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inside my shell-shaped mind

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From Avengers (1963) #361


Once upon a time, Steve Rogers watched Ikaris of the Eternals force one of his Avengers into a Gann Josin. The Gann Josin was a lifelong soulbond, a low-level telepathic and psionic connection that was the Eternals version of marriage. Ikaris had forced Sersi and Dane into the Gann Josin bond with no thought, just because it was an easy solution to his problem.

Steve's thought at the time had been somewhat akin to: Ikaris is a massive fucking asshole.

And yet here he is, years later, doing the same exact thing Ikaris did to Sersi and Dane... to Tony Stark.

"You know this is what the Eternals considered marriage between their kind," Tony hisses at him. "The Gann Josin isn't just something you decide to do on the spur of the moment, Steve. You do this with the person who's supposed to be your soulmate."

Steve stares in absolute bewilderment. Tony's being ridiculous. How could anything, even something as awful as getting stuck to the wrong person for life, be worse than death? Is Tony really going to force him to do this?

Well, if someone had ever told Steve years ago that he was going to need to be a massive fucking asshole to save someone's life... he probably would have correctly predicted Tony Stark being the instigating reason, to be honest.

"You don't have a choice, Tony," Steve says flatly. "Me or death shouldn't be that difficult a decision."

Tony glares back at him like it is, and Steve thinks he might be actually going insane.

Okay, so, a brief rewind while Steve regains his sanity. When Steve woke up that morning, he knew he'd be spending most of the day fighting for his life. He just didn't know it would be on a different kind of battlefield than he was anticipating.

The Avengers are gathered around the Global Teleporter, ready for their own personal missions. Malekith the Accursed has spread his forces around the planet, so the Avengers are about to split up and fight them across all corners of the globe. The Armory has been emptied, they all have their assignments, and Steve's stomach is a jumble of nerves.

Jane Foster is standing on the Teleporter's main platform. She's not half bad at the rousing-speech thing, Steve thinks. He watches her with fierce pride. The Avengers can do this. This realm is an Avengers realm; Malekith the Accursed will regret ever coming after Midgard. Steve's grip tightens on his shield fiercely.

"Now! All of us together! All around the globe!" Jane's eyes are burning with her inner strength and passion as she rallies the cry to war. "With the Avengers in the lead, we can-"

Steve feels like he's holding his breath in anticipation of the end of her rousing speech, and then-

It just doesn't come. A bright pink light fills his vision and everything freezes and then everything disappears.

Steve's used the Global Teleporter in Avengers Mountain a fair few times now, so he knows the sensation of being teleported well now, only he is fairly certain he'd only just been stood nearby the platform, not on it.

The glow of pink fades and Steve blinks violently, trying to get his vision to adjust to the new location. He tenses up in confusion. The first thing he sees is a bright blue sky, dotted with floating white pillars and broken staircases. The second thing he sees is a row of three figures in purple hoods, their faces hidden, standing next to a white podium and a large empty golden throne. The third thing he sees is Jennifer and Thor standing next to him, both looking a little stunned.

The fourth thing he sees makes his breath catch in his throat: Tony. He's standing—hovering slightly above, really—some sort of small round platform, suspended in a stream of what looks like white energy. His armor is in pieces on the ground around him.

"I can't move," Tony yelps.

"I wouldn't," Jennifer calls out. "This is the Star Chamber of the Cosmic Court. If you're being restrained, it's for a reason."

"That sounds cheerful," Tony says. "Normally I have to pay people to restrain me."

Jennifer casts around desperately and sags. "This is bad."

Steve stares at her. "How bad?"

He's sort of regretting asking, to be honest.

According to Jennifer, the Magistrati—the figures in the purple hoods—are enforcers for the Living Tribunal. The Living Tribunal oversees and maintains universal and multiversal balance. He has ultimate jurisdiction over the multiverse, not just our universe. The Magistrati enforce Universal Law on his behalf. They're the judges, jurors, and advocates of the universe.

Normally they would oversee claims about violations of Universal Law in the Cosmic Court, but the main chair is empty, which means the Living Tribunal himself will be overseeing...whatever case is being brought against them.

Or, more specifically, against Tony.

Steve and Thor want to fight their way out but apparently, the Living Tribunal is one of the most powerful beings in the multiverse. Thor decides to try anyway and a moment later, his arm, ax, Steve's shield, and Tony's armor all disappear in a crackle of pink light.

"This is great," Tony calls over, "I mean, it's like an acid trip, I feel like someone slipped drugs into our water. I told you those giant spiders in our base were up to no good."

"The accused will remain silent," a voice says, and Steve looks up to see that it's one of the hooded Magistrati. "The claim will be stated in due course. The accused will remain on the execution platform until the Living Tribunal gives judgment. Whereupon if found guilty he will be evaporated instantly, his atoms scattered across the universe. Until then he cannot move. All escapes attempts are futile."

"Wait, am I the accused?" Tony asks. The Magistrati nod in unison. "Awesome. Well, that does sound fun," Tony says, "unfortunately I have a prior appointment, gonna have to skip out of that cosmic atomization..."

"Silence in court," another voice booms out, louder and resonant, and Tony's mouth snaps shut. Steve stares as a giant figure just appears on the throne, a golden shining body and then a golden face hovering above, covered with a purple sheet that seems to obscure two other faces protruding from the side. "All rise for his honor, the Living Tribunal."

"I'll rise this," Thor mutters, and leaps forwards to try and attack, the lack of weapons be damned, but he's thrown backward in a crackle of blue energy.

"Thor," Jennifer hisses. Thor gapes, climbs sullenly to his feet and then tenses his shoulders to attack again, and Steve finds himself tensing up to accompany him into battle.

"We will kill the accused without trial if the defendants do not pull back immediately," the Living Tribunal booms.

Tony looks horrified as Thor glares mutinously at the Living Tribunal and lets Steve and Jennifer tug him back to stand with them.

"I am the Living Tribunal," the giant figure booms, spreading his large hands wide. "I'll be presiding today over the Star Chamber's Cosmic Claims Court."

"Hi, yes, I'd like to say something. The universe is at war, every realm has been taken over but ours, and you take us now? Are you freaking kidding me?" Tony yells, except he doesn't use the word freaking.

The Living Tribunal warns, "You are at risk of contempt of court, Mr. Stark."

"Honestly, it wouldn't be the first time—" Tony starts.

"Punishment for contempt of this court is immediate evaporation," the Living Tribunal intones.

"...and I'm shutting up," Tony says.

"This complaint comes from the Magistrati themselves," the Living Tribunal says. "We will hear their case."

The first of the three hooded figures clears his throat and begins to speak. "Recently, Anthony Edward Stark of Earth designation 616 was bequeathed the power of the Uni-Mind from the last of the Eternals in their universe. We, the Magistrati, regret to register a complaint or interfere, but the power of the Uni-Mind is too much for one human to hold."

The middle figure takes over. "Before, the power was restricted to a hundred individuals of the race known as the Eternals, but in Stark's hands, there is no such restriction. As a human, he has over six billion souls who could combine into one Uni-Mind. A combination of souls that large cannot be risked."

"You can confirm Stark is the only individual left in the universe with the ability to perform the Uni-Mind bond?" the Living Tribunal asks.

"We can confirm that," the third Magistrati says. "The Eternals of 616 self-destructed. The Brethren, without Sersi, cannot replicate it. Ghaur and Varua are both deceased. The Over-mind still has the ability, but it is non-transferable, and he cannot draw new souls into it, therefore the power level is sufficiently restricted. Stark is the only individual left in 616 with the ability to perform the Uni-Mind bond."

"It must not remain in the hands of any species with that large a population," the first Magistrati says.

"What right do you have to decide something like this?" Tony asks, angrily.

"Our job is to observe and protect," the second Magistrati says. "We make sure no species has a power too big for them. The Uni-Mind in the hand of a species with over six billion members is simply too big an advantage for any single species to have. As we judge for the universe, we must also advocate for it. You are too dangerous. You must be erased."

Steve wouldn't say arguing is his forte, but Jennifer and Tony are usually very good at it.

The fact that they're both failing is worrying.

Jennifer, mostly as a delaying tactic so they can come up with useful arguments, manages to confirm Steve's shield, Thor's arm and ax, and Tony's armor are safe back at Avengers Mountain.

Tony asks for them to strip the Uni-Mind power out of him, but apparently the Eternals died with the knowledge of how to do that.

Jennifer suggests replacing Tony with a younger version of himself, maybe from last month, which Tony seems eager for.

Tony tries to argue that because he's in a new body and may not even have a soul that he's technically not even Tony Stark, so can he be released on that technicality?

Steve unhappily suggests a mindwipe, but that gets rejected too, because apparently there's too much proof that memory removal on their planet isn't a permanent solution. Well. They have a point.

Thor still wants to fight their way out and Steve's starting to wonder if that's their only option. They need the Uni-Mind power out of Tony, but they can't pull it out of him.

Steve's getting desperate.

"If your job is to maintain balance," Steve says, "then how can you, uh… remove… such an important individual to our planet's protection? Wouldn't that create a power shift on its own?"

"It is regretful," the Living Tribunal says, "but one man, no matter how great, could match the destructive potential of a six-billion-strong Uni-Mind."

"Ouch, right in the ego," Tony mutters.

Steve closes his eyes and tries to think about what the Magistrati said about the Uni-Mind. No one has the ability in their universe but Tony… and the Over-Mind. Who has the power but it's limited.

Oh. Oh. Oh god. Steve kind of wants to be sick. He has an idea, but the last time something like this happened, Steve had opinions about the kind of guy who would do something like this. They were not pleasant opinions. In fact, Steve had been pretty sure that Ikaris was a massive fucking asshole for forcing one of his Avengers into the Gann Josin.

And here he is, about to suggest it himself. Wow.

"What if Mr. Stark were in a permanent, limited Uni-Mind," Steve calls across to the Magistrati and Living Tribunal. "It's called the Gann Josin, the Eternals used to practice it, a limited two-person Uni-Mind bond that means anyone part of it cannot form a full, complete, stable Uni-Mind. Would that be an acceptable alternative to death?"

The Living Tribunal and Magistrati confer. There is a heated discussion about how it can be broken, but Jennifer insists the Magistrati can oversee that to make sure it isn't, because surely removing Iron Man would be upsetting the cosmic balance too much if there was a viable non-death alternative?

Steve feels like he's holding his breath until the Living Tribunal turns his face back to them.

"That would be an acceptable solution," the Living Tribunal agrees, and Steve feels like he can breathe again. The Living Tribunal leans forwards, his massive form glimmering in the bright blue sky. "Is Mr. Stark in a Gann Josin bond right now?"

"No," Steve says, immediately re-losing the ability to breathe as his entire body goes cold.

"Shame," the Tribunal says. "Then we have no choice but to—"

"He will be," Steve says, desperately. "Just give us time, enough time—"

"I'm afraid my judgment cannot be thus delayed. You've said it yourselves, you're at war. A Uni-Mind with all your people would be too much to resist in that scenario—"

"Then he'll bond with someone right now," Steve yells.

"No," Tony says.

