occurred to him to feel ashamed about anything.

Steve doesn't have an answer beyond it's not right, which makes Tony make a quiet little hmphing sound in the back of Steve's brain.

"We're bringing Mr. Stark over here now," the doctor tells him. He sets Steve's chart down, pushes the laptop aside, and walks around behind him on the exam table, presumably to get another piece of equipment.

The scalpel slices into Steve's arm, and Steve whips around, bright pain rippling through him, and he has his hand around the guy's wrist, forcing him back, disarming him.

Steve! Tony says in his mind. Are you okay? What the hell was that?

He can feel Tony's hand clapped over his unwounded arm as he aches with Steve's pain; Tony's stumbling, leaning against the wall in the hallway.

"It was a test," the doctor gasps, white-faced, agonized; Steve's about five seconds away from breaking his wrist. "Captain, please, it's a test of pain transfer. It needed to be a surprise. If you let me go I'll show it to you on the schedule on my computer."

Steve nods curtly and releases him; the doctor jumps back, and he turns his laptop around—with his other hand—so Steve can read the words on the screen. It's exactly what he said.

It's okay, he tells Tony. Apparently it was a test. Don't worry; I heal fast. It shouldn't bother you soon.

Down the bond comes a feeling of assent. Acknowledgment.

The door opens, and there's another SHIELD doctor, Nick Fury himself... and Tony.

It's the first time Steve's seen Tony since they landed at the Triskelion and Tony hurried off to get out of the suit; Steve hadn't even seen him when they started the tests, as being sequestered was part of the procedure. Tony's hair is still damp from the showers. He's wearing nice slacks and a button-down shirt. He leans against the wall opposite Steve.

His hands are finally bare. Scars cover his fingers in a fine tracery of lines. He might be a billionaire, but he's also an engineer. Steve has never seen Tony's hands before, not in person. His fingers are strong and delicate at the same time. He looks like, if he touched Steve, he'd be gentle.

Steve supposes Tony doesn't need to bother with gloves anymore. He's already touched his soulmate.

Tony meets Steve's eyes. He doesn't say anything.

"It's a confirmed soulbond," the other doctor tells Fury. "The neurological results are both characteristic and distinctive. The two of them relayed every piece of information correctly at distance, with no possibility of subterfuge. They are telepathically linked, locked together. They confirm telepathic and empathic awareness of each other. And the pain transfer, you will note, is quite strong."

There's a brief flicker of an image passing through Tony's mind: Fury watching him stagger in the hallway at the moment Steve was stabbed.

Steve scowls and rubs at his arm. "I could have told you that."

He doesn't tell them that Tony's head is still hurting, even now that his own headache from the initial bond has faded.

The doctor nods. "It's an unusually robust soulbond." He turns to Steve. "Of all the documented pairs currently living, Captain, you two are perhaps the strongest."

"I always wanted to be special," Tony says, with a smile that doesn't match the inside of his head, which has gone slow and sad and strange again in a way that Steve doesn't quite understand. "My mother would have been so proud."

Steve realizes Tony has never talked about his parents.

There's an image in his mind, a smiling woman. Instinctively, Steve reaches out—

No, Tony snarls, and there's a wave of anger, a vicious stab. It's maybe the first actual feeling that Steve has ever seen Tony have. Not yours.

Tony doesn't exactly get to choose that anymore. Neither of them do. There's no such thing as privacy now.

Fury glances at both of the doctors, and then both of them. "Is this pain transfer thing going to be a problem for the Ultimates? We can't have both of you rendered useless in a fight if one of you is wounded."

"No, sir," Steve says.

At the same time, Tony gives a tight nod. "I can handle pain."

"This isn't the time for macho posturing, gentlemen." There's a sharpness in Fury's voice that reminds Steve that Fury is, in fact, a general. "I need to know if you're going to be capable of pulling your weight on the team. I need the actual truth, not just what you wish the truth were."

Fury can't take the Ultimates away from him. He'll have nothing left. Just the miserable, gaudy, hollow future, and Tony in his head mocking him for all eternity.

"Sir, you've read my file," Steve says. "You know what I've gone through. What we've both gone through." He hears himself say we. They're a unit now, him-and-Tony, inseparable, and he hates that he has to say it.

Till death do us part, Tony drawls. Is nothing sacred with this man?

Shut up, Steve thinks back.

"My point," Steve continues, "is that we can obviously tolerate pain. It's been proved."

Fury's one-eyed gaze falls on Tony, and Steve knows Fury is thinking about the way he saw Tony react to Steve's pain. Even if it was a test they both passed, maybe it was a test that Tony also somehow failed.

"I expect to react differently in combat," Tony says, coolly. "For one thing, now that I know this is a possibility, I'll be able to be prepared for the captain's pain. For another thing, adrenaline and other combat-related endorphins are going to affect my ability to tolerate pain. I might not even notice." He smiles a grim smile. "The suit's also able to switch to autopilot in the event of injury; it shouldn't be too much work for the neural monitors to register telepathically-transmitted injury." Tony raises an eyebrow. "Besides, who else do you want to put in the suit? Who else is going to give you billions to run a superhero team? I've got this."

Fury still looks suspicious. "I have to say I'm not thrilled, but I'm even less thrilled about losing two more team members so soon." He sighs. "We'll try it out." He glances at Steve again. "Captain, we're going to want to announce this publicly as soon as possible. We have a PR team working on your speech, and there's going to be a press conference—"

He can't. Oh, God. He can't do this. He pictures flashbulbs going off, reporters shouting at him, everyone wanting to know everything about his life, about his feelings, as if it isn't bad enough to have Tony in his head. He's going to have to smile at Tony. For the sake of the team, he's going to have to pretend that he's happy that Tony knows everything he's ever thought, that Tony's running his fingers through Steve's memories, taking and taking and taking, that the universe decided he was a queer without even asking him—

Oh, God, he's going to have to touch Tony.

What if Tony wants—

Hey, Tony says, and his mental voice is so soft that Steve nearly doesn't recognize it, because it's so much sweeter than anything that has ever come out of Tony's mouth, and Steve hates all of it. It's okay. It's going to be all right. Don't freak out.

Is Tony condescending to him now? Does he think anything he says is going to make it better? Jesus.

"I'm not freaking out," Steve snaps. "Mind your fucking business!"

Everyone's staring at him, and that's when Steve realizes he said it aloud, and that it wasn't in response to the last thing anyone else actually said.

"Just a suggestion," Tony offers, "but maybe we could move the press conference a little later, Nick? I think that, currently, the first person who asks if this means that Captain America is gay now is probably going to get themselves punched."

Steve grits his teeth.

Fury regards Steve for a miserable few seconds. "Fair enough." He gives Steve another once-over. "I'll expect a full report as soon as possible, Captain."

"Yes, sir."

Fury leaves. The doctors leave. It's just him and Tony.

Tony pushes himself up, away from the wall. "I'm going to get very drunk now," he says, as if he's saying it to no one in particular, as if there's anyone else here he could be talking to. "I'm going to get as drunk as the fucking universe must have been when it decided this was a good idea."

Don't wait up, Tony adds. There's a hollow smile on his face.

Tony pushes the door open and he's gone.

Except he's not really gone, is he? Steve can sense Tony's thoughts, his feelings, a swirling dark miasma of despair, as Tony walks away.

He's never going to be alone again.

Steve used to think that would be romantic.

Tony is drunk.

Steve can sense it in the slurred, slow wobble of Tony's thoughts, in the distant blurriness of his mind. It's easier to tune him out this way. He's not thinking so specifically, the way he usually does—strange that after eight hours Steve already knows what's usual for him—with his sharp, pointed ideas. He meanders, he wanders.

The only feeling Steve is getting from Tony is a dull, aching sadness.

Tony's not paying any attention to him.

Steve sits in the nighttime dimness of his apartment, in something like the privacy of his own mind, lights out, staring through the windows at slumbering Brooklyn beyond. Lights wink off in the apartment across the street. Other people are living their own lives.

Since the serum, Steve hasn't been able to get drunk. He's never found he's missed it. He had never wanted to be too much like his father, and at any rate he'd been such a lightweight before the serum that the dividing line between pleasantly buzzed and absolutely plastered had been about one drink. He'd never been a credit to the Irish.

Steve's seen Tony with a drink in his hand more times than he can count—for God's sake, the man pilots the armor drunk!—but he's never actually seen him noticeably impaired by it. Tony can hold his liquor. That's for sure.

Tonight, Tony's drinking to get drunk. Straight vodka on an empty stomach. He's well on the way to absolutely plastered himself. And he's still going. Through Tony's blurred vision, Steve sees him pour himself another shot and knock it back; Steve feels an echo of the burn. Being drunk by proxy is one of the strangest sensations he's ever experienced.

He remembers how his younger self had dreamed of having a soulbond, and he wishes he could go back and shake himself. He'd thought it would be a blessing. He'd thought it would be a gift from God. He'd thought his soulmate would be the perfect person for him, the other half of his soul, a woman who'd be kind and gentle and everything he ever wanted. Someone he'd never want to be parted from.

What a fucking joke.

This isn't a gift. This is a curse.

His soulmate is none of those things. His soulmate is loud, crude, rude, abrasive. His soulmate is a lush. His soulmate flirts with anything that moves. His soulmate is a man. His soulmate is a goddamn fairy.

So what does that make Steve, huh?

He balls his hands into fists. He gets up and paces the empty apartment.

He doesn't want Tony. He doesn't. He can't possibly.

He remembers Tony's hand gliding down his chest, Tony smiling at him dark and knowing, asking what if this is the kind of man you really are. Terror churns in Steve's gut.

Tony's going to want him. Maybe Tony already does. He imagines Tony admiring him in his mind, drawling crude compliments, like he does with all the pretty girls. The thought makes him shudder.

He imagines Tony taking him to bed. Tony's his soulmate. That's what happens. That's what they do. So they'll have to, won't they? He imagines Tony laughing at him, mocking him for his inexperience, for his ignorance, for his shame and terror. I can't believe Captain America's so clueless, Tony would say. I thought you were supposed to be a real man, darling.

Another flash of memory: Tony sneering you don't know anything about anything.

Tony would know. Tony would know everything, the truth, all of it. He's inadequate. Tony would laugh and laugh and laugh as Steve trembles and fumbles. He can picture the scorn in Tony's eyes.

Tony would give up on him then. Tony wouldn't expect him to know what to do. Tony would just do whatever he wanted. Tony would just—oh God—use him.

What if Tony wants him on his knees? What if Tony wants to hold him down? What if Tony wants to spread him open and take him, just like that? What if there were nothing he could do to stop him?

Steve wants to be sick. He's sweating. But there's an odd, tingling warmth within him, too. If Tony made him, it wouldn't be him wanting it, and there's a strange freedom in that.

He realizes he's half-hard.

He can't really want this. It's been a traumatic day. That's all. It doesn't mean anything. It can't.

He breathes in, breathes out, and pushes everything away. No feelings. Nothing. He's not going to think about this.

In the back of his mind, Tony starts to take an interest, crowding closer, and that's the last thing Steve needs. He doesn't want any of Tony's attention. At all.

Steve? Tony asks, bewildered, like he's coming awake, like he's only just noticed. He's very drunk. You all right?

Fine, Steve says, curtly. You just keep right on destroying your liver.

Aye-aye, Cap. Tony has his head in his hands. He's staring down at the empty shot glass on the table, at the half-empty vodka bottle. He's all alone in his fancy penthouse. He has so much, Steve thinks, and none of it means anything.

Abruptly, Steve... feels sorry for him. Tony doesn't want this either. It's not Tony's fault. Neither of them did this. But it happened, and they have to live with it.

Hey, Tony?

Yeah? Tony says, but it's more of an incurious mental grunt than any actual words.

Maybe that's enough for the night, Steve tells him.

Tony's mood, so often mercurial, colors in anger, a thin edge underlying the dark bleakness. Steve's never seen Tony be a mean drunk. He supposes there's a first time for everything. What the fuck does it matter to you?

He can't possibly tell him he cares.

I have to live with your goddamn hangover, Steve sends back. At least have an aspirin and a glass of water before you sleep. Do us both a favor.

Fuck off, Tony slurs, and his mind batters Steve's, like he's trying to push him back. Don't tell me what to do. Go away.

There's nowhere he can go. There's nowhere either of them can go.

I can't, Steve says, helplessly, and he starts laughing. I can't leave.

He laughs until he starts crying, and then there he is, crying, sitting in the dark, sobbing huge messy sobs. At some point he's vaguely aware, down the bond, of Tony's face pressed against an elegant glass table, Tony passing out. Steve keeps crying. He's hiccuping. He can't breathe. At least Tony, insensate, will never know. Tony was too drunk. He won't remember this.

For a few blessed hours, he is once again alone.

As he knocks on Jan's door, Steve wonders if maybe this time he should have brought flowers again. He's not sure they make sorry-I-have-a-soulmate flowers.

The look in her eyes, when she opens the door, is already pained—a quiet, faraway sort of sadness.

"Well," she says, "I suppose you'd better come in."

Jan knew yesterday, when it happened, of course. All the Ultimates did. They'd been there on the training course, and they'd run over to where Steve was still holding Tony in his arms, where Tony was still coughing up the gel from his suit. Clint had asked him if he was okay, and Tony had just said we're soulmates.

No one said anything after that other than what was strictly necessary to get them back to the Triskelion.

He wonders what Jan thinks of him. He wonders if she'll miss him. If she's upset at the injustice of the universe. He wonders if she knows how much he doesn't want this either.

"Can I get you anything?" she asks, as she shuts the door behind him.

Can you make yesterday not have happened? he wants to ask.

In the back of his mind, there's a little blip of regret from Tony, a wave like a pure tone, settling down into that slow sadness that seems to be Tony's resting mind, Tony trying to ignore him. Tony heard him. So what if he did? It's not like Tony wanted this either.

Tony's been in meetings all morning. Steve has mostly tried to ignore him, the way Tony's been trying to ignore him. At least Tony's awful pounding hangover went away fast.

If Tony remembers Steve crying, he hasn't said. If Tony remembers anything they said to each other last night, he hasn't said.

"No, I'm fine," he says. He hunches his shoulders, glancing around, awkward in his body in a way he's hardly felt since Rebirth. "I mean. I'm not fine, but there's not anything—"

She sighs. "I know." She motions to the couch. "Have a seat."

Steve sits at one end of the couch. Jan sits at the other end of it, as far away as possible. The last time he was sitting here, she was in his lap taking her shirt off.

This is it, then. This is the end of the two of them.

It's not fair.

Jan says nothing.

Steve opens his mouth. "We could—"

He doesn't even quite know what he's going to say; it's a half-formed idea. But Jan must see it on his face, because she shakes her head and holds up her hands, warding him off.

"No," Jan says. Her voice is firm. Final.

"Jan," Steve begins, and his voice is shaking. "Look, Jan, I like you. I like you a lot. It doesn't have to be over—"

She's shaking her head. "I like you too." Her hands are twisted together in her lap. She's not looking at him. "It— it was fun. We had some good times. But I am definitely not continuing in any kind of romantic relationship with you when I know that Tony Stark is in your head watching everything you do. Absolute dealbreaker." She breathes out hard. "I'm sorry."

Steve shuts his eyes in misery. "How the hell do you think I feel?"

She leans over and lays a hand on his arm in some kind of reassurance. It doesn't help. He hears her sigh.

"It's not fair," he repeats. It's the only thing he can think of to say. He was finally carving out a life for himself in the future, and here it is, all ruined again.

He never gets to have anything he wants.

Jan sighs again, and he opens his eyes to see her looking at him, her gaze solemn. "You know it wasn't ever going to work between us, long-term, right?" she asks. "You do know that, don't you? It was fun, but we're not really... compatible."

The thought occurs to him, suddenly, that she might think he was gay all along. That maybe that was why he couldn't satisfy her. That this was the proof. That this was why she wanted to break up. Fundamental incompatibility. Fear and disgust churn in his gut.

He can't ask that. He doesn't know how to ask that. And, honestly, he's terrified of the answer.

"Steve." She squeezes his arm. "You're not happy. You haven't really been happy with me. Maybe it's the forties thing. I don't know. I know you weren't happy before, either. And you— you have a soulmate." She pronounces the word with the kind of reverence that Steve used to have for it, up until yesterday. "And I know you don't want to hear this, especially from me, but I think... I think maybe Tony could make you happy, if you let him."

Oh, God, she does think he's a—

She doesn't understand anything. "You don't have to live with him in your head." Steve's throat tightens over the word. "He's not— I'm not—" He digs his fingers into his thighs. He wants to punch something. "He doesn't want this either, Jan."

"He likes you more than you think he does," Jan counters, which makes no sense whatsoever, because if anyone knows Tony now, it's Steve.

"I'm pretty sure I know exactly what he thinks about me." Steve taps his temple.

Jan just gives him a look, like he's being ridiculous. And then she leans over and hugs him. Her head nestles against his shoulder; her hair tangles a little and catches on the scales of his uniform. Her body is pressed against his. He can't think about that anymore. "I'm going to miss you," she whispers. "Be good to each other, okay?"

"I'm not going anywhere," he says, and he feels the warm breath of Jan's sad laughter against the side of his neck.

"Yeah," she says, softly. "Yeah, you are."

How are you? Tony asks, coming to life in his mind after a few hours of relative dormancy as Steve is trudging up the stairs to his apartment.

His mental voice is a little slurred again. Maudlin. He's been drinking already. Steve's not really surprised. Tony's feeling nauseous in a way that Steve doesn't really associate with alcohol. Might be one of his cancer drugs. He thinks Tony's probably on some kind of medication. He hasn't asked.

Steve fumbles, drops his keys, and swears under his breath as he picks them up. He doesn't know why he was startled. He should have expected Tony.

How the hell do you think I am? Steve says, and he sighs and lets himself in. I talked to Jan.

The feeling Steve gets from Tony is oddly tender. Sympathetic, almost. Like he wants to be fucking comforting. I'm sorry, Tony says, and it feels like he honestly means it and Steve—

Steve doesn't know what to do with that.

He likes you, Jan had said, and Steve shoves the memory away fast and hard before Tony can see it.

Steve shapes the thought like a bullet: I don't need your pity, Tony.

Tony's quiet, with nothing to say in response, as Steve slams the door, stumbles across the floor, and drops onto the couch, which creaks under his weight.

I broke up with Natasha this morning, Tony says, and there's an aching wistfulness there, pain atop pain. It feels like Tony's always hurting. I really loved her, he adds, quietly. I was going to ask her to marry me. I think she would have said yes.

Steve can't help but think of Gail then, Gail who he could never have had, Gail who was never his for so many reasons.

Yeah, Tony says, in agreement with the thought that Steve didn't even need to articulate. It was like that.

He doesn't think he's ever heard Tony talk about love before. He didn't think Tony was ever serious about anyone or anything.

He supposes Tony's serious about him now.

He hopes Tony decides to keep drinking. He needs a fucking drink.

Tony doesn't say anything else.

Steve's SHIELD comm—the high-priority one—goes off at 0700 the next morning. The first thing he does, while fumbling for the comm, is reach out through the bond. He feels only the quiet unconscious rhythm of Tony's sleeping mind. Tony was drinking again last night.

He waits, but Tony doesn't wake up. Well, that's his problem.

When he gets to the Triskelion, Fury meets him in the briefing room—along with Wanda, Pietro, Clint, and Natasha. No Tony. Steve prods at the bond again. Tony's still asleep.

Natasha regards Steve coolly. Steve hopes there aren't any hard feelings. If it had been up to him, he wants to say, he wouldn't have taken Tony away from her. He'd have been perfectly happy to let her keep him.

I really loved her, Tony had said, and the memory of the pain makes Steve wince.

It's a rotten situation all around.

"Captain," Fury says, with a nod, passing him a folder. "You're here. Good. We can start."

Steve blinks. "We're not waiting for—"

The rest of the team, he means to say, and he means Jan and Thor as well as Tony, but Fury jumps to a not-entirely-unwarranted conclusion. "We're keeping Stark out of this, Captain. This mission is not within his purview."

Steve glances around the table and realizes what the rest of the team has in common: everyone here is on the Ultimates, sure, but they were SHIELD first. More than just SHIELD, they were Fury's black-ops agents. Whatever this is, it's dirty. Important enough that they're willing to take the public-relations hit of putting Captain America on it, but it's still dirty. Tony and Thor aren't SHIELD and Jan isn't black-ops. And Steve— well, Steve has been black-ops. Just not for SHIELD. This is a statement. This is a step on a new road. He has no idea where it's taking him.

It doesn't matter. He's in.

Steve raises an eyebrow. "He's going to find out when he wakes up, you know."

"What," Natasha asks, dryly, "is he sleeping off the hangover?"

Her tone of voice is supremely unkind. He was in love with you and he's heartbroken, Steve wants to tell her. Does she have no sympathy whatsoever?

Sure, he disapproves of Tony's drinking, but, well... it's different when he does it.

He has no idea what Tony saw in her. But Natasha— she was the one Tony wanted.

"Settle down, you two," Fury says. He hits a control on the closest laptop, and the screen behind him begins a presentation, a map Steve doesn't recognize. "Here's the situation—"

Tony wakes up an hour or two later, but he doesn't so much as send a stray thought in Steve's direction until mid-afternoon. Well, mid-afternoon in New York, anyway—it's after nightfall where Steve and the rest of the team are. He's pulling the goggles and breathing mask down over his head and waiting for the drop when Tony finally decides to take an interest. He probably noticed Steve feeling ready for combat.

Is something going on? Tony asks.

Is something ever. Steve snorts and checks the mask's fit, readjusting his earpiece as he does so. Six-hundred-foot drop. Five-mile swim.

Tony sends back a wave of awe mixed with disbelief. Six-hundred-foot— what the hell are you doing? There's a pause, then, and he can feel Tony drawing closer, looking through his eyes. Jesus, where are you?

Al-Haditha, Steve says, because it's not like Tony wasn't going to pick it out of his brain in a second. So much for operational security. At least he and Tony are on the same team.

Al-H— is that in Iraq? What the fuck? There's an almost palpable sense of disapproval. Steve, we're not a fucking international team! That was Fury's deal. People are going to riot when this gets out. Superhumans are domestic only. This is not somewhere you should be.

Where does Tony think he gets off? There are nine American hostages, Steve says. Aid workers.

There's SHIELD chatter in Steve's earpiece. "Cap, you drop in ten seconds," Clint says. He sounds... strained. "Acknowledge, please."

Steve realizes Clint's been trying to get his attention for a few seconds now. It's Tony's fault. Tony's awfully distracting.

"Acknowledged," Steve says, into the comms. "Ready for drop."

I read the goddamn news, Tony snarls. I know they're holding aid workers hostage. What I don't know is why you

Do I come to Stark International and tell you how to run your business? Steve retorts. No. Then don't tell me how to do my goddamn job, Tony.

The comm crackles. "Go now, Cap," Clint says. "Godspeed."

There's a snap of anger and pain. Steve—

Be quiet, Steve says. I'm jumping. Unless you'd like to explain to Fury that nine people died because you wouldn't shut up?

Tony is silent, and Steve takes a deep breath and leaps out into the night.

The hostages are safe, reunited with their families, and Steve's back at the Triskelion. He's fielded some press questions, survived the team debriefing, and he's finally gotten a second shower. He thinks that even with the shower, he can still smell the sewers he swam through to get to the hostages.

In the back of his mind, Tony is seething, a low and muted anger, like water beginning to come to a boil. He's been like that since the mission started. Steve has been ignoring him. He's had a mission, and, anyway, there's nothing Tony's going to be able to contribute that's going to be at all helpful.

Tony's probably off getting drunk again, anyway.

Still toweling his hair off, Steve's heading into the now-empty lounge. Someone left CNN blaring away on the television in the corner, and Steve stops and stares, because... there's Tony. On live television.

Tony's sitting across the desk from the host. He's wearing a deep red shirt and a charcoal jacket, flattering as always; his hands are conspicuously bare, when they haven't been since Steve met him. Everyone is going to know. Perhaps not even in the future are people so gauche as to ask why.

"Okay, first of all," Tony is saying, "I hardly think that Captain America qualifies as a Person of Mass Destruction, Larry. Secondly, these aid workers he rescued were all American citizens—"

Steve stares in shock. Tony is defending him. Tony, who nearly made Steve botch the drop because he wanted to tell him what a bad idea the mission was... is defending him. He feels a strange swell of pride within his chest.

But that's not how Tony feels.

On screen, Tony's smiling at the host, gesturing as he talks. All of his body language signals that he's open, at ease, friendly, attentive—but his mind is sharp, bitter. He's wallowing in resentment. He is, Steve marvels, really unbelievably good at masks.

"This isn't some plan to sneak superhumans into the Gulf through the back door or whatever," Tony tells the host, even though that was exactly what he accused Steve of doing. "This was a straightforward humanitarian mission."

Tony leans back and sips... a martini. Of course he does.

Tony? Steve asks, very cautiously. What are you doing on television?

After the seven-second delay, he sees when Tony hears him. The confident smile on Tony's face doesn't change, but something flickers in his eyes, too fast to read. Steve feels it, though: an exquisitely precise dagger of anger.

What does it look like I'm doing, darling? Tony thinks. I'm cleaning up your fucking mess.

The thought is precisely articulated, each word spat out with vehemence, as on screen Tony and the host talk about how Thor has quit the team in the wake of this mission, as Tony derides all of Thor's worries about being used for the government's ends, as Tony calls him a former psychiatric patient who thinks he's a Norse god.

Funny, it had all seemed pretty real last year when Thor had teleported the Chitauri's doomsday bomb off the planet.

You don't believe that, Tony, Steve thinks. I know you don't.

On the television, Tony smiles. I think it's your turn to be quiet now, Tony says, his mental voice sickly-sweet. We're filming.

Steve grits his teeth.

The host looks a little skeptical when Tony assures him that the Ultimates won't be, in his words, stormtroopers for the oil industry. "Wait a second," the host says. "Are you giving me a firm guarantee that you, Tony Stark, would never take part in a preemptive strike against any kind of rogue state acting contrary to American interests?"

Tony laughs, a charming, disarming laugh, and he holds up his bare palm like he's wearing the suit, like he can defend himself, and Steve finds himself wondering if everyone is looking at Tony's bare hands, why no one has asked—

"I built the Iron Man suit so that I could give something back," Tony says, and then he winks. "And, hopefully, meet some cheeky little honeys at the same time."

Steve sees red. It's not true. None of it's true. That's not why he became Iron Man. I'm dying, Tony had told him. His secret, and he's just going to pretend to the world like it isn't happening. He wants to die on his terms, and he'd rather that everyone think he's just lecherous. And for God's sake, Steve is his soulmate, and here he is fucking lying to the entire world, talking about girls this and girls that, the people he really wants, people who aren't Steve

Steve takes three steps across the room and slams the off button as Tony smiles onscreen and says, "I'm honestly not interested in becoming some kind of martini-swilling smart bomb."

Oh, now you care what I think of you? Tony says, in his mind, a few seconds later. He sees Tony smiling and nodding and shaking hands, moving offstage. The cameras are off. In that case, Rogers, I have a few words for you.

