No one had expected, back when it’d first been revealed, that supervillains Loki and the Winter Soldier might be soulmates. The two weren’t exactly friends. Sure, they weren’t antagonistic the way Loki and Doom were, but there was no love lost between them. The only reason anyone had discovered it at all was because of the Human Torch. Johnny Storm had a flare for the dramatic and was, quite literally, flaming gay. He didn’t even try to hide how much he enjoyed burning the shirts off of male opponents he thought might be hot underneath the layers.
Once their matching soulmarks were caught on camera, there was no keeping it a secret. Red and yellow yarrow bloomed over their hearts, icy-blue hydrangea burst through around the edges, and marigolds dotted the design. It was an instant news frenzy. As if it weren’t already enough to discover that two of the world’s most notorious supervillains were soulmates, three elements to the design could only mean one thing: triad. There was someone else out there who would be rightfully bonded to the pair, should they ever meet. Many triad soulbonds couldn’t even properly function without all three members. If any two tried to go without their third, the bond would eventually collapse and fall apart.
Every news network, psychologist, and intelligence agency wanted to know who that third was. It was no secret that the Winter Soldier and Loki didn’t know. After starting to appear together more and more frequently, Loki came forward to declare their search. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Loki wasn’t even from their planet. No one could be sure their third was on Earth, as opposed to somewhere else in the vast universe.
No one except for one person.
Tony Stark would never be more grateful for the fact that he wore a weaponized suit during battles. Even with grappling, there was no danger of either supervillain accidentally brushing against his skin. Even the slightest touch would give away his secret and that was not a risk he was willing to take. When his soulmark had first manifested, Tony had been so naively excited… Not only would he have one person who would love him, but two. Since it was composed of flowers, what else was there to do but for him to learn their meanings?
Yarrow for war.
Hydrangea for a cold demeanor and heartlessness.
Marigold for cruelty, pain and jealousy.
For a while, Tony had been willing to give his soulmates the benefit of the doubt. He’d tried to shape himself into that image. A warmongering weapons merchant, a profiteer, uncaring about the fact that his weapons killed people. If Tony represented those traits, his soulmates didn’t have to. Afghanistan changed all that. How could it not? Seeing his weapons in the hands of terrorists, killing the people they were supposed to be protecting, killing Yinsen… Tony couldn’t be that person, not even for his soulmates.
And now? To find out that his soulmates were supervillains? Some bitter part of him found it fitting. Tony had never been hero material anyway. ‘Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended’ and all that. He deserved nothing less, really. But that didn’t mean he was going to go down without a fight. What were the chances of the Winter Soldier or Loki ever getting their hands on him, anyway? As long as he stayed in the suit, he’d be safe. After all, it wasn’t like they ran into each other at many social functions.
Then, SHIELD asked him to create an image recognition program that would find the supervillains’ shared soulmate. It was no guarantee, but Fury seemed willing to bet that whoever it was had been caught on camera at some point, so long as they were on Earth. If SHIELD could get their hands on the triad’s third first, it would be a huge advantage over two of their biggest enemies.
Inserting a line of code that would automatically skip over any image that Tony himself was in was an easy thing. That was never really the problem. Tony could program in his sleep and still hack into any government database in the world. No, the problem was what happened when word about the program got out.
Tony had just left SHIELD for the day, stopping by a local coffee shop on his way back to the tower when it happened. The chime of the door opening sounded behind him and the barista turned to greet whoever had entered, only for their face to freeze up in fear and the coffee to slip from slack fingers. Tony turned slowly and pressed himself back against the counter as he saw Loki prowling across the coffee shop toward him. The Winter Soldier wasn’t far behind.
Tony’s heart hammered in his chest, Loki’s glowing green eyes locked on his own. He didn’t have his suit, and there was no way it would get here in time from the tower. He’d have to buy himself time and makes damn sure neither of these two were able to touch him in the meantime. His jeans and t-shirt didn’t exactly leave him with much protection. Fuck, did they already know? How did they know? How could they possibly have found out Tony’s single most closely guarded secret?
“Stark,” Loki greeted silkily, as he came to a stop just inside arm’s reach. There was nowhere to run. “We’ve been looking for you.”
A patron near the door made a run for it, and Tony hoped that more would follow. The fewer people there were around, the fewer possible casualties. The Winter Soldier watched the man break away silently, making no move to intercept him. They weren’t here for anyone but Tony. That was good. He could work with that. Some idiot was crouched behind their table with their phone out and filming, though. Tony had to physically resist the urge to roll his eyes. Now was so not the time.
“Whatever you want,” Tony said, drawing himself up and lifting his chin. “Nobody has to get hurt. There are civilians here, Loki. They’re not a threat to you.”
Loki swept one imperious look around the coffee shop before zeroing back in on Tony.
“No, they are… collateral, Stark. You’re going to come with us peacefully, without a fuss, and these people can return to their pathetic lives as if nothing happened. Choose to fight us, though… and things could get messy. You never know who could accidentally get in the way.”
Tony grit his teeth and had to squash down a well of anger. This was his soulmate? A man who would threaten unarmed civilians? Not fucking happening.
“Come with you where? What exactly is it you want from me?”