"Oh for—yes, you will," Steve says. "He will, your Honor."

"I can't," Tony hisses. "There's no one I could possibly ask to do something like this."

"I volunteer," Thor booms. "Your mortal lives mean nothing to me, a soulbond with a Midgardian would be to me as the briefest flap of a butterfly's wings." He turns to Jennifer, a noble expression on his face. "It would disturb me greatly to have to share memories of you with Stark, but I am willing to make such a sacrifice for one of Earth's best warriors."

"Uh," Tony says, looking poleaxed, "well, as an alternative to death, I suppose—"

Steve glances at Jennifer and she looks a little distressed, and he understands how she feels.

"We cannot allow the god to be part of the bond," one of the Magistrati says. "We cannot risk the power moving to the Asgardians."

"Oh," Jennifer says and looks up at Tony with a sad and determined sort of expression, "then—"

Steve knows she's about to say I suppose I can do it, and he can't let her say it. He can't bear to hear her say it. He can't bear to stand there, and hear it, and hear Tony agree—he just can't bear the idea at all.

All which somehow explains—or rather, doesn't really explain, exactly—why Steve stumbles forwards to glare up at the Living Tribunal defiantly and ask, "Am I acceptable?"

"Yes," the Living Tribunal says after the Magistrati nod. "Please proceed."

"No," Tony whispers, and Steve flinches and glares at him, like Tony just stabbed him, with just that no. "Steve, c'mon, this isn't an easy solution. This is a terrible solution. You can't do this. You don't want this."

"You don't know what I want," Steve says, stubbornly. He steps closer. He's not sent flying backward like Thor had been, so he's probably got permission. "I know you'd rather Jan, but she's not here. I am."

"I couldn't ask her to bond permanently to me anyway, not with this short of a—I mean, no, Steve—this is dumb." Tony stares at him desperately. "Just go. Leave me here. I'm sure they'll let you leave before they execute me."

"They're not going to execute you now we have a solution," Steve says. He steps closer, glaring at Tony.

"You know this is what the Eternals considered marriage between their kind," Tony says. "The Gann Josin isn't just something you decide to do on the spur of the moment, Steve. You do this with the person who's supposed to be your soulmate."

"You don't have a choice, Tony," Steve says flatly. "Me or death shouldn't be that difficult a decision."

Tony glares back at him like it is and Steve thinks he might be actually going insane. Tony doesn't even seem to realize he's being lowered down onto the platform, too busy yelling at Steve. "You know what this does, right? It's a psionic and telepathic bond. Low-level, but enough. That means no secrets, Steve. Neither of us will have any secrets from each other."

"So?" Steve says, as the light surrounding Tony changes into something less bright. The Living Tribunal gestures, Steve being given permission to step onto it. Steve nods and does.

Tony backs up and looks sour when the light still prevents him from stepping off the podium. "You can't tell me you'd happy with an invasive soulbond," he snarls, right into Steve's face. "You think you'd be happy being able to see every dark and awful thought I've ever had? Do you really want to share your brain with an alcoholic?"

"I've been through detox once before," Steve says, knowing his level tone will be driving Tony wild. "I know I can survive it."

Tony stares. "That time you tried to get in a fistfight with an exploding warehouse of cocaine isn't exactly in the same league as an alcohol addiction."

Steve's learned to ignore Tony when he's being exceptionally ridiculous. "You've learned how to fight it. Do you think I'd back down from a battle, just because it's hard?" Steve stares at Tony, miserable. "Please don't make me watch you die."

Tony stares back at him, his eyes wide. "That's dirty pool, Cap."

Steve smiles, smugly, and then he reaches forward and takes Tony's hands in his own. Tony watches the movement and swallows, looking wretched. "You have to, Tony. Please."

"Just remember when this all goes to shit it's your fault," Tony says, which is not exactly the kind of marriage vow Steve ever thought he'd hear, but that's what he gets, because Tony rests one hand against Steve's temple, and—

It hurts.

It's agony. It's deeply agonizing. And what's worse, the pain seems to ripple through Steve twice, like he's feeling the pain going through him, and then he's feeling Tony's pain too, and then he's feeling his pain as Tony feels it, and it continues to loop and deepen, an echo chamber of trauma.

When Tony's hand falls, Steve stares at Tony, overstimulated. Every part of him feels exhausted. Tony flinches when his eyes open, and Steve almost recoils too, because Tony's eyes are red. They're bright red. Fully red. No iris, no pupil, no white. Just red.

That's going to take some getting used to, Steve thinks.

Tony says, "No kidding." Except. He doesn't say it out loud. It's in Steve's head. It's Tony's voice inside his head.

I told you that you had no idea what you were doing, Tony thinks.

Steve raises his eyebrows. "I don't actually remember you phrasing it like that," he says, out loud.

Tony glares at him in disbelief. It was implied. There's something else accompanying those words, a feeling Steve tries to catch for a second, but it skitters away from him and disappears.

"Well, that seems to me like it worked," Jennifer says, sounding dubious. She squints when Steve turns her way. His eyes must be bright red too.

They are, Tony thinks, and then—Steve doesn't know how—he's seeing himself through Tony's eyes, and oh, yeah, that's weird. Steve feels a little dizzy that this is how Tony sees him. His eyes are definitely as fully red as Tony's. He blinks away Tony's vision of him. Maybe there's some way to hide the red eyes? He misses Tony's pretty blue ones. Steve, you okay? I said not to do this, I knew it would be too much, I knew this was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, and believe me I've had a few thousand of those—

I'm fine, Steve thinks as firmly as he can. Stop panicking.

That's like telling me to stop breathing. Which, FYI, was the plan I thought would be better than this one.

Yeah, well, you're the one who said he's had a lot of bad ideas and I personally think that you being dead counts as the worst damn idea you've ever had, Steve thinks, and he can't help it, some of Tony's bad decisions crash briefly through his head in a cacophony of noise, mindwipe, brain deletion, alcohol, the supreme intelligence, civil wars—

"Guess you're starting to see what I meant," Tony says out loud, looking sourly at Steve.

"That's not what—I didn't—" Steve falls silent, and then, tentatively, tries to push what he does mean, without words. Always want you safe, always need you next to me, I'm always so better when I fight by your side.

Tony's bright red eyes widen and he stumbles backward, and then, in doing so, manages to stumble right off the execution platform. "Hey!" he says, brightly, looking around. "I'm free!"

"I can decree now that the accused has complied with court judgment and is, for the time being, innocent and free to leave," the Living Tribunal says. "I will send the Magistrati to you periodically. They will check your bond remains intact. If it is not, your life will be forfeit."

"Yippee," Tony says, dryly.

The Living Tribunal straightens in his chair. "Anything else before we send you back?"

"Compensation," Jennifer says, even as Steve tries to say no just so they can get the hell out of there. "We demand compensation from the court. You pulled us out of our universe at a critical time. If any of our colleagues have died as a result of this action, it would be in violation of all of your core principles of otherwise non-intervention—"

"Very well. Magistrati, return them to the place you took them from, a few seconds later," the Living Tribunal intones. "And...give them a day's extension on this war of theirs." He narrows his eyes. "Both sides will have twenty-four hours to recuperate. Perhaps this is not as good a thing as you imagine."

"We'll take it," Jennifer says, nodding.

"Very well," the Living Tribunal says, and Steve opens his mouth to ask how often periodically is, but it's too late, because the whole stupid courtroom disappears in a haze of pink crackling energy, and then—

They're back. In the teleportation chamber.

And it's absolute, instant chaos.

It really does look like a few seconds later, Steve thinks, because Jane's still standing in the same place, only she looks confused. As maybe she should.

"What the heck?" Robbie yelps, and it's kind of interesting to see how someone with a flaming skull can look so completely confused. "We thought you'd been evaporated, and then all your stuff just clattered to the ground, and—what the heck?"

"Honestly, that's a good summary," Tony says, rubbing his temples. He moves towards his armor, thinking clearly of putting it on, but then he hesitates and looks over at Steve. Twenty-four-hours ceasefire, Tony thinks. Do you think that's real?

"I think we would all like an explanation, if you have one," T'Challa says, approaching them warily.

"My King," Okoye's voice comes over the speaker. "We're getting reports from all sides that the frost giants and all of Malekith's other forces have just—they seem to have just disappeared? I'm not sure—the reports aren't clear. Something about a burst of pink energy?"

"Please confirm as soon as possible," T'Challa commands. "Captain, Thor, have you any information on what just happened to you?"

"Enough to know we can't celebrate our enemies disappearing," Jennifer says. "This is just a temporary ceasefire. We have twenty-four hours before everything starts again. We need to prepare for that."

"I'm definitely going to need more information," T'Challa says.

"It's a long story," Jennifer says. "But to cut things short, we got summoned to cosmic court, and to save Tony's life, Steve and Tony got married."

There's silence for a second among the whole crowded room as that gets processed.

"Not married," Steve amends, uncomfortable with the way his voice is ringing in the silence. "Just...permanently soulbonded for life?"

The silence continues, just for a little bit.

"That didn't actually make it sound any better," Tony hisses.

T'Challa hurries them both to the medical bay as Jennifer hurries behind trying to explain what happened to him, and Thor disappears off to find out what's happened to his people. Steve tries his best to pretend the medical bay has not been christened the med-kidney-bay. It's weird enough living in a giant corpse without constant reminders. T'Challa instructs both of them to get fully checked up before they report to him and then stays to make sure Steve and Tony sit in one of the bays before he hurries off with Jennifer. He's a good leader. Probably knows both of them would have tried to slink away from a medical check-up if not personally escorted.

The med-kidney-bay (why) is pretty full, which makes Steve's stomach ache a little. Strange's mass extraction from Manhattan pulled the entire population into the Mountain and a lot of people had been injured fleeing from Malekith's warriors. His gaze catches on a small girl, blood on her forehead, face creased in distress. She catches him looking and starts to cry.

Steve looks away in horror. He doesn't know whether it's his bright red eyes, or whether she remembers that someone with his face terrorized the world not too long ago. Either way, he must look like a monster.

"You look fine," Tony reassures him, slipping off the examination table to quickly close some curtains around them.

Steve startles. "I didn't—" Say anything, his brain fills in.

Apparently, you don't have to, Tony thinks back at him, the words tasting slightly sour in Steve's mind.

Steve's a little flummoxed at how almost easy the bond seems to be so far. He supposes it's slightly weird, but does it really rank much higher than some of the other stuff that's happened to him? On a scale of fighting Nazi Frankenstein to turning into a werewolf… where does this even rank?

"It's disturbing that Nazi Frankenstein ranks as one of the least weird things you can think of," Tony mutters, seemingly not realizing that Steve didn't even say anything.

"Well. Nazis are weird anyway, so whatever they come up with as a weapon—" Steve shrugs. "It's not that surprising, I guess. As long as I can punch it, I'm happy."

If only you could punch every problem, Tony thinks moodily.

We could try, Steve thinks back.

Tony shakes himself. "That's going to take some getting used to."

