At one point in Tony's life, waking up blindfolded, tied to a chair, and stripped to his boxers would've meant fun, sexy things were about to happen. He's not that lucky now. He has just long enough to ascertain two more facts, that he's tied down with rope and his head is throbbing worse than it did the first time he got seriously drunk when he was thirteen, before fingers slide into his hair and cruelly wrench his head up. He yelps at the pain that shoots down his neck, arching his back to try and take some of the pressure off.
"Now, now, Mr. Stark. None of that." The voice is unfamiliar, but that doesn't mean much: there's tons of way to modify a voice. The grip on his hair tightens, pulling until his neck is aching just as bad as his head and Tony is stretched as far as he can go to alleviate the pain. Just when he thinks that his hair is going to come right off, the hand suddenly lets go. He slumps down in the chair, breathing hard, and the man laughs at him.
"So much for the great Iron Man, the amazing Tony Stark. You were pathetically easy to kidnap. Do you always pay such little attention to your surroundings, or is your security team really that anxious to get rid of you?"
"Fuck you," Tony slurs, closing his eyes. It doesn't make much difference because of the blindfold, but instinct has his eyes straining to focus in a way that's making him dizzy. "I'm not sure what you hope to gain from kidnapping me. Stark Industries won't pay whatever ransom you're planning to ask for, so you're out of luck."
"Maybe they won't, but the Avengers will."
It takes a worrying second for the words to process, but once they do Tony actually laughs. His head pounds, bands of pain wrapping around his temples, but he still spits out, "Oh my god, are you kidding me? That's why you kidnapped me? To get to the team? Sorry, you're barking up the wrong tree. I would say try again, except you'd probably - no, you know what, please do try again. Next time aim for the gorgeous redhead with the green eyes and the collection of knives up her sleeve. I'd love to see what happens when you -"
The man slaps him hard. Tony's head snaps to the side and his ears ring. Over the ringing, the man snaps, "Don't try to lie to me, Stark. I know what this means." He jabs Tony twice with the tip of a knife, once just over his heart and the other on his right shoulder blade. "You expect me to believe that Captain America and the Winter Soldier won't pay to get their soulmate back?"
The words make something in Tony's chest go cold. All amusement drains away, and he says flatly, "That doesn't mean anything. Never has, never will."
And there's too much to go into, not that he'd share his story of woe with this psychopath anyway. There's no point in explaining that Tony's been in love with Steve since he could walk, that Steve's name had formed on his heart when he was only eight years old and hasn't faded no matter how much he claimed to hate Captain America in the following years. Or that Bucky's name appeared, burning and sharp, on his back a scant year after Steve brought Bucky home to the tower and Tony made him smile for the first time.
Or that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have been in love for over a hundred years, and they're each other's soulmate. It's the kind of fabled love story that makes women and men alike swoon, because those two soldiers triumphed over everything to get back to each other. And that leaves Tony out in the cold, the idiot who went and fell in love with them both, the outsider who will never get what he wants the most.
"I just warned you not to lie to me." Another slap to the other side of his face, and Tony's beginning to wonder if this is going to leave him with whiplash. "The Avengers will pay to get their beloved teammate back."
"Yeah," Tony says. "They would, if you'd taken one of their beloved teammates. Instead, you got me. Newsflash. I'm the perpetual fuck-up of the group. I don't listen to orders. I'm not a team player. No one trusts me to have their backs. I'm just the guy who makes everyone look pretty and pays for all the damage we do. That's the only reason they keep me around, and guess what? My will means they all get lots of money, more than enough to keep them in upgrades and damages for years. Granted, their upgrades won’t be awesome, but against idiots like you my genius is clearly wasted.” He manages a smirk. “So this time you're the one who fucked up."
"You are Iron Man," the guy says, but he's sounding less convinced now.
“Ever heard of the Iron Patriot? They’ll love Rhodey, trust me. He’s all about following orders. He likes to think he stole a suit, but I had to give him a reason to keep coming around. I keep it up to date on purpose. And it’s not like Pepper will abandon the team. If she can put up with me for as long as she has, she can help them. It’ll be much easier for her to earn her paycheck that way… no pay is enough to put up with me.” His words are slowing down. It’s getting harder to think. He’s not even sure if his eyes are opened or closed now.
He passes out to the sound of fierce whispering, and the sense of triumph that at least he’s inspiring dissent amongst his kidnappers follows him into his nightmares.
Another slap jolts him awake. His head lolls back on his neck with the force of it, body feeling curiously heavy, like everything is too much effort. They grab him by the hair again and wrench his head up, tearing the blindfold off. The light is staggering in how much it hurts, slicing into his eyes. If he could, he’d shield his eyes. As it is, he twitches pathetically and tries to turn his head away. They don’t let him, forcing him to stare into the light until he can make out the shape of a man.
“See this, Stark?” the man says. It’s a different guy than before, but he’s got a knife. “Since you say that your soulmates don’t care about you, perhaps I should do them a favor and cut their names off of you.”
Tony’s first instinct, which he clamps down on, is to beg. Even if Steve and Bucky will never think of him like that, he’s taken solace in knowing that somehow, in some miniscule way, he’s a match for them. Those names and the fantasy they represent have gotten him through some dark days. But he doesn’t deserve them. He knows that deep down, and if he were a better man he’d have taken a knife and carved Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes out of his flesh himself.
“Go ahead,” Tony says hoarsely. His mouth aches. Has he been screaming? He can’t remember. “You’re right. You’d be doing them a favor.”
The guy looks at him, eyes squinted through his mask, and it’s so clearly not the answer he wanted that Tony can’t help smiling. That definitely provokes a response; he gets stabbed in the chest, just below his armpit and to the side of where Steve’s name is written. The knife sinks easily into his skin and he jerks, gurgling on a scream. It’s agonizing, and yet all Tony can think is how ridiculously glad he is that they didn’t slice Steve’s name off after all.
“You’re pathetic. How did you earn the name of an Avenger?” someone behind him says.
“Sheer luck. They didn’t want me until Loki attacked and they didn’t have a choice, and now I’m pretty sure that they’re just afraid I’ll take all my toys back and dump the team on the street if they kick me out.” The words tumble out, because what difference does it really make? Maybe he should shut up, go along with it, pretend the team is coming. But they’re not, they’re not and Tony knows that, and it would be way too easy to convince himself that they are. It will hurt too much when they don’t.
The knife gets pulled out roughly and the guy stomps past Tony. The hand lets go of his hair and Tony’s head falls forward instantly. He can feel blood trickling down his side, warm and distracting. He’s never been kidnapped as leverage against the team before: leverage hasn’t been the reason since he was a teenager and Howard made the decision that Maria was no longer allowed to pay ransoms for him. Usually they want him to build things. But maybe these idiots are a shade smarter if they’re not willing to give him access to even scrap metal.
He might pass out for a little while. It’s hard to tell when his thoughts are slow as syrup and processing what’s happening around him takes way more effort that he can expend right now. But he definitely wakes up when he gets stabbed again, this time on his back just to the side of Bucky’s name, so deep he thinks he feels the tip of the knife impact the arc reactor. He whimpers when they leave it there, sticking out of him, and his ears fill with a dull roar.
Or maybe not so dull, and it's not just him. They’re panicking, people scrambling around and yelling, and Tony doesn’t understand why until the door to the room is literally wrenched off its hinges. A familiar circular object whips into the room, slamming into the faces of one-two-three-four-five guys before it's caught. Tony blinks slowly as Captain America stalks into the room, face set with murderous intent. The Winter Solider is right behind him, and yeah that is the Winter Soldier, eyes cold and intent in a way Tony hasn’t seen for a long time.
“Shoot them, you bastards, shoot them!” one of the guys is screaming. Poetically, he promptly gets shot in the chest. Tony stares at the body, barely hearing as Bucky shoots the other two men, and in the wake of all that silence the absence of screaming is startling.
The only sound in the room is Steve breathing hard, like he’s been running for – well, not miles, because Tony knows he can run further than that without breaking a sweat, but for a really long time. He wrenches his cowl back, and his eyes look even bluer for his pink cheeks, and Tony feels a familiar spasm of longing somewhere deep inside his belly. Right up until Bucky stalks back around to the front of him, and he realizes that both of them still look really, really pissed off. The haze of pain is quickly splintered by cold fear.
Because now they know. Two years of never removing his shirt around Steve, plus an extra two years of being hyper vigilant once Bucky moved in, means that it’s been a very long time since Tony was naked in front of anyone. He hadn’t trusted the make-up that carried him through his teens and twenties and obscures Steve’s name on all the videos. But they can see it all. See the name on his chest and the name on his back, and they know, and they look so mad.
“I’m sorry,” Tony slurs, and it’s kind of hard to make his mouth form words right now, but he thinks this needs to be said before one or both of them try to kill him. He really doesn’t want to die here. “Sorry, I – I didn’t mean to, sorry.”
Bucky grabs Steve’s arm, stopping Steve’s progress. His eyes are still dark. “Sorry for what?”
“Your names. Didn’t mean to. I just, Steve’s been there since I was a kid, and Bucky’s just happened, and I tried to stop. I know I’m not – I tried to – you’re so much - sorry.” He cuts himself off because now they look even madder, and he already hurts so much, and he can’t stop the pathetic whimper from rolling out. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
“They’re not going to hurt you.” Coulson strides into the room, shouldering Bucky and Steve aside with ease, and his mouth tightens when he looks at Tony for the first time. “Can I cut you free, Stark?”
It’s a weird question to ask. Tony thinks he nods. He gets why Coulson asked when the agent takes a switchblade out of his pocket, and he can’t help flinching. He forgets about the other two, too focused on watching Coulson slip the blade under the rope and slice through it easily. It’s a complicated set of knots, requiring more than one cut, and Coulson swears when he gets around to Tony’s back and he sees the knife still sticking out of his shoulder. Tony cocks his head.
“Y’don’t swear,” he mumbles.
“As always, you push me to new heights,” Coulson says, and he looks a little like Steve and Bucky did, angry, but that’s commonplace for Coulson and anyway he’s doing a much better job of controlling it. He strips off his jacket and gently drapes it around Tony’s shoulders, mindful of the knife, and only then does Tony realize he’s trembling.
“My shoulder hurts.”
“I know. I have paramedics on the way.”
“Steve’n’Bucky’re mad at me,” Tony adds, struggling to focus on his face. “They hate me.”
Coulson sighs and looks up over Tony’s head. For some reason, he’s got a glare on his face. Tony’s too tired to see what he’s glaring at as Coulson says gently, “Believe me, Tony, you are so wrong about that, you don’t even know.”
Tony would like to explain how very not wrong he is – he’s got data to back it all up; it’s all been categorized into lists, hidden away in the depths of his servers, that he looks over whenever he starts dreaming too seriously about a life with his soulmates – but his tongue isn’t cooperating anymore and his head is getting really heavy. He’s not conscious of closing his eyes. He’s not really conscious of anything anymore.
Tony disappears on a Wednesday morning. No one knows for six hours after the fact, and, by the time word gets passed to the Avengers, the kidnappers and Tony are long gone. It’s a tense three days before they get any sign that Tony is even alive, and it comes through video footage that is so heavily encrypted that it takes JARVIS four long hours to work out how to even get it to play. Once it does, Bucky almost wishes that they hadn’t.
The footage – recorded, JARVIS says, not live, though that’s hardly a comfort once they’ve watched it – is horrifying. It’s bad enough to have to stand by and watch Tony be beaten. But the things he says, the words that come out of his mouth… it’s apparent to anyone who spends more than five minutes with Tony that he has a very poor opinion of himself. Bucky didn’t know it was like this. No one did. Pepper cries, tears sliding silently down her cheeks, and looks more shaken than Bucky’s ever seen her as she walks out to call Rhodey.
In the ensuing silence, the video switches to live. Rage is an emotion that Bucky is familiar with, but it’s never been this potent before as he watches the knife scrape across Steve’s name, across his name, and sees the resignation on Tony’s face. It hurt somewhere deep inside, in a place that Bucky had been convinced that Hydra destroyed. That hopelessness wasn’t put there by the kidnappers, no. That’s the fault of the team and in particular Steve and Bucky, who have failed Tony Stark so completely they didn’t even know it was happening until the evidence was shoved in their faces.
When the video cuts out, Bucky clears his throat and says the only thing he can think of. “Steve, I think we’re going to have to be a lot less subtle in the future.”
Steve just puts his fist through the wall and snarls, “JARVIS, you better be able to trace that footage. We’re going to get Tony. Now.”
“Tracing now, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS answers, and he adds something else, something about how the kidnappers made a mistake when they switched over from recorded footage to providing live video, but no one is listening. They spill out of the cramped room and swarm the quinjet. Clint practically throws himself into the pilot seat beside Coulson and starts the jet with quick, jerky movements.
The tension in the jet, especially when they find out that Tony is being held only three hours away, is palpable. Steve is twitching, so filled with fury that he can’t stand still. He’s always been like this, even when he was a punk kid who weighed 90lbs soaking wet. Anger gives him energy, makes him explosive, and heaven help anyone who gets in his way. Anger gives Bucky energy, too, but his years as the Winter Soldier have taught him how to channel that into stillness. People, he’s discovered, get so much more afraid when you’re quiet.
He can feel it flowing over him by the way his muscles loosen and his breath comes slower, not panicked. Natasha meets his gaze and he sees the change in her, the Black Widow staring back at the Winter Soldier, both of them united in an unspoken agreement to end the life of anyone who participated in this kidnapping. He sets a hand on the handle of his favorite gun and stands in stoic silence for the whole trip, until Clint lands the quinjet in a small clearing a mile out.
“Bruce, we need the Hulk,” Steve says, just barely polite, and Bruce nods. His skin has held a tint of green for the past four and a half days, and he looks glad to be putting it to use finally. He strips off except for the customized pants Tony made him and makes his way out of the jet. Less than a minute later, the Hulk and Thor are raining fury down on the compound. Natasha and Clint disappear into the trees to pick off the idiots stupid enough to think they can run.
Coulson follows them into the compound, officially to keep an eye on what’s going on. Unofficially, Bucky thinks, it’s to see firsthand whether Tony is okay, though Coulson would probably cut his own tongue out before admitting he cares about Tony in any way. That’s the problem, though. Maybe there’s been a little too much of that going around. And while Tony’s never been good at picking up on subtlety, Bucky’s pretty sure the fault for this lies entirely on them.
