Cold, cold, everything is cold.
There's a tiny bit of metal scratching his neck with every movement,, but the Asset isn't stupid enough to complain. He can still smell the burning tires, the blood, the acrid smoke. Everything is buzzing around them, his Handler is satisfied, but not happy.
This time, there's no malice behind the wipe.They don't make it last to punish him.
Or he floats, it seems.
This is not standard procedure, he's not supposed to feel anything. He shouldn’t be hearing anything. He supposed to sleep until his next assignment.
There's a man, close, but not too close. It's as if he's seeing them through a fever, he has to fight to finally see the tall man, gently singing to the baby in his arms.
The house isn't familiar, it's not a real memory, his mind provides, whatever this is, it's not ours.
The baby fusses and turns his eyes to him. He's too small, the Asset knows he can't actually see him, but it feels like something, like somehow through everything he is seen.
“Baby mine, don't you cry...”
The stranger has an accent, Sussex, maybe.
When he wakes up, the Asset is crying.
The Asset has a mark.
He knows what marks are, they are, after all, too often related to his work. Revenge, sent by Hydra, often takes loved ones, rips apart families. He knows.
He wonders, sometimes, who he was. Who the other, the one asking for coffee was.
He's washing his blades in the bathroom of a dirty cafe when he is surprised -by the feeling of something. A longing, a yearning for a place he doesn't really know.
His mark is hidden under his clothes and he knows better than to bring attention to it.
This time, the dream is different.
He's in a small house, everything warm and inviting.
The baby, now a toddler, is sitting in a makeshift playpen, watching his parents bustling around in the kitchen. Not his parents, his mind supplies, domestics, probably, judging from the lack of toys and the boy's extremely expensive clothes clashing with the modest interior. The boy isn't scared of him. The Asset walks to him, slowly, and he can almost feel himself... smiling.
The boy hands him a piece of plum, and the Asset doesn't think about it, biting into it and waking himself up.
He can still taste it, weeks after.
There's no pattern to it. He doesn't know why he keeps coming back, why his mind seems so fascinated by the little boy, his smile when he spots him lurking in the shadows, his giggles.
But it makes the rest easier, in a way. He doesn't mind the wipe, now. If anything, he craves it.
This, it's the only thing he have left, the only thing they can't have.
If anything, the boy becomes his timekeeper, an indication of the time between each wipe.
One day he wakes up, and he's toddling around, his caretaker smiling gently at him. “Anthony,” the man praises. “My boy, you're doing an amazing job !”
The Asset closes his eyes, and suddenly the boy is five, missing a tooth and biking in a fabulous garden. “Jarvis ! Jarvis look at me ! I can do it !”
On the other side, the Asset nurses broken bones and bruises, he can barely walk, but he can't help but chuckle at the pure happiness.
He closes his eyes again, and this time he almost regrets it.
Anthony is older, a teenager now. He standing in front of a man, and the Asset frowns because he knows this man. He knows him, from talks between his different handlers, the first plan to bring him in, the other, to take him down.
Howard Stark is standing in front of a window, and Antony is waiting, his eye swollen, his chin shaking.
The Asset closes his eyes, and wishes to sleep.
He gets a new handler. He doesn’t know or care what happened to the last one.. He's mad, so mad, but he can't remember why exactly.
His new handler smiles when he mentions the tears, when he's in cryo, and wishes him good dreams. The wipes hurt a lot, more than it's supposed to.
“You better be bringing me coffee.”
Everything hurts for a second, and the Asset fights the nausea, tries to figure out where he is, what he's supposed to do, and most of all, who decided to taunt him with his words.
The man, well, the boy sitting at the small desk turns his attention from whatever he's studying and glances at him, before yawning. It looks like a dorm, a fancy one. One bed only, but the mess is very obviously enough for two people.
“Oh never mind. It's you again. Done lurking in the shadows ?” Anthony, because the Asset knows, he knows because this, in his head, Hydra can't touch, can't erase, Anthony smiles and stands from his chair, stretching. “I guess if I'm starting to see my favorite imaginary friend, I should probably go to bed, uh ?”
The Asset watches him turn off the light, and give him a little sleepy smile.
Whatever this new handler is doing to him, it works.
He's not just at the edge of the dream, he's in it, and Anthony sees him clearly, too.
“Hey Shadow !” Anthony is always happy to see him, happy to ramble about his day, about his friends, and his life.
He rarely mentions his parents, but when he does, it's always in hushed and sad tones.
The Asset is too afraid to talk, to ruin the dream.
It's good to accept the food Tony offers from his plate, it's good to sit with him and watch movies, it's good to make memories.
Anthony grows up, grows old.
The Asset isn't really aware of time, he doesn't really care as long as Anthony always greets him with a smile.
Anthony is drinking himself into stupor when he opens his eyes. Anthony doesn't smile, doesn't open his arms.
“You, huh ?” He tries to push himself from the floor, but slips and falls back. “Why is it always you?”
The Asset helps him, careful, very careful, because this isn't a handler, this isn't a mission, this is Anthony, his Anthony, Anthony said his words when he was young and sleepy and happy to see him, and whatever happens, the Asset wants to see him happy.
“I'm dying Shadow. I'm dying, and I don't know what to do.” The last words are broken by sobs, and Anthony hides in his neck and cries, cries like when he was a baby, and a tall man was rocking him to sleep, whispering a lullaby.