Okoye approaches them as they wait, and Steve gives her as thorough a briefing of what happened to them as he can while a Wakandan medical technician checks over Tony first. Their staff is spread thin, but that's not a surprise, considering the Mountain's currently housing thousands of refugees. Steve's glad that Manhattan's population has taken a beating over the years, or they'd never have been able to fit everyone into Avengers Mountain. A 2000-foot-high Celestial corpse can only hold so many people, after all.

Okoye leaves, but as she does, someone else comes in. Steve recognizes him as Doctor Nemesis, one of the newer Agents of Wakanda. Tony glances over and a sigh ripples through Steve's mind. Doctor Death, isn't that reassuring that he's on our side now?

"Hello, Captain," Doctor Nemesis greets. He holds out a hand. Steve automatically moves to shake it. "I'm going to take some blood samples if that's okay."

"Of course, Doctor," Steve says cautiously. Nemesis' eyes look like cameras, intricate technology that makes the man look just a little off. Well, it's not like Steve can really judge with his current eye color, and his own face isn't anything to write home about.

Now you're just being ridiculous, Tony says. There's a reason your password used to be Captain Handsome.

Steve colors. Isn't that reason because you can't even remember your own birthday?

Oh, was that the lie I went with? Tony laughs in his own head, and that's a weird sensation. It's like sparklers, crackling all around Steve's head. I was knee-deep in denial that I was age I don't want to think about. I guess you'll have to learn to live with that sort of thing more blatantly now. Seeing as you went and got yourself all psychically wed to a liar.

Steve, stung, wants to protest, but then hears his own voice in Tony's memories, sharp and full of hate: It's time for the lies to stop, Tony.

That's not fair, Steve thinks at him, heatedly.

Tony glares at him. What did you think you were getting into? You thought you were making some sort of noble sacrifice? Hitch your star to the devil so you can control him? Did you think maybe you could tame the monster?

Of course not, Steve thinks. You can see inside me too, so you can see my motivation. All I wanted was to be able to save my friend. This lack of privacy is probably going to suck for both of us. But I'd still take it to you being dead, any fucking time.

"The telepathic bond is clearly working, then," Nemesis mutters. "T'Challa has sent for some sort of expert on the topic, so hopefully he'll be able to give us more of a clue how this bond might develop. I've never come across a Gann Josin before, and I'm worried if there's a telepathic connection, it might increase to sharing bodily sensations like pain. I'll be happier when we have more information."

"It's probably the Black Knight, Dane Whitman," Steve says. "He was once in a forced Gann Josin with the Eternal Sersi."

"I look forward to talking with him," Nemesis says.

"Wow, potential pain sharing, huh? Sounds like you've made an excellent decision here," Tony says, glaring at Steve. "Feeling good about it yet?"

"Actually, still feel like it was a good idea," Steve says, shrugging back. He does feel like it's a good plan. And he still feels like he's probably the best candidate for the job, as weird as that sounds. He's not sure he could trust anyone else to do it right.

So I'm a job, Tony huffs at him.

You know that's not what I meant, Steve thinks back at him smugly. You can feel my intentions, can't you? Tony doesn't respond in words, and Steve allows himself a small smile of triumph.

Doctor Nemesis runs them both through a whole bunch of tests that Steve's used to, and then a whole lot more he's never heard of, and then when he's done he looks disturbed.

"Ideally, Strange would take a look at you," Nemesis says, looking at data as he talks, his mechanical eyes whirring rapidly over the monitors. "But he's still recovering from that last spell of his. I have a call out for a couple of other experts. Please remain within the Mountain, so I can call you back if I need to."

Steve nods. "Will do, Doc."

Steve's right that Dane Whitman is the expert who turns up. He comes into the med-kidney-bay still battle-ready, wearing black armor with silver and gold touches, a golden eye mask covering his face, his red cape billowing as he enters. Dane smiles weakly at Steve and launches into a quick furious consultation with Doctor Nemesis just out of their hearing.

"This is fun," Tony sniffs. Steve is quiet, because Tony's worrying enough for both of them. When Dane finishes talking to the doctor, he comes over to their bed and looks at them with a rueful expression.

"Tony, Steve," Dane says. "Apparently you've decided to copy me?"

"Absolutely," Tony says. "We both talked and decided capes are the future."

Dane laughs. "C'mon, let's get out of here, you can show me around. Maybe find somewhere...a little quieter to talk about what you're both about to experience?"

"Guess we can give you the grand tour," Tony says.

"So this is the new base, huh?" Dane looks around at the cavernous shining walls. "Love what you've done with the place."

"It's no 890 Fifth Avenue, but it does the job," Tony says.

Dane gestures. "And this is what a Celestial normally looks like from the inside?"

"Well, the Wakandan and Alpha Flight technicians did a lot of work in a short amount of time," Steve says. "Apparently, all the biological components had already rotted into the Earth."

"Nice," Dane says, pulling a face.

"Yep, and you'll find the rooms are named to a theme," Tony says. "The Global Teleporter chamber is in a heart chamber, the Spine Lift is over there, we have the med-kidney-bays, the brain-brary. We've got jail cells set up in the Prisontestines, and there's a Penis-tentiary for the worst criminals. And there's the Laundry-womb, Fibu-labs, Gym-nose-ium, the Trai-kneeing room, the Rec-tum room."

Tony glances over at Steve. Did I miss anything?

"The ribsidential floors," Steve says. "And the Solarium-plexus, that's nice."

"There's a Cafet-ear-ia."

"Right near the Skull-ery," Steve offers. Dane perks up at that. "S-K-U-L-L-ery," Steve clarifies and Dane sags.

"Oh, we do have a ball-room," Tony says.

Dane looks more hopeful again. "A ballroom sounds nice."

Tony huffs. "Not if you're expecting somewhere nice to dance."

"Did you hear that Ka-Zar's setting up a Scro-boretum?" Steve asks Tony.

Tony's eyebrows crease. "Is that…?"

"An arboretum in roughly the location you're expecting," Steve confirms.

"I think I prefer the mansion," Dane says, weakly.

Steve wraps an arm around his shoulders companionably. "I think we all miss that place sometimes."

Tony just lets out a huff. Steve looks over at him, curious as to what that huff entails, and somehow that curiosity just… reaches out towards Tony, and then into him, and he gets a crush of feelings about it, that apparently he's just rooted right out of Tony's mind… Images flicker through Steve's brain like he's flipping through a photo album too quickly, and emotions swell around them. Pride at being an Avenger, happiness at being part of something meaningful, fear when his father crowds over him calling him weak, disgust when his hands reach towards a glass bottle. And deeper, below that, is something else, something stronger, something—that immediately zooms away from Steve's grasp, and locks itself up tight. Steve recoils, confused, and sees Tony glaring at him in horror.

"Ohhh, yeah, I recognize that face," Dane says, shaking his head. "Sersi used to try and force out how I was feeling when I wasn't ready, man, it's such a weird sensation."

"Yeah, it is," Tony says, sourly.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know I was doing it," Steve says, horrified. "I'll—now I know how that feels, I can try not to—I'm so sorry." He's instantly miserable and mortified. No wonder Tony didn't want to be bonded to him. Steve's just trampled a whole lot of lines, and he basically forced Tony into it, just like Ikaris forced Dane all those years ago—

Hey, calm down, Tony thinks, and it's loud enough to startle Steve out of his spiral. Just breathe. We'll figure this out. You were dumb as heck getting yourself soulbonded to me, but it's probably not the last stupid thing you'll do in the name of bravery. So slow down, take a deep breath. We'll figure this out.

Steve exhales slowly and Tony emits this short burst of praise that makes Steve almost stumble. Steve smiles at how nice it feels.

That's more like it, Tony thinks, his thoughts sounding almost proud.

"Right, I think we definitely need to talk about this Gann Josin business sooner rather than later." Dane shakes his head, wincing. "Are any of those places quiet that you mentioned? Or somewhere...less creepy maybe… that we can chat confidentially?"

"Well, it might be difficult. Thanks to Stephen's spell the entire population of Manhattan is in the base right now, and I wish I was exaggerating," Tony says. He thinks about it and then looks at Steve like he's looking for approval. "We did just clean out the Armory."

Steve attempts to mentally send back the same kind of burst of praise that Tony sent his way, and Tony's cheeks go a little pink. Hmm. There's definitely something there to explore later, Steve thinks.

"The Armory," Dane repeats. "Huh. No body horror in that name."

"Until you remember that it's located in the arm," Steve says, and Dane winces.

"Yeah, I'm starting to be okay with the fact you didn't ask me to join the current roster," Dane says.

Tony's face does something complicated.

Relax, he's just messing with you, Steve tells him, enjoying seeing Tony visibly relax. Hm. This soulbond isn't too bad so far.

Tony shoots him a dark look as he leads them to the Armory. That might be because neither of us have a stomach bug at this point in time.

Well, okay, Tony might have a point there. Steve side-eyes him warily, because he can feel Tony being smug about being right, and that always puts him in a bad mood.

The Armory is mostly abandoned, and empty of all the myriad weapons they had stored there. Steve has a fleeting thought about the fact they have thousands of kids in the Mountain at the moment and hopes there are enough adults around to keep small fingers away from sharp edges.

Unfortunately mostly abandoned means not completely abandoned, and Steve eyeballs the giant spider lurking on one of the lower levels. Apparently, the Magistrati didn't consider them as enemy combatants in this war. And apparently, Tony's an arachnophobe.

How did I not know this before now? Steve thinks, and gets a flash of something across their bond, and it's some sort of a memory—Tony's small and locked in a trunk at boarding school and there's spiders, spiders everywhere. Tony isn't even screaming because he knows no one will come for me, no one cares.

Tony's terrified of the spider, but he's been facing them for hours, fighting them when he's had to, even when he's this scared of them? Steve can't do anything about the past, but he can do something about now—he takes his shield from his back and carefully throws it just above the spider, scaring it down into the depths. Tony shudders and his gratefulness is too wrapped up in the lingering fear to be coherent.

"It is strange being on the outside of a Gann Josin bond," Dane says. "Your eyes keep freaking me out, man. You never told me how weird I looked with them."

"I wasn't around much then," Tony says.

Steve sits down at the edge of the Armory floor, dangling his feet down and checking for spiders. Tony and Dane follow after a moment.

"Okay, Whitman, spill it," Tony says. "What do you know about this bond and how do we break it?"

"We're not breaking it," Steve says, firmly. "Don't tell me you'd rather die. I don't believe it."

Tony glares, which is all the answer Steve needs.

"Uh," Dane says, "this is kind of awkward. I'll just—I mean, breaking it is possible, but honestly, I couldn't tell you quite how I did it. And the Eternals did stress it was rare."

"Well, there's a whole city of dead Eternals still out there," Tony says, "maybe they left instructions behind." There's a wash of sadness behind Tony's words, and oh, so much grief. Steve's chest aches with it, and he has to reach out blindly to touch Tony, he needs to, because the grief is overwhelming. Tony had been close with a few of the Eternals. Steve had never realized. Now he can feel it, the way Tony's heart quietly shattered seeing his friends ripped apart. Thena especially, they'd worked so closely together before, and Tony and Ikaris had a lot in common...