They find their missing teammate without too much difficulty. Steve’s shield takes care of over half the room in one fell swoop, and Bucky gleefully guns down the rest. Talking to Tony isn’t so easy. Bucky’s heart drops straight through his stomach when he sees the fear in Tony’s face, and some of that is from the drugs and concussion, but too much of it is purely Tony. He’s relieved when Coulson intervenes, having been waiting right outside the door, and shoulders them aside with ease to cut Tony free.
The paramedics walk in and swarm Tony, and Bucky turns to Steve. He recognizes the look on Steve’s face; he’s shutting down, internalizing the blame, and they don’t have time for that bullshit right now. So his punch to Steve’s arm is less than gentle, but it’s not even close to what they both deserve. In almost any other setting, the offended expression Steve shoots him would be amusing.
“Knock it off,” Bucky says, low but firm. “We have to focus on fixing this, Steve. Instead of stewing in guilt, put that strategist brain of yours to work figuring out how we’re going to make Tony realize that we’ve wanted this for a long time.”
Because they have. Steve was first, of course: it took him all of three days after he and Bucky kissed for the first time this side of the millennium to confess that he had feelings for Tony. He’s never tried to hide Tony’s name, which is written on the underside of his right arm in a surprisingly delicate scrawl. Bucky didn’t understand it at first. He was jealous, though he tried not to show it. There were people that had more than one soulmate even when they were kids, and it was happening more now.
But then, the more time he spent with Tony Stark… oh yeah, he got it. The guy was a little shit at times, cocky and arrogant and constantly snarky, but simultaneously generous, kind, and possessing a talent for making really old super soldiers feel at ease. He’d rebuilt Bucky’s arm from the gears up and never once flinched away from a bad moment on Bucky’s part – which were rare, after a while, but more frequent in the beginning. It took all of six months for his name to appear on Bucky’s left inner thigh.
Steve, when he saw Tony’s name on Bucky’s flesh for the first time, just smiled.
Now, Steve’s mouth is twisted into a grimace. “How did we fuck up so bad, Buck?”
“We were trying to be careful. We weren’t sure…” Bucky trails off, because in the glaring light of day it suddenly seems so obvious. Of course Tony wanted them back. The signs have been there for months; they just weren’t paying attention. And he wouldn’t have said anything, because apparently he’s gotten the impression that they hate him. That the whole team hates him, or at very least just puts up with him because they have to for money and upgrades.
His head aches as he looks back at Tony, who is being very carefully loaded onto a stretcher on his side. “You’re right. We fucked up. There’s no excuses for that. We should’ve said something before it got this far, soulmates or not. But we can start fixing this by being there when he wakes up.”
Tony is transported to the SHIELD Medical Bay, where he spends five hours in surgery having the knife from his back removed and the internal damage from both stab wounds fixed. In addition to that, he also has a broken right ankle, three broken ribs and four cracked ribs, sprained fingers, a fractured radius on his left arm, numerous bruises and scrapes, and a bad concussion. It’s not as bad as it could have been – not as bad as some missions have been – but, in light of how it happened, it's not good.
They gather in his room after the doctor finishes a complicated explanation that only Bruce understands. Steve sits down on Tony’s right side with a proprietary, determined air and takes Tony’s hand into his own. Bucky glances at Pepper, half-expecting her to take Tony’s other hand, but Pepper just shakes her head wearily. He sits, taking Tony’s hand more carefully, mindful of the bandages and the I.V. that’s pumping sedatives and pain medication into Tony.
It’s been a very long five days, and predictably no one takes it well when Natasha says, “When he wakes up, I may kill him.”
“Don’t even joke about that right now,” Clint says. He’s got an arm draped around her shoulders and looks as tired as Bucky feels. “He might hear you and think you mean it.”
“I do mean it.”
“No, you don’t,” Bruce says, giving her a small but fond smile. “Tony will be fine. He’ll have to be on bed rest for a while, though. From what I’m seeing here, he’s been running himself into the ground. Exhaustion and lack of food will do a lot more damage than anything else.”
“Man cannot live on coffee alone,” Clint mutters.
“I’ll clear his schedule for the next three weeks,” says Pepper. Her eyes are still damp, but she’s otherwise composed. “I’ll talk to Director Fury and make sure that he knows any work Tony’s been doing for SHIELD is on hold as of right now. And he just finished the schematics for a new Starkpad, so that will hold the board off. How long until he wakes up, Bruce?”
“Sometime tomorrow, but it might be two or three days before he’s aware enough to talk.”
Pepper nods, her jaw set in a familiar, stubborn way. “That’s okay. We can wait. Rhodey’s not coming in until later tonight anyway.”
“We can’t bombard him all at once. That could actually have the opposite effect, ” Bruce cautions.
“Or it may make him understand that we desire him as a shield brother,” says Thor. He’s making an effort to be quiet, which really just means he’s talking at a volume that would be considered loud for anyone else. “On Asgard, we are more open with our affection.”
“I don’t think an orgy is going to help,” Clint says. Bucky tenses at the thought. He can just make out the curve of the ‘S’ to Steve’s name under the hem of Tony’s hospital gown. He and Steve haven’t discussed it, but he is 100% certain that the realization that Tony is their soulmate has only made them want him more. Tony is theirs.
Thor looks entirely too amused. “A splendid idea, but one I believe my fair Jane would take issue with. I simply meant that there are times when a positive word or invitation can make all the difference in the world. I know I have often wished that I had made more of an effort to include Loki when we were children. I wonder if it might have made more of a difference if I had.”
There’s a heavy silence, and Bucky doesn’t know about everyone else but he’s imagining Tony as Loki. He’s only had a couple of encounters with Thor’s brother, but that was more than enough to know he doesn’t want more. And it could go that way easily; Tony has ample money to become a super villain, or even just a villain, not to mention the intelligence, and right now he doesn’t feel a connection to anyone on the team. The whole world would be in a lot of trouble if it came to that. They’d be fucked if Tony and Loki ever decided to pair up.
“Okay, well, that’s the creepiest thing I’ve heard all day,” Clint says.
“It was not meant to disturb you,” Thor says apologetically. “I merely meant to -”
“It’s hard.” Bucky’s mouth moves of its own accord, is letting out words. Usually he doesn’t speak a whole lot around the team, preferring one-on-one interaction to the whole group, but the words keep coming. “When you – you don’t look at the world properly, or the people around you, and nothing processes the way other people think it should. I remember Howard Stark. This is – he wasn’t –” He can’t say it out the way he wants to. But it’s true. He remembers tailing Howard Stark a few days before arranging the car accident. He remembers that little boy and the cold way Howard talked to him, how nothing was ever good enough.
“It’s okay,” Natasha says, and Bucky shakes his head.
“No, it’s not. This is all Tony’s ever known,” he says, like an offering, and it’s not right, but he thinks the meaning might be getting across anyway. “People want – they want money, or – or something. It’s never just about him.” Just like it was never about Bucky, but the Winter Soldier. “He doesn’t know that you’re any different. It’s easier to accept a concrete reason based on past evidence, instead of thinking… maybe it’s about you this time.”
No one says anything for the longest time. They’re all staring at Tony, even Steve. Tony, who is so good at hiding behind words. He and Bucky are the same in some ways, but Bucky’s never relearned the art of words. He forgot them after all his years as the Winter Soldier, because Hydra didn’t want to hear anything but ‘yes’. But he’s familiar with how hard it is to trust people. It took him days to believe that Steve didn’t have an ulterior motive, weeks to believe that Tony just wanted to help, months to believe that Natasha had fully defected, and even longer to trust anyone else.
Coulson breaks the silence, slipping into the room and setting a hand on Pepper’s arm. “I’ve set up a schedule,” he says. “So that Tony won’t be alone when he wakes up. I don’t care if you stay and hang out when it’s not your time, but at some point all of you will be going home to sleep.” He levels a pointed look at Steve and Bucky. “Tony will only feel guilty if he finds you all looking like wrecks.”
Murmurs rise through the room, and Coulson holds up a hand. “The schedule starts tomorrow morning. For now, I’ve ordered in food. It’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“Thanks Phil,” Steve says with a tired smile. He meets Bucky’s gaze briefly, and Bucky can tell what he’s thinking: it’s not too late. When Tony wakes up, they’ll talk to him. And if this is something he wants, if the three of them are something he wants, then they’ll make it happen. Bucky’s had a hard time learning to trust people, but he thinks that for Tony, he can learn how to use words again.
Natasha is upset. It’s not written across her face, but Steve can see the tension in her subdued grace. He hates to leave Tony, but with Phil, Pepper and Natasha all ganging up on him, he gives in and leaves Bucky, Clint and Thor there. He accompanies Natasha and Bruce back to the tower, already knowing that he probably won’t sleep. He’s gotten used to sleeping beside Bucky, and he’s wanted to sleep beside Tony for years. Sleeping by himself isn’t going to go over well.
So he’s surprised when, after a long shower, he emerges from the bathroom to find Natasha curled up in his bed, waiting for him. Even before he gets to the bed, she says, “This is my fault. The report I wrote back when I first met Tony… I never told him otherwise. He still thinks that SHIELD and the team only want Iron Man, that we have no interest in Tony Stark. I should have said something. I thought he’d figure it out.”
“For a genius, he’s not very smart sometimes,” Steve agrees, but fondly. He admires that about Tony, actually. For someone who is extremely intelligent, and who has every reason to see bad things in the world, Tony can still see the good. He’s always trying to make things better. Steve just wishes that Tony could see there’s good in him too.
“That’s just it. After all this time, he still doesn’t know? We’ve been living here for four years,” she says, sounding aggravated. “Does he really believe we’d stick around that long just for the free rent and upgrades?”
“I don’t know. Probably. It’s not your fault. You didn’t realize. None of us did. I thought the team was going pretty well, actually,” he confides, sitting down on the bed. “All of us were getting along for the most part... Our success rate on the field is better than ever. We weren’t fighting. We had team night once a week. Sure, I usually had to drag Tony and Bruce out of their labs, but…”
“It’s not your fault if it’s not mine,” Natasha points out. “Tony’s a fantastic actor. He fooled all of us. Of course he did. When you spend your whole life around people who only want to be nice to you for money, or your body, or your tech, you learn to take what you can get.” She sighs, shutting her eyes. “Pepper’s so upset. She’s really hurt that Tony thinks she’s sticking around just for the paycheck.”
“I bet Rhodey is furious, too.”
Natasha nods without opening her eyes. “I think so. Everyone is. At themselves mostly, I think. I know that I am. I should’ve seen this coming, Steve.”
“We’ve all been busy,” Steve says quietly, not that that’s an excuse – and they both know it. He’s spent so much time with Bucky over the past couple years. Especially at first, Bucky sucked up all of his and Natasha’s time. Even though he was still participating in missions, he lost touch with everyone else for a little while. Seeing Tony again, really seeing him the first night Bucky was comfortable enough to visit the tower, felt like coming home. He wonders now if Tony knows that. He never bothered to say as much. He wishes he had now.
Tony took their raggedy group in and gave everyone a home. He lifts his head, looking up at the familiar ceiling. Soulmate or not, Steve wants him. All of the reasons he and Bucky had for not approaching Tony before – they weren’t sure he was really over Pepper, they didn’t know if he’d be open to a relationship with three people, and what if he just wasn’t interested in them? – suddenly seem stupid. Steve’s supposed to be the brave one here, and he’s let cowardice keep him quiet and separate Tony from the team.
He lets Natasha pull him down into the bed. They don’t say anything else. JARVIS turns the lights down, and Steve tries to sleep. He’s not really successful. He doesn’t have nightmares, surprisingly, but he thinks it’s because he never sleeps long enough for that. Natasha doesn’t sleep well either; every time he wakes up, she’s already awake and looking up at the ceiling. The night drags by, and it feels like weeks have passed by the time the clock reads 6am and Steve is allowed back at Medical.
The first time Tony wakes up, Bucky and Steve and Clint are in the room with him. Tony’s fuzzy, Steve can tell right off, his brown eyes flicking around the room with confusion and a hint of fear. When he sees Bucky and Steve, though, he visibly relaxes. His face brightens up with an open, sleepy smile that twists Steve’s stomach, and all he can do is sit there and squeeze Tony’s hand tighter, wondering how he could have thought that Tony didn’t want him. Them.
But true to Bruce’s word, it’s three days before Tony really wakes up and has any degree of lucidity. Steve is there and so is Rhodey, both of them sitting in a contemplative silence. Tony comes to with a jolt, trying to sit up automatically, stopping halfway through with a pained grunt. Rhodey’s on his feet immediately, pressing Tony back down against the bed. Steve quells every instinct that demands he help, sensing this is something that Rhodey needs to do.
“Don’t, Tones,” Rhodey says firmly. “It’s okay. But you can’t sit up. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Rhodey?” Tony mumbles, his voice all raspy, and Steve wordlessly picks up the pitcher of warm water on the nightstand and pours him a glass. He holds the glass, angling the straw so that Tony can drink. Tony does, taking deep, grateful gulps until the glass is half empty.
The door opens and Pepper pokes her head in, no doubt having heard Rhodey’s voice. Her eyes get really big and glassy when she sees Tony, and Steve starts thinking that this is something he probably shouldn’t be here for. Except he’s still holding Tony’s hand, and he doesn’t really want to let go. Not unless Tony actively pulls away, and he hasn’t, though possibly because he hasn’t realized Steve’s holding his hand yet.
“Tony,” Pepper whispers, as though afraid to speak more loudly, edging into the room and closing the door behind her. There’s a cautiousness to her that is at odds with her normal, confident self. She meets Steve’s gaze, and he raises his eyebrows in silent question. He’ll go, if she really wants him to, but Pepper gives her head a single shake.
“Hey, Pep,” Tony says, sounding marginally better. “What’s up?”
“Oh god, Tony, you scared me. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, you look fine,” Rhodey says, blatantly giving him the once-over. “You look like crap, man, and I know they’ve got you on strong painkillers, but you have to be feeling it.”
Tony shrugs and then winces a little. “It’s not that bad. What happened?”
“Do you remember being kidnapped?” Pepper asks.