Oh, yeah? Steve retorts. Let's hear it. It's the sort of thing that used to get him punched, back when he was mouthier than his fists could quite support.

Tony's mental laugh is a snort of derision. I really can't see why you think I should be thrilled to make the rounds of the talk-show circuit and defend some fucking mission I didn't even know about because you couldn't be bothered to give me a heads-up. How is that doing your job? Tell me. Since you're so good at it.

Steve can feel his breath catch in his chest. That wasn't my call.

Bullshit. Your team, your call. I am in your goddamn brain, Tony says. I am in your goddamn brain and I am on your goddamn team and you can't pretend this isn't happening. It's going to affect things. You can't repress it. Don't think I haven't noticed. Eventually you have to think about it. You can't lie to yourself forever.

Which of us is still pretending he's in this line of work for the dames, Tony? Steve retorts, which he knows is a low blow, but Tony fucking deserves it sometimes.

You, Tony says, aiming even lower, and Steve goes cold all over. Unless you've changed your mind about my dick, that is. There's a taunting smile of a thought. Do let me know.

The world is colder and colder. Steve can't breathe. He feels like he's falling from the rocket all over again, like he's going to hit the ground.

He shoves Tony's mind away from his as hard as he can.

He almost can't feel anything. He drops into the nearest chair, puts his head in his hands, and shuts his eyes.

Steve hates the goddamn future.

The next morning, Steve unplugs the landline, pulls the batteries out of his SHIELD-issue phone, and puts the priority comm under a pile of newspapers. He doesn't go for a run. He watches soap operas for three hours. Then he puts the captions on and watches the ones in Spanish.

Tony is distant, faraway. It's almost like being alone.

It isn't, really, because a single directed thought or a wave of strong emotion would pull them both right back together, but at least it's... muted.

He can feel Tony wake up, go through his morning routine. Tony's dry-swallowing a handful of pills.

Steve stands in the kitchen in his boxers and makes himself a sandwich. Fresh mozzarella. Fresh tomatoes. Basil. Good bread. He can have fresh vegetables any time of year he wants, and bread that hasn't been cut with plaster. He has his own icebox that could fit enough food for his entire family. He can get news from all over the world whenever he wants. Sometimes it's like living in a dream.

And then sometimes there's Tony.

He could make you happy, Jan said. She didn't know what she was talking about. She doesn't have to live like this.

He goes to the gym, the one he'd always dreamed of being able to go to when he was a kid. If they know he's Captain America, they've never said anything.

He writes up a report, the one he owes Fury, about the soulbond. He keeps it as dry as possible.

He goes to bed alone. Just how he wanted it.

He tells himself he's not lonely.

The morning after that, he goes to the Triskelion. He knows Tony is there, of course; he can feel him, like tugging on an anchor. A ball and chain. When Tony comes down the corridor heading the opposite way, Steve keeps his face carefully blank, and Tony nods and smiles. Tony's mind is blank too, projecting nothing.

At the team meeting, to discuss what should be done in the wake of Thor's absence, he does in fact exchange one sentence with Tony. A greeting. He sounds civil. He's proud of himself.

"We need better PR," Jan says. "Something. Anything."

"Well, we're all out of Hulks to punch," Tony says, and Steve bites his tongue.

"There will be something," Clint says. "Another good clean fight. Heroes and villains."

No, Steve thinks, we had to manufacture that one. The public doesn't know the Hulk was one of theirs. SHIELD still has Bruce locked up.

He doesn't mean to think it at Tony, but of course Tony is right there.

So cynical, darling, Tony murmurs, in the back of Steve's mind. I thought that was my line.

"We're exploring options. Dismissed," Fury says, and the team rises. "Stark, Rogers. Not you. Sit back down."

Everyone else leaves, and it's just the three of them.

"Are we being sent to the principal's office?" Tony asks. The smile on his face is utterly false. He opens his jacket and fishes out a flask. It's not even ten in the morning.

Fury sighs, stares at Tony—who stares right back while taking a sip from his flask—and then stares at Steve. "I truly resent that this is part of my job," Fury says, with possibly the most aggrieved air Steve has ever heard from another human being, "but I'm going to need to ask you two to hug it out."

"Excuse me?" Steve says.

Tony just snickers.

"You heard the discussion," Fury says. "Thor is gone. The public is getting antsy about the possibility of more overseas missions. Wasp was right; the Ultimates need better PR. And you two are it." He regards them expectantly.

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "I don't understand."

Does Fury really want him to hug Tony?

Tony is spinning back and forth in his chair on the other side of the table. "Soulmates are romantic, darling," Tony says, lazily. "People love a good romance."

Steve bristles. "You can't be serious."

"That," Fury says, with a certain amount of finality in his voice. He's staring at Steve. "That is exactly what you need to get over, Captain. At least in public."

"I'm not—" Steve says, helplessly, "I'm not— I don't—"

"Your actual feelings," Fury says, "are not relevant, Captain. But the team needs good publicity, for a change." He glances down at a folder. "There's a press conference scheduled for 1800 hours. We're working on a series of prepared remarks for the two of you, to announce the soulbond."

"But—" God, he can't even get a sentence out— "but we're both men, and you're telling me you think the American people are going to react well to that?"

It's Tony who speaks; aloud, for Fury's benefit, he supposes. "Steve," he says, and his voice is almost gentle, "when you learned about soulbonds, back in the day—did you ever hear of it being two men, or two women?"

Steve shakes his head. "I never really thought about it. Figured, you know, a man and a woman. That was how it worked. That was... natural. Right?"

Fury and Tony give each other an oddly weighty look.

"Well," Tony says, carefully. "You missed some... significant cultural changes. They've always existed. It was just that modern Western culture kept pretty quiet about them until a couple decades ago. Gradually people started to see it as... well, less of a perversion, more of a sign from the universe. Got people thinking more positively about gay relationships in general—the idea being that if we could have soulmates at all, maybe that meant it wasn't necessarily a bad thing." He smiles a lopsided smile. "It can't be unnatural if the universe itself wants you to do it, can it?"

This is some kind of joke, isn't it? "You're saying people are going to be happy?"

"Some people are still assholes," Tony says, and his mouth quirks. "But people in general are going to be happier than you think they are. Soulmates count for a hell of a lot."

Fury stands up. "This is my cue to leave, gentlemen. Talk amongst yourselves."

Then they're alone.

Tony leans back and sighs. His mind is still... oddly gentle. There's a sense of patience there, something Steve wouldn't have expected. Like Tony's willing to wait.

Well, Tony says. There's also the actual matter of you and me.

What about you and me?

In reply, Tony splays his bare hands on the table in front of him, fingers spread wide. Steve can't help but look. He blames it on the fact that Tony's been wearing gloves for a year. It makes the sight of him seem somehow forbidden. Tantalizing. But that can't be right, because Steve doesn't want this.

"Do you know why I started wearing gloves?" Tony asks. His gaze is fixed on his hands; he doesn't look up. The question sounds idle, incurious, but there's something aching and sad inside Tony's mind, like he's bleeding out with every beat of his heart.

Steve coughs. "I don't know," he says, which is obviously a lie; he has his suspicions, but he's not just going to say—

Not that, Tony says, because of course he knows exactly what Steve didn't want to say aloud, because they have no such thing as politeness between them. It can't exist. It's a bit of a problem. I mean, other than the part where I'm a flaming queer. Tony sounds almost defiantly cheerful about the word, inside Steve's head. It's a good guess, but I've been a flaming queer my entire life, darling. The gloves were a more recent development.

"Then I really don't know," Steve admits, aloud. "I mean, I've seen pictures of you without gloves. On the internet. You didn't have them in the pictures in your SHIELD file. I didn't think it was polite to ask."

The laughter Steve hears from Tony is only inside Steve's head. It's not. Polite, that is. And, okay, yes, admittedly I enjoyed scandalizing the world. Which I'm sure is why everyone thinks I did it. That's what I wanted them to think.

Tony taps his bare index finger on the table.

So why did you really do it? Steve asks. And when? In the pictures, the most recent pictures, Tony hadn't even been visibly younger. He must have started right before Steve had met him.

Tony raises his head and looks him in the eye. "I started wearing gloves the day after I was diagnosed with cancer."

Oh God. "I—" Steve says. He doesn't know what to say. It's so far from what he expected to hear. He's stammering. "I— I'm sorry— I didn't know—"

Hey, shh, easy, Tony says, and there's that odd mental voice of his again, the one that's so gentle Steve would hardly have known it was him. He doesn't know what Tony's getting from him—probably some combination of shame and panic—but whatever it is means that Tony has decided to be nice to him, nice to him when Tony's the one dying of an inoperable brain tumor—

I'm sorry, Steve tries again, and he can't even say it aloud this time.

Nothing to be sorry for, Tony says, and there's a wave of soothing calm from him that, frankly, Steve would never admit to liking. You didn't know. So I'm telling you. But we can't exactly keep pretending there's no time limit here. Which is the heart of the matter, actually.

In a year or two, Tony is going to be dead. Gone.

Steve can hardly comprehend that. In Iceland he saw what he thought was his own death coming, as he fell from the rocket. He thought he'd accepted it, numbed by battle, knowing he would die doing what was right. And then he'd lived. A miracle.

There are no miracles coming for Tony.

"I used to want a soulmate," Tony says, and the bond fogs with his wistfulness. "I imagine a lot of people do."

"I did," Steve admits.

Tony's mouth quirks. "You know how it is then, maybe. It's a daydream. A fantasy. You think, here's someone who will understand me. Here's someone who will love me." Steve's heart skips a beat, but Tony is still talking. "Here's someone who will never leave me. I wanted that," he says. He takes a slow, measured breath. "And then I got brain cancer."

He looks down at his hands. He steeples his fingers together. The bond shades dark, into sadness, and Steve is right there with him.

"After the diagnosis, it was the one thing I couldn't deal with." Tony's voice rasps, and there are flashes of images in Steve's head: white-coated doctors, X-ray films held up against the light, an IV drip on a stand next to him. "I couldn't stand it. The idea of finding the other half of my soul when I've got terminal cancer. The idea that I could have a soulmate and I'd— I'd have to leave them, after such a short time together, and they'd have to live without me. They'd have to live remembering what we had. What they'd never be able to find again with anyone else."

Tony's eyes flicker shut, pained. God, it sounds so arrogant when I say it.

It's not arrogant, Steve says, reflexively, because Tony's hurting, and he doesn't want that, he never wanted that—

There's a ghost of a smile on Tony's face. "So I decided it would be... easier. If I never met them. If I never ran the risk of meeting them. If the soulbond never happened. Given the odds, it was a little silly, but I was still worried. I didn't think I really had a soulmate out there waiting for me, but, well, better safe than sorry." Another hollow smile emerges. "I thought it would make me safe. I have to shake a lot of hands, in my line of work. But the gloves did the trick. I hadn't touched anyone new since putting the gloves on. I'd met Natasha once before the gloves," he adds, "if you were wondering."

Steve hadn't actually wondered. There's a memory in his head that isn't his, his fingers on Natasha's bare hip, everything hazy with pleasure.

Steve ruined that.

There's a quiet, low line of thought that Tony doesn't quite voice: I know it's selfish. But she would have been fine without me. She would have moved on eventually. It's different from asking someone to get over a broken soulbond. Most bonded people don't make it, you know, once their soulmate's gone. Statistics say it's almost all suicide.

This is what Tony never wanted for his soulmate. This is what Tony never wanted for him.

Tony wanted to be kind. He wanted to prevent the bond from existing.

"And then I touched you," Steve says.

You sure did, Tony agrees. The thought is wry, sudden, and fervent. There's the tiniest blossom of warmth, held back, like he can't help liking the thought of it, despite himself.

Steve doesn't know what to think, what to say. Does Tony want him to apologize? Tony never meant for this to happen. He's just made that very clear.

God, he doesn't want to think about Tony dying—

"See, the funny thing is," Tony says, slowly, in a way that suggests it's not funny at all, "is that I used to like you." He doesn't say it like it's meant to be some kind of insult. "Captain America. I was a big fan. I had all the trading cards. You were strong and brave. You were my hero. I thought you were so handsome." For once, it doesn't sound like a threat. Steve's not really sure what it is, though. "I'll admit," Tony says, "that I never once thought that you could be my soulmate. Even setting aside the part where we thought you were dead for half a century, I wasn't expecting this." Tony's eyes fall shut again. "I'm dying, and I finally found my soulmate, and it's you, and you hate me." He chuckles. "Imagine that."

I— Steve begins, and the thought hangs in his mind, unfinished.

He wants to say he doesn't hate Tony. He doesn't know how he feels about Tony. Fear, probably, if he's being honest. Tony sussed that one out even without the soulbond. There's a journey Tony's been on that Steve hasn't, a border he's crossed over, leaving Steve behind. Tony can just— just do what he wants, say what he wants, and not worry that it will make him less of a man. And Steve can't. He doesn't know how.

Tony was right. Steve doesn't know anything.

When Tony looks up at him, there are tears in his eyes and an aching, bleak sadness in his mind. "I'm not asking you to love me. I'm not an idiot. I'm not even asking you to like me. Maybe it'll be easier for you, when I'm gone, if you— if you don't." He breathes in and out, shuddering, ragged. "I just— I wish you didn't hate me. That's all."

I don't hate you, Steve says. He can think it this time. A careful thought. Not quite as gentle as Tony, when Tony is trying to comfort him. Steve knows his own thought is awkward, too harsh, rough around the edges. Steve's not used to doing this.

I know. Tony's smile is wavering and sad. But sometimes I don't think you know that.

They can't just leave it like this. Tony's still hurting. He has to do something.

Tony's always going to be hurting. Tony's dying.

"Hey, Tony," Steve says. "Can I— can I—"

He doesn't know what he wants, exactly. His mind's full of only a nebulous idea: closer.

Tony's smile is a little stronger now. "You can do literally anything you want to me," he says, very quietly. The words are plain, without artifice, and the frightening thing is that Steve knows Tony means it. There's a glint in his eye, something that might be fondness. Sentimentality. That's certainly how the bond feels. "You want to be able to tell Ol' One-Eye we hugged it out after all, huh?"

Sort of, Steve wants to say. It's not quite right. It's not what he wants. Then he realizes he does know what he wants. And that means that Tony knows it too.

He tugs off the glove of his uniform slowly, one finger at a time, with Tony studying his every movement, and then he stretches his bare hand out, across the table. After a second, Tony reaches back.

Their fingers brush.

They haven't touched since the soulbond happened. Steve can feel the bond increase as they touch, stronger and stronger as Tony locks his fingers with his and holds on like he's drowning. The more they touch, the longer they touch, the deeper it goes. The bond pounds through Steve like another heartbeat. If this is what just holding hands is like, he can't even imagine how more would feel. He can taste Tony's aching sadness in the back of his throat, and his own eyes sting with Tony's tears. And then, slowly, he feels a tentative joy. There's happiness there. That's Tony. Steve made him feel happy. Steve gave him this.

Steve can't hold back the helpless thought, even though he knows Tony doesn't need to hear it: I'm going to miss you.

There's another pulse of sadness through the bond, an aura of regret. Yeah, Tony says. That's a problem.

He's sitting at a table. He's sitting at a table and Tony is sitting on his left and the rest of the room is packed with reporters. There are three huge cameras; most of the major news services are transmitting this live. Light gleams in Steve's eyes. Under the cowl, he's sweating. He wonders if wearing the uniform was a mistake.

While Steve has retreated into the comforting confines of formality, sitting ramrod-straight, Tony leans back, relaxed. At ease. He's not drinking—there's only the slightest hint of his usual cavalier behavior—but he's sitting there like nothing fazes him, smiling ever so slightly at the crowd.

Tony's mind is vibrating like a plucked string, though. Inside his head, where only Steve can see, he's nervous too.

They agreed that Steve, leader of the Ultimates, would deliver the news. Like it's any ordinary bit of team information.

He glances down at the cards in his hands and lifts his head.

"Greetings," he says. "I'd like to thank you all for coming. I'll make this brief. Five days ago, the Ultimates were engaged in a routine training session. During an exercise simulating an aerial bombardment, Tony Stark—" he glances over at Tony, who gives the crowd a winning smile— "was accidentally struck by one of the nonlethal projectiles used in these training exercises."

There's some murmuring. They can't figure out why he's telling them this. A few people are worrying about Tony's health. God, if they only knew.

"I'm fine," Tony puts in, with that same charming smile. "I was wearing the armor."

Steve clears his throat. "A minor mechanical malfunction following the impact caused Mr. Stark to need to be removed from the armor as soon as possible after landing. I was the closest available responder, and I pulled him free." The cue cards blur before his eyes, and he drops them on the table and looks up. Here goes nothing. He tries to smile. "And, well, the long and short of it is—"

Oh, God, he can't say it, he can't, he's a coward, they're all going to know what he really is now—

It's all right, Tony says in his head. He's easy, confident, calming, and Steve hates how much he likes it. Breathe. I've got you covered.

"We have a soulbond," Tony finishes, smoothly.

There's a cacophony of lights, noise, shouting. So many people, with so many questions.

"One at a time!" Tony shouts, over the din. "One at a time, please." He points seemingly at random to a man in the front row. "You."

"Has this been confirmed medically?"

Tony nods. "SHIELD has scanned us both fully, and we've passed the usual battery of telepathy and empathy tests." He grins. "Plus, I can hear him in my head. Captain America's an awfully distinctive guy."

The crowd chuckles, and Steve wonders what Tony means by that. Distinctive. If it's positive. If Tony even likes him.

"Mr. Stark," another man shouts, "how do you expect this to affect your performance on the Ultimates?"

Tony gives the crowd another one of those thousand-watt, camera-ready smiles. The inside of his mind has settled down into something cool, prepared. For Tony, this is a battlefield, one he's spent years fighting on. His domain. His natural habitat.

"Only in the best of ways," Tony says, with another smile. "I imagine that always being in contact can only be a positive tactical development. We haven't really had the chance to practice in the field yet. It's been a busy week."

There are small titters of laughter in the back of the room, quickly cut off. Steve realizes in ashamed horror that the entire room thinks he and Tony are fucking. That they've probably spent the past few days in bed.

Yeah, they probably do think that, Tony observes. But what the hell does it matter what they think?

I can't, Steve says, and it's like he's hit a wall inside himself. He doesn't know what's on the other side. He doesn't even know who he is. Tony, I can't. He can feel panic rising up, an oncoming tide.

He knows what Tony wants him to say. He knows what Tony wants him to think. He knows Tony wants him to be perfectly okay with this, one hundred percent. He knows he's nowhere near close. They both know that.

It's okay. Tony's radiating a serene calm. Steve doesn't know where he's getting it from, but however Tony's doing it, it's bringing him down, nice and easy. You're doing great.

He guesses that somehow Tony must like him after all. Even if Tony didn't want this. Even if he's a disappointment, because he can't do what Tony obviously must want from his soulmate. Even if Steve's fucking it all up.

Tony looks at him like he wants to make him feel better but isn't sure how. Steve can feel him discarding statements, biting them back before Steve can quite tell what they are, even with the soulbond.

You aren't a disappointment, Tony says, finally, and Steve doesn't even know how to respond to that.

A journalist in the second row stands up. "A question for Captain America?"

"Yes?" Steve says.

Oh, boy, here we go, Tony says.

"Given that you have been rather famously romantically linked with Gail Barnes, née Richards, and more recently with your teammate Janet Pym," she asks, "did it come as a surprise to you to find that your soulmate was Tony Stark?"

Steve takes a deep breath. "As I'm sure you can imagine," he begins, "having any soulmate at all came as a very large surprise." The crowd chuckles politely. "But I assume that what you're actually asking me is whether it was surprising that my soulmate was a man, and that you're not asking Tony this question because he's..."

He doesn't know what words to use for Tony.

"Notoriously open-minded, darling," Tony says, and there are smiles all through the crowd.

The woman gives a very slight nod. Yeah, that's definitely what she wants to know. Oh, God.

You probably shouldn't punch her, Tony informs him. Keep breathing, darling. Read the cards.

He has cards for this. He knew they were going to ask him this. He came prepared. He has a carefully-constructed answer about the magnitude of this development and the need for privacy that all basically boils down to none of your business. And it isn't anyone's business, really, what's in his head—well, other than Tony, now, anyway.

He turns the cards face-down in his hands, looks up, swallows hard, and smiles.

Tony told him the truth. He can tell the truth for Tony.

"Honestly," Steve says, and he can feel his face crease in another rueful smile, "he was probably the last person in the world I would have expected." He knows as he says it that he's going to get pilloried in the press. They don't care about honesty or respect or— or decency. But he needs to say this. He clears his throat. "It was a shock. That's for sure. I never imagined that, if I had a soulmate, he'd be a man. I didn't even know it was possible. Though I am, as they say, from a different era. No one really talked about this back then."

The crowd shifts nervously. They don't know where he's going with this. He can feel Tony's mind coiled up, electric. Tony doesn't know where he's going either.

He takes another breath. "I was raised to believe that a soulbond was a blessing. A miracle. A gift from God. I don't know if that's a real popular belief these days, but it's what I learned. A soulmate is the other half of your soul, and that's not really something you have a say in. And so I don't rightly know that it matters so much that I didn't expect it to be Tony. It matters that it is Tony. Maybe I wouldn't have picked him, if I'd had a choice, but the way I see it, ma'am, it wasn't my choice. Someone else did the picking for me, and He knows better than I do. And maybe that means I didn't know as much about myself as I thought I did." He coughs. "I— I'm still coming to terms with what that means. But Tony's the right one for me. He has to be." He manages another smile. "I can't say this is easy for me, but I— I'm trying. And I'm getting used to having him around. I think that's a start."

The room is silent; no one seems to know what to say. Tony's mind is ringing bright with awe and something that feels a lot like pride, and Steve doesn't know what to do with that.

He realizes he's shaking. He doesn't feel scared, but he's shaking like he just took down a tank battalion with his fists alone.

Tony leans over, plucks the cards out of his trembling hands, and then—gently, delicately—slides two fingers under the edge of Steve's glove, stretching up until he can just barely brush Steve's bare skin, right there in front of God and everybody.

You're very brave. Tony's mental voice is a hushed whisper. You know that?

Steve wants to shy away, embarrassed, but Tony's in his mind and there's nowhere to go. It was just the truth, he mutters.

You don't think the truth is brave? Tony asks.

Steve doesn't know what to say.

Tony leans in, closer to Steve. Their shoulders bump. Tony's still holding his hand.

"For the record," Tony says, beaming, to the reporter, "I think he's amazing."

All the cameras go off at once.

Amazing. Somehow it doesn't feel quite so terrifying when Tony says it.

It turns out that the press loves them. Apparently Tony was right.

And Steve— well, then Steve asks Tony out. Sort of.

Steve doesn't actually ask Tony to go with him until the morning of the roast, the next day, mostly because he figures Tony will say no, and also because he's not really sure of the etiquette surrounding so I had been going to bring my girlfriend, but now she's left me because I have a soulmate. Not to mention the fact that Jan had never really been all that keen on socializing with Gail and Bucky—and surely if there's anyone who doesn't want to spend time with a bunch of octogenarians, it would be the glamorous, jet-setting CEO Tony Stark.

Steve knows what his luck is like by now. Even his soulmate won't want to spend time with him. He still doesn't know what to feel about the part of himself that definitely wants to see more of Tony.

He finally musters up the courage to ask Tony at about 0700, while he's still sitting at home with a cup of coffee; there's no point in being any more formal when Tony is just going to decline, and there's really no need to do it in person when Tony can hear everything he thinks.

Besides, maybe not having to look at him will make the inevitable rejection hurt less.

Yeah, sure, of course. Tony's mental voice is perfectly sincere, if slightly sleep-fogged.

Coffee sloshes as Steve nearly drops his mug in surprise. Wait, yes?

Yes, Tony says, a little cautiously, his mind suddenly wary, like he doesn't understand why Steve is still waiting for Tony to pull the rug out from under his feet. Was I... not supposed to say yes?

Steve doesn't quite intend to push his memories in Tony's direction, but they're at the forefront of his own mind, and he tries to wince away and can't, open and exposed as Tony sees everything: the light in Jan's eyes dims as she calls him old-fashioned, as she says maybe we could hang out with people closer to our own age, as she says no offense but I don't have anything in common with them.

Oh, Tony says, a soft, quiet realization, clouded in pity that Steve doesn't want, compassion that he doesn't want to want.

Tony, Steve says, and he's sure Tony can feel the thread of panic and desperation, the way he's just not built for anyone to be able to get inside him and know how hollow and lonely he is. Tony's different. Tony opens up. He can't. For God's sake, I don't want you to go because you feel sorry for me.

The hackles go up; Tony's bristling just a bit. Who said anything about that, darling?

The inside of your head did, Steve shoots back, and he really wishes they were still capable of social niceties, all the little lies that keep conversations running.

He can feel Tony sigh, a heaving breath. I'll give you that, Tony says. But they're still your friends, and I want to meet them. Why wouldn't I?

Are you sure? Steve asks, still trying to deflect even as he remembers he can't anymore. It's just a bunch of geezers swapping war stories. You'll be bored.

He thinks a bored Tony is probably a dangerous Tony. He's sure Tony is capable of making a scene wherever he goes. He really doesn't want that. He's seen Tony be brutal and cutting, snide and sarcastic. Worse, maybe he'll just show up drunk.

Tony's mental voice is slightly acerbic now. I won't be bored. And then there's a wave of earnestness so pure that it's startling. I'm really happy that you asked me, he says, and then there's absolute sincerity. Thank you.

Well. Steve wasn't expecting that.

The rest of the day is more or less a loss; if Tony notices him fretting, he at least does him the courtesy of pretending not to notice. Until, that is, Steve turns up early in the evening at Tony's penthouse.

Jarvis eyes Steve with what Steve hopes is approval, and then Tony's there, and for an instant they're both just staring at each other.

Tony cleans up real nice, Steve thinks, and then he hopes to God Tony didn't hear him think that. Tony is wearing a very expensive-looking tux, he's smiling slightly, and he is completely sober; his omnipresent headache echoes inside Steve's head. That's probably the tumor.

Tony's staring at him, mouth parted, eyes wide, a blue as deep as the sea, looking him up and down like he's never seen Steve in his dress uniform before.

Oh, I have, Tony assures him. But this is... different.

Yeah, Steve knows what he means.

If Tony has any other thoughts about the way he looks, he holds them back, and Steve is grateful; he's not sure he can deal right now with Tony's... interest. If Tony is even interested.

The ride is quiet, and Bucky and Gail meet them on the steps of the venue. Steve hugs them both, and then he holds out a hand to Tony. "Bucky, Gail, this is—"

"Oh!" Gail says, delighted. "I saw you on television. You must be Tony. Steve's Tony."

And the thing about the soulbond is that he can feel Tony's reaction as intimately as if it were his own: a surprised burst of sunshine-bright joy, fizzing along his nerves. Tony has always been Tony Stark: known for being SI's CEO, or these days for being Iron Man—but mostly for being himself, a billionaire, a man who needs no introduction.

Tony has never been someone else's Tony before, Steve knows. He's never belonged to someone. And he likes it. It feels like intruding to know this about Tony, that this is his private, secret happiness. This is what Tony has always wanted.