JARVIS would have deployed the suit already as well as alerted SHIELD and the Avengers. If his team could get here while he stalled, there might just be a chance of getting out of here with no one getting hurt. Dammit, why weren’t these people running? Despite the one successful escape, the other occupants seemed frozen with fear under the Winter Soldier’s watchful gaze.
“Rumor has it that you’re creating a program for SHIELD, a program to find something we would very much like to get our hands on.”
Relief flooded through Tony. They didn’t know. They didn’t know that the one they were looking for was him. Tony could work with this. If nothing else, he could work with this.
“Sorry,” he sneered. “It’s all locked up at SHIELD HQ. I don’t exactly carry a spare copy around with me. Better luck next time.”
Loki just smiled at him condescendingly.
“Oh, Stark, but that’s exactly why you’re coming with us.”
Loki reached for him and Tony couldn’t help it. He panicked. He threw himself down and to the side, away from them, out of reach. Rolling to his feet, he made a break for the door at the back of the shop. Loki and the Winter Soldier reacted instantly, lunging after him. Really, as an unenhanced human, there’d never been a chance. Their fingers brushed against the skin of each of his arms at practically the same exact instant.
It was like an explosion of color behind his eyes, a current of electricity beneath his skin. He felt like he was reeling, but Tony forced himself to push through it and keep himself moving. This would be his only possible chance to break free and get away, while the other two were stunned. He made for the door, sprinting through it and continuing on down the street without looking back until he heard the telltale whine of repulsors and the suit flew down to form around him. Then he was jetting up into the air and away to safety.
His heart pounded heavily in his ears, his breath coming short and fast. He could feel the panic clawing its way up his throat. They knew. They knew, they knew, they knew. There’d be no hiding it now. It’d all come out, how Tony Stark was so fucked up that he had two of the most prolific supervillains the world had ever seen as his soulmates. He’d lose everything. The team, his company, his freedom. No way SHIELD wouldn’t lock him up as a security risk, not with the things he knew. And that was if Loki and the Winter Soldier didn’t get to him first.
He flew straight to his workshop in the tower, arguably the most secure location in all of New York. JARVIS initiated lock down as soon as he was inside and Tony all but fell out of the suit, trying to get his breathing back under control. The panic attack was threatening to overwhelm him, even with Tony fending it off for all he was worth. He needed to be able to think. He needed to figure this out, find some way out of this.
He couldn’t run. That’d only make things worse. He didn’t need to give SHIELD any more reason than they would already have to lock him up and throw away the key. They’d turn him into their private automaton, churning out inventions and tech at their every whim. They’d be better than the Ten Rings only in the lack of torture and the access to air conditioning. No, there was really only one thing Tony could do. He’d have to tell the team and hope for the best. Even then… They’d try their best to keep him safe, but it was only a matter of time before Loki and the Winter Soldier got their hands on him. Well, they had another thing coming if they thought being soulmates would make Tony sympathetic to their cause.
“J, where’s the rest of the team?”
“The Avengers are all currently at the tower, Sir, having returned following your escape. Captain Rogers has attempted to contact you several times. Should I inform him you are now available?”
Tony winced. Steve would definitely be on his case for not checking in. Not a great way to start this conversation. He swallowed roughly.
“Yeah. Call everyone down here, if you would. Official Avengers meeting. Priority One.”
“At once, Sir. They will be with you shortly.”
He fidgeted with a few tools while he waited. There was no good way for this conversation to go, truly. There was no way this wasn’t going to change the way his team looked at him or acted around him. It’d taken so long for them to fit together, at least where he was concerned. He and Steve certainly hadn’t gotten off to an auspicious start, and his history with Natasha hadn’t helped. With Clint following their lead and Bruce just being generally skittish, Thor had actually been the only one who seemed to accept Tony right from the start. They were better now, leaps and bounds better, but the fear of going back to that time never left Tony.
The team was more than he ever could have asked for. They were more than he deserved out of life and he would forever be grateful for their friendship. He didn’t want to lose those bonds. They weren’t just his teammates. The Avengers were his friends, and Tony had precious few of those. Not even his soulmates were worth giving them up. Tony wouldn’t do it. He refused. It just might not be up to him, in the end. He might lose them anyway.
Steve was the first to arrive, in full battle regalia and shield on his back. His mask was pushed up and off his face, revealing the concern there that furrowed his brow and turned his lips downward. Bright blue eyes scanned Tony from head to toe for injuries, shoulders relaxing slightly when he couldn’t find any.
“Tony, we were worried,” he said, crossing the room and pulling Tony into a hug. “When JARVIS said you’d been attacked, we barely had enough time to deploy before you were back here and in lock down. What happened? What did they want?”
Tony just hugged him back, taking a moment to relish the contact before backing off, and nodded toward where the rest of the team was filtering into the lab, all alert and armed.
“Might as well only go through it all once, Cap. You know how much I hate repeating myself.”
Steve frowned at him, knowing him far too well by this point not to recognize his deliberately flippant tone. That probably told him better than anything how serious things were. Still, he held off on any more questions until the team was settled in Tony’s little seating area. There weren’t quite enough chairs for everyone, but Natasha just perched herself on the arm of the couch and Steve chose to remain standing. Thor, Clint and Bruce squashed in on the cushions. They all watched Tony expectantly as he stood before them, feeling far too much on display.
“You all already know that Loki and the Winter Soldier approached me in a coffee shop earlier today. They were after the algorithm I’m building for SHIELD, the one to help track down their third.”