“And do you remember telling your kidnappers that the only reason we keep you around is for money and upgrades?” Rhodey asks, and the words sound pleasant enough. Steve can pinpoint the exact moment when it sinks in, and Tony jolts. His hand squeezes Steve’s hand, and for the first time he seems to realize Steve is there. The expression of confused surprise when he looks at Steve is heartbreaking.
“I…” Tony starts and then stops, eyes flicking from Rhodey to Pepper to Steve, seemingly sensing that he’s treading on thin ice. “No?”
“You’re a shit liar in general, but that was just sad,” Rhodey says, shaking his head. “Is that really the only reason you let me keep the suit? And why you upgrade it? Because you think I’ll stop being your friend if you don’t?”
“Because that’s not true and you damn well know it, Tony Stark. What about all those years in university? I didn’t accept any money from you then.”
Tony hesitates for a moment. “The army… you were paid to watch me…” he says in a small voice. It kills Steve to see the uncertainty in his face, especially because he knows that if Tony weren't heavily medicated, all of his shields would be up in full force and he'd never be saying this. He prays that Pepper's and Rhodey's words are actually penetrating, and that Tony will remember them.
“Yeah, and I didn’t tell them shit that you didn't want them to know,” Rhodey growls. “My loyalty has always been to you, you fucker. Me getting a job as the military liaison between Stark Industries and the army was a way for me to spend more time with you instead of being sent god knows where. I thought it was what you wanted. If I’d known how you were taking it –”
"Not to mention," Pepper says, smoothly cutting Rhodey off, "you seem to be under the impression that I'm only here because you sign my paycheck. I'll tell you one thing, you were right in that no amount of money would be enough to keep me here if I didn't want to be. Tony, I love you. I didn't break up with you because I stopped loving you. I told you, I can't handle it when you're out there fighting. And that's about me, not you."
There's so much emotion in her voice that Steve has to force himself to sit still when all he really wants to do is squirm uncomfortably. None of the team was really sure what happened between Tony and Pepper, not even Bruce. Everything seemed okay one day, and then suddenly there was a week-long period where no one saw Tony and several weeks where Pepper didn't come by the tower. When he resurfaced Tony refused to talk about it, and whatever Natasha heard from Pepper remained in confidence. But Steve's always wondered, and now he knows.
Tony remains silent, just staring at them, and Pepper sinks down onto the edge of the bed. She puts a hand on his knee and says, "Listen to me. Stark Industries could go bust tomorrow and I'd still be here. I love my job, and I love our company, but we're friends before everything else. Sure there are days when you frustrate me, and days where you make my job a hundred times harder, and you have to buy me pretty things to make up for those days. But even if you didn't, I wouldn't just leave. I don't care how much money you have. I care about you."
"That goes for me too," says Rhodey, putting his hand on top of Pepper's. "If you think I'm only here for the suit upgrades, then I'm officially cutting off your access."
"What?" Tony says, blinking rapidly. "But who will...?"
Rhodey shrugs. "I'm sure there's someone at SHIELD who can keep my suit up to date. I'll find someone. I'd rather hand it over to someone else than have you think that's the only reason I hang around."
"No. No, don't do that," Tony says. He sounds a little distressed. If he were less medicated, he'd be ranting about the ineptitude of SHIELD. As it is, he sounds like he's going to cry. Steve can't help squeezing his hand in comfort as Tony whispers, "I didn't want - I'm sorry. Please don't take the suit away."
Rhodey visibly melts. "I won't, but you have to realize we're friends, idiot," he says, his voice warm, cuffing Tony very gently on his un-bandaged shoulder. "And just for the record, being an Avenger would be awesome... but I have no intention of joining the team anytime soon. I've heard Captain America's recruitment pitch often enough to know it's not for me right now." He winks at Steve. "So you better plan to stick around for a long time, you hear me? The Avengers need Iron Man, but more than that they need Tony Stark."
"Which is a good thing," Pepper adds. "Because Tony Stark adds a lot more value to the team than I think you realize. But I'll let them tell you about that." She leans forward and kisses Tony on the cheek. "Rhodey and I dropped by the mansion last night to see your 'bots. I think they miss you. Dummy grabbed Rhodey's shirt and wouldn't let go."
"I had to bribe him with my pocket flashlight to get him to release me," Rhodey says. "And I only have two more Army-issued flashlights left, so you better get well soon."
"You went to see my 'bots?" Tony echoes, surprised now, his eyes wide.
"Well, someone has to keep an eye on them. And Dummy likes me best, after all." Rhodey smiles teasingly.
"You keep telling yourself that," says Tony. His smile is a lot more tentative. "Dummy likes Steve the best."
It's the first time Tony has even acknowledged that he's in the room beyond a couple of curious looks. Steve jolts in surprise. "I'm pretty sure you're Dummy's favorite, Tony," he says cautiously, buoyed by the encouraging smiles from Rhodey and Pepper. "You're the only he makes smoothies for."
Tony snorts. "I'm the only one he tries to poison, you mean," he mutters, and then he yawns.
Pepper leans forward, smoothing a few strands of hair away from his forehead. "We're going to have another conversation about this later on when you're out of here," she says. "Especially you and me. There were unresolved things we should have talked about before."
"Hate conversations," Tony mumbles, eyes heavily lidded.
She huffs a laugh, and Steve pretends not to notice that her eyes are damp again. "I know you do, but we're going to have some anyway."
Tony mutters something else, but it's unintelligible. He's already asleep. Pepper brushes her thumb across his jaw and then leans forward to press a kiss to his cheek. "You're such an idiot sometimes," she whispers, but so fondly that it makes Steve's throat ache. When she straightens up, she's giving Steve a firm look.
"We know that Tony has your name," she says, indicating Rhodey with a tip of her head. "And Bucky's name. Just like, I'm guessing, you two have his."
By way of response, Steve shows them the name written on the underside of his arm. He still remembers the day it showed up, before Bucky came back, and part of him regrets not going to Tony the moment he discovered it. "We do. When Tony wakes up, we plan to talk to him about it. Court him, if he'll let us."
Rhodey crosses his arms. "So you plan to bring him into your relationship?"
"If that's something Tony's interested in, yes."
"Why didn't you approach him before?" Pepper asks.
"I can't speak for Bucky, but I didn't know he had my name. Our names. And I was - Tony is... special, and I'm already involved with Bucky. I... I was a coward. I should've said something to him. If I'd known what he was thinking..." Steve trails off, looking down at Tony. He looks so damn fragile when he's sleeping, like anything could break him, and it hurts.
"The only reason why I'm not kicking your ass right now is because we've all fucked up. But if you hurt him any more than you already have, I'll kill you," Rhodey says. "I don't care how hard it will be. I'll find a way. You and Barnes better tread carefully."
"And in the meantime, while Rhodey's figuring out how to kill you, I will ruin you," Pepper says, and she sounds almost cheerful. "I mean it, Steve. I can fuck you up in ways you've never even dreamed. Ways that you can't fight against. Captain America might be untouchable, but Steve Rogers? He's just a man, and I've dealt with plenty of men in my time." Her smile is distinctly unpleasant, promising a world of pain. "Tony is very important to us. Exercise caution with how you treat him."
Steve feels an honest to God chill go down his spine. "I will."
"Good." Pepper stands up. "I have to get back to work, and so does Rhodey. We'll be back to visit him again tonight."
He just nods, watching as they both kiss Tony on the forehead in goodbye, and walk out. Bucky slinks in about two minutes after they go, glancing over his shoulder like he thinks someone might come after him, and says, "Hydra shoulda recruited her. They'd have taken over the world years ago if they had."
"I take it you got the shovel talk too," Steve says, and then, shuddering, adds, "Don't even joke about that, Buck."
This was meant to be longer, but I didn't want to break up the next chunk - and also, there was already a perfect stopping point. First time ever writing Natasha/Clint/Coulson, so I hope it works.
Every time Tony wakes up, it hurts a little more. Which is a good sign, his brain tells him, because it means they’re starting to wean him off the stronger drugs. But it’s also a bad sign, because he keeps seeing Steve and Bucky in the room when he wakes up, and that clearly means he’s sustained enough brain damage to hallucinate. It’s the only explanation for why one or both super soldiers are at his bedside every time he opens his eyes. The weirdest thing is, the other people in the room seem to see them too – which is, potentially, a very bad sign.
“Am I hallucinating?” he asks Bruce the next time he opens his eyes. Thor’s there too, but the room is otherwise empty. He’s surprised by how lonely that leaves him feeling, because even if he knows he's hallucinating, that doesn't mean he doesn't want Steve and Bucky around him. It turns out these pesky emotions are a lot harder to push aside when he’s drugged.
“Hallucinating?” Bruce echoes, eyebrows drawing together. Tony’s only seen him once or twice since he woke up, but there’s new lines in Bruce’s face. Even Thor seems burdened, and he’s not sure why.
“I keep seeing Steve and Bucky hanging around. Actually, I keep seeing all of you in here and I don’t know why. I thought maybe this was just a dream where I’d been rescued. I had a lot of those in Afghanistan,” he adds by way of explanation, and Bruce’s and Thor’s expressions go pinched in the exact same way.
“This is no dream,” Thor says after a moment.
“Isn’t that what you would tell me in a dream?” Tony points out.
Thor sighs. “I suppose it would. But tell me, did you frequently have the same dream in Afghanistan? When you slept, did you always reawaken in the same place, with the same people, where nothing was different?”
Tony pauses, stumped, because Thor’s got him there. Sleep was a rare commodity back then, but when he passed out he did have a lot of dreams where he was rescued, and he definitely had some favorites. He dreamt about Rhodey storming the caves, about coming back to New York to find Obie waiting for him, about Pepper's hands on his face. But the smaller details were always different in some way, in the way that dreams are.
Now, though. He always wakes up in the same bed, surrounded by the same equipment, with the same sights and smells. The scene out the window changes depending on whether it's day or night, but it's always the New York skyline. The same doctor and nurses come and go. The same janitor walks by the room at exactly half past two every morning, waking Tony up with the squeaky bucket.
“I am a god, and even in a dream I would not lie to you about something so important,” Thor says, very gentle, and sets a hand on Tony’s arm. “You are not dreaming, Tony Stark. You are awake.”
The thin fizzle of power emanating from Thor’s fingertips makes the hair on Tony’s arms stand on end. “Then why?” he says, not looking up at either of them. “I don’t get it.”
“We watched you,” says Bruce, and it’s such a simple explanation, a ‘duh’ moment really, but Tony’s been fighting not to string that together ever since he woke up with enough lucidity to remember the majority of his conversation with Pepper and Rhodey. He goes cold, because even though he doesn’t remember everything that happened, he remembers running his mouth off about what the team really thinks about him.
Still, he hadn’t lied. He was honest. There's no reason for anyone to be mad. Slowly, he looks up. “Watched me…?”
“They sent us footage,” Thor says, grave now. Sparks dance in his eyes, the only hint of his anger. “Of their transgressions, and of what you said in response. It grieves us all that you believe no one cares for you, or would care if you were to die. No one is easily replaced, but you least of all.”
To hear Thor lay it out so blatantly, where anyone else would’ve danced around it, aches in a way that drugs can’t help. Tony shakes his head, fumbling a laugh, and pats clumsily at Thor’s hand. “Thanks, big guy, but I’m pretty sure you’re the only one who thinks that way.”
“Tony. That’s not true.” Bruce looks pained. He’s holding the clipboard with all of Tony’s medical information on it a little too tightly, though there’s no green to his features yet.
“Actually, it is. Do you need me to run down the list?”
“There’s a list?” Bruce says, then shakes his head. “Of course there’s a list. You know what, I’ll let the others handle their bit later. But Tony – I don’t need toys from you. You were the first person ever who honestly wasn’t afraid of the other guy. That means more to me than anything else you have to offer. I didn’t come back to the tower with you that day because you said you’d give me a lab. I came back because you were, and still are, my friend.”
Tony swallows. “But you like your lab.”
“Of course I do. I’m a scientist. SHIELD would’ve given me a lab too, you know. And it would’ve been filled with lots of people who flinch every time I walk by, who dive for cover when I drop something, and who would be terrified to touch me, much less poke me with sharp objects.”
“That’s for science,” Tony says automatically, and Bruce just smiles at him. Tony can't bring himself to smile back, and not just because his whole body is starting to hurt. He can't let himself have this, can he?
“Was it also for science when you opened your home to me?” Thor asks him. “You made me, and my fair Jane and her friends, feel welcome in your home, even though it was not necessary. You offer food and shelter and fix the damage I inadvertently cause, and you never ask anything in return, except that I stand beside you both in battle and off. Does that not make us shield brothers?”
“I…” Tony is speechless in the face of their combined earnestness. Out of the whole team, he thought that maybe Bruce and Thor might tolerate him the most. Thor likes everyone, and Bruce seems to dislike everyone equally. But this? This level of friendship is more than he hoped for. He turns to Bruce and lamely finishes with, “But I poke you.”
Bruce shrugs. “It’s for science,” he says with a smirk. “And Tony, I’ve had a hell of a lot worse. I trust you not to take it too far.”
“As do I,” Thor says. “I would trust you with the life of my fair Jane, and with the inner workings of the Bifrost.”
Tony’s mouth falls open. This is something he’s never dared to ask for, but he’s not even surprised that Thor’s guessed he wants to know. It takes effort to squeak out, “What?”
“When you are well, I will tell you all you wish to know.” Thor pats his arm, hard enough to leave a bruise on top of all Tony's other bruises, and takes a step back. “For we are shield brothers, and there is nothing I would not trust you with.”
“Oh, that’s a mistake,” Tony breathes, rattled to his core. It’s hard not to be when a god is looking him in the eyes and saying those kinds of things. Or maybe that’s just the pain, because Thor patting his arm has set off a full scale chain reaction and now everything hurts.
“I don’t think so,” says Bruce. “I think that those secrets would be safer with you than anyone else on Earth. And I’m not just saying that, either. I mean it.” He finally sets the clipboard down on the end of Tony’s bed. “You should know the other guy feels the same way. He wouldn’t bother to work with or save anyone he thought was a fuck-up.”
Tony just stares at him for a long time, then looks at Thor, before looking back at Bruce, now more than ever convinced he’s hallucinating. In the end, the only thing he can think to ask is, “Wait, what did you mean when you said you’d let the others handle their bit later?”
Bruce chuckles fondly. “Oh Tony.”