He tries not to think about how Tony probably wanted someone who wasn't him, someone who wouldn't mind that his soulmate was a man, someone who could be everything that Tony wants, a comfort here at the end of his days.

"I suppose I must be," Tony agrees, with a small smile that shows only a fraction of the elation inside his head. "It's so wonderful to finally meet you." He glances away, slightly abashed. "I know how much Steve likes you both, and well, honestly, I always enjoyed that old movie about you." There are spots of color in his cheeks. There's a touch of actual embarrassment floating down the bond, and Steve marvels at the fact that Tony does seem to know what shame is after all. Not that he has anything to be ashamed of.

Bucky laughs. "You mean the one where Rita Hayworth played Gail?"

When Tony had told him Bucky and Gail were famous too, that there had been movies about them, about how they found each other after Steve's supposed death, it hadn't really made an impact amid everything else Steve had been trying to take in. Steve's still finding it hard to picture—Rita Hayworth had been all the GIs' favorite pin-up girl, way back when, and she'd been Gail?

I told you, Tony says. Epic love story. Star-studded. It wasn't a bad movie, all things considered. William Holden played you, if you were wondering. You were pretty easy on the eyes, too.

It's not the first time Tony's mentioned finding him attractive—but this, like all the others, is oblique. It's about the past, about people who weren't really him. He doesn't know if Tony doesn't like him like that now, or if Tony just doesn't want to tell him so, and he doesn't know which would be worse.

"That's the one," Tony says aloud, with a wink. "Of course, obviously Rita Hayworth had nothing on the real thing."

Gail smiles, bright-eyed. "I did suspect you'd be a flatterer, Mr. Stark."

"I see Steve must have warned you about me after all," Tony says, smoothly, grinning now. He is perfectly and utterly charming. Oh, he's flirting, but he's Tony. He always flirts. This is, apparently, his nice flirting. Appropriate for company. Steve didn't know he had it in him.

"I'd tell you to back off, buster," Bucky says, Brooklyn accent layered on thick, "but I think we all know that everyone here is taken."

Tony chuckles. "Believe me, I am incapable of forgetting it."

It's strange. Serendipitous, even. Soulbonds are so rare. Most people will never meet someone who has one; they can only imagine what they must be like. There are millennia of stories, poems, songs, just by people wishing for them. And yet here they are, the four of them, and they all know exactly what it's like.

Weird, isn't it? Tony asks. I mean, you kind of wonder what they're thinking about you, and then you realize you're thinking about them. It's terribly circular. The thought floats by on a little cloud of amusement.

Bucky leans in. "Say," he says, "if you're actually interested—when they made that movie, they brought me and Gail to Hollywood for the premiere. If you want to come over sometime, we've got pictures of us and Rita Hayworth on the red carpet." He smiles in reminiscence. "It was really something to see, I'll tell you that."

He expects Tony to say no. Jan would have said no. Jan would have demurred, would have said maybe and meant no. But Tony just lights up, and Steve can feel the truth of it down the bond. He's honestly excited. "Oh, wow!" he breathes. "I'd love that."

His mind nudges Steve's, tentatively. Can we?

You actually want to spend time with them? Steve asks. He's still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I actually do, Tony confirms, and he's still smiling.

Tony is on his best behavior. Better behavior than Steve could have ever expected. He's polite, and charming, and he honestly seems to be enjoying himself. Hell, Steve could practically bring Tony home to his parents—setting aside the fact that they're dead and that Tony is a man, of course. He wonders if that's why Tony is pulling out all the stops. Bucky and Gail are all he's got.

There's a feeling like a wry smile down the bond. Figured me out, have you? Inside his head, Tony laughs. Yeah, it sort of is like meeting your family. I'd meet your actual family if I could.

Steve can't quite check the image of the cemetery, gray stone graves in the bleak winter snow, and a swell of grief. I'll meet yours, if you want, he offers. Or your friends.

My parents are dead, Tony says, tersely. I don't have very many friends. And there is no way in hell I am letting Greg get his claws in you.


He remembers Tony's SHIELD file—one brother, Gregory Stark—as Tony sends a fragmented image, a man who could have been Tony in reverse, a ghost, a film negative. His hair is styled the same as Tony's, goatee and all, but bleached blond. His features are Tony's but his face isn't; he smiles a nasty, mean smile that Tony's face would never wear, and there's nothing but coldness behind it.

Identical twin. Tony's mind is sharp and bitter, pained, and the headache that's always in him throbs more heavily. Twenty minutes older, not that he'll ever let me forget it. Smarter than me. And unfathomably cruel. You wouldn't like him, darling. Let's just leave it at that.

And with that, the roast is about to start, and they're herded inside.

Steve thinks maybe they both understand loneliness, in their own way.

The evening is... nice. Tony laughs in all the right places as the other guests joke and share some of the only-slightly-embarrassing war stories, the ones fit for public consumption. Steve is pretty sure no one is ever going to let him live down the time Bucky stole his uniform and he had to fight Nazis in his underwear.

Steve thinks Tony's probably sorry Bucky never got any pictures of that.

The bond is full of amusement and light, pleasant enjoyment. Tony's having a good time. This is honestly making Tony happy.

Steve realizes halfway through that he's actually having a good time, too. He can't remember the last time he went out on a date and it was really, truly good all the way through. Maybe with Gail. He wonders, too late, if Tony minds being compared to his former fiancée.

Nah, Tony informs him, from where he's—it turns out—sitting next to Gail, cheerfully engaging her in conversation. I'm flattered. She must have been a hell of a lady, back in the day.

She was, Steve says, and he knows Tony probably doesn't want to know, but he can't help but let some of his memories shine through: Gail as she was, clever and gorgeous and kind, the way she was friendly to him when no one else was, how she was determined and driven as a reporter even when no one expected her to want to do more than get married and stay home.

Tony laughs a little, down the bond. Well, at least I know you've got a type.

Oh? He's a little afraid to find out what Tony thinks his type might be.

You like 'em smart, Tony replies. It's not like Jan's PhDs are just for show, either. You want someone who's good at what they do. But a good person, too. And.... hmm. You'd probably say feisty. The sort of person who can hold their own against you. Who's not afraid to tell you what they think.

It occurs to him that that could just as easily be a description of Tony himself. You trying to tell me something?

There's no response from Tony, only a quiet, quick withdrawal within his head, like Tony thinks he's inadvertently crossed a line. Steve feels dizzy, off-balance, and he thinks maybe Tony did. It's like Tony could have been someone he'd fallen for, if Tony hadn't been—

It's like the universe tried to give him someone he could have wanted after all.

Who, me? Tony says, too casually, too late. Usually people just call me an asshole. That's no one's type.

Once again, Steve doesn't know what to say to that.

There's polite applause, and he realizes that the evening is over. He makes himself smile for the crowd. He gets up. They leave, chatting with Bucky and Gail. In his head, Tony tries gallantly to recover, and he overhears Tony promising Bucky to come over and see those pictures sometime. Tony's scribbling his number—his private number—on the back of a business card. In case they want to come by, Tony says. He's still trying. He's still absolutely, perfectly charming.

Outside, there are many more reporters than Steve expected there would be. Sure, there are sometimes a few people following him, but this— this is a crowd. There are cameras. The journalists are jostling for position, and there's a microphone shoved in Steve's face.

"Hey!" Steve snaps. "You can't just bust in here like this. This is private!"

He ponders punching the nearest camera.

It's perfectly legal, darling, Tony says. Unfortunately. He just sounds tired. Like he's been the victim of the press far, far too many times. Steve's seen Tony in all the headlines before, but it's never quite hit him until now what it must have been like to live at the center of a dozen different scandals.

"Do you have any comment on the Hulk situation?" a reporter shouts.

The closest reporter, the one with the microphone, pushes it even closer. "Captain," he says, "would you care to explain why you and Mr. Stark—" his eyes drift to Tony— "and the rest of the Ultimates repeatedly lied when you said you had no idea who the Hulk was?"

Oh, shit, Tony says.

The sinking feeling in the pit of Steve's stomach could be from either of them, really. The headache is still definitely Tony's.

Steve is blinking into the lights. "What?"

Tony, far more practiced at this, steps in front of Steve like shielding him with his body will make this all go away. He holds up his palm, blocking the nearest camera. "No comment," Tony says, instantly, like it's some kind of magic spell. He repeats it. "No comment."

What the hell is happening? Steve wonders.

What does it look like? Tony thinks back. Someone told the truth.

It's bad.

Every major news network in the world has anonymous copies of SHIELD's files. Proof that they knew from the beginning that the Hulk, who killed eight hundred people in Manhattan, was Bruce, who had deliberately shot himself up with the serum first. Proof that they covered it all up to make themselves look like heroes, rather than like frantic people trying to clean up their own messes and fix their mistakes. There are pictures of Bruce's secure quarters, a mile below the Triskelion, where he's been confined for the past year. The files have the highest-level SHIELD clearances.

The public wants Bruce on trial. The public wants Bruce dead.

Steve knows Bruce hadn't thought the serum would do that to him. For God's sake, he knows the man just wanted to be like him.

But that's not going to save him if this goes to trial. Nothing will. Eight hundred fifty two people died.

And it's not just a question of Bruce's fate; it's also a question of what other dirty secrets could be public. There's a leak somewhere.

So here they are, the Ultimates gathered at the Triskelion for an emergency meeting, trying to figure out what to do about Bruce. Not that there's much they can do there; he's got to stand trial now that this is all public. And they need to figure out what to do about their mysterious leak.

It's Thor. It's got to be. Who else would? He knew about the Hulk. And he's certainly been public enough, recently, about quitting the team, about his disgust for SHIELD. He's made that quite clear.

Plus, he's probably crazy. Isn't he? He thinks he's a god. Steve's seen him do his lightning and teleportation tricks, but, hell, he's got that belt and that hammer doing all the work for him. Who's to say what the future is capable of?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Tony says, like he's quoting something. It's a good point.

"Nothing we can do to prove it right now," Fury says, when Steve ventures Thor's name, "but I'd say that's a pretty educated guess."

Steve stares in disbelief. "You're just gonna let him get away with it?"

Fury folds his arms and stares right back. "The Thor situation's a lot more complex than you people realize. SHIELD's been conducting a two-year investigation into this crank and any sudden move is gonna upset the apple cart." He pauses significantly. "I say this especially for your benefit, Captain."

Everyone remembers what he did to Hank.

Steve feels himself smiling; he lets his expression shift the way it wants to, into something cool and deadly. "What?" he asks. "I strike you as the kinda guy who goes looking for a fight?"

He hears Tony laugh inside his head; across the table, Tony hasn't moved in the slightest. There's a memory down the bond, him holding Tony up against the wall, one hand raised in a fist. His own face, inches from Tony's, is frozen in a cold, terrified snarl. He looks dangerous. He looks frightening, even though in the memory Tony isn't afraid. Steve didn't quite realize how it looked to be on the other end of his fists.

Imagine if you'd hit me then, Tony says; there's a strange shading of admiration in his tone. What a way to soulbond.

He remembers wanting to touch Tony then, wanting to touch him just for the sheer joy of irritating him. They would have bonded then, if he had. He wonders just why he wanted to touch Tony so badly. He wonders if maybe, somehow, even then, he knew, without consciously realizing it. Even then he knew what was hidden between them.

He can't punch him now, of course. It would hurt both of them. And he— he doesn't want to, either.

He does want to punch Thor.

Duck afterwards, would you please? Tony asks. I'd rather not enjoy the fistfight if at all possible.

Oh. Tony would have to feel that too. Everything he feels, even the pain.

Steve glances sidelong at him. If you want me not to go—

There's a faint smile on his face. Darling, I know better than to think I could ever stop you.

That's settled, then. Time to find Thor.

Finding Thor turns out to be the easy part.

Thor's ensconced in a club near Times Square, a packed room, men and women writhing on the dance floor, illuminated by flashing multicolored bright lights. Half of them are clutching beer bottles, sloshing their mixed drinks; the other half stumble, dazed, blissed out on drugs Steve wouldn't even be able to name. The music pounds in Steve's head, out of sync with Tony's headache. This is really more Tony's sort of place than his, he thinks, as he scowls at the scantily-clad women, some of whom drape themselves over suited men who sprawl across the seats in the shadowy corners. He's sure Tony would be happy here.

Not so much anymore. Tony whispers a correction in the back of his mind. I'm taken, remember?

There is that.

When he finds Thor, he has to raise his voice to be heard over the music. "Where the hell do you get off leaking classified information like this?"

Steve spits out the accusation, and Thor... doesn't so much as flinch. He doesn't even turn around to face Steve. He just glances at him over his shoulder. He asks, coolly, if Steve's come to beat him up.

"There are some people out there bigger than Giant-Man, you know," Thor says. "We don't all crumble at the sight of some clown in a flag."

Steve remembers Tony's palm on his chest, Tony smiling at him dark and dangerous and unafraid, flirting with him like sex was a weapon.

They don't all crumble, indeed.

In his head, Tony has the grace to wince. There's a sense of regret, but no actual words.

Steve shakes it off and steps forward.

Calmly, Thor tells him he's been to the Triskelion three times in his life. He tells him he doesn't know enough about computers to even begin to hack SHIELD. He chuckles. "I'm the most vocal opponent of the death penalty in this country. Do you really think I'd just hand over Banner to your cowboy president for a public lynching?"

He has a point, darling, Tony observes. No means, no motive.

You stay out of this, Steve snaps back.

"Just watch your step, Goldilocks," he tells Thor. "You've had access to a lot of privileged information, these last eighteen months, and if you do anything to compromise this country's security..."

He leaves the threat unfinished. He lets his hands curl into fists. He lets anger flow through him, hot and raw, leaving a pure clarity in its wake. Good versus evil. Simplicity. He knows how to handle this. He may be here in this strange future, with an even stranger soulbond, but this is his element. He wreaks violence the same way Tony works a crowd. This is what he knows how to do.

Sweetheart, Tony murmurs, and this time—terrifyingly—the pet name almost sounds fond, we have got to find you some better coping mechanisms.

Shut up, Steve says.

His point made, ultimatum delivered, he turns to leave. One of the revelers is in his path, a girl with blue hair. She stops him.

"Hey, soldier?" she calls out.

Steve glances down. "Hmm?"

She spits in his face.

"That's for working for the Thief-in-Chief!" she yells, and then she pours her beer over his head.

After that it all devolves into shouting and more beer, washing over Steve, splashed in his face, pouring down his uniform.

He hadn't expected this.

He staggers back, squinting, eyes stinging. He's not here to punch civilians. He doesn't know what to do.

"Enough!" Thor roars, and as Steve finally manages to focus, he sees Thor up out of his seat. Above him, the ceiling of the club crackles with lightning.

However he's doing it, it has to be a trick. Technology. Hell, Tony can probably do the same thing with his armor.

The crowd falls silent.

Thor's still talking, berating the crowd, and Steve's over here trying to wipe the beer off his face.

That was— that was humiliating, that was what that was. Jesus, is this how they see him? Is this how everyone sees him, since he gave that press conference? Do they think they can just push him around?

Maybe they can. A small, frightened thought drifts through Steve's head. Maybe they know he's weak. They know what he really is. They know they can get away with this. God, maybe they're right. He's dizzy. He doesn't know what to do.

Down the bond, there's a soft pulse of calmness. Reassurance. Shh, Tony breathes. It's okay. Shit happens. It's going to be okay. There's the smallest undercurrent of no one thinks less of you, at least not for being with me that Steve doesn't know what to do with.

It's small enough, luckily, that Steve can ignore it.

Thor's walking toward him. "Are you okay, Rogers?"

"Fine," Steve spits out. Everything smells like beer. "But some of your friends here could use a little lesson in manners."

Heedless of the mess, Thor pats him gently on the shoulder. "I'm sorry about this. I really didn't want that to happen. And I was serious when I said I had nothing to do with outing Banner." He leans in. "That said, I think I know who might have released those files."


Thor's eyes light up in a way that isn't entirely sane. "My evil half-brother, Loki. A messenger from Asgard came to warn me that he escaped from his bonds again and journeyed to Midgard to do everything he could to—"

Oh, Jesus. He can't be serious. Steve raises a hand. "Thor, please."


Steve looks him in the eye. "Just shut up."

He's crazy. That's it. He's fucking crazy. That's all there is to it. He looks like he honestly believes he's telling the truth. Like he thinks he is really, truly, a Norse god come to life. Delusions of grandeur, isn't that what they call it?

Unfazed, Thor stares right back. "You go to church every Sunday, Captain. What I've got to say is no stranger than that."

Okay, that's just insulting. "Thor—"

"I saw you and Tony on television the other day," Thor says, and despite himself, Steve goes cold, wondering what Thor thinks of him, if Thor's going to tell him he's not a real man. But Thor just smiles a small lopsided smile. "Congratulations. It was a lovely announcement. And I enjoyed your speech. You had such passion in your heart, Captain. You spoke so strongly, so earnestly, about how you believed soulbonds were a gift from God." He makes a quiet humming noise. "You really believe that?"

Steve's caught out. But he's not going to lie about his faith. "Of course I do."

The words are quiet when he says them; he thinks, maybe, that he can feel Tony's happiness.

"And you have proof," Thor says, with another twitch of a smile. "Isn't that marvelous? Your wondrous miracle, why, it happened to you. Your god granted you this power of telepathy. Your god gave you the ability to know your soulmate's thoughts."

"Are you mocking me?" Steve asks, throat so tight that his voice nearly cracks on the words.

Thor holds up his hands. "Not at all," he says, like he's hastening to calm Steve down, like he knows he's going about this the wrong way. "I just mean— you believe in miracles. You believe in the numinous. You believe that men can be touched by the divine. You believe, in fact, that you have been, personally. And yet you are unwilling to extend me the same courtesy of belief."

"That's different," Steve says, flatly.

Soulbonds are as old as humanity. Even if Steve didn't believe they were God-given, no one would be able to deny that they existed. What Thor is asking him to believe goes far beyond that. It's absurd. It's ridiculous.

I don't know, Tony says. He makes a good argument.

Steve blinks. You can't possibly believe a single word he says.

I believe him when he says he had nothing to do with Banner, Tony counters. As for the rest—I mean, I don't know if I believe what he says, but he does have a decent line of argumentation.

You're an atheist, Steve shoots back, because he picked that fact up from Tony's head pretty quickly. What the hell do you know? Shouldn't you be telling me gods don't exist?

The reply Steve gets is the mental equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Shouldn't you be telling me that they do?

Steve realizes his mouth is hanging open. He realizes Thor is still watching him.

For God's sake, he just wants to go home and shower.

"We'll be watching you," Steve says, aloud. "Don't try anything."

He turns and walks away, leaving Thor behind him.

That didn't go at all like he thought it was going to.

After that, everything seems to happen with blinding speed. It feels like it's hardly any time at all before the team is gathered in Tony's penthouse for what surely has to be the worst Ultimates party ever—watching Bruce's trial.

Tony invited them over because—so he said—he had the largest television, but his mind is, literally, an open book to Steve, and Steve knows he just didn't want to be alone.

Even so, Tony's sitting as far away from him as he possibly can, so it's clearly not Steve's company he wants. In fact, Tony's sitting next to Natasha. Steve tries not to take it personally, though it's hard not to when he knows Tony misses her. It shouldn't matter. It's not like he wants Tony; why should it matter to him who Tony wants?

And yet it prickles unpleasantly, like an itch just under his skin, this odd jealousy.

What, Tony says, without even looking in his direction, come on, you can't tell me you don't want to stay on good terms with your exes? I know you visit Gail. There's a flash of an image: Natasha in Tony's workshop, surrounded by armor pieces, and then a syringe in Tony's hands. Speaking as her teammate, I'm outfitting her with a variant of my own armor, and the same nanomachinery I've injected in my own veins. It's purely professional, sweetheart. No need to grind your teeth like that.

Steve unclenches his jaw. He hadn't even realized he was grinding his teeth.

The nanomachinery thing also gives him the willies, frankly, but he figures that, being someone who spent six months as a guinea pig of the Army's super-soldier program, he doesn't exactly have a leg to stand on about complaining.

On screen, Bruce's lawyer is compelling, but the prosecution is utterly ruthless, insisting—of course—that Bruce must pay for the Hulk's crimes. "These were the acts of a single individual," he says, "and that individual must pay the ultimate price."

Funny things, euphemisms. They want Bruce dead. These people who have never killed anyone, who don't have the slightest clue how it feels—they want Bruce to die at their command and they can't even say it.

"Turn it off," Jan says, disgusted.

Steve changes the channel.

They all know how it's going to be, anyway.

"Banner's never going to get away with this," Tony says, draining his martini. "That blind lawyer he found himself makes great TV, but it's really just a formality at this stage."

Natasha mutters something under her breath about doom and gloom—but, really, can't she see where this is going?

"Of course he's going down," Steve says. "They need a scapegoat."

Glad you finally agree with me about something, Tony says. I wish it could be under better circumstances.

Steve watches Tony get up and fix himself another drink. It's that kind of day.

When he looks up, Thor's on screen, being interviewed on one of the news programs. He's saying the trial is a distraction. "The real atrocity in the cards," he says, "is superhuman troops in the so-called rogue states. Our primary concern should be rumors of the Ultimates being deployed in Syria and Iran." His gaze implores the audience. "This team wasn't put together to stop burglars and bank robbers."

Natasha laughs and gestures at the screen. "What a moron. Can you believe I actually planned to seduce that crank when I first joined the team?"

If she's admitting to that... well, that doesn't exactly reflect well.

Tony, he says, very cautiously, are you sure she didn't set out to seduce you?

Tony shrugs mentally. I know you don't want me, darling, but that doesn't mean no one else ever did. And even if she did, what of it? It's over.

Steve becomes aware that the rest of the team is looking at him. Oh, right. The Ultimates, overseas.

"I'm a soldier," he says, aloud. "I follow orders. If they deploy us, I'm going."

Jan looks at him the same way Natasha had been looking at Thor on the television, like she can't even understand what she ever saw in him. "Yeah," she says. "That's what's got everyone worried."

Bruce's trial lasts nine days. The verdict is swift and unanimous.

And then, of course, it falls to the Ultimates to carry it out. No one else can. He's already in SHIELD custody, after all. In his final assignment for the Ultimates, Hank dosed him up with a tranquilizer, Fury delivered it, and now they're hauling his unconscious body out of a helicopter onto a deserted aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He thinks he's gone free. He won't wake up. He won't even know. They lied to him. They couldn't risk him changing again. It's terrible, all around.

They used to be his teammates. Now they're his executioners.

And Tony is in charge of arming the bomb.

He's seen the schematics in Tony's head for the past few days, whenever he's bothered to look through Tony's eyes. Tony's mind has been echoing with a slow miserable pulse of grief, with diagrams, with the smooth shells of missile casings, words like thermonuclear and one megaton yield.

Tony doesn't deserve this. He doesn't deserve to be the one who does this, but he's the only one of them who can.

Steve sets Bruce's body down on the deck. His team. His responsibility. It should be him doing this. It can't be. Tony's standing next to him, suited up. He flew in; he's going to set the timer and fly out on his own.

This is rotten, Steve says, and he feels the grim answering reply of Tony's agreement.

The bomb, a huge and ugly thing, towers over them on the deck.

"You should get going," Tony says, aloud, as they look down. Bruce's chest rises and falls as he breathes. "You don't want to be here when the party starts, Cap." The vocal filters mask all audible emotion, but Steve doesn't need to be able to hear him to tell that his mind is a swirl of grief.

Steve wants to comfort him but he doesn't have the faintest idea how.

Steve nods once, curtly, and turns back to the waiting copter, where Hank's staring off into the distance and Betty Ross is crying on Fury's shoulder.

They take off, and Tony stares up at them for long seconds, helmet tilted up at the sky, before turning to walk toward the bomb as they lift off and fly away.

It's a clear, bright day as the helicopter zooms away from the carrier. The sun glints off the water. In Steve's head Tony is crouching over controls, double-checking settings. He's taking his time. There's an instant where Tony pauses, staring down at the board in front of him, and Steve knows this is it.

He feels Tony shut his eyes, swallow—and then Tony reaches out and turns a key. The board lights up. 5:00. 4:59.

Tony is walking from the bomb to where Bruce is still lying on the deck, and he looks down. In front of Steve, inside the helicopter, Fury has one hand on his headset, and Steve knows they're talking. Even he can't hear the conversation, not while they're in flight, but he can get it all from Tony's head.

"It just feels obscene," Tony says.

Fury sighs; Steve hears his half of the conversation from Tony's mind. "We've been over this a million times. Banner murdered over eight hundred innocent—"

"I know, I know," Tony says, and there's nothing in his mind but bleak grief. All Steve can see, for an instant, is the sun shining off the cross in Bruce's fist. "And people wonder why I drink."

God, Steve thinks. Tony. It's not fair.

When the helicopter lands, Fury's still talking, although this time Steve can actually hear him. "T-minus three minutes. Better get out of there, Stark. Safe zone's fifteen miles with a one-megaton bomb." Tony has to know that.

Steve breathes in and breathes out, relieved, as Tony launches himself into the sky.

Tony? he ventures, as he feels Tony arrowing toward him. Are you okay?

Peachy keen, darling, Tony says, though the thought is shaky. I'll be there in a minute.

Tony lands, stumbling, the least graceful Steve has ever seen from him, and the sky goes white behind him as the bomb detonates. Tony wavers on his feet.


I'm fine, Tony says. Come on. We don't want to miss the funeral, after all.

Tony tamps down on his pain like he can keep it in. Like he thinks Steve can't feel him.

As it turns out, the Ultimates are also the only people who bother to show up to Bruce's funeral, later that day. Everything was already arranged; SHIELD wants to put this behind them as fast as possible. The coffin's empty, of course. They already know there's nothing left of him.

Steve stands up there and gives a eulogy while the rest of the team looks back at him from the deserted pews. Bruce wrote it himself, a surprisingly eloquent statement about his faith, about the afterlife, concluding with asking the team to remember him. Steve's voice only shakes a little, as he reads it.

Tony sits there, head down, and never once looks at him.

It's evening by the time the funeral is over. The sky is dismal, and rain is pouring down. Ahead of him, Steve can hear Fury telling Betty Ross how they'll hit all the bars, see Bruce off in style.

Jan glances at Steve once before sidling under Hank's umbrella. Well. Steve supposes it's not his place to say—but if she shows up with bruises, he's breaking that son of a bitch's jaw. Again.

It's only him and Tony on the steps of the church. Tony's got his own umbrella, of course.

He knows what Tony's thinking about: his mind's circling around the execution. Bruce on the deck. Tony's own hands, arming the bomb. Tony's mind is an unending spiral of grief.

"Hey," Steve says, and Tony glances up, like he wasn't expecting audible speech. "You going to drown your sorrows? I'm sure Nick and Betty wouldn't mind the company."

Tony shakes his head. There's a faint, sad smile on his face. "Not sure it would do me any good," he murmurs. "No, I just want—"

His mouth snaps shut.

What? Steve asks, when Tony doesn't even venture the rest of it in his head.