Steve was nodding along.
“One of the patrons took video on their cell phone. The sound wasn’t great, but we could get the gist of the conversation. The shop had security cameras, too.”
Tony scowled, though not because of anything Steve said. It was now or never. This was the time to bite the bullet and do what needed to be done.
“Right. Well, obviously, I didn’t have any plans to give it to them. For the same reason I’ve been building a faulty algorithm for SHIELD.” There was a myriad of reactions around the room, from minor stiffening to Steve slack-jawed confusion. Tony ignored it all. He avoided looking directly at any of them, instead focusing his eyes on the wall behind them as he pulled his t-shirt off over his head. “I am their third,” he confessed.
There, emblazoned on his chest and easily recognizable to anyone who had studied Loki and the Winter Soldier’s soulmarks for as long as they had, was the bouquet of flowers that sealed his fate. Someone sucked air in sharply through their teeth. Shame curled tightly in the pit of Tony’s stomach. He hadn’t asked for this. They had to know that. They had to know he’d never want this.
“Shit,” Clint broke the silence in the room, perfectly summing up the way all of them except maybe Thor were feeling. “Well, fuck. And now they know, right? That’s how you managed to get away?”
Tony nodded numbly, still unable to look at them.
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Steve butt in, and Tony could hear the frown even in just his voice. “They’re supervillains.”
Tony flinched back at the condemnation in his tone.
“It’s not exactly unheard of,” Natasha spoke up easily. “Criminals and cops, soldiers on opposite sides of the battlefield, the dynamic has been around for centuries. It was probably inevitable for a hero and a villain to wind up as soulmates.”
Tony snuck a peak at her and found nothing but kindness and acceptance in her eyes. She gave him a small nod of understanding.
“I’m not- I’m not about to turn sides, or anything,” he defended. “I’m not gonna go evil.”
Steve looked like he’d choked on a lemon.
“Of course not, Tony! We wouldn’t think that.”
“Perhaps,” Thor rumbled, “this is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps Anthony is a road to redemption. Long has my brother’s anger burned for feelings of being spurned and rejected. With his soulmates by his side, what need would he have for these tricks any longer?”
“Woah, hold up,” Clint cut in. “You can’t honestly be suggesting we let Tony just get together with these assholes. We can’t trust them! Who knows what kind of fucked up shit they’d try to do to him?”
Thor made an affronted noise like an elephant trumpeting.
“Soulmates are revered upon Asgard, as they are so much less common than they are here upon your world. They are held in the highest regard. Loki has waited to meet the other members of his triad for centuries, longer than you have been alive. You cannot fathom how much this means to him.”
Talk about twisting the knife.
Tony knew Loki’s life hadn’t exactly been all sunshine and roses. Thor had shared more than enough stories with the team to make that clear, as if it wouldn’t be easy enough to tell just by running into the guy. Loki did like to talk when he felt wronged. It was an interesting thing, actually. They knew quite a bit about Loki and his background, practically everything, really. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the Winter Soldier was a mystery. No one really knew who he was or where he’d come from, just that he was responsible for quite a number of assassinations over the years.
“They’re going to come for me,” Tony cut in, breaking off the argument quickly brewing between Clint and Thor. “There’s no stopping that. They know, now, who I am.”
“We won’t let them get to you,” Steve promised, every line of his body brimming over with sincerity.
Tony wished he could believe him.
“You won’t be able to stop them. Not forever. I mean, when have we ever been able to stay ahead of Loki’s magic? When has the Winter Soldier been stopped by any security system ever? There’s- There’s nothing you can do. There’s no winning this.”
He cut himself off as his voice wavered dangerously and Natasha was there in a heartbeat, right next to him and wrapping an arm around his waist.
“We won’t know that until we try,” she pointed out. “We’re not just going to let them have you. The harder we fight them, though, the harder they’ll try to get to you. We need more information about the situation. If you’re up to it, we should try to set up a meeting, see how they interact with you. Best case scenario, we’re able to flip them.”
Tony couldn’t help but snort in disbelief, pulling away from her.
“What? Like being their soulmate means I have some sort of magical sex powers and my ass can tempt them away from villainy? I’m not a bargaining chip, Romanov,” he snarled and instantly felt bad about it.
He knew he was lashing out, but he was scared. He didn’t want them to be his soulmates. He didn’t want this kind of responsibility placed squarely on his shoulders. That wasn’t… He wouldn’t be able to handle it if he failed.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Natasha spoke soothingly, and easily stepped back to give him more room. “But you’ll never be okay with living the life of a villain, putting innocents in danger. They know that. They know what’s happened to every individual or organization that’s tried to use or hold you against your will. There’s no way they could believe this will end well without making a few compromises. At least if we suggest a meeting ourselves, we can control the location and make sure we have the proper security in place to keep you safe if they’re dumb enough to think they can get away with what no one else has. You are not alone in this, Tony. Remember that. We are your friends and your team and we will be with you.”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut and nodded jerkily.
“Okay,” he whispered. Then, louder, “Okay. We’ll, uh, we’ll set something up. But only something small. I can’t- I’m not going with them. What’s your plan?”
The smile she gave him was small and genuine and, somehow, it actually did make Tony feel better.