The door opens and a nurse slips in, carrying a by now familiar syringe. The one that means he’ll shortly be unconscious thanks to pain medication. He says quickly, “No, I mean it! And – does that mean Bucky and Steve have really been in here all those times? Why? Is Steve going to yell? Are they mad at me?”
“Not mad. Definitely not mad,” Bruce says. He mutters something to the nurse, while Tony turns a panic-filled gaze on Thor. Thor smiles comfortingly back, but it only serves to make Tony even more panicked. If none of this is a hallucination, what does it mean? Is he getting hospital care only to end up dead, courtesy of Captain America and the Winter Soldier? If so, he’d rather they get it over with now.
“What does that mean?” he demands as the nurse pushes the syringe into his I.V. He starts to push himself up, ready to get some answers, and ends up groaning in pain instead as his ribs vehemently protest.
“Just relax, Tony, okay? No one’s going to hurt you. Not ever again.” Despite claiming he’s not a doctor, Bruce has the bedside manner down pat. His voice is very soothing to listen to, and against his will Tony finds himself relaxing back against the pillows. The medication leaves him feeling like he’s floating, and the pain subsides so quickly it’s dizzying.
The nurse finishes fiddling around with the I.V., nods at Bruce and Thor, and walks out. As she leaves, a metal hand catches the door and Bucky slips in. Tony tries to feel the same sense of panic as before, but it’s beyond his grasp. Fatigue is weighing him down, dragging him below the panic and fear.
“You and Steve need to talk to him,” says Bruce, giving Bucky a firm look. “You can’t keep putting it off. He’s aware enough now for that conversation.”
What conversation? Tony wants to ask. He blinks heavily as Bucky meets his gaze, surprised to find that there’s no anger in Bucky’s eyes. Just something Tony can’t identify. His tongue refuses to create words, though, and when he goes to blink again his eyes remain shut. The world slips away and he sleeps dreamlessly, not waking up again until the squeaking bucket rattles by. That’s impossible to sleep through, not when he’s itching to grab a screwdriver and fix the damn thing already.
The room is dark when he opens his eyes, but not so dark that Tony can’t tell that there’s a spy on either side of him. Steve is passed out in one of the visitor’s chairs, and Tony’s bed – which seemed large before, but is definitely too small to comfortably accommodate three people – has a third spy perched on the end of it. His head is resting against Natasha’s chest, pillowed comfortably on her breasts, and Clint is idly trailing fingers up and down Tony’s un-bandaged shoulder, and Coulson has a hand on his ankle.
“Did I die?” Tony croaks, thoroughly bewildered. “I always thought heaven would have hot people, but with more nudity.”
Coulson snorts. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just imply you think I’m hot, and I hardly think your version of heaven involves a hospital room, Tony.”
“You’re calling me Tony. I am dead. Or hallucinating.”
Clint pinches him. Tony yelps. “No pain in hallucinations,” Clint says with a grin.
Tony glares at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s dreams, and you shouldn’t be mean to someone who’s just been kidnapped,” he says sulkily.
“Yeah, about that,” Clint says, smile vanishing, replaced by a level of seriousness that seems foreign. “You really think all that shit, huh. You really think I’d throw myself off a roof and trust just anyone to catch me? Thanks a lot. I didn’t think you thought I was that stupid.”
“You stole a pair of Natasha’s panties,” Tony says, because his mouth is stupid like that, and feels both Natasha and Clint freeze.
“You what,” Natasha says in a voice that promises Pain and Death, and Clint winces, and this – this is why no one likes him. Tony has no idea what he’s doing here between them, and he wants so badly to understand why they’re fucking with him.
It’s Coulson who says, very patiently, “What they’re trying to say, without actually coming right out and saying it, is that you’re wrong and they like you. Forgive them. All SHEILD agents have difficulty with communication. It seems to be a prerequisite for the job.”
“Fuck you,” Clint says with no real malice, aiming a playful kick in his handler’s direction. Coulson dodges it easily with a fond smile that makes Tony’s stomach roll, because it’s aimed at all three of them.
Natasha shakes her head at both of them, and the sweep of her hair over Tony’s neck prompts a shiver. She catches his chin before he can put space between them, guiding his head up so their eyes meet. “I don’t often admit when I’m wrong,” she says quietly. “But in this case, I’ll make an exception. I made an unfair call against you when we first met. I can’t say that anyone is at their best when they’re dying.”
“You weren’t wrong,” Tony croaks.
“Yes, I was. It’s true that Loki forced our hand, but even if you kicked us all out tomorrow we’d still want you on the team. You, not the Iron Patriot.” Her tone allows for no argument, but because Tony is himself, he can’t help it.
“I don’t believe that. Cap harps at me for not following orders and not being a team player constantly. I’m just –”
“The guy who makes us all look pretty,” Clint interrupts, leaning close enough that Tony’s completely bracketed between the two of them, heat on both sides. “I’ll have you know I’m pretty enough on my own. Your toys can’t hold a candle to SHIELD’s, Tones, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t take them away. But I’d take a night of getting drunk and eating junk food and playing video games with you over a new set of arrows.”
“And it’s true that you don’t always listen,” says Coulson, leveling a firm look his way. “But when it matters, you’ve taken orders before and I have no doubt in my mind that you’ll do it again. Remember two weeks ago, when you obeyed a direct order from Cap to change position and you ended up saving about a hundred people?”
“Or six weeks ago, when I jumped off three buildings in a row and you caught me every time even though you definitely had more important places to be,” says Clint. “Do you know how hard my heart was pounding the first time I did that? Now I don’t even hesitate. I just know you’ll be there.”
“You could hesitate a little,” Coulson mutters, rolling his eyes.
“I’d rather you take us out of your will, if this is what you think,” says Natasha.
“Yes. We don’t need your money. We were fine without it before, and all of us would be fine without it now.” Catching his expression, her face softens a little. “Tony, I was there when you were dying last time. I didn’t know you very well at the time. I was under cover, and I make it a point to not get overly close to my targets. But I know you now. I don’t often give people the title of friend. I give out the title of teammate even less. To me, you are both. I’ve already rescinded that recommendation I gave Fury; had I known then what I know now, which is that you are also kind, generous, and self-sacrificing, I never would have given it. Loki did us a favor in the end.”
Tony stares at her before looking around, but Coulson is nodding in agreement and he can feel Clint doing the same against his back. “None of this makes any sense,” he says shakily. “I thought –”
“You thought that we all hated you and just put up with you because we had to,” says Clint. “Yeah, well, you’re wrong. I’ll be honest, maybe it was like that at first. But at first, I also thought Steve was some uptight golden boy and that Bruce would explode into a monster if you gave him a sideways look. I’m pretty sure you also thought some unpleasant things about me and Natasha. Impressions change. We’ve been living together for like four years now. Pretty sure no one would stick around for that long just for money, right?”
Almost against his will Tony nods, because Clint has a point: none of the people who’d been after his fame or money or sex had stuck around for more than a few months. Tiberius Stone was the longest at just over seven months, wanting all of the above, before growing tired of the charade and dumping him in a humiliatingly public spectacle. There’s Obie, too, but that was never about what Tony could give him - just what Howard Stark had built. And Pepper and Rhodey, but the last, niggling bit of doubt about them and why they’ve bothered to stick around over the years has been eased.
“So get it through your thick head already. We’re a team, and a pretty damn good one at that. I know Rhodey’s a cool guy, but we don’t need a yes man on the team. You think Cap would be half as good if he didn’t have you to challenge him? Or Bucky. He wouldn’t be as far along now as he is if you weren’t here. None of us would.” Clint’s nose bumps against his spine.
“You’re an official Avenger,” Coulson says. “No one can take that away from you. Not even SHIELD. And I’m certain anyone who tried would have a mutiny on their hands.”
“To say the least.” Natasha’s fingers stroke through Tony’s hair, exerting just the right amount of pressure, and guide his head back down against her breasts. “For a genius, you can be remarkably oblivious sometimes, kotyonok. We will always come for you.”
“Even if SHIELD says not to?” Tony says, because he can’t leave well enough alone, and he can’t just be quiet. That might make the tears burning behind his eyes too real. He can hardly believe this is happening, that these people – these really fucking important people – seem to like him. Maybe even love him.
“Technically, Natasha and Clint are considered SHIELD liaisons. But off paper they’re Avengers, not agents,” says Coulson. “Their loyalty is to the team. They have the ability to turn down a mission from SHIELD, and the Avengers will always come first.”
“Which basically means yes. Even if Fury said no, we’d still come get you,” Clint says.
“And you?” Tony looks at Coulson.
“As the Avengers handler, I have been charged with keeping you all as safe and healthy. Kidnapping goes against that, so naturally it would be my responsibility to see you home in one piece,” Coulson answers as blandly as possible. Then, against all odds, he actually cracks another smile. “I did cut you free from that chair, did I not?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, more than a little dazed. He definitely didn’t think Coulson, of all people, liked him. His eyes are going blurry now, like that’s the cherry on top of everything, and he puts his face against Natasha’s neck for a few seconds to recoup. When he speaks, his voice comes out cracked. “Thanks for that, Agent.”
Coulson just nods. He still has his hand on Tony’s ankle, and he rubs his thumb across the top of Tony’s foot. “You should know that not all relationships with three soulmates are doomed to fail.”
It takes Tony a moment. He blames it on the medication. When it clicks, his eyes go wide. “What – seriously? The three of you?” Because yeah, he’s wondered. Everyone has. Natasha, Clint and Coulson gravitate around each other, but there doesn’t seem to be any center. Over the years, Tony’s been equally certain that any combination of them are dating. And while it’s occurred to him before that maybe it was the three of them, he never extended that thought all the way to soulmates.
Clint shows him, sitting up and pulling his pants and boxers down to show off his hips. Natasha’s name is written across his right hip, and Coulson’s name is scrawled across his left. The ink is dark, as though fresh. Natasha strokes Tony’s hair again and he looks up at her, a question in his eyes, and she nods with an unspoken answer.
“The Red Room discouraged soulmates,” she says in a low voice. “Those who had names were killed. It wasn’t until after I defected that I received my first name.”
He doesn’t ask whether it was Clint’s name or Coulson’s, because it doesn’t matter. “It’s not the same. They don’t –”
“If the next words out of your mouth are ‘like me’, I’m going to have to punch you,” Clint says, pulling his pants up. He curls back up against Tony, impossibly closer, going so far as to very carefully drape a leg over Tony’s thigh and an arm over Tony’s hip, hand resting on Natasha’s hip. Somehow, he does it without ever once aggravating any of Tony’s numerous and painful injuries.
“Well, they don’t,” Tony grumbles.
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Natasha says frankly. “Steve didn’t like you for about as long as it took for him to get out of range of Loki and that stupid scepter. Then he was just was confused by you and the world in general, and he covered it up by indulging in petty bickering. I guarantee you it only took about six months for Steve to fall head over heels in love with you. And as for Bucky, well, I don’t think he ever had much of a chance. Steve sings your praises so much it was inevitable.”
“It’s true. It grows tiring after the first twenty minutes,” says Coulson. “Not even for Captain America would I sit through two hours of why Tony Stark is amazing.”
“No, but he sat through an hour and 59 minutes,” Clint whispers in Tony’s ear, sniggering. Tony’s face hurts with the effort it takes not to smile, and Coulson mock-glares at them both.
“The point is, this kind of relationship can be complicated. It’s not the sort of thing people just fall into.” Natasha sounds like she’s speaking from experience. “You thought they didn’t want you, and they thought you wouldn’t want them. Basically you were all too chicken to do anything about what you wanted.”
“Fuck you,” Tony says without heat, mind spinning. It’s been one revelation after another, and this last one feels way too huge. There’s no way it can be true. Steve and Bucky wouldn’t be interested in him like that. What they’ve got is a fairy tale come to life, and how could Tony possibly compete with that? He’s nothing. He doesn’t even have a right to their names, and from the moment he first admitted to himself that he was in love, it’s been tainted with the feeling that he’s taken something without permission and he should be ashamed of himself.
Okay, maybe he can see how he was wrong about the rest of the team. He was working from incorrect data. He’s a scientist. When you have a bunch of data that all points to the same conclusion – such as everyone who has ever been around in the past having done so for the point of getting money, fame, sex, or something else from him – you tend to assume that all future data will be the same way. He’s willing to accept that he might have been seeing the situation from a biased view.
But this? Yeah, he’s pretty sure that Natasha, Clint and Coulson are the ones seeing things that aren’t really there. Maybe Steve and Bucky don’t hate him. Maybe they wouldn’t be angry at finding out he has their names written on his body. Jesus, maybe they’ll pity him. Tony doesn’t think he could handle that. He’d rather they killed him. At least when he thought the team hated him, he knew he had their respect him as Iron Man. Walking around having to look at the happy couple, knowing that they pity him, would be more than he can bear.
So maybe it’s time to go for the old excuse, then. When he and Pepper started dating and she saw Steve’s name for the first time, her expression had taken on that pinched look Tony dreads so much. He’d told her the truth: Steve Rogers’ name had appeared on his chest when he was only eight years old, right in the middle of his Captain America worship phase. It never disappeared, not even when he hit thirteen and decided he hated everything about Captain America for reasons that had very little to do with Captain America (thank you very much, Howard).
It was the truth and Pepper accepted it, but she must have wondered. They broke up before it ever became an issue, and as much as it hurt, it was probably for the best. Tony didn’t have the heart to tell her the rest. That Captain America was incredible, but Steve Rogers was just… amazing. An ordinary, amazing guy that Tony didn’t even realize he was falling in love with until it was too late.
And then Bucky came to the tower, and Tony was just fucked. He didn’t get along well with Bucky at first, but bit by bit – as Hydra’s conditioning wore off, and the real Bucky started coming forward – that changed. He came to know the ballsy, mouthy little shit that had kept Steve from getting killed in dark alleys. The guy who loved to bake, who grumbled about the future like an old man, who made instant friends with Bruce. And then it really was a good thing that he and Pepper had split, because Tony had distracted her when it came to Steve’s name… but he never would’ve been able to explain the appearance of Bucky’s.
But who could blame him? They’re both hot, but it goes way deeper than that. And seeing the two of them together… Tony aches to know what it’s like to be hugged by Steve, or wake up in Bucky’s arms. Because it's not even about the sex. He just wants them. He wants Steve’s annoying morning person habits and his sarcastic remarks and his cheating at video games. He wants Bucky’s hard-won smiles, rare as they are, and tendency to steal all the milk and flirting remarks that make Tony’s heart race.