Tony edges closer to him; their umbrellas bump, and Tony hoists his higher. His eyes are very wide, his face too pale. It's nothing.

It's not nothing. Come on.

Tony sighs. I just... I don't want to be by myself. It's silly. I know you don't want to. There's that same sad longing again. Loneliness. More grief. It's not a come-on, I swear. I really just want company. But I know you wouldn't, so—

No, I want to, Steve says, surprising even himself. Come on. Let's get out of the rain.

At Tony's penthouse, Jarvis looks happier to see him than he has any other time Steve has met him; he even smiles as he ushers Steve in, and then ostentatiously closes the door and leaves the two of them alone.

"I think he's glad you're here," Tony says, in answer to the question Steve didn't even need to bother asking aloud. "I think he worries I'm... not being treated right. He thinks my soulmate should be a certain way. I don't know." Tony smiles a small, almost embarrassed smile and scuffs the hardwood floor with his toe. He's dripping water on everything.

Yeah, well, they already knew Steve wasn't what Tony wanted, didn't they?

In lieu of any reply to Steve's glum thought, Tony heads into the other room. Do you want to dry off and borrow a robe, darling? I have plenty. Some of them might even fit you.

He knows what Tony's clothing choices are like. His robes are soft, elegant, hedonistic. The kind of thing someone buys to make themselves feel good. To feel comfortable. He glances down at his own familiar Army uniform. He's not even that damp. He'll be okay. It feels like it would be giving something up, somehow, to enjoy himself.

Fine, thanks.

A couple minutes later, Tony comes back in a soft red robe. He sits on the couch that overlooks the huge windows, his million-dollar view of rainy, dismal Manhattan, and Steve knows without even thinking about it that Tony wants him there. Next to him. Tony doesn't look up as Steve settles down on the cushion.

Tony breathes in, breathes out heavily, and says nothing. Even his mind is perfectly quiet, like the surface of a lake. Steve can feel the slow sadness blossom underneath.

"The first time I killed someone," Steve says, very quietly, "I was twenty."

Tony's breath now is sharp, pained. Steve. Down the bond, there's something that might be sympathy and might be commiseration.

"It was right after Project Rebirth, actually. About thirty seconds after." Steve's hands are on his thighs and he can't look up. He doesn't need to look at Tony to know what Tony's thinking. "A Nazi spy put a bullet through my shoulder and then shot Dr. Erskine, and I just... went for him. I couldn't think. I don't remember being in pain, though I must have been. I just remember being... angry. And afraid. And I remember breaking his neck." He doesn't think he's ever said it so plainly. "All my life I had been so weak, and I just reached out and snapped his neck. Like a twig." His fingers dig into his thighs. "I still remember how it felt under my hands. It was so easy. It was terrifying, how easy it was. I used to wonder what it would be like, killing for my country, and it turned out it wasn't anything like I thought it was going to be at all." He hears himself chuckle. "I bet they made a movie of it, didn't they?"

He glances up. Tony's mouth quirks, and there's a wry, dry amusement in Tony's mind. Dozens of them.

"I was shaking afterwards for hours," Steve admits. "I was... overwhelmed, I suppose. Sick to my stomach. I couldn't stop feeling it, like it was still in my bones. It was all I could see, over and over."

The movies never showed that part, Tony says.

Steve shuts his eyes. If I could have backed out, right then, I think maybe I would have, he thinks, picking out each word precisely for Tony. He's never told anyone this. He never felt smaller or more scared in that moment, when he should have been glorying in his new, powerful body. In the movies, the hero was always spurred on by injustice, by vengeance, and he had been, he'd wanted to hurt the goddamn Krauts like they'd hurt him, Erskine, America. But he'd been so frightened, too. I couldn't, though. I was already in. No going back. They'd already told me about the Chitauri.

"I did kill a few Chitauri," Tony volunteers, after a long pause.

You know this is different, Steve says. It gets easier, he adds. I wish it didn't, sometimes, but it does. Just like anything else. But this? I think this part was always going to be rotten. It shouldn't have been you.

Tony scrapes his hand over his face. Some days I still think I can't do this.

Steve looks at him, feels the exhaustion and the pain down the bond, takes a breath... and holds out his hand. Come here.


Here, Steve repeats, stretching his arm over the back of the couch. Lean back. I've got you.

He can feel the disbelief in Tony's mind, but he knows Tony needs this, too. After a few seconds, Tony scoots back, pressing himself up against Steve's side, tipping his head back against Steve's shoulder. It's a vulnerable position. Tony's throat is bared, a long, elegant sweep of skin.

The bond lights up and pulls them tighter as Tony nestles himself into Steve's embrace. He can feel everything pouring off Tony, waves of sorrow and fatigue and that ever-familiar throbbing pain in his skull, the tumor growing, making his head pound like the ticking of a clock.

Doomsday clock, Tony says, and down the bond there's a wretched little pulse of dark humor. It's a reference Steve doesn't understand, even after Tony draws a picture in his head, a stylized clock with the hands at two minutes to midnight. Never mind. More atomics than I need to think about today, anyway, and before Steve can stop him his mind shifts to his hands arming the bomb again, to the mushroom cloud in the skies—

Steve swallows hard and pushes back: Iceland, the Nazi rocket, watching the explosion above him as he falls away—

What do you know, Tony says, and his mouth twitches like he wants to smile. We've got a few things in common.

It's going to be okay, Steve tells him. It is. He can't think about Tony dying. He can't.

Of course, Tony knows everything, even the things he's trying to hide, and there's a small answering ripple of sadness.

There's nothing either of them can do about that.

Hey, Tony says, hesitantly, do you mind if I—

Tony's eyes are already falling shut, and Steve can feel him struggling not to give into the exhaustion.

Go on, Steve tells him, as gently as he can. Get some sleep. I'll watch your back.

Tony shuts his eyes and turns his face into Steve's shoulder. Like he trusts him. He's out like a light; Steve feels only the easy rhythm of Tony's unconscious mind when he checks the bond.

He doesn't know if he's doing this right. He doesn't know if he's doing anything right. But it feels right.

He supposes that's as good a sign as anything else.

Chapter Text

The next problem—because there are always more problems—is Thor. Again.

Steve thinks at first that they might be able to escape unscathed. That they've seen the last of him. That he'll confine himself to making the rounds of the news shows, ranting about government misuse of the Ultimates.

The team's next few missions, in fact, seem to have been designed to make Thor look even more unhinged, as they are ridiculously low-stakes, as these things go. Suicide bombers. Drugs. Hostages. Steve even rescues a kid from a burning building.

Sure, then Jan ends up on another one of those news shows explaining that all their missions are important, thank you very much—but, Steve thinks privately, it's a relief. Considering that their major missions so far have been the Chitauri invading the Earth and the Hulk wrecking Manhattan... well, he could use a little less of that. Even Tony seems happier, now that they're going small-scale for a bit.

They start to relax. Tony is going to chemotherapy. He has to explain to Steve what it is first. It seems screwed up that he's paying doctors to poison him, and that somehow that's his best chance of eking out a little more time. Steve tries not to check in on Tony's mind while he's being treated; he feels like he'd just be in the way. He wouldn't be able to help. He doesn't know what to do. Tony sits there while they put poison in him. While they irradiate him. Tony comes back from his appointments and vomits.

He can't think about it. He tries not to.

And then the news comes in. There's been a protest in Rome, half a million people in the streets angry about rumored European super-soldiers. It turned violent as they clashed with police. And then it turned even worse, as Thor showed up. With lightning. So much for his goddamn pacifism.

This is also how Steve finds out that the rumored European super-soldiers are, in fact, real.

And that Tony's already met them.

You didn't ask, darling, Tony says. I've had a lot on my mind lately.

True enough. He knows Tony's been up to a lot. Tony's spent nights working on Natasha's suit, a suit just like he has. Flying armor for the Black Widow. He's seen Tony sketching it out, working through the nausea.

Tony's somewhere behind him with the rest of the Ultimates, as Brian Braddock—Captain Britain—shakes Steve's hand enthusiastically. "Everyone here just absolutely loved Tony," Braddock says. "We've all been very excited about meeting you too, Captain. Did you know I used to have a poster of you on my wall?"

Yeah, Steve's heard it all before.

At least people like Tony. That... that makes him happy. It's a little strange, maybe, but it does.

They meet Captain Spain, Captain France, and Captain Italy. And then they find out why they're here: Thor.

Gunnar Golmen, a researcher from Norway's super-soldier team, gives them the truth in grim detail. He outlines how their goal was for their super-soldier to be Thor. Rather than serum, they'd used technology: they'd made a belt and a hammer. Together they gave the wearer the power to do... everything they'd seen Thor do. Flight. Super-strength. Even teleportation.

"Of all the super-soldiers we've designed here," Gunnar says, "Thor was unquestionably the most formidable and would have been the leader, were it not for my lunatic brother." He winces artfully. "Obviously you've all met Thorlief. Or Thor, as he's been calling himself since he stole my damn hardware."

Steve remembers Thor's words, where Thor had laid the blame: my evil half-brother, Loki, he'd said.

This is Thor's real brother. Hardly evil at all.

Gunnar goes on to explain Thor's theft. Eighteen months ago, back when the Ultimates started, Thor stole everything. All the gear. That's what makes him Thor.

He's a fake. He's a fake and he's crazy.

Tony was the one who told Steve to give Thor a chance, but now—it doesn't look like Tony's in any mood to be merciful. Tony is wide-eyed, and his mind is full of stunned betrayal. Steve knows Tony liked Thor; he knows Tony's taking it hard. But this is reality, and even Tony knows it. It's impossible to deny.

"If Thor was running around with stolen goods," Tony asks, "why didn't you do something before now?"

Fury snorts. "Like what? Thor was designed to be the most powerful superhuman on the planet. That belt protects him from even psychic attacks. Were you gonna take him down?"

Of course, that's exactly what Fury wants them to do now. Bring him in now. Tonight. They'll be working with the European team, and they'll have, as Fury puts it, conventional people backing them.

Tony raises a hand. "I'm sorry. I don't know if I can do this."

Steve can tell exactly what Tony means by that, of course: the image burned into his mind is Bruce lying prone on the deck, minutes before the bomb. Not again, Tony says. Not again. I can't. Jesus, I can't. He's my friend, Steve.

Steve pushes back reassurance, or tries to. We have to. It's the right thing to do. He's sick, his brother said. We can get him the help he needs. And I'll have your back, Tony. We'll bring him in safely.

There's a weak pulse of acknowledgment. Okay.

"I don't want it any more than you do," Fury says. "But the guy's becoming a serious problem."

Tony nods once, firmly. Order received.

Steve turns back and meets Tony's eyes. Suit up, Iron Man.

This is going to be a fucking mess, Steve thinks.

It is, indeed, a fucking mess.

At least Thor has the decency to let the civilians get out of the way first.

They try to bring him in peacefully. Steve's boots crunch through the snow, and moonlight casts scattered shadows on the winter-bare trees of the forest, as they come out into the clearing. They're giving him one last chance.

"Don't you see?" Thor asks, wild-eyed. "You're being tricked. Deceived by my evil half-brother. He can shuffle time and space. He just made all this up."

"Thor, for God's sake," Tony says.

Thor's babbling, trying to explain, turning to Steve, imploring. "Cap! Make them listen to me, huh?"

Steve hefts his shield. "Sorry. You're nuts, and you're going down."

And then Thor is summoning storms, fire and lightning, and then—

Steve is knocked back first, in the initial volley, battered by the elements as he slides fifty feet back through the snow.

He can feel Tony gasping, trying to breathe through Steve's pain. Steve! You okay?

Fine, Steve says. Just got the wind knocked out of me. Do the same to him, why don't you?

Aye-aye, Tony says. Steve can see the suit controls come up in front of Tony's face as he rearranges the power distribution. He's getting ready, but he's not quite there yet. Luckily, they aren't alone.

"Get his belt!" Steve yells at the rest of the team. "Get his belt! That's the source of his powers!"

He sees the blur that is Pietro, moving in. Five hundred miles an hour and Thor still knocks him back. Shit. One by one, the rest of the team takes their turn: Jan, Wasp-size, somehow ends up (oh God) in Thor's mouth. They can all hear her yelling don't swallow over the comms. Poor Clint hardly even stands a chance, with only a bow. Thor throws Captain Britain into Wanda and Pietro and they go down in a heap.

Then Tony's up, meeting Thor in the skies as Thor takes flight. The darkness glows with Tony's repulsors, with the lights on Thor's harness, reflecting onto the dazzling snow.

On the comms, in his head, he can hear Tony pleading with Thor, asking him to surrender.

"You have to understand," Thor yells over the wind. "Fury's information was just Loki screwing with reality. None of that stuff is real."

Tony raises his hands; he's aligning a repulsor ray. "I'm sorry, Thor." Tony's voice crackles over the comms. "I just don't believe you."

"Then I'm sorry too," Thor says. His voice is low, dark, final.

He raises the hammer over his head and lets it fly. It hits Tony dead-on in the chest.

Steve has a split second to contemplate SHIELD's dire warnings about soulbonds and pain transfer before it all comes down on him.

Dimly, he's aware of Tony flipping backwards, losing altitude, but all he can feel is the hot shattering cracked line across his chest. God, how many ribs did Tony just break? The pain is a heavy red mist falling across him. The pain is the only thing that exists. It feels like his entire body just dented in. He's lying in the snow, coughing, gagging. He can't think, he can't move, he can't do anything—


I'm fine, darling, Tony sends back, but the bond between them is a loop of fire, circling back on itself, everything opened up into agony.

Tony hits the snow not too far from Steve—with another rattling burst of excruciating pain—and skids back, coming to rest at Steve's feet.

Steve takes a ragged breath and drags himself across the snow to Tony's side. "Tony," he rasps. "Hold on. It's going to be okay. We can get you to the medics. Just hold on. Please." Oh, God, it hurts so much. Everything hurts.

Jesus, if the SHIELD pain test had involved the doctors stabbing Tony instead, they'd both have been benched for good.

I'm fine, Tony repeats. I'm fine, I'm okay, I've got this. Don't panic, sweetheart. See? I'm already feeling better.

And sure enough, with the next breath, the pain seems to lessen. Maybe Tony's got some kind of medical setup in his suit. Maybe it wasn't as bad as Steve thought.

Okay, Steve says. You stay there. You keep getting better, okay? He pushes forward what he hopes is reassurance, smoothing the sharp thorns of the pain, the pain that still blossoms like fire. It feels somehow like he's cooling it. He's not quite sure if that's real. There's too much else to focus on right now.

Tony raises a hand. Okay. Can do. You take care of that. He points upward.

Steve looks up and sees that Natasha—sleek and deadly in the armor Tony made her—is in the skies. Repulsors glow around her, shining, reflecting off the dark metal of her armor. It's one of Tony's Iron Man suits, custom-made for the Black Widow, controlled by the same nanomachinery Tony uses. That means she's just as strong as he is.

Natasha streaks forward, firing, and bowls Thor over. Their first hit. Okay. They can do this.

"Natasha needs backup!" he yells into the comms, and gestures the European team onwards. "Go!"

The rest of the fight is rough, but he and Tony are basically out of it for the duration. He manages to save some of the regular soldiers from the trees Thor fells, while Tony lies panting in the snow. It's not enough.

The reinforcements fall, and Thor is rising into the skies, lightning crackling around him.

"I came here to save the world," Thor roars into the darkness, "and all you've done is try to crucify me!"

God. He's going to kill them all.

Well, Tony breathes, a pained and crooked thought, it was nice knowing you, darling—

Steve can just barely see movement at the perimeter. Wanda and Pietro. Pietro's movements are slow, labored, but he's the only chance they've got. Steve watches Pietro push himself up and then fall back into the snow.

They have no chance.

Wanda switches off her comms, crawls over, and whispers something in her brother's ear.

And Pietro... rises.

Thor is still ranting. "You're going to die for this, Loki! You hear me, trickster? This charade you've created ends now!"

Caught up in his madness, Thor's not even watching. He has no idea what's coming. But Steve can see it. Pietro runs, leaps, and collides with Thor at full speed. The belt is ripped away.

Powerless, Thor hits the ground and slides down a mountainside.

They did it. It's over.

Come on, Steve insists, let me see. Not looking at it isn't going to make it any better.

No, Tony says, and he knows Tony is groaning, but sometimes delaying the inevitable makes me feel better, darling.

Steve's at the Triskelion finishing up the last of the reports and waiting for confirmation that Thor is safely in one of the same underground cells that had held Bruce. The reports have taken about twice as long as usual, because all he's aware of is Tony in his armor, surrounded by the machines and technicians that are pulling him out of it, panel by panel. As each piece comes off, the pressure on Tony's chest shifts in new and distracting ways; Steve can feel it tapped out on his own chest. It's in his neck too, a throbbing ache, more localized but no less painful.

And, okay, he's just plain concerned for Tony. He saw that hit. He felt that hit. He needs to know how much damage they're working with, here.

He tries to tell himself that he's only concerned as the leader of the Ultimates, but even he's not buying that one.

Down the bond, Tony smiles, a pulse of amusement. I'm touched, darling.

So he likes Tony. So what? Isn't it okay if he wants Tony to be his friend? Tony's his damn soulmate, after all.

Yeah, yeah, Steve sends back. Come on. Look down. Show me.

The SHIELD medics gave Tony enough drugs to down a horse as soon as the danger was over; Steve can't feel the agony anymore, so Tony must be blocking some of it from hitting the bond, with either the painkillers or his mind. But Tony must still be in some amount of pain because he doesn't reply with the salacious retort Steve half-expected to hear.

The techs ease the last of the chestplate away, and Tony screws his eyes shut before groaning, tilting his head down, and opening his eyes, to look at—


Well, that's not bad at all.

Tony's chest, sticky and green with gel, is covered in mottled bruises, blue-black... but that looks like it. There's no blood. Nothing poking anywhere it shouldn't be. Steve's awfully familiar with injuries like that. It looks like Tony got hit, all right, there's no denying that. And he'll probably be sore as hell, but he's not... he's not broken.

It sure didn't feel like that when it happened.

Tony, he says, cautiously, could you take a breath for me? Deep breath?

How come you never ask me to do anything fun? Tony says, but he inhales, obediently, as Steve focuses on the bond, just to make sure.

Yeah. He's going to be absolutely fine. Ribs aren't even cracked. Lucky him.

Maybe the bond is just that sensitive, Steve thinks. That's got to be it. It just felt worse than it actually was. Either that or Tony's pain threshold is a lot lower than his. That explanation is odd to contemplate, sitting uncomfortably; he hates to think of Tony being weak, not being as strong as he is, but, well, Tony was clearly sending him all the pain he felt. That's all.

They'll just have to practice more in training.

Definitely no fun, Tony tells him. Sheesh.

Someone comes up to Tony with a bottle of pills and—oh, Tony's going to love this—strict instructions not to mix them with alcohol. Steve can feel Tony grousing.

It's okay, he tells himself. Tony's going to be okay.

He realizes he's smiling in relief, as Tony's attention shifts away from him.

Steve sighs, schools his face into impassivity, and goes back to the report. It's going to be a long night.

There's nothing down the bond from Tony for the next few hours. Whenever Steve checks on him, his focus is turned outward; he's trying to distract himself. Steve catches glimpses of news websites, television programs, even an Ultimates report, all with an undercurrent of pain, as Tony's neck and chest—and therefore Steve's—twinge whenever he moves a little farther than he should.

It's late by the time Steve finishes his reports and gets home. He suspects this is one of those nights that sleep is going to elude him. All he can see when he shuts his eyes is Thor the way they had found him, the way they had broken him and left him curled up in the snow, and Christ, at this rate they're going to destroy everyone on the team, one by one. He shudders at the thought.

Steve strips down to his boxers and grabs a particularly dry history book as he rolls into bed and pulls the covers up. Thucydides. Maybe it will lull him to sleep. It's better than thinking about what will become of the team.

He's partway through the section on the tyrannicides when he feels Tony start to stir in the back of his mind.

There's a blurred glimpse of Tony's surroundings—the bedroom in his penthouse, shadowed and empty—and then a wave of feeling. It's the same combination he's been getting from Tony all evening: soreness, pain, exhaustion, sadness. A tinge of nausea. Tony feels like that a lot; Steve knows it's the chemo making him sick. There's less nausea than there often is. And then, low and growing louder, there's a heady, hopeful pulse of arousal.

He's aware of the ghostly path of Tony's touch, as Tony's fingertips smooth over his own hipbone, near his half-hard cock. Tony doesn't dare yet to slide his hand lower. He's savoring the anticipation.

Oh, God.

Over the time they've been bonded, he hasn't felt this from Tony before. He's had years of practice pushing back his own shameful impulses, so he hasn't yet given into the sin of self-abuse while Tony's been in his mind. He's never wanted to broach the topic, so he's not sure if Tony has been doing him the courtesy of taking care of his needs while Steve's asleep, or if one of the dozen medications he's on—Steve sees the row of prescription bottles through Tony's eyes every morning—has somehow flattened his libido. But regardless of whatever filthy innuendo comes out of Tony's smart mouth, the odd paradox is that Tony hasn't seemed to be actually up for more than talk.

Until now.

The thrum of arousal down the bond grows more insistent, heating Steve's blood, and Steve's traitorous cock begins to rise, echoing Tony's interest. He can tell Tony hasn't actually done anything with his growing erection yet, but he can also tell that Tony's definitely looking forward to it.

A fact of soulbonds that has been long enshrined into history, and one which Steve has quickly discovered the truth of for himself, is that the stronger the emotion, the more it overwhelms the bond. Fleeting thoughts and passing fancies can be brushed aside or even ignored without much trouble, but deeper and heavier feelings are all-consuming. The bond pulls their minds closer and closer. The same is true of sensations. And the baser the feeling, the more primal the sensation, the deeper it goes. Pain. Pleasure.

Definitely pleasure.

If Tony decides to get himself off, Steve knows already that his own body is going along for the ride, whether he wants to or not. He's going to have to feel everything Tony does to himself.

Maybe he can get Tony to knock it off before anything else happens.

Tony? he asks.

Mmm. Tony's mental voice is lazy, slow. Steve imagines the sound of it in Tony's mouth, imagines Tony uttering long-practiced lines as he tumbles his latest conquest into bed. Yeah? What can I do for you?

Trying not to think about what Tony could do for him, Steve makes his own voice in reply as stern as possible. What exactly are you doing? It's not like they don't both know, but Steve feels like pretending they could still observe these little rules of conversation is an important thing to do. Anarchy would thrive in their absence.

He feels Tony smile. Pretty sure you know exactly what I'm doing. Orgasms are nature's painkiller, darling. I'd really like the dopamine hit right about now. Probably better for me than the opioids, anyway.

Steve doesn't know what dopamine or any of that is—he's so ignorant in so many ways, his brain reminds him—but he understands Tony's intent well enough. Maybe Tony doesn't understand. God. Tony can't do this to him. How can Tony do this to him?

You know I can feel what you're doing, right? Steve says, desperately. He doesn't mean it to sound that way, but of course he can't help sending back everything he feels, which at this point has to be barely-restrained terror.

He's expecting Tony to be reassuring, to be understanding, the way Tony's been since the soulbond started. He's expecting Tony to be nice about it. To give way, now that he really sees how Steve feels about it.

That's not what he gets.

Down the bond there's an angry, twisted tangle of annoyance, mixed with forced calm—a knot of frustration that Tony's trying to pull apart, still with the same pain and exhaustion as a backdrop.

Steve supposes he's reached the end of Tony's patience.

One breath, another, then the bond goes taut, high-wire tension, probably as calm as Tony can make it.

Steve, Tony says, very precisely, like he's trying very hard to stay level and reasonable. I do know what consent is. I'm not that kind of asshole, and I especially don't want to be an asshole to you. You're my soulmate. That... means a lot to me. I know you're not interested in anything with me, physically. Unless you explicitly tell me otherwise, I will never touch you, okay? You have nothing to worry about. You have nothing to fear from me. I promise. There's the faintest wave of reassurance, of encouragement, and a flash of sadness that Steve tells himself he must be imagining. And then the entire bond is swamped with bitterness. I won't touch you. I won't touch anyone else, either. That's how the soulmate thing works. I get that. I didn't get to choose this, but that's the deal. I'm okay with that. But what you're asking is that I also not touch myself for the entire rest of my life. Don't you think that's a little unfair?

The tiny part of Steve's mind that is somehow still capable of rationality can see Tony's point: Tony didn't sign up for a life of celibacy, and it's not like Steve's offering him any kind of relief for his needs. Tony's had a hell of day. He's put one of his own teammates in custody. Of course he wants to relax. It makes sense.

The rest of Steve's mind, however, is a stormy ocean of panic.

He can't do this. He can't. He remembers Tony, what feels like a lifetime ago, before they knew, Tony smiling at him and flirting with him and saying you know you want to know what it's like. Everything in him knots up in terror, because he doesn't, he doesn't, he can't want that, he can't be someone who wants that, that's not him—

But they're stuck, aren't they? They don't have a choice. Whatever consent means for other people, it can't mean that for them. There's no way to have something that isn't shared, something that doesn't touch both of them. There's no way to say no. The soulbond is a switch flipped to yes, permanently.

We've been stuck since the beginning, Tony says, quietly. And, even quieter, edged with something that might be anger: You just didn't want to think about it.

There's a sigh down the bond, which stops and starts again like gears changing, and the link colors with regret and sorrow.

I know it's not fair, Tony murmurs. I know that. If you don't want me to, I won't, okay? I don't need it to live. And then, the thought so slight that Steve isn't sure Tony knows he thought it: I just want you to be happy.

Tony's offer is sincere; he's not saying it so Steve will feel compelled to decline. This isn't one of those games. Steve can feel the open honesty of it; the bond is clear, unmarred by deceit. There's no lying here. If Steve says no, Tony won't do it, even though he wants to. He means it.

He wants Tony to be happy too. Even if he's terrified. It goes both ways.

And Tony's dying. Who is Steve to deny him this?

Sure, trying to ignore Tony won't be the most fun he's ever had in his life, but he has definitely had worse.

Go on, then, he tells Tony. Enjoy yourself.

He can tell Tony wasn't expecting it because Tony doesn't even try to make a joke about enjoying himself. Tony's surprise is a bright jagged shock down the bond, a warmth that is both delighted and disbelieving. Steve, it's really okay if—

It's fine, Steve insists, and he knows Tony knows he means it. I'll just sit here and read my book. It's okay.

Okay, Tony echoes, cautiously.

There's a pause, which Steve takes as his cue to pick up his book again; the bond attenuates a little as Tony's attention is elsewhere. And then the link blooms with arousal. The room around Tony is a little brighter; there are noises and flickering lights. He's watching television? There's a quiet, moody soundtrack, and then the sound of a very feminine moan.

Oh. Tony's watching pornography.

I thought you might like it better if I didn't treat you to my own personal fantasies directly from my brain, Tony says, in a tone somewhere between cheerful and very carefully kind. There's a suggestion, perhaps, that even Tony, the proverbial open book, is hesitant to share his most private fantasizing. So I thought you'd prefer it if I put on something like this to entertain myself. Nice, sweet, straight, vanilla. Tony pauses, while Steve contemplates whether he really wants to know what "vanilla" means in this context. If you don't want this one, I have others. Or I can turn it off entirely, but that does run the risk of you being exposed to my spank bank.