They arranged the meeting to be on neutral ground. The Winter Soldier and Loki had taken out a Hydra cell in Canada not too long ago and volunteered it as a meeting place. (The Winter Soldier had always seemed to have a problem with them, even though there was evidence of them working together in the past. SHIELD suspected he might be a disgruntled former employee.) After a careful inspection of the grounds, the Avengers agreed. It wasn’t on SHIELD’s radar, which is how they wanted to keep it for now, and it would allow all parties involved to feel secure.
Well, almost all. Tony mostly just felt ill. His stomach churned at the thought of actually meeting his soulmates. In his head, the meanings of his flowers pounded against his skull over and over again. War, heartlessness, pain. What kind of soulbond could have those symbols and not end in ruin and destruction?
When Tony was a kid, the only soulmate couple he knew was Ana and Edwin Jarvis. Their relationship was magical, even when Tony was at an age where he still thought kissing was icky and he was deathly afraid of cooties. He could still remember being four years old, before Howard had shipped him off to boarding school, sitting at the counter in the kitchen and asking Ana if she thought he might have a soulmate one day. He could still remember how hopeful he’d been about the idea. How could having a soulmate be anything but good?
“It’s going to be okay. You know that, right? We won’t let anything happen to you, Tony,” Natasha said quietly as she sidled up beside him.
The Avengers were the first ones on-site, though Tony was sure that wouldn’t last long. He glanced between Natasha and Clint, who was keeping him company at his other side. The archer had hardly left his side since the news had come out. If there was anyone who could understand the desire not to lose yourself to someone else, it was Clint. The fact that Loki was one of the people in question only made it more personal.
“I know,” he told them, even if he didn’t believe it. He knew they’d try. “I’m fine.”
Clint bumped their shoulders but said nothing. They all knew it was a lie. They let him get away with it anyway. Not far off, Steve and Thor had their heads together, murmuring quietly. Tony wasn’t ignorant to the looks they kept throwing his way and it made his skin crawl. He was grateful for anything that allowed him to deny what was happening. He wasn’t ready. He probably never would be.
Bruce trotted out of the quinjet and headed their way.
“We’ve got incoming. The sensors are picking up energy signatures synonymous with Loki’s magic.”
Tony was going to have to call his massage therapist by the time all this was over with how tense his muscles were getting. He wasn’t the only one. The entire team was on alert now. When the shimmering portal opened up about 100 feet away, they bunched together around Tony. Natasha’s hand snuck down to take his, her slender fingers entwining with his own. She gave his hand a quick little squeeze of reassurance.
It was Loki who appeared first, stepping smoothly out of shimmering thin air. He was wearing his battle armor, though his helmet wasn’t in attendance. His emerald cloak fluttered behind him as he strode forward confidently. The Winter Soldier followed closely behind him, eyes flickering around the area for threats. His customary goggles were gone, but the mask over his lower face remained in place. Tony couldn’t exactly blame them for being armed, they weren’t the only ones.
Each of the Avengers was in full uniform, including Tony. His only concession to this being a peaceful meeting was that the armor’s helmet was currently retracted. Even with all his reservations, there was no part of him that thought his soulmates would attempt to kill him. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t attack, though. The Winter Soldier wasn’t one to take prisoners, leaving nothing but a trail of bodies in his wake, but Loki was known to enjoy his kidnappings. He’d kept Skurge in a pocket dimension for an entire month once, just to taunt Amora.
“Anthony,” Loki greeted them, tone a little bit breathless.
He inclined his head slightly, eyes never leaving Tony’s face. Behind him, the Winter Soldier brought his attention back around and seemed just as riveted. Natasha’s fingers squeezed his one more time before letting go so Tony could step forward, toward his soulmates and away from the safety of their group.
“Loki,” he greeted with false ease, “Winter.”
They came to a stop just over a yard away from each other, though Tony noticed the way the Winter Soldier’s metal fingers twitched like he wanted to reach out across the space between them.
“I’ll admit,” Loki drawled, “I had not expected our third to be a hero. We understand it… complicates matters.”
“I won’t hit any lighter when we fight,” he warned, “and don’t think this will make me hesitate for even a second to throw your asses in prison. I won’t just sit by and let you kill people.”
Loki scoffed and lifted his chin to better stare down his nose at Tony.
“Do not act so high and mighty, Iron Man. You aren’t without blood on your hands, either. There are quite a number of your foes who never made it to prison, if I remember correctly.”
As if Tony needed to be reminded of how much he’d fucked up over the years, of how he hadn’t been able to save Obie or Vanko or any of the others. Natasha spoke of red in her ledger, but Tony knew his own was drenched in it, soaked. He’d started killing long before he ever even knew about it. He was nothing short of a monster, spilling more blood, even as he tried to clean up his mess. He was just about to bite out a barbed retort when the Winter Soldier’s hand landed on Loki’s shoulder, pulling him back just slightly but keeping his eyes locked on Tony.
They were stormy blue, Tony noted. Nobody had ever been able to identify the Winter Soldier’s eye color before, at least not anyone who lived to tell the tale. He had long lashes, too. Tony found himself so transfixed by them that he startled slightly when the Winter Soldier actually spoke. He almost never spoke. His voice was rough and dark, muffled by the mask and accented with some strange mix of German and Russian. It sent a shiver down Tony’s spine.
“We are willing to make concessions.”
“But not give up villainy.”