Tony gives Steve a strange expression, and Steve recoils because it comes with a backwash of bitterness, because... Steve's thoughts are too kind, and Tony thinks he doesn't deserve it? Steve squints. Tony's mind is a disaster zone when it comes to emotions, apparently. Well. It's not like he's an emotional catch in return. A lot of his exes have talked about his emotional constipation.

"I'm just going to talk," Dane says, loudly. "So, the bond. If it works how it did for us—and bear in mind, Sersi was already kind of… batshit crazy when it started, and we were both different species—well, the telepathic bond comes first, obviously. You can talk to each other and if you concentrate you can see mental pictures. After a while, you'll start to get flashes of memory; that took Sersi and me a few weeks."

Steve and Tony stare at each other because that's already happening for them.

"Soon it will elevate to a low-level psionic bond," Dane shrugs. "Honestly, we never really had a strong psionic connection, but it was enough to disrupt some villain attacks. You'll basically start to… assimilate each other's minds a little. The boundaries between both of you will blur. It's important to surround yourself with friends, other people who know who you are, because it's too easy just to fold into the other person."

"I told you this was a bad idea," Tony says, glaring at Steve. Steve just shrugs, because he still doesn't regret doing it. He'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Dane continues like Tony hasn't spoken, which is probably for the best. "For the first few weeks, too much distance is awkward. You're gonna want to stay close to each other for a while. You can still separate, but too far and you'll get a headache. Just for these first few weeks." Steve frowns because they'd been planning to split up to take on multiple fronts against Malekith. "Then the bond strengthens and it's like you're standing next to each other even when you're on opposite sides of the galaxy."

"Yeah, real nice thing you got us into," Tony mutters sourly.

"Are you still trying to say you'd prefer death?" Steve arches an eyebrow at him. He doesn't need a psychic bond to understand Tony's lack of response to the question.

"Sersi said once we got onto the perfect level of our bond that we could telekinetically move things," Dane adds, "but she thought our inability to do so was because she was an Eternal and I wasn't."

"You think otherwise?" Steve asks.

Dane nods, staring off into the distance, his eyes shining. "I was because my heart was elsewhere."

Steve feels a pang of sympathy for him. Dane had been forced into the Gann Josin with Sersi when he'd been falling in love with Crystal at the time. And Crystal ended up choosing her husband over him anyway. Steve looks at Tony tentatively, but Tony can't look Steve in the eye.

"Well, we'll probably have that same issue," Tony says, softly.

Steve looks away, feeling bad about Jan. He's still finding it hard to regret his decision though. Ikaris had been a massive fucking asshole when he forced Dane and Sersi into the Gann Josin, and maybe Steve's a massive fucking asshole for forcing Tony to bond with him, but… Steve would be any kind of asshole at all if it meant keeping Tony alive.

"I have to go find Jan," Tony says. "Try and explain… this." He gestures at Steve before looking at Dane. "She's in the Mountain, is that distance too much?"

"Shouldn't be," Dane says, "but even if you get the slightest pang of a headache, you should find Steve as soon as you can."

Or I'll find you, Steve thinks, firmly, knowing Tony's propensity to sit and suffer instead of doing something sensible.

"Go," Steve says. "I'll catch up with Dane and see you later."

Tony climbs to his feet and awkwardly pats Dane on the shoulder. "Nice to see you again, Dane. Sorry it wasn't under more cheerful circumstances."

"Oh, I dunno," Dane says. "Two of the first Avengers getting cosmically married? Seems pretty cheerful to me."

"Starting to understand why T'Challa didn't consider you for the current roster," Tony mutters, but he winks at Dane before turning and hurrying away, shoulders hunched. Steve watches him go. This whole thing is a mess, but he doesn't think it's as bad as Tony's making it out to be. Sure, it'll be awkward, but what's so terrible about a little mind-sharing between friends?

When Steve turns back to Dane, Dane looks worried. Steve frowns at him.

"Are you going to be okay with this, Steve?" Dane asks. "I know you, man. For now it's okay, because you can justify it as a big noble heroic gesture, but the reality of it's gonna set in at some point. Tony Stark. You two haven't had a peaceful co-existence for years."

Steve sighs and stares at Dane. "I know it won't be easy," Steve says, slowly. "And I know Tony's going to fight me every second of the way. But this is the right thing to do. And I couldn't live with myself knowing I could have done something to save Tony and didn't. I'll take him making me miserable every day of my life if I have to. It's still better than a world without him in it."

Dane's concern fades into something else, an almost knowing expression. "Ah," he says. "It's like that." He gets to his feet and Steve matches him. "Well, I'm always on the other end of a phone if you need someone to talk to who gets it. And if Stark drives you nuts, I can try and coach you through breaking it before you blow each other up."

"I appreciate that," Steve says.

"Well, if what you're saying is real and we've been granted a temporary ceasefire, I need to get back to London, help the others prepare for those things coming back," Dane says, grimacing.

"Things?" Steve prompts, glad to have a taste of conversation that's on more solid ground than telepathic soulbonds.

"Giant grass mammoths," Dane says, as they start to leave the Armory. "I wish I was joking."

Steve smiles weakly. "I feel like that most of the time."

The bond is weird. Steve can feel where Tony is, without having to check the Mountain systems. He enters the Cafet-ear-ia hesitantly. Most of the seats are full, some of the refugees sitting on the tables themselves too, but he can see Tony sitting over in one corner alone.

Steve steps forwards and then he sees Jan, heading his way. She tilts her head and meets his gaze, because she's always been the bravest of them, and according to the tumult of emotions coming from Tony's direction, the talk hasn't been the most pleasant one in the history of awkward conversations.

"Steve," Jan says, coolly. She looks a little tense but she does smile at him, and it seems genuine enough.

"Jan," Steve says, and his voice is dry. "I'm so sorry—"

"Oh, Steve," she says, repeating his name, but this time it's much warmer, and she throws her arms around him. "Don't even worry for a second about silly old me. I'm going to be fine. Tony and I were just-revisiting a few old warm feelings. It wasn't going to be anything serious, we both knew it."

"You don't have to break up, this isn't—" Steve starts.

"This was always going to happen," Jan says, firmly, and she pulls back and stares him in the eyes. "And it's good for him, to have you. I always thought you two…" She trails off and that's when Steve sees that she is fighting back tears, and oh, god.

"I should have insisted they summon you," Steve says, numbly, "I didn't even think of it—"

"Sshh. I mean, I would have done it, same as any other Avenger would, to save Tony's life. But—I don't think it would have been right for us," Jan says. "You two have always been good for each other. This is a good thing, Steve. You'll have to fight to convince him, of course. But there's no one else better for this job. Besides…" Jan's mouth curls at one side. "There's no one else that can stand a chance at fending off Nadia. She's going to be furious." She leans up and presses a kiss against Steve's cheek. "Good luck with that."

Steve watches her go, her shoulders stiff, and he feels horribly guilty.

Yep, you're a homewrecker, Tony thinks at him, and Steve glares and walks over to him, taking a seat opposite. Tony's eyes have been turned red by the Gann Josin, but there's puffy redness around the red and Steve hates that he's responsible for any part of that.

I'd still do it again, Steve thinks stubbornly. This is still better than you dying.

Tony sighs, resting his elbows on the table and propping his head up on his hands. "I gave her the choice, that we could keep trying, but she couldn't bear the idea of sharing herself with me and someone else. So it doesn't even matter if we do break the bond. She doesn't want to be soulbonded to anyone. She doesn't want to be married again at all, any kind of marriage, and who can blame her? Let alone married to someone like me."

"Hey, I'm pretty sure all those glossy magazines you leave in the bathroom and insist you're not reading say you're a catch," Steve says, frowning. "Anyone would be happy to be married to you."

"Well, I guess that's you sorted, then. Seeing as this is essentially marriage." Tony huffs a laugh. "Mazel tov, Captain, I'm your blushing bride."

Steve makes an awkward noise that might be a laugh too or might be the noise of one of his internal organs dying. It's somewhere between the two. "You can still date, Tony. We can work on this bond. I'm sure there'll be someone out there who loves you enough that this—" he gestures awkwardly, "—won't be too weird?" Steve might be saying that for himself as much as Tony, but he doesn't really think it will apply for him personally. Well, giving up on love is a small price to pay to save someone's life. Platonic friendships are probably more important even than romantic ones. He'd have made the decision for any Avenger.

"Yeah, I'm sure the dating pool for a cheap soulless copy of a dead billionaire who spends half the time running out of the door in flying armor is massive," Tony says, lifting his head up to massage his temples.

Steve frowns, because Tony had said something similar in the cosmic court about being a copy and not having a soul, and what the hell does that even mean? Tony almost looks like he's about to answer, but then he sees something over Steve's shoulder that immediately washes all thoughts of that away.

"Amanda," Tony says, and his voice is suddenly very stiff. Something ripples along their bond that feels like panic and Steve immediately finds himself wanting to move closer to protect him. "I thought you'd have been a thousand miles away by now. I didn't know you were still in Manhattan."

Steve turns to see an older woman with short-cropped white hair, who's looking at Tony with an awkward, almost embarrassed expression. Amanda swallows visibly. She looks older than Tony's usually hook-ups, so—

"Oh hell no," Tony yelps. Amanda's mouth snaps shut and she looks offended. Tony blanks her to fully turn his horrified expression directly to Steve. "Steve, no, shit—don't you keep up with the news?"

"Of course I do," Steve starts, and then the facts collide together awkwardly in his mind. Whoops. "Amanda, of course. You were in charge of Tony's company while Tony was—" He pauses, awkwardly. "—uh, indisposed." Steve gets out of his seat, stands up and offers her his best Captain America smile.

"Steve, this is Amanda Armstrong, my birth mom," Tony greets in a soft, strained sort of voice. "Amanda, I'd like you to meet Steve Rogers, my Cosmic-Court-mandated husband." Amanda looks surprised at that and Tony smiles, except it's humorless and almost cruel, and he adds, "That's the thing about leaving, you miss a lot."

"Tony—" Steve starts. He doesn't quite know what to say. Of course he'd read in the news about Tony's mom—biological mom, apparently—running the company while Tony was in a coma, but… he'd kind of thought it was bullshit, some sort of clever cover. But Tony's thoughts are simple and impossible to misconstrue. Amanda really is Tony's biological mother. And Tony's blistering with sadness that he finally found her... and she left.

"I'll be in the labs if you need anything," Tony says, directly to Steve, and then stalks off, leaving a trail of hurt, abandoned, run in his wake.

"I'm sorry about that ma'am," Steve says, turning to her with a contrite expression.

"Don't worry. I think I deserved it if that helps." Amanda smiles wryly. Then she squints. "Cosmic-Court-mandated husband?"

"Ah," Steve says, awkwardly, "it's a bit of a difficult thing to explain. I—" He means to explain, to continue, but a miserable thought comes through the bond, and it gets swallowed back like Tony's trying not to think about it. People are always abandoning me. "I have to go," he says, vaguely, and hurries away. "Please excuse me."

"Sure, why not," Amanda says. "Like anything's really making sense around here anyway."