I cannot believe that is an actual phrase. Steve can feel his nose wrinkling. That's crude.

Tony laughs. So am I, darling, if you hadn't noticed.

He wonders what pornography Tony owns that he thinks Steve wouldn't be able to handle. He wonders if Tony's giving him too little credit, or too much.

On the screen, a man and woman are kissing. The view is a little hazy through the bond, but Steve can make out enough of the details. He sees why Tony called it sweet. They look like regular people, not overly made-up for the camera, not the recipients of ridiculous amounts of plastic surgery, and they look like they're both honestly happy to be there. The man is tall and well-built, his hair a dishwater blond that's a little darker than Steve's, and he's gently cradling the woman, a redhead, in his arms, as his hands begin to roam over her lingerie-clad body; she enthusiastically encourages him.

It is, indeed, nice. If Steve were the sort of man who watched pornography, he'd probably pick something like this. No, this one is fine, he tells Tony.

I figured we both liked redheads, Tony says, with another laugh, this one with a tinge of wistfulness. Tony's always going to miss Natasha. He's always going to miss Gail. But this is their life now.

Steve edges back a little, to try to give Tony some privacy, not that there is any. I, uh, he says. I'll just let you get to it.

Pulling away from the bond as much as he can, Steve breathes deeply and tries to focus on something, anything else. Right. He's reading a book. Next paragraph. He needs to not think about anything else. He can do this.

The pressure of Tony's hands on his body is ghostly, insubstantial. It's enough that he can feel it, enough that he's aware that someone who isn't him has a hand on his hip, another hand tracing gingerly over his bruised ribs, then higher up his chest—but not enough to provide more than a ticklish brushing of air across skin. Steve's vision blurs, the words in front of him falling away into Tony's vision: the woman onscreen is sliding out of her lacy underthings, and Steve has the impression of smooth, pale curves, the rounded softness of her generous breasts, and despite himself, Steve's cock twitches in interest, excitement that's half-dream and half-memory.

Nice, Tony breathes, to himself. Fuck, she's pretty. I forgot how much I liked this one.

Tony's arousal is a fine tracery laid out over Steve's body, a pattern matching up, a fire in his veins that is and isn't his, the throbbing in his cock and a tightening ache in his balls, and already Steve is longing for relief. He grits his teeth and exhales. He can handle this. He can get through this.

Then Tony pinches his nipple, hard, as his other hand drops to encircle the base of his cock, and a starburst of bright pain-pleasure ricochets down the bond. Gasping, breathless, helpless, Steve arches up off the bed, and there's nothing but his body and Tony's body, linked together, his world narrowed to the sharp perfect touch of Tony's fingers, like it's a straight line to his cock. He's never— he's never even tried that. God, he didn't know that could feel so good. His cock throbs again, rock-hard from just that touch, already slippery with pre-come.

Steve? Tony asks. His mental voice is low, thick with arousal, but there's concern there too. Is that— are you okay there?

Steve can't really control his response; Tony gets the entire emotional content of his mind, stunned aroused affirmation. I didn't know it would feel like that, Steve says, haltingly. I— I've never even tried—

Too late, he realizes that Tony's going to know exactly how ignorant he is. Tony almost certainly thinks he was supposed to have done this. He's going to laugh at him. He's going to mock him.

What, this? Tony asks. His mental voice is gentle. Tony's fingers trace over his own nipple again, a little more lightly, to illustrate the touch but presumably to spare him the teasing. Alone in his bed, Steve shivers with the pleasure of it.

I thought it was for women, Steve says, and he's sure Tony gets a tangled mass of feelings and associations with it. Not right. Not manly. Not proper.

It's for anyone who likes it, Tony says, easy, soothing. Onscreen, the video is still playing; the man is naked now too, and Steve is briefly conscious of Tony's admiration of this actor's muscled body, his jutting cock. I like it, darling. But if you don't feel comfortable with it—

But doesn't it hurt? Steve asks, and he only feels a little ashamed for asking. And you're already all bruised.

Ah, but this is the good pain, Tony says, which sort of makes sense and sort of doesn't. Tony pauses, and the next thought Steve gets from the bond is so very quiet that it's practically not conscious. I like it harder.

There are flashing impressions from Tony, thoughts he can't quite hold back: there are ways to make it harder. Clips like clamps, tightening down on his chest. Laughter and remembered pain, as an unseen hand strikes flat across his ass, and then a blow stings his cheek. Handcuffs weigh his wrists down. In Tony's memories, none of it hurts, not like it should. It's strange and terrifying and Steve realizes he's still hard and maybe that's even more awful.

Maybe this is what Steve was supposed to be scared of.

Then Tony's attention shifts again to the video, which is both better and worse, because on the video the woman is on her hands and knees on the bed; the man, behind her, is entering her. The camera switches to an extreme close-up, a view more intimate than any participant would see, an angle a voyeur would love, slick flesh sliding against flesh, pushing inside. The woman moans, full-throated; the man thrusts again and the camera switches focus to his cock as it plunges in and out of her. Steve's not looking. Steve's never looked. He's been so good all his life; he's always kept himself from looking, even from thinking, God, except when it was Tony, oh, he looked when it was Tony—

Oh, yeah, that's the stuff, Tony murmurs, entranced by the video.

And Tony's other hand finally slides up his cock as he pinches his nipple again. Steve can feel Tony's hand like it's wrapped around his own cock, an airy slide of phantom pressure and sensation, tight all the way up, expertly squeezing around the head of his cock. The zing of pain-pleasure in his nipple focuses all the way down in his balls, and Steve wonders if he's going to come just like this, with no one touching him. It's so good Steve can't stand it, and yet somehow not enough. He wants more. He needs more. It's a little too ghostly, like this, the pressure frustratingly just this side of perfect.

So much for reading his book.

He has to do something. He can't resist this. He can't overcome this, not when everything within him is telling him yes, that this is right, that this is good, that his body and Tony's are meant to be joined, as their minds are. There's no way to fight this. It's as inescapable as the pain had been, when Tony took that hit. He feels like he's going to die if he doesn't touch himself. He's never been this desperate for it before. He didn't know it was even possible to feel like this.

He has to. He has to.

He throws the book he was reading on the floor, kicks the covers off, and shoves his boxers down. He shuts his eyes. He doesn't want to look at himself, and he doesn't want Tony to see him. He doesn't want to know what Tony would think, watching him.

Steve? Tony asks.

He's aware, distantly, of Tony's concern. He's also aware of Tony's hand gliding up and down his cock, too far away, and it's not enough, and he can make it be enough, he knows what to do—

Steve wraps his hand around his cock.

It's like the moment they bonded all over again, but this time nothing hurts. There's no dormant connection to be ripped open; everything is there, waiting, linked up, a line joined back on itself, a circle of pleasure spiraling upward. Each movement either of them make feeds it. The sensation of Tony's hand mirrored on his own cock, so far away, draws closer, becomes more intense. With his eyes shut, Steve would swear Tony was touching him too.

Oh, God, Steve, Tony chokes out, and he can feel Tony's delight and wonder, akin to his own.

Steve arches up into his fist and pumps his own cock just the way he likes it, on the rare occasions when he lets himself give into this; his grip is a little loose, because he's always been sensitive after the serum. Anything more is almost always too much. But Tony, of course, likes it hard, and when their rhythm syncs up after a few stuttering tries, he's groaning with every stroke as Tony's fingers lock tight around his cock, thumb swiping over the sensitive head. Steve gasps and moans and he's not even sure if it hurts. He doesn't remember what pain is. All he knows is that he doesn't want it to stop.

Tony's free hand pinches his own nipple then, savagely hard, and Steve cries out. His free hand bunches in the sheets, searching for someone who isn't next to him, as everything cascades into a waterfall of pleasure, lightning down his spine right to where his balls are drawn up tight. God, he's so close already.

There's another mental tendril of inquiry. Steve?

Again, Steve says, not even aware of deciding to say it. Harder.

Tony just laughs, and the next pinch is harder, so startlingly good that Steve forgets for a second what his other hand is supposed to be doing, but Tony's rhythm never falters.

He needs more than this. Without thought, his own free hand has slid down his body, to cradle his balls the way he likes, and it only occurs to him after he does it that Tony might object. Tony might not like the sensation. Or he might think it's strange that Steve does.

Steve ventures a thought. Is that okay?

The only thing he's aware of is Tony's pleasure. Tony has long since stopped paying attention to his movie. That feels amazing, sweetheart, Tony pants out. God. You're absolutely perfect. Don't stop.

The fact is not lost on Steve that Tony is the most appreciative person Steve has ever been involved with, and they're not even in the same room.

It's like having a pair of extra hands for both of them at the same time. They're touching themselves, teasing themselves, and whatever one of them does, the other feels it. Steve rolls his balls in his hand and Tony's hand tightens on his cock in response. He can feel his own release draw closer and closer, so soon, too soon, and surely Tony's going to mind, surely Tony's going to hate that he can't control himself—

I'm going to come, he says, frantically. There's no way to stop, God, Tony's not stopping, Steve's going to embarrass himself— I'm sorry. I'm really going to come—

He can feel Tony's dazed, appreciative laugh. Maybe Tony's not mad after all. Oh, darling, Tony says. The endearment is fond now, and his tone eager. I certainly hope you're going to.

Tony strokes himself roughly, his grip tighter than anything Steve would use, urging both of them onward, higher and higher. It's amazing, it's incandescent, and pleasure lights Steve up all over, sparking down his nerves, and his cock jerks in his fist and he's coming and it's better than anything he's ever felt.

Tony's climax rises up just as Steve is coursing down from his own peak. He can feel it in the bond, pulling them closer and closer. Then it's like the bond doesn't exist anymore, like there's no separation and he is Tony and there is nothing between them as Tony gasps and groans and arches up. Tony's ecstasy, mirrored and doubled, carries Steve back up with him and Steve's still coming, trembling, as his cock spurts again and again until Tony is finally done.

Steve sprawls out across his bed, satisfied, as the last of the pleasure ebbs into an easy warmth down the bond. He thinks maybe he's smiling.

Thank you, Tony says. Best I've ever had. Definitely the most fun I've ever had by myself in an empty room. That was lovely. His mind is slow and sleepy; he's blissful. Just like he wanted. Steve can feel the odd sensation of Tony wiping himself up with as little effort as possible. Tony's already descending rapidly into sleep.

There's a parting thought, almost a dream, and Steve is sure Tony didn't mean to think it where he could hear it: Imagine what it would be like if I actually touched you.

The thought drifts off. Tony is asleep. Steve's alone in his mind. It's beginning to feel strange, being alone.

Steve thinks it's definitely the best he's ever had. Not that he has a lot of basis for comparison, even on his own.

He gets up to get a washcloth, and that's when the panic hits him.

Steve's no stranger to regretting this. It is, after all, an act of self-abuse. A mortal sin. He's struggled with it. Of course he has. But now— but now—

Horrified, disgusted, he stares down at himself, at the mess he's made, come splattering his chest. Even if Tony wasn't really there, Tony was still there, and oh God, he liked it. He couldn't even stop himself from giving in and joining him. He liked it so much he asked Tony to keep going. God, he practically begged him. It was so good. It was perfect. How is he supposed to resist, in the face of something that feels like that?

Shaking, he sits down hard on the edge of the bathtub. The washcloth drips in his hand.

Tony would say he's not supposed to resist. Tony would say that this is what the universe intends for them. But it's not what Steve was raised to believe, and it's not as if the church has changed its position in the intervening years. He did check.

Maybe everything he was raised to believe is wrong, he thinks, and that thought is so terrifying, that he'd give up everything he knows for this fleeting pleasure.

He wants it again.

Even worse, Tony wants it again. Tony wants to touch him. He said so.

Steve folds over himself where he sits as his muscles lock up in a spasm of terror. Tony would want to— God, what if Tony wants—

It's all too easy to picture Tony holding him down, Tony taking him, the bond making him enjoy this terrifying violation the same way it made him enjoy this. It would make Steve want it. And who would he be then? Everyone would know, wouldn't they? They'd look at him, and they'd know. Steve can imagine the taunts now. Captain America, the queer. Captain America, the fairy. Captain America takes it up the ass.

It wouldn't be anything he hadn't heard in the schoolyard, a decade and a lifetime ago, but this time it would be true.

Maybe it was always true, he thinks, and his stomach roils, and he has to breathe shallowly for fear of being sick.

This is what Tony meant. Even before the bond, Tony looked at him and knew, Tony looked at him and saw this within him.

He can't do this.

What is he going to do? What in the world is he going to do?

How is he even going to be in the same room with Tony? He'll have to sit there and look Tony in the eye and know that Tony knows everything in his mind, that Tony has borne witness to his most private and intimate thoughts. He'll have to work with Tony, knowing that.

They can't do this again. They can't.

At least he probably has a few hours before Tony gets up.

In the other room, the SHIELD emergency comm goes off. The one for the Ultimates.


This, Steve thinks, is going to be bad.

Pants. Undershirt. Shirt. Socks. Boots. Jacket. Hat. His Army uniform, because the callout was for an emergency briefing, and so he's heading to the Triskelion first. On the double. If he focuses on what he's doing, on the routine, he can get through this. This is a mission. This is going to be a mission. He knows how to do these. He just needs to not think about anything else.

God, he probably smells like sex—

What if they can all tell?

Steve damps down on the bond as hard as he possibly can. He's still aware of Tony, who is waking up, sore and aching, pain throbbing all down his side, just as Steve heads out the door. Tony's neck is bothering him more now. Steve supposes he slept on it funny. Maybe he pulled it when he—

Steve's just not going to think about what they did.

At least Tony doesn't say anything.

Clint's just ahead of him when he finally gets to the Triskelion, and they head down the corridor to Fury's office, side by side.

"Hey, Cap," Clint says, and then his head snaps up and he pauses and slows. "You all right there?"

Is it that obvious? Christ.

"Fine," Steve says, curtly. He hates how the word sounds, once he's said it, like he's some kind of uncaring asshole, and with effort he makes himself smile, like the entire inside of his head isn't falling apart in slow motion. "How are you? How's Laura and the kids?"

Clint acknowledges the smile with a smile of his own. "Well, they're not happy about the night callout for two nights running, but it's the nature of the job, you know?"

"I know," Steve agrees. "We'll get you home to them safe and sound. Back before you know it."

"Keeping my fingers crossed," Clint says, and then he reaches out as they're walking and grabs Steve's arm, getting his attention. The touch has an unnerving intensity to it, the way Clint always moves. Steve supposes years of black-ops training will do that to a fella. "Say, after this next mission, if nothing else comes up, Laura and I were thinking of having the team over for dinner. Do you and Tony want to come?"

The question should be innocuous, but something about it makes fear slice through Steve's chest again. Clint's asking about him-and-Tony, like they're a couple, like Steve can answer for him, like they're together, and oh, God, they were together—

Steve remembers Tony in his mind, Tony touching himself, the bond echoing it back. What the hell has he done?

The smile falls off Clint's face. "I mean, you don't have to. Might be awkward, if Jan's there, right?"

"No, I—" Steve stammers, and he doesn't know what to say. Clint probably thinks he hates him now. Probably thinks Steve thinks he's too good to come visit him. "I'll ask Tony," he says. "Thank you."

He doesn't want to ask Tony. He doesn't want to talk to Tony.

They're settled in Fury's office, and they've just picked up their folders when Fury lifts his head, his gaze focusing on the doorway beyond, where he and Clint entered.

"Hey, Tony," Fury says, brightening. "How's it going, man? Sorry to get you out in the middle of the night, but we got ourselves a little situation here. How's your neck?"

His terrified heart pounding in his chest, Steve turns around. Tony's standing on the threshold, lounging, leaning indolently against the doorframe. To look at him, you'd hardly know he had been knocked out of the sky yesterday. He's wearing a charcoal suit and a crimson shirt, and it's like some kind of switch flipped in Steve's brain, because the first thing that comes to mind is that Tony looks good, and hastily he shoves the thought back, far back, deep down where Tony won't see it. He can't be like this. It was a mistake.

"A little stiff down the left side," Tony admits. Steve can feel the knotted tension in Tony's neck, jaw to collarbone, and he grits his teeth at the pain. "But the medics gave me some decent painkillers."

Tony's hand comes up to rub at his neck, and Steve can't stop thinking about what else Tony's hands have been doing. He didn't even see it, but he can picture it; Tony arched in ecstasy replays over and over in his imagination, a record needle stuck in the groove. He remembers how Tony brought it up in the first place: a painkiller. Tony found something even better than SHIELD medicine, didn't he?

Lazily, Tony tilts his head and regards the room... and then his gaze locks on Steve. Fury's still talking, asking Tony something about how he feels about Norway, about Thor, but Steve hasn't the faintest clue what it is as Tony pries the bond wider between them and Steve's shame, fear, and regret leak down the link in a cold and dark slurry.

Are you okay? Tony asks. His expression doesn't change, but there's a flare of concern in his mind. What's the matter?

He may have lied to Clint, but lying to Tony is literally not an option.

Of course, he tries it anyway.

Nothing. I'm fine.

You're not fine, Tony says, and his concern washes through the bond. Do you think I can't feel that? What's wrong? Did something happen?

Doesn't Tony know?

Steve has no idea what Fury's been saying, but he supposes it was about Thor, because that's how Tony answers his question.

"God, I don't think anybody was okay with it," Tony says, "but what else could we do? The guy was delusional. We had to stop him before he hurt himself more than anything else."

Steve tries to push back everything else in his mind. "You did good, Tony." He thinks that's what he might say, if this were in any way normal. Complimenting a teammate. That's normal, right? "You made more of an impact than me and Hawkeye did, anyway."

Heedless of the pain, Tony snaps his head around to stare at Steve. I made an impact with my goddamn ribcage, Tony says. Come on, what's wrong, Steve?

I told you, I'm fine, Steve says. He's distantly aware of Clint grousing that he has a bow and arrow, and maybe if Tony had made Iron Man suits for everyone they'd all have been great.

Tony paces toward his seat on the other side of Clint. "What's going on, Nick? What's this all about?"

It's the same thing he's been asking Steve, of course, for an entirely different reason.

"Problems, man," Fury says. "Big problems. Something's come up in the Middle East."

Christ. Steve knows he ought to focus on this. This is what Thor was warning the public that the Ultimates would be used for. International peacekeeping. This won't be like the Al-Haditha mission. If Tony's in on it too, then Fury's putting the whole team in, not just the SHIELD black-ops people. This is no humanitarian mission. There's going to be a fight. People are going to protest, he thinks. People are going to riot. It's going to change what the world thinks of them, irrevocably. He ought to care. He knows he should be worried about this most of all.

Instead, he's hyper-aware of Tony walking closer, of Tony sitting in the empty seat opposite Clint. His palms sweat. He can't think of anything except the way Tony moves, the way his body flexes, the way his hands felt on himself.

He barely listens to the briefing. He understands the most vague of details: there are nuclear weapons. He doesn't even remember what country. They're disarming them. Okay. He can do that. He can definitely do that. He can—

What the hell is the matter with you? Tony says.

"Dismissed," Fury says.

They make their way out, Steve and Tony trailing far behind Clint, who's heading down to start getting his gear together. Steve wonders if that's what he should be doing. He wasn't paying attention. He can't think. God, maybe he shouldn't be on this mission. He'd have to tell Fury why. He can't do that. What is he supposed to say, I sort of slept with my soulmate and I'm unfit for duty? That's not going to go over well. He's fine. He's got to be fine.

Just before they get to the elevator, Tony reaches over, grabs a fistful of Steve's collar, and drags him sideways. He's pulling Steve down the corridor, past a long line of closed doors. His mind is sharp, cutting, precise: a spearpoint of anger. At the end of the hall, Tony opens the last door with his other hand and yanks Steve inside.

It's an empty conference room. Tony slams the door shut behind both of them.

"Talk," Tony snaps, and his voice crackles with the same controlled fury that pulses down the bond. "Because you're fucking falling apart, and there is no way you should be on this mission in the state you're in, and if you don't tell me what's wrong, I'm going to walk right back into Fury's office and tell him to scratch you."

Desperation spikes through Steve. "You wouldn't."

Tony glares at him, holds the glare for another few seconds, and sighs, miserably. "I don't get it. You were fine a couple of hours ago—"

Steve can't hold it back anymore. The bond is forced wide between them, filled with Steve's memories, with Steve's panic, with all of his regrets. Everything Tony wasn't awake to see. Him sitting in the dark, knowing this was a mistake. Tony actually steps backwards, reeling, wide-eyed, blinking as it all hits him.

There's a feeling from Tony that might be horror.

"I asked you," Tony says under his breath. "I asked you, and you said yes. I asked, and you— Jesus Christ, Steve." He looks up, and says quietly, miserably, "Did I coerce you? Do you think I— do you think I made you? That you did it against your will? Is that how you feel?"

Steve shakes his head. "No, but I— it was a mistake, okay?" His voice is harsh. He gave into temptation, and they both know it. "I'm not— you have to understand, I'm not like that, Tony—"

The bond lights up with that cool, precise anger once again, and Tony inhales sharply and meets his gaze. "Not like what, darling?" Tony says, and Steve remembers the way Tony stalked toward him, the way his desire was a weapon. Tony doesn't touch him this time. He doesn't need to. "Not queer? Not like me?" He chuckles. "Darling, I don't know what you think we did, but the way I see it, that was the least gay thing about this bond of ours. You jerked off. I jerked off. We were in separate rooms. We were in separate boroughs."


"Yes, you could feel me," Tony says, and Steve flushes with the memory. "I could feel you too. There was nothing either of us could do about that. But I went to boarding school, darling. Being overheard is something I'm very familiar with." He smiles suddenly, sly and sharp. "You going to tell me that never happened in the Army? Hundreds of gorgeous lonely men, and you never once listened to them—"

"No," Steve says, as fast as he can, because he was good, he was always good. He didn't try to listen. He didn't. He had Gail. He wasn't a queer. What the hell is Tony implying? Why would he say that?

Tony snorts like he doesn't believe him. "Anyway. My point is that I at least can tell the difference between that and being with someone who actually wants to be with you. And if you stopped panicking for one fucking second, I think you could too. It's like night and day."


Tony steps forward. Tony's leaning in. Tony's mouth is bare inches from Steve's. Steve wants to push him away, but he's frozen. Tony can do whatever he wants to him.

"The offer hasn't changed, darling," Tony murmurs. Steve can feel his breath. "All you have to do is ask me for it. You just let me know if you want to know what it's like."

Steve swallows hard. "No."

Tony nods once, like he expected this. And then he steps back. "Then I'm asking as your teammate, Captain: are you good to go?"

Right. The mission. He's okay. He has to be okay. He can do this. He pushes back everything else, shoves it down so hard he can't see it, all the thoughts and feelings and half-formed longing. There's nothing there now but calmness.

"I'm ready."

Something flickers in Tony's eyes. "That's not good for you, you know."

"Do I tell you what to do with your brain?" Steve growls.

The bond grows a little lighter as Tony pulls back from it. Tony smiles a sad half-smile. "Well, you can't blame me for trying."

What the hell does Tony want from him?

Steve steps back and draws himself up. "Go suit up."

Tony nods again. "Yes, sir."

After a few seconds, Tony lets himself out, and Steve stares blankly at the spot where Tony was. He imagines he can still feel the heat of Tony's breath on his skin.

The first half of the mission goes to plan.

Steve's the first one in, infiltrating the facility. Shield out, he makes it to the control room with a two-minute lead on the guards, which should be exactly enough time, assuming all the calculations of their patrol routes are right. There are five men in the control room; Steve takes them out with one brutal throw of his shield.

The noise will bring the guards running. They calculated this, too.

He drags the closest man out of his chair and sits down at the main computer.

Don't forget to double-check the perimeter defenses, Tony says, in his head.

Steve scowls. I know what I'm doing. We talked about this. Or do you think I still haven't figured out computers yet?

With a few keystrokes, he turns off the perimeter defenses, the surface-to-air missiles, and—oh, there are more bombs. The team's going to be glad he got rid of those.

It's my ass on the line if you haven't, Tony says. So forgive me for being concerned.

That... that really stings. He knows he's smart, but he's not a genius like Tony. Tony knows that. Tony doesn't need to rub his face in it. Tony doesn't need to act like he thinks Steve can't follow simple instructions.

There are footsteps pounding down the hall.

Leave me alone, Steve says. Your goddamn defenses are off, okay? I'm getting out.

There's a wave of chagrin. Steve, I didn't mean—

Leave it, Steve says, and he opens the comms. "Cap to base. All ground-to-air defenses have been disabled, along with a couple of little tricks these guys had up their sleeves."

"Still no trouble from the locals, Cap?" Fury asks, in his ear.

"Security spotted me fifteen seconds ago, but they'll need a full half-minute to react and cock their weapons," Steve says. He hears the guns behind him. Right on schedule. "Okay, Quicksilver, we're good to go."

He breathes in, he breathes out, and Pietro slams into him. Steve pushes up onto Pietro's back, he wraps his arms around Pietro's shoulders, and Pietro takes off, carrying Steve away at top speed.

That's about when it starts to go wrong.

They've done this a dozen or so times in training. Pietro can carry anyone who isn't wearing a goddamn suit of armor, and he has definitely done so to Steve. The vertigo is familiar, as is the dizzying rush of his surroundings, everything too slow and too fast at the same time. It's not that it's not strange. But he knew it was going to be strange. They've practiced.

But all of a sudden, he can't take it. And it's not just him. It's not him at all. Tony can't take it. He realizes Tony's never done this before; they've never been bonded when Steve has tried it. Steve has already pulled back so hard that he can barely feel the bond. He can't imagine that it could affect Tony much. Shouldn't Tony be exposed to this and more in flight? He's already flying, right now.

I don't think I feel very, Tony says, slowly, dazed, like each word is killing him to say, and then he doesn't finish the sentence.

Steve does the exact wrong thing.

He knows what he needs to do. The bond is trying to pull them closer together. He can feel the pull, a bone-deep yearning. Tony isn't getting enough context from Steve's brain to process being carried through the base at several hundred miles an hour and his body is going haywire trying to compensate. If Steve let him in, Tony could balance. He can see the blocked bond like a closed door between them. All he has to do is open up.

Steve pulls back more, in a burst of panic. He can't let Tony in, he can't, he can't let Tony see anything inside him, he can't let Tony know how he feels—

The bond creaks and scrapes, an aching disjoint jangling, and it feels like Steve's carving out his own heart, and then—nothing. Blackness. He's out. Tony's unconscious.

"Iron Man's dropping!" Clint says, low and urgent. Clint's in a jet, keeping pace with the rest of the fliers who are coming in to take out the nukes. "Shit! Somebody catch him!"

Pietro stumbles through a hole in the fence and dumps Steve in the sand just outside the base. It's much closer than he was supposed to be to the action. He hopes he's out of the blast radius. Pietro is sweating.

"I have him," Wanda says, and on the horizon, Steve sees a scarlet light.