He wants them so, so much, but he’s never gonna have them. He can have everything else, maybe even their friendship, but not that. That’s the realization that pushes him over the edge and makes the tears finally come, rolling down his face. He hides between Natasha and Clint and cries, while Coulson rubs his leg and the three of them watch over him.
Bucky is baking. Or stress baking, depending on who you ask, but since the end result is delicious food that he doesn’t share with people who say he stress bakes, no one says that to his face. Anyway. The point is, he’s baking. He carefully scoops an equal portion of chocolate batter into all twenty-four cupcake wrappers and sets them on top of the stove. He flips the oven door down, releasing a blast of hot, steaming air, and switches out the baked cupcakes for the unbaked ones.
They’re hot, and will need to cool before he can do much of anything with them, but that’s fine. There’s another four trays of vanilla cupcakes already sitting on the table, ready for decoration. He whips together a bowl of coffee-chocolate ganache made from the highest grade of chocolate and those expensive coffee beans Tony likes so much, grabs a piping bag and fills all forty-eight cupcakes to bursting. Then, on top, he swirls on a simple mocha icing.
“Wow,” Clint says behind him. “Tony is going to love you.” He makes a face as soon as he says it, apparently realizing he’s being the very opposite of subtle right now, and gives Bucky pleading eyes. “Sorry. Does this mean I can’t have a cupcake?”
“One,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes, and Clint pounces on the cupcake like he’s starving. It never ceases to make the knot in Bucky’s chest loosen a little when he watches one of the team eat his desserts. He knows they accepted him a long time ago, but there's no doubt in his mind that, at first, that was purely for Steve’s benefit. And sure, he fights and lives with the team, but every bite feels a little more like acceptance for himself.
“So,” Clint says, cupcake safely in hand, “When are you guys talking to Tony? Because I have to tell you, the answer better be soon or I am obligated to put an arrow in your back.”
“Steve didn’t think it would be a good idea to talk to him at the hospital. He said Tony would think we were just being kind because of what happened,” Bucky says grumpily, stabbing a little too hard at his bowl of cookie batter. He can see where Steve’s coming from, and he’s probably right – but that doesn’t mean Bucky likes it. He’s had a lot of missed opportunities, and he’s determined that Tony won’t be one of them. It’s so hard to sit in the same room as Tony and not touch him or kiss him the way Bucky wants to.
Clint pulls another face. “Yeah, no, not cool.”
“I know. I said the same thing. But you know how Steve gets when he has an idea in his head. Stubborn as all out. And it has to be the two of us at the same time, or Tony’s going to think that we’ve broken up because of him.”
“Too stubborn for his own good,” Clint mumbles around a mouthful of ganache. “But you are going to tell him, right? ‘Cause he is seriously strung out on the both of you. He wasn’t even this far gone on Pepper. I know he was on heavy pain medication, but I haven’t seen him cry like that ever.”
Bucky winces, shame prickling at the back of his neck. He felt about an inch tall during Clint’s explanation of what happened at the hospital. It's been the unspoken elephant in the room for the past week. Tony hasn't brought it up, of course, and once he realized that Steve and Bucky were acting normally, appeared to consider the matter forgotten. There's no doubt in Bucky's mind that if Tony had his way, the names written on Tony's skin would never be brought up again.
Which isn't going to happen, naturally. Tony's coming home today, the earliest that the doctors and Bruce would allow him to leave, and they're going to talk to him tonight. It can't come soon enough as far as Bucky's concerned, because Tony has been so damn sweet this entire time - and it's completely unintentional. Tony knows that Bucky is still deeply uncomfortable in a medical environment, and so he's been fussing over Bucky and insisting that Bucky takes breaks and even refusing to take pain medication until Bucky goes home to rest. That's why he isn't there now, because Tony demanded he leave and take a break even though his body language had been a clear indicator that he would've much rather Bucky stayed.
"He's too good for us," Bucky says frankly, well aware of the heaviness of Clint's gaze on his shoulders as he turns to the oven. They all know that. Tony is an amazing person, but he can't see it. His opinion of himself is too warped. For Tony's sake, he makes himself speak. "But if we're what he wants, Steve and I are thrilled. I love him, Clint. I love him even though I didn't think I would be capable of loving anyone else except for Steve. I'm still not sure when it happened, or how, but there's not a day that goes by that I'm not really fucking glad that it did."
Clint exhales noisily and steps closer, clapping a hand on Bucky's flesh shoulder. "Then you two better figure out a way to show it. Right now he thinks that you two are too kind to say anything to his face. But if I know Tony, he's just waiting for the bomb to explode in his face. The second he gets home, he's gonna lock himself in his workshop to avoid talking to you guys."
"I know," Bucky says, more to himself than to Clint, because he's intimately familiar with how much easier it is to lock yourself away than deal with your problems. Back when he first came to the tower, he used to be so jealous of Tony, both for having a private space and the work to lose himself in. Bucky doesn't have work like that, though he has hobbies now: baking, and meditation, and knitting, and baseball - the list is a work in progress, because he's still cultivating the things that he likes. He knows the temptation to bake for hours instead of thinking about a dream, or knit two new sweaters to avoid going to sleep. He looks around at the kitchen, at the six dozen cookies and two cakes and three pies and cooling cupcakes, and feels a little silly.
"Hey, no, I recognize that look. That's your 'I feel like I should hide the evidence of what I've been doing for the past several hours and throw out all this stuff' look. Don't even think about it." Clint makes a possessive grab for one of the pies and hugs it to his chest, eyeing Bucky like he's prepared to go into battle to defend it. Bucky just gives him an amused look, not sure if he likes it that Clint can read his facial expressions that easily. He's not sure when that happened, either. It seems to be a running theme when it comes to the Avengers.
"I wasn't going to throw it all out."
"Don't throw any of it out! Dude, seriously, I will fight you."
"You're welcome to try," Bucky says, not without fondness. "But you wouldn't win."
"If I may," JARVIS interrupts, which is fortunate for Clint's sake because he was just about to say something that he'll likely regret. "Sir has arrived home with Captain Rogers, Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes."
Bucky turns to Clint. "You can have a whole pie to yourself if you take those cupcakes out in exactly seven minutes."
"Sold! Good luck," Clint yells at his retreating back.
Since Tony will be taking the elevator, Bucky grabs a plate of cupcakes and takes the stairs. He makes it to Tony's floor just in time to see the elevator doors opening. Pepper walks out first, and something in Bucky's stomach shrivels up because damn that woman can be frightening. Rhodey and Steve are right behind her, each supporting a sulking Tony. Bruce is the last one out of the elevator, carrying a white bag in his hands.
"Seriously, I'm fine," Tony says.
"You are not fine," Rhodey and Steve say together, then exchange identical exasperated looks over Tony's head.
"I totally am! Brucie, back me up."
"You're not fine," Bruce says, completely deadpan. "To the bed, gentleman, please."
"Traitor," Tony mutters, sulking, but not even he can hide the grimace when he's lowered onto his bed. The bruises are beginning to fade, but one of his legs and one arm are still encased in a cast - not to mention his bandaged shoulder and upper back. And his movements are jerky and pained from his ribs. That still doesn't stop him from sitting upright and crossing his arms.
"You can call me a traitor as much as you want. It's not healthy or safe for you to be in your workshop right now, Tony. You're still taking high doses of antibiotics and pain medication."
"Then I'll stop taking the pain medication. Problem solved."
"I don't think so," Bruce says. "But nice try."
"But I'm so behind on everything I was making for Stark Industries," Tony wheedles. Steve snorts, shooting a grin in Bucky's direction as Pepper puts her hand on her hips.
"Don't even think about using that as an excuse, Tony Stark. Your health is more important. I can handle the board." And indeed, Pepper looks like she's ready to charge into battle.
"Think of it as a vacation," says Rhodey, playfully ruffling Tony's hair.
"My vacations usually involve a lot more naked people," Tony says, customary leer present on his face, but Bucky's positive he's not the only one to notice that it doesn't reach Tony's eyes.
"And that is my cue to head out. I saw more than enough of your naked butt in college." Rhodey ducks down, wrapping a careful arm around Tony's shoulders, and hugs him very carefully. "I have to go handle a few things. Apparently everything falls apart when I'm not around. But I'll be in the area, and I'll be dropping by regularly until you're back on your feet."
"You gonna help the team out?" Tony asks.
"Cause I want you to."
Rhodey hesitates. "Tones -"
"I mean it. I know what I said about - you know." Tony waves his hand limply. "But the team might... might need you."
It's probably the last thing Rhodey wants to agree to right now, but Tony's pretty hard to say no to on a good day. "Yeah, you dork. I said I'd be around and I meant it. If your team needs me, I'm not going to bail on them. You need them too much for that."
Tony nods once, a jerky movement that makes Bucky wince, and straightens up. "Then you better get going before Captain Hard-ass over there decides you need to join the training rotation."
"That training is good for you," Steve says, crossing his arms defensively.
"Good for making me crazy, you mean," says Tony, but he's smiling this soft little smile, and when he says goodbye to Pepper and Rhodey he almost seems like he's in good spirits. Rhodey points two fingers at his eyes and then gestures at Steve and Bucky as soon as Tony turns away. It's a little scary, but not nearly as frightening as the way Pepper smiles at them both as she guides Rhodey out of the room.
Seriously, Hydra missed their calling on that one.
"I've enlisted JARVIS to remind you to take your medication on time," Bruce is saying, setting out at least half a dozen pill bottles on the table. Bucky's not familiar with modern medication, especially of the pain variety, but it looks like a lot more than just some antibiotics. "You have to make sure you take it, Tony, and that includes your pain meds. Don't wait until you're in agony before you take one, no matter how weird the higher dosage makes you feel. And remember, you're not supposed to take them with alcohol or caffeine."
Bruce looks at him, then turns to Steve. “I’m putting you in charge of making sure he takes his medication, Steve.”
“Hey!” Tony protests. “I’m not a kid.”
“No, you just act like one,” Bruce says, but his smile takes the sting out of it. “I’ve got some tests running I need to get back to, but call me if you start feeling strange. And no workshop time until your stitches come out, I mean it.”
“Rude,” Tony grumbles. He tries to cross his arms, but ends up wincing and letting his arms fall to his sides. Bucky sets the cupcakes down and takes advantage of the moment to slip closer and fix the pillows behind Tony, remembering how Steve used to like them: lying down, but with enough pillows on either side of his body that he was still supported. Judging by Tony’s approving grumble, he likes it that way too.
When Bucky next looks up, Bruce is gone and the three of them are alone in the room. Steve says, “Bruce said you haven’t been eating much. You should try to eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I made cupcakes,” Bucky volunteers, and Tony’s eyes fly open with sudden alertness.
“Soup first, then cupcakes,” says Steve, mouth twitching.
“You drive a hard bargain, Rogers,” Tony says, not quite pouting. “What kind of cupcakes?”
“They’ve got mocha frosting, and I won't tell Bruce if you don't.” Bucky says, gesturing to the cupcakes.
Tony actually moans. “Fine, I’ll eat the stupid soup. Damn you both. I’ll get you for exploiting my weakness.”
“I’d feel more threatened if I weren’t the only one who knows exactly how to make that frosting,” says Bucky, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed while Steve retreats into the kitchen. Unfortunately, Bucky’s skills in the kitchen do not extend to cooking. He likes baking in part because it requires precision and order, but cooking – where there is so much opportunity to change a recipe at whim – is harder. Steve, on the other hand, is one of the better cooks on the team, though he’s not up to Bruce’s level.
With anyone else, he’d probably hesitate to touch them with his metal hand, even another Avenger. He doesn’t hesitate at all with Tony, sliding his fingers into Tony’s hair and stroking his head. It’s a risky move, and could easily result in Tony getting flustered or confused and pushing him away, but Tony just purrs like the kitten he insists he isn’t and lets his head sink back against the pillows.
“That feels nice,” he murmurs, eyes glassy. “My head’s been aching all morning.”
“Why didn’t you say something? You’re probably due for another dose of pain medication.”
“I don’t like how they make me feel. Like I’m going to float away.”
Bucky can’t argue against that. He wouldn’t like that, either. But he also doesn’t like seeing Tony in pain. “I won’t let you float away,” he says. “Steve and I are here. You’re safe now, kotyonok.”
“Natasha called me that.”
“I’m not surprised.” Tony’s practically nuzzling his hand. It’s adorable. Not wanting to disturb Tony, he continues to stroke Tony’s head until Steve comes back into the room with a steaming cup of soup.
“Ugh, do I really have to?” Tony complains to no one in particular, trying to push himself up, biting his lip in pain the whole time. Bucky gently takes hold of his shoulders and helps him to sit, then slides behind Tony so that when Tony relaxes backwards, he’s leaning against Bucky. Tony stiffens in surprise at the move, eyes darting to Steve, but Steve acts like there’s nothing unusual about the scene at all and sits down on the bed right in front of them.
“Here. It’s chicken noodle soup with the carrots picked out.”
“Do I want to know how you know that’s how I like my soup?” Tony asks warily, trying to take the mug from Steve. His hands are shaking too badly, though, and Steve has to help him take a careful sip.
“I know a lot about how everyone on the team likes their food. Clint’s not a big fan of spicy food because it upsets his stomach. Coulson prefers vanilla over chocolate. Bruce loves coffee, but doesn’t like anything coffee-flavored,” Steve says. “Just like I know that you’re allergic to mint, and you prefer red meat over white, but you won’t eat wild game. You pretend you take your coffee black, but really you like it the best with half a teaspoon of milk and a tablespoon of sugar. Your favorite sandwich is grilled cheese, but you also like straight peanut butter as long as it’s on whole wheat bread. You like potatoes but not sweet potatoes, you can’t stand carrots, and you’re also not crazy about Vietnamese food but you pretend to enjoy it because Thor likes it so much. Shall I go on?”
Tony is staring at him like Steve’s grown a second head. “Please don’t. I’m sufficiently creeped out. How the fuck do you know all of that?”
“We’ve been living together for four years now, Tony,” Steve says, not unkindly. “And you’re important to me. Of course I notice these things about you.”
Bucky looks at Steve sharply. Steve meets his gaze, communicating an unspoken reassurance. This is it.
“You… I…” Tony is speechless.