Steve feels a little bad, but he can't feel it too strongly, because he's burning more with concern for Tony's feelings. He wonders as he hurries whether he'd be this worried without the bond. Is he already being too biased because of it? No, he decides. He's always had strong reactions when it comes to Tony.

Steve catches up to Tony as he's starting to cross the walkway to the Spine Lift. He catches Tony by the elbow, and Tony turns and looks at him belligerently. He's bracing for some sort of attack, which is baffling to Steve.

"However weird or strange this bond gets, I'm not leaving you," Steve says. Ever. I promise.

Tony flinches. "You might believe that," Tony says, "but you don't have all the information—"

Steve scoffs. "Tony, we've known each other for over a decade, what more do you think you have to hide from me?"

"You'd be surprised," Tony says mulishly.

"I'm still not going to abandon you. We've already done the worst things we could to each other. And we're still right here, together," Steve says, and Tony still looks—feels—doubtful, so Steve moves on instinct, putting his hand on Tony's cheek, and he just pushes his feelings at Tony as best as he can, a jumbled collection of all the protective instincts circling around his mind. Want to keep you safe, you've always been the most important person to me, I'm never leaving you again, I'm always going to be here, right here .

Tony swallows visibly, and Steve catches a fragment of thought, don't cry, don't cry—and then there's something else there, something tangible, a knot of emotions that Steve reaches towards—and then they slam shut away from his tentative grasp, like a steel box locking it away. Tony looks wide-eyed at him, almost surprised. "I didn't think that would work," Tony mutters.

"What would work?" Steve asks, pointedly.

"While I was waiting for Jan I called an old friend," Tony mumbles, and an image of Emma Frost slides into Steve's mind. "She taught me a shielding technique." He glares at Steve, almost mutinously. "I can't have you just raiding everything out of my mind, it's too much—"

"Sshh, I know you didn't ask for this," Steve says, pulling his hand away reluctantly. "You keep acting like I'm the victim here, we both are."

"Victim, yeah," Tony says, sounding a little bitter. "I'll get her to call you too. Walk you through it. You'll want to shield your thoughts of Sharon from me, for a start."

"My thoughts of Sharon?" Steve squints. "We're on a break right now, actually, so—"

"Yeah, that'll last," Tony snorts. "You and she are…. a relationship boomerang. She'll get over whatever it is and you'll be right as rain, and believe me, there are definitely things I will not want in my brain when that happens."

Steve mentally shrugs. We're not together anymore.

C'mon, we all know you two are gonna— Tony makes an undefined noise and the sound of the wedding march filters briefly through Steve's head.

Turns out the guy wearing my name and face was still living with Sharon for a while before all hell broke loose, Steve thinks, as calmly and carefully as he can, considering how the whole fiasco makes him want to throw himself into the sun sometimes. Except, thanks to Loki, he's already done that and survived, so maybe he needs to rethink his plans on that front.

Oh god, Tony thinks, as that settles in. I'm so sorry. Neither of you deserved anything like that to happen to you.

Shit happens, Steve thinks.

"I'm sorry," Tony says, looking haunted.

Steve shrugs. "Maybe it'll work out," he says, but he doesn't sound too sure. "Maybe you should go and have another less awkward conversation with your birth mom, apologize for being a little harsh there."

Tony scowls. "Maybe you should focus on your own upcoming awkward conversation first."

Steve's confused until Tony nods over somewhere behind Steve… where Sharon is standing on the other end of the hallway, her arms over her chest. Oh. Maybe that's why Tony was so suddenly keen to talk about her.

"Oh," Steve says, eloquently.

"I'll be in my lab, come find me when you're done so I can get Emma to call you about that mental shield technique," Tony says, and starts to flee. I'll see you then, Steve thinks at him. Tony hesitates briefly, but nods. Tony awkwardly ignores Sharon as he passes her, and Steve doesn't blame him.

"I'm here to see T'Challa," Sharon says awkwardly as Steve approaches.

Steve nods and tries to pretend he doesn't want to cry. He thought he'd accepted her decision to stay away from him, but his heart hurts a little. "Do you want me to take you to him?" he asks, hoping he doesn't sound as stiff as he feels.

"I know the way," Sharon says.

That's only surprising because Steve hasn't seen her around the Mountain before, so if she knows the way, she must have been while he wasn't around. She must have been carefully avoiding him. He doesn't blame her. He hasn't seen her in months. "You're looking, uh—" He can't say good. He's not supposed to compliment her. Apparently, he—the Supreme Commander—used to compliment her, more often than Steve ever did. Steve doesn't know how to feel about that, but he figures whatever Sharon is going through must be worse. "—well," he finishes, awkwardly.

Sharon isn't smiling. She hasn't smiled for him in much too long. "Steve," she says. The syllable sounds loaded. "I guess my intel was right, then—you got yourself cosmically soulbonded to Tony Stark?"

Right. No small talk. Just getting down to business. "There wasn't much of a choice," Steve says. "It was that or let him die, and Sharon, I wasn't going to let my friend die."

"Is that what he is?" Sharon tilts her head. "I'm not sure that's the word I'd choose."

Steve's stomach feels warm and tight. "What word would you choose?"

Sharon huffs and takes a deep breath before starting again. "I didn't come to fight, Steven. SHIELD was worried about the sudden ceasefire, and T'Challa explained it, so I came to do some liaison work so we can make the most of this pause. And I heard what happened to you, and I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"I'm fine."


"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Do I really have to spell it out? Steve, you've literally only been stupid about one person in the entire time I've known you. When the entire multiverse was ending, all you cared about was bringing Tony Stark in. That's not a normal obsession for anyone, even when they're as stubborn as you. You're stuck in a soulbond with someone you've spent fighting against as much as with, and you...think you're fine?"

"I'm—how am I supposed to feel about this?" Steve stares at her. "It's not like I woke up this morning and went, hey, why don't I get married to Tony today? We were in a tough position, I made a tough choice. Simple as that. I don't believe it's going to be fine, I think it's going to be damn hard, and I'm not looking forward to the first time we fundamentally disagree on something, because it's going to hurt like hell. But I'll still take it. I'll take every damn moment of pain because he'll be alive. So yeah, if you ask if I'm okay, I will say I'm okay. Because I'm a damn sight better than I'd have been if I had to stand there and watch him be evaporated right in front of me, and don't ask me to pretend otherwise."

Sharon's face twists up into something Steve can't parse. After a pause she says, softly, "Stark won't appreciate your sacrifice. He won't be grateful."

"I don't need his gratitude. I just need him to keep breathing."

"This is exactly what I'm saying. You've always been obsessed with him, Steve. And now he's wrapped up in your head so tightly, you'll never be free."

"And I'd take it, every single damn time, over him dead."

"I know." Sharon sighs. "I know you would. That's what makes you so heroic. And so damn irritating."

"And charming?" Steve adds, a hopeful note sliding into his tone.

Sharon's face falls. Oh. So that's where they're at. Where they're still at. He knows that expression. He's been with her long enough to not need a psychic soulbond. "Steve," she says, gently, so much sadness in her tone that his heart nearly breaks over her again, the same way it did at the end of last summer, when she said, I love you. I love you, but I can't be with you anymore.

Steve nods. "Yeah, I know. I know. It's fine. I'm gonna be fine."

"It's not fine, but you will be," she says, and smiles at him sadly. "You take care, Steve. " She steps closer, look like she's about to flee, and then she leans up and presses a soft kiss again his cheek. "You take care."

"You too," Steve says, awkwardly.

Steve watches her leave, a lump in his throat. She's probably better off without him. He takes a deep breath. He has other things to worry about now. The war's still coming back. And there's a low level of vulnerability pulsing in Steve's brain that takes Steve a moment to place until he realizes it's coming through the soulbond.

It has to be Tony. Steve concentrates and he can feel that Tony's in his workspace, down in the Fibulabs. Tony has tracked down Amanda again, and Steve's got a lump in his throat at the idea of it, because he knows Tony's nervous of talking to her. Tony faces things he's scared of all the time. Okay, so mostly he does it by denying internally that it's a vulnerability, but the method can't hide the bravery.

Steve heads down the stairs, trying to give Tony time with his mother. He can hear some of their conversation faintly in the back of his mind, like a radio playing in the room next door.

"I still can't believe you were still in New York," Tony says, softly. "I thought you'd be long gone."

"So did I," Amanda says. "I meant to. I was planning on running away. Turns out I do that a lot, the moment things even start to smell like they could be tough."

"Yeah, I...I guess I get that from you," Tony says.

"You didn't run away from me. You ran toward me."

Tony's struggling to push his own pain aside in his effort to phrase this right. "Look, when you met me, it was an odd time. I was so grateful to have found you. And then, god, days later, a good friend nearly killed me. And that meant…. you've never had time to properly meet me. I run away too when things get tough. Only my version of running away is to immerse myself so deeply in my work that it only looks like I'm still there, and I'm… honestly mentally and emotionally thousands of miles away. What can I say, I'm a work-in-progress."

"I shouldn't have just run. I should have stayed."

"You're here right now," Tony says.

"Yeah, but that was because I was magically teleported to your base by a wizard," Amanda says, with a hysterical giggle Tony doesn't blame her for.

"Well, welcome to my life." Tony huffs, and Steve can feel warmth in his own fingers when Tony takes Amanda's hands in his own. "You thought I was dead, you put me on a pedestal. I can understand that impulse. Goodness knows my mother—Maria—"

"She'll always be your mom, Tony. I don't want to take that from you."

"Well… I put my mom on a pedestal and believe me, the things I've found out since she died that she did…" Tony shudders. "The sheer number of lies she told, in order to keep her own child safe, it blows my mind sometimes, even now I've had time to try and understand it. It can be really tough when you have to come to terms with the idea that someone you thought was perfect just… isn't. I'm more flawed than you've probably even heard from the news. But every day I try and be a bit better. And it's not always going to be a smooth experience. But I'd really like us to try and work on it. You just gotta know… whatever vision you have of me in your head, it's not really me."

"Friday told us some of your secrets," Amanda says. "You hold babies when you can't sleep, Tony. It's hard not to see you as perfect."

Tony huffs an amused laugh. "Ask me sometimes why I can't sleep. I'm kind of a raging dick."

"Eh, you kinda get that from your birth mom," Amanda says, laughing awkwardly. Steve thinks they're maybe hugging if it can be termed that. "So you wanna talk more about this husband of yours?"

"Oh, god, not right now, let's go back to me awkwardly trying to impress you with what I'm inventing here," Tony groans. "I mean, if that's okay. I need time to wrap my mind around what happened first. He's probably listening in right now anyway."

Oops, busted, Steve thinks, and steps up to the door, just as it opens.

Tony beams at him, but it's somewhat of a sarcastic smile. "Having fun there?"

"Not especially," Steve says, because he hates that he did hear so much of a very personal conversation. Tony's expression visibly softens.

"Here, for you to call Emma," Tony says, passing Steve a small tablet. "She's in my contacts, under King Emma."

"King Emma," Steve repeats. Then he squints. "Wait, isn't she technically a criminal right now?"