The bond flickers, pain and nausea coming through in jagged waves, interspersed with darkness, as Tony slides in and out of consciousness, felled by Steve's pain, and worse, by Steve's panicked flailing. The bond itself hurts.

Steve lies on his back in the sand, gasping.

"Someone get Stark off the field," Fury orders. "Everyone else, proceed with the mission as planned. Cap, how are you holding up? You're far enough from ground zero but you need to start the civilian evac."

Steve toggles the comm channel open but doesn't have the energy to do more than breathe. The bond keeps trying to draw them together and it's like they're both still bleeding where he tried to rip them apart. He feels it as Tony finally hits the ground, eased slowly down by Wanda's powers, and he seizes up and can't speak.

"I don't think Cap's going to be much help," Pietro says. He's still sweating, and his skin is a sickly gray-green, but at least he's upright.

Fury says something very impolite about Steve's mother.

Steve doesn't even have the energy to open his mouth.

"You promised this soulbond would not interfere with your duty to the Ultimates, Captain," Fury says, very sternly, and he sighs. "Right. Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, get these two idiots out of here. They're in the way."

He's failed.

Six hours of being dead weight on the mission and waiting in the medical tent, curled up next to Tony's half-conscious body, because the strained bond wouldn't let him be anywhere else until Tony woke up, which he finally did as they were rolled onto the plane. Eight hours of flying back to the States. A good twenty minutes of being chewed out by Nick Fury, with Steve promising everything he could think of to keep his place of the team.

And now he's here.

Tony's propped upright in one of SHIELD medical's more comfortable beds. There's an IV in the back of his hand and a cut on his forehead, held together with a butterfly bandage. Steve can't see any of the bruising from the Norway fight on him, but he supposes Tony's hospital gown must cover it. He can't really feel it, either. Must be the painkillers.

Tony runs his free hand through his hair and comes up with a tangle of strands in his fist, and he's losing his hair, he's losing his hair from the cancer treatments. He could have died just now but he's already dying, he's already dying and Steve can't think about that—

Tony's glaring at him.

What the fuck were you thinking? Tony says, and even with the drugs, his anger is sharp and precise, and the only thing he can think is that he is pathetically grateful Tony doesn't want to hold this conversation aloud where everyone would be able to hear them. That was a shit call, Cap. That was the shittiest call. I thought you were supposed to be the most brilliant tactical mind ever. How the hell did you come up with that? You dropped me. The bond goes dark with betrayal. I needed you, and you knew it, and you fucking dropped me.

I made the call I thought fit the situation, Steve says, and he knows it's pure bluster, and he knows Tony does too, but he doesn't know what he is if he just gives up, if he surrenders, if he rolls over.

It was easier to talk to Fury. At least Fury didn't know in his heart that Steve had been lying.

Bullshit. Tony's lips peel back in a grimace. You knew what you needed to do. You can't have missed it. But you were terrified to let me in, so you drew back, and now we both get to know what it feels like when you try to rip a soulbond apart because God forbid you trust me enough to open up even the smallest bit. He raises an eyebrow; the motion pulls at the cut on his forehead. Is it too gay for you, darling?

Steve grits his teeth. Tony.

Look. Tony sighs. I know you don't believe I'm capable of holding anything sacred, but you're my soulmate. That means something to me. And whether you like it or not, you mean something to me. I don't want to hurt you. You have to understand that. And anything I see inside your head, I plan to take to my rapidly-approaching grave. His smile is fey. But you have to trust me, or none of this works. Not you, not me, not the Ultimates. Nothing.

Steve can count on one hand the number of times he's seen Tony be earnest like this. He thinks, all in all, that he would have preferred the insults. Those were simple. The bond is a little clouded with the drugs, but he can practically taste Tony's determination.

I'm sorry you got hurt because of me, Steve says, finally, offering up the apology with all the sincerity within him. I'll do better.

Tony smiles a very small smile. It's a start.

Steve looks at Tony for one second, two, and then pulls out the chair at the side of Tony's bed and sits down next to him.

Tony frowns up at him. "This isn't the point where you want to leave?" His voice is raspy. Steve wonders if they've been bringing him enough water. He wonders if he should offer.

He owes it to Tony to try to do a better job.

He clears his throat.

"Do you want to come to dinner with me?"

Tony blinks up at him. The soulbond sparks bright with surprise, pleasure, and then an odd kind of dubious distrust. Tony licks his lips and doesn't say anything, and the bond begins to swirl with confusion.


"Don't take this the wrong way, darling," Tony says, carefully, "but you're sending a lot of mixed signals right now." He glances over and meets Steve's eyes. You don't have to ask me if you don't want to, you know.

Steve shifts in his seat. Of course Tony can tell if he's reluctant.

"Not— not like that," he says, and his voice is surprisingly hoarse. "I mean, uh. Clint said he was having the team over for dinner. He wanted to know if we were interested." He holds forth the memory: walking down the hall toward Fury's office, and then the invitation.

There's a brief burst of something that might once have been disappointment, rapidly quenched—Tony can't have really wanted him like that, can he?—and then Tony smiles.

"Of course."

He doesn't see Tony at all for the next few days. He doesn't hear much from him, either. The bond stays quiet and calm in the back of Steve's mind; whenever Steve checks in on him, Tony's not doing anything unusual. He's signing papers at SI, working on his suits, conferencing with Fury at the Triskelion. Going to chemotherapy again. Going to radiation therapy again. One day, two days, then three pass in this manner. Steve hits the gym a lot.

Clint sends out a reminder email on the team listserv that afternoon: dinner tonight, 8 o'clock sharp.

Tony, naturally, writes back and offers to bring his most expensive wine. At least Steve doesn't need to wonder if Tony's seen the invitation.

I'll pick you up at seven, darling? Tony says, about five minutes after Steve gets the email. Oh, and let me know if you want me to say hi to Thor for you.

Bemused, Steve tugs on the bond a little—more than he's dared to since the aftermath of the Norway mission—and looks through Tony's eyes. Tony's in one of the Triskelion's high-security areas, on an elevator descending rapidly into the basement, where the heavy-duty holding cells are. Bruce had been kept there; now it's Thor's home.

Which, of course, everyone in the world knows. There have been protestors outside the Triskelion since the Norway mission, chanting Thor's name. They doubled in number after the news broke about the Ultimates' involvement in the Middle East.

When Steve checks in again, Tony's not really having much luck. Tony's felt lousy about this since Norway; he liked Thor a lot. Naturally, they start off fighting about the nukes in the Middle East, but Tony redirects. He's come to clear the air, he says.

Thor looks at Tony, and through Tony's eyes Steve sees the same crazed glint of conviction that he had seen back in Norway. "I am Thor, god of thunder, son of Odin, and half-brother to the wretched Loki, god of mischief."

"Oh, for God's sake," Tony says. Steve is inclined to agree.

"I came here to save the world from the war to end all wars." Thor's overheard voice is final, commanding. "We still have time to stop this."

Tony gets up to leave. Thor's still talking.

"Tell your boss he has a wolf in his fold," Thor says. "Tell him he has one last chance before the other side retaliates."

The door closes behind him.

Steve can feel Tony's mental wince. Sorry you had to see that.

I'm sorry too, Steve says. I know he was your friend. It all matches up perfectly with what that researcher had said. Delusions of godhood. Here he is, probably blaming Loki again. But— the wolf in the fold, he wasn't saying that before, was he? Steve frowns.

Thor was only ever blaming Loki. Now he's saying there's someone in SHIELD. Maybe someone in the Ultimates.

I don't think so, Tony says, as he steps into the elevator. They vetted us all six ways to Sunday. Same for the regular SHIELD personnel. Nick runs a tight ship.

Steve realizes he's still frowning. You're not going to tell Fury?

There's the very distinct sensation of an apathetic shrug. I'm sure he knows. He's got a dozen different cameras on the cell. And three different guards heard him. Tony pushes forth a small bubble of reassurance. Relax. We've got this. It's exactly as true as everything else Thor has been saying.

Steve just hopes Tony is right.

"Steve! Tony!" Laura says, beaming. "We're so happy you could make it!"

"Glad to be here," Steve says, and he hands over Tony's bottle of—hopefully not too expensive wine—as Tony steps in behind him, greets Clint and Laura, and then promptly crouches down to say hello to Nicole, Lewis, and Callum.

"Hey, kids!" Tony says. "How's it going?"

Callum's eyes are comically wide. "I saw you on television! You and Captain America!"

Tony grins. He looks—and feels—honestly delighted. "You did?"

"Uh-huh." Callum nods, excited. "On the TV they said you had a soulbond! What's it like? Is it nice?"

Steve glances over at Clint; his expression flickers, stricken. "Uh, Callum," Clint says, quickly, "you shouldn't ask Mr. Stark things like that. It's very personal." Clint knows they've been having difficulties. The entire team does. It's not some storybook romance. It's not any kind of romance.

But Tony just smiles. "No, no, it's fine," Tony says, easily. "It's nice. I really like Captain America. It's good to have him around. I like it."

Callum stares up and up at Steve, his eyes even wider.

"Hi?" Steve says, awkwardly. He never really knows what to say around kids.

Clint bends down and turns Callum around, pushing him in the direction of the hallway. "Hey, kiddo, go wash up before dinner, okay?" He stands up and grimaces. "Sorry about that."

"No problem," Tony says, easily. "It's fine. I like kids."

You really do, don't you? Steve asks. It seems so unlike Tony. Hidden depths, he supposes.

I really do, Tony says. And then, quieter: I like you too, you know. And this time it just feels nice when he says it. There's no pressure. No agenda.

Steve feels himself smile. Maybe this isn't all bad.

The dinner is, surprisingly, a good time. Shop talk has been strictly banned—Clint's family doesn't have the clearance for it anyway—and that means no one is musing about Thor's fate, or discussing the increasingly alarmist news reports about the future of the Ultimates, and they're definitely not discussing how Steve screwed up the last mission.

Steve has been seated next to Tony, of course; there's not a lot of room around the table, and Tony's sitting close to him. Tony's thigh is pressed up against his. It doesn't make Steve as uncomfortable as he thought it might; the bond is quiet, easy, calm, and as Tony shifts and leans into him, gesturing with his glass as he talks, Steve just feels calmer as the bond intensifies, the closer Tony gets to him.

The rest of the team doesn't seem to mind, if they've even noticed. Maybe Tony was right about this being normal now. Maybe no one's going to judge him.

Jan's on Steve's other side, and she grins and passes the carrots. "How are things? Tony treating you well?"

"Oh, you know," Steve says. "Perfect gentleman."

Thank you, Tony interjects.

Jan's smile is still pleasant. "I thought he might be."

"And you and Hank?" Steve asks. "Are you— are you two back together—"

She shakes her head. "Not officially. But we went out to lunch today. He— you don't need to worry about anything, okay?"

Steve isn't sure whether to believe that, but Jan made it clear the last time that she hadn't wanted him to interfere in their domestic disputes. Hank's not here, of course; he's still off the team. Steve has no idea what he's up to; last he heard, Hank was inventing some kind of robot.

"Okay," Steve says. "Just take care of yourself, okay?"

"Same to you," Jan says, and she glances back past him, a significant look in Tony's direction.

Steve realizes all of a sudden that he doesn't miss Jan. Not like he did the day she left him. He remembers the profound, aching grief, the same way he felt when he woke up in the future, when he found out Gail and Bucky were soulmates. It doesn't hurt anymore.

There's a little wave of encouragement down the bond, a burst of positive feeling. Glad to hear it, Tony says, in his head, where no one else can hear.

Tony said he cared about him. And he doesn't know— he doesn't know what they're doing together, what they're going to do. But Tony wants him to be okay, and that's got to be worth something.

And then Tony takes him home, and everything goes wrong.

Tony had picked him up at his apartment; Tony is kind enough to take him back on his way home.

"Thank you," Tony says, as Steve is sitting there with one hand on the car door handle. "I had a lovely evening."

"Do you want to come up?" Steve blurts out, and then he realizes what it sounds like. "I, uh. I mean."

Tony smiles. No, I know, he says. And I would love to.

They're about ten feet from the door to Steve's building when Steve passes the newspaper kiosk, and that's when he sees it. The cover of the newspaper is a picture of Tony and Natasha at an outdoor cafe. The headline, splashed across the paper in inch-high letters, reads: TROUBLE IN SOULMATE PARADISE? STARK SPOTTED WITH EX.

The bottom drops out of Steve's stomach, and suddenly his good mood dissolves into panic and terror.

Steve? Tony asks. The bond colors with concern. Steve, what's wrong?

And then Tony catches sight of the kiosk. His mind clouds with a weary resignation, and distantly, jealously, Steve wonders why Tony isn't angry. Why Tony doesn't feel anything about this.

"Oh, hell," Tony says. "It's lies. Tabloids are filthy lies. Don't give it another thought, okay?" He wraps his hand around Steve's arm and attempts to move him on.

But Steve, of course, is stronger, and he doesn't let Tony push him. He fumbles in his pocket for spare change. He needs to read this. He needs to know what people are saying about him. He needs to know what's going on.

No, you don't, Tony insists. Please, Steve, come on. It's not going to make you feel better, and it's not true. Leave it alone.

"Don't tell me what to do," Steve snarls, and Tony backs away instantly, hands up, like Steve's holding a gun on him. There's a spike of emotion through the bond, harsh and intense, full of too many feelings for Steve to make sense of; it feels like walking into battle.

Steve retrieves a paper, but it's too dark to read out here. His hands are shaking. He's crumpling the paper. He has to get inside. He has to read it. He has to see it for himself.

He takes the stairs two at a time and Tony follows on his heels. Steve wants to tell him to leave but he can't make himself say it. He slams the door shut behind them, flips on the light, and spreads the paper out on the table. Tony follows him closer, but still stays just out of reach. He doesn't try to touch Steve again.

"Tony Stark seen enjoying lunch with his former flame, the mysterious and sultry Natasha Romanoff," Steve reads. "Could these two lovebirds still harbor feelings for each other?" He can't get out any more of it; his throat closes up.

"You know it's not true," Tony says, desperately. His face is pale, his eyes wide. The bond is full of bleak despair, the whispering edges of memories of betrayal. "Come on, Steve, you know it's not true. They print all kinds of shit these days." He swallows hard. "I did go to lunch with Natasha, but it was Ultimates business. I was getting an update on her nanomachine integration and comparing it with mine. She needs it to pilot the suit." He raises a trembling hand, he taps the side of his head. "You'd know, remember? You'd know. You're my soulmate, Steve. I can't lie to you. I can't be unfaithful to you, not without you knowing. And— and even if I could, I wouldn't. I swear."

"That's not—" Steve begins, but he can't exactly say what it's not. The idea of Tony being faithful to him when there's nothing between them makes his stomach knot up in a way that's amazing and terrifying at the same time.

Tony holds out his hand. You can tell, he pleads, you can tell how I feel—

A tangle of feelings and memories tumbles down the bond.

The outer layer of it is Natasha, fragmented images of a lunch meeting, of facts and figures on a sheet of paper, Tony's usual tech talk. There's his usual intent focus in the memory, the way he feels when he's deeply concerned with figuring something out. Concerning Natasha, there are flickers of wistfulness but not much more.

Underneath the outside... is Steve. What Tony thinks of him. There's an image of him, unconscious in a SHIELD recovery room, the day they met. There's him in combat. Him the night Tony first invited him over. Respect. A slow, dawning fondness. And—

Steve pushes it away. He doesn't want to know what Tony thinks. He can't bear it.

He swings his head in denial, and his gaze alights again on the newspaper.

"A source close to the Ultimates has reported that Stark and Rogers' relationship, particularly troubled, has forced this interesting compromise," Steve reads. "'Of course Cap knows exactly what his soulmate is doing,' our source said. 'How could he not? But he comes from a different time. Everyone knows that Tony Stark, international playboy, has certain needs. And Cap's very straitlaced. He's not enough for Tony. He's not capable of this. Of course—'" Steve breaks off. He can't keep talking.

Of course he can't satisfy Tony Stark, Steve finishes. He wouldn't even know where to start.

Steve can feel all the blood drain out of his face. It's his own private terror, his deepest insecurity, his most humiliating weakness brought to life in front of him. He can't do this. He doesn't know what he's doing. He's not a real man. He can't make anyone happy, not even his soulmate. And the entire world knows.

Steve's shaking hard. His heart's beating too fast. He can't breathe. He has to run. He has to get out of here. He doesn't know what to do.

Steve, please, Tony insists. It's not true. None of that is true.

"But— but you're not," Steve says, and he can't get a sentence out, he's a fucking mess, "you're not happy. I'm not enough. I don't— I can't be what you want, I don't know what— they're right and I can't satisfy you—"

Tony's still holding out a hand, like he wants to touch him but doesn't dare come any closer. "Hey," Tony says, softly, gently. "Hey, it's not about that, okay—"

I don't want your fucking pity, Tony.

"It's not pity," Tony says.

"You can't deny that I'm not what you want—"

You're my soulmate, Tony says, and the word is infused with all the reverence Steve once had for this concept. I want you to be happy. God, do I ever want you to be happy. That's what I want. I want you to stop killing yourself over this. They print lies.

"People will think it's true," Steve says, and God, it's true, he can't satisfy Tony, Tony hasn't even fucking tried to refute that. He's not man enough and the whole world knows it. They know how terrible he is. It's not a lie.

"So what? What does it matter what they think?" The retort is loud; Tony's almost yelling, and Steve hopes his neighbors aren't awake. "You need to learn to not give a fuck what they think. They don't matter."

Steve's panic transmutes into blinding anger. How can Tony just say that? It's not easy for me, he snaps down the bond. I'm not like you. I can't just decide not to feel things because it's not fucking convenient—

You have no idea what you feel, Tony says, rising to meet him with equal emotion. And half the time you try not to feel it. Take it from someone who has a front-row seat to your brain.

Why isn't Tony upset about this? Nothing touches him. Nothing moves him. That's rich coming from you, Steve says, because he doesn't want to know what Tony thinks is in his brain, whatever he doesn't know about him. You just— you have no goddamn feelings. It's all jokes and innuendo and you don't— you don't feel anything, nothing real—

He regrets it as soon as he thinks it. Down the bond is a perfect, frozen rage, like a plane of ice. It's like dropping into the North Atlantic all over again, but it's inside Tony's mind.

You're in my head, Tony says, and even in Steve's mind his voice is shaking. Tony's mouth is a wobbling line. He looks like he wants to cry, and Steve knows he went too far. You're in my head and you don't think I feel anything? What the fuck do you think this is?

A sharp hard ball of feeling, like a bullet, assails Steve, and the bond is taut like razor-wire. He staggers back at the echo of Tony's pain. There are memories there: he's a child, his father's looming over him, his brother's laughing, and everything hurts. Tony's learned not to care, because he used to hurt so much—

So, no, Tony says, it wasn't easy. None of this is easy. But you can't let them get to you, goddammit.

I can't, Steve repeats. I can't, all right? I can't do this.

Tony lifts his head. Don't know if you've noticed, darling, but there's not much in the way of options.

Everyone who looks at him will know the awful truth. He's not good enough, and Tony's just standing there like he doesn't understand why it's a problem.

Get out, Steve says.

Oh, like that's going to work, Tony says. His face is hard, his eyes narrow slits. But, sure, let's pretend some more.

The door slams shut behind him.

Steve doesn't stay, either. He thinks about it, but it's just him in his apartment with that damn newspaper, all alone in the night, and that's no place to be. The bond recedes in his mind as Tony grows farther and farther away. He changes into civvies, gets a trench coat on, hopes he's something approaching anonymous.

The night is cold and the rain never quite stops. By the time he slides into the ratty booth of an even rattier diner, he can feel the bond go slow and dim, the familiar slurred secondhand perceptions of Tony drinking, Tony drunk, and shortly thereafter the quiet hum of Tony unconscious. No apologies, no forgiveness. Steve's not in the mood for either.

He orders endless cups of coffee. If the waitress recognizes him, she doesn't say anything.

His thoughts chase themselves in circles. He's alone in his mind and he doesn't know what to do. There's nothing to do, he supposes. This is the thought that occurs to him at some point between the fourth and fifth cups of coffee. He just has to live with it. Keep going. He realizes that this is what Tony was trying to tell him.

It's lonely here in his head.

He wonders when he started missing Tony.

"You all right there, hon?" the waitress asks, as she refills his sixth cup of coffee.

"Fine," Steve says, but he isn't. And he isn't sure what possesses him to keep talking. "I had a fight with my. With my." Soulmate is too rare. Boyfriend is terrifying. Teammate isn't descriptive enough. "With a friend of mine."

The waitress gives him a knowing look, like she's pretty sure he was talking about a very special friend. "I'm sorry," she says. "That's always rotten."

Steve sighs. "Yeah." He pauses. "I— I was unkind to... my friend. Said a few things that maybe I shouldn't have. I was upset and he was there and I guess I... took it out on him. But I don't— I don't know how to apologize."

He's scared. He's just so scared. Of the truth, right there on newsprint.

"I think maybe you say sorry," the waitress says. "And go from there."

Well. It's a start.

"Yeah," Steve says. "Yeah, maybe I should."

He settles up, tips her an extra twenty, and leaves. It's nearly dawn. Maybe Tony will be awake soon.

He doesn't take much notice of the people across the street as he heads up to his apartment. He can't even see them anyway; he just hears a lot of low voices, too quiet to make out the exact words even with his enhanced hearing.

He's inside and he's just gotten his coat off when he can make out two very distinct words.

"Breach it."

He dives for his shield as the door is blown wide open, and the squad of uniformed SHIELD agents on the other side of it raise their tranq guns. He barely has time to get his hands on the shield. Too late.

They fire.

There are darts sticking out all over him. He staggers. It's not enough to take him down, not yet, but it's getting there.

In the back of his mind, Tony stirs awake. Steve?

Tony! Steve shouts down the bond, as the agents reload. Oh, God, they're coming for me—

What's happening? Tony asks, the bond bright with concern. What's going on?

The second round of darts hits him, and he wobbles and wavers. He can't quite put a thought together. He's stumbling. Then the third round.

Steve! Tony yells down the bond, his mental voice undeniably frantic.

He's pitching toward the floor of his apartment, too drugged to raise his hands, and the last thing he manages to think is that he hopes they aren't coming for Tony too.

Everything goes black before he hits the floor.

Steve wakes to pain.

He's hanging, suspended by his wrists; his arms have been yanked apart, outstretched somewhere above his head. There's no give to whatever he's been cuffed with, so it's some kind of rack holding him up rather than chains. It's just high enough for his feet to drag on the floor as his own body weight pulls him down. The burn of muscle strain across his back is a distant, drug-muted agony. If he were an ordinary man, both his shoulders would have been dislocated long ago.

He can't think straight. He can't quite manage to open his eyes. Everything tilts around him. Whatever SHIELD shot him up with is clearly still in his system.

Someone slaps him in the face.

"—up!" a voice snarls. "Get up! Open your eyes. The medics say you're conscious. I know you can hear me."

It's Nick Fury's voice.

Steve blinks a few times. He can't make his eyes focus. He's in a SHIELD secure room. One of the cells in the Triskelion. Fury's blurred face is about five inches from his.

He reaches for the bond. God, Tony probably never wants to hear from him again, but he needs— he needs to know Tony is okay. He needs him.

He can hardly feel the bond. Oh, it's there, but it's the slightest whisper. That's probably also the drugs. He feels hints of a sharp, clear rage, barely controlled; there's worry there, among the anger. That must be Tony, because right now Steve can't feel anything himself. There's only blankness where his own feelings should be. The feelings he gets from Tony are muted; Tony is angry, but it's like an argument happening in the next apartment over. He can't make out the details. He can't even hear Tony's thoughts.

Tony? he calls out, but there's no reply.

God, he hopes SHIELD doesn't have Tony too.

"There you are," Fury says, and the minuscule scraps that are all that remain of Steve's attention snap back to focus on reality as Fury slaps him again, hard, across the cheekbone. It should sting, but he doesn't really feel it.

Steve tries to form words, but his mouth is just hanging open.

"You must have thought we were all idiots," Fury says. "Stark's deep-sea unit just happens to find Captain America. Right there in an iceberg. Just as we're putting together a superhero team." He snorts. "Some coincidence, huh? Everyone else gets vetted, but not you. Not Captain America. Everyone knows who you are. The real deal."

What the hell is going on?

"What," Steve says, or tries to say, but it's mostly just a grunt.

Fury straightens up and begins to pace around the room. Textbook interrogation tactic. "Who made you?" he asks, almost conversationally. "You look just like the original, and you match him on all of the serum strength trials. You must have been an expensive piece of work. But Stark has deep pockets, I suppose." He reaches the wall and turns back. "I can't figure out how it all went down. Did you volunteer just to get close to him? Did he just want some kind of life-size Captain America toy? He was thoroughly vetted. We had our best people on the assignment. When did you suborn him? Was it after the soulbond? Or were you both in on it from the beginning?"

"Don't," Steve says, and it sounds more like a word this time. He has no idea what Fury is on about.

"Or maybe you didn't suborn him after all," Fury muses. "We have him upstairs, you know. He ran right over after we knocked you out. He's hopping mad."

God, no. They need to stay away from Tony.

Fury smiles. It's not a nice smile. "So who do you work for, really?"

"I don't understand," Steve says. His tongue is thick in his mouth.

Fury rounds on him. "Don't play coy with me!" he snaps. "We have you on video, you son of a bitch!"

Christ. What do they think he did?

"Whatever it is," Steve slurs. "I— I didn't do it." He tries to drag himself forward, against the weight of the restraints. Metal creaks. He's almost there. If he can just— if he can just—

"Fuck," Fury says, under his breath. "Okay, boys, put him out again. Try the other drug this time. The new one."

Steve wants to protest, but then a SHIELD agent steps into the room, and then there's a needle in his neck, and then everything goes black again.

Steve dreams.

In the dream, Tony's sitting in Nick Fury's office, across from Fury himself, who isn't sitting but is instead pacing back and forth in front of the bank of windows, here at the top of the Triskelion. Morning sunlight streams in, dazzling his eyes, making him squint. Making Tony squint.

In the dream, he's Tony.

That's new. He doesn't think he's ever been Tony in a dream before.

Tony is bristling with barely-contained rage. There's a nervous tension there too, drawn and taut, as Tony worries at the cuffs of his suit with his fingers. He's on edge in a way he never is, anxious and ready to snap, sick with it—and Steve's seen him disarm planet-killing bombs without flinching.

"You can't just hold him indefinitely!" Tony snaps, his hands clenching and unclenching—and, shocked, Steve realizes that Tony's talking about him. It's him Tony's worried about. "What the hell gives you the right? Where's his goddamn lawyer? If you won't let me see him, at least let me get him a lawyer."

Steve wonders if they'll dig up that blind fella for him. He wonders if he's even getting a trial. He wonders what they think he did.

"You didn't seem concerned about going through the proper channels when we were vaporizing Iran's nuclear program," Fury says, cool, implacable. "I don't see you clamoring to get Thor a lawyer. And you were happy to let Banner stew in that cell in the basement for a whole goddamn year. Hell, you killed the guy yourself. And now you care about justice?"

Steve can feel Tony breathing like he's running a marathon, huge heaving breaths making his nostrils flare. The anger rises up in him, prickling all the way up his spine.