“I’m just sorry that I didn’t make that clear to you sooner. I should have. We should have.”
Tony blinks once, squinting at Steve, and then he says, “You don’t have to pretend,” almost too quiet for them to hear. He’s not lashing out with anger or embarrassment the way Bucky expected. In a way, this is worse. He sounds so defeated.
“I’m not pretending anything,” says Steve.
“Yeah right. Look, Cap, I figured you were waiting to mention the whole soulmate thing. Didn’t think I’d get away without having a conversation about it. It’s not a big deal. I know you two are dating. I know I’m not –” Tony cuts off, breathing clicking audibly in his throat, at the look on Steve’s face. “I mean, I’m not trying to come between you or anything. This is – it’s a mistake, nothing else, and I’d really appreciate it if you would just forget you ever saw it.”
“What if we don’t want to forget?” Bucky says quietly, right in Tony’s ear, and feels Tony shudder between them.
“I… why wouldn’t you?” Tony says, sounding bewildered and a little panicked. “I’ve been coping with it, okay, it won’t affect the team, I promise. Please don’t kick me off.”
“We’re not kicking you off the team!” Steve exclaims, so scandalized at the idea that Bucky can’t help smirking. “Tony, no, jesus. You’re an important member of the team, and anyway Bucky and I have been waiting for this for a long time.”
“What?” Tony whispers, still shaking, confused and uncertain but maybe – just a little – hopeful. It squeezes Bucky’s heart.
“I’m going to show you something,” Bucky says. “Just – bear with us, okay? This is something you really need to see.” He shifts Tony’s weight into the curve of his metal arm and grabs the zipper on his jeans. Tony is tense, and Bucky wishes that Tony’s name had appeared somewhere less intimate. Can’t change that, though, and he wiggles his jeans down off his hips as quickly as possible, inwardly cursing the modern world and their obsession with tight, clingy pants. When he spreads his legs, hitching up the material of his boxers, all of the color drains from Tony’s face at the sight of the familiar, dark scrawl on Bucky’s inner left thigh.
His fingers are trembling when he reaches out, not quite touching the words, and then Steve says his name. They both look up to see that Steve’s pulling his shirt off and is holding his arm up so that the identical words are visible on the underside of his right arm, near his armpit. Bucky regrets letting Tony lean against him then, because he wishes he could see what Tony’s face looks like right now.
“This appeared about three years ago,” Steve says quietly. “I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t ready for it. I know you were with Pepper then, but I wasn’t ready to accept anyone else anyway. And then, when Bucky came back, I’ll be honest. I thought your name would disappear, but it didn’t. If anything, I wanted you more. I wanted you both.” His expression flickers with guilt. “Even when Bucky… I told myself we just needed the time to find our balance. I told myself we’d reach out to you soon.”
Tony is still silent, so Bucky says, “It’s not all on Steve. It took me forever to be okay with it, and even when I was I didn’t know…” He sucks in a breath, because this is where it gets hard. He tips his head down, nosing against Tony’s neck, needing the comfort. “Steve isn’t… who he used to be. He’s different. And I am too, but it’s hard. The flashes of my old Stevie are few and far between. I… I’m selfish. I wanted you, but I also wanted to keep those for myself.”
“Buck…” Steve says. “I didn’t know that.”
Bucky shrugs a shoulder. “We’ve both changed. I know you have the same difficulty. Didn’t seem to be any point in announcing it. Point is, I was being dumb. We could’ve had this all along.”
“This?” The word is more of a startled exhale, like Tony’s still not sure how to talk.
“This,” Steve says firmly, taking Tony’s hand and lacing their fingers together, bringing Tony’s hand up and kissing the back of it. At the same time, Bucky kisses his cheek, liking the way the stubble feels under his lips.
“I… you… With me?” Tony sounds so shocked. “Is this… why?”
“Cause you gave Steve a home,” Bucky says, simple as that.
“And you re-built Bucky’s arm,” Steve adds. “It can be as much or as little, or none at all, as you want it, Tony. We’ll always be teammates, but I care about you a lot. I’d like to date you, if you’re open to that.”
“Me too,” says Bucky, quieter, and Tony shivers hard.
“I… I need to think,” he says softly, shakily. “I –”
“We’ll give you as much time as you need. We didn’t mean to bombard you with this. It just – we were never angry, sweetheart. Finding out you care about me as much as I care about you –” Steve is carefully avoiding the ‘love’ word for the moment “- and that you also care about Bucky is one of the best moments of my life. I hate that we had to find out through you being kidnapped. I’ll always regret not being brave enough to say something first.”
Tony looks at Steve, then turns his head to look at Bucky. His face is so pale. “I need to think,” he says again.
“Do you want us to leave?” Bucky asks, understanding what Tony won’t ask for.
Bucky doesn’t want to leave, not when Tony feels so good beside him, but he carefully extracts himself from the bed and fluffs the pillows up in his place. While he’s doing that, Steve gets a painkiller and helps Tony to wash it down with the last of the soup and puts the plate of cupcakes within easy reach. Tony watches all of this happen in nonplussed silence, eyebrows drawn together and mouth pinched like he wants to say something, but isn’t sure what to say.
As soon as they’re out in the hall, Steve says, “JARVIS, please tell whoever is next on Phil’s list to come sit with Tony now, please.”
“Yes, Captain Rogers. I will contact Thor and Dr. Foster now.”
“Thanks.” Steve turns to Bucky then, pulling him into a hard hug. Bucky can feel the tension in his body. He wraps his arms around Steve in turn and just holds him for a few minutes. They’re still standing there, just holding onto each other, when Thor and Jane walk by and slip into the room.
The pain medication does an excellent job of knocking Tony out when all he wants to do is analyze the fuck out of what just happened. He has just enough to eat one cupcake (which is fucking delicious), and then see Thor and Jane come in, but ends up falling asleep to Jane’s voice explaining her most recent work on the Bifrost. His dreams are restless, though not nightmares, and he wakes up feeling like he hasn’t really slept at all. Clint is sitting beside him on the bed, legs drawn up against his chest and head tilted back. His eyes are shut, but as soon as Tony shifts Clint looks down at him.
“Water?” he asks, already reaching out for a cup. He helps Tony to sit up and drink from a straw. Tony drinks eagerly, but shakes his head when Clint offers him another painkiller. Clint frowns, but obligingly sets the painkiller aside and shakes out an antibiotic for Tony to take instead.
“Time’s it?” Tony asks roughly, rubbing at his eyes.
“Nearly midnight. You slept a while. Need the bathroom?”
“Yeah.” It galls him to lean on Clint as they hobble towards the bathroom, particularly since Clint is all but carrying him, but it’s infinitely better than the bedpan the nurses in the med bay had forced on him. He pees and feels better when he’s done, washing his hands and choosing to sit on the bed instead of laying down. He needs to be vertical right now, and Clint doesn’t try to make him lay down, just settles down on the bed beside him. They’re quiet for a little while until Clint breaks the silence.
“So I hear they finally said something.”
“You knew?” Tony asks, not even surprised.
“You three are kind of the worse kept secret of the team, and that’s saying something.” Clint slips an arm around his shoulders, letting Tony lean into him. “And even for someone who had missed it, their little display when we rescued you was like a big, blinking red sign saying ‘I love Tony Stark’ in huge letters.”
Tony stiffens a little, dizzy at hearing those words come out of Clint’s mouth. Up till now, he thought maybe that whole scene with Steve and Bucky was just a fanciful dream. He closes his eyes, trying to make sense of it all. Thinking about his name, his name, on Steve’s arm and Bucky’s thigh, written there for anyone to see.
There are lots of potential soulmates out there for everyone. But names don’t appear on your body unless you really, deeply care about someone and you're pretty well matched. That’s part of what made his relationship with Pepper so hard: no matter how much Tony loved her, her name never appeared – whereas with Bucky and Steve, it was easy. He didn’t even have to try. It was the same for Pepper: Tony used to watch her sometimes after she got out of the shower, the way she would look over every inch of herself in the mirror, as though Tony’s name might have appeared without her notice. They loved each other, but they just weren’t soulmates.
He touches his chest, rubbing his thumb over the top curve of the ‘S’ in Steve’s name. Everything he believed about his relationship with the team has been turned upside down this week. It’s been proven to him frequently that they all enjoy his company and think of him as a friend. Natasha’s rubbed the cramps out of his legs, Coulson and Bruce expedited his departure from the infirmary, Thor’s promised to look into Asgardian healing methods. Clint’s hugging him right now.
And okay, Tony can kind of see where the wires were crossed. He’s starting to accept the possibility that maybe they enjoy his presence for more than just money or fame or toys, weird as the idea sounds. But this? This is… just impossible. You can care deeply for someone without wanting to date them. He doesn’t feel that way for Bucky and Steve – shit, it’s disgusting how domestically happy he wants to be with them – but maybe they’re just humoring him. Maybe this is their way of apologizing, or maybe they really do pity him. At this point he can’t really tell what would be worse.
“I can tell what you’re thinking,” Clint says, lips pressed to Tony’s temple.
“What are you, a mind reader?”
“More like someone who’s been there, done that. I had the exact same thoughts as you ten years ago. Still do.”
“I doubt that,” Tony mutters.
“Doubt it all you wanted, but it’s true. Three-way relationships aren’t easy, Tony. They’re infinitely more complicated, but also a hell of a lot more rewarding. Despite that, I get how hard it is to understand why two really amazing people would want you.” There’s a pang of wistfulness in Clint’s voice that makes Tony lift his head and squint at him.
“What do you mean?” he asks, curious, needing the distraction.
“If I’m telling a story, I need to get comfortable.” Clint grabs a couple of pillows, drops his arm down to Tony’s waist, and scoots them both backwards until they’re reclining just right, with Clint’s around his waist and his heat curled up against Tony’s back.
“For someone in a committed relationship, you sure do spoon me a lot,” Tony observes.
Clint sounds like he’s smiling when he says, “Shut up. I like to be touched and so do you. You wanna hear me out or not?”
“I was just a dumb kid when Phil and I crossed paths for the first time. By that point, I’d left the circus and was making a living as an assassin. I was taking whatever jobs I could get my hands on, but I was good enough to be choosy about what I wanted. I was pretty much the best in the business, so I guess it was inevitable that I’d cross SHIELD’S radar sooner or later. They caught up to me on one of my jobs. I didn’t know who they were, and naturally I wasn’t a huge fan of government agencies that sent men in black suits to chase me around.”
“Naturally,” Tony echoes, feeling himself start to relax. Clint’s right, much as he hates to admit it: he does crave being touched, probably because he doesn’t get human contact on a regular basis. The warmth against his back feels a hundred times better than any painkillers ever could.
“Phil wasn’t one to take no for an answer, even then. He’d noticed that there were some jobs, the worst of the bunch, that I turned down, and he was curious. I tried to run away. He shot me.”
“He shot you?”
“Yup. Clean shot too, right through the meat of my thigh. Avoided any major arteries, of course. Left me limping like an idiot for the next two months. He still had to sedate me to get me into SHIELD, and eventually I ended up with a job offer.”
It doesn’t escape Tony’s notice that Clint is definitely skipping over a portion of the story, but for once he doesn’t feel like it’s his place to pry. So he just says, “And Natasha?”
“That was my fault. I was supposed to take the infamous Black Widow down. I’d always been told that my biggest failing as an assassin was my big heart, and they were right. I couldn’t in good faith shoot someone who was sitting right out in the open like they were waiting to be shot. I recognized the look on her face.” Clint’s voice drops. “Like she was waiting for the end to come.”
Tony swallows against the dryness in his throat, because he’s been there too, and he doesn’t like the thought that Natasha was ready to die. “So you didn’t shoot her.”
“Nope. I went off-grid. Phil was pissed as fuck. But it was worth every lecture, punishment and piece of paperwork to bring Natasha over to our side. It took her months to trust us, not that I blame her. And even though I didn’t regret it, I thought I was so fucked.” He huffs a laugh against the back of Tony’s neck. “First Phil’s name, then hers. One right after the other, pretty much. I was freaking out, especially when we were sparring one day and Natasha ripped her shirt. I caught sight of Phil’s name and pretty much figured that they were going to leave me in the dust. Thought I deserved it too.”
“Did it hurt?” Tony whispers.
“Way worse than getting shot in the leg,” Clint murmurs back. “I got drunk a lot those first couple months when I was trying to come to terms with it. I don’t know how you dealt with it for so long by yourself.”
Tony thinks back to endless nights of staring at his own body and hating himself. To the days he’d watched Steve and Bucky interacting and felt so happy that they had each other again. To the mornings when he’d wake up, full of dreams about having them both, and struggle not to cry. He thinks it was the closest approximation that exists to what the movies describe as a sweet ache. He didn’t know you could be that happy and that sad at the same time.
“Anyway. Eventually Natasha caught up to me and told me I was being a dumbass. Turns out she thought the same thing as me, that Phil and I were going to get together and she’d be the odd one out. Phil’s never said anything, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had the same fears.”
“That’s different, though. Steve and Bucky have so much history,” Tony can’t help pointing out. “They grew up together, went off to war, lost each other. You saw them when Bucky first came back to the tower. I can’t get between that.”
“You’re not. You’re not getting between anything. That’s not what this is about, Tony. You have to stop thinking of a relationship as an all or none kind of situation. I love Phil, but that doesn’t mean I love Natasha any less. Just like Natasha loving Phil doesn’t mean she loves me any less. Don’t get me wrong, this kind of situation doesn’t work for everyone, but if there’s even a slight chance you think you’d be okay with that… Don’t let your insecurities hold you back. They wouldn’t offer this unless they meant it.”
“Not even to keep me happy?” Tony says quietly, hardly able to believe he’s saying these words. But there’s something about the darkness, about not seeing Clint’s face, that makes it easier. “Not even out of pity?”
“Do you really think that either one of them would do that?”
And the thing is, Tony doesn’t. Not in his heart. Steve is the kind of person who likes to save everyone if he can. It’s just the way he is. Maybe, if the situation were different and it wasn’t Steve’s most prized relationship and the team itself at risk, Steve might tell a little white lie. But Bucky? No way. Bucky is a blunt shit when he wants to be. He was the only one brave enough to tell Natasha that her new sweater was cut a little too low, because the rest of them were too concerned about having eyes gouged out for looking in that area in the first place.
“No,” he admits, the word tasting strange. “But I just don’t get why they’d bother.”