"If she is, wouldn't she have been caught already?" Tony asks, and refuses to meet Steve's eyes. Steve's almost expecting that steel box sensation to cross their bond again, Tony blocking his thoughts away, but instead, Tony catches sight of one of his inventions, and it's amazing. Tony's brain just fills up with blueprints and schematics and equations. Steve's quietly awed. Except Tony can obviously feel that, because Tony looks at him sharply, with what looks like dawning awareness.

Steve straightens, suddenly needing to just...not be there. "I'll go...and do that," he says, awkwardly. He nods at Amanda. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."

Amanda leans carefully against a workstation. "Oh heck, don't make me feel so old. Call me Amanda."

"Well, I was born in the 1920s, so, you'll always be young to me," Steve says.

"You picked a charmer, Tony," Amanda says.

"I'll leave you to it," Steve says, backing out the room through the still-open door. Then he eyeballs Tony. "And after this war, we're going to have a bit of a catch-up. It's been much too hectic recently. I can't believe you actually found your mom."

"You think that's weird," Tony says. "You should meet my brother."

"Haha," Steve says, thinking Tony's joking, and then gets a massive dump of information in his brain all at once. Steve stares after Tony. "What the hell, Tony?"

"I'll see you later," Tony says, loudly, and shuts the door in his face with a grin.

"We definitely will," Steve yells, because what the heck? He'd heard something on the grapevine about another Stark maybe causing trouble, but he'd thought maybe it was another cousin like Morgan. He can't even begin to fathom the mental jumble Tony just sent his way. Life's probably going to be like that a lot from now on, Steve thinks grumpily, because there's no way he's going to be able to keep up with any of Tony's mental areas of expertise.

He glowers down at the tablet in his hands. Steve thinks about not following Tony's advice, but he did say he would call Emma Frost. He heads off towards the stairs to the ribsidential floors, because there'll be a chance of some privacy in his living space. Well, as much privacy as he's ever really going to get.

He hasn't had a moment spare to think about what the soulbond really means for privacy. Is he really honestly okay with Tony being able to hear and feel everything in his head? He kind of thinks he is. He's been lonely for long stretches of time before. Now he might never have to feel lonely again. There's definitely something intriguing in that thought. It's just a shame that Tony personally feels it comes at such a big cost. Tony might be right. This is going to take a lot of time to think through. Steve hopes they survive the war so he has that time. He grits his teeth. He has to survive. If he dies and Tony doesn't, the Magistrati might try and have him executed all over again, and Steve can't bear that idea.

Emma's a good teacher and doesn't mock him about the soulbond, which Steve definitely appreciates it. She appreciates in return that he doesn't mention about the warrant that's probably still out for her arrest.

"You're good at this," Emma says encouragingly from the screen. Apparently, she doesn't need distance either for her powers to work, although she did offer to come personally to the Mountain. Steve advised her to work on shoring up protections for her people instead. She insisted on coaching him through the shielding techniques first because Tony's important to her. Steve's glad someone so powerful is in Tony's corner.

Steve shrugs. "I've had a lot of practice already pushing certain feelings aside, I suppose?"

Emma raises an eyebrow. "I'm a telepath, Captain. You don't have to censor yourself around me. I know everything you feel. I always do." She smiles at him, clearly amused. "He's addictive, isn't he?"

Steve's about to deny it, but then remembers he's talking to a telepath and sags instead dejectedly. Sharon said he'd always been stupid about Tony, and he hopes she never really knew how right she was. He loved Sharon, honestly, with his whole heart, and maybe if the Cosmic Cube hadn't inverted him, Steve might have— Heck, Steve needs to be honest with himself, he'd probably have still gotten himself permanently soulbonded to Tony, only it would be an exceptionally messier deal all around.

"You're going to be fine," Emma says, looking amused. "Trust me. I've been friends with Tony Stark for a long time. I think you're going to be very good for him. You're going to be good for each other."

Steve humphs internally because he can't quite see it. "Are you clairvoyant too?"

"No," Emma says. "Just a very good gauge of character." She smiles reluctantly. "Except for my own, but we're often not very good at recognizing our own feelings when we've spent so long shielding them from others."

Steve nods sadly. "I think I know what you mean."

"I think you're good to go. If you feel him prodding in your mind where you don't want him to be, just picture that locked box again, and he'll be blocked." Emma smiles. "Maybe you should consider not locking those thoughts away, though. He's very open-minded. You might be surprised."

He likes her optimism. He wishes he could trust it. Steve squints. "Best not at this point. Things are complicated enough without me dumping anything else on him."

And that's the real problem. The real truth that's been simmering through everything. Why Steve had felt so certain in the Cosmic Court that it had to be him as Tony's Gann Josin. Why the thought of anyone else had been unbearable. He's been automatically pushing it aside for so long that he's been able to hide it from Tony so far, while the bond is still so new, and Steve's so lucky that Emma's been able to give him the technique to keep it hidden, because Tony can't know.

Tony can never know Steve's in love with him.

Steve's barely even been able to think that truth to himself for so long, it's always been something he pushed aside. And now it's something he's going to have to mentally push into a tiny metal box in the back of his mind, every single day, for the rest of his life. Tony can never know. He wouldn't understand, or he'd feel taken advantage of, and maybe that's exactly who Steve is. The massive fucking asshole who'd rather Tony suffer through an invasive loss of privacy because Sharon's right, Steve's always going to be stupid when it comes to Tony Stark.

"Well, I'm sure you know best," Emma says.

"Thank you," Steve says. "It's going to be fine. I'm going to keep him safe, Emma. I promise."

Emma nods gratefully. "You know, I have a lifetime of experience of men who should know better not listening to me, so I'm going to stop now so I don't waste my breath, but I'll give you one more piece of advice, just in case you're smart enough to buck the trend."


Emma grins. "Yeah. Here it is: Give me a call if you and Tony ever decide you want an extremely hot threesome." She blows him a kiss and hangs up.

Steve laughs out loud and goes to find Tony. If he practices locking that last piece of advice in a mental box as he goes, Tony will never have to know about it.

"Oh, thank goodness," Tony says, meeting Steve in the hallway outside of his lab, his armor already assembling about him as he moves. "Global Teleporter. Now."

Steve automatically turns and matches his urgent pace. "What's happening? Where's your mom?"

Stark Unlimited. Attack. Villains. Amanda's upstairs helping the refugees find places to sleep. Tony's thoughts are too fast and disconnected to make sense. "I think the villains have figured out my attention's elsewhere. There's an attack on my company. Steve, I can't—"

"Of course," Steve says, because Tony doesn't need to finish the thought. There's a lot of sensitive tech at Stark Unlimited that they can't risk falling into the wrong hands. "I'm right here."

"I've already got clearance from T'Challa," Tony says. "He says we can take anyone we want, but I feel bad enough even going for something so personal myself, let alone taking you—"

"Stopping people doing bad things is never a personal issue," Steve sighs. "Bethany Cabe," Steve pulls out from Tony's rapid thoughts. He nods. "Yeah, she would be able to contact the Avengers if something goes wrong and we can't handle it alone."

Tony looks at him. Oh. Steve had pulled Tony's worry over going on their first post-soulbond mission straight out of his head, no words required. Yeah. That's weird.

"This is definitely going to take some getting used to," Tony sighs.

The Global Teleporter lands them on the roof of Stark Unlimited. It's smart not to have it linked to inside the building, even if it takes them a couple of minutes longer to get to the site of the current attack, because if Avengers Mountain ever gets compromised, the Teleporter could be compromised. It's better to be slightly inconvenienced now than to have a major problem occur later.

The flickering hologram of a woman in the hallway points immediately down a hallway, not even greeting them, and Steve sees why-the entire hallway looks frozen. He sighs and is glad Tony improved the shoe grip on his uniform in honor of the move to a base in the Arctic Circle.

You're welcome, Tony says, and jets ahead of him.

"Bethany, it's me. I'm in hallway two. Tell me my employees are safe," Tony says.

"Yes, sir," Bethany says. Normally Steve wouldn't be able to hear her response, fed as it is directly into Tony's helmet. Normally he hasn't been soulbonded to Tony. It's weird hearing her voice inside Tony's head. " We can't get any closer."

"I'll let you know when it's safe to move in," Tony says. "You been able to identify the assailant yet?" Tony flies around the corner, Steve close at his heels, and then Tony hovers to a stop as the white-clad figure attacking his facility turns to Tony and grins fiercely, immediately sending a spray of large sharp icicles at them.

"Tell me that's not who it looks like," Tony says, immediately dodging.

Steve can identity every villain any Avenger has ever faced, because he sets the recognition tests for all of them and holds himself to the highest standard, and why set a test for the others that he can't himself pass every time? You're a lunatic, Tony thinks, but it's a fond thought like he can't help himself.

"It certainly looks like Blizzard," Steve says.

"My systems agree," Tony sighs, and blazes into the fight, sending repulsor blasts at the villain. "We thought you were dead, Shapanka," Tony calls out.

"Ha," Blizzard yells back, from behind an ice wall he's constructed across the hallway, "like I'd let someone who wasn't actually you do the honors."

"Uh," Steve says, glancing at Tony from behind his raised shield.

"It's a long story," Tony says. "Uh, when we were researching the incursions, I found an incident where Spider-Man insisted he battled me and I disappeared, but it wasn't me, it was some sort of alternate future...probably not even me...time travel and dimensional travel is always complicated."

"Hey, I'm right here," Blizzard snarks, furious at being ignored.

"I guess you are," Tony says, and sends a neat unibeam blast into Blizzard's ice wall.

It honestly doesn't take a lot to stop him. They've always fought well together, but the bond makes it almost too easy. Shapanka yelps when Tony destabilizes his battlesuit.

"Seriously, the world's at war," Tony says, as Bethany Cabe turns up with a bunch of security guards to help take Shapanka into custody. "I can't begrudge your urge to self-improvement, and I can understand why you might turn to crime, but seriously, could you restrict your heists to times when the Earth isn't teetering on a brink?"

"I thought the war was over," Shapanka says, looking wide-eyed as he's dragged away. "I just needed some nanites for my newest invention, you always have plenty."

"Didn't we put out enough information that it's just a ceasefire and war is still on the imminent horizon?" Tony asks, lifting his faceplate to stare in disbelief as Shapanka keeps screaming.

"I guess not," Steve says. "We should lock your building down."

"Yep," Tony says. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, and then he snaps it shut. That won't work, he thinks.

"What won't work?" Steve asks, out loud.

"I was going to ask Friday to call Damage Control, but…" Tony sighs. "I miss Friday. Dammit."

"Then—" Steve tilts his head, the information slipping into his head like it's always been there. Damn, that's going to take some getting used to. "Why don't you bring her back? Is her robot body in storage?"

"Yeah, but—Jocasta was pretty damn angry. Friday's dead, I have to accept it."

"Wait, let me just…" Steve puts his shield back on his back and removes his cowl so he can stare at Tony. "Let me just try and think this through, based on the mess you just dumped in my head. One of your AIs called Motherboard killed your AI robot friend Friday."


" have a back-up copy of Friday from two weeks before that happened," Steve says, slowly.


"And because Jocasta said she was dead, you didn't recover Friday."