Not that he expected them to. It wasn’t like he was set and ready to give up being a hero. The two exchanged a look, Loki taking what was clearly a calming, deep breath.
“No,” he admitted. “You have your methods to accomplish your goals and we have ours. There are certain goals which we will not be willing to compromise.”
“And when your goals threaten innocent people?”
“As already stated, we would be willing to make concessions. I can assure you of this, though, our goals do align in the end.”
Right. Sure they did.
“That’s not enough. You can’t just throw some vague assurances my way and think it’s going to count for jack shit. You want me to trust you even an ounce? You start being straight with me. I don’t know what you want out of this, what you want from me.” He wheeled on the Winter Soldier, suddenly furious. “I don’t even know who you are!”
Tony could hear the way his team shuffled behind him, ready to cover his back if things went south. Loki and the Winter Soldier exchanged another look, communicating something silently back and forth. It made part of Tony even more furious to watch, just another sign that they were keeping things from him. Another part, though, a part he didn’t want to admit to, just ached to have that kind of a connection with someone. There was love in their eyes, when they looked at each other. They fit easily into each other’s orbits. Even with the team, with Pepper or Rhodey or Happy, Tony had never known that ease.
Finally, the Winter Soldier spoke again.
“I don’t know, either,” he admitted quietly, and it stopped Tony in his tracks.
“I don’t know who I am, either. Hydra… I can’t remember much of anything before they had me, a few small fragments of memories, but nothing substantial. I know I’ve lived for a long time, though. They got their hands on me at some point and started doing experiments, breaking me and reshaping me into the perfect asset. Since I broke free of their programming, I haven’t been able to put enough pieces together to find out who I was before.”
Tony felt ill.
“That’s why you target Hydra so often.”
“And AIM, and the Red Room,” Loki supplied, sparing the Winter Soldier from having to respond again. “The only reason he’s even considered a villain is because SHIELD is too ignorant to connect the dots between those he kills and the organizations they belong to.”
His condemnation couldn’t be any clearer.
“I’ll have JARVIS go back through behind SHIELD and do some digging,” Tony acquiesced, because even he knew that he had to at least give them something. “You’ll understand if I can’t buy into the story fully until I get some results, though.”
“Of course,” Loki said. “It is only smart not to take someone on their word when they want something from you.”
It sounded almost like actual praise, and Tony couldn’t help the bit of warmth that curled in his chest upon hearing it.
“Right. Let’s take a moment and cover that, shall we? What exactly is it that the two of you want from me?”
“I dislike how much this feels like negotiations. It is a soulbond, not a contract,” he bit out angrily, any hint of the previous approval vanishing. “It should not begin with demands.”
Which was a little surprising. Because, of all of them, Tony definitely thought Loki would be the one coming to the table with demands. He was plenty demanding in every other situation ever. Why should this one be any different? None of the logical leaps made him feel even the slightest bit comfortable. As always, when he was feeling out of his depth and vulnerable, he put up every guard.
“Well, then, I guess that means we’re done here. I’ll get back to you with the results of my search.”
JARVIS, the beautiful, predictive program that he was, had already started double-checking the Winter Soldier’s target list by the time the team got back to the tower. There was a lot to sort through. Tony left the team to their own devices and headed down to the lab to contribute his own manpower to the project. If what his soulmates had said was true, then they would need to figure out exactly where the divide was between when the Winter Soldier had been an asset of Hydra and when he’d broken free. Theoretically, Tony would be able to track that by the change in his targets.
They were able to disregard any of the targets SHIELD had already connected to Hydra, AIM, or the Red Room. JARVIS slotted them into a holographic timeline and the two of them worked from there. As target after target began to reveal their sordid ties, Tony’s apprehension grew. Logically, he knew that this should be a good thing. Violently-minded vigilante was technically better than supervillain, after all. Tony should be glad that at least one of his soulmates wasn’t turning out to be as completely horrible as he’d thought they were.
The truth was that it gave him one less reason to hide.
How long would Tony be able to deny his soulmates? Realistically speaking. He knew they wouldn’t just patiently wait around for him forever. Eventually, they would grow tired of his dilly-dallying and take action themselves. What form that action would take, Tony couldn’t say, but he didn’t want to see it. Their bonding was inevitable, Tony understood that. He understood that on an intimate level. But none of it was real if he didn’t give in. Once he gave in, that would be it.
“Are you going to try and find out who he used to be?” Clint asked on one of his visits to the lab, wandering around and looking through what Tony had discovered.
“There’s not enough information for me to work with, to be honest. The earliest killings I can find in conjunction to the Winter Soldier were in the 1960’s, but there’s no way of knowing for certain that it was even him. Most of what I have from that far back is guess work based on his signature. There could be more murders that we don’t know about. If I could get into Hydra’s systems and find a trail there, that might be a different story, but let’s be honest about how likely that is.”
“Assholes probably didn’t even keep it on record,” Clint acknowledged. “Knowing them, he probably got assigned a number or a codename and that was his new identity. Who he was before didn’t matter.”
It made Tony sick to think about it.
“He deserves to know, though.”
“Well, he said he remembered some bits and pieces, right? Maybe he’ll know something that could help you do some digging.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at the archer.
“What? You’re suddenly in favor of this bond now? I thought you were against all this.”