His metal fingers aren't supposed to soothe, but he brings them slowly against Anthony's temple, and he rumbles. It's not a song, he doesn't sing, and he doesn't speak often so he's pretty sure it's off.
“Baby mine, don't you cry. Baby mine, rest your eyes..”
Anthony bawls, it's messy, but the Assets sings, and he rocks his soulmate to sleep, not ready to see him go either.
The man calls him Bucky, and the Asset doesn't know what to do.
Leaving Hydra, finally being free, means no more nights spent on Anthony's couch, no more nights listening to him giggle at him.
But is also means being free, whatever that's supposed to mean.
The stranger grabs him, and the Asset hits.
Anthony sees him, and looks like he's horrified.
Anthony doesn't see the real him anymore. He doesn't call him Shadow, he doesn't smile and makes fun of his hair.
And when Anthony watches what the Asset did, when Anthony screams and attacks...
The Asset wishes he could go back to sleep.
The Princess doesn't offer him platitudes. She nods a few times, and types something.
“Even by our standards, soulmates and soul marks are still pretty impossible to understand. I hate to say it, but it's magic, it's not something we can explain sometimes.” She looks at him with pity, and Barnes, no, Bucky, smiles at her. He feels old, really old, and she looks so young. “I can try to send you back in cryo ?”
“It didn't work, the last time.” He shrugs. “I don't see him anymore.”
“But you're positive he is your soulmate ?”
He made his peace with it. The world was ending, Anthony had been hurt enough, by everyone, yeah, but most of all by him.
“I could always kidnap him and bring him here ? Force him to talk to you ?”
Bucky can't help but smile again.
“I think your kid contacted my kids, and they planned everything” Bucky is still too shocked to move. Anthony looks older, tired. He looks as old as Bucky feels. Tired, hurt.
“I'm sorry.” He hates words, but he hopes they can convey just how sorry he is.
“I used to think you were an imaginary friend. Hallucination. My therapist was agreeing with me, everyone believed it was probably the downfall of being a genius. I was creating friends for myself who could understand me. To cope.”
“Oh.” This isn't Anthony's room, or his home. Bucky knows, he knows the feel of a room, and this is probably the Spider Kid’s place. Nice kid, but of course with a mentor like his Anthony, he wouldn’t expect anything less.
“But you're not, are you?”
“You are my soulmate.” It feels odd, to finally tell him. Anthony looks ready to cry, and then looks upset, and starts to play with a tiny plastic toy.
“I used to think Jarvis was. Mine. Used to sing me that stupid song all the time. When my words appeared, I got mad, thinking the world was screwing me over.” He turns to glare at him. “Don't you dare say it did.”
“You didn't think I was real.”
Outside New York was still buzzing. Bucky could hear the kid on the roof, guarding them and keeping Princess Shuri updated. It was still warm enough for them to call it late summer. No one was dying, the world was fine, for now.
“You still love plums ?”
Anthony chuckled at that. “Yes. Yes, I do. I used to feed them to you, I remember.”
“There's a bakery I like, they do plum tarts. It's nice.”
“Is it ?”
“What about your wife ?”
They're eating plum tarts, and having tea from a huge teapot. There's milk and sugar, a cute little tea cosy, and it feels like something out of a memory.
“Fiancée. Ex-fiancée. We were having issues. Me jumping on a spaceship. Things like that.” Tony stabs a bite of crust. “I told her about meeting my soulmate.” Anthony watches him carefully. “What about you ?”
“No one to tell. But I told Steve. Princess Shuri. I didn't want to lie to them.”
“I want to still be mad at you.” Antony, Tony, hugs him and Bucky holds him close.
“I want you to be mad.”
“But I can't !” Tony puts his nose right to his neck, and Bucky marvels at everything, and the man in his arms, his life.
They fall asleep on the huge couch, Bucky holding on to Tony's sleeve.
Colonel Rhodes smiles when he sees them together.
“Oh yeah.” Tony eats his breakfast without making a fuss, and the Spider Kid wins more points when he doesn't make a scene and just grabs a plate for himself. “Platypus knew about you. He just didn't know the whole soulmate thing, just called you my other best friend.”
“Maybe you should ask Doctor Strange?” Peter Parker has a way to make Tony smile by just existing, and just for that Bucky would tolerate him, but he's also smart and fun to have around. “He explained to me soul marks were probably another Mandela effect, because lots of things don't add up.”
“I don't need to know what it was.” Tony frowns, and turns to him. “Do you ?”
Bucky shakes his head, and brushes his fingers through Tony's hair. His new fingers glide, no hair stuck between the knuckles, no risk of pinching anyone skin. Princess Shuri was amazingly talented, but it felt better to wear the arm Tony had designed. It felt right.
“Kid, when you're finished with that, want to help me ruin Falcon's day ?”
Not everyone is that accepting. Bucky makes his peace to it. While Steve hugs him and wishes him the best, Romanova doesn't believe it, doesn't believe him, and waits for the other shoe to drop.
But it's okay. He can deal with her. With everything.
“What are you doing here ?”
Tony emerges from the workshop, wearing his glasses, and at a decent hour. There's just candles around, in the kitchen, because Bucky is a sap, and there's nothing like the pure light, nothing artificial.
Food still in paper bags on the wooden countertops, sparkling water for both of them.
When Bette Midler starts to sing, Tony blushes and moans. “ Slow dancing in the kitchen? Really?”
But he fits within his arms, and when they kiss, Bucky could swear he tastes like plums.