"That's it."

"Tony," Steve says. "Are you trying to say...that someone who has two weeks of missing memories...that makes them dead?"

"Well," Tony says slowly, "they're clearly not the person they were after those two weeks had passed, so—"

Steve stares at him. "You had Strange wipe more than two weeks of my memories." Tony stares back, a wave of guilt rolling over him. "Based on that logic, are you saying you killed me?"

"Of course I didn't," Tony says, and can't help himself from thinking about that moment. I hated every second of that but if I stopped them they would have wiped me too.

Oh. Well. Steve's wondered if that were true, of course, but it's kind of nice to have confirmation.

"It's complicated," Tony says. "It's just a copy. Like me." I'm a copy of Tony Stark too, not really human, how can I make you understand?

Steve stares, instantly distracted from his own rage that builds up in his stomach every time he's reminded of the mindwipe, because this is the third time Tony's said or thought something like this. When they were making an appeal to the Living Tribunal he talked about being a copy and not having a soul, and later he described himself as a cheap soulless copy of a dead billionaire, and Steve's heart hurts.

"You think because your body is a copy're not you?" Steve tilts his head. "Tony, that's—that's not right."

Tony huffs and looks sour. "I know it's difficult to think about being soulbonded to a poor copy of someone you knew, but—"

"You're you," Steve says, baffled. "I know you're you. I mean… I'm a copy. Technically. The cosmic cube just made my body again. Are you saying I'm not human?"

"Of course not, don't be ridiculous."

"We've both been copied before, too. Hell, Franklin Richards has copied us twice before. It definitely sounds like you're saying I'm not human too."

"Of course you're human!"

"Then why does one rule apply to me and not to you?" Steve glares.

"Goddammit, Steve, why are you so—?"

"Beautifully irritating, like I've always been?" Steve beams at him. "Either we're both soulless copies, or we're both us, and I gotta say...I know which one feels real to me. Besides, I don't think you can get soulbonded without having possession of a soul."

Tony stares at him wordlessly.

"C'mon," Steve says. "I know you can hide anything you want from me, but we can still talk. I can still ask." He moves in closer. "Why is it only now that you're wondering about it? You've been copied before and deleted your own brain before and each time you kept going without suffering an identity crisis. So why is it bothering you now?"

"Because before…" Tony throws up his arms and then sinks against the nearest wall, shaking his head in frustration. "Before now, I knew who I was. I was Tony Stark, genius billionaire. And then the entire foundation of my history just got pulled out from beneath me."

"I know a little of what that's like," Steve says, thinking briefly of the trail of destruction still burned into the world from that alternate, twisted version of himself.

Tony looks around the frozen hallway of his company, eyes catching regretfully on all the damage. "Before I wasn't a decoy child, adopted just to protect the real Stark boy. I used to be able to cling to my identity. Stark boys are tough. Stark boys are made of iron. But I'm not a Stark, not really."

Steve nods slowly. It would be a lot to take in for anyone.

"Being adopted… it's a thing that happens to a lot of people. It's normal. It's normal, and I should be able to deal with it." Tony shakes his head and looks up at Steve, looking lost. "I'm not exactly dealing with it. Just pushing it down. I'm not Tony Stark, I'm Anthony Armstrong, and who the hell is that, anyway?"

Steve swallows hard. To be going through such a massive identity crisis, and then to nearly die, again, at the hand of a friend… No wonder Tony's been quietly shattering apart.

"I know who you are," Steve says. He turns to Tony and stares at him, willing him to understand. "I've always known who you are."

Tony looks at him wryly. "Apart from when you thought I was two people."

"I always knew both of you had one thing in common," Steve says, fighting to keep his voice level, even as he struggles to push some feelings into the steel box Emma taught him about. Tony's having trouble enough right now to have to deal with Steve's emotions on top.

"Same height?" Tony jokes.

"Same heart," Steve says, and he can hear his own voice is a little choked up. Tony stares back at him, a touch of something coming through their bond that makes Steve's heart pound a little faster, but then Tony pulls it all back into a little metal box of his own. "All right, let's go and wake up Friday while we're here."

Tony looks down dubiously and that's when Steve realizes he's held out his hand toward him. After a pause, Tony takes it. "Just in case you slip on the ice," Tony says, gruffly, the metal gauntlet entwining with Steve's fingers carefully.

Steve masks his pleased smile, but he thinks a little of that feeling must be leaking through their bond, because even though Tony flips his faceplate back down, he can feel Tony's smile. "Lead the way."

Steve hangs back as Tony works to bring Friday back, sitting on a chair next to Tony's empty armor.

Steve's automatic reaction is to clamp down on his usual train of thought when watching Tony work, which is just a general wave of admiration for Tony's skills, but then he lets Tony feel some of it, just for the way Tony reacts to even the smallest hint of it. Steve gets the pleasure from it rippled back through the bond, which is a little dizzying, and makes him wonder what it would be like to touch Tony somewhere pleasant, like on the thin skin of his inner wrist, because he's always thought the skin there looked really soft…

Tony curses, slips and nearly hurts himself, and he throws Steve an exasperated look. Steve quickly mentally apologizes and shoves the rest of the thought into the mental steel box. Tony's cheeks are pink and he can't quite meet Steve's gaze as he refocuses on Friday. Shit, Steve didn't mean to slip like that. This soulbond thing is continuing to be a little awkward as heck.

See, I definitely told you it would be, Tony thinks.

Still think it's worth it, Steve thinks back.

"Nearly done," Tony says, out loud, and disconnects a cable from Friday's brain and closes a panel. He steps back, hands in his pockets, and says, "Friday, activate protocol: Sleeping Beauty. Authorization: 070422."

Steve straightens. Isn't that his birthday? Tony's so weird. He can't remember his own birthday, but he can remember Steve's?

Tony's mentally ignoring him, focusing his attention on Friday as well he should at this point. Tony's busy wondering whether something has gone wrong when Friday's eyes flicker and she sits up. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and tosses her head experimentally before looking up to Tony.

"Welcome back, Fri," Tony says. "I'm afraid you've got a couple of week's memory missing."

"Connecting to the network," Friday says, softly. She blinks. "I'm glad we made the back-up. Thank you."

"My pleasure," Tony says. He looks distinctly choked up and Steve doesn't blame him. Tony's thoughts are caught in a loop of I missed you so much and I was so dumb to think I'd lost you.

"This is more than two weeks," Friday says. Her eyes narrow in Tony's direction.

Steve gets to his feet, moving over to stand near Tony, who's struggling to come up with a reply.

"Don't be too hard on him," Steve says. "Your boss has had a tough time. Some of that time was him being a complete dumb-ass."

"Hey," Tony says, folding his arms and frowning. "I really have had a hard time. There was a dragon! And magic!"

"For a smart human he can be pretty dumb," Friday agrees. "Okay, I've downloaded my missing weeks from the servers. Piecing them together." Her head tilts. "Oh, Jo, I see why she's so upset. Don't worry, sir, I'll have a word with her." Friday beams at him and hops up off the table. She leans over and kisses Tony on the cheek. "Thanks for saving me, sir. And congratulations on your marriage."

"You're welcome," Tony says, and then, "Hey. It's not—Steve and I aren't married."

Friday shrugs elegantly. "That's not what the news is saying." She gestures at a nearby monitor that immediately turns on and starts displaying the news.

"We have reports that say that Captain America and Iron Man have gotten married," the news anchor yells excitedly. "Sources from within the Avengers mysterious Arctic base confirm that they've heard from several Avengers personally that Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have tied the knot."

Tony quickly mutes the feed, staring in horror. "Look at that," he whispers. "We're at war, the world could be ending, and this is what the media covers?"

"Guess people want something happy to think about when otherwise they'd be terrified," Steve shrugs.

"You're not...worried about the whole world thinking we're married," Tony hisses.

Steve shrugs. "We kind of are."

"But your reputation—"

"Already shot because half the world still thinks I'm still the Supreme Commander, pretending to be good." Steve shrugs.

"I can't believe you're so chill about this," Tony says, shaking his head.

Steve has to work very hard then on maintaining the tiny little metal box in his head squishing in how wrong Tony is right now. Tony's expression doesn't change so Steve relaxes. Good. It's good. Tony never has to know what Steve's hiding. It'll be fine. Tony's alive and that's all that matters.

"I think I should find Bethany Cabe and help fortify the building for the potential upcoming war," Friday says. "That seems like an efficient use of my limited time."

"Good idea, Friday," Tony says. "I hope I'll see you again in a couple of days when it's over."

"Keep me updated." Friday smiles pleasantly and leans in closer. "By the way, sir, confine me in your armor again one more time, even for a good reason, and I'll upload that video of you dancing in your underwear to Mariah Carey. You won't be able to erase it fast enough."

"I can find it and erase it," Tony yells after her.

"You know it exists and you haven't found it yet." Friday beams and then leaves hurriedly before Tony can stop her.

"I can see why you missed her," Steve says.

"Ha," Tony says, but thinks good, and Steve smiles.

They stay a little longer to update Bethany on what's been going on. Tony stresses four times that he didn't get married, which would be almost amusing if Tony didn't punctuate each time with a different, horrible thought.

Steve ends up hanging back, just letting Tony deal with it, so each thought hits him like a missile.

It's like Tony's desperate to give Steve a mental tour of Tony's worst decisions. The time he Exiled Hulk to space and all the casualties caused by the fallout. The day he killed the Supreme Intelligence. The way he kidnapped Ulysses even knowing it would escalate events impossibly. The incursions, and how he lied to Steve's face over and over again, and how he made all those decisions before the inversion spell stripped away his morals and ethics.

By the end of Tony's debrief with Bethany, Steve's feeling too sore to fight about it, and he tries to lock that feeling in that mental steel box too, because Tony's needling him with these thoughts, but hiding the reason behind them away. If he's going to go about starting a fight in an underhanded manner, Steve's going to refuse to rise to it, if he can.

"All right, we're done here," Tony says, climbing back into his armor but leaving the faceplate up. "Sooner we get back, sooner we can prepare, win this war, and figure out how to break this bond."

Steve stares at him as they walk to the exit. "You're still on with that?"

"Of course," Tony says. He blinks. "Just because it's been okay so far doesn't mean it's still not completely awful. Dane said it's hard, but not impossible. The impossible is what we do. Sometimes we do the impossible six times before breakfast."

"The alternative is you dying," Steve hisses as he pushes through the doors into the cold air beyond. He turns to stare at Tony. "Usually when you're this stubborn I have to ask you what you're thinking. But I guess I already know what you're thinking. So tell me why. Why are you suddenly so desperate for me to hate you?"

Tony glances at him before turning his gaze to the horizon. He's looking towards Manhattan and thinking hard about the Valkyrie and how they're all dead, because they were protecting New York when Tony couldn't. He's thinking about how he didn't do enough, and how he didn't have enough tech ready to save them. He's working hard to keep his thoughts trained on that.

"You did enough," Steve says, softly. "You always do your very best."

"No, I don't," Tony says and when he turns to look back at Steve, his red eyes are blazing with a hatred that feels bitter and hard to Steve. Steve realizes it's all turned inwards and his eyes feel hot. "Don't stand there and lie to me. I don't always do my best."