“I’m against anything that forces you into something you don’t want,” Clint said seriously. “And I’m not particularly trusting when it comes to Loki, but so far their story seems to check out. Either way, nobody deserves to be robbed of who they are. Hydra wiped out everything about the Winter Soldier, didn’t even let him keep his name. That’s fucked up. If we’re going to call ourselves the good guys, shouldn’t we do something to help?”
Tony sighed and turned back to his computer.
“Yeah… That’s what I was thinking. I was just really hoping you’d talk me out of it.”
Their next meeting took place at an Avengers-picked location, a Stark Industries warehouse that was newly-constructed and hadn’t been filled yet. Pepper would be asking questions about the delay, but Tony was more than prepared to deflect and give her the runaround. Sure, he should probably just fess up with the truth, but then she’d probably throw a shoe at him for not telling her earlier. Tony didn’t want to have a shoe thrown at him.
“So,” he greeted when Loki and the Winter Soldier arrived, no less armored than the last time. It made Tony feel a bit naked, dressed-down in a Westwood suit. (Not that the armor was far off.) “It looks like your story checks out. I’ve forwarded the information to Nick Fury at SHIELD, though I’d be surprised if they downgraded you from supervillain status.”
Loki’s emerald eyes blazed as they watched him closely.
“Did you think we would lie?”
“I think you’d do whatever it took to get something you want.”
He hoped his tone conveyed the sentiment as not-insulting. Tony didn’t mean it to be. The same could be said about him, after all. Loki sobered, the anger slipping from his face in what Tony hoped was a positive sign. The rest of the team might not be far behind him, but he was still feeling exposed without his suit. He really didn’t want to get stabbed today.
“Yes,” Loki replied, his emerald eyes all but pinning Tony in place, “we would. We are no strangers to sacrifices, Stark. We are willing to pay the price to get what we want. I had thought you would, too.”
Tony shifted uncomfortably and looked away, dropping Loki’s captivating gaze.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” he asked in answer. “I did the research. I’m not armed. Consider it a start.”
Loki to a moment to consider his words, eying him silently before giving a decisive nod.
“I shall. Am I to assume you asked for this meeting for more than just to inform us of your findings?”
Tony swallowed roughly and glanced back over his shoulder at his team before turning to address the Winter Soldier directly.
“Whatever my feelings about this… situation between us aside, what Hydra did to you is unforgivable. Whoever you were before, you didn’t deserve to have that happen. If you’re open to it, I’d like to help find out your identity. No strings attached. Nothing we find will be reported to SHIELD.”
Compromise, Tony reminded himself. If he wanted them to work with him, he had to give them something. He couldn’t just take and take and take. This would be a good first step, giving them something that he would have offered up anyway. Even if he wouldn’t have kept it from SHIELD before. The Avengers would still know. That was good enough, right?
“How?” the Winter Soldier asked, breaking his line of thought.
“You said you remembered a few bits and pieces, right? I can take anything you give me and put it into search protocols, see where that gets us. There’s always facial recognition, but I’m assuming you don’t want to go that route, considering you’re still wearing your mask and all.”
The Winter Soldier and Loki exchanged a look, clearly doing some more silent communication. It stung less than it had the last time. They looked good together, Tony couldn’t help but note. The were both dark-haired and pale skinned, but where Loki was tall and lithe, the Winter Soldier was broader. Every inch of each of them screamed danger. It should not have been as alluring as it was, but Tony could admit that they were both, objectively speaking, rather fine specimens. He’d thought it before finding out they were his soulmates. It was okay to keep thinking it. There wasn’t anything wrong with finding someone physically attractive. It didn’t mean anything.
“Sacrifices,” the Winter Soldier rumbled.
And then he reached up to pull his mask away from the lower half of his face.
A strong jaw, dotted with stubble appeared, along with pouty lips that had absolutely no right belonging to a world-class assassin. His eyes seemed more grey than blue now, without the mask so close. Stunning, though. There was something else about his features, too, that Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on, something almost familiar. Had Tony encountered the Winter Soldier somewhere before without his mask?
The choked-out name came from behind him and Tony turned to see Steve stumbling forward, expression two-parts lost and one-part hopeful, sprinkled over with dumbfounded wonder. The Winter Soldier’s brows furrowed.
“Who the hell is Bucky?”
To say that the reveal of the Winter Soldier as Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers’ childhood friend and Captain America’s right-hand man, was surprising was a bit of an understatement. It changed everything. In a way, it was almost a relief. No longer were Loki and Bucky just Tony’s soulmates; they had a tie to another member of the team. Diffusion of responsibility. Tony could handle that a bit better than having it all on his shoulders. Now Steve, too, would have some tough choices to make.
More than the moral dilemma of being tied to a supervillain, finding out the Winter Soldier’s history was a big game changer. They wouldn’t inform SHIELD of the revelation, of course, but it would have a definite impact on the Avengers’ protocols when dealing with his work. Finding out that his targets were technically bad guys themselves made it easier for them to alter his villain status. They were all people the Avengers would have felt justified bringing in themselves. The only problem was that Bucky had been killing them instead.
The Avengers would kill in battle, if needed. Bruce was probably the only one on the team who shied away from the necessity of it at times. They all tried to avoid it as much as possible, though. There was no way they could condone his actions, however understandable they might be. If he continued to kill, they wouldn’t have any choice but to keep trying to bring him in. There would only be so much they could do to help.