“I’m not gonna extol your virtues. Because I wonder the same thing about Natasha and Phil,” Clint says seriously. “There are still nights when I think I’ll wake up to find out they’ve changed their minds. I still haven’t convinced myself that won’t happen; I probably never will. But I’m gonna make damned sure I enjoy what time I have before it does.”
“That’s… probably not healthy.”
“We’re Avengers, Tones. Being unhealthy kinda comes with their territory. I’m not saying you have to do this. If you don’t want to, just say no. But if you’re just saying no because you think you should, that’s stupid. You owe it to yourself to at least give this a shot.”
“And if it doesn’t work out?” Tony asks. Because it probably won’t. He knows himself better than that. If he couldn’t make Pepper stay, what hope does he have for anyone else?
“Then I promise you can have me during the divorce.”
“Gee, thanks, birdbrain.”
Clint’s grinning. “Anytime.”
This story was supposed to be just over 5,000 words total. I'm still not sure how I ended up writing almost 25,000 words about these three idiots.
Thoughts are swirling around in Tony’s brain. Let’s say, just for fun, that Bucky and Steve really are interested in a relationship. There are still reasons why it won’t work. For one thing, this would be so bad for Steve’s reputation. It’s bad enough he’s dating Bucky, but at least that was mostly smoothed over by the whole reunited soulmates spiel. Not even the harshest critics could resist the tale of Captain America saving his brainwashed soulmate.
But Tony? The media would have a field day at the news that Tony Stark is dating Captain America. He can see the headlines now. ‘Stark Defiles National Icon’. ‘America Sinks to New Low’. ‘America and Money: Why Our Country is on Its Knees for Stark’. He closes his eyes and bites back an exasperated groan. That’s probably nothing compared to what the internet will come up with. He’s pretty sure that almost everyone is going to think he’s just trying to get between Steve and Bucky. His name is going to be trending on twitter, and not in a good way.
Then there’s the whole history thing. No matter what Clint says, he doesn’t know how he can compete with what the two of them have shared. Bucky was there when Steve lost his mother. Steve was there when Bucky enlisted. He can’t help thinking about everything they’ve been through: Bucky leaving to go fight, Steve joining him, saving Bucky from Hydra, the fighting with the Howling Commandos, Bucky falling from the train. And then Steve tracking Bucky down, bringing him home, helping Bucky to remember everything about their past. That speaks of a depth of love that leaves Tony floundering.
Plus, what will happen when they break up? Because that’s inevitable, and he’s pretty sure it will destroy him. But then, that’s nothing new. And maybe Clint’s right. He should be trying to hold onto this with both hands and not question it too deeply, so that when Steve and Bucky ultimately come to their senses and decide they don’t want him anymore, he’ll at least have some memories.
Sometime around 3am, he’s aware of Clint climbing out of the bed. Tony’s left shivering until Bruce joins him, sitting up with a thick book and reading by the light of the reactor. Come morning, Bruce changes the bandages on his shoulder and back. He pronounces the stab wounds as healing well, but not well enough for Tony to be up and out of bed yet, much to Tony’s frustration.
He’s never dealt well with forced bed rest. Howard never believed in resting when you were sick; that was for the weak, and Stark men weren’t weak. Tony can remember at least half a dozen times where, at his father’s insistence, he was sent to school when he was too sick to focus, and the reaction when Jarvis had to bring him back home was never pretty. It got easier after Howard started leaving for his expeditions to find Captain America, but by then Tony was old enough to care about being seen as weak.
Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, Tony feels weak. Since Bruce has stepped out of the room, and he decides to seize his chance. If he can make it down to the workshop and initiate black-out mode… He slowly sits up, grunting at the expected pain that bites through his ribs. He’s dealt with broken and cracked ribs before, though. It’s a hazard of fighting in armor that regularly gets banged around. Most of the time, he doesn’t even bother to tell the rest of the team about them.
Very carefully, he puts his feet down on the ground and stands, resting more of his weight on his left foot. The rooms spins a little once he’s upright, but not too badly. “What’s a guy have to break to get a crutch?” he grumbles under his breath. “J, make a note. Invent something that works better than a crutch and doesn’t make you look so lame.”
“Yes sir,” JARVIS says. “Your blood pressure has fallen and a deep body scan indicates you are in a lot of pain. Might I suggest returning to bed?”
“No, you may not.” Tony grits his teeth as he carefully opens the door. He still has the use of his right arm, since it’s his left arm that’s broken and his left shoulder that was stabbed, but that doesn’t make anything less awkward. He has to lean heavily against the wall on his right as he hobbles out the door, and his leg and back ache with every step, and he’s honestly not sure if he’s got the strength to make it to the elevator, down to the workshop, and then to his chair.
He’ll never admit to being kind of glad to see Bucky stepping out of the elevator. Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up when he sees Tony. “Tony! What the hell are you doing?”
“Would you believe I just wanted to see the view?”
“No, but I’d believe you were trying to sneak down to your workshop.”
“You have no proof of that,” Tony says. His legs are trembling with fatigue. He’s about a second away from sliding down the wall – the floor does look strangely comfortable all of a sudden – when Bucky scoops him up. He yelps in outraged protest, but Bucky completely ignores him and carries him… down to the elevator?
“Ummm… What are you doing?”
“You wanted to go down to your workshop, right?”
“Yeeeees…” Tony says, dragging the word out as the doors close. “But normally people like Steve and Bruce would be carrying me in the other direction.”
“I’m not Steve,” Bucky says simply. “And I can tell you miss your workshop and your ‘bots. I don’t blame you for wanting to check on them. I’ll help you down there, and when you’re finished we can come back up. I’ll even send Bruce a text so he doesn’t come after us.”
“You are a surprisingly good co-conspirator,” Tony sys, impressed.
Bucky shrugs. “I’ve had a lot of practice. Steve and I used to have to sneak out from under his Ma’s eye all the time.”
Tony eyes him speculatively. “What if I said I wanted to do some work?”
“I’d say you’re in no condition to work and you’re well aware of that.” The doors open and Bucky steps out, into the workshop. Instantly, the two of them are besieged by beeps and high-pitched whirs. Bucky chuckles and kneels down with a grace Tony can’t help envying, putting Tony within reach of Dummy, Butterfingers and You without setting him down.
“Hey, hey, none of that. I’m fine. I know, I was gone for a long time, I’m sorry.” Tony reaches for them with his good hand; his bad arm is safely shielded between him and Bucky, away from anxious robots, and he wonders if Bucky did that on purpose. He puts the thought out of his mind for now and focuses on reassuring them, stroking gears and listening to the clicks and beeps that, after so many years, somehow sound like speech.
Dummy lets out an excited whir and is the first to pull back, scooting across the floor towards the coffee pot. Tony won’t be able to drink it – the medication he’s on forbids the consumption of caffeine and alcohol, even if it weren't garnished with engine oil – but lets the ‘bot go. Bucky stands up, no sign of strain whatsoever, and carries him over to the couch set up in a corner of the shop. Tony sits down, feeling tired already, and lets Butterfingers and You crowd around his legs, biting his lip when You gets a little too close and a tread bumps the cast on his leg.
“Honestly, you’d think no one had been down here to visit you for months. Uncle Rhodey and Aunt Pepper were down here, don’t tell me they weren’t, and they both spoil you rotten,” Tony grumbles, but his tone is affectionate and his hand is gentle. “You’re all such drama queens, don’t know where you get it from.”
“I can’t imagine where they could’ve possibly learned that,” says JARVIS dryly.
“You shush,” Tony says absently, accepting the cup of coffee from Dummy. It’s piping hot and smells a little like engine oil.
“I wouldn’t recommend you drink that, sir.”
“Wasn’t going to. Dummy, you’ve been told a million times that oil is poisonous to humans,” Tony says, and, when Dummy subsides with a forlorn little beep, feels immediately guilty. “Come on, don’t be like that, I like your coffee better than anyone else’s except when it’s going to kill me – why are you laughing?” He looks up at Bucky, slightly offended, but the expression on Bucky’s face stops him cold.
Bucky looks so affectionate. Tony’s only ever seen that look directed at Steve. And right now it’s focused on him. The warmth in Bucky’s blue eyes is enough to leave Tony speechless, especially when Bucky smiles at him and says, “You’re adorable.”
Tony makes a sputtering sound at that.
“I know Steve and I kind of sprung this on you,” Bucky adds, sitting down beside him, leaving bare centimeters between them. “And I’m sorry. I might not know much about how dating goes now, but I’m guessing that making someone think you hate them isn’t the best method. If it helps, I never hated you, Tony.”
“Everyone hates me at one point or another.”
“Can’t vouch for everyone else, but I didn’t. Course, I didn’t understand much of anything at first. But you helped me feel safe. You were the first person completely unrelated to my past that I felt even a little comfortable with. I knew Natasha and Steve before I ended up here; I didn’t know you. But you still took me in and fought off the WSTC and SHIELD, even if it was just for Steve’s sake. You fixed my arm.” He flexes the arm in question, and the lack of noise from the mechanics within is still a beautiful thing.
“I just don’t…” Tony exhales and sets the cup of coffee down on the floor, frustrated at how hard it is to string the right words together. “You and Steve, I mean… it’s you and Steve. I don’t want to push myself in there. You guys are like… you… and I’m just –”
“Stop saying that!”
Bucky smirks. “Then stop being adorable.”
Tony glares at him. “Can you be serious for like two seconds? I can’t say this to Steve because he’ll either get offended and dig his heels in, or he’ll get upset and give me the puppy eyes.”
“What exactly is it that you’re trying to say?”
“I don’t want your pity,” Tony says, slowly and clearly. “If that’s what this is about, I don’t need it.” He can’t bring himself to look at Bucky. Instead, he stares at Dummy. “I’ve had Steve’s name since I was eight years old. I’ve had yours for over two years. I never once thought anything would come of that. I made my peace with having soulmates who didn’t want me a long time ago. So if this is just you two feeling guilty because I got myself kidnapped, then I’d rather we just forget the whole thing.”
Bucky’s quiet for about twenty seconds. Then he says, “I honestly don’t know what part of that to address first, so let me start by saying you’re an idiot but you’re right, you shouldn’t say that to Steve because you will probably make him cry.”
“Nope, you had your chance, my turn now. This isn’t about pity, Tony. I get that maybe you think Steve is enough of a martyr to date someone just because he feels guilty, but me? I am not that kind of person. If I want to date you, it’s because I love you.”
Tony chokes on his own saliva. “You – you what?”
“I love you,” Bucky says again, too calm and too serious, and oh god Tony might be having a heart attack. “I’m sorry that Steve and I didn’t say anything sooner. I can understand why you didn’t. We should’ve approached you before all this, but we didn’t. And I can sit here and apologize a hundred times if you want me to, but somehow I don’t think that’s gonna make much of a difference. Hey.”
He catches Tony’s chin and pulls his head up so that their eyes meet. The sincerity is practically radiating from him. “This isn’t about guilt, either, so get that idea out of your damn head. There is no expiration date on this relationship. We’re not going to decide, six months down the road, that we’ve lived out our sentence or done our good deed and that means we can dump you.”
“I didn’t say that,” Tony says, flushing.
“No, but I can tell you were thinkin’ it. Look, I know that soulmates don’t always work out. But I wanted you long before I knew you had my name. And I’ll still want you even if that disappeared tomorrow. If you can say the same thing to me and Steve, I really don’t think we have a problem here.”
“I think I’m having a heart attack.” That’s the only thing Tony can think of to say. It would certainly explain why his heart is racing so hard he feels dizzy.
This time, Bucky’s smirk tips into dangerous territory. “I’ve swept a lot of dames and fellas off their feet in my time, but I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever gotten such a… visceral reaction.”
“This is such a bad idea,” Tony says, but he can’t stop himself from grabbing Bucky’s collar and kissing him. He’s half-expecting Bucky to turn the kiss into something frenzied, but – though Bucky’s free hand immediately comes up to cup the back of Tony’s head – the kiss stays gentle, slow, and passionate. And good. Really good. Either Bucky’s a natural, or he and Steve have been practicing a lot.
The mental images of that practice are really, really attractive. Tony makes a tiny, bitten-off sound and tips his head to the side, head swimming. He’s probably not healed enough for this, even though he desperately wants to be. Wants Bucky to crawl on top of him so they can rut together, or so he could suck Bucky off, or do at least one of the numerous things that are running through his mind right now. He doesn’t even realize he’s clinging to Bucky until Bucky shifts closer and hugs him.
“Not going anywhere, kotyonok,” Bucky whispers, running a soothing hand down his back. “And you’re wrong, it’s not a bad idea at all.”
“Press is gonna have a field day.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the future, it’s that the press is always buzzing about something. Might as well give them something to talk about.”
Tony huffs a laugh, sinking further into the warmth of Bucky’s arms. “They’re gonna destroy Steve’s reputation.”
“He’s a big boy. I think he can handle it.”
“You said it yourself. You two have such a history.”
“Yeah, we do. But just ‘cause something worked in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be changed or improved. Sometimes I think Steve and I know each other too well… and regardless, our history hasn’t changed the way we feel about you.”
Bucky presses a kiss to the top of his head. “I’ll let Steve say it for himself, but I love you, Tony.”
Every time Bucky says that, Tony feels a shiver all the way down into his core, and it gets a little harder to breathe. Because he almost believes it. Because those words are chipping away at the part of him that’s filled with insecurities and self-doubts. And he really does not know what to do about that. He closes his eyes, absorbing the feel of Bucky hugging him, letting himself indulge in something he never thought he’d have, and doesn’t even remember dozing off.
He’s vaguely aware of Bucky picking him up and carrying him out of the workshop. Then he’s set back down in his bed, and Bucky whispers something in Russian and kisses him again. Pepper says something, Bucky answers her, and then the door shuts. Somewhere in between awake and asleep, Tony opens his eyes and sees Pepper watching him. She’s smiling, though her eyes are too bright.
“He loves me, Pep,” Tony whispers, still not sure he believes it all the way yet, but awed nevertheless.
She smiles a little wider and touches his cheek. “Yeah, they do.”
“But I’m telling you, they might need my help!”
“Agent Coulson instructed me not to let you out of your room, sir.”
“You take orders from him, now?”