And before Steve can respond, Tony just sends a torrent of his worst moments at Steve. Slowly and deliberate, so Steve can fully understand how horrible Tony is.

It's the Superhero Civil War and Tony is working with government soldiers to imprison people he used to call friends. He's sitting and earnestly convincing Peter to unmask publicly, a decision that completely ruins his life. He's stealing Thor's hair and putting it aside for another horrible day that leads to Goliath's murder. Steve's shot body is lying on the steps.

He's faked his death and not told Rhodey. And years again later, to a woman called Amara. The ends justify the means. He would do it again.

He's flying outside of a civilian plane, more than two hundred innocent souls onboard. Someone else is controlling his armor, but he's the one that left a flaw in it. Kellard is onboard so the whole plane must go down. All the names on that awful list, murdered by Tony's own hands.

His technology has gone stolen so he "fires" Iron Man and dons the helmet, going after the thieves with single-minded rage. Steve gets in his way, and Tony takes him down, forever altering their relationship from that point.

Steve shakes his head, shakes the memories away.

"I know what you're doing," Steve says. "I won't agree to breaking the bond, so you're trying to scare me into agreeing. I won't."

"I could find out how to remove the Uni-Mind power," Tony says. "Or I could find someone else to bond to."

Steve's stomach hurts at that thought. He tries to shove that feeling aside. This isn't about him. "Do you hate me?"

"No," Tony says, instantly. "But you deserve better than to be stuck with me."

"Better than you?" Steve tilts his head. "Is there anyone out there better than you?" Wait, shit, maybe his mental steel box is leaking into his words. He swallows and tries again. "Just let me know, if there's ever someone else in your life you want to see, that's fine, I'm okay with that. I can keep to the background as much as possible while you try and date, no pressure. I know it'll be uncomfortable and you need to be sure because you trap someone in something like this but you can date while we have this bond—"

"What about you?" Tony says, throwing his arms up in the air.

"I don't need to date anyone. I'm perfectly happy like I am."

"You're soulbonded to me right now," Tony hisses. "You can't be okay with this." Tony desperately shakes his head. "Steve, come on—"

"Is it me? Is it because of me that you don't want to do this? Because if so, yes, let's break this, as soon as we can. As soon as you have someone in place, I'll commit to breaking it."

"Of course it's not you," Tony says, witheringly.

Steve stares because it doesn't make sense. If it's not him, then what's the problem? "Why are you trying so hard to scare me away, then?"

"So that you agree that it's a dumb mistake staying bonded to me."

Steve sighs. "Fine. If you think you can scare me away, then give me everything. There's something you've been working hard to hide—give it to me."

Tony flinches. "I can't."

"Guess it can't be too bad, then," Steve says, shrugging. "And nothing else you've sent has convinced me, so—"

"It's the worst secret I have," Tony hisses, turning to him, and it's drenched in a wave of self-loathing, you'll hate me, you'll hate me forever if you know this.

Steve tilts his chin mulishly. "If you want me to consider working on breaking this bond, it would have to be awful. If it's as bad as you think it is, it might be the only thing that could convince me breaking the Gann Josin is a good idea. If you're so hellbent that you want the bond gone, and you think you have this dark and terrible secret that I would hate...maybe we should be apart. If it's that bad."

Tony's breathing heavily, and Steve can't pick up anything across their connection but he'll hate me, he'll hate me so much, how could I even bear to do this—

"Guess it can't be that bad, then," Steve says.

"It is," Tony says, and then he tilts his head challengingly. "Fine. But you won't be able to look at me." Tony glares at him, almost hostile, and just—opens his mind to Steve. Fully. No block.

Steve lets out a small noise he can't help because—it's just so much. It's so much. It's just a flood of feelings at first that burn , and then the wave slows and Steve can pick apart what it means, and Steve almost wants to laugh, joyously—and the emotions keep coming, over and over, and Steve stares at Tony in disbelief.

"There you go," Tony says. His voice is quiet and his expression is antagonistic and it's at such a contrast to what's coursing through their bond that Steve does laugh. Hearing Steve laugh triggers a different emotion from Tony, a bitter pang of rejection, and Steve quietens immediately, but he can't stop himself from smiling. He's going to find it hard to stop smiling for a while.

"This is your deep and darkest secret?" Steve whispers.

Tony nods, looking miserable. His voice sounds wrecked when he says, "This is what I meant. There's no way you could stand to stay bonded to me, when I'm just—I'm so in love with you."

Steve stares at him, disbelieving and buoyant with all of Tony's feelings, still wrapping in and around him. He never dared to let himself imagine anything like this.

"Don't you get it?" Tony whispers, shaking his head. "I've been in love with you for years. How could our relationship ever survive something so unbalanced? This is just what happened with Sersi and Dane, she loved him, and he loved someone else, and it drove them both mad, and that's what ripped their bond apart. That's what ripped them both apart, and—why are you smiling? I'm suffering here, why are you enjoying it?"

"You have no idea, do you?" Steve says. "You've thrown all these terrible things at me and I've been fine with each and every one. I mean, I will be fine, eventually. Some of those things took some time and forgiveness to get over, and don't think we're not going to revisit some of them later..." Tony looks almost cross-eyed so Steve takes pity on him. "But honestly, I can't believe someone so smart is so dumb."

"Hey," Tony protests immediately, but then can't yell anything else, because Steve just widens his smile, opens his own mental box, and sends everything back.

Tony's eyes go wide and he trembles. He puts a hand over his mouth and Steve can feel it's because he's trying not to scream. He laughs instead, the laugh muffled and hysterical.

"You doing okay there?" Steve says, as evenly as he can manage.

"Am I doing okay?" Tony asks, lowering his hand as he blinks several times in a row. "Steve, I—" He falls quiet again, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I kind of like being able to shock you silent," Steve says. "Guess I should get used to not being able to surprise you much in the future."

"I'm sure you'll still manage it," Tony says, sounding winded. He stares unblinking. "Are you sure you feel like that? You never gave any sign before that you might be…that way inclined?"

Steve shrugs. "You always seemed such a ladies man and you were the only man I'd ever really thought about like that, so I never let myself think about it too much. I didn't see the point in making myself hurt more when I thought I'd never have a chance to be anything more than your friend, and honestly being your friend has been…" Steve trails off and thinks what he means, something better than amazing, and Tony nods like he understands. Steve pauses, to make sure Tony's listening, and then reaches out to palm Tony's cheek. "But I've always felt it."

Tony's kind of internally melting, which is as amazing as it is dizzying, and there are actually tears on his cheeks when he leans into Steve's touch and says, in a tone of wonder, "You love me back."

"I do," Steve says. "Which seems to also be a theme of the day. Considering how we just got married."

Tony's cheeks go pleasingly pink. "World's at war again in less than fourteen hours, Cap."

Steve's hands drift to Tony's waist. "I'm an excellent strategist. You're a genius. I think together we can come up with something to fit in those hours that might celebrate our...union."

Tony licks his lips and Steve's eyes follow the movement. They haven't even kissed yet and Steve can feel his mouth tingling. God, this soulbond is going to make this epic, Steve thinks, wonderingly.

"You bet it is," Tony says before leaning in close and finally, finally kissing him.

Tony ends up being assigned to London with Steve, which is somewhat nice even if Dane keeps shooting them a very amused glance every time there is a small lull in the fighting.

London is being assailed by a menagerie of creatures and Steve finally learns what Dane meant about the big grass mammoths.

I'd say they're more leafy than grass, Tony thinks. It's almost exactly what Steve was thinking. Are their brains merging or have they always been on this wavelength? He thinks the latter feels true. Always on the same wavelength or directly opposite. Oh, well. At least life won't ever be boring.

That might be the nice compliment I've ever had, Tony thinks, and then adds, aw, shit, c'mon.

Steve turns to follow Tony's gaze to Tower Bridge, where a lot of giant spiders are sprawling across the length.

"We should have asked for Nadia on our team," Tony says. "Wasps and spiders are natural enemies."

"Except Nadia might still try and hurt you for hurting Jan," Steve says. "I think I'm probably also high on her shitlist."

"Ah, yeah, Captain Homewrecker, that's you," Tony says.

"You know how you two can flirt inside your own heads," Dane yells, as he readies his sword in anticipation of the next leaf mammoth. "Please do and save our brains?"

Steve and Tony just grin at each other and there's something amazing about knowing that Tony's feeling just as giddy as Steve is. And then it somehow gets even better, because mid-way through the next wave of creatures, a spider is bearing down on Tony, and Steve and Tony both think at the same time, go away, and the spider-immediately flies through the air, barreling backward through its colleagues in a tangle of limbs.

"Holy shit," Tony breathes, surprise and wonder making Steve's body light up. "We need to try that again."

Steve grins. Actual telekinesis. It's kind of amazing watching a dark elf go thudding through the air just from the power of their thoughts, screaming curses as it goes.

The fighting comes in waves, giving them a few minutes between each seemingly endless crush of monstrous bodies, but the lulls are definitely appreciated.

Tony pauses as they move towards a better position to defend from to pick something up from the ground.

"Oh, hey, look at this," Tony says, straightening it out and showing it to Steve. It's a British newspaper with the headline CAPTAIN AMERICA AND IRON MAN MARRIED, with a photo of their first kiss on. "Probably should have waited until we were inside before that, huh?"

"I kind of like that someone managed to get it on camera," Steve admits.

"Guess it would take a lot of effort to try and explain it," Tony says.

"Maybe we'll just let them keep believing it. Might be easier." Steve grins at him.

"Whatever you say, cosmic-husband-of-mine." Tony lifts up his faceplate so he can smile back, because he's learned very quickly how much Steve likes his smile. "Wanna go on a cosmic honeymoon when we're done here?"

Steve instantly thinks no, which makes something in Tony's face close off, until Steve quickly thinks the truth. I want a real wedding first.

Tony's eyes widen, looking suddenly wet. It doesn't matter that they're bright red now thanks to the Gann Josin. He might still sort of miss Tony's pretty blue eyes, but this red version… they're still beautiful. Of course, Tony thinks, anything.

You've let me know I could have everything I've always wanted, Steve thinks, not holding anything back, so Tony can't miss how much he means it. Steve mentally throws his metal box away. I want to do it right. You deserve it. He pauses for a moment. And for our honeymoon, could we go somewhere a little warmer than space?

I still have a tropical island in my property portfolio, Tony thinks, somewhat overcome by everything Steve wants, but clearly—unmistakably—wanting it too.

Perfect, Steve thinks. Head's up. They're back.

"Maybe we should tone the telekinesis down," Tony yells giddily after they send another of those leafy mammoths into the river. "We don't want to be too dangerous in case the Magistrati take us again."

"They should see what happens to anyone who tries to take you from me," Steve snarls. "Just let them try."

"You're kind of scary right now," Tony says. "I'm torn between being turned on and actually terrified. I'm really glad you're on my side."

Steve looks at him happily over the head of another monster corpse, because their lives are kind of weird, but they're not alone, and that's the most important part. "I know the feeling," he says.