Steve wasn’t willing to settle for that.
As soon as he managed to recover from his shock, Steve set to bringing Bucky home with bullheaded determination. There was just no other acceptable outcome in his world. Of course, bringing the Winter Soldier back to Avengers Tower came with its own set of problems. Chief among them being that he didn’t come alone. The two of them made it very clear, very quickly that Loki and the Winter Soldier were a package deal. If Bucky came to the tower, then so did Loki. They wouldn’t be separated.
Instead, a deal was struck. Loki and Bucky would come to the tower, but they wouldn’t wreck any havoc while they were there. They would stay on premises for one week, giving Bucky the time to learn more about who he used to be and make the decision as to whether or not he wanted to stay. It would also, Tony had dreaded, provide an excellent opportunity for the three of them to spend time together and solidify their bond.
So here Tony was, sitting awkwardly in the living room of the Avengers communal floor, perched carefully in an armchair instead of on the couch with his soulmates. Bruce and Steve were compiling information about Bucky’s life for him to go through and look at and the others were making themselves scarce in the kitchen, just far enough away to give them some privacy without going too far. If Tony needed them, Clint and Natasha would be at his side in a heartbeat.
“When you’re ready,” he began, since none of them had spoken for nearly three minutes and the silence was killing him, “JARVIS can show you to your guest rooms. Unless you’d prefer to share a room?”
“Sharing would be adequate, thank you. You’ll understand if we feel more comfortable in each other’s presence, I hope.”
Where they could watch each other’s backs from attack or entrapment, Loki didn’t say. Tony was beginning to feel uncomfortably more and more like he and Loki had quite a bit in common. Clearly, both of them were too paranoid to trust even their soulmate. Well, Loki trusted Bucky, obviously, but he wasn’t fool enough to trust that Tony wouldn’t try and bring them in. That was fair. Tony would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about doing just that.
If he did, though, any chance of this soulbond ending well would be thrown right out the window. There would be no recovering from it if he betrayed them like that. Loki would never trust him completely after such a move. Not to mention how much bitching Steve would do. All in all, it really wasn’t worth the effort. (Tony refused to admit, even to himself, that there was a part of him that might not want to lose the bond.)
“Sure, sure,” he allowed. “No problem. J?”
“I have already made the appropriate adjustments to the arrangements, Sir.”
“Your invisible servant is most impressive,” Loki complimented, a little unexpectedly. “An artificial intelligence, yes?”
“Uh, yeah,” Tony admitted. “JARVIS is a learning AI. The more he experiences, the more his code will expand itself and he’ll evolve. He’s the closest to human that tech has managed to come.”
“And you created him. Fascinating. I must admit that I find this branch of Midgardian science to be incredibly interesting. While other areas, such as astronomy or biology, are far more advanced upon Asgard and the other realms, being able to create an intelligence is nigh unheard of. Only the most advanced mages are capable of it and it takes an incredible amount of time and energy. I, personally, have never attempted it. The fact that you Midgardians have managed it with as little magic as is present on this world, with processes that don’t even involve magic…”
The interest and awe lit up Loki’s face in a way that Tony had never quite seen before. He supposed that made sense. There weren’t exactly a lot of opportunities to talk about their interests and hobbies when one of them was a megalomaniac attempting to take over the world and the other was doing their damnedest to ensure that didn’t happen. Somehow, it never occurred to Tony that Loki might have things he actually liked about their world. He always seemed so condemning of humans. It was a startling thought, but not entirely a bad one.
“Would you… like to meet some more?” he asked a bit tentatively.
He still wasn’t entirely sure about Loki’s intentions, but he was never going to be able to prove himself to be trustworthy if Tony never gave him the chance to. At least here there was a safety net in case things went sideways. It would be an important step, one that would tell Tony quite a lot about whether or not he could continue with this whole thing.
“You have more?” Loki asked, his anticipation impossible to hide.
Tony wouldn’t call it excitement, exactly. Loki was far too cultured for that, but there were definitely some hints of it there.
“JARVIS, send the kids up, if you would.”
Loki looked downright alarmed. Bucky, too, stiffened, looking almost scared by the prospect.
“There are children here?”
It was somewhat startling to hear such a panicked tone coming out of the Winter Soldier’s mouth. There were definitely some issues there. Tony would have to make sure to get into them later. For now, he held up his hands in a calming gesture.
“No, like, human kids. Unless you count Spiderman. He swings by sometimes. The kids are my bots, AIs like JARVIS but not as advanced. They have independent housing units, meaning they're mobile. DUM-E was actually my first AI. He’s a mess. I was in college at the time and did at least 90% of his programming while I was blackout drunk so it’s really a miracle he works at all.”
Loki shifted, bringing him back to Tony’s primary focus. His eyes were wide, chin lifted slightly and nostrils flared as he took a series of long, deep breaths. There was fire in his gaze, and a hunger Tony was familiar with seeing in a very different setting. Unless he was horribly mistaken, Loki wanted to fuck Tony until neither of them could feel their legs.
“I am sure he is magnificent,” Loki all but purred. “As is your intelligence to have created him under such circumstances.”
What Tony heard was, ‘Your brain is directly responsible for me wanting to rip off your clothes and devour you, leaving nothing in my wake.’