"For fuck's sake," Tony hisses. "What is this, Nick, some ploy to get me to admit that I like Steve Rogers? He's my soulmate. If I tell you he makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside will you tell me what the hell you think you're doing?" Tony throws his hands in the air. "Fine. I like him. I fucking adore him. Now will you please at least tell me why you decided to pump Captain America full of horse tranquilizers and tie him up in the basement?"

Fury's eye flickers. A tell.

Tony laughs, a mean sound. "Yeah," Tony says. "He's pretty doped up but I can tell exactly where he is right now." Tony's mind now is cool, icy, calculating; his anger almost always turns cold. It's strange getting an inside view. This is a very strange dream. "I'd also like to remind you," Tony adds, almost sweetly, "that I have a weaponized suit of armor. Several, actually."

The noise Fury makes is a low hum, as if he's only barely interested. "I'd reconsider threatening me if I were you, Stark."

"Then tell me what you think he did," Tony says, and, yeah, he's threatening Nick Fury. For him.

Fury keeps staring at Tony, like his reaction is some kind of test. Like he expects Tony to know. If Tony had been awake for whatever it was Steve supposedly did, he probably would have known. And then Fury says, flatly, "Four hours ago, Barton's home was broken into by a small group of very well-armed attackers. They murdered Barton's wife and children in front of him. They abducted Barton. We have no idea where he is now."

Jesus Christ.

Steve can feel Tony go cold and numb with shock.

"But they didn't turn off the security cameras," Fury adds. "And we have Rogers, on tape, in the middle of it."

"No," Tony says. "He— he didn't. He couldn't have." Tony's mind is slow with surprise and an instant wave of denial.

Fury raises an eyebrow. "What, you're gonna tell me he was in bed with you all night? I think we all know he doesn't swing your way, Stark."

There's heat in Tony's face; Steve can feel him burning. "Fuck you."

The room is silent for a few seconds.

"I'm waiting," Fury says, "for the part where you try to alibi him."

Tony sighs. "I brought him back to his place after we left the Bartons'. We— we had a fight."


"None of your fucking business," Tony says, with more than a hint of tartness. "Anyway, I left and went home and went to sleep and... I don't know what he did. But I know he didn't do it. Jesus, Nick. Thor said you had a spy, but it's not him. It's not him, okay? Whatever you think you have on him, somebody faked it."

Tony's standing up for him. Instantly. Without question. Steve had no idea Tony cared so much. A warm, dizzy feeling gathers somewhere within him.

Fury's sitting back in his chair, steepling his fingers together. "A wolf in the fold, hmm? Yeah, I saw your little talk."

"You think Thor would have told me that if it was my goddamn soulmate he suspected?"

"Stark," Fury says, "all I have to go on is physical evidence, and the evidence says it was Cap. There's video." He sighs. "Right now I don't know who to trust, and I'm not real big on trusting the word of a guy who thinks that the Norse pantheon talks to him. What he told you doesn't prove it wasn't Rogers. Hell, for all I know, you and Rogers are in on it together."

"I can prove he didn't do it," Tony says, low and desperate. "Look, okay, literally no one but me knows this, but my implanted nanomachines record a lot of baseline biological and emotional data. And because of the soulbond, for me they also record enough to get a general picture of what Steve is up to. Even if I'm not awake. And I guarantee you he wasn't on a murder spree. I'll give you the relevant readings, the specs, everything."

Tony's been recording him? God. Well, right now Steve can't say he's not grateful.

But Fury looks unimpressed. "Again, why should I trust whatever you give me?"

Tony's looking back evenly at Fury, taking measured breaths, and then he draws himself up and speaks. "If you're going to accuse him, then I stand with him. Under the law. I know my rights as a soulmate, and I'm invoking them. You'll treat whatever I tell you as if it comes from Steve himself. I am his alibi."

This one does make Fury pause. It makes Steve pause. He can't breathe. It's an old law. The kind of thing you hear about in stories. It's still on the books. For God's sake, Tony can't do that— he can't possibly put himself in that much danger— not for him—

"You'd be legally one person," Fury says. "If he's convicted, it'll be capital punishment for both of you."

Steve can feel Tony's weary smile. "Oh, I'm well aware," Tony says. "I'm also very certain he's innocent. And I will do anything within my power to get him free, and that includes staking what remains of my miserable life on this."

Tony's dying. Tony's dying anyway, and he's doing this all for him.

Fury sighs, a long, drawn-out sound.

"Right," he says. "Show me what you've got."

The dream is starting to fade, Tony becoming thinner, more insubstantial.

Tony, he calls out. Don't leave me.

Tony blinks. Steve? he asks. Were you watching that? Were you right there in my mind? You've never been that close before.

He supposes he hasn't. Opening up just felt so natural. So easy.

It's me, he tries to say, but he's not sure Tony can hear.

Steve tries to hold on tight, but Tony's mind slips through his fingers, and the dream carries him away again.

"Hey," a voice says, softly, and Steve struggles to open his eyes again. "Hey, it's okay. It's over. Wake up."

There's a hand against his face, a warm, gentle pressure cupping his cheek, and even with the drugs Steve can feel the soulbond brighten. It's Tony. Tony is touching him.

Steve blinks. Tony's staring at him. Tony is the most unkempt Steve has ever seen him. His hair is a mess. His suit is rumpled. He hasn't shaved, and his eyes are bloodshot. Steve thinks he's the best thing he's ever seen. The thought's not terrifying. Steve's not sure he remembers how to be afraid.

"Tony?" Steve says. He isn't sure if he's thinking it at the same time. "What's going on? I— I was dreaming about you." The sounds don't really come out like words, but he must have projected it, because Tony hears him.

Not a dream, darling, Tony says, and oh, thank God, the bond still works. You're innocent. I'm springing you from SHIELD custody and taking you home.

It was all real. Tony really pledged his own life to Steve's, with the old soulmate laws. Steve's breath catches in his chest. Tony did that for him, all for him, and now Tony is here.

Tony clears his throat. He addresses the intercom on the wall. "Can someone let him down, please?"

The restraints click, and then Steve is stumbling helplessly forward into Tony's arms. He'd hold him, but he's not sure he can raise his own arms right now. His shoulders are burning.

Tony huffs out a breath and wraps his arms around Steve as Steve drapes himself over Tony and buries his head in the juncture of Tony's neck and shoulder. Tony feels so good. Tony probably can't hold him for long. He's trembling with the strain of it. But, God, Tony feels so good.

"Oof," Tony says. His breath is warm against the side of Steve's head. "You're a heavy one, aren't you? Can you get your feet under you? Can you walk?"

Maybe, Steve ventures, and he meant to say it out loud, but seeing as how he can't quite talk yet, it's probably better this way.

After a few minutes of repositioning, Steve manages to raise his arm enough to throw it over Tony's shoulders, and Tony grabs Steve at the waist to brace him. Even so, the first few steps are wobbly.

Whoa, Steve says, and he hears himself giggle.

You are so high right now, Tony says, almost fondly. Here, if you wait, I'll get someone—

No. Steve interrupts him. Just you.

Tony looks over and smiles at him, a quick flash of teeth matched by an answering quiet spark of pleasure. Okay. Just me.

They lurch down the corridor together, into the elevator, down another corridor, and out to the helipad. A pair of agents help him into the helicopter. As soon as they get to the mainland, Steve sees the dark limo waiting, with one of Tony's drivers standing next to him.

"Happy!" Tony says, as he pushes Steve into the back of the limo, folding his arms and legs in like he's a rag doll. "Good to see you. Home, please."

"You got it, boss."

Tony shuts the door, comes around the other side of the limo, and climbs in on the other side. He hits a button and the privacy screen comes up as the limo starts to pull away.

I don't think I should go home now, Steve says, confused and exhausted. Nothing is making sense. I can't really walk.

You're coming home with me, darling, Tony assures him. You are as high as a kite and I wouldn't leave you alone if you were my worst enemy. He pauses. Which you aren't.

I know, Steve says. I heard what you told Fury. You like me.

The feeling down the bond is something very like embarrassment.

I like you too, he informs Tony. It's true. It's so easy to say now. And you look so soft.

He topples over, his head in Tony's lap. He was right. Tony's very soft. A great pillow. He smiles.

"Uh," Tony says, aloud.

"Shh," Steve says. "Sleeping." The word comes out garbled. He watches skyscrapers pass by overhead, through the tinted sunroof, and he shuts his eyes again.

The next thing Steve's aware of, he's in an underground garage, the fluorescent lighting harsh in his eyes. Tony's wedged himself mostly under him, and, with the help of the driver, who is holding Steve's feet, is trying to slide him out of the limo.

"Mmmf," Steve says.

"Never mind, Happy," Tony says to the driver. "He's awake again. I can take it from here." And then, to Steve: Come on, darling. We're home. Just a little bit farther.

Tony pushes him out and Steve gets his feet on the concrete floor. After a few more dizzy seconds, he's upright, leaning on the limo, and then Tony comes around to his side and gets a shoulder under him again. Steve's arms barely hurt at all anymore. He's not sure if it's the drugs or the healing factor.

Swaying and shuffling forward, eventually they're in the building proper, then the elegant glass elevator. Steve tips back against the wall and doesn't look down. Finally the doors open on Tony's penthouse suite, bright and airy as always. Sunshine gleams off the open expanse of the polished hardwood floors. Steve feels like a filthy mess, nowhere near classy enough for a place like this.

He's clearly not bothering Tony, though, because Tony keeps walking forward. He's still half-carrying Steve, but if he's tired it doesn't show.

"Take the rest of the day off," Tony calls out to someone who is presumably Jarvis. "I can mix my own drinks. And go buy yourself something nice."

"Very good, sir," Jarvis says, and there's the noise of footsteps moving away, and then the elevator opening and closing. Steve doesn't bother lifting his head to turn and see.

He does like you, Tony says. I know you were worried.

I was, Steve agrees. The thought is distantly distressing. I want people to like me.

Tony laughs. You are definitely high, darling. Steve has his eyes half-shut but he can feel a warmth in the bond, very like a smile. I like you too. Don't worry.

Can't worry about anything, Steve tells him.

Yes, I see that, Tony says, and he laughs again.

Steve's expecting Tony to set him down on one of the living room couches, but Tony doesn't turn. He just keeps walking across the penthouse, taking Steve with him. They're still going. The stairs are awkward, but they manage it.

Aren't you going to put me down somewhere? Steve wonders.

They're in Tony's bedroom now. Tony's huge and luxurious four-poster bed is in the middle of the room, surrounded by futuristic sculptures and paintings on the walls. The room looks like something out of an interior design magazine. The bed is neatly made; the covers are a pristine white. Steve's never been in here before, but he's seen it through Tony's eyes.

Yep. Tony's mental voice is brisk. I'm putting you to bed, darling. You can sleep it off.

With that, he eases Steve down onto the bed, pulling the covers back so Steve can lie on the sheets. Steve can't do much more than flop backwards as Tony promptly kneels on the floor next to him and unlaces his boots for him. Like Tony Stark, billionaire, does this all the time for people. It's sweet. It touches Steve, sets something aching deep in his chest, somewhere where he didn't know he had any feelings at all to feel.

Tony tosses Steve's boots out of the way and lifts his feet onto the bed, swiveling him over as he does so, so that Steve's head is on the pillow and Steve's body is rapidly sinking into this ridiculously opulent bed. It's like lying on a cloud. The sheets are almost obscenely soft, and everything just feels so good. It smells faintly like Tony. He realizes he's smiling.

This is nice, he tells Tony. Tony should know how he feels. It's important.

Tony's standing at his bedside, smiling down at him, a soft and fond smile. He reaches out and gently runs his fingers through Steve's hair, parting the bristles at the crown of his head. The bond, as always, intensifies at the contact, and Steve can feel the comforting, reassuring glow of Tony's thoughts. There's an undercurrent of distress from this morning, still, but Tony likes taking care of him. He can tell that.

I'm glad you're happy, Tony says, as Steve pushes his head up against Tony's fingers. He just wants Tony to keep touching him.

And then Tony draws back, and Steve hears a dismayed whimper come out of his own mouth.

"You're going to be all right," Tony says, gently. "Look, I'm going to let you get some sleep. I'll just be in the other room. If you need anything—"

With all the strength in him, Steve flails out a hand in the direction of Tony. He can't quite close his fingers around Tony's arm, but his fingertips brush the bare skin of Tony's wrist, and the bond pulses bright between them with surprise and pleasure.

Stay, Steve says. Please.

Tony inhales, a sharp and quiet sound, and then he smiles. Okay.

Steve finally gets a good grip, and he pulls Tony over.

Tony makes a surprised sound, and he tumbles onto the bed, half on top of Steve. They're pressed chest to chest, thigh to thigh, but slightly askew; Tony's feet are tangled with his. Steve can feel Tony's muscles bunch as he readies himself to push up, to roll all the way off him, but that's the last thing Steve wants. The weight of Tony's body on his is a comfortingly heavy pressure, solid and firm, not going anywhere, and it's exactly perfect. Steve manages to get one arm braced over Tony's lower back to hold him steady, right where he wants him. His other arm is trapped between him and Tony, Tony who is very close now. His face is inches above Steve's.

Steve's never been this close to a man before.

He's not a virgin, but it feels like he's never been this close to anyone.

They should always be like this. They should be like this forever.

His hand ends up on Tony's face. His fingers trail across Tony's cheekbone, and his thumb fits into the corner of Tony's lips as if it had been made to go there. The edge of his beard tickles the pad of Steve's thumb. If Steve moved his hand just a fraction more, Tony would be kissing it. Tony breathes in again and then stops breathing entirely, his eyes too dark in the daylight.

The bond is dazzlingly bright, pulling them closer than ever before. Tony isn't thinking distinct thoughts at him so much as sharing everything that goes through his brain. There's joy there, and wonder, and yet more pleasure; it might be Tony, or it might be him, and it doesn't matter. They're the same. There's something protective in his thoughts, and Steve thinks that has to be Tony. Everything feels fragile to him, Steve realizes, a blown-glass bauble of happiness, waiting to shatter. Is that how Tony feels about everything?

Steve feels stronger than ever, and he pushes some of that strength down the bond, trying to shore him up, and Tony smiles; his mouth twitches under Steve's thumb. Steve watches Tony breath in, a ragged breath, his nostrils flaring.

I just don't want to hurt you, sweetheart, Tony says, carefully, and that's when Steve realizes that what Tony is afraid of breaking is... him. You're not usually like this.

I wish I were like this, Steve says, and the thought is low and wretched. He can feel tears start to sting at his eyes, and he can't even explain why. His hand falls away from Tony's face; his fingers splay out, limp. This is what I want, this is what I've always wanted, and I don't let myself have it. I'm too scared to. I don't even let myself want it.

Tony shifts position and frees one of his own hands from where he's been using it to balance. He wipes the tear away from Steve's face. "Shh," he says, aloud, and Steve can feel the whisper of air on his face. Don't cry.

I'm a coward. The admission is freeing, somehow. That's what I am. A coward. You're brave. You know how to just do what you want. I wish I could do that. I'm not brave like you.

Tony's hand is still stroking his face, a slow and gentle rhythm. Hey, that's my soulmate you're talking about, mister, Tony says. You lay off him. He's had a tough time.

Steve snorts. Tony.

No, I mean it, Tony insists, and he raises his head until he can look Steve in the eyes. His hand slides up to Steve's hair. He's still petting him. For God's sake, Steve, last year you came from 1945, and you've had to get used to a brand new world. No one expects you to be fine with everything immediately. Of course it's hard. You've been so strong, to be able to make it through this. You are brave, even if it doesn't feel like it. Trust me, you are. I admire that about you. I really do. He pauses. His throat works as he swallows. And if this is something you want, if I'm what you want? You can have me. Simple as that. We can figure it out. We can take it slow. I'll— I'll wait as long as I can for you, okay?

The bond is tinged with melancholy. Tony can't wait forever. Steve doesn't want to think about that.

Steve tries to smile. You're kinder than I deserve.

Tony's reply is a wordless wave of reassurance and affection, and now Tony's the one blinking back tears.

They lie there like that for— Steve doesn't know how long. Minutes, maybe. Probably not hours. He's not sure what time is, anymore. All he knows is that he doesn't want this to end.

Steve begins to feel a familiar coiling heat, low in his belly. Tony's body atop his is pressing down in just the right place, his thigh over Steve's groin, and Steve's cock starts to swell and harden. He's not ashamed. He's not afraid. It just feels so good. Everything is good. This is what he wants. This is what's right. Why would the universe have brought them together if they weren't meant to make each other happy?

He knows something about this used to scare him, but it's all a distant memory. It can't hurt him. He's aching for it. He wants more.

I want you, Steve says, and the soulbond within him goes very still and careful, another image of a blown-glass bauble between them. Fragility. I want you so much.

Steve, Tony says, and he bites his lip. There's something tight and agonized in Tony's mind.

I don't know what to do, Steve says, but you could show me. I'd try so hard to make you happy.

But Tony is... easing off of him. Rolling away. Tony's next to him. Tony's not touching him at all. Does Tony not want him?

I know you would. Tony's mental voice is very soft. Careful. Soothing. But we can't, okay? Not like this. I know that right now you feel like it would be a great idea, but you are on a ridiculous amount of drugs. I don't want to take advantage of you. That's the last thing I want.

You're not taking advantage of me, Steve says. This is what I want. Doesn't Tony know that? His mind offers him up a scrap of memory, a flirtation. You said I should tell you if I changed my mind.

There are pained lines around his eyes when Tony smiles. Tony exhales, a heavy sigh.

Tell me again when the drugs are out of your system, Tony says, a little indulgently, like he doesn't think Steve will. And we'll talk about it then.

Steve can feel his mouth try to scowl; he's not sure his face makes it there. I will.

Okay, Tony says. Now get some sleep, okay?

I'm not tired, Steve wants to say, but Tony is petting his hair again and everything is soft and quiet and calm, a warm blanket of pleasure with an edge of arousal, and Steve drifts off.

When Steve wakes up, the view beyond Tony's windows is that of the night sky, of New York's illuminated skyline. His mouth tastes like cotton wool. The blankets are piled high around him, swathing him in a cocoon of warmth, but the bed is empty.

He reaches out through the bond. There's a sense of intent focus, coming from somewhere very nearby. Tony's in the next room, and whatever he's doing is demanding all of his attention.


Steve remembers, then. He remembers Tony bringing him here from SHIELD, Tony putting him to bed. He remembers grabbing Tony's hand and not letting him go. He remembers how he felt. What he said. Everything had been so easy. So simple.

He waits, but the regret... doesn't come.

He feels clear-headed, refreshed. Good. There had been something inside him, some barrier, and it had broken. It had been washed away. There's just the truth now. There's just what he wants. He can't hide from himself any longer. He doesn't have to.

And Tony was so good to him. Tony was so kind. Tony saved his life. Tony put his own life on the line to save him. That— that means a lot. Steve's served with people he'd die for, people who would die for him; it's part of the territory. But it feels different, like this, when it's not in the heat of battle. When it's Tony. Tony just stepped forward and offered his own life up to save Steve's. This is what he's worth to Tony. He thinks he finally understands.

Everything feels different now.

He told Tony his secrets. Tony knows everything, now. The thought used to terrify him, but he knows better now. He's been through the fear and come out the other side. Tony isn't judging him. Tony wants what he wants. He must. Tony must care about him. Tony must want him.

If he asked now, if he asked again, would Tony say yes?

He slides out of bed and pushes himself upright. His bare feet sink into plush carpet, then echo on the cool hardwood. He's a little surprised Tony hasn't noticed him yet.

He knows what he wants. He's not afraid. Not anymore.

Tony? he asks.

The bond tenses with a brief burst of startlement; Tony really hadn't realized he was awake yet.

"In here," Tony calls out, from the next room over.

When Steve enters, he finds Tony sitting at a table, sleeves rolled up, laptop and papers and an honest-to-God map of the tri-state area spread out in front of him. There are concentric circles, drawn with a compass. He didn't think Tony ever resorted to actual paper. It looks like Tony's at least showered and shaved in the intervening hours; he's wearing the remains of what looks like a different suit than he'd been wearing. His hair is falling into his face.

Steve wants to touch him. He wants to brush Tony's hair from his forehead, to put his bare hands on his face so that there's nothing in his head anymore except the soulbond. He wants to touch Tony the way that Tony once touched him; he wants to draw his hand down Tony's chest, but this time he wants to unbutton Tony's shirt, slowly, and he wants to slide his hand lower and lower and not stop.

He's never done this before, but it's going to be okay. He trusts Tony.

Tony looks up, giving him a once over, and there's a familiar pulse of concern down the bond. Even so Tony's thoughts are distracted, his concentration elsewhere.

Glad to see you up and about, Tony says, his gaze dropping almost instantly back to his computer, and then he goes on aloud. "Fury hasn't called us back in yet, obviously, but I've been trying to work it out. I don't think Clint's dead, because they'd have killed him if they'd wanted him dead, and I don't think they've taken him too far. But if the team's compromised, and it's not you, me, Clint, or Thor, then there's not that many of us it could be. I know it's awful, but we need to determine who. And I don't think it's a coincidence that someone framed you, even if I can't work out how they did it. We just have to figure out which of the players wanted you and Clint off the board at the same time, and what the hell they could be planning." He runs his fingers through his hair again. "So we really have to—"

Tony, Steve blurts out, and he puts every ounce of feeling he has into the word, all his pent-up longing, and he sends it down the bond.

Tony looks up again, really looks at him, and stops dead. His jaw drops. He's sitting there, lips parted, astonished, staring wide-eyed.

I think we have a bit of time before Fury calls us in. Steve takes a deep breath. And you— you said I should tell you if. If I changed my mind.

Saying it is a little scary, but, hell, he's dived out of planes without parachutes before. Tony's here. Tony will catch him.

You don't seem like you're still drugged. Tony's mental voice is wavering. But you said a lot of things you wouldn't ordinarily have said, before you fell asleep. And you still seem... different.

He feels like he's plummeting, but he can't back out of this now. It's me. It's really me, Tony. And I still want this. He takes another steadying breath. You've been so good to me, and I think... I think you'd like it too. Wouldn't you?

Tony licks his lips. He's trembling, uncertain; Steve can feel the hesitation in the bond. He's afraid to trust this. Or maybe— God, what if Tony doesn't really want this? Tony's never actually said he wanted him, not flat-out, not in any way that wasn't some kind of game. Steve knows how it feels not to be wanted. It wouldn't be new.

Steve doesn't know how much more bravery he has left in him.

Please, he says, and he hopes that's enough because it feels like all he's got.

Rising to his feet, Tony stumbles forward. There's a dazed look in his eyes, like he's the one who spent the day drugged. Tell me again, Tony says. It's not a demand. Tony's mind is unguarded, still shocked. He still can't believe it. But he has to want it. Right?

Please, Steve repeats. Unless— unless I'm not what you want?

That gets Tony to move. Stricken, Tony draws himself up, steps in close. There's a flash of recrimination down the bond. Of course I want you, Tony says, anguish in his eyes. How could I not? But Tony isn't touching him. He doesn't try to. But I don't want to go too fast. I don't want to hurt you.

I want this, Steve says again. It's what we were meant for, isn't it?

A weak smile flickers across Tony's face. Now you're getting it.

Steve reaches out and takes Tony's hand. The bond lights up, the way it always does, at the physical contact; Tony's excitement, he can tell, is edged with worry. It's going to be okay, Steve says, and he tugs him back towards the bedroom.

Tony's other hand comes up and rests on Steve's side, a band of warmth over his ribs, perceptible through his shirt, as Tony guides him back toward the bed, like he's leading Steve in a dance. The thought makes Steve's pulse spike in a way that he's not quite sure is good. He's barely ever done that, either, dancing. He's hardly done anything. It's okay, he reminds himself. Tony knows what he's doing. It's new to him, but it's going to be good. He can do this.

Tony smiles at him, bright but a little uncertain, as he leads Steve to sit next to him at the edge of the bed. "What would you like?" he asks, softly. It's a shock to hear him speak aloud; Steve had expected Tony to keep talking through the bond. Tony's voice is low, a little rough-edged. This is what he sounds like when he's all worked-up, Steve knows. Down the bond, he can feel the growing heat in Tony's body, and he knows it matches his own. Warmth gathers within him; he can feel his cock begin to stir. He knows Tony is feeling the same. Tony wants this.

"I just," Steve says, and he clears his throat, because he doesn't recognize the throaty voice coming out of him. "I just— maybe I could just touch you? A little?"

There's a pulse of warmth down the bond, gentle, solicitous. Darling, Tony says, that sounds wonderful.

Tony's still holding Steve's hand, and he raises it in the air. Steve wonders for one frantic second what Tony's going to do, if he's just going to shove Steve's hand on his cock, if he's not going to give him any choice—

Tony brings Steve's hand to his lips and kisses his fingers. The bond flares bright between them and Steve gasps at the doubled sensation, his pleasure and Tony's, their minds pulling closer together. He can tell Tony wasn't expecting it, either; Tony gives a small, surprised moan. His hand on Steve's is trembling.

"Guess the universe wants us to do that," Tony breathes, and Steve can feel him smile against his fingertips.

But Tony doesn't push it, doesn't go any farther than that. He lowers Steve's hand a little and presses it to his chest, flattening Steve's palm over his breastbone. Steve imagines that he can feel Tony's heart beating.

"Is this okay so far?" Tony asks.

Steve nods. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, it's good. It's great."

Steve lets his thumb hook inside the gap between the halves of Tony's button-down shirt. Tony's not wearing an undershirt, which seems like something Steve should have expected, but it means that his thumb brushes bare skin and they both pause and gasp. It feels so good, Steve thinks, and he's distantly aware that he's so very hard and Tony hasn't even touched him yet. Steve slides his thumb up to the first of the still-fastened buttons, above Tony's collarbone, and undoes it. Before he can second-guess himself, he slides his hand back down, and undoes the next button, and the next, and the next.

Tony's shirt is gaping open now, revealing an expanse of flawless skin. He's darker-complected than Steve is; Steve's hand is pale over the taut muscles of Tony's abdomen, which tense and flex under his touch. Tony is very carefully holding still for him, he realizes. His hand is an inch from Tony's waistband. He doesn't think he can make himself move any lower.

Shh, Tony says. Don't worry. I've got this.

He tugs Steve's hand out of the way, undoes the last button himself, untucks his shirt-tails, and lets the shirt slide off his shoulders to fall on the bed behind him.

Is that better? Is that what you wanted? Tony asks.

Tony's bare to the waist now, and he's holding perfectly still, looking at Steve with wide, solemn, dark eyes, a blue deeper than the night sky beyond the windows. Steve runs two fingers over Tony's collarbone, and Tony shivers and gasps. The bond sparks bright at the contact.

They're supposed to be touching. That's what that means.

Tony's nipples are little dark peaks, and Steve— Steve is intensely tempted. He remembers how it felt when Tony was touching himself there, the bloom of pain and pleasure. He wants to give Tony that again. He wants to feel that. He lets his hand drift a little lower, smoothing over Tony's pectoral muscle.

Can I?