The outraged sound of Tony’s voice is enough to make Steve grin as he reaches for the doorknob. It gives easily under his hand and he steps inside of Tony’s room. Tony stops complaining mid-sentence, head snapping around to stare very intently at Steve. It’s only been a week since he came home from the hospital, but it’s been hell keeping him in bed long enough to heal. Frankly, Steve spent the whole battle half-expecting Iron Man to show up to help out Thor and Iron Patriot.
“Thank god,” Pepper says, breaking the silence with a relieved sigh. “If you’d taken any longer, you were going to come back to a corpse. I’ve never heard so much whining in my life.”
Steve raises an eyebrow, holding back a laugh. No wonder Coulson gave him permission to skip the debrief. “Thanks for baby-sitting, Pepper.”
Tony’s sqawk of “I don’t need a baby-sitter!” goes ignored by the both of them. Steve feels like he and Pepper have come to an understanding of sorts, one borne from a few too many hours spent sitting beside the bed of an unconscious Tony. She’ll happily murder him if he does anything wrong to Tony, and Steve is going to do his damndest to make sure that never happens. Not just because he loves Tony, but because it would be a real shame if Pepper’s very expensive suit and shoes got blood on them.
“I’d say anytime, but honestly you’re worse than an afternoon of paperwork,” Pepper says, taking the sting out of her words by ruffling Tony’s hair playfully. Then she gives him a kiss on the cheek. “I’m going now so that Steve can give you all the first-hand dirty details I’m not supposed to know about, but don’t forget. Rhodey and I are coming over for supper this Friday night. And I won’t be very happy if I have to start our night by dragging you out of your lab.”
“I’ll remember,” Tony promises.
“See that you do. Steve.” Pepper nods at him as she walks out, and Steve nods back to her before taking her place beside Tony. He’s tired from the battle, and it feels good to sit. For something that only lasted for half a day, it was very intense.
“So what happened?” Tony says, watching Steve closely.
Steve pushes his cowl up. “Richards was experimenting again.”
“That fucker. I know you said we have to play nice, but he really deserves a punch in the face.”
“I’m getting to the point where I’m not going to argue. From what I saw when I left, though, his wife was giving him a pretty hard time.”
Tony’s annoyed expression softens just a little. They all like Sue Richards, who is excellent at paving over her husband’s indiscretions. “Good. I hope that someday she finds someone who is actually worth her time. She spends her whole life cleaning up after Richards, and he never appreciates it.”
“Well,” Steve says slowly, “Maybe someday Richards will open his eyes and realize what he has. And how lucky he is to have it.” He looks at Tony meaningfully and watches Tony’s rant die before it ever really begins.
“You, uh, sure you’re not reading too much into the situation?”
“Actually, I think I’m reading just enough.” Steve pulls his gloves off, then takes Tony’s hand. After hours of holding a limp hand, he can’t express how nice it is to have Tony’s fingers wrapping securely around his. “Although I have to say, even when I first came here and we bickered all the time, I never once thought you were as irritating as Reed Richards is.”
Tony barks out a laugh. “Good to hear I never hit the gold standard of irritating,” he says, looking down at their hands. “I’m guessing you talked to Bucky.”
“Yeah, I did. And I should’ve come talk to you right away, but I thought you might want some time to process. And I wanted to talk to you alone, without one of the others in the room.” Which has been all but impossible. Tony must be assured of the team’s affection for him by now, because there’s always at least one person hanging out in his room when Steve comes by.
“Never thought Captain America would have stage fright.”
“He doesn’t. I do. Tony,” and Steve’s dreamed of saying these words, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening to say; he has to steel himself to get it out. “I love you.”
Tony actually shivers. “Jesus,” he says, a little shaky. “You and Bucky are scary alike sometimes.”
Steve smirks. “Guess we are. He told me what you said, about the – the pity and feeling guilty, and Tony, I swear to you that has nothing to do with any of this. I’ve been attracted to you since the day we met. It’s part of the reason why I lashed out so much at first. I wasn’t ready to feel like that way for anyone but Bucky, and the fact that it was you and you already had Pepper just made it a hell of a lot of worse.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I didn’t want you to. I spent a long time hiding this, Tony. Even from Bucky at first. If I’d known what you were thinking –” Steve stops himself. He’s been down this road, beating himself up, hundreds of times now. Bucky’s right. It doesn’t help, and it doesn’t change the past.
“I didn’t want you to know either,” Tony says, filling in the gap. “This isn’t all on you guys. I could’ve said something at any point over the past four years. Pepper and I broke up before Bucky came to the tower, remember? There was plenty of opportunity.”
“Yeah,” Steve says softly, even though it’s not the same thing. Not by a long shot. If he and Bucky weren’t dating, there’s a slight chance Tony might have approached one of them – but even that is unlikely. With the two of them already in a very solid relationship? Tony might pretend to be full of it for the paparazzi, but no one is that confident. And Steve and Bucky should’ve realized that.
“So anyway, you, um, I know you said Bucky told you and it’s not about pity or feeling guilty, but – Steve, there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. We could still be friends and teammates. Just because you have someone’s name doesn’t mean you have to date them. You know that, right? It means we’re really good matches, but sometimes that… that doesn’t mean much. So I just – you should know, I’d understand if you guys didn’t want to date me. I know it’s going to be a lot – the press is gonna go crazy, they’ll drag your reputation through the mud, and you guys have so much history... and this, this would be it for me, I’d rather we forget the whole thing if you don’t really want it.”
It just about kills Steve to stay quiet through the whole thing. He wants so badly to lunge forward and kiss Tony into silence, until Tony gets it, but he restrains himself. He has the feeling Bucky shut this line of thinking down pretty fast, and this seems to be something Tony needs to say. And Steve knows what it’s like to have to keep something like that in. It haunts you. So he bites the inside of his cheek until it bleeds and just listens.
“And I’m not a very good boyfriend. You can ask Pepper. I’ll forget about 90% of our dates and I’ll never remember anniversaries or birthdays. There are lots of nights I won’t come to bed, and I cling like an octopus when I do, and I have nightmares.” Tony pauses, licking his lips, his gaze far away. “And I’m an asshole, Steve, you know that. I’m sarcastic and mouthy and I never say things right – shit, I’m amazed this is coming out the way it’s supposed to. I push people away and I throw money at all my problems and I don’t like fighting, but I provoke fights all the fucking time and Captain America really should not be dating me.”
Tony’s eyes flick up briefly to meet Steve’s, then skitter away as soon as he realizes Steve is watching him. His voice is a lot softer when he finishes with, “And you and Bucky, you guys have the fairy tale, and I don’t want to fuck it up. If you’re gonna try polyamory, it should be with someone who deserves it.”
“Are you finished?” Steve asks when it seems like nothing more is forthcoming, and when Tony nods, uncharacteristically meek, Steve exhales slowly. “Tony, you are a lot of things. I won’t deny you’re an asshole sometimes. But you’re forgetting that Buck and I can be assholes too. No relationship is ever easy. They all require work. Sometimes that work involves telling JARVIS to remind you about birthdays and anniversaries. Sometimes it means physically pulling you out of your lab – which is something I am already intimately familiar with doing, I’m sure you remember.”
“Someday I am going to override your access code,” Tony grumbles, though without heat.
Steve just smiled. “Sure you will. I’ve never cared about my reputation, and the press can say what they want. I didn’t care when it came to Bucky, and I don’t care when it comes to you. And Bucky and I might have lots of history, but so do you and I. We’ve been friends for four years now. Unless…” He trails off, suddenly hesitant. “Tony, if this is your way of trying to make up an excuse so you don’t have to date me and Bucky –”
“No! God no,” Tony says quickly. “I want to. I – jesus, Steve, have you ever looked in a mirror? There’s a reason why the female photographers always gravitate towards you two.”
“Don’t try to pretend you don’t know you’re just as attractive,” Steve says fondly. There’s been more than one moment when watching Tony take the armor off, leaving him in just that scrap of an under-suit he frequently wears underneath, has left Steve achingly hard. Tony might be shorter than him and Bucky by a good foot, but his body is well muscled after years in the workshop.
“If you think I’m attractive, why don’t you come over here and prove it?”
The words are spoken defiantly, but with a hint of something underneath, and Steve gives in to his initial desire and moves from the chair to the side of the bed. He leans in, savoring those last few seconds of anticipation before his mouth finally meets Tony’s. Tony slips his hand free and grabs the front of Steve’s shirt, like he’s afraid Steve might change his mind and back off. It’s as endearing as it is unfounded, because Steve is immediately addicted to the feel of Tony in his arms.
“I love you,” Steve says. “And we can take this as slow as you want. I’m not promising it’s definitely going to work out. I don’t know that. Neither does Bucky, or you. I wish we did. All we can do is try.”
“I can’t believe you’re giving me one of your speeches at a time like this,” Tony mutters, coy little smile on his lips.
Steve rolls his eyes. “For the last time, I do not have a list of memorized speeches that I whip out when necessary.”
“Sure you don’t.”
“I don’t, mostly because you and the rest of the team never cease to surprise me,” Steve says, and he’s being honest there. No list of speeches, never mind just one speech, could possibly cover the wide array of experiences Steve has on a weekly basis. And he loves it that way.
“You’re such a sap,” says Tony.
“I am, but you like it.”
Tony snorts but doesn’t deny it, instead tentatively leaning up to kiss him, like he’s not sure he has permission to do that yet. Steve kisses him back eagerly and swears he feels the mark on the inside of his arm tingle a little when he does. Which is impossible, of course, but it is possible he’s even more of a sap than he realized. He decides not to say anything to that effect, less he get teased for the rest of eternity, and focuses on kissing his boyfriend instead.
Eight weeks later, Bruce cuts off the last cast and deems Tony fully healed. Well, ‘fully’ as in none of his bones are broken and the stab marks are getting to that shiny stage. As far as Tony is concerned, he’s been healed for the past six weeks and it’s just taken the medical profession a while to catch up. He gives Bruce a one-armed hug in thanks and beelines it out of the room to find his boyfriends. And he should be way past the stage where thinking that word makes him smile like a dumbass, but he’s really, really not.
Bucky, Steve, Clint and newest member of their team, Sam, are all clustered on the couch together watching television. Clint has a huge bowl of popcorn in his lap that goes flying when Tony makes a running leap and lands right on Bucky’s lap. Bucky yelps in surprise, only to promptly get yanked into the most passionate, thorough kiss Tony has ever participated in. Ever. Steve forgets all about helping to pick up the popcorn in favor of watching with a very interested expression.
“Aw christ, here we go,” Clint complains to no one in particular.
“Do they do this often?” Sam asks, sounding amused as Tony releases Bucky and turns to Steve, pulling him into an equally passionate kiss. Steve makes a rough sound and cups Tony’s face for a better angle, though makes no move to pull him off Bucky’s lap. Clint groans.
“More than you want to know. Come on, I’ll show you the training room. You do not want to be here for the next five minutes when the clothes start coming off.”
In the wake of Clint fleeing the room, dragging Sam along with him, Tony pulls back and smirks smugly. The whole team thinks they’re fucking already, except for maybe Natasha (who is Bucky’s confidant) and Bruce (who expressly warned all three of them against doing anything before Tony was healed). There’s been a little petting, a lot of making out, but it’s never gone beyond that. It is officially the slowest Tony has ever taken a relationship – even with Pepper, they were having sex pretty much the night they first kissed - and the surprising thing is, he’s actually enjoying the pace.
Steve and Bucky don’t need fame; in Bucky’s case, considering that he doesn’t cope well with the media’s more intrusive questions, he has more than he wants. The same goes for money: they both have hefty bank accounts after ninety years of accruing interest. And not even Tony can convince himself that this is because they don’t want him sexually, because he’s seen the arousal in Steve’s face and felt the way Bucky’s fingers grip his hips. They want him. He’s very slowly starting to believe that they want all of him.
“You did that on purpose?” Bucky says, winding an arm around Tony’s waist.
“Duh. Clint’s a popcorn hog.”
Steve lets out a snort as he bends down to grab the popcorn bowl. It’s still about half full. “You could’ve just asked someone to make another bowl.”
Tony shrugs and slings his legs across Steve’s lap. It’s fun to make Clint squirm, mostly because he knows Clint is just being a drama queen and it doesn’t really bother him. “That’s not as much fun. Besides, I wanted to show you. See? Cast free.”
“I see that.” Steve shuffles the bowl into Tony’s lap and sets his freed hands on Tony’s leg, pushing up the fabric of Tony’s jeans until he can see the skin underneath. The muscles are slightly atrophied and his whole leg and foot are swollen, and Tony wouldn’t admit it out loud, but his leg hurts from walking on it even a little bit. His arm is sore too, which is why he made sure to land on Bucky and not Steve - so that his sore arm would be outward.
“So Bruce gave you a clean bill of health?” Bucky asks.
“For the most part. Standard rules apply,” Tony says, selecting a piece of popcorn. Frankly, he’s never listened to medical advice before and he’s not going to start now.
“Which I’m guessing means you’re supposed to take it easy.”
“Boring. I’m way behind on work. I just came down to –”
“Have a nice night in watching movies with your boyfriends? That sounds lovely.” Bucky shifts his weight a little, then pulls Tony down until Tony is sprawled across his chest.
“No, that’s not what I –” Tony breaks off again as Steve starts very, very gently massaging his leg. He tenses, expecting it to hurt, and slowly relaxes when it doesn’t. Apparently the serum gave Steve magical hands. He thinks about the work waiting for him in the workshop. It’s only been in the last month that Bruce has cleared him to do anything physical, and he wasn’t lying when he said he was way behind.
But Bucky is warm and comfortable, and Steve’s hands feel so nice. He leans his head against Bucky’s shoulder. “Maybe I can stay for a little while. One movie.”
Steve grins down at his hands. “Just one? We were gonna order pizza.”
“Don’t push your luck,” Tony says fondly, but he has the feeling he won’t be moving anytime soon. Especially if Clint finds the courage to bring Sam back and join them. Then Natasha and Coulson will inevitably wander in, and sooner or later Bruce, Thor, Jane and Darcy will follow. There’s a strong possibility Pepper and Rhodey might even show up. It wouldn’t be the first time, and the local pizza place is actually starting to get used to orders of over thirty pizzas – they don’t even ask if it’s a crank call anymore.
He relaxes a little more and turns to look at the television as Bucky’s free hand idly rubs up and down his sore arm. For this, his work can wait one more day.