It was a heady feeling and definitely not one Tony had been expecting. His entire body felt heated by the promise in Loki’s eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that sex with Loki would be mind blowing, especially throwing Bucky into the mix. Tony had never allowed himself to go there before, especially not since discovering they were soulmates. There was no avoiding the mental images now, though. They sped through Tony’s mind like a whirlwind, scattering his ability to think to the wind.
Luckily, that was the exact moment the elevator arrived and deposited three excitable bots into their midst. DUM-E let out a series of trilling beeps and headed straight for his creator and their guests. Tony rarely brought the bots out of the lab, so their usual social interactions amounted to Tony and whoever happened to visit him down in the lab. Getting out and meeting new people was a hugely exciting experience for them. Their reactions were exactly as Tony had expected them to be… right up until DUM-E got within five feet of Tony and the other two men and slammed on his brakes.
His optic sensor swiveled between Loki and Bucky, who were both staring with wide eyes, before focusing on his creator and letting out a shrill beep that sounded decidedly distressed. His brothers formed up behind him, chorusing his distress. Tony was up and among them in a heartbeat, hands running soothingly over support struts and trying to calm them down.
“Hey, hey, it’s alright. What’s going on, guys? What’s all this fuss about?”
“It would appear, Sir,” JARVIS piped up from overhead, “that the bots have recognized your guests from attack footage viewed in your lab. They are expressing a considerable amount of concern for your safety. DUM-E, in particular, has issued numerous pings to reinstate his authorization with the fire extinguisher.”
Tony felt his chest growing warm and silently cursed his damn, stupid creations as he tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. He was not going to get choked up over the fact that DUM-E wanted to spray a couple of notorious supervillains with fire retardant. He was not.
“It’s okay,” he soothed the bots. “Daddy’s got it all under control. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nobody’s going to hurt me. I promise.”
There was a rustling of cloth behind him, the creak of leather, and Tony turned to find that Loki had risen to his feet, face schooled into a far more sedate expression. He surveyed Tony and his bots for a long moment before shocking Tony completely by sweeping into a deep bow.
“You have my humblest apologies, Iron sons of Stark, for causing you to fear for the wellbeing of your creator. I can assure you we mean him no harm or suffering by our hands.”
Tony stared at him in shock as DUM-E assessed the god before giving an affirmative beep and moving forward to inspect him more closely. Loki allowed the poking and prodding without fuss, holding out his hands and turning to allow the bot better access. Bucky rose from the couch as well, more cautiously than Loki had, and allowed Butterfingers and YOU to do the same. Both supervillains were gentle and patient with the bots, never once seeming irritated with them. It caused Tony’s heart to flutter in his chest.
There were very few people who treated Tony’s creations as people instead of things. Despite all of their personality and life, the bots and even JARVIS were often brushed aside as objects to be controlled. To have Loki and Bucky, two of the least likely people in the world, show them such consideration… He couldn’t help the small smile that curved his lips at the sight.
“Well,” Loki said after a few moments, warmth clear in his voice, “it’s stunningly clear where the marigold came from for our bouquet.”
Tony flinched, suddenly snapping back to reality.
“I’m not that person anymore,” he all but snarled, startling Loki and Bucky as well as bringing his teammates in the kitchen to full attention. “The Merchant of Death may have been cruel, but I’m not. I won’t ever be. I refuse.”
His soulmates gaped at him, stunned by his outburst. Loki was the first to recover, though, a shrewd look entering his gaze.
“Stark… What exactly is it you believe to be the meanings of our flowers?”
Tony scoffed. He could still remember the day he’d learned what his bouquet meant, sitting on the floor of his father’s library, botany book open in his lap.
“War,” he spit out, “cruelty, jealousy, heartlessness… Forgive me if it’s not a soulbond I’m excited to just jump right into.”
Hurt flashed across Loki’s face before being quickly smoothed away again. Bucky was watching Tony warily, not seeming to quite know how to react but readying for anything. Loki reached up slowly to lay a hand over his heart, over where his own bouquet sat perched beneath his shirt.
“Yarrow is a symbol of war, yes,” he admitted slowly, carefully, “but it is also a symbol of healing, something we have all experienced. For all that the hydrangea holds the meaning for heartlessness, it is also the flower of gratitude for being understood and true, sincere emotions. I cannot think of a one of us that does not describe. And marigold?”
He stepped forward, right into Tony’s space but carefully not touching him.
“Marigold is passion and creativity. The meaning of our flowers may not be all good, happy things, but they aren’t all bad, either. I hope you can come to see that.”
Tony’s heart clenched painfully. He wanted it to be true. He wanted it so badly. He wanted that feeling from just seconds before, that warm happiness. Fear gripped him, though. Tony had lost so much throughout his life, had been betrayed so many times. Stark men are made of iron, his father had always said, but this soulbond could be the thing that broke him. If he let himself hope only for it to all fall apart, he wasn’t sure he’d ever recover.
Metal fingers tentatively reached out to thread with his own, and Tony glanced over to see Bucky giving him a hopeful look.
“Most of what I’ve seen out of life so far has been the ugliness of it,” Bucky admitted quietly. “I’m ready to try something new. If you could just give us a chance..” he trailed off, seeming to struggle for words.
Tony took a deep breath. He’d never let fear stop him before.
These were his soulmates.
“I can try,” he promised, through a throat that was squeezed tight with emotion. “I want to try.”
Their smiles were brighter than the sun.