He feels ridiculous as he asks. Tony's done so much more with so many people, and here Steve is at second base, shaking like a nervous virgin. He can't possibly compare. He remembers, once, Tony, extolling Natasha's virtues in a particularly crude way. Tony had laughed and raised his drink and said, in tones of utter awe, that she did things to him that he'd only ever seen in pornography. Steve can't do that for Tony. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing. This can't possibly be enough, he thinks, and he can feel the awful panic rise up in him again.

I can hear you, you know, Tony says. Hey, it's all right. It's good. You're good. You're wonderful. I have no complaints.


Tony meets his eyes. Okay, yes, he says. I enjoy sex. I have had a lot of sex. I'm the kind of guy who's tried pretty much everything I can possibly envision enjoying. But I know—I absolutely know, okay—that whatever you want to do is going to be better than anything I have ever felt in my life. Even if what you want isn't anything more than this. It's not about what you do. It's about how you feel. I'm going to love it. I already love it. You're my soulmate. That's how it works.

Before Steve can protest again, Tony reaches out and cups Steve's face. Tony's got to know how that feels, how that makes them both feel. It's anticipation and affection and reassurance all together, and Steve feels the nervous tension within him begin to unknot.

Okay, Steve says. I can do this.

Daring, Steve slides a thumb over Tony's nipple, and they both gasp. Steve feels Tony's pleasure as his own, a wave of sensation that doubles back until he hardly knows which of them is being touched. His own chest tingles, and his cock twitches in his pants as Tony's hips jerk up repeatedly and Tony's gasps are breathless just from one touch.

It's like back when they were in separate rooms, when the bond drew them together, only better, because Tony is right here. This is where they're supposed to be.

Down the bond, everything is need and stunned amazement. "Okay, I know I said it would be good," Tony rasps aloud, his voice a little thready, "but, Jesus, I didn't know it would be like this. I didn't know I could like anything this much." The yearning in him is all-consuming, the bond full of nothing but desire. Steve almost can't breathe. Steve can feel Tony aching for it. Maybe they both are.

Tony said he liked it harder. Steve hasn't forgotten. He brings up his other hand—two is better than one, right?—and Tony's already groaning from the stimulation, as light as it is, on both sides. When Steve pinches, the pain hits him in a bright starburst that doesn't hurt, filtered through Tony's perceptions, a sharp spike that slides down his spine, joining the tangle of arousal that pulses through him.

Tony's gasping, ragged and breathless. He's tipped forward, his head on Steve's shoulder, and he's shaking.

"You're amazing," Tony breathes. "That's amazing. Oh, God."

Steve feels like he's glowing. Maybe he can make Tony happy after all.

He's touching Tony, finally touching him the way he wants to, his hands sliding over warm skin, mapping out Tony's body. His shoulders, his arms, then down to his sides, hands wrapping around Tony's ribs. Tony smiles like he's drunk on pleasure, like all he wants in life is for Steve to touch him. The bond pulses between them, content. Steve realizes he's been withholding this simple human contact from Tony since they bonded, and he feels a little guilty. He needed this. They need this.

He'll just have to make up for it now.

But then Tony sits back a little, shifting his weight, and when Steve glances down it's obvious that Tony is achingly hard, and Steve's resolve comes crashing to a halt. He can see Tony's cock outlined against the fabric of his pants. God, now Tony's going to want—

It's okay, Tony says, quickly. It's okay. My turn. Let me make you feel good, okay?

Okay, Steve agrees, relieved at the respite. But I don't know what to do.

All you have to do is stay right here and enjoy it. Tony's fingers tug at the hem of Steve's shirt. You could take your shirt off if you wanted? Might be fun.

Steve feels more than a little self-conscious as he yanks his shirt over his head. He's sure that Tony would have some sophisticated way to do this, something experienced and classy. And what if Tony doesn't like what he sees? Rationally, he knows that's ridiculous; he's not an idiot, he knows the serum made him handsome. But it feels like he's scrawny and skinny again, like he's never been anything but the way he feels inside.

When he looks up, Tony's staring at him in almost reverent awe, holding out a hand like he doesn't think Steve is real, like he thinks Steve will disappear if he touches him.

You're so beautiful, Tony says, fervently, the thought barely a whisper. And Steve knows, somehow, that he isn't talking about the serum when he says it, that he'd say the same thing if Steve were still skinny and broken and limping. Tony can see his soul. Soulmates. It's right there in the name.

Tony's beautiful too, he thinks, and the thought is a little frightening but it's right, right in a way nothing else in his life has ever been. A certainty.

He lets Tony nudge him a little, pushing him over with a gentle hand on his shoulder until Steve is lying on his back on the bed. A wave of trepidation passes through him briefly—he's on his back, he's helpless, what is Tony going to do to him, Tony can do anything he wants—but then vanishes as Tony smiles at him, as the bond echoes with longing.

Tony can't actually do anything to him that he doesn't want, Steve reminds himself. He's more than strong enough to stop him. Not that Tony would.

Easy there, Tony says. Breathe. Just going to do the same thing you did to me, okay? Nothing scary. You'll like it.

Steve wonders vaguely where all Tony's confidence comes from and if he can borrow some, and then Tony's hands drift across his chest, Tony's thumb swipes over his nipple, and he can't think of anything except the blinding pleasure, reflected back in an endless hall of mirrors. He can hear himself moaning. His hips are rocking up, his cock dampening what remains of his clothes with pre-come, and he thinks maybe he could come if Tony just kept doing that. His worries are so distant now. He's smiling so hard his face hurts.

Tony's smiling down at him like he's the luckiest person on Earth. Oh, Tony says. You really like that, don't you, sweetheart? Look at you. He smiles again. So sensitive.

Steve can feel his face try to scowl; he knows the bond is a little darker with the thought. Isn't that bad? Being sensitive?

Tony's going to know he doesn't know anything now. That's his problem, isn't it, God, that was why Jan never slept with him again—

Not bad at all, darling, Tony says, like he doesn't mind being asked at all. It just means you like things a little softer than I do. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. He can feel Tony's amusement at the phrase. And it means I'm pretty sure you're going to love this.

Tony bows his head to Steve's chest. His mouth opens, warm breath against Steve's skin making him shiver as Tony trails kisses over his heart. The bond is wide and bright, a field of sunshine. Then Tony's tongue slides over Steve's nipple, hot and wet, and Steve knows he's never felt anything this good in his life. It's like a straight line to his cock. His hips hitch in the air and he's crying out, too far gone to be embarrassed. Tony's hand comes up and slides across his other nipple as he keeps licking, and Steve isn't conscious of anything but the pleasure. He's clutching Tony's head to his chest.

He doesn't know how long it goes on for, but Steve is trembling, his cock throbbing hard and aching between his legs, by the time Tony lifts his head and grins like he's just discovered the best trick in the world and is overjoyed to introduce it to Steve.

More, Steve says. Please, Tony. He can't quite articulate what more is, he just needs— God, he needs—

But Tony doesn't lower his head again. His hand on Steve's chest moves a little further south, draws idle patterns on Steve's ribs, as Tony watches him like he's waiting for a reaction. Steve just smiles at him. He's pretty sure he's still rocking his hips up. He can't stop it.

Steve? Tony ventures, the thought unusually hesitant. Below the waist, is that okay with you?

Everything is so much more than just okay. Tony knows what to do. Tony knows exactly what he needs. It's going to be good.

Steve smiles. Please, he says again.

Tony smiles back. His hand on Steve's stomach dips even lower, over the waistband of his pants. Everything in Steve swoops and lurches, and then Tony's palm settles over Steve's cock, warm and firm, outlining the shape of him through the fabric.

Steve cries out, wordless and harsh, a noise he didn't even know he could make, and he's shoving his hips up, rubbing up against Tony's palm, God, God, he needs more—

I've got you, Tony says. Tony's still smiling. He looks happier than Steve has ever seen him before. Here, let's get you out of this. Too many clothes, huh?

He can hardly imagine Tony touching him, skin to skin; it seems too wonderful to comprehend, if even this has reduced him to incoherence. He nods and nods again. Sure, it's a little scary—what is Tony going to think of him?—but Tony's mind, down the bond, is full of excitement and anticipation, and he tells himself it's going to be okay.

Not looking at what he's doing, Tony's gaze stays on Steve's face as he unbuttons and then unzips Steve's fly, and Steve exhales heavily at his cock's sudden release from confinement. But Tony still doesn't touch him there; instead, he's gently nudging down Steve's pants, and Steve arches up until Tony can work the rest of Steve's clothes off him. He's naked, exposed, and he feels warm all over as Tony finally looks him up and down, slow and lingering, as if somehow every square inch of his body is equally worthy of attention. He doesn't think anyone he's been with has ever done this, stripped him bare and looked their fill. Oh, Gail and Jan both admired his looks, certainly, but he's never been there to be looked at. Not like this. It throws him off-balance at the same time as it makes him tingle with heat. He likes Tony looking.

There's more reassurance down the bond. Nothing to worry about. Everything's going to be fine, Tony says. You seem a little wound-up right now. I'm just going to bring you down a bit, okay?

Steve doesn't see how Tony can possibly calm him down, but Tony sounds so confident about it. What is he going to do? God, what does he want from him? The endless possibility is a weight; he can feel it closing in on him.

He waits for Tony to touch him. He doesn't know what Tony's planning. He's shaking.

To Steve's surprise, Tony starts with Steve's feet. Steve wouldn't have said he was sore there, but as Tony rubs his thumbs into the arches of Steve's feet, Steve can feel himself melt. Tony's hands are warm and soft, and his fingers cleverly dig into exactly the right spots, pressing out the tension, over and over. Steve doesn't think anyone's massaged his feet before. Not like this, anyway. It's ridiculous that he could have missed this. He can't believe he's missed this. It doesn't feel like Tony's trying to tease him; it feels like Tony just wants to touch him, everywhere. Like Tony just wants him to be happy.

Steve feels boneless; he can hear himself moan. Everything feels slow and blurry, like he's underwater. He's sinking back into the mattress. He doesn't want to move maybe ever. He's still hard, but the arousal feels different somehow, not as urgent, not as desperate; it's like he's lying in sunshine, suffused with golden warmth. He'll get there when he gets there.

There we go. Tony's mental voice is contented, almost blissful, like Steve's the one who's been lavishing attention on him. Nice and relaxed.

Mmm, Steve agrees. Nice.

Tony's hands slide up over his ankles and Steve has a brief discomforting flash of restraint, of immobilization, and Tony's hands quickly move on; there's the smallest trace of chagrin in the bond, a quiet apology. The worry fades as Tony applies the same care to Steve's calves, working out the knots in his legs that he didn't even know were there, that he would have let the serum just take care of. But instead it's Tony, taking care of him. No one's ever done this before. His mouth is hanging open and he's pretty sure he's making a probably-embarrassing series of increasingly low humming groans. He can't bring himself to care.

And Tony, of course, is just beaming down at him.

Tony's hands are on his thighs now, very carefully rubbing the tops and outsides, fingers digging into the muscles. Steve is aware as Tony's hands come to rest on his hips that his inner thighs are soft, hot and sensitive in a way he's never really been conscious of before, and the thought enters his head that if he spreads his legs, if he just does that— then Tony could—

He struggles up out of the daze with a spike of alarm.

You all right there? Tony asks.

He breathes in and out. He's fine. Absolutely fine. That's right. He nods.

Okay, then, Tony says. If you want more like that, I could give you a back rub. He says it like there's nothing he particularly has in mind, although of course he must; he says it like he'd be happy to just keep touching him anywhere and everywhere.

Steve would have to roll over. The thought fills him with more anxiety, panic gnawing away at his comfortable haze. He'd be on his stomach, vulnerable, and Tony could— Jesus, Tony could—

Okay, not that, Tony says, quickly. Steve's not sure if Tony caught the specifics or if he just knows Steve didn't like the idea. Tony pauses a moment and then smiles again. Or if you want me to, I could...?

He doesn't finish the sentence, but his thumb slides over Steve's hipbone, a silent question, and all at once Steve's body understands what's on offer here. He gasps, and his cock twitches and jerks, dripping pre-come, and he's suddenly very, very hard.

I want you to, Steve says, and Tony's hand slides over his hip and closes tight around his cock.

It feels incredible. Steve shoves his hips up, fucking Tony's hand seemingly without any conscious will on his part. His body knows that this is what he needs. The soulbond, too, knows what this is what he needs: he can feel his pleasure in Tony's mind, doubled, bouncing back, kindling an equal fire within Tony's body. For one terrifying second Steve thinks he's going to come like this, immediately, just fucking Tony's fist in mindless, humiliating rut. But then Tony's grip loosens, gentler than even Steve ordinarily uses, and the motion of his hand slows as he pumps Steve's cock, bringing him down to a rhythm that won't send him over the edge quite yet.

Steve can't look at anything except Tony's hand, at the head of his cock sliding through Tony's fingers with every dextrous stroke. It's familiar and unfamiliar all at once. Another man is touching him, he thinks. Tony's touching him, he thinks, and the feeling that shudders through him might be fear or desire and he can't tell which. His soulmate's touching him, he thinks, and the bond loops tighter around them both.

It's not so different from touching himself, but it's also true that everything about it is different. Gail did this to him, once, but it was different then, and well—Tony's his soulmate. There's an echo of sensation; he can feel the pressure in his own hands where they rest at his sides. He can feel Tony's joy and fascination mixed with his own pleasure. It's both of them, together, in a way no one else could ever have approached.

"You like that, huh?" Tony murmurs, his voice low and gravelly. His gaze is still fixed on Steve's face, like he's waiting for an answer, even though the answer has to be obvious. Steve sends back an affirmative, and Tony's lips part in a smile. "Feels nicer when someone else does it for you, yeah?"

Feels nicest when it's you, Steve blurts out, the thought floating to the forefront of his mind before he can call it back, and he watches Tony's cheeks color as he looks away.

Tony's still smiling, flushed. You're sweet, darling.

The speed Tony sets is slow, and Steve doesn't fight it, taking what Tony gives him. He can't even guess how long it goes on for; the thought of coming is somewhere distant, somewhere he'll get to soon enough. Steve can't figure out whether it's easier to look at Tony's face or what Tony's hand is doing; Tony just keeps looking at his face and smiling and smiling. All he can feel from Tony is perfect happiness.

Eventually Steve's need outpaces Tony's rhythm, and he's twisting, groaning, thrusting up impatiently, trying to get him to move faster, but instead Tony just... slows down almost completely, until all he's doing is encircling Steve's cock with his fingers.

"So I've been thinking," Tony says, as Steve catches his breath and tries to focus, "that you might enjoy that blowjob I offered you, once upon a time."

Tony punctuates the statement by licking his lips, which, frankly, is dirty pool. His tongue is slick, his mouth red and wet, and now Steve can't help but think about what it would be like if Tony put his mouth... there. The familiar, reflexive impulse is to say that it's perverted, that it's obscene, that it's wrong. But Tony's offering, like he wants to. He can't really want to, can he? What the hell does he get out of it?

Steve manages to summon up a reply. "You've been thinking, huh?"

Tony's grin is a little self-effacing, his face once again flushed. "Maybe a little more than thinking, if you get what I'm saying. There were some lonely nights." He coughs. "I mean, before the soulbond. Obviously. You would have noticed afterward."

"You mean, uh," Steve says, and now he's the one who can't talk. "You mean you. When you. You thought about me?"

Of course I thought about you. The sentiment slips out down the bond before Tony can even open his mouth. I just— I didn't want to frighten you, darling.

Then, suddenly, he can feel it all—everything Tony has been holding back from him for all this time. Tony can't keep it a secret any longer. There's a desperate, yearning hunger, a passion, an aching desire. Tony wants him. Tony wants him. He sees himself through Tony's eyes; he sees Tony admiring the line of his jaw, the slope of his shoulders, even—oh God—the curve of his ass. Tony's wanted him since they met. He sees himself strapped down to a hospital bed in a Triskelion recovery room, with Tony's thoughts equal parts excited and enraptured. He's sitting on the bed staring at Tony with sad eyes and Tony's thinking I just want to take him home. The Ultimates form up, and Tony's teasing him and flirting with him and calling him pet names because he wants him, oh God, he wants him. The Chitauri invasion tangles through his mind, and he's Tony, taking Natasha from behind in a SHIELD restroom, and he's watching himself staring at Tony, watching Tony see how hard he is, and when he leaves Natasha laughs and says just pretend I'm him, I know you want to, and Tony's swearing and coming and thinking about him, about him, always about him—

Steve can hardly breathe. Tony's eyes are wide. His face is pale and the bond has gone very still in a way that Steve has come to recognize as Tony trying very hard not to project fear. Tony's afraid of him. Of what he'll think. What he'll do.

You want me, Steve says.

Tony swallows hard. Yeah. Yeah, I really do.

He's seen Tony wield his desire as a weapon. This is Tony now, barehanded and unarmed.

And you want to, Steve says, and he can't even think it in words, but he can picture Tony on his knees, Tony's mouth around his cock, and all of a sudden he needs to know. He needs to know what it's like. You really want to.

Tony's lips quirk. Well, I wasn't lying to you, darling.

Didn't think you could anymore, Steve says.

Tony glances down, significantly, at Steve's cock, still framed by his fist, and he licks his lips again. Steve?

Tony wants him. Tony wants this. How can it be wrong, if his soulmate wants to? Tony will be happy. They'll both be happy. Isn't that what's important?

Please, Steve says. If it's what you want.

Tony smiles again. Yes.

And then Tony stretches out on the bed, bows his head and takes Steve's cock into his mouth. Steve realizes he had no idea, and if he'd had any idea he'd have been begging for this long ago. Tony's mouth is hot and wet, and when his tongue slides over the head of Steve's cock Steve groans and tries desperately not to thrust up and force himself further in. One of his hands is twisted in the sheets and the other is cradling the base of Tony's skull. It feels so good. It's already perfect.

There's pleasure down the bond from Tony, too—the aching arousal between his legs, and an odd satisfaction, a contentment at being filled just right, the heft and weight of Steve's cock somehow exactly what Tony needs on his tongue. Steve's never felt that way about anything, but he knows it's how Tony is feeling.

Tony looks up, along the length of Steve's body, and meets his eyes. Better than I dreamed, Tony says, and then the bond pulses with amusement. Hey, I can talk with my mouth full!

Steve can't help but laugh. Something you want to tell me?

A thousand things, Tony says, the bond full of promise. They're all awfully sappy. I'll refrain. And then he winks. Hold still, okay? I used to be rather good at this, but it's been a while, and you are very large, darling.

Steve blinks. What are you doing?

It can't be bad, he tells himself. Tony wouldn't do anything he didn't want.

Tony breathes deep and takes him all the way down. Steve's cock slides into Tony's mouth; Tony's throat is warm and wet and perfect. He doesn't understand how Tony's doing it, but Tony doesn't feel distressed, even though he can't be breathing and his mouth is spit-slick, sliding everywhere. Something about watching the mess he's making of himself is only getting Steve hotter. Tony's lips are dark red, almost bruised, and his beard is soaked with spit. His eyes are starting to tear up and he's wrecking himself for Steve and, God, Tony loves this, Tony's getting harder, and that's just making Steve harder, pushing him closer and closer to the edge—

Tony pulls back up and mostly off, taking a gasping breath, licking the shaft of Steve's cock as he goes, kissing the head almost tenderly. Sorry, Tony says, his eyes still shut. Out of practice. There are tears on his cheeks and Steve wipes one away with his thumb. He's never felt like this before about anyone, never felt this perfect pure feeling that's lodged itself somewhere under his ribs and made a home.

Steve's gasping for air too. Everything is so good, and Jesus, if Tony just keeps licking him right there, he's going to—

That's the idea, darling, Tony tells him.

Tony wraps a hand around the base of his cock and then his hand and his mouth are moving in rhythm and he's going to— he's going to— oh, God, it's too soon, and maybe Tony doesn't want him to—

There's an image in Tony's mind, a fragmented memory, Tony alone in bed, jerking off and thinking about him, about what he looks like when he comes, what he sounds like, and in the memory Tony imagines himself on his knees, doing this, and he comes when he thinks about Steve coming in his mouth.

Helpless, Steve shuts his eyes and comes, in Tony's warm mouth, down Tony's throat, as Tony swallows and swallows. Pleasure rebounds down the bond, and when he opens his eyes Tony is pistoning his hips frantically against the bed, his ass flexing. He can feel Tony holding himself back from coming with sheer force of will, and the thought of that makes Steve spurt again. Tony's pulled back a little and it catches him on the lips, clings to his beard, and he's smiling and smiling.

Tony kisses his cock again, very gently. Steve stares at him in dazed awe, as he floats in the haze of the afterglow.

What, Tony asks, mental voice both smug and curious, no one's ever swallowed before?

Never, Steve says, which is technically true.

Tony just grins again. "Glad I had the privilege, then." His voice is a croak. "I'll spoil you rotten if you let me, darling." His mouth looks bruised, dark red, and his face is a mess of spit and come. Steve did that to him.

Something about the thought—he's the one who made Tony look like that—makes everything in him go pleasantly tingly, and he thinks maybe he could get all worked up from just the idea of that, of marking Tony up, coming all over him. Jesus. He's never thought of anything like that before. He wonders if Tony would like that.

Anything you want, Tony says. I told you already. And, yes, I'd love that.

That sounds perfect to him.

He's aware of Tony getting up, wiping his face off, brushing his teeth. The bed dips as he sits back down, and Steve rolls over and sits up. Tony's sitting there, still with his pants on, the way Steve had left him. He is visibly, massively hard; through the bond, it doesn't take much to feel the near-discomfort of his arousal. Tony's been aching for it, and Steve hasn't even touched him.

Steve can feel the calmness in him begin to recede.

It's Tony's turn. Tony got him off, and it's only fair, so now he has to— oh God, he has to—

"So, uh," Steve says. "Do you. Do you want me to." He can't finish the sentence.

"You know I do." Tony's voice is still a little hoarse. "I can't lie to you. But I don't want you to make yourself do something you don't want. If you're not ready, right now or— or ever, that's okay." The bond echoes his: concern, sincerity, and the desire he can't hide.

"I want to," Steve says, and he feels like the earth should have opened up and swallowed him whole for admitting to it. "And it's fair. You— you did it for me, and it's not right if I don't do the same." He wonders if he's just made some awful bargain.

Tony's eyes narrow. "I don't give a fuck about fair. I give a fuck about what makes you happy. You haven't figured that out yet?"

"No, I know," Steve says, and he knows Tony thinks he means it, that he can go without, but Tony has to want more. Any man would. "I— I still want to."

It's hard enough to say; can't Tony take pity on him and stop making him say it?

Tony smiles. "All right."

Okay. Steve takes a breath. He can do this.

He shifts closer and puts his palm flat on Tony's thigh. Through the bond he can feel the weight of his own hand, doubled, and Tony's own eager anticipation. Before his courage gives out entirely he slides his hand to cover Tony's cock, tracing the shape of it through fabric, and Tony makes a small bitten-off noise in the back of his throat, a noise that goes right through Steve, shivery and warm.

Steve, Tony says, and his voice in Steve's mind is low and desperate, urging him on.

With shaking fingers, he undoes Tony's belt, button, zipper, and then Tony's hands are tangled with his, pushing the rest of his clothes off, and oh God, Tony's naked and hard and right here. He's seen Tony before, of course, but it's different now. It's all different now. Tony looks like he's so hard it has to hurt, his balls drawn up tight, but he's not complaining, not rushing Steve.

He glances up, and Tony gives him a small encouraging smile. Tony did this for him. He can do this for Tony.

Reaching out, he wraps his hand around Tony's cock. God. He's touching Tony. It looks different than touching himself. Tony's a little smaller, but not by much, and Tony's circumcised, which is strange enough. He can't believe he's doing this. He slides his hand up and down, slowly, and Tony makes a noise that's practically a whimper.

"There you go," Tony breathes. "You can't do it wrong. Just do what you do for yourself, all right?"

Steve nods, but he remembers what Tony said about liking it hard. Experimentally, he tightens his grip, tighter than he's ever used for himself, and Tony cries out, a broken moan, and he thrusts up into Steve's fist. Tony's cock is slick with pre-come now. God, Tony likes that. The bond echoes with Tony's pleasure, an ecstasy that slides back down the link and rips through Steve in an aching warmth that makes his cock twitch and try to get hard again.

Oh, God, he likes that Tony likes it. This is— this is what's doing it for him. No. He can't be like this. If it's for Tony, that's one thing. It's okay if it's for Tony, but not this.

Tony's stretching back on the bed now. Steve, next to him, keeps stroking him. He can do this if he just gets Tony off, if he doesn't think about anything else. Tony's smiling, eyes shut, moaning and arching up into Steve's hand.

Just like that, Tony says. Oh, please, just like that. Just a little more, darling. I'm so close.

This can't be all that Tony wants.

Horrified, Steve realizes he's leaning in. A little closer and he'd be able to put his mouth on Tony. Tony did it for him. Tony did it for him and surely Tony wants him to do it and he can't. He can't.

It's like running into a wall.

Cocksucker, something low and vile in Steve's brain hisses. You know you want to. And the worst part is that he's right. He can feel arousal spiral up within him; he's getting hard at just the thought.

What else does Tony want from him? This can't be enough for him. Tony wants more. Tony probably wants to fuck his face, have him choke on his cock. Tony wants to hold him down, roll him over. Tony wants him to spread his legs. Tony wants to take him, and he'd like it. His cock throbs. Fairy, his brain taunts. You know they were always right about you.

He remembers being eighteen and terrified, when that man in that club had made a pass at him, and maybe he'd wanted to then, maybe he'd wanted to and he'd never known, maybe everyone else had always known about him—

Steve jerks his hand away, and he thinks he might be sick.

Steve? Still panting, Tony's pushing himself upright, and Steve can feel the bond slide through the range of emotions starting from I'm-ten-seconds-from-coming and ending up in something-here-is-terribly-wrong. Tony's mind is clouded with concern and confusion. What's the matter?

I can't, Steve says, and his face is hot, hot like he might cry, and he's not sure he can bear the shame of that on top of everything else. There's nothing left of him. I can't, I can't, I'm sorry.

Tony exhales hard, a long shaking sigh, and Steve can feel him struggling for control. It's okay, he says. It's okay. It was too much for you. I'm sorry.

If Tony presses even the slightest bit on the bond, he's going to find out the awful truth, that Steve can't deal with how much he wants it. The back of Steve's mind rewinds and replays a terrible, wonderful what-if: Tony holding his head down, Tony pressing him to the bed, and he can't, he can't.

I have to get out of here, Steve says. He's shaking. Where are his clothes? He needs his clothes. He's exposed. Bare. Tony will know everything.

Don't do this, Tony begs. Please. I won't do anything else to you. I won't touch you. We can talk about it. Please don't go. I'm so sorry.

He can't be here. He struggles into his clothes. It takes him three tries to lace his boots. He's still shaking. Tony's still naked, frozen. He hasn't moved.

It's not your fault, Steve says. But I have to go.

He has to get out of here before he breaks down entirely.

The last thing he sees before he turns away is the utter desolation in Tony's eyes.

Chapter Text

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.